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The Second Intifada: From Camp David to Chaos

Introduction

T

he period of the second Intifada has been the most traumatic for the Palestinians since 1948. Today, as then, there is a question as to whether they can survive as a unified people on their land.

Yet there is a difference: The catastrophe (naqba) of 1948 led eventually to the birth of the PLO, a revolutionary leadership acting within the framework of the socialist camp, which was headed by the Soviet Union. In the conditions of the 1970's and 80's, this leadership carried out a viable strategy, based on the goal of a two-state solution. The present Intifada, on the other hand, has not spawned a leadership that can conduct the struggle with Israel in such a way as to leave an opening for a just solution. On the contrary, the Palestinian people appears to be losing both its land and its social backbone.

I want to lay out, in this paper, the characteristics of the current Intifada. In particular, I want to assess the parts that the Palestinian Authority (PA), Fatah and Hamas have played in the present decline of Palestinian fortunes. How has it happened that after a mere six years (1994-2000), the PA has fallen apart, its leader is mewed up in his damaged headquarters, and local gangs rule the streets by force of arms? I also want to examine the parameters within which a change can take place for the better, enabling the reconstruction of Palestinian society.

Trapped in false alliances

The Palestinian journeys to Madrid and Oslo at the start of the 1990's set in motion a lethal process that resulted in the second Intifada.

With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the PLO lost its main backer. Then came the first Gulf War, where it supported the losing side. In difficult straits, its leader, Yasser Arafat, deposited the fate of the Palestinian people in the hands of two new partners: the US and Israel's Labor Party. After fifteen years of Likud government in Israel, the Palestinian leadership saw Labor's rise to power in 1992 as an opportunity. Within the new, pro-American axis, it could establish itself as a governing authority. The leadership's eagerness to find a place in a unipolar world induced it to exchange the goal of sovereignty for the tawdry reality of a mere regime, as in all the Arab states. Israel's Labor Party was to be the means. At Oslo Arafat tied the possibilities of the Palestinian people, its scope for decision and its room for maneuver, to Labor's good will.

Labor had its own plans, however. A multi-phased agreement, with no Israeli commitments on the hard-core issues, would be an entry ticket to a world whose gates had long been closed before Israel. New markets, in addition to new legitimacy, were a promising gain in return for a shift from direct to indirect rule over the Palestinians. Neo-colonialism would fit the era of globalization. In addition, the Oslo Agreement would bury Labor's rival, the Likud, for many years.

The Palestinians' gamble on the Labor Party proved to be a fateful mistake. It led to a chain of extreme reversals in the Israeli arena. In 1995 Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by the Israeli right, which came to power shortly thereafter. When Labor's Ehud Barak, in May 1999, succeeded (with the help of Arab Israelis) in retaking power, Palestinian expectations rose once more. Perhaps the Likud-Netanyahu era was a mere aberration, and now the Oslo process would get back on track. Barak seemed a man of decision, who would use his term to end the conflict at last.

Barak, however, put all his effort into avoiding the fate of Rabin. The result for the Palestinians, and for the whole Arab world, was severe disappointment with Labor as a partner. They felt that the US had failed them as well. Both of these grievances led to their rejection of the proposals raised in July 2000 at Camp David.

I

t is significant that the Intifada broke out during the rule of Labor – and, in the US, toward the end of Bill Clinton's presidency. No Western leader was more involved than Clinton in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinian supporters of Oslo found themselves bereft of strategic partners. Barak and Clinton marked the end of the Oslo era (a time of "harmony" in Israel's foreign relations) leaving the stage in favor of Ariel Sharon and George W. Bush. Yasser Arafat, like every Arab leader, held onto power at all costs, even amid the shambles of the diplomatic process. One reason for his survival at the helm has been the absence of any Palestinian leader willing to challenge him and offer an alternative, whether Islamic, secular-nationalist, or leftist. By default, Hamas rose to dominate the Palestinian arena. The collapse of the PA as a leading force has left Hamas as the sole remaining factor, although it has nothing to offer but spectacular acts of revenge.

We shall examine this downhill slide in its phases: 1) Camp David, 2) The outbreak of the Intifada, 3) The influence of 9/11, 4) Israel's Operation "Defensive Shield," 5) the war in Iraq, 6) Unilateral disengagement and chaos.

