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The New Intifada: Standing up to Goliath

(December 2000)

From International Socialist Review, Issue 15, December 2000–January 2001.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE PALESTINIAN uprising that began in late September 2000 marked the end of the “peace process” as we knew it. Israel, the U.S., and even the Palestinian Authority (PA) may try to restart it, but it has clearly lost any support it had in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and Gaza. Even Hanan Ashrawi, a leading Palestinian moderate who supported the negotiations, declared that the “seriously flawed” peace process that began in 1993 “can’t be resuscitated.” She said, “There is no status quo ante to go back to.” [1]

The uprising began September 29, one day after the leader of Israel’s right-wing opposition, Ariel Sharon, stormed Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem with more than 1,000 armed Israeli police. Sharon meant his “visit” to assert Israel’s control over Muslim holy sites in occupied East Jerusalem. If this wasn’t provocative enough, Sharon chose to make his statement on the anniversary of the 1982 massacre of more than 2,000 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon – a crime for which even the Israeli government held Sharon “indirectly responsible.” While even U.S. officials condemned Sharon’s “provocation,” Sharon clearly had Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s prior approval. Sharon would not have had the military cordon that accompanied him without Barak’s authorization. After Sharon departed, Israeli soldiers and police remained. The stage was set for the following day’s confrontation, when Israeli security forces opened fire on thousands of worshippers attending Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa. With Israeli forces under orders to shoot to kill, seven Palestinians died and 200 were wounded in the initial clashes. The “Al-Aqsa Intifada” quickly spread throughout the West Bank and Gaza.

As the struggle intensified, a pro-U.S., pro-Israel media focused on a few incidents of Palestinian violence, such as the sacking of Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus and the lynching of two undercover Israeli cops. This media focus conveyed the desired message that Palestinians were laying siege to Israel. It may seem obvious that a confrontation between one of the world’s strongest armies and stone-throwing youths isn’t a fair fight. In the first six weeks of the uprising, Israeli forces killed more than 200 Palestinians. And, as the table below shows, almost 8,000 Palestinians in the Occupied Territories were injured during the same period. In comparison, during the first six weeks of the uprising, 49 Israeli civilians and 150 Israeli security police sustained injuries from rock throwers and gunfire. [2] By November 2, Israeli forces had killed 51 children. [3]

The Israeli military “locked down” the territories, preventing Palestinians from traveling to their jobs in Israel, leaving their towns, and in some cases even leaving their houses. Right-wing Israelis organized pogroms against Palestinian citizens of Israel in Nazareth and in other towns as police stood by. Meanwhile, right-wing Israeli settlers carried out vigilante attacks. The Alternative Information Center, an Israeli-Palestinian human rights organization, documented settler attacks that bore all the hallmarks of Ku Klux Klan night riders in the Jim Crow South:

Back to 1987?

Today’s uprising is similar to, but in many ways in advance of, the 1987–1993 Intifada that pushed Israel to the negotiating table. The scenes of stone-throwing youths confronting armed Israeli soldiers recall images from the first Intifada. But the scale of the firepower being deployed – on both sides – is higher. Israel has dispatched tanks and helicopter gunships against the Palestinians. But unlike the 1980s Intifada, Palestinians are fighting back with more than rocks. Palestinian tactics include armed self-defense and attacks on Israeli military and settler targets in the territories. One indication of the intensity of the conflict has been the casualty rate. In its first six weeks, the Al-Aqsa Intifada has produced 15 percent of the casualties – almost all on the Palestinian side – that the 1987–1993 Intifada produced in six years.

Palestinians clearly drew inspiration from the armed resistance that drove Israel out of Lebanon in May 2000. The Lebanese Hezbollah led a guerrilla resistance to Israel and its lackey, the South Lebanon Army (SLA), in the Israeli-occupied “security zone” inside Lebanese territory. In May, Barak ordered an “orderly” Israeli withdrawal with the aim of handing over the region to the SLA. But Hezbollah-led resistance turned the withdrawal into a rout. The SLA collapsed within days. For people around the region, Hezbollah’s armed resistance showed that Israel could be beaten. “Hezbollah’s heroic operations have had a fundamental role in boosting the morale of our people and incited us to double our efforts in our struggle against the occupier,” Marwan Barghouti, the general secretary of Arafat’s Fatah movement, told a Lebanese newspaper. [5]

