The Palestinian struggle: from nationalism to Islamic movement and intifada

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Crescent International

Dhu al-Hijjah 01, 1426 2006-01-01


by Crescent International (Features, Crescent International Vol. 34, No. 11, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1426)

In October, Crescent International (South Africa) issued a booklet called The Struggle for Al-Quds to mark Yaum al-Quds 1426AH. Here we publish an adaptation of the second part of this booklet, focusing on the evolution of the Palestinian liberation movement. The first part, focusing on the problem of Israel and the threat to al-Quds, was published in the last issue of Crescent International.

The Israeli conquest of much of Palestine in 1948-49 shattered the infrastructure of Palestinian society. As Palestinians did not have armed forces to resist the zionist militias that emerged during the British Mandate period, there was little effective resistance to the zionist aggression as groups such as Irgun and Haganah moved to drive Palestinians from their country in the period before and after the UN partition plan of 1947. Neighbouring Arab states, all hamstrung to some extent by their dependence and subservience to Western powers, attempted to intervene to protect the Palestinians and prevent the establishment of the Israeli state, but failed dismally. Israel succeeded in seizing 77 percent of Palestinian territory, while the other 23 percent fell under the control of Jordan (the West Bank) and Egypt (the Ghazzah Strip).

The emergence and rise of Hamas

Hamas, the Harakah al-Muqawwama al-Islamiyya (Islamic Resistance Movement), was formally founded in December 1987, at the outset of the first intifada. Its roots, however, lay in the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen and the leadership of Shaikh Ahmad Yassin, an ‘alim associated with the Ikhwan, in the occupied Palestinian territories from the late 1960s onwards. He had started out doing charitable and religious work, and then had established a political group, the Mujamma al-Islami, in Ghazzah in 1973. A militant resistance movement was the natural next step, particularly with the eruption of the intifada in 1987.

Over the next two decades, Hamas has become arguably the dominant political force in Palestine, despite a difficult relationship with the PLO and the Palestinian Authority established in the West Bank and Ghazzah after the Oslo Accords of 1992, and the constant attacks by the Israelis, who recognise Hamas and other Palestinian Islamic movements as the main challenges to their plans for the country. It was deliberately targeted for destruction by the Israeli authorities as part of their response to the second intifada (2000-2005), but emerged all the stronger, as proved by its strong political standing in Palestine since the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004 and the credit it received for forcing the Israeli withdrawal from Ghazzah in August 2005.

Like other successful Islamic movements, such as in Iran before the Islamic Revolution, and the Hizbullah in Lebanon, Hamas is much more than just a political or military force. It has an extensive social service network, devoting much of its budget — now estimated at about $70 million — to funding schools, orphanages, mosques, medical clinics, food aid for the poor, and social facilities. These are facilities that the Palestinian Authority has failed to provide adequately. Hamas leaders and institutions are also known for their honesty and incorruptibility, in marked contrast to Fatah, PLO and Palestinian Authority officials.

Inevitably, however, given the challenges facing Palestinians, Hamas is best known for its clear and unwavering political understanding of the Palestinian situation and its military resistance to the Israeli occupation. From the outset of the peace process, Hamas argued that the Israelis were seeking only to strengthen their own position, and that it was pointless and counter-productive to enter into negotiations with them. It also argued that the Palestinian Authority would become an instrument used by the Israelis against the Palestinian people. Following the Oslo Accords, Hamas sat back and allowed Yasser Arafat and the PLO to pursue their strategy, confident that events would confirm its own analysis. At the same time, as Israel continued to expand its settlements and use force against Palestinians, Hamas refused to be cowed, insisting on its right to strike back against the Israelis as and when required. It was Hamas that pioneered the use of martyrdom operations (“suicide bombings”) in Palestine in the early 1990s.

As this analysis was confirmed by events in the 1990s, Hamas itself became the main target against which the Israelis tried to use the Palestinian Authority, hoping either that the PA would succeed in suppressing the Islamic movements, or that internecine fighting could be provoked between Palestinian groups. This proved a forlorn hope, partly because of the maturity of the Hamas leadership in avoiding fighting within the Palestinian ranks at almost all costs, and partly because the popularity of Shaikh Yassin and Hamas prevented the PA from acting too firmly against them.

