Israel has launched a comprehensive war of attrition in the Occupied Territories, whose objective is a decisive military victory leading to prolonged interim arrangements dictated by Israel. Facing these overwhelming odds, the Palestinians remain plagued by a crisis of leadership that has already exacted a high price indeed.

As the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation enters its third year, the sense of crisis is pervasive. Strategic and tactical in nature, the crisis is military, political and socio-economic in character, and domestic, regional and international in scope. The depth of the Palestinian predicament suggests that the uprising could suffer a defeat that will take with it not only the limited achievements of the Palestinian Authority (PA) — circumscribed self-government in the West Bank and Gaza — but the more substantial ones of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as well. Even the prospect of mass expulsions of Palestinians is again a regular topic of discussion.

Such dire predictions are at present premature, but the continued absence of change will in due course make them all too real. The Palestinian leadership has failed to organize, mobilize and deploy the resources at its disposal in a way that could meaningfully influence the actions and policies of Israel, the Arab states and the international community. The Palestinians, decidedly the weaker party in the continued confrontation with Israel, can ill afford this crisis of leadership, which is extracting an increasingly high — and visible — price.

Strategic Predicament

From the outset, the uprising has been plagued by the absence of unified leadership, strategic clarity or tactical consistency. Instead, a variety of autonomous political forces simultaneously pursued differing tactics serving contradictory strategies, undermining each other in the process.

The PA, determined to achieve Palestinian statehood as part of a negotiated permanent settlement with Israel, simply shunned the command role normally exercised by political leadership in times of crisis. Unwilling to lead a rebellion it is unable to control, and seeking to avoid the domestic and international consequences of asserting formal command, it related to the uprising as an autonomous phenomenon of primarily tactical significance. At times the PA condones or encourages an escalation in fighting to improve its bargaining position, and at others it counsels or enforces restraint to demonstrate its authority. The PA is consistent only in claiming credit for any achievements and shirking responsibility for failures. The PA security forces, under strict instructions not to participate as an organized force except for purposes of territorial self-defense (and often not even that), covertly assist and overtly obstruct Palestinian paramilitary formations as the occasion demands. Ambivalent in attitude toward both the political factions and the population it rules, the PA has for all intents and purposes voluntarily disqualified itself from providing genuine leadership.

In visible contrast to the PA, the emerging generation of Fatah cadres seized upon the uprising as a strategy. By assuming leadership of the rebellion during its early stages, sustaining and militarizing it, Fatah transformed it into a war of attrition with which to vanquish the Israeli occupation and eclipse the discredited PA/PLO elite. By presenting itself as the main agent of Palestinian independence, Fatah also sought to reclaim from the Islamist movement its role as leader of Palestinian resistance to Israel. But Fatah could not subordinate either the PA or the other political factions to its agenda, nor did it sufficiently mobilize the civilian Population — deficiencies that reflect the party’s notorious fractiousness. Hence Fatah has neither the advantage of strategic hegemony nor the popular base required to prosecute a successful guerrilla war.

Hamas did not stand idly by and applaud Fatah’s renewed militancy. Rather, the Islamist movement used the freedom created by the uprising to rebuild its infrastructure and launch an armed campaign that consciously went well beyond that espoused by Fatah. Where Fatah confined its attacks to the Occupied Territories, Hamas upstaged its nationalist rivals by retaliating against Israeli killings within the West Bank and Gaza Strip with bombings in Israel. [1] It was a tactic guaranteed to score with a Palestinian public enraged by the actions of the Israeli military, devastated by the tightening siege and left in the lurch by both its own leaders and the international community. Popular support emboldened Hamas to periodically derail diplomatic initiatives which would have strengthened the PA at its expense and, eventually, saw Fatah expand its own operations across the pre-1967 boundaries. The timing of major Hamas attacks has led a number of Palestinian commentators to suggest that its military decision-making structures have been infiltrated by Israeli security. A more logical explanation is that escalations that systematically weaken the PA and steal Fatah’s thunder are consistent with the agenda of the radical faction within the Hamas leadership, which believes the movement is prepared for power. More generally, Hamas is convinced that the systematic disruption of normal life within Israel — with its attendant socio-economic consequences — is the most effective method of forcing an end to the occupation.

