What is happening in Palestine? Are we seeing, as the international media suggests, the destruction of the peace- building process that began with Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, producing the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord of 1979 (frozen for over a decade and then resumed after the Gulf War to yield the Oslo accords in 1993 and the Jordanian-Israeli peace agreement in 1994, but which has failed to yield any further concrete progress since)? Is it, as most Israelis would have it, an onslaught of brutal violence that scattered groups of Palestinians — opposed to the existence of Israel and the idea of peace — have unleashed on innocents who are fulfilling the Jewish dream of return and who have the right to live on every inch of the promised land?
Or is the situation, as many Palestinians and Arabs claim, tangible proof that the negotiating strategy followed by Yasser Arafat has failed (a strategy that, from Oslo on, established the basis for a settlement highly prejudicial to Palestinian rights, and the inequity of which the Intifada is determined to redress)?
Some of the preceding explanations have some validity, but they fail to address the crucial issue. What is unfolding before our eyes is not the collapse of a “peace” process, nor acts of violence and terrorism, but the final, decisive phase of the Palestinian war of independence. The term “war of independence” is particularly apt, not only because it is the Palestinian counterpoint to the Israeli “war of independence” of 1948, but also because it epitomises the crystallisation of Palestinian national consciousness, which is now concentrated on a single, specific aim: the creation of a Palestinian state, the realisation of which has been held off for more than half a century.
What is taking place today draws us back to the original problem, which is not so much the question of “eliminating the effects of the 1967 aggression” (i.e. the territories occupied since the 1967 War) as it is that of Palestine’s very fate. Israel today is facing the reality its founders have long sought to ignore: the existence of the Palestinian people and their right to national independence and statehood.
UN recognition of the state of Israel in 1948 marked the culmination of concerted international Jewish efforts to promote migration to Palestine and rally the support of the great powers (in the first half of the 20th century, primarily Great Britain) behind the Zionist enterprise. The UN resolution simultaneously brought home the Arabs’ failure to unify effectively against Zionist encroachment upon their land, while to the Arabs of Palestine the creation of Israel came at the expense of their own aspirations for national independence.
Now, in 2001, the Palestinians sense that their own “1948” is at hand. If they lag more than a half a century behind their adversaries, perhaps that interval was necessary for them to crystallise their own distinct and autonomous sense of national identity and, more importantly, to identify the best means to fight a powerful and skilled adversary.
When, towards the end of the 19th century, the fathers of the Zionist movement set their sights on Palestine, they attached little significance to the political importance of the Arabs who actually lived on the land. The key to facilitating Jewish immigration and settlement, they felt, lay in the hands of the Ottoman sultan, who had at least nominal sovereignty over the Levant.
There were, however, important exceptions. As early as 1881, Asher Ginzberg warned that the Zionists had accustomed themselves to the belief that the Arabs were all The first Intifada enabled the Palestinians to acquire sufficient self-confidence to begin negotiations with the Israelis. These negotiations led to Oslo, which compelled the Israelis to recognise the identity of the Palestinian people officially, and furnished the necessary international sanction for the creation of a Palestinian state, a condition the Palestinian national movement had lacked since 1948.
Nevertheless, Oslo, which brought the Palestinian Authority back to Palestine and its people, was only one step along the path of national independence. Although subsequent negotiations produced proposals, understandings and compromises on final status, the implementation of agreements, as is always the case between occupying powers and occupied peoples, remained contingent upon each side’s ability to demonstrate its actual force.
The Israelis wanted to establish their “rights” with regard to the most potentially explosive issue on the negotiating table, which is why Sharon invaded Al-Aqsa Mosque last September. The Palestinians had no alternative but to demonstrate their resolute opposition to Israeli ambitions. The result was the second Intifada.
If the question of Jerusalem ignited the Intifada, Sharon’s violence and continued Israeli settlement expansion helped sustain it and intensify its focus. As with every independence struggle, evacuation has become the pivotal issue. If the pressures of foreign occupation in the 1970s and 1980s built up to erupt in the stones that became the emblem of the first Intifada, Israeli recalcitrance throughout the difficult negotiations of the 1990s, ongoing settlement expansion and Tel Aviv’s refusal to consider an honourable compromise over Jerusalem compelled the Palestinians to intensify suicide operations.
Do the Israelis believe they will succeed where the French failed in Algeria, the US in Vietnam and the Russians in Afghanistan? There are Israeli politicians and military leaders who think it is possible to counter sustained revolutionary violence in the form of suicide bombs. However, growing distress among the Israeli public must eventually give way, once the anger and thirst for revenge subside, to some frank and courageous introspection, an honest consideration of what would drive young Palestinians to sacrifice their lives voluntarily for the sake of freedom and national independence.
Unfortunately for the Israelis, because of their relatively small land area and population and because of the proximity of the occupied peoples, they are more vulnerable to this form of resistance than any other occupying power in history has ever been. Unfortunately, too, for the Israelis, their tanks, F-16s and nuclear arsenal are powerless against suicide bombs. Yet the Israelis are simultaneously creating the breeding grounds for this violence, in the refugee camps, through the blockades and the daily harassment and degradation of an occupied people.
The terms of reference of this war are not those of “land for peace,” which were viable in Israel’s dealings with sovereign neighbours, but rather “independence and freedom for peace.” If the Israelis sincerely hope to live in peace and security, they will have to cede to Palestinian national aspirations on their land, aspirations established by the international community and international law.
The writer is the editor-in-chief of Al-Siyasa Al-Dawlia (International Politics) journal, issued by Al-Ahram, and a member of the Shura Council.