The earth is closing on us, pushing us through the last passage, and we tear off our limbs to pass through.” Thus Mahmoud Darwish, writing in the aftermath of the PLO’s exit from Beirut in September 1982. “Where should we go after the last frontiers? Where should the birds fly after the last sky?”
Nineteen years later, what was happening then to the Palestinians in Lebanon is happening to them in Palestine. Since the Al-Aqsa Intifada began last September, Palestinians have been sequestered by the Israeli army in no fewer than 220 discontinuous little ghettos, and subjected to intermittent curfews often lasting for weeks at a stretch. No one, young or old, sick or well, dying or pregnant, student or doctor, can move without spending hours at barricades, manned by rude and deliberately humiliating Israeli soldiers. As I write, 200 Palestinians are unable to receive kidney dialysis, because for “security reasons” the Israeli military won’t allow them to travel to medical centres. Have any of the innumerable members of the foreign media covering the conflict done a story about these brutalised young Israelis conscripts, trained to punish Palestinian civilians as the main part of their military duty? I think not.
Yasser Arafat was not allowed to leave his office in Ramallah to attend the emergency meeting of the Islamic Conference foreign ministers on 10 December in Qatar; his speech was read by an aide. The airport 15 miles away in Gaza and Arafat’s two ageing helicopters had been destroyed the previous week by Israeli planes and bulldozers, with no one and no force to check, much less prevent, the daily incursions of which this particular feat of military daring was a part. Gaza Airport was the only direct port of entry into Palestinian territory, the only civilian airport in the world wantonly destroyed since World War II. Since last May, Israeli F-16s (generously supplied by the US) have regularly bombed and strafed Palestinian towns and villages, Guernica-style, destroying property and killing civilians and security officials (there is no Palestinian army, navy, or air force to protect the people); Apache attack helicopters (again supplied by the US) have used their missiles to murder 77 Palestinian leaders, for alleged terrorist offences, past or future. A group of unknown Israeli intelligence operatives have the authority to decide on these assassinations, presumably with the approval on each occasion of the Israeli Cabinet, and more generally, that of the US. The helicopters have also done an efficient job of bombing Palestinian Authority installations, police as well as civilian. During the night of 5 December, the Israeli army entered the five-storey offices of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics in Ramallah and carried off the computers, as well as most of the files and reports, thereby effacing virtually the entire record of collective Palestinian life. In 1982, the same army under the same commander entered West Beirut and carted off documents and files from the Palestinian Research Centre, before flattening its structure. A few days later came the massacres of Sabra and Shatila.
The suicide bombers of Hamas and Islamic Jihad have of course been at work, as Sharon knew perfectly well they would be when, after a 10-day lull in the fighting in late November, he suddenly ordered the murder of the Hamas leader Mahmoud Abu Hanoud: an act designed to provoke Hamas into retaliation and thus allow the Israeli army to resume the slaughter of Palestinians. After eight years of barren peace discussions, 50 per cent of Palestinians are unemployed and 70 per cent live in poverty on less than $2 a day. Every day brings with it unopposable land grabs and house demolitions. The Israelis even make a point of destroying trees and orchards on Palestinian land. Although five or six Palestinians have been killed in the last few months for every one Israeli, the old warmonger has the gall to keep repeating that Israel has been the victim of the same terrorism as that meted out by Bin Laden.
The crucial point in all this is that Israel has been in illegal military occupation since 1967; it is the longest such occupation in history and the only one anywhere in the world today. This is the original and continuing violence against which all the Palestinian acts of violence have been directed. On 10 December, for instance, two children aged three and 13 were killed by Israeli bombs in Hebron, yet at the same time an EU delegation was demanding that Palestinians curtail their violence and acts of terrorism. Five more Palestinians were killed on 11 December, all of them civilian, victims of helicopter bombings of Gaza’s refugee camps. To make matters worse, as a result of the 11 September attacks, the word “terrorism” is being used to blot out legitimate acts of resistance against military occupation, and any causal or even narrative connection between the dreadful killing of civilians (which I have always opposed) and the 30-plus years of collective punishment is proscribed.
