Operation Defensive Shield is formally over, but what Israel’s climactic offensive in the West Bank will bring in its wake remains unclear. It is unlikely to be the denouement to 20 months of Palestinian resistance, Israeli aggression and US prevarication. Superficially, the current stage seems marked by long-awaited US re-engagement and Palestinian housecleaning, with internal reform replacing continued resistance as the dominant call. But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s support of “reform” of the Palestinian Authority (PA) remains unconvincing, while his comments that Defensive Shield was only “stage one” leave no doubt that he is biding his time until the opportunity arises to complete his mission to destroy the PA and all that its existence implies.

Beneath the White House rhetoric vilifying Arafat, the US has clearly moved to save the Palestinian leader — for now. But the Bush administration’s limited room for maneuver vis-à-vis Israel, and its continued commitment to the shattered Oslo process, mean that there is little chance that the interregnum will lead back to a negotiating process any time soon. After barely surviving the twin Israeli offensives of March-April 2002, the PA’s choices are reduced to the original dilemma that led it here, but under greatly worsened circumstances. In return for its continued patronage, the US will demand that the Palestinian leadership criminalize its people’s right to resist an occupation that is more relentlessly brutal and intransigent than ever before. If done, the PA will be allowed to re-enter an elusive “peace process” with verbal promises of a Palestinian state whose degree of sovereignty, borders and date of birth remain unspecified.

Defensive Shield

Between September 11 and March 2002, Sharon’s war of attrition on the PA continued to move forward despite momentary interventions by the US, and a month of Palestinian resolve to maintain a ceasefire, followed by a phase of armed resistance focused solely on more legitimate targets within the Occupied Territories. To evade these obstacles, Sharon consistently provoked the largely chaotic and vengeance-driven Palestinian resistance to provide him with a pretext to exit unwanted ceasefires and overcome diplomatic moves to protect Arafat and keep the PA alive. Although initial attempts to link his war on the PA to Bush’s war on terrorism foundered, in mid-December this became achievable. Thus in subsequent periods he was able to make quantum leaps in advancing his goals of delegitimizing Arafat, acclimating the US to the necessity of employing greater military force to confront Palestinian resistance, and ultimately extending and deepening the mechanisms of occupation. [1]

In late March 2002, as the Saudi “peace plan” made headway among the Americans, Europeans and UN delegates (in the form of resolution 1397), and the Arab League adopted it at the Beirut summit, Sharon was once again momentarily cornered. Almost immediately, the revenge attack long expected from the “camps war” of early March came on March 27, in the form of a Hamas suicide bombing in Netanya in which 29 Israelis were killed at Passover celebrations. The pretext for Operation Defensive Shield, the last but probably not the final round of Sharon’s campaign against the PA, was now in place.

In the largest call-up of Israeli reservists since 1967, from March 28 to April 4 all of the major West Bank towns except Hebron and Jericho, as well as a score of villages, were invaded and reoccupied. The ferocity and scale of the invasion was without precedent. But what was also different about Defensive Shield was the different nature of its targets. Three main towns, Ramallah, Nablus and Jenin, suffered the greatest devastation. The latter two had experienced the wrath of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in early March and once again the target was the resistance forces based in their refugee camps. But in Ramallah, the target was openly the infrastructure of the PA.

Prior to Defensive Shield, Israeli destruction of PA institutions had remained limited to security installations, as well as infrastructure that had the trappings of future sovereignty such as the Gaza airport and port. Now, for the first time, the PA’s civilian infrastructure was targeted. From the second week onward, the invasion saw daily rounds of blasting entrances followed by ransacking, aimed at everything from the Legislative Council offices to the Ministries of Education, Finance, Agriculture, Trade and Industry to municipal buildings and Chambers of Commerce. In some cases, the attacks included “expert teams” brought in to find incriminating material — some of it likely destined for the vaunted “Arafat dossier” Sharon took to his meeting with Bush in Washington in early May. But alongside the confiscation of computer hard disks and paper files came the wholesale destruction by sledgehammers or explosives of computers and other equipment, the burning of files and, more bizarrely, the wrecking of bathroom fixtures and upholstery. In a number of cases, feces were left in ministers’ offices. The patterned nature of the destruction bespoke the existence of operational orders but also an alarming degree of personal motivation to carry them out on the part of soldiers.

