More than three years into the intifada, the Palestinian situation seems worse than ever: the weekly death toll, the poverty and now the wall. So has the uprising failed? And how can suicide bombings ever be justified? Seumas Milne had exclusive access to leaders across the political spectrum - from president Yasser Arafat in his devastated compound to the underground strategists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. He found an unprecedented willingness to compromise - but a growing belief that the wall will scupper the best ever hope for peace
In a back street in Gaza city, we wait in our car at an agreed rendezvous. The engine is running. My go-between keeps checking the wing mirror for any sign of the man we have come to meet. After Israel’s assassination of around 150 prominent militants during the last three years of the Palestinian intifada (uprising), no leader of an armed faction takes chances - even in the heartlands of the occupied territories. As the minutes pass, my contact seems edgy. “The problem isn’t just that the Israelis may attack while we are in the meeting,” he says. “Sometimes they attack immediately after you have left - and then the groups may suspect you of tipping them off.” Eventually, a car drives by, does an abrupt u-turn and signals to us to follow. We tail it across the impoverished urban sprawl, stopping outside a bland-looking workshop. On the first floor, we are ushered first into a waiting room, lined with golden sofas in the Islamist style, and finally into a small office. Seated behind a desk, flanked by the Palestinian flag and a black and gold banner, is Nafiz Azzam, leader of Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip.
The Islamist group is often regarded as the most extreme of the Palestinian armed resistance organisations, notorious for suicide attacks against Israeli targets, both civilian and military. But in his manner at least, Azzam turns out to be the image of bookish moderation, as he reflects on the failure of the Palestinian armed factions to agree a new ceasefire - or hudna. “We want to minimise the suffering of our people, avoid internal Palestinian conflict and demonstrate that we are not an obstacle to achieving a settlement.” But, referring to the breakdown of last summer’s two-month unilateral Palestinian ceasefire after repeated Israeli killings of activists, he adds: “Israel violated and abandoned it. This time we asked whether there were any guarantees on offer from the other side and were told no. So it was very difficult to expect us to agree a hudna for free. We know the balance of power is not in our favour, but we will not allow that to force us to surrender.”
When challenged to justify attacks on civilians, Azzam seems almost apologetic, citing a string of Israeli massacres and killings of civilians - from the slaughter of the villagers of Deir Yassin in 1948 to the shooting of 12-year-old Muhammad Durrah in his father’s arms at the beginning of the current al-Aqsa intifada in 2000. “We are never happy about the death of any innocent human being, regardless of their religion, but Israel initiated these killings. Palestinians were pushed into such operations in an effort to stop Israel killing our civilians. A year ago, Islamic Jihad proposed that both sides avoid civilian targets - and that was recently repeated by Hamas - but the Israelis have not responded positively.”
After dark, we go in search of Abd al-Aziz Rantissi, political leader and co-founder of Hamas, the largest Islamist resistance group and the only force among the Palestinians to offer a serious challenge to the leadership of Yasser Arafat and his nationalist Fatah movement. That is especially true in the Gaza Strip, where its support is rooted in a network of social welfare and educational institutions among the poorest of a destitute population. Since Israel launched an abortive assassination attempt against him in June last year, Rantissi, a 56-year-old paediatrician, has gone underground, never moving around outside in daylight. Arrangements are made by word of mouth in the shadows of Gaza’s bomb-cratered buildings, to avoid Israeli electronic surveillance. We are told to wait at an office block for further instructions. Suddenly, Rantissi himself appears with two armed bodyguards, joking about his chances of survival if he had agreed to appear on a live satellite TV talk show that night.
The Hamas leader is more outspoken than Azzam - a natural politician, restless and sharp-tongued. He pulls up his left trouser leg to reveal a livid red scar running up his calf to his thigh, where his artery was severed in last June’s attack. Rantissi was being driven through Gaza by his son and a bodyguard when their Jeep was attacked by two Israeli helicopter gunships with a barrage of missiles. The bodyguard was killed, along with a woman and her eight-year-old daughter passing by. His son was left paralysed in every limb and 25 bystanders were wounded. But Rantissi staggered free, as he puts it, “through a sea of blood” - convinced that his son’s precaution of not stopping at junctions and red lights (“the police always wave us through”) had saved his life.
