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Dead End

Is there a future for secular Palestinian nationalism?

Helena Cobban

8 Gaza: this 25-by-five-mile strip of humid, dusty land wedged against the southeast corner of the Mediterranean has always—along with Jerusalem—occupied a special niche in the history of the Palestinian national movement. In 1948, Gaza was the only part of Mandate Palestine that the Egyptian army was able to hold onto after its ill-fated intervention in the Arab-Israeli fighting of that year. Refugees from all of southern Palestine—among them, the 12-year-old Ahmed Yassin—flocked into Gaza. (To this day some 80 percent of the Gaza Strip's Palestinian population of 1.2 million is made up of refugees and their descendants.)

In the 1950s, Yasser Arafat, Salah Khalaf, and their comrades planted the first seeds of the predominantly secular Palestinian national movement, Fatah, in Gaza. In 1956, and again in 1967, Gaza came under Israeli military occupation. That latter occupation has lasted till today. In the 1970s, Ariel Sharon, then military commander of the "Southern" region, headed a vicious anti-insurgency campaign in Gaza in which he killed scores of guerrillas and demolished many hundreds of refugee homes. In December 1987, the first Palestinian intifada erupted in Gaza first, before it spread to the West Bank. That month, too, Ahmed Yassin—by then, a near-blind quadriplegic and the head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza—founded the Islamic Resistance Movement, "Hamas," there. In 1994, Yasser Arafat attracted crowds of hundreds of thousands when he "returned" to Gaza in the wake of the signing of the Camp David Accords.

On March 22 of this year Sharon set in motion a new, unpredictable cycle of violence when, accusing Yassin of having masterminded the killings of hundreds of Israelis, he ordered an Israeli helicopter gunship to kill him as his sons and supporters wheeled him home from his Gaza City mosque after his morning prayer.1

Sharon's decision to murder Yassin was linked in a complex way to a plan he announced last December to pull most of Israel's 7,500 settlers and many of its troops out of Gaza. Back in early February, I, by contrast, spent nearly a week trying to get into Gaza. I had hoped to do some pro-bono consulting there for a humanitarian aid group based in Washington, D.C. The Israeli military authorities who control all access to Gaza had different ideas. In a diktat issued in January, the Israeli government declared that any foreigners wanting to enter Gaza or certain areas of the occupied West Bank now required prior written authorization to do so; permits to enter Gaza should be submitted with five days' advance notice. ("Five days?" my old friend, the veteran Israeli defense analyst Ze'ev Schiff, said when he heard this. "Why do they need five days? They only need two, maximum!")

The U.S. organization with which I was planning to work—which is so well-known and non-threatening that it receives U.S. government funding—faxed in a request on my behalf on February 4. By late morning of February 12, the mysterious "Captain Joe Levy" at Erez, the Palestinians' sole checkpoint into Gaza, had still not replied, so I decided to make the 90-minute drive from Jerusalem down to Erez to see if I could persuade him in person that he should let me in. I had the luck to share a taxi there with Ziad Abu Amr, a respected native of Gaza City who was elected to the Palestinian legislature in the Palestinians' U.S.-sponsored elections of 1996. (More about Abu Amr later.)

He and I alighted together from the taxi at Erez, and the driver turned and drove empty back to Jerusalem. With its extensive layout of fenced holding-pens, concrete barricades, and open-walled sheds, Erez resembles nothing as much as a big Midwestern stockyard that on one side—the Israeli side—has been given a few licks of blue and white paint. (Indeed, like all the other people-herding control-points that now abound in the occupied Palestinian territories, it is usually referred to by the Palestinians as "the cattle yard.") Abu Amr already had permission to return to his Gaza home after a rare one-night visit to Jerusalem, and because of his status as a Parliamentarian he had a car waiting to ferry him across the zone. (Otherwise no Palestinian vehicles are allowed to cross the quarter-mile-wide transition zone at Erez.) But I spent four hours at the mercy of the young uniformed Israeli desk warriors who staff the "VIPs and foreigners" side of the checkpoint as I tried to find Capt. Levy and get my permit.

