Last week, over 50 Palestinian intellectuals, businessmen and professionals signed a petition calling on all Palestinian factions that “stand behind armed operations targeting Israeli civilians” to halt their activities. The foreign and local press jumped all over it. Palestinians on the street were also discussing the appeal, made public just hours before a suicide bomber struck Jerusalem’s French Hill settlement neighborhood, killing seven Israelis. A day earlier, a Palestinian bomber from Nablus detonated a powerful bomb on an Israeli bus near the Jewish settlement of Gilo, killing himself and taking 19 Israelis with him.
The tug-of-war that has been going on for months between the popular demand on the Palestinian street for resistance and revenge and the milder voices of some Palestinian individuals and the Palestinian Authority has only intensified, tautly stretching both sides to their limits.
“I think the bombings are legitimate as a right in our struggle,” says Sophie Abed, a 23- year-old biology student at Birzeit University. “We use these operations because we are oppressed and because we want to liberate our land. If we had weapons, planes and tanks, we would use them. But all we have is our bodies.”
The Palestinian Authority is fighting its own battle to maintain the delicate equilibrium between appeasing Israel and the United States in particular and keeping the ever-rising anger of its people living under the daily injustices of the Israeli occupation from spilling over onto its own turf. The events following each suicide bombing have become routine. Israel vows revenge in the form of more incursions into Palestinian areas and besieges President Arafat in his Ramallah headquarters. The Palestinian Authority makes a hasty condemnation of the attack, trying to ward off hostile Israeli actions and the world chides Palestinians – then reaffirms that a political solution must be found.
This last round of attacks carried additional recriminations, with Israel promising to control more land. “Israel will respond to every act of terror by seizing Palestinian Authority territories, which will be held by Israel as long as the terror continues,” vowed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. “Additional acts of terror will lead to the seizure of additional territory.”
But no Palestinian believes that Sharon is only seeking Israeli security. “This is Sharon’s endgame, resuming Israeli occupation piece by piece, destroying the Palestinian Authority and replacing it with an Israeli administration,” said Minister of Local Government Saeb Erekat in an interview with the Washington Post.
That, too, was the take of the signatories of the controversial appeal. They argued that attacks on Israeli civilians only play into Sharon’s hands. “We see that such operations do not achieve any progress in achieving our project of liberation and independence, but only increase the enemies of peace on the other side and give the aggressive government led by Sharon justifications to continue his harsh war on the our people,” reads the appeal.
But as much as many in the West, a handful of Palestinians or the Palestinian Authority would like to believe that a more acquiescing trend within the Palestinian public is catching on, most Palestinians on the street would beg to differ.
A June public opinion poll released by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center found that over 65 percent of Palestinian respondents said their support for suicide operations inside Israel had increased. This is a slight drop from a March poll in which an overwhelming 72 percent of respondents answered in the same manner.
Many would attribute the overwhelming support to the absence of a political solution for the Palestinians on the horizon and say that Israel has forced the Palestinians’ hand in responding to its abusive occupation. But that may not be all. Some Palestinians strongly believe that there is a further and, in their mind, far nobler goal for using this bloody tactic.
Abed, who is loosely affiliated with the Islamic student factions at the university, maintains that the legitimacy of these bombings comes from the fact that, while few speak openly of it, all Palestinians continue to hold dear the goal of liberating all of historic Palestine.
“Whatever they may say or accept, the people will never forget Haifa and Jaffa. We know and our children will know that the 1948 lands are all Palestine,” says Abed.
Others have a narrower explanation of why some Palestinians decide to kill by sacrificing their own lives. One Palestinian woman, who asked to remain unnamed, explained to a Norwegian journalist in Jerusalem’s Old City the viewpoint of a good number of Palestinians. Upon repeated badgering by the journalist over what Palestinians think of the “terrorists” who blow themselves up in the midst of Israeli civilians, the woman laid it on the table. “Palestinians have the right to resist, including using these operations,” she said.
She also commented that there are many forms of terrorism. “Terrorism is terrorism – whether you push a button from a plane and blow up houses and buildings or whether you kill on the streets of Tel Aviv,” she said. “But as long as there is an Israeli occupation, we Palestinians have a right to fight it.”
The issue has caused a deep rift in Palestinian society, particularly between the secular Palestinian Authority and Islamic opposition groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Following the recent spate of suicide bombings in Jerusalem and settler deaths in the West Bank in which 31 Israelis were killed, President Yasser Arafat ordered Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmad Yassin put under house arrest.
The aging leader of the militant movement did not take well to the decision. “Where are our national interests at a time when Israel is taking over Jenin, Nablus and Ramallah?” Yassin raged in an interview with Al Jazeera satellite channel. “Instead of providing protection for me, the Palestinian Authority comes to punish me.”
Of course, the bombings do not appeal to all Palestinians. Lily Feidy, director of program design and management at MIFTAH and signatory of the appeal to stop the bombings, says she feels the suicide operations are not the most suitable form of resistance at the present time. “The whole world has misunderstood the suicide bomb attackers,” she says. “They think that the bombings are the cause of what is happening now in Palestine when the cause is actually Sharon’s policy.” Feidy continues that the bombings are merely the result of extremist Israeli actions.
“The most important point of the appeal is that we wanted to start a local internal dialogue to decide on a nationwide level whether this form of resistance is the most acceptable and appropriate form or not,” she explains. “I don’t think that it is, at this time.”
The appeal has aroused much controversy within Palestinian society. The student bloc at Birzeit University released a communiqué last week warning any of the appeal’s signatories against stepping foot on the university campus. If they did, they were promised treatment much like that of former French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who was booed and stoned out of the university for calling the Lebanese guerilla group Hizballah a “terrorist organization” during a visit to Birzeit in February 2000.
Jerusalem Legislative Council member Hatem Abdel Qader is also highly critical of the appeal. “I think that we need a national dialogue when discussing such a sensitive subject as these operations. It shouldn’t be just signatures published without any practical implications on the ground,” he says.
Abdel Qader even doubts the authenticity of the appeal. “Every day in the newspapers we see a number of people whose names appeared on the appeal and who really never signed it. Such superficial treatment can cause damage and destroy the idea altogether.”
The “idea” Abdel Qader is referring to is the need for a national dialogue in order to solve the problem because he believes that “in principle,” Palestinians oppose any military operations that target civilians, whether Palestinian or Israel. “It is the mechanism that I have a problem with,” he maintains. If, the legislator continues, there were an initiative offering Palestinians a political horizon and ending the Israeli siege and oppression in exchange for a halt to all Palestinian military operations, he says Palestinians would accept.
In the meantime, most Palestinians have grown weary of Authority condemnations of the suicide bombings while Israeli aggression and killings continue. Still, Abdel Qader defends the Authority’s position.
“The Palestinian Authority has its own political considerations. There are regional and international agreements, there are pressures on it,” he says Abdel Qader. “What is acceptable for the Palestinian Authority because of these considerations is not accepted for the individuals who signed the appeal.”