The election of Ariel Sharon as prime minister of the zionist state was supposed to be a statement of intent that Israel was tired of talking to the Palestinians and had turned away from the peace process in favour of a hard response to the Palestinians’ continued uprising.
The Palestinians immediately proved that they were not cowed by such posturing, calling a day of protest to coincide with the elections, and maintaining their defiance against zionist occupation. Major confrontations took place in Ghazzah, al-Khalil (Hebron) and Ramallah. Clashes in Ramallah culminated in exchanges of gunfire on February 9, which prompted the Israeli army to deploy tanks. In Ghazzah, a 17-year-old shepherd was killed by tank-fire.
More assertive action by the Islamic movement also continued, with the explosion of two car-bombs in Israeli parts of West Jerusalem the previous day. Leaders of Palestine’s two major Islamic groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, asserted their determination to maintain armed resistance and the “way of the martyr” on February 9.
Speaking at the funeral of 24-year-old Shadi al-Kahlut, martyred two days earlier while trying to enter the zionist state on an armed mission, Shaikh Abdullah al-Shami, a Jihad leader in Ghazzah, called for the leaders of the Palestinian Authority to end all talks and security co-operation with Israel, and commit themselves to jihad. Shaikh Ahmed Bahar, a Hamas leader, also spoke at the funeral, voicing a similar message and emphasising the importance of unity rather than being weakened by differing approaches to the struggle.
The defiance of the Palestinian jihad leaders stands in stark contrast to the craven attitude of ‘president’ Yasser Arafat, who effectively endorsed out-going prime minister Ehud Barak and performed in his election campaigning. This is the only possible interpretation of his role in the Taba talks in late January and his agreeing to meet Barak face-to-face when those talks ended, a meeting which was later cancelled. In the run-up to the polling, Arafat went so far as to call for Palestinian voters in the Israeli elections to support Barak, in order to ensure that Sharon was not elected.
Other Palestinian forces, particularly the Islamic movement, called for Palestinians to boycott the elections, saying that it was impossible to endorse the prime minister who had ordered the killing of more than 400 Palestinians in the last four months alone (including 13 ‘Israeli Arabs’ early in the intifada), and had authorised the use of helicopter- gunships, tanks, snipers and undercover death squads against unarmed Palestinian youth. There was, they pointed out, no meaningful difference between the records of Barak and Sharon in terms of atrocities against Muslims, despite Sharon’s notoriously bloody record and the differences between their rhetoric, with Sharon liking to sound bloodthirsty while Barak prefers to pretend to favour peace.
Arafat’s alienation from Palestinians was demonstrated by the fact that Palestinian voters overwhelmingly rejected his calls to support Barak, instead boycotted the polls. According to official figures, Arab turnout in the elections was less than 20 percent. Observers suggested that it was in fact much less than that, and that most Palestinians refused to take part in the elections on precisely the grounds suggested by Islamic groups.
Interestingly, the election of Sharon did not in fact lead to a harsh crackdown on the intifada as Palestinians demonstrated their defiance of the Israeli political process. According to his pre-election rhetoric, the continued Palestinian protests, and particularly the bomb-explosions in Jerusalem, should have brought down a massive Israeli response. This, after all, was the man who campaigned on the basis that Barak’s response to the intifada was too soft. Instead, Sharon’s victory — even allowing for the fact that he has not yet formed a government and Barak remains acting premier — has been characterised by little change in the situation on the ground.
The reason for this is clear: Barak’s strategy has shown that the Palestinians cannot be defeated by Israeli force alone, that their spirit is such that no amount of Israeli brutality can break it. Contrary to popular expectation, therefore, Sharon’s election is unlikely to lead to the abandonment of the ‘peace process’ or the spectre of outright war. Immediately after his triumph, Sharon’s tone changed, talking up the peace process and calling for Palestinians to deal with him, to settle disputes peacefully and to make the “painful compromise necessary” for “a realistic peace agreement”.
Ariel Sharon may have campaigned by appealing to the Israelis’ demand for Palestinian blood, but he knows, as well as Barak does, that once in power a more subtle approach is required. He also knows that Yasser Arafat is the Israelis’ best friend, the only Palestinian that they can deal with. This is clearly something Arafat realises, moreover. He may have talked Barak up during the election campaign, but he said after Sharon’s victory that he “respected the choice” of the Israeli people and was willing to work for peace with Sharon.
The analysis that the intifada and the election of Sharon mark the death of the ‘peace process’, therefore, is likely to prove premature. If anything, the intifada has demonstrated the importance of the ‘peace process’ to the Israelis by proving that the Palestinians cannot be defeated and must therefore be manipulated into an effective surrender, even if that proves harder than initially expected.
Arafat remains the Israelis’ best hope for this, and is in fact not as badly positioned as might seem. Although the intifada has been marked by the Palestinian people’s rejection of Arafat’s broad approach, Arafat’s own political movement, Fattah, has dominated the protests on the ground.
The main reason for this has been the institutional weakness of Hamas as a result of the Palestinian Authority’s campaign against it in recent years, in which Arafat has been assisted by Mossad and the CIA. The Hamas cadres have repeatedly been arrested, its assets confiscated and its operations hampered and obstructed in every possible way. The Israelis might accuse Arafat publicly of being soft on Hamas, but in private they know that Arafat has served them well in this area.
When the intifada broke out, Arafat’s party recognised that this was a popular movement that must not be allowed to pass into the control of other forces. In the first intifada (1987-1993), the PLO quickly lost control of the movement to Islamic forces who provided the sort of leadership that the people demanded at that time. This time Arafat did not make the same mistake.
Because of their dominance over the political and security apparatus in the areas it controlled, Arafat’s men were well positioned to provide leadership and co-ordination to the uprising, riding popular anger where necessary and controlling and guiding it where possible. The ideas and inspiration for the intifada may have come from Islamic movement leaders, but organisationally it has come to be dominated by Fattah simply because they have had the means to do so, while Islamic groups – Hamas in particular – have not been able to match them.
Arafat will now be hoping that this organisational dominance will permit him to wind the intifada down gradually, to draw the heat out of it, so to speak, in order to re-assert his control over the Palestinian political space and to demonstrate to the Israelis that he can still be useful to them.
All parties know that the intifada cannot be switched off. Barak’s early demands that it be ended before any further talks with Arafat could take place were quickly exposed as hollow rhetoric. How Sharon and the new US administration under George W. Bush will approach the ‘peace process’ remains to be seen. Things will become clearer when Sharon has formed his government and after the tour of the region that Colin Powell, Bush’s new secretary of state, is scheduled to undertake later this month.
It is likely, however, that they will permit the intifada to continue to simmer while they gradually re-establish the political process. With the artificial deadlines of the US and Israeli elections passed, developments will probably be slow but steady, as the intifada is accepted as a new reality that everyone has to live with. The West and its allies will now be hoping to reduce it to an inconvenience that can be worked round, rather than an insurmountable obstacle to their plans for securing Israel’s dominance of the region.