The scale of solidarity between Palestinians in Israel (referred to in the Israeli and U.S. press as “Israeli Arabs”) and Palestinians in the Occupied Territories marks another change from the previous Intifada. Palestinians inside Israel demonstrated in solidarity with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Their spokespeople clearly identified their struggle against second-class status in Israel with the struggle of their brothers and sisters for independence. The first Intifada produced an awakening of nationalist consciousness among Palestinians in Israel. But after an initial burst of demonstrations in solidarity with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories in 1987, Israel’s Palestinian citizens retreated. For most of the rest of the Intifada, they expressed their solidarity by raising money and collecting food to ship to the territories. Since the Israeli government began pursuing the “peace process” with Palestinians, Palestinian citizens of Israel have voted in overwhelming numbers for Labor candidates. But with Barak sending tanks into the territories and police into Israeli Palestinian towns, Palestinians in Israel organized demonstrations in their own towns. Some even managed to cross the Green Line [the border between Israel and the Occupied Territories] to join the crowds fighting the Israelis. This new assertiveness followed on incidents last summer in Galilee towns when thousands of Palestinian Israeli citizens fought off Israeli military attempts to demolish their homes. [6]

Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line were demonstrating against the apartheid conditions that Israel enforces. Seven years ago, Palestinians were willing to give the “peace process” a chance. If it could contribute to lifting the worst excesses of the Israeli occupation of their land, it was worth a try, they thought. But seven years later, it’s clear that none of the developments that Palestinians hoped for have come to pass. In fact, in many ways, life for ordinary Palestinians in the Occupied Territories is worse today than it was in 1993. For years, public opinion surveys have indicated Palestinian disillusionment with the peace process. The Al-Aqsa Intifada turned that disillusionment into mass action.

From Camp David to Haram al Sharif

Crucial to the media case against the Palestinians is the notion that Arafat is chiefly to blame for the breakdown in the peace process. After all, they say, Barak had gone the “extra mile” in proposing unprecedented concessions to the Palestinians at the July 2000 U.S.-sponsored summit at Camp David. Arafat walked away from the deal. And no wonder. Had he signed it, he would have gone down in history as the biggest traitor to the Palestinian cause ever.

Barak and the U.S sought Arafat’s signature on a document that would end the “transition period” envisioned in the proposals signed on the White House lawn in 1993. Arafat’s signature would allow him to proclaim a “state” in the Occupied Territories (crowning himself as president). In exchange for U.S. and Israeli recognition of this “state,” Arafat was asked to sign away long-standing, and historically just, Palestinian claims on three major issues: Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, and sovereignty over their land.

Israel offered to hand to the Palestinian Authority (PA) the dusty village of Abu Dis, on the outskirts of Jerusalem (known as al-Quds in Arabic). Abu Dis would be renamed al-Quds, allowing the Palestinians to claim it as their historic capital. Meanwhile, Israel would retain control over the real Jerusalem. For the refugees, the U.S. offered to assemble a fund of billions of dollars to resettle them within the borders of the Palestinian state or within the Arab countries where they currently reside. In exchange, the U.S. and Israel demanded that Arafat renounce the refugees’ internationally recognized right to return to their homeland inside the Green Line in Israel. Israel also demanded that the Palestinians renounce their demand that Israel recognize its responsibility for creating the “refugee problem,” even though Israel’s armies expelled nearly one million Palestinians from their homes in 1948. Finally, the “state” that Arafat would be forced to accept would divide Palestine into three unconnected sections (or “cantons”) over which the PA would have strictly limited authority. Jewish settlement in historic Palestine would continue and Israel would retain its right to invade the Palestinian state at any time. In other words, Israel was only willing to grant the PA civil (not military) administration over 65 percent of the Palestinian land Israel seized in 1967. Again, Arafat’s agreement to this term would effectively ratify Israel’s occupation.

