In early June, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip (and the Golan Heights) entered its 40th year.The Palestinians who inhabit these territories have lived under Israeli military occupation for two full generations; before that, between 1948 and 1967, they lived under Jordanian and Egyptian regimes. The overwhelming majority of this population of more than 3.5 million knows only Israeli military rule. Most Israelis do not remember a time when they did not dominate another people, and when their children did not have to serve in an army of occupation. This occupation differs in several respects from the colonisation that has been going on inside Israel since at least 1948. In every successful nation-state with colonial settler origins – the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – the indigenous minority that remained after surviving various forms of ethnic cleansing has been deprived of most of its land, but has been incorporated into the polity, although often as second-class citizens subject to discrimination.
The Palestinians of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem are in an entirely different situation. They aren’t citizens of a state. They are not represented internationally by a sovereign entity which they can control democratically, and which is responsible for the main laws and regulations by which their lives are organised. Since 1948, the only internationally recognised sovereign entity between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River has been the state of Israel. Since 1967 the most important aspects of the lives of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories have been governed by the military regulations of the Israeli occupation. The laws promulgated by the Palestinian Authority since 1995 deal only with marginal aspects of their lives. In the Occupied Territories, Palestinians have no say at all in the key decisions regarding land, residency rights, security, taxation or most other important issues.
If you are a Palestinian in the West Bank, East Jerusalem or the Gaza Strip, whether and where you or your offspring live in the Occupied Territories is not up to you; you may or may not be allowed to keep the land your family has owned for generations; you may or may not be allowed to move outside your village, town, city or refugee camp; what taxes, duties and customs you pay, to whom, and what is done with the resulting revenue, is again not up to you. For two generations, all of these decisions have been made by the military officers and security officials of the occupation regime. For two-thirds of its 58-year existence, Israel has denied the Palestinian people the right to make their own decisions about the crucial issues that face them as a society and as individuals.
It is this disproportion that makes so wrong-headed the assumption that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is essentially symmetrical. The situation of the two groups is not comparable. In fact, it was never appropriate or even illuminating to compare the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine with the Palestinian Arab population of the country. It is even less appropriate to make such comparisons today, given the unequal relations between occupier and occupied, and between a people with an established state, and one that has never had a state. Such comparisons, and understandings of the conflict based on them, are particularly ludicrous given Israel’s status as one of the world’s greatest military powers, and one of only eight recognised nuclear powers. The United States, Russia, Britain and France, the oldest members of the ‘nuclear club’, each possess a degree of global influence as an echo or consequence of past and present imperial glories. However, among the second tier of China, India, Pakistan and Israel, Israel is in some ways pre-eminent. It is the oldest nuclear power among them, it has the greatest military reach, a world-class arms industry and uniquely privileged access to American military technology. Palestine’s poverty-stricken dwarf economy is dependent on Israel for almost everything, while Israel’s economy is as large as, and produces the same GDP per capita, as many members of the EU. To talk of an ‘Israeli-Palestinian conflict’ as if these are two states, or two equal entities, is thoroughly deceptive: one side has virtually complete autonomy and massive power, the other extremely limited autonomy and even more limited power.
The democratic exercise recently engaged in by the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories, which produced a majority for Hamas in the Palestinian Legislative Council, must be seen for what it is. The Palestinian Authority does not rule over an independent state or sovereign entity. According to the ground-rules imposed by the United States and Israel at the very beginning of the Madrid and Oslo negotiations in 1991, all the Palestinians could hope for in the short run was an ‘interim self-governing authority’. That is what they got in the Oslo Accords in the mid-1990s, and is all they have today. Sovereignty was excluded then, and it is still withheld by Israel and the US on the classic colonial grounds that the Palestinians have not yet proved that they have the maturity for fully-fledged statehood. The PA does not even have full jurisdiction and control over the assorted scraps of Palestine where it is from time to time allowed to operate by the Israelis. The bulk of its budget comes from foreign sources, mainly the EU and Asian states, and most of such revenue as is produced by the Palestinian economy (about $100 million per month) comes to the PA via Israel, which collects many taxes and all customs duties, and withholds these funds at its discretion, as it is doing at the moment.
In these circumstances, what are the real powers of President Mahmoud Abbas (Israel insists on using the demeaning title ‘chairman’ for him, as it did for Arafat), the newly elected Hamas-dominated PLC, and the government it has chosen, headed by Ismail Haniya? Not surprisingly they are quite limited, restricted as they are to those expensive functions of government (health, education, social welfare and infrastructure) that the Israelis devolved in the 1990s when the PA was created. Additionally, the PA has nominally at its disposal the extensive security services, in multiple and competing configurations, created by Arafat to provide security for his regime, and tolerated because they were meant to (and until 2000 did) provide security for Israel.
