Palestinians Prepare for the Worst

by Mouin Rabbani | published April 6, 2001

Speaking on April 1, Palestinian Authority (PA) Minister of Information and Culture Yasser Abed Rabbo described the current Israeli-Palestinian relationship as "open warfare." While his characterization may have been premature, it was anything but an April fool's joke. During Ehud Barak's short and chaotic tenure, Israel entered the first substantive permanent status negotiations with the Palestinians, and thereafter restored violent conflict as the preferred method of extracting political concessions from the Palestinian leadership. So far, Ariel Sharon's strategy appears to be to escalate the conflict to the point where it renders a comprehensive settlement neither possible nor necessary.

Pursuant to its conviction that Oslo's permanent status negotiations neither can nor should be revived, the Sharon-Peres government is determined to avoid any alternative formula for concluding an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Rather, it is seeking to consolidate the pre-intifada status quo—with cosmetic modifications—in the guise of a "long-term interim agreement." In this context, the escalation of violence is designed not only to curtail the Palestinian uprising, but to compel the PA to accept a "ceasefire in place." Once this is achieved, the Palestinian leadership will be invited to negotiate the new interim agreement. Should it refuse, Sharon's objective will be fulfilled by perennially extending the "ceasefire."

The Sharon-Peres strategy will almost certainly fail. A unified Palestinian rejection of perpetual interim accords is precisely what sustains the uprising. Without firm commitments that permanent settlement negotiations will pick up close to where January's Taba talks left off, the PA will not and indeed cannot substantially reduce the level of unrest. The increasingly direct pressure Israel is exercising on the PA may push the PA's security forces into more direct confrontation with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). If not, the more militant and autonomous forces within the Fatah movement, the Islamist opposition and local militias—including activists from across the political spectrum as well as PA security personnel—will resist force with force. Neither open warfare with the PA nor the PA's demise will help Sharon fulfill his campaign promises of individual and collective security for Israel's citizens.

Ramparts and Roadblocks

Almost immediately after Sharon's government assumed power in early March, the Israeli military converted the Occupied Territories into an open air First World War museum. The addition of roughly 90 new trenches, earthen ramparts and concrete barriers—often attended by tanks and armored personnel carriers—divided the West Bank into 64 isolated and besieged enclaves. Gaza was divided into four pieces. Like a faucet, each enclave can be opened or closed at will by the IDF. For several days the beach south of Gaza City was converted into a main thoroughfare, while in the West Bank soldiers actively prevented the passage of pedestrians.

The proximity of so many roadblocks to Palestinian population centers provided the National and Islamic Forces (NIF) coalition which coordinates the uprising with the opportunity to launch a campaign of civil disobedience against the siege. On March 12, about 1,000 Birzeit University students and staff, accompanied by an even greater number of civilians from all walks of life, marched behind a number of PA ministers and parliamentarians and the entire NIF leadership toward a large trench the IDF had dug in the only road connecting Birzeit and about 25 surrounding villages with the towns of Ramallah and al-Bireh. Using a bulldozer, shovels and their bare hands, the protesters restored the vital road to service. In the ensuing clashes between soldiers and unarmed civilian demonstrators, one Palestinian was killed and a larger number wounded.

Singing Artists and Stun Grenades

The popular and civil character of the action, reminiscent of campaigns in South Africa during the 1980s, garnered massive international media attention, including numerous reports about the punitive nature and inhumane consequences of this particular siege. Caught off guard by the media glare, several days later the IDF reopened the road. During the following week, first Palestinian intellectuals and artists, and then a group of women, demonstrated at the al-Ram checkpoint on the Ramallah-Jerusalem road. The soldiers manning this permanent barricade were at a loss for a response to the singing artists, though they threw tear gas canisters and stun grenades at the women's march, injuring several people including Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi. Civil resistance quickly spread throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with additional marches taking place in Nablus, Jericho, Gaza City and elsewhere. In these latter instances, which enjoyed substantially less foreign press coverage, the Israeli response was significantly more violent, and the demonstrators were easily provoked into throwing stones at soldiers who responded with automatic weapons fire, producing many casualties. In combination with recent suicide attacks, the renewed Israeli policy of assassinations and bombings has taken the wind out of the sails of the civic campaign, though perhaps only temporarily.