Behind the scenes, Palestinian leaders have for months been trying to draw Hamas into agreeing a common national platform. But Rantissi - who has spent more than two years in Palestinian jails, as well as seven in Israeli prisons, for his role as a Hamas leader - warns that his organisation will be offering no more comprehensive ceasefires without a full Israel withdrawal. “We are resisting because we are under occupation,” he declares, “not because we are being hit by Apaches or F16s. The enemy must withdraw or they will continue to bleed. But if the occupation ends, there will be no need for resistance.”
Although militants from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Fatah-linked al-Aqsa Brigades and leftwing groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian (PFLP) continue to battle it out with Israeli troops in and around the refugee camps and towns of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the number of attacks on Israeli cities has fallen sharply in recent months. But Rantissi rebuffs any suggestion that the unremitting Israeli onslaught has left Hamas enfeebled and hungry for a face-saving respite. “It is completely untrue. There has been no political decision to halt our attacks. It is normal that there are waves of resistance and then periods of relative quiet. But now the street is calling for action.”
Mostly relaxed, the Hamas leader becomes incensed when confronted with the revulsion of western public opinion over Islamist suicide bombings of Israeli buses and bars - like Azzam, defending the tactic as a deterrent which has gone some way to shift the “balance of suffering”. “The number of Palestinian children killed by the Israelis in the past three years is almost as high as the total number of Israeli deaths. These operations have only one target - to deter the killing of our children and civilians. If they stop killing our civilians, we will stop. But what kind of international public opinion is it that averts its eyes from Israeli F16s but protests at us fighting the occupiers?” Nor is he prepared to concede that suicide attacks have poisoned Palestinian culture. “We do not have a cult of death,” he insists, “we have a cult of dignity - as you have seen they also do in Iraq.”
More unexpected than Rantissi’s defence of what many Palestinians themselves regard as unjustifiable is the attitude of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders towards the prospect of a two-state settlement of the conflict. Both groups are usually regarded as beyond the political pale outside the Muslim world, not only because of their use of suicide bombers, but also because of their long-term goal of establishing Islamist rule in the whole of historic Palestine. Unlike the secular resistance, it is often assumed, the Islamists will never accept peace with Israel. What emerges from any discussion which goes beyond slogans and soundbites, however, is something different - and potentially crucial to any settlement of the conflict. In practical terms, it becomes clear, both Hamas and Islamic Jihad are now committed to ending their armed campaign in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967: the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem.
“From a religious point of view,” the animated Rantissi explains, “we can’t give up our land. But we are ready to accept a temporary solution that does not confiscate Palestinian rights: the occupier should withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip in exchange for a ceasefire that should be seen in terms of years.” Azzam is, if anything, more explicit. A Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza is of course not the limit of Islamic Jihad’s long-term “ambition”. But, he goes on, “we may accept a Palestinian state with full jurisdiction in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, with full Palestinian security and without Israeli settlements. That is the realistic situation. We may accept it temporarily, even though our belief is that historic Palestine is our right. If we are not able today to reclaim it, that is because of the international complications and the unfair balance of power. We don’t know how long this temporary solution might be. But if it comes about, many things might change in the whole region.”
The Islamists’ carefully-hedged accommodation to the goal of a Palestinian state in the 1967 territories is echoed even more strongly by groups like the Marxist PFLP, which were once at the heart of the rejectionist opposition to a two-state solution. Jamil Majdalawi, PFLP leader in Gaza, explains: “A democratic state for all in the whole of Palestine is a hope for history, but we don’t regard it as a realistic proposal now. The confrontation now is about the area of the Palestinian state, its sovereignty and borders.”
What these comments make clear is that every significant Palestinian political and armed force is, for the first time, now prepared to accept a de facto end to conflict in return for a fully independent state on only 22% of pre-1948 Palestine. This is unprecedented in the history of the conflict. But, of course, no such state is on offer. And what is currently taking place on the ground has begun to cast doubt on whether a Palestinian state is now a realistic possibility at all.
