Monday, May 6, 2002

How the El Aqsa Intifada Began

In a previous communication we referred to the main points in the Israeli version as to the causes for the present crisis. This version, which has turned into a sort of catechism, is supposed to provide the ultimate justification for recent large scale Israeli military operations. Now according to the ‘catechism’, you must believe that the El Aqsa Intifada started as a result of an order by Arafat. In case the reader has forgotten, I repeat the catechism one more time:

The very simple catechism goes as follows: Arafat rejected Barak’s MGO because he refused to renounce far-reaching Palestinian demands inconsistent with a reasonable formula for the two-state solution. Not content with his diplomatic blow to peace, Arafat returned to the territories where he initiated, organized and put into effect the El-Akseh Intifada aimed at extracting concessions from Israel that he failed to receive at Camp David. This proves that Arafat, adopted a ‘strategy of terror’ built around suicide bombings against Israeli civilians.

In fact, almost every knowledgeable Palestinian would react to this assumption with a great deal of mirth. First of all, an Intifada is a rather spontaneous affair. Has anyone ever seen an analysis to the effect that the first Intifada in 1987 was a result of someone’s order? Secondly, an Intifada is by its very nature highly volatile. Now, Arafat and his Fatah organization are a rather authoritarian outfit and as such, they are not very prone to set off chains of events which are unpredictable by their very nature. Arafat knows well that you cannot ‘push a button’ and have an Intifada and then lower and heighten its intensity, at will. The belief that Arafat gave an order to start the Intifada, or that he was able to do so, or that he even wanted to do so is a political fable and not a very convincing one. But if you accepted as true, up to now, the accusation that ‘Arafat started the El Aqsa Intifada’, you are not going to be satisfied with my analysis of Palestinian reality. You are going to ask for more proof that the fable is a fable.

Israel pushed the ‘fable’ as if it was disseminating some unchallenged, internationally recognized finding. However, there is in existence an internationally recognized report that deals explicitly with the Israeli allegation. This is the report issued at the beginning of May 2001 by the Mitchell Commission, established with Israeli consent, precisely to determine the cause for the outbreak of the El-Aqsa Intifada. Here are a number of findings: “…neither were we provided with persuasive evidence that the PA planned the uprising. Accordingly, we have no basis on which to conclude that there was a deliberate campaign by the PA to initiate a campaign of violence at the first opportunity. …The Sharon visit did not cause the Al-Aqsa Intifada. But it was poorly timed and the provocative effect should have been foreseen…More significant were the events that followed; the decision of the Israeli police on September 29 to use lethal means against the Palestinian demonstrators.” The same report notes that 4 Palestinians were killed and 200 wounded on that day. A central finding determines: “For the first three months of the current uprising, most incidents did not involve Palestinian use of firearms and explosives…Altogether, nearly 500 people were killed and over 10,000 injured over the past seven months; the overwhelming majority in both categories were Palestinian…Israel’s characterization of the conflict as ‘an armed conflict, short of war’ does not adequately describe the variety of the incidents reported since late September 2000.” The Report appeared in Ha’aretz, May 7, 2001

The report is eminently fair to Israel. It takes pains to reject several Palestinian allegations, such as the claim that the Sharon provocation was inspired by the government of Israel. The report refuses to blame Israel for the chain of events that lead to the outbreak of the Intifada. Moreover, describing the situation well into the Intifada, the report criticizes both the PA and Israel, saying that it has no evidence that the PA made a consistent effort to control and contain the violence once it began nor did the Israelis attempt to use non-lethal methods against unarmed Palestinian demonstrators. We can fault the PA for not making any effort to ‘control and contain’ the violence, and reject its claims that this is no easy matter at a time when Israel is using lethal means against unarmed Palestinian demonstrators. However, paradoxically, even this criticism of the Palestinian leadership contradicts the Israeli version of Arafat’s planned initiative.

