THE NEW Intifada began as a popular revolt by Palestinians against the continuing and deepening Israeli occupation. But it is also an expression of popular rejection of the severe flaws in the Oslo agreements. While at first it appeared that the Palestinian leadership understood this message, the latest diplomatic moves, involving Mitchell, Tenet and Powell, suggest that the Palestinian leadership is allowing itself to be pulled back into the failed Oslo way of doing business. This risks widening rifts between the leaders and the led, and giving Israel the opportunity it seeks to crush all opposition to its expansionist plans. Above all, it ensures that violence will remain the main feature of Israeli-Palestinian interaction for the foreseeable future.
Of the many flaws in the Oslo accords, the most glaring were that they put all issues, especially the most fundamental questions of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in a subordinate position to Israeli “security” and adopted the utterly false premise that security can be achieved separately from justice and the full realisation of the Palestinian people’s rights. Second, the agreements were vague and did not state clearly that the end point of the process would be full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and full self-determination for the entire Palestinian people. Signed agreements were open to endless reinterpretation, always by Israel or by the United States (which for practical purposes amounts to precisely the same thing).
Third, the vagueness of the agreements, and the fact that Israel has always been free to disregard them at will has led to constant renegotiations of the same signed agreements, which, aside from endlessly delaying any implementation, diverted the negotiations further and further away from the fundamental issues into irrelevant side issues and distractions. As a result, Palestinians made greater and greater concessions for ever smaller gains.
While this diplomatic show continued, the losses on the ground for the Palestinians multiplied. Israel doubled the number of settler housing units in the occupied territories since the Oslo accords were signed in 1993, demolished hundreds of houses and totally cut occupied Jerusalem off from the rest of the West Bank. Israel established a system of control and repression of every aspect of Palestinian life that tightened Israel’s grip on the Palestinians, while it claimed to the world that it was in fact doing the opposite. Meanwhile, Palestinian refugees spread around the region saw their conditions decline as they were marginalised from the political process and their rights forgotten.
The Intifada was therefore as clear a rejection as a people can give of such an unjust and untenable situation. It was a restatement of the unity amongst all Palestinians — those under occupation, those within 1948 Palestine, and those in exile. It is a reaffirmation of the dignity of the Palestinian people, and of their willingness to confront and resist their occupier as long as the occupier shows no signs of recognising their rights and ending the occupation.
The United States, still the main broker (though by no means an “honest” one) between the parties, has studiously ignored this message. The danger now is that the Palestinian leadership, by going along with the latest diplomatic shenanigans, is demonstrating that it is either unwilling or unable to press the message of the Palestinian people that there can be no going back to the dangerous Oslo tendencies.
All the negative features of Oslo are now embodied in the latest US initiatives. First, avoidance of the real issues: the Mitchell report, though rightly praised for demanding a halt to Israeli settlement construction, failed to mention that the occupation itself is a primary aggression and root and cause of all violence. The subsequent agreement brokered by CIA chief George Tenet once again reasserted the false notion that “security” for Israel can exist separately from an end to the repression and Israeli state violence against Palestinians. As for vagueness, diversion and irrelevance, nothing illustrates this better than the controversy surrounding the so-called seven day “truce” announced by Secretary of State Colin Powell shortly before the end of his recent tour.
Within forty-eight hours of the announcement, three Palestinians had been killed by the occupation forces, one a fifteen-year-old boy, and dozens of protesters wounded. Israel announced that this continuing violence meant the truce had not even started, while Palestinian officials insisted the truce was well into its third day. If anyone thinks that the United States is going to take the Palestinians’ side on this question or any other, they need only refer back to the sorry spectacle of Secretary of State Colin Powell telling his Palestinian hosts in Ramallah that he agreed with their insistence on international observers, only to be quickly and humiliating slapped back into the pro-Israeli line by the White House. The fate of the “truce” was all but sealed later in the week by Israel’s resumption of extrajudicial executions using American-built Apache helicopters of Palestinian activists with an attack near Jenin which killed three.
Amidst all the wrangling about “truces”, “cooling off” periods and “negotiations”, the real issues have once again been pushed out of sight. All the parties, including Arab governments, are calling for a resumption of “negotiations”. But to what end? Even if a “truce”, as outlined by Powell, were possible and successful, and negotiations were to be resumed, there is nothing at this point to discuss with Israel. Sharon has made it absolutely clear that he will not consider anything beyond giving the Palestinians a bantustan in no more than fifty-six per cent of the occupied territories (that is twelve per cent of historic Palestine). In other words, Israel formally and totally rejects the very basis of the peace process begun at Madrid a decade ago — the full implementation of UN resolutions 242 and 338, and all other resolutions on the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people.
With such a rejectionist Israeli government, negotiations are not only useless, but wrong, since they send the signal that Palestinian rights have a price and that anything is negotiable. Before any meaningful discussions can resume, Israel must declare that such negotiations will have as their end the full implementation of UN resolutions, and Israel must cease any activities — especially settlement building — which contradict this basis. Any construction of settlements or other violations of the Geneva Conventions should lead to an immediate suspension of all contacts.
Israeli adherence to these principals could be brought about by pressure from the United States, Israel’s main patron. But the dismal performance of the Bush administration, especially Powell’s tour, indicates that the United States is neither capable nor willing to break its addiction to Israel. Or, a united and concerted effort by the Arab League to attach an economic and political cost to the West’s support for or indifference to Israel’s aggression could change the balance. But two Arab summits, whose results are impressive if measured in words but meagre when assessed against actions, indicate that this too is most unlikely.
This leaves open only the most likely and realistic course, which is that the Palestinian people will decide to continue their resistance until the cost of oppression becomes too high for the oppressor, as almost every anti-colonial and anti-racist movement of the twentieth century did from Southeast Asia to Algeria to the struggle for civil rights for American blacks, to South Africa. The price of such resistance is always higher for the oppressed than for the oppressor and the Palestinian case is no exception as the current Intifada reminds us. But history shows that a people determined to win their freedom will prevail.
It ought to be possible to find a way to resolve political conflicts peacefully so that no more Palestinian or Israeli parents are left to grieve. But the callous indifference and irresponsibility of the world’s great powers, the intransigence of Israel’s leaders and the weakness and divisions in the Arab world ensure that the Palestinian struggle — the last great anti-colonial struggle of the twentieth century — will continue well into the twenty-first.
Ali Abunimah is vice-president of the Arab-American Action Network and a well-known media analyst, Abunimah regularly writes public letters to the media, coordinates campaigns, and appears on a variety of national and international news programs as a commentator on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is one of the founders of The Electronic Intifada. This article first appeared in the Jordan Times on 5 July 2001.