Ambushing The Occupation

It looks like Palestinian militants have finally found Israel’s Achilles heel. It isn’t civilian carnage, but rather armed combat between Israel’s foot soldiers and Palestinian militias. Insist as they might that the killing of civilian Jews is particularly reprehensible, Ariel Sharon’s government seems intent on proving that attacks on armed Israeli invasion forces and colonists are yet a greater threat. That in combination with the moral weakness of terrorist tactics, should prompt Palestinian supporters everywhere to consider vocally backing a strategic shift from terrorist to guerilla activity.

On Friday, November 16, armed Palestinian defenders ambushed a group of Israel Defense Forces troops, Border Policemen, and settler paramilitary members. In the end, twelve Israelis were killed, and fourteen more were wounded. All were armed combatants, illegally operating on Palestinian land. For some time, most of the Western press allowed the IDF to push them to the conclusion that the Palestinian militants had attacked worshippers returning to the Kiryat Arba settlement from the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Occupied Hebron. In fact, the Palestinians had let the unarmed Jews pass without incident, and attacked their armed escorts only while the latter were returning from the settlement.

International law recognizes the Palestinians’ right to use any means necessary to fight back against Israeli soldiers and settlers illegally occupying their land. Not only was the ambush decisively legal according to the Geneva Conventions, it was also a remarkable display of what Palestinian fighters can accomplish if they plan carefully and patiently target adult settlers and Israeli military personnel. The ambush was a classic guerilla tactic, meant not to terrorize civilians but to strike a blow against invading infantry and paramilitary forces. If the Palestinian fighters’ goal was partly to instill fear, it was in the hearts of soldiers who might think twice next time they’re called upon to invade and patrol Palestinian areas.

The ambush was the most threatening action the state of Israel, and its Occupation of Palestinian territory, has faced in many years. World opinion will shift support dramatically in favor of Palestinian militants if their tactics switch from those of the terrorist to those of the guerilla. Israel’s response to the ambush demonstrates that the Sharon government comprehends this truism better than anyone. They simply cannot accept a change in tactics on the part of the Palestinian militias. The government’s immediate response was to label the ambush the “Sabbath Massacre,” insisting it had been a slaughter of civilians returning from worship inside a Palestinian city. Israel since recanted this claim, but only after the Israeli and Western media had done irreversible damage to the story. The attack received harsh condemnations from the United States, and even from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, at a point when the facts of the situation had only been reported by one side.

The Israeli retaliation for this purely military action inside the Occupied Territories has already been harsher than most responses to suicide operations inside the borders of Israel, demonstrating that they consider it more serious. And retaliation promises to get much worse in coming days. As of this writing, several Palestinians have been killed, at least fifteen wounded, and more than fifty arrested, in the Palestinian city of Hebron. Six Palestinian houses have been demolished, and fifteen families have been given demolition orders. Settler youth are running around Hebron armed to the teeth, assaulting Arabs and spray-painting “Kill All Arabs” and “Revenge” on the doors of Palestinian homes (most of which are already tagged thusly). Sharon has called for territorial continuity between the Kiryat Arba settlement East of Hebron and the religious sites at the Tomb of Abraham/Ibrahimi Mosque. The plan is to displace thousands of Palestinians, most of whose families have lived there for centuries. A new settlement is already under construction on the site of the massacre. The settlers readily admit they don’t know who owns the land, though they are aware he is a Palestinian. All this in spite of the fact that the presence of Israeli troops and colonists in and around Hebron is incontrovertibly illegal according to the dictates of international law.

For Palestinian supporters the world over, the events of last weekend are a wakeup call. Many have questioned, long and hard, how to reconcile solidarity with Palestinians and their aspirations of statehood against the most spectacular tactics employed by Palestinian militias. The suicide bombings have far and away been the number one detriment to international public support for the Palestinian cause. Palestinians have made it clear that they are not interested in a unilaterally nonviolent Intifada – one in which they would fail to strike significant blows against Israeli policies, but would instead fade from the world spotlight, to be quietly crushed by the illegal Occupation. Palestinian supporters must accept that most Palestinians will never turn the proverbial other cheek to Israeli attacks and encroachments. The fighting will be two-sided, as long as there is a throwable stone left in Palestine.

The primary excuse for the suicide bombings has been that Israeli soldiers and settlers are all but inaccessible to would-be attackers. Friday night, that assumption was proved wrong. If there is ever to be a shift in the balance of power between Israel and Palestine, it may be now, in the wake of Friday’s successful attack. We must express support for guerilla tactics in the Occupied Territories. Palestinians feel abandoned because the world community has shied away from support of the terrorists among them, and shunned a whole people in the process. One shouldn’t tell Palestinians how to go about resisting the Occupation. However, when Palestinian militants do something that doesn’t curl supporters’ skin, but rather offers a glimmer of hope, encouragement is in order.

What if Palestinian militants were no longer terrorists, but freedom fighters exhibiting a clear understanding of who their immediate enemy is? Suddenly, one side would be discerning between combatant and civilian, indisputably gaining the moral high ground. Additionally, the only Israeli complaint against Palestinians which has been accepted by the world community – Palestinian acts of terrorism – would vanish quite suddenly. Israel would be left with no perceivably legitimate excuse for the Occupation, and the US would be stripped of any argument in support of one of the few remaining colonial powers in the world today.

No doubt a guerilla approach will not bring the Palestinians much closer to winning by force – numerous factors, including poor training and armament, inappropriate terrain, and the overwhelming dominance of the Palestinian territory by the IDF would render such a victory nearly impossible. However, a guerilla strategy will serve the purposes of maintaining pressure on Israel, keeping their own plight in view of the world public, and gaining some much needed moral leverage. Moreover, guerilla style resistance will serve to further demoralize the IDF rank and file, already growing weary and fearful of occupation duty. Combined with nonviolent forms of resistance presently increasing in popularity among Palestinian society, this new strategy might offer much-needed hope to a particularly hopeless people.

In the meantime, Palestinian solidarity activists will need to mobilize greater international pressure on Israel. Since the Palestinians have decidedly little leverage in the conflict, ever-increasing costs imposed by the world community are the second element to a strategy that might relieve the Occupation and foster the establishment of a Palestinian state. Palestinians will see no choice but to employ one violent tactic or another so long as the rest of the world continues to allow Israel to quell the Intifada with overwhelming force. Those who would prefer a nonviolent Palestinian resistance movement must first establish circumstances under which nonviolence itself is not suicidal.

Brian Dominick is an activist and journalist living in Syracuse, NY. He has also worked as an emergency medical technician on Palestinian ambulances throughout the West Bank.

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