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Rally and Resist For Palestinian Independence

By Edward W. Said
 

The crisis in Palestinian ranks deepens almost daily. Security talks between Israel and the P.L.O. are advertised as a "break- through" one day, stalled and deadlocked the next. Deadlines previously agreed upon come and go, with no other timetable proposed, while Israel increases the number of its soldiers in the occupied territories, as well as the killings, the building of settle- ment residences, the demolition of Palestinian houses, the punitive measures keeping Palestinians from leaving the territories and entering Jerusalem.

The September 13 Declaration of Principles, once described as marvelous, has now been fully revealed as an interpreter's nightmare, a patchwork of old Israeli and American drafts, incom- plete procedural suggestions, deliberate ambiguities and obfus- cations. In one section, for example, the Israeli army is said to withdraw; in another it is characterized as redeploying. Israel, never compelled to admit it is an occupying power, has been further bolstered in that peculiar denial by the U.S. government. Secretary of State Warren Christopher does not consider it "help- ful" to state categorically that the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem are "occupied" territories, thereby perhaps salving whatever conscience as may exist in an Administration that continues to provide some $5 billion in annual support while saying nothing about the worsening conditions. Together Israel and its patron are doing all they can--notwithstanding the high-sounding principles of last fall--to make the likelihood of a truly independent Pales- tine more and more remote.

And the Palestinian response? Yasir Arafat cries betrayal, though he effectively acquiesced to the leverage Israel now exerts when he signed the Oslo declaration without establish- ing any plan for proceeding and without getting much in return but a grudging recognition of the P.L.O. as the representative of the Palestinian people. In Gaza and elsewhere, local leaders resign from the P.L.O., and its cadres grow more disaffected. No one has anything but complaints about Arafat's leadership; numerous petitions, missions (such as the one led by Haidar Abdel-Shafi to Tunis) and articles in the press have kept up a fairly constant pressure on Arafat to reform, change his autocratic ways, open up the decision-making process to talent and proven ability.

None of these petitions, these appeals for reform, have had the slightest effect. Nor will they ever. You cannot change an elephant into a lion by sending it a letter. Yet what we have is an intolerable mess; it cannot be allowed to continue. At this point Palestinians, both in the occupied territories and in diaspora, must face up to two central challenges--that of leadership and of serious planning through collective action--or else be resigned to a life of permanent oppression, without land, without a voice in shaping the future, without hope, even without pride, as the leadership stumbles from incoherence to incompetence and worse.

It could not be clearer that the P.L.O. hierarchy, including Fatah and its associated parties, as well as its creatures in the occupied territories and elsewhere, should step aside. The leader- ship has so misunderstood its own people that there is now a simmering--and frequently open--revolt more or less everywhere that Palestinians gather and live. No leadership can expect forever to be in sole control of money and political authority, and to dole these out according to its whims. Some 500 schools and eight universities, as well as 11,000 education workers in the occupied territories languish without a budget and no guidance at all (to say nothing of hospitals without medicine). More than most people, Palestinians have been the victims of abuses by every govern- ment--Arab and non-Arab--in whose jurisdiction they have lived. Why should they stand for similar practices from leaders who have neither been freely elected nor shown a spirit of self-sacrificing austerity? Why should hard-pressed Palestinians in refugee camps in Lebanon and Gaza accept corruption, Parisian shopping sprees and continued bumbling among a handful of officials directed from Tunis? How long can Arafat simply assert his prerogative to be in exclusive control of building contracts, foreign aid, lucrative appointments? Are quick profit and a history of servile loyalty the only criteria for service?

Consider, too, the information policies of this leadership. (I refrain from saying anything about its negotiating strategies with Israel, since those seem to be known only to Yasir Arafat and Nabil Shaath.) It has yet to tell Palestinians in the territories, Jordan and Lebanon the full truth about the present situation. Yes, of course, people want an independent state, but--assuming Israel, with the de facto collaboration of Arafat and his courtiers, has not already foreclosed that prospect--what sort of state is it to be? Nothing is said. Is there to be resistance to the occupation or not? No word. Are there to be consultative assemblies or not? No word. What do we tell the world--about where we are in our history, about the killings of our own people, and on and on? No word. What is Palestine's real economic policy (beyond the silly slogan about making Palestine into another Singapore)? No one seems to know.

I have little doubt that despite the present impasse the P.L.O. will make a security agreement with Israel, on Israeli terms of course. After that the present P.L.O. leadership can have very little to say and even less to offer. Palestinians should thank the men in Tunis for their past contributions, but we should then take the next logical step and demand that they resign. Their apex was the Declaration of Principles, which, whether we like it or not, is their legacy to us.

