WHEN PALESTINIAN President Yasser Arafat told the media this weekend that he was “making efforts” to bring shooting from certain areas to a halt, Israeli officials were visibly jubilant. Israeli Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz toured an Israeli military base and gloated that Israeli economic and military pressure was working.
That premature elation is the greatest indication that Israel is not listening to the current consensus among the Palestinian public, instead conveniently laying all responsibility at Arafat’s feet. In the last two months, Palestinians from every faction have unified over one central point – that Israeli military attacks cannot go unanswered. That is precisely why Palestinians and Israelis exchanged fire in Ramallah, Hebron and Nablus this weekend and, more dramatically, why a bomb was detonated next to a Gaza settlement school bus. This unity means that the Palestinian uprising will go on.
But when one asks why and to what ends, the traditional Palestinian political divisions become visible once again.
In their sights
The man in the front seat is only 20. He carries a 7mm handgun and he doesn’t venture past any Israeli checkpoints. He knows that he and others are now targets of the Israeli military. I will call him Ahmed, not his real name.
Today Ahmed is giving me a tour of the Ramallah “front lines.” At the first stop, a gray cement skeleton of a building, other men greet him. The Israeli settlement of Psagot looms directly in front of us and an Israeli tank hunkers below the walled housing complex. I lag behind while they review the heavy shooting that took place here last week.
On November 10, Ahmed tells me, Palestinian shooters fired at Psagot from two construction sites and the Al Bireh cemetery. Few in number and armed with automatic weapons, these are the now-legendary “tanzeem,” a loose group of Fateh activists only some of whom are driving the military part of this Palestinian uprising.
Their objectives are limited and short-term. “We want to make them scared,” says Ahmed. “If you go to the checkpoint these days [to throw rocks] you are going to die. What is better, to die with a gun in hand or with nothing?”
Israel responded that night with tank shells and machinegun fire, dismembering a local watchman who came to check on the shooters and killing another man at this site. Gaping holes were torn in this and two other empty buildings that we visit. At the cemetery, the Israeli tank shells shattered new graves, many of them dug only days before.
In the Ramallah area, it seems that little goes into deciding where and how to shoot. “We just pick a place close enough to the settlement that can provide us some cover,” says Ahmed. Here at least Israeli shells have not been fired into homes nearby the shooters.
But in Hebron, the Palestinian shooters have fired from a four-story apartment building where families actually live. Their bullets are directed at the Israeli settlement inside the city just across the hill. Hebron, divided between Palestinian Authority and Israeli control, is one big front line. When Israeli soldiers respond with tank shells and machine gun fire, they strike haphazardly, shelling stores downhill from the Palestinian target and the streets nearby.
“If we hit them with one bullet, they hit us with a million,” says Samir Kawasmeh, whose garage was struck by a tank shell fired through the city. “At night they fire at any person, any car.”
Raja Kawasmeh lives across the street from one place Palestinians are firing from. Fearful, she has hidden all her best things in a room on the opposite side of the house. As she shows me the mauve satin curtains torn by shell shrapnel, I spot a man in her living room with a pistol in his belt.
You look like someone in charge, I say. Why are the Palestinians shooting from residential areas? The policeman’s response is defiant. “If I go to the desert [the Jews] will fight me there. If I have to go to the desert to fight them, I will.”
These shooters believe that the Palestinian people support their short bursts of fire against the big Israeli guns. But as Israeli bombardment continues in almost every Palestinian city, it is also clear that the human and structural costs of this kind of exchange are increasingly high.
“The order to stop shooting from areas A [under Palestinian control] is an order to try to stop giving Israel excuses to retaliate,” says one Fateh supporter who grew up under the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon. “Arafat doesn’t like blood.”
A move to limit those costs is a safe one on Arafat’s part. Even those who have advocated a military option all along say that Palestinians must rethink their current means of resisting the Israeli occupation.
