In the last days of March, at the end of a five-day voyage with seven fellow members of the International Parliament of Writers (IPW) through the battered archipelago of reservations that make up the Palestinian territories, I met for breakfast at the King David Inter-Continental Hotel in Tel Aviv with two young
leaders of the so-called refuseniks, the members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) who have publicly declared their refusal to serve in the occupied territories. These men are not peaceniks or pacifists; they're not of the left or veterans of the now-demoralized Israeli peace movement; and they are certainly not cowards. They are Zionists, university-educated, articulate, patriotic sons of Israel, and their stand has become in these terrible dark days the most serious challenge that anyone has put to Israel's moral credibility from inside the family.
We met alone and at their request. They wished to meet with me, they said, because of my role as president of the IPW and leader of the delegation, but mainly because they had learned from the Internet that I was an American who had been involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s and '70s. They wanted avuncular advice from someone who, in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was thought likely to identify with their decision to stand apart from their nation's oppressive policy against the Palestinian people. This conversation took place two days after the sickening suicide bombing of the Passover celebration in Netanya, north of Tel Aviv, and a day before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared PLO chairman Yasir Arafat his "enemy" and launched Operation Defensive Shield with a brutal assault on Ramallah. The young men knew that everything was now about to get much worse for both the Palestinians and the Israelis, and they needed to decide what to do next. My advice was simple: Make it a single-issue movement; broaden your base to include women and men from every rank and Israelis of every type; and keep it in the family. Then speak truth to power.
At this writing, there are 404 refuseniks, with ten or more joining their ranks every week. Events of early April may accelerate that rate, or they may have the opposite effect. We cannot know. I asked them what had moved them to separate themselves from their brothers and sisters in the IDF and invite rage and confusion from their fathers and mothers and prison sentences from their government. What had made them willing to be called at best naïve and at worst cowards and self-hating Jews? For this is indeed what these young men face daily in the Israeli press and in their homes. Their eyes were opened, and their minds were changed, they said, when they were assigned to duty in the West Bank and the other Palestinian territories. There they saw everything that I and my fellow writers in the IPW delegation had seen in the preceding five days as we traveled from Tel Aviv to Ramallah, passed through the cities and towns of the West Bank and descended into Gaza, where we visited the refugee camps, gazed mournfully on the violent destruction of whole neighborhoods and villages, witnessed the deliberate, calculated humiliation of the checkpoints and saw for the first time the appalling scale, dominance and encroachment of the Jewish settlements.
Our delegation had traveled to the Middle East from four continents: From Africa came the Nigerian Nobelist Wole Soyinka and the South African poet and memoirist Breyten Breytenbach; from China, the dissident poet Bei Dao; from Europe, the Spanish novelist Juan Goytisolo, Portugal's Nobelist José Saramago, Italian novelist Vincenzo Consolo and the French writer and secretary general of the IPW, Christian Salmon; and from North America, myself, a novelist of the United States. We came in response to a plea from one of IPW's founding members, the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, to express our solidarity with him and his fellow Palestinian poets and writers whose living and working conditions have increasingly come to resemble house arrest. The International Parliament of Writers is not a human rights organization or an NGO; it is simply a loose collective of poets and storytellers committed to aiding in as concrete a way as possible our fellow writers who find themselves under physical threat or political control because of their work as writers. Darwish and his colleagues, most of them based in Ramallah and elsewhere in the Palestinian territories, have for a year and half been enduring conditions that we believe are intolerable, conditions that must be condemned by those of us who are free.
By the same token, in expressing our solidarity with Darwish and his colleagues and in bearing witness to their intolerable circumstances, we were expressing solidarity with the people whose daily lives and history are celebrated in the poetry and stories of the Palestinian artists. To stand beside Neruda is to stand beside the Chilean people; to celebrate Whitman is to celebrate the American people. Governments and politicians, I'm sorry to say, usually have to look out for themselves. We came to the Palestinian territories, therefore, to see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears what was happening to the Palestinian people.
