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Graham Usher | The Nation

Graham Usher

Author Bios

Graham Usher

Graham Usher is a writer and journalist who has written extensively about the Arab world and South Asia.

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What if the West responded to Hamas's victory not with sanctions but
with a commitment to resume negotiations from where they left off in
2000?

WOMAN, SUMMERS, PINKER, POLLITT...


Cambridge, Mass.

Most Palestinians now seek unity and a reprieve from the exhaustion of war.

"My first reaction is: God bless his soul," answered George W.

Israel's latest military offensive in the West Bank, code-named Defensive Wall, was met with fierce armed resistance, as Palestinians fought house to house and sometimes hand to hand to repulse the reconquest of their towns, villages and refugee camps. Some of the young defenders are guerrillas from new Palestinian militias forged by the intifada, others are Palestinian Authority police officers and many are both.

"This is our Karameh," said one in Jenin. Karameh, a village on the East Bank of the Jordan River, is the site of a battle fought between the Israeli army and Palestinian guerrillas in March 1968. Although the army took the village, the heroic resistance put up by the Palestinians consecrated Yasir Arafat and his Fatah movement as the undisputed leadership of the Palestinian cause. One year later Arafat was elected chairman of the PLO. He converted the movement from a front for Arab regimes into an authentic representative of Palestinian nationalism.

Many believe a similar changing of the guard has occurred during the eighteen months of the latest uprising, with leadership gradually passing from a Palestinian Authority that once ruled over the Palestinian areas to armed and cross-factional militias that now, alone, defend them. Formed in the uprising's first months as a defense against army and settler incursions, Fatah-led militias like the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) in Gaza and the Al Aqsa Brigades in the West Bank have seen their power and legitimacy soar in inverse ratio to the collapse of the PA's governing and military institutions after a wave of Israeli assaults. As a result, former officers in PA police forces have swelled the militias' ranks.

This transformation has accelerated during Ariel Sharon's premiership. Following his election in February last year--and with Arafat's oblique blessing--the Palestinian armed factions united behind one policy: to destroy Sharon by creating a "balance of terror" with the occupation, a phrase borrowed from Hezbollah's triumphant resistance to Israel's occupation in south Lebanon. "We have to convince Israelis that whatever else Sharon brings them, it won't be security," says Jamal Abu Samhandanah, a PRC leader.

The strategy has exacted a brutal toll. Nearly 2,000 Palestinians and 400 Israelis have been killed in the current conflict, as Sharon's exclusively military solutions went from bombardment to reoccupation, and Palestinian resistance went from guerrilla warfare in the occupied territories to suicide bombings in Israel, executed recently as much by Fatah as by the Islamists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The politics of Palestine's new young guard is as inchoate as the local militias that it comprises. But it opposes the PA-Israeli security cooperation and US-led diplomacy of the Oslo peace process, favoring instead armed struggle and alliances with the Arab world, including the million or so Palestinian citizens of Israel. One militia leader in Bethlehem said the most suitable response to Israel's current assault would be "resistance in Israel's cities and mayhem from the Galilee to Cairo."

Overwhelmingly from village and refugee backgrounds, the young guard is critical of PA mismanagement and corruption and of an Oslo leadership they believe reaped the spoils of the peace process without delivering on Palestinian aspirations to statehood, independence and Israeli withdrawal. But they are loyal to Arafat, and rarely more so than now: The army's siege on the Palestinian leader's compound in Ramallah is seen as a symbol of the plight of every Palestinian. "We think Arafat and all the leaders around him compromised too much in the negotiations. But as long as Sharon acts against him, we will be with Arafat. We will not let Israel decide the Palestinian leadership," says Samhandanah.

The young fighters are positioning for leadership in the post-Arafat era, whether this comes through his natural demise or through forced removal by Israel. The contours of the contest are already clear: between the historic Oslo leadership that seeks a negotiated settlement courtesy of US and international intervention, and a resistance vowing that the intifada will end only with independence, even if that means the destruction of what is left of the PA. Arafat has maintained his leadership by balancing between the two wings; he will side with the winner, say Palestinian analysts.

