Snow fell seven times on the hill towns north of Jerusalem this past winter, and the warmth of spring did not come until after the middle of April. But the welcome spring did not bring relief from the harshness of the Israeli occupation. In the town centers, Israeli troops were a constant reminder of the military authority, fingering their machine guns, one member of the unit holding a radio with an enormous whip antenna, ready to summon further forces at a moment’s notice. There are now more soldiers than before—on the hilltops, on the roads, in the squares, patrolling, lounging, harassing. The fines are higher, the jail sentences are longer, restrictions are tighter on personal movement, censorship of newspapers is more onerous.

Then there are the settlements. In the serenely beautiful hilly countryside of the West Bank, the old Palestinian villages and towns—some of them more than a thousand years old—nestle comfortably amid the olive groves and the reddish rocky fields. Across the valley, on a commanding hilltop, the earth is torn by a large construction site ringed with barbed wire and guard towers. The military, on behalf of the settlers, appropriates the town’s fields and threatens its water supply. There are now 75 settlements here in the West Bank, and 12 more in Gaza. Some 19 additional ones are under construction, and many others are planned. While most of these are built to house only a few dozen families, some are becoming small cities: Efrat, Ma’ale Adumim, Ariel, Kiryat Arba, Ramot, not to mention the vast construction on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem, territory already annexed and under intense “Judaization.”

Resistance and Negotiation

The soldiers represent the classic occupation authority; the settlements represent the specially threatening quality of this occupation, with its urge to displace the indigenous Palestinian population. The invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 1982, by most Israeli accounts, was merely a step in a larger strategy to break resistance in the West Bank and Gaza and to expand rapidly Jewish settlement there, accomplishing a de facto annexation of the West Bank and Gaza.

There are a number of factors, regional and international, which constrain the possibilities for developing a strategy of resistance to this grand theft and dispossession. First and foremost are the policies of the key Arab states—Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. King Hussein’s regime still has economic and political ties with the West Bank, and this acts as a conduit to the territories for some of the regional pressures. These are in turn affected by what the US and the Soviet Union choose to do in the region.

The Palestine National Council meeting in Algiers this February produced a minimal consensus which kept the Palestinian movement united. Among its resolutions, the PNC “affirm[ed] the need to work to build and develop a national front inside” the territories and “to double efforts to strengthen the steadfastness of our people inside the occupied homeland and to offer all the requisites for this steadfastness.” The meeting put special emphasis on the need “to put an end to enforced emigration and to preserve the land and develop the national economy.”

PNC members from the territories were banned from traveling to attend the meeting by the Israelis. Those in the territories who support the PLO and oppose the “Jordanian option” were uneasy about the concept of confederation or “special relationship” with Jordan, which the PNC endorsed. Most admit, though, that there is little room for the PLO leadership to maneuver on this point; the destruction of the PLO infrastructure in Beirut leaves the movement little choice but to. pursue diplomatic routes for the time being, even negotiations with King Hussein.

Those negotiations had the effect of drawing much clearer distinctions between those who favor closer ties with Jordan and those adhering to the somewhat more ambiguous line of the PLO. The pro-Jordanians are a distinct minority. They are not organized as a political tendency, but rather exist as pockets of political influence among merchants and property owners and within the civil service and traditional village and urban leadership. They have benefited materially from the financial dispensations of the regime in Amman, and more recently the joint Jordanian-PLO committee set up to administer “steadfastness” funds. They have benefited politically from having a relatively clear idea of what they want: to enter negotiations via Jordan with the US and Israel, using US leverage to secure some minimal Israeli withdrawal.

There does not seem to be a similar clarity among the Palestinian nationalist forces, beyond the long term goal of self-determination via a Palestinian state. This primarily reflects the unfavorable regional balance of political forces for the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular. In the eyes of some West Bank political analysts, the right-wing Arab regimes are obviously not determined to use their resources and contacts in any concerted way to secure US pressure on Israel. In this situation, Arafat is unable to convince the left and rejectionist forces in the PLO to support his strategy. This leaves the Palestinian left effectively under Syrian tutelage, immobilized and unable to assert a strategy of its own. This dynamic, rather than Israel’s military victory in Lebanon, accounts for the marked strengthening of pro-Jordanian elements in the territories in recent months. These same observers understand the reasons why the PLO leadership rejected the deal Arafat had struck with Hussein: They see the purpose of the Reagan Plan as to draw the PLO into inconclusive negotiations which will fail, splitting the organization and leaving the US free to deal only with Israel and Jordan.

