The shocking spectacle of Palestinian police opening fire on protesters in Gaza—killing three—dramatized the exceptional dilemma facing the Palestinians in the aftermath of Sept. 11. With the exception of Afghanistan, it may well be that the Palestinians have both the most to gain and lose in the current crisis.
The good news is that the U.S. has been forced to recognize that its relations with the Arab world are being shaped by its role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. To shore up its international coalition to fight terrorism, the Bush administration finally has leaned hard on Israel to end its violence and resume peace talks.
President Bush’s tepid endorsement of Palestinian statehood indicated a recognition that U.S. policy toward the Arab world cannot simply be a laundry list of groups and ideas that the U.S. is against; it must contain affirmative elements. Clearly the U.S. cannot sustain common cause with Arab societies if it continues to oppose Palestinian independence and an end to the Israeli occupation. Here then is the opportunity for Palestinians. Their predicament has been elevated from a local squabble—to which a U.S. president might attend to gain a legacy—to a central issue of importance for wider U.S. interests.
At the same instant, the crisis exposes and exacerbates serious internal Palestinian fault lines that have been dormant during recent years.
Last week’s confrontations in Gaza may have been sparked by opposition to Yasser Arafat’s decision to align with the U.S.—Israel’s patron—but they expressed far deeper tensions that have been simmering for years. The effect of a decade of peace negotiations in which Palestinians saw little gain has buoyed radical groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Israel’s harsh response to the uprising of the past year further enhanced these groups’ popularity. Moreover, Israel’s use of U.S.-supplied weapons against Palestinian civilians and U.S. opposition to any move to protect Palestinians during the past year have made it difficult for many Palestinians to see the logic in rushing to side with the U.S.
The vast majority of Palestinians realize that Osama bin Laden’s rhetoric about their suffering is cynical propaganda from a villain who never showed any interest in Palestinians until now, and that the outrages of Sept. 11 had nothing whatever to do with the Palestinian struggle for independence. Unfortunately, some of the rhetoric coming from the U.S. against Al Qaeda sounds uncomfortably similar to the rationalizations offered by Israel for its brutal suppression of the Palestinian uprising.
The U.S. praise for Arafat’s violent suppression of the protests in Gaza is a taste of pressures yet to come. The prospect of their own government turning its guns on fellow Palestinians fills many with horror, especially since they are essentially being asked to take it on faith that the end result of such “cooperation with the United States” will really be freedom from Israeli rule.
If Arafat does not see quick and tangible gains in the form of an early end to the occupation, then support for the radical factions and the prospect of sustained inter-Palestinian violence may grow.
This would transform the struggle from a relatively soluble one between Israelis and Palestinians into a multifaceted and increasingly religious conflict in which any reasonable Israeli government that may emerge will find no coherent interlocutor.
Palestinians perceived the whole Oslo process and the offers put to them at Camp David last year as a ploy to formalize the occupation in perpetuity by ensuring permanent Israeli control of all Palestinian borders, airspace and water sources.
What is needed for Palestinians, as well as the rest of the Arab and Muslim world, to start to see the positive elements of U.S. policy is a much clearer articulation that the U.S. stands behind not just some form of Palestinian “statehood” but a complete end to Israel’s occupation in all its forms.
After the 1991 Gulf War, the U.S. helped launch the Arab-Israeli peace process but quickly fell back into patterns of uncritical support for Israel at Arab expense.
No one wants to be burned a second time.
Much is riding on the peace plan currently hinted at by the Bush administration, which reportedly had been in the works before Sept. 11. It is imperative that this initiative boldly move toward a complete end to the Israeli occupation and a viable peace for both Israelis and Palestinians. The stakes are simply too high for it to be yet another false start.
Ali Abunimah is vice-president of the Arab-American Action Network and a well-known media analyst, Ali 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. Hussein Ibish is communications director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times on 15 October 2001.