Finally, the Palestinians are meeting in Cairo to consider their next moves. The meeting, which for quite a while was meant to only settle differences on how to handle the Intifada between Hamas and Islamic Jihad, on the one side, and Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA) on the other, has now been enlarged to include twelve Palestinian factions, including Damascus-based hardliners such as PFLP-General Command of Ahmad Jibril.
Egypt, which had been pushing for this meeting for months now, will apparently be trying to secure the approval of the participants for a one-year unilateral truce, with cessation of all forms of violence against the Israelis, by way of preparing the grounds for the resumption of the long-stalled peace talks. Since the eruption of the Intifada, in September 2000, every effort to reconcile the Palestinian and the Israeli positions demanded that the Palestinians stop their violence against the Israelis first. That was the case with the Mitchel Report, the Tenet understandings, the Zinni recommendations and the frozen road map of the quartet. None of these “peace plans” has ever seen the light, in spite of the fact that the PNA had promptly accepted the terms of every one of the said plans and kept declaring ceasefires.
Is it going to be different this time? Unfortunately, most available indications point negatively. The recent massacre in Gaza will certainly further harden the resolve of the factions who oppose ceasing fire before the Israelis do. The indiscriminate massacring of 14 people and injuring over fifty Palestinians in one morning, just to satisfy the need for revenge, is not the right encouragement for extracting concessions.
The failure of the previous plans was mainly due to the fact that they assumed that the Palestinians were responsible for the violence (if not blaming them outright). This view, which is a firm Israeli belief, has recently been reinforced by the ill advised calls from some Palestinian leaders, such as Mahmoud Abbas and others, who blamed the violence on “arming the Intifada”. Such one-sided and indeed very incorrect emphasis, further shifted the blame to the Palestinian side and simultaneously vindicated the Israeli view and the media-fed notions that the Israeli army’s severe measures and atrocities against the Palestinians were, and still are, merely justified acts of self defence in retaliation to Palestinian “terror”.
It is true that the Palestinians’ legitimate resistance, and their rejection of the occupation and of continued confiscation of their rights and land, has involved very objectionable forms of violence, such as the suicide bombings. These were widely and generally condemned, but also specifically, and strongly, by the PNA itself, which repeatedly called on all Palestinian factions to abandon such methods as being immensely harmful to the Palestinian cause; calls which were defiantly ignored.
The devastating nature and impact of the suicide bombings on local and world public opinion, their aiming at soft civilian targets and the media trend of reporting more of the Palestinian violence than that of the Israeli, have also helped eclipse a significant part of the truth, making any diagnosis of the raging violence seriously faulty and dangerously misleading, though this shift in emphasis is at least in part deliberate.
Suppressed truths include such facts as: 1) that the Palestinian struggle for ending an unlawful occupation is totally legitimate under international law; 2) that the Palestinian resistance started with throwing stones at heavily fortified military tanks, mostly by children, and it only developed into armed bloody violence when Israel responded by using guns, F-16s, air-to-ground missiles, heavy machineguns and house-demolishing bulldozers to devastate apartment buildings, market places and passenger cars; 3) that when the Palestinians stopped their attacks for extended periods, the Israeli army was the one which interrupted the peace by flagrant acts of assassinations or by uncalled for raids on Palestinian towns, villages and refugee camps for arrests and destruction, which even some moderate Israelis considered as open provocations; and 4) that asking the Palestinians alone to stop their attacks on the occupation forces without demanding the same from the Israelis is tantamount to tying the hands of the victims in order to facilitate the task of the assailant.
Consequently, and as a result of this sustained systematic distortion of the facts, violence became the focus of attention of any effort dealing with this issue. Violence is indeed an ugly manifestation of an historic conflict of which many Palestinians and Israelis have fallen victim. It is causing immeasurable suffering and daily agony to both communities and to the region as well. It is natural, therefore, that the issue of violence be urgently addressed and calls to put an immediate end to it be heeded. Yet, it should be firmly emphasised that the current violence which started just over two years ago should not be treated as if it were the Palestinian-Israeli conflict which started fifty-five years ago. This half-century-old conflict started neither with the present Intifada nor with the suicide bombings, and it will not end by dealing with these two issues as if they were the problem, rather than the consequences and symptoms of the real problem.
The correct starting point for addressing the current crisis should be a willingness to clarify the confusion. It must be recognised that the Palestinian uprising, and the resulting violence, are the logical outcome of the failure of the so-called peace process which, after seven years of sterile negotiations, ended up further diminishing Palestinian rights and presence on the ground, rather than restoring them. It should also be recognised that even if all parties agree to end violence (a remote possibility indeed), that will only bring the region back to the explosion point of Sept. 28, 2000. Keeping it there without immediately addressing the core issues will only cause the same explosion of bloodier violence to erupt again. That is what usually happens when the treatment deals only with symptoms. And that is what the Cairo dialogue should clearly avoid.
It should also avoid creating any impression that the entire effort is meant to settle inter-Palestinian differences and disputes over the issue of abandoning or continuing violence as, in fact, media reports have been persistently suggesting. This is very dangerous as it is wrong. It will further consolidate the prevailing misconception that the source of violence is entirely and purely Palestinian, and that it is a matter for the Palestinians to settle amongst themselves while the Israelis, exempted from any responsibility regarding violence by such dangerous handling, wait for the results.
The Palestinians did the right thing by seizing this opportunity for talks and they should make the best out of them. It is well known that the Palestinian scene is terribly confused. The PNA has been steadily weakened while receiving one blow after the other from the Israelis. But it has been weakened further by loosing control over the many Palestinian factions that have not been able so far to agree on a united strategy. This is the time for all the participants in the Cairo dialogue to assess, plan and agree. There should be one Palestinian strategy for dealing with the occupation and for confronting it. Such a strategy should be neither one of resisting by all possible means, as the radicals may insist, nor of supplication, as the authority has often practised. What is needed is for the Palestinians to seize the initiative and formulate a peace plan for which, with Arab support, they would seek international approval and action.
Whether they end up agreeing or disagreeing on pursuing or abandoning violence, they should uphold their right to fight the occupation until it departs. They should also demand that any cessation of violence on their part be matched by similar and simultaneous measures by the Israelis. But most important is that any agreed truce be the beginning and not the end. It should be the beginning of negotiations for ending the occupation and settling the final status issues justly, correctly and in accordance with international law.
The writer is former ambassador and permanent representative of Jordan to the UN.