The resistance in Ramallah was minimal, poorly organized and over within the first two days, but the destruction was systematic and continued over a few weeks, encompassing searches and looting of private businesses and homes as well as NGOs. In Nablus, where the resistance continued heroically (or ill-advisedly) for five days, the destruction was wrought in a much more dramatic and condensed form.

F-16s, followed by tanks and bulldozers, swiftly razed buildings and in some cases whole areas of the historic old town before ground troops moved in. The total number of dead in Ramallah over the three-week period was 26, while in Nablus it was 74 over a period of five days. But the most devastating damage in human terms occurred in Jenin, where resistance fighters held out for more than a week within the camp and dealt the IDF their most severe blow — a total of 22 soldiers were killed, 13 in one ambush. To date the Palestinian death toll in Jenin is 52. Another 16 are still unaccounted for, potentially laying under the immense pile of rubble that once was the center of the camp and has now been dubbed “ground zero” by its residents.

By April 21, Israeli tanks had pulled out of the cities they had occupied save for two critical sites of standoff: Arafat’s compound in Ramallah and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where roughly 30 fighters had taken refuge along with scores of town residents. The siege on Arafat, for the umpteenth time, was a symbol of Sharon’s power to impose house arrest on him in full view of the international community. This time, however, the physical invasion of the compound suggested that Sharon was going to move to capture his prey at last. In the most unexpected event of the whole uprising, a ragtag group of international solidarity activists walked past Israeli tanks to offer themselves as a voluntary protection force. They may indeed have saved Arafat. Ostensibly, Sharon’s siege on Arafat aimed to compel him to turn over six fugitives being held inside: four men implicated in the assassination of former Minister of Tourism Rehavam Zeevi, plus Ahmad Saadat, secretary general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Fuad Shobaki, the alleged paymaster for the Karine A weapons ship intercepted by Israel in January.

The US Brokers Another Exit

Beginning before September 11, US rhetoric increasingly condemned Arafat while lauding Sharon. On the occasions when the US did intervene to forestall Sharon’s escalating military attacks in the Occupied Territories, it was mostly motivated by overriding concerns elsewhere, in Afghanistan and Iraq. The dilemma for the Bush administration is all too clear. On the one hand, after September 11 its main foreign policy doctrine calls for an uncompromising war on terrorism, a project whose support depends on its powerful Christian Zionist right and neo-conservative constituencies. The upcoming Congressional elections in November are always a time to bow to the pro-Israel lobby. On the other hand, the White House needs to rally various Arab regimes for the planned military campaigns against Iraq and perhaps Iran. US actions toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, described by some observers as “zig-zags,” can best be understood as attempts to maneuver between these two profoundly contradictory agendas.

While in the period leading up to Defensive Shield, there was much talk in Washington of an “alternative” to Arafat’s leadership, US efforts to extricate him from the Ramallah governorate once again affirmed that the US sees itself as stuck with him. For the first three days of Defensive Shield, the State Department confined itself to statements supporting Israel’s “right to self-defense.” Finally on April 4 Bush began to demand that Israel withdraw. The lack of conviction in Bush’s demand was obvious and further underlined by his comments at the same time that “it is essential for peace in the region and the world that we root out terrorist activities and condemn those activities [suicide bombings] in the name of religion as simple terror.” More than a green light, the US seemed to be giving Sharon its stamp of approval for rooting out the Palestinian “terrorist infrastructure.” Regarding Arafat, Bush asserted, “The situation he finds himself in is largely of his own making.” In an attempt at balance, he added, “Consistent with the Mitchell plan, Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank must stop and the occupation must end through withdrawal to secure and recognized boundaries consistent with UN resolution 242 and 338,” and announced that he would be dispatching Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region.

Powell then spent more than a week traveling throughout the Middle East and Europe on his way to Tel Aviv, in what appeared to be a ruse to allow Sharon to continue with his campaign undeterred. Concurrently, the US pursued what can only be construed as an activist approach through the UN Security Council. During Bush’s first three days of silence, the Security Council passed Resolution 1402, which called for “the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian cities, including Ramallah.” This was followed on April 12 by Kofi Annan’s call for a peacekeeping force to go to the Occupied Territories, and finally the passage of Resolution 1405, which “welcomed Annan’s initiative” to form a fact-finding commission to investigate the alleged war crimes that occurred during the Israeli invasion of the Jenin refugee camp. Clearly, none of this could have happened except with US approval. The use of the UN seemed to be an indirect means by which the Bush administration could embarrass Sharon internationally, imposing some “red lines” on his actions. Most importantly, with the formation of the fact-finding commission on Jenin, the US now had a clear means to leverage Sharon without having to take the domestic responsibility for having done so.