And so we passed with them through the checkpoints, alongside old women with groceries; pregnant women and mothers with babies; somber, frightened schoolchildren; men and women going to work or coming home from their jobs in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and all of us forced to walk a half-mile in the hot sun by heavily armed, stone-faced Israeli soldiers. We entered the narrow streets and open-sewer alleys of Ramallah, and viewed dumbstruck the wantonly destroyed homes and public buildings in the refugee camps of the West Bank and Gaza. We listened to students and faculty sustaining against nearly overwhelming opposition their beloved university at Bir Zeit, and saw, with dismay, the looming, rapidly expanding settlements. We witnessed firsthand the abject poverty and powerlessness of the majority of Palestinians. Grim statistics gained a human face. Hopelessness and suicidal desperation exposed its roots.
One evening in Ramallah, after a dinner hosted by Darwish and other members of the city's intellectual and artistic community, I strolled with the Palestinian novelist Izzat Algazawi to a high ridge behind our hotel and looked out on the broad, moonlit valley below. My companion pointed out Jerusalem, barely seven miles in the distance, glowing like the center of the universe, the glittering capital of all the world's religious dreams, it seemed. Closer to hand was a Jewish settlement, looking like a suburb of Denver. With its smartly laid-out streets and mini-malls, multistory dwellings and apartment complexes, its postmodern infrastructure up and running, all of it brightly illuminated by a grid of streetlights, it seemed to have been placed intact and overnight onto the rocky hillside by a flotilla of gigantic spaceships. Below the settlement, not quite adjoining it, an Israeli military encampment was laid out with geometric precision like a game board, observation towers at the corners, barracks and storage depots placed strategically between the towers, searchlight beams sweeping the grounds inside the compound and patrolling the rugged, rock-strewn, moonlit terrain beyond. And further down, in the shadows adjacent to the city of Ramallah, was a cluster of darkened, mostly cinderblock cubes, a refugee camp, and the only light coming from down there was the pale moonlight reflected off the corrugated iron roofs. Jerusalem, the settlement, the military post and the refugee camp--all four washed by the same moonlight, all four visible from the same point on a nearby ridge in Ramallah, but none of them visible to each other.
At his request, we met with Arafat in his now-shattered compound, knowing that to some at home we would look like a bunch of Jane Fondas hugging Ho Chi Minh. Even so, we were not concerned with public relations and felt no particular need to appear "evenhanded" in our inquiry. Nonetheless, we also met with Israeli writers and peace activists. Wole Soyinka and I sat with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, at his invitation also, and listened to his version of the events in the Middle East since 1947. This is a perspective, however, the Israeli perspective from right to left, that we in Europe and the United States have no difficulty obtaining daily from our popular media. The Palestinian perspective is not so easily accessible.
Each of the eight writers brought his own experience, temperament and political inclination to bear on what he saw and heard, naturally. We had no party line, no official stance or position. In order to imagine the nature of reality for the Palestinians, we needed the quotidian details, the daily particularities of their situation; but we did not need to hear yet another litany of interrupted peace processes, broken treaties, deceptions and rejections in order to get the picture. Analogies and comparisons drawn from what we already knew provided us with insights and gateways to understanding. Soyinka and Breytenbach could see obvious parallels to apartheid in South Africa, as well as the differences. I could make comparisons to the English "settlements" in seventeenth-century Ireland, and note that in North America, after the Europeans militarily overwhelmed the Native Americans, their policy of relocation and containment corresponded in certain distressingly familiar ways to Israel's policy in the occupied territories since 1967. We spoke of parallels to the Balkan conflict and the strategies of ethnic cleansing, to China's treatment of the Tibetans, and so on. One of us, Saramago, even made a comparison to the Nazis' treatment of the Jews (a comparison, incidentally, quickly rejected for obvious reasons by the other members of the delegation).Yet nothing really compared.
