‘The world is closing on us, pushing us through the last passage, and we tear off our limbs to pass through.’ Thus Mahmoud Darwish, writing in the aftermath of the PLO’s exit from Beirut in August 1982. ‘Where shall we go after the last frontiers, where should the birds fly after the last sky’? Nineteen years later, what was happening then to the Palestinians in Lebanon is happening to them in Palestine. Since the al-Aqsa Intifada began last September, Palestinians have been sequestered by the Israeli Army in no fewer than 220 discontinuous little ghettoes, and subjected to intermittent curfews often lasting for weeks at a stretch. No one, young or old, sick or well, dying or pregnant, student or doctor, can move without spending hours at barricades, manned by rude and deliberately humiliating Israeli soldiers. As I write, two hundred Palestinians are unable to receive kidney dialysis because for ‘security reasons’ the Israeli military won’t allow them to travel to medical centres. Have any of the innumerable members of the foreign media covering the conflict done a story about these brutalised young Israeli conscripts trained to punish Palestinian civilians as the main part of their military duty? I think not.
Yasir Arafat was not allowed to leave his office in Ramallah to attend the emergency meeting of Islamic Conference foreign ministers on 10 December in Qatar; his speech was read by an aide. The airport fifteen miles away in Gaza and Arafat’s two ageing helicopters had been destroyed the previous week by Israeli planes and bulldozers, with no one and no force to check, much less prevent the daily incursions of which this particular feat of military daring was a part. Gaza airport was the only direct port of entry into Palestinian territory, the only civilian airport in the world wantonly destroyed since World War Two. Since last May Israeli F-16s (generously supplied by the US) have regularly bombed and strafed Palestinian towns and villages, Guernica style, destroying property and killing civilians and security officials (there is no Palestinian army, navy or air force to protect the people); Apache attack helicopters (again supplied by the US) have used their missiles to murder 77 Palestinian leaders, for alleged terrorist offences, past or future. A group of unknown Israeli intelligence operatives have the authority to decide on these assassinations, presumably with the approval on each occasion of the Israeli Cabinet and, more generally, that of the US. The helicopters have also done an efficient job of bombing Palestinian Authority installations, police as well as civilian. During the night of 5 December, the Israeli Army entered the five-storey offices of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics in Ramallah, carried off the computers, as well as most of the files and reports, thereby effacing virtually the entire record of collective Palestinian life. In 1982 the same Army under the same commander entered West Beirut and carted off documents and files from the Palestinian Research Centre, before flattening the structure. A few days later came the massacres of Sabra and Shatila.
The suicide bombers of Hamas and Islamic Jihad have of course been at work, as Sharon knew perfectly well they would be when, after a ten-day lull in the fighting in late November, he suddenly ordered the murder of the Hamas leader Mahmoud Abu Hanoud: an act designed to provoke Hamas into retaliation and thus allow the Israeli Army to resume the slaughter of Palestinians. After eight years of barren peace discussions 50 per cent of Palestinians are unemployed and 70 per cent live on less than 2 dollars a day. Every day brings with it unopposable land grabs and house demolitions. The Israelis even make a point of destroying trees and orchards on Palestinian land. Although five or six Palestinians have been killed in the last few months for every one Israeli, the obese old warmonger has the gall to keep repeating that Israel has been the victim of the same terrorism as that meted out by Bin Laden.
The crucial point in all this is that Israel has been in illegal military occupation since 1967; it is the longest such occupation in history, and the only one anywhere in the world today: this is the original and continuing violence against which all the Palestinian acts of violence have been directed. Yesterday (10 December), two children aged 3 and 13 were killed by Israeli bombs in Hebron, yet at the same time an EU delegation was demanding that Palestinians curtail their violence and acts of terrorism. Today five more Palestinians were killed, all of them civilian, victims of helicopter bombings of Gaza’s refugee camps. To make matters worse, as a result of the 11 September attacks, the word ‘terrorism’ is being used to blot out legitimate acts of resistance against military occupation and any causal or even narrative connection between the dreadful killing of civilians (which I have always opposed) and thirty plus years of collective punishment is proscribed.
