Surviving the odds

One need hardly be a specialist to see that the Palestinian national struggle is in a tight spot. The crisis is unprecedented, long-term, and perhaps fateful. Even the language we use betrays this fact, for most of it is carried over from the Oslo accords, now practically dead and buried. The Oslo accords assume that the Palestinians have a political entity engaged in peace talks with the occupiers. The Palestinians have a state-in-waiting with commitments, mostly regarding security, to Israel. The accords, however, make no specific mention of an Israeli freeze on settlements. So, the number of settlers has been on the increase for the past seven years — since Oslo. Israel, for its part, has never been eager to observe or even maintain the Oslo process.

As a national liberation movement, the Palestinians have hope, or at least room to manoeuvre. As a state-in-waiting, they are in a fix. Yasser Arafat is under siege and the Arabs cannot do anything about it. They cannot even get him to attend the upcoming summit in Beirut. This is one problem, but not the only one. The main assumption of Oslo was that the United States would act as a fair broker between Israel and the Palestinians. Lately, it has been taking its cue solely from the Israelis. As Israel throws off all vestiges of restraint, the Palestinians find themselves under a full-scale siege.

Whether or not Arafat goes to the Arab summit is a symbolic question. It says much about where the Palestinians and Arabs stand. What if the Arabs fail to get Arafat to Beirut? What will our theorists make of that? Most likely, we will hear that enough is enough and the Palestinians should give in. This is what the Oslo theorists have been saying for quite some time, anyway. So how does the Intifada fit into the equation?

The Intifada is the antithesis of Oslo. It was sparked off by the contradictions inherent in the accords. The Israelis, growing impatient with the Palestinians, elected a general who opposes Oslo, and whose entire security policy is geared toward undermining the accords. Sharon wants to alter the course of the negotiations and sidestep the final status issues mentioned in Oslo. He is doing everything he can to dispossess the Palestinians and break their resolve. Recently, he decided to appropriate Palestinian funds deposited in Israel in accordance with agreements reached in Paris, as compensation for the losses the Intifada is inflicting on Israel.

As for the Americans, they have simply lost interest in the “fair broker” role on which Oslo was based. Washington distanced itself from the Palestinians when they rejected its proposals on final status matters. After 11 September, things got worse. Right now, Washington is treating Israel as a guest of honour at the international free-for-all against terror.

Of Oslo, not much is left, save the despair of Arab analysts. But is this the right time for despair? I do not think so. Many Israelis are questioning their army’s actions in the occupied territories. Many are growing aware of the failures of Sharon’s security measures. Many are also wondering why Arab suicide bombers continue to cause mayhem on Israel’s streets.

This is the time to recapture the spirit of national liberation, to resurrect the language and tradition of national liberation that are still alive in the memory of Third World countries and Europe’s former imperial powers. Only in this language can the current situation be grasped. Israel is trying to stifle the Palestinian leadership. This is nothing new. Many national liberation movements have undergone similar experiences. Their leaders were sent to jail. They were prevented from attending international conferences. The hosts of these conferences were unable to do anything about it. Still, the struggle continued.

The Arabs who disapprove of the Intifada, however timidly, are the same ones who once lamented the Arab rejection of Camp David. They were peddling despair even before Arafat was placed under house arrest. What they fail to see is that the current situation cannot be explained by reference to Oslo’s texts, or to commitments and who broke them. The Arabs and Palestinians are facing a watershed. The entire Palestinian population should decide to speak and act in terms of national liberation. The Palestinians cannot keep alternating between two languages: that of Oslo and that of national liberation. The duality of language is counterproductive. It may have placated Washington for a while, but it has done little to rally international support for the Palestinian struggle.

What we have now is open war against the Israeli occupation. The man who ignited this battle was aware of the fragility of the Arab situation, and he struck while the iron was hot. But this is no reason to despair. The case for resistance, even against difficult odds, remains as valid as ever. We all know that the United States saw Palestinian struggle as mere terrorism in the 1960s and 1970s, long before 11 September. This did not deter the resistance then, and it should not now. Much has changed, but one thing has not. The Israelis were occupiers before 11 September. They are occupiers today.

It is certainly necessary to address Israeli, American and European public opinion. But the Palestinians must stay on target. The question of terror should be addressed, for it is a serious one. Both victims and perpetrators are judged in the context of an international campaign against terror. Therefore, resistance must be dissociated from terror, in both objectives and methods. There is no historical, political, or social resemblance between the Palestinian liberation movement and the actions of the Taliban or Bin Laden. It is easy to make this point, but well nigh impossible to convey it when pro-Israeli propagandists are working overtime to portray the Palestinians as crazed and violent.