There were very few "VIPs and foreigners" entering Gaza that day. Just the day before a group of Israeli soldiers had left 12 Palestinians dead during a foray into Gaza City, while another squad of Israelis killed three Palestinians at the southern end of the strip. There had been mass funerals for the casualties all morning the day I drove to Erez, though by noontime things had quieted down. In desperation I had called Ze'ev Schiff, a mentor to several generations of Israeli generals, to see if he could help expedite my permit. He called my mobile phone two or three times as I sat there at Erez. "Are you still waiting?" he would ask in amazement and tell me which brigadier general in the Israeli Defense Ministry or Southern Command he had most recently contacted on my behalf.

Sometime after 4 p.m., the prospect of getting caught overnight at Erez became distinctly unattractive. A slow trickle of international aid workers was exiting Gaza through the other half of the "VIPs and foreigners" area. I started asking around for a ride up to Jerusalem and got lucky on the second try. Running parallel to the "VIPs and foreigners" part of the Erez checkpoint is a strip where those few thousand Gazans "lucky" enough to be allowed to go to—mainly menial—jobs inside Israel walk through the corrals with computerized ID cards as they daily exit and enter the strip. They are not allowed either to drive through the checkpoint or to stay in Israel overnight. The Israeli journalist Amira Hass has written movingly in her book Drinking the Sea at Gaza about how this daily exodus often starts at around 3 a.m., since many of the workers are bused to job sites far north in Israel; and how their difficult twice-daily commute can stretch their time away from home to 14 or 15 hours. As I tossed my backpack into a car carrying two UN staffers, I looked over at the workers crossing 200 yards away. A line of figures more than a hundred yards long was silhouetted against the bars of the corralling system there.

Yasser Arafat and the Sharon Plan

"No, I don't think Sharon is serious at all when he talks of pulling out of Gaza," Yasser Arafat told me the next day over lunch. I was seated next to him at the large table in his half-ruined headquarters in the "muqata" in Ramallah. He seemed frail, and his once immaculate military-style jacket looked distinctly disheveled. But he did not seem in bad shape for a 74-year-old who has spent the last two years confined completely to (and periodically threatened in) the ever-vulnerable muqata.

"He says he needs two to four years for the withdrawal!" he exclaimed. "Why so long? Most of the Israeli settlements there are nearly empty. In Netzarim there are only six families! Most of the people there are soldiers. He doesn't mean it. He's only trying to distract attention from all his problems at home.

"Besides, this contradicts everything that Rabin—" here he paused, and slapped one leg for emphasis, "my friend Rabin—had promised us. Total withdrawal from Gaza! Sharon is not proposing anything like total withdrawal. He wants to keep so many soldiers there. He's not serious at all!"

I asked what he would like to say to President Bush. "Tell him to use his influence with Sharon to implement the Road Map. That's what we want: the Road Map."

But even as we were talking in the muqata, some usually well-informed Israeli journalists were reporting that the White House was preparing to sideline the Road Map—a gradual two-state plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace—that it had painstakingly crafted at the end of 2002. Bush, they predicted accurately, would soon support instead Sharon's plan for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from much of Gaza.

Sharon's proposal for this withdrawal is part of a broader plan, as he himself puts it, to "disengage" Israel as much as possible from daily contact with the Palestinians of the occupied territories. He first laid out the details for this plan in a speech in Herzliya on December 20, 2003.2 Another part of the plan has involved the controversial building of a whole system of walls and barriers to encircle and separate the different West Bank Palestinian communities from each other. (Israeli strategic planners hope that these West Bank communities would then be easier to control, in the same way Gaza has been "easier" for Israel to control since it was completely encircled by a fence some ten years ago.) In his speech in Herzliya, and since, Sharon has tried to argue that his "Disengagement Plan" is consonant with the resumed pursuit, at some some time, of the Road Map. But his wall-building project clearly undercuts the goals of the Road Map, which prescribes the establishment of a Palestinian state whose borders, though still undefined, would allow it to be both "viable" and—inside the West Bank at least—"contiguous." Indeed, in the Herzliya speech, he admitted that "through the 'Disengagement Plan' the Palestinians will receive much less than they would have received through direct negotiations as set out in the road map."

