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LT - Palestine: Between Occupation and Resistance

by John Cox, writing for Left Turn Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2002 at 4:17 PM

The last few weeks have witnessed a dramatic intensification of the conflict in Palestine. The coalition government led by Ariel Sharon has stepped up its efforts to militarily suppress the 16-month-old intifada, through shelling civilian areas; a policy of "targeted assassinations" (i.e., extra-judicial murders of Palestinian activists); Israeli army incursions into ostensibly Palestinian-administered cities and villages; and the arming and unleashing of violent gangs of settlers, among other, slightly more subtle methods.

The last few weeks have witnessed a dramatic intensification of the conflict in Palestine. The coalition government led by Ariel Sharon has stepped up its efforts to militarily suppress the 16-month-old intifada, through shelling civilian areas; a policy of "targeted assassinations" (i.e., extra-judicial murders of Palestinian activists); Israeli army incursions into ostensibly Palestinian-administered cities and villages; and the arming and unleashing of violent gangs of settlers, among other, slightly more subtle methods.

This campaign of terror has included some particularly horrifying atrocities. On 22 November, for example, five young children on their way to school were killed by a bomb left as a booby trap by the Israeli army (IDF) in Khan Younis. The bomb was supposedly intended for "suspected Hamas fighters," although it had been placed on a road known to be traveled frequently by local residents.

The first Palestinian-organized suicide bombings in several months were carried out in December, as Hamas and Islamic Jihad organized attacks during the first two weeks of the month that claimed a total of 44 Israeli deaths. Mainstream Israeli commentators, among others, concluded that the Sharon-ordered assassination on November 23 of Hamas leader Mahmoud Abu Hanood broke an informal "gentleman's agreement" and was calculated to provoke Hamas attacks, which of course were immediately seized upon as justification for further military actions by the IDF. (It is worth noting that the Palestine Authority had sentenced Hanood to twelve years in prison but managed to escaped when his prison was bombed by the Israelis last May in an earlier attempt to assassinate him!)

All these actions served to heighten the already severe crisis facing Arafat, whose efforts at compromise and collaboration have only earned him the contempt of the Israeli authorities, while significantly eroding his support among the people nominally under the control of his corrupt Palestinian Authority (PA). The US government, to which the PA has long looked for salvation-or at least "even-handedness"-came down emphatically on the side of Sharon following that veteran Israeli war criminal's "counter-terrorist" measures in early December.

Predictably, Bush's denunciations of Arafat and the Palestinians were quickly echoed in the major news media, which likewise placed the blame for the deepening strife squarely upon the Palestinians. The Palestinians, it seems, are only entitled to the most basic democratic and national rights if they can "behave themselves" to the satisfaction of the world's powers.


US and Israeli propagandists would have us believe that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict simply amounts to a vicious cycle-Palestinian violence followed by Israeli retaliation. This framework hides the historic injustice that lies at the root of the conflict: the dispossession and ethnic cleansing of nearly one million Palestinians in 1948, accompanied by wholesale massacres and the destruction of more than 500 villages. "There is not one place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population," bragged Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan in 1976.

The "violence begets violence" framework also masks what should be all too obvious: the huge disparity in military and political power-and in individual and collective suffering-between the two sides. During the first 15 months of the current intifada ("uprising" in Arabic), 934 Palestinians were killed, in comparison to approximately 230 Israelis. A further 20,000 Palestinians have been injured, of whom about 2,000 people-including 437 children-incurred permanent disabilities. More than 100 Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS) medical technicians have been injured, and 69 percent (60 vehicles) of the PRCS's fleet of ambulances have been struck by live ammunition or rubber bullets during this time.

Approximately 3,000 Palestinians, including 1,000 children, have been detained, many of them suffering torture; more than 500 homes have been destroyed since the intifada started in September 2000, either by shelling or as part of the ongoing Israeli policy of house demolition. At least 41 schools and universities have been closed, while 275 have had their schedules disrupted. Tens of thousands of olive and fruit trees-the major source of livelihood for most Palestinian farmers-have been destroyed by the IDF and/or armed settlers, one of the more gratuitous and depraved forms of violence.

As these facts illustrate, the Israeli government-unlike the Palestinians-has the power to impose collective punishment, which it doesn't hesitate to do (in violation of the Geneva Convention and other precedents of international law). "Israel's cruel confinement of 1.3 million people in the Gaza Strip, jammed like so many sardines into a tiny pale surrounded by a barbed-wire fence," noted Edward Said in a recent article, "and of nearly two million in the West Bank-all of whose entrances and exits are controlled by the IDF-has few parallels in the annals of colonialism. Even under Apartheid, F-16 jets were never used to bomb African homelands, as they are now sent against Palestinian towns and villages."