If Sharon succeeds in reimposing military rule throughout the occupied territories, the Palestinian national leadership will revert to what it was after Karameh, this time laced with a strong Islamist current. It will be young, underground, armed, refugee-based, perhaps more democratic and certainly more radical. It will take the Palestinian-Israeli conflict back three decades, and perhaps further.

Among Palestinians in the occupied territories, the prospect that Ariel Sharon will be Israel's next prime minister is met with a shrug of the shoulders. The indifference is not from ignorance. Palestinians know well Sharon's history. They have always been the victims of it.

Leading the Israeli army's "southern command," Sharon ruthlessly crushed the Palestinian resistance in what was then the newly occupied Gaza Strip in the early 1970s. And of course it was Sharon, as Israel's defense minister, who was held "indirectly responsible" (by an independent Israeli Commission of Inquiry) for the massacre of about 2,000 Palestinians at Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The commission recommended that Sharon "draw the appropriate personal conclusions" and resign from his post as defense minister.

Rather, the Palestinians' apathy is explained by the comparison they make between Sharon and Israel's present prime minister. "By his actions, Ehud Barak has erased any difference between the two men in the Palestinian perception," says Palestinian political leader Mustafa Barghouthi. Four months after Sharon--with Barak's approval--decided to "demonstrate Jewish sovereignty" over the Islamic holy sites in occupied East Jerusalem by making a provocative visit to the Haram al-Sharif, Palestinian losses from Israel's suppression of the "intifada al-Aksa" are beginning to reach Sabra and Shatila proportions.

According to Barghouthi's Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, Palestinian casualties from the Israeli army and settlers now stand at nearly 360 killed and more than 13,000 injured. In addition, according to a UN economist, a military blockade isolating each Palestinian town and village from the other in the occupied territories has caused a 13 percent decline in the Palestinians' GDP and a 50 percent increase in their unemployment and poverty levels.

"The vast majority of Palestinians don't see Sharon or Barak. They see an army, with Sharon and Barak as its generals," says Barghouthi. Some Palestinians see more. They believe a Sharon victory will be a boon for their cause. "He will expose the true face of Israel," says Hussam Khader, an activist in Yasir Arafat's Fatah movement in Nablus, "and force the world, including the US, to address its real responsibilities to the peace process."

This is not a vision shared by the Palestinian negotiators. Perhaps they are aware that the "world" is never so negligent of its "responsibilities" as when Israel is the culprit, but surely they are concerned that the fall of Barak and rise of Sharon may spell the end not only of what is left of the negotiating process but also their own privileged leadership position within it. This may be why Arafat is warning that Sharon would be a "disaster" for the peace process and would increase the risk of regional war.

For most Palestinians--and a few Israelis--the recent "intensive talks" between the two sides at the Egyptian resort of Taba were thus seen not as a genuine attempt to seal an agreement, but as a charade to woo back to Barak's fold two Israeli constituencies threatening to abandon him on election day, February 6. These include some elements of the Jewish left, appalled by his excessive response to the Palestinian uprising, and the million or so Palestinian citizens of Israel who remember that it was Barak (and not Sharon) who gave the order that the police shoot dead thirteen of their kin during October protests in Galilee.

The difference in the appraisal of a Sharon victory is not the only rift between the leaders and the led in Palestinian society. Another is over whether to participate at all in negotiations when Israel is still using lethal force to put down the uprising and the West Bank and Gaza are still under siege. For the various Palestinian factions--including Fatah--the subtext of the Taba negotiations was less "peace" than a joint effort by Israel and the Palestinian Authority to, if not end the intifada, then at least keep it at an acceptable level of violence.

The suspicion was acute because all were aware that Taba was conceived at a meeting in Cairo in early January between Israeli and PA security chiefs, brokered by the CIA. Since then--aided by the quiet resumption of cooperation between the two security forces--there has been a steep decline in the popular demonstrations that marked the initial phase of the uprising and a less pronounced fall in the number of armed Palestinian attacks on soldiers and settlers that characterized the next. The danger is that as the national struggle has ebbed, a wilder, more indiscriminate violence has taken its place.