"And yet," one hears the timorous voices rising, "what is the alternative?" This would be a good question were it not so often asked rhetorically. Are we to be ruled so totally by prede- termined fact? As it happens, alternatives don't drop from trees; they develop when a place is vacated. The intifada is evidence of that; it began because a distant leadership had grown bankrupt of ideas and strategies. By chance, the uprising reinvigorated that leadership temporarily. But the lesson of the intifada is also the challenge Palestinians face today; that is, that responsibility for what happens next must be a collective one.

Palestinians have to regard the present situation as expos- ing a much more serious cultural and moral crisis than mere incompetence and corruption among P.L.O. chiefs. What I have in mind is our historical tendency as a people to avoid focusing on a set of national goals and single-mindedly pursuing them with methods and principles that are adequate to those goals. We have been unable so far even to undertake a census of our own people. We rely on Israel for facts about land and water, and to this day have rarely produced our own sources of reliable information. Is there an adequate and usable Palestinian map of the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem?

Since the beginning, the struggle over Palestine has been a battle over territorial sovereignty: "another dunum, another goat" was the motto of the Zionist settlers under Chaim Weizmann. Israel is now in sole possession of the territory of historical Palestine, although a relatively large population of Palestinians--including the 800,000 Arab citizens of Israel--is also resident there. The Zionist idea has always been to coordinate specific concrete steps with a guiding principle that doesn't change. Thus, the Israelis assert sovereignty and they build settlements, they take land and water, build roads, deploy armed forces. Obviously, they also have the monopoly on legitimized violence; I do not mean to suggest that there is anything resembling a balance of power between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Nevertheless, it bears consideration that the official political technique pursued by one Arab govern- ment (including the P.L.O.) after another has always been to make very large general assertions, and then hope that the concrete details will somehow work out later. The P.L.O. accepted the Declaration of Principles on the grounds that Palestinian autonomy would somehow lead to independence if enough rhetorical state- ments about an independent Palestinian state were made. When it came to negotiating the details (what parts of Jericho and Gaza were in question?), we had neither the plans nor the actual facts. They had the plans, the territory, the maps, the settlements, the roads; we have the wish for autonomy and Israeli withdrawal, with few details, and little power to change anything very much. What is needed is a discipline of detail.

A general idea like "limited autonomy" might lead to inde- pendence or it might equally well lead to further domination. In either case, the main task for Palestinians is to know and under- stand the overall map of the territories that the Israelis have been creating, and then devise a concrete tactics of resistance. (In the history of colonial invasion maps are always first drawn by the victors, since maps are instruments of conquest; once projected they are then implemented. Geography is therefore the art of war but can also be the art of resistance if there is a countermap and a counterstrategy.) The essence of the Israeli plan for territorial domination, both in theory and in fact, is (a) effective control over the land within its pre-1967 boundaries; and (b) the prevention of real Palestinian autonomy by maintaining an ever-expanding united Jerusalem as the center of a web extending into the West Bank. Israeli plans for and practices in Jerusalem are therefore central to the future of Palestinians.

To the best of my knowledge, Jerusalem has never been the focus of a concentrated Palestinian strategy, nor has there ever been a campaign systematically to resist Israeli control over the city and its surroundings. "Gaza-Jericho" thus seems ever more like a trap or a kind of elaborate distraction, so that Palestinian energies will be absorbed in administering the peripheries, while the core is left to the Israelis. As outlined by Jan de Jong, a Dutch geographer who has been studying Israeli policies for Jerusalem for the past eight years, the Israeli idea is to take "the last open spaces that...might be claimed by Palestinians...to square the circle around the Old City." He describes two rings of settle- ments that will be the site of Israeli building efforts over the next three years: the first, mainly in annexed Jerusalem; the second, enclosing the first and extending ultimately into most of the central West Bank, from Bir Zeit in the north to the outskirts of Hebron in the south. Within these eighty-five square miles or so Israel will be largely unchallenged, although there and else- where in the territories Palestinians will be allowed autonomy "in separated territorial units."

Already the whole of the West Bank and Gaza has been divided into ten or eleven cantons by some fifty-seven road barriers. Rabin's government is proceeding with a $600 million road system for the occupied territories; it is to be controlled by Israel and will connect the settlements to one another, to Jerusa- lem and to Israel, bypassing Arab areas and completing the territories' cantonization. Meanwhile, land confiscation continues at a stunning pace: More than 9,000 acres in the West Bank were forcibly taken and declared Israeli military zones in December alone. It has even been suggested by Ra'anan Weiz, a Labor stalwart and former head of the Jewish Agency's Department of Rural Settlement, that Israel build a new capital city for Palestin- ians near Hizma (in the desert, well beyond the two circles) as a substitute for Jerusalem.

