Write us!

April 2002 • Vol 2, No. 4 •

Between National Liberation and State-Building

By Nadine Picadou

After various internal convulsions the Labor Party has agreed to work with Ariel Sharon. This capitulation reinforces the political impasse, made worse by the new U.S. secretary of state’s tour of the region and the message that Washington’s priority is now Iraq and not Israeli-Palestinian peace. During all this the repression of the West Bank and Gaza has continued, and Palestinian society is now organizing itself in very different ways from those of the previous intifada (1987-93).

The uprising blazing through the Palestinian territories since the end of last September made its name and symbolic references heard from the start; we all know it as the “al-Aqsa intifada”. But the name does not give us any real insight into the event. In addition, the continuity between the present intifada and the first one from 1987-93 is not evident despite a—sometimes misleading—sense of déjà vu.

Even the geography of the confrontation is different. The last uprising consisted of an unarmed civilian population confronting the Israeli occupation forces in the heart of the cities. This time limited, but violent clashes take place on the fringes of the autonomous Palestinian areas, at the approaches to Jewish settlements, at army checkpoints—front lines between warring neighbors. The withdrawal to these territorial positions, like so many shrines, explains the unprecedented violence of the Israeli repression, the systematic use of marksmen and the missiles launched by helicopter against carefully chosen targets14.

This geography of the clashes is part of the logic of the Oslo process, which was more about security than politics. The autonomy proposed to the Palestinians in 1993—fruit of the first intifada—sought to keep a rebellious population at a safe distance and leave it to the watchful eye of a Palestinian Authority (PA) transformed into Israel’s security agent. Israel thought it could thus counter any risk of radicalization of the uprising, without having to engage in soul-destroying colonial-style repression. Separation was the best protection against violence—and in the last few months numerous Israeli voices have called for it to be ever more stringent. Even in the West some saw this as the only way out of the conflict, even if it meant population transfers.

Nothing can better express Israel’s fear of a binational state, a fear made worse by anticipated demographic changes. These forecast an Arab majority between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River in 2010 based on the different fertility rates of Israelis (2.7 children per woman) and Palestinians24. This demographic threat, which put an end to dreams of a Greater Israel, inspired Oslo and its attempt to separate human beings, but still preserve Israel’s overall sovereignty over territory, by controlling borders, air space and underground reserves (notably water). And, of course, by keeping part of the land too. For the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza gave Israel the assurance that they could keep fragments of land beyond the interim stage, even though it meant an unprecedented mobilization of the army to protect the settlers, who were now openly threatened.


Where you die is Netzarim

For the Palestinians, dismantling the settlements is the first condition for real sovereignty over a homogeneous territory. The settlements that cover the hills and choke Palestinian towns and villages a little bit further every day are the very face of dispossession that is part of any colonization of people. People may say they are ready to lay down their lives for the al-Aqsa mosque, but where they die is at the Netzarim junction.

The new geography of the confrontation cannot be dissociated from the sociology of the present uprising, so very distinct from that first intifada. In place of a mass, civilian mobilization against the occupation, we now have an insurrection that relies on the active participation of a minority, even if it has majority support.

The population of the Palestinian territories is exasperated, but at the same time demobilized. First of all by the poverty of daily life. For most people autonomy has become synonymous with increased unemployment and growing constraints on the freedom of movement—a development that does not just affect living standards, but the very nature of the social fabric. Loss of income leads people to fall back on renewed forms of family solidarity which undermine the independence of the individual, limit geographical mobility, and reinforce relations with family and neighbour to the detriment of national solidarity34.

The system of permits authorizing passage through the cordon sanitaire placed round the autonomous Palestinian enclaves introduced inequalities of rank into the heart of society. It puts the official from the PA, with his laissez-passer, above the businessman or worker, who only have renewable permits; and they themselves are privileged compared to the mass of the population locked into the autonomous areas.

At times of crisis, the famous “closures” of the Palestinian territories, which have become an everyday word in the Western media, exacerbate the feeling of dependence on Israel. As if autonomy, far from having rolled back the occupation, had put the population more than ever at the mercy of the Israeli authorities. But now it was a demobilized population, one which had witnessed a gradual erosion of the social and political structures that had put in place and driven the first intifada.