Every Western pundit or official who pontificates about Palestinian terrorism needs to ask how forgetting the fact of the occupation is supposed to stop terrorism. Arafat’s great mistake, a consequence of frustration and poor advice, was to try to make a deal with the occupation when he authorised ‘peace’ discussions between scions of two prominent Palestinian families and Mossad in 1992 at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge. These discussions were all to do with Israeli security: nothing was said about Palestinian security, nothing at all, and the struggle of his people to achieve an independent state was left to one side. Indeed, Israeli security to the exclusion of anything else has become the recognised international priority which allows General Zinni and Javier Solana to preach at the PLO while remaining totally silent on the occupation. Yet Israel has scarcely gained more from these discussions than the Palestinians have. Its mistake has been to imagine that by conning Arafat and his coterie into interminable discussions and tiny concessions it would get a general Palestinian quiescence. Every official Israeli policy thus far has made things worse, rather than better, for Israel. Ask yourself: is Israel more secure and more accepted now than it was ten years ago? Can its current war of attrition be any more successful than the one it lost in Lebanon?
The terrible and, in my opinion, stupid suicide raids against civilians in Haifa and Jerusalem over the weekend of 1 December should of course be condemned, but in order for the condemnation to make any sense the raids must be considered in the context of Abu Hanoud’s assassination earlier in the week, along with the killing of five children by an Israeli booby-trap in Gaza – to say nothing of the houses destroyed, the Palestinians killed throughout Gaza and the West Bank, the constant tank incursions, the endless grinding away of Palestinian aspirations, minute by minute, for the past 35 years. In the end desperation only produces poor results, none worse than the green light George W. and Colin Powell seem to have given Sharon when he was in Washington on 2 December (all too reminiscent of the green light Al Haig gave in May 1982). With their support went the usual ringing declarations turning the people under occupation and their hapless, inept leader into world-wide aggressors who had to ‘bring to justice’ their own criminals even as Israeli soldiers were systematically destroying the Palestinian police structure which was supposed to do the arresting.
Arafat is hemmed in on all sides, an ironic consequence of his bottomless wish to be all things Palestinian to everyone, enemies and friends alike. He is at once a tragically heroic figure and a bumbling one. No Palestinian today is going to disavow his leadership for the simple reason that despite all his wafflings and mistakes he is being punished and humiliated because he is a Palestinian leader, and in that capacity his mere existence offends purists (if that’s the right word) like Sharon and his American backers. Except for the health and education ministries, both of which have done a decent job, Arafat’s Authority has been a dismal failure. Its corruption and brutality stem from Arafat’s apparently whimsical, but actually very meticulous, way of keeping everyone dependent on his largesse: he alone controls the budget, and he alone decides what goes on the front pages of the five daily newspapers. He knows what’s going on and has a few people well placed to stir up a little rock-throwing in the streets. Above all, he manipulates and sets against each other the 12 or 14 – some say 19 or 20 – independent security services that he created, each of which is structurally loyal to its own leaders and to Arafat at the same time without being able to do much more for its people than arrest them when enjoined to do so by Arafat, Israel and the US. The 1996 elections were designed for a term of three years, but Arafat has shilly-shallied with the idea of calling new ones, which would almost certainly challenge his authority and popularity in a serious way.
He has had a well-publicised entente with Hamas since the latter’s June bombings: Hamas wouldn’t go after Israeli civilians if Arafat left the Islamic parties alone. Sharon killed off the entente with Abu Hanoud’s assassination: Hamas retaliated and there was nothing to stop Sharon squeezing the life out of Arafat, with American support. Having destroyed Arafat’s security network, his jails and offices, and having physically imprisoned him, Sharon made demands that he knows can’t be fulfilled (even though Arafat, with a few cards always up his sleeve, has managed, astonishingly, to half-comply). Sharon stupidly believes that, having dispensed with Arafat, he can make a series of independent agreements with local warlords and divide 40 per cent of the West Bank and most of Gaza into several non-contiguous cantons whose borders the Israeli Army will control. How this is supposed to make Israel more secure eludes me, but not, alas, the people with the relevant power.
