Last week, the Israel Air Force phoned the home of a Hamas militant in the Gaza Strip to inform him that his house was about to be destroyed and give him time to evacuate himself and his family. Instead, the militant summoned hundreds of his neighbors to form a human shield on the roof and around the house. The IAF canceled its attack. No one in Israel protested.
In the past two weeks, a shady Russian billionaire immigrant to Israel, Arkadi Gaydamak, financed a vacation in Eilat for thousands of beleaguered residents of Sderot who were panicking under an escalated Palestinian rocket attack and despaired of government aid and support. Gaydamak, who has political ambitions, did something similar last summer, setting up a tent city on the beach south of Tel Aviv for thousands of neglected residents of northern Israel under attack from Hizballah katyushas.
Last week, the first cohort of IDF draftees since last summer's war was inducted. Against a backdrop of heavy public criticism of the way the war was conducted by the IDF itself as well as by the civilian leadership, the volunteer rate for special combat units was at record proportions.
And yesterday, the Palestinian Authority announced a ceasefire in Gaza on behalf of all Palestinian factions. It was immediately reciprocated by Israel. If it holds--and judging by experience this is doubtful--it could provide a foundation for a Palestinian unity government and a prisoner exchange that could in turn pave the way for a renewal of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
What do these events tell us about the role of the Israeli and Palestinian publics in this conflict?
First of all, despite (or alongside) significant public dissatisfaction and protest on both sides, both the Israeli and the Palestinian civilian populations remain intensely patriotic, with Palestinians risking their lives in Gaza to save a house and Israeli youth rallying to the flag at induction time.
Second, despite the hawkish ranting of politicians like Minister of Strategic Threats Avigdor Lieberman, most Israelis support their armed forces' self-imposed humanitarian constraints regarding attacks on civilians--even when Palestinian civilians exploit them to "rescue" a legitimate military target. And, despite accidental deaths such as at Beit Hanoun a few weeks ago, most Palestinians believe Israel is serious about its constraints, otherwise they would not have rushed to protect a house against attack.
Third, despite their pitifully low approval ratings, demonstrated incompetence at Sderot, in northern Israel and elsewhere and inability to get along with one another, PM Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz were able to withstand public pressure to "do something" about the Qassam rockets from Gaza--meaning, essentially, either launch a major offensive or declare a unilateral ceasefire--and ended up with a ceasefire declaration from the Palestinians. And despite the heroic behavior of the Palestinian public, even the hardline Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal apparently felt obliged by Palestinian suffering to come to Cairo, begin seriously negotiating a prisoner exchange and approve a ceasefire. Perhaps the writing was on the wall when the families of the Palestinian victims of the recent Beit Hanoun disaster told the media they preferred a ceasefire to vengeance.
(Then, too, the ceasefire may have no connection at all to public pressure. The real catalyst may have been Syria's willingness to let Meshaal come to Cairo and make the deal--by way of signaling Damascus' desire to placate Washington.)
Both publics have been suffering for years--Palestinians, undoubtedly, far more than Israelis. Both have broadly respected the rule of law within their own societies, with Israeli protests over last summer's war channeled toward demonstrations that produced a host of investigations and two initial resignations, and Palestinians in Gaza stepping back from civil war and persevering in internal political negotiations.
Yet none of this brings us appreciably closer to ending the conflict. Palestinians last January elected Hamas, which rejects a negotiated two-state solution, and they generally continue to support terrorism against Israelis. Israel's government is too weak to continue even dismantling settlements unilaterally, is unable to find a viable partner for a peace process and is increasingly preoccupied with the threat posed by Iran and its allies rather than with the Palestinians.
It is almost certainly wishful thinking to believe that the publics on both sides are capable of, or interested in, compelling their governments to move away from conflict and toward accommodation. For that we require not only involved publics but capable leaders. The conventional wisdom has it that publics get the leaders they deserve.- Published 27/11/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Because of the special nature of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the level of popular mobilization has always been an important factor in determining internal political dynamics in Israel and Palestine as well as the political or confrontational relations between the two sides.
While Israel's most potent weapon has always been exactly that, the army and its latest weapons technology, for the Palestinians popular mobilization remains their best card. First and foremost, this is because it drives home the message that the official and declared Palestinian position of the need to end the occupation in order to reach peace is not about politics but about people, their rights and their refusal to live a life of servitude to foreign masters.
