Israel stepped up operations in the West Bank and Ghazzah last month after two successful operations by Palestinian mujahideen: one against Israeli forces in al-Khalil on November 15, one a martyrdom bombing in Jerusalem. Israel’s response included incursions into Nablus, Jenin, al-Khalil and Tulkarem, increased harassment of Palestinians, and assassinations of alleged activists. Over 20 Palestinians were killed in the week after November 15, nearly half of them children. The intensity of the Israeli response was partly because Sharon wants to emphasise his toughness before Israel’s elections; otherwise there was nothing exceptional about either the operations or the response. The Palestinians’ determination to resist occupation and the Israeli determination to crush them are both well-established realities.
More interesting is the politicking among Palestinians. Talks were held in Cairo last month between the Fatah group, which continues to dominate the administration of the Palestinian Authority, and representatives of Hamas. Reports of the talks focused on a suspension of hostilities until after Israel’s elections, in the hope of influencing the result. This is a vain hope, both because Israeli politicians know that killing Palestinians is the best way to win support, and because Israel has repeatedly made clear that it will not come to any agreement, even tacit, with Islamic groups. In July, for example, Fatah and Hamas agreed to offer Israel war conditions similar to those under which Hizbullah operated in Lebanon: no attacks on non-combatants, and no attacks in 1948 Palestine, if Israel withdrew from Palestinian towns and stopped its assassinations. Israel’s response came within 12 hours: the attack on an apartment building in Ghazzah on July 22, in which 16 Palestinians were killed.
The Cairo talks are better understood as on-going discussions between the ‘historic leadership’ of the movement – ie. Arafat and his allies – and the ‘young guard,’ namely Hamas, Islamic Jihad and elements of Fatah and other militias whose position is increasingly closer to the Islamic movement’s, even though they remain formally within the structures of the PLO and the PA. This debate is on the objectives of the Palestinian struggle, its strategy, and the structures of leadership within the Palestinian movement. Most Palestinians recognise the utter failure of the current leadership in every key aspect: in dealing with the Israelis, in administering Palestine, and in protecting them. It is also widely recognised that the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority is now effective only for maintaining Arafat and the old guard in power.
Hamas is now demanding the formation of a new liberation movement, based on the Islamic movements, the militias and the popular community groups that have become the main bases for social organization. What Hamas is reluctant to do, now as ever, is to come into open conflict with the PA and the old leaders. This has been one of the two permanent red lines in its strategy, the other being its refusal to end armed resistance or recognise Israel. Since the first intifada Hamas has been torn between its opposition to the PLO approach – vindicated by subsequent events – and its desire not to split the Palestinian movement. This has kept it from confronting the PA even when it was itself targeted by its security apparatus. But the old guard’s determination to remain in power, and their willingness to be useful to the Israelis to achieve this end, is now straining this resolve. There is growing realization that sooner or later the young guard will have to sweep the dead wood aside and take over.
This is the last thing that Israel and the West want. A large part of their strategy is to keep the dead wood in place, hence their detention of Mustafa Barghouti, the main alternative to Arafat within the PLO, and also their focusing on Arafat in order to maintain his credibility among Palestinians. But they also have a longer vision: the expansion of the settlements and the re-drawing of the ‘Green Line’, particularly around Jerusalem. Israel’s object is to destroy the two-state solution and consolidate the realities required for the recognition of Israel’s rule of all Palestine, possible only by the expulsion of the Palestinians from the West Bank. The current apparent deadlock suits them perfectly; they have no interest in resuming a political dialogue. Armed resistance, as demonstrated by Hizbullah and advocated by Hamas, is the only strategy by which the Palestinians can prevent all that; those who argue otherwise are serving the zionists’ purposes.