Every Western pundit or official who pontificates about Palestinian terrorism needs to ask how forgetting the fact of the occupation is supposed to stop terrorism. Arafat’s great mistake, a consequence of frustration and poor advice, was to try to make a deal with the occupation when he authorised “peace” discussions between scions of two prominent Palestinian families and Mossad in 1992 at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge. These discussions only discussed Israeli security; nothing at all was said about Palestinian security, nothing at all, and the struggle of his people to achieve an independent state was left to one side. Indeed, Israeli security to the exclusion of anything else has become the recognised international priority, which allows General Zinni and Javier Solana to preach to the PLO while remaining totally silent on the occupation. Yet Israel has scarcely gained more from these discussions than the Palestinians have. The Israeli mistake has been to imagine that by conning Arafat and his coterie into interminable discussions and tiny concessions, it would get general Palestinian quiescence. Every official Israeli policy thus far has made things worse rather than better for Israel. Ask yourself: is Israel more secure and more accepted now than it was 10 years ago?
The terrible and, in my opinion, stupid suicide raids against civilians in Haifa and Jerusalem over the weekend of 1 December should of course be condemned, but in order for these condemnations to make any sense, the raids must be considered in the context of Abu Hanoud’s assassination earlier in the week, along with the killing of five children by an Israeli booby trap in Gaza — to say nothing of the houses destroyed, the Palestinians killed throughout Gaza and the West Bank, the constant tank incursions, the endlessly grinding away of Palestinian aspirations, minute by minute, for the past 35 years. In the end, desperation only produces poor results, none worse than the green light George W and Colin Powell seem to have given Sharon when he was in Washington on 2 December (all too reminiscent of the green light Alexander Haig gave Sharon in May 1982). With their support went the usual ringing declarations turning the people under occupation and their hapless, inept leader into worldwide aggressors who had to “bring to justice” their own criminals even as Israeli soldiers were systematically destroying the entire Palestinian police structure which was supposed to do the arresting!
Arafat is hemmed in on all sides, an ironic result of his bottomless wish to be all things Palestinian to everyone, enemies and friends alike. He is at once a tragically heroic figure and a bumbling one. No Palestinian today is going to disavow his leadership, for the simple reason that, despite all his wafflings and mistakes, he is being punished and humiliated because he is a Palestinian leader, and in that capacity, his mere existence offends purists (if that’s the right word) like Sharon and his American backers. Except for the health and education ministries, both of which have done a decent job, Arafat’s Palestinian Authority has not been a brilliant success. Its corruption and brutality stem from Arafat’s apparently whimsical, but actually very meticulous, way of keeping everyone dependent on his largesse; he alone controls the budget, and he alone decides what goes on the front pages of the five daily newspapers. Above all, he manipulates and sets up against each other the 12 or 14 — some say 19 or 20 — independent security services, each of which is structurally loyal to its own leaders and to Arafat at the same time, without being able to do much more for its people than arrest them when enjoined to do so by Arafat, Israel and the US. The 1996 elections were designed for a term of three years, but Arafat has shilly-shallied with the idea of calling new ones, which would almost certainly challenge his authority and popularity in a serious way.
He and Hamas have had a well-publicised entente of sorts since the latter’s June bombings: Hamas wouldn’t go after Israeli civilians if Arafat left the Islamic parties alone. Sharon killed off the entente with Abu Hanoud’s assassination: Hamas retaliated and there was nothing to stop Sharon squeezing the life out of Arafat, with American support. Having destroyed Arafat’s security network, his jails and offices, and having physically imprisoned him, Sharon made demands that he knows can’t be met (even though Arafat, with a few cards up his sleeve, has managed, astonishingly, to half comply). Sharon stupidly believes that, having dispensed with Arafat, he can make a series of independent agreements with local warlords, and divide 40 per cent of the West Bank and most of Gaza into several non-contiguous cantons whose borders would be controlled by the Israeli army. How this is supposed to make Israel more secure eludes most people, but not, alas, the ones with the relevant power.
That still leaves out three players, or groups of players, two of whom, in his racist way, Sharon gives no weight to. First, the Palestinians themselves, many of whom are far too intransigent and politicised to accept anything less than unconditional Israeli withdrawal. Israel’s policies, like all such aggressions, produce the opposite effect to the one intended: to suppress is to provoke resistance. Were Arafat to disappear, Palestinian law provides for 60 days of rule by the speaker of the Assembly (an unimpressive and unpopular Arafat hanger-on called Abul-‘Ala, much admired by Israelis for his “flexibility”). After that, a succession struggle would ensue between other Arafat cronies such as Abu Mazen and two or three of the leading (and capable) security chiefs — notably, Jibril Rajoub of the West Bank and Mohamed Dahlan in Gaza. None of these people has Arafat’s stature or anything resembling his (perhaps now lost) popularity. Temporary chaos is the likely result: we must face it, Arafat’s presence has been an organising focus for Palestinian politics, in which millions of other Arabs and Muslims have a very large stake.