When Palestinians, fed up of Israeli manipulations of the political process, and concerned about the threat posed to the Haram al-Sharif by Ariel Sharon and other zionist extremists, took to the streets again in September 2000, in what was originally known as the al-Aqsa intifada, Hamas again played a leading role, both politically and militarily. This time, Israel tried to destroy it by the targeted assassination of its known leaders and activists in 2003 and 2004, including Shaikh Ahmad Yassin in March 2004 and his successor, Abdul Aziz Rantisi, a month later.

Their failure was confirmed following the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004. Although Arafat’s former deputy, Mahmud Abbas, was elected president of the PA in his place, and the Israelis invested great hopes in his ability to marginalise Hamas and relaunch the peace process, Hamas soon emerged as the dominant force in local politics, in the Palestinian National Dialogue through which Israel hoped that the Palestinian national aspirations would be watered down, and in terms of popular support and credibility.

After their withdrawal from Ghazzah, a Hamas stronghold, in August 2005, the Israelis tried to force the PA to prevent Hamas taking part in parliamentary election due to take place in Palestine in January 2006. The PA realised, however, that this was politically impossible and Israel was forced to accept Hamas’s intention to play a fuller part in Palestinian politics. What the implications of this are will be seen in the next few months, but few doubt that Hamas is now a defining element in Palestinian politics.

Despite this monumental failure on the part of the Arab countries, they were the main representatives of the Palestinian struggle for the next few years. This was a situation that suited the Israelis, who argued that the Palestinians were simply Arabs who could perfectly well live in any other Arab country instead of demanding to return to their homes in Palestine. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which was to become the mainstay of the Palestinian struggle during the 1970s and 1980s, was founded in East Jerusalem in 1964, as an alliance of refugee groups and local Palestinians brought together by the Arab League. In its early years, it was little more than an instrument of Arab governments, particularly Jordan. However, the dismal failures of Arab armies in 1967 led to demands for Palestinians to take greater control over the struggle to achieve their rights, rather than leaving its leadership to governments of Arab countries. It was at this time that Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Fatah movement, emerged as leader of the PLO, at a time when the Palestinians increasingly sought to take control of their own struggle instead of leaving it to the governments of Arab countries.

This was also a time of radical change in the situation of the Palestinian population. At the end of the 1949 war, some 150,000 Palestinians had been left under Israeli rule, while the great majority had become refugees in the West Bank and Ghazzah Strip, areas that had come under Jordanian and Egyptian rule respectively. Jordan had annexed the West Bank in 1950 and granted citizenship to all its inhabitants.

In 1967, however, Israel occupied both these territories, along with the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. For the first time, Israel ruled areas in which Palestinians were the overwhelming majority. This fact, combined with the emergence of the PLO, completely changed the focus of the Palestinian struggle. Although Israelis now claim that their repression of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Ghazzah is a reaction to the two intifadas, the reality is that they instituted severely repressive rule from the outset. Under the military establishment, Israel instituted numerous practices, from political and judicial harassment to administrative measures, designed to make life intolerable for the areas’ Palestinians, in the hope of forcing more and more of them to leave the territories, as hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had been forced to leave their homes in 1948-49.

Palestinians were denied all basic political rights and civil liberties, including the freedoms of expression, press and political association. Palestinian nationalism was criminalized, and numerous routine Palestinian cultural practices were regulated for no reason other than to make life difficult for ordinary people. This went to the extreme of banning the collection of za’tar (wild thyme), a basic element in Palestinian cuisine. Over time, the zionists developed an extensive portfolio of strategies to harass the Palestinians and pursue their own interests, from collective punishments such as curfews, house demolitions and the closure of roads, to the random destruction of houses, villages and orchards. Palestinian leaders and activists have been subject to random arrest and deportation or imprisonment. At least 300,000 Palestinians have been imprisoned without trial since 1967, and over half a million tried in Israeli military courts. Dozens of people have died in detention, many of them under torture.

