The nineteenth session of the Palestine National Council, formally entitled the “intifada meeting,” was momentous and, in many great and small ways, unprecedented. There were fewer hangers-on, groupies and “observers” than ever before. Security was tighter and more unpleasant than during the 1987 PNC session, also held in Algiers; Algeria had just brutally suppressed its own intifada, so the presence of several hundred Palestinians and at least 1,200 members of the press was not especially welcomed by the Ben Jadid government, which paradoxically needed the event to restore some of its tarnished revolutionary luster.

This was also the shortest PNC meeting ever. Barely three and a half days long (November 12-15, 1988), it accomplished more by way of debate, discussion, resolutions and announcement than any Palestinian meeting in the post-1948 period. Above all, this PNC secured for Yasser Arafat the certainty of his place in Palestinian and world history for, as one member put it, “We’re not only living through a Palestinian revolution; it’s also Abu ‘Ammar’s revolution.”

None of the approximately 380 members came to Algiers with any illusion that Palestinians could once again get away simply with creative ambiguity or with solid affirmations of the need to struggle. The intifada’s momentum and its success in creating a clear civil alternative to the Israeli occupation regime necessitated a definitive PNC statement of support for the uprising as a relatively non-violent end-to-occupation movement. Together with an unambiguous claim for Palestinian sovereignty on whatever Palestinian territories were to be vacated by the occupiers, there also had to be an equally unambiguous statement on peaceful resolution of the conflict between Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews based on UN Resolutions 181 (partition), 242 and 338. In short, the PNC was asking of itself nothing less than emphatic transformation from liberation movement to independence movement. Jordan’s withdrawal of claims to the West Bank made the need for transformation urgent and compelling.

If you live in the US, participating in Palestinian discussions, debates and soul-searching reappraisals is particularly poignant. Palestinians meet rarely enough, given the widespread dispersion of our 5 million people, and the fact that we have no center, no territorial sovereignty of our own, makes our distance from most other Palestinians, in the midst of a US society whose government’s hostility to us seems limitless, a continuously frustrating experience. Tunis serves the role of occasional headquarters, but since Abu Jihad’s assassination Arafat’s presence has necessarily been fitful and erratic. Yet most of us in the PNC had made at least one trip there; many documents and drafts went via fax, express mail or the telephone. And the date of the PNC kept getting postponed; it was definitively set by late October, not without trepidation, since Algeria’s internal volatility remained high.

PNC members were to be quartered in bungalows adjacent to the enormous meeting hall set in a conference-cum-vacation center built by Ben Bella in 1965, approximately 30 miles west of Algiers. Four of us traveled together overnight to Paris from New York, transferred from de Gaulle to Orly airport, and arrived in Algiers at 2 pm on November 11. Ibrahim Abu-Lughod and I were driven off to one bungalow, only to find it already occupied; a second choice turned up the same fact, so we settled for a downtown hotel, which came to mean no hot food and hardly any sleep for three and a half days, as we commuted back and forth at the craziest hours.

Despite jet lag, we went back to the conference center late that Friday night to call on Arafat, who seemed involved in three concurrently running meetings. He was confident but looked tired. Everyone knew that this was his step — first to articulate, then to persuade everyone to take, then finally to choreograph politically. He handed me the Arabic draft of the declaration of statehood and asked me to render it into English. It had been drafted by committee, then rewritten by Mahmoud Darwish, then, alas, covered with often ludicrously clumsy insertions and inexplicable deletions. Later Darwish told me that the phrase “collective memory” had been struck by the Old Man because, we both opined, he took it for a poetic phrase. “Tell him it has a serious and even scientific meaning,” Darwish implored me, “maybe he’ll listen to you.” He didn’t, and I didn’t listen to Arafat when he wanted other phrases from other contexts inserted.

Significant Moment

Nobody was to see these texts until much later, and indeed perhaps the oddest part of this PNC — with its obsessive post-modern rhetorical anxieties — was how the two main documents (the declaration of statehood and the political resolutions) were discussed in public debates for hours on end without a piece of paper before us. After the opening ceremonies on Saturday the PNC divided itself into two committees, the Political and the Intifada. Arafat had the texts memorized, and Nabil Shaath, adroit chairman of the Political Committee, had them before him. All significant discussion about what we were doing took place in the riveting atmosphere of that committee, with speaker after speaker sounding off on what after all was the most significant political moment in Palestinian life since 1948. Words, commas, semicolons and paragraphs were the common talk of each recess, as if we were attending a convention of grammarians.

