Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

As the second intifada in the Occupied Territories approaches its sixth month, the activities of increasingly effective armed cells have been supplanting civil forms of resistance. This gradual “Lebanonization” of the conflict poses a challenge to Israel. For all his bluster about refusing to negotiate under fire, putting an end to Palestinian “violence and terror” and achieving a “peace for generations,” premier-elect Ariel Sharon’s dilemma is intractable. Any government he forms will be unwilling to withdraw to the June 1967 boundaries, and so the uprising will continue. If Sharon opts to destroy the Palestinian Authority (PA) as Israel tried to destroy the PLO during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, he will once again encourage the ascendancy of a more radical and uncompromising adversary — with the distinction that the Palestinian variant will be based in Hebron, Jerusalem and Umm al-Fahm rather than Baalbek and Beirut. In contrast to 1982, open warfare with the Palestinian leadership in 2001 will entail significant regional (and perhaps international) costs for Israel.

But a successful Palestinian guerrilla campaign is unlikely. Palestinian efforts are nowhere near as sophisticated as those of Hizballah, and Israel is prepared to sustain much greater losses in the Occupied Territories than it was in Lebanon. In addition, the militarization of the uprising is squandering the potential contribution of Palestinian society. As the PA and Palestinian civil society exhibit signs of genuine paralysis, Israel’s punitive sanctions and the PA’s haphazard response have stretched Palestinians to the breaking point.

Armed Cadres in Command

The confrontations between stone-throwing youths and soldiers that characterized the intifada‘s first stage are still a daily ritual, but are generally much less intense. As night falls, and increasingly during the day as well, armed cadres are now defining the nature of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation. Their cells include Palestinian security personnel, Fatah activists (which are often one and the same), and almost certainly members of the Islamist and secular opposition as well (notably Islamic Jihad). Cells operate under previously unknown names such as the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade (Kata’ib Shuhada’ al-Aqsa) and Forces of Badr (Quwat Badr). Their weapons of choice are the sniper’s bullet and the roadside bomb, and more recently the occasional mortar round or anti-tank missile. Their preferred tactic is hit and run. Their proclaimed strategy is to transform Israel’s most sensitive assets in the Occupied Territories — soldiers, settlements and bypass roads — into its greatest liabilities.

While the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade and most similar groups are known to the PA and are believed to enjoy operational support from senior security officials, these are not PA units established to pursue an official policy under the cloak of plausible deniability. Rather, they represent an autonomous and at times independent force within the Palestinian national movement, with an agenda increasingly divergent from that of the PA. This force’s backbone is the activist, militant wing of the Fatah movement, which espouses positions both independently and through the proclamations of the National and Islamic Forces (NIF) coalition of 14 Palestinian political factions. The NIF constitutes the operational command of the uprising.

The NIF, which includes most of the PLO, secular opposition and Islamist factions, is not a national political leadership and cannot (yet) be compared to the United National Leadership of the Uprising (UNLU) which led the 1987-1993 intifada. By tacit agreement, the NIF’s role is limited to planning the uprising’s calendar (the “days of rage”), as well conducting activities like the consumer boycott of Israeli products which — constrained by formal commitments — the PA cannot itself undertake. According to the rules of the game, the formulation and implementation of national policy is the exclusive preserve of the PA.

In practice, this is no longer the case. Increasingly, the NIF and its constituent organizations criticize the PA for its lack of a domestic policy and its relations with Israel and the US. On February 10, when Yasser Arafat called Ariel Sharon to congratulate him and express his desire to resume negotiations, the NIF issued a statement vowing to bring about the downfall of the “terrorist criminal” Sharon, like Ehud Barak before him. The “new phase of confrontation” which it predicted “requires that all Palestinian, Arab and international forces work to isolate this raging bull by all means.” “Any Palestinian or Arab attempt to market Sharon’s spoiled goods,” the NIF pointedly warned, “will fall into the trap Sharon seeks to use to destroy Palestinian national unity, eliminate the intifada and paralyze the PA.”

Facing Sharon

Perhaps more than any other event, the election of Sharon has thrown the differences between the PA and the NIF into relief. To the PA, Sharon is above all a challenge to the successful conclusion of the peace process. If the PA can ensnare this uncompromising rejectionist in permanent status negotiations on Jerusalem, refugees and settlements, it will have vindicated its decision to enter into the Oslo agreements and its performance prior to and since the second intifada. Under no circumstances can the PA settle for less than the tentative terms discussed during the final round of permanent settlement negotiations at Taba in January 2001. The uprising is an instrument of diplomatic leverage, to generate international pressure on Sharon to resume negotiations at the point where they left off, and to shorten his tenure if he refuses. If the Oslo process dies for good, neither Israel nor the international community has much use for the PA. Arafat has signaled the NIF that he needs it alive. The relative absence of organized Palestinian attacks across the Green Line suggests the NIF understands the message.

