PALESTINE: BREAKING THE STALEMATE

Published December 3, 2023
Palestinians demonstrate in Nablus on the West Bank in 1988 during the first Intifada | AFP
Palestinians demonstrate in Nablus on the West Bank in 1988 during the first Intifada | AFP

“Israel is a transformed country. What was once a struggling country is now a thriving country. Economically, it’s booming. It will win — it’s prepared for war and will win, you know, the next war, or the next war after that, militarily ... But there will be wars and wars and wars until Israel comes to terms with the Palestinians ... [because] the road to peace lies through the Palestinian refugee camp.” — I.F. Stone (1956 )

As we count the mounting death toll and witness the destruction of Gaza, I have been thinking about why Hamas launched the strike on October 7. I have continued to mull over the long-term strategy that may have been behind the initial incursion into southern Israel. I initially hesitated to write my thoughts as, in this historical moment of the on-going brutal aggression by Israel, the humanitarian aspects are far more important to focus on.

Yet, perhaps somewhere in the interstices of this seemingly unending violence, an argument for a negotiated long-term peace may be emerging. It is evident by now that the attack on October 7 put a stop to the ongoing ‘normalisation’ process that Israel and some Arab states were involved in under US’ diplomatic initiative.

What the attack also conveyed was that the future of Palestine and its people cannot be decided elsewhere, as the above quote from 1956 by the radical journalist I.F. Stone outlines. For him, even then, the road to peace lay through the Palestinian refugee camp. Irrespective of the condemnation by some of the violence on October 7, an important message was sent: we are here and have not gone away…. Only Palestinians should decide their own future.

THE FIRST INTIFADA

The events of October 7 and the ensuing violence also reminded me of the first Palestinian Intifada that started in December 1987. The popular revolt coincided with 20 years of Israel’s occupation after the 1967 war, and was a response to the oppression of the Palestinian population through continuous beating, killings, house demolitions, deportations, extended imprisonments, detentions without trial and more.

Although supported by all the major Palestinian groups that comprised the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), it was mainly led by a new leadership that emerged from within the occupied territories and had independent operating procedures. Many may remember what followed.

Why did Hamas attack Israel on October 7, a daring attack that precipitated the brutal ongoing Israeli onslaught on Gaza? Could the first Palestinian Intifada of 1987 and the attack by El Salvador’s Marxist FMLN rebels in 1989 offer us clues to understand Hamas’ motives?

Within six years of the December 1987 Intifada, the PLO and the Israeli government signed a peace agreement, based on what is popularly called the Oslo Accords. Among other pertaining circumstances, the PLO leadership perhaps realised that, if they did not act then, the movement for Palestinian sovereignty may find a new leadership from within the occupied territories.

The then Israeli political leadership also understood that a just and dignified resolution to the occupation was only possible through direct negotiations with the representatives of the Palestinian people. A violent upsurge that led to the deaths of over a thousand Palestinians over a period of two to three years enabled all sides to understand the futility of an ongoing occupation and violence.

Hence emerged the idea of a two-state solution. That was then. Today, almost 36 years later, the promise of that independence and sovereignty still eludes the Palestinians.

Fighters of Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front put up a tough fight during the long civil war in El Salvador | Wikimedia
Fighters of Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front put up a tough fight during the long civil war in El Salvador | Wikimedia

THE CASE OF EL SALVADOR

I share the history of the first Intifada as it also reminded me about a different peace negotiation that unfolded in El Salvador in the early 1990s. On November 9, 1989, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), after more than a decade of ongoing civil war in the country, responding to an escalation of violence against its cadres and trade union activists by the newly elected right-wing government in El Salvador, broke off from the ongoing peace talks among Central American states (a part of the 1987 Arias Peace Plan, named after Costa Rica’s president Oscar Arias Sanchez and aimed at ending civil wars in Central America).

On November 11, the FMLN launched assaults on all major cities of the country, but its main military target was the capital city of San Salvador. A large contingent of FMLN combatants descended into the heart of the city from the nearby Volcano, an area under their control.

