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A New Intifada is Born

By Daoud Kuttab

The time was almost midnight, on Sept. 20, when a number of satellite television stations interrupted their regular programming to announce that Israeli soldiers had warned Palestinians living near Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah that the building would be blown up in 15 minutes if those inside it didn't come out.

Within those tense minutes, the streets of Ramallah filled with ordinary Palestinians. Marchers, often led by women, increased in number as people trapped in their homes for days on end decided to shake off the injustice that had befallen them. Many demonstrated more in defense of their national honor than in support of Mr. Arafat.

The popular uprising that began in the Ramallah neighborhood of Umm al Sharit quickly spread to Nablus, Tulkarem, Gaza and Bethlehem. The next day, women and men came out with pots and pans and beat on their household utensils as a sign of anger and protest. The following day, a candlelight vigil was held as a way to break what people considered a repressive curfew.

In 1987, Palestinians introduced the term intifada into the international lexicon, when thousands of youths armed with nothing more than stones rose up against Israeli guns and tanks. In the fall of 2000, when rioting broke out following the visit of Ariel Sharon to the area around the al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, many called those protests the al Aqsa, or second, intifada. Now, with what happened the evening of Sept. 20 in Ramallah, I believe we are witnessing the birth of the third intifada.

Since that night, schools in many West Bank cities have remained open, defiant of Israeli curfews. Some areas are organizing popular schools. Some of the more affluent schools are sending homework to their students via e-mail. Curfew days have become high traffic days on the Internet as most people are doing their office or school work from their homes. A major culture is being written up, recorded, photographed and spread on cyberspace about life under curfew.

What happened late that Friday night was not without warning. A week earlier, the representatives of the Palestinian people did something unprecedented in Arab politics: They forced a government appointed by Mr. Arafat to resign rather than be shamed by a confidence vote. At about the same time, a public opinion survey, commissioned by the Search for Common Ground, found that a majority of Palestinians supported the idea of non-violent resistance. Hence the peaceful protests that started 10 days ago.

In the two previous intifadas, those who favored more violent confrontation soon came to dominate the protests. Such acts are not only contrary to the spirit of non-violence, they also endanger those involved, quickly limiting the possibility that large numbers of ordinary Palestinians might participate.

For a long time, many international critics of the Palestinians have been asking why we don't use non-violent methods to effect change. They argue that if Palestinians do that, a major change will take place in Israeli and international public opinion that will eventually be translated in political terms. Many of us have doubts about that, seeing that the Sharon government is only interested in a Palestinian population that raises the white flag of surrender.

When Palestinians in Ramallah carried out their plans to hold a candlelight vigil on Wednesday night, the Israeli army, which had said it would lift Thursday's curfew, reversed its position and reimposed the curfew. Some people obeyed the renewed order; most didn't. Schools in particular have decided that they will no longer call off their teaching duties according to Israeli army dictates.

What is worrisome, however, is that the Israeli and international press have ignored or belittled the non-violent nature of what happened in Palestine last week. It seems that the long-awaited change in Israeli and U.S. public opinion will not happen soon, as both peoples continue to be bombarded by news that fulfills the aspirations of those wishing to end the conflict in a violent way.

(Daoud Kuttab is director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University in Ramallah. [email protected])