Commentary Magazine


Who Is Winning the Intifada?

A few weeks into the intifada that broke out at the end of last September, pundits were already debating the nature of the still-emerging military conflict.

Some, impressed by the heavy volume of fire exchanged by both sides, the mounting casualty rate, and the overwhelming, frenzied response of the Arab world at large, concluded that Israel and the Palestinians were already in, or at least on the brink of, war; pessimists among them predicted that further escalation might draw in Arab military forces from Syria, Iraq, Iran, and perhaps even Jordan and Egypt. Others, however, belittled the strategic significance of the showdown. The new intifada, they said, was merely a tactical move on the part of Yasir Arafat, utterly characteristic of his usual modus operandi of switching to terror and violence whenever negotiations with Israel reached a standstill. This, for instance, is what he had done in September 1996, prodding his people to riot on the flimsiest of pretexts as a means of forcing the government of Benjamin Netanyahu to pull out of the city of Hebron. In May 2000, in the so-called al-Naqba riots, Arafat repeated the move in an attempt to squeeze still more concessions out of the government of Ehud Barak. In each case, the tactic worked: Netanyahu gave him Hebron; Barak offered the sky.

But the new intifada has lasted some nine months by now, and it is still difficult to determine how best to describe it. If Israel is at war, as some continue to insist, it is war of a very peculiar kind. For this is a war in which Arafat, using an Israeli telephone service, has called Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to wish him a happy Passover; in which, apart from intermittent shutdowns, hundreds of Israeli trucks and thousands of Palestinian workers cross the border every day; and in which Palestinian security chiefs and Israeli military commanders occasionally meet in serene settings to coordinate their next moves. In short, it is hardly the kind of war Israel has known before.

But if it is not war, there is no gainsaying the sheer amount of violence and destruction that has been generated. By the beginning of June, about 400 Palestinians and 130 Israelis had been killed, 12,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis wounded. The floundering Palestinian economy has lost more than $4 billion, and the unemployment rate in the Palestinian Authority (PA) has soared to almost 50 percent. As for Israel, the fighting costs it $2 million a day; its tourist industry has been ruined; exports to the PA have declined by more than half; and unemployment has increased by 12 percent.

With a diplomatic resolution far from imminent, much less a victory for either side, much about the conflict remains murky.1 But not everything. In the media and in the various centers of opinion around the world, Israel has come under unceasing criticism for its alleged use of “disproportionate” or “excessive” force in dealing with Palestinian violence. At the same time, that violence itself is usually described as a spontaneous and wholly justified expression of anger and frustration. Each of these characterizations is demonstrably false.

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For the Palestinians, 2000 was a year of trial. At Camp David it became clear that the territorial and political concessions Israel was willing to make, unprecedentedly generous though they were, fell short of Palestinian demands for a state in all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a capital in east Jerusalem, and the right of all refugees to return to their homes. It also became apparent that what had been the principal means of Palestinian diplomatic leverage—namely, the threat of a unilateral declaration of statehood—was hollow. Three times Arafat set a date to declare his state, each time finding Israel unfazed.

The year 2000 was also a year of Palestinian self-deception. In May, after eighteen long years, Israel had finally withdrawn its security forces from southern Lebanon in what was widely perceived as a humiliating defeat at the hands of the fundamentalist Islamic guerrillas of Hezbollah. If, many Palestinians now reasoned, 300 Islamist militiamen, backed by international pressure, could succeed in driving the mighty Israel Defense Force (IDF) out of Lebanon, why cannot we, with more than 30,000 armed, well-trained troops, drive the war-weary Israelis out of the occupied territories by the same means? From the beginning, thus, Palestinian strategy in the latest intifada—for strategy there has been, aplenty—was designed to “Lebanonize” and internationalize the conflict over the West Bank and Gaza, making withdrawal Israel’s only option.

So far, this has turned out to be a blunder. Israeli sentiment toward Hebron is not like Israeli sentiment toward Marj Ayoun, and the hills of Judea and Samaria are not the hills of southern Lebanon. Nevertheless, the principal rationale and main strategy of the unfolding Palestinian campaign have remained constant; only the tactics have changed. That campaign has followed a number of well-defined if sometimes overlapping stages, with new ones being initiated upon the exhaustion or apparent failure of previous stages.

In the first two weeks of the uprising, the yellow flag of Hezbollah was almost as prominent in the streets as the flag of the PA, and so were time-tested Hezbollah methods. Massive demonstrations, involving rocks, Molotov cocktails, and gunfire, took place in the outskirts of Palestinian cities and around the checkpoints of the IDF. The most intensive violence occurred against isolated Israeli enclaves like the settlement of Netzarim in Gaza and the Jewish shrine of Joseph’s tomb in Nablus.

