Fields of Thorns in Palestine

Fields of Thorns in Palestine

The Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip began in late September 2000 as a wave of popular protest against Ariel Sharon’s belligerent incursion into Jerusalem’s sacred Haram al-Sharif.


The Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which in late September 2000 began as a wave of popular protest against Ariel Sharon’s belligerent incursion into Jerusalem’s sacred Haram al-Sharif, has developed into a full-fledged war of attrition against the Israeli occupation, which rather ironically paved the aggressive right-wing leader’s path to power.

The gradual “Lebanonization” of the occupied territories during the Al-Aqsa Intifada, in which the activities of increasingly effective armed cells have been supplanting civil forms of resistance, poses a challenge to Israel, which, in the context of its stated territorial ambitions and the external constraints upon its conduct, outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak was incapable of resolving. For all his bluster about refusing to negotiate under fire, putting an end to Palestinian “violence and terror” and achieving a “peace for generations,” Sharon’s dilemma is equally intractable. Any government he forms will prove at least as unwilling to withdraw to the June 1967 boundaries as its predecessor, and thereby will insure the continuation of the uprising. If Sharon opts instead to destroy the Palestinian Authority (PA) in an updated version of the regional strategy attempted during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, he will once again create the conditions for the ascendancy of a more radical and uncompromising adversary–with the distinction that the Palestinian variant will be based in Hebron, Jerusalem and the Palestinian town of Umm al-Fahm within Israel rather than in Lebanon’s Baalbek and Beirut. And in contrast to 1982, open warfare with the Palestinian leadership in 2001 will for Israel entail significant regional (and perhaps international) costs.

The above notwithstanding, the prospects for a successful Palestinian guerrilla campaign remain dim. Palestinian efforts are nowhere near as sophisticated as those of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Israel is prepared to sustain much greater losses in the occupied Palestinian territories than it was in Lebanon. At the same time, the militarization of the uprising is marginalizing the role of Palestinian society and thus squandering the potential contribution of a mobilized population; as the PA and Palestinian civil society are for different reasons gripped by serious paralysis, Israel’s punitive sanctions and the PA’s haphazard response have stretched Palestinians to the breaking point.

As the possibilities for either a permanent Israeli-Palestinian settlement or a resumption of interim arrangements continue to recede, and those of a wider regional conflagration remain on the rise, a prolonged low-intensity conflict propelled by yet unable to rupture the political stalemate, punctuated by occasional bouts of intensified bloodletting, domestic chaos (whether Palestinian or Israeli) and futile diplomacy, remains the most likely scenario. On an almost daily basis, unarmed Palestinian youths trek to the boundaries separating areas under Palestinian and Israeli security control to take on armed Israeli soldiers encased in protective gear and positioned behind barriers or in fortified locations. Unlike the 1987-93 intifada, during which the military was deployed within Palestinian towns and such confrontations could occur almost anywhere at virtually any time, the current clashes generally commence at around noon at fixed points on the outskirts of Palestinian towns such as the City Inn junction in northern Al-Bira, or along other clear lines of demarcation such as central Hebron or Martyrs’ Junction (Netzarim) south of Gaza City.

These are not the mass demonstrations of the uprising’s early weeks, in which hundreds and often thousands of Palestinian demonstrators launched frontal attacks upon Israeli positions with the intention of overwhelming them and, determined and disorganized in equal measure, suffered dozens of dead and thousands of wounded in the process. Rather, and with increasingly few exceptions, these have become ritualized confrontations. Separated by more or less permanent barricades erected by the Palestinians and left in place by the Israelis, groups of youths typically numbering in the dozens approach smaller concentrations of soldiers to throw stones, bottles and the occasional firebomb. Their purpose is to remind Israel, the world and also their own leaders that Palestinians will continue to resist the occupation until it ends, and the soldiers confront them in order to demonstrate just as clearly that they have no intention of being involuntarily dislodged.

Shortly before or after the first stone is thrown, the soldiers begin firing a barrage of tear-gas canisters (most of which are thrown right back) and fairly quickly begin supplementing their toxic ordnance with volleys of rubber bullets and spherical metal bullets (covered in a negligibly thin layer of plastic), which can be lethal if fired–as often they are–directly at the head or upper body from close range. Despite the gross imbalance of power, and with breathtaking courage that numerous observers have termed suicidal, the youths continue advancing, eventually and inevitably crossing a threshold at which point the soldiers begin firing live, high-velocity bullets, which fragment upon impact and are a surgeon’s nightmare. On other occasions, and particularly in the Gaza Strip, trigger-happy conscripts eagerly dispense with this intifada protocol and almost immediately resort to live ammunition, aiming to permanently maim and kill rather than temporarily disable. It is doubtful a single Palestinian shot dead under such circumstances posed a genuine threat to the life of an Israeli soldier. Nevertheless, the Israeli military–which, in contrast to the previous intifada, has done away with the pretense of investigating the conduct of its own soldiers–has in addition to the above pattern responded to such demonstrations with snipers operating at long range (and at times equipped with silencers), as well as rapid automatic gunfire indiscriminate enough to wound journalists and kill ambulance personnel.

