A pause in Palestine

Published : Nov 11, 2000 00:00 IST

The mood of defiance continues in the Palestinian homeland although there is a lull in the violence for now.

KESAVA MENON in the Palestinian homeland

EVEN after a month of fighting Israel's occupation of their territories and with over 150 of their people dead and several thousands wounded, the Palestinians continue to exude defiance. The message from the street and the Palestinian leadership was that the struggle would continue until a Palestinian state is established with Al Quds as its capital. While the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians will only end with the just and fair fulfilment of the latter's aspirations, the question of h ow it would be achieved remains open.

The word from the street, especially as transmitted by network snap-shots, was that the ongoing violent struggle was the sole means by which the Palestinians believe they will achieve their goals. With deaths at the hands of Israeli soldiers having becom e a daily occurrence over the past five weeks, the Palestinian masses believe that they have nothing to lose. Although the physical means at their command are negligible, the Palestinians believe that they have no choice but to resort to them. Moreover, negotiations with Israel have brought little so far and there is deep scepticism over whether further talks will achieve anything more. By continuing to fight they will at least keep their hopes and dignity alive. To stop now would be to dishonour those who have already died. It would also mean the final submission to despair.

Over most of this period, the emotional response from the Israeli public appeared to validate the Palestinian frustration. The ever-latent Israeli fear of being under siege from hostile forces and the determination to fight back rose to fever pitch. From the Israeli perspective, all the concessions they had given so far to the Palestinians and were preparing to give had produced not the slightest change in the Arab attitude towards them. Why should they give up hard physical assets in their possession, and which they believe enhances their security, when the intangible but invaluable benefit of being reciprocated with Arab benevolence was going to be as elusive as ever? Call it the basic perceptional dissonance between conquered and conqueror, but in e ffect the negative attitudes on the one side were reinforcing similar attitudes on the other.

It was only the power of self-interest and logic that prevented the situation from going out of control. There was the self-interest of U.S. President Bill Clinton who could see one of the major programmes of his eight-year administration unravel in its last months. Arab leaders who had made peace with Israel - such as Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah - knew that their own positions would be undermined if the conflict was prolonged. Those Arab leaders of a moderate bent, who ha d not followed in the footsteps of Egypt and Jordan also had reason to fear that the continuance of the intifada would radicalise their masses and strengthen the more hard-line regimes. Members of the wider international community, who have establ ished lucrative linkages to Israel and the Arab world, had reason to fear that their hopes of maintaining relationships with both sides without the strain of their mutual hostility would be lost forever.

But the efforts and prayers of these several actors might not have counted for much if the principal players involved had not realised that their own interests would not be served if they went over the brink. Israel's leaders, in giving vent to their sen se of in extremis, occasionally declared that they were prepared for a unilateral separation. By this they meant that they would abandon the more isolated Jewish settlements and military posts in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip while hanging on t o as much of the land as they could conveniently hold in the enclaves. Such a policy would leave the Palestinians in control of their towns and villages but they would be like islands in a sea controlled by Israel. No consideration would be given to the other Palestinian demands unless they returned to the negotiating table. While Israel has the military means to implement this policy, at least in the short to medium term, it is ultimately untenable since Israelis moving between the Palestinians cluster s would always be under the threat of attack. The attritional effect would be unbearable.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat had rallied his people, who had become disillusioned with his leadership, with the call to continue the intifada until their aspirations were met. At times, the Palestinians gave the impression that th ey believed Israel had lost the will to resist. The facts that Israel was forced to come to the negotiating table in the first place by the intifada of 1987-93 and the fact of Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon under pressure from Hizbollah were cit ed as proof of this theory. But this theory overlooks the fact that the Israelis have built for themselves a prosperous and comfortable society and their resistance will only stiffen as the core of their interests comes under threat. Even if the ideologi cal fervour for a Greater Israel is erased the need to cling to an outer perimeter of defence when under threat would remain.

Between Israel's threat of a unilateral separation and the Palestinian threat of a perpetual intifada lies the realisation on both sides of what is achievable and sustainable. If a durable peace is to be made, Israel will have to withdraw from mos t of the territories captured in 1967, including East Jerusalem, and compensate the Palestinians with pieces of land from within Israel for those portions of the West Bank that cannot be given back for practical reasons. (Some of the settlements straddli ng the 1967 border have become large townships.) Issues such as the return of the refugees and sovereignty over the Haram al Sharif/Temple Mount are matters of principle as much as of emotion. But such issues of emotion and principle can hardly be tackle d if the hard, practical questions of land and conditions of living are not addressed first.

If the question of land is considered in isolation, then the theories of unilateral separation and perpetual intifada do not make much sense given the point where the negotiations had reached. Post-Camp David, the two sides had almost come to acce pt that in a fair settlement, Israel would withdraw from all of the Gaza Strip, most of the West Bank and offer compensatory land elsewhere. There were gaps between the respective positions but these appear niggardly, especially since they do not have th e emotional overload attached to the differences over refugees and the holy sites. But the fact is that even on these issues, the contours of practicable compromises were available only in outline or being worked on.

The pressure of international opinion might not have been directly effective in preventing either the Israelis or the Palestinians from going over the brink. But each knows that its own interest would not be served if it were held responsible for the non -achievement of an agreement that appeared so close within reach. Despite the growing scepticism of the Israeli public and the rising clamour from the anti-peace Right-wing, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had to extend deadline after deadline and let one ultimatum lapse after another. Arafat had rallied his people and made them believe in fighting for their cause but there was little sense in continuing to fight when the same outcome could probably be achieved on the negotiating table.

From the comments made by knowledgeable Palestinians, who are not privy to Arafat's inner councils, it would appear that he has not authoritatively told them what Israel will ultimately offer. For instance, Barak said in an interview to Jerusalem Post just before the outbreak of the uprising that he envisaged an Al Quds and a Yerushalaiyim side by side (that is, a city serving as the capital of two countries). While Palestinian scepticism about Barak's statement is understandable, would they have been so dismissive if Arafat had authenticated that the Israelis were moving in that direction?

There are indications that Arafat has left a gap between what was actually obtainable from the Israelis and what his people thought was the best on offer. A people who thought that they were getting only so much would be shown that by mobilising behind A rafat they could gain that much more. By so manipulating perceptions, Arafat could ensure his sway over his people post-agreement. This is also the only way in which he can sell the inherent compromises to his people. Moreover, by achieving their goals t hrough a last convulsive struggle, the Palestinians would have the pride that they had not been given their rights but had won them.

Had Arafat however unleashed a tiger he could not control? The cycle of death, funerals, confrontations after the funerals that usually ended in more deaths, had a momentum of its own. Arafat had to show them some immediate gains before he could ask his people to restrain themselves. Neither the Sharm El-Sheikh summit nor the Arab summit soon after (Frontline, November 10) produced the show of international support that Arafat judged sufficient. It finally took the visit of Israeli Minister for R egional Co-operation Shimon Peres to Gaza on the night of November 1 for Arafat to relent and ask his people to transform their struggle into a peaceful one. Into the fact of Peres having called on him Arafat could read the tacit message that Israel took the primary responsibility to end the violence. But Arafat also held out, in his proclamations at least, for Israel to take the first practical steps by withdrawing its armour and ending the siege of Palestinian towns and villages.

As on November 4, there were signs that Israel was pulling back its armour and slightly easing off on its closure of Palestinian populated areas. For the first time, Arafat's policemen were seen trying to restrain their youth in a significant way. With t he sixth week of the uprising around the corner, it appeared possible that the cycle of death, funerals, confrontation and more deaths would break - long enough for everyone to look once more at the negotiating table.

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