Disarming Palestine

By Issa Khalaf

Those of us who originate from that unholy land, are gripped by helplessness, disgust and depression during those recurring depredations inflicted on the Palestinians, as they are now in Gaza, whose inhabitants had been systematically starved and reduced to misery for years.  It’s as if the most insightful, humane reflection, all the rationality and political analysis, is inadequate to explain the horrors that unfold with awful predictability.  What possible higher, self-righteous political or moral purpose does raining death and destruction on men, women, children, and babies serve?  How does such utter violence and cruelty achieve dignity and security for Israelis and Palestinians?  During such times, such puerile insanity, it’s almost comforting to escape into karmic meaning: what goes around comes around, and those who mindlessly, repetitively wreak pain and torment on others, will inescapably reap what they sow.  This is both profoundly true and profoundly dangerous, for, in the interminable hiatus, it encourages both despairing resignation, as if men and women are incapable of acting with reason and humanity to solve their conflicts with others, and zealous violence, as if there is no other recourse to injustice but carnage.

The West, with its own wonderful capacity for unbounded self-righteousness, is both morally to blame for the historic persecution of Jews culminating in the Nazi genocide and for sponsoring and materially supporting its Zionist ally in the colonization and continuing persecution and dispossession of the Palestinian people.  No amount of hypocrisy, such as that which issues from Tony Blair as he essentially reformulates neo-conservative fantasies of a war between good and evil, can obfuscate this fact, and nothing short of acknowledging and correcting this injustice can there be peace in the Middle East and will we witness the retreat of Islamic, Jewish, and Christian fundamentalism and extremism.  

Instead, everything is being done, because of folly or design, to ensure long-term instability, radicalism, conflict and suffering.  In the United States, whose public remains in the dark on the realities of Palestine compared to the widespread sympathy the Palestinian people enjoy among world public opinion, Israel’s gobbling up of the fraction that remains of historic Palestine is supported without question. 

As irrational and inevitably self-destructive its behavior is, the Israeli state’s strategic goal in all of this is clear: completely destroy Palestinian resistance to Israeli expansion and colonization in the West Bank, and opposition to the Palestine Authority, so as to impose a sham peace on a willing Mahmud Abbas who would rule over an atomized, shrunken, dependent, crippled “state.”  If Gaza spins off under Egyptian administration, so much the better.  In return, the Palestinians, violently coerced into legitimating Israel’s theft of their land and dispossession as a precondition to the illusion of “normal” relations, would formally renounce their core political, historical and moral rights and needs. Short of the Palestinians’ eagerly sought after disappearance, in the past eight years the Israelis ever more ferociously are annexing as much of the West Bank as possible and separating Jews from Palestinians in it.  If once, during the first 15-20 years of the Israeli occupation, the rationale for holding on to the territories was security, today—long after the Palestinians and Arab states recognized Israel and are eager for normalization of relations so the Middle East can attend to the task of peace, stability, and development—the impulse is ideological.  Zionism, as I’ve repeatedly argued, has from its inception never accepted the idea of Palestinian peoplehood, sovereignty, and equality. 

The Israelis are spellbound by visionless, unimaginative, unreflective leaders, impetuously outdoing each other in demonstrating their willingness to use massive lethal force against the enemy in time for the upcoming elections.  Whether the Shoah defines and distorts the Israeli worldview, filtered through the lens of “extermination and defensive isolation” that crowds out “reason, patience, self-control or restraint,” as Avraham Burg suggests, or the problem is far deeper and longer—i.e., that proto-state Zionism pursued cruel, racist, and ideologically exclusivist policies; its leaders unwaveringly avoided Arab peace overtures since 1948 and staged ubiquitous provocations to cause war—the result is the same: refusal to compromise with and accommodate the “other,” the indigenous Palestinians.  Israeli Jews are not merely acting out an uncontrollable impulse of fear, unaware of the consequences of their actions.

Instead of the prevailing hyper ethnic nationalism, which reduces people anywhere to base group identity, territorial instinct, and visceral dehumanization of the enemy, a Zionism rooted in Jewish humanism, true liberal democracy, pluralism, and equality—a thoroughly reformed Jewish majoritarianism which embraces the Palestinians’ humanity and fundamental political equality—is not beyond the realm of possibility.  A Jewish state and liberalism can and should coexist.