The other element of the Israeli strategy in the West Bank in particular has been the relaunch of the settler movement, as the government encouraged zionists to move into the West Bank and Ghazzah in order to change its demographic balance. Hundreds of settlements have been built on land seized from Palestinians, and hundreds of thousands of Jews settled in the West Bank and Ghazzah. In order to service these settlers, roads and other elements of social and economic infrastructure have been built, specifically designed to exclude Palestinians. Although Israel withdrew its settlements from Ghazzah in August 2005, it continues to expand them in the West Bank. These plans are explained as “creating new realities on the ground”, realities that the Israelis expect will be irreversible; an expectation encouraged by the international community’s utter failure over the years to rein in Israeli excesses and illegalities.

The PLO’s approach to the liberation of Palestine, like that of the Arab governments that preceded it, was based on nationalism. Where the Arab governments had appealed to Arab nationalism, the PLO focused more on Palestinian nationalism. It initially operated primarily out of Jordan in the 1960s, until the rise of Palestinian nationalism in a country with a massive Palestinian population worried Jordan’s Hashemite monarchy and it cracked down on the PLO in 1970-71. The PLO then moved to Lebanon, where it became a party in the civil war that began in 1975. In 1982, after the Israeli invasion and the massacres of Palestinian refugees, the PLO leadership was forced to move again, to Tunisia. Throughout this period, the PLO tried to operate at the level of international politics, appealing to the UN, the US and international institutions to try to reverse Israel’s illegalities and grant Palestinians their rights.

Israel’s response was to dismiss the PLO as a terrorist organization and to deal instead with those it felt it could manipulate more easily. It insisted, therefore, that the Palestinian issue was an Arab issue that it would only discuss with Arab states. It was encouraged in this by the fact that there were increasing tensions between Arab governments and the PLO, as indicated by events in Jordan. Immediately after coming to power in Egypt in 1970, Anwar Sadat privately indicated his willingness to sign a peace agreement with Israel in return for the Sinai Peninsula; it was after this overture was ignored that the Egyptians and Syrians attacked Syria in 1973, aiming to recapture the territories they had lost in 1967. This war was followed by further Arab attempted overtures towards Israel, which were again rejected.

In 1977 Sadat began the private approaches to Israel that culminated in the meeting with US president Jimmy Carter and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin at Camp David. These talks formed the basis of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty signed in 1979, which led to Egypt’s isolation from the rest of the Arab world. The Camp David agreements included proposals for limited autonomy for Palestinians in the West Bank and Ghazzah, but these were never pursued because they were unacceptable to the Palestinians as they did not include a full Israeli withdrawal. Israel also did nothing to halt its settlement activities, as it had promised at Camp David. Sadat’s decision to make a separate peace with Israel was regarded as a betrayal by Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims around the world, and resulted in his assassination in October 1981.

Camp David II: a triumph of Israeli political manipulation

The Israelis have proved themselves masters not only of political manipulation to achieve their objectives, but also of creating entirely false images of reality in order to justify their actions and disguise their true intentions. They have always been helped in this by the support of Western politicians and international institutions, and the uncritical acceptance of their statements by most of the Western media. The way in which the supposed final status talks between Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak at Camp David in July 2000 were twisted to create the impression of Palestinian intransigence destroying the Oslo peace process is a masterful case in point.

The reality is that the Oslo Accords had been trampled all over by Israeli policies between 1992 and 2000. Having implicitly promised to pull out of the West Bank and Ghazzah in return for Palestinian concessions, the Israelis had instead used settlements and military and transport infrastructures to totally redraw the maps of the two areas. Instead of the whole of the West Bank and Ghazzah, with East Jerusalem as their capital, as implied in the Oslo Accords, the Palestinians were offered 40 percent of the West Bank and 65 percent of the Ghazzah Strip, divided into blocks separated by Israeli-controlled military roads, and with Israel controlling their borders and entry points. Israel would not return to its pre-1967 borders, Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem and surrounding areas would be confirmed, and Israel would accept no legal responsibility for the Palestinian refugees. In other words, all the Palestinian demands that were to be discussed at the final status talks were to be settled on Israel’s terms. To add insult to injury, Barak and US president Bill Clinton turned the final status negotiations into a take-it-or-leave-it offer to the Palestinians.