The overall US approach bespoke the existence of a scenario if not a strategy. Given that the Palestinian leader and PA security services were more than ever physically and politically incapable of undertaking the requisite “crackdown” on the Palestinian resistance, they would allow Sharon to undertake the job himself. Once Sharon had broken the back of the resistance, the US could then move Arafat and what remained of the security services back into policing Palestine on behalf of Israel in exchange for re-entry into a negotiating process.

Face-Saving Formulas

But a number of complications arose for the US scenario. First, Sharon attacked Jibril Rajoub’s Preventive Security Services headquarters outside Ramallah early in the invasion. The assault on this force — well-known for having stayed out of the resistance so as to implement whatever crackdown might be needed later — was a blatant ploy by Sharon to make any future security cooperation with the PA an impossibility. The Americans rushed in to negotiate the release of more than 400 people in the building, allowing Sharon to walk off with six Hamas detainees who had been kept there.

The other problem was that Sharon, having Arafat in his sights, was refusing to let him go. At first, it was feared that Sharon would try to physically capture Arafat, and then imprison or deport him. A more frightening scenario was that, in the ensuing melee, Arafat would be “accidentally” killed or choose to go down as the Palestinian Allende rather than survive under the humiliation that Sharon had in store for him. Thus Powell’s equivocation about meeting Arafat quickly switched to commitment to do so — to make clear that the US once again had made Arafat’s removal a red line. The standoff at the Ramallah compound was turned into the issue of the fugitives being held there under protective custody. Sharon, ignoring an earlier US-brokered agreement that the fugitives should be tried in a Palestinian court and taken into Palestinian custody, demanded their extradition — once again making a demand that he knew was impossible for Arafat. The Americans at first seemed to renege on their earlier position. Then, perhaps grasping the implications of such a move for Arafat, they supported the surreal “state security” trial of the wanted men thrown together at the besieged compound. By the even more surreal deal that followed, the men would serve their sentences in Jericho prison, under the guard of British and American “supervisors.”

This formula was worked out with the Palestinians. Now how would the US get Sharon to agree to it? As is now public knowledge (admitted by Sharon himself), it was no coincidence that Arafat was released from the compound on May 2, immediately following Kofi Annan’s May 1 decision to disband the Jenin fact-finding team. In an attempt to assuage the anger of his right-wing coalition at Arafat’s release, Sharon openly tried to sell the deal as victory in stopping the feared UN commission. Summing up what happened more bluntly, Amir Oren commented in the May 3 Ha’aretz that “the Ramallah-for-Jenin deal proved that Israelis are stronger than Palestinians and Americans are more powerful than Israelis.”

The last remaining problem was the siege at the Church of the Nativity. Domestic concerns made it difficult for Sharon to step down from the impasse at the Church, even though in terms of international media coverage the situation had become an albatross. This time, the Palestinian leadership offered Sharon a face-saving exit that could be sold as a victory. Brokered finally on May 7 by Muhammad Rashid, the overseer of Arafat’s “economic portfolios,” the deal allowed Sharon to send into exile approximately 30 fighters who were at the core of the standoff. With this, Sharon got international legitimation of the right to “transfer” Palestinians whom he deemed enemies of the state.


Sharon may not have removed Arafat through Defensive Shield, but his achievements are by any measure immense. Most significantly, he has erased the last vestiges of the “sanctity” of Area A, the towns transferred to PA control by the Oslo agreements. Since the Israeli pullout from around Arafat’s compound on May 2, there has not been a single day on which Israel did not reinvade a Palestinian city, albeit for much shorter periods. By mid-May, every single one of the towns allegedly evacuated by the IDF after Defensive Shield had been reinvaded at least once, with scant comment from the State Department and barely a mention in the international press. The constant reinvasion of Area A carries a message — Israel is now solely in charge of “security” and does not count on PA cooperation to put down Palestinian resistance. As made painfully clear throughout the interim period and during the intifada, without security cooperation there is no “peace process.” Whether the US is simply allowing these “mop-up” operations to go on until Palestinian security forces are reconstituted has yet to be seen.

