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Turmoil in Palestine:
The Basic Context

By Alex R. Shalom and Stephen R. Shalom

As the occupied Palestinian territories suffer their worst paroxysm of violence in years, with the casualties, as always, overwhelmingly Palestinian, the mainstream media, also as always, focus on peripheral questions, offer misleading answers, and ignore the underlying causes of the conflict. The fundamental, neglected reality is that the Palestinian people have been denied their basic rights for years by the Israeli government, aided and abetted by its Washington ally.

More than half a century ago, the United Nations (which at the time had comparatively few Third World members) recommended the partition of Palestine into Palestinian and Jewish states, and an internationalized Jerusalem, with the Jewish minority to receive the majority of the land, as well as most of the fertile land. A civil war and then a regional war ensued and when the armistice agreements were signed there was Israel, the Jewish state, but no Palestinian state and no international Jerusalem, both of these being taken over and divided between Israel and Jordan. The occupying Israelis, however, were not content to block the emergence of a Palestinian state; they wanted as well to expel as many Palestinians as possible. This ethnic cleansing -- forced expulsions facilitated by acts of terror -- drove hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their ancestral lands, to refugee camps where they lived in squalor, longing to return. In 1967, Israel conquered Jordan's share of Palestine, creating a new wave of Palestinian refugees, and subjecting many more to ruthless Israeli rule in the occupied territories.

Through all the peace plans and negotiations this is the central question: how can Palestinians achieve the right of self-determination that has so long been refused them? To the Israeli government, justice for Palestinians has always been subordinated to the Israeli desire for land, for scarce water resources, and for military supremacy in the region. And the United States government has likewise disregarded Palestinian self-determination and human rights, motivated by its desire to see a dominant Israel that could help keep radical Arab nationalism in check in a region of great economic and strategic value.

This past week's violence was sparked by the visit of the leader of Israel's right-wing opposition Likud Party, former general Ariel Sharon, to Haram al Sharif, a Muslim holy site in Jerusalem, revered by Jews as the Temple Mount. The media has asked what Sharon intended by his visit, what role Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak played in Sharon's decision to go there, and whether the Palestinian response was spontaneous or orchestrated by the Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Yasir Arafat. But these limited questions cannot be answered without considering the recent history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Yasir Arafat was Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1974 when it was recognized by the U.N. (and by nearly every survey of Palestinian opinion) as the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. But, by the mid-1980's, Arafat and his lieutenants had been away from Palestine for many years, and their connection with Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip began to weaken. In December 1987, after 20 years living under the systematic violence of Israeli rule, Palestinians in the occupied territories began wide-spread resistance known as the intifada. The intifada, often remembered for its vivid images of Palestinian children throwing stones at Israeli soldiers who responded with automatic weapons, included, in fact, highly organized non-violent resistance in addition to the more spontaneous stone throwing. Impressively, the intifada with its remarkable self-discipline and courage was an indigenous uprising - neither initiated nor controlled by the PLO leadership-in-exile -- indicating that Arafat no longer spoke for the Palestinian people.

It thus came as something of a surprise when Arafat joined with then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin to sign the 1993 Oslo Accords. The peace process agreed to by Arafat and Rabin called for the redeployment of Israeli troops from most areas of dense Palestinian concentration to other parts of the West Bank, but not for their full withdrawal from the territory. Israeli settlements -- whose presence even Israel's closest ally, the United States government, had always considered a violation of international law -- were to remain in place. Israel retained authority over most of the land, and all the settlers, roads, water, and borders, while the Palestinians gained civil control -- not sovereignty -- over a tiny portion of the West Bank, which essentially meant that they became responsible only for maintaining order over a population seething in grueling poverty and despair. While Israeli analysts saw this arrangement as more manageable than direct Israeli military rule over masses of Palestinians, it was clear that a peace process that did not provide justice and self-determination to a long-suffering people was unlikely to provide much peace either.

Why did Arafat accept this raw deal on behalf of his people? It appears that Arafat was more interested in being the ruler of a Palestinian State, whatever its condition, than in continuing to seek a just solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Since his return to Palestine in the wake of the Oslo process, Arafat has ruled the Palestinian Authority with a brutally authoritarian fist and, despite some public posturing, has made further concessions to the Israeli government -- most notably giving up the refugees' right of return, something demanded by the U.N. since 1949, and the Palestinian claim to any part of Jerusalem. In so doing, Arafat has further alienated himself from the Palestinian people, who no longer see him as a brave freedom fighter but as a corrupt collaborator.

