Palestinian Debate

Lori Allen is to be congratulated for tackling head on the thorny issue of uses and abuses of violence in the Arab-Israeli conflict (“Palestinians Debate ‘Polite’ Resistance to Occupation,” MER 225). But she has missed the mark in crucial areas.

One gets the impression from Allen that in Palestine today the debate about resistance strategies is divided along such lines as “the masses vs. the intellectuals,” or “the street vs. the elite.” She includes several animated quotations from representatives of the “street,” while the few intellectuals quoted, by contrast, seem very apologetic about their attitudes. Allen concludes: “The fact that local theories [about why some Palestinians argue for non-violent resistance] emphasize the class factor points to, first, a lack of trust between ‘the street’ and some section of ‘the intellectuals.’…Those who are sacrificing themselves for ‘the struggle,’ often those who describe themselves as having little to lose, feel unsupported or even disrespected by the intellectuals and the well-heeled.”

This argument is rather simplistic, and in some ways deceptive. It does not give the reader an indication of the scope and nature of the debate over violence and non-violence, nor of who the contestants are. It tends to conflate opposition to suicide bombings among the quoted intellectuals with opposition to resistance in general, and armed resistance in particular. Allen’s generous and extended quotations from “the street” — camp informants and militants of the PFLP — contrast with very selective excerpts from articles by intellectuals indicating that suicide bombing is bad for the Palestinian image.

Allen’s article does not inform the reader that opposition to suicide bombing is far from an intellectual preoccupation. Such opposition is much more extensive than she suggests, and it precedes the “academic” interventions cited in her article. Above all, the call for non-violence is only one component in the debate over resistance strategies. One major reason to oppose suicide bombing is that this practice diffuses and renders impotent alternative forms of resistance, including civil disobedience and “legitimate” armed resistance.

Several months before the articles quoted by Allen appeared, the opinion pages of local newspapers like al-Ayyam and al-Quds were filled with editorials against both suicide bombings and the general militarization of the intifada. Much of this debate actually concerned what type of military strategy Palestinians should employ, rather than the choice between violent and non-violent resistance, as she suggests. The call for non-violent resistance emerged forcefully only after Israel’s second large invasion of the West Bank in the spring of 2002, the so-called Operation Defensive Shield.

More importantly, a proper investigation would have found that the Palestinian street itself is divided on these issues — not only the intellectuals. Virtually all the major political forces, inside the government and in the opposition, Fatah, the Democratic Front, the People’s Party and Fida’, have made public pronouncements critical of suicide bombings. These critical voices include leading legislators and professionals, as well as members of the general public. True, there are major divisions in the street on this issue, as well as among the rank and file of the aforementioned parties, but this is a subsidiary point. Witness the substantial energy invested by leading elements in Fatah, including the imprisoned tanzim commander Marwan Barghouti, to bring about a cross-factional agreement embracing Hamas to stop attacks against Israeli civilians, from the early summer of 2002. This is hardly a situation in which the intellectuals are pitted against the masses.

Opinion polls over the last couple of years reflect schizophrenia in the public debate: first a majority supports “martyrdom operations” and then a majority opposes them. In December 2002, yet another poll indicated that — within the span of three weeks — the street had swung from supporting these operations to 80 percent opposition. One cannot with any intellectual rigor extrapolate from these numbers a coherent picture of “what the street wants.” Nor does using “the street” as a stick to beat intellectuals help in clarifying the issue.

Salim Tamari

Since debating the suicide attacks was one of the main goals of the petition that Lori Allen’s article (MER 225) refers to, in one sense, she helped fulfill the wishes of those who signed the statement. However, Allen’s article belittles the significance of the debate that is taking place in Palestine. The statement she dubs the “petition of the 55” garnered close to 1,000 signatures in a matter of a few days. Those who signed came from all walks of life. They signed for various reasons. A parallel statement with more balanced language, and signed by many leaders and activists, appeared around the same time.

The statements generated real discussion in “the street,” and were not received simply with condemnations of “polite” strategies of intellectuals. The public knew that the question was not whether violence is appropriate in resisting occupation, but whether suicide attacks are a politically and morally acceptable form of resistance. The debate about Palestinian strategy predates the debate about non-violent struggle by decades.

True, the statement referred to by Allen was attacked by the Popular Front as well as by the Islamists, but leading members of Fatah, Fida’ and the People’s Party, as well as a few from the PFLP and the DFLP, signed it. Why not see the statement as part of the general debate in Palestine instead of insinuating that it was anti-Palestinian? Why is it assumed that, by default, being a Palestinian means agreeing to let one faction drag the entire nation into disarray and despair? The statement against suicide attacks was but a small part of the debate that started on day one of the intifada and continues today.