There are two other important differences between the Road Map and the Sharon plan. The Road Map was designed to be pursued under the sponsorship of a "quartet" of international powers: the UN, the European Union, Russia, and the United States. But Sharon has so far sought overt support for his new plan only from Washington. (He would be very unlikely to get it from the UN or the Europeans.) Secondly, while the Road Map prescribed quite deep-reaching reforms in the Palestinian administration, including the creation of a prime minister's position intended to provide an alternative to Arafat's personal participation in the diplomacy—still, it always envisaged the participation in negotiations of a credible Palestinian interlocutor linked to the Arafat-headed Palestinian Authority. The Sharon plan, by contrast, is determinedly unilateral. It makes no mention of any need for a Palestinian interlocutor, credible or otherwise.

If implemented in the way Sharon has described it—through a unilateral withdrawal of Israeli soldiers and settlers from much of Gaza, and perhaps later from small parts of the West Bank-this scheme would considerably reduce the appeal for Palestinians of the kind of negotiated peace for which Arafat has worked (however ineptly) for the past quarter century. It would also, quite foreseeably, strengthen the power in Palestinian society of the Palestinian political forces best organized on the ground in Gaza—that is, Hamas and its Islamist allies.3 Some of Israel's most senior generals have made these same forecasts, too. They have openly expressed concerns that a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza would strengthen Hamas while it would also weaken the credibility of Israel's broad "strategic deterrence." It was almost certainly as an attempt to lessen this latter concern that Sharon decided to go after Yassin—as he has since promised to go after other Hamas leaders—in such a public way. (It is quite unlikely that Sharon actually succeeded in meeting those goals.)

Arafat and his current Prime Minister, Ahmed Qurei, clearly foresaw the possibility that a unilateral Israeli withdrawal would strengthen Hamas's hand in Gaza. Thus, in early February, we saw the bizarre sight of a Palestinian prime minister going on the record openly to oppose an Israeli proposal to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from Palestinian territory.

For his part—in between pressing me and the other guests at his lunch party to "Eat more! Eat more!"—Arafat did not go quite as far as expressing actual opposition to the idea of the proposed Israeli withdrawal. He just said he did not think it would happen. And he urged Bush to return to an approach to peacemaking, the Road Map, that at least involved the concept of negotiations with a Palestinian Authority–linked delegation.

The Truce That Failed

On the drive to Erez, Ziad Abu Amr and I discussed the current political situation in Gaza. Abu Amr is that rare being, a political scientist who is also an authentic political leader in the society that he has studied and of which he is a part. He grew up in the politically significant downtown–Gaza City neighborhood of Shuja'iyeh. In the late 1980s he wrote his dissertation at Georgetown University on the growth of the Palestinian Islamic movements. He taught for many years in the the leading Palestinian institution of higher learning, Bir Zeit University near Ramallah, where he and colleagues like Hanan Ashrawi and the Knesset member Azmi Bishara had an opportunity to influence some of the brightest of the new generation of Palestinians. His book, Islamic Fundamentalism in the West Bank and Gaza: Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Jihad, was published in 1994.

Two years later, in the landmark U.S.-sponsored elections in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in which Palestinians voted for both a ra'is (president) and a Majlis Tashri'i Filastini (Palestinian Legislative Council), Abu Amr was elected to the PLC. For some years there he headed the PLC's political-affairs committee, which regularly sparred with Arafat over his accountability in key areas of foreign and domestic affairs.

Unusually among Palestinian politicians of his stature, Abu Amr has never been reliant on links with one or another of the Palestinian political–military groups. He has his own long-established base of popular support inside Gaza City and good relations with compatriots from across the political spectrum, secular and religious. It is not just Palestinians who hold him in high regard, either. Back in the late 1980s, I introduced him to Ze'ev Schiff, and then for a hopeful 20 months in the early 1990s the three of us worked together in a nongovernmental peacemaking project. "You're with Ziad?" Schiff exclaimed on my mobile phone as Abu Amr and I were driving down to Erez. "How is he? Give him my very good wishes!"