Rather than a cycle of Palestinian terrorism and Israeli retaliation, the reality is one of a decades-long offensive by Israel against the ever-dwindling rights, livelihood, and dignity of a dispossessed population that has been living under military occupation for three-and-a-half decades (and/or in refugee camps for over a half-century). In a typical week, the Palestinian people must endure incursions by tanks into their towns and villages, the shelling of their homes and infrastructure, the assassination of their activists, and unprovoked attacks by armed settlers.

These actions occur against the backdrop of the closures and siege-conditions that prevail throughout the Occupied Territories. The Israeli-imposed closures prevent Palestinians from going to work or school, or having access to medical care, while disrupting water and electrical service. This creates an explosive situation at the ubiquitous checkpoints which dot the landscape and turn the eight-mile journey from Jerusalem to Ramallah, for example, into an hour-and-a-half odyssey.


While the outbreak of intifada came as a surprise to many Israeli liberals-who mistakenly believed that life was improving, and political rights expanding, for the Palestinians since the 1993 Oslo accords-no Palestinian with whom I spoke had any faith in the "peace process." Oslo suited the major players just fine, for a while: Arafat and his cronies gladly accepted their mandate from Oslo to tax and police their people while the Israelis violated any relatively positive features of the Accords with impunity.

For the vast majority of the Palestinian people, conditions of life have deteriorated precipitously after Oslo. Approximately 60 percent of the people of Gaza and the West Bank are presently unemployed or underemployed; the poverty rate-defined as an income of less than per day-has doubled in the last year-and-a-quarter, to nearly 50 percent.

These conditions have worsened substantially since the outbreak of the current intifada; according to one source, losses to the Palestinian economy-already systematically "de-developed" for decades by Israeli policy-have totaled over billion. Home demolitions and settlement activity actually increased in the years of the "peace process," under both Labor and Likud governments: the number of settlement units has grown from 32,750 to over 53,000 since 1993. In a December 2001 article in The Nation, Robert Friedman pointed out that "the accords turned into a state-run land grab of astounding proportions."

The Oslo agreements were a product of the disparity in political power between the Israeli government and the Palestinian leadership, and they certainly did nothing to threaten this disparity. Under the guise of "Palestinian self-rule," Israel has, in fact, tightened its control over the occupied Gaza Strip and the West Bank, allowing Arafat only nominal control of a series of disconnected bantustans (which now number 220 in the West Bank alone, divided by Israeli checkpoints and settler-only highways and by-pass roads). As Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) told me, Palestinian self-rule was an illusion, as the Israelis never meant to relinquish genuine control.

Arafat is still reproached in the US and Israeli news media for having rejected then-prime minister Barak's offer at Camp David in 2000 for a quasi-state supposedly comprising 95 percent of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (which themselves constitute only 22 percent of historic Palestine).

"Even if we accept this dubious 95 percent figure," Halper said, "Barak's offer was not so generous. It may appear that, for example, the prisoners in a penitentiary have control of the prison, as they control 95 percent of the territory-the courtyards, cells, library, exercise facitilities and so on. Yet the prison guards and administration have all they need, by controlling the bars, locks, and guard posts. That's exactly the situation here. The Israeli authorities control the economy, the borders, the airspace, even the aquifers underground."


Israeli public opinion has shifted significantly to the right during the current intifada. This is reflected in many recent polls, which indicate 60-70 percent support for Sharon's policies, and more than 50 percent support for "transfer" and "separation"-code words for a final campaign of ethnic cleansing. A small number of very courageous and determined activists-organized in such groups as the ICAHD, the Alternative Information Center (AIC), and B'Tselem-provide an example of human decency and solidarity in an otherwise bleak political landscape.

But these activists have few illusions: As Connie Hackbarth of the AIC told me, "Public opinion has grown more severe and monolithic. We have failed to make much of an impression on Israeli public opinion." One Israeli activist told me that, in the present political climate, "the term 'human rights' is practically synonymous with 'treason'."

With few political obstacles in their path, Sharon and his allies in the right wing and military have embarked upon an offensive aimed at smashing the PA, in the apparent hope that they can thereby solve forever the "Palestinian question." This crusade is somewhat mystifying from outside-why not follow a more patient strategy, as often prescribed by the United States, which is equally committed to the permanent denial of Palestinian national rights? Arafat and his coterie have demonstrated their willingness to suppress their own people and dampen their hopes, in exchange for some token power over a few bantustans-as well as whatever spoils they can accrue through construction and public utility contracts.