As important as the erasure of Area A is the radical but systematic reconfiguration of the geography of the Oslo era, whose incremental achievement has been disguised by the rhetoric of security. Originally, the Oslo process isolated Gaza from the West Bank and split the latter in two with the settlement blocs around East Jerusalem. Barak built on this geography the system of ad hoc sieges around Palestinian towns. Under Sharon, that system has both massively expanded and taken on long-term strategic dimensions. First the IDF tightened sieges around villages, cutting them off from their urban centers. Then the military created “buffer zones” around towns, villages or camps considered too close to settlements, international borders or the Green Line. Finally, following Defensive Shield the West Bank has been formally split into eight separate cantons. Movement from one canton to the next requires Palestinians to obtain a permit from the quietly resurgent Civil Administration. In essence, Area C — the almost 60 percent of the West Bank surrounding Palestinian towns and villages — has expanded and become akin to Israeli sovereign territory. That this system of control has a long-term strategic goal is borne out by the recent finding of the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem that while the actual area of the West Bank taken by Israeli settlements amounts to four percent of the total territory, the municipal boundaries drawn for their expansion comprises 43 percent of the total. Through this new geography, Palestinian communities have become “the settlements” in an Israeli West Bank, and Palestinians have lost the right to move from one of their settlement blocs to the other without Israeli permission. The enforcement of cantonization has been rapid and draconian. The myriad rural tracks that Palestinians have used during the intifada to get around the ever expanding network of checkpoints are daily being bulldozed and blocked. The implications of siege and separation for economic and political life have already been seen throughout the intifada. Now the aim is to entrench this into a regular system in which Palestinians’ basic existence can be fully policed by the IDF and civil administration bureaucracy.

On the political level, the local leaderships of the resistance forces in the West Bank have been gravely weakened and depleted. The political leaderships of the resistance forces — particularly Fatah’s tanzim — have been neutralized, specifically with the abduction and arrest of Marwan Barghouthi. Barghouthi’s importance was both as an intellectual of the resistance, and as one of the few figures able to negotiate between the secular and Islamist factions on the one hand, and with the PA on the other. While this may be one reason Sharon wanted him in jail, Barghouthi also personified a larger political project that was probably more threatening to Sharon’s long-term plans. Barghouthi represented the younger “democratic wave” within Fatah, which believed that a popular resistance strategy against the occupation was the only way to end the occupation and also create a dynamic for internal reform of the political system. In the West Bank, in their differing ways, both Barghouthi and Preventive Security Head, Jibril Rajoub represented the “insider’s” stratum of Fatah that has mediated between the militancy of local cadre and the vagaries of the PA’s survival needs. Thus, the Israelis probably targeted them for common reasons — although obviously Rajoub’s strongman role (versus Barghouthi’s mobilizational one) accounts for his differing fate following Defensive Shield.

While Sharon targeted the very Fatah cadre who, given the right circumstances, could play a role in negotiating an exit from the intifada, he has left the equivalent level of Hamas leadership in Gaza intact. For many, this suggests that Sharon finds the existence of an uncompromising Islamist leadership much less problematic than a pragmatic nationalist one which can continue to garner international support for a Palestinian state. Further, given that at various times Sharon has alluded to the possibility of accepting Palestinian statehood in Gaza only, the continued strength of Hamas there could provide an opportune reason to renege, if such a scenario came closer to fruition.

Critical to Sharon’s project of erasing the last vestiges of Oslo and recharting the whole course of the Occupied Territories back in the direction of building “Greater Israel” is the ability to gather intelligence. The formation of the PA (particularly the security services) and Area A as a safe haven from direct Israeli hegemony created major constraints on Israel’s ability to create its own networks of informers. Such networks had been pivotal to crushing the first intifada. Since the beginning of Defensive Shield, more than 8,000 Palestinians have been taken into custody with almost 2,200 still remaining there. The scale of the arrests and interrogations has already provided a significant amount of intelligence that has enabled the military to make numerous arrests and assassinations in its now almost daily incursions into West Bank towns and villages. Up until the first intifada, the control of Palestinians under occupation was fundamentally built on the power of permits and collaborators as well as the synergy between the two. Thus, this regained intelligence-gathering capacity not only has immediate effects in terms of destroying what remains of resistance, but with the current reinstatement of an even more crushing permit system, it suggests a return to the old nexus of control over the population as a whole.

