After sixteen months, the Palestinian intifada has little to show for itself politically, despite the remarkable fortitude of a militarily occupied, poorly armed, poorly led and still dispossessed people who have defied the pitiless ravages of Israel’s war machine. In the United States the government and, with a handful of exceptions, the independent media have echoed each other in harping on Palestinian violence and terror, with no attention at all paid to the thirty-five-year-old Israeli military occupation, the longest in modern history. As a result, official US condemnations of Yasir Arafat’s Palestinian Authority since September 11 as harboring and even sponsoring terrorism have coldly reinforced the Sharon government’s preposterous claim that Israel is the victim and the Palestinians the aggressors in the four-decade war that the Israeli army has waged against civilians, property and institutions without mercy or discrimination. The result today is that the Palestinians are locked up in 220 ghettos controlled by the army; Merkava tanks and American-supplied Apache helicopters and F-16s mow down people, houses, olive groves and fields on a daily basis; schools and universities as well as businesses and civil institutions are totally disrupted; hundreds of innocent civilians have been killed and about 20,000 injured; Israel’s assassinations of Palestinian leaders continue; and unemployment and poverty stand at about 50 percent–all this while Gen. Anthony Zinni drones on about Palestinian violence to the wretched Arafat, who can’t even leave his office in Ramallah because he is imprisoned there by Israeli tanks, while his several tattered security forces scamper about trying to survive the destruction of their offices and barracks.
To make matters worse, the Palestinian Islamists have played into Israel’s relentless propaganda mills and its ever-ready military by occasional bursts of wantonly barbaric suicide bombings that finally forced Arafat in mid-December to turn his crippled security forces against Hamas and Islamic Jihad, arresting militants, closing offices, occasionally firing at and killing demonstrators. Every demand that Sharon makes, Arafat hastens to fulfill, even as Sharon makes still another one, provokes an incident or simply says–with US backing–that he is unsatisfied, that Arafat remains an irrelevant terrorist (whom he sadistically forbade from attending Christmas services in Bethlehem) whose main purpose in life is to kill Jews. To these logic-defying congeries of brutal assaults on the Palestinians, on the man who for better or worse is their leader and on their already humiliated national existence, Arafat’s baffling response has been to keep asking for a return to negotiations, as if Sharon’s transparent campaign against even the possibility of negotiations weren’t actually happening, and as if the whole idea of the Oslo peace process hadn’t already evaporated. What surprises me is that except for a small number of Israelis (most recently David Grossman), no one comes out and says openly that Palestinians are being persecuted by Israel.
A closer look at the Palestinian reality tells a somewhat more encouraging story. Recent polls show that between them, Arafat and his Islamist opponents (who refer to themselves unjustly as the resistance) get somewhere between 40 and 45 percent popular approval. This means that a silent majority of Palestinians is neither for the Authority’s misplaced trust in Oslo (or for its lawless regime of corruption and repression) nor for Islamist violence. Ever the resourceful tactician, Arafat has countered by delegating Dr. Sari Nusseibeh–a Jerusalem notable, president of Al-Quds University and Fatah stalwart–to make trial-balloon speeches suggesting that if Israel were to be just a little nicer, the Palestinians might give up their right of return. In addition, a slew of Palestinian personalities close to the Authority (or, more accurately, whose activities have never been independent of the Authority) have signed statements and gone on tour with Israeli peace activists who are either out of power or otherwise seem ineffective as well as discredited. These dispiriting exercises are supposed to show the world that Palestinians are willing to make peace at any price, even to accommodate the military occupation. Arafat is still undefeated so far as his unquenchable eagerness to stay in power is concerned.
Yet at some distance from all this, a new secular nationalist current is slowly emerging. It’s too soon to call this a party or a bloc, but it is now a visible group with true independence and popular status. It counts Dr. Haidar Abdel Shafi and Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi (not to be confused with his distant relative, Fatah militia activist Marwan Barghouti) among them, along with Ibrahim Dakkak, professors Ziad Abu Amr, Mamdouh Al-Aker, Ahmad Harb, Ali Jarbawi, Fouad Moughrabi, legislative council members Rawiya Al-Shawa and Kamal Shirafi, writers Hassan Khadr and Mahmoud Darwish, Raja Shehadeh, Rima Tarazi, Ghassan Al-Khatib, Naseer Aruri, Elia Zureik and myself. In mid-December, we issued a collective statement that was well covered in the Arab and European media (it went unmentioned in the United States) calling for Palestinian unity and resistance and the unconditional end of Israeli military occupation, while keeping deliberately silent about returning to Oslo. We believe that negotiating an improvement in the occupation is tantamount to prolonging it. Peace can come only after the occupation ends. The declaration’s boldest sections focus on the need to improve the internal Palestinian situation, above all to strengthen democracy, rectify the decision-making process (which is totally controlled by Arafat and his men), assert the need to restore the law’s sovereignty and an independent judiciary, prevent the further misuse of public funds and consolidate the functions of public institutions so as to give every citizen confidence in those that are expressly designed for public service. The final and most decisive demand is a call for new parliamentary elections.