Arms and the man

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Nearly one year after its inception, the Intifada is now almost wholly identified with suicide bombings, which have become more frequent and more devastating in their toll. It is Hamas and Islamic Jihad that are now calling the uprising’s shots. The process of reduction has been going on for many months. Is it one of advancement or degeneration?

We need to recap:

The Intifada was launched as a popular uprising, a spontaneous mass movement involving the active participation of tens of thousands, nurtured and enthusiastically supported by a whole people. Such sudden outpourings of mass energy are among the mysteries of human history. They can be explained only in hindsight. Political movements can help prepare the ground for them; provide them with leadership and direction once they take place — but they can never actually instigate them. Why, how and when do people — ordinary everyday people who have children to raise, daily livings to scrape together and ordinary everyday lives to lead — suddenly decide that they can bear no more; that the business of coping with hardship, oppression and humiliation is no longer possible? Many may claim to have the answer. I don’t believe anybody does, really. Sure, there are always a great many reasons why people should rebel, but more often than not they just cope, weaving day- to-day acts of resistance, subversion and adaptation into highly complex and subtle survival strategies.

The distinction between popular sentiment and its phenomenal forms is something that the oppressors and their hosts of publicists are incapable of understanding; it implies an admission of the fundamental fact of oppression. Hence the ever- repeated question of “who’s behind it?” Nearly 12 months ago as now, the Al-Aqsa Intifada’s one fundamental feature has been the spontaneous resolve of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to refuse to live with Israeli servitude and humiliation any longer — whatever the cost. The forms such resolve takes, in the Palestinian as in any other popular uprising, depend on leadership, strategic direction, organisational capability, tactical proficiency, or indeed the lack or extreme weakness of all of these elements.

Contrasting the second Intifada with its ’80s precursor might prove useful in explaining the forms the ongoing uprising has taken over time, drawing it further away from its first instalment, so much so, indeed, that the two are now comparable more in name than in any other recognisable element.

Consider these three fundamental differences: The most significant, if least obvious, of all three is the fact that while the first Intifada epitomised the Palestinian struggle for a two-state solution, the second Intifada was a response to its collapse. It is this that lies at the heart of the “end-game” character of the confrontation on both sides; there simply is no “middle ground,” either in practical, objective terms or in imagination. From the very outset of the Intifada, this end-game quality of the confrontation found expression, on one hand, in unprecedented levels of Israeli repression (coupled with the virtual collapse of the Israeli “peace camp”); and, on the other, in a profound strategic crisis on the Palestinian side.

To grasp the extent of the crisis we need to note that the Palestinians’ two-state strategy was from its inception a “peace strategy.” It was grounded in the supposition that a negotiated Israeli withdrawal to pre-June 1967 borders was imminent. So imminent, indeed, that when PDFLP leader Nayef Hawatmeh (writing — with Arafat’s behind-the- scenes blessing — as early as 1972 under the byline of “a Palestinian leftist”) presented the first ever version of a Palestinian two-state strategy, his main concern was not how to achieve a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, but to forestall Jordan’s King Hussein from grabbing the West Bank again once it was returned. As such, the crisis in Palestinian strategic thinking was and remains much more profound than would be explained by the crisis of the PA’s disastrous negotiating strategy as elaborated in the Oslo process.

The second and third distinctive features of the Al-Aqsa Intifada as opposed to its predecessor are more obvious. They both derive directly from the Oslo process. These are, respectively, Arafat’s PA and the availability of arms. Several years of PA self-rule had devastated Palestinian popular organisations as only a “national” authority could. These organisations had been developed and greatly refined during the first Intifada and survived both Israeli repression and the Intifada’s “exhaustion” (the first Intifada, we might note, had all but fizzled out by the time of the Gulf War, which was the true forerunner of the 1991 Madrid peace conference). They were unable to survive (expect as mere shadows of their original selves) a national leadership armed with a ready-made bureaucracy well practiced in the arts of authoritarian control — that optimal combination of direct repression and soft coercion, populism and patronage, nepotism and corruption that has been among the more prominent success stories of post- independence Arab regimes.

These very conditions had contradictory effects, however, which the collapse of Oslo brought into sharp focus. The PA’s authoritarian control was contingent upon its maintaining a “national” character. The struggle for independence was yet to be won, or even appear to have been won. Only a Yasser Arafat, bolstered by his PLO bureaucracy and erstwhile freedom-fighting security forces, could have enough influence to protect “Israeli security” while allowing it both to maintain its overall dominance over Palestinian land and people and to avoid the “demographic nightmare” of seeing the Jewish State dissolve in a sea of Arabs. But these were the very same reasons that made it extremely difficult to transform a Yasser Arafat into a full- blown Quisling, his erstwhile freedom fighters into Israeli gendarmes. With Camp David and the outbreak of the Intifada, the contradictions came to a head. Israel, deciding that the Palestinians needed another major lesson in “realism,” sent the missiles flying. Palestinian arms, for what they’re worth, could only turn towards the national enemy.

“Contrary to the Israeli account” of the Intifada, writes Palestinian scholar Yazid Sayigh, Arafat’s behaviour “since the start of the Intifada has reflected not the existence of a prior strategy based on the use of force, but the absence of any strategy. His political management has been marked by a high degree of improvisation and short-termism, confirming the absence of an original strategy and of a clear purpose, whether preconceived or otherwise.”

The second Intifada’s recourse to arms was not a strategic choice; nor is it a sign of strength. It was practically preordained, an outgrowth of Oslo as much as of its collapse. For its part, armed struggle has been reduced to what we are now calling “martyrdom operations” (presumably in deference to the Saudi Mufti). These, irrespective of their moral standard or strategic and tactical ramifications (all of which are highly dubious, to say the least), are merely the easiest course of armed violence under conditions of extreme imbalance of military force.

The Palestinian struggle for liberation could not, and should not, remain the captive of chance.

Mr. Hani Shukrallah is Managing Editor of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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