Changing political alignments in Palestine

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Ramallah, Palestine One of the important (and still evolving) consequences of the past seven months of Israeli-Palestinian clashes is a significant change in political forces within Palestinian society. This change is not sufficiently appreciated in Israeli and Western societies, who mistakenly tend to focus almost all their political, emotional, intellectual, and mass media firepower on the person of Yasser Arafat and his many guards. The important political change within Palestine comprises several related elements, which I would summarize as follows:

First, there is a continuing hardening of attitudes among the Palestinian population as a whole, which is evident in three ways: a) the broad will to keep struggling via the intifada for Palestinian national rights and independent statehood, b) greater emphasis on specific negotiating issues, such as the need to stop building any more Israeli settlements before negotiations resume, and, c) strong support for suicide bombings against Israeli civilians.

The most recent public opinion poll by the respected Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre (JMCC) in mid-April showed that 80 percent of Palestinians support the continuation of the intifada (up from 70 percent in December). Despite Palestinian suffering from Israeli military attacks, checkpoints, travel restrictions, economic strangulation, and other aspects of the Israeli military occupation, there is only rising Palestinian commitment to continuing the intifada and enduring its impact — because the Palestinians see this struggle as leading to liberation and independent statehood. Significantly, there are no credible calls among the Palestinians for a change in tactics.

The JMCC poll confirms that a majority of Palestinians wants to negotiate peace and coexistence with Israel, but is also willing to fight and suffer in order to obtain its rights. Only 30 percent of Palestinians say the peace process is dead. Yet, 74 percent say they strongly or somewhat support suicide bombing operations against civilians in Israel. This is not a contradiction. These Palestinian sentiments reflect a desire to negotiate peace and coexistence with Israel, but a parallel willingness to fight for ones rights if the negotiations produce only perpetual subjugation.

Second, within this wider popular determination to struggle and to pay the price for freedom and statehood, we can witness a fraying and fragmentation of the once total dominance of Yasser Arafat, the Fateh movement he heads, and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Three main political groups seem today to define Palestinian politics: a) the Arafat-dominated PA, b) independent forces within his Fateh movement, in alliance with other leftist-nationalist grassroots forces, and, c) Hamas and other Islamist forces. A fourth potential power centre is the significant Palestinian constituency that wants more democratic, participatory, and accountable governance. The combination of Fateh independents, nationalists, Islamists, and democrats represents a powerful new constraint on Arafats tendency to decide policy on his own.

Third, Arafat and the PA are being subjected to an unprecedented form of direct accountability to their people. Arafat can certainly exert a major influence on the nature and direction of Palestinian resistance against the Israeli occupation, but he can no longer unilaterally define the thrust or the particulars of Palestinian political action. This new form of accountability has increased in tandem with movement towards negotiating a permanent peace agreement with Israel. It started last summer, when Arafat did not agree to the Israeli or American ideas at Camp David because he knew that a majority of his people would not accept them.

Fourth, Arafat and the relatively small circle of people who form the official Palestinian leadership are starting to learn the crucial lessons a major flaw of the Oslo Process years since 1993: they cannot unilaterally negotiate the fate of their people without consulting their people. Palestinian official positions must now reflect more accurately the consensus of the Palestinian majority. No wonder Arafat said two days ago that he cannot enter negotiations while his people are burying their dead on a daily basis.

These four trends are fundamentally changing the direction and manner of political decision-making in Palestine. They suggest that we will continue to witness surges of fighting and periods of relative calm in the weeks and months ahead, as diplomatic efforts to negotiate a fair, permanent peace are now more accurately guided by the sentiments of majorities in both Israel and Palestine. Israelis and Americans can choose to ignore such facts and pin the blame for the violence solely on Yasser Arafat, but they do so at the double risk of degrading their own intellectual integrity and perpetuating the war that plagues all in this area.

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