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Now what? The brand-new Palestine that never was.

ON 13 September 1993 the PLO acknowledged in writing that it had wasted the past 29 years. It did it very gracefully. There were smiles all round, hiding the ironies. Yasser Arafat did not take his PR consultant's advice to put on a suit instead of his green battledress, but somehow his olive-branch waving seemed more credible coming from the cliche Arafat, the anti-hero of Israeli cartoon strips. It really was the old terrorist himself who shook the hand of a grim-faced Rabin. The trite corollary was that terrorism itself had realised the folly of its ways. The trite corollary, so far as the mainstream PLO was concerned, was perfectly true.

The PLO said that it had won a great victory. Western newspapers ran bubbly headlines announcing a new era of peace in the Middle East. Of course there were notes of caution. The correspondents were quick to point out the opposition to the accord from Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territories, Syrian-based rejectionist factions of the PLO and, most importantly, the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas. But nobody was churlish enough to ruin the party by reminding the PLO that in 1979, which is a lot of Palestinian corpses ago, Israel held out to the PLO, in the Camp David resolutions, autonomy throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and has repeated the offer through successive governments ever since.

The fact is that Israel has won and the Palestinians have lost. Israel has got rid of a blighted strip of land of no sentimental or religious significance, and has passed on the colossal and expensive job of policing it to its unaccountably grateful recipients. The PLO has got a fraction of what Camp David said it could get, a coffin for all its aspirations to proper sovereignty, and a civil war. In that civil war, which will be fought with the Hamas, the PLO will face weapons and ideas exported from Iran, and the humiliating necessity to go begging to Israel for intelligence on Palestinian terror groups. Yet the euphoria in the PLO camp is real. As discussed in the August edition of Contemporary Review, secular Palestinians, exhausted by the strenuous dreams of statehood, are capable of believing their dreams of national redemption realised if they are given control over their drains. That euphoria will not long survive the brutal realities of the Gaza back-streets. It is widely supposed that the PLO declined offers from Israel and from international aid agencies to help clean up the refugee camps. It declined because the Palestinian cause needed discontent to survive. House the refugees in neat sea-front bungalows and you would no longer have a deep reservoir of resentment from which to draw the fighters, or the photogenic misery, beloved of the left-wing European papers, which got the sympathy rolling in. Now the Israelis have called the Palestinians' bluff. There is a lot of cleaning up to do, and it is difficult to scrub away with one hand and shoot at Islamic terrorists with the other. For along with the sympathy rolled in Muslim extremism of a type alien to Palestine: a Shi'ite fanaticism which took root in the Sunni mosques of Gaza and spread to the West Bank.

There is only one way in which the accord can be described as a success for the PLO. It is a success in that, for the first time in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, realpolitik has gained the upper hand over fantasy. Pragmatism has finally been translated into Arabic. The accord makes the best of many bad PLO jobs. Of course the PLO continues to hope for more, but hope and belief are no longer the same thing. In the heady days of Palestinian terrorism they used to be. The dream life will continue, but it will not be called life in an independent Palestinian state. The poets will do well out of the fighters' failure, but fantasies of sovereignty will, outside the mosques, be the hobby of a minority.

There are embarrassing ironies in the accord both for the PLO and the Hamas. The ironies arise from the fact that what the PLO calls an historic success is a consequence of its own previous military and diplomatic failure and of the related success of the Hamas. From the time of its foundation in 1964 until the present round of Middle Eastern peace talks the PLO made no progress whatever in securing an independent Palestinian state. It committed a number of wholly counterproductive acts of bestial terrorism which convinced Israelis that they did not want the Palestinians as next door neighbours. Arafat blundered by supporting Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War. Not only was it bad for him to be seen to be supporting the side which everyone knew would lose, but Arafat, by doing so, bit off the hand which fed the PLO. The oil-rich Gulf States cancelled the vast standing orders which had paid for guns, salaries, the economic infrastructure of the presumptive Palestinian state, and the compensation paid out to Palestinians in the Territories for the losses they sustained in joining in with the Intifada.

