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Palestinian protests: passing disturbance or lasting legacy? Israel plays down unrest; Arabs see it as first sign of open revolt

As the smoke clears following the most intense conflict in Israel's 20-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, two tentative, somewhat contradictory conclusions are being drawn here. The mass protests of the past 10 days did not add up to an insurrection against Israeli rule.

Only a small portion of the total 1.4 million Palestinians took part in the disturbances. Despite intense fighting and heavy casualties, basic commercial and administrative links between Israel and the territories remain intact.

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The demonstrations were different in ways which suggest that, over the long term, it will be more difficult and costly for Israel to maintain control in the territories.

The protests were more broadly based. Leadership was more diffuse. Demonstrators were less intimidated by the force of Israeli arms.

``No matter what happens now, the relations between occupied and occupier will be played out under new rules,'' says Albert Aghazarian, and professor at the West Bank's Bir Zeit University.

Arab demonstrators clashed with Israeli soldiers yesterday in four West Bank towns. But life in the territories was returning to normal after more than a week of violence. Seventeen Palestinians have been killed and between 150 and 180 wounded by gunshots in nine days of fighting, according to the Palestine Press Service.

For the most part, Israeli officials explain the violence as the peak of the latest of recurring cycles of unrest that have punctuated Israeli rule in the territories.

But various observers say the demonstrations may be the first sign of an open revolt against two decades of occupation. In the past two weeks, they say Palestinian demonstrators were less restrained, more openly defiant of military authority, more willing to take open risks.

``There was a completely new dimension, a whole new ethos of people throwing caution to the wind,'' says a Palestinian journalist who covered the protests in Gaza.

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``The audacity of the population is now stronger,'' says Hebrew University historian Yehoshua Porat. ``When the population is ready to defy military force, it's significant.''

One Palestinian attributes the defiant mood to November's Palestinian hang-glider attack in northern Israel that left six Israeli soldiers dead and dispelled the aura of invincibility which has surrounded Israeli security forces. The event ``demystified'' the Israeli Army, making guns a less effective deterrent, says this Palestinian, who requested anonymity.

A second difference noted by observers was the changed locus of leadership. Five years ago, strikes and demonstrations were usually orchestrated by the ``Committee for National Guidance'' of West Bank mayors, some of whom are identified with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). And, more recently, resistance to Israeli occupation has been attributed to Palestinian terrorist cells.

But this time the leadership of the resistance has been more self-generating, the disturbances more openly acts of the population at large.

``There's no leadership. The masses are taking over. [The demonstrations] are internally generated,'' says Prof. Aghazarian. Observers have also noted a small but significant demographic change in the demonstrations, namely the addition of adults to protesting crowds which in the past have been made up largely of students, and even children.

``It was the first time I have ever seen Palestinians in Gaza - all generations, men, women and children - all of them were protesting,'' the journalist says.

``The presence of older Palestinians raises the specter of mass disengagement from the authorities and puts the situation in the territories closer to civil rebellion,'' says Sari Nusseibeh, a philosophy professor at Bir Zeit.

``It's an indication of where the process is moving,'' says the Palestinian journalist. ``It shows that the people who count are more willing to disrupt the normal channels of life.''

The cycles of violence will recur with increasing intensity, says Mr. Nusseibeh, ``until people reach civil rebellion - when they cut their links, stop paying taxes, stop going to work, stop playing the game of being administered.''

In their analysis of the recent wave of violence, Israeli officials have stressed external factors including the role of the PLO (which Israel considers a terrorist organization).

In London this week, Israel's President Chaim Herzog said the catalyst for violence in Gaza has been the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and the ``internal regime of Arab terror'' represented by the shadowy Islamic Jihad group.

But Palestinian sources say that while religion may have played a role in Gaza, it was not a major one. These sources also quarrel with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's attribution to outside causes.

``Shamir thinks everything that happens here is the result of somebody pushing the button from outside,'' says Palestinian journalist Salah Zuhaika, currently under ``town arrest'' by the Israeli authorities.

``But violence here is self-generating,'' Mr. Zuhaika says. ``The leadership is the people in the streets.''

Nusseibeh says the bitterness which has accumulated through 20 years of Israeli occupation has been exacerbated by the near-moribund Mideast peace process and the low priority given the Palestinian problem at the November summit of Arab leaders in Amman, Jordan.

Both factors reinforced a disposition among Palestinians to ``take things in their own hands.''

It's not that recent political events are being consciously analyzed as demonstrators pick up rocks to throw at Israeli security forces, says Nusseibeh, but that the general drift of outside events is grasped by people in the territories. ``It filters through that Shamir is against us,'' he says.

``Until now, there was always something to keep people hoping that the ball was still rolling,'' adds Aghazarian, referring to recurring hopes for a breakthrough in the peace process.

``Once you see that it's hopeless you go through a process of catharsis.''

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