After Hamas won the PLC elections in January, international donors and Israel cut off the money needed for this system to function, with the result that the 165,000 families dependent on PA salaries (approximately a fifth of the population) are becoming impoverished, and social services have ground to a halt. The situation in the security services, dominated and controlled by Fatah but faction-ridden nonetheless, is especially worrying: the struggle for control between Abbas and the new government has exacerbated tensions between the defeated Fatah and the victorious Hamas, and led to armed clashes, particularly in the Gaza Strip. Depriving a large body of heavily armed men of their livelihoods, especially when they are already factionalised, poorly controlled, and are being threatened by their political adversaries, would seem to be a recipe for chaos, or worse.
It is not hard to work out the aims – or assess the effects – of the American-Israeli campaign (in which the EU, the UN and many NGOs have shamefully acquiesced) to starve the PA, and indeed the Occupied Territories more generally, of funds. The goal appears to be to reverse the outcome of a democratic election, and to force ‘regime-change’, by imposing intolerable hardship on the Palestinian people. This might be brought about either by inducing the Fatah-dominated security forces to launch a putsch against the government in a situation of increasing lawlessness, or by provoking internecine conflict between Hamas and Fatah. Whatever its aims, the campaign has already had widespread effects. There is currently almost no liquidity in the West Bank or Gaza Strip, and it is becoming impossible to cash a cheque or change money. Bank transfers of funds into the Occupied Territories, whether attempted by potential donors, NGOs or individuals, have virtually halted as Arab, international and Israeli banks have succumbed to the blackmail exerted by the US through its draconian anti-terrorist banking laws. NGOs and even the UN are afraid to work with PA officials or fund projects for fear of prosecution under US law for consorting with or funding ‘terrorists’. Funding of projects (polio vaccines, anti-avian flu measures, sewage treatment, help for the handicapped, pre-schools) has been frozen, the projects halted, and the personnel working on them laid off. All of this should have provoked an outcry. Instead, the US Congress seems set to pass even more draconian laws: under the bill, which has already been passed by the House of Representatives, the Occupied Territories will be declared a ‘terrorist sanctuary’, making even those who merely visit the area liable to criminal penalties.
That this financial siege has not yet led to starvation, or widespread destitution, is thanks only to the resilience of Palestinian social and family networks formed during extended periods of extreme hardship over the past decades. Nevertheless, the financial and economic siege is perceived throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds as an act of cruelty committed by the powerful and wealthy against the vulnerable.
Despite the EU plan announced on 6 June to give direct emergency aid bypassing the Hamas government, the financial blockade seems likely to remain in place for some time: in the words of Scott Carpenter, an American deputy assistant secretary of state speaking at the end of May: ‘I think we are hopeful something can emerge in the next three or four weeks or so.’ Or to put it less diplomatically, a humanitarian crisis and a social and security breakdown may be looming, but the United States will keep up the pressure on the Palestinians. If there is a humanitarian crisis in the Occupied Territories, it will be because the US and Israel have decided to punish the inhabitants of occupied Palestine, many of them too young to vote, and the employees of the PA – most of them aligned with Fatah if they have any political orientation – for voting the wrong way.
It is time – it has long been time – for a more intelligent form of opposition on the part of the Palestinians, as well as those who understand both the moral cost of the present policies, and the long-term damage they will do not only to the Palestinians but also to America, Europe and Israel. However, for this to happen major changes will be necessary. The leaders of Hamas knew when they took part in the PLC elections that the functioning of the Palestinian Authority was hedged around with conditions and limitations. They knew in particular that the very existence of the PA was predicated on acceptance of the state of Israel and the two-state solution, and on a renunciation of violence. Indeed, this was the reason hardliners in the Hamas political bureau in Damascus – men such as Khalid Mash’al and Maussa Abu Marzouq – were opposed to Hamas’s participation in the elections. They were overruled by the rest of the movement, led by inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
When Hamas unexpectedly won a large majority in the January elections, and with it a measure of executive power derived from its control of the PA premiership and cabinet, its leadership tried to do the impossible. They tried to maintain doctrinal purity – they stuck to their non-recognition of Israel, rejection of a two-state solution, and retention of the option of armed resistance – while, at the same time, expecting continued financial aid from international donors and Arab parties whose precondition for support of the PA is adherence to the opposite positions, which have long since been accepted by Fatah and the PLO.
This conundrum, combined with popular pressure to resolve the crisis caused by the financial blockade, produced an interesting set of developments inside Hamas. Less ideological leaders such as Ismail Haniya began to repeat and expand on ideas put forward in the past by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Ismail Abu-Shanab and other Hamas leaders whom Israel later assassinated: ideas about a long-term ceasefire and about coexistence between Israel and a Palestinian state within the 1967 boundaries; they even talked about this as a permanent settlement (although there is little hope of Israel reciprocating with a full ceasefire, a halt to the violence of the occupation or a return to the 1967 borders). In so doing they were responding to public opinion. In February polls found that 66 per cent of Palestinians supported holding political negotiations with Israel; 58 per cent favoured a coalition government between Hamas and Fatah.Hardline Hamas leaders such as Mash’al and the PA foreign minister, Mahmoud Zahhar, rejected these concessions, sticking much more closely to Hamas’s traditional position. A stand-off ensued between the apparently internally paralysed Hamas and Fatah, whose leaders appeared neither repentant about its failings nor reconciled to losing power.
