The Intifada and democracy

Chilling figures released by the Palestinian Council for Justice and Peace reveal the full horror of Israeli atrocities against the Palestinians. The Council reports that from the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifada last September until 14 May, Israeli troops and settlers have killed 492 Palestinians, including 172 children under the age of 18 and 77 students, and injured 23,147 — 40 per cent of them children. During the same period, 99 paramedics and 72 journalists were injured, nine ambulances totally destroyed and 82 others riddled by bullets. Israeli authorities arrested 1,850 Palestinians, 50 per cent of them children under the age of 18. Forty-one schools were ordered closed, 65 students and 15 teachers were arrested. The number of Palestinians left with permanent disabilities as a result of Israeli attacks during an eight-month period stands at 2,200 as compared to 2,525 during the first Intifada, which lasted from 1987 to 1992.

In addition to unleashing brute force against the Palestinians, the Israelis are strangling them economically. Unemployment has risen to 65 per cent, with 300,000 able Palestinians left without work. The Palestinian economy has suffered an estimated loss of $4.4 billion, as the GNP plummeted 50.7 per cent during the past seven months. The Palestinian agricultural sector alone had lost $218 million by 31 March. Israeli troops destroyed 108 artesian wells used for drinking water, 392 ponds, 3,802 metres of municipal water network pipes and 804 heads of cattle. Bulldozers and tanks uprooted 280,000 olive and fruit trees and confiscated 260 acres of land in the Gaza strip for the expansion of Israeli settlements or to pave by-pass roads for use by Israeli settlers.

Since 28 September 2000, the Israeli army has destroyed 4,000 homes and other structures including 328 farmhouses, 29 poultry farms, 30 mosques and 12 churches. Israeli military operations displaced 4,000 Palestinian families, that is, some 40,000 people. Israeli occupation authorities dismembered the Palestinian Territories into small sections, dividing the West Bank into 64 sectors and the Gaza strip into three. Israeli forces set up 145 new checkpoints, 103 in the West Bank and 42 in Gaza. Today, it would take a Palestinian three times as long to travel between two points than it did previously.

These figures betray the nightmare in which the Palestinians are condemned to live, with funerals of martyrs mobilising the whole population nearly every day. The Mitchell report refuted Israel’s allegation that the Intifada was not a spontaneous uprising but a process deliberately set off by Arafat in a cynical attempt to improve his bargaining position. Even according to Israeli sources, the provocative visit by Ariel Sharon to Al-Haram Al-Sharif on 28 September passed almost without incident, although the then leader of the opposition was inexplicably accompanied by hundreds of security personnel. It was only the following day, Friday 29 September, when 50,000 worshippers found themselves surrounded by battalions of Israeli police on full alert, that the situation erupted. Angry worshippers began throwing stones at the police, and one hit Jerusalem police commander Yair Yipzhaki. When the police saw their commander removed with what seemed to be a serious head wound, they lost control. No one was in charge and live ammunition was used to disperse the rioters. Four Palestinians were immediately killed, followed by six others; more than 700 were wounded. On the following day, 10 more Palestinians were killed and 500 wounded. When Palestinian citizens of Israel took to the streets in protest, police opened fire, killing 13 and wounding dozens more. By 2 October, the Palestinians were burying 33 dead compatriots. The country was under siege and completely out of control.

Even official American statements accuse Sharon of responding to Palestinian rioting with “disproportionate” and “excessive” force. The Israeli prime minister’s hard-line approach reveals his disdain for the notion of peace with the Arabs and his refusal to treat Arafat as a partner in a peace process. Sharon’s political vision is informed exclusively by what he calls “Israel’s security,” and from that narrow perspective he regards Arafat as an enemy to be liquidated. Indeed, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher has described Sharon’s line of conduct as aiming to “dismantle the Palestinian Authority” altogether.

It is clear that the “peace process” in its traditional form has come to a dead end. We are no longer talking of an impasse or a stalemate that can be overcome, as so many were in the past, but of a complete breakdown. The Israelis reacted to the breakdown by electing Sharon as prime minister, the Palestinians by launching the Intifada. The only way out of the crisis is to invent an entirely new formula acceptable to the protagonists.

Both the Egyptian-Jordanian initiative and the Mitchell Commission report are instruments aimed at paving the way for the resumption of negotiations, but it is questionable whether that objective can be reached in any foreseeable future. The two documents differ on specific issues (the former refers to Security Council Resolution 242, the latter does not; the former does not make any value judgements on the behaviour of the antagonists, the latter does), but they have a common structure insofar as both call for ending the violence and engaging in confidence-building measures as a prerequisite for the resumption of negotiations. However, Sharon’s methods in attempting to crush the Intifada have created such a reservoir of mutual hatred that it is unrealistic to expect normal relations to resume in any foreseeable future. Although both parties have announced their decision to “accept” the Mitchell report, Sharon’s acceptance does not extend to the report’s recommendation that Israel “freeze all settlement construction, including the ‘natural growth’ [i.e., expansion] of existing settlements.”

The swift and strong use of force against demonstrations in Amman on Friday 11 May reflects official fears that the Intifada can spill over into neighbouring Arab countries. Indeed, there is no lack of potential flashpoints. The Shebaa Farms, which Israel refuses to evacuate under the pretext that they belong to Syria while Hizbullah insists they are part of Lebanese territory, are a source of tension that could trigger a military confrontation not only between Israel and Lebanon but also between Israel and Egypt.

A week before Sharon came to power, Avigdor Lieberman, one of his closest associates and now a member of his cabinet, threatened that Israel could hit the High Dam if Egypt chose to support the Intifada. President Mubarak responded to this insolent provocation swiftly and unequivocally by reminding Israel that the Egyptian army is there to defend Egyptian territory.

When Israeli repression of the Intifada reached unprecedented heights in Gaza a couple of weeks ago, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa announced that member states had adopted a resolution suspending all official contacts with Israel for as long as the aggression against the Palestinian people continues. Egypt was quick to point out that its adherence to the resolution should not be read as a retraction of the Egyptian-Jordanian initiative, but as a signal to Israel that it cannot expect its Arab co-signatories of peace treaties to give precedence to those treaties over their joint defence obligations towards fellow League members. True, two members, Qatar and Mauritania, have made it glaringly clear that they will not implement the resolution. However, the Arab League has called on the Arab peoples for donations to the Intifada, thus encouraging popular participation against Israel’s liquidation of the Palestinians. If the United States and Israel are putting pressure on certain Arab states to oppose the Arab League’s call, this opposition will have to be countered by pressure from the Arab peoples on their governments in this respect.

In other words, any hope of overcoming the present crisis lies in reinventing the peace process by making one of its main ingredients the introduction of democracy, transparency and institutionalisation. I consider democratisation of the process indispensable, even if it produces majorities in Arab institutions opposed to peace in principle. Israel does not reject democracy within the ranks of its Jewish majority on the grounds that an important section of that majority shares Sharon’s view that peace is to be sacrificed to security whenever necessary. Why should this be tolerated in Israeli and not in Arab ranks?

The alternative to democracy is the spread of destabilisation beyond the Palestinian theatre. Popular uprisings in other Arab theatres will not necessarily be directed only against Israel but could extend to target the Arab regimes themselves. Given the deep sense of frustration in the Arab street, such uprisings are a real threat. It is only by expanding the parameters of popular participation in political life through genuine and unrestricted democracy that the threat can be averted.

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