A matter of choice

Just as the resignation of the new Palestinian prime minister, coming only after 100 days in office, was announced, news reports spoke of an assassination attempt mounted against Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and of Hamas labelled a terrorist group by none other than the European Union. It would be a waste of time to try and find a link of causality among these developments, beyond the obvious fact that all are products of the same political situation, symptoms of the same crisis. Right now, the Palestinians need to view the current crisis as a whole and formulate a unified strategy to deal with it. The current developments are linked, one way or the other. More relevantly, whoever took the decision to mount the operation against Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader and founder of Hamas, has done so according to intelligence reports and in response to a standing high-level political decision. Israel’s security services were just waiting for the right moment to make their move.

For several weeks, particularly since the Jerusalem operation, it has been clear that Israel was determined to wage an all-out war against Hamas leaders. The Israeli army and the security services had their orders and were standing ready to carry out the attacks at the right time. In the past, Israel used to launch preemptive or retaliatory attacks against Hamas leaders. It did so in the assassinations of Jamil Salim and Jamil Mansur (31 July 2001) in Nablus and the attempt on Al- Rantissi’s life two months ago (10 June 2003). Now, things are different. Israel is targeting Hamas as a whole, regardless of whether or not the latter is mounting operations.

Overlooking the need for long-term planning, the Palestinian resistance has so far mostly improvised as it went along. Its course was marred by sporadic actions, affected by the desire to take revenge, inspired by the urge to teach the Israelis a lesson. The common argument was that the Palestinian society should not be the only one paying the price, and that resistance acts, in general, put political pressure on the Israelis. The West, particularly after 11 September, branded this way of thinking as terrorist — even though it is just what the Israelis do to the Palestinians to break the latter’s will. The Palestinians and their friends, naturally, note that there is a difference between violence conducted by the occupiers and that conducted by those living under occupation. What the Palestinian resistance groups have failed to examine, however, is the relation between means and ends. They have not paused to ask the question, "how effective is the make-the-Israelis-pay attitude in terms of political achievement?" Or, more relevantly, "how can one gauge political achievement when one does not have a political strategy?".

Palestinians used the term "terror" in describing the operations by Hamas, Al-Aqsa Brigades, and Islamic Jihad long before Europe used the term in an official document denouncing the Hamas movement as a whole. It was unimaginable to foresee a domestic Palestinian dialogue emerging at a time when such a term was being used in reference to a political movement operating in a situation of occupation — even if such a dialogue was strategic and even if the aim was to forge a common political vision of the current phase and define the minimum requisites for resisting the occupation. There is a link between the Palestinian lack of an overall strategy in matters of politics and resistance and Europe’s listing of Hamas as a terrorist group. Since 9/11, the Europeans have been very reluctant to take such a step. They finally did.

The Israelis, for their part, saw in 9/11 an opportunity to brand the whole Palestinian national movement as terrorist. They tried initially to draw parallels between Arafat and Bin Laden. Next, the whole Palestinian issue was reformulated as one of rebuilding Palestinian security services and making them more able to "fight terror". That these services actually fight "terror" then became a condition for holding negotiations leading to a Sharon-styled Palestinian state.

Regardless of the exact details and wording, this was the essence of the Israeli-US dictates to the Palestinians as far as the roadmap was concerned. The Palestinians were aware of that when they decided to begin talks on the roadmap. Some Palestinians who accepted this line of thinking attempted to bend with the wind. They accepted the US dictates in part but tried to avoid a crisis on the domestic front. Others accepted the dictates in a deeper strategic sense, hoping all the while that they could talk their way out of the dilemma — if only the Palestinian resistance were to give them the chance. They, too, called for a truce, so as to avoid a Palestinian civil war. Israel, meanwhile, insisted that the new Palestinian government rebuild security services, free these services from Arafat’s control, and risk an internal conflict under the rubric of "dismantling the infrastructure of terror". When the Palestinian leadership tried to avoid internal confrontation through domestic dialogue and a ceasefire, Israel saw this as a breach of the roadmap commitments and retaliated with more assassinations, while attempting all the time to draw the new Palestinian leadership into the quagmire of domestic confrontation.

As pressures mounted, and with Abu Mazen unable to wrest control of the security forces from the elected Palestinian president, the prime minister resigned. This happened at a time when both the US and Israel were declaring the Palestinian president politically dead, and a debate was ongoing on whether Arafat should be deported or physically liquidated. For the outgoing prime minister, the road was riddled with potholes and strewn with difficulties from the start. At one point, Abu Mazen had to resign from the Fatah Central Committee to free himself from the resolutions passed by Fatah, the same movement that brought him to the Legislative Council.

There is a clear contradiction between the language of national liberation, which is being used as a source of internal legitimacy; and the language of terror, which is being used as a source of external legitimacy. It is this contradiction that forced Abu Mazen out of office. This contradiction will stay with us, despite any change of faces. Ahmed Qureih, president of the Legislative Council and the prime minister designate, is bound to face the same dilemma; the only solution to which is to choose between two courses of action. One is to accept Israel’s dictates, which would lead to a Palestinian entity — euphemistically called a state — with limited sovereignty, on 40 per cent of the West Bank. The road to this option is through a Palestinian civil war that would end up in creating a Palestinian entity and a leadership linked with Israel. The second course of action is that of national liberation. The latter course requires the formulation of a unified Palestinian leadership with a well thought-out strategy for political action and resistance.

Haphazard and retaliatory reactions should be abandoned and everyone should be committed to a common policy, one allowing the Palestinian people to remain defiant for any length of time, rally their potential for struggle, and keep addressing world opinion as well as the US and Israeli public. The Palestinians should not lose sight of their main objective; that of liberation from occupation.