War of Attrition

Such convictions notwithstanding, the June 1, 2001 Hamas bombing of a Tel Aviv discotheque turned the tables on both the PA and Fatah. Capitalizing on international outrage at an attack which killed 12 teenagers and 9 others — and confident in the knowledge that the world condemns Israeli casualties but only regrets Palestinian ones — the coalition government led by Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres shed any remaining pretense of seeking a negotiated political settlement. [2] Instead, Israel launched a comprehensive war of attrition against the Palestinians, whose objective is a decisive military victory leading to prolonged interim arrangements dictated by Israel. During the following year, Israel’s campaign of creeping escalation, assisted at critical junctures by deliberate footdragging and calculated provocations — and throughout by increasingly unqualified US support — transformed Sharon’s agenda of eliminating the PA from an implicit threat to an explicit reality.

By July 2002, Israel had effectively destroyed the PA’s civil and military infrastructure and reoccupied all West Bank territory under PA jurisdiction with the exception of Jericho. Washington had thwarted regional and international efforts to revive Middle East diplomacy, and adopted Israel’s agenda of promoting “a new and different Palestinian leadership” whose primary function would be to ensure Israeli security. Then, as if the negotiations initiated in Oslo a decade earlier had never happened, Israeli officials proposed an agreement in which Palestinians would exercise their authority in Gaza and Bethlehem first.

Some presumed that the political fallout of the September 11 attacks in the US would seal the occupation’s fate, but the Palestinians’ incoherent response to the changed geopolitical reality frustrated their efforts to transform the Bush administration’s unprecedented yet vague “vision” of a Palestinian state into a concrete program. Simultaneously, the crisis of Palestinian leadership facilitated Israel’s efforts to fold its colonial war into the US “war on terrorism” and obtain explicit American support for the further consolidation of its rule. The Bush administration’s approval of the prolonged occupation of West Bank PA enclaves was outflanked on the right by House Majority Leader Dick Armey’s suggestion in May that Israel could expel Palestinians from the West Bank and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s repeated references in August to the “so-called occupied territories.” Indeed, US and Israeli interests have become so intimately intertwined during the past year that increased political pressure on the Palestinians and the isolation of Syria are considered important motives for a US invasion of Iraq, while traditional US client states which have otherwise supported its efforts to destroy the al-Qaeda network are recast as adversaries on account of their antagonism to Israel. [3]

The Search for Consensus

Clearly, effective coordination between the PA, Fatah and Hamas is a precondition for any Palestinian attempt to overcome such overwhelming odds. To date, the most concrete attempt to achieve a Palestinian consensus has been the formation of the National and Islamic Forces (NIF). Established at Fatah’s initiative during the early stages of the uprising and led by it since, this broad coalition of 14 political factions and several civic organizations coordinates the uprising in the spirit of the United National Leadership of the Uprising (UNLU) during the 1987-1993 intifada. In practice, the NIF has sought to exert strategic pressure upon the PA to reject partial or transitional agreements and respect the right of the factions to continue the uprising, tactical pressure upon the opposition to refrain from actions that undermine or endanger the PA and popular pressure through the organized mobilization of key sectors of the civilian population. However, because the PA does not accept the NIF as a supervisory authority, the factions do not consider themselves bound by its decisions, and the civic organizations represent institutional rather than popular interests, the NIF has achieved only limited success. [4]

Confronted with this dilemma, an increasing number of Palestinian activists, including Haidar Abd al-Shafi and the imprisoned Marwan Barghouthi, secretary-general of Fatah in the West Bank, have since early 2001 been calling for the formation of a national unity government. Such a government would combine the PA and NIF, and be empowered to adopt binding resolutions on political strategy and resistance tactics. Accepted in principle by its envisaged members, the national unity government has nevertheless failed to materialize. Yasser Arafat has proposed coopting the NIF factions into the PA cabinet by providing their leaders with ministerial posts, but the NIF has insisted that a common political program be formulated first.

