Runaway Revolution

PLO leaders outside the occupied territories are trying after the fact to take credit for and control of the Palestinian uprising  

The Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has brought the Palestinian question to the fore in a way that has eluded the well-funded and wily leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization for the past twenty years. The uprising came as a surprise not only to the Israelis but also to the very people who have for so long claimed to be the "sole legitimate representatives" of the Palestinian people. Thus, in addition to the soul-searching now going on in Israel and the deep depression that events have brought upon King Hussein, the uprising has caused Yasser Arafat and other top PLO officials to stop and consider whether they have been wandering down aimless paths abroad while neglecting their most promising course—in the homeland itself. Within a few months the occupied territories became a liability for Israel, rather than an asset, and became the only meaningful asset remaining to the PLO.

The uprising, or what the Palestinians call the intifada , is emphatically not a revolt against the Israeli occupation alone. It is equally an internal revolution of children against fathers, women against husbands, poor against rich, refugees against the propertied classes. Above all, the Palestinians on the inside are leading the way against the political establishment on the outside—and upsetting the traditional balance of forces in the Palestinian national movement.

Strange as it may seem, the PLO, no less than the Israelis, failed to recognize the significance of the riots that broke out in the Gaza Strip on December 9 and soon spread to the West Bank. For much of the first week of the riots Yasser Arafat and his associates took them to be just another flare-up of the smoldering unrest that has long characterized life in the territories. Thus Arafat did not cancel a scheduled trip to a number of Arab capitals; neither did he issue any special orders to the Occupied Land Department, which serves as a liaison with the territories, or to the heads of the so-called Western Sector, which is responsible for launching terrorist attacks across Israel's borders.

The PLO had no idea that an uprising was in the offing for the simple reason that its representatives in the West Bank and Gaza were not involved in kindling it. In fact, the PLO representatives tended to regard the rioting as an ill-considered and pointless explosion set off by their rivals from the Moslem fundamentalist groups in the Gaza Strip, and the tone of the demonstrations gave them good reason for concern. The youngsters in the refugee camps were not brandishing the portraits of Arafat and improvised Palestinian flags that are standard at such events. And the slogans they shouted had a distinctly religious ring to them—especially the cry "Allah helps those who help themselves," which echoed the chants from the mass demonstrations during the Khomeini revolution in Iran.

Indeed, a classified survey of "prime agitators" taken by the Israelis after the first wave of riots in the Gaza Strip showed that the great majority of participants in violent demonstrations defined themselves as devout Moslems; this was their first arrest and their first physical confrontation with Israeli forces. Yet only a handful of the detainees in the Israeli sample listened to broadcasts of PLO Radio, from Baghdad, or were familiar with Arafat's political slogans or traditional list of demands—including the right to self-determination, the cornerstone of the PLO's platform.

That their own people were not at the eye of the storm was an ominous sign to the PLO leaders working out of Tunis and Baghdad. Five days of riots and demonstrations had passed before Arafat concluded that his intelligence apparatus was not reporting properly and that he had best take matters into his own hands. With his deputy and close friend Khalil al-Wazir (known by the nom de guerre Abu Jihad), he began telephoning his proven loyalists in the territories. (Abu Jihad was assassinated in Tunis later in the spring.) Naturally, both parties to these conversations were aware that they were probably being tapped. The message conveyed to the PLO activists was usually mixed: encouragement to keep the riots going and extract the maximum benefit from media coverage came with a warning against escalation into the use of firearms. If this order was obeyed almost without exception, however, it was not because it had come from Arafat. The demonstrators understood instinctively that the introduction of firearms would bring tanks down on them, in which case they hadn't a chance of holding their own. In an incident that occurred in Nablus (and not an isolated one), after a soldier had dropped his rifle in the course of dispersing a demonstration, one of the rioters came bounding over to him to return the weapon.