1. Camp David: The seeds of chaos

The Camp David summit (July 11-25, 2000), supposedly a peace conference, became the sticking place for all the errors of the previous decade.

One cannot understand the present Intifada unless one understands the failure at Camp David, which in turn resulted from the failure of the Oslo Agreement. This was meant to resolve the conflict by dividing functions between Israel and a Palestinian leadership. The fundamental flaw in the Agreement was and remains its basic perspective, which takes the Palestinian territories as Israel's backyard. From the viewpoint of the Israeli establishment, both on the Left and Right, the question of true Palestinian sovereignty has never been on the agenda.

Bill Clinton invited Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak to Camp David because Barak insisted on his doing so. Arafat didn't want to go. (The famous photograph, in which Barak tries to shove Arafat into the room, is appropriate.) Contrary to the avowals that Barak the private citizen still makes at every opportunity, Arafat's resistance to the summit did not derive from "second thoughts" about the strategic course he had set at Oslo. Rather, Arafat understood that his public (for reasons we shall see in a moment) had lost all faith in Israel and in the peace process, and that he was no longer in a position to "sell" any agreement that departed from the major Palestinian aspirations (the rights of the refugees, the return of all territories conquered by Israel in 1967 including East Jerusalem, open gateways to the world, control over land, water and air space). Faced with the choice between an unmarketable accord and political survival, he chose the latter.

Although none of the proposals aired at Camp David were committed to paper, we have a partial idea of their content. The Palestinians were to get more than 90% of their land back, plus tracts in the Negev to compensate for what Israel would annex (the major settlement blocs). There was also talk of their gaining a measure of authority on the Temple Mount and in part of East Jerusalem. These offers were far more generous than any ever made by an Israeli leader, although it was doubtful at best whether Barak could carry his country with him. If such offers had been made by Yitzhak Rabin in 1994, Arafat would have been able to mobilize the necessary public support. Six years later he knew he could not. "Ironically, Barak the democrat had more room for maneuver than Arafat the autocrat." (Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, "Camp David: The Tragedy of Errors," New York Review of Books, August 9, 2001)

W

hy had the Oslo process lost the support of the Palestinians? The answer lay not just in their plunging living standard (while Israel's grew) and the growth of the settlements. It lay also in the fact that they had abandoned all trust both in Arafat and in Ehud Barak. Here are some of the reasons:

First, the loss of trust in Barak:

1. In 1999, on taking power, Barak formed a broad coalition of 75 Knesset members (out of 120). His government included the right wing, both the extremist Mafdal (National Religious Party) and the more moderate Shas, as well as the left (his own Labor Party and Meretz). He did not include the Arab parties. This coalition promised domestic peace, as long as it did not attempt to make any progress on the political front with the Palestinians.

2. After taking power, Barak chose to neglect the Palestinian channel in favor of the Syrian, despite the fact that 65% of Israelis were willing to make painful concessions for the sake of a permanent arrangement. Barak reasoned that peace with Syria would enable him to weaken the Palestinian bargaining position in future negotiations. When the talks with Syria finally collapsed, he turned again to the Palestinians, but by this time they had lost faith in him.

3. Barak's unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 had an adverse effect on the Palestinian street. In the view of Arab public opinion, violent resistance had succeeded where diplomacy had failed. In Israeli public opinion, Barak gained points. The same step humiliated Arafat, however, while Hizballah leader Hassan Nasralla became an Arab hero. The Palestinians were aware of another nuance as well: where Lebanon was concerned, Israel carefully coordinated its actions with the UN (oom in Hebrew) and withdrew to the international border. Where the Palestinians were concerned, Israel's codeword had ever been oom-shmoom.