Since most of their people fled or were driven from their homes in the war that gave birth to the state of Israel in 1948, the Palestinians have suffered national dispossession, humiliation and slaughter. And as their country has been progressively conquered and colonised - with the support or acquiescence of the west - their daily lives have become ever grimmer. Yet they have also consistently demonstrated a tenacious creativity in their struggle for political survival and independence.
A quarter of a century ago, when I first visited the region, there were no suicide bombers and Palestinian Islamists were an exotic rarity - Islamism flourished later in the vacuum left by the failures of nationalists and leftists. The Palestinian resistance, then based in Beirut, was the focus of a dynamic popular movement, which offered political hope both to the Palestinian diaspora and those living under Israeli occupation. Now, two decades after Yasser Arafat and the PLO were forced out of Lebanon, the conditions of Palestinian refugees left behind have deteriorated calamitously. Having survived 15 years of civil war, 22 years of Israeli occupation of the south and orgies of killing by Syrian and Israeli backed militias in camps such as Tel al-Za’atar and Shatila, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians now subsist on the margins of Lebanese society, prevented from working in 72 specified jobs and banned from owning or inheriting property.
“They’re trying to force the Palestinians out of Lebanon with their racist laws,” says Sultan Abu al-Ainain, Fatah’s military commander in south Lebanon, who has been confined to the Rashidiyeh refugee camp near Tyre for the past five years. “But our suffering has not put a limit on our ambitions.” At least inside Rashidiyeh, blockaded by the Lebanese army, the Palestinian political organisations can organise, which they cannot in most of Lebanon. In the 1970s, the PLO and its factions provided employment and welfare support, ran workshops, clinics and cultural centres. Their expulsion left their people pauperised, and today camps like Shatila and Ain el-Helweh in Sidon look more like the slums of Karachi or Dhaka. Shatila’s Gaza Hospital, once the pride of the Palestinian Red Crescent, is now a tenement squat, teeming with homeless families, its medical equipment long ago looted by Lebanese militia. Refugees’ attitudes vary from despairing resignation to enraged militancy - as one Shatila activist, Ahmad Halimi, puts it,”Our people are living in a dark tunnel.”
In the occupied Palestinian territories themselves, conditions have if anything deteriorated even more precipitously. During the glacial “peace process” kicked off by the Oslo accord of 1993, Israeli city closures and exclusion of Palestinian workers led to a 40% drop in living standards and sharp increases in unemployment. But since the explosion of the intifada in September 2000, that slump has turned into a full-scale economic and social disaster, as military invasion, siege, blockades, curfews and destruction of homes and infrastructure have driven Palestinian unemployment to two-thirds in some parts of the territories, where incomes have fallen by more than half to $900 a year - compared with an average of nearly $17,000 for their Israeli neighbours. Towns dependent on tourism, like Bethlehem, have been reduced to beggary, while towering over shanty refugee camps are the suburban-style fortresses that are home to nearly 240,000 Jewish settlers. Only in South Africa and on the US-Mexican border do the first and third worlds collide as in the territories ruled by Israel.
The bitter reality is that the Israeli occupation was less oppressive and destructive when it took the form of direct military rule up until the early 1990s than it is today. Despite the humiliation of foreign subjugation and the routine imprisonment of activists, for the first 20 years after the 1967 war, life was easier for the average Palestinian, who could work in Israel, trade and move relatively freely across the country. Even the illegal colonisation of the West Bank and Gaza by Israeli settlers was on a modest scale compared with what would come later.
To anyone who knew the area in those years, the sweeping transformation of the occupied territories is immediately obvious on the road from the Jordanian border to Jerusalem, where the “settlement” of Ma’ale Adumim is now a city of tens of thousands dominating the hills approaching the Israeli-annexed capital and the Arab suburbs of Bethany and Abu Dis are walled off behind 30-feet-high concrete barriers from a city most of their inhabitants are no longer even able to visit. “My 12-year-old son asked me this morning: are you going to accept to live in these ghettoes?” Muhammad Jaradat of the refugee rights organisation Badil recounts. “The truth is most Israelis would leave if they had to live as we do.”
