News Analysis: Peace Talks in Washington Point to Success of 4-year-old Intifada

By both chance and design, the second round of Arab Israeli peace talks opened in Washington one day after the fourth anniversary of the intifada, the Palestinian uprising that erupted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Dec. 9, 1987.

The symbolism is hard to ignore. The confluence of dates signifies both the continuing violence in the Holy Land and the hopes for a peaceful future. They are two sides of the same coin.

The Arab-Israeli conflict continues, but it has entered a new phase. Whatever the outcome, no one can deny the sheer novelty of the fact that Israelis and Palestinians are facing each other across the negotiating table for the first time since 1948, each side intent on finding solutions to their mutual problems.

This could not have happened but for the intifada.

After years of indifference by the world, and despite bitter internal struggles and being on the losing side of the Persian Gulf War, the Palestinians have succeeded in pushing their case to the forefront of the international agenda.

The Palestinians have paid a high price to reach the stage they are at.

According to official Israeli statistics, about 160,000 incidents of unrest have occurred in the last four years, an average of 110 per day. More than 1,200 Palestinians have died in the intifada. About 14,000 were wounded; thousands are in jail.

Rock-throwing, a regular Palestinian activity during the intifada’s first three years, is down by half this year. But the uprising has moved one rung up on the ladder of violence.

The intifada’s fourth year was marked by a steep rise in the use of firearms by the Palestinians. There were 120 shootings this year, more than double last year’s number. About 90 hand grenades were thrown at Israeli targets, more than 10 times as many as in 1990.

“It’s a real war,” Pinhas Wallerstein, head of the Binyamin regional council in the West Bank, remarked this week.

If it is a war, Israel clearly has won but is not victorious.

The Palestinians have already achieved a certain measure of autonomy in the territories. Many Arab villages and the centers of Arab cities are for all practical purposes run by local popular committees. The Israel Defense Force does not pretend to control those areas.

Israelis do not move freely in the territories. In the past, their main concern was stoning. Now they fear shooting as well. The lack of safety is felt by Israelis in parts of East Jerusalem no less than in the territories.

The intifada has affected the IDF’s morale and technical proficiency. Soldiers spend inordinate time patrolling Arab villages at the expense of training. Too many soldiers are doing police work instead of preparing for combat.

UNABLE TO STOP THE INTIFADA

Israel’s greatest defeat is that after four years, it has been unable to end the intifada.

It has been suppressed, it has been limited in scope, and the local Palestinian population has been forced to pay a high price: Jewish settlers have increased their numbers to 120,000 and hope to add 50,000 by the end of 1992.

But the wheel of history will never be turned back to December 1987. That is one reason why militant setters have taken the offensive in the territories in recent weeks.

With or without the government’s consent, they have planted new settlements in the West Bank and pressed their incursion into Arab areas of East Jerusalem.

Most recently, Jewish squatters took over buildings in the Arab village of Silwan, which lies inside Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries.

Claiming ownership, they have succeeded in focusing international attention on the sensitive issue of Jerusalem, something the government has striven to avoid because it considers Jerusalem non-negotiable.

All of these developments are related directly or indirectly to the intifada.

Yet Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir played down its importance this week. He warned the Palestinians that the longer the uprising lasted, the more they would suffer, while Israel would continue to absorb immigrants and grow stronger.

But even as Shamir spoke, his Cabinet secretary, Elyakim Rubinstein, was in Washington, preparing to discuss Palestinian autonomy in the territories with a delegation that gets its instructions from Israel’s mortal enemy, the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Shamir promised in the Knesset this week that even if the Palestinians get some degree of autonomy, Jewish settlers would never be subjected to any non-Israeli authority.

But the very fact that this issue was on the agenda shows how far the Palestinians have come since 1987.

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