Some of the local Palestinian leaders had the feeling that Arafat and Abu Jihad were completely out of touch with what was going on "in the field" and ignorant about even the simplest facts, such as the location of certain refugee camps. Arafat's main concern seemed to be getting the demonstrators to exhibit their identification with the PLO and with him personally. Like the Israelis, he was knocked off balance by the intifada. For over twenty years he had preached the doctrine that change would come only "through the barrel of the gun" and had built his movement on the hallowed principle of "armed struggle." An unarmed "popular struggle" like the one now in progress was not dreamt of in his philosophy. Yet it was plain that the grass-roots rebellion going on within the occupied areas was proving far more effective than the armed attacks against Israel. Arafat's huge investment in building a regular force, replete with tanks and artillery—stationed in distant Iraq, Sudan, and Yemen—looked downright foolish in light of the results being achieved by civilians armed with stones and Molotov cocktails. What's more, the superficial indoctrination and belief in the principle of armed struggle seemed to have collapsed in the face of the fundamentalists' call for every man, woman, and child to stand up and act or the good of the nation out of faith and fixity of purpose—and without need for formal direction.

Little wonder, then, that there were moments when it looked as if the whole painfully constructed PLO apparatus abroad, which considered itself the cutting edge of a national liberation movement, had turned, overnight, into a rearguard establishment comfortably ensconced far from the lines of confrontation. The spirit in the streets was not that of the PLO; sometimes it was blatantly anti-PLO. And although Arafat succeeded in preserving the PLO's status as the emblem of Palestinian aspirations both to the outside world and to the insurgents themselves, he had an uphill battle to re-establish his authority over his constituency. He shared with the Israeli leaders Yitzhak Shamir, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin the distinction of having misjudged the effect of the long occupation on the people who had to abide it. Arafat's strategy for obtaining a political status for the Palestinian entity has always involved both diplomacy and terrorism. He believed that the "next generation" would reap the fruits of his labors and was not at all prepared for the possibility that these grandchildren" would take up stones, and take their own fate in their hands.

From close up it was easy to see that the riots were fueled as much by acute economic distress as by frustrated nationalist aspirations. Youngsters who had known nothing but poverty in the refugee camps and city slums were the ones leading the protest, drawing in their wake first the urban middle classes and then the peasant population in villages far from the main arteries. In addition to the sustained deprivation—and a lack of evidence that it was likely to ease—was a series of signals that the plight of the Palestinians had been conveniently left off everyone's agenda. Reagan and Gorbachev had not discussed it during their summit in Washington, and even the November panArab summit in Amman had chosen to ignore the Palestinian issue, focusing instead on the threat posed by Iran.

In Israel, meanwhile, there was more and more talk of executing a "transfer" (one of many euphemisms coined to blur the sinister import of extremist ideas, this one the mass expulsion of the Palestinians). Israeli settlers in the territories had stepped up their pressure to resume the expropriation of land and the takeover of water sources. The interrogation of detainees made it clear that during the initial stages of the riots, at least, the incitement was coming from those Palestinians who were in day-today contact with Israelis and were well acquainted with the odious face of the occupation—from frequent and humiliating checks at roadblocks to cavalier treatment at work and discrimination in setting wages. Convoys of laborers who left for Israel each day at dawn came home at night to sewage flowing in the streets between their wretched huts, after having spent their days building villas and apartments for Jews. Once the intifada began, in the lower classes, it gradually made its way upward. The pro-Jordanian faction, consisting largely of members of the genteel class of Palestinian society, was forced to lie low and pay lip service to the uprising. The kids in the street jeered at the suggestion that they accept the patronage of King Hussein, and all at once it was utterly clear that there was no serious support for the "Jordanian option" in the territories. The King had in fact long lost his standing there; now his pitiful following was exposed in all its feebleness.

The intifada drew its momentum not only from the Palestinians' profound sense of frustration, humiliation, and despair but also from their swift upsurge of belief that a relatively easy and effective way had been found to neutralize Israel's enormous military advantage. This belief was reinforced by a series of grave errors on the part of the Israelis, who had likewise underestimated the depth and force of feeling powering the rebellion. In addition to a failure to send reinforcements into the territories quickly and an unconscionable lack of proper equipment, the army was too selective in its use of the curfew—a standard means of restoring order and providing a cooling-off period—and the demonstrations were able to continue without respite and feed off each other. For the entire first month of unrest the standing orders were not to disperse demonstrations unless attempts were made to block arteries or attack soldiers. In a number of places the Palestinians took this to mean that they could barricade themselves inside villages and camps, and they proceeded to do so, declaring Bir Zeit, Salfit, and other towns on the West Bank "liberated areas."

