The basic problem in the Israel-Palestine conflict today remains what it’s been for decades: the denial of self-determination to the Palestinian people. Palestinians have been living under a brutal and humiliating occupation since 1967 and no solution to the crisis is likely unless this fundamental reality is addressed.
Some Palestinians have turned to terrorism as their answer. Targeting civilians is immoral and it is likely to be extremely counter-productive as well. But it is not hard to understand the rage that motivates the suicide bombers. As Carl W. Ford, Jr., the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research, testified this past February 6:
"Many who join groups that practice terrorism face a life of joblessness and poverty. Often living under oppressive governments with little prospect of a better life, young people — especially those whose exposure to education has made them even more frustrated and embittered — are prone to seek a way out, perhaps by attempting to migrate, perhaps by joining a movement that promises change through violence, perhaps by immersing themselves in religion. When unemployment hovers around 40% and nearly 45% of the population is under the age of 15 (as in the West Bank and Gaza Strip), people find it difficult to wait for a brighter future."
And this quote may understate the Palestinian unemployment rate; the Palestinian Authority puts it at 51 percent (see PECDAR, People Under Siege: Palestinian Economic Losses September 2000 September 2001, available at http://www.pecdar.org/).
The New York Times’s Thomas L. Friedman declares that it is a "huge lie" to consider desperation a motive for the suicide bombings (March 31, 2002). Friedman argues that in fact the Palestinians could have had their state without any need for the current Intifada because in July 2000 Clinton offered the Palestinians a peace plan that would have ended the occupation, but Arafat turned it down. This has been an argument long-promoted by Friedman, impervious to the counter-evidence presented by a member of Clinton’s negotiating team, Robert Malley (see Robert Malley and Hussein Agha, "Camp David: The Tragedy of Errors," New York Review of Books, August 9, 2001).
Malley first notes the context: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak came to Camp David in July 2000 having reneged on various agreements with the Palestinians and having substantially increased the number of Israeli settlers in the Occupied Territories during his year in office. Palestinians were understandably wary of Israeli peace offers, given that after six years of Oslo "there were more Israeli settlements, less freedom of movement, and worse economic conditions." Then at Camp David Barak offered — but never in writing and never in detail; in fact, says, Malley, "strictly speaking, there never was an Israeli offer" — to give the Palestinians land equivalent to 1 percent of the West Bank (unspecified, but to be chosen by Israel) in return for 9 percent of the West Bank which housed settlements effectively dividing the West Bank into separate regions. It’s a myth, Malley wrote in the New York Times (July 8, 2001), that "Israel’s offer met most if not all of the Palestinians’ legitimate aspirations" and a myth as well that the "Palestinians made no concession of their own."
The standard story goes that with the failure of Camp David, Arafat opted for war. But consider what followed. In September 2000 Barak approved a provocative visit by Ariel Sharon, then a member of Parliament, to the site of the Al Aqsa mosque. Given the growing Palestinian rage at the occupation, the results were entirely predictable. The next day some Palestinians threw rocks and the heavily-augmented police responded with lethal fire, killing four and wounding hundreds. Thus began the second Intifada.
Israeli police and soldiers — under Barak’s authority — continued to use lethal force in situations where their lives were not in danger. Some Palestinians proceeded to arm themselves, and the killing escalated, with deaths on both sides, though the victims were disproportionately Palestinians. It is sometimes claimed that Palestinians intentionally try to kill Israeli civilians (which some certainly do) while the unarmed civilians killed by the Israelis are all unintended "collateral damage." But numerous reports by international (and Israeli) human rights groups belie this claim. Recent reports, for example, have documented Israeli security forces firing on ambulances and medical personnel, and preventing wounded Palestinians from receiving medical treatment.
In December 2000 and January 2001, talks between the Barak government and Arafat resumed and considerable headway was made. Yossi Beilin, Barak’s Justice Minister, summarizes what ensued: "instead of accepting the successful talks that had taken place between Israel and the Palestinians … as a way toward a final settlement, Ariel Sharon decided, after being elected prime minister, to terminate the peace process" (New York Times, March 30, 2002). Thus when commentators (such as CBS’s resident Middle East expert, Fouad Ajami) declare that the current Intifada is "Arafat’s war," they are grossly distorting reality.
One might note too the pattern of escalating terror. In November 2001, there was a week-long lull in the fighting. Sharon then ordered the assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud Abu Hanoud, which, as everyone predicted, led to a rash of terror bombings, which in turn Sharon used as justification for further assaults on the Palestinian Authority. (Hanoud’s case is interesting in another respect: despite Israeli claims that Arafat refused to arrest terrorists, or else arrested them only to release them shortly thereafter, Hanoud had been in a Palestinian jail. He was not released. Instead, in August 2001, an Israeli F-16 tried to assassinate him in the jail. The building was destroyed, 11 police officers killed, and Hanoud escaped.)
