Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Palestinians - 4 -- Arafat is indispensable - an Israeli peace view

An essay by an Israeli peace activist Middle East Times 2004 argues that Arafat remains indispensable for peace. The starting point of Uri Avnery's argument is the strategy he attributes to Sharon, which leads him to take as a starting premise that "disengagement" from Gaza is just the next step in a long-term strategy of slow "ethnic-cleansing." The disengagement plan has triggered the outbreak of internal Palestinian struggles for power and control, cloaked in the sloganeering of "reform."

The strategy of Sharon and his generals is simple and brutal: to destroy the Palestinian Authority; turn life in the occupied territories into hell; disintegrate Palestinian society; and drive the survivors from the country; not in one dramatic sweep (as in 1948) but in a slow, continuous, creeping process.

Up to now, this has not succeeded. In spite of inhuman conditions, Palestinian society has held on in a manner that arouses wonderment. The events of the last few weeks look, to Sharon and the army chiefs, like signs of collapse. I believe they are wrong and that Palestinian society will draw back from the abyss.

Averny thinks that it's not only Sharon and his generals who mistake what's going on among the Palestinians. The "international community" and its focus on "reform" also misunderstands.

The criticism of Arafat, prevalent mostly among the intellectual and political elite, concerns his functioning as the chief of a ‘mini-state.’ Unlike the prime minister of Israel, Arafat is not suspected of personal corruption. He is being blamed for the fact that the Palestinian Authority is too much like other Arab regimes, suffering from concentration of power, proliferation of security apparatuses, corruption, cronyism, and the undue influence of big families.

Similarly, Avnery seems to dismiss the conflict within Fatah that is dominating the current news as just another example of typical behavior by Arab regimes, where internecine warfare is a fight for power, control and patronage, not over policy.

Muhammad Dahlan’s faction hopes to take possession of the Gaza Strip before Sharon’s promised withdrawal. Sharon’s people are open about their preference for this group. The Americans support them in order to suit Sharon, and the Egyptians support them to please the Americans.

The rival faction supports Moussa Arafat who was sent by his relative, Yasser Arafat, to control the security apparatus. He may not be the most popular appointee, but the leader in far-away Ramallah appointed his most trusted lieutenant in order to fend off the danger he fears most: that the Gaza Strip will cut itself off from the West Bank and become a kind of autonomous Bantustan under Israeli-American-Egyptian tutelage.

For Avnery, this battle for control in Gaza is almost a side-show. He sees the threats to Arafat divided into two discrete areas: what can be termed foreign and domestic policy. Certainly before Oslo, the two areas were quite distinct, though at least from the standpoint of financial assistance to the Palestinians in the territories and their national organization located outside the territories, there has always been an important connection. But the "peace process" and "running the Territories" are no longer separate areas for either policy or action, linked only by the personality of Arafat and the activities of his close associates. The two are increasingly becoming interdependent, not just overlapping.

Interesting that Avnery attributes the US' preference for Dahlan over Arafat's cousin as simply another way of giving Sharon what he wants. It badly distorts the US' independent interest in Arafat's reform of the security services and establishment of more credible Palestinian government structures. The US impatience extends well before the current Bush Administration's decision to stop dealing with Arafat, it is just more openly expressed as disgust grows with Arafat's failure to deliver. The US' call for Arafat to take a more direct hand in bringing some order and accountability to the governance of both Gaza and the West Bank is, in fact, an expression of concern that failure to do so before disengagement, not the disengagement itself, is likely to lead to the unwelcome Bantustan-type outcome.

The Quartet will never be able to pressure Sharon to deal with Arafat (or his Prime Minister or alter egos) over the practical details of Gaza disengagement if Arafat's response to Gaza unrest is to be more of the same regarding governance reform and security control. Major issues that would leave Gaza under Israeli/Egyptian "tutelage," such as access to air space and ports, will simply not be resolved in favor of Palestinian control so long as the governance performance remains so poor. Put another way, Arafat is once again clinging to the ideology, organization and processes that have served him personally for forty years, missing an opportunity to take a major step toward positive outcomes for the Palestinians.

This is what is happening on the surface. But the events also have deeper roots in the present Palestinian situation, which consists of an existential contradiction. On the one side, the Palestinian war of liberation is far from over. It is at its height. It can well be said that never has the very existence of the Palestinians – both as a nation and as individuals – been in greater danger than now. On the other hand, on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip there has come into being a kind of mini-state that requires a state-like administration: security, economy, education, justice, welfare, and so on.
The surreal situation in Gaza reflects this contradiction: while Moussa Arafat, Muhammad Dahlan, and the other Fatah leaders fight each other for control of the Palestinian Authority and its security organs, a brutal war is going on between the occupation forces and the Tanzim, Hamas, and Jihad militants.
It is reasonable to expect that the prisoner in the Mukataah (Palestinian headquarters) who has already led his people out from so many existential crises will do so again. I sincerely hope so, because Arafat is the only person who can make peace with us. We will know no peace as long as our neighbors do not.

It is certainly to be hoped that Palestinian society will not collapse, and there are many indications of strong social solidarity continuing in the face of extreme hardship and distruption. , for all who have wearied of either fighting or supporting the Palestinians. ofPerhaps Avnery has been too close to the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians to see how interconnected the two the pursuit of the Palestinians' national aspirations that is at the heart a matter of Israel versus the Palestinians; and the running of the


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