30 September 2003, al-Jazeera
INTERNATIONAL REACTIONS TO THE INTIFADA
The second intifada that erupted three years ago has attracted much comment, support and criticism. Its victims are many, nearly 3000 Palestinian and 780 Israeli dead, some 30,000 Palestinian wounded, huge economic damage to the Palestinian areas and a state of near starvation, high levels of child malnutrition and a long list of other depredations. But with all this, the intifada’s signal achievement has been to put the Palestinian question right back onto the international agenda. No matter with what hostility that issue is viewed by traditional sympathisers of Israel, no one can escape the fact that Palestinians need a solution without which the Middle East cannot be secure and nor can US plans for the region advance further. For the first time ever, we heard a US president, George Bush, publicly declare as he did in 2002, that there must be a Palestinian state. The Road Map which followed this, inadequate as it was on many points, had as its end point a viable Palestinian state with a time-table, something that had never emerged from years of negotiating over the Oslo Accords. The EU has followed this American lead and the idea of a Palestinian state is now firmly established in popular perceptions.
At the same time, there has been a change in popular feeling towards the Palestinians as a people with legitimate sufferings. The West had long held an unwavering allegiance to the Israeli project, receptive to Jewish suffering at the hands of Europe and the horrors of the holocaust. But as the human rights abuses perpetrated against the Palestinians by Israel’s army have been exposed, so a growing wave of sympathy for the victims has been in evidence. Simultaneously and more significantly, Israel’s image as a helpless country surrounded by enemies intent on its destruction has been demolished forever. No one in the West now believes that old myth and, with Israel’s close alliance to the US over the Iraq war exposed, it is seen as a powerful regional actor with a huge army. The EU, major trading partners with Israel, has been flexing its muscles against the Israelis by conditioning its trade commitments on improvements in Israel’s human rights record. Israeli produce that comes from the illegal settlements in Palestinian areas is banned from sale in Europe and frequent squabbles have broken out between the EU and Israel over this issue. Anecdotal evidence, which is all we have, since this is not an issue that has been subjected to opinion polls or surveys, shows that sympathy with Israel as at an all-time low, a consequence entirely of the intifada.
However, it is important not to exaggerate this trend. The proof of real change in the West towards Israel must be measured by deeds and not by words or impressions. Last week, the French and Israeli governments signed a far-reaching accord on scientific and cultural research and interchange which will rehabilitate the Israelis at a level that far exceeds the criticisms aimed at their government’s actions against the Palestinians. Likewise, Britain continues to receive the Israeli prime minister and members of his government with great warmth and understanding. And Europe, for all its disapproval of Israel, has never imposed any meaningful economic or diplomatic sanction against the Jewish state. Needless to say, the US president has gone back on almost every single admonition towards Israel that he ever uttered. Most notably, the US administration which had considered withholding $8bn worth of loan guarantees from Israel, pending a halt in its settlement expansion in the occupied territories, has now withdrawn The road map, which had enjoined both parties to abide by certain terms, has now become a blueprint for enjoining Palestinian compliance only. The change of heart towards the Palestinians that had been gathering pace in the West has now been converted into an impatience with Palestinian ‘terrorism’ and an insistence that their leadership be reformed.
The reason for this turnaround, it is alleged, is the wave of suicide bombing which has reenlisted international sympathy for Israel. The latter has been able to exploit the situation with great adroitness, portraying itself as the victim once again and tapping into the Western fear of terrorism. Friends of the Palestinians have rushed to warn them against any more of these operations, pointing out that all support for their cause has been dissipated and advising a return to peaceful means of protest. The first intifada is held up as a model, where civil disobedience was the norm and no suicide attacks took place. What no one points out is that the first intifada, for all its non-violence, achieved no end of Israeli occupation and no cessation in the Israeli theft of Palestinian land. It did indirectly produce the Oslo Agreement, which, under a veneer of Palestinian autonomy and a peace process, legitimised the Israeli hold on 78% of Mandate Palestine and allowed Israel to go on stealing Palestinian land and resources.
The real problem here is the way in which this conflict is viewed. So long as the two parties are seen as equal combatants with equal resources, the Palestinians will be judged as failing. This concept of equivalence even shows in the language used to describe the conflict: terms such as ‘ceasefire’ and ‘crossfire’ apply only to armies, not to one army ranged against a civilian population withy a lightly armed police force; likewise, the idea of ‘controlling the militants’, is only meaningful if the Palestinian side were a functioning sovereign state with enforceable powers; both sides are criticised for claiming equal victimhood, as if the occupier could ever by the victim of the occupied; and of course the whole concept of negotiations between the parties is based on the same premise, as if both sides were equally free and not, as is the case, occupier and occupied. Unless the essential fact is grasped that one side has all the power and the other none, Israel will maintain its occupation and Palestinian resistance will be called ‘terrorism’
And for that to happen, the international community will have to revise its support for the Zionist project and its connection with its guilt-ridden obsession with Jewish persecution. The charge of anti-semiticism has been immensely useful for Israel in its colonisation of Palestine. If the heroic resistance of this intifada is not to be in vain, the world must confront its obsession with placating Israel and abandon Zionism.
Ghada Karmi is a Palestinian activist and writer. She is the author of ‘In Search of Fatima, a Palestinian story’ (Verso)