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Talking to Tanks

The Israeli army continues to pursue the objectives delineated by the Israeli prime minister and his chief-of- staff. These include not only the restoration of Sharon’s damaged prestige but also breaking the back of the nationalist movement embodied in the youths of the camps and the armed bodies from all Palestinian organisations that have resisted the occupation, without taking into consideration the differences between the PA and the opposition. These are the organisations of the Oslo generation, their members men and women who grew up and came to awareness under the interim accords, under the persistent expansion of Israeli settlements, under the Israeli army barricades that have governed every detail of their lives and their prospects for the future since the establishment of the PA.

This is the generation that has been deprived of that most fundamental of freedoms, the freedom of movement. There are members of this generation who have been unable to leave their camps or cities for a decade; others who have never left Gaza in their lives. These are the people targeted by the soldiers of the Israeli army, soldiers who, after their compulsory military service are then destined for a full year’s rest and recuperation in the forests of far-off Latin America, India and East Asia before returning to Israel to take up study in university.

The wholesale detention of the adults and youths who generated the resistance movement is not, then, just an attempt to save face but aims at stifling the development of that movement — after which the Israeli army will withdraw, leaving in its wake yet more degradation, rancour, hatred.

In the midst of this offensive Sharon has declared he is open to negotiations. As long as his great retaliatory campaign is pursued at full force, with tanks rumbling from one camp to another and from one town to another, he is “ready to talk with the Palestinians.” On closer inspection, though, we find that his idea of talks is confined to “negotiations for a ceasefire while a ceasefire is in progress,” a remarkable example of verbal acrobatics. Ceasefire negotiations take place when hostilities are still in progress. Sharon’s “seven days of calm,” we should remember, were never a precondition for ceasefire talks but for entering into political negotiations. Yet Sharon took evident pride in the fact that Peres’s talks with Palestinian leaders focused solely on a ceasefire.

So, what is new? It is difficult to say. Is Sharon manoeuvering to gain time for his brutal campaign of repression? Or has he changed his attitude towards negotiations? Perhaps the safest assumption is that Sharon intends to shift his position on negotiating with the PA gradually, all the time continuing his attempts to sap the strength of the national Palestinian movement. In other words, he will sustain his assault against Palestinian society and its political forces while reassuring the world that he will get to the negotiating table in the end.

Sharon clearly does not favour a return to the negotiating table. But if he has to negotiate, what are his conditions and what does he want to negotiate over? These, he hopes, are things his recent military offences will determine. But they are also what Palestinian steadfastness and resistance will also determine.

Under present circumstances, which underline the necessity of sustaining the resistance, it is reasonable not to respond to Sharon’s tactic of encouraging meetings between the PA and Peres for such meetings will lead to neither negotiations nor a ceasefire. Their intent is to gain time. It is not, after all, just a few misunderstandings at stake that can be cleared up in a meeting with Peres, not one of those hurdles that can be passed via one of Peres’s formulas for circumvention. Such formulaic circumventions have, in any case, become unpalatable.

The current conflict in Palestine is not a matter of a misunderstandings or a lack of mutual comprehension. It is not the result of some inexplicable slide of two sides into a spiral of tit-for-tat violence — such verbal constructs are contrived solely to convey the impression of impartiality on the part of the observer. The conflict exists because of occupation, an occupation that has entered one of its virulent phases.

The end of the night is the blackest part, as Farid Ghanem wrote. Yet even at this bleak hour there is no sign of any Israeli resolve to dismantle the occupation so that it can begin to negotiate over the conditions and time frame for ending it. Israel cannot even take the recent Saudi Arabian peace initiative seriously. Meanwhile, the world watches as Israel moves the lines of confrontation into every Palestinian home the Israeli army storms. And the Palestinians’ goal, finally, is not to negotiate for the sake of negotiations but to end the occupation. They have no objection to negotiations if negotiations lead to that end. But they have every objection if negotiations are turned into yet another Israeli manoeuvre to prolong the occupation.