In return for Arafat’s agreement to these terms, “Barak demanded two things ... First, [Arafat] must formally terminate all Palestinian claims against Israel. Second, the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] head had to sell the deal to his people. Ultimately, Arafat couldn’t do either, and used the pretext of holy sites in Jerusalem as his escape clause,” wrote Scott Burchill. Arafat’s refusal to swallow the U.S.-Israel ultimatum at Camp David led Clinton to condemn Arafat while praising Barak. If anyone doubted whether the U.S. was truly the “honest broker” it claimed to be, Clinton’s blast should have clarified it. As it stood, Burchill likened the U.S. role to that of a cop. “Camp David was like sitting down with the thief and the police to be told by both how much of your stolen property they think you should get back,” he concluded. [7]

The U.S. failure at Camp David contributed to the unraveling of Barak’s already shaky government. In 1998, Barak’s Labor Party defeated the corrupt, right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu by a landslide. Promising to negotiate a final comprehensive peace with the Palestinians, Barak assembled a broad coalition government spanning the Zionist political spectrum, from the secular “left” to the religious “right.” But Barak’s plan for “peace” hardly differed from Netanyahu’s stonewalling. “The fact is that since Barak came to power, not one agreement on any basic issue has been reached with the Palestinians, and Barak has accommodated them even less than Netanyahu (who implemented the Hebron agreement),” wrote Baruch Kimmerling. [8] Yet every Barak move to push the negotiations along brought more condemnation from the right. The conservative religious Shas Party abandoned Barak’s government on the eve of the failure at Camp David. Only one “no confidence” vote in the Israeli Knesset stood between a Barak government and new elections. Barak’s collaboration with Sharon’s storming of Haram al-Sharif may have been a lame effort to prepare for that eventuality. Barak openly proclaimed his interest in forming a “national unity” government with the right-wing Likud Bloc (which Sharon leads) if new elections were called. Palestinians have already announced that any Barak attempt to include the war criminal Sharon in the government will end any planned negotiations.

Death of Oslo

Israel seized the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza in the 1967 Six Day War. At the time, no country or international body recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Occupied Territories. Even the U.S. approved the pivotal United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 242 that emphasized “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” Resolution 242, approved in 1967, explicitly called for the “[w]ithdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” The 1973 Security Council Resolution 338, passed within days of the end of the 1973 Arab-Israel war, reaffirmed Resolution 242 “in all its parts.” It called for “negotiations ... between the parties concerned under appropriate auspices aimed at establishing a just and durable peace in the Middle East.” All international diplomacy aimed at ending the Israeli occupation was supposedly built on the foundation of these two “land for peace” resolutions.

The point of recounting this diplomatic history is to contrast the clear statements ordering Israel’s withdrawal from the Occupied Territories with subsequent developments under Oslo. When the George Bush Sr. administration convened the Madrid conference between Israel, Syria, Jordan, and a Palestinian delegation, it allowed “each party” to bring its own interpretation of Resolution 242 into the negotiations. The Clinton administration moved even further into Israel’s camp. In June 1993, then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher proposed a “Declaration of Principles” that referred to the West Bank and Gaza as “disputed” rather than “occupied” territories. In one fell swoop, the U.S. government repudiated a stack of UN resolutions – and its own official diplomatic position. If the territories were merely “disputed,” then Israel had as much right to control them as the Palestinians did. What’s more, Christopher’s “Declaration” acknowledged Palestinian authority over people rather than territory. The Clinton administration radically shifted the terms of negotiation. Justice for the Palestinians wasn’t on the agenda. Only the terms of Palestinian surrender were up for discussion.

The U.S. move reflected not only the world view of the most pro-Israel U.S. government ever, but a calculation of the balance of forces in the region. The crushing U.S.-led victory over Iraq in the Gulf War of 1991 made the United States the unchallenged imperial power in the Middle East. The Soviet Union’s collapse removed any other rival power in the area, causing the Arab regimes to scramble to win U.S. favor. The PLO’s support of Iraq during the war isolated it from all but a few supporters in the region. The Gulf states expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinian workers from their countries. Arab states and the Soviet Union cut off aid to the PLO. The Israel-U.S. side was never stronger and the Palestinians never weaker than they were in 1993. Palestinian weakness offered Israel an opportunity to repackage the occupation. Israel would deputize Palestinians to carry out repression on Israel’s behalf.

