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The Middle East: Snakes & Ladders

But why did the incident of the tunnel end in a few days while the end of the current Intifada is nowhere in sight? Part of the explanation is that after the tunnel episode the Israeli army drew the conclusion that it had not been adequately prepared, and its leaders then decided to get ready for a future clash. The measures it took—including extensive use of snipers for more deadly attacks—led to its “success”; and that success in the early days of the current Intifada became one of the reasons why it has not ended and why it has now escalated to the point where the Palestinians use mortars and the Israelis fire from gunships.

To explain this, we must take account of the fact that the violent clashes between Israeli forces and the Palestinian protesters and police were much more extensive after Sharon’s visit than after the tunnel crisis. The numbers of Palestinians killed grew daily: five on the first day, ten on the second, and then eight, six, seven, six each day—as compared with two Israeli Jewish deaths during the first week. The discrepancy in the number of wounded is even more dramatic, and it created among the Palestinians a strong sense that they were at a worse disadvantage than before. The Israeli army was now much better prepared and protected; and the ratio of casualties was clearly worse for the Palestinians than it had been during the tunnel crisis. The pressure from Palestinian leaders to respond more forcefully to Israel gradually changed the nature of the uprising; what began as a youth crusade of stone-throwing accompanied by sporadic shooting turned into armed ambushes and semi-military operations, along with increasing numbers of car bombings and suicide bombings by the Palestinians, whether planned by the Palestinian Authority or by Hamas and other groups.

The Palestinians also wanted to extract all the sympathy they could get from press and television, whether in the Middle East or in the rest of the world. Their hope was, and still is, to internationalize the conflict and bring about the intervention of outside peacekeeping forces, as in Kosovo. But for that they would have to be perceived as essentially passive victims who protest by throwing stones and do not engage in savage killing. The horrific picture of the father who could not protect his child from being killed by Israeli snipers was precisely the image the Palestinians wanted to convey. On the other hand, however, there was the strong urge for revenge, and this resulted in the equally horrific picture of a Palestinian mob lynching two Israelis soldiers who ventured by mistake into the town of Ramallah. Paradoxically, the extremely tough and effective state of preparedness of the Israeli army is one of the reasons why the clashes did not stop in a matter of days, as they had in the previous clashes of September 1996.


I believe we are now seeing a full-fledged feud between the two communities, with daily murderous assaults in revenge for the previous day’s injuries and insults. A feud is a backward-looking conflict, more a sacrificial ritual than a political action looking toward the future. Quite apart from the questions of how it all started, and with what political rationale—if there was indeed any rationale—what is taking place now is a feud more than it is anything else. Feuds breed fatalism, and fatalism helps to increase support in Israel for Sharon, for it takes the form of a conviction that peace with the Palestinians can never be achieved. If a cease-fire rather than peace is all that can be hoped for, then for Sharon a cease-fire is nothing more than a period of relief in a long and bloody feud.

Both Israelis and Palestinians would of course vehemently deny that they are engaged in a feud. “The other side—maybe; but not us.” The Israeli argument is simple. A feud, they would say, means a symmetrical cycle of violence, one attack avenging another, but there is no symmetry here. If the Palestinians were to stop the violence tomorrow, there is no question that Israel would stop its violence at once. But if Israel stops the violence tomorrow, there is no chance the Palestinians will stop theirs. This I believe is largely true. But the argument neglects the basic asymmetry between the Israelis and the Palestinians. As things stand, a cease-fire would greatly favor Israel; it would leave the Israelis with their heavily patrolled West Bank and Gaza settlements and their punitive border controls; and it would leave the Palestinians without a state. So as defenders of the status quo ante, the Israelis would be more willing to stop the feud than the Palestinians.

The Palestinians rest their case on what they believe are two asymmetries: an asymmetry in power, in favor of Israel, and an asymmetry in moral standing, in the Palestinians’ favor. They stand for justice, Israel for injustice. As they see it, they are engaged in fighting an occupation, not in a feud. Calling their resistance to occupation a feud, they would say, simply undermines their struggle by imposing on them the stereotype of tribal desert primitives launched on a futile course of endless blood revenge.

To this, there seem to me two answers. First, to call the conflict a feud is to implicate both sides. Secondly, one could wish the feud was of the kind fought by desert tribes. Real desert feuds, like those among the Bedouins, are not part of a culture of victimhood. They involve no self-pity or self-righteousness; they do not sentimentally depict one’s own side as the sacrificial lamb, an epitome of innocence. Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the spiritual leader of the Hamas movement, embodies this samurai-like attitude. He is a bitter enemy of Israel, but not a sentimentalist. He is an exception, though. By and large the two communities are saturated with the culture of victimhood.

