“You aren’t serious,” the Algerians told the PLO leaders. “You must kill your opponents!”
That was years ago. The PLO leaders had asked their victorious brothers, the Algerian Liberation Front (FLN) veterans, for advice. They tendered their counsel generously: “You can’t wage a war of liberation when there are internal differences. There can only be one party. There is no place for internal opposition. Opponents must be liquidated.”
As an example, they pointed out one of their facilities on the Algerian-Tunisian border. It was a house of three rooms, to which opponents of the leadership were brought. In the first room they stood trial, in the second judgment was pronounced, in the third they were executed. The whole process lasted but a few hours. The only way they left the house was on a stretcher.
This story was told to me this week by a senior Palestinian official. “We, the Palestinians, listened and said to ourselves: This will never happen in our movement!”
And indeed, in order to understand what is happening now in the Palestinian territories, one has to understand that this is a unanimous national resolve: Avoid a civil war at any cost.
This resolve stems from a Palestinian trauma. In 1936 the “Arab Rebellion” (in Zionists parlance: “The Events”) broke out. Jewish immigration had been rising sharply after Hitler’s advent to power in Germany, the Arabs felt that the land was being taken from under their feet. In a desperate attempt to save their national existence, they declared a General Strike, which turned into an armed rebellion. It was led by Haj Amin al-Husseini, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.
The mufti seized the opportunity in order to eliminate all his domestic opponents. In the bloodbath, almost all the Palestinian leaders who did not accept his leadership unconditionally were assassinated. When the moment of truth came at the end of 1947 (after the UN partition resolution), the Palestinian people had no national leadership to speak of.
Now Ariel Sharon wants to compel Arafat to start a civil war. That is the meaning of his demand that Arafat liquidate the Hamas and Jihad leadership and destroy their institutions. He expects the Hamas and Jihad will then take revenge and murder the Palestinian Authority chiefs. The mutual killing will put an end to the Palestinian struggle, perhaps forever.
Neither Arafat nor his opponents intend to fulfill this hope of Sharon’s. In his address to the nation, Arafat declared that continued attacks on Israelis are harmful to the national interests of the Palestinian people. Most Palestinians understand that Arafat is right. The Hamas and Jihad disagree, but do not want to be dragged into a civil war. Therefore there is a “dramatic decrease in the number of attacks”, according to Israeli security officials.
All this reminds one of a similar phase in our own history. After the assassination of Lord Moyne by the Lehi ( Hebrew initials of “Fighters for the Freedom of Israel”, called by the British “Stern Gang”) Ben-Gurion decided to turn the “dissidents” over to the British police, who tortured them and then sent them to a prison camp in Africa. Some of the Irgun fighters (Irgun ï¿½ short for National Military Organization, another underground) were kidnapped by Ben-Gurion’s Palmah (“shock troops”) and turned over to the British, others were arrested by the British themselves with the help of a list of 700 suspects, submitted to them by Ben-Gurion. This episode was called “the saison” (pronounced the French way), meaning the hunting season.
If at that time a bloody civil war did not erupt, it was thanks to Menahem Begin, the Irgun commander, who was determined to prevent a fratricidal war at any cost. Irgun fighters were ordered not to fire on the Palmah members who came to kidnap them. (The leader of the Lehi, Nathan Yellin-Mor, decided otherwise. As he told me years later: “I went to a meeting with the Haganah chiefs. I put a loaded pistol on the table in front of me. I said: ‘Every Lehi fighter will use his gun to defend himself.’ As a result, not one man of ours was kidnapped.”)
Ben-Gurion played a complex game. At one time he ordered the “saison”, at another he set up the “Hebrew Rebellion Movement”, which coordinated the actions of his own Haganah, the Irgun and Lehi. He used diplomacy and violence alternatively, in varying doses. Actually he used the actions of the Irgun and Lehi for his own purposes.
Arafat is now doing exactly the same. When there is hope of achieving a Palestinian state by peaceful means and a confrontation with the Americans has to be averted, he prevents the actions of the “dissidents”. When this hope fades, he gives them the green light.
All this is done by mutual understanding. Contrary to his image created in Israel, Arafat is no brutal dictator. On the contrary, some of his aides accuse him of being too forgiving, not taking revenge on those who betrayed him and not punishing those who damage the Palestinian cause. He adheres to an ancient Arab tradition: the “Ijmaa”, decision by general agreement. (The elders of the tribe sit and discuss a controversial issue until every single one of those present is convinced and supports the proposed decision, making it unanimous.)
That is his way of stopping the violence. The Palestinian people will not commit suicide by civil war. They will be persuaded to stop the violent struggle only if they see that their national existence can be assured by peaceful means. And in the meantime, they will collect weapons, for any eventuality.