Merip Primer On The Palestinian Uprising

MERIP Primer on the Uprising in Palestine

A Palestinian throws back to Israeli soldiers a teargas canister during clashes in the West Bank town of Ramallah Wednesday Oct. 25, 2000. (AP Photo/Enric Marti)


On April 4, George W. Bush dispatched Secretary of State Colin Powell to Israel-Palestine to attempt to stop the “storm of violence” that has kept the Middle East on American front pages throughout the spring of 2002. Israel’s invasions of Palestinian areas, following a spate of suicide bombings in Israel, marked a dangerous escalation of what had been a war of attrition, itself an escalation from the Palestinian popular uprising against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Since September 28, 2000, over 1,400 Palestinians and nearly 450 Israelis have been killed. What is the history of the conflict over Palestine? Is Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon likely to pursue a comprehensive peace with the Palestinians, even if he calls off the present “state of war”? Is Israel right to blame Arafat for the violence? What have international investigations said about Israel’s military response to the uprising? Why has Bush called upon Israel to remove Jewish settlements from the West Bank and Gaza? Has the US been an “honest broker” in the conflict?

The Conflict Over Palestine

At the start of the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire ruled much of the Arab world, including the territory that is now Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. With the Allied victory in World War I, the area came under the control of the British who made contradictory promises to Arab and Zionist leaders about how — and by whom — the Mandate of Palestine was to be governed. At the time, 90 percent of the population was Arab; the Jewish community included long-time residents and new immigrants fleeing persecution in Russia and, later, other parts of Europe. A three-year uprising in the late 1930s against British rule and increased Jewish immigration resulted in a British proposal to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. UN General Assembly Resolution 181 reaffirmed partition in 1947.

The war that followed led to the establishment of the State of Israel. Part of the area that was designated for the Palestinian state was conquered by Israel, leading to the displacement of some 750,000 Palestinians. Gaza came under the control of Egypt, while Transjordan occupied and later illegally annexed the West Bank. Less than 20 years later, in the June 1967 war, Israel gained control of the rest of the former Mandate of Palestine (the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in 1980), the Egyptian Sinai (since returned to Egypt), and the Syrian Golan Heights. UN Security Council Resolution 242 (November 22, 1967), still not implemented, affirmed “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” and called upon Israel to withdraw “from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” The 1970s and 1980s saw Arab-Israeli wars in 1973 and 1982, the 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in December 1987, and Yasser Arafat’s condemnation of terrorism and recognition of the state of Israel in December 1988.

The Madrid peace conference followed the Gulf war in October 1991. A year later, secret Israeli-Palestinian talks began in Oslo, Norway, culminating in the September 1993 Declaration of Principles (DoP) on interim Palestinian self-government, signed by Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The DoP set out a process for transforming the nature of the Israeli occupation but left numerous issues unresolved, including the status of Jerusalem, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, the disposition of Israeli settlements (whose expansion continues until today) and final borders between Israel and a Palestinian state.

Under the DoP, Israel relinquished day-to-day authority over parts of the Gaza Strip and West Bank to the Palestinian Authority, headed by Arafat who returned to Gaza in 1994. However, ultimate power remained with Israel, which exercised its control by frequently sealing off the Palestinian-governed areas from the rest of the Occupied Territories and from Israel. Subsequent agreements in 1995 (Oslo II), 1998 (Wye River) and 1999 (Wye River II) failed to resolve these issues. With Palestinian-Israeli negotiations stalled, US President Bill Clinton called a summit at Camp David in July 2000. After two weeks of intensive negotiation, the talks ended without a deal.

Who Is Ariel Sharon?

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, left, meeting with President Bush in the Oval Office at the White House, Thursday, Feb. 7, 2002, in Washington. (AP Photo/Kenneth Lambert)

A retired army general, Ariel Sharon, 74, has been a controversial figure in Israeli politics for decades. In 1971, he ordered a systematic campaign to “pacify” the population of Gaza through massive repression, expulsions, and arrests. First elected to the Knesset in 1977, Sharon was defense minister during the June 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. An Israeli tribunal found Sharon indirectly responsible for the September 1982 massacre (by Lebanese militias under Israeli control) of thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians living in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. As a result, Sharon was removed as defense minister but retained a role in the Cabinet as “minister without portfolio.” Survivors of the massacre filed briefs with a Belgian judge calling for indictment of Sharon and Lebanese militia commanders for war crimes. This effort is presently stalled.