In May 2003, when Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) was named to the new post of Palestinian prime minister, he picked Abu Amr as his minister of culture. One of Abbas's first priorities was to persuade Hamas and Islamic Jihad to agree to the broad Palestinian truce (hudna) with Israel required under the Road Map; few were surprised when he named Abu Amr his lead negotiator with those Gaza-based groups. By late June, the two men had succeeded in winning the support of all the Palestinian factions for a three-month truce, and over the next few weeks many of its elements went into effect. In May Palestinian militants had killed 13 Israelis in Israel and the occupied territories, and in June they had killed 28. In July that figure dropped to two. The truce stemmed Palestinian deaths too. In May, 60 Palestinians were killed by Israeli soldiers or civilians; in June the same number were killed. In July there were only four.4 At the same time Israeli troops pulled out of downtown Bethlehem and other heavily populated Palestinian areas. With the daily clashes much reduced, the two sides expressed cautious hopes that the peace negotiations could at last resume. Abbas met with Sharon in Jerusalem and traveled to Washington at the end of July for a meeting with President Bush.

But all the different parties had wildly different expectations of the truce. From the get-go Sharon expressed great skepticism over its very possibility, and over whether—if it was secured—it could bring Israel anything of value. He also, notably, never committed Israel to participating in any reciprocal ceasefire. Instead he stated that after the Palestinians had started to hold their fire he expected the Palestinian Authority to proceed to disarm and dismantle the Palestinian militant groups. Bush gave vocal support to that expectation.

For their part, Arafat and Abbas probably both knew that the Palestinian Authority—having itself been physically and financially besieged by the Israeli government for three years by then—was far too weak to take on the militants and win. Abbas instead urged it to use the truce to strengthen its relations with all sectors of Palestinian society, including the many Palestinians whose deep disappointment with Arafat had driven them to support to Hamas and Jihad instead. He also pleaded with Sharon to take other actions, such as freeing up long-withheld Palestinian tax monies and releasing Palestinian detainees.

None of it worked. Sharon turned a deaf ear to Abbas's pleas and gave him almost nothing. Abbas also failed to win any meaningful support for his position from Washington. But despite those failures, Arafat became increasingly concerned that "his" Prime Minister might be building the good working relationship with the Israelis and Americans that he himself had sought so fruitlessly for many years.

Throughout August the truce started to unravel. It is hard to pinpoint the exact moment or to assign responsibility: acts of major escalation were undertaken by both the Israeli forces and the Palestinian militants, with each side claiming that it acted only "in retaliation for" the prior acts of the other side. Crucially there was no truce-monitoring mechanism on the ground (like the one, for example, that used to operate in South Lebanon) that could help to establish the precise sequence, course, and consequences of all sides' actions. Crucially, too, throughout July or August the Bush White House did nothing to pursue a political process that could help to calm things down. In August, Palestinians killed 23 Israelis, and Israelis killed 24 Palestinians. On September 6 Abbas resigned. In his resignation speech to the Palestinian Legislative Council he told legislators that the Israelis, the Americans, and Arafat had all prevented from carrying out his task.5

As I was driving down to Erez with Abu Amr, I made the mistake of repeating something heard quite frequently in the U.S. after Abbas's resignation, namely that it was a pity that he had been "so weak." Abu Amr defended him strongly. "He is not weak at all. He is very smart and politically skillful, and his time as prime minister was very productive. He got the hudna. He got the internal reforms that, everyone agrees, the PA so desperately needed. And he got international support for his government. Yasser Arafat couldn't stand it! He couldn't stand it when Abu Mazen was invited to the White House and seemed to be treated seriously by the Americans. That was when Arafat started to organize his hangers-on to undermine Abu Mazen." (Nearly all of this conversation, like the conversation with Arafat that followed it the next day, was recreated in my notebook shortly after the event. These conversations are as near verbatim as I can make them, but imperfectly so.)

I asked Abu Amr about his experience of helping to negotiate the hudna, and what relative contribution the Egyptian security chief Omar Suleiman had made to the process. (Suleiman's role was fairly widely reported by the media at the time.) "The Egyptians did nothing," said Abu Amr, laughing. "We did it all ourselves. In fact, we did it all in one day, working down in Gaza. It was quite easy for us, because we'd been preparing the way for it for a long time beforehand. . . . And of course, I've known all these people a very long time."

"What would be the political consequences inside Gaza if Sharon did indeed withdraw from most of the strip?" I asked.

"Firstly," he replied, "I don't think Sharon is serious about withdrawing. He's just trying to divert attention from the current corruption allegations, and also trying to move the international discussion away from the Road Map, which he never liked."

