Letter From Palestine
I'm sitting in a drab back room in the Gaza Strip's Deir al Bala refugee camp, discussing the latest stage of the Israel-Palestine conflict with a half-dozen or so young Palestinian men. The unadorned concrete walls reflect the crushing poverty of the place, though, as everywhere in the occupied territories, my hosts are exceedingly gracious, serving mint tea and tasty snacks. Opinion is unanimous: The Tel Aviv suicide bombing a week ago, in which twenty-one Russian-immigrant kids were killed and about a hundred wounded, was a good thing, and many more such bombings are needed in order to throw off the yoke of Israeli occupation.
How do you expect to achieve liberation by killing innocent civilians, I ask? Won't this only unite Israelis against the Palestinians, weaken support around the world for your cause and give encouragement to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's murderous proclivities? "We've been suffering long enough--let them find out what it's like," says one man. "If every Israeli begins to feel as vulnerable as we've been feeling for years," adds another, "they'll realize they can't defeat us, and they'll finally end the occupation. Besides, maybe Russians will decide this is not such a safe place after all, and fewer will emigrate."
Such attitudes, which I heard frequently during a recent trip to the territories, reflect the growing rage and despair, combined with a grim determination to continue the struggle, no matter what the cost. A number of Palestinians were strongly opposed to the suicide bombing strategy. But the frustration has been building for years, and it can only be properly understood in the context of the impossible conditions Palestinians have been forced to live under: The closures and pass laws, instituted even before the Oslo agreements were signed, have led to skyrocketing unemployment and made travel difficult, sometimes impossible. The intricate and Orwellian system of roadblocks and checkpoints is a daily humiliation that has to be experienced to be believed: It took me more than three hours to travel from Bethlehem to Hebron--roughly twenty-five miles. Not only in Gaza but all over the West Bank, I met Palestinians who believe the world has given up on their cause. Indeed, with the United States, as always, firmly behind the Israelis, Europe generally inclined to follow the US lead, and even the Arab regimes giving only lip service to the Palestinian struggle, it's hard to argue with them on this point.
The Palestinians I talked to were just as harsh on their own leadership, excoriating the Palestinian Authority for its incompetence, corruption and brutality. The signs are everywhere: You can drive through Gaza and see, amid the shocking poverty, sumptuous palaces built by Arafat's cronies, many of them paid for by the crooked import/export monopolies they wangled after the Oslo agreements were signed. In Deir al Bala, there was still animated discussion and approval of the January assassination of Hisham Makki, the notoriously corrupt head of the Palestine Broadcasting Authority. The hit is widely believed to have been carried out by dissident elements of Yasir Arafat's Fatah organization. The PA has done little to relieve the suffering of civilians impoverished or made homeless by Israeli army closures and shelling, though it should be pointed out that the majority of its revenues, tax transfers from trade, have been withheld by the Israelis since the beginning of the intifada.
It's not just the corruption. Palestinians are fed up with the entire Oslo "peace process," especially after last year's final-status talks at Camp David, where the United States and Israel made it clear that there would be no full withdrawal to the June 4, 1967, borders, as required by international law; no full withdrawal of the detested settlements; continued Israeli military occupation of the Jordan Valley and control over all borders and many of the natural resources, especially water; and continued Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem (with at best nominal Palestinian control of certain Arab neighborhoods). Even more insulting, Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak insisted that Palestinians renounce for all time the right of refugees to return to their homes and refused to accept any Israeli responsibility for their expulsion.
Especially galling to Palestinians is the fact that these talks occurred in the context of a rapid acceleration in Israeli settlement-building and continued land expropriations (most egregiously, for several hundred miles of settler-only bypass roads) ever since the first Oslo agreement was signed in 1993. Barak himself approved more housing starts than his Likud predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu.
I saw how this works on the ground: I visited the village of Al-Khadir, near Bethlehem, the day after the Israel Defense Force had set up new blockades that prevented the villagers from getting to 5,000 acres of their farmland, the lifeblood of their community, land that the nearby settlement of Efrat has had its eye on for some time, the villagers told me. This is often the first stage in a land expropriation: The government will prevent villagers from going to their fields, using various pretexts; then it will declare the fields "abandoned" and seize them. Finally, they'll be handed over to a new or existing settlement.
In an attempt to head this off, the villagers had set up tents next to their fields, to let everyone know they weren't giving up without a fight. I could see the Israeli tanks patrolling on the next hilltop. "Don't point at them!" one man told me. "They'll shoot at you." A few days after I was there, a coalition of villagers from Al-Khadir and Israeli anti-occupation activists marched up to the hilltop together and held a peaceful demo. The army ordered them to leave in ten minutes. After deciding that they weren't leaving quickly enough, the soldiers began to beat the protesters, breaking the arm of Neta Golan, an Israeli activist.