Since 1987, Sharon has maintained a heavily guarded residence, draped in an Israeli flag, in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. In the early 1990s, while serving as housing minister in Yitzhak Shamir’s Likud government, he promoted a massive construction drive to increase Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Sharon was a vociferous critic of Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s decision to negotiate with the Palestinians. His provocative visit to al-Haram al-Sharif on September 28, 2000, and the harsh Israeli response to the protests that followed, helped ignite the Palestinian uprising. When Barak resigned and called for new prime ministerial elections, Sharon won with 60 percent of the vote.

Since taking office in February 2001, Sharon has increased repression against Palestinians, several times sending Israeli troops and tanks into Palestinian-controlled cities, villages and refugee camps, including the full-scale invasions of West Bank population centers in March-April 2002. Since the September 11 hijackings in the US, Sharon has ratcheted up rhetoric pinning the blame for Israeli-Palestinian violence on the person of Yasser Arafat and equating Israeli offensives in the Occupied Territories with George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism.” Currently, the Bush administration and Sharon’s Labor coalition partners restrain him from expelling Arafat from Palestinian lands altogether and completely dismantling the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Despite his rhetorical support for “peace” and even a Palestinian state, Sharon has clearly articulated his refusal to compromise over Jerusalem or to withdraw Israeli forces from more than the 42 percent of the West Bank and 60 percent of Gaza now under nominal PA administration — should negotiations begin again. He has also refused to discuss return or reparations for Palestinian refugees expelled in 1948.

Is Arafat in Charge?

From the beginning, the Palestinian uprising expressed cumulative popular anger at both the violence of the Israeli occupation and the compromises Yasser Arafat seemed willing to make on basic Palestinian national rights — such as the establishment of a viable sovereign state, the right of return for Palestinian refugees displaced in 1948 and 1967 and Palestinian sovereignty in East Jerusalem. The Palestinian protests following Sharon’s visit to al-Haram al-Sharif were spearheaded by Islamists and students — the sectors of the population among whom Arafat enjoys the least influence. Since September 2000, Arafat has followed the uprising and guerrilla war, not led it.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) is not a fully sovereign government like Israel or the United States, but it does provide municipal services and attempts to maintain order in the areas under its control. Before and during the intifada, Palestinians have repeatedly complained of the PA’s inadequate services and uncertain leadership. The PA’s top ranks, including Arafat, mostly belong to Fatah, the largest faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Many junior officers of the PA security services are also Fatah members. But Fatah is independent of the PA, and Arafat does not control the entire faction through a single chain of command. The uprising has pushed militant local leaders of Fatah to the forefront. The Fatah militants’ demands — full Israeli withdrawal, removal of settlements, a sovereign state with its capital in Jerusalem and the right of return for refugees — are the demands of the intifada.

As the uprising slowly deteriorated into a war of attrition, some members of the PA security services joined in armed attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers, like their fellow Fatah militants outside the PA. But the organization of these attacks appeared to be local, rather than central, and a common refrain among Palestinians was that “there is no leadership.”

When the war of attrition began to be punctuated by Israeli incursions into and reoccupations of Palestinian-controlled areas, even Palestinians critical of PA rule rallied behind Arafat. Palestinians feared that Israel sought to replace Arafat — still their elected leader despite his shortcomings — or to destroy the PA entirely. Apart from Palestinians’ resistance to the idea that their leader should be chosen by outside forces, no other figure has emerged as a potential replacement. Arafat’s ever-tightening “isolation” in his Ramallah headquarters since December 2001 further enhanced his popularity, in contrast to Israel’s apparent intentions.

Israel and the US continue to demand that Arafat crack down on the uprising and publicly forbid all forms of “violence,” not just suicide bombings. But Israeli assaults have destroyed many PA security installations and pushed many security personnel in the direction of the militants. Even if the PA retains the physical ability to maintain “absolute calm,” to do so would strengthen the voices that describe the PA as a proxy police force for the Israeli occupation, and once again endanger Arafat’s status as leader of the Palestinian cause.

Who Orders Suicide Bombings?

Hamas or Islamic Jihad have claimed responsibility for most of the suicide bombings and other attacks inside Israel, which had claimed over 160 civilian lives as of April 2002. The underground military wings of these organizations plan and conduct these attacks. These organizations do not recognize the state of Israel, rejected the Oslo agreements and oppose Arafat and the PA. Hamas officials claim that suicide bombings are a legitimate response to Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians.

