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 Both sides have explicitly withdrawn the possible concessions they discussed at Taba in Egypt in January 2001 on borders, refugees, and Jerusalem; such concessions had in any case been strictly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,…
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