This has been a prominent characteristic of the Palestinian political movement from the beginning but it was most successfully illustrated and applied in the first intifada. The famous Jabaliya demonstration, when tens of thousands of Palestinians took to the streets of Gaza in December 1987, provided an example that gave the Palestinians the self-confidence to collectively assert themselves and the understanding that popular movements and activities have a very significant effect on political developments and on the international attitude toward and understanding of the conflict.
At the same time, the success of that aspect of the first intifada caused Israel to prepare so that no repeat performance might occur. From the very beginning of the Aqsa Intifada in September 2000, the Israeli army confronted popular demonstrations with controlled but indiscriminate violence. This contributed greatly to reducing the popular nature of this intifada. In addition, the availability of weapons on the Palestinian side and the relative strength of the armed groups and organizations provided an alternative.
However, recently, the use of popular mobilization has made a comeback in Gaza. In one incident, Gazan women defied the Israeli army to protect armed men holed up in a house surrounded by Israeli soldiers. While Israeli bullets felled two of the women, the men escaped.
Then popular mobilization also successfully confronted Israeli impunity in bombing homes in Gaza. For years now, the Israeli army has phoned targeted houses, telling people they had minutes to leave, before their houses were destroyed, usually from the air. Last week, rather than leave, residents called upon others for solidarity, and people streamed to the house calling Israel's bluff. It worked.
In both cases, Israel's military superiority was shown to be fragile when confronted with Palestinian determination on the popular level. And these tactics reminded many observers of the first intifada when well trained and fully equipped Israeli soldiers were chasing after young, poor and barefoot children in the narrow alleys of the refugee camps of Jabaliya, Balata or Qalandia with little or no success.
The strong belief of the Palestinian people in the justness of their cause and of basing Palestinian political demands and positions on the requirements of international legality will not waver. It is only strengthened by the continued attempts by Israel to control them, occupy their land and prevent them from enjoying their basic rights of freedom, self-determination and statehood.- Published 27/11/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is the former Palestinian Authority minister of planning, and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
Time for the public to stand up
by Gershon Baskin
To a great extent, the Israeli and Palestinian publics have been passive observers in the single most important issue affecting their lives--the continuation of the conflict. During the summer of 2006, the Israeli public in its silence supported the government in its war against Lebanon. More than one million Israelis fled from their homes in the face of katyusha rockets falling in the north and still the public was silent. Last week we saw the same thing in Sderot, and who can blame the Sderot residents? In both cases we have not witnessed the masses taking to the streets calling for an end to the violence and a return to a peace process.
But perhaps there are some changes sprouting. For the first time that I recall, Israeli television and radio channels gave space to voices in Sderot calling for an end of the violence, including a call not to avenge the Qassam rockets. Perhaps there is the beginning of public understanding that the army has run out of tricks and that the only way to end the violence is by returning to the table. Even two Kadima ministers expressed something new, one saying that the time had come for the prime minister to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas--"either you make history or you will become history" (Meir Sheetrit)--and another calling for an immediate unilateral ceasefire with the Palestinians (Gideon Ezra).
The Palestinian public in recent weeks also demonstrated new behavior patterns that point to new possibilities for public action. In Beit Hanoun we saw Palestinian women face Israeli tanks, and even though soldiers opened fire on the crowds, the following week we witnessed hundreds of civilians serving as human shields in order to prevent the bombing of a house by the Israel Air Force.
It should be clear by now to both sides that our governments and military forces are not going to provide security. Our leaders' policies have only brought more violence and more suffering. Both sides suffer from weak leaders. Both sides' leaders either use force to compensate for their weaknesses (Israel) or are incapable of preventing the use of force because their militants are stronger than them (Palestine). In either case, it is quite clear that the leaders have failed to bring peace and security to their people.
Our leaders and most of the people, Israelis and Palestinians, know very well what the price of peace is. Most Israelis and Palestinians are willing to pay that price. Most Israelis and most Palestinians share the sense that their leaders and, even more so, the leaders of the other side are not interested in peace and will not lead us to negotiations. There is no "peace directive" in Israel or in Palestine; perhaps there has not been one since before November 2005. The continued violence and destruction has led most Israelis and most Palestinians to believe that the other side does not want peace. But that is not so.
It is time for the people to design and lead a new peace process. In Northern Ireland they called it "Initiative 1991". Civil society peace activists on both sides called on their own communities to step forward and provide input into a process of designing the future. Common citizens on both sides of the conflict were called on to "testify" before public hearings on how they view the future. It is time for us to do the same. The most difficult part of this work is within our own communities, where we must confront our extremists and radicals--the spoilers who bear responsibility for driving us off the course that Rabin and Arafat agreed to in 1993.