And that, of course, is a big part of the problem for every one of us who wishes for nothing more than peace, freedom and security for all Israelis and Palestinians. Nothing really compares. Consequently, peace activists on both sides, intellectuals, academics, poets and storytellers from every nation, and especially those men and women holding the power to make policy for the Israeli government and for the Palestinian Authority--all of us have to go deeper into our imaginations than we have ever gone before. Before anything else, the mindless brutality of Sharon's assault against the people living in the occupied territories and the mind-numbing attacks by Palestinian suicide bombers against the Israelis must be ended. We can't, as usual, turn to the United Nations or the United States or to any other third party--although almost everyone we met on our journey, whether Palestinian or Israeli, believed that a third party was necessary to end the conflict. But that's been tried and has failed too many times.
This is why I felt ever-so-slightly uplifted on my last day in the Middle East, when I met in Tel Aviv with the two young Israeli men who are called refuseniks. Here, I thought, is the only possible way out of this horror. The men and women who make up the occupying army must refuse to serve. Only then will their tragically desperate opposites, the suicidal young Palestinians who believe that they have no meaningful future except as human bombs, begin to believe that their lives might be worth living instead. Only then can the negotiations begin.
On April 3, a high-octane collection of thirty-three conservatives sent George W. Bush a letter urging him to lend Washington's "full support to Israel as it seeks to root out the [Palestinian] terrorist network." These hawks--including William Kristol, William Bennett, Rich Lowry, Martin Peretz and Richard Perle--called on Bush not to force Israel to negotiate with Yasir Arafat and to "accelerate plans for removing Saddam Hussein." They wanted Bush to adopt Israel's offensive as part of his war on terrorism and let Ariel Sharon roll. The next day, Bush replied, sort of, by declaring that Israel should withdraw from the West Bank. He slammed Arafat, but his aides noted that negotiations should resume, perhaps before a complete cease-fire has been achieved.
The hawks were not pleased. Bush's actions were "a show of weakness," says Marshall Wittmann, a signatory to the crush-them-now letter. Other parts of the hard-line pro-Israel coalition were disheartened. The Anti-Defamation League complained, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee protested, "It is no more appropriate to place a time limit on Israel's acts of self-defense than on America's acts in its own defense." Christian right supporters of Israel--many of whom believe that God granted Israel to the Jews and that Jewish control of Israel is a prelude to the Second Coming--had reason to be disappointed. The Rev. Jerry Falwell stated, "I believe Israel must aggressively defend its borders." Americans for Peace Now, however, praised Bush's new stance.
So Bush frustrated key elements of his support base and won huzzahs from peaceniks (even as he winked at Sharon's continuing operations). How did this come to pass? It was not because of domestic pressure. Democrats criticized Bush for not addressing the crisis, but that didn't mean they wanted Bush to lean on Israel. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, for example, said, "I don't know that the Israeli government has any choice but to be as aggressive as they are." Senator Joe Lieberman remarked, "I believe strongly we should not ask Israelis to stop their war against terrorists until they have achieved greater homeland security." As Bush was pondering what to do, I contacted the Progressive Caucus of the House--no Bush friends there--and asked a spokeswoman if the group was responding to the crisis. "No," she said. Why not? "I don't know." Few if any Democrats were deviating from an Israel-first line. Before heading to the Middle East, Secretary of State Colin Powell remarked that he cared as much about Palestinian rights as Israel's security--a sentiment not echoed by lawmakers, Democratic or Republican.
"All the political pressure is on the side of the pro-Israel lobby," says Hussein Ibish of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. A staffer to a Congressman who occasionally voices concern for Palestinians notes, "There are not many of us in Congress." In fact, there are almost none, hardly enough for Bush to worry about. Kristol and neocon writer Robert Kagan claim that Bush caved because he "could not withstand a few days of heckling from the European Union and the New York Times." But once pressure from home and abroad forced a reluctant Bush into action, it could well be that he saw little choice but to press for Israeli restraint and negotiations, for the other option was to back Sharon's offensive. That would have risked rifts between Washington and its allies in Europe and the Middle East, undermining Bush's war on terrorism (and his designs on Saddam Hussein).