It was, of course, impossible for the Palestinians to accept such terms. Knowing this, Arafat was reluctant even to go to Camp David. He was pressured by Clinton and finally went on condition that it was understood that nothing final would be agreed. Instead, Barak and Clinton presented him with an ultimatum which they trumpeted to the world as a remarkably generous offer. Arafat had no option but to turn it down, and was immediately accused of having scuttled a real chance for peace because of his intransigence and greed. This utterly surreal version of events, which can only be accepted by those who are totally or wilfully ignorant of the real situation, is still treated as reality by many supposedly knowledgeable analysts.

Arafat returned to Palestine humiliated, blamed for killing the Oslo Accords that the Israelis had long since trampled to death. Any lingering hopes of a settlement were gone. Pressure was building that was bound to lead to a new explosion of some sort sooner rather than later.

While Palestinian and Arab nationalists were trying to address the problem of Israel at the international political level, Palestinians in occupied Palestine were facing the realities of Israeli rule on a daily basis. There was growing frustration with both the PLO and Arab governments, and local community organizations were developing their own popular political institutions and movements. While the Palestinian political leadership outside Palestine was predominantly nationalist in outlook, the new organizations in the Palestinian territories were more rooted in the values of ordinary Palestinian people, notably those of Islam, and inspired by Islamic movements in other Muslim countries, particularly the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1978-79. It was these developments inside occupied Palestine which provided the basis for the total change in the nature of the Palestinian struggle which came with the intifada (uprising) in 1987.

The first Palestinian intifada (1987-1992)

In December 1987, Palestinians in the West Bank and Ghazzah spontaneously took to the streets in what became known as the first intifada. While the PLO had been based outside the territories and involved in the political machinations of Arab countries, as well as trying to pursue the Palestinian cause in international politics, ordinary Palestinian people had been confronting the realities of the Israeli occupation, particularly the massive settlement drive that was launched after 1967. Frustrated by the ineffectiveness of the PLO, and increasingly angry with Israeli government policy and the abuses of Israeli troops and settlers occupying the territories since 1967, Palestinians took matters into their own hands and confronted the occupying forces directly. The intervention of the Palestinian masses in popular politics marked a major change in the dynamics of the Palestinian struggle.

Over the next five years, the Palestinians of the West Bank and Ghazzah showed their anger at the Israelis in a series of demonstrations, strikes, boycotts of Israeli goods, and general unrest. Militant action was not a major feature of the first intifada, as it was to become in the second intifada launched in 2000. The Israelis responded brutally on the ground, attacking the Palestinians both militarily and economically. 1,392 Palestinians were killed, according to Palestinian sources, and over 130,000 injured. Nearly 20,000 were jailed. The economy was devastated as workers went on strike or were prevented from working by Israeli repression; unemployment reached 40-50 percent. Remittances from Palestinians abroad, particularly in the Persian Gulf states, dried up, partly as a result of the US occupation of the region after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1989. The Palestinian people made massive sacrifices to put pressure on the Israelis through direct resistance to the occupation, but needed their leaders to reap the political benefits of this pressure. Unfortunately, their leaders again proved unable to do this, while the Israelis again showed their remarkable ability — aided considerably by the total support they received from the US and the international community — to manipulate apparently poor positions to their advantage.

Although the intifada erupted spontaneously, rather than having been planned, it was not without an organizational basis. Although bodies affiliated with the PLO were active inside Palestine under the Israeli occupation, a feature of the 1970s had been the growth in the influence of the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (the Muslim Brotherhood) and affiliated bodies, under the leadership of Shaikh Ahmad Yassin. He had been active in both the West Bank and Ghazzah since the late 1960s, and in 1973 had established the Mujamma al-Islami (the Islamic Centre) to coordinate political activities in Ghazzah. It was from this trend of Palestinian thought and activism that the impulse for direct resistance against the Israelis emerged. In December 1987, at the very outset of the intifada, members of these groups established the Harakat al-Muqawwama al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas) to guide the intifada.