Since Oslo, there have been two strategic conceptions vying for supremacy in Israeli military and political circles. The "Alon Plan," supported by much of the Labor Party leadership, originally consisted of annexation of 35 percent of the territories to Israel, with some form of limited rule either by the Jordanians or the Palestinians over the remainder. Even these very limited concessions were too much for the right and for important military circles, which include people like Sharon and Barak who were raised on the myth of the "redemption of the land." In a recent article, Jeff Halper of the ICAHD made a persuasive argument that Sharon is pursuing a long-cherished dream of Revisionist Zionism to "take possession of the entire Land of Israel."

Halper quotes an important article written in 1923 by the ultra-right founder of the Revisionist wing, Ze'ev Jabotinsky: "Every indigenous people will resist alien settlers as long as they see any hope of ridding themselves of the danger of foreign settlement. This is how the Arabs will behave and go on behaving so long as they possess a gleam of hope that they can prevent 'Palestine' from becoming the Land of Israel."

Halper adds, "Sharon hopes to fulfill his mentor's dream of utterly defeating the Palestinians. After 34 years of occupation...the iron wall is nearing completion. The 'facts' have been created, the Master Plan almost concluded. All that remains is to extinguish that 'gleam of hope' among the Palestinians that they might eke out a small but viable, independent state in 22 percent of the land of historic Palestine."

According to an article in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, "Sharon prepared his trap" aimed at putting Arafat "out of the game" prior to Sharon's election victory last February. Sharon was inspired in part by a plan drawn up by Reserve General Meir Dagan, which anticipates that, once the intifada is smashed, Israel "will negotiate separately with Palestinian forces that are dominant in each territory-Palestinian forces responsible for security, intelligence, and so on."

A memo presented to the Israeli cabinet by IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz last July, entitled "The Destruction of the Palestinian Authority and the Disarmament of All Armed Forces," called for an all-out assault on the PA, which could be launched, "at the government's discretion, after a big suicide attack in Israel(citing the bloodshed as justification." Such a pretext was offered by Hamas, when, seemingly following a script, it avenged the assassination of Mahmoud Abu Hanood with attacks in Haifa and Jerusalem over the first weekend of December.

Finally, the hostility to Arafat by Israeli political leaders is also in part rooted in a long history of antagonism. Sharon and his ilk cannot help but to see Arafat as the personification of Palestinian aspirations. And of course Arafat is not immune to pressure from the Palestinian people, and is thus unable to act as quickly or as thoroughly to suppress dissent and rebellion as the Israeli authorities would like. Also, while it may appear that the campaign to destroy the PA will only benefit Hamas and other militant groups, the prospect of a Palestinian civil war would give the Sharon government further excuses for military intervention and formal reoccupation.


For both the Israeli and the US ruling classes, September 11 was a dream come true, an opportunity to resolve-or to attempt to resolve-certain nettlesome problems, whether in the Middle East or, for Washington, in Colombia, the Philippines, and elsewhere. Sharon was quick to cynically exploit the new political climate, invading several Palestinian towns and killing two dozen civilians before the smoke had cleared from the World Trade Centers. He has steadily upped the ante, denouncing Arafat as "our Bin Laden" and declaring the PA, "like Al-Qaida," a "terrorist entity," presumably deserving the treatment meted out by US warplanes in Afghanistan.

While U.S. interests are not always in complete harmony with those of Israel-and Israeli leaders do not simply take orders from Uncle Sam, as Sharon has demonstrated-the US government also savors the possibility of putting an end to the current intifada. It is attempting, under cover of the "war on terror," to criminalize and suppress all groups that support Palestinian national rights, along with virtually every other national liberation or anti-imperialist movement in the underdeveloped world. But Washington may soon discover that not all targets of its open-ended war will be as weak, unpopular, or corrupt as the Taliban.

One thing stands in the way of the "stabilization of the Middle East" at the expense of the Palestinians: the resistance of the people themselves. What is needed is genuine leadership, of and from the people, and equal to the spirit of combat and sacrifice that the Palestinian people have always demonstrated. There is presently a glaring absence of such leadership. Meanwhile, Arafat's team has completely squandered its historic role. At the very least, the aging leader could have capitalized on the intifada to break free from the bankrupt "peace process" framework, rather than continuing to beg without dignity for help from Bush or the European Community.

Yet despite all this, the Palestinian liberation struggle shows no signs of abating. As Arjan El Fassed from the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment (LAW) told me, "the price we have paid is too high to just go back to before the intifada."

John Cox is a long-time political activist and is currently a doctoral student in History at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

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