Driving through the West Bank on Land Day, March 30, we pull to the side of the road outside Balata refugee camp, on the outskirts of Nablus. In the valley, two bulldozers move slowly against the backdrop of the Nablus hills, plowing a new road through wheatfields. Spring has come early this year, and in the heady sunlight we make our way through the knee-high wheat to ask two burly Israeli soldiers, clearly enjoying their duty of guarding the bulldozers, why the authorities were building a new road parallel to two existing roads.

”Security,” says one with a grin. He follows this with a cheerful command to a young Palestinian farmer and his mother standing silently by to “bring coffee.” They ignore this “request” and move away to their nearby house. We follow to talk with them. The road, a bypass route to allow Elon Moreh settlers to avoid Balata camp, plowed through a portion of this family’s olive orchards and wheat fields. We could see the uprooted trees. Yes, a lawyer had appealed to the High Court. No, the village mukhtar didn’t help much; he was in the local Village League. Yes, they know today is Land Day.

Journalists and researchers in the West Bank have told this tired story many times over the last few years. Even Queen Elizabeth is in the know after Crown Prince Hassan briefed her with maps and pointer on the tightening noose of settlements around Arab towns in the West Bank and the urgent priority of “saving the land” that is left in Arab hands. The political debate behind this oft-told tale has lately taken on the curiously narrow focus of “timetables.” One position (Meron Benvenisti, some Israeli peaceniks, some Palestinian “rejectionists”) holds that it is “too late,” that de facto annexation has taken place. Others, such as Elias Freij and similar pro-Jordanian forces, and the infamous “Arabists” in the State Department, maintain that it is “five minutes ’til midnight.” Still another reading here is that “facts” are always reversible; the Sinai withdrawal has shown that politics are in command.

The point of this debate is certainly relevant, but the framework distorts the discussion. Any political solution that alters the status of the West Bank can not include a magical reversion to the Palestine of pre-occupation years, let alone to the somewhat mythologized peasant society of Palestinian memory. At the same time, a political strategy to resist the occupation cannot consist only of defining the terms of a political settlement. Some Palestinians here think the national movement may be making this mistake today.

Palestinians in the West Bank have recently witnessed once again the rise and fall of the “Jordanian option.” If nothing else, it at least provided viewers of Jordan’s English-language television news with the sight of Palestinian students in the West Bank chanting slogans against King Hussein. In its broadcast of a February 12 press conference at Birzeit University protesting the Israeli military’s closure of Birzeit’s old campus, the editors apparently failed to notice that students were raising slogans against the Jordanian monarch rather than the Israeli occupier. Despite this diverting episode, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat completed his second round of talks with King Hussein. Response here was restricted, for the most part, to circulating petitions. Palestinians in the occupied territories feel like they have been sitting in a waiting room since the Lebanon war. They witness many “events” but seem to conclude that nothing of substance is happening. Whether this reflects their absence as participants or their prescience of yet another stalemate from all this bustle is not clear. Currently the stalemate interpretation prevails, as King Hussein raises high the anti- American banner and the US presidential campaign once again persuades the Arab heads of state to wait for the mythical second-term president who will break free from the clutch of vicious lobbies to make peace in the Middle East while distributing arms to his worthy Arab allies.

Here in the occupied territories, and one suspects in the Palestinian diaspora as well, internal conflicts have posed problems of strategy which may have more significance for the course of the Palestinian movement than the well- televised embraces and pronouncements of the king and the chairman. The common media assumption that the West Bank is “pro-Arafat” is almost indisputably true. Recent student council elections, for instance, installed solidly pro-Arafat factions in power in three of four West Bank universities. But this support is not necessarily available for Arafat to draw upon like a Swiss bank account, and probably no one is more aware of this than the chairman. For example, he turned aside the appeal of the 40 Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza who traveled to Jordan during his talks with Hussein to present a petition pushing for a Jordanian mandate to “save the land,” despite the fact that the delegation was hand-picked by an allied member of the PLO Executive Committee. Al-Fajr, which supports Arafat, later printed the appeal on the front page, apparently to target the signators, who were strikingly unrepresentative in the eyes of the community here.