Reform Talk

Internal reform of the PA has been a constant and dominant call by Palestinian intellectuals and various political factions throughout the interim period and at various junctures during the intifada. [2] Only two days after Arafat’s release from the Ramallah compound, Hani al-Masri commented: “There seems to be a consensus for reform and change. It is now a demand from above, from below, from inside the PA and among some sectors of the opposition as well as among the people.” [3] Masri is alluding to what makes the current reform talk different from previous rounds: the unlikely convergence of calls for reform of the PA emanating simultaneously from the US, Sharon, leadership figures within the Authority itself and a wide range of democratic opposition individuals and groups throughout Palestinian society. With such a contradictory array of actors calling for reform, it is clear that the term represents a situation of collective impasse. Not one of the contending forces in the conflict is able to make a move dramatic enough to terminate the dynamics of the last 20 months. At the same time a new status quo has yet to be found.

Obviously, behind the various calls for reform are radically different agendas. Sharon’s stated support for PA reform is fundamentally a ploy to buy time. Where he once vowed “no negotiations before seven days of calm,” he can now promise no negotiations until an open-ended period of necessary reform is completed. For the US, talk of reform is perhaps the starkest indicator that the White House sees no alternative to Arafat, while their public criminalization of him does not allow them to advocate a simple return to his leadership. The Bush administration seems to be hoping for a version of Arafat and the PA which can be brought fully and finally under US and Arab tutelage. Thus the US reform platform consists of constraining Arafat’s “guns and butter strategy” — recommending economic reforms that will do away with the leadership’s “financial flexibility” so that it will no longer be capable of bankrolling armed resistance through various slush funds. Simultaneous to “unifying national accounts” is the unification of “security forces,” such that there is no possibility that some security forces (such as Force 17 and Preventive Security in Gaza) may once again take up arms against the occupation. A less likely part of the White House formula would be to have Arafat’s authority watered down by more trustworthy and respectable actors — perhaps a prime minister or a high-profile cabinet with which the US can have public dealings. Even without the latter, Arafat’s loss of financial control and the installation of one strong security chief would in themselves weaken his monopoly on power.

Power Struggles

The Palestinian debate on reform encompasses an almost limitless range of agendas both personal and political. On the one hand, it serves as a stand-in for the power struggles within the PA elite. This stream is represented by figures such as Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Minister for Legislative Affairs Nabil Amr, who were once part of Arafat’s inner circle but have lately been marginalized. For them, along with others such as Jibril Rajoub, the immediate backdrop to their entry into the reform debate was what happened to the decision-making process during Arafat’s siege. As Rajoub pointedly stated in an interview with the London-based al-Hayat: “the Israelis put Abu Ammar under siege, stripped away the leadership and allowed freedom of movement for only three or four people, and there occurred a clear attempt to confiscate the political, security, economic and media decisions away from the Palestinian people with an Israeli tank.” Here he refers less to Israel than to the troika of Muhammad Dahlan (Gaza security chief), Muhammad Rashid and Hasan Asfour, who were the only PA figures regularly allowed to enter the compound after Powell’s visit, for all intents and purposes becoming the central decision-makers, instead of the regular expanded “Palestinian leadership” that encompasses a diverse range of PA and PLO figures. Thus they are motivated by fear for their political extinction, either at the hands of an “American coup” or through marginalization by Arafat.

Even before Arafat was released from the compound, Amr made public announcements calling for the creation of a new government and the need for sweeping reforms. In a show of seriousness, he quit his post as minister (the only one to do so thus far). In a long interview in al-Ayyam on May 7, Abu Mazen similarly asserted the need for “radical reform of everything.” But his proposals clearly aimed to re-center power in Fatah’s old guard, taking it away from the neophytes currently comprising Arafat’s inner circle (such as Dahlan, Asfour and Rashid) and also from the Fatah street that has heavily influenced the leadership during the intifada. [4] Like Nabil Amr, Abu Mazen threw into his agenda all things American: reorganization of the security forces and control, coordination and transparency in financial matters. Both called for new elections for the legislative council, but Amr, being a member of it, put greater weight on its potentially transformative role.