Hawkish backers of Israel are nervously watching how far Bush will go to rein in Sharon and restart negotiations. They vividly recall that Bush I opposed $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel in an effort to force Israel to halt settlements in the West Bank. "There is a division within my camp," says Wittmann. "One school wants to cut the President slack for now, and the other believes Bush is already down the road of policy incoherence." Wittmann is hoping Bush's current stance is "ad-hocism, that his actions come from a desire to impose order upon chaos and out of a fear of destabilization in the Arab world. I'm not divining a long-term foreign policy message out of his handling of the current crisis--not yet."
Bush has not threatened to reconsider the fundamentals of US-Israel relations--such as $3 billion in annual assistance to Israel. The various groups that lobby for the Israeli hard-core retain influence in and out of the Administration. "There will be more Congressional involvement in the Middle East in the coming weeks," says the House staffer. That means further opportunity for pro-Israel hawks to shape the debate and Bush's decisions. Still, against the odds--and campaign donations and political clout--Bush spurned the Israel-all-the-way forces this round. A significant shift or a short-term plan? Bush himself probably doesn't know.
On April 11, as John Anderson notes in this issue, the International Criminal Court was scheduled to go into effect after being ratified by the required sixty nations. Although Bill Clinton signed the treaty, conservatives in Congress have opposed ratification. Now the Bush Administration is reportedly considering "unsigning" the treaty. Such an action would be but one more instance of this Administration's commitment to a reckless, destructive unilateralism.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright liked to say that America was "the indispensable nation." That formulation, however arrogant, at least implied a web of international obligations of which the United States was a part, even if it was sometimes AWOL (e.g., when it failed to support UN intervention in Rwanda). Bush Administration conservatives support a US policy aptly summed up by Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment: "Distrust treaties, increase defenses and assert American authority." State Department planner Richard Haass puts it less crudely: "à la carte multilateralism." National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice set guidelines in the 2000 election: We should "proceed from the firm ground of national interest and not from the interest of an illusory international community."
But the "community" of Arab and European nations that demanded that the Administration intervene in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before it engulfed the entire region was hardly "illusory"--witness Bush's sudden about-face in sending Colin Powell there. Voices from overseas (along with the specter of rising oil prices and falling regimes in Jordan and Egypt) got his attention.
Unilaterally focused on the domestically popular war on terrorism, the Administration had averted its eyes from the pustulating Israel-Palestine sore. As a result, as Richard Falk writes on page 11, Bush overplayed the "antiterrorist card," not only greatly broadening "the scope of needed response" but giving "governments around the planet a green light to increase the level of violence directed at their longtime internal adversaries." None ran with that ball harder than Israel's Ariel Sharon.
Israel-Palestine aside, the Administration's Pentagon-geared, campaign-donor-friendly brand of American unilateralism has had harmful consequences for both national and international "interests." We walk away from the Kyoto Protocol, increasing the danger that oceans swollen by global warming will inundate our coasts. We abandon the ABM treaty, opening the door to a renewed nuclear arms race that makes us less secure. We threaten "rogue states," in the recent Nuclear Posture Review, with tactical nuclear bombs if they misbehave, thus erasing the threshold that confined the use of nukes to self-defense. We claim a military victory over terrorism in Afghanistan but fail to support adequately a multinational effort to provide food and security, protect women's rights and rebuild the nation (see Jan Goodwin on page 21).
The British scholar Timothy Garton Ash complained recently in a New York Times Op-Ed that the United States simply has too much unwonted power and needs a counterweight--a stronger Europe. That may be, but we believe that the American future lies in supporting international norms and treaties and cooperation with other nations--not in projecting military power in pursuit of "interests" while building a garrison state at home.
Israel and Palestine will not find peace until both have security and sovereignty.
Afghan women are free of the Taliban, but liberation is still a distant dream.
Do Not Employ Arabs, Enemies Should Not Be Offered a Livelihood and We Will Assist Those Who Do Not Provide Work For Arabs are just a few of the slogans covering billboards throughout Jerusalem. These placards refer to Palestinian citizens of Israel. One poster even provides a detailed list of taxi companies that employ Arab citizens and companies that don't. Jewish history, it seems, has been forgotten.
