RAMALLAH The events of the last 20 days in Palestine are without doubt the most significant since the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993. They have brought to the fore the tensions inherent in any solution to the Palestinian question that does not tackle the fundamental problem in the Middle East: the role of imperialism and its client state of Israel.
The weeks prior to the Al Aqsa intifada (uprising), as it has become known, were routine in every sense of the word. The negotiations were we were informed by all concerned in their perpetual state of deadlock. Life continued as normal for most Palestinians: the checkpoints, the frustration and the familiar sight of Israeli settlements overlooking Palestinian towns.
That normality was shattered after the massacre of seven worshippers in the Al Aqsa mosque on September 29. It soon became clear that the clashes were of a different nature than the demonstrations in recent years.
The official Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) report on the clashes, published on October 13, states that Palestinians claim the demonstrations were caused by the September 28 visit of Israeli Likud Party leader, Ariel Sharon, to the area surrounding Al Aqsa mosque. Some Palestinians do claim this, a claim that has been repeated by the media internationally.
There is good reason for Palestinians to be angry. Sharon was convicted of being responsible for the massacre of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in the camps of Sabra and Shatilla during the 1980s.
However, the reasons lie much deeper than Sharon's murderous past. After all, most Israeli leaders share this trait. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was a general in the army and is well known for his execution of unarmed Palestinians and his role in the assassination of Palestinian intellectuals, such as Kamal Nasir. Israeli Labor Party deputy leader Shimon Peres ordered the bombing of the Qana UN camp in Lebanon, where villagers were seeking shelter from Israeli air raids in 1996.
The demonstrations over the last few weeks have been of a mass character. All sections of the population have been involved and social solidarity probably reached the greatest level since the Oslo process began. The reasons for the demonstrations strike at the heart of Oslo and what has happened on the ground since September 1993.
Since Oslo, Israel has cemented and extended its occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem. In all areas, life has got worse for the majority of Palestinians.
Land grabIllegal Israeli Jewish-only settlements have expanded across the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem. By the end of 1967, there were just three settlements; by mid-1999 this had risen to 195, of which there were 18 in Gaza Strip and 177 in the West Bank (including Jerusalem).
The settler population is increasing at a faster rate than the Israeli population as a whole. According to the Israeli Central Bureau of statistics, it grew by 7.6% in 1998 in the West Bank and 12% in the Gaza Strip, compared to 2.3% in the Israeli population overall.
In 1999, the Israeli government confiscated 40,178 dunams of Palestinian land (1 dunam equals 1000 square metres). Of this, 19,691 was to be used for settlement expansion. Since 1967, 73% of the land in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has been confiscated by the Israeli government. The fact that Israel doesn't intend to return this land at the conclusion of any deal is demonstrated by the fact that Israel's structural plan for 2020 allows for 310,000 settlers in the West Bank.
The same pattern is replicated in Jerusalem. Since 1967, 15 settlements have been erected within East Jerusalem, occupying 24 square kilometres (34%) of East Jerusalem. The settler population in East Jerusalem alone is 180,000 (compared to 210,000 Palestinians living in the eastern part of the city).
As has been clearly demonstrated over the last few weeks, the settler population is by and large an armed paramilitary group that presents a grave danger to the Palestinian population.
Palestinians are prohibited by Israel from building in approximately 60% of the West Bank, 40% of the Gaza Strip and 87% of Jerusalem. Since 1967, more than 6000 Palestinian homes have been demolished in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and 2500 in East Jerusalem.
There has been an increase in the demolition of Palestinian homes since the beginning of the Oslo Accords: between then and April 1999, 946 homes have been demolished. More than 60% of Palestinians in Jerusalem now live in a housing density of three or more persons per room three times more crowded than Jewish houses in Jerusalem.
House demolition is one plank in an Israeli government strategy to ethnically cleanse Jerusalem of Palestinian residents. Another technique is the confiscation of Palestinian ID cards, which forces Palestinian residents to live outside the city. Between 1996 and 1999, more than 2200 Jerusalemite ID cards were confiscated.
Israel also refuses to implement Palestinian refugees' right of return. In 1948, with the colonisation of the historic land of Palestine, around 750,000 Palestinians were evicted from their land. Four hundred and eighteen Palestinian villages were depopulated and destroyed.
Following the establishment of Israel, laws were passed denying Palestinians the right to return home and expropriating their homes and land. These laws are still in force.
The Absentees' Property Law of 1950 created a Custodian for Absentee Property, in which the legal and equitable title of absentee property was entirely divested. An absentee could reclaim their property only if they could prove that they had left their place of residence for fear that the enemies of Israel might cause him harm. The law thus excludes the majority of Palestinians who had fled in fear of attack from Israeli forces. An estimated 3.25 million dunums of land was expropriated under this legislation.
The constant denial by Israel of the right of return, and even responsibility for what remains the world's longest and largest refugee crisis, is critical to understanding Palestinians' anger at the so-called peace process.
Since the Oslo Accords, the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been continuously subjected to arbitrary closures by the Israeli government. This results in severe restrictions on movement, and, since Palestinian-controlled areas do not form a contiguous entity under the accords, Palestinian towns and villages are easily isolated from one another.