The PLO's failures brought despair, frustration and poverty, and of course Islam was not far behind. Nudged on at first by the Israeli security services, who wanted to have a group of willing but unconscious mercenaries at the throat of the PLO, Hamas prospered in the Territories. It came to rule Gaza and to be frighteningly influential in the West Bank. It gained confidence from the electoral triumphs of Islamic parties in Jordan and Egypt. It believed that to doubt that Israel would soon be destroyed was to doubt in the omnipotence of God, and therefore a blasphemy. The evident impotence of the secular PLO was a further demonstration, if one were needed, of the folly of fighting the infidel on his own terms, armed with the ungodly weapons of compromise and diplomacy. The lesson of the Arab-Israeli conflict was not that Israel was unbeatable, but that she could not be beaten without the Koran. The PLO has been losing ground rapidly to the Hamas. Because of the fiasco of support for Iraq, the PLO is insolvent. The salaries of many PLO officials have not been paid last year. The shopkeepers in the Territories are no longer recompensed for the profits the Intifada has lost them. Many doubted that the PLO, even with huge borrowing, could keep financially afloat beyond the end of the year. The compromise with Israel was the last chance for the PLO, and not merely because Israel would not have come to the table again. If the PLO had not compromised, it would have been overtaken by bankruptcy and by the Hamas. If the Hamas had not been so successful, Arafat would not have felt so much pressure to settle. Arafat has empty bank accounts and the Hamas to thank for his present prominence. Without the Hamas he would not have put on the final burst of speed which enabled him to claim the pyrrhic victor's crown. Full coffers would have bred complacency. Islam would soon have hunted a complacent PLO into extinction. The accord embodies an agreement to set in train a procedure for the determination of the final status of the Territories. It was necessary for Palestinian self-respect to include this. But nobody, and least of all Israel, seriously thinks that when all the talking is done the Palestinians will end up with any more than limited autonomy in Jericho and Gaza. Arafat has had to trumpet that the accord is just a beginning. Actually it is the end. The agreement puts the Palestinians on probation. Their behaviour during that probation will be sufficiently poor for the Israelis, without any international embarrassment, to refuse them any further concessions. Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the other eight rejectionist factions will see to that.(*) If, contrary to all the indications, the new autonomous areas are impeccable models of peaceful and responsible self-government, Israel has plenty of ways of stirring things up. There will certainly be no independent Palestinian state. Israel's insistence on this has been resolute. There have been a few isolated official Israeli mumblings about such a state in the past weeks, but those were cynically intended to lubricate the talks: to induce the dreamier Palestinian delegates to sign on the dotted line. They will not be heard again. Nor will Jerusalem be re-divided or made into an international city.

Israelis are conditioned to put security as the unchallenged priority on their political agenda. Security, rightly or wrongly in an age of supersonic warfare, is equated with land. Rabin will not dare to give away more than he has already given. Any other (or any real) territorial concessions would matter. If Rabin puts any more land up for sale, the slogan 'Enough is Enough' will win the next general election for the Likud. It is also rather difficult to see what worthwhile currency would be accepted in return for Israeli or Israeli-controlled land. Israel had to be interested in what the Palestinians had to offer. It is no longer obvious, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, that Israel has to be interested in Syria. For Lebanon, since the 'Brotherhood Agreement' of May 1991, read Syria. Jordan seems to be distancing itself decently from its old ally, Iraq. Israel's relationship with Egypt, though cool, is solid.

It is wholly unsurprising that, of all the West Bank towns which could have been the subjects of an accord like the one which is in place, Jericho was selected. The most important thing about Jericho is that it is very close to the border with Jordan. If Israel was serious about the possibility of a Palestinian state, or even a wider extension of autonomy, the West Bank towns of Nablus or Hebron, both of which are geographically more central and politically more significant than Jericho, would have been the obvious first places at which to let the Palestinians dip their toes in the shallows of independence. Jericho's proximity to Jordan brings immediately to mind the consistent theme which has run through the rhetoric of past Israeli governments both left and right: that there is already a Palestinian state, and that the state is called Jordan. In the recent peace talks the idea of a confederation with Jordan was mooted publicly by the PLO itself. And after the accord was signed some interesting people, not officially linked by the agreement, met either secretly or with an openness which was rather too determinedly open and casual to be insignificant. Rabin is said to have met King Hussein aboard a boat in the Gulf of Aqaba on September 26. Crown Prince Hassan, drinking tea in the Oval Office with Shimon Peres and President Clinton, sought US help in relieving Jordan's foreign debt. Arafat has to continue to talk in the dated hyperbolic way that the Arabs love. He told the meeting of Arab Foreign Ministers in Cairo that the agreement '... is only the forerunner to a final settlement based on complete withdrawal from all occupied Palestinian lands, especially Jerusalem'. This was a silly thing to say. Arafat himself is not silly enough to believe it. It will not be held against him. There is no Hansard in the politics of Palestine. Promises are poems. If Jerusalem really is the holy capital of the Palestinian state, it is an eschatological capital. Islam can and will continue to issue passports and identity cards for an apocalyptic nation: The PLO has now had to withdraw its own issue. The prose of the Palestinian part of the agreement accepts that a confederation with Jordan (a state vilified in Palestinian folklore for its expulsion of the PLO after the Black September debacle) is at least thinkable. This suggests that the Palestinians are finally growing up. Growing up means acknowledging that Israel always gets its own way.

