Edmund Sanders
The Los Angeles Times (Opinion)
January 10, 2010 - 1:00am

Born in a refugee camp in this restive West Bank city, Ammar Arafat threw his first stone at 13. At 15, he was jailed for scaling the fence at an Israeli military camp with explosives under his shirt. Upon release, he took up arms again and landed back in prison.

Freshly out of jail for the second time, Arafat, 20, is mulling his next move. But nowadays, he has traded in his explosives vest for a designer military jacket with shiny Armani buttons. A more mature Arafat said he wants to enroll in college, find work as a Palestinian police officer and build a stable life.

"I'm glad I was able to fight for my people, but now I want to try something different," Arafat said. "We all just want to have a good life."

With Palestinian frustration rising over stalled peace talks, a resumption in rocket and mortar attacks by militants in the Gaza Strip and an increase in tit-for-tat violence in the West Bank, some observers are drawing comparisons to the mood at the start of the second intifada, or uprising, in 2000.

Speculation about a "third intifada" is gaining traction in Israeli newspapers and Palestinian cafes.

But, as stories like Arafat's suggest, chances of another West Bank uprising this year appear slim, Palestinians and Israelis say.

They point to a weak, fractured Palestinian leadership that has disavowed violence, the tightfisted Israeli control in the greater part of the occupied territories and a budding West Bank economy that has led many Palestinians to conclude that the price of another intifada would be too high.

"The situation is not ripe," said Abdul Sattar Kassem, a Palestinian political science professor at An Najah National University in Nablus. "There isn't the morale, motivation or the leadership for another intifada. People aren't sure what it would achieve. They think they have more to lose."

If plans for another uprising were underway, you might expect to find signs here in Nablus, where the Balata refugee camp has long been an incubator for militants and played a central role in the last two major uprisings.

Today, the streets and shops of Nablus are buzzing with commerce as the city struggles to regain its footing after a crippling Israeli military cordon that let up last year only with the opening of a checkpoint on the edge of town.

But in a not-so-subtle reminder that Israel can reseal the borders again, construction is underway on a new, expanded checkpoint. Meanwhile, Nablus residents -- from businessmen to teenagers -- say they are enjoying the broadest freedom of movement they have experienced in years.

For 11th-grader Osama Jamal, 17, that's meant that, for the first time in his life, he and friends can leave Nablus, blowing off steam with trips to larger cities, such as Ramallah.

"Staying in Nablus is just too depressing," he said.

Like Arafat, Jamal -- whose father was killed in 1995 during a clash with Israeli soldiers -- says he feels torn about what direction to take his life.

"When I see people being arrested, it builds up inside me," he said, his voice rising. "I feel I have to do something."

Then, after a pause, he added, "At the same time, I want to continue my education. Maybe I can do both."

Israel takes part of the credit for the apparent softening of Palestinian resistance through a carrot-and-stick approach under which it has eased checkpoints and permitted economic growth even as it has maintained an army presence and cracked down on militants.

"You have to have a very complex, nuanced approach of strengthening moderates, building the economy but not giving in to the terrorists," said Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon. "The [Israeli army] presence right now is not only necessary, it's diminished the chances of a third intifada."

Critics say Israel's strategy amounts to "beautifying" the occupation by relieving just enough pressure to weaken resistance and by making the West Bank dependent on billions of dollars in foreign aid.

"We are 'for sale' now," Kassem said, adding that some Palestinians today place a higher priority on jobs, education and lifestyle. "We are spoiled. People might get angry, but in a week they reach in their pockets and do nothing. We don't feel the occupation as much."

He noted that the Palestinian Authority, largely funded by the U.S. and other countries, now employs 180,000 people who "are not ready to sacrifice their jobs for another intifada."

After Israel's offensive last winter in Gaza, the separate seaside enclave controlled by the militant group Hamas, many Palestinians were "ashamed" that the crackdown on their brethren did not spur larger protests in the West Bank, Kassem said.

He accused the U.S. and Israel of exploiting Palestinian desperation.

"It's like putting a loaf of bread in front of parents who are afraid their children will starve," he said.

The weak, divided Palestinian leadership also means another intifada is unlikely, experts say. In 2000, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat supported the uprising, and Palestinian youths put their lives on the line for the popular leader.

Today, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas openly discourages Palestinians from returning to violence. Just over a week ago, he accused Israel of trying to spark another uprising so as to portray Palestinians as "terrorists in the eyes of the world."

He pointed to an Israeli raid in Nablus last month that killed three Palestinian activists whom Israelis accused of killing an Israeli settler.

Israel, he said, "seeks through these provocative and ongoing acts to drag us to a violent reaction and relieve itself from international isolation by making us appear as the aggressor."

The funeral for the three men drew thousands of angry Palestinians, who chanted anti-Israeli slogans and gathered in one of the biggest demonstrations in the city in years.

"It's anger," said Mahmoud Subuh, head of the Yafa Cultural Center in Nablus, where he works with young Palestinian refugees. At the same time, his group has noticed a growing alienation and disillusionment among young Palestinians, many of whom are going abroad for school or jobs. He cited the ongoing rivalry between Abbas' Fatah party and Hamas.

"The split killed the spirit of the Palestinian people," he said. "People are tired, and they feel like Israel can do whatever it wants."

But Palestinian activist Hussam Khader, who helped lead the last uprising and spent years in an Israeli jail, cautioned against putting too much faith in the belief that another uprising could not occur. In fact, he said, the fractured Palestinian leadership might indirectly encourage another intifada by opening the door to foreign and extremist influences.

"These new military groups or political groups will lead the coming uprising," he said. "If we had real nationalist leadership, there would be no chance for Iran or Syria or Hezbollah to play in our square."

Khader, who was first jailed at 13, predicted that unless a long-term solution is found for the occupation, it's only a matter of time before Palestinians rise up again.

"Young people today are stronger and more passionate than we were," he said. "If Israel keeps pushing us into a corner, it will be like waves in the sea. Waves sometimes seem very quiet, and then suddenly, they rise and crash and destroy the rocks."

edmund.sanders @latimes.com


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