Israel’s withdrawal from this last site on October 7 granted the Palestinians a small victory—and seeming confirmation of the Lebanon model. But the overall price was high. Through the firm but restrained use of rubber bullets, sniper fire, and, when necessary, anti-tank rockets, Israel in the first two weeks caused the death of more than 100 Palestinians and the wounding of more than 2,000.

In this first stage of the intifada, most of the actual fighting on the Palestinian side was being conducted by members of Tanzim, the armed faction of Arafat’s Fatah organization, who typically fired at Israeli forces from behind the cover of stone-throwing young men and children. Unlike the PA’s official security services, these fighters had not been authorized by the Oslo accords to carry firearms in the first place, and they were poorly trained. Nevertheless, Palestinian violence was remarkable for its intensity, scope, and duration, which in turn helps put the high Palestinian casualty rate into perspective. In the first six weeks of the riots, IDF soldiers faced more than 1,300 armed attacks, almost twice as many as had occurred against Israeli targets in the seven prior years combined, and about the same as the number of Hezbollah attacks in Lebanon over the course of an entire year. The use of snipers and automatic-weapons fire from behind the shield of a rioting crowd or from houses of innocent civilians placed Israeli troops in real danger, forcing them to respond with their own weapons. Although inevitably there were casualties among civilians, most of the Palestinian dead had in fact been seen firing at IDF soldiers.

In the very early days, Arafat himself contributed more to the war effort by his absence than by his presence. When not wrapped in silence in his bunker, he preferred traveling the globe to leading his people in the streets. But on the tenth day of the riots, he finally issued his first directive, instructing his Tanzim leaders to limit the use of firearms in demonstrations. This would not only save precious ammunition but, more importantly, would give the uprising an image of popular struggle rather than guerrilla war. Use of firearms, Arafat ordered, should begin only after sunset—when the international television crews were gone. Under the cover of darkness, Palestinian fighters would gun down as many IDF soldiers and Jewish settlers as they could.

Nor was this Arafat’s only stroke. An inveterate master of turning powerlessness into power, he deftly exploited the disparity in Israeli and Palestinian casualty figures. For one thing, those figures allowed him to win the sympathy of the world by presenting Israel as a ruthless aggressor against defenseless civilians. For another, the blood of the martyrs effectively lubricated the wheels of the intifada itself, as daily parades and funeral demonstrations bred more clashes with IDF soldiers, only to cause more funerals and greater frenzy the following day.

None of this, however, was enough to shift public opinion where it most mattered, namely, within Israel. If, according to the Lebanon model, the Jewish state was going to have to bleed its way out of the territories, Arafat and his lieutenants would have to try harder.

Thus began the next stage, which was (and to some extent still is) the “war for the roads.” On almost a nightly basis, Palestinian militiamen now ambushed and attacked Jewish settlers driving in the West Bank and Gaza. Although some of these “hit-and-run” operations were successful, the majority—770 since October in the West Bank alone—were not. Nevertheless, they forced the IDF to expend much effort in order to secure the settlers’ freedom of movement, closing high-risk routes, increasing the number of road blocks, and limiting the nighttime movement of the Palestinian population. The local flora also suffered: more than 4,000 trees along the roads of the West Bank were cut, and hundreds of acres of agricultural land were flattened in order to deny ambush sites to terrorists.

This last proved to be another diplomatic windfall for Arafat, who extracted from it what he could. But by mid-November the “war for the roads” was still faring poorly on the ground, and it was becoming clear that limiting the conflict to the occupied territories and the settler community would not suffice. The time had come to export the intifada into the heart of Israel.

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The division of labor was clear: Tanzim, along with select bodies of the PA’s security forces—including Arafat’s presidential guard (Force 17), general intelligence, and preventive security—would continue their attacks on Israeli targets in the territories, while Hamas and Islamic Jihad were given a green light to execute terror attacks in Israel’s main cities. Violating all of its previously signed agreements with Israel, the PA released from jail more than 80 Islamic activists, and the PA-controlled media began successfully to prepare Palestinian opinion for the use of terror as a legitimate instrument of the wider struggle. According to the Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, public support for suicide attacks, which had stood at 20 percent in 1995-96, now rose to about 70 percent, and Palestinians at large ceased to distinguish attacks on Israeli army targets from attacks on settlers or on civilians inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders.

In short order, Islamist groups launched some two dozen bombing and shooting attacks against civilian targets in cities like Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Hadera, Netanya, and Kfar Sava. Palestinian terrorists also detonated a roadside bomb next to a schoolbus full of children near the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom.

