An Interim Balance Sheet on the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict
The cease-fire, which was imposed by the Americans on Israel and the Palestinian Authority, provides a good occasion for the drawing up of an interim balance sheet. Irrespective of the question whether the cease-fire will last and for how long, one can try to add up the gains and losses of the Palestinians during the eight and a half months of the al-Aksa intifada.
"World public opinion"
In Israel, a lot of attention is generally paid to the struggle for world public opinion. Listening to the "political sources" and the Prime Minister's spokesmen, you would think we have routed the Palestinians in this arena. Shimon Peres emerges triumphant from every meeting. Indeed, it seems Ariel Sharon may at any moment receive the Nobel peace prize.
The reality is quite different. The world long ago ceased to accept the picture of the holocaust survivors (Israel) bravely defying the abominable terrorists (the Palestinians). Nowadays the dominant picture is of a small occupied people rising up against a powerful occupier. David and Goliath in reverse.
The international media do not report on the Israeli-Palestinian struggle the way they reported, for example, on the South African struggle between the apartheid regime and the blacks.
This picture is reinforced by the daily photos in the world media, that almost always show brutal-looking occupation soldiers, armed to the teeth, facing either stone-throwers or ordinary civilians. The situation is made worse by reports of bombardments by warplanes and helicopters, the shelling of civilian neighborhoods by tanks and the choking of civilian life.
The Israeli public does not know what is happening in the Palestinian areas, in spite of the fact that some live just a few minutes by car from the events. The public is protected by a heavy curtain of euphemisms: Seger, Keter, liquidation, terrorist targets, source of fire, gisum, cleaning. When they are translated into other languages, they sound quite different: blockade, starvation, assassinations, civilian neighborhoods, revenge, cutting down trees, demolition of homes. Not very nice.
Notwithstanding all this, the Palestinians have not won a clear-cut victory in this battle. In the world media, the "friends of Israel" (not all of them Jews) enjoy an enormous advantage. The international media do not report on the Israeli-Palestinian struggle the way they reported, for example, on the South African struggle between the apartheid regime and the blacks. Considering this reality, if the Palestinians won points, it is a great achievement for them.
From the Palestinian point of view, the main achievement is that their national cause in on the agenda. Before the intifada, Israeli spokesmen reported happily that the world had lost interest in the Palestinian issue, that Americans and Europeans were fed up with it. (These reports, by the way, may have fuelled the Palestinian determination to start the uprising, which did indeed change this situation completely.)
In one arena the Palestinian have gained a decisive victory: the whole world detests the settlers. A concrete result of this was the Mitchell report's recommendation, supported by the Americans and the Europeans, to halt all settlement activity completely,
Blockade of the settlements
However, the struggle for world public opinion, important as it is, is a secondary one. The historic conflict between the two peoples of this country will not be decided in the pages of the New York Times. When the Israeli media concentrate almost exclusively on this aspect, they avoid, as usual, the main issue, the battle on the ground.
In this battle, the Palestinians have lost more than 500 dead, as against about a hundred Israeli dead. The proportion of the dead started with 1:10 and has reached by now 1:4. The Palestinians also have more than ten thousand wounded, many of them incapacitated for life. The number of Israeli wounded is relatively small.
What have the Palestinians gained at this price?
For them, the main battle is about the settlements. Here they have won a great victory. With a minimum outlay - a few shootings per night - they have made impressive gains. While Israelis talk about the blockade and siege of every Palestinian village, the contrary has become reality: the Palestinians have blockaded every settlement.
Some central roads on the West Bank have ceased to be used altogether. Beautiful by-pass roads, in which enormous sums have been sunk, are desolate. On the other roads, too, traffic moves in protected convoys, in some only by armored buses.
It is difficult to find out how much the settlers themselves have been worn out. Television shows only the most fanatical ones, who wave, their babies and swear "we shall never budge". But how many families have already quietly returned to Israel? How many have sent their children (quite rightly) to Grandma in Tel-Aviv? The patriotic media do not ask.
What has happened to the enterprises that were moved from Israel to the "industrial parks" in the settlements, with the help of enormous sums from the public purse and promises of great profits for the entrepreneurs (no minimum wage, no compulsory social benefits, no taxes, all kind of subsidies and other benefits)? Research of Gush Shalom, an organization that has been conducting a boycott campaign against the products of the settlements for several years, has revealed that about half of the enterprises are not there anymore. They have quietly stolen away, after they found out that truckers and maintenance personnel are not ready to risk their lives in order to get there.
Settlers' Defense Forces
In the long run, the military angle is most important. The legend, that the settlements are necessary for the defense of Israel (sworn to by the Chief-of-Staff Rafael Eytan in a famous Supreme Court case) was exploded long ago. The intifada has compelled the army to devote itself almost entirely to the defense of the settlements, postponing all training activities and courses that are essential for its capability to defend the state against foreign enemies. In order to restore the army to its primary function, while continuing to defend the settlers, it would have to almost double its manpower. That is not possible. The army's demand for an additional budget of another five billions is only the tip of the iceberg of needs.
The settlements are - mildly speaking - not popular in Israel. Most people are quite fed up with the antics of the settlers, as shown on TV. How much longer will the public be ready to send their sons to risk their lives for those people? How much longer will it be ready to pay for it? The immense effort the army has invested in protecting the soldiers has born fruit, but even the limited number of casualties taxes the public's readiness to fight for the settlers.