In the regional framework of the Arab Middle East, Palestinian society long stood out for the vitality of its modern network of associations which formed a basis for resistance to the occupation—alongside traditional forms of organization such as the family, mosque or church, or village community. This network responded first to the material needs of the population, too often neglected by the Israeli authorities, notably in the fields of health and education. But at the same time the network also worked to achieve social and political mobilization, thus contributing towards maintaining the national identity of the occupied territories.

A number of these associations were linked to the various political factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which tried to take control of the unions, women’s organizations and student councils. There ensued a real “battle of the institutions” in which Fatah confronted the resistance groups of the left at the end of the 1970s, and then during the 1980s the PLO nationalists opposed the Islamists44. This struggle took place because the new workings of civil society were seen, by both actors and observers, as the embryonic infrastructure of a future state.

After the Israeli repression of spring 1982, when the perspective of early statehood receded, the action shifted from purely political ground to social engagement. There was a flowering of popular committees for voluntary work, which changed the nature of nationalist militancy and broadened its base; they worked for the upkeep of the cities, medical or legal aid for those in need, the creation of cooperatives and family planning centers. The network of popular committees was both a recruiting ground for the political factions and the instrument of mass social mobilization, which would emerge triumphant with the intifada.

These organizational structures formed the framework for the uprising in 1988-89, with new strategies of civil disobedience and alternative forms of social and economic development. The 1990s saw these organizations become more professional and less political, more concerned with the development of human resources, even though they still identified with the battle to maintain civil society. This strategy, after the Oslo accords, attracted international aid massively directed towards the security services of the PA5. And from then on, these non-governmental organizations (NGO) scarcely contributed to promoting social mobilization.

By the eve of the present uprising Palestinian society was showing signs of political apathy. The percentage of people who declared themselves without any political affiliation had more than doubled between 1994 and 1999, notably amongst the most educated. At the same time there was an increasing wish to emigrate on the part of the younger generation45.

A Palestinian man argues with an Israeli soldier as he tries to cross the Qalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah, March 23, 2002. Photo by Ammar Awad/Reuters

 Seven years of blackmail

That was no doubt the clearest sign of crisis in the Palestinian national movement during the transition period begun by the Oslo accords. The crisis had firstly to do with the feeling of a peace process imposed from the outside, over which society had virtually no hold. For seven years the leaders underwent real blackmail about the urgency of peace. There was huge pressure on account of the unfavorable balance of forces, which would of course deprive the Palestinians of all freedom of choice.

The future state, whose imminent arrival was heralded at regular intervals, risked appearing to be a state granted by the adversary after long international pressure—the product of political bargaining rather than the outcome of a legitimate right to self-determination. The triumphal welcome given to Yasser Arafat after the failure of the Camp David summit last July showed the general relief that he had at last dared to say no.

But the Palestinian political crisis of confidence has more to do with the ambivalence felt by society towards a national authority that has emerged quite authentically from the liberation movement, but is organically linked to the state of Israel. Functional cooperation is at its most direct in the domain of security, whether it is to do with joint Israeli-Palestinian patrols in zone B64 or collaboration between intelligence services at the highest level in the fight against the Islamist opposition.

In fact, the only weapon available to the PA during the last months was provisional suspension of that security cooperation. The recent executions of collaborators after summary proceedings before military tribunals no doubt reflected a wish to satisfy public opinion and recreate an image of nationalist purity, as well as the desire to contain the possible excesses of a manhunt.

But even beyond the formal ties of the autonomy agreements, the reality of the economic dependence of the Palestinian territories on Israel has fostered networks of interests between the “military-commercial complex” close to the PA and Israeli officials—required to ensure a monopoly of imports of the most necessary goods that benefits Palestinian public companies47. In short, the basic ambiguity of autonomy status condemns the PA to the impossible task of fighting the national fight while simultaneously collaborating with the occupier.


Overlapping historical stages

At the same time it also requires it to bring to a successful conclusion two different historical stages: national liberation and state-building. The former has not been completed, yet the latter has already begun. From the moment that the national question remains unresolved, the definition of the limits of the political community becomes a major factor in the balance of power with the occupier, but also of internal relations between Palestinians. Autonomy has produced a new discrepancy between refugees (within the territories) and the rest of the population84.

In 1996-97, during the debate about municipal elections (which did not in the end take place), a “movement for the defense of the rights of refugees” sprang up in the Deheisheh refugee camp close to Bethlehem and declared that it was against taking part in the elections. This was because the refugees refused to be subjected to local taxes and to benefit from municipal services, which would mean renouncing those of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The refugees in the camps disassociated themselves from local political representation in order to strongly reaffirm their right to return.

