Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's security forces this week used deadly force against Palestinians protesting the U.S. attacks on terrorist and military targets in Afghanistan. While the clashes are being called the worst internal crisis for the Palestinians in years, some analysts are saying they are the most dramatic evidence so far that the terrorist attacks on America may have created a new opportunity for efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For the first time since the intifada, or Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation broke out more than a year ago, Palestinian policemen traded gunfire with their own people.
The violence erupted as police tried to contain a demonstration by students from the Islamic University in Gaza City who were chanting anti-American slogans and carrying pictures of alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden.
Some of the demonstrators fired automatic weapons at police, who fired guns and tear gas in an attempt to break up the crowd. Two young Palestinians died when they were hit by gunfire. The militant Islamic group Hamas sponsored the protest, defying a ban on such demonstrations by the Palestinian Authority.
Palestinian analyst Mahdi Abdul-Hadi says the decision to use deadly force shows that the intifada is going through what he calls a "transitional phase," and that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has decided, at least for now, to change its course.
"Well, definitely people should realize that the intifada is entering its second year, and the emphasis has been on the new chapter of the intifada, whether it is taking a new course," Mr. Hadi said. "Every faction has funds and has guns. Every faction is trying to impose its slogans and theses, in spite of the talks of national unity, about consensus," he said. "Because of this transitional phase, because uncertainty lies ahead, because Arafat is very much interested in maintaining the seat of power, he is willing, without hesitation, to sacrifice a finger to keep the hand, to sacrifice Hamas and Islamic Jihad to keep the body of the Palestinian house," Mr. Hadi said.
For months, polls have shown Mr. Arafat's popularity is sinking, while support has soared for militant Islamic groups that have been launching car and suicide bomb attacks against Israelis. Ra'anan Gissen, a senior advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, says the terrorist attacks on the United States put pressure on the Palestinian Authority and Mr. Arafat, to side with western countries and crackdown on militant Islamic groups.
"Whether he will be able to pass that test without major confrontation and bloodshed with these organizations, that is still to be seen," he says. "No doubt that this first clash with Hamas and Islamic Jihad demonstrators in the street was really a showdown to see who has the upper hand," Mr. Gissen says. "The swiftness in which he operated clearly indicates that, above and beyond the pressure he has to withstand, there was an immediate threat, or a challenge, to his regime and to his rule."
After more than a year of bloodshed, Mr. Arafat has thrown his support behind a cease-fire with Israel and President Bush's efforts to form an international coalition against terrorism. Many Palestinians do not support these moves, and resent America's close diplomatic, financial and military ties with Israel.
During the Persian Gulf war, Mr. Arafat backed Saddam Hussein, a move that made him an international pariah.
In a recently released videotape, Osama bin Laden referred to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying Americans will not feel secure until there is security in Palestine. Palestinian analyst Mahdi Abdul-Hadi says Mr. Arafat has learned from his mistake made during the Gulf war, and now wants to distance himself from any association with Mr. bin Laden.
Mr. Abdul-Hadi says that Mr. bin Laden has found support among some Palestinians suffering from the devastating economic impact of the intifada. But he warns that Palestinians should not "fall into the trap of supporting Mr. bin Laden."
"If bin Laden is using us, we are telling the world, sorry, he is wrong, he is mistaken. We are not in support of him," he says. "But the other face of the coin, which is more sensitive, when he raises the flag of Islam, when he raises the flag of the West versus Islam, some people will fall in the trap because of ignorance, because of not only illiteracy, but because of their suffering," he says.
After the attacks on New York and Washington, Israel and the Palestinians have been under intense pressure to end their conflict and move back to the negotiating table.
Both sides have agreed to a shaky cease-fire and on confidence-building steps that have yet to be implemented.
Ra'anan Gissen says Israel sees room for "cautious optimism" in Mr. Arafat's crackdown on militant demonstrators and says Prime Minister Sharon's government is ready to take positive steps to ease the tight closure on the Palestinian territories.
"I can assure you that Israel will reciprocate as we have stated. We will try to implement our part of the cease-fire," he said. "We told Arafat, in no uncertain terms - Prime Minister Sharon and Foreign Minister Peres - every place there is quiet, we will reciprocate."
So once again, unexpected events and outside pressures have pushed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to what appears to be another critical juncture.
No one can accurately predict whether the people who live here will benefit from these changes, or whether the region will slip back into the now familiar cycle of bloodshed.