In the last two weeks of January, four Israeli civilians--as opposed to soldiers and settlers--were killed in the occupied territories, apparently for no other reason than being Israeli in the wrong place at the wrong time. There has been a revival of Palestinian "collaborator" killings similar to those that so blighted the last years of the first intifada. And, most ominous, there has been the return to Palestinian political assassination as distinct from the Israeli army's "precise" (and extrajudicial) execution of Palestinian political and military leaders.

On January 17 the head of the Palestinian Authority's Broadcasting Corporation, Hishem Mekki, was shot by masked gunmen in a Gaza hotel. He was killed for "practicing sex and stealing money," ran a statement from the Brigades of Al-Aksa, a vigilante group made up of disaffected members of Fatah and the PA's intelligence forces. The hit was popular among local Palestinians, who loathed Mekki--and others of his ilk--for his corruption, arrogance and womanizing. But wiser Palestinian heads see in his murder a sign that the struggle for liberation from Israeli rule is being replaced by a struggle for power within the regime.

Given such a scenario, the Palestinians could hardly be in worse shape to confront the "Sharon era." And eighteen years after he was forced to resign from office because of Sabra and Shatila--and 16 to 20 points ahead in the polls--Sharon could hardly be in better shape. Especially as there is no evidence at all to suggest he has changed his ways.

In an interview in early January with a Russian-language radio station in Israel, Sharon reminisced about the methods he had used in Gaza in the 1970s. He plowed vast "security roads" through the refugee camps, shot dead any Palestinian suspected of nationalist activity and conquered the Strip locale by locale. "I succeeded in bringing quiet to Gaza for ten years," he recalled. Would he use the same methods today? "Today the situation is different," he said, but "the principles are the same principles."

Jerusalem

One of the many casualties of the Palestinian intifada in the occupied territories, now entering its third month, is the alliance between the Palestinian national movement and many members of the Israeli "peace camp." These links were forged in the first intifada between 1987 and 1992, when Israeli peace activists defied army curfews imposed on Palestinian villages and Israel's Peace Now movement called publicly for negotiations with the then-outlawed PLO--a call eventually adopted by the Israeli government in the 1993 Oslo accords.

But the initial response of the Israeli peace camp to the present uprising was "silence, recrimination, even a sense of betrayal," admits Arie Arnon, a leader of Peace Now. As for the Palestinians, they have looked instead for solidarity with the million or so Palestinian citizens of Israel and with the rest of the Arab world.

One reason for the breach has been the increasingly military cast of the conflict. The Israeli Army has sought to quell the revolt since its outbreak on September 28 through blockades on Palestinian Authority-controlled areas and aerial bombardments of Palestinian cities, villages and refugee camps. It has also deployed snipers, using live ammunition and sometimes silencers, against what remain overwhelmingly unarmed demonstrations.

In response, Palestinians--especially the cadre from Yasir Arafat's Fatah movement--have resorted to guerrilla warfare, targeting army bases, Jewish settlements and the roads that connect them. These have been joined by attacks on civilians inside Israel proper, with bomb blasts in West Jerusalem on November 2 and the Israeli town of Hadera on November 21, the first claimed by the Islamic Jihad movement.

The character of the war is reflected in the body count. According to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, by the end of November 247 Palestinians had been killed by army or settler fire and 9,640 wounded. The Israeli toll was thirty-three, with 230 wounded. Overall, this amounts to 80 percent of the total fatalities from the 1987-92 intifada. The difference is, that revolt lasted almost six years; this one, two months.

But a second reason for the breach between Israeli and Palestinian peace activists is that, to a large swath of the Israeli left, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's Camp David proposals of this past July "were a huge step forward in the direction of peace," says Arnon. Because of this perception many on the Israeli left bought the Israeli government's line--voiced most eloquently by acting Foreign Minister and former peace activist Shlomo Ben-Ami--that Arafat had orchestrated the uprising to evade the "difficult historical decisions" placed before him at the summit.

It was a charge that outraged the Palestinians, including those secular leftist intellectuals who had been the Israeli peace camp's natural allies during the first intifada. But they were not surprised by it. "It was the culmination of a process we had been witnessing for a long time," says Rema Hammami, a Palestinian feminist researcher at Birzeit University in the West Bank.

