A state of pre-conflict

A third intifada has not yet broken out in the West Bank, but discontent, with Israel and the Palestinian Authority is rife

al-Aqsa gunmen at Arafat Jaradat funeral 521 (photo credit: DARREN WHITESIDE / REUTERS)
al-Aqsa gunmen at Arafat Jaradat funeral 521
Much has been written of late about Arafat Jaradat, the 30-year-old Palestinian prisoner who died while in custody at Israel’s Megiddo Prison late in February.
However, one incident that took place during the funeral procession for Jaradat in his home village of Kfar Sa’ir, near Bethlehem, went unnoticed by the media.
At one point, after Jaradat’s body was taken from Hebron to Sa’ir, and as activists yelled anti-Israel epithets at the entrance of the village, five masked gunmen climbed up on top of the roof of the Jaradat family’s home. These were not Palestinian policemen, many of whom were busy escorting the body during the funeral procession. The five were apparently linked to the practically defunct al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, a terror group associated with Fatah, and wore paramilitary uniforms: One was outfitted in camouflage, another in a black shirt, military vest and a helmet. Some had their faces hidden behind black masks, others with keffiyehs.
It’s been years since armed men like these have been seen on the streets of the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority (PA) can be credited with the fact that since the end of 2007, and up until a few weeks ago, the streets have been free of gun-toting men who are not members of the Palestinian security forces. The frequent appearance of armed men shooting into the air during the second intifada had all but disappeared.
And then during the funeral procession for Jaradat, as Palestinian policemen kept order in the street, the five masked men on the roof began shooting into the air as if they had limitless ammunition. Following the show, the five got down off the roof and began distributing flyers boosting al-Aqsa Martyrs, a name that had all but disappeared.
According to the flyers, revenge for Jaradat’s death will soon be coming.
For now, groups associated with Fatah do not appear to be engaged in any real militant acts. However, the very presence of armed men operating in broad daylight right under the noses of the Palestinian Police indicates that there is motivation to renew armed activity.
After meeting with residents in Kfar Sa’ir, as well as in other refugee camps, such as Balata, near Nablus, I get the feeling that the Palestinians are frustrated with both Israel and the PA (the deteriorating economic situation and failure to pay salaries). Illegal weapons can still be found here – in the small alleyways of the villages and cities, even though the majority of Palestinians disapprove of their use – and some residents have decided that the time has come to take the guns and ammunition out of storage and start shooting.
A third intifada has not broken out, and things have quietened down a little since the funeral; but the discontent has remained.
Public resentment is growing and something is brewing out there. It is a complex process that is difficult to call either an intifada or an uprising. Some people are comparing the recent incidents to those of 1987, when the first intifada broke out, or to September 2000, when the second one began. The comparisons are valid, but we may, on the other hand, be experiencing a new phenomenon unlike any we have encountered in the past.
The process began shortly after the end of last winter’s IDF’s Operation Pillar of Defense against the rocket attacks from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, which gave rise in the West Bank to the sense that Hamas had been victorious, and that Israel only understands force. Since then, unrest has been growing, and the number of violent incidents is rising daily.
Most of these incidents, however, are not even reported in the Israeli media. For example, clashes between IDF soldiers and Palestinians south of Nablus, near the Hawara checkpoint, are an almost daily occurrence. The skirmishes there do not reach the road on which Israeli cars travel, and the soldiers manage to keep the protesters inside PA territory. The media, therefore, are unable to cover what’s happening there.
Knesset Member Ahmed Tibi, chairman of the United Arab List Ta’al party, was the one who coined the term, al-Aqsa Intifada for the second intifada, in an interview he gave then on Palestinian radio on the second day of the rioting. Recently he described the current situation: “We are in a state of pre-conflict. Underground movements are surfacing once again, and the prisoner issue is the most sensitive nerve, but it’s not the only one; continued construction of settlements, attacks by ‘price tag’ thugs against Arabs, the economic situation and the lack of political vision are also among the causes. Any of these issues could spark a conflagration.
“Anyone who can’t see the writing on the wall is blind,” Tibi added. “If an uprising breaks out now, we will call it the prisoner intifada.”
Maybe we are in the midst of a new kind of intifada, one that belongs to a different generation, a new app that the Palestinians – mostly the young ones – have finetuned.
It’s a small-scale uprising, including clashes every few days in different locations in the West Bank. On other days, following irregular occurrences (Palestinians being beaten up by settlers, prisoners on hunger strikes, memorial ceremonies) violent demonstrations take place that require IDF intervention.
