Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Palestinians need to stop perceiving victory in failure

Copyright (c) 2006 The Daily Star

Wednesday, May 31, 2006
Palestinians need to stop perceiving victory in failure

By Ghassan Rubeiz

To soften the hard-line position of Hamas on Israel, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas issued a threat last week to call for national referendum within 10 days. This initiative seems to be rapidly losing momentum. Palestinian hard-liners see it as ploy, while Israeli officials do not endorse it.
It would be very surprising if Hamas yielded to Abbas' move to challenge its authority in such a dramatic way. Hamas' rejection of Israel is visceral, and rejection is its "badge of identity." Hamas' formal position on the state of Israel can only be changed with
military force, electoral defeat or informal erosion of its local constituency. This power erosion is not likely to happen soon and easily. Abbas' referendum move may be interpreted by hard-line Arab power centers and many Palestinians as an outcome of American and Israeli pressure to marginalize Hamas. The perceived wish to please the West in Abbas' move may be the referendum's kiss of death.
Fundamentalist groups thrive on pressure, and religious mobilization operates on infinite energy. Will the referendum cost Abbas what he has left of his political power? It is still too early to bury the referendum initiative, but Abbas' move is an indication that Palestinians are struggling to get out of a political stalemate. In Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's speech last week to the United States Congress there were threats of terminating the peace process, leaving Palestinians hanging, at the mercy of future Israeli hegemony.
What choices do Palestinians have today facing an adversary whose demands are unconditional surrender? Palestinians face grave asymmetry of power with the occupier. They are backed by feeble Arab regimes and they are threatened by crippling divisions of ideology. Will Olmert's speech force Palestinians to swallow their pride and become politically more discerning and future-oriented?
The choice of militant resistance assumes that Palestinians will achieve victory through war, with and without rules of combat. Militant leaders dream of bringing Israel to its knees. Hamas and Islamic Jihad mobilize young men through religious symbols, demand unlimited Palestinian sacrifice, count on expanding demographic power and calls for increased Arab support. Is this form of struggle working?
Israel's occupation is gradually turning into annexation, while the international image of Palestinians is not improving. Without intending to bring about such a thing, the nature of chaotic Palestinian military strategy extends the life of Israel's hegemony.
Palestinian political leadership has been divided and fratricidal. The toll of human suffering has been too harsh, especially on civilians and children. Militant ideologues ignore the fact that liberation is about state building, not only about regaining land. Authoritarian leadership and closed ideologies do not generate mature political independence. Extreme ideologues are not mindful that Palestinians are fighting an unrealistic war against a regional superpower, backed by a global superpower. Too many Palestinians are choosing to fight and lose, to fight more and lose more. For how long will militant Palestinian ideologues perceive victory in failure?
Since peace is not realistic in the near future, Palestinians should develop a longer-term strategy of popular civic resistance. Israel will enjoy for the near future a political honeymoon of hegemony in the absence of an international mechanism to enforce justice. But through its ruthless occupation Israel is sowing the seeds of corrosion of its own political system. Israel will not be able in the long run to cope with the consequences of its occupation of Palestinian territory.
Is it time for Palestinians to recognize the power of civic resistance in order to reverse the occupation with political organization? In recent times, popular resistance worked well in South Africa, in Eastern Europe, in Ireland and elsewhere. It can work for the Palestinians. But in order for civic resistance to work well, the Palestinians need to unite, embrace the rule of law in their struggle, and open links with peace partners within Israel and outside.
Palestinians have lost much so far. Yet their unity, moral courage and vulnerability may turn out to be their greatest assets for a brighter future.
Ghassan Rubeiz ( is the former Middle East director of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

Copyright (c) 2006 The Daily Star


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