All tendencies agree that the inhabitants of the territories must play an important part in the present struggle and in any future settlement of the Palestine question. “People in the occupied territories have a central position because they are the people on the land,” says former National Guidance Council member Ibrahim Daqqaq. “But this also means that outsiders want to influence their decision-making.” At the same time, a feeling of isolation among those in direct confrontation with the Israelis is pervasive. The former mayor of Gaza, Rashad Shawwa, talks of having his “back to the wall,” while a prominent opponent of his, Gaza Red Crescent director Haydar ‘Abd al-Shafi, says that “there is no reason to be optimistic as to relief from Israeli pressure. With the present disarray in the Arab world, I am not confident that help can come from that quarter in the near future. We are all alone.”

The interaction between political forces specific to the occupied areas and those of the Arab states and the PLO operating outside is a sensitive question. Some PLO supporters here consider that this interaction has, up to now, been unsatisfactory. Since it is unlikely that local forces alone will prevail against the occupation, the chemistry of this interaction remains an important strategic issue, one where changes may well occur given the new dispersed state of the PLO. At this time, even supporters of the pro-PLO national movement in the territories describe it as being “in a critical situation.” Nationalist fronts in the territories have arisen periodically since the occupation began, and especially since 1970, but, as one commentator pointed out, the movement “inside” and “outside” has generally built itself by responding to circumstances rather than by creating them. Certainly most of these organizational efforts bear this hallmark. In attempting to function as open, mass movements they have suffered from constant attack by the occupation authorities.

The complications of the situation can be seen in the demise of the most recent, and in some ways most successful, of these efforts, the National Guidance Council. It was formed in 1978 at a conference in Jerusalem which pulled together an alliance comprising mainly mayors and municipal officials, trade unionists, clergy, intellectuals and professionals to oppose the Camp David accords and the “autonomy” project. It included representatives from both the West Bank and Gaza. It openly identified itself with the PLO, though the PLO did not officially recognize it as a collective local leadership. Despite certain weaknesses, it provided a minimum of coordination and consensus. For a while, this limited the fragmenting effects of party and external allegiances and presented a united front to the Israelis. At the same time, its non-clandestine form and the fact that many of its members were public figures made it very vulnerable to Israeli assaults. Despite its popularity in many quarters, terrorist attacks (such as those on mayors Shakaa and Khalaf), imposed exile (mayors Milham and Qawasma) and the imprisonment, house and town arrest of many others gradually reduced the effectiveness of the Council as a coordinating body. Even before its final demise in 1981, the Council had lost much of its force.

In the last two years, factional splits have again emerged as a result of disagreements over policy and out of personal rivalries. For instance, the West Bank trade union movement is now split and virtually paralyzed as far as positive political action is concerned. Israeli harassment, arrest and restriction of many unionists has been compounded by the rift between adherents of the Communist Party and some PLO elements on one side, and supporters of the right wing of Fatah and pro-Jordanians on the other.

Political Currents

The right has gained ground recently among the trade unions and the population at large not out of any broad enthusiasm for the Reagan Plan and the Palestinian relationship with Jordan, but simply because people are open even to a very imperfect solution to sixteen years of increasingly harsh occupation. Unfortunately, the left’s response has been limited largely to rejection of the Reagan Plan. It has not devised an alternative political program that can inspire popular imagination or organize people on a new basis. People have little confidence here in the hardline rhetoric from Damascus, or the Soviet missiles and advisers in Syria.

Of the political currents and organizations in the territories, Fatah is today by far the strongest. After Fatah come the Communist Party and the Democratic Front, and lastly the Popular Front, which finds its strongest support among students. Of course, all are outlawed and must operate clandestinely. Jails are full of their cadres, and others suspected of being involved with them are harassed and placed under house arrest. In spite of this repression, they are the only political organizations with serious followings. The pro-Jordanian current will acquire a significant level of support only if a deal with Hussein develops. As for the collaborators of the Village Leagues, they have no independent existence apart from the occupation authorities.