Then something forced Hamas and Fatah to reconsider their course. On 11 May, the leader of the Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails, Abdel Khaliq al-Natsheh, signed a joint document with the leader of the Fatah detainees, Marwan Barghouti, and the leaders of other factions, which called for much the same things as Haniya had. The thousands of occupants of Israel’s gulag form well-disciplined and organised groups and have tended to take advantage of their incarceration by learning Hebrew and generally educating themselves. They also manage to maintain excellent communications with the outside world, all with the acquiescence of the Israeli prison authorities (who in this way buy peace with the many long-term Palestinian detainees). The document raised the intriguing possibility of a Hamas government that could accept the Beirut summit resolutions of 2002, which held that Israel would be recognised by the Arab world as a whole if it withdrew from the entirety of the Occupied Territories. It put the hawks inside Hamas on the defensive, and weakened the unrepentant Fatah hardliners, who were intent on co-operating with outside forces to bring down the Hamas government and enable their own return to power.
But progress has required ideologically painful changes, for Hamas in particular. Hamas of course continued to argue, as did the joint document, that as long as the occupation continued, resistance was legitimate in principle (although the document argued that such resistance should be confined to the Occupied Territories, and should ideally not be violent). Hamas also insisted that Israel, which has been killing an average of 20 Palestinians a month for 16 months (according to Israeli figures, 45 Israelis were killed in 2005), must also cease its violence, and commit itself to ending the everyday terrors of the occupation. And of course it maintained that the Palestinians should not be asked to recognise the Israeli state until Israel recognised a Palestinian state within the 1967 frontiers. Far though this was from the Israeli-American position, which basically demands that Hamas turn itself into Fatah, it was infinitely further from the language of the Hamas Charter, which calls apocalyptically for an Islamic Palestine in place of Israel in overtly anti-semitic tones. The prisoners’ document was an implicit rebuke to the tactic pioneered by Hamas, but also used by other Palestinian groups, of carrying out suicide bombings against civilians inside Israel. The change is far more significant than any shift made by the Israelis.
In order for the Palestinians to make progress, Fatah will also have to make some drastic changes. Instead of privately asking foreigners to help bring down an elected government and reinstate Fatah, the party must accept that it needs to undergo radical reform. Although it still controls many of the levers of power in the PA, and fully controls the PLO, it is afflicted by infighting, and is in danger of slipping into irrelevance. If it is once again to become a vehicle for Palestinian national aspirations instead of a career ladder – and a conduit for the designs of foreign powers – it must refashion itself. It must purge its corrupt, discredited and unpopular leadership and put the most egregious offenders on trial. Fatah’s leadership hasn’t changed in years, and has resisted calling a conference that would bring such change about. Many of its top leaders are known to have feathered their nests at the expense of ordinary Palestinians: just look at their gleaming, garish villas in Ramallah and Gaza. Agreeing to share power with Hamas – the prisoners’ document calls for a national unity government – would go some way to restoring its support.
A coalition might also be thought to represent enough of an evolution in the Hamas position for the PA once again to become acceptable to most of the outside world. Rather than move in this direction, however, Abbas proposes to hold a referendum on the prisoners’ document in July unless Hamas approves it. This has met with different reactions from different Hamas leaders: Mash’al and some of those in Damascus oppose the referendum, and others inside Palestine refuse to reject it. If sowing differences was Abbas’s objective, he may well have succeeded, at least in the short term. But even if his referendum goes ahead it is hard to see how he can proceed with negotiations with Israel (assuming that the Olmert government deigns to negotiate seriously) without first coming to some agreement with Hamas.
Escape from the trap in which the Palestinian people currently find themselves requires movement from both camps. This will not happen unless the leaders of Hamas state their willingness to move away from the Sturm und Drang of their charter, thereby making it possible to disarm and divide the international coalition arrayed against the Palestinian people. It will not happen unless Fatah begins to see that the Palestinian national interest means that it has to come to terms with other forces in society. For too many years Fatah has been content to identify the interests of Palestinians with the interests of Fatah. If this doesn’t change, the Palestinians have no chance of confronting the external and internal pressures that threaten to engulf them. Some political and economic gains have been made over the past decade: it would be unfortunate if they were to be lost and a catastrophe if the entire society were to break down.
The Palestinians have shown a resilience beyond the imagination of their antagonists, whether Israeli and American in the present, or British, Zionist and Arab in the past. It would be premature to assume that the current crisis, however grave, will mark the final defeat of Palestinian national aspirations. But Palestinian society needs and deserves better and more coherent leadership than it has had for most of the past century.