In January, mainstream pro-Arafat mass organizations (women, students, professionals) joined in an uneasy alliance with more leftist organizations in a number of forums and statements to condemn any attempt by Jordan to present itself as an alternative to the PLO by such steps as reconstituting the king’s “rotting parliament.” These alliances are under great strain from both sides: the left would like to see a more explicit condemnation of Arafat’s maneuvers, while the right supports a more powerful mandate for the chairman and his policies. Both maintain a fitful unity, knowing that the fateful decisions to determine whether the PLO will split officially will be taken “outside.” At the same time, the only intact part of Palestinian society on Palestinian land is where the bases of power are at stake.

The visible pro-Jordanian forces in the West Bank rest less in the organized political groups than in certain sectors of society — most notably the landlords and businessmen whose villas, partly built by “steadfastness” funds from the Palestinian-Jordanian Joint Committee, dot the hills of West Bank towns. Their version of “saving the land” thus has a rather personal interpretation. This does not diminish Jordan as a factor in West Bank politics. Despite significant political and economic “delinking” with Jordan over the past 17 years, considerable economic ties, and thus political influence, still exist. In recent weeks, with the revival of the Joint Committee, Jordan has extended its patronage by easing export restrictions to the Gulf for West Bank produce and announcing 1,500 new scholarships for West Bank students.

The currently low level of popular mobilization favors increased Jordanian influence. For example, there was little popular response when fanatic settlers attacked an Arab bus near Ramallah and wounded six workers on March 6, or when a spate of bombs were found in recent months in Arab schools. If the nationalist movement fails to act visibly and strongly to such attacks, people begin to feel that “anything is better than the Israelis” — including King Hussein.

The struggle between left and right Palestinian forces has surfaced on other occasions as well, most notably when Islamic fundamentalists attacked a February 19 rally at Al Najah University commemorating the founding of the Palestinian Communist Party. The authorities then shut the university for over a month. More significant than the attack, or even the strength of the fundamentalists, is the fact that the institution itself, and all the various forces it represents, have been unable to restrain the fundamentalist and inter-student violence. In other words, the center does not hold.

The main political division is in the ranks of the nationalist movement itself, and it is deepening. In the West Bank, a vigorous component of the nationalist movement is the communists. Despite their prominent role, though, they have been excluded from the PLO Executive Committee. This division between left and right forces remains a bitter fact of political life here and runs through most of the institutions and political organizing in the West Bank and Gaza today. Its resolution, even temporary, depends partially on outside alliances. Although national unity remains the watchword here, polarization is increasingly the reality.

Some political optimists here on the left posit that such a polarization is certainly due, as the failure of the PLO’s traditional consensus politics demands a new line and a new strategy. They have a point, but it can be argued that the left is equally bereft of such a program. Indeed, the right has been the launching pad for most political initiatives lately, whether the Jordanian rapprochement or openings to the Israeli Labor Party establishment. On March 17, some Palestinians in the occupied territories participated in a forum with Israeli Labor Party “doves” under the aegis of the International Center for Peace in the Middle East in Tel Aviv. The Palestinians who participated were quite careful to declare that they represented only themselves and that the “PLO is our only address.” The conference failed to match its rather grand conception, and one has the feeling that both sides promised more than they could deliver. Nonetheless, these initiatives are at least conscious fact-finding missions into sectors of the Israeli polity.

Some left groups pioneered contact and joint activity with the Israeli left, but they have not been consistent in developing a strategic component to this activity. The reasons are understandable: not least is the left’s weakened condition since 1975, with the dissolution of the Palestine National Front. The left finds itself too often in the unenviable position of “rejecting and condemning” political maneuvers rather than offering an alternative strategy. One problem, of course, is that the left rarely agrees amongst itself. In this regard, some people here are encouraged by the statement of four left groups, including the communists, issued in Aden last week.*

In many ways, the task of political organizations in the occupied territories has been a double bind: they are required to do everything (mobilize the resistance to Israeli occupation) while doing nothing (because initiative and leadership remain outside). If the Palestinian national movement resolves its immediate political crisis, it will also have to fashion a more comprehensive strategy that treats the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza in a less static manner.


* The Aden meeting brought together the Popular Front, the Democratic Popular Front, the Palestine Communist Party and the Palestine Liberation Front. It followed many months of negotiations and finally produced a joint statement stressing PLO unity based on the programs of the 14th and 16th Palestine National Councils. The statement criticized “the Cairo visit and the steps that followed it,” and called for a “collective leadership committed to the decisions of the PLO and its national line.” — Eds.

How to cite this article:

A Special Correspondent "Letter from the West Bank," Middle East Report 123 (May 1984).

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