Amr and Abu Mazen exemplify the way that various upper-level figures in and around the leadership are exploiting the reform issue — seemingly a win-win game. With reform, one can be both populist and squarely in the American camp. Additionally, one can posit a version of reform that is likely to give one more power. Finally, reform for such figures means that one can strike an “oppositional” pose while attempting to recoup one’s lost ground within the existing power structure. The problem, of course, is that everyone else sees what the game is. Such men have little or no popular credibility, and consistently have been seen as anti-resistance figures who prefer to deliver Palestinian destiny fully into the hands of the US. Additionally, the skirmishes among figures in the leadership have played out very publicly; the self-interested nature of their agendas is more than obvious.

Groundswell from Below

Even without US demands for reform, the PA would have been compelled to respond to the groundswell of calls for change that followed the invasion. On the day that Arafat was released from the compound, the factions called the first Popular Conference in a year in Ramallah. The mood of the public was clear. If not a final defeat, the invasion was a severe blow that called into question some of the basic modes of operation of both the factions and the leadership. During Defensive Shield, the ad hoc approach of the PA, added to the unaccountable and undisciplined resistance, had almost led to catastrophe. While many participants condemned Hamas for following its own agenda through suicide bombings, more thoughtful analysts laid the blame on a national unity that brought together a resistance composed of opposing and counterproductive strategies and aims. But the bulk of criticism was aimed at the PA leadership, or more specifically its absence.

The personal bravery that Arafat exhibited under siege could not compensate for the chaos and negligence that was the product of his one-man rule. Ironically, the same images that attested to his bravery (alone with trusted bodyguards in the remnants of his shelled headquarters surrounded by Israeli troops) also raised a crucial question. If the destiny of the entire nation had become pinned on this one figure (who had come to embody both the PA and the PLO), what would have happened if he had met his demise? The invasion brought into sharp relief the fact that Arafat’s whole strategy of rule — built on thwarting the development of institutional forms of representative decision-making, as well as governance and the law — had led to a severe mishandling of the national crisis. More ominously, in the event that Sharon had succeeded in killing or exiling Arafat, the population and the national project could have been left without any institutions and systemic forms of leadership at a time when it was most critical to have both.

Hence the call for reform has become more urgent and comprehensive than ever. It is the topic of a daily stream of editorials in the local papers, and the subject of a plethora of meetings, conferences and roundtables organized by independent political figures and academics. The current talk builds on the legacy of the consistent attempts during the interim period by various reformists within and without the legislative council to transform the system of rule into an accountable system of governance. But now these older arguments have the long list of the PA’s failings during the intifada to propel them forward. That list starts with the inability of government institutions to provide for the most basic needs and services of the population over the past 20 months. It includes the record of security forces that had no operational strategy for dealing with the invasion and whose officers were in most cases nowhere to be seen. Finally, it includes the leadership’s repeated discarding of political ethics when attempting to bargain itself out of a corner — most recently exemplified by the blueprint for exile of the Palestinian resistance provided by the Church of the Nativity agreement.

Reform or Resistance

But it is the debates about reform emanating from outside the PA which most dramatically express the dilemmas posed by such an agenda during the current crisis. While united in the need for change, these oppositional voices fall into two camps: one focused on reform of government, and the other pushing for the reorganization and reformulation of a resistance strategy. The first camp tends to focus their proposals on the implementation of a series of laws that have been around for quite a long time — the constitution-like Basic Law, and legislation providing for an independent judiciary and the separation of powers. These reformists tend to see the entrenchment of law as the main mechanism for change. Additionally, they focus on the consolidation of democratic decision-making and oversight of the executive through empowerment of the legislative council on the basis of new elections. They tend to be trenchantly critical of the resistance continuing in any armed form and perceive that a survival mode is all that is possible. While distancing themselves from the US reform agenda, their underlying assumption is that the legitimacy that comes from democracy will serve to keep the international community committed to finding a way forward for Palestinian statehood.

The other trend puts the main priority on continued resistance and does not see that reform of government can accomplish this. Exemplary of this trend are intellectuals such as Hani al-Masri, and activists such as Azmi Shuaibi, who propose visions for change in which reform becomes a process of correcting what was wrong with the leadership and strategies of the intifada and developing a reformed resistance to end the occupation.