B

y the time of Camp David, the Palestinian public had also lost trust in Arafat. The major reason (ignored by most commentators on Camp David) was PA corruption. In the six years during which he ruled over most of the Territories (1994-2000), Arafat had developed a governmental apparatus based on bribes, favors and patronage. He persecuted his opponents by means of his multiple security organizations, connected to the CIA. Instead of an economy, he had built a bloated, inefficient public sector that depended on his good graces. He ignored the closures and the rising unemployment. He continued the talks with Israel even as it enlarged its settlements. In the spring of 2000, when the teachers struck to protest their living conditions, he arrested and persecuted them. In November 1999, when 20 intellectuals and legislators signed a petition ("The Manifesto of the Twenty") criticizing the PA, he arrested them. Within his own Fatah movement, bitterness grew because of what the grass-roots leaders saw as a denial of their rights. Instead of receiving government positions, they remained on the sidelines, watching while the Tunis group – those who had arrived with Arafat in 1994 – got the top jobs and the luxuries.

In 1993, many groups within Fatah and the wider society supported Arafat's decision for the Oslo Agreement. Seven years later, not a single organization in the Territories stood behind it. Arafat went nonetheless to Camp David, for the simple reason that he had hitched his wagon to America, and he could not refuse a president who had already hosted him twelve times. On understanding that the summit would leave him no room to maneuver, he presented the Americans with two preconditions, which Clinton accepted: 1) Regardless of the results, Israel would fulfill its remaining obligations under the Wye Agreement (especially the third phase of withdrawal from the Territories); 2) Should the summit fail, Clinton would not blame the Palestinian side. (The Americans, as it turned out, made good on neither commitment.)

When Arafat went to Camp David, he knew that Barak's coalition had dwindled to 30 Knesset mandates out of 120. Barak was desperate for a dramatic positive development, such as a peace agreement which he might take over the heads of the Knesset to the people. Clinton stood behind him, indeed, but in the Arab world and on the Palestinian street, his downfall was eagerly awaited. Arafat went to Camp David, in short, not in the spirit of seeking an agreement, but rather to minimize damage.

"Arafat was convinced that the Israelis were setting a trap. His main purpose was to 'cut his losses' rather than 'maximize gains.' … The Palestinian negotiators had one eye on events at the summit and the other on events at home. They approached Camp David in an almost apologetic spirit, determined to show that this time, for a change, no one was going to make fools of them." (Agha and Malley, op. cit.

Akram Haniyah, editor of alIyyam, reported from Camp David. He described Arafat's refusal to sign as the journey's crowning moment: "They said a clear 'No!' to the United States on its own territory." (Akram Haniyah, "The Camp David Papers", Ramallah al-Ayyam, August 8, 2000 and August 10, 2000.)

2) Why the Intifada broke out

The failure at Camp David left a political vacuum, which produced, two months later, a violent confrontation. At first the outburst spread through the whole Arab world, including the Arabs in Israel. Barak claimed that Arafat had made a strategic decision to exchange the path of negotiation for that of the rifle. We regard this claim as deceitful and tendentious.

Arafat has made only two strategic decisions in his long career: first, in the 1960's, he founded the PLO and Fatah as bearers of the struggle for national liberation, and second, in the summer of 1993, he decided to give up the struggle and make do with a mere regime. His signature on the Oslo Agreement was his last independent act. He was dragged into the new Intifada.

Oslo is an obligatory agreement. It requires that every dispute between the Palestinians and Israel be settled by peaceful means. Arafat could not cancel it, nor did he want to. By the time of Camp David, the logical and honorable thing would have been to resign: to announce that he had erred in his judgments and that now he was returning his mandate to the people. In this way, he would have put the Palestinian problem back in the lap of Israel, which would again have been directly responsible for the Territories. He did not of course do this. He preferred to stay in office, although this lifted responsibility from Israel, which could act without regard to the population (they were Arafat's responsibility, after all). Israel could also pressure the PA, as if it had the power to put down the revolt.

Arafat did not choose the Intifada, but he did not attempt to stop it. By riding the wave and exploiting the Palestinian frustration with Israel, he managed to deflect frustration from his own corrupt regime.

Let me summarize to this point. In contrast with the early 1990's, when Arafat managed to cash in his national-liberation stock in return for a regime, the end of that decade was no time to reap political dividends. It looked as though the Republicans would take the US presidency. America's position as leader of the global economy was beginning to appear uncertain. In 1999, the critics of globalization began to make themselves heard on the streets of Seattle. In March 2000 Nasdaq plunged. The Intifada was one link in a chain of failures suffered by the US in its first decade as the world's sole superpower. Rage with America broke out in mass demonstrations throughout the Arab world, amid support for the Intifada and cries of "War with Israel!" Such cries were mainly a way of venting steam. They expressed real hostility, nonetheless, toward the global policeman who couldn't say no to its spoiled Israeli child. If, at Madrid in 1991, the Arab world gave America a chance to prove itself as an honest broker, by the year 2000 the period of grace was over. The wider Arab demonstrations soon stopped, to be sure, but in certain circles hatred intensified. Within a year the world beheld the attack on the World Trade Center.