I asked how much support he thought Hamas had inside Gaza at that point.

"They are always there. Much more disciplined, much more serious than any of the secular factions, and very popular. Look, nowadays there is no way that the PA can survive politically without entering into a broad-based coalition with Hamas. That was one thing we were trying to achieve through our negotiations for the hudna. But Arafat just refuses to do it! He still sees himself as the sole symbol of the Palestinian struggle, and he is quite unwilling to share any real leadership power with Hamas or anyone else. That is one reason why he is completely ineffective."

At another point he said, "Any prime minister must keep a margin of autonomy from him. Which is what Abu Mazen tried to do."

He noted the widespread perception among Palestinians that the current prime minister, Ahmed Qurei (Abu Alaa), was—like Arafat—quite ineffective. "On January 24, the PLC's political committee presented a report that censured Abu Alaa for the total lack of security that his prime ministership has brought to the Palestinians; and it was accepted by the PLC. Abu Alaa was given three weeks to come to the PLC and appear before the PLC to account for his policies. You see, we are struggling to get some accountability here, just as the Americans always wanted us to! And if Abu Alaa doesn't appear as we requested, then yes, that could lead to a PLC vote of no-confidence in him."

The Wall System

During my fruitless four-hour wait at the Erez cattle yard, I recalled how much easier it had been to get around the West Bank, and travel from there to Gaza, back during the days of the first Palestinian intifada, from 1987 until 1993. Back then, Ziad Abu Amr was still working at Bir Zeit, near Ramallah. A couple of times—in 1989 and 1992—I drove with him from Ramallah or Jerusalem down to Gaza. He would park his car in a chicken farm somewhere along the southeastern edge of the strip, we would walk 100 yards along a rutted farm track, and we would be in Gaza. He would have called ahead, and a friend would be waiting somewhere in there with another car.

It was similarly easy to get around the West Bank. In those days whole fleets of Palestinian share-taxis made the drive between East Jerusalem and Bethlehem (ten minutes), between East Jerusalem and Ramallah (15 minutes), or even further afield. One day in 1989, I recall, my husband, a young American friend, and I all easily made the 40-minute trip by share-taxi from Ramallah on up to Nablus. The Israeli forces maintained intermittent checkpoints on the inter-city roads back then. These imposed significant inconvenience on everyone riding in vehicles with the green or blue "West Bank" license tags (plus the added frustration of seeing Israeli settlers in their yellow-tagged cars sail effortlessly past the checkpoints in their own special lane). But still, for most of the Palestinian population, throughout most of that period, it was possible to maintain a daily life involving inter-urban travel for business, school, or family get-togethers. In addition, Palestinian intellectuals and activists from throughout Gaza and the West Bank found it relatively easy to gather in Jerusalem—whether to see the latest satirical offering of the Hakawati theater, to pray at the Old City's Muslim or Chirstian holy sites, or to plan some new political initiative. It was in East Jerusalem that U.S. Secretary of State James L. Baker met local political leaders like Hanan Ashrawi or (the now deceased) Faisal Husseini. East Jerusalem was a real hub of Palestinian national life.

None of this is true any more. Almost immediately after the Oslo Accords, the Israelis started taking actions that disrupted the links among these different Palestinian communities. (They also continued to disrupt the links between those Palestinians who were still inside the ancestral homeland and the even greater number of their countrymen still forced to live in exile from it.) After the Oslo Accords, the Rabin government started to impose strict controls on the entry into Jerusalem of Palestinians who did not hold East Jerusalem residence cards and built the hermetic fencing system around Gaza. Amira Hass's book Drinking the Sea at Gaza poignantly sums up how the new fence around Gaza forced the Gazans' geographic and political horizons to shrink. "Once I used to dream of a state," she quoted a Palestinian cameraman as saying. "Now I dream of getting to the other side of the Erez checkpoint."

Between 1994 and 2000, the Israelis imposed movement controls of varying degrees of strictness on other parts of the West Bank, too. In 1994, after the extremist settler Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Palestinians praying at their main mosque in Hebron, all the city's Palestinian residents (but not its Jewish settlers) were placed under total, in-home lockdown ("curfew") for more than two weeks. In the aftermath of the 1996 Palestinian suicide bombings that killed some 70 Israelis in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the Israelis imposed added "closures" and intermittent, days-long lockdowns on whole cities of Palestinians throughout the West Bank. The Israeli government took these steps even though during those years Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Ehud Barak still expressed some support for the Palestinian self-government project mandated under Oslo.

