Some 700 Palestinian demonstrators in Bethlehem waited in vain on Saturday evening for activists from Ta’ayush Jewish-Arab Coexistence to arrive for a planned joint demonstration in the middle of the occupied city. When it turned out that the IDF would not allow the two sides to meet, they decided to use mobile phones and loudspeakers to show “there is someone to talk to” on both sides.
There were Palestinians who found it difficult to believe the Israeli authorities would indeed prevent a peace demonstration from taking place. One said that he heard some young people hissing, “if they don’t want peace demonstrations, they’ll get attacks.” Simplistic, but it says something about the working conditions for Palestinian groups and individuals who believe the terror attacks are wrong, both practically and morally, and that perhaps the militarization of the uprising was a mistake from the start.
These people and groups are in a trap: they agree with the popular sentiment that the Israeli rule in the territories is like a daily, hourly attack against 3 million Palestinians. So it is difficult for them to disseminate their rational analysis and critiques of the suicide bombings and the support for the bombings, and to argue that revenge is not a good guide on how to conduct the uprising.
From the start, the Palestinian leadership failed to come up with a clear strategy for the struggle. Israel, of course, is convinced that the Palestinian Authority initiated the intifada and orchestrated it. In the territories, however, people know that the PA was dragged along by it. But the independent decision-making style of Yasser Arafat, the efforts of senior officials to survive politically, and the fear of the uprising turning against the PA itself, created a vacuum in Palestinian policy. That vacuum was filled by military initiatives.
From the Palestinian perspective, attacks on Israel are evidence of the Palestinian organizations’ incompetence at coming up with a classic guerrilla campaign in the territories, like the Hezbollah in Lebanon. According to many in this public, it takes a lot more effort to find a weak point in the Israeli military deployment in the territories than it does to slip back and forth across the Green Line. Moreover, in Palestinian eyes, the choice in favor of lethal escalation and the popular support for it is derived from their leadership’s failure not only to achieve independence through negotiations, but also to use political and diplomatic means to stop the lethal IDF military escalation.
Since the establishment of the PLO, the Palestinian national movement has sanctified the principle of the armed struggle, sometimes to the point where it practically became a goal unto itself. From there, it’s a short step to sanctifying anyone with a weapon, even if that “weapon” is a human being.
The admission of military and political weakness paved the way for escalation and a phenomenon that should worry every Palestinian – mass readiness on the part of young people to commit suicide in the form of weapons. From the point of view of the lone suicide bomber, there is no big difference between the Islamic movements and the Fatah or other secular groups; the number of youths ready to die is much greater than the number of attacks it is possible to plan.
The Islamic movements have a clear interest in linking the phenomenon to Islamic commandments. Perhaps there indeed has been an increase in the numbers of those who believe in eternal paradise. But secular Palestinian observers are convinced that first comes a readiness to die, and only afterward is religious faith applied.
Both religious and secular Palestinians are convinced that those ready for self-sacrifice are acting within the political-military context, in which Israel has overwhelming superiority and absolute control over Palestinian lives. Those who choose to die (and kill) are not necessarily personally frustrated. But they regard themselves – and are perceived – as representing the general frustration and fury over lives not worthy of being called lives, which the Palestinians believe are the result of deliberate Israeli policy: lives in cages, poverty and disease, accompanied by daily killings, prohibitions on movement and humiliation. “If we are dying while alive, at least we can choose the time and manner of our revenge.” That is the view of the Palestinian public.
Meanwhile, the more Israel steps up its military moves, the more the weakened Palestinian population’s support for terror attacks – and suicide bombings in particular – grows. Rhetoric about ruthlessness does not convince them. They claim they have the right of individuals to respond with ruthlessness to Israeli state ruthlessness.
The decision-making process for suicide bombings in Fatah is local, indeed personal, the result of competition with Hamas over popularity. For the Hamas, it’s a centralized, conscious strategy, not disconnected to the internal Palestinian political struggle for control of the future regime. As long as the Hamas feels the public supports the attacks, it won’t give up that strategy.
Beneath the surface there are many efforts to open a public debate aimed at reducing Palestinian support for attacks inside Israel, without waiting for a change in Israeli policy. The plan for a joint demonstration with Ta’ayush was an example of that type of effort. It was an effort that failed, foiled by the Israeli authorities.