The emergence of the Islamic movement as a significant force in Palestinian affairs posed a major threat to the secular, nationalist PLO, which was taken by surprise by the intifada and appeared in danger of being rendered irrelevant by events in Palestine. However, the PLO and its affiliated bodies had considerable profile and credibility, as well as an institutional infrastructure both in Palestine and outside of it. The PLO’s reaction to the events had two key elements. One was that its affiliates in Palestine maneuvered themselves to the head of the intifada, establishing the Unified Leadership of the Uprising to co-ordinate activities and maintain communications with the rest of the world, through the PLO headquarters in Tunis. This helped to ensure that the intifada was associated with the PLO around the world, although the reality on the ground was very different.

The other key element of the PLO’s response was that it adopted a new political agenda designed to take advantage of the pressure that the intifada was exerting on Israel. In 1988, the PLO declared the establishment of an independent Palestine in the West Bank and Ghazzah and implicitly accepted a two-state solution to the Israeli problem by accepting the 1947 UN partition plan. It was rewarded by the new Palestinian state being recognised by 104 members of the UN General Assembly, and by the US immediately making discreet overtures towards the PLO leadership and beginning secret talks.

For the Israelis, these developments were exactly what they needed. Faced with an angry Palestinian populace in the occupied territories, and the rise of a popular, militant Islamic movement, the zionists came in time to realise that the PLO were not so bad after all. Just as they had earlier refused to deal with the PLO, preferring the Arab governments as easier to manipulate, they now turned to the PLO in preference to having to deal with either Hamas or other popular and activist Palestinian groups and leaders inside the country. Having insisted that the PLO be excluded from the Madrid Conference on the future of Palestine, convened by the US in October 1991, Israel itself initiated direct and secret negotiations with the PLO in Oslo in 1992. It was these that resulted in the Israel-PLO Declaration of Principles, signed in Washington in September 1993, that can be seen as the end of the intifada and which laid the basis for the “peace process” pursued during the rest of the 1990s.

The Oslo peace process: redefining realities on the ground

The Declaration of Principles signed by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in Washington in September 1993 was supposed to be based on the mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO and the principle of “land for peace” — Israel would transfer land to the control of a newly established Palestinian Authority (which the PLO chose to interpret as an embryonic Palestinian state) provided that the Palestinians delivered peace in place of the intifada and “terrorism” of the last few years. It established that Israel would withdraw from the Ghazzah Strip and Jericho, with additional withdrawals from further unspecified areas of the West Bank during a five-year interim period. During this period, the PLO formed a Palestinian Authority (PA) with “self-governing” powers — in reality, little more than municipal powers, with all major areas remaining in Israeli hands — in the areas from which Israeli forces were withdrawn. In January 1996, elections were held for a Palestinian Legislative Council and for the presidency of the PA, won by Yasser Arafat, who was proclaimed around the world as the first president of Palestine, maintaining the pretence of Palestinian statehood, or at least the genuine potential of Palestinian statehood.

In reality, the political scenario established by the Oslo Accords was hopelessly skewed in Israel’s favour, and was bound to achieve nothing for the Palestinians even if the Israelis had kept to their commitments. The fundamental problem was that the Palestinians were expected to make major concessions to the Israelis at the outset of the process, while major issues on which the Palestinians hoped the Israelis would be forced to make concessions, such as the extent of the territories to be ceded by Israel, the nature of the Palestinian entity to be established, the future of the Israeli settlements and settlers, water rights, the resolution of the refugee problem and the status of Jerusalem, were set aside to be discussed in final status talks.

For the PLO to have accepted so flawed an agreement would have been naive even if the Israelis could have been kept to it. In practice, with the US and the international community unwilling to place any restrictions on the Israelis, they were free to manipulate the agreement as much as they liked, regardless of the frustration and anger of the Palestinians. The PLO accepted this deeply flawed agreement with Israel because it was weak and had little diplomatic support in the international community. With the Palestinian territories in a state of uprising, dominated by local political forces over which the PLO had minimal influence, a political agreement, however weak, was the only chance Arafat had to re-establish some sort of control over the Palestinian polity.