Israel’s motive for seeking negotiations was clear. Years of military repression had failed to stem the Intifada. At the height of the uprising, Israel used 180,000 troops to suppress it – more than 10 times the number before the Intifada. As then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin put it at the time:

I prefer the Palestinians to cope with the problem of enforcing order in the Gaza. The Palestinians will be better at it than we were because they will allow no appeals to the Supreme Court and will prevent the [Israeli] Association for Civil Rights from criticizing the conditions there ... They will rule by their own methods, freeing – and this is most important – the Israeli Army soldiers from having to do what they will do. [9]

At the time when nearly half a million Jewish immigrants were arriving in Israel from Russia, suppressing the Intifada was diverting necessary resources. Israeli business supported the deal as a way to open Israeli trade to the world. If Israel could be perceived as seeking “peace” with the PLO’s help, countries that had boycotted Israel to protest its treatment of Palestinians could open up trade relations with it.

The “breakthrough” came in secret negotiations between Arafat and a handful of his inner circle with Israeli negotiators, held under the cover of academic research discussions in Oslo, Norway. The product of these discussions, the Declaration of Principles signed on the White House lawn in September 1993, marked a turning point – but not a turning point toward peace.

As Naseer Aruri explained, “For the first time in history, the Palestinian leadership endorsed a settlement which kept the Israeli occupation intact on the premise that all the outstanding issues in the conflict would be subject to negotiations during a period of three to five years hence.” [10] In exchange for Palestinian recognition of Israel (already granted in 1988) and a renunciation of “terrorism,” the U.S. and Israel would recognize Arafat’s PLO as the chief bargaining agent for the Palestinians. The Palestinians would receive municipal government authority over the Gaza Strip, Jericho, and a handful of other villages on the West Bank. All of the fundamental issues that had driven the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for a half-century – the occupation, the status of Jerusalem, the status of Palestinian refugees – were to be deferred to future negotiations. Arafat ceded the moral and political high ground on all of the core issues so that the U.S. and Israel would treat him as a “partner in peace.”

Why did Arafat sign on to this humiliation? With the PLO bureaucracy in Tunis crumbling and Arafat losing support to other forces in the Occupied Territories, Arafat became sufficiently pliable. Israel and the U.S. gambled that Arafat would accept a minimal deal. And he did. Arafat and his cronies were desperate to get hold of some territory they could rule over. “Clearly the PLO has transformed itself from a national liberation movement into a kind of small-town government, with the same handful of people in command,” wrote Arafat critic Edward Said in September 1993. [11] In fact, most of the organizations in the PLO – a coalition of organizations – rejected the deal. Arafat consulted none of the official Palestinian representative bodies, from the PLO’s national executive to the Palestine National Council (the Palestinian parliament-in-exile).

The Declaration of Principles opened the way for a series of agreements to lay down the precise terms of the surrender of Palestine. Rather than set the course to a Palestinian state, the successive agreements – 1994’s Cairo I and II and Oslo II, the Wye River memorandum of 1998 – merely codified Israel’s domination. Of these, the most important was Oslo II. This 400-page document established in minute detail the workings of the Palestinian Authority and its relations with Israel. It envisioned the gradual “redeployment” of Israeli military forces to the outskirts of clusters of Palestinian villages. The PA would take over “civil administration” of things like garbage collection and police powers over Palestinians in these areas. Israel would retain full rights to intervene to “protect” Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. The PA would have no power over any Israeli citizens living in or near Palestinian towns. Moreover, the PA accepted Israel’s right to control all major resources in the Occupied Territories. “The deal kept the following in Israeli hands: 73 percent of the lands of the territories, 97 percent of security and 80 percent of the water,” said Shimon Peres, Israel’s chief negotiator at the Oslo II negotiations. [12]

