The Other Side of the Coin

December 17, 2000

Comment: #398

Discussion Thread:  #392


[1] UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Report of the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories, #A/54/325, Presented to the Fifty-fourth session of United Nations General Assembly, 8 September 1999.

In Comment #392, Professor Harold Gould argued that the events of the Al-Aqsa Intifada has acquired a life of its own and have transcended the personalities of Israeli Prime Minister Barak and Yasir Arafat.  Fourth Generation Warfare exhibits a self-organizing, self-reinforcing quality when irregular forces learn how to bypass the traditional strengths of organized military forces to focus their attacks on the political will of their adversaries.  Gould's hypothesis suggests this quality may be emerging in the ongoing Al-Aqsa Intifada. There is a tendency in America and Israel to portray the Palestinians a simple terrorists, but Gould contended in #392 that a better way of thinking about the Palestinian revolt would be to view the Palestinian Question as something akin to a anti-colonialist revolt being driven irreversible spontaneous forces, although one must recognize that these forces are being inflamed by provocateurs and terrorists.

Gould is a visiting professor at the University of Virginia and a frequent contributor to these Commentaries.  His academic specialty is anthropology and his field experience is in India, but he has written widely on terrorism as well.  India's anti-colonialist experience offers an interesting  background for viewing the Intifada as well as the latent power of 4GW.  There are similarities between the Palestinian Question and the Indian experience.  Notwithstanding the primitive racial stereotypes peddled by Israeli and American hardliners, for example, the Palestinians, like the Indians, have a well educated and cultured elite, a hard working bourgeois class of entrepreneurial shopkeepers and craftsmen, and a diaspora that could help to finance national development. On the other hand, analogies can be carried too far if one is blind to differences.  The Palestinians, for example, have a large radicalized population of poorly educated, impoverished refugees who can attribute their desperate condition directly to Israeli actions, whereas the majority of India's impoverished masses could not blame their condition on British policies.  One must also remember that India's colonizer - Great Britain - could leave the theater without fear for its existence, whereas the colonizer of the West Bank, Gaza, and Golan can not.

Notwithstanding these and other differences, I think Gould may be on to something.  If he is correct, it is crucially important for the Israelis and their American allies to try to understand the intensity of the anti-colonialist grievances fueling the Intifada from the point of view of the Palestinian man at the bottom of the social pyramid.

From the perspective of the colonized, how might such a Palestinian man see his condition?

One could argue that he might see or feel (1) a sharp decline in his living standards during most of the 1990s, (2) a steady displacement from his land by the continuing pace of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, (3) an increasing sense of vulnerability created by the canonization of areas under Palestinian control and the building of Israeli controlled by-pass roads to enforce the divisions, (4) omni-present restrictions on his freedom of movement put into place by insensitive alien bureaucrats, (5) daily humiliations from arbitrary search and seizure practices at Israeli checkpoints, (6) a crippling psycho-economic dependence on the good will of the colonizer because of the colonizer's control and regulation of his low-wage employment in Israel, (7) Israeli control of and disproportionate consumption of the water resting underneath his land in the crucial mountain aquifer as well as the poisoning of his wells by the waste runoff from fortified Israeli settlements on the high ground, (8) the "occupation" of his holy sites in Jerusalem, and so forth.

While some of these feelings might not be justified by objective facts, some of the reasons why this man might nevertheless have them can be deduced from information in the thirty-first report of the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories, which submitted to the United Nations General Assembly in September 1999, pursuant to paragraphs 5, 6 and 7 of General Assembly resolution 53/53 of 3 December 1998. [Attached separately to this comment as a Adobe Acrobat PDF file]

Readers can find general information, maps of settlements and water resources, and chronology of events describing this Intifada at here.

But it is also important to remember that Gould's point in #392 was that events had transcended the personality of Arafat as well as that of Barak.  This brings the problem of changing the outdated Palestinian political structures now governing the life of our hypothetical man at the bottom of the social pyramid.  This is particularly true for the ossified Fatah - which is susceptible to whim of extremists, is undemocratic, is riddled with corruption, and is demonstrably incapable of nation building.

Gould introduces this side of the Palestinian coin in the attached essay, which will appear in a forthcoming issue of The Hindu, one of India's most influential newspapers.

Forthcoming in the Hindu:

Palestinian Statehood: The Other Side of the Coin
By Harold A. Gould
[Reprinted with Permission of author]

In a previous article (The Hindu, Oct 20), I stated that a major cause of the recent eruption of violence in Palestine has been Israel's perpetuation of what can only be called a colonialist model for dealing with the Arab populations who came under its suzerainty after the June War of 1967. Admittedly there were compelling reasons for the conquests that led to this state of affairs. The armies of Syria, Jordan and Egypt had invaded Israel and, in concert with the indigenous Palestinians, would have destroyed her had she not successfully fended them off. The conquered populations are a legacy of these perilous times.

The problem is that this colonialist style of governance, as was the case with British rule in India, and other colonialisms around the world, inevitably bred contempt for its subjugated populations. The longer it continued the deeper the contempt grew. As the British and other colonialists realized, lording it over a powerless people can be an intoxicating boon to one's cultural vanity. And ironically, the Israelis, themselves the victims of mankind's worst manifestation of racial oppression, fell prey to the very mentality that had once enslaved them. For these very reasons it was a situation that could not be indefinitely sustained.