This kind of blatant racism is now common in Israel; it feeds off the widespread fear of suicide bombings, which have also managed to change the Jerusalem landscape. Downtown streets are almost empty, and most businesses have been seriously hurt because of the dramatic decline in clientele. A recent poll suggests that 67 percent of Israelis have reduced the number of times they leave their homes. The only companies that have been thriving in the past months are security firms. Every supermarket, bank, theater and cafe now employs private guards whose duty is to search customers as they enter the building.
One of the effects of this new practice is that profiling has become ubiquitous. Arab-looking residents refrain from using public transportation and from going to all-Jewish neighborhoods and shopping centers. It is not unusual in the city to see groups of Arab men searched at gunpoint by Israeli police, their faces against the wall and their hands in the air.
On the national level, politicians have been exploiting the pervasive fear, using it to foment a form of fervent nationalism tinged with racism. Effi Eitam, the new leader of the National Religious Party, recently approved to become a minister in Sharon's government, has characterized all Palestinian citizens of Israel as "a cancer." "Arabs," he claims, "will never have political rule in the land of Israel," which in Eitam's opinion includes the West Bank and Gaza. Support for Sharon has also risen from 45 to 62 percent following the latest Israeli offensive. The fact that Palestinian citizens, who make up almost 20 percent of the population, adamantly oppose Israel's military assault suggests that only one in five Jewish citizens is against Sharon's war. Most Jews consider themselves victims in this conflict, not aggressors.
The deeply rooted victim syndrome has been manipulated over the past year by the mainstream media in order to rally the public around the flag. For television viewers, Palestinian suffering is virtually nonexistent, while attacks on Jews are graphically portrayed, replayed time and again, thus rendering victimhood the existential condition of Israeli Jews. Radio and television have practically turned into government organs, allowing almost no criticism of Israel's policies to be aired.
It is within this stifling atmosphere that one must understand the slow resurgence of the Israeli peace camp. There are now about 400 new combat reservists who refuse to serve in the occupied territories, joining a similar number of refuseniks from Yesh Gvul ("There Is a Limit"). "We will not go on fighting beyond the 'green line' for the purposes of domination, expulsion, starvation and humiliation of an entire people," the soldiers wrote in an open letter. Since the eruption of the second intifada, eighty-seven conscientious objectors have been incarcerated; thirty-five are currently sitting in jail, more than in any other period in Israel's history.
On April 3, 4,000 Jewish and Arab protesters marched together from Jerusalem toward Kalandia checkpoint, located on the outskirts of Ramallah. The procession was led by women and included four truckloads of humanitarian aid. The demonstrators were stopped by a police blockade only minutes after they set out. As a member of the negotiation team, I was on the police side of the blockade when scores of tear gas canisters and stun grenades were thrown into the crowd. Policemen immediately pursued the protesters, trampling and violently beating them with their clubs. Among the injured were three Arab Knesset members. Later, while waiting for the trucks to return from Ramallah, a police officer explained that a woman precipitated the outburst: "She spat on one of the officers."
The next day, protesters gathered in front of the American Embassy in Tel Aviv to call on the US government to stop Israel's military incursion. The group was mostly composed of Palestinian citizens of Israel, although there were quite a few Jews. Again, the police assaulted the demonstrators, this time because one of them was carrying a Palestinian flag.
Two days later, on April 6, 15,000 people marched from Rabin Square to the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, calling on Sharon to immediately withdraw all military forces from the occupied territories and to restart negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. "The occupation is killing us all!" the demonstrators shouted. Channel 2 spent twenty seconds covering the event; Channel 1, Israel's public station, ignored it.
Not everyone disregarded the protest. Likud Knesset Member Gideon Ezra called upon the secret services to begin monitoring more carefully the activities of leftist organizations and blamed the only two journalists who continue to document what is happening on the Palestinian side--Amira Hass and Gideon Levy--for encouraging the campaign against Israel. Given the increasingly repressive atmosphere inside Israel, it appears that without massive pressure from abroad--not unlike the sanctions imposed on South Africa--Israel will not withdraw from the occupied territories, nor will it cease to oppress and subjugate the Palestinian people.