There is no credible evidence that Arafat or any other officials of the PA have any prior knowledge of Hamas and Islamic Jihad operations. Moreover, frequent Israeli attacks on PA police and security forces over the past year have seriously undermined the PA’s ability to prevent them. Arafat and the PA have repeatedly condemned suicide bombings inside Israel. In December 2001, Arafat explicitly condemned suicide bombings and called for a halt to all armed attacks on Israeli civilians.

Periodically, the PA has answered US-Israeli calls to crack down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad through mass arrests; in some cases the Islamists and their supporters have met PA police with violent resistance. At other times, Hamas (though not Islamic Jihad) has suspended attacks on Israeli civilians in deference to the PA’s diplomatic efforts. In several cases, these ceasefires were suspended in response to an Israeli assassination of a Hamas militant.

In early 2002, a splinter from the secular Fatah movement called the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades began carrying out suicide bombings inside Israel, likely in retaliation for Israel’s assassination of one of its leaders, Raed Karmi. Evidence purporting to show a direct link between this group’s suicide bombings and Arafat is thus far inconclusive. Other Palestinian factions have expressly forsworn attacks on civilians inside the 1967 borders of Israel, though they have conducted suicide operations targeted at settlers and soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza.

Invasion and Occupation

Women in Jenin refugee camp, April 11, 2002. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Israel’s military response to the uprising escalated in intensity and scale throughout 2001 into 2002 following the election of Ariel Sharon. Israeli operations increasingly targeted the infrastructure of the PA and its police and security forces and eroded the boundaries separating PA-ruled areas from areas of full Israeli military control. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) carried out armed incursions into PA-controlled areas, bulldozed Palestinian houses and crops, conducted systematic assassinations of key Fatah and Hamas militants and rocketed PA police stations from F-16 warplanes.

Following several suicide bombings in early December, Ariel Sharon declared that Arafat and the PA were no longer partners for negotiations and placed Arafat under virtual house arrest in Ramallah. The IDF began a series of deeper military incursions into PA-controlled areas, repositioned tanks and troops to new positions and conducted mass arrests.

The growing Israeli military encirclement of and penetration into PA-ruled areas entered a new phase in March-April 2002, when Israeli forces answered suicide bombings with two massive invasions of Palestinian towns and refugee camps.

On March 29, 2002, Israeli launched its largest military operation since the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 by sending armored divisions into Ramallah and fully reoccupying the city. Israeli forces attacked the presidential compound, and held Arafat hostage with no electricity, water or phone lines. The IDF then invaded and reoccupied nearly all of the PA self-rule areas, including the cities of Bethlehem, Jenin, Tulkaram, Qalqilya and Nablus. Soldiers imposed tight 24-hour curfews and cut electricity and water supply to the population. Palestinians, both militiamen and some policemen given arms by Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements, resisted the offensives with force, particularly during pitched battles in Nablus and Jenin.

The Israeli operation has been characterized by massive tank deployments and intense shelling of PA and civilian buildings, house-to-house searches, confiscations of arms and mass arrests of Palestinian men between the ages of 14 and 45, who were rounded up, stripped, blindfolded and taken away to undisclosed detention centers.

Forcible intimidation, including several IDF shootings, prevented journalists, observers and medical personnel from gathering full details of this offensive. But multiple reports confirmed instances of ambulance workers unable to reach Palestinian wounded, Israeli soldiers raiding hospitals and troops using Palestinians as human shields, all contraventions of the Geneva Conventions. Numerous Palestinian civilians have been shot dead during the invasions or in violation of Israeli-imposed curfews.

In mid-April 2002, the Red Cross warned of a severe humanitarian crisis in West Bank towns and refugee camps due to the lack of food, water and electricity, and army restrictions on the movement of residents and rescue workers.

Occupation Policies

Throughout the uprising and war of attrition, Israel has used much greater force than it generally employed during the first intifada from 1987-1993. Numerous respected human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights, conducted studies that showed IDF soldiers employing excessive force in their suppression of Palestinian demonstrators. Their reports cited (among other violations): the use of live ammunition against unarmed civilians, attacks on medical personnel and installations, the use of snipers with high-powered rifles and attacks on children.

