During the Gulf war the entire population of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip lived under total curfew for 36 days, with brief and erratic periods of relaxation toward the end of the ordeal. Most inhabitants had no secure supply of food and fuel, no gas masks and no reliable source of information. The Iraqi Scuds induced anxieties among residents of Ramallah similar to those experienced in Tel Aviv. Raja Shehadeh’s The Sealed Room: Selections from the Diary of a Palestinian Living under Israeli Occupation, September 1990-August 1991 (Quartet, 1993), reports all of this and more. His testimony advances beyond the predictable (if understandable) Palestinian responses to the war and the continuing occupation because he takes the risk of considering how the personal and the political are commingled in his life, linking his struggles to overcome the limitations of his father’s world outlook and to build an autonomous life and career in a society undergoing national liberation, state formation and cultural redefinition.

The Sealed Room challenges the belief of most Israelis, including most of the peace movement, that Arab-Israeli peace is possible only on the basis of overwhelming Israeli military strength: “If the main Israeli cities are made to suffer, maybe this state will be brought to its senses. Maybe then it will realize that the life of violence is unsustainable. Then maybe we could have a new start.” Shehadeh’s desire to see Israel punished for its treatment of the Palestinians violates another maxim of the Zionist peace movement, that Palestinians are not justified in exacting retribution for Israeli actions no matter how inhumane or unjust: “Of course we would like to see you hurt. You have refused to make peace; you take our land, kill our people and defame our name. Your unbridled power dictates our lives and fate; is it any wonder we now relish your vulnerability?… Yes, I will say these words that so ill become me: I would like to see your cities under siege, your soldiers crushed and your arrogant noses stuck in the mud.”

Some Israeli Jews have considered these passages as proof that even advocates of non-violence and compromise like Raja Shehadeh do not accept Israel’s existence. Many who would condemn these words still expect Palestinians to understand why the dovish Zionist Meretz ministers voted to expel 415 alleged Islamist activists in December 1992. Such asymmetries are constitutive of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and are barely noticed by most Israeli Jews.

Shehadeh does not apologize for or conceal his war time sentiments. He exposes them, admits they were a departure from his principles and regrets having given up on progressive Israeli Jews. On the last page of the book, he reaffirms his willingness to meet the Israelis halfway. The Meretz ministers could learn a lesson in honesty and self-criticism from Raja Shehadeh.

In the post-Gulf war era several Palestinian research and policy studies institutes have been established. They serve to expand civil society, create employment for university graduates, and develop the technical and intellectual skills required for statehood. The Palestinian left has been especially active in this arena: Such institutions provide a mechanism that can simultaneously explore what can be preserved from the theoretical legacy of Marxism, provide logistical support for both supporters and opponents of the peace process, and make a bid for a share of the small international development assistance funds that might strengthen the left’s ability to compete against better endowed Palestinian political tendencies. The type of funds and the intellectual proclivities of the left have led several of the new institutions to research questions of economic development. This has resulted in some duplication and sectarianism as each political trend tries to establish its own shop to claim a piece of the small pie.

The Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre directed by Ghassan al-Khatib, a member of the Palestinian negotiating team identified with the People’s (formerly Communist) Party, established its reputation by providing services to foreign journalists and visitors covering the intifada, enabling them to see beyond the official Israeli version of events. Its Israeli Obstacles to Economic Development in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (1992) is a comprehensive, well-researched and neatly presented survey of employment, land and water use, agriculture, industry (or lack thereof), trade, finance and taxation in the Occupied Territories. Admitting that there is little reliable economic data available, the authors limit themselves to a qualitative overview with some detailed examples. Their central contention, that Israeli occupation has been a major impediment to Palestinian economic development, is convincing.

Israeli Obstacles warns foreign donors “to be aware that unless their financial and other aid is accompanied by political lobbying for Palestinian independence and self-determination, their aid will do no more than ‘improve the quality of life’ for some Palestinians, thereby de facto accepting Israel’s occupation.” This appeal, coupled with abstention from explicit theorizing, leaves some ambiguity about the relative significance of the occupation and the structure of the world capitalist market in perpetuating Palestinian underdevelopment. For example, exporting Palestinian fruit to Europe is less profitable than selling fruit to Israeli juice factories; the Israeli factories pay more and the cost of transportation makes it difficult to compete with cheap Spanish and Moroccan produce. Palestinian independence probably will not significantly alter these circumstances.

Adel Samara’s Industrialization in the West Bank: A Marxist Socio-Economic Analysis, 1967-1991 (Al-Mashriq Publications for Economic and Development Studies, 1992) covers some of the same ground but includes an elaborate theoretical apparatus. Its value is limited by careless presentation, dogmatic application of Samir Amin’s theory of dependent development and inadequate critical evaluation of the data on which it is based. For example, Samara argues that the Zionist ideological imperative to prefer Jewish labor over cheaper Palestinian Arab labor is one of the mechanisms perpetuating underdevelopment. In fact, about one third of the labor force of the Occupied Territories has been employed in Israel. This number was sharply reduced when Israel sealed off the territories in April. This security step provoked complaints from farmers (among them Ariel Sharon) and construction contractors, who argued that they could not make a profit without cheap, skilled labor from the Occupied Territories. Such internal contradictions may become an important determinant of Israel’s willingness to withdraw from Palestinian territory and on what terms.

For Arabic readers, Samir ‘Abdallah, ‘Abd al-Fattah Abu Shukr and ‘Ali ‘Alawani’s al-Sina‘a fi al-diffa al-gharbiyya [Industry in the West Bank] (Najah University, 1991) offers a more careful discussion of industry in the West Bank. ‘Abdallah has also recently established the Palestinian Centre for Peace and Democracy, which hopes to include among its activities an Israeli studies project that could potentially make an important contribution to Palestinian strategy in the peace process.

The fracturing of the Palestinian left inside the Green Line has also led to the development of new institutions. In December 1992, Salim Jubran, former editor of the Communist Party of Israel’s Arabic daily, al-Ittihad, established a new monthly, al-Thaqafa, which seeks to provide an independent forum for cultural and political discussion. Its editors are committed to a modern, secular outlook, one expression of which is the inclusion of a small number of Jewish editors and authors in an unquestionably Arab project.

While Adel Samara represents residual dogmatism among the Palestinian left, the other writings and projects discussed here share a willingness to rethink the meaning of left politics and theory and to seek new intellectual and institutional structures to sustain it. Their continuing commitment to internationalism, secularism and peaceful resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a ray of hope in an otherwise grim situation.

The relaunching of the Review of Middle East Studies was announced here several years ago, but the editors were then unable to sustain regular publication. ROMES 5, “Israel/ Palestine: Fields for Identity,” edited by Glenn Bowman (1992), contains an excellent selection of articles, mostly by Palestinians and Israelis, representing some of the best and most innovative work in this field. ROMES has a new publisher, and the editors now expect to produce two issues a year. The theme of ROMES 6, edited by Roger Owen and due shortly, is “Economic and Political Liberalization in the Middle East.”

How to cite this article:

Joel Beinin "Rethinking Palestinian Politics," Middle East Report 183 (July/August 1993).
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