The political organizations, unable to act in their own names, put forward their lines within various legalized entities. The municipalities were the most important until 1982, but now their destruction as democratic institutions is virtually complete. Unions, professional associations, student groups and local cultural and sports organizations have thus become arenas for political competition and mobilization.

The Student Movement

The students are by far the most highly politicized constituency. Brave, sometimes even reckless, they have been the spearhead of confrontation between the Palestinian community and the Israeli army and settlers. The universities have been main centers of resistance, and the military has shut them down on many occasions. (Birzeit University was closed for a total of seven months in the 1981-1982 academic year.) The universities have some international support from academics in Europe and the US, and even from within Israel. This places the authorities under some restraints which they do not face elsewhere, and has made the struggles around the universities so highly charged and important to the broader struggle. Here too, though, political work has been hampered by splits among the different parties and tendencies.

Interestingly, the Birzeit campus preserved its quiet during the clashes this spring, although 10 and 11 year-old students at a school in Birzeit village built stone barricades and burned tires. Birzeit University has often been called a “barometer” of nationalist sentiment in the West Bank, based on the fact that the student body is a fairly representative cross-section of Palestinian society. But the image of the barometer does not suffice to describe the university’s relation to the wider community, the internal dynamics of the institution, or the role of the student movement in the occupied territories. The curious absence of demonstrations this spring likely reflected the weight that student activists gave to the strategic necessity of keeping the university open for both political and academic reasons. Student leaders voiced such concerns clearly on March 26, after a night raid on Birzeit village by the army in which six students were arrested and more than 50 were forced to stand for seven hours with their hands held high. The speakers urged their fellow students to remain calm, arguing that the army wanted to provoke an incident to close the university.

The vitality and centrality of the student movement in the occupied territories has its problematic side—namely, the difficulty of mounting a more general and sustained mobilization of the population. To be sure, commercial strikes abound; prisoners’ strikes are courageous hallmarks in the history of the resistance; populations of refugee camps display time and again powers of endurance and organization in the face of harsh curfews. Nonetheless, an observer here has the strong impression that a sizable portion of the population sees itself as onlookers (albeit sideline supporters) of youthful protesters burning tires, raising flags and throwing stones. Indeed, the limited arsenal of tactics for youthful protestors is yet another problem—especially as stone throwing has achieved an almost iconographic significance both in the minds of the military and the Israeli public. The Israeli debate about “What to do about stone throwing” has some of the same virulent intensity as the 1950s discussion in the US concerning the most appropriate punishment for atomic bomb spies.

Students themselves are aware of the need to expand both tactics and their alliances with other sectors, but the task is formidable. In late March, they attempted to mount a broad-based peaceful march to besieged Jalazone refugee camp, then in its twenty-second day of curfew. Even young women students appeared at the rallying point, but not the religious and professional dignitaries called on to lead the march. The year since the municipalities were dissolved has taken its toll, and even the limited coordination once provided by the mayors has almost vanished. Local isolation—whether in Hebron or Nablus—undermines effective response to the continued provocation of militant settlers or expanding new settlements.

New Chief

The Israeli Civil Administration now has its third chief. To date, Shlomo Iliya has foregone the elaborate grandstanding and announcements of master plans so favored by his predecessors, Menachem Milson and Yigal Karmon. In a telling contrast to the media circus that accompanied the actions of Milson, the first civil administrator (who had a passion for Lawrence-of-Arabia style photographs in Bedouin encampments), very little information and few publicity photos about Iliya have appeared in the press. And unlike Karmon, who was sacked after his secret strategy to undermine pro-Jordanian figures in the West Bank was leaked to the press, Iliya’s overall strategy has not been revealed. Iliya, a senior career intelligence officer, clearly prefers the quieter, established techniques of his trade: targeting groups, disrupting or dividing them, gathering information and conducting arrests when necessary. Cooperation with Defense Minister Arens and other military officials seems much smoother. The military presence in West Bank towns has been more systematic and less inflammatory than in the most recent past.

