For the last few days one topic has dominated conversation in the West Bank town of Ramallah: will tonight be the night? A general consensus holds that it is only a matter of time before Israeli tanks and troops take over the city completely, imposing a curfew that confines residents to their homes, conducting house-to-house searches, arresting and assassinating activists and destroying offices of political factions, non-governmental organizations and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Perhaps the January 25 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, which the Israeli government promptly blamed on Yasser Arafat and the PA, may provide the justification for the above scenario. Or perhaps the recent flow of attacks and reprisals will ebb once more, with Israeli tanks withdrawing, and everyday life in Ramallah and other reoccupied Palestinian towns returning to a semblance of normalcy. During this round of brinkmanship, however, there is a palpable sense among Palestinians that the second intifada has passed another turning point. An explosion, many feel, is about to occur.
The last week has witnessed the most far-reaching military operations by the Israeli army in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when Israel occupied the Palestinian territories. On January 21, a large number of Israeli troops backed by tanks and helicopters entered Tulkarm at 3:00 am. Loudspeakers borne on jeeps informed residents that they were not allowed to leave their homes. For 24 hours, soldiers moved from house to house, arresting tens of individuals and destroying property. Several houses were commandeered as military outposts, including the house of Mahmoud al-Jallad, head of the Tulkarm municipal council. At least two Palestinians were killed during the incursion.
The following day, Israeli troops invaded the town of Nablus, killing four Palestinians and arresting dozens of people from their homes. Over the same period, on two consecutive nights Israeli tanks advanced even further into Ramallah, coming within several hundred meters of the city center and within tens of meters of the headquarters of the PA, where Arafat has been staying under virtual house arrest since December. With helicopters circling overhead, rumors spread that large numbers of Israeli tanks were massed at all entrances to the city. Three residents were killed by tank fire. In Ramallah, however, soldiers have yet to disembark from their tanks and impose a curfew as they did in Tulkarm and Nablus. This is what the town pensively awaits.
In Search of Compliance
The wave of incursions has sharpened the key tactical debate that has preoccupied Israeli elite opinion since the beginning of the uprising 16 months ago. Will Arafat—and, by implication, the PA—be able to “control” the Palestinian population and sign the comprehensive deal of submission that the Oslo “peace process” was intended to supply? Or are other more traditional forms of colonial rule now required? Should Israel topple the PA and replace it with several strongmen, each of whom can impose quiet in his own fiefdom, cut off from the others by Israeli “security zones”?
The ruling circles in Israel, and the editorial pages of Israeli newspapers, discuss these questions with remarkable frankness. Views sympathetic to the Palestinian uprising for freedom and against occupation are rarely heard. Instead, the questions swirling around the future of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship are framed in terms of immediate Israeli interests: who will be the most compliant Palestinian leader? This near total unanimity of perspective is important to underline. Among the Israeli leadership, the debate is tactical and not strategic. It centers around the most effective way to achieve Palestinian submission to Israel’s prerogatives. Support for both poles in this tactical debate — coercing Arafat into signing or removing him entirely—cuts across party lines. It is not a simple matter of Likud intransigence versus the Labor/Meretz “peace camp” as the mainstream media would have us believe.
Despite the shrill rhetoric coming from Israel’s right wing, Ariel Sharon’s predilection for violence and destruction and the tanks growling at the entry points of almost every Palestinian city, it is by no means clear that Israel has decided to put an end to the PA. Rather, what seems to be emerging is a two-pronged strategy to smother the intifada, with Arafat still in place. On the one hand, Israel is exerting more pressure on Arafat to “end” the intifada and crack down on the growing independence of the political factions. On the other hand, the Israelis are taking direct military action against Palestinian activists, as per the arrests in Nablus and Tulkarm over the last week, and the January 25 assassination of at least one Hamas figure in Gaza.
Palestinian Authority Under Fire
One of the most striking results of the last 16 months of low-intensity warfare has been the massive erosion of the legitimacy of PA structures. Particularly in the north of the West Bank and the south of the Gaza Strip, where the pace and nature of the intifada is not determined by the official PA leadership but rather by street-level activists, the PA’s control is not respected. The traditionally sharp lines between different political factions have in many cases been blurred, as the factions jointly coordinate popular demonstrations, strikes and military actions, sometimes in opposition to the PA. In Ramallah, where the PA security apparatus is more evident and traditional factional rivalries persist (albeit to a lesser extent than before the intifada), the PA has a stronger hand. For this reason, many of those arrested by the PA in the north of the West Bank at the behest of Israel and the US have been transferred to Palestinian prisons in Ramallah.
