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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 September, 2004, 11:33 GMT 12:33 UK
Palestinians pay heavy price for intifada

By Barbara Plett
BBC correspondent in Jerusalem

Palestinians fire stones at Israeli troops with slingshots in Ramallah in October 2000
Violence continues, but is the intifada still a genuinely national uprising?
Four years after the eruption of the al-Aqsa intifada, the dominant mood among Palestinians is one of defeat.

This is registered not only in enormous human and material losses.

It is seen in the progressive collapse of the Palestinian Authority as a central governing body, replaced on the ground by local and increasingly unaccountable militias.

The Palestinians are also confronted with the disengagement plan of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a unilateral action in which Israel is set to withdraw from most of the Gaza Strip and four small West Bank Jewish settlements.

While welcoming any withdrawal from any occupied land, Palestinians fear disengagement will enable Mr Sharon to consolidate Israel's hold on the West Bank, through the construction of its separation barrier and the expansion of large settlements there.

Within these new parameters the violence continues, but there is a question of whether the intifada any longer exists as a genuinely national uprising.

Power struggles

Relentless Israeli military operations have left militias in the West Bank fragmented and on the run.

Woman weeps over coffins of two Israeli sisters killed in a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv in June 2001

They are headed now by young, inexperienced leaders, sometimes sponsored by PA officials or foreign powers jockeying for status in internal or regional power struggles.

A visceral hunger for revenge supplies a steady stream of candidates for suicide bombings.

This includes some who do not belong to any faction, for example, the young woman who killed herself and two others in occupied East Jerusalem last week.

In Gaza there is more of a strategy, moulded now by the disengagement plan.

The militias there are determined to claim Israel's withdrawal as a military victory and have stepped up attacks on Israeli soldiers, Jewish settlements and neighbouring Israeli towns.

Israel has stepped up assassinations, arrest sweeps and incursions, determined to tame Gaza - and the Islamic movement Hamas in particular - before it leaves.

Peace plan stalled

In the meantime there is no political process on the horizon.

Hamas sees the Gaza withdrawal plan as proof that its strategy of armed resistance is working
Diplomats pay lip service to the internationally backed peace plan known as the roadmap, but even they were forced to admit this month that "no significant progress has been achieved."

Ariel Sharon is more blunt.

He has said the roadmap is essentially suspended and will only be renewed if the Palestinians end violence and replace their leadership.

In any case, he says, the disengagement plan is not part of it and, as he told one Israeli newspaper "it is very possible that after the evacuation [of Gaza], there will be nothing else for a very long period of time."

Mr Sharon's initiative has deepened already existing fractures within the Palestinian national movement.

The Palestinian Authority, which is staffed mostly by senior members of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, sees disengagement as a threat.

That is because without negotiations or a peace process the PA ceases to have a political role.

Hamas' strength

Younger members of Fatah see the Gaza withdrawal as an opportunity, either to regain at least some control of Palestinian territory and regroup, or assert their own leadership at the expense of the old guard.

Hamas sees the plan as proof that its strategy of armed resistance is working. It is manoeuvring now to turn the popular support it gained through the intifada into political power.

It wants to share in administering Gaza if and when the Israelis leave.

Hamas has already declared its intention to run in upcoming PA municipal elections and perhaps also new parliamentary ones, should they happen.

Yasser Arafat has been weakened by the splits within Fatah and the Israeli-American campaign to render him irrelevant.

But there is no obvious alternative for leader. He still represents the national aspirations of most Palestinians for an independent state in all of the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

However, without a peace process - and despite four years of relentless struggle - those aspirations now seem further away than ever.


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