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No Exit


For all his destructiveness, Ariel Sharon has been losing his war but Yasser Arafat is not winning his either. The increasingly aggressive rhetoric of both men—notwithstanding Arafat’s intermittent condemnations of violence—suggests that they must be aware of this. From his first day in office, Sharon’s strategy has been to scuttle the Oslo agreement and confine Palestinian autonomy to a few isolated enclaves—surrounded by armed Israeli encampments—on about 50 (some say 30) percent of the occupied West Bank, or perhaps only in the Gaza Strip. Both sides have explicitly withdrawn the possible concessions they discussed at Taba in Egypt in January 2001 on borders, refugees, and Jerusalem; such concessions had in any case been strictly “informal” and subject to further approval, which became impossible after Sharon took office.

Arafat insists once again that Israel must withdraw to the 1967 lines and recognize the refugees’ right of return. In February and March his endgame seemed even more ambitious. He may have seriously believed that Israeli morale and national unity could be broken by a combination of terror and international pressure. Watching Israeli television in March, I heard Arafat calling in Arabic for “a thousand shahids, a thousand shahids [martyrs]”—the Arabic word for suicide bombers. He and Sharon continue to exclude each other as legitimate interlocutors. The past eighteen months have shown that despite Israel’s overwhelming military superiority, neither side has been able to dictate the terms of a final settlement or even a temporary arrangement during which further negotiations could take place.

For the first time since 1967, the suicide bombers have established something close to a balance of terror between the two sides. It is not a steady balance of terror maintained by two stable, responsible, and cautious powers. The growing number of shahids suggests that the Palestinian war of independence is being, so to speak, “privatized.” The result is a morbid derangement of power that promises only more bloodshed and horror. Israel is no longer facing two or three terroristic organizations which can be fought and perhaps subdued. This is a new, diffuse enemy, a widespread mood among Palestinians that is harder to combat, perhaps nearly an entire people aroused, enraged, and embittered as never before.

The shahids‘ task is simpler than that of the classic guerrilla unit; their success, as a writer in Ha’aretz pointed out the other day, does not depend on securing safe routes of retreat. While it takes only one or two fanatics to find or train a shahid, it takes thousands of soldiers and policemen to locate him before he kills himself. It is simplistic, and in some cases patently false, to claim, as is often done, that the shahid is a demented Muslim fundamentalist eager to be received in paradise in the company of seventy snow-white virgins. In fact, credit for several of the shahid bombings has been taken by the al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades, an organization that is linked with Arafat’s Fatah and is not an Islamic movement. The wellsprings of religious fanaticism, as Ian Buruma recently pointed out in this magazine, “are political more than cultural.”1 The shahids are often young men in their teens and twenties, many of them born in one of the wretched refugee camps on the outskirts of Palestinian towns. Like most intifada fighters, they seem to be motivated mostly by offended pride and naked rage: a desperate sense of impotence born, in many cases, of personal experience and loss within the extended family—a cousin shot dead while stoning a passing car, a parent humiliated by a rude soldier at a checkpoint, an uncle whose land was expropriated for an Israeli settlement or who mysteriously died in an Israeli jail. Several field studies of the participants in the first and second intifada, conducted by Dr. Mohammad Hadj Yihia, a senior lecturer at the Hebrew University, clearly point in this direction.

In March there were days with two or three suicide bombing attempts—some were successfully thwarted with the help of informers or by the alertness of guards. There is reason to fear that the widespread rage that produces so many shahids may delay a political settlement for yet another generation. Palestinian society used to be, by and large, remarkably docile. Hardly a shot was fired in 1967 during the Israeli takeover of the West Bank; the only resistance encountered by the advancing Israeli forces came from Jordanian troops. Remembering that period, one begins to realize what thirty-five years of Israel’s mean, arrogant land-grabbing and, above all, a deeply humiliating occupation have wrought in this society. There was no rage in 1967. Israelis were greeted in most Palestinian towns with cries of “Welcome, Welcome” and “Have a cup of coffee.” Little boys ran after Israeli tanks crying, “Shalom, Shalom.” I knew a Palestinian who during the first weeks of the Israeli occupation was so impressed by the kindness of the soldiers that he said he was ready to join the Israeli army. It took Palestinian society almost twenty years to launch the first intifada in 1987; its main weapons consisted only of stones thrown by similar young boys.

The Palestinians certainly had bad leaders who, as Abba Eban said, “never lost a chance to miss an opportunity.” Ariel Sharon didn’t arrive from outer space. But Israel also missed opportunities to make peace with the Palestinian population of the West Bank when this was still possible in 1967–1968, before the spectacular rise of the PLO2; or, alternatively, to make peace with Jordan in the early 1970s, as it could have. There would not have been so many settlers to veto all concessions and the Palestinian issue might have reverted to what it had been prior to 1967—a Jordanian problem. One must try to see recent events from the perspective of ordinary Palestinians. In an age of worldwide decolonization they have been pushed around for thirty-five years by armed, violent colonizers in yarmulkas and they are finally yelling, “We’ve had enough.”
The suicide bombers seem to have the support of many in the neighboring Arab world. A recent fatwa issued by Sheik Mohammed Said Tantawi, head of al-Azhar University in Cairo, the leading theological authority in Sunni Islam, declared the shahids saintly defenders of their people’s honor. Iraq and Saudi Arabia offer money to the families of shahids. Saddam Hussein pays each family $25,000. The Saudi government offers them a free trip to Mecca. What has become appallingly clear is that it is no longer possible to physically insulate Israeli communities by mining and patroling the frontier, as was done until 1967, or by building electric fences resembling those between the two Germanys during the cold war. Because of the intensive settlement policy pursued since 1978, Israelis and Palestinians are now too intermeshed on the West Bank, especially in the Greater Jerusalem area, for any neat separation to take place. Many of the Israeli settlements are deep in Palestinian territory.