That a viable, contiguous, sovereign Palestinian state in pre-1967 lines is good for Israel and its long-term security is clear to everyone but those who run the country (or, more accurately, is clear to Labor and Kadima, but only under Israel’s terms).  That such a state is no longer possible is beyond question.  Jeff Halper, one of the most knowledgeable individuals on the concrete reality of Israeli colonization and control, has concluded that “The expansion of Israel’s Matrix of Control throughout the Occupied Territories, coupled with American protection from any international pressures for meaningful withdrawal, have rendered a viable Palestinian state, and thus a genuine two-state solution, unattainable.”   The U.S. and its Western allies, in acquiescence to the Israeli lead, insist on the fantasy that they are pursuing a peace process but are actually seeking Palestinian and Arab submission.

In the fair language of Henry Siegman, writing in the London Review of Books in August 2007, “The Middle East peace process may well be the most spectacular deception in modern diplomatic history.  Since the failed Camp David summit of 2000, and actually well before it, Israel’s interest in a peace process—other than for the purpose of obtaining Palestinian and international acceptance of the status quo—has been a fiction that has served primarily to provide cover for its systematic confiscation of Palestinian land and an occupation whose goal, according to the former IDF chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon, is ‘to sear deep into the consciousness of Palestinians that they are a defeated people’…

“Anyone familiar with Israel’s relentless confiscations of Palestinian territory—based on a plan devised, overseen and implemented by Ariel Sharon—knows that the objective of its settlement enterprise in the West Bank has been largely achieved.  Gaza, the evacuation of whose settlements was so naively hailed by the international community as the heroic achievement of a man newly committed to an honourable peace with the Palestinians, was intended to serve as the first in a series of Palestinian bantustans.  Gaza’s situation shows us what these bantustans will look like if their residents do not behave as Israel wants.

“Israel’s disingenuous commitment to a peace process and a two-state solution is precisely what has made possible its open-ended occupation and dismemberment of Palestinian territory.  And the Quartet—with the EU, the UN secretary general and Russia obediently following Washington’s lead—has collaborated with and provided cover for this deception by accepting Israel’s claim that it has been unable to find a deserving Palestinian peace partner…

“Clearly, the obstacle to resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict has not been a dearth of peace initiatives or peace envoys.  Nor has it been the violence to which Palestinians have resorted in their struggle to rid themselves of Israel’s occupation, even when that violence has despicably targeted Israel’s civilian population.  It is not to sanction the murder of civilians to observe that such violence occurs, sooner or later, in most situations in which a people’s drive for national self-determination is frustrated by an occupying power.  Indeed, Israel’s own struggle for national independence was no exception.

“A new UN map of the West Bank, produced by the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, gives a comprehensive picture of the situation.  Israeli civilian and military infrastructure has rendered 40 per cent of the territory off limits to Palestinians.  The rest of the territory, including major population centres…, is split into enclaves; movement between them is restricted by 450 roadblocks and 70 manned checkpoints.  The UN found…that changes now underway to the infrastructure of the territories—including a network of highways that bypass and isolate Palestinian towns—would serve to formalise the de facto cantonisation of the West Bank.

“These are the realities on the ground that the uninformed and/or cynical blather in Jerusalem, Washington and Brussels—about waiting for Palestinians to reform their institutions, democratise their culture, dismantle the ‘infrastructures of terror’ and halt all violence and incitement before peace negotiations can begin—seeks to drown out.  Given the vast power imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians—not to mention the vast preponderance of diplomatic support enjoyed by Israel from precisely those countries that one would have expected to compensate diplomatically for the military imbalance—nothing will change for the better without the US, the EU and other international actors finally facing up to what have long been the fundamental impediments to peace…”

Writing again in the LRB in February 2008, Siegman says “It is not even true that the siege of Gaza and the boycott of Hamas were necessary to get a peace process with Abbas and his Fatah party underway… Hamas had announced its willingness to submit to a popular referendum any agreement that resulted from permanent status talks between Fatah and Israel.  Israel boycotted Hamas because it did not want Hamas to play any role in a peace process, fearing that this would exact a far greater price than negotiations with Fatah from which Hamas was excluded.