Deceiving Prosperity Along with the trials of occupation, there is a certain deceiving prosperity in the occupied territories. Unemployment is low, and the GNP continues to grow in the 5 to 10 percent range each year. Most of this growth consists of settlement building and related infrastructure, such as roads, Arab “steadfastness’’ funds brought in from abroad, and remittances of Palestinian workers from Israel and other countries, such as those of the Gulf. With few exceptions, the local Palestinian economy is not itself becoming stronger or more productive. Though some 15 percent of the West Bank labor force is employed in “industry,” most of this is in tiny establishments employing less than three workers, including garages, quarries and carpentry shops. Only three factories have more than a hundred workers.

Nevertheless, since 1967 the occupation has brought about substantial changes in the socioeconomic structure of the territories, especially the West Bank. The impact has been greatest in the rural areas, where restrictions on land and water use, changing market conditions, available wage labor and other factors drew people off the land. The active West Bank labor force employed in agriculture has dropped from 45 percent in 1968 to just 26 percent in 1980. Agricultural production has continued to rise, though, due to mechanization, fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation. Despite the fact that Israeli expropriation of land and water has placed severe constraints on this expansion, agriculture represents a substantial, even slightly increasing share of the West Bank gross product, standing at 37 percent in 1980.

Wage work in Israel has drawn increasing numbers of people to become daily migrants to Israeli work sites, almost exclusively for unskilled and semi-skilled work in construction, industry, services and agriculture. Refugees from the camps were one important source of this labor, and marginal peasants were another. The proportion of the West Bank labor force thus employed rose to nearly 40 percent in 1980, and an additional 10 percent or more are employed on Israeli projects in the West Bank, including the construction of settlements.

The pattern of change is not uniform. The degree to which people have turned to wage labor in Israel depends on the village or town: its proximity to Israel, its prosperity and how many people have migrated elsewhere. At present, the existence of this large but fragmented work force from the West Bank and from Gaza in Israel has ambiguous effects, both social and political. In the rural areas (from which the majority of West Bank workers in Israel come) migrant work has loosened former dependence on the land as a source of livelihood and of prestige. But because migrants continue to live in their villages, this local identity has continued to be important.

In conventional class terms, this labor force can scarcely be identified as a proletariat, still having one foot in the countryside and one in the city or construction site. In Gaza, where most of the workers are refugees, they were divorced long ago from their means of production, but they remain dispersed and fragmented by their role as an underclass in Israel. While in some cases the process of working in Israel has increased political consciousness, organizing such a fragmented and often competitive work force for either political or economic purposes is very difficult. A few have joined West Bank trade unions, though these cannot represent workers’ interests in Israel. In these circumstances, the possibility of militant action, such as a general strike which would paralyze certain sectors of the Israeli economy, does not seem feasible. It would require substantial financial as well as political support and organization. Furthermore, this is not an environment in which people are widely accustomed to trade union action.

In Gaza, unions scarcely exist. In the West Bank where there is a General Federation of Workers, the dominance of nationalist over class sentiments also means that its members seldom take militant action against exploitative Palestinian employers. Unions act mainly as nationalist political organizations, and the ambiguity of their position remains. The General Federation covers small industries, some services and public institutions. The General Union of Professional Associations includes doctors, dentists, lawyers and others. There are separate associations for teachers in private schools. Israeli authorities have outlawed a union for teachers in government schools, but there is now an overall coordinating body of associations in the separate schools.

Men of Property

The seizure of land, restrictions on water use and ever increasing controls on trade in both agricultural and manufactured goods have also affected landowners and merchants, who as a group constituted the dominant class before the occupation. This is one reason, combined with the strength of nationalist feeling, why the Israelis have generally been unsuccessful in coopting more than a handful of this class. Economically they have not been offered sufficiently inviting terms to become a comprador bourgeoisie.

This group has strengthened already existing ties with Jordan. Landowners and merchants had begun exporting capital to Amman even before 1967, but in recent years, with the stagnation of industry, agriculture and most commerce in the territories, the trickle has become a flood. In many cases, political sympathies follow the same path. This stagnation has also affected the work prospects of the growing stratum of middle-class professionals who have exported their skills to other countries.