Intifada without a program

T

hree forces, each with its own interests, stirred the cauldron of the Intifada: Arafat, the Tanzim and Hamas. They pulled the uprising in contrary directions. After the first stormy weeks, when stone-throwing youth clashed with Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints, the Intifada became an armed confrontation. The Palestinian use of firearms had the effect of removing the wider populace from the field.

Arafat, as said, did not actively join the Intifada but took no measures against it. During the clashes at the checkpoints, his security forces stood aside. He continued to uphold Oslo, blaming Israel for not fulfilling its obligations.

The Tanzim ("Organization") was the main group behind the Intifada. Its members were Fatah field commanders in the refugee camps, the cities and the villages. Seven years earlier, these leaders had been Oslo's most enthusiastic supporters. They had "sold" them to the people, saying: We have no choice but to join the victorious American camp. These Fatah leaders attended dozens of peace conferences throughout the world along with members of Israel's Labor Party. They promised that Palestine would become a new Singapore.

However, when Arafat arrived from Tunis in 1994 and conducted the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), it quickly became apparent that he intended to head a regime like other Arab dictatorships. He sought to distance charismatic grass-roots leaders from the foci of power. These were the people who had led the first Intifada and sat for years in Israeli prisons. He preferred to surround himself with loyalists from among the cronies who had accompanied him from Tunis.

The Tanzim sought to achieve a new and better Oslo Agreement. They presented the second Intifada as an autonomous popular movement that would improve the diplomatic position of the PA and force Israel to approach the table with more generous proposals. Marwan Barghouti was their chief spokesperson. They assumed that as Intifada organizers, spearheads of change, they would gain preferential treatment in all that pertained to positions and jobs. Arafat would not be able to ignore them any longer. They promised the people that they would carry on the struggle until the liberation of all territories conquered by Israel in 1967. Yet these same leaders, seven years before, had felt compelled by the international situation to accept the Oslo Agreement. Had something changed? Why did they think they could now, suddenly, accomplish more than in 1993? The questions went unanswered.

Onto these two heads, Arafat and the Tanzim, was grafted that of Hamas, which hesitated at first. It viewed the Intifada, initially, as an expression of internal conflict between the PA and the Tanzim. It joined the struggle only when it saw that the uprising would not soon flicker out and that abstention would harm its standing. After several months, the head of Hamas in the Diaspora, Khaled Mashaal, stated that "the present Intifada is much more important than its predecessor." This proclamation expressed the assessment that because of the leadership vacuum, Hamas could occupy a more central role than in the first Intifada. Yet the organization was playing with fire. It escalated the struggle. In contrast to the Tanzim, which sought to conduct the Intifada in such a way as to improve the Palestinian bargaining position, Hamas promoted an unrealistic objective: "to expel the Zionist foe from all of our lands." Lacking a political or diplomatic agenda, it enflamed the conflict with suicide bombings and provoked extreme reprisals. By such sensational actions, Hamas soon dwarfed the Tanzim and undermined Arafat's political standing.

T

he struggle against Israel did create, at first, an atmosphere of national unity among the three currents. But the competition for popularity on the Palestinian street led to ever extremer tactics. The Hamas methods took the lead, and the Tanzim, lacking a political model of its own, adopted them. Confusion also appeared in the ranks of the Palestinian Left, which turned the slogan of "national unity" into an end in itself, as though this were the Intifada's big accomplishment.

The perception that self-interested political factions all have their hands in the stew of the Intifada led us – in November 2000 – to conclude that the Intifada would not be the means for correcting the mistakes of Oslo and for building a viable strategy. No wonder, then, that the uprising has failed to become popular and inclusive. The Palestinian people, ever the victim of Israel, has also become the punching bag of the factions.

