It was only one of the hundreds of incidents that cumulatively have come to be known as “the uprising.” Here there were no beatings or shootings, no bloodshed, and, as far as I know, no one was arrested. In fact, compared with the dramatic events we have been witnessing nightly on the evening news, this was such a tame one-act drama that even the participants may have by now forgotten that it took place. But on a Sunday morning in early January, when the uprising was about a month old, an incident took place just outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City that imparted a certain clarity to me about the nature and significance of the events of the past months.
Seven or eight Israeli soldiers, looking very young and not a little edgy, were patrolling near Herod’s Gate. Suddenly the inevitable stones, thrown by small boys perched atop the Old City’s walls, began raining down on the patrol. The soldiers, having positioned themselves on the median strip of the road that parallels the wall, began to fire tear gas canisters in the general direction of the boys. Some of the canisters went over the wall, creating God knows what kind of havoc in the narrow streets of the Old City. Others crashed into the wall and fell harmlessly onto the grassy area at its base. A Palestinian driver who had been overcome by the gas pulled unsteadily over to the curb and emerged from his car, wiping his eyes. And on the street corners surrounding this little tableau, small groups of young Palestinian men had gathered. They watched and, quite unselfconsciously, began to laugh.
Having experienced the despair of the residents of the Occupied Territories during earlier visits, I was struck by this change in the Palestinian attitude. The uprising has become more than an expression of desperation. Indeed, as a Palestinian leader in Damascus put it, the uprising is a referendum against despair itself. Somehow, in taking up the “philosophy of the stone,” the Palestinians have forced a shift in the psychological power balance between oppressor and oppressed. It is now the Israelis who are frantically casting about for an effective strategy — first shootings, then beatings, then both, then media bans — while the Palestinians, acting with the bravado and the confidence of people who have nothing to lose and their own self-respect to gain, are calling the tune. Hence the laughter of the young men on the street corners.
I was reminded of a conversation a colleague and I had with an Iranian diplomat two years ago. This man had been a local organizer of mass demonstrations during the Iranian revolution. “How,” we asked, “did you succeed against the Middle East’s second most powerful army, supported by the world’s most powerful state?” “We didn’t try to succeed.” And then he went on to say, unfairly I thought, that “the Palestinians in all their strategizing have tried to succeed, and they have consistently failed. If they were simply faithful in their resistance to oppression, God would give them the victory.” (When I repeated this to a prominent Palestinian, he replied, “What he means is that we have tried to be reasonable, and so we have failed.”)
However one might characterize past Palestinian efforts to regain their homeland, it is clear that there is a new element in the current uprising that has enlisted broad support throughout the Palestinian populace. Some Western correspondents have suggested that the same religious fervor that motivated the Iranian revolution has influenced the Palestinians. Similarly, the cover of a recent issue of a generally pro-Iranian publication, Afkar (Inquiry), reads, “Palestine: The Return to Islam.”
Given the fact that “radical Islam” has replaced communism as the ideology Americans most love to hate, it is not surprising that Israeli officials and some of the more ardent supporters of Israel in the US have also taken to this analysis. Reading their ads and op-ed pieces, one would assume that “Khomeinism” is the major factor behind the revolt and that Israel, in putting down the revolt, “however regrettable the suffering and loss of human life,” is fulfilling its role as the West’s bulwark against alien and hostile ideologies in the Middle East. Cynthia Ozick has even gone so far as to dredge up allegations that Yasser Arafat once belonged to the Muslim Brothers, suggesting that the PLO’s commitment to a secular democratic state in Palestine is so much smoke and mirrors. Ozick conveniently does not mention that until recently Israel was attempting to strengthen Palestinian Muslim groups as a foil to the nationalist PLO.
Islamic sentiments have clearly played an important role in the uprising, particularly in Gaza. There the minarets have served admirably as a public address system, and the mosque has been a focal point for political organization. The most influential of the groups seems to be the Islamic Jihad, which has committed itself to cooperation with the nationalists. The Muslim Brothers, on the other hand, whose pan-Islamic ideology militates against nationalism, are regarded as a marginal force.