That process was called Oslo, which the Israeli peace camp embraced as a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. "The Israeli left was preoccupied with defining themselves vis-à-vis the anti-Oslo right," she says. "They never bothered to look at what Oslo meant on the ground for the Palestinians, which was not peace but a new form of Palestinian dispossession."

The clearest instance of that dispossession was Israel's ongoing settlement policies throughout the Oslo era, whether by pro-Oslo Labor or anti-Oslo Likud governments. The scale of colonization has been "amazing," admits Arnon of Peace Now, which has tracked Israel's settlement construction in the occupied territories. According to Peace Now, such construction has increased 52 percent since September 1993, including 17 percent (some 2,830 housing units) during the eighteen-month tenure of Barak's "One Israel" government. The expansion has swelled the settler population in the West Bank and Gaza by 72 percent, from 115,000 in 1993 to 195,000 today and a projected 200,000 by the end of the year. In addition, 180,000 Jewish settlers reside in occupied East Jerusalem, making an overall settler population of 380,000 amid 3.4 million Palestinians.

The settlers live in 145 official settlements and fifty-five unofficial outposts scattered throughout the territories and connected by a web of settlers-only bypass roads, totaling nearly 300 kilometers in length. During periods of quiet, the roads and settlements prevent any contiguous urban or rural development of the 700 Palestinian areas in the West Bank and Gaza. During periods of war--such as now--they effectively become Israel's new military borders in the occupied territories, not only severing Gaza and the West Bank from each other, and both from East Jerusalem, but also each Palestinian conurbation from others within the West Bank and Gaza.

For Palestinians it was these apartheid realities that caused the intifada, far more than the "very generous offers" Barak allegedly made at Camp David. And it was to address them that on November 10 Hammami and more than 120 other Palestinian intellectuals dispatched an "Urgent Statement to the Israeli Public."

As "firm believers in a just and equitable negotiated peace between Palestinians and Israelis," the signatories warned their Israeli peers that the "critical situation that confronts us now" will be "revisited again and again." The only lasting exit is for Israel finally to recognize Palestinian national rights as granted by international law. This would mean Israel's withdrawal from the territories it occupied in the 1967 war, Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem and a "just and lasting resolution of the refugee problem in accordance with relevant UN resolutions."

It is a message that appears at last to be hitting home. On November 17, twenty-four Israeli academics--including the writer Amos Oz and the former army general Shlomo Gazit--called on the Israeli government to "freeze its settlement policy and recognise the border of 4 June 1967 as the basis for the border between Israel and Palestine." And on December 1, Peace Now made perhaps its clearest call yet for the dismantling of the settlements and the "establishment of a Palestinian state next to Israel along the 1967 borders."

Arnon admits that the armed dimension of this intifada has brought a "reality check" to the Israeli public. "Above all, it has destroyed perhaps the greatest of all Oslo's illusions: that the historical reality of the Green Line could somehow be erased and a solution could be achieved based on a new division of the West Bank rather than on Israel's withdrawal from it."

But he also believes it essential that a renewed dialogue be attempted between the Israeli peace camp and the Palestinian national movement. This is not only because "the two sides have never been closer in their positions," he says, but because "it is vital for the left to demonstrate to the wider Israeli public that there is still a partner."

Hammami is less sanguine. "How can you have alliances with people who fundamentally misunderstand you?" she asks. "Throughout the Oslo years, the Israeli left acted as though all that was needed for 'peace' was to use Israel's balance of power to impose an agreement on Arafat. It never accepted that there was such a thing as a Palestinian public opinion, a Palestinian national consensus--which is a pretty sad commentary on a constituency that prides itself on its progressive and democratic credentials. We can have shared interests, not political alliances," she concludes.

One of those shared interests appears to lie in restoring the borders of June 4, 1967. There is no longer any alternative, says Arnon, "acceptable to both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples."

"Arafat gave in to our pressure," was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's typically self-promoting response to the PLO's recent decision not to declare a Palestinian state on May 4, the d