Lacking a program, the Intifada quickly slipped into military action. The example of Lebanon served as an inspiration (and an excuse) for placing weapons before program. The nightly firings from Beit Jala on Gilo, in 2001, mimed the Hizballah firings of rockets on Kiryat Shmonah. In short, the various factions, especially Hamas, saw the situation through a distorting glass. Their peculiar vision led them to radicalize their goals. They purveyed an illusion that Israel could be forced to capitulate, whereas the reality was far from that.

The Intifada thus bred multiple leaderships. These too were a factor in spelling the end of the Oslo Agreement, which rested on the assumption that Arafat, by means of a large police force, would suppress any opposition. For the Labor Party, the Intifada undermined that basic assumption. The demise of Oslo cost it the Prime Ministry, and in early 2001 it found itself in a national-unity government under Ariel Sharon of the Likud.

The international community would not countenance a situation where organizations multiplied and weapons spread without supervision. It tried to draft principles for a political agreement (the Mitchell Report and the Tenet Plan). Israel refused to take a single step, however, until it had proof that Arafat was in control. This question became the key to its actions.

3. 9/11 and the Intifada: Turning point and escalation

In understanding the failure of the Intifada, the events of September 11, 2001 have a twofold importance. On the ideological plane, 9/11 marked the eclipse of the national movement in the Arab world and the rise, in its place, of Islamic fundamentalism. On the practical, political plane, 9/11 opened the era of intolerance, on the part of the US and Europe, for any use of violence outside the framework of existing nation-states. The label "terrorism" was quickly extended to any such use. 9/11 resulted, therefore, in unqualified American support for Sharon in his struggle against Arafat. The latter lost all chance of regaining the only asset Oslo had given him: a direct line to the White House.

Sharon knew how to exploit the new atmosphere. Although he had not yet decided to make a final showdown with the PA, he coined the slogan, "Arafat is irrelevant" and closed him up in his Ramallah headquarters, the Muqata'a. (Even today, Arafat dares not leave the Muqata'a, for fear of not being allowed back.) Sharon did not let him attend the Christmas Mass in Bethlehem, for example, or the Arab summit in Beirut. Since December 2001, Arafat has not gone beyond the Muqata'a's top step.

When the Palestinian leadership showed no interest in controlling the situation, Israelis demanded that their army be unleashed to bring about a decision.

4. Operation Defensive Shield

The Israeli operation called "Defensive Shield" followed a series of suicide bombings, capped by one that killed 30 people at Netanya's Park Hotel during a Passover Seder on March 27, 2002.

Israel re-conquered the West Bank, rendering obsolete its division, under Oslo, into areas A, B and C. On 9/11 the PA had lost its diplomatic assets and political backing, but Defensive Shield marked the loss of its geographical base.

Defensive Shield had three main purposes:

1. To defeat the militias that the PA had failed to bring under control.

2. To sow terror among the Palestinians, so that they would stop supporting the Intifada and the suicide attacks.

3. To destroy the PA as a ruling force.

Israel succeeded in attaining only the third objective, although it tried to keep its connections with people in Arafat's government who were still committed to Oslo. Uzi Dayan, former head of Israel's National Security Council, commented as follows: "When you fight against someone and present him with demands, you have an address to come to, and this is his significance. It would be a mistake to eliminate the PA as an address, because then your address will be 3.5 million Palestinians. It would be a mistake to reach the point where we are the ones who are ruling the area and directing the lives of the Palestinians." (Yediot Aharonot, Weekend Supplement, April 26, 2002)

In this regard it is interesting to note two steps that Israel took during Operation Defensive Shield:

1. It arrested Marwan Barghouti, as if to communicate that it was no longer interested in a popular Palestinian political infrastructure, even if this might serve one day as a replacement for the PA.

2. It leveled the building of Jibril Rajoub's preventive security force in Betunia, as if to say that never again would it place its safety in the hands of Palestinian subcontractors.

Defensive Shield brought to the surface the strategic mistakes made by the Palestinian factions since the start of the Intifada. Although the PA was the only recognized body in the Territories, its security forces, as said, stood aside while the youth confronted Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints. The PA thus left a vacuum into which came Hamas and splinters from other factions. As a result, it lost prestige in the eyes of both the people and its international patrons.