And what of the other players focused upon by the mainstream media? Ariel Sharon, who has received some criticism in the press, is no stranger to being vilified, or more precisely to being a villain. He is best-known for his role in Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, where -- as even the Israeli Kahan commission found -- he bore indirect responsibility for the indiscriminate slaughter of hundreds of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. He has long been an opponent of any negotiations with Palestinians and rejects any Israeli territorial concessions. Perhaps his visit to Haram al Sharif last week was intended as a provocation to thwart any progress in the peace process (though no real progress was in the offing); perhaps he saw an opportunity to bloody some more Palestinians; or perhaps it was all part of a maneuver to secure his leadership of Likud against a challenge from former Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. But the exact mix of motives here doesn't really matter. No one could possibly have doubted that going to Haram al Sharif and proclaiming it eternal Israeli territory would ignite a firestorm.

As for Prime Minister Ehud Barak, also a former general and the leader of the Labor Party, he is portrayed in the press as a pursuer of peace, willing to make concessions on important issues. But his fundamental position allows no compromise. In 1998, Barak declared that Labor has a "set of red lines which it will under no circumstances cross.... A united Jerusalem must remain under full and unequivocal Israeli sovereignty; most of the population of the settlements will remain under Israeli rule in large settlement blocs; under no circumstances will we return to the 1967 lines" (Jerusalem Post, 13 May 1998, p. 1). So whatever other concessions Barak might be willing to entertain, any that might offer the Palestinians real justice has been automatically excluded.

What role did Barak have in Sharon's decision to go to Haram al Sharif? All indications are that Barak knew of Sharon's visit before it occurred. The extent to which Barak would have been able to prevent the visit had he so desired is not clear, but there is no evidence that Barak had any such desire. In recent weeks, even before the latest outbursts of violence, as Barak's support in the Israeli Knesset (parliament) had been waning, there had been rumors that he was seeking to form a coalition government with Sharon's Likud Party. His inaction did nothing to belie these rumors. In any event, however, the role Barak played in Sharon's visit is less important than Barak's overall role in the latest violence. In addition to his support for a peace process that offers no justice and thus no peace, it is he and his Cabinet who are ultimately responsible for the Israeli military's vicious lack of restraint during this past week: the killing of an unarmed, cowering 12-year-old boy, the killing of an ambulance driver who tried to save the boy, the killings of dozens of others (more than seventy at this writing), the maiming of many hundreds of others, the tank and helicopter gunships blasting apartment buildings.

As for Arafat's role in the latest violence, he can be viewed as the initiator only to the extent that his role in the Oslo process has made conditions in the occupied territories ripe for violence. What has inflamed the Palestinians -- and world opinion, at least outside Washington -- was the provocation of Sharon and the bloody actions of the Israeli military; no orders from Arafat were needed to bring thousands of enraged Palestinians into the streets. On the other hand, while not indicating a causal relationship as many of Israel's supporters have argued, it must be acknowledged that given Israel's savage history with respect to the Palestinians, Arafat might have anticipated this sort of Israeli over-reaction, perhaps allowing him to regain some of his lost credibility and putting some international pressure on the Barak government. But neither Arafat's attempts to keep up with Palestinian popular sentiment nor the occasional mindless excesses by some frustrated Palestinians (such as the trashing of Joseph's tomb, a Jewish holy place) change the basic situation: what has transpired in these past two weeks has been a legitimate, indigenous response to the denial of Palestinian rights, Israel's brutal occupation, and Arafat's capitulation.

What will come of this latest violence is unclear. Certainly the dire poverty in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the repression by Arafat's police, and the hopelessness of the Oslo process are factors which make another intifada possible. And Barak has made clear how he would answer any such uprising: the Israeli military would use "all means at their disposal" and they would do so "[e]ven if it is against the whole world." (Karin Laub, Laura King, both AP, 7 Oct. 2000) And indeed Israel is unlikely to concern itself with international pressure as long as the United States continues to flak for Israeli barbarism. U.S. officials may work to quiet outbursts of violence, but they still fail to insist that Israel offer justice to the Palestinians. Peace and justice in the Middle East will never occur until Washington stops giving Israel a blank check. And that will require decisive action by the American people.

Alex R. Shalom spent five months in 1998 studying in Jordan, Israel, and Palestine; Stephen R. Shalom teaches political science at William Paterson University.

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