Turmoil in Palestine:
The Basic Context
By Alex R. Shalom and Stephen R. Shalom
As the occupied Palestinian territories suffer their worst paroxysm of violence in years, with the casualties, as always, overwhelmingly Palestinian, the mainstream media, also as always, focus on peripheral questions, offer misleading answers, and ignore the underlying causes of the conflict. The fundamental, neglected reality is that the Palestinian people have been denied their basic rights for years by the Israeli government, aided and abetted by its Washington ally.
More than half a century ago, the United Nations (which at the time had comparatively few Third
World members) recommended the partition of Palestine into Palestinian and Jewish states, and an
internationalized Jerusalem, with the Jewish minority to receive the majority of the land, as well as
most of the fertile land. A civil war and then a regional war ensued and when the armistice
agreements were signed there was Israel, the Jewish state, but no Palestinian state and no
international Jerusalem, both of these being taken over and divided between Israel and Jordan. The
occupying Israelis, however, were not content to block the emergence of a Palestinian state; they
wanted as well to expel as many Palestinians as possible. This ethnic cleansing -- forced expulsions
facilitated by acts of terror -- drove hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their ancestral lands,
to refugee camps where they lived in squalor, longing to return. In 1967, Israel conquered Jordan's
share of Palestine, creating a new wave of Palestinian refugees, and subjecting many more to
ruthless Israeli rule in the occupied territories.
Through all the peace plans and negotiations this is the central question: how can Palestinians
achieve the right of self-determination that has so long been refused them? To the Israeli
government, justice for Palestinians has always been subordinated to the Israeli desire for land, for
scarce water resources, and for military supremacy in the region. And the United States government
has likewise disregarded Palestinian self-determination and human rights, motivated by its desire to
see a dominant Israel that could help keep radical Arab nationalism in check in a region of great
economic and strategic value.
This past week's violence was sparked by the visit of the leader of Israel's right-wing opposition
Likud Party, former general Ariel Sharon, to Haram al Sharif, a Muslim holy site in Jerusalem,
revered by Jews as the Temple Mount. The media has asked what Sharon intended by his visit,
what role Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak played in Sharon's decision to go there, and whether the
Palestinian response was spontaneous or orchestrated by the Chairman of the Palestinian
Authority, Yasir Arafat. But these limited questions cannot be answered without considering the
recent history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Yasir Arafat was Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1974 when it was
recognized by the U.N. (and by nearly every survey of Palestinian opinion) as the sole, legitimate
representative of the Palestinian people. But, by the mid-1980's, Arafat and his lieutenants had been
away from Palestine for many years, and their connection with Palestinians living in the occupied
West Bank and Gaza Strip began to weaken. In December 1987, after 20 years living under the
systematic violence of Israeli rule, Palestinians in the occupied territories began wide-spread
resistance known as the intifada. The intifada, often remembered for its vivid images of Palestinian
children throwing stones at Israeli soldiers who responded with automatic weapons, included, in fact,
highly organized non-violent resistance in addition to the more spontaneous stone throwing.
Impressively, the intifada with its remarkable self-discipline and courage was an indigenous uprising