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Making life difficult for the Palestinian peace camp
Amira Hass, Israel
August 14, 2002
Some 700 Palestinian demonstrators in Bethlehem waited in vain on
Saturday evening for activists from Ta'ayush Jewish-Arab Coexistence
to arrive for a planned joint demonstration in the middle of the
occupied city. When it turned out that the IDF would not allow the
two sides to meet, they decided to use mobile phones and loudspeakers
to show "there is someone to talk to" on both sides.
There were Palestinians who found it difficult to believe the Israeli
authorities would indeed prevent a peace demonstration from taking
place. One said that he heard some young people hissing, "if they
don't want peace demonstrations, they'll get attacks." Simplistic,
but it says something about the working conditions for Palestinian
groups and individuals who believe the terror attacks are wrong, both
practically and morally, and that perhaps the militarization of the
uprising was a mistake from the start.
These people and groups are in a trap: they agree with the popular
sentiment that the Israeli rule in the territories is like a daily,
hourly attack against 3 million Palestinians. So it is difficult for
them to disseminate their rational analysis and critiques of the
suicide bombings and the support for the bombings, and to argue that
revenge is not a good guide on how to conduct the uprising.
From the start, the Palestinian leadership failed to come up with a
clear strategy for the struggle. Israel, of course, is convinced that
the Palestinian Authority initiated the intifada and orchestrated it.
In the territories, however, people know that the PA was dragged
along by it. But the independent decision-making style of Yasser
Arafat, the efforts of senior officials to survive politically, and
the fear of the uprising turning against the PA itself, created a
vacuum in Palestinian policy. That vacuum was filled by military
From the Palestinian perspective, attacks on Israel are evidence of
the Palestinian organizations' incompetence at coming up with a
classic guerrilla campaign in the territories, like the Hezbollah in
Lebanon. According to many in this public, it takes a lot more effort
to find a weak point in the Israeli military deployment in the
territories than it does to slip back and forth across the Green
Line. Moreover, in Palestinian eyes, the choice in favor of lethal
escalation and the popular support for it is derived from their
leadership's failure not only to achieve independence through
negotiations, but also to use political and diplomatic means to stop
the lethal IDF military escalation.
Since the establishment of the PLO, the Palestinian national movement
has sanctified the principle of the armed struggle, sometimes to the
point where it practically became a goal unto itself. From there,
it's a short step to sanctifying anyone with a weapon, even if that
"weapon" is a human being.
The admission of military and political weakness paved the way for
escalation and a phenomenon that should worry every
Palestinian—mass readiness on the part of young people to commit suicide in the form of weapons. From the point of view of the lone suicide bomber,
there is no big difference between the Islamic movements and the
Fatah or other secular groups; the number of youths ready to die is
much greater than the number of attacks it is possible to plan.
The Islamic movements have a clear interest in linking the phenomenon
to Islamic commandments. Perhaps there indeed has been an increase in
the numbers of those who believe in eternal paradise. But secular
Palestinian observers are convinced that first comes a readiness to
die, and only afterward is religious faith applied.
Both religious and secular Palestinians are convinced that those
ready for self-sacrifice are acting within the political-military
context, in which Israel has overwhelming superiority and absolute
control over Palestinian lives. Those who choose to die (and kill)
are not necessarily personally frustrated. But they regard
themselves—and are perceived—as representing the general frustration and
fury over lives not worthy of being called lives, which the
Palestinians believe are the result of deliberate Israeli policy:
lives in cages, poverty and disease, accompanied by daily killings,
prohibitions on movement and humiliation. "If we are dying while
alive, at least we can choose the time and manner of our revenge."
That is the view of the Palestinian public.
Meanwhile, the more Israel steps up its military moves, the more the
weakened Palestinian population's support for terror attacks—and
suicide bombings in particular—grows. Rhetoric about ruthlessness
does not convince them. They claim they have the right of individuals
to respond with ruthlessness to Israeli state ruthlessness.
The decision-making process for suicide bombings in Fatah is local,
indeed personal, the result of competition with Hamas over
popularity. For the Hamas, it's a centralized, conscious strategy,
not disconnected to the internal Palestinian political struggle for
control of the future regime. As long as the Hamas feels the public
supports the attacks, it won't give up that strategy.
Beneath the surface there are many efforts to open a public debate
aimed at reducing Palestinian support for attacks inside Israel,
without waiting for a change in Israeli policy. The plan for a joint
demonstration with Ta'ayush was an example of that type of effort. It
was an effort that failed, foiled by the Israeli authorities.
Amira Hass lives in Gaza, and writes a column for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz.
From Ha’aretz, August 14, 2002.