IS THIS the third intifada? This question was raised this week by a number of Israeli security experts. And not only by them -- their Palestinian colleagues were almost as perplexed.
All over the West Bank, Palestinian youth threw stones at Israeli soldiers. All the 4,500 Palestinians in Israeli prisons took part in a three-day hunger strike.
The immediate reason was the death of a young Palestinian man during interrogation by the Shin Bet. The autopsy showed no reason for the death. It was no heart attack, as first (and automatically) claimed by Israeli officials and their stooges, the so-called "military correspondents." So was it torture, as practically all Palestinians believe?
Then there were the four prisoners on a hunger strike which has already lasted 150 days (mitigated by infusions). Since almost every Palestinian family has now -- or had in the past -- at least one member in prison, this generates much excitement.
So is this IT?
THE UNCERTAINTY of security officials stems from the fact that both the first and the second intifadas broke out in unexpected ways. Both the Israeli and the Palestinian leaderships were taken by surprise.
The Israeli surprise was especially -- well, surprising. The West Bank and the Gaza Strip were, and still are, full of Israeli informers. Decades of occupation have allowed the Security Service to recruit thousands of them by bribery or blackmail. So how did they fail to know?
The Palestinian leadership, then in Tunis, was equally in the dark. It took Yasser Arafat several days to realize what was happening and laud the "Stone Children."
The reason for the surprise was that both intifadas were completely spontaneous. No one planned them. Because of this, no informer could warn his handlers.
The trigger for the first one was a road accident. In December 1987, an Israeli driver killed several Palestinian workers near Gaza. All hell broke loose. The second was triggered by a deliberate Israeli provocation after the failure of the 2000 Camp David conference.
The Israeli army was quite unprepared for the First Intifada. Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin famously exclaimed "Break their bones!" which some commanders took literally and carried out faithfully. A lot of arms and legs were broken with rifle butts.
Though the second intifada was also unexpected, this time the army was prepared for any event. Troops were trained in advance. No bones were broken this time. Instead, sharpshooters were placed near unit commanding officers. When a non-violent demonstration approached, the officer pointed out the ringleader, and the sharpshooter killed him. Very soon the non-violent uprising turned into a very violent one.
I don't know what the army plans for the third intifada. But one can be certain that even if it starts as a non-violent mass protest, it will not stay so for long.
TWO WEEKS ago, the Israeli Channel 10 showed a documentary about Ariel Sharon's manipulation of the Second Intifada.
It started when Prime Minister Ehud Barak allowed Opposition Chief Sharon to visit the Temple Mount, accompanied by hundreds of policemen. Since Sharon was a pork-eating atheist, there was no religious motive for the visit. It was a provocation, pure and simple.
When Sharon approached the Muslim shrines, he was greeted with stones. The police killed the stone-throwers with live ammunition. And lo and behold, the Second Intifada was on the way.