“I am not satisfied by this uprising,” says Ghazi Hamad at the Gaza office of the Islamic Salvation Front, an Islamist political party. “Palestinians should not be paying this high price. They can change their strategies to make the Israeli people afraid.”
Fateh in charge
Israel has made much of the “tanzeem,” using the word for Fateh’s activist corps as if it were a real guerrilla movement with clear objectives. Such propaganda helps to justify bombing raids on Fateh and Palestinian Authority offices – bombings that do more to terrify civilians than damage the Palestinian ability to strike Israelis.
Veteran Israeli reporter Amira Haas has noted this misunderstanding, saying that one Palestinian even tried to convince her that the tanzeem was a new phenomenon. The recent issue of “Between the Lines” dates the tanzeem’s establishment with the arrival of the Palestinian Authority, confuses the tanzeem with the Palestinian Authority security services and implies that the activist corps has veto power over the high ranks of Fateh and the security services.
In truth, the tanzeem, meaning “organization” in Arabic, includes all Fateh activists, large and small. In Ramallah, Ahmed’s shooters are about 25 guys, a group that existed before the Oslo agreements with Israel, but has since armed itself through the Israeli black market. They are the core of Fateh’s “street,” but seem to coordinate little with the tanzeem in other cities. Sometimes their activities overlap with those of the 13 Palestinian security services.
While they may lead the stone throwers at the checkpoints, their numbers are swollen by individuals that are not loyal to Fateh, but simply fed up with the Israeli occupation. While the tanzeem is getting more credit than it is due for orchestrating Palestinian anger against Israel, it is clear that Fateh as a political party is dominating the current uprising. “They can’t afford to share authority,” says Mahdi Abdul Hadi of the Jerusalem think tank PASSIA. “The Palestinian Authority has monopolized authority, monopolized the negotiations and monopolized the VIP.” So far, it has also monopolized the Palestinian resistance.
What then, is Fateh’s strategy and end goal? While the theme of international (versus United States) intervention in the conflict is coming through loud and clear, other messages are more subtle. Arafat’s weekend orders to restrict fire had the foreign press speculating that Barak had dropped objections to an international observer force and that a return to the negotiating table was in the offing. Such an arrangement would mean that the goal of the intifada was to get international observers on the ground and return to the same talks. West Bank Fateh Secretary Marwan Barghouti on the other hand, repeatedly declares that the goals of the intifada are to rebalance the peace process and end the occupation and Israeli settlement on Palestinian land. The messages conveyed are mixed at best.
“Fateh is in chaos right now,” says one party man. “Believe me, Arafat is the only Palestinian that everyone will listen to, but we have many groups on the edges and while they will always respect Arafat, they are saying, we will do this now and he will come back to us in the end.” It appears that Arafat has done all he can to leave the door open for further negotiations, while deputizing Barghouti to guide public sentiment.
But this non-committal approach has a lot of Palestinians worried. As long as the very top levels of the Palestinian leadership are not supporting public anger with real plans, Palestinians fear that the uprising’s positive aspects will be lost. “It’s not enough to say we want to end the occupation,” says Abdul Hadi. “You have to practice your sovereignty on the ground. You cannot continue to have security coordination and cooperation with the occupiers – which we have.”
Arafat remains largely silent on these issues. His silence aids Palestinian suspicions that their leadership is only looking for the first opportunity to return to previous Palestinian-Israeli understandings. Israeli propaganda has promoted the idea that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Arafat a great package deal – one acceptable to Arafat barring final arrangements over control of the Al Aqsa mosque. But a number of Palestinian observers say that this idea is all bluff – they believe that the positions of the Palestinian and Israeli public are simply too wide to bridge, and that this is the real reason why the area has returned to open conflict.
Whether it is Israeli and American pressure that has kept the Palestinian leadership from setting a clear plan and goals for the Palestinian uprising, or its own interests in renewing the old negotiating track, the Palestinian public remains cautious. And as long as the leadership’s goals remain unclear, those who might prepare alternative methods of protest – alternatives including a broader cross-section of the Palestinian public – are unwilling to stick their necks out.
