The Gathering Palestinian Storm : Phoenix-Like, It Rises Out of Occupation, Rejection, Isolation

Sari Nusseibeh teaches philosophy at Bir Zeit University in East Jerusalem.

In order to understand what is happening in Israel's occupied territories, one has to think along three different but related levels of discourse. At the most basic level, one has to take into account the objective conditions obtaining under occupation. Then, one must consider the Palestinian national psychology. Finally, one has to look at how this uprising differs from others, and what that difference portends.

For more than 20 years, 1.5 million people belonging to the Palestinian nation (the rest either having become Israeli citizens or living in exile from their homeland) have been under military rule. About 70% either were born under occupation or have been conscious of no other system of government. However, our deep sense of frustration is engendered not only by the inability to exercise our natural and normal right of participating in the governance of our lives and futures, nor only from having to suffer the indignity of being totally subject to a system of laws and regulations promulgated by an adversary military authority. Rather, in addition to these, the desperateness of the situation arises more fundamentally from the basic existential threat facing the population concerning the country's two major natural resources: land and water.

Not only does Israel exercise military rule over us as any foreign army might in a situation of war; over the past 20 years it has also systematically confiscated land amounting by Israel's estimates to more than 50% of the total area that fell under its control in 1967. And it is estimated that Israel uses about 90% of the total water resources in the West Bank's water table, either for use in Israel itself or for use in agricultural projects for settlers and colonies on confiscated land in the occupied territories. Thus the Palestinians are increasingly being deprived, slowly but systematically, of the means with which to build their future in the event of a settlement.

This basic existential threat has resulted in the normal manifestations of occupation: resistance, which is countered by expulsion, incarceration, demolition of homes, arbitrary arrests, killings, harassments, press censorship, closure of schools and publishing houses, to mention but a sample of the measures used by the military authorities.

The basic abnormality of the situation-- one nation totally suppressing another and systematically digesting its natural wealth--has resulted in a continuous process of resistance against the occupation and its practices. This resistance has mostly manifested itself in sporadic outbursts of frustration-releasing eruptions that have generally taken the parabolic form of waves. The latest uprising is thus simply the latest in a series of waves of protest that have engulfed the area since 1967. But not all of these waves have had the same magnitude of intensity.

There were other major uprisings in 1976 and in 1982, and several smaller waves of protest. If one were to speculate on how the future will unfold on the basis of past experience, an objective reading would tell one that these waves will continue to increase in their levels of intensity as well as in the rate of their incidence, until a final showdown is reached and a full-blown civil rebellion takes place. But, although one knows that a "big bang" will inevitably occur, one still does not know if this particular wave of unrest is the expected explosion, or if we have to wait another few weeks, months or even years.

Turning now to another level of discourse in the attempt to analyze and to understand the causes of the current uprising, one must address the Palestinian national psychology as it is related to the peace process and the Palestinian view regarding that process.

Ever since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the Palestinian leadership (the Palestine Liberation Organization) has been perceived by the community as having adopted a conciliatory attitude toward the peace process, and as having retreated from the maximalist positions with which it had customarily been identified. Many Palestinians indeed view Yasser Arafat as having gone out on a limb in his attempt to appease the Israeli government, and some have considered this to have been ill advised on his part; Arafat's politically conciliatory tone has even been the cause for a dissension movement within PLO ranks. In essence, one can define his policy as expressing the newly evolved Palestinian majority view of aiming at a settlement involving the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

But while Palestinians perceive themselves as thus having retreated from their maximalist demands even in advance of negotiations, there has also been a growing sense of realization that this retreat has harmed Palestinian unity without eliciting any benefits in the form of a reciprocal change of positions on the other side.

Most recently this sense of frustration was brought home to the Palestinians with three "slaps in the face." On the international front, they felt that their problem was being ignored by the superpowers in the Reagan-Gorbachev summit meeting in Washington; obviously the two leaders had more important things on their minds. But on the Arab front, too, the Palestinians felt forgotten. The Amman summit meeting, which in November brought together all Arab heads of state, dealt mostly with the Iran-Iraq war and the financial problems of Syria and Jordan; little was said about the occupation. And in Israel, instead of a majority developing in support of a call to negotiate with the PLO for a two-state solution, an opposite majority was developing, expressed by the famous three "No's" of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir: no to an international conference, no to negotiations with the PLO, and no to an independent Palestinian state.

The general psychological mood became one of a loss of faith. In return for our extended hand offering peace, we are either ignored or rejected. Thus the upsurge of anger to prove that the Palestinian nation must remain on the agenda, and that the Palestinian problem must find a solution.

Turning finally to a third level of discourse, one must address the events contributing to the particularity of this uprising.

Every uprising has a personality of its own, over and above the features that it has in common with others. In this case the internal dynamics of the uprising were fueled by events early in December: a vengeful attack by an Israeli truck driver whose brother had been stabbed in Gaza, and the killing of an Arab girl by a group of settlers. Witnesses said that the man aimed his truck straight into a group of parked cars in which Arab workers were sitting; four died. Together those incidents started the wave of protest to surge anew.

Israel's official response contributed to the swelling of the wave into rebellion, with Israeli soldiers reacting brutally and violently to the increasing number of demonstrations. The territories occupied once in 1967 seemed to be under another military occupation; soldiers now controlling the Gaza Strip outnumber the soldiers used in the war of 1967 to occupy it.

Palestinians watched with disbelief as tanks and armored vehicles roamed the streets. Their surprise turned to horror as one child fell after another and innocent bystanders went to their deaths on their own doorsteps. Hundreds of people were picked out from the streets or from their beds in the middle of the night and were sent to packed detention camps and jails. Pregnant women and small children went without food and milk as whole communities were put under house arrest for a week or more.

Many words can be spent recording the horrors to which the Palestinians are subjected and to which they react through going out into the streets, their children burning tires, as if to affirm that, like a phoenix, the nation shall not die but shall rise and assert itself. One hopes that Israel, and the Jewish nation the world over, will not allow this suffering to continue. Because when the tidal wave crests, it will not distinguish between who is a Jew and who is an Arab. We shall both lose.

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