Against this background, and with the assistance of European diplomats, in July 2002 Fatah brokered a preliminary understanding with Hamas, which among other items called for a termination of all attacks within Israel and a continuation of the uprising within the Occupied Territories. The initiative, which was more promising than the PA’s unilateral ceasefires because it “originated in the [Fatah] tanzim itself,” [5] was nonetheless sabotaged by the Sharon-Ben Eliezer government, a mere 90 minutes before its scheduled proclamation on July 22, when an F-16 fighter dropped a one-ton bomb upon a residential building in Gaza’s al-Daraj neighborhood, killing Hamas military wing founder Salah Shehada, 11 children and five others.

Efforts to achieve a national consensus on Palestinian objectives, strategy and tactics have since resumed, most visibly in Gaza under NIF auspices. [6] Given the depth of the current crisis, such efforts are likely eventually to bear fruit. If Hamas refuses to explicitly ratify the outcome, it will be presented the option of supporting it tacitly in order to keep it on board. Similarly, the factions will not be expected to indefinitely adhere to Israeli-Palestinian security arrangements independently negotiated by the PA that do not result in timely and visible progress. Given the recalcitrance of both the PA and Hamas toward a formal partnership, the available alternatives for a modus vivendi, and the growing field alliance between the various NIF factions, the establishment of a Palestinian coalition government, however, remains unlikely.

Yet, achieving consensus is only one element of the Palestinian challenge. Another is maintaining it in an environment of severe pressure upon the PA to either dismantle militant paramilitary formations or be dismantled itself, and extreme provocation by an Israeli government determined to crush the prospect for a coherent and purposeful Palestinian strategy — not least one facilitated by European diplomats that endorses continued attacks upon Israeli occupation forces.

The threat of such a collapse is all the more real in view of the current momentum in Israeli-Palestinian relations. Since its advent, the Sharon government has consistently followed a “strategy of blocking political negotiations until the fulfillment of a long and — in the view of many international observers — deliberately unrealistic list of demands.” [7] Because the success of such incremental security plans depends upon a decisive confrontation between the PA and the factions, their failure can be reduced to “Arafat’s refusal to confront terror” and thus serve as the launching pad for renewed Israeli escalation. [8] Either scenario leaves Israel strengthened and the Palestinians weakened. Indeed, from the moment the PA accepted the precedence of Israeli security interests through its endorsement of the May 2001 Mitchell Report, [9] the downward spiral of increasingly lopsided understandings facilitating increasingly comprehensive Israeli military offensives was all but inevitable. Today Palestinians are confronting the calamitous consequences of the PA’s inability to withstand international pressure, and the NIF’s failure to prosecute the uprising in a manner which does not place the PA on the defensive at key political junctures.


With only the briefest of intervals, since March 2002 all West Bank PA enclaves except the town of Jericho have been fully reoccupied by the Israeli military. Israeli conduct during this period has been designed to reduce the PA to a formality, wipe out the factions and break the will of the Palestinian civilian population.

Although Israel has succeeded in thoroughly immobilizing the PA as a political institution and administrative apparatus, it has withheld the coup de grace for a number of reasons. Concerns about the international response are only secondary in this respect. More importantly, neither Israel nor the US has succeeded in cultivating a viable Palestinian alternative to Arafat. Faced with the prospect of a leadership vacuum being filled by a decentralized, cross-factional alliance of militant paramilitaries, they have opted to neuter the PA from within through a series of “reforms.” The transparently political motives of Washington’s sudden obsession with Palestinian democracy and good governance was most recently demonstrated when it pressed the PA to revise its system of government from the current presidential one, which it concluded only preserves Arafat’s authority and legitimacy, to a parliamentary one leading to the indirect selection of a powerful executive prime minister.

Of even greater relevance from Israel’s point of view is that it can exploit the continued existence of a Palestinian authority to avoid direct responsibility for the civil affairs of the Palestinian population. Thus, the Israeli military can pursue policies of prolonged, comprehensive siege and curfew that, according to the World Bank, USAID and others, have resulted in critical and unprecedented levels of unemployment, poverty and child malnutrition, [10] and put forward the claim that dealing with the consequences is the responsibility of the PA and international donors.

