Bursts of automatic-rifle fire echo up the street; wisps of tear gas float in the air. An ambulance rushes toward the scene, where Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint outside the Palestinian city of Ramallah are using live ammo to force back a rock-throwing mob. Marwan Barghouti stands out in the open, watching from 100 yards away, hands in his pockets, as relaxed as if he were at a family picnic.
In fact, he's at a funeral: a procession bearing the corpse of a young Palestinian shot the day before has just ended nearby. Now, older mourners and local politicians, handkerchiefs over their noses because of the tear gas, are paying their respects to the 41-year-old Barghouti. They go to him for advice because he runs a group of Fatah militias, guerrillas the Israelis call Tanzim--the shock troops of the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank. One of the mourners, a gray-haired man cringing at the noise of guns, asks with deference just when the dying might end. "We are at the start of this intifada," Barghouti declares, not a tear in his eye. "It has only been two months."
Only two months, but it must seem like eons to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The uprising led by new warlords like Barghouti essentially toppled Barak's government last week. Facing overwhelming opposition within Israel's Knesset, the prime minister was forced to call new elections--opening a campaign season that promises to be ruthless. Now he has perhaps six months to produce the kind of peacemaking results he can win on. To do that, Barak will need to appease not just Yasir Arafat and the familiar old PLO sycophants who surround him. He'll also have to find common ground with a younger generation of Palestinian street leaders who, like Barghouti, have emerged to lead the bloody fight against Israeli occupation. These are men in their 40s, mostly, who were previously in the shadow of the traditional PLO leadership. They are the someday successors to Arafat, and even now it is not altogether clear whether they are following his orders or he is following their lead.
Barghouti saw Barak's election gambit last week as one more proof of the uprising's success. By his own count, more than 280 Palestinians have been killed and as many as 12,000 injured. But already, Barghouti said, "there have been more Israeli casualties in Palestine in two months than there were in Lebanon in a year." Just as Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in June, this reasoning goes, eventually it will learn to leave the Palestinian territories. So Barghouti sees no reason to stop the violence--yet. "As it continues in the coming weeks and months," he said, "Israeli politicians will start to take us seriously."
In fact, both Israeli and Palestinian leaders are scrambling to make sense of dramatically new circumstances. Barak, who came to office with a tremendous mandate to make peace only 17 months ago, has seen his approval rating plunge. He pushed hard for an agreement with Syria earlier this year but now faces rising tensions with Damascus and on the border with Lebanon. He offered Arafat more of the West Bank and Gaza than any Israeli leader before him--although it was less than Palestinians say is their due according to U.N. resolutions--and was answered with the fury of the current uprising. Even Israel's economy, which has grown since Barak was elected, is now heading for a violence-induced slump. "He needs one big accomplishment he can tout, otherwise he's dead in the water," said one Israeli analyst.
Waiting to push him under is former prime minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, who leads Barak by at least 15 points in the polls. The current Likud leader, Ariel Sharon, would also beat Barak if elections were held today. "Even if we choose a broomstick to lead the party," predicted Likud lawmaker Limor Livnat, "Barak will lose." But surveys also show most Israelis want a peace deal with the Palestinians, which they're more likely to get if Barak is at the helm rather than Netanyahu, a right-winger who vows to retain much of the occupied territories. With Parliament expected to set a May date for the new elections, Barak has got to move quickly to make peace, or break the uprising.
Yet the rising stars of the intifada are not just a threat to Barak. While they demand an end to Israeli settlements, they're also challenging the old-line PLO leadership to clean up its act. Since Arafat's cronies arrived on the scene seven years ago, they've grown rich while most Palestinians have grown poorer. Barghouti and the other warlords are senior officials in the Fatah faction Arafat founded, and proclaim eternal fealty to the old man. But the current uprising "changed the rules of the game," Barghouti told NEWSWEEK. "What the leadership must do is adapt to the new rules."
Hussam Khader, an organizer of Fatah militias around the West Bank city of Nablus, goes further. He openly accused 50 members of the Palestinian Authority of taking their money and their families out of the country during the uprising. "Arafat is the umbrella for these corrupt people, but he still leads the national party," says Khader. "If Arafat didn't exist, this intifada would have been against the Palestinian Authority. And if this intifada fails to reorganize the Palestinian house, then I would consider this intifada failed."
Israel's expectation of Arafat has always been that he'd keep order, come what may. No longer: "The way it looks right now, the situation is fast going toward a state of anarchy," a senior Israeli Defense official told reporters last week. He cited six different, and often competing, security organizations operating in the West Bank and Gaza. In fact, Arafat's two Preventive Security chiefs, who are supposed to control Palestinian violence in the interests of the peace process, have been increasingly reluctant to act against their own people. The West Bank operative, Jibril Rajoub, has tried to avert potential clashes: last Friday he posted his men inside the Al Aqsa Mosque on the sacred mount claimed by both Muslims and Jews when it was opened to tens of thousands of worshipers, and the prayers remained quiet. But Mohammed Dahlan, security chief in Gaza, says he is "fed up" with trying to protect Israelis--especially after they rocketed his new headquarters in October. He told NEWSWEEK he has no interest in investigating who was behind a recent bombing inside Israel that killed two Israelis and wounded more than 50. "It's not my business," said Dahlan. "It used to be my business. Understand?"
The tone is menacing, to be sure. But the emerging warlords of Palestine are also pragmatic. They were born under Israeli rule, grew up in camps and slums patrolled by Israeli soldiers, learned Hebrew in Israeli jails. They have a ferocious familiarity with the occupiers that older Palestinians, who spent decades in exile, could never begin to have. Yet none of them embraces the apocalyptic rhetoric of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, which would erase Israel from the map. All of them accept its right to exist. What they say they reject is the kind of peace that Barak has been offering, which they see as a continuation of occupation in a different guise.
"We want to save our blood and their blood," says Dahlan. "But going back to negotiations under the old rules, that's bull----. Enough. Do you think a Palestinian state can ever be established without Jerusalem? A state full of settlements? A state surrounded by the Israeli military? What kind of a state is that?" "We are not against any negotiations," says Barghouti. "But according to our experience, over seven years [since the Oslo accords] there is no result without pressure on the ground, without resistance to the occupation. For negotiations to succeed, we have to continue the intifada."
Beyond the bravado, it's not at all clear that these new street fighters can really achieve much against the region's most powerful military. So a key question for Israelis and American mediators concerns the role of Arafat now. Has he lost control or are these really his boys, doing his bidding? One Arab intelligence source who knows him well insists that the aging guerrilla is content to see the violence continue. Since the latest uprising began, he has been treated as a hero by the rest of the Arab world, and promised more lavish funding from them than he has seen in years: as much as $1 billion. "Arafat is looking for ways to keep the fire warm while drawing money from the Arabs," said this source. Before, almost any deal he signed would have been condemned by Islamic leaders. "Now, with this so-called Independence War, he is covering his a-- from anyone who would call him a traitor."
Ever the survivor, Arafat could conceivably be strengthened by the recent mayhem. Grim as the violence has been, over the long run it could serve to prepare an exhausted public on both sides for practical concessions on territory, settlements, foreign observers, even a division of Jerusalem. Khader, in Nablus, describes the new uprising as "a sort of surgery performed to fix the malfunctions of the peace process." But there is also the risk that between the bluster of Israeli elections and the brutal brinkmanship of Arafat and his proteges, the chances of peace will be dimmed for years to come.