Details of the understandings reached between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Yasser Arafat are trickling slowly out of Sharm al-Sheikh, the Egyptian resort where President Bill Clinton convened an emergency international summit October 16. The Israelis and the PA say they will both take “concrete measures” to contain 20 days of violence that has claimed 105 lives, 98 of them Palestinian, in the Occupied Territories and Israel. Israel is said to have agreed to end its siege of Palestinian population centers, pulling back its forces to the positions they occupied September 27. But the popular uprising in the streets of the West Bank and Gaza shows no signs of abating. Meanwhile, Barak’s spin doctors put the onus squarely on Arafat, stating that if he fails to quell an uprising he does not control within 48 hours, Likud leader Ariel Sharon will be a cabinet minister by next week.
Through direct action and with growing Arab and international support, the Palestinian people are demanding an immediate end to the occupation, and by extension the dismantling of the Oslo “peace process.” Seven years after the famous handshake on the White House lawn, the Oslo process has brought no real progress toward a just and lasting peace. Despite the heavy price paid by Palestinians so far, the uprising is unlikely to completely derail the Oslo process so long as the cost of the Israeli occupation does not exceed its benefits. As the Sharm al-Sheikh summit concludes, all signs point toward a turbulent interlude on the way to a new framework agreement that will restore peace to the occupation and its beneficiaries. Whether or not such an agreement will hold remains an open question, but the events of the past weeks have shown that any agreement within the framework of continued military occupation is at best an armed and temporary truce.
A Fatal “Wrong Turn”
The events of the Independence Uprising—as Palestinians are increasingly calling their 20-day revolt—cast grave doubt on Arafat’s ability to enforce quiet without resorting to violence of his own. US and Western media widely reported the October 12 killing of two Israelis at the PA police headquarters for the Ramallah/al-Bira district. According to Israel, the men in question were army reservists reporting for duty who took a “wrong turn” on their way to a military base, passed an Israeli roadblock unnoticed and unintentionally entered Area A—the territory under Palestinian security control. Palestinians dismiss this explanation, insisting the two were members of an undercover unit on active duty. Certainly, the numerous road signs in Hebrew at entrances to Ramallah make it hard to believe that the soldiers simply missed their turn.
There are too many competing versions of subsequent events to establish definite facts at this stage. But it is clear that news of the Israeli soldiers’ apparent arrest quickly reached a funeral procession then underway for a Palestinian officer shot dead the previous night. Hundreds of outraged mourners, a good portion of whom had one day earlier also participated in the funeral of a villager who had been tortured, murdered and mutilated by Jewish settlers, set upon the police station where the Israelis were being held. Demonstrators quickly overpowered the guards, climbed to the second floor where the Israelis were being held and beat them to death. One of the bodies was subsequently thrown out of the window, where a furious mob mutilated it further before dragging it through the street. Crucially, Palestinian and Israeli security sources concur that Palestinian policemen did not participate in the killings and in fact sought to protect the Israelis in their custody.
Israel did not wait for an investigation of the incident to respond with overwhelming force. Later that afternoon, Israeli Cobra attack helicopters launched simultaneous missile strikes against al-Bira, Bait Lahia, Gaza City and Ramallah. The targets included Yasser Arafat’s West Bank and Gaza Strip headquarters, various buildings associated with the Palestinian security forces, a Fatah office in Gaza City, Palestinian Broadcasting Company facilities and the Gaza port. That evening, Israeli helicopters conducted additional strikes on Hebron, Jericho, Nablus, Rafah, Salfit and Tulkarm.
Imbalance of Power
The October 12 killings and bombing fanned the flames of the uprising sparked by Ariel Sharon’s entry into the Haram al-Sharif compound in Jerusalem with the full backing of the minority Labor government. At first, vocal, nonviolent protest of Sharon’s visit was led by a coalition of Palestinian leaders from the Occupied Territories and Palestinian members of the Israeli Knesset. The following day, seven Palestinians (including a resident of Umm al-Fahm within Israel) were shot dead within the Haram al-Sharif by Israeli troops. By September 30, the flames had spread to most cities within the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Palestinian communities within Israel experienced their most severe confrontations since the establishment of the Jewish state. Within an additional week, numerous villages became actively involved as well, a development which in both 1936 and 1988 signified the transition from popular uprising to sustained rebellion.
Most clashes have pitted civilian demonstrators armed with stones and Molotov cocktails against Israeli soldiers firing tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets and live ammunition, including high-velocity bullets which fragment upon impact. Where such confrontations escalate, and in those instances where armed Palestinians have become involved, Israel has deployed heavy machine guns, tanks and attack helicopters. Israeli soldiers most often fire from reinforced concrete bunkers where they are in no physical danger. The widespread use of snipers, in combination with the large and growing proportion of head and chest wounds sustained by unarmed demonstrators, reinforces Palestinians’ conclusion that Israel is applying a “shoot to kill” policy.
Arafat and the Palestinian Street
Israel claims that Arafat instructed the dominant Palestinian political faction, Fatah, to incite the Palestinian public to demonstrate and throw stones at soliders. The uprising is unquestionably being led by Fatah and its cadres have played a greater role in the armed clashes than the PA security forces. But Fatah’s ability to mobilize the Palestinian street was circumscribed by widespread disillusionment with the PA and a more general political apathy. No less importantly, there is nothing Yasser Arafat could have said or done to incite Palestinians more than Israel and its actions. Fatah’s success in sustaining the uprising reflects above all the cumulative popular anger at continuing Israeli impunity in the Occupied Territories—driven home today when Jewish settlers at the village of Beit Furik near the West Bank town of Nablus killed an unarmed Palestinian man harvesting olives—and only secondarily reflects Fatah’s ability to channel this anger.
The degree of Arafat’s authority and control over Fatah is another unanswered question. The “tanzim” routinely touted in the Israeli and foreign media does not exist as a separate, paramilitary force within Fatah. Rather, the “tanzim” and Fatah are one and the same: Oslo’s failure to deliver on basic Palestinian national rights has enhanced the role of the more skeptical, activist wings of the movement. Furthermore, the current uprising has pushed militant local leaders to the forefront of decision-making. Today the secretary-general of Fatah in the West Bank, Marwan Barghouthi, bitterly criticized the outcome of the summit and promised a renewed “peaceful intifada.”
Oslo: Down But Not Out?
Today’s summit agreement shows that the Oslo process has so far survived the uprising and Israel’s unprecedentedly direct attacks on the PA, if barely. Whether by design or default, Israel and the PA are now vying for advantages at the negotiating table. While the Oslo framework for Israeli-Palestinian relations has undergone severe strain, it has remained intact because neither Israel nor the PA have a viable alternative. Even if Arafat unilaterally proclaims an independent Palestinian state on November 15, Israel will eventually acquiesce: Arafat’s state will be primarily symbolic and will complement the Israeli-American proposals made at Camp David. On the Israeli side, a Labor-Likud coalition government, should one emerge, is highly unlikely to risk the international isolation which would result from abrogating the Oslo process. A two-state solution under Oslo’s terms serves Israel’s local, regional and international interests and leaves it in effective control of the Occupied Territories. But as the current events demonstrate, such solutions are little more than recipes for further violence.