By now, accepted wisdom says that an unexpected outcome of the September 11 attacks in the US may well be the Palestinian Authority’s salvation from extinction at the hands of Ariel Sharon. But the more optimistic scenario, that the sudden reordering of US strategic priorities in the region might lead to an interim solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, remains far off. In the meantime, Israel’s war on the Palestinian Authority (PA) is back in full force. In an oft-repeated performance, the parties most capable of reining Sharon’s government back in—his Labor Party coalition allies and the Bush administration—talk loudly but act timidly.
In mid-October, the climate finally appeared to favor a life-saving exit for Yasser Arafat from the year-long uprising against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands, one which would secure his position as Palestinian “head of state” in international eyes and that could be sold to the Palestinian public. But after a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine cell assassinated extreme right-wing tourism minister Rehavam Ze’evi on October 17, in retaliation for Israel’s assassination of their leader Abu Ali Mustafa, Sharon turned the political dynamic back against the PA. Over the following three days, Israeli tanks reoccupied all or parts of the towns of Ramallah, Jenin, Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Tulkarm and Qalqilya, resulting in the deaths of 40 Palestinians and wounding many more. For good measure, Israel assassinated two more local “militia” leaders, one from Fatah and one from Hamas. Sharon knew that his demand—that the PA arrest Ze’evi’s assassins and hand them over to Israel—would precipitate internal revolt. With the latest killings, Israel has sown enough rage among Hamas and Fatah militants that another Palestinian infraction against the ceasefire will inevitably occur, whenever the army does finally pull out of all the areas reoccupied this month.
In the immediate aftermath of September 11, Yasser Arafat’s reaction was pure shock underpinned by outright fear. First, he feared that Palestinians would somehow be directly implicated, a fear enhanced for a few short hours by a comically implausible report which had the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine claiming responsibility. His greater fear was that the PA, so tarnished by its relation to Hamas over the past year, would find itself criminalized in a US campaign against terrorism. Certainly, Israel expected this to happen. But the only fear that almost materialized was that, with the world’s attention focused on New York, Sharon would finally have a free hand to quell the uprising once and for all—and perhaps do away with the PA in the process.
Instead, within 24 hours, the US very publicly asked the PA to join the “international coalition against terror” and Secretary of State Colin Powell asserted a new US resolve to implement the recommendations of the Mitchell report, suddenly promoted to a “peace plan,” and bring the parties back to the negotiating table. At first, Sharon didn’t seem to grasp the shift in US policy. Between September 12-17, the scale and intensity of Israeli attacks on Palestinians stepped up greatly, with more than 18 incursions into PA-controlled areas, more than 28 killed and significant destruction in the towns of Jenin and Rafah. But on September 17, in the presence of more than 30 international envoys, Arafat declared a unilateral ceasefire, firmly placing the onus on Sharon to follow suit.
Looking for an Exit
It is important to remember that Arafat has been looking for a face-saving exit from the intifada since March, and a life-saving exit since June. In March, none of the PA’s hoped-for gains from the intifada had materialized; the second Arab summit drove home the fact that the PA could not expect any real political leverage from the Arab regimes. Two “honorable exits” were proffered after that summit: the Jordanian-Egyptian proposal in April and the Mitchell report released in late May. Neither offered more than a minimum of face-saving gains to the Palestinian leadership, the best of which was an inchoate “settlement freeze”; thus it is telling that the PA accepted both plans. It is also telling that while the Israelis accepted only the Mitchell report, they were able to postpone (with US consent) any discussion of a settlement freeze to two to six months after what amounted to the end of Palestinian resistance to occupation and a full return to security cooperation with Israel. Cornering the PA, Sharon declared a unilateral ceasefire, although on the ground the truce was allowed a broad interpretation. It was impossible for Arafat to enter Sharon’s “ceasefire,” especially given that all Palestinian factions had dismissed the settlement freeze. Then came the turning point of the June 1 suicide attack in Tel Aviv, in which 20 Israeli teenagers were killed.
