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Occupation Propels Conflict
4 December 2001
This weekend's scenes of horror and devastation in Jerusalem and Haifa caused by three Palestinian suicide bombers screamed out to a world distracted by other events that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is continuing to intensify.
These attacks came in response to a less-well-reported but extraordinary wave of killings of Palestinians by Israel, including the blowing up of five children in their Gaza refugee camp and the assassination of a leading Hamas figure.
Suicide bombing is a reprehensible tactic. These murderous acts involve not only political shortsightedness but an unwillingness to set limits on what is permissible in the pursuit of freedom. Yet just as the occupation does not justify suicide bombing, neither does resistance justify the occupation, which imposes a structure of routine violence on the daily lives of the 3 million Palestinians who live under abusive Israeli army rule.
The occupation is the elephant in the living room of Israeli and American discourse on this conflict, the overwhelming fact that cannot be acknowledged. Instead, what we get is obsession over the personality of Yasser Arafat and his future as a political leader.
It seems almost absurd to have to point out that forcing millions of people to live for decades under hostile military rule with no end in sight inevitably produces violent resistance. Only a mind-set that steadfastly refuses to recognize this can become captivated by a lone figure whose real and imagined failings become a smoke screen that obscures the machinery that actually drives the conflict.
As Israelis and Palestinians use ever more lethal means against each other's civilians, the question being asked in Israel and the U.S. is not how to end the occupation, but whether or not to end the career, or even the life, of Arafat.
Let us suppose that Arafat were somehow permanently removed from the equation this evening. What would really change?
The bulldozers, checkpoints, Israeli settlements, Jewish-only roads, the entire hideous apparatus of the occupation would still be in place.
Would Palestinians suddenly lose their will to resist? Would they become incapable of organizing protests, demonstrations, armed resistance or suicide bombings?
Can anyone really believe that the solution is a more oppressive occupation rather than an end to the occupation?
Like the discourse on "incitement" in the Palestinian media, the whole conversation about Arafat misses the point. It is the occupation that creates a distorted reality for both Palestinians and Israelis, allowing each side to interpret "good" as being anything that is bad for the other.
In their rage and frustration, Israelis are tempted to obliterate Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. This would certainly intensify the struggle.
As such, it is a step that would be welcomed not only by many Israelis but also by some Palestinians who believe that the Palestinian Authority simply mediates the occupation. If the goal is to bring greater security to Israelis, eliminating Arafat or the Palestinian Authority would certainly backfire spectacularly.
It would only deepen the Palestinian determination to resist Israeli rule. If it involves Israeli soldiers once again policing the towns of the West Bank, it would create new targets for armed resistance.
No one should be under any illusion that it would succeed when the killing of almost 1,000 Palestinians in the past year has failed to break the will of the Palestinians to accept anything less than genuine independence.
Moreover, it would play directly into the hands of the religious fanatics responsible for the suicide bombings, whose parties have never been able to command much more than 20% support among Palestinians until now. The failure of the peace process to ease the plight of the Palestinians and Israel's brutal response to the uprising already has strengthened the extremists' hand. The destruction of the secular leadership of the Palestinians and a harsher occupation would all but ensure a spectacular rise in support for them.
Even dramatic developments such as these, however, would not alter the substance of the conflict. The question is not whether Israel gets rid of Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. The only real question is how many more innocents must die before Israel decides to return to the negotiating table and work out a serious plan to end the occupation--and the conflict the occupation propels.