As a result of Defensive Shield, Arafat and his entourage ceased asking themselves whether the Palestinian people would live or die; they became obsessed, instead, with the question of whether Arafat would. The preoccupation with his imprisonment in the Muqata'a seemed far more important to them than the question of whether the ordinary folk, caught in a maze of roadblocks and checkpoints, would be able to leave or enter their villages. A beleaguered Arafat sat in his headquarters, focusing on the problem of how to make himself indispensable to Israel and America.

Fatah, for its part, tried to dance in two weddings. On the one hand, it took an apparently independent position, while on the other it continued to be part of the PA, accepting the yoke of Arafat. Maneuvering within this contradiction, Fatah could not lead the Intifada beyond the original impasse that had given it birth. The dynamic of events led it, rather, from escalation to escalation. The competition with Hamas forced Fatah to establish the "Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades," adopting suicide as a strategy.

As for Hamas, motivated by otherworldly and maximalist principles, unresponsive to the people's limited capacity for absorbing Israeli reprisals, it escalated the struggle, propelling the populace into a culture of bloodshed and vengeance.

The Palestinian leadership, in all its branches, failed to read the political map. Having provoked Operation Defensive Shield, it brought on its people a wave of destruction that could have been avoided.

5. The first year of war in Iraq: The Road Map and Turmoil in the PA

In the period from August 2002 until the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin of Hamas in March 2004, the main Israeli initiative took the form of an attempt to change the PA leader. This endeavor went hand-in-hand with America's war in Iraq. Here we may note an irony: it was the war of Bush Senior that had raised Arafat to the leadership of a quasi-state, when he accepted the Oslo Agreement. Now the war of Bush Junior tossed him to the margins.

In the winter of 2003, the anticipation of war in Iraq made Israeli leaders euphoric. Left and Right hoped that as in 1991, so now, the defeat of Saddam Hussein would stifle the Intifada. If the US could remove Saddam, why shouldn't Israel do the same to Arafat? This would bring the geopolitical change it had yearned for. In the shadow of a Middle Eastern overhaul, its leaders hoped that they could end the conflict on the terms they wanted once and for all.

Before the war, the Americans got together with the European Union, Russia and the UN to design a "Road Map" to peace between Israelis and Palestinians. They withheld it, however, until after the ousting of Saddam Hussein. Under Israeli influence, Washington conditioned the publication of this plan on reforms within the PA. It wanted the Palestinians to name Abu Mazen as a prime minister with wide-ranging powers, which would enable him to supersede Arafat. On April 30, 2003, Abu Mazen was sworn into office by the Palestinian Legislative Council, and the next day the Road Map began its brief life.

The objective of reform, from Israel's point of view, was to break the "national unity" between the PA and Hamas. This unity was based on a tacit agreement: the PA refused to enter into civil war with Hamas (as Israel was demanding it do) and Hamas took care not to present itself as a governmental alternative to the PA. The modus vivendi helped Arafat to stay in power, but it afforded Hamas a free hand in making attacks and keeping its popularity.

The sorry fate of the Road Map, like the fate of Abu Mazen (who resigned on September 6, 2003), was bound up with the American occupation of Iraq. Washington's failure to translate its initial military victory into political change soon became apparent both to Arafat and to Hamas. Both succeeded in bringing Abu Mazen down. Arafat, it seemed, was still capable of that much.

6. Disengagement and chaos

Abu Mazen failed to reorganize the PA, to unite the security forces under his own baton and to make reforms in decision-making procedures. These failures led Israel to escalate its measures against the military infrastructure of the Palestinian organizations. It lambasted the appointment of Abu Ala (Ahmed Qureia) to replace Abu Mazen, for it regarded Abu Ala as Arafat's man.

Stuck with "national unity," Abu Ala was hamstrung from the beginning. He failed to persuade Hamas to accept a cease fire. For Ariel Sharon, this failure was the last straw. Sharon shifted to a new approach, which was not to depend on the PA at all: unilateral disengagement.
Disengagement is not a political program, and there is nothing in it that can solve Israel's problems. It does signify, however, that Israel has recognized the breakdown of the Palestinian leadership, which it knows cannot deliver an agreement along any lines it is willing to accept.