The wall dividing Jerusalem from its Arab suburbs is part of the so-called “separation fence”, which far from protecting Israel proper from vengeful West Bankers, in fact cuts deep into occupied territory - already up to 7km from the old Israeli border and planned to reach 21km at some points - linking up settlements with Israel, but trapping tens of thousands of Palestinians on the Israeli side. These areas, between the old green line and the wall, are declared “closed zones”, where Palestinian residents must apply for a permit to live or work and where farmers are often cut off from their land. In the case of Qalqilya, the entire town has now been walled up, with access only possible through one Israeli checkpoint. A third of Qalqilya’s shops have closed and 3,000 out of its population of 40,000 have left - some to Jordan and the Gulf - while hundreds queue up for food handouts every day. Palestinians are convinced that what they call the “apartheid wall”, which according to leaked plans will eventually enclose about 57% of the West Bank in a series of sealed cantons, is designed to grab more land for the settlements and encourage a slow-burn Palestinian exodus by making daily life impossible. As a newly-retired Israeli general who headed the civil administration in the West Bank and Gaza told me: “Of course the wall is not a security wall - it’s a political wall. Just look at the map.”
It was Ariel Sharon’s walkabout at the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem that triggered the intifada, but - coming in the wake of the failure of the Camp David talks - it was in one sense a revolt against the Oslo process, which had delivered so little to Palestinians in their daily lives, while Israel forged ahead with settlement expansion and land confiscations. Since then, more than three times as many Palestinians have been killed as Israelis (2,648 to 842) - five times as many when it comes to children. As the former US senator George Mitchell reported in 2001, there was no plan by the Palestinian leadership to launch a “campaign of violence” - even if some tried to ride the tiger of popular anger - and the bloodshed was unleashed by Israeli troops repeatedly using live ammunition against stone-throwing demonstrators. In the first 10 days after Sharon’s visit, 74 Palestinians were killed as against five Israelis. Even then, the character of the intifada as a mass popular movement against occupation continued and it was not until the early months of 2001 that the suicide attacks began.
The experience of Zakaria Zubeidi is typical. In a secure house in Jenin refugee camp, the 27-year-old local leader of the Fatah-linked al-Aqsa Brigades, recalls how he and other activists demonstrated at the main Israeli checkpoint outside the West Bank town during the first weeks of the intifada. “Almost every day, one of the demonstrators was shot dead. Eventually, we gave up throwing stones and in the same place where the Palestinians had been killed, we killed an Israeli soldier.” Zubeidi, who still believes the Oslo agreement was a “good step”, helped run a “peace theatre” with Israelis in the 1990s. Now he is a hunted man whose mother was shot dead at her window by an Israeli sniper last year and whose brother was killed in the 2002 siege of Jenin. As we talk, he and his bodyguards leap to their feet every time a car accelerates down the alleyway outside - raids by Israeli hit squads are commonplace. Although the Brigades were drawn into launching suicide attacks in Israel at the height of the conflict, Zubeidi insists they are “against operations inside Israel unless the Israelis exceed certain limits, such as assassinating our leaders. We are here to defend our people and fighting without a political vision goes nowhere - our work should improve the position of the negotiators.”
But even though the Palestinian bombing campaign in Israel has subsided, the Israeli military onslaught on the occupied territories has pressed relentlessly on. While no civilians were killed in Israel in the three months from early October until at least the middle of this month, both Palestinian civilians and fighters are shot dead in attacks every week - in Nablus alone, 19 were killed in a three-week period over the new year. Given the scale of Palestinian suffering, there are those - including some around the leadership of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority - who now regard the intifada as a mistake that gave Israel an alibi to seize more land. One senior Palestinian security official argues: “The militarisation of the intifada led us down a blind alley. Fatah allowed itself to be drawn into a competition with Hamas and by doing so legitimised violence in Palestinian society and alienated public opinion in the west and Israel. And the violence is out of our control.” Hanan Ashrawi, the prominent Palestinian legislator and academic, is guarded, but more critical. “The intifada has been very costly and has distorted the nature of our struggle,” she says, leaving towns and villages in the hands of “armed gangs and militias”.