Claiming the status of refugee thus led to denying that of citizen. But at the same time refugees from the towns were, on the contrary, agitating for more and better representation at the heart of the municipal authorities, where they felt they were discriminated against in comparison with Palestinians who were native to the towns. This division testified to the contradictions resulting from this blurring of the boundaries between two historic stages; it redrew the configuration of relations between social groups in the autonomous territories and also forced each of them to redefine themselves in relation to the new political authority.

In the same way the network of NGOs was forced little by little to redefine its position and its role in respect to the embryonic state structures, which were heavily influenced by the PLO and its political culture. The national liberation movement—organized in the Diaspora from a basis of dispersed communities which the movement helped reunify—mixed up civil and political society. Military factions, political movements, unions, popular movements and research centers were all included in the very machinery of resistance.

When it set itself up in the autonomous territories, the military bureaucracy of the PLO, which continued to dominate the national Authority, found itself confronted with a civil society not in the least inclined to let itself be swallowed up in the name of the requirements of state-building. The main associations have thwarted attempts to control their funding from abroad and human rights organizations continually denounce the leaders’ authoritarian excesses, attacks on freedom of expression and manipulation of the law.

But beneath the cut and thrust of society’s internal power relations, there is a fundamental debate that touches on the difficulty of reconciling “state by right” and “right to a state9.”4 For as long as the one is not assured, can the other be? Isn’t sovereignty a necessary condition for democracy? In the autonomous territories, lawfulness of revolution comes smack up against political and constitutional lawfulness.

It is in this light that we need to see the PA’s refusal to promulgate the basic law adopted by the Legislative Council or the presence of PLO representatives at meetings of the PA leadership, which are more like the internal debates of a national movement than proper cabinet meetings. All this is the direct product of the overlapping of historical phases and contributes to disrupting relations between the PA and a population that has been demobilized ever since autonomy came into being.


No longer a question of ‘for or against’

Without doubt, the most unexpected dimension of the present intifada is the relatively weak role of the opposition. The uprising is not being waged by the opponents of Oslo, whether from the left or the Islamists. It is no longer a question of supporters or opponents of peace.

The weakened nationalist left (notably the Democratic Front and Popular Front) seem incapable of suggesting any credible alternative to autonomy; the intelligentsia which they inspired can only counter this vacuum with speeches promoting civil society which do not disguise the absence of a real political project. Nor are the Islamist movements any more in the forefront of the uprising, despite the fact that during the first intifada they represented a political alternative to the PLO leadership and helped affirm the autonomy of the “inside” against the Tunis leadership. In recent months the opinion polls have given them only 13% whereas about a third of the population supported them at the start of the 1990s.

Within Hamas there has been a long-standing division between pragmatists and radicals, between those who have taken on board the new—and in a sense irreversible—political reality created by the autonomy accords and those who still maintain a rejectionist discourse and call for the liberation of the whole of Palestine.

The PA’s tactics of alternating repression and cooption have only deepened that division, simultaneously weakening both sides. The fact that the Islamist movement does not represent a major political force in the leadership of the uprising risks opening the way to renewed terrorism by the most militarized factions. This means we can expect to see an increase in attacks on Israel.

The Islamisation of the political language of the intifada, widely relayed by the Palestinian and Arab media, does not disguise the dominance of Fatah in the balance of political forces. A committee set up for the intifada regrouping all the Palestinian factions is under Fatah’s leadership.

Since 1994 Fatah has dominated most of the PA institutions—from its civilian bureaucracy to the security forces—as well as the Legislative Council elected in January 1996 (where two-thirds of the seats were won by Arafat supporters). It has thus been able to increase its sources of patronage and in turn enlarge its militant recruiting base. And it has retained an evident capacity to manipulate a nationalism of populist hue.

Most public opinion is divided among two major tendencies: Fatah supporters, estimated at 35%, and those who declare themselves to be of no political affiliation, whose numbers have tripled since the setting up of the PA and by last summer rose to over the 35% mark104. This new polarization of the political field is the immediate backdrop to the present intifada.