To the militants within Fatah and the majority of the NIF, Sharon presents an opportunity to turn the uprising into an instrument of a very different sort. The militants hope the consistent escalation of the intifada (and attendant Arab support) will force Israel to surrender its vision of a Palestinian protectorate under Israeli hegemony, allowing the Palestinians to transcend the Oslo framework entirely.

In the confident words of Fatah West Bank Secretary General Marwan Barghouthi, Sharon is Israel’s “last bullet” before it realizes that it can have “either peace and security or occupation and settlement, but never both.” To Barghouthi, the uprising is a war of national liberation. The only negotiations to be conducted are those which formalize the end of the occupation. If the intifada is merely exploited as a negotiating tactic, it will inevitably end in failure. Memories of the fate of the 1987-1993 intifada are strong. They are reinforced by the stark contrast between Israel’s consistent disregard of signed agreements with its Palestinian “peace partner” and its generally scrupulous respect of informal understandings with its bitter enemy Hizballah. The militants demand the continuation of the uprising until the end of the occupation. Until now, Arafat has respected this “red line.”

Competing in Coexistence

So far, these contradictory trends have managed to compete in coexistence, and even to complement one another. Barghouthi and other Fatah leaders can be bitterly critical of the PA, demand that Arafat root out corruption and collaborators and suggest the formation of an “intifada government” based upon the unity of purpose established at the local level. But there has not been an open challenge to the current leadership or its legitimacy, and Fatah has ensured the formal loyalty of the NIF to the PA. For its part the PA has reached several understandings with Israel and the US to “restore calm” to the West Bank, but has avoided measures that would test Fatah’s loyalty or endanger Fatah’s relations with other NIF factions. Arafat’s method appears to consist of ongoing consultations with Fatah and the opposition, combined with consistent disregard of their positions when planning his next move.

Until Sharon’s election, both the PA and NIF were content to see the uprising improve the PA’s negotiating position, even if the PA felt the armed attacks were at times calculated to derail the negotiations, and the NIF viewed the PA’s conduct in negotiations as endangering the further development of the uprising. The NIF’s pride in Barak’s defeat notwithstanding, the relative calm in the weeks leading up to the Israeli election were clearly enforced in deference to the PA.

In the coming period, the PA and NIF will continue to cooperate. Both will seek the deployment of an international protection force, and potentially to cut short Sharon’s tenure by making a mockery of his promises of tranquility. They will also compete over issues such as security cooperation. But if the PA feels compelled to curtail the uprising, or the NIF considers it necessary to clean house within the PA to preserve its uprising, a confrontation between the PA and NIF is possible. Should such a showdown materialize, the Fatah activists — particularly those with positions and connections in the security forces — will determine its outcome.

Siege and Stalemate

Meanwhile, Israel’s blockade and bombardment of Palestinian population centers is exacting a terrible social, economic and physical toll. According to a recent UN report, the sieges and closures are costing the Palestinian economy $8.6 million daily (excluding physical damage, loss of tax income and the cost of caring for more than 10,000 casualties). Tanks are currently stationed throughout the Occupied Territories for the first time since their conquest in 1967, and they routinely shell civilian neighborhoods. By mid-February 2001, more Palestinian casualties were being inflicted by tank shells than by soldiers confronting demonstrators. In Khan Younis, Israeli forces may have used a new form of toxic gas.

On February 14, Khalil Abu ‘Ulba of Gaza’s Sheikh Radwan neighborhood, one of only 16,000 Palestinians (out of some 3 million) with a record Israeli intelligence considered clean enough not to suspend his permit to enter and work in Israel, rammed an empty passenger bus into a group of soldiers assembled at a junction south of Tel Aviv. Seven soldiers and one civilian were killed. By all accounts, Abu ‘Ulba’s attack was an uncoordinated individual act. This time around Israel’s intelligence community had not failed. Rather, its policies had. Abu ‘Ulba’s interrogators are trying to determine whether it was the siege, the pervasive violence, the intense bombardment of Khan Younis that same week, or the latest assassination of a Palestinian activist which pushed one of the last Palestinians it certified kosher over the edge. As Fatah leader and Palestinian legislator Qaddura Faris observed several months ago, if Israel persists in starving the Occupied Territories, the cost will not be borne exclusively by Palestinians, particularly if the PA is unable to meet the people’s basic needs.

As the chances for a negotiated peace or an interim agreement continue to recede, the most likely scenario remains a prolonged low-intensity conflict punctuated by occasional bouts of intensified violence, domestic chaos (whether Palestinian or Israeli) and futile diplomacy. The “Lebanonization” of the conflict — guerrilla resistance and Israel’s stepped-up counterinsurgency measures — foreshadows an increasingly bloody war of attrition in the Occupied Territories.

How to cite this article:

Mouin Rabbani "Toward a War of Attrition in Palestine," Middle East Report 218 (Spring 2001).
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