Background The War That Palestine Couldn't Lose - and Did

As the Intifada grinds on past its fourth anniversary, directed by militants with an apocalyptic vision founded on literal self-destruction, there is mounting evidence that grass-roots Palestinian fervor for its message has begun to flag.

On the Jewish festival that coincided with the fourth anniversary of the Palestinian Intifada, it was tragedy as usual.

In the rocket-cratered Negev town of Sderot, residents of a neighborhood of Ethiopian and Russian immigrants prepared to celebrate the joyous Sukkot holiday by eating outdoors in booths made of fabric, wood, and palm fronds.

Sheltered by an olive tree, two pre-schoolers, ages two and four, were playing in an alley beside their grandmother's house when the rocket slammed in, shredding their bodies.

Over the Gaza border in the Jabalya refugee camp - Vesuvius to Sderot's Pompeii - a Hamas official promised that the deadly rocket attacks against residential areas would only continue, regardless of whom the unguided projectiles ultimately hit.

"We will continue with this honorable battle until we achieve either victory or martyrdom," said Nizar Rayan, a leader of the militant group in the enormous refugee camp.

Less predictably, some Gazans, non-combatants on whom the four-years of uprising have taken a crippling toll, saw it differently, and were willing to voice their reservations.

A resident of the northern Gaza town of Beit Lehiya, who fled the area when Israeli tanks and troops moved in to search for Hamas rocket crews, had no kind words this week for the damage wrought by a number of Israeli raids, but he had a message for the Palestinian gunners as well.

The militants need "to look around and see what mortar shells and rockets brought to northern Gaza ," Basher Hamouda, 55, told an Associated Press reporter.

"Nothing but distractions and killing."

The war the Palestinians couldn't lose

The Al Aqsa Intifada of September 2000 began much as its prececessor did in 1987. It was, in effect, a war that the Palestinians couldn't lose, the media-irresistable image of the Palestinian David slingling rocks at the hulkingly armed and armored Israeli Goliath.

Almost immediately, however, the war that the Palestinians couldn't lose, was over. That war was supplanted by a militant-driven conflict, a sworn battle to the death with the Jewish state.

As defined by Hamas, the more violent war was, as well, a war the Palestinians couldn't lose. It was a strategy that explicitly embraced the "way of death," transcending worldly concepts of victory and defeat, as well as time.

Recovering from an IDF attempt on his life, Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi declared in June last year, "the struggle will continue until the last Jew has left the country."

Asked how long he believed that would take, he answered, "Dozens of years."

Are the Palestinians are now willing to abide by a time frame of that dimension?

As the Intifada grinds on, directed by militants with an apocalyptic vision founded on literal self-destruction, there is mounting evidence that popular fervor for its message has begun to flag.

In a mirror-image reversal of Palestinian public opinion of years past, a recent poll in the hardline stronghold of Nablus showed that two-thirds of respondents now backed efforts to forge a cease-fire with Israel.

"We have witnessed the destruction of Palestinian society - its civil institutions, its economy, its infrastructure," Bethelehem Governor Zuhair Manasra told the Los Angeles Times. "The result has been a complete disaster for the Palestinians, at all levels. Now we must think how to rebuild."

A 29-year-old member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the loose-cannon militia of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, was more succinct.

"We achieved nothing in all this time, and we lost so much," said the militant, who identified himself only as Abu Fahdi.

"People hate us for that, and wish we were dead."

The kidnapping this week of a CNN producer, an Israeli Arab widely admired by Palestinians for fairness in reporting, has prompted an additional wave of reconsideration of the efficacy of the militants' methods.

"We are once again besmirched by the stain of hurting innocent people," argues Nazir Majali, a commentator for Arab television networks who writes in the daily Al-Shark Al-Awsat.

In the light of a spate of recent kidnappings, international public opinion and pro-Palestinian bodies may "now relate to the Gaza Strip (and also the West Bank) in the way that they relate to Iraq.

"They will distance themselves as they would from a fire. This will be a severe blow to the legitimacy of the Palestinian people and their struggle for freedom against the occupation and for national independence. We will not shake off the stigma of terror."

According to Majali, Israel must not be relieved of "responsibility for the damaged status of the Authority, the spread of blind hatred, and the despair at the source of the suffering that grips both peoples. But that does not mean that Israel is guilty of everything.

"There are agents, organizations, and gangs within the Palestinian people who damage the Palestinian national interest more than anyone else."

Victory as perception: The end of the war

If, in a political conflict, victory is perception, then in some quarters the war the Palestinians couldn't lose is already over.

Some seasoned observers have begun speaking of a Palestinian defeat in the past tense.

Remarked Laura King of the Los Angeles Times this week, "many Palestinians fear that what has been, in effect, their military defeat at the hands of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has left them without leverage to extract political and territorial concessions that would help lay the groundwork for their hoped-for state."

Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post observed in a column this week that it is "now undeniable that the 'military solution' that so manybelieved could not work has brought Israelis an interlude of relative peace."

"While the prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement remain dismal, and no one expects the violence to end, life in Israel has returned to something approaching normal."

The current IDF offensive in Gaza, which may become one of the most massive and critical of the war, may have a decided bearing on future of the relative lull - as well as the future of Hamas itself.

On the face of it, the Hamas attack on Sderot fit perfectly with the militant group's overall strategy surrounding Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement proposal: lure large IDF forces into Gaza, attack them, then trumpet an eventual Israeli withdrawal from the Strip as "running away under Palestinian fire" rather than a result of a consdered Israeli policy decision.

But what Hamas may not have considered is a possible backlash among a Palestinian population for whom perpetual sacrifice has neared the breaking point.

Perhaps the most striking response to the relative failure of the Intifada has been that of the Israeli press, long viewed, and often vilified, for taking too pro-Palestinian a stance.

With all customary ambivalence - "The Seventh War," a history of the Intifada co-authored by Haaretz military correspondent Amos Harel, is subtitled "How we won and why we lost the war" - prominent Israeli commentator Ben Caspit may have provided the ultimare response to Hamas in a Maariv column this week.

"The definition is apt. We won, because we did not run away. We stood up to the inferno with pride," Caspit wrote. "We won because we managed to shake off the shock, to come to terms with the situation, to return to a certain normalization ... even while listening with trepidation to the next special news bulletin."

At the same time, Israel also lost, Caspit said, for failing to translate its strength into a peace accord, for failing to give the Palestians grounds to trust Israel, and for trading Palestinian militant commanders with warlords in Hezbollah and Iran.

"Nonetheless, despite everything, and nevertheless, after four years of this war of ours, we're still here. True, not all of us. A little over a thousand of us are gone. But we're still holding our heads up. We're here. The question is, what's ahead. And that, still, no one knows."