That leaves out three players, or groups of players, two of whom in his racist way Sharon gives no weight to. First, the Palestinians themselves who are far too intransigent and politicised finally to accept anything less than unconditional Israeli withdrawal. Israel’s policies, like all such aggressions, produce the opposite effect to the one intended: to suppress is to provoke resistance. Were Arafat to disappear, Palestinian law provides for 60 days of rule by the speaker of the Assembly (an unimpressive and unpopular Arafat hanger-on called Abul Ala, much admired by Israelis for his ‘flexibility’). After that, a succession struggle would ensue between other Arafat cronies such as Abu Mazen and two or three of the leading (and capable) security chiefs – notably Jibril Rajoub of the West Bank and Mohammed Dahlan in Gaza. None of these people has Arafat’s stature, or anything resembling his (perhaps now lost) popularity. Temporary chaos is the likely result: Arafat’s presence has been an organising focus for Palestinian politics, in which millions of other Arabs and Muslims have a very large stake.
Arafat has always tolerated, indeed supported a plurality of organisations that he manipulates in various ways, balancing them against each other so that no one predominates except his Fatah. New groups are emerging, however: secular, hard-working, committed, dedicated to a democratic polity in an independent Palestine. Over these people, the PA has no control at all. It should be said that no one in Palestine is willing to accede to the Israeli-US demand for an end to ‘terrorism’, although it will be difficult to draw a line in the public mind between suicidal adventurism and resistance to the occupation so long as Israel goes on with its bombings.
The second group are the leaders in the rest of the Arab world who have a vested interest in Arafat, despite their evident exasperation with him. He is cleverer and more persistent than they are, and knows the hold he has on the popular mind in their countries, where he has cultivated both Islamists and secular nationalists. Both feel under attack even though the secular nationalists have hardly been noticed by the vast number of Western experts and Orientalists who take bin Laden – rather than the much larger number of Muslim and non-Muslim secular Arabs who detest what he does – to be the paradigm Muslim. Now that Arafat is cornered, his popularity in Palestine has shot up. But until very recently, he and Hamas were about level in the polls (hovering between 20 and 25 per cent), with the majority of citizens favouring neither. The same division, with the same significant plague-on-both-your-houses majority, exists in Arab countries where most people are put off either by the corruption and brutality of the regimes or by the extremism of the religious groups – most of whom are more interested in the regulation of personal behaviour than they are in matters like globalisation or producing electricity and jobs.
Arabs and Muslims might well turn against their own rulers were Arafat seen to be choked to death by Israeli violence and Arab indifference. So he is necessary to the present landscape. His departure will only seem natural when a new collective leadership emerges among a younger generation of Palestinians. When and how that will happen is impossible to tell, but I’m quite certain that it will happen.
The third player is Israel, where an audacious Knesset member, the Palestinian Azmi Bishara, has been stripped of his Parliamentary immunity and will soon be put on trial for incitement to violence, because he has long stood for the Palestinian right of resistance to occupation, arguing that, like every other state in the world, Israel should be the state of all of its citizens not just of the Jewish people. For the first time, a major Palestinian challenge is being mounted inside Israel (not on the West Bank) with all eyes on the proceedings. At the same time the Belgian Attorney General’s office has confirmed that a war crimes case against Sharon can go forward in the country’s courts. A painstaking mobilisation of secular Palestinian opinion is underway which should slowly overtake the PA. The moral high ground will soon be reclaimed from Israel, as the occupation becomes the focus of attention, and as more and more Israelis realise that it won’t be possible to keep it going indefinitely. Besides, as the US war against terrorism spreads, more unrest is almost certain: far from closing things down, US power is likely to stir them up in ways that may not be containable. It’s no mean irony that the renewed attention on Palestine came about because the anti-Taliban coalition made it necessary.