Thus, we note a total lack of any proof in the Mitchell report for the key allegation that Arafat started the Intifada as part of a plan to use force so as to achieve concessions that were denied the Palestinians at Camp David. Moreover, the Mitchell report presents findings that support the conclusion that there is a distinct possibility that Israel bears the overwhelming responsibility for the outbreak of the Intifada.

The Mitchell report notes the deep sense of frustration and despair among the Palestinians as a result of the failure of the Camp David talks. May we add that it is only a matter of common sense to appreciate that 3,000,000 Palestinians suffering for almost 35 years under the yoke of a brutal military occupation can decide to rebel against inhuman conditions. Our own analysis would suggest that the collective suffering of the Palestinian masses, insulted by Sharon’s provocative visit to Haram al-Sharif and outraged by the I.D.F. method of using massive and unrestrained lethal force against unarmed demonstrators, were the real and genuine reasons for the uprising.

Just in case the thrust of Mitchell report is still unclear: Ha’aretz headed its report on the response to the report as follows: “PA Accepts Mitchell suggestions. PM regrets report didn’t blame Palestinians for start of violence.”

One might assume, considering the arrogant tone of Israeli propaganda, that there was some degree of unanimity on this question in the Israeli establishment. However, three prominent Israelis – Ami Ayalon, former Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shakhak and Dr. Oded Aran –all of whom had some intimate connection with the Israeli intelligence apparatus monitoring Arafat and his policies, rejected the thesis that Arafat initiated the Intifada. Ayalon, who was still head of the Israeli shin bet (Security Services) just six months before the Intifada, summed it up: “The Intifada is a result of a Palestinian loss of confidence regarding Israel’s readiness to pay the price needed for peace, and also [an] eroded public belief in the PA’s ability to establish a regime marred by less corruption and brutality. The Initifada was directed against a process which included Arafat; in no way was it conceived by Arafat himself as a measure taken against the process.” (Ha’aretz political commentator, Akiva Eldar, Ha’aretz, September 17, 2001).

This is getting a bit tedious but we must return, for the moment, to the ‘catechism’: Arafat rejected Baraks MGO and initiated the Intifada. In a previous communication, basing ourselves on an explicit statement by Dennis Ross, we learned that Barak never made any offer and that the Barak offer was actually made by Clinton. A week after granting us this startling revelation, Dennis Ross, who has become a member of the Fox News permanent staff (!?), shocked us again with this new revelation about his previous revelation: “…at Camp David we did not put a comprehensive set of ideas on the table. We put ideas on the table that would have affected the borders and would have affected Jerusalem.”Here is the electronic source:

There was no Barak offer. There was not even a Clinton offer. There were ‘ideas’ and not even a comprehensive set of ideas. These did not deal at all with the refugee issue, they did not (at that stage of the negotiations) include Palestinian sovereignty on the Harem Al Sharif or any neighborhood in or around the Old City – elements which do appear, for the first time in Clinton’s December 2000 offer, six months after Camp David.

So there was nothing sinister or unreasonable in Arafat’s decision to reject the Camp David formulae. The negotiations indeed continued after Camp David, with important gains for the Palestinians, over and above the incomprehensive set of ideas presented back at Camp David. These later negotiations, serious by any account, suggest that Arafat had actually fulfilled his duty to his constituency by saying no to Clinton at Camp David. These later negotiations went up in smoke, but not because of anything that the Palestinians did. Time ran out. Barak had resigned and Israeli elections were on the agenda. Clinton was already a ‘lame duck’ president. Their partners had indeed disappeared, but the so-called Palestinian non-partner had never left the table. Arafat never said no.

All the allegations that made Arafat’s ‘strategy of terror’ a logical step in a pre-conceived plan to wreck the peace process prove groundless. We must find the causes for the escalation of the conflict and the violence, including the increase of atrocious and reprehensible tactics on the Palestinian side in the dynamic that developed as Israel moved to use force, and more and more force, against the El-Aqsa Intifada. But this will have to wait.