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.
However else this declaration may have been read, the fact that so many prominent independents–with, for the most part, functioning health, educational, professional and labor organizations as their base–have said these things was lost neither on other Palestinians (who saw it as the most trenchant critique yet of the Arafat regime) nor on the Israeli military. In addition, just as the Authority jumped to obey Sharon and Bush by rounding up the usual Islamist suspects, Dr. Barghouthi launched the nonviolent International Solidarity Movement, comprising about 550 European observers (several of them European Parliament members) who flew in at their own expense. With them was a well-disciplined band of young Palestinians who, while disrupting Israeli troop and settler movement along with the Europeans, prevented rock-throwing or shooting from the Palestinian side. This effectively froze out the Authority and the Islamists, and set the agenda for making Israel’s occupation itself the focus of attention. All this occurred while the United States was vetoing a Security Council resolution mandating an international group of unarmed observers to interpose themselves between the Israeli army and defenseless Palestinian civilians.
The first result of this was that on January 2, after Barghouthi held a press conference with about twenty Europeans in East Jerusalem, the Israelis arrested, detained and interrogated him twice, breaking his knee with rifle butts and injuring his head, on the pretext that he was disturbing the peace and had illegally entered Jerusalem (even though he was born there and has a medical permit to enter). None of this has deterred him or his supporters from continuing the nonviolent struggle, which, I think, is certain to take control of the already too militarized intifada, center it nationally on ending occupation and settlements, and steer Palestinians toward statehood and peace. Israel has more to fear from someone like Barghouthi, who is a self-possessed, rational and respected Palestinian, than from the bearded Islamic radicals that Sharon loves to misrepresent as Israel’s quintessential terrorist threat. All they do is arrest him, which is typical of Sharon’s bankrupt policy.
So where are Israeli and American liberals, so quick to condemn violence while saying little about the disgraceful and criminal occupation itself? I seriously suggest that they join brave activists like Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and Louisa Morgantini, an Italian member of the European Parliament, at the barricades (literal and figurative), stand side by side with this major new secular Palestinian initiative and start protesting the Israeli military methods that are directly subsidized by taxpayers and their dearly bought silence. Having for a year wrung their collective hands and complained about the absence of a Palestinian peace movement (since when does a militarily occupied people have responsibility for a peace movement?), the alleged peaceniks who can actually influence Israel’s military have a clear political duty to organize against the occupation right now, unconditionally and without unseemly demands on the already laden Palestinians.
Some of them have. Several hundred Israeli reservists have refused military duty in the territories, and a whole spectrum of journalists, activists, academics and writers (including Amira Hass, Gideon Levy, David Grossman, Yitzhak Laor, Ilan Pappé, Danny Rabinowitz and Uri Avnery) have kept up a steady attack on the criminal futility of Sharon’s campaign against the Palestinian people. Ideally, there should be a similar chorus in the United States, where, except for a tiny number of Jewish voices making public their outrage at Israel’s occupation, there is far too much complicity and drumbeating. The Israeli lobby has been temporarily successful in identifying the war against bin Laden with Sharon’s single-minded, collective assault on Arafat and his people. Unfortunately, the Arab-American community is both too small and beleaguered as it tries to fend off the ever-expanding Ashcroft dragnet, racial profiling and curtailment of civil liberties.
Most urgently needed, therefore, is coordination among the various secular groups that support Palestinians, a people against whose mere presence geographical dispersion (even more than Israeli depredations) is the major obstacle. To end the occupation and all that has gone with it is a clear enough imperative. Now let us do it.
Copyright Edward W. Said, 2001.