With increasing regularity, the ritual is brought to a conclusion by a barrage of 500-millimeter or 800-millimeter bullets (the casing of the latter easily accommodates a human thumb), or several tank shells directed at nearby buildings. Sometimes these are fired without provocation; on other occasions they are in response to Palestinian gunmen who feel or are compelled to intervene when the situation gets particularly gruesome. In contrast to a number of incidents during the uprising’s early phases, the gunmen no longer fire from within the crowd.

As night falls, and increasingly during the day as well, it is these armed cadres who are defining the nature of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation. Their cells include Palestinian security personnel, Fatah activists (who are often one and the same) and almost certainly members of the Islamist and secular opposition as well (notably Islamic Jihad), and they operate under previously unknown names such as the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade (kata’ib shuhada’ al-aqsa) and Forces of Badr (quwwat badr). Their weapon of choice is the sniper’s bullet and roadside bomb, and more recently the occasional mortar round and antitank missile. Their preferred tactic is hit and run, and their proclaimed strategy of transforming Israel’s most sensitive assets in the occupied territories into its greatest liabilities is as simple as it can be effective.

In this respect the network of settler roads, largely constructed since the Oslo agreement to connect Jewish settlements to Israel (and each other) in a manner that circumvents Palestinian towns and villages, is a case in point. Built on the principle of apartheid (the infamous Dutch/Afrikaans word, meaning “separateness,” is equivalent to the “separation” that Barak and other Israeli officials frequently recommend as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), in order both to consolidate the Israeli presence within the West Bank and Gaza Strip and to provide the settlers who use them with a sense of security, these have to the horror of their planners become the most dangerous roads in the Middle East. Because they are the only ones settlers use, and are in many cases used only by settlers and the military, any vehicle traversing them is a potential target.

Isolated settlements–such as those in the Gaza Strip and colonies that, like Gilo on the edge of Beit Jala and Psagot in al-Bira, abut the communities on whose lands they were established–have on the basis of the above principle been exposed as equally vulnerable. To the obvious satisfaction of the uprising’s armed activists, the total settler population, which increased by approximately 50 percent in the seven years after the Oslo agreement was signed, has as a result of their attacks experienced (with the possible exception of 1988) its first net reduction since 1967. Additionally, numerous Israeli and foreign press reports have documented the pervasive fear and sense of imprisonment felt by those who remain, and many appear eager to leave if their government will provide them alternative housing and/or compensation. (The irony that the settlements were established by Israel for the explicit purpose of encircling and suffocating the Palestinians, and that the military provided the settlers with guns and green lights to terrorize their neighbors, is entirely lost upon the majority of such correspondents.)

While the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade and most similar groups are known to the PA and are believed to enjoy operational support from senior security officials (which is unlikely to be provided clandestinely and through which the leadership would seek to retain a measure of influence over their activities), these are not PA units established to pursue an official policy under the cloak of plausible deniability. Rather, they represent an autonomous and at times independent force within the Palestinian national movement, with an agenda increasingly divergent from that of the PA. Its backbone consists of the activist, militant wing of the Fatah movement, which espouses its policies and positions both independently and through the proclamations of the National and Islamic Forces (NIF), a coalition of fourteen Palestinian political factions that constitutes the operational command and organizational infrastructure of the uprising.

The NIF, which includes the gamut of PLO, secular opposition and Islamist factions save the Fatah-Revolutionary Council of Sabri al-Banna (Abu Nidal), the Fatah-Provisional Command led by Sa’id Maragha (Abu Musa) and the Palestine Communist Party-Provisional Command of Arabi Awad, is not a national political leadership and cannot (yet) be compared to the United National Leadership of the Uprising (UNLU), which led the 1987-93 intifada until it was entirely subsumed by the exiled PLO leadership in Tunis and Damascus. Rather, and by tacit agreement, its role is limited to popular mobilization and the planning and organization of the uprising’s calendar (e.g., “Days of Rage”), as well as the conduct of activities such as the consumer boycott of Israeli products, which–constrained by formal commitments–the PA cannot itself undertake. According to the rules of the game, the formulation and implementation of national policy is the exclusive preserve of the PA.