Our leaders have failed us. Our leaders are primarily concerned with their own survival. Our leaders will not lead us to peace and security. When we do not act, we are taking responsibility for the continuation of the deterioration. If we are silent and passive, we are to blame for our continued suffering. It is time for the people to take to the streets. It is time for the common people on both sides to raise their voices loud and clear demanding that we return to negotiations and end the violence. It is time for us to return to sanity. Our voices must sound out from all corners of Israel and Palestine.
When our political leaders fail us, it is time for civil society actors to lead us forward. There are more than 100 Israeli and Palestinian civil society organizations now working together in a new network called "The Israeli-Palestinian Peace NGO Forum". These civil society organizations have been working together across the conflict lines, non-stop, throughout all of the past years. New organizations of young activists on both sides have joined the ranks and are ready to take to the streets. We civil society peace activists must work together across the conflict lines to design a new process that empowers the common people. Our well-established cooperation provides the basis for bringing the voices of both societies to the table. It is time for the public to stand up and it is time for civil society peace activists to take the lead.- Published 27/11/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Gershon Baskin is the co-CEO of IPCRI--the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
New forms of resistance
by Nadia Naser-Najjab
I have been observing discussions in Ramallah for some time now, trying to understand what people think about the political situation in general and the Israeli aggression against Palestinians in particular.
I have noticed that the majority discusses social and personal issues with minimal reference to political events. On the same day an elderly woman exploded herself near Israeli soldiers in Gaza I had friends over for dinner. When I raised the incident to my guests, none of them had heard about it, as they do not really watch the news, and no further discussion took place.
Even when political issues are discussed the most common comment one hears is, "what can we do?"
I believe there are two key elements with regard to any Palestinian response to the situation. One is related to the absence of leadership and the other is related to the feeling of helplessness, something strongly connected to the vicious heavy-handed Israeli practices against Palestinians.
When the Aqsa Intifada started in September 2000, it was a spontaneous response to the visit by Ariel Sharon to the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem at a time when Palestinians were frustrated by the lack of progress in the peace process and by Israeli violations of the Oslo agreement. It was also a collective response. People took to the streets, and were encouraged to do so by the Palestinian leadership.
However, soon people started to notice a divergence between the leadership and the mood of the people. The leadership started to hold meetings with the Israeli side discussing security issues, discussions that always resulted in failure. Palestinians came to perceive their leaders as mostly concerned with their own personal interests. In parallel, militant groups were formed to spearhead the resistance. Both the armed groups and the lack of leadership resulted in a failure to mobilize Palestinians for collective action.
A mid-1990s study by Rema Hammami argued that the political leadership in the first intifada was partisan in a way that succeeded in mobilizing people and civil society for collective action. Indeed, the main aim of the political parties then was to mobilize people to resist the Israeli occupation. I think in the second intifada, several factors have coalesced to make that difficult. The militant leadership, firstly, has not been unified. Secondly, it has been underground with little contact with the people and their daily problems. The Palestinian Authority, on the other hand, has been unable to provide even minimal services, let alone lead the struggle.
The other key element is related to the large-scale Israeli incursions and the dissection of Palestinian territory, in addition to the wall the Israeli government began to build in 2002 and which led to further strangulation of the Palestinian economy. The majority of Palestinians by now suffer from a suffocating daily routine that requires most efforts to be directed at finding the means of survival.
The Israelis, furthermore, adopted a heavy-handed and indiscriminate military strategy that left many civilians as victims. That aggression was made possible by the lack of interference from the international community, which awarded Israel with impunity through the American veto.
Thus, when Palestinian women gathered to rescue besieged men in Gaza it received special international media attention, and some considered the event as a transformation of the resistance. As a matter of fact, this is not the first time Palestinians have used the human shield tactic during the current intifada. In 2002, many Palestinians scurried to protect Yasser Arafat when he was besieged in his headquarter in Ramallah and Israeli officials threatened to kill him.
I do not see the action taken by Gazan women as a change in strategy. I think it is rather a tactic that Palestinians use under two conditions: when the threat is directly affecting them or their relatives' lives and when they think that their action will make a difference. This explains why it was only women that took to the streets that day. Palestinians have learned through experience with the Israeli army that only women may expect some leniency.
Nor is that to say that this is the end of the resistance. I think Palestinians are now trying to adapt to the new reality imposed by the Israeli government over the past six years and will--must even--find a new method for collective action to counter the occupation.- Published 27/11/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Dr. Nadia Naser-Najjab is assistant professor at the Department of Education and Psychology at Birzeit University.
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