To these terror tactics Israel responded harshly, answering bullets with tank fire and destroying Palestinian military installations and Tanzim headquarters with rockets fired from helicopters. Israeli security forces also targeted Palestinian military and political activists suspected of involvement in the planning and execution of terror attacks. At least a dozen were gunned down or blown up in various ways.

But the Israeli response also emphasized precision, and indeed was designed to answer the mounting international outcry over the supposed use of “excessive” force. Helicopter attacks were preceded by advance warning, allowing Palestinians to evacuate targeted buildings. Assassinations caused no collateral damage. As opposed to the PA, which promoted indiscriminate killing, Israel’s punishments were both selective and effective, causing fewer accidental deaths. And with this declining casualty rate, not only did world sympathy for the PA also begin to fade somewhat but so, too, did the ardor of Palestinians themselves. Although incidents of shooting, grenade throwing, and bombing have hardly ended—a suicide bombing at a mall in Netanya on May 18 would kill five Israelis, wound over 100, and elicit a counterattack on Palestinian security installations by F-16 warplanes, and would then be followed by an even more spectacular and deadly bombing at a Tel Aviv discotheque on June 1—between November and February alone the number of such incidents declined from about 1,000 a month to fewer than 550.

Once again, the time had come to reinvigorate the intifada. As Arafat well understood, the one thing that could be counted on to galvanize world opinion and bring about an internationalization of the conflict was an outright atrocity committed by Israel. The precedent here was an incident during a 1996 operation aimed at destroying the Hezbollah infrastructure in southern Lebanon. Then, IDF artillery shells hit a United Nations compound at Kafr Kana where Lebanese civilians were taking shelter, killing over 100; the resulting uproar brought a speedy end to the operation. To accomplish something similar, the Palestinians moved on to a new military phase: the use of indirect fire against entire Jewish settlements.

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Under the terms of Oslo, Palestinian weaponry was to be restricted to pistols, rifles, and machine guns. Artillery weapons were utterly ruled out. Oslo or no Oslo, however, the PA had either smuggled or manufactured hundreds if not thousands of mortar shells of 82-millimeter caliber, capable of a range of up to three miles. The Palestinians had also acquired 107-millimeter Katyusha rockets, with a range of up to five miles. These weapons were in the hands of some of Arafat’s forces as well as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

On January 30, Palestinian artillery was put to use for the first time when a mortar shell hit the settlement of Netzarim in Gaza. For the next six weeks, mortar attacks on Gush Katif, the Jewish settlement bloc in Gaza, were an almost daily occurrence. Then, on March 18, the Palestinians took a significant escalatory step, attacking the kibbutz of Nahal Oz in the western Negev—the first Jewish settlement within the old 1967 borders to be fired at. A few weeks later, in an even more significant step, Sderot, an Israeli town of 23,000 whose citizens had voted overwhelmingly for Ariel Sharon, also fell target to Palestinian mortars.

The Palestinian use of artillery fire had real strategic importance. First, it implied that the war was no longer directed exclusively against the Israeli occupation but against Israel itself. Second, by using weapons prohibited by the Oslo accords, the PA signaled that it did not consider itself bound by the security provisions of that agreement. Third, the PA appeared to have rededicated itself to emulating the Hezbollah model in Lebanon.

During the years of Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon, Katyusha attacks on towns along Israel’s northern border had regularly disrupted civilian life. Since the 1970’s, the city of Kiryat Shmona, similar in population to Sderot, had been hit by more than 4,000 rockets and suffered more than 380 civilian casualties. In turn, the IDF took severe retaliatory measures, with the air force launching thousands of attacks against Lebanese targets and occasionally inflicting casualties among innocent civilians—as, notoriously, at Kafr Kana. This “disproportionate” reaction was exactly what Arafat wanted to achieve; to accomplish it, a city like Sderot had to become Israel’s new Kiryat Shmona.

The Palestinian mortar campaign presented the IDF with a serious operational and technical challenge. The idea of tens of thousands of Israelis living under the threat of Palestinian mortar fire was intolerable, potentially forcing the Israeli government to invest millions of dollars in fortifying these localities and compensating their inhabitants for damage. But the harsh reality was that the IDF, despite great efforts to detect the sources of fire and retaliate with helicopter and tank fire, had, and for that matter still has, no magic solution to the problem.

