Seeking alternatives to a third Palestinian intifada

From the archive (legacy material)

Rami G. Khouri | The Daily Star | 30 May 2005

Last week, two important developments took place that captured the dilemma facing the Palestinian people. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas went to Washington to meet with American leaders and make his case for firmer American involvement in the dormant Palestinian-Israeli peace-making process; and the South African Council of Churches endorsed the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI).
These two approaches – political engagement via the U.S. and civil, nonviolent resistance and confrontation – represent two of the three principal strategies considered by most Palestinians.
The third approach, military resistance and terror attacks against Israeli troops and civilians, initiated a decade ago by Hamas, is now momentarily suspended.
In the few days I spent in Jordan last week at a regional conference, I sounded out officials and political activists from Jordan and Palestine, along with ordinary citizens, to understand better the real context of Abbas’ U.S. visit. I also spoke by phone with a range of informed Palestinians inside Palestine, to gauge public sentiments there during this pivotal and potentially historic moment, thanks to recent developments and imminent new ones.
The shaky cease-fire between Palestinians and Israelis cannot hold if current conditions persist, mainly because daily life for the vast majority of ordinary Palestinians living under direct or indirect Israeli military occupation remains very difficult and immensely humiliating. Israelis, the Arab world and the rest of the world do not seem to pay much attention to this, though you would think that the eruption of two Palestinian national uprisings in the past 16 years would catch someone’s attention.
This pressure cooker situation is likely to be exacerbated by two critical events coming up in the next three months: the Israeli unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the completion around Jerusalem of the Israeli separation barrier (also known variously as the “security fence” and the “apartheid wall”). Pressure on the Palestinians will increase dramatically, especially as Arab East Jerusalem is cut off from its natural hinterland in the West Bank.
A “third intifada” is now a phrase commonly heard in and around Palestine, mainly because Palestinians also speak of life in their “prison” inside the Israeli wall. One reason that Hamas did well in recent municipal elections is that it has a reputation for being honest and efficient, and can manage local affairs better than Fatah. Palestinians are not expecting much from Abbas or Washington during the era of Ariel Sharon as Israeli prime minister. Instead, they anticipate a long period of local rule in regional districts surrounded by the Israeli wall, settlements, military areas, apartheid-like bypass roads for Israeli settlers only, and checkpoints.
Palestinians are passing through an important, and potentially historic, moment of assessment and reconsideration of their options. Their three options are basically to persist in the largely fruitless approach of the ruling political establishment dominated by Fatah; to put their weight behind a more intense military offensive using guerrilla and terror tactics; or to explore the nonviolent civil protest approach now represented by the boycott of Israeli cultural and educational institutions. That’s why the South African churches’ endorsement of the boycott last week was significant, given that the global sanctions movement against South Africa was the mother of all boycotts.
This occurs at a time when Palestinian politics and the national struggle for liberty and democracy grasp the hard reality that Fatah is a floundering, decaying movement, while Hamas remains a powerful and effective magnet for protest and resistance, but not a realistic or widely-accepted candidate to lead Palestinians. The two traditional Palestinian policy options – armed resistance and diplomacy mediated by the U.S. – seem ineffective today.
The boycott of Israel idea has moved faster than its initiators had ever imagined, mainly via the support of international groups with credibility and a track record of putting their names behind causes anchored in moral principles. The Presbyterian Church and the United Church of Christ in the U.S. and the Association of University Teachers (AUT) in the U.K. were the most significant groups to support the call by PACBI to boycott Israeli institutions because of the immoral, illegal and colonial nature of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians who are second-class citizens of Israel, of Palestinians under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, and, indirectly, of the millions of refugees around the region.
The AUT voted on April 22 to boycott the University of Haifa and Bar-Ilan University in Israel because of their policies supporting occupation of Palestinian land and people or promoting flagrant discrimination against Palestinians. After intense lobbying, the AUT met again this week and reversed that decision. This is the first sign that the boycott campaign has started to gain traction in the West, but also that it is eliciting furious Israeli political counterattacks.
The Geneva-based World Council of Churches has weighed in with a statement softly supporting the idea that a boycott of Israel should be studied, and the South African World Council of Churches earlier this week endorsed the boycott. Other groups around the world are studying the call, which received a major boost last year after the International Court in The Hague ruled that Israel’s separation wall was illegal according to international law.
One of the leaders of the boycott campaign, Palestinian engineer Omar Barghouti, told me that the AUT rescinding of its decision to support the boycott was neither surprising nor very damaging, given the intense counter-campaign that has been launched against the boycott. He makes two important points about the boycott campaign and its meaning today.
“We expected to lose the AUT support, given the intense campaign launched by Israeli and pro-Israel groups, but we see this as losing a round that we expected to lose. The more significant thing is that we are now in the ring fighting. The issue of sanctions against Israel today is actively discussed in the international community and the mainstream West, partly because it is being modeled on the boycott of South Africa in the apartheid era. We are saying that Israeli occupation and oppression of Palestinians is immoral and illegal, that Israeli universities are complicit, and that this situation cannot be allowed to persist with total impunity or by allowing Israel to be exempt from international law requirements. The key breakthrough we have made to date is to show that Israel is boycottable, like South Africa was boycottable.”
Palestinians only faintly followed their president’s visit to Washington last week, because they did not expect much from him or from Washington. His image as a decisive break with the Yasser Arafat era reflects more the spin doctors of Washington than ordinary sentiments in Palestine. The search is on in Palestine for a more effective diplomatic and political strategy that would lead to a comprehensive, permanent peace with Israel. The three options remain armed struggle, American-mediated diplomacy, and nonviolent civil resistance coupled with more attention to local basic needs issues like health, water and education. Whichever of those three approaches delivers the goods to ordinary Palestinians will gain the most support.
Rami G. Khouri writes a regular commentary for THE DAILY STAR.