All public opinion polls show that the great majority of Israelis support the freeze of all settlement activity in return for a cease-fire. A third of the young people in the settlements themselves are ready to leave immediately. If the government had offered to pay generous compensations to settlers who are ready to be evacuated even now (as we proposed to Rabin immediately after Oslo), half of the settlers would be on the way home. According to the polls, nearly 80% of the settlers believe that the settlements (all or most) will be evacuated in the future.
This is an irreversible outcome of the intifada, even if the cease-fire breaks down and a massive escalation will take place, as Sharon hopes.
Live bombs in Israel
The attacks inside Israel are another story. Even among the Palestinians,, there are different views about them.
Those who favor the attacks can point to the immediate results of the suicide bombings. Tourism to Israel has been reduced to a trickle for the foreseeable future. Major Jewish organizations in the US are afraid to send their children to Israel, even the prospect of holding the Maccabia games has caused a major uproar. Agriculture and the building industry have suffered major setbacks. The increased military expenditure is compelling the government to cut back essential social service, bad as they already are. It is interesting to note that neither the press nor the television in Israel has investigated the material losses caused to the country by the intifada.
According to the various economic indicators, economic growth has been reduced decisively. (Luckily, the world-wide high-tech slump has enabled the economists to transfer the losses to this account.)
On the psychological level, long-range national morale has been damaged. Nobody knows how this will affect future emigration, for example. The patriotic media, who inflate every incident, even random shooting in the air without casualties, to hysterical proportions, help to increase the damage. The fear of entering a bus, a mall or a book fair, or to attend an important soccer game, is causing long-range attrition.
If the Palestinian supporters of the bombing attacks see these results as achievements, their opponents have strong arguments, too.
In the short run, the attacks push moderate Israelis into the arms of the right-wing extremists. They solidify the national unity based on a total denial of Palestinian rights. They obliterate the fact that this is a war for the continuation of the occupation and the settlements and justify the argument that the war is really about Tel-Aviv and Netanya, where the suicide bombers did their job. They provide pretexts to those parts of the Israeli "left' that, already at the beginning of the intifada, retreated into the warm lap of the national consensus. From this point of view, immense damage has been caused to the Palestinian cause.
The general picture may convince many Palestinians that the intifada is winning, and is worth the tremendous suffering caused to the Palestinian people.
The conclusion: don't stop it (and if at all, only for short-term tactical purposes), unless the Palestinian people are offered meaningful political gains, beyond the freeze of the settlements. Meaning: the beginning of real negotiations, that will lead to the creation of the Sate of Palestine in all of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, sovereignty over East Jerusalem, evacuation of the settlements and a reasonable solution of the refugee problem. Sharon wouldn't dream of it.
In the absence of such hope ("the light at the end of the tunnel'), a great majority of Palestinian public opinion will support the continuation of the intifada, including the attacks inside Israel, even if the price is almost unbearable. No Palestinian leader will be able to ignore this public mood, that will also encourage the extremist organizations to act, in order to gain public support.
On the Israeli side, too, there is no inclination to uphold the cease-fire for any length of time. The main actor on the scene is the enormous lobby of army officers, both past and present, that dominates the important parties and the media and actually directs the state.
Like their American colleagues in Vietnam and their French ones in Algeria, our generals cannot accept the fact that they are being beaten by the despised "natives", who lack both resources and experience. This, understandably, is unbearable for them. How can they accept that Arafat dictates the course of events to mighty Israel - the same Arafat who wass "finished" by Sharon in Lebanon and , according to Defense Minister Fuad Ben-Eliezer, a failed general and a third-grade politician, "has to step down from the stage of history"?
There is hardly a professional senior officer who is able to understand the character of a popular uprising. Generals are not trained for it. Their monumental lack of understanding expresses itself in almost every one of their utterances, from Mofaz down. Lacking understanding, they are unable to frame a reasonable strategy and resort to the classic Israeli maxim: if force doesn't work, use more force.
The frustrated officers, headed by General Sharon, hate the cease-fire and only pay lip-service to it. They are longing to break it at the first opportunity. Sharon is determined to do this in a way that will put the blame on Arafat. Without a clear and convincing reason, he will not receive permission from the Americans.
(This bears an uncanny resemblance to Sharon's situation on the eve of the Lebanon war, when the American secretary of state - General Haig - told Sharon that he was allowed to invade Lebanon only if there is a clear-cut provocation, accepted by the world. A few days later, there was an attempt on the life of the Israeli ambassador in London, Argov, and the ball started rolling.)
Sharon and his generals believe that unlimited escalation will bring victory to Israel. This time, everything will be permissible: the killing, imprisonment or deportation of Arafat; the systematic assassination of all Palestinian local leaders; the carving-up of the Palestinian areas into dozens of cut-off islands; the expulsion of populations; the cutting off of electricity, water, food and medicines; the bombardment from the air, from the sea and on land; and many other "creative" methods.
Trouble is, all these methods, without exception, have already been tried by the generals in other countries, and all have failed. The results were always the opposite of what was intended: consolidation of the oppressed people, a strengthening of the resistance and a refining of its methods, the loss of international public opinion, failure. But it seems that there is almost no escape from this drama.
The only alternative is a change in Israeli public opinion, the cessation of the violent struggle and the settlement activity, serious and quick negotiations to end the occupation and the acceptance of a political solution, all of whose elements are already well-known. That will happen in the end - but until then, rivers of blood may flow.
Uri Avnery is a former member of the Israeli Knesset and a peace activist.
Topics: Occupation, Palestine