Kareem M. Kamel
Certain events in history lead to multiple strategic, political, social, economic and conceptual changes that are not limited to a certain locality or region, but have far reaching international consequences. Throughout history, revolutions or uprisings that involved popular movements seeking independence and/or justice became especially significant as harbingers of change. As the al-Aqsa Intifada in Palestine enters its fourth year, one cannot but note the epic sacrifices that the Palestinian people have made over a period of 36 months, during which they were subjected to mass murder, assassination, torture, arrest, detention, house demolitions, curfews, daily humiliation at check points and the brutal practices of an Israeli occupation that is both funded and supported by the world?s sole superpower.
Since the current Intifada began in September 2000, Israeli forces killed more than 2,618 Palestinians, and 41,000 were injured, including 7,000 children. Latest statistics also suggest that at least 437 houses were demolished and over 12,000 Palestinians made homeless as a result of Israel?s punitive operations. Additionally, hundreds of medical facilities were destroyed by Israeli military attacks and routine incursions into Palestinian towns and villages. Sources suggest that just during the first few months of the al-Aqsa Intifada, the average Palestinian household income fell by almost 50%, unemployment rose to 38%, and the percentage of families living below the poverty line rose to 64%.
Nevertheless, the Palestinians demonstrated their resilience amidst great odds, and managed to proceed with their national agenda despite multiple regional and international interventions aimed at quelling their uprising or presenting peace plans with the avowed goal of reviving the “peace process.” The world does not seem to have learned that peace initiatives that seek to reward the aggressor at the expense of the victim do not work.
As Palestinians celebrated the third anniversary of their uprising, militants from all political factions vowed to continue the uprising until victory is achieved. However, many challenges lie ahead. The Palestinian leadership is in obvious disarray, and an emergency government, led by the same clich?d Oslo principles, was recently announced. The Palestinians find themselves still locked up in their towns and villages, and Palestinian and Arab leaders continue to follow their narrow interests and their ad-hoc policymaking. The Israeli government continues its colonialist designs for the West Bank and Gaza amidst a deafening international silence, and its security fence threatens to cut off 210,000 Palestinians from social services and create a new generation of internally displaced people. In addition, an Israeli air raid on a Syrian outpost near Damascus threatens to spill the conflict over into neighboring states.
In September 2000, Ariel Sharon catalysed the latest Intifada by controversially visiting al-Haram al-Sharif, ‘the Noble Sanctuary’ that encloses al-Aqsa mosque.
The uprising that began in September 2000 was sparked by Sharon?s provocative visit to al-Haram al-Sharif. More importantly however, the uprising came after a decade of simmering Palestinian anger at the Oslo peace process and the failure of peace initiatives to deliver tangible benefits to the Palestinian people.
For more than a decade, Palestinians have been calling for the creation of a state on only 22% of historic Palestine in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which Israel occupied during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. During the Camp David Summit in 2000, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak reportedly offered the Palestinians 95% of the West Bank and Gaza, the removal of isolated settlements, and a vague form of religious sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem as part of a final status deal with the Palestinians. The Barak Plan, hailed by the international media as a “generous offer rejected by an intransigent Palestinian leadership,” was in fact nothing more than another deceptive initiative rather than a just final settlement. The plan did not indicate how a territorially contiguous Palestinian state was to emerge, nor did it ensure Palestinian sovereignty over borders and water sources. Moreover, it ensured Israel?s military authority over much of the West Bank and ignored the right of return of millions of Palestinian refugees.
In this regard, the Intifada is the ultimate manifestation of Palestinian popular will and determination for the freedom of the Palestinian people, and for their quest for an end to Israel?s colonial presence in their territories. It also represents the popular rejection of the Oslo process that was used as a cover for continued appropriation and confiscation of Palestinian lands for more colonial settlements.
In fact, between 1994 and 2000, the Israeli settler population doubled, and nearly 250 miles of bypass roads were built on confiscated Arab lands. The Oslo agreements, which were to be implemented in phases, made no mention of occupation and postponed negotiations over the most contentious issues, including borders, refugees, Jerusalem and settlements, until the final stage. Moreover, they failed to address the fundamental power imbalance between Israel, a regional hegemon, and the Palestinians, a stateless, occupied population. In addition, the absence of an effective enforcement mechanism or a clear end goal allowed Israel ? the more powerful party ? to continue a policy of territorial expansion, leaving the Palestinians living in isolated, scattered islets or “Bantustans,” with little recourse to any international body which would be in a position to address their grievances.
The Intifada can also be seen as a popular message of rejection, not only to Israeli practices, but to the Palestinian Authority (PA) as well ? the architect of Oslo. In fact, during the Oslo decade, the PA worked towards the establishment of another Middle Eastern police state with US and Israeli support. Even throughout the Intifada, Palestinian policemen shot down their own people with live ammunition when Palestinians rallied in the thousands to support Osama bin Laden and denounce the US attacks on Afghanistan. Arafat, fearing he would lose the sympathy of President George W. Bush, ordered a crackdown that killed three Palestinians and injured 50 more in clashes.
