Judging the Intifada

Fruit of the Loom: A young Palestinian, who has only known a life under military occupation, strides with rocks to confront Israeli rifles on the edge of Bethlehem. (Photo: Nigel Parry)


The fourth anniversary of Israel’s violent crackdown on the Palestinian uprising, which coincided with its latest massacre of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, occasioned a number of analyses, many concluding — wishfully — that the Intifada has been “counterproductive” for the Palestinians, or even a “failure.”

Ha’aretz analyst Bradley Burston wrote an article headlined, “The war that Palestine couldn’t lose - and did.” US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, asked on Al-Jazeera, “What has [the Intifada] accomplished for the Palestinian people? Has it produced progress toward a Palestinian state? Has it defeated Israel on the battlefield?” Concluding it had not, he declared, “it is time to end this process. It is time to end the Intifada.”

The standard that Mr. Powell set for assessing Palestinian success or failure is disengenuous and absurd. No one expected that Palestinians could defeat Israel’s astronomically superior, US-backed armed forces. But as the ongoing resistance, both nonviolent and armed, demonstrates every day, the Palestinians are not close to defeat, nor are the Israelis close to victory. Despite all of Israel’s killing and cruelty for decades, the Palestinians are unbroken; they have neither abandoned their rights, nor resigned themselves to living permanently under Israeli dictatorship.

Palestinians have indeed paid a heartbreaking price during the past four years in death and destruction inflicted by Israel. But that is not the only way they measure the Intifada. Mr. Powell failed to ask how much the Palestinians had gained from more than a decade of the American-sponsored “peace process” and the “roadmap.” He knows the answer: throughout the period, Israel continued, with American connivance, to steal and colonize the little left of their land at an accelerating pace, extinguishing the prospects for a truly independent Palestinian state even as the US claimed to be supporting it. The Intifada did not interrupt and “derail” the peace process as revisionists argue; it came long after the peace process failed, and as a direct result of this failure. As long as Palestinians see that no outside powers will fairly uphold their rights, or international law, some will always conclude that their only course is to impose as a high cost as possible on Israel, no matter the cost to themselves. This is what fuels support for counterattacks on Israeli civilians, and indeed the willingness to die carrying them out. In a context where Israel has left them nothing to lose, some Palestinians feel such attacks are the only means they have to even the killing field.

Powell also did not ask Israel how much its unrelenting brutality and colonization has allowed Israelis to relax and enjoy the fruits of dispossessing the Palestinians and depriving them of their basic rights. In addition to losing more than one thousand people, Israel is wracked with corruption, unemployment, poverty and mass emigration as a direct result of its war to keep the Palestinians under occupation.

It is nevertheless fashionable to point to the precipitous drop in Palestinian living standards as further evidence of the failure of the Intifada, as New York Times reporter Steven Erlanger did in an October 3 column. This economic collapse, as numerous UN, EU and other bodies have reported over many years, is the direct result of Israel’s collective punishment of the population. But rather than condemning the illegal measures of the occupier, some seek to blame the victims for bringing it on themselves. Erlanger quoted a recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) that “although the occupation and the confrontation with Israel that is entering its fifth year provide the context, today’s Palestinian predicament is decidedly domestic.” The ICG, which seems to exist solely to lend false credibility to the most shallow, power-serving clichés, has once again issued a report in which the hypothetical ideal is offered as the alternative to grim reality, but without a single plausible suggestion for how to get there, and with virtually all responsibility for action lying at the door of the weakest party.

Such transparent apologia for Israel is nothing new. From the first days of what began as a peaceful uprising, to which Israel responded with one million bullets in the first month of protests, Israeli and American analysts have been declaring that the efforts to stop all resistance would soon succeed. A few more assassinations, a few more missiles, a few thousand more arrests, a bit more torture, a few hundred more demolitions, a little more hunger and darkness — and the Palestinians will get the message and realize that their best option is servitude under occupation.