At the same time, it is true that the National Guidance Council drew its leadership from these groups. This confused class picture is the result of both the occupation and the sociocultural lag which is characteristic of rapid economic change. It is unlikely to be clarified in the short term. Politically, it combines with Israel’s hostility to any area-wide political organization to limit the development of national economic or social structures which could provide more continuity to the nationalist struggle.

Village Leagues

The demise of the National Guidance Council does not disguise the very high opposition to the occupation among most sectors of the population, especially the younger generation. The uprising of March and April 1982 was a demonstration of this. Another sign is the failure of the Israelis to recruit anti-PLO elements. Their most obvious essay in this direction was the creation, after 1978, of the so-called Village Leagues.

The original base of the Leagues was in the villages of the Hebron area, one of the poorest and least developed West Bank regions. Its first leader, the landowner Mustafa Dudin was the head of a renamed Union of Palestinian Leagues with six regional districts and an outspoken commitment to direct negotiations between Israel and “the Palestinian people” under the leadership of King Hussein. Leagues with six regional districts and an outspoken commitment to direct negotiations between Israel and “the Palestinian people” under the leadership of King Hussein.

The increased scope of the Leagues’ activities is the result of Israeli funding and arms. In their present form these activities stem from the ideas of the first civil administrator, Menachem Milson, who viewed the “conservative” countryside in the West Bank as a weapon which Israel could harness against the “radical” towns, led by the mayors and their municipalities. But while it is certainly true that the majority of more radical nationalist organizations have an urban base, the rapid increase in urban-rural contact, education and work which takes people outside the villages has sharply altered villagers’ perspectives. The decline in the power of landowning families had modified the clan or hamula model of Palestinian society so dear to the hearts of Israeli orientalists. It was very much on these assumptions that Milson based his formula.

The Leagues have used their arms to terrorize people. Their control over who gets various kinds of permissions necessary to daily life in the occupied territories—travel permits, drivers’ licenses, family reunion permits and so on—has given them a kind of power. Despite this, they have rarely succeeded in achieving any recognizable political base, except in a few areas like Dudin’s where clan structures are still strong. Three of their leaders have been murdered, but the main problem in making them a credible political force is that present Israeli policies do not permit the Leagues to call for even the most minimal program beyond Begin’s version of “autonomy.” The leader of the Hebron League, Muhammad Nasir, was recently fired because he leaned publicly toward the Egyptian version. Even Mustafa Dudin has clashed with the Israelis over his puppet status. The people whom the League can now recruit are socially marginal and politically ostracized, in it for the money or to square a few grudges. Many are petty criminals whom the Israelis have released on condition that they join the Leagues. In Gaza, where there are many camp dwellers and few villagers, the League idea is even more problematic. There the Israelis have attempted to establish a “union of mukhtars” in Gaza town. They have also tried to recruit people in the camps, but with little success.

The Israelis have also tried to use the current of Islamic fundamentalism which grew in the territories in the wake of the Iranian revolution, particularly among young people and students. The authorities obviously hoped that these forces could be used against the “secular” nationalists and leftists. The fundamentalists enjoyed a period of considerable activity, especially in Gaza, but the contradictions in their position weakened their support. This is particularly true in the West Bank student movement. Open clashes with nationalist supporters on the campus of al-Najah University in Nablus made it clear that their anti-communist fervor was visibly playing into Israeli hands. They subsequently lost ground in student elections at al-Najah, Birzeit and Hebron Polytechnic. They were not even able to make much political capital out of the recent attempt by Jewish religious extremists to establish a symbolic settlement in the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem, though this was an event which deeply affected the sensibilities of a wide range of people.

In Gaza, the fundamentalists are certainly in a stronger position, and the Israelis have allowed the establishment of an Islamic university there, while denying permission to those who wished to establish a secular university. There are now apparently deep divisions among both staff and students at this university, both as to the kind of educational institution it should be and the question of how far religious priorities override nationalist ones.

