“The affairs of a puppet play are not to be taken too seriously.”
—Wu Cailuan, 9th century Taoist adept
The internationally televised signing of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)/Israel peace treaty Sept. 11 brought to mind Geronimo’s surrender to General Crook in Arizona 111 years it earlier.
Although the Apache struggle against their white settler enemies lasted even longer than that of the Palestinians against the Europeans who seized their land in 1948, the equation was much the same.
When the remaining : Apaches entered the San Carlos reservation after 300 years of battle against the Mexicans and 70 of fighting the U.S. blue-coats, it was an admission of definitive defeat, one which abandoned the idea of ever regaining the land lost to the invaders. Depending upon one’s view’, either the same abject defeat has befallen the Palestinians, or they have at least gained a foothold to wrest some of the occupied territories back from the conquerors.
Either way, the treaty only recognized reality; the guerrillaist fantasy against one of the world’s most powerful armies was already a dead letter, and even the intifada had reached an impasse. Was (or is) there a realistic possibility of the Palestinians regaining their stolen land? Probably no more than have the Huron, Shawnee, Lakota, or Cheyenne.
Giving the PLO a Poison Pill
Certainly on the face of it, Arafat’s trip to Washington was a stinging humiliation. The proud “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians,” surrounded by beaming imperial functionaries who had bankrolled his people’s defeat and displacement, now obsequiously shook hands with the victor of the 1967 war. An icy Prime Minister Itzak Rabin did no more than assent to Arafat’s increasingly empty designation in a terse letter, and granted the PLO territory it may have no more success in governing than did the Israeli military.
(One journalist observed that handing over the Gaza Strip, a place that Edward Said has called “one of the most miserable places on earth,” was equivalent to giving the PLO a “poison pill.”)
In return, Arafat (unilaterally and without even convening the PLO governing council) agreed to the terms demanded by the settler government. In an act of extraordinary servility, Arafat also acceded in his letter of mutual recognition to Rabin, that the PLO was renouncing “the use of terrorism and other acts of violence,” thus affirming the mythology that the Israelis are the victims, when in fact the figure of Arabs killed by Israelis is vastly higher (20,000 people killed in the 1982 Lebanon invasion alone).
Arafat’s wing of the Palestinian liberation movement had long since renounced armed assault and had recognized Israel’s right to existence years ago in compliance with United Nations resolutions, but Israel conveniently ignored this to keep the PLO positioned as its enemy. Needless to say, the Israeli state was not expected to renounce its own terrorism and violence.
Arafat’s permanent state of warfare with zionism proved somewhat beneficial to him, as well as to some of the Palestinians in the occupied territories and in the Diaspora, as long as the PLO received heavy funding from Arab nations. This financed the privileged strata of the PLO bureaucracy which administered a wide range of social welfare, educational and financial programs throughout the world. When those sources dried up because of Arafat’s ill-advised support for Saddam Hussein during the Persian Gulf War, the PLO was left almost broke and its authority eroding in favor of the militant and uncompromised Islamic fundamentalists.
Perhaps the one positive aspect of the treaty was that the zionist state went from absolute denial of the very existence of the Palestinians as a people to a formal, if empty, recognition of them. But despite the understandable display of joy and hopes for peace among sections of both the Arab and Jewish populations afterwards, the agreement in Washington was more a sign of an unresolvable and deteriorating situation than one of reconciliation and genuine peace. Arafat and the PLO, reviled and despised for decades, suddenly became Israel’s best hope for maintaining the status quo in the Middle East, and Tel Aviv’s willingness to grant Arafat the status of cop of a Gaza/ West Bank bantustan took shape in terms of the peace treaty. Both parties had to move quickly before neither had the authority to negotiate.
Windbags in Suits
What is in store for the national aspirations of the Palestinians is perhaps best represented by a small New York Times article dated Oct. 2, 1993, reporting that 32,000 Palestinians have applied for jobs in the new security force which will be created to police areas Israel will leave. It is always easiest to perceive the true character of nation states at their inception—an armed body of men, without whom politicians are nothing but windbags in suits.
Maintaining the status quo will essentially mean recognition of the Palestinians’ right to retain—along with their flag and other relatively meaningless national icons—their position as low-paid agricultural and construction workers inside Israel. Likewise, Israel will continue to control municipal utilities, for example, the increasingly scarce water supply, mostly under the West Bank, for which Palestinians pay dearly.
That this settlement is a gamble for Arafat is obvious, and is underscored by defections and assassinations of PLO officials by rival factions. But it is also a gamble for Israel. On a certain level it may be a shrewd gambit; while yielding almost nothing, the Israelis will either bring the PLO under the control of their state security apparatus or destroy it altogether.