The heart of the discussions occurred in the speeches given late Sunday and mid-afternoon on Monday by George Habash and Abu Iyad (Salah Khalaf), the first an opponent of the by-now well-known substance of the political program, the second Arafat’s key supporter and one of the main leaders of Fatah. Habash’s express reservations concerned the clear acceptance of 242 and 338, resolutions unfriendly to us not just because they treat us only as “refugees” but also because they contained an implicit pre-negotiating recognition of Israel. This, Habash said, was going too far too soon; there had been agreement that such tough issues as recognition, 242 and borders would be handled at the international conference. Why, Habash asked, was it so necessary to go forward on everything before the conference?

He spoke passionately and clearly, saying without hesitation that he and the Popular Front wished to remain within the PLO, no matter the outcome or the disagreements. To which, in a meandering and yet always fascinating speech, Abu Iyad responded by saying that decisions had to be made now, not only in the face of the discouraging realities of the Israeli elections but because our people needed an immediate, concrete statement of our goals. What clinched it for me as I listened to Abu Iyad was the logic of his thesis that decisive clarity was needed from us principally for ourselves and our friends, not because our enemies kept hectoring us to make more concessions.

Arafat remained throughout the debate, occasionally intervening, and yet maintaining his office, so to speak, from his seat in the house; an endless stream of secretaries, delegates, messengers and experts came to him and yet he seemed attuned to every phrase uttered in the hall. He had told me early on that he had planned the proclamation of independence to occur shortly after midnight, November 15, after a whole night’s debate on November 14. By about 9:30 pm on Monday, November 14, the political program had been passed by a large majority in the Political Committee, and immediately afterward the whole PNC was reconvened in plenary session. Habash and his supporters fought each sentence almost word by word on the crucial 242/338 paragraph, which was voted on in different forms half a dozen times. The somewhat garbled paragraph that resulted shows the effect of these battles in its ungainly phraseology, although the actual substance remains unmistakable.

At one point Arafat stood up and recited the entire program from memory, indicating (as the chair had not done) where the clause, sentence and paragraph breaks occurred, so that there could be no mistake about meaning, emphasis, conclusion. For the first time in PNC history, voting by acclamation was not going to be enough; Habash insisted on precise tallies, which emerged to his disadvantage, 253 for, 46 against, 10 abstaining. There was a sad nostalgia to what he represented, since in effect by voting against him we were taking leave of the past as embodied in his defiant gestures. The declaration ceremonies that closed the meetings were jubilant, and yet somehow melancholy.

About this break with the past there could be no doubt whatever. Every one of the great events in December 1988 — Arafat’s meeting in Stockholm with five leading American Jews, his speech at the UN in Geneva and the press conference that followed, his explicit recognition of Israel, the beginning of a US-PLO dialogue — was made possible by the PNC’s decisions and the break with the past. To declare statehood on the basis of Resolution 181 was, first of all, to say unequivocally that a Palestinian Arab state and an Israeli state should coexist together in a partitioned Palestine. Self-determination would therefore be for two peoples, not just for one. Most of us there had grown up with the reality (lived and remembered) of Palestine as an Arab country, refusing to concede anything more than the exigency of a Jewish state, won at our expense in the loss of our land, our society and literally uncountable numbers of lives. A million and a half of our compatriots were under brutal military occupation (as we met, the entire population of Gaza, 650,000 people, were under total curfew), fighting tanks and armed soldiers with rocks and an unbending will. For the first time also, the declarations were implicitly recognizing a state that offered us nothing whatever, except the by now empty formulas of Camp David, or the openly racist threats of population “transfer.”

Clear Principles

The declaration of statehood spelled out principles of equality, mutuality and social justice far in advance of anything in the region. Call them idealistic if you will, but better that than the remorseless sectarianism and xenophobia with which Palestinians have had to contend for these five decades. Then too the principle of partition was asserted, not the territories specified in the 1947 UN resolution. All of us felt that since Israel had never declared its boundaries, we could not declare ours now; better to negotiate the question of boundaries with Israel and a confederal relationship with Jordan directly with both than to spell them out fruitlessly in advance. There was no doubt, however, that we were in fact discussing the territories occupied in 1967.

Secondly, there was absolute clarity in speaking of a peaceful settlement to the conflict. “Armed struggle” does not appear in the binding resolutions. Central to the resolutions is a long and awkward sentence endorsing the international peace conference based on “UN Resolutions 242 and 338.” The language surrounding acceptance of the UN resolutions is a statement of the obvious, not a reservation about acceptance. For example, representation by the PLO on an equal footing with other parties, the aegis of the Security Council, the implementation of 242 and 338, the centrality of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people: All these are mentioned as the context, the history, the Palestinian interpretation of what we were accepting. This was especially necessary since 242 and 338 say literally nothing about the political actualities of the Palestinian people, which in 1967 seemed scarcely evident except as the detritus of the Arab-Israeli June war.

