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Strategies in Palestine

by MICHAEL NEUMANN

In the next while a certain pattern of events is likely to repeat itself in Palestine.

Various peace moves and negotiations will continue.

Israel will make various good-will gestures. Mahmood Abbas will make various gratifying responses, and come into conflict with various people called militants or extremists. Last but far from least, there will be Palestinian attacks on Israelis–soldiers, settlers, perhaps civilians within Israel.

On the far right, reaction to these last events will breathe fiery indignation and abuse. A bit rightwards, warm-hearted racists and the West’s pet Muslims will speak with compassionate agony about the twisted minds of ‘Arabs’. Right of that, near the center and over to the left a bit, we will hear a lot about ‘hatred’ and ‘the fanatics’ who are ruining things for the Good Palestinians.

When we reach the left of the political spectrum, the analysis will go off in several directions. We will be told that the Israelis are just as bad, with great squirming to avoid the clear implication that the Palestinians must then be bad themselves. We will get some psychologizing about the mentalities of marginalized, ghettoized, oppressed peoples. We will hear how the fanaticism of Hamas has its counterpart in the Christian fanaticism of the West. We will hear a lot of half-hearted exoneration by indirection, for example that ‘the problem’ is not Palestinian violence, but that the US supplies armored bulldozers and other weapons to Israel. We will hear a lot of excuses for the attacks, because it will be felt that excuses are in order.

But through all this one underlying message will be conveyed, by writers of every political persuasion, sometimes unwittingly, mostly in undertones and presuppositions, sometimes out loud, especially when pipsqueak ‘friends’ of the Palestinians generously offer to share their bold strategic insights, honed on the leafy campuses of American universities. The message will be that the Palestinians are crazy or stupid. As you move from right to left, ‘the Palestinians’ will get more qualified–not all Palestinians, just those who support the attacks. And moving in the same direction, you will hear first that ‘the Palestinians’ are vile antisemites driven by hate, then that most of them are nice people but then there are these fanatics, then that these darn Palestinians are screwing up again. And people will ask why? why? The answers will mostly involve deep ruminations on Islamic fundamentalism with a little Fanon for spice.

There is another possible theory on why the Palestinians will keep attacking. It is that they are rational. That attacks are a rational response does not mean they are justified or effective; it means that a rational person might, analysing the Palestinians’ alternatives, believe this. The Palestinians’ attacks may be the wrong response for all sorts of strategic reasons I don’t pretend to know: no one can claim to know the effect of any Palestinian strategy on their ultimate future.

But among all the uncertain strategies the Palestinians might adopt, continuing the attacks is certainly not stupid or suicidal, and therefore cannot be dismissed as fanaticism. Even if fanatics *are* behind the attacks, ordinary rational Palestinians would have good if not decisive reasons to adopt such a strategy.

To see the rationality of the Palestinian response, it helps to compare Palestine with Algeria in the early 1960s. There too, the native population fought an occupying power and well-established ‘settlers’.

When the French came to believe they could not suppress the Algerian revolutionaries, negotiations took place, over quite some time. The settlers tried to wreck these negotiations through a terror campaign; the Algerians did not. Why isn’t it the same in the occupied territories?

The crucial difference is that in Algeria, at least as far as the revolutionaries were concerned, the situation was static. The settlers were not expanding their settlement activities. In Israel, they are, even beyond their need for housing. As the Israeli peace organization Gush Shalom reports, “Although there are 3,700 vacant houses in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, some 6,130 other houses are under construction. In the largest West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim, 47% of the housing units remain unsold, and the figure soars to 97% in Givat Ze’ev, north of Jerusalem.” And the Israeli journalist Amira Hass informs us that the dispossession of the Palestinians continues as a matter of government policy. “From July 2005,” she says, “the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, carriers of Israeli IDs, will no longer be permitted to enter Ramallah. That is when construction will be completed on the wall and the Erez-type passage at Kalandia, deep inside Palestinian territory. Only those who obtain an entry permit (and experience teaches us how difficult that is) will be permitted to pass. I asked the Prime Minister’s Office and the IDF whether this doesn’t this contradict two developments: first, permission for residents of East Jerusalem to vote in the elections for the head of the Palestinian Authority, and second, the possibility of calm and a return to final status negotiations. I received no answer.

That silence tells us, just as the bulldozers and the soldiers who already prevent Jerusalem Palestinians from traveling to Ramallah tell us, that Israel is following her plan: East Jerusalem will be separated from Ramallah, and of course from Bethlehem.” The route of Israel’s ‘separation wall’, originally along the 1967 border, now snakes into the West Bank, not only around Jerusalem, and makes the settler land grab a heavily fortified fact on the ground.