The status of Jerusalem is apparently not even open to discussion, there is no promise to stop building Israeli infrastructure, let alone dismantle existing settlements, and the U.N.-recognized rights of the 50% of the Palestinians scattered outside the occupied territories seem to have been annulled. For signing, the Israelis are to be handsomely rewarded by their U.S. patrons with continuing multibillion dollar yearly aid packages, more sophisticated weapons and communications technology.
But the agreement does nothing to alleviate (and even aggravates) the long-term problems that led to the present unstable situation, potentially pulling both societies toward the “power vacuum” that all politicians dread, and the violent maelstrom that inevitably follows. The rising expectations of an oppressed, highly nationalistic population with legitimate claims to much more of Israeli occupied territory (including a sharing of Israel itself) could blow up in the faces of those who have made the deal.
These are of course the precarious conditions that Israel already faced, which is part of the reason Rabin signed the treaty. The Labor Party is banking on the agreement stilling the hand of extremist elements among the Palestinians and its own people. The rise of the fundamentalist Islamic Hamas and other uncompromising nationalists who regard the PLO as sell-outs, portends trouble for both camps; it will now be the task of the PLO cops to deal with them. On the Israeli side, the increasing lynch mob militancy of heavily-armed, religio-fascist West Bank settlers—who are threatening a “Jewish intifada” or civil war against the accord, and who in any event support the right-wing Likud or religious parties—heightened the Labor government’s desire to undercut their geographical and increasing population base.
What lies ahead? Continued obscene loan packages and armaments for Israel will be accompanied by the $2 billion in contributions from Western industrialized nations, Japan and Arab sheiks to the PLO-controlled Jericho and Gaza. While these investments may erase some of the grinding poverty there (in Jericho the unemployment rate is around 50%), Israel intends to keep whatever territory it cedes as dependent entities. Palestinian “sovereignty” will amount to little more than suppressing reservation riots and collecting the garbage.
The Arab population will be tossed a handful of maquiladora-like sweatshop jobs as the Israeli economy becomes further integrated into the global market. The PLO will get to be the cops, like black collaborators in the South African bantustans, but beyond that, Israel will be calling all of the shots. Even U.S. State Department shill, “Mideast specialist” Thomas Friedman, remarked in the September 15 New York Times that after the Israeli army withdraws from Jericho and Gaza, “they will be down the road, surrounding both places.”
Just like in South Africa where the chiefs and ten-cent presidents of the bantustans have a vested interest in maintaining the charade of sovereignty and nationhood while operating their territories primarily as personal rackets, so the potential exists for Arafat and the PLO. When a real movement for liberation emerges, or when the pathology of Islamic fundamentalism threatens to engulf the situation endorsed by the very Western forces which propped up Israel all of these years, won’t Arafat just be another Chief Buthelezi?
Arafat is correct in assessing that not many other alternatives exist for the Palestinians. Armed struggle by guerrilla groups has always been a chimera, but one that conveniently existed as a rationale for Israeli state terror and its bunker mentality which legitimated land theft, strategies of “ethnic cleansing” of the indigenous population, wars, and the creation of a nuclear state.
Blood and Soil Ideologies
Few realize that in the 45 years of Israeli existence, fewer than 700 Israeli civilians have been killed by Palestinian guerrillas. In the same period, Israel has slaughtered tens of thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians (including scores of children whose “crime” was throwing stones), wiped out 400 villages, imprisoned thousands without trial, dynamited houses, cut down thousands of trees in orchards, and engaged in collective punishment in an attempt to terrorize the “natives” into submission.
To anyone clear-headed enough to notice such hideous historic ironies, all of this starkly evokes the nazi policy of ten-to-one retaliation, though in many aspects it is the same policy pursued throughout history by all expansionist empires based on blood-and-soil ideologies. A Jewish nationalist statism inevitably had to turn out to be as foul and irrational as all the others.
So insane became the Israeli attempts to repress signs of that other nationalism in the occupied territories that their policy of forbidding the display of the Palestinian flag led youth in the Gaza strip to taunt Israeli soldiers with slices of watermelon which contained the red and green colors of their flag. For this violation they often met the same fate of those engaging in more militant acts.
Despite the poignant images of celebrating Jewish and Palestinian crowds, peace and reconciliation appear to be as remote as ever. It was rather the sagging fortunes of the PLO, coupled with the desperation of an Israeli state plagued by economic stagnation, political crisis, and a relentless cycle of polarization and violence, that compelled both camps to sign a treaty which is so problematic it may never get off the ground. When one considers the model of Bosnia, the authentic human choice of dropping all borders and creating a secular, multi-ethnic, classless community seems even less possible.
Outside of the PLO and Israeli state machinery there exist glimmers of communities and projects paying allegiance to neither racket. It is there where the only hope lies.