Election deflation

A donkey passes election posters in Nablus, 4 January 2004. (Photo: Rob Maguire)

With “election elation” in the air (as a Palestinian journalist put it), people ask me here in the United States how I feel about the potential for peace in the occupied Palestinian territories. Much as I long to feel elated, I must admit to a sinking heart.

The reason for my pessimism is based on the rhetoric that continues to be put out by both sides and by the US and on Israel’s continuing project of “creating facts on the ground”. Neither side in the conflict is listening to what the other is saying. Certainly no one is listening to what the Palestinians have to say.

But if you do listen to both sides, you discover that both are saying what they have been saying all along — the nature of the impasse has not changed a bit, nor have the anomalies. The Palestinians still want what they have always wanted: liberation of the occupied territories, Arab Jerusalem and return of the refugees. Mahmoud Abbas is promising to reject any solution that is less than the establishment of an independent state with its capital in Jerusalem. He will want implemented, for the Palestinians, the principles of justice that are backed by international legitimacy. All this, of course, is Arafat’s heritage.

More than 500 Palestinians, among them high-level officials and representatives from all sectors of Palestinian society, have recently signed an “Open letter to Palestinian public opinion”, in which they express support, in no uncertain terms, for a Palestinian state within the June 4, 1967, borders. They want the apartheid wall pulled down and they firmly reject “the so-called interim state solution or any other interim solutions that are aimed at slamming the door in the face of a comprehensive peace settlement”.

And what does Israel want? That Palestinian national heritage and ethos be betrayed and dismantled by the Palestinians themselves. Backed by the US, Israel is looking to empower the Palestinian National Authority to dominate all existing political factions, to finish off groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which have taken up arms against the occupation. What’s more, the PNA must do it “legally”, even if the state it is to preside over would not be rooted in the will of democratic majorities. It is well known that in the Palestinian legislature and municipal council elections Hamas is likely to win if it is allowed to run.

What is Israel doing? Continuing to annex parts of the West Bank and “creating facts” even though, according to international law, any Israeli building on Palestinian lands occupied since 1967 is illegal. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has just announced a new rail line that divides the West Bank and a plan to annex illegal Jewish settlements south of Jerusalem, incorporating “50,000 Jewish settlers in 10 settlements in the occupied territories, four Palestinian villages of 18,000 inhabitants, and many lands belonging to Palestinians from the Bethlehem area”.

Once the territories are thus subdued, “negotiations” would follow, with Israel dictating what little it will relinquish and how. If the Palestinians balk, then the US is sure to be inundated by cries of “foul” directed at the Palestinians, as happened after Camp David, no matter how lousy and untenable the deal shoved down their throats turns out to be.

People hear just what they want to hear — that’s human nature. If many Palestinians are “elated” by the elections, it’s because, against all odds, they hear bells of freedom ringing and long for a humane life. If shapers of US involvement in the Middle East peace feel encouraged, it’s because they hear what they wish to dictate.

Take, for example, a recent report by Dennis Ross. “Something is stirring in Gaza. There is a sense of hope and possibility,” he wrote in The Washington Post a few days ago. Why so? Ross picked these vibes up not from the emotionally charged representatives of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front, who also spoke at the conference on the peace process that he had been invited to address in Gaza, neither from the majority of the 200 people in the audience. He picked up the sea change from “some” in the audience who agreed with him that the United States could help the Palestinians only if they were prepared to fulfil their obligations, that is to say, to renounce “terror”. Few shapers of American Middle East policy bother to make a distinction anymore between terror and armed resistance of an occupation.

Moreover, to fulfil Palestinian “obligations”, Abbas must renounce armed resistance categorically. So if he provides a tactical rationale when he calls for a ceasefire (i.e., rocket attacks by Palestinian militants provoke Israeli retaliation and are counterproductive), his motivations are questioned by the Israeli media. He is to renounce armed action on the part of the Palestinians a priori, so to speak. But Abbas cannot do so if he wants to be elected and, down the line, govern. He and most Palestinians believe that the armed militants are “neither criminals nor murderers. Rather, they are fighting for the honourable lives of their Palestinians brothers”.

On the other hand, and in keeping with the double standards routinely applied to Israeli actions vs. Palestinian actions, no one sees anything wrong, for example, in the Israeli Cabinet deciding to reexamine its policy of demolishing Palestinian houses (1,500 by June 2004, according to UN figures) to see whether such tactics are effective in achieving Israel’s goal of quashing armed resistance.

Nothing even close to Palestinian “obligations” is required from Israel — not because obligations and reparations on its part as an occupier and usurper are not vitally necessary for peace, but rather because commentators such as Ross see such obligations (example, Israel should withdraw troops from the West Bank and Gaza before the Palestinians are forced to declare a ceasefire) as “highly unlikely to happen” because Israel has and will continue to have the upper hand militarily.

Zakaria Zubeidi, West Bank commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, joins supporters during a visit by Palestinian presidential candidate Mahmoud Abbas to Jenin, on 30 December 2004. (Photo: Reuters/Ammar Awad)

A similar weird logic is applied to why it is inadvisable for militants to be co-opted in the Palestinian political process. These militants do not have a figure like Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, “who could hold the hardliners in check”. But Israel has not allowed such a figure to arise. It has systematically hunted down and murdered militant leaders. So now we have the spectacle of Zakariya Zubeidi, of Fateh’s military wing in Jenin, escorting Abbas in the city while he himself is being hunted by Israel, targeted for killing.

Such anomalies are shoved aside as Ross and other shapers of American Middle Eastern policy ram the Israeli perspective on the Palestinians. It’s now all about national characteristics, the same characteristics delineated in an Israeli court recently by an “expert” witness on the “Arab mentality”, Rafi Israeli, a lecturer in Middle Eastern Studies at Hebrew University. These are “a sense of being a victim”, “pathological anti-Semitism” and “a tendency to live in a world of illusions”. “Arafat made being a victim a strategy,” says Ross, ignoring the fact that the very strategy being used by Israel and the US is clearly to blame the victim.

To people who have been suffering under Israeli violence and occupation for 37 years, Ross declares grandly that “there would be no Palestinian state born of violence”. It’s hard to understand why otherwise smart people like him can’t tell which comes first, the occupation or resistance to it, as if the question were a chicken and egg conundrum.

Rima Merriman is a freelance writer and a communications specialist. She worked in the West Bank for four months in late 2004. This article first appeared in the Jordan Times on Thursday, January 6, 2005.