After the second intifada started, in late September of 2000, the Israelis' use of movement controls became even more systematic. In the spring of 2002, Ariel Sharon, who had been elected prime minister the previous year, openly thumbed his nose at the idea of Palestinian self-government. In March 2002 he sent troops into nearly all the portions of the West Bank that had been designated by Oslo as being "Area A"—that is, under full Palestinian self-administration. In early April 2002, President Bush issued a public call to Sharon to withdraw his forces from all the Area A areas "immediately." In mid-May Sharon did pull the troops out of most of the West Bank's cities-but he kept them in a state of high readiness perched around the cities, and over the weeks that followed sent them back on repeated, provocative missions or "patrols." Meanwhile, around each of the West Bank's nine major cities, he started constructing a high, well-engineered perimeter fence exactly like the one Rabin had built around Gaza eight years earlier. One European diplomat with whom I talked in mid-2002 noted that the then-new fences around the West Bank's cities were not hastily thrown-together or cheap to build. "It looks like they're planning to use them for many years to come," she judged. This system of long-term movement control now seems to be Sharon's model as he builds the extensive new wall system that cuts off, separates, and seeks to control numerous other communities of Palestinians who live in the occupied West Bank.

The fences around the West Bank's cities typically have one or two gates in them. But the Israeli military have shown they are ready to close these gates whenever they want. In June 2002, I visited the area with a fact-finding delegation of Quakers; but in the two weeks we were there we were never able to enter Ramallah, where we hoped to visit and worship with staff at the city's 110-year-old Quaker school.

This latest time when I went to Kalandiya, the notorious checkpoint into Ramallah, I was permitted to cross in—and thus, I was able to have excellent conversations with some of my old friends in Ramallah, as well as that lunch-time encounter with Yasser Arafat. As I left, in the late afternoon of February 14, a rare snowstorm was battering Ramallah, Jerusalem, and the West Bank highlands. On the Ramallah side of the checkpoint, the roadway is in terrible shape. "When it rains, we call that part of the road the Palestinian 'Lake District,' " a Palestinian friend told me gloomily. "Why don't they just get it fixed?"

As I battled my way through the "Lake District" to join the long line of Palestinians waiting in the storm for clearance to leave Ramallah, the cost that this movement-control system was imposing on both the ill-clad Palestinians waiting in line, and the bundled-up Israeli soldiers who gave—it must be said—only a very rapid glance at our IDs, seemed evident.

In late 2002, once the penning systems erected around each of the major West Bank cities was nearly complete, Sharon started building an even more extreme—and expensive—movement-control system in the West Bank. The infamous "wall" is a project on such a grand scale that it has been nearly impossible for the international community to respond with the same benign neglect with which many of its members treated the earlier movement-control systems. Even so, the Israeli authorities have already proceeded quite far with this barrier that thrusts deep inside the occupied West Bank.

Three things are notable about the wall. First, its placement allows nearly all the 230,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank (and the 200,000 settlers in East Jerusalem) to maintain undisturbed access to Israel. Second, the considerable environmental damage it inflicts affects only the Palestinians' farmland, pasturage, and watercourses—not Israel's. Third, though it is commonly called "the wall," it is not a single linear entity. It is, in reality, a whole system of walls and fences that loop back on themselves and cut the whole of the territory on the eastern side of the Green Line into a large number of distinct and separate cells or, in effect, holding pens. It is thus not a wall but a wall system and as such, it is part and parcel of the broader system of walls built previously around all the West Bank cities.

As I drove around the hilly western part of the Ramallah province in February, the roads we followed kept crossing and re-crossing the gash in the ground that is the footing of a soon-to-be-built portion of the wall system. The wall system is not as far along here yet as it is further to the north, where numerous Palestinian areas have already been totally encircled by it; but it is well underway. Earlier, in an inner suburb of East Jerusalem, I watched as Israeli cranes lowered 24-foot-tall sections of a terrifying concrete barrier onto the previously prepared foundations.