In Palestine, then, the situation–the ‘status quo’- is far from static. The Palestinians who continue their attacks are not trying to ‘wreck’ any peace process. They are trying to counter a pattern of encroachment which constantly works against them, and on which the peace process has no effect.

Israel’s good-will gestures, however sincere, concern everything *but* this encroachment. Checkpoints are relaxed; troops withdrawn; prisoners released. Some settlements are evacuated. But settlement activity continues at about the same pace as before, and on balance the settlements keep building up. This means, for the present, continually increasing misery for the Palestinians: less land, fewer resources, more difficult travel, deteriorating health care, malnutrition, and the implantation of a hostile population, protected by the Israeli army and bent on expelling the Palestinians from every inch remaining to them.

As for the future, the settlements belong to a long-standing Israeli policy of creating faits accomplis which expand the self-styled Jewish state at the expense of other people in the area. This was the reason the early Zionists were hell-bent on unlimited Jewish immigration to Palestine, why after 1948 Ben Gurion transferred large amounts of state land to the Jewish National Fund, and why, in 1967, the settlements were encouraged in the first place. Now the process has to a large extent fallen into the hands of Jewish fanatics, many from the US, bent on ‘redeeming’ Palestine to ‘rebuild’ a Jewish empire which almost certainly never existed in the first place.

From this it follows that anything represented as a pause in the conflict is really a situation in which the Palestinians are to sit on their hands, while the deadly encroachment continues at the same pace as before. And to what end? presumably to cheer on the sort of peace process which has failed many times before, which lacks not only guarantees but the faintest assurance that there will be a freeze on settlement activity. While the Palestinians are to content themselves with an ever-shrinking pie in the sky, the settlers are to be allowed a penalty-free go at grabbing as much as they can. Even where the settlers cannot expand, they will make feverish efforts to entrench themselves so deeply that the West Bank enclaves, which prevent the creation of a viable Palestinian state, become immoveable. Without attacks, and with negotiations underway, the settler movement will have a much easier time finding new recruits for its displacement activities. Besides, existing settlers will no longer see any reason to contemplate leaving–something quite a few are doing at the moment. Greater, stronger, more extensive ‘facts on the ground’ will be created, minute by minute, and even ordinary Israelis, many of whom dislike the settlers, will stop complaining: less violence, fewer risks for the army, and less expense will leave little to complain about.

Meanwhile the Palestinians, helpless inside their sickeningly dense remnants of territory, will be squeezed some more, and more, and more.

And for how long are the Palestinians to continue this surrender, to suffer slowly but steadily increasing loss? Well, everyone involved in the peace process is emphatic that it will take time, a long time. No one is making any specific predictions. On November 13th of last year, The Washington Post reported that “President Bush set a goal yesterday of ensuring the creation of a peaceful, democratic Palestinian state alongside Israel before he leaves office in 2009.”(http://www.washingtonpost.com/ Half that time is far too long for the Palestinians to give their settler enemies a free hand at intensifying an already devastating process of dispossession. Already today, it is common to hear even supposedly pro-Palestinian commentators tell you that the settlements are too well established to be removed. How would things look after another year, or two, or five, in which the settler movement is given a blank check? What if, despite a halt to any attacks, the peace process collapses and leaves the enhanced settlements in place? That’s a distinct possibility anyone would be a fool to ignore.

It is irrational to give up defending yourself when the other side continues its aggression. Were there a complete settlement freeze, at least time would not daily make even the occupied territories, the rump of Palestine, less and less a place where Palestinians can hope to build a society.

It is rational to continue resistance, to continue making the settlers uncomfortable, to continue the pressure that brought Israeli concessions in the first place. Unless that pressure is maintained, the settlers will burrow ever deeper into Palestine, leaving ever less land and hope for the Palestinians.

This is not to say that keeping up the attacks is the best policy.
Perhaps the best policy is to march peacefully with flowers in one’s hair–anything is possible. But keeping up the attacks is a rational policy, one with at least as much chance of succeeding as any other.

To understand this response, it is not necessary to understand anything about Islam or Islamic fundamentalism or any special features of Palestinian culture, much less the psychology of hate. It is necessary only to see the Palestinians as rational human beings.

MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Professor Neumann’s views are not to be taken as those of his university. His book What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche has just been republished by Broadview Press. He contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He can be reached at: mneumann@trentu.ca.

Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at a Canadian university.  He is the author of What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche and The Case Against Israel.  He also contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.  He can be reached at mneumann@live.com

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