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Jewish Journal

Palestinian Peacenicks

by Eric Silver

February 21, 2002 | 7:00 pm

Israeli police collect bomb parts after a Palestinian bomber detonated his explosives as police officers approached his car near the Jewish town of Ma'aleh Adumim in the West Bank near Jerusalem on Feb. 18. The Palestinian was on his way to carry out a car bombing in Jerusalem, and killed an Israeli policeman when he detonated his explosives prematurely in what Israel said was the fifth attempted suicide attack in 24 hours. Photo by Brian Hendler/JTA

Israeli police collect bomb parts after a Palestinian bomber detonated his explosives as police officers approached his car near the Jewish town of Ma'aleh Adumim in the West Bank near Jerusalem on Feb. 18. The Palestinian was on his way to carry out a car bombing in Jerusalem, and killed an Israeli policeman when he detonated his explosives prematurely in what Israel said was the fifth attempted suicide attack in 24 hours. Photo by Brian Hendler/JTA

It sounds confused, if not downright contrary. Most Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip applaud violence against Israelis, yet they are eager for a cease-fire and for their political leaders to get back to the negotiating table.

The latest opinion poll registered 58 percent of Palestinians supporting violence against civilians, while an overwhelming 90 percent supported attacks on soldiers. But at the same time 60 percent backed calls for a ceasefire, a 10 percent increase on six months earlier, and as many as 70 percent wanted a return to negotiations.

There is a logic to their double-talk. Mainstream Palestinians, from the leadership to the grass-roots, recognize that they cannot drive the Jews into the sea, however much they might like to. Israel is there to stay, and somehow, some time, they have to find a way to live alongside it. There is a debate going on, however muted it is in the smoke and cordite of the war of attrition that calls itself an intifada. But the primary differences are over tactics, the efficacy of violence, not the ethics of it.

"I believe that this conflict will never be resolved by force," said Father Raed Abusahlia, a Christian advocate of nonviolent resistance. "We are losing support all over the world by using violent resistance. Nonviolent resistance is a stronger weapon against the occupation."

Like Israeli peacenicks, Palestinian doves are not pacifists. Even someone like Abusahlia, the 35-year-old chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem, scarcely pauses to condemn suicide or car bombers for killing innocent people. He is a proud Palestinian, born in a village near Jenin, and he wants to get the Israelis off his back. For the purpose of this debate, violence is wrong because it is counter-productive.

Among the political elite, Sari Nusseibeh, the Palestine Liberation Organization's point man in Jerusalem, is the most outspoken champion of a compromise peace. "Violence leads nowhere," he told foreign correspondents. "Neither Israel nor the Palestinians are able to impose their will. Violence breeds more violence."

Nusseibeh, an Oxford-educated philosophy professor, is the only Palestinian leader who has said openly what many of them think. Asked by a Ha'aretz interviewer in December whether Yasser Arafat erred when he rejected Ehud Barak's peace proposals at Camp David in July, 2000, Nusseibeh replied unequivocally: "Yes. That was a major missed opportunity. If it had been me, I would have told Barak, 'OK, let's sign.'"

Well-placed Palestinians report that Mahmoud Abbas (a.k.a. Abu Mazen), Arafat's No. 2, has spoken "very harshly" behind closed doors against the strategy of violence. Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala), the speaker of the Palestinian legislative council and third man in Arafat's political pantheon, is thought to share Abu Mazen's view, but is more cautious even in private.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Arafat's two principal security commanders -- Mohammed Dahlan in Gaza and Jibril Rajoub on the West Bank -- are also counted in this pragmatic Palestinian "peace camp." According to informed Palestinians, Dahlan was one of three members of Arafat's Camp David team who urged him to accept what Barak was offering, then build on it.

Secular leaders like these are seeking a modus vivendi with Israel because they want their Palestinian state, when it comes, to be part of the modern world. They fear an Iranian-style Islamic theocracy, they reject the obscurantism of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. And they are keen to get on with building a 21st-century nation. But, as Danny Rubinstein, a Palestinian affairs analyst for Ha'aretz, put it, they want Arafat to sign the deal. He alone, they believe, can sell it to the Palestinian street. So talk of a palace revolution is fantasy.

With a Kalashnikov in every home and the rule of law more brittle than ever, it is not easy for those who oppose militarism to find a platform. But some have done so, though they remain a minority: academics like the Gaza psychiatrist Eyad Sarraj, the Bir Zeit University political scientist Salah Abdul Jawad, and journalists Tawfiq Abu Bakr and Daoud Kuttab.

The controlled Palestinian press is nervous about printing their opinions, which could bring the censor or worse on the editor's head. One dissenter, whose article was rejected by the East Jerusalem daily, Al Quds, posted it on the Internet. When the paper's editor saw that no harm ensued and everyone was talking about it, he printed the article anyway. Khalil Shikaki, pollster and political science professor, frequently uses Radio Monte Carlo's Arabic service, widely listened to across the Middle East, to advocate non-violent resistance.

They are a kind of resistance within the resistance. But they all, politicians and professors, have one thing in common: They won't buy "peace at any price." They acknowledge that the Palestinians will have to make concessions, but they demand equal, if not more, sacrifice from Israel as the dominant power that holds 78 percent of 1948 Palestine, even without the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Nusseibeh spelled it out more starkly (for the Palestinians and the Israelis) than anyone. The Palestinians, he said, had to recognize that the plight of the four million refugees must be solved within the borders of a Palestinian state. The other side of the equation, however, was an Israeli withdrawal to the armistice lines that served as a border before the 1967 Six-Day War.

Nusseibeh is still out on a limb, publicly at least, on the refugees' right of return. Arafat wrote in The New York Times earlier this month that Israel's demographic concerns -- a Jewish state with a Jewish majority -- had to be taken into account, though as always he left himself room for maneuver. Jerusalem, the other Camp David sticking point, is still intractable.

The outlook remains bleak, for Arabs and Jews, doves and hawks. Yet as the Hebrew novelist Amos Oz, the most articulate of Israeli peace campaigners, argues, the great achievement of the past two years of hope and despair is that everyone on both sides now knows the price to be paid if they want peace.

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