On violence and the Intifada

During the first three weeks of the Second Palestinian Intifada, the Israeli army — according to its own records — fired one million bullets. (Graphic: EI/Ken Harper)

It has now become standard to say that the Palestinians will make no progress unless suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilians end. Increasingly, Palestinians correctly acknowledge that attacks targeting civilians are a cruel and illegitimate reaction to Israel’s aggression. In addition to the toll in innocent lives, there is growing recognition that suicide bombings have harmed the image of the Palestinian people and their just struggle for freedom.

It has also become fashionable to say that suicide attacks have become the “weapon of choice” for the Palestinians. The fact is that Palestinians have no access to weapons that would allow them to adequately defend themselves — as is their absolute legal and moral right — against the Israeli army. So alongside stones and ineffectual small arms fire directed at soldiers in tanks, suicide bombs in Israeli cities are a weapon of last resort, often used against the softest targets — an illegitimate and immoral response to an illegitimate and immoral occupation.

Yet, while it must be reaffirmed that Palestinian attacks targeting Israeli civilians must stop immediately, one has to forget all of history to believe that these operations are what stand in the way of progress towards a peaceful solution, and are not in fact simply a symptom of the violence and despair of life under endless occupation. Peace, after all, must be made during conflict.

From the beginning of Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, through the first Intifada into the early 1990s, there were no suicide bombings. Before the first Intifada, Israel had near quiet in the Occupied Territories. Liberal Israelis were content to use Palestinians as a cheap source of labor, and to visit their occupied towns and cities at weekends to enjoy the superior hummus. Meanwhile, Labor- and Likud-led governments assiduously built the infrastructure of military occupation and colonization with the explicit purpose of making a withdrawal impossible.

Yitzhak Laor writes: “a report published on 6 September in the (right-wing) daily Ma’ariv revealed that during the first three weeks of the [second] Intifada — before the wave of terror attacks against Israelis even began — the IDF [Israel Defense Forces], according to Army records, fired one million bullets.” (“Diary,” London Review of Books, 3 October 2002). No people in history, not Indians led by Gandhi, nor South Africans led by Nelson Mandela, ever faced the kind of state violence that Palestinians face without some of them resorting to armed resistance or desperate acts of revenge. And yet today, even though killing is spiraling, and every Palestinian is subject to the intrusive, daily terror of the occupation, only a tiny number of Palestinians take part in counter-violence of any kind, let alone attacks on civilians. Meanwhile, since long before the suicide bomb phenomenon appeared, there has been a long history of non-violent activism by Palestinians defending their land and rights in the face of Israeli violence, but sadly this has been ignored by many of the same critics who now chide the Palestinians for not being more like Gandhi.

According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, from the beginning of the first Intifada in 1987, until the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993, Palestinians killed a total of one hundred Israeli civilians, half of them inside the Occupied Territories. During the same period, Israeli occupation forces and settlers killed more than 1,160 Palestinian civilians — more than eleven Palestinians for every Israeli. Israel’s lethal response to the civil protests of the first Intifada are what “armed” or “militarized” the conflict inside the Occupied Territories. Israel’s violence against a generation during the first Intifada, its grim desert concentration camps (now reopened for business) and its systematic torture, sowed what is being reaped today.

Neither the cheap and easy occupation that Israel enjoyed prior to the first Intifada, nor the vastly better security that Israelis had, ever induced Israel to loosen its military dictatorship over the Palestinians, or to slow the pace of violent land confiscations and colony construction.

Israel’s approach has been consistent: when Palestinians resist the occupation actively, Israel attempts to crush them with violence, and uses the resistance as an excuse not to seek a political solution. Whenever Palestinians have been quiet, Israel has only felt relieved of any pressure for a political solution, and has seized the opportunity to deepen the occupation. Thus Israel doubled the number of settlers during the “peace process.”