Given that residents of Nablus have been permitted out of their homes for less than 40 hours in a period of 65 consecutive days, that villagers remain cut off from urban centers where most vital services are located and that Palestinians are being arrested by the thousands while their homes are demolished by the dozens, it would be no exaggeration to state that in the summer of 2002 Palestinians are subject to a level of collective punishment unseen since Amram Mitzna, a new candidate for leadership of the Labor Party, was military commander of the West Bank during the first years of the 1987-1993 intifada.

Other practices that prompted strong international criticism during Operation Defensive Shield in the spring of 2002 have also persisted during the ongoing Operation Determined Path, though the critics are now more muted. On a regular basis, militants are hunted down and killed by Israeli forces in apparent extrajudicial executions. The Israeli army has continued to use Palestinian civilians as human shields, as exposed in Tubas on August 14 when Nidal Daraghma, 17, was killed during his enforced participation in an effort to eliminate his neighbor, Hamas activist Nasir Jarrar. Jarrar, missing three of four limbs and bound to a wheelchair, was killed either by artillery fire directed at his home, or when an armored Israeli bulldozer reduced its remnants to rubble with him still inside.

Israel has followed each of its failures to “end” the uprising by military force with the deployment of greater and more indiscriminate levels of violence. Palestinians, for their part, appear to be concluding that their own resort to systematic armed violence — particularly attacks which target civilians within Israeli cities — has blurred the character of their anticolonial revolt in the court of international public opinion, and deprived them of crucial support in their confrontation with an otherwise more powerful adversary. The future of the current uprising, and perhaps of the contemporary Palestinian national movement as a whole, is more likely than not to be determined by the ability of Palestinian leadership to formulate and implement a coherent strategy of resistance, based upon the premises that not all actions in support of a just cause are necessarily legitimate, and that not all legitimate actions are necessarily shrewd.


 [1] The first Hamas attack within Israel during the current uprising occurred on March 28, 2001, by which time Israel had killed 398 Palestinians (almost a third of them children, including 16 pre-teens). For Palestinian casualties see; for Israeli ones consult .

 [2] Since September 28, 2000, the US government has not once explicitly condemned an Israeli killing of a Palestinian. This double standard extends, in varying degrees, to the UN Security Council, the European Union and even major international human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch.

 [3] See, for example, Jason Vest, “The Men from JINSA and CSP,” The Nation, September 2, 2002; Brian Whitaker, “Selective Memri,” Guardian, August 12, 2002; Brian Whitaker, “US Think Tanks Give Lessons in Foreign Policy,” Guardian, August 19, 2002. In the words of Wesley Clark, former NATO commander in Europe: “Those who favor this attack now will tell you candidly, and privately, that it is probably true that Saddam Hussein is no threat to the United States. But they are afraid at some point he might decide, if he had a nuclear weapon, to use it against Israel.” The Independent, August 21, 2002. The Nuclear Posture Review leaked in March characterized an attack upon Israel — a nuclear power with which the US has no formal defense treaty — as justification for a US nuclear response. Los Angeles Times, March 10, 2002.

 [4] A further complication is the occasional inability of the factions’ political leaderships — especially Fatah—to exercise authority over affiliated paramilitary formations.

 [5] Al-Ahram Weekly, August 1-7, 2002.

 [6] Washington Post, August 14, 2002; Ha’aretz, August 12, 2002; al-Ahram Weekly, August 15-21, 2002. While the Gaza deliberations are formally being undertaken by an NIF “Higher Follow-Up Committee,” the discussions have included a number of prominent legislative council members and individuals associated with the PA and PLO as well.

 [7] The Independent, August 26, 2002.

 [8]  In the words of one senior Israeli official, “Either they [the PA] fight against Hamas, or against us. There’s no other way.” Ha’aretz, August 25, 2002.

 [9] Mouin Rabbani, “The Mitchell Report: Oslo’s Last Gasp?” MERIP Press Information Note 59, June 1, 2001.

 [10]  Washington Post, August 6, 2002.

How to cite this article:

Mouin Rabbani "The Costs of Chaos in Palestine," Middle East Report 224 (Fall 2002).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This