I really must come to England more often. The last time I was here, in mid-February, Princess Margaret gave up the ghost. And now, even as I step off the wondrous train that connects Paris to London, the flags are hauled halfway down to mark the passing of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, last Empress of India. This was supposed to be a Jubilee year, marking half a century of the present sovereign's rule. But it has been a series of black-draped obsequies so far. And I plan to come back in early June...
The battlefield death on February 22 of Jonas Savimbi marked the end of an era. With undiluted ambition, consistent ruthlessness and extraordinary skill in manipulating both friend and foe, he repeatedly dashed Angolan hopes for peace. Today almost 4 million Angolans have been displaced by war, and although Angola is potentially one of the richest countries in Africa, infant mortality is the second highest in the world. The United States must now help Angolans rebuild. That means both paying our fair share of the bill for reconstruction and insisting on transparency in the use of revenues Angola gains from US oil companies.
The United States has a particular obligation because it intervened decisively for war in the key period just before Angola's independence in 1975. As has been long known to specialists and conclusively documented in a new book by historian Piero Gleijeses, US covert military action in Angola preceded rather than followed the arrival of Cuban troops. In the 1980s the United States again joined South Africa to build up Savimbi's war machine.
Savimbi's death removed the single greatest obstacle to peace. Three weeks later, the Angolan government declared a unilateral halt to offensive military actions, and a formal ceasefire was agreed to in early April. But the war has left generalized insecurity in the countryside that may well continue. The decades of conflict have also entrenched a climate of distrust throughout Angolan society.
These results come in part from Savimbi's military strategy, which was to make Angola ungovernable. His forces systematically targeted civilians and cut the economic links between city and countryside. He also eliminated internal rivals he regarded as too open to peace. But Savimbi did not create the cleavages in Angolan society that he exploited. There is a profound gap between those who profit from Angola's links to the world economy and those with little chance to do so. This division, more accurately described as regional and structural than ethnic in character, dates back to the colonial era. Since independence, Angola's oil wealth combined with war has further reinforced inequality.
Paradoxically, the Angolan government has served as an unwitting ally of Savimbi. Relying on income from oil to feed the cities and to buy arms while leaving the interior to neglect, Luanda sealed the success of Savimbi's strategy of dividing city from countryside. At the same time, Savimbi's intransigence raised the credibility of the Luanda government. In the 1992 election campaign, for example, the ruling party won support from many Angolans who recoiled from Savimbi's threats more than they resented the government's failures.
The Angolan government has taken the first step with its unilateral truce, but more fundamental changes are also essential. Speaking in Washington on February 27 after he and Angolan President Eduardo dos Santos met George W. Bush, Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano listed some lessons learned from Mozambique's experience. He stressed the need for a comprehensive peace-building process, including greater openness to dissent and to the connection between social and economic development and peace. President dos Santos's peace plan acknowledges these points; however, acceptance of the need for voices from civil society and independent media has been slow and inconsistent.
The hardest tests will be outside Luanda. Delivering material benefits to these long-neglected areas will be critical, but humanitarian operations are stretched to the limit and badly underfunded. Here Angola's international partners--governments, multilateral agencies, oil companies and nongovernmental organizations--have a role to play. The United States and others should quickly provide the remainder of the UN consolidated appeal for Angola for 2002, which as of mid-March had received only 10 percent of the $233 million required. They should also join Angolan civil society in insisting that the government commit its resources to schools, clinics and rebuilding the infrastructure, as well as to immediate humanitarian needs. Angola earns at least $3 billion each year from oil exports, but as much as a third disappears into a complex web of transactions among foreign companies and the Angolan elite.
It would be wrong to punish Angolans by holding up humanitarian relief, but there are other ways to exert pressure. Currently, the World Bank and the IMF are conducting a review of the oil sector with the stated goal of promoting transparency and accountability of oil revenues; this study should be concluded rapidly and made public both in Washington and Luanda. The issue of where the money goes and how to use it must be debated openly. Angolans will quickly be able to see whether the dividends of peace begin to flow. If that happens, this time peace will have a chance.
Like the Cyclops in the tale of Ulysses, Israel is striking at its enemy in blind fury.
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.