Oslo architects like Mahmoud Abbas, who today blame the Palestinians for “arming the Intifada,” seem to have forgotten these facts. Abbas is right to point out that Palestinians lack a unified strategy, but what he offers — a return to Oslo-style accommodation with the occupation is not the strategy Palestinians need. What is needed is a strong, popular campaign of resistance, based on non-violence and civil disobedience, involving the entire population. Such a strategy would be unable to eliminate all violence, but it would offer an alternative to the hopeless, and a powerful moral challenge to the occupier. It may also help transform the passive global support for the Palestinian cause into concrete actions. Such a strategy cannot emerge, however, as long as Arafat and his failed Oslo leadership hang on, offering neither leadership, nor moving out of the way so that a fresh leadership — not anointed by Israel or the United States — can rise. And as long as Israel besieges Arafat, he will enjoy just enough sympathy or indifference among Palestinians to stay in place. A perfect stalemate.

Those who say most loudly that the Palestinians have suffered enormous losses from the current Intifada are right. But they are usually reluctant to acknowledge first, how great the Palestinian losses were during the “peace process,” and second, that Israel’s losses due to the second Intifada are also enormous. Beyond the 700 Israelis killed — approaching the number killed in the Lebanon war — Israel’s economy is in deep and growing crisis; political corruption and instability are the rule; Israelis are emigrating at record levels; Israeli society is fragmented and torn in every possible way; Israel’s international image is that of a pariah; and, Israelis feel themselves under greater existential threat than ever before.

For decades, the unbearable cost of the occupation was borne almost exclusively by the Palestinians. Today it is falling a little more evenly. This is the grim political calculus that ensures there is enough support to keep suicide attacks going, while Israel’s collective punishment of the entire population, and assassinations of political leaders, ensure there is always a sufficient supply of hopeless volunteers ready to fulfill any mission in revenge.

There is an alternative that Israel refuses to try. A Hamas official, Osama Hamdan, in Cairo for intra-Palestinian talks, said that, “Hamas is sticking by its proposal formulated a year ago by recommending an end to attacks on civilians on both sides,” and pledging that, “Hamas would “stop attacking Israeli civilians without distinction for geographic boundaries” if Israel stops attacking, killing and arresting Palestinian civilians and blockading their towns and villages” (“Hamas urges mutual halt to attacks on civilians,” Agence France Presse, 19 January 2003).

Seeking an agreement with Hamas flies in the face of Israel’s public stance that the only way to deal with such groups is through violence. But in fact it was precisely such a deal with the Lebanese resistance movement Hizbullah, brokered by the United States in April 1996, that kept Israeli civilians safe, except when, as often happened, Israel violated the understandings by attacking civilians in Israeli-occupied southern Lebanon and beyond. In any case, reaching an understanding with Hamas and other factions cannot possibly be worse than Israel’s current failed approach. That Israel does not really want a ceasefire has been made plain by the fact that Israel has repeatedly ignored all offers and has instead provoked the end of even the unilateral truces voluntarily observed by Palestinian factions, by carrying out death squad killings of their leaders.

The gruesome ratio has shortened — Israel now kills only about three Palestinians for every Israeli — but innocent people on both sides are dying in far greater numbers than ever before. To pretend that unilaterally ending violence by Palestinians — were that even possible — while Israel’s occupation — by definition also violence — is allowed to continue effectively unchallenged by the international community, would suddenly produce an Israel willing to withdraw behind its borders, is to ignore everything all Israeli governments have worked for throughout Israel’s existence.

All Palestinians have an interest in immediately ending attacks on Israeli civilians, just as they have a genuine self-interest in developing democratic governance. But those who have seized on these two issues and made them the litmus test for further progress, as well as an excuse to avoid talking about the urgent need for international action to end the occupation, are not helping either the Palestinians or Israelis who want peace. These goals — unattainable while Israel’s daily assault on Palestinian civil society continues — have been deliberately emphasized in order to provide Israel with cover to continue a colonial occupation that guarantees the death count will continue to climb on all sides, with no end in sight.

Related Links:

  • Where the streets had a name, by Hanan Elmasu, The Electronic Intifada, 24 January 2003.
  • The message of the mortars, by Nigel Parry, The Electronic Intifada, 31 May 2001.