BY AHMAD NIMER
RAMALLAH — As the Palestinian people's intifada (uprising) enters its 27th month, the Israeli government has escalated it strategy of collective punishment. At the time of writing, all Palestinian cities in the West Bank, with the exception of Jericho, are under direct Israeli military control. Israeli troops, backed by tanks and helicopters, conduct midnight raids of Palestinians' homes, while bulldozers demolish houses daily.
The barbarity of Israel's occupation policies defy rational attempts to describe it. The pictures conveyed by the TV news every night do little justice to the daily despair and hopelessness that the population feels — a despair compounded by the consent given to these policies by world governments and international organisations that continue to utter empty platitudes.
How can you describe the anger, mixed with despair, in the eyes of a friend as she describes how her mother was killed on her balcony in the city of Nablus. She was shot dead by Israeli soldiers as she was hanging out her laundry. My friend knows that the perpetrators of the crime will not be brought to justice, not will any honest inquiry be launched. She knows that she is just one of hundreds of Palestinians with similar stories to tell.
More than 50 Palestinians were killed by Israeli soldiers in November, 14 of them children. Despite claims to the contrary by the Israeli army, most of the deaths occurred in circumstances in which there was no exchange of gun-fire or confrontation with the military. Like my friend's mother, they were killed as they tried to go about their daily lives.
Meanwhile, the Israeli army continues to impose curfews on most cities in the West Bank. This imposition of 24-hour house arrest upon thousands of people means that normal life comes to a standstill. People cannot get to work, go to school or visit friends due to the presence of Israeli tanks and soldiers on the streets. This situation has been going on for the last six months, with the curfews lifted every few days for a few hours so that people can buy some food.
(The Palestinian Red Crescent organisation maintains a record of the total curfew hours by area. It is available on its web site at <http://www.palestinercs.org>.)
A brutal new form of collective punishment has been introduced by Israel: the demolition of the homes of families of suspected militants. These occur without warning and without legal proceedings. A family will awake to the sound of bulldozers moving towards their home. Often they have no time to grab their belongings before fleeing; several people have been killed because their houses have been demolished on top of them. For many Palestinians, their house represents their entire life's work and saving.
The aim of Israel's policies is clear. Collective punishment on a massive scale is designed to create submission. What is not clear is how successful the Israeli government will be in this attempt to crush the population. Despite massive waves of arrests — currently around 9000 Palestinians are in Israeli jails — and the economic strangulation of the population, all political factions remain active and are recruiting new militants.
There is a vigourous debate around the question of armed operations against Israeli targets. All factions agree that attacks against Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are legitimate in the context of the illegal occupation. However, there is no agreement on attacks against Israeli civilians living inside the 1948 area of Palestine on which Israel was established.
The key perpetrators of attacks on Israeli civilians — Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade — argue that they are a form of self-defence. They argue that, in the context of the Israeli army's conscious targeting of Palestinian civilians since the beginning of the intifada in September 2000, the only way to resist these attacks is to also target Israeli civilians.
These organisations also argue that the Israeli population as a whole must feel the consequences of the 35-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, otherwise it will continue.
The key point that is often overlooked in the shallow mainstream analysis of "Palestinian terror" is that the attacks on Israeli civilians have a root cause and a reason. They are not irrational acts of hatred, but stem almost inevitably from the brutal repression that the Palestinian population suffers in the territories.
The first intifada (1988-1993) was largely unarmed and attempts were made by the local population to engage in acts of peaceful civil disobedience against the occupying force. These attempts included refusing to work in Israeli settlements, boycotting Israeli goods, withholding tax payments, violating curfews and establishing alternative institutions to supplant Israeli administration.
Today, such strategies are unlikely to succeed because of the changes in how the Palestinian and Israeli economies now relate to each other. Palestinians no longer pay taxes directly to the occupation authorities. Israel is the only source of imports for the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In addition, the Israeli economy is now less reliant upon Palestinian workers, who have been largely replaced by foreigners. Israel is less economically dependent upon the Palestinians, but the reverse is not true. Palestinians have little leverage.
Exploitation of the Palestinian labour force in the Occupied Territories is no longer central to the functioning of Israel's economy. In this situation, strikes and other industrial actions are less effective.
Unlike the central role that black workers played in ending apartheid in South Africa, there is no large Palestinian working class at the heart of Israel's economy. This fact is strikingly demonstrated by the six-month-long curfews that have trapped most Palestinian areas. In most other countries, it would be inconceivable to imprison an entire population of working age without affecting the functioning of the economy.
Other sections of the Palestinian liberation movement argue that mass, non-violent demonstrations is the most effective strategy. However, on the ground there is little faith that such tactics would work. After all, the second intifada began in September 2000 in this manner and yet Israel has continued to kill with impunity. In the first month, 107 Palestinians were killed, approximately 33% children.
At that time, weapons were not used by any of the Palestinian forces. Instead, the intifada was characterised by unarmed demonstrations against heavily armed Israeli soldiers. The Israeli army admits that during the first few days, around 700,000 rounds were fired by its soldiers in the West Bank alone. This is what explains the support of much of the population for the armed resistance.
The central issue remains Israel's 35-year-old occupation, which the world has allowed to continue with impunity. It is this state-sponsored terror that must be ended if there is to be peace.
From Green Left Weekly, December 11, 2002.
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