Thirteen weeks after the start of the popular uprising in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip—which right-wing Israeli politicians and a part of the local press still insist on calling the “unrest,” the “events,” the “discrepancies,” the “disorders” in the territories—it is safe to make at least one sweeping generalization. The status quo, which Likud politicians have long regarded as the best of all possible worlds, is shattered forever.
Twenty years of shortsighted Israeli policies lie battered in the streets of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. The writing was on the wall for years, but most Israelis never bothered to read it. Some were distracted by real or imaginary security concerns. The disorienting abstractions of national and international political rhetoric and the ceaseless talk of a nonexistent “peace process,” even among the sensitive, produced a numbness. Self-deception became a prerequisite for survival. Many overlooked the simple fact that since 1967 Israel has not been able to win a war. Other Israelis were blinded by nationalist and religious rhetoric and by the apparent ease and low maintenance costs of a military occupation that for more than two decades has held 1.5 million Palestinians as pawns, or bargaining chips, and as a source of cheap menial labor, while denying them the most basic human rights.
The pawns have now risen to manifest their frustration, their bitterness, and their political will, with a vengeance and determination that surprised everybody in Israel, including themselves and their “leaders” and “spokesmen” in the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization in distant Tunis. The actual uprising appears to have been entirely spontaneous. A bad traffic accident in the Gaza Strip gave rise to wild rumors blaming the Israeli security services for the deaths that took place. The protest demonstrations quickly spilled over to the West Bank. In retrospect it is not surprising that the lid first blew off in Gaza, where the situation is at its most nightmarish. Into this narrow strip of land only some ten kilometers wide and thirty-six kilometers long, where the population density is already among the highest in the world, the Israelis have introduced two thousand Jewish settlers. They live on public or confiscated land in resort-like enclaves surrounded by wretched refugee camps.
In Gaza the social problems seem even more overwhelming than the political ones. The Palestinians living in the strip have been stateless since 1948. Neither Egypt before 1967 nor Israel after 1967 were ready formally to annex the area for fear of burdening themselves with an immense social problem. (The current population of 633,000 is estimated to reach one million by 2004.) The bitterness, hopelessness, and frustration, especially in the refugee camps, are compounded by the results of forty-one years of repression—until 1967 by the Egyptians and since 1967 by the Israeli Army. In Gaza the uprising was marked by strong Islamic fundamentalist feelings reminiscent of those expressed in the Iranian revolts of a decade ago—the new revolts are not …