The immediate future of Gaza and Jericho is a violent one. The PLO talks about a Palestinian police force 20,000 strong. It seems unlikely that the Israelis will permit so many official guns to be in Palestinian hands. However large and however faithful to the ideals of the PLO that police force is, it is unlikely to be able to keep the peace. Hamas is pledged to continue the war for the whole of Palestine. The leaders of Hamas will shortly be returning from their exile in Lebanon. They will be feted in the Occupied Territories, and will want to know why the Palestinians have sold out while they were away. The Jerusalem Report quoted Abu Mohammed, a wanted Hamas activist, as saying: 'If Israel leaves, Gaza will become like Lebanon. There will be civil war'. If this had come from a member of some nasty little fringe faction it could be ignored as big-talking fantasy, but it comes from a member of a well-organized, soundly financed, numerically strong political sect which believes that it is engaged in a holy war which it cannot lose. It has disdainfully turned down invitations from the PLO to join the Palestine National Council, and seems immune to what it sees as the satanic temptation to compromise. Some say that it will join the PLO if guaranteed 40 per cent or more of the total voting power. The Hamas may, now that the PLO has gained the limelight again, appear to join with the PLO so as not to be left out of the initial scramble for control of Gaza and Jericho. But the Hamas would not meekly pay its subscription, wear its badge and sit helpfully on the catering committee. It would not join the PLO so much as infiltrate it. A PLO with Hamas members would simply not be the PLO. The dilemma (woo Hamas or not?) is a very uncomfortable one for the PLO. Whichever way it tries to resolve it the likely solution will be the same: war on the streets of the autonomous areas. Israel will be very happy with this war. War will, after all, convince the international community that Israel had been right all along in its assessment of the Palestinians as barbarians. Second chances and independent states are justifiably refused to barbarians. And although there will be very vocal expressions of regret from Israel about carnage in Gaza, all the Israeli soldiers who spent the years since 1967 standing between the Palestinian factions there will remark that it is better for Israel to let the dangerous dogs kill each other than to have to shoot them both and risk getting bitten in the process.