The corruption, cronyism and lack of consideration for the rule of law are magnified by the number of security forces that exist inside Palestine ? a PA policeman for every 60 Palestinians. As the late Edward Said rightly noted, “As for the Oslo ?peace process? that began in 1993, it has simply re-packaged the occupation, offering a token 18% of the lands seized in 1967 to the corrupt Vichy-like Authority of Arafat, whose mandate has essentially been to police and tax his people on Israel?s behalf.”
Nothing short of genocide will prevail against a population so massively and actively opposed to the Israeli Occupation.
The al-Aqsa Intifada led to many strategic and conceptual changes in the anatomy of warfare between Arabs and Israelis. One of the major successes of the Intifada has been to deconstruct one of the major pillars of the Zionist project in Palestine ? namely, the Zionist assertion that Israel is a safe haven for international Jewry. In this regard, one must note that Israel?s military strategy had always been to export fear into neighboring countries, and the Israeli military always made sure that the battleground for any Arab-Israeli conflict would be outside the borders of Israel. This was exemplified by the Arab-Israeli wars of 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982, all of which took place on Arab territory. On the other hand, all the military operations during the Intifada took place within the borders of Israel, with many Palestinian bombings and guerrilla operations taking place inside Israeli towns, cities and settlements.
Hence, fear ceased to be the sole prerogative of the Palestinians, and an elusive “balance of terror” emerged between the Palestinians and Israelis, despite the massive imbalance of aggregate power between both sides. The result of this phenomenon was described by veteran Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery, who argued that the Intifada was slowly but surely demoralizing the whole of Israeli society, destroying the tourism industry, and more importantly, beginning a trend of reverse migration, where Jewish emigration not immigration becomes the norm. After all, the Israeli economy has entered its third year of recession in which its tourism losses have reached $9 billion, and 11% of the total Israeli workforce is unemployed.
Sharon had hoped that a combination of military, economic, and diplomatic pressure would lower Palestinian expectations and impose an unbearable cost on the Palestinian rebellion. Instead, the exact opposite happened, and the Intifada?s resilience illustrated that Sharon?s hard-line tactics failed to bring Israel the security he promised, despite unequivocal US support for his position, the European Union?s freezing of assets owned by Hamas and other resistance groups, and multiple official Arab attempts to bring an end to the Intifada which had inflamed the Arab streets for months.
Another related change occurred within Palestinian society itself due to the al-Aqsa Intifada. The uprising led to a power shift in favour of Islamists in the West Bank and Gaza, as more Palestinians became disillusioned with the PA?s corruption and its peacemaking strategy. Inevitably, this lent legitimacy to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, due to their decade-long opposition to the peace process, their lack of corruption, their network of schools, clinics, orphanages, and their financial support of many impoverished Palestinians.8 Statistics compiled recently by pollsters from the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center show that 82.7% of Palestinians believe that the PA is corrupt and lacks the will to reform. In addition, the rise of a new Fatah military wing under the name of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (comprised mainly of the younger Fatah generation) and their resistance strategy (as opposed to the PA?s peacemaking strategy) gave more credibility to the Islamist option of resistance in Palestinian eyes. Despite a sudden upsurge in Arafat?s popularity after Israeli threats on his life, he will continue to find it difficult to face the militants who now seem to control the Palestinian street.
For the most part reduced to using the stones from demolished homes, ordinary Palestinians are defying the disproportionate use of force by Israel.
There is no doubt that the current Palestinian uprising is unprecedented in terms of the nature of the confrontation itself and the massive imbalance of power between the parties to the conflict. There is a glaring difference between Israel?s state-of-the-art high-tech, multi-billion dollar army, and the cash-starved, lightly armed Palestinians. Since the 1970s, Israel has been receiving around $3 billion a year in aid from the US, in addition to the billions of dollars raised from a variety of foreign Jewish and non-Jewish institutions to sustain the Israeli war machine. More importantly, there is no historical precedent to Israel?s use of F-16 fighter jets, Apache helicopter gun ships, and heavy artillery to target a virtually defenceless population with no state or standing army. Despite that, the Palestinians have managed to narrow the military gap through the use of reasonably effective asymmetric warfare tactics; guerrilla attacks, drive-by shootings, and rocket and mortar attacks on both settlers and soldiers. But more importantly, the Palestinians have perfected the deployment of the human bomb, against which Israel has no defence. The result has been the death of over 800 Israelis ? one Israeli killed for every three Palestinians, as opposed to the one to ten ratio of previous confrontations.
Given the lack of both a viable mechanism for peace and an honest broker to intervene in the escalating spiral of violence, all signs indicate that the Intifada will continue for several years. The Bush roadmap seems to be drifting swiftly into the burgeoning archive of failed peace proposals, and no one expects the US to intervene meaningfully during an election year. Once again, the Palestinians have no other option but to resist and engage Israel in a long-term war of attrition.
Kareem M. Kamel is an Egyptian freelance writer based in Cairo, Egypt. He is currently assistant to the Political Science Department at the American University in Cairo.