In most cities of the country, the FMLN attacked military bases and installations and caught the military and the government by surprise. The El Salvadoran army was aware of the impending attack but was caught unprepared by the magnitude of the insurrection. Eventually, the Salvadoran air force bombed the densely populated areas of San Salvador, where they assumed the FMLN had popular support.

However, the killing of six Jesuit priests (and professors) from the University of Central America, along with two domestic servants, by the army’s elite unit became a major international human rights incident that turned world opinion against the Salvadoran state.

During this time, the FMLN also took over the major five-star hotel in the capital, the Sheraton, and hence were present in the most expensive neighbourhood of the city close to the presidential palace and residences of the Salvadoran elite. By early December, the combatants retreated to areas under their control in the countryside. There were heavy casualties on all sides, accompanying loss of civilian life and major economic loss due to the destruction of property.

Within three years of this offensive by FMLN, on January 16, 1992, a peace treaty was signed in Mexico City, under the UN’s auspices, between the El Salvadoran government and the FMLN, paving the way to a phased process towards a democratic transition. The violence had made the US-backed government realise that, due to popular support among the people and the high number of combatants under the FMLN’s command, it was difficult for them to defeat this guerrilla army which controlled significant parts of the country’s rural areas.

For the FMLN, it was clear that defeating the army in open combat would not be possible. Further, the ongoing peace process in Nicaragua (where the Sandinistas were major allies of the FMLN) and the changes occurring in the Soviet Union, made the Marxist-oriented FMLN tilt toward a negotiated peace.

Interestingly, the FMLN’s leadership had already forewarned about the upcoming insurrection in an article almost six months prior to the event itself. In the Spring 1989 issue of the journal Foreign Policy and the Summer issue of the academic journal Latin American Perspectives, Joaquin Villalobos, a senior FMLN commander had argued for a more realistic assessment of the stalemate in the ongoing civil war, and suggested entering a negotiation that would move toward a more pluralistic resolution in political and economic terms.

The articles had warned that the impasse in the war in the late 1980s was based on the illusion by the Salvadoran military and its US allies of containing the guerrillas to the countryside and being able to enjoy relative stability in the capital city. Villalobos had predicted that this impasse could be broken by a “social explosion”, and lead to a popular insurrection to change the war’s dynamic. At the very least, it would force all sides on to the negotiating table. Partly, that is what the November 1989 insurrection accomplished.

Palestinians gather next to the ruins of Watan Tower, which was destroyed in Israeli strikes, in Gaza City on October 8, 2023 | Reuters
Palestinians gather next to the ruins of Watan Tower, which was destroyed in Israeli strikes, in Gaza City on October 8, 2023 | Reuters

THE PALESTINIAN QUESTION

I am sharing both the Salvadoran case and the earlier one regarding the 1987 Intifada to draw parallels to what could be a possible trajectory to the situation in Palestine today. In the two historical cases above, we saw an upsurge in violence followed by a process of negotiated peace. Is this the strategic vision that may be behind the current set of events? Before speculating on the latter, let me offer a brief analysis regarding the displacement of the Palestinian people.

The scholar Aamir Mufti in his published work has argued that for the Western media and governments, the Palestinian cause itself has, at times, become synonymous with terror, or anti-Semitism itself. This representation, Mufti explains, paraphrasing Edward Said and the philosopher Hannah Arendt, does not historically consider how the solution of the Jewish question in Europe (the brutal history of fascism) merely produced a new category of refugees: the Arabs.

The oppression of the Jewish population in the early part of the 20th century in Europe (and earlier in European history) and their statelessness (e.g. the Jewish population between the wars) was partially “solved” by the creation of “a new category” of stateless person, this time non-European. The state of statelessness has merely been displaced from (and by) Europe on to a Third World people. Mufti — following Said —argues the shameful reality is that liberal Europe (at the dawn of the decolonising process) created a colonial solution, a solution through which the Palestinian people became stateless.