The implementation of the Oslo Accords depended on “both parties” to carry out their ends of the bargain. Yet it soon became clear that Israel had no intention of upholding any of its paper pledges. And the U.S. had no intention of forcing Israel to comply. The U.S. and Israel put a magnifying glass on any Palestinian violation or “failure” to guarantee Israel’s “security” – real or imagined. When the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu took power in 1996, it refused to follow through on the previous government’s commitment to “redeploy” troops from Hebron. A band of 400 fanatical Jewish settlers – most of them born in the U.S. – provided the excuse for Israel’s continued occupation in Hebron, a Palestinian city of more than 200,000. Characteristically, Israel used the delay to extract even more concessions from the Palestinians with Washington’s help. At the Washington-sponsored summit held at the Wye River Plantation in Maryland in October 1998, Netanyahu went back on an earlier agreement to withdraw fully from West Bank towns. Instead, he split up the pledged redeployment into two phases – only one of which he carried out. At Wye, Israel and the PA agreed to allow the CIA to oversee Palestinian police forces tasked with repressing any opposition to the colonial administration. A year later, the “peace candidate” Barak reversed even Netanyahu’s pledge to pull back from 41 percent of the West Bank.

Since 1993, Israel’s stonewalling has followed a familiar pattern. Israel reneges on a paper pledge, bringing the “peace process” to the verge of collapse. Washington intervenes to get the peace process back on track. A high-level summit produces a patched-together agreement that hands Israel even more concessions. Then the cycle begins again.

This pattern describes only Israeli evasion of official commitments under the “peace process.” Far more egregious have been Israel’s actions outside the letter of the Oslo Accords. Violating even the Geneva Convention’s bar on settling territory under military occupation, Israeli governments have built settlements for more than 400,000 Jews in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. As it has always done, Israel uses its settlements to “create facts on the ground” – to expand Israel’s control over the Occupied Territories. In the years since 1993, both “pro-peace” Labor governments and the “anti-peace” Likud government have moved 400,000 settlers into the Occupied Territories (200,000 in the West Bank and Gaza; 200,000 in Jerusalem). The settlements concentrated in East Jerusalem aim to “Judaize” this traditionally Arab area, blocking the assertion of Palestinian sovereignty over the Palestinian capital. When completed, the Ma’ale Adumim settlement will stretch from Jerusalem to the Jordan River, covering an area larger than Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, according to Amnesty International, as of late 1999, Israel had demolished 1,100 Palestinian homes for reasons such as failure to obtain building permits. These permits are nearly impossible for Palestinians to get from the Israeli-controlled Civil Administration in the Territories. [13]

Israel links settlement expansion to a more ambitious master plan to assure Israeli control over the territories. Since 1993, Israel has invested $1.2 billion, mostly from U.S. aid, in building a massive highway system crisscrossing the Occupied Territories. The highways link Jewish settlements and bypass Palestinian villages. When the highways are completed, Jewish Israelis will be able to travel through the territories without interacting with Palestinians at all. The highways accomplish in physical terms what the Oslo Accords did in political terms – they enforce the dismemberment of Palestine. PA-controlled cities and towns exist as 227 islands surrounded by Israeli settlements and military outposts. Palestinian critics describe the post-Oslo map of the territories as “Swiss cheese,” with Palestinian-controlled areas likened to the holes. A Palestinian from one village must make a Herculean effort to negotiate checkpoints, avoid armed settlers, and obtain transportation to visit a family member living in another town only a few miles away.

Under the cover of Oslo, Barak is preparing a far-reaching “final solution” to the Palestinian question – an arrangement described in Israel as “Us Here, Them There.” As Roger Normand explains:

Palestinians are to be separated from Israel politically and geographically, linked only economically in the form of cheap labor and captive markets. Arafat will be anointed president of his cherished state on 90 percent of the West Bank and Gaza. But the population will remain confined in territorially non-contiguous Bantustans, encircled by and controlled through a network of Israeli settlements, roads and military checkpoints, and subject to repressive PA security forces. In return for Israeli sovereignty over the settlements, the Barak camp has even floated the possibility of ceding sovereignty over Arab areas in northern Israel, thereby ridding the state of 300,000 Palestinian citizens. As the final element in this plan, over three million Palestinian refugees will be denied their internationally recognized human right to return to homes within Israel, and instead given some cash and the “choice” of involuntary resettlement in either the new statelet of Palestine or surrounding Arab countries. [14]

Barak’s government – like the Labor governments before it – sees the solution to the “Palestinian problem” as apartheid – the separation of Jew and Arab. In fall 2000, the only question for Barak was whether to win “Us Here, Them There” at the negotiating table or to impose it by force of arms.