In practice this is no longer the case. The NIF and its constituent organizations have been increasingly critical of the PA, particularly with respect to its domestic policies (or rather lack thereof) and its conduct of relations with Israel and the United States. On February 10, for example, at a time when most PA officials were proclaiming the view that the election of Ariel Sharon was an internal Israeli matter, with Yasir Arafat emphasizing the point by calling the victorious candidate to congratulate him and express his desire to resume negotiations after the formation of a new Israeli government, the NIF issued a statement openly vowing to bring about the downfall of the “terrorist criminal” Sharon, like Barak before him. It said the “new phase of confrontation,” which it predicted, “requires that all Palestinian, Arab and international forces work to isolate this raging bull by all means.” Indeed, the NIF “stresses the need to reinforce the isolation of Sharon,” which “requires the escalation of the intifada and resistance in order to make his aggressive policy a burden upon Israeli society.” “Any Palestinian or Arab attempt to market Sharon’s spoiled goods,” the NIF pointedly warned, “will fall into the trap Sharon seeks to use to destroy Palestinian national unity, eliminate the intifada, and paralyze the Palestinian National Authority.”

Perhaps more than any other event, the election of Sharon has thrown the differences between the PA and NIF into relief. To the PA, Sharon is above all a challenge to the successful conclusion of the peace process. If it can utilize its regional and international alliances to ensnare this uncompromising rejectionist in permanent-status negotiations on the division of Jerusalem, return of refugees and dismantling of settlements despite his having been elected to cut the Palestinians down to size, it will have vindicated the PA’s decision to enter into the Oslo agreements and its performance prior to and since the Al-Aqsa Intifada. Under no circumstances can it settle for less than was discussed during the final round of permanent-settlement negotiations in the Egyptian resort of Taba, and it must establish the understandings reached there as a baseline for further negotiations with Sharon’s government. The uprising is therefore an instrument of diplomatic leverage, to help and remind the international community to prod Sharon to resume negotiations at the point where they left off, and to shorten his tenure if they don’t or he refuses. Keeping alive the prospect of Oslo’s resumption and successful conclusion, without which neither Israel nor the international community has much use for the PA, is the red line Arafat has tacitly communicated to the NIF. The comparative absence of organized Palestinian attacks across the Green Line, which cannot be solely attributed to previous Palestinian and current Israeli campaigns against Hamas and Islamic Jihad, suggests the message is generally being understood.

To the militants within Fatah and the majority of the NIF, the uprising is an instrument of a very different sort, and Sharon is the opportunity to prove its effectiveness. Through its consistent escalation, the Al-Aqsa Intifada (and attendant Arab support) will, according to this view, force Israel to surrender its vision of a Palestinian protectorate under Israeli hegemony, retained even during Taba’s final moments, and thus allow the Palestinians to transcend the entire Oslo framework.

In the confident words of Fatah West Bank secretary general Marwan Barghouti, Sharon is Israel’s “last bullet” before it surrenders to the realization that it can have “either peace and security or occupation and settlement, but not both.” The uprising is thus a war of national liberation in which the only negotiations to be conducted are those that formalize the end of the occupation. If it is, however, exploited as a negotiating tactic and made hostage to political pressures and the demands of the moment, it will inevitably be prematurely aborted and end in failure. Memories of the fate of the 1987-93 intifada are in this respect particularly strong, and are further reinforced by the stark contrast between Israel’s consistent disregard of signed agreements with its Palestinian “peace partner” and its generally scrupulous respect for informal understandings with its bitter enemy Hezbollah. The red line for the militants, which has until now been respected by Arafat, is the continuation of the uprising until the end of the occupation.

Thus far, these ultimately contradictory trends have managed to compete in coexistence, and even to complement one another. Barghouti and other Fatah leaders can be bitterly critical of the PA, demand that Arafat root out the corruption in its ranks and collaborators in their midst, and suggest the formation of an “intifada government” based upon the national unity and unity of purpose established at the local level. There has not, however, been an open challenge to the current leadership or its legitimacy, and Fatah has insured the formal loyalty of the NIF to the PA. For its part the PA has not definitively severed security cooperation with Israel, and in fact it reached various understandings with Barak and Clinton to restore calm to the West Bank and Gaza Strip; but the PA has avoided measures that would test Fatah’s loyalty or rupture its relations with other NIF factions. Arafat’s method appears to be one of ongoing consultations with Fatah and the opposition, combined with a consistent disregard of their positions when planning his next move.