The above efforts were not intended to transform the uprising from a war of attrition into a popular campaign of civil disobedience, but rather to extend participation in the intifada to sectors of the population marginalized by the pattern of daily clashes and nightly guerrilla attacks. At the same time, the NIF has begun proposing solutions to problems of daily life—such as unemployment and unpaid civil servant salaries—that are of urgent concern to the civilian population but have been all but ignored by the PA. More and more, representatives of NGOs and local authorities are being invited to participate in the NIF's weekly deliberations. Partly in response, Yasser Arafat has invited a number of opposition parties to assume ministerial posts in an emergency government of national unity. The opposition parties have thus far declined, on the grounds that the Palestinian polity first needs to reach agreement on a common political and socio-economic program.

(Mis)Targeting Force 17

Throughout the Occupied Territories—and particularly in Gaza—Palestinian paramilitary units have ratcheted up their response to Israel's unprecedented campaign of siege and destruction. Israeli allegations that these units are directed by PA security, specifically by Arafat's Presidential Guard (Force 17) are difficult to take seriously. While a portion of the PA's more than 40,000 security personnel are clearly involved, the simple fact is that the paramilitaries are neither prepared to take orders from the PA, nor in need of its assistance. The clearest example is the suicide attacks and other bombings carried out in various Israeli cities in February and March, for which the Sharon-Peres government held Arafat personally responsible. The Islamist organizations responsible for these attacks hardly require access to the PA armories, or covering fire from Force 17, to infiltrate their members into Israel. More to the point, the idea that Hamas and Islamic Jihad would expose their clandestine cells to a past adversary and potential rival, for no discernible benefit, defies logic.

Through the NIF, there is political coordination between various factions, and thus indirectly between factions and the PA. Although each faction retains independent control over its own paramilitary units—much like the PLO during the 1970s—it seems reasonable to assume that some level of military cooperation in the field exists as well. But the PA can only influence, and not control, the armed campaign of attrition. How much influence the PA can exert is determined by how accurately the leadership's political positions reflect the general mood of the Palestinian street. There is no single chain of command.

Despite this reality, the Sharon-Peres strategy is to strike directly at the PA, and Force 17 in particular. The strategy appears to rest upon traditional theories which hold that one influences the conduct of Third World leaders with attacks on their vital interests—most notably the praetorian guard—thereby visibly eroding the presumed pillars of their rule. Part of the so-called Operation Bronze, the Sharon-Peres escalation—dubbed the "100-day plan" by the Palestinian media—is an expansion of the policies pursued by Barak. A return to traditional Israeli propaganda has accompanied Operation Bronze. Whereas Barak concluded that Camp David and the subsequent eruption of the intifada demonstrated that Arafat "is not a peace partner" for Israel, Sharon consistently denounces Arafat as an unregenerate "terrorist." Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz condemns the PA as a "terrorist entity," while Foreign Minister Shimon Peres characterizes the uprising as a "campaign of terror and violence." This is an extremely dangerous game. The Sharon-Peres government's constituents increasingly demand that "Palestinian terrorism" in the West Bank and Gaza be confronted with the same tactics used by Sharon in Lebanon during 1982.

A Storm to be Weathered

Meanwhile, Sharon's mantra that his government "will not negotiate with the PA under fire" is belied by a new round of not-so-secret contacts with Palestinian officials. Sharon has justified these talks by claiming that they are exclusively dealing with matters of security. More accurately, they have dealt with both political and security issues, but have consistently run aground over the substance of Israel's security demands and its insistence that these be met before political negotiations resume. The Palestinians, who have have come to view the Sharon-Peres government as a storm to be weathered, have strenuously rejected the Israeli demands. In their view, Sharon's security agenda is but a mask for his political one, and to accept the first is to guarantee the implementation of the second. The Palestinians have concluded that the next several weeks will bring unprecedented Israeli pressure on them, designed to compel their acquiescence to Sharon's agenda. The Palestinians believe they are facing a defining moment in an ongoing test of wills to see who snaps first.

On the night of April 4, almost immediately after the Bush administration announced that the CIA would no longer participate in efforts to restore Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, an Israeli-Palestinian security conclave was held under CIA auspices at the Tel Aviv residence of US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk. Preliminary reports indicate that it failed to produce substantial results. As the convoy of vehicles transporting PA security chiefs Muhammad Dahlan, Amin al-Hindi and Abd al-Razzaq al-Majayda passed through the Erez/Beit Hanun checkpoint on the boundary between Israel and the Gaza Strip, Israeli forces opened fire upon the jeeps, lightly injuring three Palestinian bodyguards. The Palestinians dismissed Israeli claims that they were responding to gunfire from the convoy, pointing instead to Sharon's vociferous pre-election demands for Dahlan's assassination. Yasser Abed Rabbo's prediction of "open warfare" may soon be proven correct.

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