The autumn of the patriarch is finally over. These are difficult times for the Palestinians, and Yasser Arafat’s death presents them with a daunting challenge. The first of their difficulties is the long-standing fragmentation of the Palestinian people. Nearly five million still live in some part of what was once Mandate Palestine, and can be divided into four distinct groups. More than a million have been citizens of Israel since 1948. Over 3.5 million, in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, are in their 38th year of military occupation, hermetically sealed off from one another. Each of the four groups – those with Israeli citizenship, 250,000 Arab Jerusalemites, more than two million West Bankers and 1.3 million Gazans – is subject to different laws; the last two face stringent restrictions on their movements.
A further five million Palestinians (there are no reliable figures) live outside Palestine, some of them in the utter misery of the refugee camps in Lebanon, others in widely differing conditions in different Arab countries, Europe and the US. The Palestinians of the diaspora possess a variety of passports, laisser-passers and refugee documents, and some also face restrictions on their movements. The largest single group, perhaps three million, carry Jordanian passports. One thing they all have in common is that they are barred from living in any part of their ancestral homeland.
The second difficulty the Palestinians face is the extraordinarily close relationship between the Sharon government and the Bush administration. Some of the same consultants work for American and Israeli political candidates, and some funders bankroll both Israeli and American political movements, charities and foundations. The economies of the two countries are intertwined: the incoming head of the Israeli Central Bank is an American, and a huge amount of capital flows from the US to Israel, including $2 billion a year in military assistance. Economic aid, loans, investment, charity donations and other transfers amount to as much as 10 per cent of Israel’s $120 billion GDP. Israeli writers, artists and academics commute to and from the US; tens of thousands of Israelis live in and visit the United States, and there are similar numbers of Americans in Israel.
The connection between Bush and Sharon goes back to Bush’s first visit to Israel, in 1998, one of the three trips abroad he made before he became president; Sharon showed him the Occupied Territories from a helicopter. The old general seems to have made a powerful impression on the Texas governor: ideological factors alone can’t explain a closeness sealed by ten meetings between the two men during Bush’s first term as president. Tony Blair may see Bush just as often, but he doesn’t have the same influence over him. The military and political consequences of their collaboration, which was cemented after 9/11 and during the second intifada, have been devastating for the Palestinians. With American approval, Israel reoccupied the small areas of the West Bank it had evacuated under the 1993 Oslo Accords, turned Palestinian towns into an archipelago of open-air prison camps, and wrecked the fragile Palestinian economy. The administrative apparatus of the Palestinian Authority was destroyed, police stations and government offices were demolished, and official records looted.
Last April Bush stated that Israel would have the right to annex the considerable areas of the West Bank where the largest of its illegal settlements are located: a significant departure from previous American policy, which had always maintained that these settlements were illegal, and an ‘obstacle to peace’. At one stroke, the Bush administration had discarded one of the core principles of Security Council Resolution 242, the internationally recognised basis for Arab-Israeli peace negotiations – viz. the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force. The settlements were now described by the president as ‘realities’ that would have to be taken into account in any agreement. Dealing exclusively with the Israeli government, the US behaved as if the Palestinians had neither interests nor rights in these matters – as if they didn’t exist. Sharon’s plan for a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip (while maintaining complete control of the region from outside), in order to retain indefinite control of most of the West Bank, is grounded in these Bush-Sharon understandings.
The third difficulty the Palestinians have to contend with is the absence of an effective political structure which would enable them to further their aims as a people, and therefore of an effective strategy for ending the occupation and achieving self-determination. This is a long-standing weakness, as Edward Said often argued in these pages. It dates back to the Mandate era, when the Palestinians, unlike many other Arab national movements of the same period, failed to build up the centralised institutions of a para-state, or to take control of the institutions of the colonial state. Partly in consequence, they remained weak and divided. Although they had a relatively strong sense of national identity, they were denied most of the attributes of statehood by the British Mandate authorities, and failed to develop them on their own. This crucial failing contributed to their resounding defeat between 29 November 1947, when UN General Assembly Resolution 181 mandated partition of the country, and 15 May 1948, when Israel was established, troops from four Arab armies entered the country, and the second phase of the war over Palestine began. In less than six months, two of the three largest Palestinian cities, Jaffa and Haifa, fell to the Zionists, as did scores of villages and towns; about half of the 750,000 Palestinians who became refugees during the war were forced from their homes.
In 1964, after the ‘lost decade’ of the 1950s, the PLO was created by the Arab governments as a way of controlling the Palestinians. Taken over by the Palestinians themselves in 1968, the PLO eventually established a para-state structure, with the equivalent of ministries carrying out financial, educational, medical and social tasks. It was hampered by having to do this in exile, in Jordan, Lebanon and elsewhere, and often clashed with the governments of the host countries. The institutions it created were neither very democratic nor very efficient, but many of the PLO cadres who had run them were imported into the Occupied Territories after the 1993 Oslo Accords (most of the lower-ranking employees came from the Occupied Territories).