Define “Intifada.” Nearly a year ago, the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza embarked on a popular uprising for freedom from the Israeli yoke. Seven years of the Oslo process had brought them not independence but a solution to Israel’s “demographic nightmare.” Israel would maintain control over their land, water, borders, economy and polity, i.e. their lives, livelihood and destiny, while maintaining as well the supposedly inviolable “purity” of the Jewish State (notwithstanding its one million plus “Arab citizens”). In a word, Apartheid, which, while somewhat better than “transfer” (Israel’s word for what is elsewhere called ethnic cleansing), is no cause for celebration. The Palestinians, who think of themselves as human beings and not as a security risk or demographic bomb (let alone ants and serpents), wouldn’t have it. They rose in a popular struggle for independence.
That was what “Intifada” meant then. What does it mean now? One can identify several usages. On the Palestinian/Arab diplomatic level, the Intifada is a bargaining card whose very aim is to cancel itself out. The Palestinian people are supposed to keep the Intifada going, to keep struggling and dying, until such a time as the Americans and the Israelis agree to act as though the Intifada never happened; “to restore the situation to what it was on 28 September” — before the Intifada broke out. Not only does such a position squander the enormous sacrifices and suffering of the Palestinians over the past 11 months, it also concedes the Israeli portrayal of the uprising as gratuitous Palestinian violence. In moral terms, the Arab/Palestinian diplomatic stance reads as an admission of guilt, but with the erring party begging to let bygones be bygone. Sharon insists on harsh punishment; the Americans would like the punishment to be somewhat less severe. For their part, the Europeans, while expressing a preference for turning over a new leaf, concede that the realities of power are such that the Palestinians will have to accept at least some form of punishment. And then we wail and cry over media bias and how misunderstood by the world we are.
On the non-diplomatic, or domestic-consumption level, the Intifada has been transformed into a sacred cow, a mantra or incantation, whereby the very repetition of the word will presumably make things right. Save for a few, if highly significant, Palestinian voices, the Intifada is kept, nearly a year after its outbreak, sanctified and unproblematised. “Continue the Intifada”; “escalate the Intifada”; “Intifada until victor” — what does the rhetoric mean? What are the strategy, tactics and means of struggle involved? Is it an uprising aimed at winning full independence, which will end only after having won it? Or is it, rather, an attempt to alter somewhat the balance of power, so as to improve the PA’s negotiating position? And, if either, has it brought us, almost a year later, closer to one aim or the other? Or, indeed, is the Intifada today reduced merely to the task of cutting its own losses — minimizing the punishment that the Israelis seem bent on extracting from the Palestinians for having started it?
And what of the means of struggle? Are we talking of a popular uprising; a war of liberation; IRA-style urban guerrilla warfare; or some combination thereof? Rather than wallow in the Palestinian people’s ability to deliver one martyr after another, is it not about time we debated means of struggle that minimize as much as possible our losses and maximize those of the enemy? Are we fighting to win, or to give the world a guilt complex?
Mr. Hani Shukrallah is Managing Editor of Al-Ahram Weekly.