The new wall system adds to damage done through the late 1990s by the whole system of "bypass roads" that Israel built in the West Bank in the post-Oslo years. Those new roads were expressly allowed by the Oslo Accords; indeed, they were largely financed by the U.S. government. Due in part to the provision of that new and relatively secure road-system—for Israelis only—the number of settlers in the West Bank doubled in the years from 1994 to 2000.

Just north of the small Israeli settlement of Khalamish there is a side road that winds north to five Palestinian villages. Across the base of this road the Israelis have installed a heavy metal gate, beside which stands a fearsome 60-foot concrete watchtower. When we came to the gate it was open and the watchtower apparently empty. But the local friends who met us there told us that frequently the Israelis simply close the gate. Then, the people from the five villages cannot drive to nearby Bir Zeit or Ramallah. Instead, they have to leave their vehicles here (as at Erez or Kalandiya) and walk around the gate carrying whatever it is they need to take with them. The Israelis assert (and exercise) the right to close all the gates like this one, of which there are scores throughout the West Bank, whenever they please.

Readers can perhaps imagine the effects on local farmers who need to get their produce to nearby towns. Organizing and coordinating two sets of pickup trucks, one for each side of the gate, and the labor needed to haul the produce from one to the other, inevitably raises the prices of the goods once they reach the market. For residents of these villages—as for all the West Bank's Palestinians—getting to medical appointments, schools, banks, or markets becomes an always unpredictable, sometimes impossible, project. West Bank Palestinians are unable to plan their lives in anything like a rational or "normal" human fashion. So in addition to huge social and economic costs of the movemtnt controls, there are the added costs of frustration and a slow-burning but everywhere evident rage. "What do they expect?" a middle-aged man hissed to me as we trudged across the Kalandiya checkpoint in a downpour. "See how they treat us? Like slaves!" Most people in the United States insist quite rightly that the Palestinian militants should call a complete halt to the string of suicide bombings that they have carried out inside Israel—actions that can be seen as a severe form of "collective punishment" imposed indiscriminately on the Israeli people as a whole. But relatively few Americans are prepared to call for an end to the equally inhumane and deadly forms of collective punishment that the Israeli government has imposed on the Palestinian people throughout the past ten years. The imposition of collective punishments of any form constitutes a direct infraction of the basic principles of the rule of law. It also directly, and continuously, erodes the trust between peoples that is a necessary part of any attempt to find and build a lasting peace.

Gaza: The Model?

Writing in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz three days after I was denied entry to Gaza, Gideon Levy gave his summary of what Sharon's behavior in Gaza looked like to him. The piece is titled "The IDF's Shooting Range." Levy wrote, "The weapons in use there are of dubious legality, the rules of engagement lack the element of restraint, and punitive measures that Israel would not conceive of inflicting in the West Bank are par for the course, in a region that produces far less terrorism than the West Bank." He dubbed the southern Gaza town of Rafah "the Grozny of Gaza" and noted, "In Rafah the suffering is greater than in [the West Bank city of] Jenin, but no one takes an interest. There are hardly any foreign correspondents there, and of course no Israeli journalists."

So maybe that was why the Israeli authorities were been working so hard to prevent me, and most other foreign nationals, from entering Gaza.

Unlike many of the Palestinians with whom I talked in February, I believe there is a real chance that Sharon may actually be serious about his proposal to undertake a wide withdrawal from Gaza. I fear he may relish the prospect of seeing the final erosion of the PA's "authority" in Gaza and the emergence there of an Islamist-led administration—one that he would feel able to hit at hard while risking even fewer meaningful restraints from Washington than the small number he has incurred in response to his threats against Arafat. (The Bush administration's notable failure to express any criticism of the outright murder of Ahmed Yassin seemed to prove this point.) Sharon might hope to achieve all this, moreover, while appearing like a "courageous peacemaker" in front of many of his own people and supporters in the West—and all this because he has shown his willingness to pull some 7,500 settlers out of Gaza, an area that most Israelis never considered part of the historic "land of Israel" at all. Meanwhile he has shown no signs of cutting back the support that his government has continued to give to all except a tiny handful of the 430,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

I fear, moreover, that the plans Sharon is pursuing in Gaza may be just a precursor of what his plans for each of the increasingly separated Palestinian communities of the West Bank might be: total encirclement, the undermining of PA power, territorial and political isolation, and the constant threat of punitive raids or provocative patrols from the Israeli forces still poised on the border of each of these enclaves.