The Palestinian Authority

The Palestinian Authority created under the Oslo Accords possesses many of the trappings of an independent state – security forces, a flag, postage stamps, an airport, and a legislative body. But it is a “state” in the same sense that the African Bantustans were. In apartheid South Africa, the white minority regime put Black collaborators like Chief Gatsha Buthelezi in charge of Bantustans, or African “homelands.” South Africa labeled these “homelands” as independent countries, allowing the apartheid regime to deny citizenship to Blacks. The Black collaborators, with the full backing of the South African military, would police the Bantustan population to root out any anti-apartheid activity.

Under the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority acts as a subcontractor of the Israeli army in the task of repressing the Palestinians. To the U.S. and Israel, that’s virtually the only task the PA is accorded. It’s no wonder, then, that Arafat controls nine different police and security operations, accounting for as many as 50,000 cops. These security forces work hand-in-glove with the Israeli security forces and the CIA, which provides “training” to Arafat’s police. When Israeli undercover police arrested Palestinians whom they accused of lynching two Israeli cops (in a well-publicized October 2000 incident), Arafat’s police were said to have fingered the arrestees. [15]

In this way, the former leaders of the Palestinian liberation movement have been transformed into collaborators with Israel’s colonial-settler state. This degeneration took root long before the PA set up shop in Gaza in 1994. According to Naseer Aruri:

For many in the ruling faction, the “revolution” has become, over the years, a source of employment and livelihood, when ruling used to mean no more than running a bureaucracy whose function was to arbitrate conflicts and cater to the needs of organized constituencies. The many factions of the revolution were kept in the fold by a system of patronage over which Arafat presided almost alone. [16]

Inside the PA, a small number of Arafat loyalists attend to two tasks: repressing opponents and making themselves rich. To take one example, 27 public and private monopolies control the import into Gaza of fuel and basic foodstuffs. Controlled by a handful of PA officials with particularly close ties to Israel’s security and business establishments, the political purpose behind the monopolies is to generate revenues for the bureaucracy and so consolidate the PA’s rule. But the economic impact on Gaza residents has been disastrous, with the monopolies causing spiraling prices, destroying local firms, and creating a lawless climate that discourages private investment. [17]

In the years since the Palestinians embarked on the peace process, conditions for ordinary Palestinians have only worsened. Living standards in PA-controlled areas have dropped by one-third from where they stood under direct Israeli occupation. Israeli closures – which the PA is powerless to stop – represent a form of economic warfare against the Palestinians. Israel uses the closures to enforce another aspect of its policy of “separation” – replacing Palestinian workers who commute into Israel with Jewish Israelis. Of the nearly 120,000 Palestinian workers who commuted to jobs in Israel before Oslo, more than half have lost their jobs. Nearly one in three Palestinians living in the PA’s area is unemployed. Forty percent of Gaza residents and 12 percent of West Bank residents live in poverty. [18]

In the first two years of the PA’s existence, Palestinians were willing to grant it some leeway. But in the run-up to the 1996 Israeli elections, when Islamists launched a campaign of suicide bombings in Israel, the PA showed its true colors:

The unprecedented Israeli siege of the Occupied Territories imposed in the wake of the suicide bombings constituted a turning point for Palestinian public opinion. The hermetic closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the policy of “separation” removed any remaining ambiguities about the nature of post-Oslo Israeli-Palestinian relations. Equally, this period – which saw an unprecedented PA campaign against anyone and anything currently or formerly Islamist – left little to the imagination regarding the PA’s own role within this relationship. [19]

Since 1996, most Palestinians place little faith in the PA. Many, if not most, see it as corrupt, dictatorial, and existing largely at Israel’s sufferance. That’s why the Al-Aqsa Intifada is not only a revolt against Israel’s occupation. It is also a revolt against the PA, Israel’s subcontractor.

Palestinian politics

The new Intifada began spontaneously, but Arafat’s Fatah movement quickly asserted its leadership over events. Fatah’s tanzim (Arabic for “organization”), composed of cadre from the 1987–1993 Intifada and of fighters in the PA’s security forces, provide on-the-ground leadership, according to journalist Graham Usher. [20] Despite Fatah’s leadership, the new Intifada has forged an unprecedented unity between factions inside the PLO and Islamists outside the PLO. These forces recently issued a joint statement in support of the uprising.