Sharon has consistently rejected suggestions to build a “security wall” more or less along the old 1967 frontier, since this would leave out most settlers and preordain the future borders of a Palestinian state. A security fence to protect Israel proper, the main settlement areas in the West Bank, as well as “a security zone along the Jordan River,” as suggested by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak in a recent Op-Ed piece in The New York Times, could run to more than 1,200 miles and take years to complete. In the meantime, a dozen fanatics might be able to veto any accommodation.

More than 400,000 Israelis (some 200,000 in several large enclaves in occupied East Jerusalem), nearly 10 percent of Israel’s Jewish population, now live on the other side of the old demarcation lines. For electoral reasons, in a land of narrow majorities, withdrawing large numbers of them would appear to be extremely risky politically, if not impossible. The most generous Israeli concessions offered last year at Taba would still have left 250,000 settlers in East Jerusalem and in remote settlements, a potentially dangerous irridentist population. The folly of successive Israeli governments—both Labor and Likud—who promoted the extensive settlement project in the West Bank and the Greater Jerusalem area has never been so obvious as it is now. The US, for its part, mildly objected to the settlements at first, and then stayed quiet about them, insisting that the final borders should be determined by negotiations. The settlements were originally intended to be “immovable,” faits accomplis, and to provide the country with more security. In reality, they have tied Israel’s hands in any negotiation to achieve lasting peace. The settlements have only made it less secure. Sharon has repeatedly announced that he is against the evacuation of a single settler.

The political power of the settlers has long been a major factor in the continuing crisis. The settlers now make up Israel’s most vociferous political lobby. Military deployments on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip are nowadays largely determined by their interests and personal wishes. For years they have vehemently opposed every peace initiative and blocked every possible compromise. When Yitzhak Rabin became the only prime minister to seriously stand up to them, they launched a vicious personal campaign against him and he was subsequently murdered by one of their ardent supporters. The militant groups that sympathized with the murder are now vociferously demanding the prosecution for treason of the “Oslo criminals”—i.e., the two academics who negotiated the Oslo agreements and former justice minister Yossi Beilin, who sponsored their mission.

In downtown Hebron, an entire armored infantry regiment is now needed to protect some three hundred settlers, mostly rabbinical students, who forced their way into the city over the past twenty-five years and after many difficulties were settled in government-financed houses. This seemingly mad act of defiance, in a deeply fundamentalist Muslim town, is still being justified by Genesis 23:4–183 and by the inane article of faith that Jews must not be prevented from living where they wish to live “only because they are Jews.” In Netzarim, an isolated settlement in the Gaza Strip (surrounded by huge Palestinian refugee camps), fifteen Israeli soldiers were recently killed and thirty-four wounded while defending forty families.

The large-scale, punitive “incursion” of Israeli tanks and armored troop carriers into Palestinian cities and refugee camps in April—ostensibly to crush the “infrastructure of terror”—is likely to intensify the prevailing rage and eventually to increase the attacks by shahids. The incursions have resulted in hundreds of dead and thousands of wounded and homeless Palestinian men, women, and children, mostly children—potential shahids of tomorrow. The Israeli attacks have spread havoc everywhere and caused huge material destruction from Ramallah to Bethlehem and Hebron, aimed, it would seem, at smashing not only the “infrastructure of terror,” as Sharon has claimed, but the emerging Palestinian state. The purely civilian ministries of agriculture and education and the central office of statistics were maliciously damaged. According to B’tzelem, the Israeli human rights group, the Israeli soldiers committed wanton vandalism in many places. Roads, water lines, and sewer pipes were damaged, trees uprooted, automobiles smashed, and houses razed. Military discipline seems to have sunk to an all-time low. In some places soldiers tried to break into cash drawers and automatic teller machines; they smashed with impunity clocks and artworks as well as furniture, television sets, washing machines, and computers. The pattern of vandalism was too widespread to excuse these cases as exceptions. In Ramallah soldiers broke into the Palestinian television station and started broadcasting pornographic films they claimed to have found in a drawer there. Combat helicopters hovered overhead indiscriminately firing machine guns and missiles into homes and offices.

  1. 1

    The Blood Lust of Identity,” The New York Review, April 11, 2002.

  2. 2

    In the summer of 1967, following Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, two Israeli intelligence officers, Dan Bavly and David Kimche, later deputy head of the Mossad and director of the Israeli foreign ministry, respectively, discussed this possibility with prominent Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. They wrote a report saying that a separate peace between Israel and West Bank Palestinians was a distinct possibility; but this report, so far as we know, was never submitted to the Israeli cabinet. If it had reached the cabinet it is likely that in the hubris of the first months of victory, even tentative efforts to explore the possibility would have been rejected.

  3. 3

    Describing Abraham’s purchase of a burial cave there from Ephron the Hittite for four hundred pieces of silver.

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