When I was in Ramallah, I saw my old friend Ghassan Abdallah, a soft-spoken software engineer in his late 50s. Abdallah is one of the very few Palestinians who has made a serious attempt to study and understand the history of the Shoah in Europe, and to understand the depth of the legacies it has bequeathed to Jews in Israel and elsewhere.6 He told me that just the night before we met he and a number of friends had been to the single showing of The Pianist that was given in Ramallah. "Of course, most of us could not help but notice the parallels," he said of Roman Polanski's haunting depiction of the Nazis' "concentration" of so many of Poland's Jews into the Warsaw ghetto. "When they showed the people building the wall around the ghetto, you could hear many people in the audience here gasp."

Of course, the "concentration" and encirclement that the Palestinians are currently experiencing in no way presages that the next step taken against them will be as horrendous as the steps with which the Nazis followed up their "concentration" of the Jews of Poland. But "concentration"—whether in east European ghettos, Bantustans, or strategic hamlets—is itself a highly inhumane thing to have to suffer; and it has not, historically, been shown to foster much political flexibility in those on whom it has been inflicted.

Abdallah, like most of my other Palestinian friends, has few illusions that the next years will be easy for his people. In February, one of these friends described the Palestinian nationalists as having suffered "a generational defeat." In late March Abdel-Aziz Rantissi, who had just been chosen to succeed Ahmed Yassin as head of Hamas in Gaza, expressed a determined but noticeably more upbeat view.

Without a doubt, Yassin's killing has set in motion currents of violence and counter-violence whose final outcome is still quite unpredictable. But what does seem clear as of late March is that the 50-year era in which Arafat and the predominantly secular activists dominated the Palestinian movement has now come to an end. A sad old man sits in a ruin in Ramallah waiting for anyone to take notice of him while in Gaza a new generation of more disciplined, tougher men are preparing for their moment in history.

In Ziad Abu Amr's 1994 book on Palestine's Islamic fundamentalists he drew on much original researchand many Arabic sources. He drew on other sources too. At a couple of points, he cited Ze'ev Schiff and Schiff's long-time co-author Ehud Yaari with apparent approval. One of their observations that he cited is this: "The fundamentalist groups offered a special kind of activism that combined patriotism with moral purity and social action with the promise of divine grace. Sheikh [Ahmed] Yasin offered the young Palestinian something far beyond Arafat's ken: not just the redemption of the homeland, but the salvation of his own troubled soul.<

Helena Cobban is a global-affairs columnist for The Christian Science Monitor and Al-Hayat, and a contributing editor of Boston Review.


1 The Israeli forces had deliberately killed at least another 135 Palestinian activists between the start of the current intifada in September 2000 and the date of Yassin's killing. But Yassin was the most prominent leader to be thus assassinated. In many of those earlier extrajudicial executions, as in Yassin's, other Palestinians also met their end as fatalities "collateral" to that of the main target. See

2 The text of the speech in which he presented the plan can be found at

3 The prospect of Sharon strengthening Hamas through a unilateral withdrawal in Gaza came in the wake of his prisoner exchange in January with the militant Lebanese group Hizbollah. Hizbollah got a prize—the release of hundreds of Palestinian detainees—that Arafat and his prime ministers had been unable to secure despite numerous earlier Israeli promises. Not surprisingly, the prisoner release validated for many Palestinians the tough-minded way that Hizbollah has always dealt with Israel.

4 Casualty figures from the Israeli human-rights organization B'tselem. Calculated from their charts at

5 This speech had to be delievered by video-link to those PLC members who, as usual, were prevented by the Israelis from traveling from Gaza to the PLC's chamber in Ramallah. As Abbas entered the chamber, he barely avoided being physically hurt by a bunch of hoodlums intent on intimidating him. In his speech, he seemed clearly to be blaming Arafat for their actions.

6 Read his 2001 reflection "A Palestinian at Yad Vashem" at

Originally published in the April/May 2004 issue of Boston Review.

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