Identifying Palestinian options

29 September 2008

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A picture of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat hangs in the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon. (Matthew Cassel)


What do you want?
As you march from a legend to a legend.
A flag?
What good have flags ever done?
Have they ever protected a city from the shrapnel of a bomb?

How large the revolution,
How narrow the journey,
How grand the idea,
How small the state!

— Excerpts from Mahmoud Darwish, “In Praise of the High Shadow” [1]

Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote “In Praise of the High Shadow” in the wake of Israel’s 1982 invasion and devastation of Lebanon, the negotiated exile of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from the country and the subsequent massacre of 1,500-2,000 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. At the time, it was hard to imagine how Palestinians could ever recover from the loss of Lebanon, and no one, not even Darwish (whom Palestinians buried in August), could have foreseen when he wrote that poem that our fortunes could sink even lower. But sink they did, and a good chunk of the responsibility for that can be given to Palestinians who have gamely assumed the roles that Israel and the United States have assigned to them.

Illustrating the wretched state of the Palestinian national movement, the Palestinian Authority’s “chief of staff,” General Dhiab al-Ali, known as Abu al-Fatah, stated in a recent interview with the Israeli daily Haaretz that the PA may soon have “no choice” but to use force against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. He is quoted as stating that “There haven’t yet been consultations with the Israelis on the issue,” but he also is clearly angered that Israel has not granted his requests for “arms and ammunition” and that it has restricted “the movement of PA forces in the West Bank.” And lest anyone have any doubt about the role of the PA in the occupied territories, he adds that “There is cooperation with Israel. … We prevented dozens of terror attacks just this year.” [2]

In fact, terror attacks have been ongoing in the West Bank, as even a cursory glance at the headlines from Palestinian media make clear: mass arrests, killings of Palestinian civilians, including children, rabid settler attacks, and a man-made humanitarian crisis. Israel’s ongoing war crimes and reign of terror against Palestinian families in the Gaza Strip continue apace with no interference by the PA, either. Apparently, neither al-Ali nor his bosses find it peculiar that the PA should discuss with Israel a military confrontation with a Palestinian faction supported by a sizable segment of the Palestinian population. The fact that this “coordination” takes place as 1.5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are placed on a “diet” — as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s advisor Dov Weissglas described the Jewish state’s policy of collective punishment and constant siege — makes this nonchalant disclosure all the more galling. There was a time when Palestinian collaboration with Israel was not seen as the norm.

So effectively has Israel tamed and co-opted its Palestinian partners that they use the same terms that Israelis use when referring to Hamas. It is beyond shameful when Palestinian figures, in an apparent attempt to curry favor with the Americans and Israelis, refer to Hamas as “terrorists” and try to insinuate a connection with al-Qaida and Iran. Palestinians listen to this nonsense and seethe; Hamas was never the enemy, and its assessments of the PA’s direction have been borne out by events. PA figures in Ramallah faulted Hamas for winning the elections for the Legislative Council in January 2006, which resulted in the withholding of foreign aid, and for defending itself against the US and Israeli-backed attack by militias loyal to the PA’s former National Security Adviser Mohammad Dahlan in the Gaza Strip. The sordid details of the campaign against Hamas, orchestrated at the behest of the US and Israel and in which the PA and elements in Fatah were willing participants, was revealed in an April 2008 Vanity Fair article. [3] Moreover, the PA government in Ramallah should be made to explain how it is that the majority of the population was slowly slipping below the poverty line long before that election, when the money was flowing in uninterrupted.

Palestinians have been in a crisis for many years now. The political and national conditions of Palestinians today are arguably worse than they were in the spring of 1948, when Palestine was dismembered and the majority of its indigenous inhabitants were flung into exile. Sixty years later, the majority of us remain in exile (and some, such as the community in Lebanon, are at risk); those who still live in Mandate Palestine are caged, used for target practice, our lives reduced to negotiating checkpoints. According to the World Bank, 79 percent of the population in the Gaza Strip and 45 percent of the population in the West Bank live below the poverty line. [4]

In an attempt to initiate a Palestinian change of game plan, a group of Palestinians acting in a personal capacity met to discuss Palestinian strategic options. The outcome of their meetings is described in “Regaining the Initiative: Palestinian Strategic Options to End Israeli Occupation: A Report,” which outlines Palestinian strategic options and discusses them in terms of Palestinian ability to achieve them and Israeli ability to block them. It calls for a reorientation of Palestinian strategy to end negotiations, reconstitute the PA so that it no longer serves Israeli interests, reconstitute the PLO so that it is truly representative, empower Palestinians to conduct “smart” resistance, and shift the strategic goal from two-state to a single state. [5]

The report states in passing and without elaboration what Palestinians have been saying for years in private: whether it intends to or not, the PA serves the interests of the Israeli occupation, providing the fig leaf that has allowed Israel to avoid its responsibility as occupying power. Because of its total dependence on foreign aid, the PA is easy to pressure and intimidate. Thus, by playing off petty factional differences and rivalries (all of which are irrelevant to the vast majority of the population), the PA was persuaded to fight Hamas as the price of the resumption of foreign aid.

Palestinians have always had options, even though the PA has seemed stunningly incapable of identifying, let alone exercising, any of them. [6] As the strategy report makes clear, Israel cannot really prevent us from advancing our own interests in certain areas. It remains a mystery why the PA has not capitalized on the International Court of Justice decision regarding the illegality of the Apartheid Wall and the obscene Israeli policy of requiring that residents who live in the “seam” area (the land between the wall and the internationally-recognized boundaries between Israel and the West Bank) apply for Israeli-issued permits to live in homes they never left. It would not be difficult for the PA to launch international publicity campaigns denouncing such practices, but there has to be political will.