Issam Nassar

Salim Tamari and Issam Nassar highlight important aspects of the Palestinian debate over violent resistance to Israeli occupation, first among which is the fact that the debate is longer and more complicated than a brief, word-limited article could address. In my earlier article, “There Are Many Reasons Why: Suicide Bombers and Martyrs in Palestine” (MER 223), I emphasized exactly the “‘schizophrenia’ in the public debate” that Tamari refers to, and suggested some of the different personal, religious and political reasons that might account for this volatile flux.

“Palestinians Debate ‘Polite Resistance’” focused specifically on “the petition of the 55” (so dubbed by MER’s editor, not me), published in a Palestinian newspaper in June 2002 to call for an end to suicide bombings. My article was not intended to be a comprehensive or historical review of Palestinian debates about violence and non-violent resistance. Rather, it was another effort to provide insight into additional dynamics of this complex debate, this time by offering a glimpse into perspectives of Palestinians who, in general, neither read nor write newspaper articles.

Tamari suggests that a review of al-Ayyam and al-Quds would have been necessary to expose the fault lines of the debate. But the editorial pages of mainstream newspapers in any country reflect local elite opinion — a thorough reading of Palestine’s would not have revealed non-elite reactions to the petition and the moral and political logics upon which they are based.

My article necessarily gave only a truncated view of these concerns, views which were specific to a particular moment. Gandhi referred to the truth as a diamond, the many facets of which no single person is able to see at once. As further evidence of just how quickly the facets of the Palestinian debate turn, are tarnished and wiped clean, I later learned from a head of Shabiba (the Fatah youth movement) that, while the organization, or an individual member of Shabiba, did issue a communiqué condemning Sari Nusseibeh for initiating the petition, a second communiqué was issued which retracted that initial denunciation. Then two members of Shabiba who found work promoting the Nusseibeh-Ayalon plan were “encouraged” by the organization (or particular members) to discontinue their association with Nusseibeh’s office. Surely, countless other intrigues and contested opinions existed at the time I wrote the article, and countless more have emerged since.

A wide range of community leaders and others have indeed been trying to diffuse support for suicide bombs. The question is to what extent, and why, these calls go unheeded. The answer, as I suggest in my article, is at least partially related to the fact that many people do see “the street” and “the elite” as distinct, and sometimes opposing, blocs. While I agree that these are not analytic categories appropriate for academic investigation, it is the case that “the elite” and “the intellectuals” are local categories which many people I talked with use to describe, and in many cases, dismiss, positions certain sectors of the society hold. These categories are salient for people from various walks of life, including Fatah activists from the first and current intifadas, housewives, PFLP leaders and street-fighters, unaffiliated youth, members of the PA, as well as workers in human rights NGOs. My article tried to represent their forms of argumentation. If some see these forms as simplistic, one-sided and based on inaccurate information, they persuade many Palestinians.

My research explores questions arising from this debate, and ponders the terms in which it is being carried out. Who is involved in the construction and contestation of those categories? Who regards them as being in mutual opposition and why? What moral authority do these labels imply? It was never my intention to insinuate that the petition was anti-Palestinian, but rather to try to understand why some people saw it as such. As quotes in “Palestinians Debate” illustrate, opinions of those who have — or who are believed to have, or who are promoted as having — suffered and sacrificed for “the national cause” are accorded respect. Suffering and sacrifice are core values upheld by many nationalisms, and perhaps Palestinian nationalism especially. I hope that the debates about violence and strategy, both those taking place within Palestine and elsewhere, will be enhanced by a more historically nuanced understanding of how these values function, including how they are constructed and exploited, in Palestinian politics.

I am not as sure as Nassar that “the public knew that the statement was not whether violence is an appropriate method of resistance, but whether suicide attacks can be a politically and morally acceptable method.” As Tamari points out, and my research also indicates, there is a blurring in people’s minds of opposition to suicide bombs and opposition to violent resistance in general, a significant confusion which needs to be better understood. One of the most intriguing aspects of the conversations I had with people quoted in my article was the oft-repeated view that non-violence is an insidious tool of Western powers intent on ending resistance to occupation. Discussion often seems to get polarized between the options of pacification and the extreme opposite of suicide bombings, which shows that the occupation is succeeding in setting the terms of the debate. This proves how vital it is to consider not only the fissures which span local party affiliations, but also continents, class and colonialism.

Lori Allen

How to cite this article:

"Letters (Spring 2003)," Middle East Report 226 (Spring 2003).

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