The ferocious, tightly coordinated assault on Palestinian cities in the West Bank was not a spontaneous act geared to satiating popular outrage in Israel over the Netanya suicide bombing. The plan for this assault, which certainly contains alternative scenarios, existed well in advance, as did the political resolve to put it into effect, even if the decision to attack was only taken in a recent emergency cabinet session.
This plan and the decision to act on it were the product of a cumulative process of trial, error and compromise guided by the Sharon compass, which is set to three coordinates: 1) his opposition to the Camp David solutions, 2) US-Israeli relations and their effect on political actions, and 3) preserving the Likud-Labour alliance in the "national unity" government. While the last two factors may have worked to defer the decision and Palestinian suicide operations may have brought it forward, a massive military offensive into the West Bank had been on the Israeli government agenda for some time.
The Israeli military operation launched on 29 March is barbaric, but it is important to consider it within its political context if we are to transcend the emotions being expressed in the streets of Arab capitals, on the Internet through messages voicing the (undoubtedly sincere) desire to become martyrs for the cause, and in the astonishing reaction of some Arab leaders, who are calling upon others to open their borders and allow the would-be martyrs to march on Palestine. To hear such cries, one would be forgiven for imagining that Israel's Arab neighbors are the obstacles to victory because they refuse to let the Arab masses through (of course, the enthusiastic leaders would form the vanguard, with their children and staff following devotedly) so that they can throw themselves in front of Israel's tanks and missiles. How very reminiscent of 1948 and 1967. This clamoring for the impossible is just the other face of impotence -- another way of avoiding what is possible.
The political context we must bear in mind is defined by the Palestinians' rejection of Israeli and US dictates regarding the conditions for a settlement, from the Camp David II formula to the Israeli interpretations of the Mitchell and Tenet proposals. This Palestinian refusal poses an obstacle not only to the stability of state and society in Israel, but also to Washington's plans for the region, and specifically Iraq and the Gulf.
Under the foreign occupation that is reality in Palestine, any rejection of the occupying power's dictates is inevitably a form of confrontation. As against the situation with Syria or other sovereign Arab states, a Palestinian rejection of Israeli stipulations means that the conflict must continue. Neither Arafat nor the PA can control the course or conditions of this confrontation, simply because the Palestinian resistance has no united leadership to formulate and shape its tactics in achieving its political objectives effectively. Indeed, that is putting it mildly; rivalry and antagonism are the factors ruling relations within and between the PA and the opposition.
Palestinian society inside Palestine and in the Diaspora shall continue to refuse Israel's dictates. That stance is a rallying cry; but it must be backed by a resistance strategy that makes the occupation too costly for the Israelis to sustain and, simultaneously, enables the Palestinians to sustain their struggle over the long term. To regulate its means and resources, the resistance must serve a unified political strategy. It must also be well-timed and clearly thought out, even inside the territories occupied in 1967, if it is to avoid drawing the occupying power into a comprehensive "bone- smashing" operation. Resistance movements, by definition, do not work like armies, which mobilize for decisive, face-to-face engagements. On the contrary, resistance movements must seek to survive in order to cause the occupying power greater damage, in the long term, than it can possibly inflict upon the occupied population.
Unfortunately, this discussion has come too late to be of use under the current all-out attack, but perhaps it will serve a purpose in the future. The reoccupation of Palestinian cities will require another united resistance strategy, and therefore the organizational structures capable of promoting the necessary political alternative to Israel's decrees. Structures capable of perpetuating resistance under a unified strategy will ensure that the recent Israeli assault is the last round in the tyranny of occupation and a prelude to ending the battle. It is impossible to return to partial negotiations, because it is clear what the Palestinians will and will not accept and because the recent assault demonstrates that even the most extreme brutality cannot break Palestinian determination to survive.
The plan for defeating the Palestinian national movement, prepared by the Israeli Ministry of Security, divides Palestinian cities into quadrants, each of which is to be combed in search of weapons and to eliminate anyone capable, even potentially, of bearing arms. Many will be imprisoned and others executed, in accordance with arbitrary lists. Intimidation through terror is the purpose of this campaign. Sharon believes blindly that "force works" and "terror can break the will." Hence his campaign to terrorize Palestinian society systematically; an entire generation of young people is one specific target, to be divested of weapons, hope and faith in the value of resistance.
Israel has also targeted organized Palestinian political forces, including PA elements, who share an ability to say no to Israeli and American orders. The Israeli government believes that after it eliminates these forces, the Palestinian negotiators will be able to say yes. This is what Sharon means when he says it will be possible to reach a settlement once terrorism has been uprooted. The Palestinian strategy for resistance should be equally clear.
As Israel's crimes continue to devastate major Palestinian cities, including Ramallah, the besieged compound of the elected Palestinian president is still the main focus of attention. Why did Israel target Arafat as well?
In recent years, he has been the primary obstacle within the PA to the acceptance of Israeli dictates. Those who were unsure of this before Camp David realized it afterwards. Thus, following the collapse of Camp David, Israel zeroed in on Arafat personally, with the press endlessly hinting that those in his "inner circle" were fed up with his perpetual prevarication. Evasion is the weapon of the weak who want to say no, but cannot say it openly without risk of an all-out confrontation. Arafat, however, could not control the Intifada that led to the current confrontation -- a confrontation he did not want and for which he was not prepared.
