One year of the intifada


Friday 28 September was the first anniversary of the intifada. Thanks to the continuing shock generated by the attacks of 11 September, and to President Bush’s new war against terrorism, it passed with scant mention in the Western press. Demonstrations in the Occupied Territories and other Arab cities were reported, together with the latest casualties, but hardly any attempt was made to analyse the intifada – why it started, what it comprises, what sustains it, where it is heading. This was a serious oversight.

The intifada is by any measure a phenomenon of immense significance. In human terms it has cost over 800 lives, three quarters of them Palestinian, a tragically high proportion of those children. In political terms, it has dominated developments in the region and diplomatic energy as far afield as Washington and Moscow. In news terms, it has produced one headline-grabbing story after another (Muhammad al-Durrah, the Ramallah lynching, F-16 attacks, the night-club slaughter). In terms of impact, it retains the potential to trigger off another Arab-Israeli war. For all these reasons, it merits serious attention.

The intifada started on September 28, 2000 with Ariel Sharon’s now infamous visit to the Temple Mount/al-Haram Sharif, accompanied by one thousand armed men. His visit sparked the intifada, but did not cause it. For its origins one has to go further back to the flawed peace deal hammered out by Palestinian and Israeli negotiators in Oslo and signed by their leaders at the White House, and to its subsequent non-implementation.

An analysis of the Oslo Accords would require at least an article in itself. Suffice to say for the purposes of this piece, that negotiators made a huge mistake in postponing the most sensitive and important issues (the future of East Jerusalem, boundaries, settlements, water, refugees) to later negotiations. Their assumption that mutual trust would evolve and make resolution of these easier proved sadly misplaced. Tel Aviv’s persistent inability to stick to the agreed timetable, and in particular to refrain from building more settlements in Palestinian areas, prevented that trust from evolving.

As the chances of the peace process delivering an independent Palestinian homeland diminished, so Palestinian anger rose. That anger erupted on September 28, 2000. Reviewed over the course of the past year, the intifada comprises a quantitative and qualitative escalation in violence. It started with stone throwing, countered by bullets. It graduated to sniper fire and suicide bombing, countered by helicopter gun ship, tank and F-16 jet fighter attacks. The battle on the streets has been matched – though not always honestly reflected – by that on the airwaves. Israel has been very effective in portraying the intifada as a terrorist movement, incited and controlled by Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, rather than what it actually is – a popular reaction to Israeli occupation.

The force and aggression of that occupation have also increased during the course of the intifada. The West Bank and Gaza are subject to both a physical and economic blockade. The former with electric fencing, sealed exit points, and most recently buffer zones along the Palestinian side of the border. The latter by withholding grants and tax revenues – plus of course by penning Arabs into the Occupied Territories and preventing them from getting to their jobs. They are also subject to random Israeli military attacks and incursions. All these have fuelled the sense of frustration and anger felt by the Palestinian people.

A recent report by Amnesty International summed up their feelings: ‘They (the Israeli authorities) are producing a population who are punished, who live under permanent siege and can see no future, no prospect of economic security, no meaning in education, no reason to stay alive.’ That sense of having nothing to lose, coupled with the rising death toll and disillusionment with the peace process, are what sustain the intifada. The cycle of violence is self-propagating: Israeli attacks lead to a Palestinian response (sniper fire, bombing) which leads to ferocious Israeli revenge, and so on. Each funeral generates more anger, more death, more funerals.

Before considering where the intifada is heading, consider what it has achieved. Burial of the Oslo Accords has to be the first ‘achievement’. Talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators now focus on security cooperation, achieving a sustained cease-fire, finding a way back to the negotiating table to begin afresh the search for a peace deal. Oslo is a historical irrelevance.

Secondly, the intifada has hardened, even cemented, opinion on both sides. In Israel, with the sole exception of Shimon Peres, one only hears the cries of hawks – incredibly, castigating Sharon for being soft. On the Palestinian side the leadership continues to pursue peace talks, but the mood on the street is for a fight to the death – there is no confidence in Chairman Arafat or in the peace process.

One would have expected the intifada to focus world attention and sympathy on the plight of the Palestinians. In fact the opposite has happened: its constant brutality has numbed international sensibilities. Now it takes something like the killing of the youngest baby, or the use of F-16s against civilian areas, to arouse outside interest. ‘Ordinary’ killings of Palestinian youth or Jewish settlers are no longer newsworthy.

So what of the future? ‘Bleak’ would probably be the most appropriate one word answer. If reaching a peace deal was hard in 1993, the deaths of 800 Palestinians and Israelis over the past year have made it infinitely harder now. Add to this the fact that Ariel Sharon holds the post of Prime Minister, and that popular Palestinian support has shifted from the PLO to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Sharon appears to have given up even nominally searching for peace, preferring to crush the Palestinians with force. Arafat favours talks but his people do not: his call for a cease-fire after meeting Shimon Peres last Wednesday got only a lukewarm response.

The only cause for optimism stems, ironically, from the 11 September slaughter. Washington is finally putting pressure on the Israeli Prime Minister to pursue peace. Soon after Tuesday’s attacks, one heard the unfamiliar sounds of Colin Powell berating the Israeli government for its latest incursions into Palestinian territory and its (initial) refusal to allow peace talks. Yasser Arafat, mindful of the huge miscalculation he made in America’s last war (siding with Saddam Hussein), needed far less persuasion to sit down with the Israelis.

But this optimism is diluted by American motives. The White House is pushing for peace in the Middle East, not because so many people have been and continue to be killed there, but to ensure the inclusion of vital Arab states (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states) in its anti-terrorism coalition. Once that coalition has avenged the 11 September attacks on the Taliban and bin Laden (how is unclear), the need for it will diminish. (Yes, George Bush announced a long-term war on terrorism, but rhetoric is one thing, delivering quite another.) So, too, logically, will US interest in Middle East peace.

Had George Bush or any of his team made the connection between the intifada and the events of 11 September, there could have been stronger grounds for optimism. The writing on the wall is clear to anyone who wants to read it. There is a causal link between Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza, US condonation of (or at least lack of opposition to) those policies, and Muslim anger. If the Americans made that connection, they would realise that changing their policy on the Middle East could reduce the threat of further attacks. Sadly, and incredibly, the Bush administration is not even looking at what caused the 11 September attacks – let alone remedying it.

In view of this one can only conclude that there is no prospect of a quick end to the intifada. Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah leader, predicted it could go on for another five years. His words could well prove prophetic.