Today there is anarchy in Arafat's Fatah. In the West Bank, local gangs – sometimes identified with Fatah, sometimes with nothing but themselves – impose fear on the inhabitants and carry out autonomous attacks. Imad Shakur, one of the PLO's most respected leaders, gave an interview to A-Sharq al-Awsat in January 2004, sharply criticizing the PA and Fatah. "The multiplication of [security] organizations and the unregulated use of weapons, as we see today in the Palestinian arena, signify that the PA has ceased to function as a central authority. In the present situation there are organizations and currents and fronts and movements, each with its 'army' or 'military apparatus' or 'platoons' or 'brigades'." Shakur's call to dissolve these forces comes too late, however. The genies are out of the bottle.

It was Israel that equipped the PA with rifles, so that its police would provide a buffer between Palestinians and Israelis (e.g., in the settlements). Now the PA is falling apart. The very rifles that were meant to stifle opposition, to control a population shut behind checkpoints and roadblocks, are undermining the PA itself. The Palestinians are subject to armed rampage. Anarchy reigns in the Territories, and Israel seeks to escape it by means of unilateral disengagement.

Conclusion

The mutual devastation by Israelis and Palestinians is far from over. Unable to decide the conflict one way or another, Israeli leaders escape into the politics of disengagement. Yet in the account of history, a reckoning will have to come. (See "Disengagement and the Death of the Two-State Solution," Challenge No. 86, www.hanitzotz.com/challenge/86/panel.htm ).

Israel bears major responsibility for the hellish situation in the Territories and the disintegration that is presently taking place. Its refusal to reach a fair compromise with the Palestinians, even when these extended their hands in peace, amounts to a criminal act. This does not mean, however, that we ought to conceal the responsibility of the Palestinian leaders. How has it happened that a revolutionary organization, once an address for Palestinians scattered all over the world, has become so superfluous? A decade after the PA's establishment in the Territories (1994), the Palestinian people is in a much worse state than on the eve of Oslo.

Political integrity should have moved Arafat, on his return from Camp David, to announce the end of the Oslo adventure, noting that Israel is not ripe for the kind of agreement to which Palestinians aspire. By clinging to his seat, however, Arafat has enabled the Israelis to wreak its will on the Palestinians while avoiding the responsibilities of an occupying power: "We aren't occupiers," they can claim. "Arafat is in charge." His seat-clinging, on the other hand, has also enabled the political forces around him to carry on a catfight that has nothing to do with liberation or sovereignty. In all this, no one has dared to challenge him or present a different program.

The Tanzim has not. In 1992 it misled the people when it justified going to Madrid, and later to Oslo, by saying that America had taken charge of the world and that its terms would be the best they could get. The Tanzim misled the people again, eight years later, when it initiated the second Intifada, fostering illusions that liberation was at hand. Its military approach brought poverty and anarchy.

Hamas sought to strengthen its popularity by means of suicide attacks, even when these brought disaster, leading Israel to destroy what little civilian infrastructure there was – and motivating it to erect the separation wall. Not wanting to dirty its hands by negotiating with its Zionist enemy, Hamas prefers the continued existence of a weak PA for this purpose. In this sense, it used Arafat as its own "defensive shield."

This game has now reached its conclusion. Israel's assassination of Sheikh Yassin, followed by that of Abed al-Aziz Rantisi, signifies the closing of accounts with Hamas. On the other hand, the disintegration of the PA will force the movement to take a measure of leadership responsibility.

Thirdly, civil society and the Left joined Hamas and Fatah in the deception that "national unity" is the Intifada's supreme achievement. Stronger than national unity is national cowardice. From among the many who claim to be leaders, how is it that not a single group has established an opposition: to conduct the fight for liberation not only against Israel but also against the corrupt PA?

If a responsible leadership were to arise, it would have to decide independently on a cease fire, followed by a thorough house cleansing. The way to liberation is long. First and foremost, it depends on the fate of the United States – in Iraq, for example. As long as Washington rules the roost, the Palestinian problem will remain unsolved together with a great many others, such as the unemployment of millions, poverty, disease and war. We need, in short, a long view, a long breath. It is unwise to isolate the war against the Occupation and treat it as a separate issue.

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