The Israeli authorities have been known to impose blockades, which make movement of Palestinians virtually impossible and impede humanitarian relief. Blockades were implemented during the recent events, and are still in place.
Closures cause considerable economic hardship by preventing Palestinian workers who earn their living in Israel from getting to work. They often result in the waste of Palestinian agricultural produce as vegetables and the like rot, and in the case of Gaza, the ban on fisherpeople going to sea denies them the possibility of an income.
The closures in the occupied territories are a form of collective punishment which violates article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and also the right to the freedom of movement enshrined in article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Israeli violenceIt has been clear throughout the clashes that the population is fighting with one thing in mind: freedom from occupation. Oslo has run its course and people are finally saying enough is enough.
Israel responded with a brutality that many of the post-intifada generation had not witnessed before. Israel, which has one of the largest and most modern armies in the world, receives more military aid from the US than any other country in the world.
Between October 18 and September 29, more than 100 Palestinians were killed and 4000 were wounded. Five Israeli soldiers were killed. On October 8, Defence for Children International reported:
In the Gaza Strip, Israeli military forces demolished two residential buildings, leaving more than 240 Palestinian children without homes. As confrontations continue at the northern entrance of Al-Bireh, most residents of the Belu'a and Jebel Al-Taweel neighbourhoods have fled after having been warned to do so by the Israeli army. Similar warnings were issued to inhabitants of the Old City of Hebron and in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip.
The Palestinian human rights organisation Addameer reported on October 8, Tanks, heavy artillery, helicopters, have been deployed around all Palestinian cities in Gaza. Bulldozers have demolished portions of the streets near Netzarim for a military base. In Al Zahra neighbourhood in Gaza under Palestinian Authority control, Israeli troops have taken over the area. The area is a new neighbourhood built primarily to house Palestinian returnees. In the past few hours, Israeli settlers have taken to the streets and are attacking Palestinians throughout the West Bank, Gaza and 1948 areas.
Israeli forces also executed Palestinian citizens in Israel. The case of the brutal slaying of 17-year-old Aseel Hassan 'Assalih from the town of 'Arrabeh in the Upper Galilee shocked the world, particularly since Aseel was active in an organization promoting reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. According to eyewitness testimony, Aseel was shot in the neck after being caught and beaten by Israeli soldiers on October 3. He had been chanting slogans with his friends at the time.
One characteristic of the clashes was the violence employed by Israeli settlers, backed and supported by the Israeli military. As Defence for Children International reported on October 8:
Last night, Israeli settlers, under the protection of the Israeli army, attacked Palestinian cities and private property throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory, both in residential areas and at crossroads between Palestinian towns. In the Qalqilyeh region, over eight villages were attacked, including Kufr Haris, Salfit, Deir 'Istiya, Al-Funduq, Jeet, 'Azzoun, Masha, and Huwarra. In the latter of which, Israeli settlers kidnapped two Palestinian civilians and burned the homes of Huwarra residents. In nearby Bidiya, 22-year-old Fahed Mustafa Baker died after having been shot in the head by Israeli settlers. Another Palestinian civilian from Al-Funduq village remains in critical condition after being attacked by settlers with a wooden plank studded with nails.
Mass supportThe significance of the events of the last few weeks are illustrated in three features not witnessed for many years in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict: the depth of mass participation in the Palestinian demonstrations and related activities; the struggle of Palestinians living inside the state of Israel; and the enormous solidarity from around the world, in particular, the Arab masses of neighbouring countries.
Daily life in all West Bank and Gaza Strip towns and villages came to a standstill as the population lent support to the demonstrations. Particularly in the larger cities, such as Nablus, Ramallah, Hebron and Gaza, tens of thousands participated in the actions. Schools went on strike and a general strike lasted in most areas for more than seven days.
The Palestinian Chamber of Commerce declared rolling strikes in solidarity with the demonstrations. A movement to boycott Israeli products was organised through non-government organisations and youth groups visited shops to encourage compliance with the boycott. Thousands flocked to hospitals to donate urgently needed blood for the wounded.
In response to the armed attacks by para-military bands of Israeli settlers, villages formed self-defence leagues.
One of the most significant features of the clashes was the participation of Palestinians living within the state of Israel. The attempts of Israel to separate the Palestinian people along geographic and religious lines the Israeli government calls these people Israeli Arabs, not Palestinians were shown to have failed. By October 20, 13 Palestinians had been killed by Israeli police inside Israel. Demonstrations by Palestinians inside Israel have not reached such a level for more than 40 years.
The participation extended across all areas and cities. Particularly in the north, where Palestinian villages such as Nazareth are located close to Palestinian villages in the West Bank such as Jenin and Tulkarem, demonstrations were heavily coordinated across the artificial lines of division. In one particularly memorable moment, thousands of Palestinians in Ramallah mobilised at 10.30pm when the killing of a Palestinian in Nazareth was announced.
It was clear that neither the Israeli government nor the Palestinian Authority had expected such a show of solidarity from Palestinians inside Israel.