Arafat, threatened with political excommunication by the US, was forced to reciprocate Sharon’s ceasefire and accept Israel’s timetable for implementing the Mitchell report. Again, on both sides, this ceasefire had a very loose interpretation on the ground. But the US seemed satisfied with Palestinian violence that was not directed at Israeli civilians inside Israel and Israeli violence that did not seem openly intent on toppling the PA. Then the Bush administration went on summer vacation, apparently unready to exert much effort in a conflict that seemed interminable. Sharon was at the head of a national unity government, and while the Palestinian street had clearly moved beyond Arafat, an alternative to his rule remained inconceivable.
Sharon’s Strategic Gains
Throughout the summer, Israeli closures became ever more stringent. Assassinations of local Fatah and Hamas leaders continued, as did missile attacks on PA installations. In response came the inevitable suicide attacks, shootings of settlers and mortar fire on settlements. With each round, Sharon escalated the Israeli “response” while extracting strategic gains. A devastating suicide operation in West Jerusalem on August 9 was the pretext for taking over the PLO’s diplomatic headquarters in East Jerusalem (Orient House). In late August, after a daring attack on an Israeli army base in Gaza by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the army assassinated the Popular Front’s political leader, Abu Ali Mustafa—the first assassination of a figure from the political echelons of the PLO, as opposed to local militants. Following two more suicide attacks in early September, the army imposed a 20-mile “closed military zone” along the West Bank’s northern border with Israel, in effect annexing 15 Palestinian villages.
Sharon’s intent and ability to remake the intifada into an exercise in Palestinian self-destruction was not lost on the Palestinian leadership. While Sharon could not directly destroy the PA, he had isolated it diplomatically and then created an environment in which it would ultimately collapse from within. Each Palestinian military response (particularly the suicide attacks) only played into this dynamic. But, as from the beginning of the uprising, the PA could only “end” the intifada if the factions collectively agreed to do so based on a concrete political gain for the Palestinians. The only other means of “ending” the intifada—brute force—would result in civil war and alienate the leadership from the factions’ rank and file and from the population as a whole. During the interim period, the leadership had been willing and able to use coercion. Back then the PA had the power of Fatah behind it and the conviction that coercion was the way to garner strategic gains from Israel and the US. In the late summer of 2001, the PA had neither.
The sudden US tactical need for the PA following September 11 appeared not only as the long-awaited intervention, but also as the long-awaited exit. In the context of the “war against terror,” accepting the US demand for a ceasefire was (and could be sold as) in the “national interest” of survival. The backdrop to this thinking, of course, was the PLO’s suicidal stance in support of Iraq during the Gulf war. All of the factional leaderships, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, understood this imperative, and agreed to the ceasefire under the dual heading of national unity and the national interest.
However, deep internal tensions appeared over the terms and means of the ceasefire between the PA’s upper-level elite, mostly “returnees” from the PLO’s exile, and the local leaderships associated with military resistance during the second intifada. These tensions were most apparent between the two components of Fatah: the technocrats and the tanzim (the armed militias which have led much of the street fighting). The technocrats had firsthand experience of diplomatic death in the Gulf war debacle and recognized that the PA was both in danger of collapse and losing support to the Islamists. They favored putting a full end to armed resistance, by force if necessary. To the tanzim, however, a total cease-fire was anathema. Armed resistance is now the source of their political capital, and the ceasefire was clearly unpopular with the rank and file, which still wants the uprising to end Israel’s occupation. Implicitly, a definition of ceasefire was agreed upon whereby there would be no operations within Israel and no shooting on settlements from PA-controlled areas, but armed actions in areas of the Occupied Territories under direct Israeli control could continue.
To Sharon, the ceasefire was also anathema. The sole US demand was that Israel remain quiescent while Powell built the coalition against terrorism and embarked on the war against Afghanistan. With no other option, Sharon finally allowed Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to meet with Arafat on September 26 (after stalling five earlier meetings) to formally sign a ceasefire. At the same time, he allowed “minimalist” army incursions on the ground, such as the September 27 attack on Rafah in which four Palestinians were killed, 30 wounded and 14 homes destroyed. Clearly, he was waiting (and arguably pushing for) the inevitable infraction from the Palestinian side that would allow him an exit.