The Islamic organizations Hamas and Islamic Jihad are the largest forces in the territories opposed to the peace process. To the U.S. and Israel, the Islamists represent the all-purpose “opponents of peace,” and they constantly urge the PA to crack down on them. Until early November 2000, when Islamic Jihad exploded a car bomb in Jewish West Jerusalem, the Islamists had taken actions consistent with the tactics of the mainstream PLO:

[The Islamists] have not challenged Fatah’s leading role on the political, diplomatic, or military levels, and, like Fatah, have mobilized their supporters mainly in defense of Palestinian civilian areas. They have granted the PA/PLO unprecedented legitimacy by, for the first time, attending sessions of its leadership and joining the National and Islamic Forces (NIF), an umbrella body that sets the calendar of the protests. [21]

Arafat even repaid the Islamists for their support, releasing 85 Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists from PA jails.

Tanzim activists have organized mass civilian protests, many of them youths too young to have participated in the first Intifada. They have also mounted military attacks on Israeli and settler outposts. This more militant strategy – departing from negotiations – helped the tanzim move to thefront ranks of the Palestinian opposition. Mouin Rabbani characterizes the tanzim as “that wing of the movement which while ultimately loyal [to Arafat and the Fatah leadership] has long sought to distance Fatah from the PA and establish it as a mass-based political party. This wing has become increasingly critical of if not hostile to the Oslo process.” [22] The actions of tanzim have helped Fatah to regain support on the Palestinian streets.

While the Islamists are estimated to have the support of 20 to 40 percent of Palestinians, their deference to the mainstream secular nationalists is consistent with their action under the PA administration. From its founding in 1988, Hamas has refused to confront the PLO directly and operated alongside the PLO to pose an alternative leadership to the struggle. Hamas’ charter calls the PLO “the father, brother, relative or friend” and recognizes, “Our nation is one, plight is one, destiny is one, and our enemy is the same.” [23] Despite this posture, the PA has also targeted the Islamists for the harshest repression. In 1994, confrontations between the PA authorities and Hamas activists escalated into the shootings of 14 Hamas activists. In 1996, on the eve of the Israeli election that Netanyahu won, Islamic Jihad and Hamas suicide bombers mounted several attacks in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The PA rounded up hundreds of Islamist activists. Islamist-PA relations have settled into a certain mutual accommodation.

The leadership group, The Nationalist and Islamist Forces in Palestine, has agreed on a platform of mass action against the occupation. Armed action inside the territories is approved, but the PA opposes attacks on civilians inside the Green Line. Yet it remains to be seen if Palestinian political unity displayed in the earliest weeks of the Al-Aqsa Intifada can be maintained. Israel maintains a huge firepower advantage over the Palestinians. And Arafat’s remaining legitimacy (at least in Western eyes) will impel him back to the bargaining table. If Arafat accepts another rotten deal, there may be no holding back the opposition to his rule.

As this article was being written, Arafat and senior Israeli negotiator Shimon Peres concluded an agreement to stop the violence. Israel agreed to withdraw military hardware from positions occupied during the uprising. Arafat pledged to call a halt to the protests in the Occupied Territories. The Peres-Arafat agreement received good press in the West, but events since then have shown that such agreements are unlikely to stop the uprising or Israel’s escalation of force.

The Peres-Arafat agreement is of a piece with all of the other short-term agreements cobbled together when the “peace process” collapsed. It views the conflict as primarily an issue of “security.” It seeks to reestablish a status quo that virtually all Palestinians have rejected. It establishes an agreement between two parties that have little room to maneuver. Barak’s government hangs by a thread. To save himself, he may enter into an all-party “national unity government” with Sharon. Sharon’s likely price for that agreement would be Barak’s repudiation of Oslo. On the other side, Arafat risks throwing away his newfound support if he moves to wind down the struggle. And there is no guarantee he could deliver. Huge crowds in the Occupied Territories demonstrated against Arafat’s attendance at the October 2000 Sharm al-Sheikh summit in Egypt. The Islamists have no reason to hold back suicide bombings. The uprising – directed primarily against conditions of life in the territories during the “peace process” – won’t stop. It would likely continue “under more militant leadership, including presumably a substantial number of ex-Fatah cadres.” [24]

Which way forward?