Similarly, the extent of solidarity from Arabs in neighbouring countries was completely unexpected. It was this movement, in itself an expression of the latent anger of the Arab masses against imperialist influence and the collusion of their own governments with Israel and the US, which forced the US to take an active role in attempting to diffuse the situation.
This movement placed the Arab regimes in a contradictory position. On one hand they were forced to express solidarity with the Palestinian people, on the other, they took a strong stance against the mass mobilisations occurring in their own countries.
For example, in Jordan, whose regime has particularly close economic and military ties with Israel, mass demonstrations called for an end to these ties and were directed against the Israeli embassy. The Jordanian monarchy sent helicopters to the West Bank to airlift the most seriously injured to Jordanian hospitals for medical treatment. At the same time, they banned demonstrations in Amman and two Jordanians were killed by the Jordanian army in the ensuing clashes.
Likewise, Egypt lent vocal support to the Palestinian cause but locked students into one of the major universities to prevent a planned demonstration outside the US embassy.
The strongest organised solidarity for the Palestinian movement came from the Lebanese resistance movement, Hizbullah. This powerful, mass-based Islamic movement in the south of Lebanon is extremely popular inside Palestine, despite the fact Hizbullah draws its roots from Shiite Islam whereas the majority of Palestinians follow the rival Sunni sect.
Hizbullah's popularity stems from its militant and uncompromising struggle against Israel's occupation of Lebanon and its non-sectarian approach to all political tendencies.
Hizbullah caught everyone by surprise through its kidnapping of three Israeli soldiers from the Lebanese border following a demonstration by Palestinians from refugee camps in Lebanon. Hizbullah's demand was simple: release all political prisoners in Israeli jails. There are 12 Lebanese political prisoners and 1600 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails, a number which is sure to increase over the coming weeks.
Hizbullah's actions received enormous support in Palestine. Palestinians everywhere tuned into Hizbullah satellite TV to watch Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah calmly explain that Israel must release all political prisoners. A few days later, Israel was further embarrassed after a high ranking Israeli spy was also captured by Hizbullah.
Arafat's roleA shaky agreement seems to have been arrived at between Barak and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, under the watchful eye of US President Bill Clinton. However, on Palestine's streets there is strong opposition to continuing negotiations and a willingness to continue the new intifada. Meanwhile, Israeli massacres continue.
To understand the current situation requires understanding the present position of Arafat and the role of Fatah.
The relationship of the mass movement to the Palestinian Authority was ambivalent from the beginning. Although the PA certainly encouraged the demonstrations, particularly through state-owned media, there was a definite confusion apparent in the demands and aims of the demonstrations.
Because the dynamic of the movement was explicitly against the Oslo process and subsequent negotiations, the PA found itself forced to reject any attempt by the US and Israel to return to the negotiation table. This was apparent in the first unsuccessful attempt to halt the demonstrations through a meeting between US secretary of state Madeline Albright, Barak and Arafat on October 10 in Paris.
Many of the larger demonstrations were notable for their lack of portraits of Arafat, which are usually standard fare in this part of the world.
Grassroots members of Fatah were playing a leading role in the demonstrations and were also disapproving of the negotiations process. Many Fatah militants were killed during the demonstrations and Fatah issued several leaflets condemning attempts to abort the uprising in favour of returning to the negotiations process.
The issue of armed resistance to the Israeli attacks is probably the best example of the complex relationship between Fatah and the PA. The Tanzim, or armed Fatah groups, hold a strong position in Palestinian politics. It was the Tanzim which engaged Israeli settlers and soldiers in all-night gun battles at the outskirts of most Palestinian cities.
In general, Arafat permits these groups to organise and hold weapons, while disarming all other political factions. Although the Islamic factions, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and to a lesser extent the left factions probably possess a limited cache of weapons, it is impossible for them to openly display arms; they would be immediately arrested. The Tanzim, in contrast, drive the streets with their weapons on display.
In general, Arafat retains almost complete control over the direction of the mass movement and of Fatah. More than 150,000 (or 20%) Palestinian employees rely on the PA for salaries. Arafat maintains complete control over this budget and he, in turn, is reliant upon foreign aid to pay for it.
Arafat also maintains control over the different security forces and armed groups within the area. It is extremely difficult for any political action to occur independently of Arafat at this point.
On the other hand, the events of the last few weeks moved beyond the control of Arafat and Fatah as a whole. They took on a mass dynamic which was opposed to the Oslo process and the apartheid on the ground.
Political alternativeThey did not, however, begin to challenge the political control of Arafat and the PA. Herein lies the biggest obstacle to the emergence of an alternative to Oslo.
There is not yet a political alternative capable of challenging Arafat's hegemony. The left remains weak, and has not made significant political gains over the last few weeks.
It is difficult to predict what the coming weeks will hold, although a likely scenario is a slow demobilisation of the movement as Arafat reigns in Fatah and the support of the PA. Nevertheless, the events clearly indicate that any imposed solution along the lines discussed at Camp David will not be accepted by the Palestinian people.
BY AHMAD NIMER