He shows that, for Said (in his book The Question of Palestine), rather than the European Jew, it is now the Palestinian whose fate it is to be wasted away in prison without recourse, on the move ahead of yet (the Nakba-like images from Gaza) another invasion.

Coming back to our present day, soon after the October 7 attacks, the US media started publishing articles that implicitly understood that the status quo cannot be sustained. But the solutions have generally emphasised the creation of a neutral space following the destruction of Hamas as a political and military entity.

This would entail the imposition of a West Bank-kind of solution, with the help of Arab states to finance the project. This is a West Bank which, under the nominal governance of the Palestinian Authority, continues to struggle through diplomacy and international courts, keeping the light of the Oslo Accords alive (coordinating security with Israel), and yet it is defined as participating in “diplomatic terrorism” while the occupation remains entrenched.

Further, with approximately 700,000 Israeli settlers on expropriated land, the future of the two-state solution is becoming ever more illusionary.

The circulating plans in the op-ed pages of major Western newspapers pay little attention to the voices of the Palestinians themselves. The rhetoric is part of the normalisation process that has been embarked on with the Arab states, while the fate of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state remains unresolved.

FORCING A PEACE?

I cannot speak to how this current crisis will play out in historical terms. But I would contend that, very much like the Salvadoran state, the Israelis misunderstood the relative calm in Gaza as a containable stalemate. In only the last year, the increased attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinians in the West Bank, the contestation of the praying site that is reserved for Muslims, the entering of police into the Al Aqsa mosque and the normalisation process being negotiated with several Arab countries bypassing the Palestinians, may have been the immediate reasons for this military incursion.

Yet, one can speculate that Hamas, like the PLO post-the 1987 Intifada (similar to the way the FMLN assessed its future in a particular historical moment), understands that the changing geopolitics in the region calls for a different kind of thinking. The continued political and economic crisis in Lebanon (where they have Hezbollah as a major ally), the instability in Syria and the major Arab states (those which had a long history of moral and financial support for the Palestinian cause) negotiating their

own peace process with Israel, may have been a signal to imagine a different tract for the future.

In a recent column, Maria Habib and Ben Hubbard of the New York Times, shared interviews with the Hamas leadership to show that, despite Hamas’ commitment to the struggle for Palestinian sovereignty and self-determination, in the past few years, it had put forward arguments for a shared peace (much like Joaquin Villalobos of the FMLN) where people could live without fear, travel abroad, work in neighbouring states and take a walk on the beach to appreciate the sunset; the Hamas leadership had also earlier hinted at the possibility of a two-state solution.

The under-estimation by Israeli military intelligence of Hamas’ combat capabilities is one matter. But the issue remains: what are the long-term lessons that can be drawn at this juncture? The bombing and the killings continue (they may be paused for a few days as I write this piece) with continuing death and destruction in Gaza (over 15,000 killed).

Was this a miscalculation on the part of Hamas’ leadership or does it expose the brutality and the true face of the occupation? The question to ask may perhaps be: did Hamas in planning for October 7 make a long-term strategic assessment, as in the case of the FMLN in El Salvador?

As days pass, world opinion is already shifting and the clamour for a peaceful negotiation is gaining ground. Ironically, even the call for a more “sanitised” resolution mentioned above, has come after years of silence by the West on the commitment to a two-state solution, where two independent and sovereign nations can live side by side without conflict.

It is an old dictum that one makes peace with one’s adversaries. In El Salvador during the civil war, the FMLN were labelled as “terrorists” by the military, but it is with them that the peace accords were signed (we may also remember the evolution of the peace processes in Bosnia or Ireland).

Today in Palestine, the current violence should lead to a deeper understanding of the Palestinian national sentiment, the desire for independence and national sovereignty; it should alert us to the fact that the perpetuation of the status quo is not feasible for either side (the leaders who signed the 1993 accords — with all its problems — clearly understood this).

Perhaps now is the time to seize the initiative. There will be no peace in the region without a just and dignified solution for the Palestinians.

The writer is an anthropologist who has conducted research in Central America, the Middle East and South Asia

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 3rd, 2023

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