Several weeks after the uprising began, the Israeli army added truncheons to the otherwise mostly lethal weapons of units in the territories, and shifted to a more generalized application of the curfew, the dispersal of demonstrations by force as soon as they began, and the securing of places where riots were most likely to erupt. In a closed session with the ranking officers in the field Defense Minister Rabin made it plain that he preferred to have the world chastise Israel for being too tough than to have the Palestinians conclude that it had lost its clout and its control over the territories. By that point, however, a broad section of the Palestinian public had been buoyed by the taste of success, and the groundwork had been laid for what would later be called a war of attrition.

The strength of the intifada lay to a large degree in its lack of organization, and the aspect of spontaneity remained even after weeks of confrontation. Different places acted in different ways, at different paces, and with different levels of violence. The common denominator was an appreciation of the need to keep up the momentum without turning to firearms and incurring the predictable consequences of their use. Following these unwritten rules, the riots continued to move in a hiccuping zigzag from one place to another, producing a steady yield of curfews, clashes, and casualties.

The young militants effectively maneuvered the local merchants into the position of buffer between them and the army. By forcing storekeepers to close their shops, knowing full well that the army would force them to open again, the hard-core activists were able to wage a struggle on the backs of the least militant sector of all. Gangs of youngsters organized within the refugee camps and slums, which the army avoided entering for quite some time while attending to the striking merchants (who forfeited 20 to 30 percent of their business). Neither the shopkeepers nor factory owners dared fire any of their employees during the extended commercial strike; at most they might try to cut back on their wages. Throughout the strike and curfews, many workers continued to steal out of the refugee camps and report to their places of work in Israel—out of economic necessity—but they were merciless to any merchants who tried to carry on business, torching their shops, sending threatening notes, and sometimes even beating the offenders. In Gaza, for instance, it came out that after setting fire to the buses used to transport workers to the packing houses of the city's rich citrus growers, the arsonists continued on to their own jobs in Israel.

Meanwhile, PLO activists of varying ranks tried to gain control of the intifada. One way was through the volunteer work committees that had been founded under PLO sponsorship in refugee camps and slums and were usually directed by students and graduates of the local universities, who were themselves organized into defined blocs. These committees, which had been formed to coordinate the political education of the youth, social-welfare activities, and cultural evenings, became field commands for organizing demonstrations—assigning youngsters to throw stones, paint nationalist slogans on buildings, and even use the loudspeaker systems of mosques to broadcast propaganda.

A collection of some thirty to forty Palestinian press agencies and newspapers in East Jerusalem and other cities, all backers of the PLO (yet allowed by Israel to continue operating openly), assumed the task of running a propaganda campaign that ranged from spreading inflammatory rumors to briefing foreign journalists and steering them to the hot spots.

Close to a thousand freed prisoners who had been tried and convicted of acts of terrorism or sedition in the service of the PLO proved themselves an influential cadre of leaders. The prisoners worked each in his own sector, but they were united by the bonds of friendship formed during the endless ideological seminars they had held in prison. Their prestige as veterans of the struggle against Israel and their sway over the young people quickly raised them to the rank of directors of the intifada in their respective areas.

The PLO officials abroad, from Arafat down, conducted their work through these three types of activists, trying to coordinate them and direct their activities. Direction was also conveyed through the evening broadcasts of PLO Radio in Baghdad and by the distribution of circulars signed by the United National Command (an entire month elapsed before this cryptic signature was joined by that of the PLO). Gradually even fund-raising campaigns were organized, but they had to be abandoned when criminal elements tried to elbow in on the enterprise.

