Fields of Thorns
Thus far, these ultimately contradictory trends have managed to compete in coexistence, and even to complement one another. Barghouti and other Fatah leaders can be bitterly critical of the PA, demand that Arafat root out the corruption in its ranks and collaborators in their midst, and suggest the formation of an "intifada government" based upon the national unity and unity of purpose established at the local level. There has not, however, been an open challenge to the current leadership or its legitimacy, and Fatah has insured the formal loyalty of the NIF to the PA. For its part the PA has not definitively severed security cooperation with Israel, and in fact it reached various understandings with Barak and Clinton to restore calm to the West Bank and Gaza Strip; but the PA has avoided measures that would test Fatah's loyalty or rupture its relations with other NIF factions. Arafat's method appears to be one of ongoing consultations with Fatah and the opposition, combined with a consistent disregard of their positions when planning his next move.
Until Sharon's election, both the PA and NIF were on the whole content to see the uprising continue and in the process improve the PA's negotiating position, even if the former felt the activities of the armed units were at times calculated to derail the negotiations, and the latter viewed the PA's conduct in negotiations as endangering the further development of the uprising. The NIF's pride in Barak's defeat notwithstanding, the relative calm in the weeks leading up to the Israeli election were clearly enforced in deference to the PA. In the coming period the PA and NIF will continue to cooperate, for example in seeking the deployment of an international protection force or in cutting short Sharon's tenure by making a mockery of his promises of tranquillity, and they will continue to compete over issues such as security cooperation. But if circumstances develop in which the PA feels compelled to curtail the uprising to insure its own survival, or the NIF considers it necessary to clean house within the PA to preserve its uprising, an open confrontation between the PA and NIF cannot be ruled out. Should such a showdown materialize, it will be the Fatah activists, and particularly those with positions and connections in the security forces, who will determine its outcome.
In the meantime, Israel's blockade and bombardment of Palestinian population centers is exacting a terrible social, economic and physical toll. Throughout the West Bank and particularly in the Gaza Strip, a systematic Israeli defoliation campaign has transformed thousands of acres into a moonscape of uprooted olive, palm and orange trees, and increasingly of summarily bulldozed homes as well. The entrances to numerous towns and villages have been rendered impassable, either through the erection of concrete or earthen barricades or by the digging of trenches several feet deep across roads. Such measures, and particularly the various forms of closure (including the repeated dissection of the minuscule Gaza Strip into four separate enclaves), have had a devastating economic impact. According to a recent UN report, the siege is costing the Palestinian economy $8.6 million daily (excluding physical damage, loss of tax income and the cost of caring for more than 10,000 casualties). Total losses between September 2000 and February 2001 have amounted to $1.5 billion, equal to a 20 percent decline in GDP. Poverty has increased by 50 percent, to encompass 32 percent of the total population, and unemployment has risen to 38 percent of the work force (Palestinian sources claim significantly higher figures). While reports that PA institutions face imminent collapse are in some cases accurate, security personnel continue to receive their full salaries on time, and predictions of the PA's impending disintegration have an air of politically motivated alarmism about them.
Tanks are currently stationed throughout the occupied territories for the first time since their conquest in 1967, and their barrels and those of the heavy machine guns mounted upon them are routinely used against civilian neighborhoods. By mid-February, a pattern appeared to be emerging in which more Palestinian casualties are being inflicted by such shelling than by soldiers confronting demonstrators. In Khan Yunis in Gaza, which along with Rafah and Hebron has experienced some of the most intense bombardments, Israeli forces additionally appear to have used a new form of toxic gas.
The systematic human rights violations, which according to a February 21 Human Rights Watch press release include "indiscriminate and excessive [Israeli] fire" into civilian neighborhoods and, as documented by Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights organizations, have also involved the operation of death squads, have reached a level of severity where they can no longer be ignored even by Washington. On the same day that HRW released its condemnation, the State Department announced it was launching an investigation to determine if Israel has violated the US Arms Export Control Act, which regulates the use of American weapons and ammunition. Meanwhile, the UN Human Rights Commission recently completed a fact-finding mission to examine evidence of Israeli "war crimes" in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; it is expected to release its final report in mid-March. At the same time, HRW and other organizations have also condemned Palestinian gunmen for firing at Israeli positions from within Palestinian towns, if pointedly noting that such acts cannot justify the disproportionate Israeli response.
On February 14 Khalil Abu Ulba of Gaza's Shaikh Radwan refugee housing project, one of only 16,000 Palestinians (out of some 3 million) with a record considered clean and reliable enough by Israel's intelligence services to retain his permit to enter and work in Israel, rammed the empty passenger bus he was driving into a group of soldiers assembled at a junction south of Tel Aviv. Eight people, including one civilian, were killed in the attack. It was by all accounts an individual action that required neither careful planning nor organizational support.
This time around Israel's intelligence community had not failed. Rather, its policies have; Abu Ulba's interrogators have been attempting to determine whether it was the siege and its economic devastation, the pervasive violence and killing, the intense bombardment and gassing of Khan Yunis that same week or the latest aerial assassination of a Palestinian activist (in nearby Jabalya the day before the attack) that pushed one of the last Palestinians it certified as kosher over the edge. As Fatah leader and Palestinian legislator Qadura Faris observed several months ago, if Israel insists on starving the occupied territories it is unlikely that the cost will be borne exclusively by Palestinians, particularly if the PA is unable to meet the people's basic needs.
Attacks such as those by Abu Ulba, and eventually others by organizations affiliated with the NIF, are not going to cease because of an intensified closure and heightened repression--quite the contrary. If not the next attack, then the one after that may prove to be the spark that brings Israel's confrontation with the Palestinians, and the pressure that has been building within the Palestinian body politic, to a new and more dangerous crossroads.