For the Palestinians, the settlements are a dagger in the heart of their nation; any compromise on full withdrawal is to them unacceptable. Unfortunately, the fact that international law is on their side is less germane to the immediate talks than that Washington and Tel Aviv have all the power and can call the shots. Sharon is unwilling to announce a freeze even on new settlements, insisting that first all the "violence" (Palestinian violence, of course) must stop, followed by a lengthy "cooling-off period" and "confidence-building measures," i.e., renewal of security cooperation between the PA and Israel that would involve the PA's arrest of anyone Israel considers a threat. From the Palestinians' point of view, seven years of such cooperation and confidence-building have only solidified the Israeli occupation and impoverished them further. Everyone I talked to roundly rejected a resumption of what they consider a sham peace process. The only Palestinians invested in Oslo, in fact, are Arafat and his PA yes-men. But they know full well that any attempt to re-establish their role as Israel's gendarme--the minimum demand of the Sharon/Peres government--will meet with near-universal rejection by the Palestinian population, certainly if it's not accompanied by a substantive Israeli counteroffer, which Sharon has so far been unwilling to give.
During my visit, I didn't hear or see much evidence of constructive new strategies of resistance. Between the despair of suicide bombings and the veiled capitulation of the Oslo process is a vast area of opportunity yet to be seized. No consistent effort has been made to engage the majority of Palestinians in this intifada--kids throwing stones at checkpoints and poorly disciplined fighters shooting at settlements and bypass roads (especially irresponsible is the firing from heavily populated areas, where the Israeli response with excessive force has been frighteningly destructive) is no substitute for a coordinated mass movement. For example, mass peaceful demonstrations and marches against the closures and settlements could inspire the world community and bring new allies to the cause, but such efforts have been tried only sporadically.
For its part, the Sharon/Peres government, despite US backing, doesn't have an entirely free hand. Some members of the Sharon/Peres Cabinet, along with much of the Israeli press and important elements in the army high command, have for a while now been howling for a major invasion of PA-controlled areas and wholesale liquidation of "terrorists"--perhaps even accompanied by a partial "transfer," i.e., expulsion, of the Palestinian population. But given Palestinian determination to resist, this would no doubt result in a bloodbath, and could well set the entire region in flames. It's not out of the question that demonstrations could topple unpopular regimes in Jordan, Egypt or elsewhere. Surely Colin Powell and his advisers are aware of these dangers, and have accordingly set limits to the behavior of America's favorite client state.
Sharon himself has not been able to overcome his bloody past. A June 17 BBC Panorama documentary on his role in and responsibility for the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Beirut, in which 1,000-3,000 Palestinian civilians were butchered by Israel's Phalangist allies while under close Israeli army supervision, has caused an uproar in Europe (Nation contributor and editorial board member Richard Falk, who was interviewed for the show as an expert on international human rights law and gave credence to the war crimes allegations against Sharon, has received anonymous death threats as a result and is now under police protection). Sharon, the architect of the Lebanon war and Israel's defense minister at the time, was condemned by an Israeli commission of inquiry in 1983, which asserted that he "bears personal responsibility" for the massacre.
The day after the BBC documentary aired, a Belgian court, responding to a complaint filed on behalf of twenty-eight plaintiffs and witnesses charging Sharon and others with war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, opened an official judicial investigation. (Recent Belgian legislation allows for criminal investigations even of heads of state for war crimes, without limitation on time, citizenship or status.) And Human Rights Watch, in a statement released on June 23, also urged a criminal investigation into Sharon's role in the killings. The organization said that "as Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon had overall responsibility over the Israeli Defense Forces and allowed Phalangist militias to enter the camps and terrorize the residents for three days."
It's unclear how all this will affect the latest geopolitical maneuvering; at the very least, it will damage Israel's attempt to curry favor with European heads of state and may even correct the US media's memory lapse vis-à-vis Sharon's past and their near-universal depiction of him as merely "hawkish." And it should inhibit institutional, if not popular, pressures in Israel for a massive attack on and full reoccupation of Palestinian areas.
For now, the most likely scenario in the short run, given the institutional constraints and personal shortcomings on all sides, is off-and-on talks combined with continued low-level conflict: Palestinian small-arms and mortar attacks on settlements, bypass roads and IDF bases, and Israeli closures and blockades, assassinations and limited incursions into and attacks on "hot" zones in the PA areas. But with just one or two more suicide bombings or egregious Israeli attacks, all bets are off.