The most striking thing to emerge at this stage, however, was Arafat's inability to ride the wave. Even his loyalists in the territories displayed an astonishing degree of independence and disregard for the directives coming from abroad. While continuing to champion the PLO as a symbol of their aspirations, for the most part they refused to accept its authority in day-to-day affairs. The leaders of the demonstrations expressed, often in the same breath, esteem for Arafat and contempt for the PLO's failure over the twenty-four years of its existence to achieve any tangible results. Thus the cadres that the PLO had cultivated in the territories turned out to have views of their own and a capacity for action not contingent upon direction or support from abroad. In general, the inhabitants of the territories realized that collectively they carried more weight than the PLO's distant leaders. Soon there was an outbreak of indiscreet grumbling about Arafat's attempts to dictate policy to the local leaders, to bully them into line by crude intimidation tactics (the burning of cars, smear campaigns, and even assassination threats), and, above all, to take personal credit for everything that had been achieved.

The waning influence of the PLO leaders abroad was particularly evident in two spheres. Because their directives were so little heeded, they were ultimately forced to retreat from their call to Palestinian laborers to stop working in Israel—a demand that was unrealistic and simply ignored. The same was true of the call to attack Jewish settlements and of Arafat's pathetic insistence that placards bearing his portrait be carried at every demonstration and plastered on walls. Demands of a strictly local character were raised both in the circulars and in meetings with Israeli officials and American diplomats. These ranged from permitting elections for municipal and refugee-camp councils to ensuring that the taxes deducted from Palestinians' wages were put toward improving services in the territories.

The PLO leadership also lost points with the local population when its attempt to launch the "Ship of Return," carrying 120 Palestinian deportees, ended in stinging failure. By sabotaging the ship before it ever weighed anchor, Israel turned what was meant to be a dazzling media extravaganza into a public relations fiasco for the PLO. What's more, Arafat had planned to use the ship both to regain full command of events and to pull in the 700,000 Arab citizens of Israel, who had clearly expressed their solidarity with the residents of the territories but had stopped short of actively joining in the uprising. Like the Israeli authorities, Arafat had been impressed by the strength and self-discipline displayed by the Israeli Arab community on the day of its solidarity strike. He also took note that some of its more radical elements were prepared to break that discipline, blocking main roads and hurling Molotov cocktails at traffic. Indeed, the danger (from Israel's standpoint) or prospect (from the PLO's) that the rebellion would spread to the Arab population within Israel's pre-1967 borders became one of the main concerns of the warring sides.

The greatest challenge the PLO has encountered, however, is that posed by a new camp that has emerged in the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. There a dozen or so Moslem fundamentalist groups have attracted large followings and have already built effective and obedient organizations. The PLO and the Communists have taken care to observe an armistice with the Islamic Jihad, the Islamic Mujamma'a, and other religious factions. But this truce in the occasionally violent rivalry among the movements has not halted the contest for hegemony, and it is now indisputable that in Gaza and nearby cities the fundamentalists have gained the upper hand. Although some of these groups recognize the symbolic value of the PLO, they part radically with it on such issues as the character of a future Palestinian state and of the struggle to achieve it, and they have leveled withering criticisms at the personality cult built around Arafat.

Another internal Palestinian issue that has called attention to itself as a result of the uprising is the complex one of who actually speaks for the Palestinians: Arafat and his associates based in Tunis, Baghdad, and other Arab capitals, or the PLO leaders in the territories themselves. Because of the plethora of competing interests and considerations, the question is not just who is entitled to speak for the Palestinians but who is likely to get a hearing in the places where it counts.

Israel has recently shown signs of reversing itself on this question. For the better part of a decade it has made every effort to suppress the re-emergence of a nationalist leadership in the territories, by ousting local public officials, for example, and deporting such PLO fellow travelers as Mayor Mohammed Milhem and the late Mayor Fahed Kawasmeh (who was subsequently felled by a Palestinian bullet for his excessive moderation). The tendency since the Begin years has been to lump together all Palestinian nationalists as PLO—which has become a synonym for terrorists—and refuse to have any truck with them. Now Israel finds that since it will inevitably have to talk to someone, it is better off dealing with the moderate "natives" than contending with the radical and often mercurial leadership in the "diaspora."

