Last month people around the world marked the first anniversary of the attacks in the US last year. The second anniversary of the beginning of the Al-Quds Intifada was also in September. The uprising began with popular protests against the Israelis’ determination to control al-Haram al-Sharif, symbolised by Ariel Sharon’s insulting visit to the Haram on September 28, 2000. It was also a reaction against the ‘peace process,’ which the Israelis had proved was only a way to impose surrender on the Palestinians. In these two years a great deal has changed at many levels, but fundamental realities of Palestinian life are still the same.
The start of the intifada was marked as much by the murderous brutality of the Israeli response as by the outpouring of Palestinian anger on the streets of al-Quds and other Palestinian towns. Within days more than a hundred Palestinians, many of them children, had been shot by Israeli troops. Now Yasser Arafat is holed up in the ruins of his palace in Ramallah, in a situation symbolic of the Palestinians’ situation. The Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment (LAW) lists 1,639 Palestinians who have been killed in the last two years, of whom 103 have been extra-judicially assassinated and more than 550 killed in bombardments and air attacks. This number does not include deaths caused by deprivation of medical access or restrictions on movement. LAW also lists more than 19,711 Palestinians injured, more than 2,000 of them permanently disabled. At least 985 homes have been demolished, and more than 7,000 Palestinians are in concentration camps, including 330 children and 59 women. The Palestinians’ standard of living has fallen to the levels of the poorest countries; large numbers of children are suffering from malnutrition. The long-term social and psychological impact of closures, harassments and other policies can barely be imagined.
Another effect of the intifada has been to confirm Arafat’s marginalization in Palestinian politics. His position as Palestinian ‘president’ and the fact that the Israelis blame him personally for every Palestinian act, in order to have a target for their wrath, are the main reasons that he retains what little credibility and standing he does have. There is also sympathy for him as a senior figure who has made a historic contribution and finds himself in an impossible position. Nonetheless, the support of ordinary Palestinians has shifted to Palestine’s Islamic groups, particular Hamas, whose stance vis-a-vis the peace process has been vindicated, and which have played the largest role in active resistance to Israel in the last two years. None of these are new developments; rather they are clarifications of trends that were in place long before the intifada began.
Internationally, the realities of the Palestinian situation have not changed either. The peace process had been killed long before September 2000 by the Israelis’ determination to eat their cake and have it. The practical demonstration of Israel’s true nature has done nothing to decrease the US’s commitment to it. As long as the US backs Israel unconditionally (which is unlikely to change), the more balanced positions of some European and other Western states are irrelevant. It is often said that Arab and Muslim opinion on Palestine has constrained American policy-making since September 11; equally, however, the "war against terrorism" has diverted attention from Palestine and constrained Muslims and Islamic movements elsewhere from either supporting Palestinian mujahideen or expressing their anger over Palestine.
Two years after the al-Aqsa intifada opened a new chapter in the history of the Palestinian struggle, we are probably no nearer an end to Palestine’s occupation and suffering. As long as the West — the US in particular — see Israel as an extension of their power in the heart of the Muslim world, they will not allow it to be defeated. What the Palestinians have demonstrated, however, is that the zionists will not be permitted to legitimise their rule and to live comfortably in their stolen lands. What is important about the Palestinians’ struggle is that they do not surrender, they refuse to be defeated, and they maintain their commitment to reversing their losses, however long it takes; for that determination they are paying a high price. As the West seeks also to extend and consolidate its power over other parts of the Muslim world on the pretext of fighting terrorism, the Palestinians are setting an example that other Muslims, in other places, may well have to follow before long.