“One of two things would happen,” says a follower of the straggling Palestinian left. “Either Fateh would take over the new plan, or the person would be arrested by the Palestinian Authority.”
In an interesting illustration of the current party politics, on November 19, the conglomeration of leftist parties led a small march to the Al-Bireh checkpoint. Halfway through, Fateh leader Marwan Barghouti joined the group. Once the rock throwing began, the crowd of young people swelled, including several young masked men, probably Fateh activists, who were the first to be targeted by Israeli sharpshooters. The cycle goes on.
The Hamas wild card
While Israel is making much of Palestinian attacks on Israelis, these operations have been largely limited to settlement targets in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Islamic Jihad has claimed responsibility for several of these recent attacks, but Hamas has yet to let loose its military wing. It is clear, however, that Israel is weighing this eventuality, already claiming that the Palestinian Authority has eased its heavy hand on the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas. It is true that Hamas has signed its name with Fateh on Intifada leaflets, at one point announcing that it would participate in a coming Palestinian Central Council meeting. Political leaders of all Palestinian factions are participating in the informal round tables ongoing throughout the territories. Hamas’ military wing, however, has been severely crippled over the years by Palestinian and Israeli security cooperation, aided by American intelligence training.
Still Palestinians believe that it is a matter of time before Hamas renews its attacks on Israelis in the context of this Intifada. Because the deaths of Palestinian civilian protesters at the hands of Israeli snipers continue to be high, averaging six a day, many expect that Israeli civilians will also become a target. Traditionally, Hamas has carried out its operations inside Israel, bombing civilian areas.
“No one, not even Arafat, can make Palestinians accept that innocent civilians are being killed,” says the Fateh supporter. “I am sure it will not be long before Palestinians move to attack Israeli civilians.”
Islamist Ghazi Hamad agrees. He says that Hamas is facing criticism for its lack of action. Still, he thinks that Hamas hesitates because it is unsure of the Palestinian Authority’s intentions. “Fateh has said at meetings that if other factions want to fight, they can, but I think it is not so open. Still the Fateh fighters remain in the security branches.” The Palestinian leadership may see Hamas participation in the military aspects of the uprising as a direct challenge to its authority. Certainly, it would hurry to co-opt or quell any movement outside its loose circles of control.
Abdel Hadi believes that this has already happened. He argues that, even though Arafat and Israeli leader Shimon Peres agreed to certain cease-fire terms on November 1, that agreement was never carried out precisely because of the bomb planted in a car in Mahane Yehuda on November 2 that killed two Israelis.
He says that decision was as much Arafat’s as it was Barak’s. “Both leaders realized after the fifth week of the Intifada that a new component had entered the Intifada, and for them, it’s a nightmare. That new component is the fundamentalists Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Both Arafat and Barak cannot afford to have them in it.”
Indeed, if the Hamas military wing were to become active, shutting it down would endear the Palestinian Authority to Israel and perhaps reopen the door for talks. The Authority could use a crackdown on Hamas to demonstrate to the world that it remains committed to the terms of the Oslo accords, at the same time that it and its people are rejecting the Israeli occupation. The question remains if the Palestinian Authority could sell such a crackdown to its people, who are unequivocal that Israel cannot be allowed to get away with the growing loss of Palestinian life.
“People disagree on the methods, on the strategy, people disagree on the approach, but no one, no one disagrees that Israel cannot be allowed to kill so many Palestinians,” says the Fateh source.
Hamad believes that Fateh is undergoing an internal modification of its position away from negotiations in response to the Palestinian street. Still, he says that this Palestinian unity is fragile. He puts it succinctly – “The intifada unifies, while politics pulls people apart.” The question is, can those Palestinians who are in charge organize the momentum of the Intifada before the politics take over?
Charmaine Seitz is Managing Editor of The Palestine Report