Yet even if Israelis will talk to the local leaders, it remains to be seen whether these leaders are prepared to negotiate in earnest, rather than serve merely as mouthpieces for Arafat. The emergence in the territories of figures such as Hanna Siniora and Fayez Abu Rahmeh, who were received by Secretary of State George Shultz in Washington in February, has made the PLO in exile fearful that it will be left out of the political process altogether, with the local leadership being considered more authentic and representative. This is undoubtedly why it forbade Siniora and others to meet with Shultz again, in Jerusalem, just a few weeks later.

The local leaders, for their part, are caught between a rock and a hard place. In the case of the Shultz visit, they gave every sign of wanting to respond to the American invitation, for fear that if they declined to see the Secretary of State in Jerusalem, they would sabotage their own efforts to keep direct lines of high-level communication open to Washington. Yet to placate the mistrustful PLO abroad, they felt constrained to relay certain conditions set by Arafat, such as a guarantee not to close the PLO office in New York and an agreement to hold the session somewhere outside Israel and the territories, so that PLO leaders other than local ones could take part. Considering the brute threats made against them, the local leaders would have had to be very brave men indeed to defy the leadership abroad.

Though originally directed against the Israelis, the intifada has severely jolted the traditional power structure in Palestinian society itself. Throughout its existence the PLO has drawn its more visible leaders from the "leading families" of the West Bank. Thus Arafat's loyalists have come from the same quarters as Hussein's supporters did during his term of rule over the area; this group has carved out a place for itself under Israeli rule as well. This Palestinian aristocracy, so to speak, managed to sustain its hegemony throughout the years of the conflict with Israel, and rather than be damaged by the rise of the PLO, it affiliated itself with the new establishment. Now, however, this class of inveterate survivors has been dealt a stunning blow. Those who had tended to collaborate with Israel were threatened with death if they refused to make public confessions in the mosques and churches; those who looked to Jordan for aid were told that the King was helpless to protect them from the whirlwind; and those who were associated with Arafat and the leftist organizations discovered that, although their reputations as devoted nationalists remained intact, no one was listening to them.

An entire hierarchy that has weathered generations of political turmoil has come under assault. The members of the upper classes, who had been the local spokesmen of the PLO, were suddenly being classified, with more than a hint of ridicule, as "right-wingers." The business and professional classes found that they were being swept along by the sheer thrust of the force rising up from below. All at once thousands of families were discovering that teenage boys, rather than the patresfamilias, were setting the tone of their lives. Countless women were discovering a convenient, indeed respectable, means of liberating themselves from the bonds of the traditional household; in a number of places they actually stoned their husbands for trying to stop them from participating in demonstrations. Peasants whose forebears had been showing deference to city dwellers for generations now made their way to the town halls to have their say, and the same mukhtars who had once held the fate of every villager in their hands now found themselves subjected to abuse as they walked the paths and alleyways of their erstwhile domains.

Clearly, the chances of instituting negotiations toward a political settlement will have very little effect on this social upheaval. The dominant forces—the young people—are seeking not only an end to the occupation but also a different status and a better life for themselves. They want a Palestinian state with Yasser Arafat at its head, yet they themselves want to be its leaders, not just plain citizens. And they do not want a state in which they will have to continue living in refugee camps. For these young people, the Palestinian flag is a symbol of the struggle for economic equality as much as for national independence, and for many of them the mosque is a source of identity and inspiration, not merely a setting for religious ritual.

This is a war within a war. While Arafat is trying to neutralize the challenge from the new leadership in the streets, the religious elements are striving to increase their sway, and the leftist organizations are fighting desperately just to hold their own. The left and the right in Israel are preparing for a showdown that promises to be more fateful than any before it, largely because of the Palestinian uprising, but the contest for primacy is no less critical on the other side of the barricades. One way or another, the Israeli government that emerges from the forthcoming elections will have to deal with the Palestinians, and the profile of the leadership it will be facing—across the negotiating table or across the battlefield—is already quite different from the one that has been so familiar.