But Hussein al-Sheikh - one of the main West Bank Fatah leaders, along with the jailed Marwan Barghouti, blamed by the Israelis for escalating the violence - counters: “The intifada was not our decision. Israel militarised the intifada, not the Palestinians. We in Fatah believe in a historical reconciliation with Israel and this has influenced the forms of our resistance. During the first three months of the intifada, there were almost no Israelis killed, while we had hundreds of martyrs. That’s clear evidence that we wanted a popular non-violent movement. But who brought F16s, Apaches and tanks against our unarmed people?” It was only then, he says, that the decision was taken to set up the al-Aqsa Brigades - though their later use of suicide bombings inside Israel was “not part of our strategy”.
There are others, such as Azmi Bishara, the charismatic radical Palestinian member of the Israeli Knesset (parliament), who take a less defensive view of the intifada’s impact: “One side of the intifada is that the whole world, including Israel, is now convinced by the need for a Palestinian state - that is an achievement of the resistance, not of negotiation. But the way it has been led, without a central command, led to a kind of competition, where the tools of struggle become a way to defeat the other factions - but are irrelevant to the goal of liberation, which depends on convincing Israelis.” The PFLP’s Majdalawi argues that “in spite of all the suffering our people have had to endure, the intifada has once again made our cause a cause of national liberation”. Others are more upbeat still, convinced that despite the overwhelming Israeli military advantage, the intifada has in fact shifted the balance of power in the Palestinians’ direction. As the refugee rights campaigner Muhammad Jaradat puts it: “If you look at the situation now, it seems we are losing - but if you look strategically, the Palestinians are winning”.
There is no doubt that the intifada has also taken its toll on Israel: as well as the loss of human life, its standing, social confidence and economy have been seriously damaged. More than 200,000 Israelis have left the country since the intifada began, while there is a growing understanding that Ariel Sharon’s iron-fist policies cannot deliver security to Israel’s citizens. As one senior Israeli political figure puts it, “I’m sorry to say this, but there is a sense in which terror works.”
At the same time, there is increasing alarm in the Israeli political establishment about what it regards as a “demographic threat”. The fear is that within the next 10 or 15 years, Arabs will form a majority in historic Palestine and that unless Israel separates itself from the main Palestinian population centres, the Jewish character of the state will be imperilled. Sharon’s response is his plan for “unilateral disengagement” from the most heavily populated 42% of the West Bank, whose towns and cities would then be walled off from Israel and each other.
For Palestinians, unilateral disengagement is simply an Israeli attempt, as Hanan Ashrawi puts it, to “annex 58% of the West Bank”. From his office in Jericho, the last unoccupied town in the West Bank, Sa’eb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator and cabinet minister, warns that the consequences of such a move would be dire for Israel as well as the Palestinians. “If the Israelis withdraw unilaterally, the Palestinian Authority will collapse, the role of the militias will grow and they will compete to find ways to send suicide bombers into Israel.”
The implications of Sharon’s plan go further. Just as the principle of peace in exchange for an independent Palestinian state in a fully decolonised West Bank and Gaza has been effectively accepted for the first time by all Palestinian political factions, the viability of such a state would have all but evaporated. The shrunken chunks of Palestine that are the occupied territories are so forested with militarised Israeli settlements - there are more than 400,000 settlers when east Jerusalem is included - crisscrossed with settlers’ bypasses and access roads, stripped of water sources and now squeezed into walls and fences that the scope for a genuine two-state solution has already been put in question. Slash the territory available for a Palestinian state still further through annexation by “unilateral disengagement” - and it risks being swept away altogether. “The continuation of the wall means the end of the two-state solution,” Erekat declares. “The two-state solution is being buried by an apartheid system of Palestinian bantustans and walled city prisons.”