Israel can’t stop the PA from demanding the immediate and unconditional release of Hamas members who were imprisoned almost as soon as they were elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council. Indeed, it would be hard for the international community to ignore the parallels between such Israeli measures and those taken by other oppressive regimes around the globe. Most people cannot defend the imprisonment of elected officials, irrespective of their party affiliation.

Contrary to the defeatist attitude of the PA leadership, participation in the endless rounds of “negotiations” has always been voluntary. It should be obvious to the PA, as it is to the rest of the world, that the only role that Israel will permit the PA’s “negotiators” to play in this farce is to administer the occupied territories without any real authority and to make pro forma statements that help Israel maintain the fiction that it is engaged in a good-faith dialog with Palestinians when in fact its strategy is simply to buy time so that it can secure its grip over Jerusalem and the rest of the occupied territories by building more settlements and expanding existing ones. To paraphrase former PLO legal counsel Michael Tarazi: it’s as though two people are talking about how to split a pie but all the while one of them proceeds eat one slice after another. We can always refuse to participate until certain conditions are met, such as a freeze on all settlement activity throughout the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and a lifting of the siege of the Gaza Strip. A good case can be made for not meeting with official Israelis and Americans at all right now, under any circumstances; the Israelis and the Americans set up summits only to extract more concessions from Palestinians, and that is unlikely to change as long as we are in such appalling disarray.

The strategy report seems to suggest that Palestinians could opt for a one-state or binational resolution to the conflict almost as a tactical measure, to demonstrate what Israel will have to deal with (by implication, a maximalist position) if it rejects the proposal to create a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge instead that the PLO made a historic mistake when it offered to settle for 22 percent of Mandate Palestine. The problem is not that Israel fails to appreciate the generous Palestinian offer, but rather that the PLO had no right to be so generous, signing off on the theft of 78 percent of the homeland. PA officials make sounds about time running out on the two-state solution, but in fact that option has long since been inoperable. It was proposed as a compromise because it was easily achievable and was seen as non-threatening (and thus more acceptable) to Israel (because it did not threaten the Jewishness of Israel). Neither factor is relevant today: Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank has been complicated by its greed (settling more Israeli colonizers on stolen Palestinian land who won’t leave easily) and determination to create facts on the ground, and the demographics are such that Israel will become a binational state in the near future whether it likes the prospect or not. Unless Israel launches another massive campaign to ethnically cleanse Palestine of Palestinians, non-Jews will form 30 percent of the population within Israel in the not too distant future. Israel’s goal of maintaining a Jewish state in the (Arab) Middle East is doomed, so why should Palestinians let it be used to deny the Palestinian right of return? Of course, Israel’s perverse goals should never have had any bearing on the parameters of Palestinian demands; we are under no obligation to adopt Israel’s goals, interests, and viewpoints.

The strategy report leaves open the possibility that the PA can be transformed into a vehicle for advancing Palestinian interests. Periodically Mahmoud Abbas threatens to dissolve the PA. The dissolution of the PA should be raised, not as a rhetorical flourish, nor as a threat, but rather as an option worth exploring seriously, as the report also makes clear. In conjunction with this, we will have to figure out how we can transform the petty factionalism and disastrous political culture shaped by the late Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat, the Teflon man himself, who mastered the useless “art” of playing factions against each other and tolerating corrupt underlings. This is not the mindset of statesmen, and it cannot lead to a future worth embracing.

Israel has always had a master plan and a strategy for achieving it and its plans for us are patently clear. We, too, need a long-term strategy in which we act intelligently and purposefully, not simply reacting ineffectually to the schemes of others. Our strategy must be mindful of our history, the irrefutable justice of our cause, the sacrifices that good and honest people have made in hope of realizing a better future for generations to come, and the considerable assets that we have, marginalized and bombarded and besieged though we are. The strategy report provides a basis for the necessary and long overdue Palestinian internal discussion about our future as a people and how we can best advance our cause for justice and freedom.

Ida Audeh is a Palestinian from the West Bank who works as a technical editor in Boulder, Colorado. Her op-eds and articles have been published by the Rocky Mountain News, The Daily Camera, The Electronic Intifada, Countercurrents, and Counterpunch. She can be reached at idaaudeh A T yahoo D O T com.

Endnotes
[1] Translated by Saifedeann Ammous; accessed at http://thesaifhouse.wordpress.com/
[2] Avi Issacharoff, “PA chief of staff: We must be ready to use force against Hamas,” Haaretz, 21 September 2008.
[3] David Rose, “The Gaza Bombshell,” Vanity Fair, April 2008.
[4] Saed Bannoura, “World Bank: Israeli siege is strangling Palestinian economy, International Middle East Media Center, 20 September 2008
[5] The Palestine Strategy Study Group, “Regaining the Initiative: Palestinian Strategic Options to End Israeli Occupation: A Report” (August 2008).
[6] An organizer of community protests in the West Bank village of Budrus described that “The PA has lapsed in its responsibilities toward all the villages west of Ramallah generally and in fact, in the entire West Bank. Its failure has been abnormal and unnatural.” Similar sentiments regarding the ineffectiveness of the PA were expressed frequently throughout the occupied territories. Ida Audeh, “A Village Mobilized: Lessons from Budrus,” The Electronic Intifada, 13 June 2007.