Thirdly, the rejection of terrorism in all its forms (also asseverated in the Declaration) makes an emphatic distinction between resistance to occupation (to which Palestinians are entitled according to the UN Charter and international law) and indiscriminate violence meant to terrorize civilians. Note that no definition of terrorism exists today with validity and impartiality of application internationally. Yet the PNC took a step that is unusual in its attempt to distinguish between legitimate resistance and a proscribed indiscriminate violence by states or by individuals and groups. Also note that Israel has always arrogated to itself the right to attack civilians in the name of its security. These facts highlight the courage of what is ventured in the PNC statement.

Finally and most importantly, all the resolutions, however they are read, clearly intend willingness to negotiate directly. There are no disclaimers about the “Zionist entity” or about the legitimacy of Israeli representatives. All of the relevant passages about peace, partition, statehood in the 1964 Palestinian National Covenant are flatly contradicted by the 1988 PNC resolutions, which gives their statement added, not lesser, force. All the refusals, attacks and insults heaped on the Council’s results, both by Israel and the usual array of US “experts,” signifies consternation; clearly, the more Palestinians take responsible and realistic positions, the less acceptable they become, not just because Palestinians want peace but because official Israel does not know what to do when peace is offered. There is a dispiriting continuity here between the early days of Israel’s existence, when Ben-Gurion refused peace with the Arabs, and the all-out rejection trundled out today by Likud and Labor alike.

The point is not that the Council documents are perfect and complete, but that they must be interpreted as everyone in Algiers intended — as a beginning that signals a distinct break with the past, as an assertion of the willingness to make sacrifices in the interests of peace, as a definitive statement of the Palestinian acceptance of the international consensus. A few days before the Algiers meeting Sharon appeared on Italian television vociferating loudly about the need to kill Arafat. That no comparable sentiment was expressed about Israeli leaders anytime in Algiers is a fact that furnishes its own eloquent comment on the real difference now between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. These are dangerous times for Palestinians; the occupation will get worse, and assassinations and full-scale political war will intensify. For once, however, the record is unmistakable as to who is for peace, who for bloodshed and suffering. But the Palestinian campaign for peace must be joined, since sitting on the sidelines is no longer any excuse.

What is difficult either to understand or condone is how the US media — quite unlike the rest of the world — has internalized the rejectionism promulgated by the Israeli and US establishments. Far from reading the texts as they were meant to be read, commentators persisted in suggesting that whatever was said in the texts could not by definition be enough. On November 20 a New York Times editorial accused the Palestinians of “gamesmanship and murkiness” in Algiers, and George Will in the Washington Post said that for Israel the Algiers meeting was the equivalent of a "Final Solution." Two days earlier the egregious A. M. Rosenthal ranted on about "a cynical continuation of the Arab rejectionism of Israel." Why is Israel not asked whether it is willing to coexist with a Palestinian state, or negotiate, or accept 242, or renounce violence, or recognize the PLO, or accept demilitarization, or allay Palestinian fears, or stop killing civilians, or end the occupation, or answer any questions at all?

No More the Same

What so dramatically transpired after the Algiers PNC was also a direct result of the intifada, which in 1989 continues bravely in its second year. But if the political victories of the Palestinian people have been duly noted and even celebrated internationally, the profounder social and moral achievements of this amazingly heroic anti-colonial insurrection require fuller acknowledgement.

People do not find the courage to fight continually against as powerful an army as Israel’s without some reservoir, some deeply and already present fund of bravery and revolutionary self-sacrifice. Palestinian history furnishes a long tradition of these, and the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza have provided themselves generously from it. Yet what is new is the focused will, the creative and voluntary nature of the people themselves. There has been no easy resort to weapons, for example, and no exercise in noisy (if noble-sounding) rhetoric. Instead the leaflets of the intifada have been concise, concrete, and above all, implementable; each was a nida’, an appeal, and neither an order nor a pronouncement. Above all, what is most impressive is the sense that the intifada demonstrated of a collectivity or community finding its way together. The source of this is the organic nationhood that today underlies Palestinian life. For the first time Palestinians exposed themselves to it, allowed themselves to be guided by it directly, offered themselves to its imperatives. Instead of individuals and private interests, the public good and the collective will predominated. Leaders were never identified. Personalities were submerged in the group.