None of this justifies terror bombing of civilians. Various Palestinian commentators — among them Edward Said, Jonathan Kuttab, and Mubarak Awad — have persuasively argued that on moral, political, and pragmatic grounds the Palestinians would be far better served by a policy of nonviolent resistance. But when nonviolence is urged on Palestinians by the likes of Thomas Friedman, who at the same time calls for Israel "to deliver a military blow that clearly shows terror will not pay," the hypocrisy is palpable. No doubt the suicide bombers are following the same warped logic as Friedman, believing that their acts of terror will restrain, rather than provoke, terror from the other side.
Various arguments have been advanced as to why Israel cannot withdraw from the Occupied Territories. None of them is compelling. One argument is that to return to the 1967 borders will leave Israel in a militarily vulnerable position. This, of course, was the same argument given for why Israel couldn’t return the Sinai to Egypt or pull out of Lebanon. Both of these were done, however, with no harm whatever to Israeli security. True, the Oslo Accords, which turned over disconnected swatches of territory to Palestinian administration, have not enhanced Israeli security. But as Shimon Peres, one of the architects of the Oslo agreement and currently Sharon’s Foreign Minister, acknowledged, Oslo was flawed from the start. "Today we discover that autonomy puts the Palestinians in a worse situation." The second Intifada with all its suffering could have been avoided, Peres said, if the Palestinians had had a state from the outset. "’We cannot keep three and a half million Palestinians under siege without income, oppressed, poor, densely populated, near starvation,’ he said, adding that without a visible political horizon the Palestinians will not make peace with Israel" (Jason Keyser, "Peres Says Mideast Peace Process Flawed From Outset," Associated Press, Feb. 21, 2002). It is simply not credible that the strongest military power in the region (even apart from its nuclear arsenal) would be indefensible without occupying neighboring territory. And with the Arab League declaration that all of its members would establish diplomatic relations with Israel if it withdrew to its 1967 borders, it is clear that nothing would better guarantee the Israeli people a peaceful future than pulling out of the Occupied Territories. The Israeli government, however, rejected the Arab League offer and the next day launched its latest offensive against Palestinian cities.
A second argument against withdrawal is that Palestinians insist on the right of return, which, it is said, is a way to destroy Israel. Allowing people who have been expelled from their homes the right to return is hardly an extreme demand. Obviously this can’t mean throwing out people who have been living in these homes for many years now, and would take complex planning. Both Arafat and the Arab League have indicated that in their view the right of return should be implemented in a way that would not create a demographic problem for Israel. Of course, one could reasonably argue that a Jewish state is problematic on basic democratic grounds, but in any event neither the Arab League nor Arafat have raised this objection.
A final argument against withdrawal is that Palestinians just view this as the first step to eliminating Israel entirely. Hamas objects not just to the occupation but to the very existence of Israel. But the Hamas position is a distinctly minority sentiment among Palestinians, who are a largely secular community that has endorsed a two-state settlement. To be sure, Hamas has been growing in strength. In its early days Hamas was promoted by Israeli officials to weaken the PLO (see the Richard Sale, "Israel gave major aid to Hamas," UPI, Feb. 24, 2001), but most of its growth has been a result of the inability of the Palestinian Authority to deliver a better life for Palestinians. If there were a truly independent Palestinian state, one can assume that Hamas would find far fewer volunteers for its suicide squads. It must be acknowledged, though, that the longer the mutual terror continues, the harder it will be to achieve long term peace.
The current situation is grim indeed. On March 31, the Los Angeles Times reported that five Palestinian police officers "appeared to have been shot in the head or neck at close range. The room where they were found … was splattered with blood and pocked with bullet or shrapnel holes. A string of bloodstains was sprayed across the wall at what would have been about head level if the men had been sitting when shot." And now, as the international press is expelled from Ramallah and other Palestinian cities, the prospect of even more horrific atrocities looms.
Washington has little inclination to restrain Sharon. The Bush administration’s attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been entirely opportunistic. After September 11, when it seemed necessary to put together a coalition of Muslim nations, Secretary of State Powell declared the U.S. in favor of a Palestinian state. But as it became clear that Arab support wasn’t particularly needed in the Afghan war, Sharon was given a free hand again. Then, as Washington hawks hoped for a war against Iraq, the U.S. again thought it might need Arab allies, and Israel was told its policies "weren’t helpful." But once the Arab League made clear its unequivocal opposition to a U.S. attack on Iraq, Washington’s need for calm in Palestine receded, and again Sharon was given a green light.
Washington’s inclinations won’t restrain Sharon, but mass protests in the United States — to add to those now sweeping the Arab world — might make it politically impossible for the Bush administration to continue its support for Israel’s war on the Palestinians. It is these protests that we need to build.
Stephen R. Shalom teaches political science at William Paterson University in New Jersey.