There is indeed a great disparity in power between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel controls 20,700 square kilometers of its own country plus some 3,400 of the West Bank, including its many settlements, over which it has full control (so-called Area C, in the Oslo-accord lingo). To this must be added 1,400 square kilometers of “Area B”—a region of Arab towns and villages that Israel controls militarily but not administratively.

The Palestinians have full control over 1,500 square kilometers (Area A), including Gaza and the six largest West Bank cities, among them Nablus and Bethlehem. They have jurisdiction over 2.9 million people, Israel more than 6 million. As of last year the average personal income of an Israeli was $17,000, as compared with $1,350 per Palestinian. Israel’s GNP is $100 billion, the Palestinians’ $4 billion. Almost half of the latter comes from the outside, either earned by Palestinians who work in Israel or remitted by Israel from taxes collected from Palestinian workers, or donated from abroad. Israel has a regular, powerfully equipped military force of 195,000 (including border police); the Palestinians have a force of 35,000, equipped mostly with rifles. As of April 3, according to the Associated Press, 375 Palestinians had been killed since In-tifada II began, as compared with 64 Israeli Jews.*

These figures notwithstanding, both Barak and Sharon believe that while Israel would show great strength in a full-fledged war, it will eventually become weak in a low-intensity “war of attrition.” Israel so far has won all of its all-out wars and lost all of its wars of attrition, such as the war of attrition with Egypt between 1968 and 1970, and most recently the conflict in southern Lebanon. The usual explanation is that Israel has become more and more sensitive to casualties, less and less a society in which the population stands ready to be recruited for a long-term guard duty.

The dread of a prolonged war of attrition is one of the reasons Israel’s military leaders are behaving very harshly toward the Palestinian population; they use extensive measures of collective punishment through a policy of border and road closings and sieges of Arab towns and villages. In applying these repressive measures Israel systematically violates a great many human rights. The reliable Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, B’Tselem, thoroughly documents human rights violations, including many cases of mistreatment of civilians, both in and out of prison. The Palestinians claim that their stone-throwing and other tactics are weapons of the weak. While they wish they could swap their stones and rifles for Israel’s tanks, they regard their struggle as a political struggle against an occupation, and not as a senseless feud.


If there is one thing that gets on the Palestinians’ nerves, it’s the talk about Barak’s “generous offer” at Camp David. Palestinians—all Palestinians—regard this expression as a deep contradiction. Just why they do needs explaining.

Palestinians view the Palestine that existed during British rule between 1918 and 1948 as theirs—100 percent theirs, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. They see themselves as the indigenous population of this region and hence the natural owners of the entire land of Palestine. Any part of the land that they yield as part of an agreement is, for them, a huge concession. Recognizing the State of Israel as defined by its 1967 borders—the so-called green line—and thus yielding some 77 percent of British mandate Palestine is to them by itself a colossal concession, a painful historical compromise. By recognizing the Israel within the green line they give up their claim to redress what they see as the wrong done to them by the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. If they accept any deal that recognizes Israel they will have succeeded at most in redressing the wrong done to them in 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza. Thus to ask them to compromise further after what they already regard as a huge compromise is, as they see it, a historical outrage. To call any such compromise “a generous offer” is to them sheer blasphemy.

The Israeli perception is of course diametrically opposite. And by “the Israeli perception” I do not refer to the idea of “Greater Israel,” according to which the entire biblical land of Israel belongs to the Jews, who are the historical indigenous population that was forced out of the land but never gave it up. What I mean by the Israeli perception is something very prosaic and unbiblical. Following the two wars that were forced on Israel, in 1948 and 1967, Israel conquered and held on to the entire land from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. So the Israelis say that any territory we yield to Palestinians is, to us, a concession. And if Barak was willing to offer them almost all of the territories occupied since 1967—an offer that no previous Israeli leader was willing to entertain, let alone to make—it is entirely apt to see this as a generous offer.

  1. *

    The Associated Press statistics should be compared with those of Reuters, which estimates “at least 367” deaths of Palestinians and 70 deaths of Israeli Jews as of April 2, 2001, and those of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, which refers to 411 Palestinian deaths. The Palestinian Red Crescent Society also states that 12,616 Palestinians had been injured as of April 2 in the West Bank and Gaza. The Israeli Defense Force states that as of March 27, 837 Israeli Jews, including both civilians and members of the security forces, had been injured both in the Occupied Territories and within the green line.

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