Palestinian criticism of the PA’s role has increased alongside the Israeli military escalations. Almost daily demonstrations occur outside the PA headquarters in Ramallah to demand the release of Ahmed Saadat, the general secretary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine arrested on Israeli orders, and other detainees. Even the regular Friday marches against the Israeli occupation have pointedly stopped outside PA headquarters to demand the release of prisoners before proceeding towards confrontations with Israeli soldiers. Critics excoriate the PA’s lack of clear direction or strategy in times of crisis, such as the recent tank deployments in Palestinian-controlled areas. In response, the PA has organized a campaign dramatizing the victimhood of Arafat, trapped in Ramallah. This campaign has been received coolly.
Carrots and Sticks from Washington
The PA’s lack of legitimacy in large areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip shows itself whenever the PA attempts to scale back the intifada to grasp carrots vaguely dangled by the US: a favorable word on a yet-to-be-determined Palestinian state uttered by Bush, a visit to Washington by Arafat, Gen. Anthony Zinni’s return to the region to broker the implementation of the Mitchell recommendations and so on. The PA has forcibly put down large demonstrations each time it has undertaken large arrests of intifada activists to placate the US. This happened in Gaza City last October when the PA killed two demonstrators, and again in Jabalya Refugee Camp in December when the PA killed seven demonstrators who were trying to prevent arrests. It also happened last week in Nablus—ironically on the same day that Israel killed four people in that town—when a demonstration demanding the release of political prisoners was broken up by Palestinian police and resulted in the death of one demonstrator, shot in the head by a member of the Palestinian security force.
Despite George W. Bush’s huddle in the White House on January 25 to “reassess” Washington’s relationship with the PA, it is clear that the US still regards Arafat as the person best able to deliver the solution that Israel and the US have been seeking for ten years. This solution, which was the underlying premise of the Oslo accords, is based on an imposed “peace” that maintains Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip through control of borders and the economy but without the physical presence of Israeli troops in Palestinian areas. US money keeps the PA and its bloated security apparatus functioning. A new round of political arrests is the most likely outcome of the White House deliberations and Bush’s public scolding of Arafat.
No Intifada Dividend
The Israeli debate on the role of the PA comes in the context of Israel’s own tremendous political and economic crisis. The year 2001 saw the first contraction in the Israeli economy for 48 years, and the fall of Israel’s GDP per capita by 2.9 percent represents the first instance of negative growth since 1953. Unemployment has also reached a record level of 10 percent, and for the first time ever Israel began the year without a state budget due to the inability of parties in the Knesset to reach an agreement over budget cuts. If a budget is not passed by March, the government will fall and new elections will be held for the Knesset.
Although the intifada is a major factor in Israel’s economic crisis, the determining cause is the current downturn in the global economy, especially in the US. The fortunes of the Israeli economy are closely tied to the US market, a fact mirrored in the social and political outlook of the elite which profited from the increasing globalization of Israel’s economy over the last decade. Shifting the Israeli economy toward high-tech industry and integration with the US economy was premised on the so-called “peace dividend” to be afforded by the Oslo process. The Israeli elite that embraced the Oslo process—represented in the Knesset by people such as Shimon Peres, Avraham Burg, Yossi Beilin and Haim Ramon—strongly pushed the view that the PA would accept nominal control over the Palestinian population under a kind of Israeli tutelage and would relinquish the key Palestinian demand of the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
The same circles that debate the PA’s future existence are becoming increasingly critical of the Sharon government’s inability to manage Israel’s economy. During a month-long parley with the different parties that make up his coalition, Sharon was forced to renege on many proposed budget cutbacks to retain the support of Labor, Shas and the ultra-Orthodox parties. Just when it seemed that an agreement had been reached, Labor announced that it would seek approval of the budget in its original form — with the original cutbacks. Likud is left in a quandary: whether to support the original budget and risk losing support from the religious parties, or have Labor withdraw from the coalition. If either scenario comes to pass, it is unlikely that the Sharon government would last much longer.
Perilous Status Quo
These two seemingly distinct issues—Israel’s economic crisis and its attitude towards the PA and the Palestinian uprising—are very much connected. Any move to topple the PA and enter a full-scale war with the Palestinian people would endanger the very premise on which Israel’s economic growth of the last ten years has been based. Palestinians, regardless of the vicissitudes of their leadership, are clearly not willing to settle for anything less than freedom and independence after their 16 months of collective hardship and sacrifice. It is also clear that no one from Israel’s spectrum of political leaders is now willing to countenance that eventuality. Without that understanding, the pieces for an indefinite continuation of the perilous status quo are all in place.