Instead, Israel has chosen to meet it by moving occasionally and temporarily into what is known as Area A, the areas designated as being under the PA’s exclusive control, and razing sites that are suspected of mortar activity. In its first incursion, on April 17, IDF bulldozers cleared an area of no more than a few hundred square yards in northern Gaza where mortars were being fired at Sderot. This day-long reentry into acknowledged PA territory earned a U.S. State Department rebuke as an “excessive and disproportionate” act and was thus diplomatically self-defeating; but it was militarily successful. Mortar fire at Sderot came to a virtual halt, and Palestinians were given to understand that the IDF would not be deterred from acting again in similar fashion if need be. Since the initial raid, the IDF has temporarily reentered Palestinian areas at least three more times, and each time world reaction has become more indifferent.

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Which—give or take the bustlings of international diplomacy, the vying for the sympathy of the media, and the occasional “ceasefire”—brings us more or less to where we are today. On the Palestinian side, although domestic support for the intifada continues to run high, after the first few weeks the populace has refrained from taking an active part in the fighting; most sectors of the Palestinian community have little taste for actively confronting Israeli troops on a daily basis. As for Israelis themselves, while more than 70 percent believe that the government should adopt harsher measures and “let the IDF win,” they know about the intifada by and large from media reports. The 200,000 settlers in the West Bank and Gaza are, of course, prime targets, but, without making light of the psychological strain of living under the constant threat of terror, most Israelis maintain relatively normal lives. Moreover, unlike in the earlier intifada of 1987-93, when the burden fell on IDF reserve units, in the current conflict there has been little use of reservists.

On the ground, what this means is that the task of deciding the direction and intensity of the conflict has fallen to the military chiefs on both sides. War in the hands of generals, it has been said, is trouble-in-the-making. In the PA’s case, if not in Israel’s, it really is.

Israeli generals often disagree with their political leadership on operational issues, but the supremacy of statesmen over brass is clear and unchallenged. By and large, moreover, the military and civilian leadership are well coordinated. Political directives are promptly translated into military action, while operational needs are effectively backed up by policy.

The situation in the PA is far more complicated and far more fragile. Arafat’s supreme authority over the security establishment, better known as “the Palestinian police,” is rarely challenged, but his operational control is gradually diminishing. Prior to the outbreak of the intifada, he was the only person able to arbitrate among 12 security apparatuses—including five intelligence bodies, national-security forces, the presidential guard, civil police, and a coast guard—each of them more preoccupied with undermining the other than with performing its work. Being at the same time the chairman of the PA, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and the head of its political-military branch (Fatah), he was also able to maintain a precarious balance between the security services and the Islamic opposition.

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But the intifada has changed all that, principally by multiplying the number of armed bodies and popular-resistance committees in the West Bank and Gaza. Each faction has its own agenda, its own leadership, its own constituency, and its own desire to prove that it has made the most significant contribution to the Palestinian struggle. Though Arafat is still a symbol of Palestinian nationalism, his grip over the different factions has loosened; and in several recent incidents, armed Palestinian bodies openly challenged his directives. In addition, many employees of the Palestinian security forces who have not received their payments for months are tempted to offer their services and expertise to the newly established militias.

There are festering resentments as well. Despite the fact that many Palestinian policemen have taken part in the shooting, Arafat has so far issued no order allowing the units of his National Security Force (NSF)—a 20,000-man infantry divided into nine well-trained battalions equipped with armored vehicles, machine guns, and anti-tank weapons—to take part in the fighting. These are Arafat’s “Republican Guard”; throwing them into the fray would be tantamount to an open declaration of war on Israel, and would likely lead to their annihilation. Younger lieutenants and privates in the NSF may be eager for sacrifice, but their generals, despite coming under severe criticism for not doing their share, feel otherwise. Many of them are veterans of the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA), the standing army of the PLO that was established in 1965 and fought Israel in three wars. “We have seen a real war,” one NSF senior officer has remarked, “and we know what it is like fighting the IDF when the gloves are taken off. The local militias are misleading the people to believe that Israel has shown us its real might.”

In sum, Arafat’s security forces are in a process of disintegration. Morale is low, compensation is even lower, discipline non-existent. The PA and its complex military apparatus are sliding into a state of anarchy. This means that the next level of escalation may be dictated not by Arafat but rather by one of the heads of the fringe groups operating in the territories. Terrorist organizations from Lebanon—such as Hezbollah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and the PFLP-General Command (PFLP-GC)—have established cells in Arafat’s territory, providing them with training, finance, weapons, and moral guidance.

On May 7, for example, the Israeli Navy intercepted a boat loaded with a large quantity of advanced arms and ammunition; the cargo, sent by the PFLP-GC, included Katyusha rockets, mortars, and anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles. It is unclear who was to be the recipient of these weapons. It is also unclear how many similar shipments have reached their destination, though at least three have been confirmed. What is clear is that, if used, these weapons will bring about a serious intensification in the fighting. Katyusha rockets fired from Gaza can reach the city of Ashkelon where more than 100,000 Israelis live. Fired from the West Bank, they could reach most cities along Israel’s coastal plain. They could also hit Israel’s Ben-Gurion airport.