“The Palestinian public, the people on the street, want revenge,” explains A.R. a former al-Aqsa Martyrs activist who now serves as a Palestinian policeman at the welfare department in the Balata refugee camp adjacent to Nablus. “No one remembers that in May 2000, just four months before the second intifada broke out, there also had been a prisoners’ hunger strike. Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount was the match that lit the fire, but there were a number of incidents that added to the public’s frustration, especially the failure of the political process.”
A.R. is 32 years old, and married with children. “Let’s take a look at what’s happening now,” he says. “There’s no political process, the economic situation has worsened, and prisoners are on hunger strikes. I’m telling you, I am a policeman who disperses demonstrations. If one of these prisoners dies in prison, neither the PA nor the Israeli government will be able to stop the escalation of violence.”
A.R. spent six years in an Israeli prison; today, he guards Joseph’s Tomb. “Do you see how the world has turned upside down?” he remarks. “Look what I’m doing today. I’m making sure that no one, including Israelis, gets hurt at Joseph’s Tomb.”
And what if the world flips over again? What then? Will you need to fight against Israel? “I will never again join an underground armed force,” he says. “I now understand that we lost because we used guns. All that came of it were accidents and hatred. Our thinking has changed. We now want to live with the Jews. The problem is that there is a new generation that thinks exactly as I did when I was 16. They are focusing on revenge, on blood. They have no strategy. As a policeman, I can tell you,” he adds, “those who want revenge will also act violently against their own people.”
A.R. is greeted warmly by passersby as we walk around the Balata refugee camp. About 28,000 people live here in poverty, in terribly overcrowded conditions. Every family has either lost at least one son in the wars against Israel, or has one sitting in an Israeli prison.
“And still, at the end of the day, all we want to do is to support our families and live in peace with you,” A.R. says.
Balata residents constantly express their pride in being from the refugee camp. The first al-Aqsa Martyrs cells were formed under the command of Nasser Awis, a Balata resident. Just recently, Israel’s Channel 2 TV broadcast a story about these masked gunmen, who have recently returned to the camp. Most have been arrested by the PA, and some have already been released.
And still, most Balata residents oppose armed conflict. In Abu Marwan’s café, four men between the ages of 21 and 32 are sitting and watching people walk by on the street.
“The Balata parliament,” they are called.
Muhammad, the youngest, explains that there is no work available. “We want the PA to find work for us, or Israel to grant us work visas. Nothing else,” he says.
“We don’t want an intifada. I’m not going to throw stones. Why not? Because it doesn’t help. My brother was in jail for two years.
How did that help him?” And his friends, Mahmoud, Ali and Jedi, have similar opinions. A feeling of desperation has spread throughout the camp. The three of them have all spent time in Israeli prisons and stress that they have no intention of returning to an armed struggle. But they also agree that the problem today is with the younger generation, which has already forgotten what the adults have just finished learning.
Towards evening, the confrontation ritual repeats itself. About two kilometers south of Balata, near Kfar Kalil, 100-150 youth gather to throw rocks at IDF soldiers stationed north of the Hawara checkpoint, inside Palestinian territory. Most of the stone throwers are between the ages of 16 and 20, some of them much younger. A few who are wearing scarves to cover their faces lead the group and yell threats at the soldiers.
In the meantime, in the nearby furniture store, workers continue assembling a new couch. And the man selling tamar hindi juice darts between the flying stones trying to make a living. Every once in a while, tear gas is thrown into the area and everyone disperses. The youth are surprised by the presence of Israeli journalists. “Don’t take a picture of our faces,” they plead. “The army will come and arrest everybody afterwards.”
One of the boys with a scarf across his face is Ali, a 20-year-old business student at A-Najah, born the year the Oslo Accords were signed. He doesn’t know any Israelis and has never been inside Israel. “I came to show support for the prisoners. I am not afraid of death, and I prefer to die a martyr than live like I am now,” he explains, claiming that the third intifada has already begun.
His friend, Jaffer, is only 17, but has already experienced Israeli prison life firsthand. “I came to show support for my brothers in prison,” he says. “There is going to be a third intifada, I can tell you that much.”
But where are the masses? There are only about 100 of you here, right? “From this day on, there will be an intifada here. I am Jaffer, only one person, but there are hundreds here with me. God willing, more will join us every day, until there will be thousands and even hundreds of thousands.”
Avi Issacharoff is the Arab affairs commentator for the Walla! news website.