It is also true that Iran’s revolution had an impact far beyond its borders, not least among Palestinians who were impressed by the ability of the Iranians to expel both an oppressive monarch and an overbearing superpower. Admiration for this feat is not limited to the Islamists, however. Despite the fact that most Palestinians regard the Iran-Iraq war as an obscene waste of Arab political, economic and military resources, and although they hold Iran generally responsible for prolonging the war, some Palestinians nevertheless applaud the Iranian victories. One, who happens to be a Christian, told me that, “Any time those corrupt Arab rulers are embarrassed, I secretly cheer.” The role of the Islamist forces in the resistance against the Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon, as well as the alliance of the Lebanese Hizballah with the Palestinians besieged in the camps, also impressed Palestinian activists in the Occupied Territories.
The enhanced role of Islam in the region, however, does not explain the intensity and persistence of the uprising. Christians as well as Muslims have participated in the struggle, often from an unashamedly Christian perspective and institutional base. On January 22, for example, the heads of the churches in Jerusalem issued a statement, subsequently censored by the Israeli authorities, calling for a week of prayer and a day of fasting in solidarity with those in the Occupied Territories who experience “brutal repression and deep human suffering.”
Further, although much attention has been directed to the weekly demonstrations in the al-Aqsa mosque compound, there have also been frequent demonstrations following worship at the Church of the Resurrection (Holy Sepulchre) and at the churches in Ramallah. During one of the Ramallah processions an Episcopalian priest was badly beaten by Israeli soldiers. When Israeli authorities announced their intention to expel nine Palestinian activists, one local priest exclaimed, “I’m ashamed that there are no Christians on the list.” Strong Christian support for the uprising goes unmentioned by the Israeli authorities and their American apologists, presumably because mentioning it would call attention to the significant Christian presence in Palestine and because it would detract from the anti-Islamic thrust of Israeli propaganda.
Religion plays its part in the uprising not because Palestinians have joined some regionwide Islamic revolution, but because religion is an integral factor in people’s lives. Religious institutions have survived better than others the efforts by the occupation regime to destroy authentic Palestinian secular institutions. Also, both Christianity and Islam carry a potentially revolutionary message. A Christian priest who is in close contact with Muslim sheikhs points out many of the Muslim leaders in the Occupied Territories and in Israel itself have served sentences in Israeli prisons. In those prisons often the only reading material permitted for Muslims is the Qur’an. They apply the Qur’anic call for justice and opposition to oppression to the existential reality of the Palestinians. This lends the uprising some of its extraordinary fervor.
But the people who have been most responsible for the uprising are not the Muslim activists, nor are they the PLO leaders in diaspora. Conversations with PLO leaders in Nicosia, Damascus and Amman convinced me that they were as surprised as anyone by the intensity and the durability of the uprising. No, the people most responsible for the uprising are the Israelis and their American patrons. For the uprising has made it clear that there can be no such thing as a benign occupation. The “new element” in the Palestinian consciousness is the realization that, following the Amman summit and after the quiet demise of seemingly countless American “peace plans,” the only people who can bring the occupation to an end are the Palestinians themselves.
Nor is this a revolt stemming from the appalling “quality of life” in the Occupied Territories. This argument places the onus of responsibility for the Palestinian plight on the Arab states and on an unresponsive and insensitive PLO leadership. A recent full-page B’nai Brith ad in the New York Times, for instance, claims that an Israeli effort to provide better housing for Gaza camp residents has been foiled in the UN by the Arab states and by a PLO leadership that wants to keep the refugees miserable. Not mentioned, of course, is that the resettlement plan was part of an Israeli effort to “thin out” the Palestinian population in Gaza for “security” purposes.
The Arab states surely are blameworthy — they have often preferred to manipulate rather than to try to solve the Palestinian issue; and not even the most loyal PLO supporter will argue that the organization has been well-led. But the real issue is political sovereignty and liberty.
My colleagues and I had a discussion with several leading Palestinian educators in which the recurring question was: “Is there a shift in American public opinion?” Afterward, a young Palestinian scholar took me aside and said, “Most of us no longer give a damn about American TV and American public opinion. We’re tired of waiting for the Americans. It’s enough that we resist.” The heirs of the American revolution ought to be able to understand that.