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Arafat is only interested in saving himself: he has had 10 years of freedom to run a petty kingdom, and has succeeded in bringing scorn on himself

20 June 2002

Six distinct calls for Palestinian reform and elections are being pressed now: five of them are, for Palestinian purposes, both useless and irrelevant. Sharon wants reform as a way of further disabling Palestinian national life. The United States wants reform principally as a way of combatting "terrorism", a panacea of a word that takes no account of history, context, or anything else.

Third is the Arab leaders' demand which, as far as I can tell, is a combination of several different elements, none of them directly helpful to the Palestinians themselves. Fourth in the chorus of reform are the Europeans. But they only scurry around sending emissaries to Sharon and Arafat, make ringing declarations in Brussels, fund a few projects and more or less leave it at that.

Then there is Yasser Arafat and his circle of associates, who have suddenly discovered the virtues (theoretically at least) of democracy and reform. I know that I speak at a great distance from the field of struggle, and I also know all the arguments about the besieged Arafat as a potent symbol of Palestinian resistance against Israeli aggression, but I have come to a point where I think none of that has any meaning any more.

Arafat is simply interested in saving himself. He has had almost 10 years of freedom to run a petty kingdom, and has succeeded essentially in bringing opprobrium and scorn on himself and most of his team. Why anyone for a moment believes that at this stage he is capable of anything different, or that his new streamlined cabinet (dominated by the same old faces of defeat and incompetence) is going to produce actual reform, simply defies reason.

Finally there is the Palestinian people, who are now justifiably clamouring both for reform and elections. As far as I am concerned, this clamour is the only legitimate one of the six I have outlined here. It's important to point out that Arafat's present administration, as well as the Legislative Council, have overstayed their original term, which should have ended with a new round of elections in 1999. Moreover, the whole basis of the 1996 elections was the Oslo accords, which in effect simply licensed Arafat and his people to run bits of the West Bank and Gaza for the Israelis, without true sovereignty or security. Any attempt to go forward on that kind of platform is simply a wasteful ploy.

What then is to be done if the old basis of Palestinian legitimacy no longer really exists?

The major interests in Palestinian society, those that have kept life going, from the trade unions to health workers, teachers, farmers, lawyers, doctors, in addition to all the many NGOs, must now become the basis on which Palestinian reform despite Israel's incursions and the occupation is to be constructed. It seems to me useless to wait for Arafat, or Europe, or the US, or the Arabs to do this: it must absolutely be done by Palestinians themselves by way of a Constituent Assembly that contains all major elements of Palestinian society.

It must keep Palestinian life going in an orderly way with full participation for all concerned. It should also choose an emergency executive committee whose mandate is to end the occupation, not negotiate with it. It is quite obvious that militarily we are no match for Israel. What is needed is a creative method of struggle that mobilises all the human resources at our disposal to highlight, isolate and gradually make untenable the main aspects of Israeli occupation, eg settlements, settlement roads, roadblocks and house demolitions.

For such a Palestinian strategy to work there has to be an Israeli component made up of individuals and groups with whom a common basis of struggle against occupation can, and indeed must, be established. This is the great lesson of the South African struggle: that it proposed the vision of a multiracial society from which neither individuals nor groups and leaders were ever deflected. The only vision coming out of Israel today is violence, forcible separation and the continued subordination of Palestinians to an idea of Jewish supremacy. Not every Israeli believes in these things, of course, but it must be up to us to project the idea of coexistence in two states that have natural relations with each other on the basis of sovereignty and equality.

We have never faced a worse or, at the same time, a more seminal moment. The Arab order is in total disarray; the US administration is effectively controlled by the Christian right and the Israeli lobby, and our society has been nearly wrecked by poor leadership and the insanity of thinking that suicide bombing will lead directly to an Islamic Palestinian state. There is always hope for the future, but one has to able to look for it and find it in the right place. It is quite clear that in the absence of any serious Palestinian or Arab information policy in the United States (especially in Congress), we cannot for a moment delude ourselves that Powell and Bush are about to set a real agenda for Palestinian rehabilitation. That's why I keep saying that the effort must come from us, by us, for us.

Who else but the Palestinian people can construct the legitimacy they need to rule themselves and fight the occupation with weapons that don't kill innocents and lose us more support than ever before?

Edward Said
Published by the Independent © 2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd

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