“What can we do?” asked Marwan, a service worker at the temporary quarters of the Birzeit University the morning President Bush announced a cessation of hostilities in the Gulf. “Whatever happens, it’s always on the head of the Palestinians.” He turned back to his own Herculean task — attempting to make some order out of the mail that had accumulated during the six weeks of sustained curfew that had confined over 1.5 million Palestinians during most of the war. His colleagues, hunched in the damp, chilly room that has replaced campus facilities closed by military order for over three years, continued their wide-ranging discussion: from a Palestinian professor seen on CNN (is he right about the PLO? have there been mistakes?), to a fantastic assessment of the continued military strength of Saddam Hussein, to a credible imitation of Norman Schwarzkopf, to the ubiquitous problems of prices, families without income, prison tallies and farmers with rotting crops and no place to sell them. (On February 28. Israeli military authorities delivered yet another order closing four Palestinian universities — Birzeit, al-Najah and Hebron Universities and the Islamic University of Gaza — for three months.)
The public mood that journalists have been so quick to gauge in the Arab capitals in the wake of the Iraqi defeat is, at best, a selective glimpse of a public rhetorical response, interesting but inadequate. In the Occupied Territories, there is relief at an end to killing, relief, too, that the worst Palestinian fears were not realized. Also palpably present are astonishment at the fall of Iraq, indignation at Western arrogance and double standards, and anxiety about individual and collective futures. Absent are the outbursts of anger and tears, the strained solemnity that marks Palestinian tragedies, most recently the al-Aqsa massacre. The Gulf war is still a political, rather than an existential, event.
Bomb craters do not mark the West Bank and Gaza, although the Jerusalem Post reported on February 28 that four of the 39 Iraqi Scuds fell in the West Bank. But Palestinians, under continuous curfew for most of the war — one obsessive Ramallah resident recorded 803 hours of curfew out of a total of 888 hours by February 22 — had their own war stories.
“The curfew is lifted from 1:00 to 4:00. O people of Ramallah, go and shop!” After a week of around-the-clock curfew, the army jeep cruising the main street of Ramallah in late January was encouraging West Bank residents to do the unthinkable — shop in the afternoon during the commercial strike hours set by the uprising.
The shops remained shuttered and people, relatively good-humoredly, went visiting instead of stocking up on provisions. The army eventually contented itself with announcing to the world that it had lifted this curfew, meanwhile continuing to enforce curfews in other locations and on other days. The incident raises an important question: Did the military authorities manage to institute their own new local order under the cover of wartime?
The answer is a qualified yes. With Israel on the sidelines of the war (although in the Scud zone), the drastic measures that people feared here — particularly large-scale expulsion of Palestinians and an Israeli attack against Jordan — have not occurred. The Israeli authorities obviously had as a major goal keeping the Occupied Territories quiet. When it became clear that the “intifada was on hold,” as political scientist ‘Ali Jarbawi remarked, the curfew nonetheless continued and an emergency measure, not for the first time in the history of the occupation, became a way of life.
Perhaps the most important new restrictions are those regulating the Palestinian workforce inside Israel. Workers lost an estimated $2 million in wages per day during the curfew, notes economist Muhammad Ishtayya. (Broader losses, including rotting crops and paralysis of industry, are estimated at $50 million per week.) Authorities permitted a trickle of workers back to Israeli work sites in mid-February — but only if they were registered in the Labor Exchange, received a special permit from the Civil Administration and were guaranteed by their employer, who had to provide Green Line-to-workplace transport.
By the end of the war, less than 20 percent of workers were crossing to their jobs on any given day. The number will almost certainly remain at less than 50 percent, even through military officials told a Knesset committee on February 26 that quotas were no longer in force. According to the coordinator in the territories, Gen. Freddy Zach, only 40,000 of the 120,000 Palestinians who regularly crossed the Green Line to work had valid permits in October 1991. The difficulty of obtaining permits, and the reluctance of Israeli employers both to employ Palestinians and to employ them as regular registered workers entitled to benefits, have likely effected a structural change in the work force.
“In the evening, people are happy watching the al-Husayns rush toward Tel Aviv,” Amira commented, describing her central West Bank village, “but in the morning they wake and realize they are hungry and have nothing.” Many Palestinians have existed by running up bills with local merchants, who in turn face an enormous credit crunch. In one Central West Bank survey by Palestinian economist Samir Hulayla of the Economic Development Group in Jerusalem, over 50 percent of families were saddled with large debts that they are unable to repay. Six percent of families are at starvation level. The cash situation in Gaza is reported to be even worse. Remittances from the Gulf (once 10 percent of the GNP) have almost vanished, wages have been drastically reduced and the productive sector crippled, at least temporarily. Muhammad Ishtayya states categorically that the economy of the Occupied Territories “is at the edge of collapse.”
The Unified Leadership of the Uprising focused during the war on maintaining the status quo of the intifada, making practical decisions (canceling strike days, for example) to ease the burden on the population. Significantly, it did not try to capitalize on the palpable pro-Iraqi sentiment among the population. Only one wartime leaflet, the last, urged escalation and confrontation — usually a feature of UNLU statements. None commented on the Iraqi missile attacks on Israel.
The widely publicized vignettes of Palestinians on roofs cheering incoming missiles happened after a period of intense panic when families without gas masks improvised masks with diapers and wrapped themselves with plastic. It was a spontaneous communal response, a combination of collective defiance of curfew and confinement and an expression of a strong sentiment that can be summed up as “at last they too are vulnerable,” not to mention a large dollop of human curiosity. (In Israel, rooftop observers were called Patriot watchers).
During the war, Palestinian political and community activists concentrated on the protection of the population, successfully focusing public attention on the lack of gas masks — a critical issue to Palestinians in the early part of the war — and the continuation of the curfew. Very few people, in the end, actually got gas masks (perhaps 5 percent of the population outside of Jerusalem), but the campaign to some extent broke the dangerous isolation surrounding the Palestinian community. Now activists will certainly be turning to the larger political issues. Prominent among these, political scientist ‘Ali Jarbawi predicts, will be the relationship of the PLO inside with that outside; in particular, the role of the local public leadership (“the personalities”). The issue of protection will also remain central.
As of this writing on March 1, movement between cities is still highly restricted. In an Israeli version of high-tech, a newly-equipped military truck has been roaming the streets of Ramallah and other West Bank towns in the past two days: equipped with a glorified shovel and lift to pick up peddlers’ carts and haul them away to military headquarters, occasionally dropping a few bananas, tomatoes or even shish kebabs as it takes away its plunder. Together with tax raids and a strikingly high-profile army and police presence, this seems to be designed to grind away at the psychological achievements of the intifada.
When Emile Habibi coined the phrase “pessoptimist,” he created a Palestinian character that continues to endure on the streets of the Occupied Territories, raising his or her head after each reversal, each new unfavorable balance of power, to say “Everything falls on our head. But, yalla, we’ll keep on going. Maybe something good will come out of all this mess.”