Emerging Alternatives in Palestine

Since it began 15 months ago, the Palestinian Intifada has had little to show for itself politically, despite the remarkable fortitude of a militarily occupied, unarmed, poorly led, and still dispossessed people that has defied the pitiless ravages of Israel’s war machine. In the United States, the government and, with a handful of exceptions, the “independent” media have echoed each other in harping on Palestinian violence and terror, with no attention at all paid to the 35-year Israeli military occupation, the longest in modern history: as a result, American official condemnations of Yasser Arafat’s Authority after 11 September as harboring and even sponsoring terrorism have coldly reinforced the Sharon government’s preposterous claim that Israel is the victim, the Palestinians the aggressors in the four-decade war that the Israeli army has waged against civilians, property, and institutions without mercy or discrimination. The result today is that the Palestinians are locked up in 220 ghettos controlled by the army; American-supplied Apache helicopters, Merkava tanks, and F-16s mow down people, houses, olive groves, and fields on a daily basis; schools and universities as well as businesses and civil institutions are totally disrupted; hundreds of innocent civilians have been killed and tens of thousands injured; Israel’s assassinations of Palestinian leaders continue; unemployment and poverty stand at about 50%–and all this while General Anthony Zinni drones on about Palestinian “violence” to the wretched Arafat, who can’t even leave his office in Ramallah because he is imprisoned there by Israeli tanks, while his several tattered security forces scamper about trying to survive the destruction of their offices and barracks.

To make matters worse, the Palestinian Islamists have played into Israel’s relentless propaganda mills and its ever-ready military by occasional bursts of wantonly barbaric suicide bombings that finally forced Arafat in mid-December to turn his crippled security forces against Hamas and Islamic Jihad, arresting militants, closing offices, occasionally firing at and killing demonstrators. Every demand that Sharon makes, Arafat hastens to fulfil, even as Sharon makes still another one, provokes an incident, or simply says–with U.S. backing–that he is unsatisfied, and that Arafat remains an “irrelevant” terrorist (whom he sadistically forbade from attending Christmas services in Bethlehem) whose main purpose in life is to kill Jews. To this logic-defying congeries of brutal assaults on the Palestinians, on the man who for better or worse is their leader, and on their already humiliated national existence, Arafat’s baffling response has been to keep asking for a return to negotiations, as if Sharon’s transparent campaign against even the possibility of negotiations wasn’t actually happening, and as if the whole idea of the Oslo peace process hadn’t already evaporated. What surprises me is that, except for a small number of Israelis (most recently David Grossman), no one comes out and says openly that Palestinians are being persecuted by Israel as its natives.

A closer look at the Palestinian reality tells a somewhat more encouraging story. Recent polls have shown that between them, Arafat and his Islamist opponents (who refer to themselves unjustly as “the resistance”) get somewhere between 40 and 45% popular approval. This means that a silent majority of Palestinians is neither for the Authority’s misplaced trust in Oslo (or for its lawless regime of corruption and repression) nor for Hamas’s violence. Ever the resourceful tactician, Arafat has countered by delegating Dr. Sari Nusseibeh, a Jerusalem notable, president of Al-Quds University, and Fatah stalwart, to make trial balloon speeches suggesting that if Israel were to be just a little nicer, the Palestinians might give up their right of return. In addition, a slew of Palestinian personalities close to the Authority (or, more accurately, whose activities have never been independent of the Authority) have signed statements and gone on tour with Israeli peace activists who are either out of power or otherwise seem ineffective as well as discredited. These dispiriting exercises are supposed to show the world that Palestinians are willing to make peace at any price, even to accommodate the military occupation. Arafat is still undefeated so far as his relentless eagerness to stay in power is concerned.