By any standard, in a war between a colonial occupier and an indigenous people, the Palestinians are in a comparable state to those who have trodden this path before them. In Southeast Asia, the United States killed approximately fifty Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians for every American who died in that war, and still the Americans suffered a total strategic defeat. In Algeria, the French killed on a similar scale and were defeated. In South Africa, the apartheid regime killed hundreds of black South Africans for every white person killed, and that regime no longer exists. Nor did massacres and atrocities in Iraq in the 1920s, or India in the 1940s, save British rule there. In colonial wars, the colonized always pay a much higher price than their foreign rulers. The Americans and British are learning afresh in the “New” Iraq that massive military dominance is not the same thing as victory.

Israel, though, stubbornly refuses to learn any lessons and thus spare Jewish and Arab lives. As its situation has deteriorated, it has used ever more brutality against the Palestinians, with increasingly meagre results from its perspective. Strategically, Israel remains at an absolute dead end. Despite all the talk of “disengagement,” Israel has thrust deeper into Gaza. It can neither afford to stay there, nor can it afford to leave. Sharon’s only reason for ever speaking of a withdrawal from Gaza was to reduce the cost of the occupation to Israel and to consolidate Israel’s conquests in the West Bank. But the tenacity of the resistance in Gaza and the West Bank shows that as long as Israel is determined to colonize any inch of the occupied territories, it is necessarily committed to staying in all of them. The logic of Israeli policy demands ever deeper penetration and ever more savage measures.

South African law professor John Dugard, the UN special rapporteur for human rights in the Palestinian territories, wrote in a report to the General Assembly last August that Israel has created, “an apartheid regime” in the occupied territories “worse than the one that existed in South Africa.” Dugard is in a good position to know, since he was a member his country’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Contrasting with Dugard’s forthrightness is the utter cowardice of those who talk loudest about international law and human rights in the abstract. The United States’ pro-Israel position is the most extreme and biased, but has lost the power to shock or disappoint. Yet the European Union, which has for years posed as an even-handed force in the conflict, has long since abandoned all serious efforts. European states now make empty statements about adhering to the “roadmap” and calling for Palestinian “reform,” not because they believe genuinely that such things are in any remote way related to a solution, but because they realize that exposing the real problem — Israel’s intransigence — will lead to embarassing calls for sanctions against an outlaw regime that recognizes no boundaries for its conduct.

Recently, UK prime minister Tony Blair, the champion of democracy, human rights and freedom in Iraq, made a personal committment to do everything possible to resolve the Palestine-Israel conflict. Before the Iraq invasion, he made the same promise on the BBC Arabic Service, responding to doubts about the West’s past performance by saying that a skeptical Arab public should just wait, and judge him by his actions. More than a year has passed and Blair has done absolutely nothing except vigorously oppose Palestinian efforts to win their rights through the peaceful forum of the International Court of Justice at The Hague.

The result of all this is that Israel is ever emboldened, confident that it can do as it pleases. Other than bleats of displeasure from Arab and international officials, no one will act against it. Never has Ben-Gurion’s infamous maxim been more apt: “What matters is not what the Gentiles will say, but what the Jews will do.”

Those who wish to mark the anniversary of the Intifada with a hard look at reality, rather than self-delusion, might make the following predictions: there will be no Palestinian state alongside Israel, because such a thing is impossible in the reality Israel has, with the world’s acquiescence, created. But in another four years it will become clear that Israel can no longer exist as a “Jewish state,” superimposed on a Palestinian majority that refuses to accept the inferior status Israel has assigned it, and which Palestinians will continue to resist with whatever resources they have.

In the meantime, we can expect ever more horrifying violence that will not be abated by ritual condemnations. And, as Israel gets further into its corner, the chances increase dramatically that it will seek to resolve its existential problem not just at the expense of the Palestinians, but by spreading the conflict to its neighbors.

Ambassador Hasan Abu Nimah is former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations. Ali Abunimah is co-founder of the websites The Electronic Intifada and Electronic Iraq.