Until Sharon’s election, both the PA and NIF were on the whole content to see the uprising continue and in the process improve the PA’s negotiating position, even if the former felt the activities of the armed units were at times calculated to derail the negotiations, and the latter viewed the PA’s conduct in negotiations as endangering the further development of the uprising. The NIF’s pride in Barak’s defeat notwithstanding, the relative calm in the weeks leading up to the Israeli election were clearly enforced in deference to the PA. In the coming period the PA and NIF will continue to cooperate, for example in seeking the deployment of an international protection force or in cutting short Sharon’s tenure by making a mockery of his promises of tranquillity, and they will continue to compete over issues such as security cooperation. But if circumstances develop in which the PA feels compelled to curtail the uprising to insure its own survival, or the NIF considers it necessary to clean house within the PA to preserve its uprising, an open confrontation between the PA and NIF cannot be ruled out. Should such a showdown materialize, it will be the Fatah activists, and particularly those with positions and connections in the security forces, who will determine its outcome.

In the meantime, Israel’s blockade and bombardment of Palestinian population centers is exacting a terrible social, economic and physical toll. Throughout the West Bank and particularly in the Gaza Strip, a systematic Israeli defoliation campaign has transformed thousands of acres into a moonscape of uprooted olive, palm and orange trees, and increasingly of summarily bulldozed homes as well. The entrances to numerous towns and villages have been rendered impassable, either through the erection of concrete or earthen barricades or by the digging of trenches several feet deep across roads. Such measures, and particularly the various forms of closure (including the repeated dissection of the minuscule Gaza Strip into four separate enclaves), have had a devastating economic impact. According to a recent UN report, the siege is costing the Palestinian economy $8.6 million daily (excluding physical damage, loss of tax income and the cost of caring for more than 10,000 casualties). Total losses between September 2000 and February 2001 have amounted to $1.5 billion, equal to a 20 percent decline in GDP. Poverty has increased by 50 percent, to encompass 32 percent of the total population, and unemployment has risen to 38 percent of the work force (Palestinian sources claim significantly higher figures). While reports that PA institutions face imminent collapse are in some cases accurate, security personnel continue to receive their full salaries on time, and predictions of the PA’s impending disintegration have an air of politically motivated alarmism about them.

Tanks are currently stationed throughout the occupied territories for the first time since their conquest in 1967, and their barrels and those of the heavy machine guns mounted upon them are routinely used against civilian neighborhoods. By mid-February, a pattern appeared to be emerging in which more Palestinian casualties are being inflicted by such shelling than by soldiers confronting demonstrators. In Khan Yunis in Gaza, which along with Rafah and Hebron has experienced some of the most intense bombardments, Israeli forces additionally appear to have used a new form of toxic gas.

The systematic human rights violations, which according to a February 21 Human Rights Watch press release include “indiscriminate and excessive [Israeli] fire” into civilian neighborhoods and, as documented by Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights organizations, have also involved the operation of death squads, have reached a level of severity where they can no longer be ignored even by Washington. On the same day that HRW released its condemnation, the State Department announced it was launching an investigation to determine if Israel has violated the US Arms Export Control Act, which regulates the use of American weapons and ammunition. Meanwhile, the UN Human Rights Commission recently completed a fact-finding mission to examine evidence of Israeli “war crimes” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; it is expected to release its final report in mid-March. At the same time, HRW and other organizations have also condemned Palestinian gunmen for firing at Israeli positions from within Palestinian towns, if pointedly noting that such acts cannot justify the disproportionate Israeli response.

On February 14 Khalil Abu Ulba of Gaza’s Shaikh Radwan refugee housing project, one of only 16,000 Palestinians (out of some 3 million) with a record considered clean and reliable enough by Israel’s intelligence services to retain his permit to enter and work in Israel, rammed the empty passenger bus he was driving into a group of soldiers assembled at a junction south of Tel Aviv. Eight people, including one civilian, were killed in the attack. It was by all accounts an individual action that required neither careful planning nor organizational support.

This time around Israel’s intelligence community had not failed. Rather, its policies have; Abu Ulba’s interrogators have been attempting to determine whether it was the siege and its economic devastation, the pervasive violence and killing, the intense bombardment and gassing of Khan Yunis that same week or the latest aerial assassination of a Palestinian activist (in nearby Jabalya the day before the attack) that pushed one of the last Palestinians it certified as kosher over the edge. As Fatah leader and Palestinian legislator Qadura Faris observed several months ago, if Israel insists on starving the occupied territories it is unlikely that the cost will be borne exclusively by Palestinians, particularly if the PA is unable to meet the people’s basic needs.

Attacks such as those by Abu Ulba, and eventually others by organizations affiliated with the NIF, are not going to cease because of an intensified closure and heightened repression–quite the contrary. If not the next attack, then the one after that may prove to be the spark that brings Israel’s confrontation with the Palestinians, and the pressure that has been building within the Palestinian body politic, to a new and more dangerous crossroads.

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