In Palestine, a Dream Deferred
Since occupying the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, Israel has been the only sovereign state in British Mandate Palestine. Palestinians have been living either as second-class citizens in the Jewish state; or as colonized residents of the West Bank and Gaza with no human or political rights; or as refugees dispersed and stranded in neighboring Arab countries, in often extremely difficult conditions. The chances of Palestinians overcoming exile and exercising their right of return seem as far away as ever. Hardly more promising are the immediate prospects for ending the Israeli occupation and establishing an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza in accordance with the international and Arab consensus, in place since at least 1976 and rejected by the United States and Israel.
Neither armed struggle from bordering Arab countries and the occupied territories nor popular mobilization and political struggle have brought liberation and decolonization. The defeat or containment of one intifada after another has only strengthened the Israeli colonial presence in the West Bank. Despite the withdrawal of 8,000 settlers from Gaza, the area's 1.3 million Palestinians are under intensified blockade and siege. Since the summer nearly 400 Palestinians have been killed, many of them civilians, as in the recent Beit Hanoun massacre. Haughtily told by the United States that the lack of Palestinian "democracy" was the main obstacle to peace, Palestinians freely cast their ballots in the legislative elections in January, only to be punished for their democratic choice: threatened by Israel with "starvation" and denied the funds needed to pay the salaries of civil servants, the breadwinners for much of Palestinian society. Walls, checkpoints, closures, collective punishments, roadblocks, Jewish-only roads, massacres by shelling, assassinations, mass imprisonment and a poverty rate of 70 percent have come to define the Palestinian condition under occupation.
The diplomacy of the Oslo period has also failed to restitute--even some--Palestinian national rights. In fact, as far as the Israeli elite were concerned, the Oslo framework was never intended to end the occupation or to bring about withdrawal to the 1967 borders. Oslo has proved to be yet another version of the Allon Plan, first presented after the 1967 war by Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. The Allon Plan proposed a truncated autonomy for Palestinians in the West Bank (Allon suggested that Arab-majority areas be placed under Jordanian jurisdiction), with substantial quantities of their land annexed to Israel, which would control all borders and entry points to the territory as a whole.
Since 1993, under the guise of peacemaking, Israel has doubled the number of settlements and settlers (around 400,000) in the occupied territories. For Israel "peace" and "security" have come to mean a Palestinian population cut off from Israel yet at the same time totally dependent on it--a recipe for continuing Palestinian subjugation and Israeli domination. Palestinians have, as a result, been undergoing their worst ordeal since their dispossession and expulsion from most of Palestine in 1948 and their occupation by Israel in 1967. As John Dugard, the UN's special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied territories, put it in his recent report, Palestinians are the first occupied people in history on whom international sanctions have been imposed--sanctions that are "possibly the most rigorous form...imposed in modern times." Palestinian democracy, he concludes, is as curtailed by the international community as Palestinian freedom of movement is by Israel.
This bleak picture is compounded by grave internal divisions between Fatah and Hamas, which in the past year have spilled over into street confrontations and killings. For the first time in Palestinian history there looms the possibility of civil war. The political contradictions between those who seem ready to accept whatever Israel offers (Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah elite) and those who seek the complete decolonization of the 1967 lands (Hamas, grassroots elements in Fatah and the majority of Palestinians) are rapidly sharpening. Though the Palestinians' steadfastness is intact, living under near permanent siege and without hope of immediate real change could intensify the tendency toward self-destruction, a prospect that Israel's leaders are happy to encourage.
How then to respond to this deepening Palestinian crisis and to Israel's relentless drive toward consolidating and expanding the settlement project? Thus far, there has been no collective or national Palestinian self-reckoning. But conversations are beginning to take place in Palestinian communities all over the world. Activists and intellectuals are beginning to ask the central questions: What is the nature of the Palestinian crisis today, and how can it be overcome?
The new books by Rashid Khalidi and Ali Abunimah are important in this regard. Both writers have longstanding records of engagement with the Palestinian question: Khalidi holds the Edward Said Chair in Arab Studies at Columbia University, has published several fine books on Palestinian nationalism and advised the Palestinian delegation at the 1991 Madrid talks; Abunimah is a founding editor of and frequent contributor to www.electronicintifada.net, an indispensable online source of alternative information on the occupation. Both men seek, in their different ways, to ignite more focused debate and discussion about fundamental Palestinian and Israeli concerns. Khalidi's The Iron Cage examines the causes of the Palestinian failure to achieve statehood, from the British Mandate in 1922 to Hamas's recent electoral victory, while Abunimah's One Country makes the case for the creation of one state for Arabs and Jews in all of Israel-Palestine.