The intifada therefore accomplished a number of unprecedented things. In my opinion, the future of the Middle East as a whole is going to be influenced by them, and Palestine and Israel will never be the same again because of them. In the first place, collaborators with the occupation were encircled and gradually rendered ineffective, as the entire mass of people under occupation came together in a bloc that opposed occupation. Even the class of merchants and shopkeepers played a major role in this transformation. Secondly, the old social organizations that depended on notables, on family, on traditional hierarchy — all these were largely marginalized. A new set of institutions emerged, and in fields like health, education, food and water supply and agriculture these provided an alternative social organization to that dominated by the occupation regime. In short, the new alternative social situation that emerged was national, independent and the first step in the appearance of the Palestinian state announced formally in Algiers on November 15. Thirdly, the role of women was substantially altered. The Palestinian woman had been essentially a helper, a housewife, a secondary person in a male society, as is the case throughout the Arab and Muslim world. During the intifada, women came to the fore as equal partners in the struggle. They confronted Israeli (male) troops; they shared in decision-making; they were no longer left at home, or given menial tasks, but did what the men did, without fear or complexes. Perhaps it would be still more accurate to say that because of the intifada the role of men was altered, from being dominant to becoming equal.

These are momentous changes and, as I said, they will surely have an effect throughout the Middle East as the twentieth century advances towards its end. In the meantime, however, 1989 presents a more concrete challenge. In the immense and understandable wave of euphoria that swept the Palestinian and Arab world as the US-PLO dialogue began, a number of other things are worthy of concern and attention. The new Israeli government is composed of men whose hostility not just to Palestinian aspirations but to Palestinians as human beings is undying. Men like Rabin, Sharon, Netanyahu, Arens and Shamir are the inheritors of a tradition of uncompromising brutality and lying, in which all means are justified so long as the end — Israeli ascendancy at the expense of Palestinian life itself — can be assured. Under the influence of these men, the level of protests and of repression in the Occupied Territories increased significantly during the last six weeks of 1988.

Media Attention

On the other hand, the media has either been banned from reporting the facts or, as appears to be the case with the New York Times, has deliberately chosen to downplay the ugliness of what is taking place. To fire into a funeral procession and kill six people, to shoot at a group of men observing a moment of silence and kill three, to maim children, to put whole cities like Nablus and Gaza under 24-hour curfew for several consecutive days, to humiliate and beat people at random, to destroy houses — all these are sickening examples of an Israeli policy that has escalated its violence against Palestinians, with insufficient or no notice taken by the influential mainstream Western media.

What has captured media attention is the process of negotiation by which, for instance, Yasser Arafat pronounced certain phrases and then received American recognition. Since that time Palestinian spokesmen have been on television, have been interviewed by the radio, have been quoted extensively by newspapers. All of that discussion has been political. What has been left out has been the paradox by which Palestinian moderation has been met with increasing Israeli intransigence and actual violence. I myself agree with the policy articulated and voted upon by the PNC. I am a member and I voted enthusiastically for a realistic and above all clear policy. I certainly do not advocate any retreat from what we decided to do politically in order to gain the independence of the state of Palestine. But what surprises and worries me is that those of us who live outside the Occupied Territories have had to minimize a good part of the moral claim on which we stand when, because of the limited opportunities offered us, we neglect to speak in detail about what is happening to our people on the West Bank and Gaza, about what is being done to them by Israel but also about what, heroically, they are doing for themselves.

Here is where the difficult and crucial role of detail becomes important. The struggle for Palestine has always been, as Chaim Weizmann once said, over one acre here, one goat there. Struggles are won by details, by inches, by specifics, not only by big generalizations, large ideas, abstract concepts. Most of what the world now knows about daily life during the intifada is the result of a) what the Palestinians under occupation have experienced minute by minute; and b) what has been reported about those experiences and achievements, first by Palestinians and then by international agencies like the UN, Amnesty International, and by concerned citizens’ groups in Israel, Europe and North America. Those of us Palestinians and Arabs who live outside Palestine — in exile or dispersion — have not been afforded enough time to testify to the daily details of life under occupation; we have therefore not impressed on the awareness or the conscience of the world what our people are suffering and how cruelly Israel has treated their aspirations. These details are what our struggle is all about: why, for example, should a Palestinian farmer require a permit to plant a new olive tree on his land, whereas a Jewish settler can do what he wishes on land expropriated from the Palestinian? This policy of persecution and discrimination is what we have contested, and still do contest. It is more important a fact of our political lives than negotiating with a US ambassador in Tunis.

I am deeply concerned that in the glamorous search for recognition and negotiations we will lose the moral and cultural detail of our cause, which is a cause after all and not just a sordid game to control images, or to say the right phrases, or to meet and talk with the right people. The US has been supplying the Israeli army with the bullets that kill Palestinian men, women and children. It is up to us — Palestinians and supporters of Palestinian rights — to formulate a policy that deals directly with this America, as well as the other America, represented by the many people who support Palestinian self-determination. Neither can be neglected. Most important of all, we cannot neglect to register and attest to the suffering and the greatness of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Only by doing those two things will we become partners in the common struggle, and not onlookers or mere passive observers. Thus will the inside and outside become one.

How to cite this article:

Edward Said "From Intifada to Independence," Middle East Report 158 (May/June 1989).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This