In spite of the all-encompassing spirit of Palestinian resistance, which has effaced the barriers between Palestinian factions, it remains possible to delineate two general Palestinian-Arab moods. The one that prevails views resistance as a viable, indeed the necessary, route to ending the occupation. The second watches the spiral of Israeli violence and Palestinian counter-violence with despair and can imagine no other way of breaking this cycle of violence except negotiations. Those who espouse this second view saw Sharon’s recent statement as a radical turn around and awaited Zinni’s visit with impatience.

From the perspective of the first view, the resistance is no longer merely a reaction to brutality, and even if a change has occurred in Sharon’s position it is only due to the Palestinians’ perseverance in their resistance. Sharon’s recent declarations are not, it would follow, an indication of any practical change in his position, but rather a signal that the Israeli army will step up its detaining of Palestinian youths in the squares of Palestinian camps and cities. This group also has its eyes on Zinni; but more importantly on Dick Cheney, who refuses to meet with Arafat and who is testing the Arab pulse preparatory to an attack on Iraq. This group suspects that Zinni’s visit is little more than window dressing while Cheney pursues Washington’s real agenda.

Sharon’s recent move to use EU mediation to invite PA leaders to meet with Peres and his recent announcement that he has dropped his condition of seven days of calm are no more than political ruses, an attempt to obfuscate what Sharon has set his mind upon. This is to crush the Palestinian resistance by tormenting the entire Palestinian populace and combing through an entire generation of Palestinians to root out any who might harbour the flame of resistance.

This is not a policing plan intended to detain suspects on the Israeli wanted list, as Sharon claims. He, and his chief-of-staff, know full well that anyone they might be looking for has long gone into hiding. And what he has unleashed is not a flash commando operation, but a full-fledged military offensive using heavy tanks and artillery. This is an operation intended to let the Israeli army display its mastery of the streets by firing missiles at anyone so bold as to look out his window to see what’s going on and by blindfolding, kicking and manhandling the Palestinian youths it has rounded up.

The Palestinians who met with Peres during this offensive should not have done so. I also believe that the Arabs should not receive Zinni, or only do so under certain conditions. Zinni knows as well as anyone what is really going on. Israel is “making war on terrorists” with whom there can be no negotiations; the Arabs want to negotiate as though the Israeli army has not ransacked Palestinian bedrooms, blown up ambulances and killed detainees.

Under such circumstances the question of whether or not Arafat will be “permitted” to take part in the Arab summit is purely secondary. It is secondary because it has no bearing on what is happening on the ground in Palestine, just as the fact that Israel’s incursion into Ramallah, with the exception of the area around Arafat’s offices, is secondary to the fact that the leader of the occupying power has granted Arafat freedom to move in the territories still under occupation. So even if Israel were to allow the Palestinian president to attend the summit it would be a cosmetic move, though one that would give the “moderate forces” in the Arab summit a victory that spares them having to seek anything else to boast of at the forthcoming summit, or to explore ways of supporting the option of resistance.

Sharon’s statements regarding the Palestinian president’s freedom of movement at a time when only the occupation forces are free to move epitomise Israel’s attempt to remove the Palestinian leadership from any contexts of time and place. It is Israel’s way of clarifying the significance of the PA and Palestinian leadership under the current circumstances. However, the Palestinian leadership has the tools at its disposal to convey the opposite message, which is that it does not need a licence from a brutal occupying power to move freely on its own land.

When Israel has finished ploughing through Palestinian territories and forcing the Palestinian resistance to its knees it will welcome ceasefire negotiations. Then it will let Arafat travel to the summit, where some Arabs are bound to praise the move as a “breakthrough.” That is how they will market the results of the Israeli military campaign — as though it were a victory.

There is, though, only one answer to Sharon’s desperate bid to break the spirit of resistance and that is to support the resistance. This is the only means to defeat Sharon and his chief-of-staff. If the Arabs agree to Sharon’s conditions for returning to the negotiating table in the wake of this appalling offensive, Europe will cheer and the US will congratulate Sharon on his success. But if the Arabs rallied behind the resistance and stood against the onslaught of Israel’s tanks, Europe would have to reaffirm the need to explore a just political solution and the US would have to blame Israel for the impasse, counsel it again against recourse to the option of war and tell it to shorten its occupation of Palestinian cities.

Azmi Bishara is a Palestinian activist and a member of the Knesset. This column originally appeared in the Cairo-based weekly, al-Ahram.

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