Jordan and the PLO

From 1978 to 1982, when the Israelis cut most channels of funding from outside, there was a substantial inflow of funds to the territories both from the money agreed to at the 1978 Baghdad summit to promote “steadfastness” in the territories, and from the 1979 “twinning” of occupied territories’ municipalities with those of oil-rich Arab states. While the stagnation of the economy and the paucity of services provided by the Israelis made the money welcome, many observers are now very critical of the manner in which it was allocated and the political effects that it had. The most obvious form of pressure on the use of these funds came from the Israelis who would give or refuse permission for implementation at will. The criteria on which these judgements were made were clearly political rather than developmental.

In addition, the Jordanians saw the steadfastness funds as a means of increasing pro-Jordanian sentiment which had been on the wane since the municipal elections of 1976. Even once a joint Jordanian-PLO committee was set up to allocate the funds, observers say it was the Jordanians who pulled the most weight in decision making. Some leftists in the territories are critical of how the PLO chose its recipients: Far too much of the money, they say, was used to support the “steadfastness” of members of the merchant and entrepreneurial stratum whose politics were distinctly on the right of the nationalist movement, and far too little was allocated to projects which would strengthen the will to stay put of the broader mass of people. This situation was rendered all the more ambivalent by the PLO-Jordanian rapprochement in 1981-1982.

The National Guidance Council had little or no control over how these politically important funds were allocated, and some members of the Council feel in retrospect that this was part of a lack of understanding or of common perspective between the Council and the PLO outside the territories. Others sympathetic to the Council criticize the style of political mobilization practiced both by the PLO and by nationalists in the territories. They argue that they still relied too heavily on the selection of traditionally influential personalities as a way to achieve mass mobilization.

The Israelis have now, through a series of military orders, made it far more difficult to bring money into the country. Israel has also demanded recently that all funds should go through a central “development” fund under its control. Observers believe the Israelis will not impose blanket bans on funds, but will continue to allow aid to come in selectively, facilitating those sectors which they consider serve their interests. These financial maneuvers have some influence on the balance of economic and political power in the territories.

Present Circumstances

In the West Bank and Gaza Strip today, there is doubt as to whether a “wall-to-wall” national front can be created in the present circumstances. Certainly the municipalities—one element in the previous coalition—will not be allowed by the Israelis to reconstitute themselves. Perhaps the most positive developments of the last two years have come from the strengthening of locally based voluntary organizations and women’s associations. Though these still tend to compete as much as they cooperate, they have managed to reach a wider range of people than in the past. Students at schools and institutes of higher education still provide a backbone of activism, even if their political tactics are not always well thought out. Large numbers of young people, many of them no more than teenagers, now pass through and sometimes spend considerable periods of time in Israeli jails. Many point to this as a politically educative process which, however unpleasant, forms a more mature attitude toward political action.

The violent activities of the Jewish settlers and the Village Leagues are also serving to unite people, making them determined to fight back against the arbitrary break-ins, beatings and shootings. Insofar as the intention of the settlers is to scare people out of the country, there is now less likelihood that these tactics will succeed. This is especially true now that the Palestinians have fewer places to run, with Lebanon closed, the Gulf states less willing or able to accept them and Jordan cutting back on entry as well.

The Lebanon war and conditions in the occupied territories have also contributed to strong feelings of anger against Israel among Palestinians within the pre-1967 borders. Formal political ties between them and those in the occupied areas are still limited, but the degree of shared hostility against the Israelis seems to be increasing. This is particularly true in the Galilee, where the land expropriation is also continuing.

The courage of the population in the occupied territories over the last few years has been remarkable. The national movement faces a crisis now not because the population feels defeated, but because the destruction of the PLO infrastructure in Lebanon has inevitably grave consequences that have yet to be fully experienced or evaluated. In this situation, the ability of the PLO to develop and sustain a political initiative is vital. When the collapse of Jordanian-Palestinian negotiations was announced here, even those opposing such talks were chilled by the consequences of a potential political vacuum. Few here are able to project an optimistic scenario in the short term. The great majority are determined nonetheless to defend the remaining Palestinian institutions and land with all their capabilities and strength.

How to cite this article:

Sarah J Graham-Brown "Report from the Occupied Territories," Middle East Report 115 (June 1983).

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