It’s scarcely surprising that Palestinian enthusiasm for the two-state consensus is eroding. The Oslo agreement may have brought the Palestinian leadership home, but it also required them to act as security sub-contractors for Israel in what amounted to a souped-up colony. Now, many Palestinians have begun to wonder whether the kind of state Israel and its US champion are prepared to accept is really in their interests - or whether it will simply amount, as one PLO official puts it, to a re-arrangement of the occupation into a “collection of glorified Indian reservations”. If the “two-state moment has been and gone”, some ask, then why not instead fight for equal rights, South African-style, in the single binational state that has in practice existed in Palestine since 1967?
This idea, which started as off-stage speculation by intellectuals and advisers, has now entered the Palestinian political mainstream and fuelled Israeli anxiety about the risks for Israel - with only 5.4 million Jews - of continuing to rule over a fast-growing Arab population of 4.6 million in both Israel and the territories. Earlier this month, even the Palestinian prime minister Ahmad Qureia floated the possibility that if Israel pressed on with its wall, the Palestinians might be forced to abandon their two-state commitment and return to the old Palestinian aspiration of a “single democratic state” for both peoples.
But there are precious few takers for such a state among Israeli Jews. The likelihood is that if Sharon presses ahead with his “unilateral disengagement” plan, the immediate result will instead be an escalation of the conflict and increased danger of it spilling over into western states. When asked whether he believes the completed wall will prevent further attacks, the Hamas leader Rantissi replies: “I’m not an expert on the military side, but I am fully confident that new methods of resistance - and new weapons - will be found.”
The embattled Palestinian president Yasser Arafat is meanwhile still holed up in the wreckage of his Ramallah compound, where he has effectively been under siege for more than two and a half years. To reach the man who almost single-handedly invented modern Palestinian nationalism, you have to pick your way across mounds of rubble, past buildings half-destroyed by Israeli tanks and through a courtyard lined with sandbags. Soldiers and officials crowd round the entrance to the Palestinian leader’s headquarters. In an upstairs room, signing documents at a long table is the 74-year-old survivor of the 1968 battle of Karameh, the Black September war of 1970, the 1982 siege of Beirut and the 2002 assault on Ramallah - the Nobel peace prize winner described by Sharon as “our Bin Laden”. Dressed in his trademark fatigues and keffiyeh, he shows little sign of the poor health that is supposed to have brought him to death’s door. “Would you like a slice of mango?” he asks. “It’s very good for the digestion.”
The vilification of Arafat by Israeli and US leaders - which culminated in George Bush’s demand that he be ousted and Israel’s decision “in principle” to expel or assassinate him - is difficult to explain on the basis of the facts. This is a man who was, after all, denounced by many of his own people as a collaborator for crackdowns on Hamas and other groups during the Oslo period, and there is little evidence to suggest that he has driven, rather than tried to control, the armed campaign against Israel during the past three years. Part of the hostility appears to stem from Arafat’s refusal at Camp David to sign up to a settlement he knew would not have commanded the support of his people or delivered a lasting peace. But more than that, Arafat is the only leader whose constituency includes all the disparate elements of the Palestinian people: those in the occupied territories, the refugees outside Palestine, the wider diaspora and the Palestinians of Israel itself. By refusing to deal with Arafat, Israel and the US seem intent on breaking the key political link with the refugees in order to reach an internal deal with a local West Bank and Gaza leadership. But Arafat’s popularity has been restored by the intifada, his unique position is recognised by all Palestinian factions and the US attempt to build up Abu Mazen last year as prime minister of a state that doesn’t exist backfired.
“They know that they can’t replace me,” the Palestinian president tells me in his office. “We are not in Afghanistan. We are proud of our democracy. Do you remember what we used to say in Beirut? Democracy in the jungle of guns - that was our slogan. I have been the elected chairman of the PLO since 1969. I was elected president of the Palestinian authority under international supervision in 1996 and we have proposed to the Quartet [the US, EU, UN and Russia] that new elections be held this April or June. But the situation on the ground makes elections very difficult.” What Arafat avoids spelling out is that the US and Israel are determined to avoid new Palestinian presidential elections - because they know Arafat would win. In any case, as Arafat points out, Abu Mazen failed as Palestinian prime minister “because the Israelis didn’t give him anything - no release of prisoners, nothing on the building of the wall, no lifting of the siege of the president”.