JERUSALEM -- The mass demonstrations of the Palestinian uprising have given way to clandestine squads of armed men operating in the shadows of violence and fear.
No longer do crowds of men, women and children daily confront Israeli troops; the struggle for the occupied territories of Palestine is now one of midnight murders and sudden gunfights.
Guns have replaced rocks as the weapon of the "intifada" uprising. Incidents of shootings by Palestinians have soared to all-time highs this year, and secretive Israeli squads are accused of executing suspects.
The who and why of the killings is not always clear, but far more Palestinians are being killed by other Palestinians than by Israelis. Brutal groups with names like Black Panthers have killed 71 Palestinian suspected "collaborators" so far this year.
At the same time, Israeli special units disguised as Arabs are increasingly involved in controversial shootings. Human rights groups allege that the units have secret orders to shoot to kill and that they have slain unarmed, innocent, or unresisting Palestinians.
"What we see today is armed struggle," said Yazhar B'eer, head of an Israeli human rights organization, B'tselem.
"You can't see the big demonstrations any more, the big masses coming out against the army," he said.
"It has quieted down," agreed Yasser, a 20-year-old Palestinian with pale brown eyes sitting in the Jabaliya Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip. In this desperate place of tin shacks, dirt streets and open rivulets of sewage, the intifada began and blossomed. Now, says Yasser, a veteran of hundreds of demonstrations, "the people are in a waiting phase."
Most are weary of the confrontations, the thousands of arrests, the tear gas and shootings, the curfews and strikes that have impoverished the territories. They want to give U.S.-sponsored peace talks a chance.
But others have dropped the stones that are a symbol of the Palestinians' underdog struggle and have taken up arms in the occupied territories where, not so long ago, it was unthinkable for a Palestinian to be carrying a gun.
"It is a very dangerous game," said Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian delegate to the U.S.-sponsored peace talks. "You corner people. You put them in this pressure cooker. People will conduct desperate acts."
Twenty Israeli civilians and 12 soldiers have been killed in the 4 1/2 years of the Palestinian uprising. But overwhelmingly the casualties have been and remain Palestinians -- more than 1,400 killed since the intifada began in late 1987.
In the spasms of violence at the beginning of the intifada, Israeli soldiers killed dozens in chaotic skirmishes with large crowds. Now, Palestinian groups such as the Black Panthers are killing more Arabs than the Israelis, often hacking and butchering their victims to show what happens to collaborators.
"In their own way, they are what the intifada is today: small terrorist groups killing more Palestinians than the Israelis, becoming increas ingly alienated from the population," says Lt. Col. Moshe Fogel, an Israeli Army spokesman.
Yasser Abu Ali is a soldier in this war. He is 21. He wears high-top sneakers with bright red shoelaces and fashionable jeans bound tightly at the ankles "to run better."
He also wears a 14mm revolver. That is enough to make him likely to be shot if he is spotted by an Israeli patrol. He is a member of the Black Panthers, with a membership card with a serial number and the slogan, "Revolution until Victory."
To meet him and two other Black Panthers required a circuitous, 11-hour journey, passage from one contact to another, a secretive change of cars, and finally a two-hour wait in an olive grove. The interview took place surrounded by lookouts, at a village close to Jenin, a town that is a stronghold of the Panthers.
Yasser Abu Ali says he joined the Black Panthers because six of his friends were killed, and "this is my revenge." He has not slept at his home for 18 months because the Israeli army and their informants watch for him there.
He has not killed, he said. One companion, Jelal Ibrahim-sheik, said he shot a collaborator in the kneecap. A third Panther, Iyad Abu
Ashka, has three nasty bullet scars in his back from a recent escape from soldiers.
Within days of the interview, Black Panthers in the same area claimed responsibility for killing a mother of seven and an Arab doctor with links to the Israeli government.
"Those are the ones who are doing the damage to our people the most," Yasser Abu Ali had said of collaborators. But the group's targets include "loose" women, rivals, drug users, sometimes innocent people.
In a village nearby, Subhia Jamil Muhar, 45, wondered how to feed her six children after the death of her husband, Jamil. He was severely beaten, apparently in an interrogation by the Red Eagles, a group like the Panthers.
ZTC The next day the Red Eagles announced he was innocent. It was too late: Mr. Muhar died at his home a few hours after the beating.