Yet at some distance from all this, a new secular nationalist current is slowly emerging. It’s too soon to call this a party or a bloc, but it is now a visible group with true independence and popular status. It counts Dr. Haidar Abdel-Shafi and Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi (not to be confused with his distant relative, Tanzim activist Marwan Barghouthi) among its ranks, along with Ibrahim Dakkak, Ziad Abu Amr, Ahmad Harb, Ali Jarbawi, Fouad Moghrabi, Legislative Council members Rawiya Al-Shawa and Kamal Shirafi, writers Hassan Khadr and Mahmoud Darwish, Raja Shehadeh, Rima Tarazi, Ghassan Al-Khatib, Nassir Aruri, Eliya Zureik, and myself. In mid-December, a collective statement was issued that was well-covered in the Arab and European media (it went unmentioned in the U.S.) calling for Palestinian unity and resistance and the unconditional end of Israeli military occupation, while keeping deliberately silent about returning to Oslo. We believe that negotiating an improvement in the occupation is tantamount to prolonging it. Peace can only come after the occupation ends. The declaration’s boldest sections focus on the need to improve the internal Palestinian situation, above all to strengthen democracy; “rectify” the decisionmaking process (which is totally controlled by Arafat and his men); assert the need to restore the law’s sovereignty and an independent judiciary; prevent the further misuse of public funds; and consolidate the functions of public institutions so as to give every citizen confidence in those who are expressly designed for public service. The final and most decisive demand calls for new parliamentary elections.

However else this declaration may have been read, the fact that so many prominent independents with, for the most part, functioning health, educational, professional, and labor organizations as their base have said these things was lost neither on other Palestinians (who saw it as the most trenchant critique yet of the Arafat regime) nor on the Israeli military. In addition, just as the Authority jumped to obey Sharon and Bush by rounding up the usual Islamist suspects, a non-violent International Solidarity Movement was launched by Dr. Barghouthi that comprised about 550 European observers (several of them European parliament members) who flew in at their own expense. With them was a well-disciplined band of young Palestinians who, while disrupting Israeli troop and settler movement along with the Europeans, prevented rock-throwing or firing from the Palestinian side. This effectively froze out the Authority and the Islamists, and set the agenda for making Israel’s occupation itself the focus of attention. All this occurred while the U.S. was vetoing a Security Council resolution mandating an international group of unarmed observers to interpose themselves between the Israeli army and defenseless Palestinian civilians.

The first result of this was that on 3 January, after Barghouthi held a press conference with about 20 Europeans in East Jerusalem, the Israelis arrested, detained, and interrogated him twice, breaking his knee with rifle butts and injuring his head, on the pretext that he was disturbing the peace and had illegally entered Jerusalem (even though he was born in it and has a medical permit to enter it). None of this of course has deterred him or his supporters from continuing the non-violent struggle, which, I think, is certain to take control of the already too militarized Intifada, center it nationally on ending occupation and settlements, and steer Palestinians toward statehood and peace. Israel has more to fear from someone like Barghouthi, who is a self-possessed, rational, and respected Palestinian, than from the bearded Islamic radicals that Sharon loves to misrepresent as Israel’s quintessential terrorist threat. All they do is to arrest him, which is typical of Sharon’s bankrupt policy.

So where is the Israeli and American left that is quick to condemn “violence” while saying not a word about the disgraceful and criminal occupation itself? I would seriously suggest that they should join brave activists like Jeff Halper and Louisa Morgantini at the barricades (literal and figurative), stand side by side with this major new secular Palestinian initiative, and start protesting the Israeli military methods that are directly subsidized by tax-payers and their dearly bought silence. Having for a year wrung their collective hands and complained about the absence of a Palestinian peace movement (since when does a militarily occupied people have responsibility for a peace movement?), the alleged peaceniks who can actually influence Israel’s military have a clear political duty to organize against the occupation right now, unconditionally and without unseemly demands on the already laden Palestinians.

Some of them have. Several hundred Israeli reservists have refused military duty in the occupied territories, and a whole spectrum of journalists, activists, academics, and writers (including Amira Hass, Gideon Levy, David Grossman, Ilan Pappe, Dani Rabinowitz, and Uri Avnery) have kept up a steady attack on the criminal futility of Sharon’s campaign against the Palestinian people. Ideally, there should be a similar chorus in the United States where, except for a tiny number of Jewish voices making public their outrage at Israel’s military occupation, there is far too much complicity and drum-beating. The Israeli lobby has been temporarily successful in identifying the war against Bin Laden with Sharon’s single-minded, collective assault on Arafat and his people. Unfortunately, the Arab American community is both too small and beleaguered as it tries to fend off the ever-expanding Ashcroft dragnet, racial profiling and curtailment of civil liberties here.

Most urgently needed, therefore, is coordination between the various secular groups who support Palestinians, a people against whose mere presence, geographical dispersion (even more than Israeli depredations) is the major obstacle. To end the occupation and all that has gone with it is a clear enough imperative. Now let us do it. And Arab intellectuals needn’t feel shy about actually joining in.