“Yet Abbas and Fayyad have pretended that they are engaged in a significant peace process…  Presumably they know better.  If not, the big difference between Fatah and Hamas is not so much that one is committed to a political process and the other to violence, or that one is secular and the other Islamic, but rather that the former lives in a world of fantasy and the other does not.”

The enormous asymmetry in power is and will be for the indefinite future so overwhelming that the Palestinians must rethink themselves.  The reality of the past forty-five years, since the Palestinian national movement reemerged under the fedayeen groups, or Palestinian resistance fighters, is that the option of armed struggle for Palestinian self-determination and independence in historic Palestine was never realistic.  Despite their sophistication and the merging of armed struggle with clear and evolving political goals, the Palestinians were arrayed against an enemy with overwhelming power, severely limited by their dependence on Arab regimes and territories, and physically dispersed, poor, and under the watchful, hostile eye of autocratic Arab states.  The liberation of Palestine and the return of the Palestinian refugees to their homes was therefore a pipe dream in light of these limiting constants. 

The PLO’s greatest success, led by Fatah under Yasser Arafat, was that it created a powerful level of national cohesion, assumed control and responsibility for the Palestine problem, removing it from the control of Arab regimes and inter-Arab politics, and formed vibrant, democratic, participatory institutions for a politically unified Palestinian people in the occupied territories and the Diaspora.  While its failures were plenty and had much to do with the external constraints—any people systematically fragmented, divided, massacred and impoverished by outside powers cannot possibly clearly orient themselves—the limiting internal constant was the lack of unity and ideological and cultural factionalism.  This has dogged the Palestinians through much of their history.

The sad reality is that the Palestinians are as hopelessly divided as they are relentlessly, violently disbarred from unhindered, unequivocal self-representation.  Clearly, given the perennial constraints, including a state willing to use crushing indiscriminate violence to preclude Palestinian unity and independence and proceed unhindered in colonizing the territories, the supreme principal and goal under all circumstances is maintaining unity and eschewing the fantasy of armed struggle.  This will lead to real control over their destiny. 

The idiotic and appalling firing of rockets and mortars from the Gaza Strip into nearby Israeli towns serves no purpose other than Israel’s strategic goal and cannot have real political effect except to give the Israeli military the excuse to use massive disproportionate force.  That these rockets caused only a handful of deaths is not for lack of trying, but for their crudeness.  For Hamas to fancy that it is engaged in armed struggle in the direct physical absence of the occupier is stupid, regardless if its goal is to end Israel’s effective control and economic strangulation of the Gaza Strip.  Its apparent willingness to have the Palestinian people in Gaza pay the savage price for its political calculations and atavistic ideological vision is equally morally reprehensible.  Terrorism, whether of the old variety of some PLO groups, Hamas rockets, or suicide bombings, should not, on moral and practical grounds—and not least because murder and cruelty of innocents only inflame the passions of hate and violence—ever be employed as a tactic of resistance. 

Worse is the unrelenting power play between Hamas and Fatah, both having become mired in endless tactical maneuvers to solidify their political positions and jealously guard their territorial fiefdoms.  Less galling here is Hamas’ original though disappearing goal of fair representation in the PLO and power sharing in a unified national movement than Fatah’s unrelenting attempt to isolate it and extend control and legitimacy over the Gaza Strip, with the support of Egypt and Jordan, and its erection of insurmountable impediments to national reconciliation and unity.  Abbas, with the support of his Fatah-dominated PA, has become so enamored with the idea of remaining president that the Hamas challenge has led him to cooperate, whether actively or passively, with Israel’s policies of starving Gaza and repressing his own people.

