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The West Bank's third intifada approaches

Rain on the streets of Bethlehem can't cool simmering tension.

A Palestinian man walks under the rain past a breach on the border wall between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, Jan. 27, 2008. (Suhaib Salem/Reuters)

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — A writer seeks the surprise of a “man bites dog” story. The most violent times of the Second Intifada, which took place under the leaden winter skies of early 2002, gave me mine. I wrote about Arabs in the rain.

It was raining in the city of Jesus’ birth throughout “The Collaborator of Bethlehem,” the first of my Palestinian crime novels. I set the story during the brief Middle Eastern winter because it makes the place look different, not as one might expect.

That’s what I wanted to do for the Palestinians — to make readers look at them as real people, not as the stereotypes we’re accustomed to seeing in the news. Not as violent types rioting in the baking sunshine. But slouching through the drizzle, sitting in their overcoats on their living room couches with no heat.

As I crossed the checkpoint and went through the gate in the Israeli wall around the town, the skies darkened, flat and gray this week, too. By the time I greeted my friend Walid, a former bodyguard to Yasser Arafat, the sky was pouring already.

“The city seems a bit livelier than it was the run-up to last Christmas,” I said.

"Yes,” said Walid, who also happens to be a Palestinian weight-lifting champion (he dead-lifts 680 pounds). “But underneath, it’s very dangerous and everyone fears a Third Intifada.”

Again, not what you'd expect. Palestinians are supposed to be on the way to a better life, with the security and economic improvements pushed by U.S. diplomats and advisers. Stutteringly, without much help from their Israeli counterparts or their own civil strife, but getting there. Still like the rain in this desert town, that view warrants another look.

Palestinian newspapers have reported in the last week that the Fatah Party is preparing for new demonstrations against Israel, which it will dub the “Third Intifada.” (The First Intifada, from 1987 to 1993, was considered a success among Palestinians, because the abiding image was of young boys throwing stones at Israeli tanks. The Second Intifada, 2000 to 2005, failed, because it turned quickly to armed violence and brought the wrath of the Israeli army fully onto Palestinian civilians.)

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is reported to have given his support to a new intifada, provided it eschews firearms. Disappointed with the U.S. failure to force an absolute freeze on Israeli settlement construction, Fatah wants to unleash protests of the kind that take place every Friday at the Israeli “separation barrier” near the villages of Bilin and Na’alin. Stone-throwing and tear gas are the order of the day there.

But Hamas would be unlikely to stick to stones. In Bethlehem, Palestinian officials say Hamas has been working underground to rebuild its power — the West Bank is under Fatah’s control and many Hamas men have been jailed. A Third Intifada would be an opportunity for the Islamist group to come into the open, to confront Israeli soldiers and, more worrisome for many Bethlehem residents, to take on the Palestinian Authority and perhaps win control of the city.