De Jong's main point, however, is that whereas the Israelis are planning, settling and controlling, the Palestinians have still not even formulated a strategy to resist these moves, whether by initiating collective public building projects or by making metro- politan Jerusalem the center of a national development plan. In both instances, since the Israeli vision is to divide the Palestinian population into "islands, cantons, small spheres of containment," de Jong suggests that in response Palestinians "should consider themselves part of a bigger unit," of which Jerusalem is not just one district or one main street but a city "from [such disparate East Jerusalem neighborhoods as] al-Azzariah to Beit-Hanina and Shuafat, and then to think how we can make a prospective for development there." To discuss that as an alternative, with visible efforts made on its behalf, "will cause people to believe in it," and can then become the basis for collective action.

There has been much talk recently of handing over to "experts"--Palestinian and non-Palestinian--responsibility for where we go from here in terms of the impending "transfer of authority" to a new Palestinian administration. This notion is seconded by the World Bank, the European Community and the United States, which emphasize the need for objective and apoliti- cal (i.e., subservient and free-market) strategists. I am unmoved by their arguments ideologically (where development has been dictated from the outside the net result has been to pauperize the majority and keep those countries even more politically and economically dependent on the developed countries) and practical- ly, since in any case Arafat, designating himself Boss, can exercise arbitrary authority over even the most enlightened experts. Some of Arafat's disaffected (but opportunistic) associates openly favor calling in the "professionals," often proposing themselves as replacements for Arafat.

In this situation experts who sit in Washington or Paris can fix very little: A plan drawn up by the most brilliant yet faraway intellect cannot be implemented on the ground unless there is a common national will, as well as a national sense of urgency and mobilization. Likewise, freelance Palestinian experts and entrepre- neurs cannot be trusted to act for the common good. Throughout the Arab world, Europe and the United States there are extraordi- narily large numbers of gifted and successful Palestinians who have made a mark in medicine, law, banking, planning, architec- ture, journalism, industry, education, contracting. Most of these people have contributed only a tiny fraction of what they could contribute to the Palestinian national effort. Compared with the Jewish communities in the West, we have done next to nothing, although I am convinced that there is a great potential there. Perhaps the greatest failure of the P.L.O. was not that it signed an ill-considered and stupid Declaration of Principles but that it has failed, both before and after Oslo, to mobilize the vast poten- tial of its own people.

Palestinians today are separated by geography and by Israel's designs to keep us fragmented and isolated from one another; people in Palestine and those outside it lead different lives, with far too little communication between them. To survive as a nation, it is not enough to repeat slogans, or only to insist that Palestinian identity will survive. The first thing is to grasp as concretely and as precisely as possible what the facts on the ground really are, not in order to be defeated by them but to invent ways of countering them with our own facts and institu- tions, and finally of asserting our national presence, democratical- ly and with mass participation.

The Palestine National Council must now convene, despite the P.L.O.'s opposition. Instead of sitting back and waiting for some- thing to happen, Palestinians can, indeed must, also call assemblies wherever large populations exist (Jordan, Lebanon, North America, England) with enough clout, resources and potential for contribu- tions that will make a difference. In the territories, divisiveness and factionalism have compounded the situation of helplessness and resentment in which most Palestinians find themselves. Sys- tematic attempts must be made to bridge the distance between the diaspora and those Palestinians. Networks are forming, as are ever-expanding groups of citizens dissatisfied with the P.L.O.'s ineptitude. But the key thing is to stop thinking that Arafat and Co. can be reformed, and to begin an open and unafraid discus- sion about the alternatives, the need to go forward as a nation and, most important, a strategy to end Israeli occupation.

If Jerusalem is the heart of our predicament with Israel, it is also therefore the heart of the solution. As the settlement process continues, Palestinians have to muster the resources and the will to prevent unilateral Israeli control. To do this, Palestin- ians must start thinking collectively and stop reacting individual- ly. And the major question, of which Jerusalem is the symbol, is how to resist, not how to profit. The Israelis must somehow be convinced that there can be no real peace unless they leave the Palestinian land they now occupy illegally in Jerusalem and their West Bank and Gaza settlements. Yet if they are to be persuaded it will only be by a people that to a man and woman feels itself to be part of a national effort dedicated to real, not apparent, independence. Those are the facts. There is no such thing as partial independence or limited autonomy. Without political inde- pendence there is neither sovereignty nor real freedom, and certainly not equality with an Israeli Jewish state that destroyed Palestine in 1948 and is not anxious to give it another chance in 1994. The challenge is obvious.




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