The popular mobilization of the first weeks of the uprising soon waned in face of the growing military character of the clashes. There was a similar slide during the first uprising from “silent confrontation” towards “shock troops”, but that evolution took place over several years. This time it happened very fast, and now only the activist minority is still taking part in the violent protests. There are new stone and Molotov cocktail-throwing shebab, not very organized groups of adolescents and pre-adolescents for whom clashes with Israeli soldiers have become a way of life and a sort of rite of passage to adulthood. Most of them come from the refugee camps where there is no shortage of weapons.

But what you mostly find are men from the Tanzim, Fatah’s armed wing which emerged from some of the “shock troops” that marked the last years of the previous intifada, in particular the “Fatah hawks.” Part of these shock troops have been co-opted by the PA, which maintains about 40,000 armed men. Most of them have been integrated into the security services, mainly Preventive Security headed by Jibril Rajoub in the West Bank and by Muhammad Dahlan in Gaza. By integrating some of the leaders of the first uprising into its network, the PA hoped to channel their militant ardor and also appropriate some of the political legitimacy conferred by their participation in the uprising.

Those who have not been directly co-opted by the PA form the Tanzim. They do not necessarily obey the orders of the Palestinian leadership, nor is the borderline always very clear with some members of Preventive Security. The Tanzim are behind the attacks on Israeli settlers which now seem part of a strategy of intimidation designed to make them leave. Marwan Barghouti, who heads Fatah’s West Bank branch, has spoken out in favor of recent events acting as the movement’s spokesman and has increased calls for the escalation of the uprising.

The PA, for its part, has officially done no more than register the rise of popular anger. It could, however, be tempted to use it if and when it wants to abandon the Oslo-designed final status talks and instead re-establish negotiations on the principles of international law. That means in particular Resolution 242 of November 1967, according to which the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem are occupied territories to be evacuated, not disputed territories to be discussed.

Consequently there is an implicit sharing of roles between the PA and the activist groups which are maintaining the pressure of the uprising. The exercise is dangerous for Arafat, threatened with things getting out of hand. Barghouti could use the escalation of the intifada to eye the succession of the old leader, with the support of new West Bank elites who are very critical of the arrogant and corrupt “Tunisians” who surround Arafat in Gaza. A new strategy seems to be emerging which could in the long run combine forms of armed resistance, elements of non-violent popular mobilization and the continuation of negotiations.

1 Salim Tamari and Rema Hammami, “Beyond Oslo: The new Uprising”, Middle East Report, Washington, no. 217, Winter 2000-2001.

2 See the papers presented by Sergio Della Pergola and Philippe Fargues at the INED conference, 30 November 2000, on the demographic background to the violence in Israel/Palestine; and Philippe Fargues’ book, Générations arabes, L’alchimie du nombre, Fayard, Paris, 2000.

3 Majdi al-Malki, “Le système de soutien informel et les relations de néo-patrimonialisme en Palestine”, to be published in 2001 in the issue of Les Annales de l’Autre Islam, Inalco, Paris, ed. Nadine Picadou, devoted to Palestinian nation building.

4 Muhammad Muslih, “Palestinian civil society,” Middle East Journal, Washington, vol. 47 no. 2, Spring 1993.

5 Rema Hammami, “NGO’s the professionalisation of politics”, Race and Class, London, vol. 37, no. 2, 1995.

6 Mudar Kassis, “Reflections on the possibility of building a participatory democracy in Palestine”, to be published in Les Annales de l’Autre Islam.

7 The agreement signed in Washington on 28 September 1995, providing for the extension of autonomy, divides Palestine into three zone: zone A gives the PA security and civilian control; zone B, under joint control, gives the PA only civilian authority; and zone C is controlled by the Israeli army.

8 See Laetitia Bucaille, Gaza, la violence de la paix, Presses de Sciences Po, Paris, 1998.

9 On this development see Aude Signoles, “Réfugiés des camps, réfugiés des villes et familles autochtones: vers une reconfiguration des pouvoirs locaux en Cisjordanie”, to be published in Les Annales de l’Autre Islam.

10 Formula taken up by Assad Maalouf, “L’Etat souverain, une construction en faillite,” Revue d’Etudes Palestiniennes, Paris, no. 25, Autumn 2000.

—Nadine Picadou is a Lecturer at the National Institute of Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Paris, and author of “Les Palestiniens, un siécle d’histoire,” Complexe, Bruxelles, 1997.

Translated by Wendy Kristianasen

—Le Monde Diplomatique © March 2001





Write us