In contrast, Arafat went to great lengths to show the US his new seriousness, stating that breaches of the ceasefire deviated from the national interest. Later, he violently put down an anti-war demonstration at the Islamic University in Gaza at which three students and a child were killed by PA police. The US showed its gratitude on October 13, when Bush declared his support for a Palestinian state. But the inevitable infraction of sufficient magnitude did come, with the assassination of Ze’evi.
Sharon knows what is well-known to the Palestinian public: all of the factional fighters are loosely organized, poorly disciplined young men with only bravery (or bravado) to compensate for their lack of military training. Notions of military strategy do not apply here, nor do concepts such as party or military discipline or even “chain of command.” The PA devolved its authority to these “resistance forces” over the past year so that it could be “with” the intifada while not appearing to lead or have responsibility for it. Since the ascent of Sharon, Israeli military and diplomatic strategy has aimed at keeping the initiative on “the street” and away from the PA. The resultant breakup of the PA’s authority can be seen clearly in the “independent republics” of Rafah and Khan Yunis in Gaza, in Jenin and to some extent Bethlehem. In these front-line areas, “resistance forces” are in charge (if not in control) and the PA appears in the guise of irrelevant and forlorn blue-uniformed policemen, or on the nightly news in the form of Arafat at another diplomatic event. Though wildly unrealistic, Sharon’s ultimate desire is to fragment the PA into a myriad of these mini-republics and negotiate deals with amenable “warlords” he can find in each one. One should not forget that in 1982 Sharon took Israel’s army to Beirut and tried to set up the Phalange as a client government.
Battered and Tired
As the “war on terrorism” continues, the US will likely intervene once more to forestall progress toward this scenario. In this sense, the cruel calculations of geopolitics will continue to make Afghanistan’s loss into Palestine’s gain. When Israel withdraws its tanks from Palestinian cities, the PA will probably become more concerned for its survival and thus less reticent about undertaking mass arrests. The latest round of national consensus-building for a ceasefire proved that the consensus was not there—especially when constantly being battered by Israeli provocation. If against all odds a ceasefire does take hold, there is now suddenly the glimmer of a workable idea of how to reach an interim solution.
On October 25 Labor MKs Shlomo Ben Ami and Haim Ramon unveiled a plan for “unilateral separation” from the Palestinians. Unlike Ehud Barak’s version of separation, this proposal has something in it for both sides. The plan suggests that the Palestinian areas to be “separated” should be closer in size to what was envisioned by proposals on the table at Camp David in July 2000—perhaps 70 percent of the West Bank and even more of the Gaza Strip. But, importantly for the Israelis, these territories would not be “handed over” to the untrustworthy PA, but instead to “international caretakers” led by the US. The international caretakers would ensure the “positive restructuring” of the Palestinian authorities as prelude to a final agreement based on Clinton’s proposals at Taba. Israel would rule over a minimum number of Palestinians within the Occupied Territories, while not entrusting its security again to the PA. The plan also includes a face-saving element: the PA would not appear to be directly rewarded for the intifada, but would appear to lose out to a multinational body to which it would be beholden.
For the PA, this separation plan promises greater territory than the third redeployment of the moribund Oslo process. It also includes the long-sought international force, although in a much less palatable form. Crucially, the PA and most Palestinians would no longer be at the direct mercy of Israel’s occupation, a gain that would come without signing a final status agreement and having to waive the right of return for refugees or having to sign off on Jerusalem.
Prior to Sharon’s ascent to power, such a proposal would have met with Palestinian contempt. Now, in the context of basic survival, it appears like a hopeful prospect. But the Ben Ami-Ramon idea awaits the complex confluence of forces that could turn it into a possibility. Even the Labor Party has yet to accept it, and their political comeback seems unlikely. In the meantime, one can only hope that Israelis will soon get as tired of the bloodshed as Palestinians are.