Both have suggested a clear and formal division of labor between the PA and the PLO. The PA, as government, would provide basic civic services to the population, while the structures of the PLO would be handed the reins of both resistance and negotiations. In Shuaibi’s view, the PA’s role should be minimized, so as to lend greatest weight to re-democratized PLO structures in advancing the national liberation strategy. Haidar Abd al-Shafi is another voice within this stream — although his proposals are more vague. The respected independent elder statesman has called for a complete review of the strategies of the intifada as the starting point, leading to a unified national vision and resistance strategy that will end the occupation. Abd al-Shafi is critical of suicide attacks inside Israel’s borders and the lack of a shared strategy among the resistance and leadership, but is simultaneously critical of calls for elections and return to negotiations. Each of these reform proposals suffers from the same lack of clear programmatic content, and as importantly neither assesses the scope of action still available to the resistance and the leadership during the current period.

The Dilemma

The main components of a reform process of the PA were originally clarified during the interim period when the formation of the Authority’s institutions of governance went hand in hand with negotiations as the strategic means to achieve liberation and statehood. Back then, it was argued that internal reform would actualize the potential of these new institutions of rule through a democratic transition which would confer greater power and legitimacy in the hands of the leadership in the negotiating process. Now the political environment that sustained Oslo has dissolved and the PA has been shorn of even the originally limited powers it had. Given the new context, the reform of these institutions as such provides nothing in addressing the overwhelming challenge of the occupation’s ever expanding hegemony.

However, as has been seen over the past few months, armed resistance in the presence of the PA can only lead to the latter’s demise. To avert this, the leadership had originally attempted a chaotic version of what Shuaibi and al-Masri are suggesting: the formal structures of the PA stood back and allowed the PLO structures (through the secular factions) to undertake armed resistance. But the factions, abetted by the new national unity with Hamas, had neither a unified resistance strategy nor a unified political program. Fueled by valid rage at the scale and relentlessness of Israeli brutality against their cadres and the population, they confused their objectives. Instead of trying to galvanize the Israeli public against the occupation with attacks on soldiers and perhaps settlers, the resistance focus on defeating Sharon (by proving him incapable of delivering security to Israelis inside the Green Line) profoundly backfired. Attacks inside Israel almost resulted in the destruction of the PA, and significantly undermined the legitimacy of Palestinians’ cause among large sectors of Western public opinion, while uniting the Israeli public on the right. The only resistance strategy possible now is one that could seek to recapture lost legitimacy.

Arafat had played a game of brinkmanship with Sharon over the existence of the PA, but massively miscalculated. He probably assumed that at some point a grave event would impel some type of international intervention and never calculated that Sharon could have come so close to destroying the Authority. Moreover, the grim scenario that would ensue from the PA’s full reversion to a national liberation movement in the Occupied Territories is now painfully clear. As such, the leadership sees little alternative but to go along with some version of the American agenda, and to throw its weight back into the limiting but presently life-sustaining structures of the PA while waiting for the toothless “international conference” they are offering in the summer. This makes all the more sense, given that the acknowledged weakness of the security forces allows for a return to US patronage without having to attempt crackdowns on the resistance in the context of Sharon’s daily incursions.

But besides ensuring the physical existence of the leadership and the façade of its institutions within what remains of Area A, US patronage has little else to offer. For the population, which has suffered immense losses and strains to survive without help or protection in the face of constant attack and ever expanding restrictions, the PA’s survival becomes perceived as irrelevant, if not a burden. A common refrain is that the loss of the PA might have been better. Perhaps it would finally have led to international intervention, or at least a return to the stark clarity of occupation that would make popular resistance possible again. In the meantime, the leadership attempts to placate the public with promises of internal reform in the form of physically impossible elections (with the promised dates and conditions under which they are to occur constantly changing). It will fire a group of ministers and replace most of them with more acceptable figures. Beyond this, it will soon be relegated to asserting itself as the Authority by battling with international donors over the right to be the conduit for emergency food aid to the destitute population.


 [1] See Middle East Report Online, Intifada in the Aftermath, by Rema Hammami, October 30, 2001, accessible online.

 [2] See Rema Hammami and Jamil Hilal, “Uprising at a Crossroads,” Middle East Report 219 (Summer 2001).

 [3] al-Ayyam, May 4, 2002.

 [4] In an obvious swipe at Muhammad Rashid, Abu Mazen decried the fact that all sorts of figures were going in front of cameras to represent the PA. Such a situation, he said, is untenable.

How to cite this article:

Rema Hammami "Interregnum," Middle East Report 223 (Summer 2002).

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