After four years of intifada, both sides ponder painful lessons

December 10, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

EL-BIREH,ISRAELI-OCCUPIED WEST BANK — EL BIREH, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- Along with the other Palestinians of the city, Bashir Barghoutti found it hard at times to distinguish yesterday, which for him was an important anniversary and a holiday, from any day of the past week.

The sameness was understandable. While it was the fourth anniversary of the Palestinian uprising against Israel, it also was the ninthconsecutive day that Israeli soldiers were enforcing a curfew on El Bireh.

Since the beginning of the uprising -- the intifada -- curfews have had the same basic rules: Everyone is confined to his house. Anyone venturing outside risks arrest. People can do as they wish inside, but they can forget going to their jobs, going to a store to buy food or getting a breath of fresh air.

Forget, too, marking the start of the intifada's fifth year with much more than private thoughts. The semi-underground Palestinian leadership declared a general strike for the 1.7 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as it does on the ninth of each month.

Soldiers placed El Bireh and the sister city of Ramallah under curfew Dec. 2 as punishment for the death of a Jewish settler, shot as he drove past El Bireh the day before. Authorities say more than 150 Palestinians have been arrested for questioning, but none has been formally charged with the shooting.

Mr. Barghoutti, a researcher at a Palestinian think-tank in East Jerusalem, has been stuck in his house. He is not at work and not at vacation; he is "at curfew," with too much time for playing chess, playing cards and watching TV.

At work, Mr. Barghoutti is part of a team writing position papers for the Palestinian delegation at the peace talks that are expected to resume today in Washington. He says he and many of his colleagues agree that, after four years of frequent strikes and protests, the intifada may be overdo for change.

"People don't want to sacrifice more," he said, warming his hands over an electric heater on a gusty, wintry day. "We have learned that we will not beat Israel with weapons or strikes. We've learned that nobody can win the battle on the ground -- not the Israelis, not us."

Israelis acknowledge that Palestinians have made themselves impossible for Israel to ignore. Danny Rubinstein, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, described the intifada as doing for the Palestinians what the Egyptian army's crossing of the Suez Canal did for Egypt during the 1973 Yom Kippur War:

"It proved to them that it is possible to contend with Israel," he lTC wrote. The uprising has given Palestinians "international recognition for their ability and willingness to fight, and created pride and self-confidence."

Since it began, the uprising has also led to hundreds of deaths, thousands of serious injuries and tens of thousands of arrests. According to B'tselem, an Israeli human rights group, 245 Palestinians have been killed this year in intifada-related violence, 145 of them by other Palestinians. The total is the lowest of any of the uprising's four years.

Those killed by other Palestinians were victims of a violent campaign against alleged collaborators, a killing spree that has often targeted alleged drug dealers and prostitutes or camouflaged the settling of personal scores.

In 1991, the uprising also caused the deaths of 24 Israelis, six of them soldiers. Since the uprising began in 1987, the total death toll recorded by B'tselem is 1,322 Palestinians and 82 Israelis.

Each side has learned painfully the limits of its strength -- and each has had to abandon fantasies that the other could somehow be made to disappear. Israelis discovered that having a well-equipped army could not prevent a mass uprising; Palestinians discovered that mass demonstrations led to high casualties and further alienated Israelis.

But the uprising and the measures used to suppress it ensured that neither side would actually trust the other. For many people, the mistrust has only increased.

"I never thought in four years we would get rid of Israelis this way," said a Palestinian construction worker in the East Jerusalem neighborhood called Silwan, where Jewish settlers have lived since October. "The only way to get rid of all the Jews is through Islam and holy war."

"The more Jews come here, the more problems there will be," said a second man in Silwan. "One thing is for sure -- for the last four years, each year is worse than the one before."

In El Bireh, Mr. Barghoutti talked of the need to discover new ways for Palestinians to attract attention to their cause.

"Until now, the only thing people could do is strike," Mr. Barghoutti said. "It's enough of that. We have to change."

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