Speaking about the Washington negotiations in 1992, which were superseded by the Oslo Accords, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir later said that his strategy had been to drag out the negotiations for as long as possible while making the annexation of the West Bank an accomplished and irreversible fact. This was precisely the strategy that his successors followed during the 1990s. The negotiating process established by the Oslo accords was supposed to have been completed by May 1999. Instead there were repeated delays because of Israel’s reluctance to relinquish control over the occupied territories, unwillingness to make the kinds of concessions necessary to reach a final status agreement, and its ever-increasing demands on the Palestinians as new conditions for making concessions that it was already supposed to have made.

At the same time, Israeli governments of all political hues were engaged in a massive campaign of settlement building, expanding existing settlements, and persuading more Jews, and even non-Jewish immigrants, to settle in the West Bank. These activities were supported by the building of a network of bypass roads designed to enable settlers to move around the occupied territories without having to pass through areas under Palestinian control. In the process, more and more land was confiscated, increasing the pressure on Palestinians to leave Jerusalem and surrounding areas; the heart of al-Khalil (Hebron), a city of 120,000 people, was given over to 400 settlers; and the areas of the West Bank that the PLO expected to form the basis of a Palestinian state were divided into three separate zones, A, B, and C, which were little more than easily-controllable Bantustans.

The image had been created of a negotiated and reciprocal “peace process”; the reality was that Israel had been concerned only to end the intifada and adjust its grip on Palestine to make it firmer and less painful for itself. Little wonder, then, that Palestinians who had dared to set aside their deep-seated scepticism in the hope of achieving some degree of freedom became increasingly angry with both the Israelis and the political leaders who had got them into that position.

Final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians were to have begun in mid-1996, but only got underway in mid-2000. By this time, it was clear that the Israelis had wrung as many concessions from the Palestinians as they could, and had no intention of fulfilling the promises they had made; the Oslo Accords had served their purpose and were dead in the water. All that was left was to make sure that the Palestinians, rather than the Israelis, were blamed for their failure; this was the object of the Camp David talks of July 2000 (see box, p. 36).

The Al-Aqsa Intifada (2000-2004)

Despite the fact that the deal that Barak offered Arafat at Camp David in July 2000 was designed to be rejected, Barak was severely criticised by other Israelis for being willing to concede too much to the Palestinians. The attack on him was led by Ariel Sharon, the “Butcher of Beirut” who had been responsible for the massacres of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in 1983. He was aiming for power in Israel as the champion of extreme zionism and the settler movement. In September 2000, he demanded the government’s permission to visit the Masjid al-Aqsa specifically to assert Jewish sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif. On September 28, he invaded the Haram accompanied by a 1,000-strong police bodyguard.

For the Palestinians, this was a provocation and a threat that they could not tolerate, particularly coupled with the massive and intimidating police presence the following day, a Friday. The juma prayers were followed by massive protests against the police presence and the Israeli occupation generally. The Israeli authorities, clearly anticipating some Palestinian backlash — and perhaps intending to provoke one — responded with immediate and exceptional brutality, killing dozens of Palestinians in the first few days of what became known as the al-Aqsa Intifada, which was in truth a much wider uprising against Israeli generally.

From the outset, the al-Aqsa Intifada was quite different from the first intifada. Unlike in 1987, the Palestinians had a territorial base from which to operate — the areas ruled by the Palestinian Authority — and armed and organized forces, including both militant resistance groups such as Hizbullah and Fatah’s al-Aqsa Brigades and the Palestinian Authority’s police forces. Although Israel immediately demanded that the Palestinian forces help it to suppress the protests, because it had authorised their creation so that Arafat could take over the job of policing Palestinian opposition to Israel, Arafat quickly realized that he could not order his policemen to act against Palestinian protesters, simply because they would not obey. In virtually every case where Palestinian policemen found themselves involved in trouble, they sided with the Palestinian people against the Israeli authorities. As in 1987, the Palestinian agenda was set by militant groups outside the official structures; now Hamas emerged as a major factor, setting the standard for militant operations inspired by the example of the Hizbullah in Lebanon. Also as in the first intifada, albeit in different circumstances, Arafat found he had no option but to lead the Palestinians down the road they had already decided to take.