Israel has regularly closed its borders to over 125,000 Palestinian workers — especially Gazans — who rely on jobs inside Israel for their modest income. The UN estimated that Palestinian workers lost between $2.4 and $3.2 billion in income from October 2000 through September 2001 due to closures. Cautious statements by the UN and the World Bank in April 2002 put the unemployment rate at 50 percent across the Palestinian territories. Israeli blockades around Palestinian towns, even those not reoccupied during the invasions, sometimes cause severe shortages of necessities like flour, sugar and gasoline. These “internal closures,” enforced by a series of checkpoints, disrupt normal civilian life and prevent ready access to workplaces, hospitals and schools even in times of relative quiet.

What Are Settlements?

The Mitchell report — the centerpiece of current US diplomacy on Israel-Palestine — calls for a complete freeze on building of Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories. But Peace Now, an extra-parliamentary Israeli activist group, has documented the establishment of 34 new settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip under Sharon.

Settlements are scattered throughout Palestinian lands occupied by Israel during the June 1967 war, including East Jerusalem. Since 1967, successive Israeli administrations have expanded the settlements in the name of both ideology and “security.” In ideological terms, historically endorsed by the Likud Party, settlements secure Jewish sovereignty over the entire biblical “Land of Israel,” demonstrating the power of Jewish nationalism. In security terms, historically endorsed by the Labor Party, settlements ensure Israel’s permanent military control west of the Jordan River. Regardless of rationale, settlements have been used to alter the demography of the Palestinian territories and preclude Palestinian self-determination.

The first wave of state-sponsored settlement began in 1967 under the Labor administration. Settlement growth was limited during this period, but the ground work was laid for more. Labor used “security” arguments to justify settlement but allowed messianic groups like Gush Emunim to establish claims in the Palestinian territories. Intensive development began in 1977 under Likud, which used the ideological rationale to justify heavy investment in the settlement infrastructure. Construction increased again in the early 1990s, during which time the settler population rose by some 10 percent annually. Since the Oslo “peace process” began in 1993, the settler population has nearly doubled. Under the Labor administration of Yitzhak Rabin, settlements grew at a rate unprecedented in Israel’s occupation. Ariel Sharon’s government vows to support the “natural growth” of settlements — a term that belies both the magnitude and political context of the planned expansion that is occurring. Currently, some 400,000 Israeli Jews live in the Occupied Territories: approximately 200,000 in the West Bank, 200,000 in East Jerusalem and 6,000 in the Gaza Strip.

Religious nationalists represent the minority among settlers. The majority was lured to the settlements by government stipends and favorable mortgages. For them, the settlements are like suburbs within commuting distance of Israel’s major cities — with commuting made possible by restricted-access roads that bypass Palestinian towns. Public opinion polls show that most Israelis support a freeze of settlement activity in return for a ceasefire. Such polls are misleading, because settlements in the “Greater Jerusalem” area (which house the majority of settlers) have been deemed virtually “non-negotiable” by most secular Israelis, as well as Labor and Likud. Most so-called settlements are actually “outposts” consisting of no more than a cluster of mobile homes set up near more substantial settlements. The commitment of successive Labor governments to dismantling settlements has often focused solely on these ad hoc units.

All settlements in the Occupied Territories violate international law and continuously infringe on Palestinian human rights. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits an occupying state from transferring parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies. International humanitarian law prohibits permanent changes within an occupied territory that are not intended to benefit the local population. Israel blatantly discriminates between Jews and Palestinians in its planning and building policies in the Occupied Territories. Throughout the Oslo “peace process,” the US accommodated Israel’s refusal to halt settlement growth. George W. Bush called for removing settlements in a Rose Garden speech in April 2002, but stopped short of classifying them as illegal.

The “Honest Broker” and the UN

Since Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, there has been a nearly unanimous international consensus on how to resolve the crisis: an international conference based on international law and United Nations resolutions. But Israel disagreed, and the US backed Israel’s rejection.

The US, while continuing to mention UN resolutions, has kept Israel-Palestine diplomacy under its own control for most of the period since 1967. Washington — Israel’s major financial, diplomatic and military backer — claimed the role of the “honest broker.” The actual requirements of international law and existing UN resolutions (such as 194, ensuring the right of Palestinian refugees to return and receive compensation) were sidelined in favor of US-brokered talks between Israel, the strongest military power in the Middle East and the 17th wealthiest country in the world, and the stateless Palestinians living under occupation or in exile.