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Low-tech heavy weapons in the hands of Palestinian organizations could yet present a real challenge, greater than terror bombings, to the man elected prime minister on the pledge to restore security to the Israeli people. If he responds massively, his wrath may be Arafat’s last hope to benefit from a Kosovo-type situation. But whether even that situation would unfold as Arafat imagines, mandating an Israeli retreat under international pressure, is itself an open question—perhaps, at the moment, the open question.

Military wisdom holds that in wars of attrition, guerrillas hold the upper hand. “The guerrilla wins if he does not lose,” said Henry Kissinger, while “the conventional army loses if it does not win.” This may have been true for a war like that waged by the United States in Vietnam, which took place thousands of miles away from home. In Israel’s case, the war has reached the outskirts of its capital, and terrorism into its heartland cities. This has tended to deepen most Israelis’ belief in their cause, and thus to enhance their prospects of disproving Kissinger’s axiom.

The Palestinians, in the meantime, have been caught by surprise by Israel’s resolve and unity. (One can hardly blame them; prior to the outbreak of the intifada, the signs of an almost terminal war-weariness in Israel were everywhere.) They also realize that, beyond rhetoric and token financial assistance, the Arab states are less than enthusiastic about joining the battle for Palestine. Some are beginning to see as well that Arafat’s intransigence has led them to an impasse. But stopping the violence without any significant political dividend, especially after so many have been killed and maimed, is unthinkable. Over the course of eight or nine months the Palestinians have greatly improved their tactical sophistication, and they have shown that they have the means and the will to go on. In the absence of a diplomatic breakthrough, they may see their only viable option as upping the ante still further and thereby regaining their lost momentum.

But they may be again miscalculating—on the basis, ironically, of a correct perception of Israel’s determination, so far, to behave with restraint. While the world cries “excessive” and “disproportionate,” Palestinians themselves have reason to know what many dispassionate military analysts similarly believe: that, considering the intensity and the duration of the violence, the number of those killed and wounded could easily have been much higher, and that Israel has, in fact, responded with moderation. If from nowhere else, the Palestinians have reason to know this from living with the random brutality of their own regime, and even more so from the history of their own region.

It is hardly a secret that the Arab countries rushing to proclaim Israel’s actions a “crime against humanity” have compiled some of the world’s most heinous records when it comes to the use of lethal force against civilian unrest. In September 1970, the Jordanian military killed more than 5,000 Palestinians in the course of a mere two weeks; in January 1977, Egyptian security forces killed 80 unarmed people in just two days of demonstrations; in February 1982, the Syrian military killed between 20,000 and 30,000 civilians in the city of Hama; in July 1987, Saudi security forces killed 400 Iranian pilgrims in a single day; and so it goes.

Israel, of course, operates by different standards, being subject to the constraints of law and of ingrained democratic habit. Still, a healthier fear of the Israeli military may, in the end, be the only force capable of restraining a Palestinian step into the abyss. One hundred forty years ago, a governor of Texas advised his people against joining the southern Confederacy. “The North is determined to save the Union,” Sam Houston said. “They are not fiery and impulsive as you are for they live in colder climates. But when they begin to move in a given direction they move in a steady momentum and [with the] perseverance of a mighty avalanche.”

Since anything is in theory possible, it is possible that Israel’s resolve will yet weaken and Arafat will be proved right—in which case the cost in blood, on all sides, will be unimaginably higher still. This is something a former Texas governor of our own day might keep in mind as he contemplates the temptations and the pitfalls of American involvement in the Middle East.

—June 5, 2001

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Footnotes

1 One would look in vain for illumination in the recently released report of the fact-finding committee appointed by then-President Bill Clinton and headed by former Senator George Mitchell. In the vision of the Mitchell Report, a pure product of the let’s-all-get-together-and-be-nice school of American diplomacy, a carefully nurtured “culture of peace” in the Middle East has been “shattered” by a failure of understanding on the two sides, both of which, though operating under unfortunate “political constraints” of their own, must nevertheless now “reaffirm their mutual commitments,” undertake “confidence-building” measures, and “resume negotiations.” The report’s earnestly evenhanded stance, obliterating the differences between the two societies and taking no position on the history of the conflict between them, may or may not serve its ostensible goal of making the situation seem one in which the United States should once again attempt to serve as an intermediary. As a guide to the conflict itself, especially its military aspect, it is worse than useless.

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