The Israelis responded by blaming Arafat personally for the uprising, accusing him of ordering it, and targeting the PA infrastructure as punishment, even as they were demanding that Arafat use it against the militants. Having no political strategy to pursue, they simply piled force on force, reoccupying towns and cities that they had earlier transferred to PA control, inflicting massive suffering on the Palestinian people, and intending simply to crush them into submission. And yet the Palestinians refused to be crushed, as demonstrated by the growing support for Hamas. By 2003 the PA had been virtually destroyed, Arafat was besieged in his presidential compound in Ramallah, and Hamas leaders and activists were being targeted for assassination in an attempt to decapitate the uprising. Even observers sympathetic to the Palestinians questioned the wisdom and point of maintaining the intifada, but defenders pointed out that they were succeeding simply because the Israelis could not win. Ironically, Arafat, the man widely criticised among Palestinians for his dealings with the Israelis in the 1990s, as well as the ineffectiveness and corruption of the PA under his leadership, became the symbol of the Palestinian resistance, determinedly holding out in his Ramallah headquarters, old, sick and reportedly targeted for assassination himself. He left it only to move to Paris in November 2005, for medical treatment shortly before his death.

By late 2004 the intifada had lost its intensity, with the Palestinians severely battered but still managing to hold the Israelis in a violent stalemate, despite the massive losses suffered. Early in 2005, Palestinian groups agreed a period of calm to allow political developments to advance. The losses suffered by the Palestinians during the intifada should not be forgotten, however. A report by the Palestinian National Information Centre in October 2005 revealed that 4,172 Palestinians had been killed since the beginning of the intifada, 783 of them children and 269 of them women. It also revealed that 45,718 Palestinians had been injured by Israeli actions, and that about 8,600 Palestinians remain in Israeli jails, including 1,386 students, 288 children, 205 teachers and 115 women. It also estimated that tens of thousands of homes and hundreds of thousands of dunums of agricultural land had been destroyed.

Unlike during the first intifada, the Israelis were unable to come up with any political formula to end the uprising, despite efforts to deal with particular factions within the PA in order to bypass Arafat. It was only with the death of Arafat that the stalemate was broken, with all parties seeing an opportunity for significant political change. But the situation in Palestine had already changed radically, with the PLO, despite Arafat’s symbolic importance, having lost standing and support, and Hamas, despite the efforts of the Israelis to crush it, having emerged as a major political factor through the vindication of the position they had taken regarding the peace process through the 1990s, as well as its leadership and role in the intifada.

Palestinian politics after Arafat

The death of Yasser Arafat opened up Palestinian politics. During his lifetime, his personal stature — despite his many acknowledged weaknesses — prevented other groups from challenging his formal leadership of the Palestinian movement. The Israelis hoped that Arafat’s death would lead to in-fighting among the Palestinians, but other Palestinian groups decided not to field candidates against Arafat’s annointed successor, Mahmud Abbas, in the PA’s presidential elections. For the Israelis, who had absolutely refused to deal with Arafat in the last years of his life, Abbas represents an opportunity to again try to persuade Palestinian political leaders to work with them, as well as being another Palestinian leader they hope to be able to manipulate.

This hope is likely to be thwarted, however, by the rise of Hamas as a political force. Having declined to run a candidate for the presidency, it performed particularly well in local elections early in 2005. It also achieved a dominant position in the Palestinian National Dialogue talks later that year, preventing Abbas from watering down the Palestinians’ political objectives to please the Israelis, and agreed to join the PLO for the first time, so it can use its increasing influence within the main Palestinian political movement. Israel has recently tried to persuade Abbas to prevent Hamas from taking part in the parliamentary elections in January 2006, but it would no longer be credible to have any Palestinian political process without the involvement of Hamas.

Despite all Israel’s efforts to destroy it, Hamas appears likely to set the Palestinian agenda for the foreseeable future, politically as well as in terms of direct resistance to the Israeli occupation. As this analysis is published (January 2006), the Israelis are continuing to try to prevent Hamas from consolidating its position as the leading force in Palestinian politics in the elections due this month. However that may turn out, the trend of Palestinian politics is clear, and the Islamization of the Palestinian struggle is a reality with which Israel and its Western backers will have to deal in the years to come.

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