In the 1991 Madrid talks, the US-Israeli Memorandum of Understanding stated explicitly that the UN would have no role. Nor was the UN involved in the Oslo process that began in 1993. The failed 2000 Camp David summit ignored the UN altogether.

In October 2000, when 14 out of 15 members of the UN Security Council voted to condemn Israel’s excessive force against civilians, it was the US alone that abstained. Then-US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke threatened to veto any further resolution. The Israeli government rejected any fact-finding commission that might be authorized by the UN, insisting it would be nothing but a “kangaroo court,” and instead demanded an investigation led by the US. Shortly thereafter, the parties agreed to accept a fact-finding commission led by former US Senator George Mitchell, not under UN auspices.

During the last months of President Bill Clinton’s administration, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan assumed an unprecedented, albeit significantly constrained, role in negotiations. At the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations at Taba in early January 2001, European and UN officials were far more visible than the US diplomats hovering in the background.

The Bush Administration’s “Re-engagement”

When George W. Bush’s administration took over, the potential for a greater UN (and perhaps European) role seemed even greater. The Bush foreign policy team asserted its intention to avoid Clinton’s micro-management of the peace process. But on March 28, 2001, the US vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have established a UN observer mission to provide international protection for the Palestinians, as well as an end to closures of the territories and full cessation of settlement activity.

As the war of attrition ground on, and especially during Sharon’s major invasions of Palestinian-controlled territory, domestic and foreign pressure mounted on the Bush administration to “re-engage” in controlling the conflict. The administration responded in part by endorsing, for the first time, the idea of a Palestinian state. But the missions of Gen. Anthony Zinni and Secretary of State Colin Powell, like most of the Bush administration’s diplomacy, have focused only on ending the immediate violence.

Until the spring of 2002, public and official attention centered on the US-backed Mitchell report. The Mitchell report called for “ending violence,” and returning to the “normal” conditions of September 27, 2000, before the uprising began. Later confidence-building measures were to include a complete freeze on Israeli settlement construction, but Mitchell said nothing about occupation overall. While both Israel and the PA accepted the Mitchell recommendations “with reservations,” Israel explicitly rejected the complete settlement freeze.

Following the June 1, 2001 suicide bombing that left 21 young Israelis dead, the two sides agreed to new security talks led by CIA chief George Tenet. The Tenet agreement called for increased Palestinian efforts to clamp down on resistance activities, while asking Israel simply to redeploy tanks and heavy weapons back to positions occupied before September 28. Both the Mitchell report and the Tenet “ceasefire” plan explained the current conflict as a security crisis, rather than a political crisis of the occupation and one that requires a political solution.

Heeding strongly pro-Israel officials in the Defense Department and the Vice President’s office, the Bush administration described both Israeli invasions of PA-controlled territory in March-April 2002 as “self-defense.” On both occasions, the administration only called for a halt to the offensives when it feared that Israel would cross the “red line” of expelling Arafat and completely destroying the PA.

Several administration actions belied the media’s representation of Bush’s response to the invasions as “tough on Israel.” US ambassador to the UN John Negroponte blocked the passage of a Security Council resolution demanding that Israel withdraw from West Bank towns “immediately,” substituting the words “without delay” in the final draft. This phrase was interpreted by Israel as permission to continue the operation. A Defense Department official was quoted in the Boston Globe saying that Powell’s April 11 arrival in Jerusalem was postponed for several days to allow Israel time to complete its offensive. Certainly, Powell’s lackadaisical itinerary undercut Bush’s belated use of the term “immediately” in his calls upon Israel to withdraw from reoccupied West Bank cities.

The best hope for lasting peace is the insertion of UN peacekeepers invested with a mandate to implement international law’s requirements of ending occupation, along with UN-led negotiations over refugees, Jerusalem and other outstanding issues. A growing international consensus supports this option, but so far, the Bush administration has said only that US observers might be deployed to enforce a ceasefire. Though Powell has spoken of coupling implementation of the Tenet and Mitchell plans with a “political” initiative, the outlines of the administration’s ideas are murky at best. The Bush administration continues to view the “storm of violence” in Israel-Palestine as a security problem, rather than a political one.

MERIP Editorial Committee members Phyllis Bennis, Deborah J. Gerner, Steve Niva and Rebecca Stein contributed to this primer.

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