Arafat has always tolerated, indeed supported a plurality of organisations which he manipulates in various ways, balancing them against each other so that no one predominates except his Fatah. New groups are emerging, however; secular, hardworking, committed, dedicated to a democratic polity in an independent Palestine. Over these groups, the Palestinian Authority has no control at all. But it should also be said that no one in Palestine is willing to accede to the Israeli-US demand for an end to “terrorism,” although it will be difficult to draw a line in the public mind between suicidal adventurism and actual resistance to the occupation, as long as Israel continues its bombings and oppression of all Palestinians, young and old.
The second group are the leaders in the rest of the Arab world who have a vested interest in Arafat, despite their evident exasperation with him. He is cleverer and more persistent than they are, and he knows the hold he has on the popular mind in their countries, where he has cultivated two separate Arab constituencies, the Islamists and the secular nationalists. Both feel under attack, even though the latter has hardly been noticed by the vast number of Western experts and Orientalists who take Bin Laden — rather than the much larger number of Muslim and non-Muslim secular Arabs who detest what Bin Laden stands for and what he has done — to be the paradigmatic Muslim. In Palestine for example, recent polls have found that Arafat and Hamas are now about equal in popularity (both hover between 20 and 25 per cent), with the majority of citizens favouring neither. (But, even as he has been cornered, Arafat’s popularity has shot up.) The same division, with the same significant plague-on- both-your-houses majority, exists in the Arab countries, where most people are put off either by the corruption and brutality of the regimes or by the reductiveness and extremism of the religious groups — most of which are more interested in the regulation of personal behaviour than they are in matters like globalisation or producing electricity and jobs.
Arabs and Muslims might well turn against their own rulers were Arafat seen as being choked to death by Israeli violence and Arab indifference. So he is necessary to the present landscape. His departure will only seem natural when a new collective leadership emerges among a younger generation of Palestinians. When and how that will happen is impossible to tell, but I’m quite certain that it will happen.
The third group of players includes the Europeans, the Americans and the rest, and frankly, I don’t think they know what they’re doing. Most of them would gladly be rid of Palestine as a problem and, in the spirit of Bush and Powell, would not be unhappy if the vision of a Palestinian state were somehow realised, as long as someone else did it. Besides, they would find functioning in Middle East difficult if they didn’t have Arafat to blame, snub, insult, prod, pressure, or give money to. The mission of the EU and General Zinni seems senseless and will have no effect on Sharon and his people. The Israeli politicians have concluded correctly that the Western governments are, in general, on their side and they can continue what they do best, regardless of Arafat and his people’s fruitless begging to negotiate.
The slowly emerging group of Palestinians, both in Palestine and in the Diaspora, is beginning to learn and use tactics that solidly place a moral onus on the West and Israel to address the issue of Palestinian rights, not just of the Palestinian presence. In Israel, for example, an audacious Knesset member, the Palestinian Azmi Bishara, has been stripped of his parliamentary immunity and will soon be on trial for incitement to violence. Why? Because he has long stood for the Palestinian right of resistance to occupation, arguing that, like every other state in the world, Israel should be the state of all of its citizens, not just of the Jewish people. For the first time, a major Palestinian challenge on Palestinian rights is being mounted inside Israel (not on the West Bank), with all eyes on the proceedings. At the same time, the Belgian attorney-general’s office has confirmed that a war crimes case against Sharon can go forward in that country’s courts. A painstaking mobilisation of secular Palestinian opinion is underway and will slowly overtake the Palestinian Authority. The moral high ground will soon be reclaimed from Israel, as the occupation becomes the focus of attention and as more and more Israelis realise that there is no way to continue indefinitely a 35-year occupation.
Besides, as the US war against terrorism spreads, more unrest is almost certain; far from closing things down, US power is likely to stir them up in ways that may not be containable. It’s no mean irony that the renewed attention on Palestine came about because the US and Europeans need to maintain an anti-Taliban coalition.