Israel has isolated Arafat from the outside world to prove his irrelevancy to the negotiating process. This policy aims to drive him out of Palestine and bulldoze the Oslo accords and their results. It is unlikely that the Israelis will succeed here either. The Palestinian president is not about to submit willingly, which means that Israel will have to reassess its premises. This appears to be one of those moments in history when the personal resolve of a leader determines subsequent political developments.
The siege on Arafat is also deliberately intended to humiliate and break the Palestinians, which is why it has triggered such outrage in the Arab world. This is the first time since the conflict between Zionism and the Arabs began that Israel has hand-picked an Arab leader for imprisonment and personal degradation. It is worth noting in this regard that Sharon wanted to expel Arafat, and decided to isolate him in deference to the Labor Party. Now, Israeli politicians are showing less and less concer,n for his fat,e; Ran Cohen, one of the warmongering Meretz leaders who take every opportunity to express their loathing for the Palestinian president, said that Arafat's fate is as important to him as "garlic peelings."
The Israeli offensive took place in Zinni's presence, as though he kept visiting the region to monitor the assault and its political consequences. Washington not only gave the green light to the current military operations, it assisted in the propaganda buildup and offered the advice of its security and intelligence services as well. Given the intimacy of US-Israeli relations, the scale of the current offensive and its regional ramifications, it is impossible to assume otherwise.
At the same time, however, Washington, eager to implement its plans for "stability in the Gulf," is keeping close tabs on reactions to the offensive, and is urging Israel to wrap it up as soon as possible. In this regard, grass-roots action in the Arab world is of utmost importance. So too is an official Arab response. Yet for the time being, bilateral communications are the only step Arab governments have been willing to take.
The attack on Palestine is not just a military operation that will pave the way for diplomacy. The Sharon government has declared war, in its fullest sense, on the PA; this war is its endgame. The Palestinians and the Arabs must face this reality and its results. Above all, they should not allow this war to end when Israel decides it should, because that will hand Israel victory on a plate. The Palestinian resistance must continue after Israel has announced the end of its military operation, for Israel's failure resides in the continuation of resistance alone. To this end, the Palestinians must create frameworks for sustaining resistance and political strategy. They must have a cohesive political platform to present to Israel and the international community.
Such a platform should not undermine the Arab initiative adopted in Beirut. Proposals such as this are not like disposable tissues. The Arab initiative put Sharon in a corner and the timing of his assault on the West Bank took into account not only the Netanya suicide bombing and the Easter holidays in Europe and the US, but also the dilemma in which the Arab peace initiative placed him. Israel's predicament, however, will not end when this war does. The Arab initiative will still force it to consider some very crucial questions, especially because Palestinian blood will prevent anyone from accepting conditions they paid so dearly to refuse.
Washington asked the Arabs to adopt the Saudi initiative without committing itself and without asking Israel for a commitment. Washington considered the initiative a "positive step forward," implying that further steps had to be taken. The US already used the tactic of encouraging the Arabs to lower their negotiating ceiling before asking them to make further concessions, in Camp David. The Arabs must insist that the peace initiative represents a minimum demand, not a maximum. They must remind the world that Israeli society, currently mobilized to support savagery, would have accepted this initiative had the Israeli government agreed to it or the Labor Party adopted it as a platform for withdrawal from the coalition. They must also remind the world that the Labor Party, instead, chose to be Sharon's accomplice in a crime initiated by Barak, and which Sharon is driving to its ultimate conclusion.
In response to this crime, the Arab people have poured into the streets to voice their anger. That is a healthy response. Arab societies are seething and through the Palestinian cause they are venting innumerable frustrations. But at the beginning of the Intifada, such outpourings did not translate into concrete political action, largely because Arab opposition parties are just as impotent as Arab governments, and have failed to generate a united democratic force. If the rhetoric of, Arab governme,nts is desperate and confused, that of Arab opposition parties is a litany of histrionics and imprecations against Israel just as effective as casting spells. If magic worked, we could have turned Sharon into a monkey long ago, without having to draw a picture and post it on the Web. Casting spells on-line is not very different from laying amulets upon the tombs of holy men.
The media make events, and Arab television audiences seem to be flipping from one channel to the next in search of the highest casualty estimates and the most footage of the appalling events taking place in Palestine. The prevalent attitude is that the highest figures are the most accurate. Should a journalist suggest that there were no casualties at all in the assault on the Preventive Security headquarters, contrary to the claims of one of the satellite networks, then that journalist must be playing up to Israel. However well intentioned, laments and anguish are not helping the inhabitants of Palestinian cities; nor are discussions of human shields and somber references to transfer. The Palestinian rumor machine, in its day, transformed the massacre of Deir Yassin, an atrocity in its own right that needed no exaggeration, into one of Israel's most successful vehicles for driving the Palestinians off their land. There is no need to overstate the extent of Israel's crime. It is quite monstrous enough.
A war is in progress. Wars are won by the party that knows how to rally its forces, has better strategies, can channel its energy to outlast the adversary and address public opinion more persuasively and convincingly. Wars are not won by those who can scream the loudest or by those who can turn on popular sentiment and channel it to their camp.
The writer is a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship and a member of the Knesset.