The danger of other, bigger nations coming to Gaza in body or spirit to back one Palestinian side or the other is not as great as it would have been 10 years ago. Withdrawal from Gaza will leave Israeli army and intelligence units with resources to cope with the threat to Israel from these interested outsiders. Iran will continue to supply arms to the Hamas. The Syrian-backed anti-Fatah elements of the PLO will continue to be supported by Syria. Assad is personally affronted by the Palestinians' failure to involve Syria in the peace process. This failure was no oversight. Syria has no love for the Palestinians, and Assad has a long-standing loathing for Arafat. The rhetorical Syrian indignation on behalf of the Palestinians does not spring from fraternal sympathy for the dispossessed. Assad needs the Arab-Israeli conflict to maintain his own reputation as an Arab hard man and to justify the standing army which is the guarantee of his personal and political security. There is genuine panic in Syria at the thought of peace. Modern Syria is basically a reaction to Israel. Take away the perceived Israeli menace and there will be nothing recognisably Syrian about Syria. It was a state which saw its raison d'etre at risk which called through the Syrian government media for a tightening of the Arab trade boycott of Israel. The boycott could not be lifted, screamed Damascus radio, before Arab rights were restored and occupied Arab lands returned. Under no circumstances, Assad told the Egyptian newspaper Al Akhbar, will Syria agree to peace the way Israel wants it. Syrian-based terrorists will continue to fight the long-lost war. They will be minor irritants to Israel. They will never be wiped out, but can be easily contained. The West Bank and Gaza settlers who have pledged to disrupt the working of the accord are well in hand. If Israel wants them to disrupt, they will be allowed to disrupt. If it is important for them to behave, the hill-top settlements will be ringed by soldiers, and Israel's even-handed commitment to international harmony will be applauded by its own spokesmen. Probably most of the West Bank settlers will never be troubled by any Israeli orders to move house. They may be woken by news that their subsidies will be increased in recognition of the role they play in keeping back the newly-besmirched Arabs: They are unlikely to be woken by the news that they inhabit a new Palestinian state. The PLO has had experience of running states. It had sophisticated infrastructures in Jordan and Lebanon before its expulsion. It was not just a guerilla organisation. It ran hospitals and schools and banks and sewers. It is capable of making a success of autonomy if it is not forced into civil war. The reactionary Islamic opponents of the PLO could only be rendered harmless if the social and physical conditions which bred them no longer existed. Personal stereos and Coca-Cola do not mix with jihad. The bill for buying up Islam is a huge one. The PLO's own development plan for the West Bank and Gaza will apparently cost $14 billion. This includes costings for a seaport, the transformation of Jerusalem's little Atarot airport into Palestine's international airport, heavy engineering and a petroleum refinery in Gaza, and a great Palestinian highway connecting the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It is ambitious, but then so is Islam. The $14 billion bill has been laughed at by the World Bank, whose own projection of Palestinian needs is $2.4 billion over five years. There may be some element of soul-trading in the PLO's estimate. The proper price may only be two thirds of the first quote. But with the international conference in its early euphoria committing just over $2 billion over the next five years, the shortfall looks dangerous. If things go wrong in the Territories it will not be difficult for the promises of funding to be withdrawn. The PLO has traditionally been kept afloat financially because of the glamour and revolutionary kudos of backing desperate fighters in a holy war against imperialism. Supporting the housing project of a peaceful, fledgling, secular state does not have the same ring to it. The Arab world valued the Palestinians not as Palestinian brothers, but as a stick to beat Israel with. The Arabs paid a good rental for the stick. Now that the stick has said that it will stand quietly in the corner, the Arab states will wonder why they should continue to pay the rental charge. It is not just the eventual volume of investment which is important: the speed of the results of that investment is crucial. The Palestinians have, on the most generous estimate of the (as yet undefined) area of autonomous Jericho, given up 80 per cent of the land which has filled their speeches and their fire-side tales since 1948 or 1967. That land constituted the national consciousness of Palestine and the individual consciousness of many exiled Palestinians. Its excision leaves a big hole. The PLO has promised that it can fill it with a flag and schools and a Palestinian Olympic team and a utopia of peaceful self-determination in prosperous vineyards. The Palestinians expect too much, too soon, in return for the sacrifice of the old national fantasy. The PLO, in order to still the shrill complaints from the mosques, has to convince the Palestinians that it is doing its job: that houses and banks and harmony are on the way. It has chosen to replace a big, old, fantastic hope with a smaller, newer, practical hope. If it does not deliver what that hope promises, it will be replaced by Islam, which will satisfy for ever by providing merely a hope which has no chance of fulfilment. It is not fair competition. The PLO's most urgent priority is to replace with decent houses the shanty towns of Gaza, which remind the people of their exile and of the hopelessness which has only one answer. Its plan indicates that this priority has been recognised. The next job is to sell to the discontented a sensible timetable for development. And the job after that is to fend off criticism by doing enough development quickly enough and visibly enough. The job after that is to worry about the Palestinians in the diaspora. If they are allowed to return, the economic and social problems of absorption will be colossal. If they are not allowed to return, the political problem of non-absorption is likely to prove fatal, however high the GNP of autonomous Palestine, or however luxurious the suburbs of Gaza City.

If prosperity comes, Islamic fanaticism goes and the PLO's autonomy works, there will be Israeli-generated trouble in the West Bank to demonstrate to the world the impracticability of a Palestinian state, and an apparently magnanimous agreement to promote a confederation with Jordan. It would be easy to cause trouble. There are indications that the ground is already being prepared. Two weeks after the accord was signed, Israeli troops raided the lairs of Hamas activists in the Gaza Strip. Why? Israeli soldiers will soon be leaving Gaza. Was it a generous attempt to clear up the worst of the rubbish before their friends the newly house-trained PLO police took over? Hardly. The operations were risky. They were not examples of last fling blood-lettings by vindictive Israeli Colonels. The PLO resented the raids very vocally. It said that they were a deliberate attempt by the Israeli army to sabotage the peace process by souring relations between the PLO and Hamas. And it may well be right. If the Hamas is not suppressed, Israel will seal its borders with the Gaza Strip and let the blood-letting there go on, provoking in the leader columns of the New York Times agonized parallels with Sabra and Chatila. It will take back Jericho, saying that the experiment has failed, and continue to occupy the West Bank. It will continue to discuss the possibility, contingent on good behaviour, of a confederation with Jordan.

As this article was being written, the question of access for tourists to the genuinely beautiful coastline of Gaza was being earnestly discussed by PLO spokesmen. That earnestness is very touching, and if there is any hope for the region it is to be found in the faith which makes it possible to talk about beach chalets and roller-coasters rather than rocket shipments from Iran. Unfortunately bullet-proof vests rather than Bermuda shorts will be the traditional dress of the brand new little Palestine that never was.


* The Palestinian groups opposed to the accord are Hamas, Islamic Jihad in Palestine, Saiqa, Fatah-Intifada, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Arab Liberation Front, the Palestinian Liberation Front, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (General Command) and the Popular Struggle Front. The groups in favour of the accord are Fatah, the Democratic Palestinian Union and the Palestine People's Party (formerly the Palestine Communist Party).

Charles Foster was a Research Fellow at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
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Author:Foster, Charles
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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