Contemporary history has demonstrated over and over again that populations held in conditions of political and economic servitude, regardless of the circumstances which produced that state of affairs in the first place, eventually just refuse to take it anymore. As resistance mounts, a point is eventually reached where the cost of trying to keep the subalterns in line becomes prohibitive. This point has now been reached in Palestine. Civil disobedience has transcended the capacity of Israel to contain it and has, as well, exceeded the ability of what there is of responsible Palestinian leadership to control it. Yasir Arafat can no longer flip a rhetorical switch and compel his followers to obey him; Ehud Barak can no longer persuade either the Palestinians or his fellow Jews to accept his bona fides as a peace-maker. The latter is attested by the fact that Mr. Barak has been compelled to resign his post and seek a fresh mandate, which it is clear he will fail to obtain.

The situation, in short, has spun out of control. Emeritus Professor Don Peretz of the State University of New York (Binghamton), himself a noted Jewish scholar, recently stated at a Potomac Institute colloquium in Washington that Israel as early as the 1970s should have moved toward complete political separation between the two populations, with Jewish settlers no longer enjoying extraterritorial rights on the Arab side of the designated frontier. That is what should have happened then; that is what should be happening now. Indeed the ferocity and persistence of this second eruption of Intifada makes it clear that in the end the only practicable option left for Israel will be to facilitate genuine statehood for the Palestinians, unfortunately on terms far less favorable than would have been possible years ago.

As the inevitable approaches, however, another challenge to the prospects for real peace and rapprochement between Arabs and Jews in Palestine looms on the horizon. This is the Palestinian side of coin.

Fundamental institutional changes are also needed on the West Bank and in Gaza. Kids shouting slogans, throwing rocks and hurling Molotov cocktails in the streets just won't do it once real Palestinian statehood is conceded and the business of establishing mature relations between two separate states commences in earnest. Statesmanship, not confrontational politics, will have to prevail once this stage has been reached. This can be accomplished only when genuine representative government supercedes the existing corrupt, authoritarian political leadership that currently holds sway in the Arab territories. Put simply, the insistence that Israel democratize its external relations with the occupied territories as a prelude to peace has got to be matched by a corresponding democratization of Palestinian domestic political institutions in order for mature diplomacy to work. Otherwise there is little hope that a stable peace can ever be achieved.

New York Times columnist, Thomas L Friedman, in a recent article pertaining to the Arab League emergency summit meeting held in Cairo on October 21st, called attention to the troubling absence of democracy anywhere in the Middle East. He wondered "why the Arab east is the only region in the world, including sub-Saharan Africa, that is still ruled by dictators, autocrats and kings, without one real democracy."

Israel, by contrast, whatever may be its faults, is a functioning democracy in which a wide range of political interests and ideological convictions are represented. There now exists a vocal, though admittedly beleaguered, opposition to the current return of the hard-line policies which got Israel into the pickle it is in the first place.. This diversity of political voices will have a crucial moderating influence on the dialogues that will follow the establishment of Palestinian statehood.

The Palestinian Authority, by contrast, is essentially a political monolith where Yasir Arafat makes all the key decisions largely in response to the whims of radical and extremist elements, both within and outside Fatah, who occupy center stage. Moderate voices are nowhere to be heard in the present political environment. This absence of countervailing moderation, as Friedman says, pervades the Arab Middle East. Jordan, while admittedly a "moderate" Arab state, is nevertheless a monarchy where King Abdullah is the final voice. Syria, now ruled by the son of the late Hafez-al-Asad, remains a totalitarian state with minimal respect for human rights at home, that supports terrorism abroad, and itself perpetrates colonialism in Lebanon. Egypt is a one-party state run by a benevolent dictator. On the periphery, and always factors in Middle East affairs, are Iraq and Saudi Arabia, where democratic institutions are a furtive dream, and Iran, where they are no more than a flickering ember.

This is where the United States comes in. Clearly America lacks the capacity to transform the entire Middle East region into a democratic wonderland overnight, given the power of radical nationalism and ethno-religious fundamentalism in the Arab world. But the US can play a decisive role in the outcome of a bi-national political settlement for Palestine. If successful, this could set a precedent which in the long run would enormously contribute to greater stability for the entire region..

The United States possesses the influence and wherewithal to play such a role here. Politically, it would have to aggressively support separate sovereignty for the Palestinians, while still maintaining its special relationship with Israel. This should be the starting point for a fresh American approach to the region, possibly just the right departure for an incoming Bush administration unencumbered by the ethos of its predecessor. Admittedly, it would not be an easy row to hoe, but by no means an impossible one. Its implementation would be abetted by significant support from Third World countries like India and from members of the European Union who have long advocated Palestinian statehood.

From this vantage, the US would be free to employ its powers of persuasion to promote democratization processes in the newly created, sovereign Palestinian state, both through bilateral diplomacy, and through the exercise of its formidable economic power. This formula is already in place as a means of encouraging democratization and liberalization in China, Mexico and elsewhere on the grounds that it is in America's strategic interests to strengthen and give voice to moderate elements in all societies. The chances of such policies being successful in Palestine are especially good, in fact, because Palestinians, the racist stereotypes propagated by Israeli hardliners to the contrary notwithstanding, are actually one of the most culturally advanced, entrepreneurially gifted populations in the Middle East. Encouraging their prosperity and corresponding political importance would set in motion the democratization processes so sorely needed on the Palestinian side of the coin as the guarantor of an equal, constructive political dialogue capable of ending the debilitating colonialist structure now inhibiting the pathway to peace and security for both Israelis and Palestinians.

[Harold Gould is a Visiting Scholar at the University of Virginia .]

Chuck Spinney

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