Notwithstanding the fact that the late Yasser Arafat employed the PA as an extension of himself, and under whose rule the Palestinians suffered corruption and violations of human rights, his refusal to surrender Palestinian rights and independence of action was his outstanding feature, and it was this reason that he distrusted Abbas who from early on was the U.S.-designated successor to Arafat.  Not that Abbas is insincere or uninterested in protecting vital Palestinian national rights; rather, he made the fatal assumption that complete reliance on the U.S. will lead to full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories.  After all, it was Arafat who started down the road of illusion that was Oslo, and Abbas now is caught in a futile process from which he cannot seem to disengage without eliciting the wrath of Israel and the U.S.  And this, his fear that the Palestinians in the West Bank will suffer as mightily as those of Gaza should he disengage from this charade, may be an important reason for holding on to the process to nowhere.    

Barring unforeseen circumstances, such as mass Arab public demonstrations and civil disobedience that may threaten existing governments, they will receive no succor from the Arab states or the West.  The Palestinians have one of three choices: accept Israel’s terms for a tiny, unviable, territorially fragmented state; reject this and proceed as if they are part of a unified democratic or binational state struggling for equal rights; disengage from the “peace process.” 

There is not one good or clear option.  While the first essentially constitutes surrender and can only exist as part of a larger entity such as Jordan, it still may turn out to be the last redoubt for any kind of autonomous Palestinian existence and their protection from further torment and the ever-present danger of losing whatever remains of their historic patrimony.  The second, a binational struggle, is fanciful; the Israeli state, with widespread public support, will expel the Palestinians en masse before it allows this eventuality.  The third remains open to different possibilities; that is, the Palestinians will continue to demand that either Israel withdraws from all the occupied territories or integrates them into itself, perhaps forcing it to make a choice.  The Palestinians’ reality, because of the self-imposed Zionist dilemma of coveting their land without them in it, is by its nature unpredictable, ambiguous, fluid and subject to unforeseen events.  One of those is that the Israelis may simply unilaterally demarcate final borders without a peace agreement, leaving the Palestinians to conduct a non-violent struggle against shadows.    

Still, it may be best for the Palestinians to pursue the third, flexible strategy that allows them to accept a two-state solution or integration into Israel.   

The first step is political unity, followed by a national program of principles under which the Palestinians, Islamists and secularists alike, reiterate yet once again their demands and conditions for a two-state solution based on international law and UN resolutions, their acceptance of Israel, their absolute renunciation of armed struggle, and their unequivocal commitment to non-violence. 

The message should be that the Palestinians surrender to Israel, that there are no partners to negotiate with and that Israel must assume responsibility for the territories; the theme, justice and peace, dialogue and reconciliation, whose end goal is either a two-state solution and Palestinian self-determination or absorption of the Palestinians into Israel.  This will enrage the Israelis to be sure, who will respond with typical fury as they did during the non-violent Intifada of 1987-91, and the foreseeable Palestinian future may well be one of organized expulsions, particularly if Benyamin Netanyahu’s Likud wins the February elections.  But there is no other choice short of disarming, including the American and Israeli trained and armed security forces of Abbas.  The reality is that there are no “national” institutions to speak of, no infrastructure, no real state, and no military to disarm, a metaphor for rejecting violence of any kind.  And there already is a vibrant grassroots non-violent movement (numerous organizations) in Palestine.

The democratic reorganization of Palestinian society at all levels to manage and sustain local self-reliance will attract the support and cooperation of Israeli, Arab, and world peace movements, human rights organizations, and NGOs.  Such a shift in resistance requires the authorities, in cooperation with Palestinian political activists and leaders who understand the dynamic forms of protracted non-violent social campaigns, including popular committees and grassroots activism, to reorganize existing institutions on a voluntary neighborhood, village, and municipal basis; democratize, reform and streamline decision-making and administrative structures; and cooperate in organizing civil society.  Only such vigorous, coordinated organization can withstand the real possibility of an organized campaign of mass expulsions.  From all this may arise a new political/cultural authority anchored in national representation and identity.

Probably sooner than later, the Abbas government will come to the realization that the Israeli plan for two-state coexistence excludes real freedom, independence, and life.  The Israelis, short of their commitment to unconditional dismantling of the occupation, should not be provided with a collaborating negotiating partner that allows them to continue business as usual—that is, to indefinitely delay and undermine real peace that requires abdication of the occupied territories while annexing large chunks of the West Bank and controlling the remaining enclaves from outside.

– Issa Khalaf has a Ph.D. in political science and Middle East Studies from Oxford University.

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