The Al-Aqsa Intifada is the most significant development in Palestinian politics since the 1993 Oslo Accords. Palestinians’ initial hopes that the peace process would lift the Israeli occupation came to nothing. Meanwhile, all of the worst aspects of occupation – erecting of settlements, house demolitions, closures, and curfews – increased. Many observers described the mass of Palestinians as increasingly opposed to Oslo but lacking the confidence to do anything about it. The Al-Aqsa Intifada broke this sense of resignation. A new generation of fighters, drawing inspiration from Hezbollah’s liberation of Southern Lebanon, have moved to the fore.

Even if the Intifada escalated to an armed uprising in the Occupied Territories – a war of liberation – Palestinians would still have to confront the overwhelming firepower of Israel and its patron, the United States. This would raise the cost of the occupation to Israel, but it would be unlikely to force Israel’s retreat.

Likewise, Palestinians lack the kind of social power that Black South Africans, the majority of the country’s workforce, exercised to force an end to apartheid. And with its closures and increased employment of Jewish immigrants, Israel is trying to further dampen the impact of Palestinian labor.

Therefore, Palestinians must fight for their liberation, but they can’t win it on their own. They must look to the region’s working classes, where massive sympathy and solidarity exists with the Palestinian cause. In the earliest weeks of the Intifada, huge demonstrations in solidarity with the Palestinians took place in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Iraq. There were even demonstrations in the Arab Gulf states and in Saudi Arabia. Sentiment ran so deep that the Arab regimes that largely accommodate to Israel and the U.S. agenda in the region felt compelled to issue statements of support. This force – the Arab working class – has the power to challenge U.S. designs in the region.

A new strategy would have to emphasize building class solidarity between Palestinians and other Arab workers. Such a strategy would be based on connecting workers’ struggle in the region to the fight for a secular, democratic state in Palestine. Until that state is won, there will be no peace in the Middle East.

* * *


1. Oslo cannot be resuscitated, declares Ashrawi; new approach to peace process needed, Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine, November 3, 2000. See

2. These figures are posted on the Web site of the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem at www.B’

3. Total of children martyrs reaches 51, Middle East News Online, November 2, 2000. Available at

4. Alternative Information Center, available at

5. Intifada will continue until Palestinian state, Agence France Presse, October 27, 2000.

6. See Israel’s ‘apartheid policy’ toward Palestinian citizens, Report from a CPAP briefing with Basel Ghattas, Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine, October 12, 2000, available at

7. Scott Burchill, Israel’s plan for Palestine, à la Pretoria, The Age (Australia), October 18, 2000. See\meastwatch\burchil2.htm.

8. Baruch Kimmerling, Blame Barak, not Sharon, Ha’aretz, October 4, 2000. The “Hebron agreement” refers to the Wye River agreement.

9. Rabin quoted in Yediot Ahronot, September 7, 1993.

10. Naseer Aruri, The Obstruction of Peace: The U.S., Israel and the Palestinians (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1995), p. 209.

11. Edward Said, Arafat’s deal, The Nation, September 20, 1993: p. 269.

12. Samih K. Farsoun with Christine E. Zacharia, Palestine and the Palestinians (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1997), p. 267.

13. Israel’s matrix of control in Palestine, Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine, February 14, 2000. See

14. Roger Normand, The iron fist in the peace process, MERIP Press Information Note 33, October 4, 2000, available at

15. See Tanya Reinhart, Green light to slaughter, available at

16. Aruri, p. 240.

17. Middle East International, June 27, 1997: p. 4.

18. Figures from Allegra Pacheco, Closure and apartheid: Seven years of ‘peace’ through separation, Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine, March 3, 2000. Available at

19. Mouin Rabbani, Palestinian Authority, Israeli rule, MERIP (Fall 1996), available at

20. Graham Usher, The unifying impact of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, Information Brief Number 51, Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine, November 3, 2000, available at

21. Usher, The unifying impact of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, available at

22. Mouin Rabbani, The Peres-Arafat agreement: Can it work? MERIP Press Information Note 34, November 3, 2000, available at

23. Farsoun and Zacharia, p. 238.

24. Rabbani, The Peres-Arafat agreement, available at

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