Here is one example of how to fight back. Visits to the occupied territories by a delegation of European solidarity groups or international figures supportive of national liberation can accomplish much by way of countering pro-Israeli propaganda. European delegations have never visited the Taliban. Pro-national liberation activists never demolished road blocks with Bin Laden. The Palestinians can use their political experience to reverse the negative propaganda tide. It should not be hard for them to get European supporters to stand with them at the barricades. This will remind the world that the propagandists who justify the occupiers and defame the victims have gone too far.

On the other hand, the potential supporters of the Palestinian people — the same people who stood staunchly by the African National Congress during its struggle against apartheid — cannot support a cause that lacks clarity of purpose. They cannot take the side of a people who use one set of terms for negotiations and another for struggle. It is time to challenge Sharon’s policies. He has succeeded in undermining Israeli-Palestinian agreements, and failed to provide a viable political option. He has also failed to bring peace or security to the Israelis. The Palestinians, through continued struggle and clarity of purpose, can bring about political change.

Since the United States launched its “war against terror,” Arab pleas have become pathetic, if not outright embarrassing. Even the Israelis are puzzled. The Arabs have failed to present any realistic vision; and the same goes for the Israelis. Shimon Peres, having won precious time for Sharon by keeping the political option alive, has faded from the picture. Despite Israel’s recurring government crises, the Labour Party has done nothing to challenge Sharon’s policies and present the Israeli public with new political options. I see no hope that Israel’s internal dynamics can bring about change. Some Israelis, it is true, blame Sharon for provoking the Palestinians and undermining the very security he claims to protect. But these are few and far between. There is no political force in Israel at the moment capable of formulating an alternative political programme.

A section of the Labour Party, in cooperation with Meretz, has tried to get the Palestinians back on the Camp David track. The idea was to incite the Labour Party to break ranks with the “national unity” government and go before the Israeli public with a political agenda acceptable to the Arabs. The Labour Party, of course, was accused in 1999 of presenting Israelis with a platform that proved unacceptable to the Palestinians. It is unlikely, therefore, that this scheme will work. The Palestinians who rejected these ideas when presented by an elected Israeli government, are unlikely to accept them from a runaway segment of the Labour Party.

The only thing that would entice the Labour Party to quit the government and bring the crisis into the open is some pressure from Washington. This, too, is unlikely. The United States and much of Europe seem indifferent to the crimes committed by the Israeli occupation forces. Even France, which challenged the European diplomatic siege on Arafat, is not pressing the point.

Here is where the Arab role comes into play. The Arabs, with some resolve and coordination, can influence US and European policies. The Arabs also have an overpowering incentive. Their tolerance of Sharon’s policy is only a further step toward harsher treatment, not just by Israel but also by the United States. This is the Arabs’ moment of truth. If they accept the current situation, their problems will get worse.

The US media, now unabashedly conservative, is using free association to tarnish the image of all Arabs: Arabs, Muslim, Palestine, terror, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt are now interchangeable terms. The US’s moral (or immoral) identification with Israel is unprecedented. It has given Sharon a free hand, and is dragging the region into an abyss. Under these circumstances, the Palestinians’ only hope is to resist. They must keep the embers of hope burning. Hope is the fine line between resistance and suicide, between resistance and utter capitulation. The Palestinians have to show the other Arabs the way forward.

The Intifada, however, needs more than rhetorical support. The Lebanese resistance won the battle against Israel thanks to the genuine backing of both Syria and Iran. Without it, victory would have been impossible. And the Lebanese resistance were fighting from their own homeland, inside a sovereign state, against Israel’s divided governments and public.

The Palestinian resistance faces harsher conditions. It has no Arab strategic depth. Its base is not a sovereign state. It is caught inside Israel’s strategic sphere. And there are as yet no substantial divisions within the Israeli government and public. Currently, the Palestinian resistance is an act of rejection, more defensive than offensive. Israel, meanwhile, is on a rampage. Its aim is to break Palestinian resolve and annihilate Palestinian rights for good, perhaps in the hope that new Palestinian “partners” will appear.

The Palestinians can go on resisting the Israelis, but they need the Arabs’ material, moral, and especially political backing. Arab pressure is the only hope for a change in US and European policy. In the aftermath of 11 September, Arab support is a matter of survival — for both the Arabs and the Palestinians.

The writer is a Palestinian Israeli and member of the Knesset.