The Aksa intifada has succeeded in altering agendas both in Israel and the region. In Israel, it has drawn Arab citizens into the struggle for the first time, while pushing the Labor Party rightward. In the wider Arab world, it directly threatens the existing regimes, which have no choice but to hear its demands. In these respects this second intifada differs from the original of 1987-1990. The original had a clear program (the present one doesn't), but it remained cooped up within the Occupied Territories. The Arabs in Israel refrained from taking an active part, and the Arab world remained dormant. Lebanese singer Julia Butrus denounced their inaction in a song - or cry - of despair: "Where are the millions of our people?" The song was played repeatedly by radio stations encouraging the intifada. Now, a decade later, it is being played again, but this time the will of the Palestinian street intersects with that of the Arab masses. This meeting signifies more than solidarity. The peoples of the Arab world, including those in Israel, have understood that their lives have no more value than that of Muhammad Dura, twelve years old, shot dead on camera in the arms of his father at Netzarim Junction in Gaza.
What do the people on the street want?
The Arab street is calling for war against Israel. One can hear this cry on television stations, in interviews and in newspaper articles. It hovered like a goblin's shadow over the Arab summit in Cairo on October 21. The Iraqi and Yemenite representatives adopted this cry, calling for a holy war. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who hosted the conference - and had specialized till then in carefully ambiguous formulations - was forced to lay his cards on the table: "Egypt will not take part in a war. We must cleave to the strategy of peace (which was adopted in the Arab summit of 1996 - Ed.)." War is no child's play, he said, adding that he did not intend to sacrifice a single Egyptian soldier in another engagement with Israel. In line with Mubarak's position, hundreds of articles have appeared in the newspapers of the Arab world explaining the official position: conditions are not ripe for war because of Israel's military superiority. What we can do, say the commentators, is toughen our demands on the diplomatic plane and cease to normalize relations with Israel. After the summit, Tunisia, Morocco and Oman followed suit by breaking those relations.
The call for war is strange. How have the masses reached such a point? The answer is easy: Following a decade of so-called peace, they have become convinced that only a war can relieve their misery. With this demand, the street expresses its absolute loss of confidence in the strategy of peace, which left Arab lands in the hands of Israel despite Arab readiness to make important concessions. They are also convinced that the American bias toward Israel won't change.
If we look deeper, however, we can see that the call for war expresses a loss of confidence in the Arab regimes themselves. The call amounts to an indirect form of speech, by which one can attack the regime with impunity. Everyone knows that war with Israel is of the lowest priority for Arab rulers. These for their part understand that the street is sending them a coded message: "We oppose your policies, your corruption and your alliance with the US and Israel." The leaders of Egypt and Jordan, having signed peace treaties with Israel, fear that the demonstrations in support of the new intifada will turn on their own regimes. We should not underestimate the intelligence of the masses. Like their rulers, they know very well that the balance of military force is against them. Having lost faith in the dictatorships, however, they have reached a point where they've nothing to lose. In recent years, most Arab states have subjected their peoples to the harsh economic regimen required by Washington. Privatization, the removal of subsidies and unemployment - these have been the wages of the peace decade. Moreover, in addition to economic improvement, people want democracy, an end to corruption, basic freedoms. Of all the regimes at the Arab summit, not one met these criteria.
Nevertheless, the cry for war under present conditions is merely an act of protest. In order to improve their lot, the Arab peoples will have to exchange their dictatorial regimes for democratic ones. Until this happens, the current balance of forces will remain.
What do the Arab regimes want? They want one thing: to hold to their seats. This is also true of the PA (Palestinian Authority). We should not let Arafat's bombast confuse us when he claims to be marching to Jerusalem. At Camp David he refrained from signing the final-status agreement, not because he didn't want to, but because he couldn't. Apparently he told Bill Clinton: If you force me to surrender al-Aksa, I'd better have Arab backing, else my fate will be that of Anwar Sadat. Clinton pressured Egypt and Saudi Arabia to give a green light. To the consternation of the negotiators, they refused. If Arafat's subsequent actions are an indicator, his response was impulsive: Those actions said, as it were, to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Since you're not letting me sign, I'll go in the other direction, and things will get hot for you too! Why didn't Egypt and Saudi Arabia comply with Clinton's demand? Because the leaders knew the mood in the street. What saved the Palestinian people from a shameful agreement was its own public opinion together with that of the Arab world.
A month after the start of the uprising, it is clear that a more suitable name is not "al-Aksa", but rather, "intifada from the bottom up". In vain Israel demands of Arafat that he end the clashes. Ha'aretz (November 1) quotes an unnamed Israeli political source: in a recent telephone conversation Arafat told Barak he has difficulty controlling the street, because the events express the will of the Palestinian people. The PA with its 30,000 rifles today merely watches from the rear while the youth up front throw stones and get shot. The figures demonstrate this too clearly. According to the human rights organization B'tselem, in the Territories during the past month Israel's army has killed 14 members of the Palestinian security forces and 95 civilians, of whom 23 were younger than 17.
The PA is bound to Israel by an umbilical cord. It is Israel's creation, set up to hold the Palestinian people in check. Despite the daily massacres, until this writing it hasn't cancelled the Oslo Accord. Here too the reason is simple: it has no alternative strategy. The only thing the PA wants to gain from this intifada is a shift in America's attitude. Along with the other Arab leaders, Arafat has concluded that the Clinton administration will not change its stripes. He pins his hopes on a Republican administration under George W. Bush. These hopes are baseless, however. The Republican-led Congress has quite consistently sided with Israel.
Where is the new intifada going? A decade ago the PLO joined the Madrid Conference, abandoning armed struggle. The leaders of Fatah countered their opponents from the Left and the Islamic movements, asking, "What's the alternative?" The collapse of the Soviet Union and the US victory over Iraq left them, they thought, no option but to go with America. This reading of the map was correct for its time, but revolutionary leaders must not be guided merely by the moment. At best, the rhetorical question of Fatah reflected its inability to mount a struggle in the face of the hard conditions that then obtained. At worst, it reflected Fatah's unwillingness to go on struggling at all. In any case, it ducked the real task: to reject the conditions laid down by Madrid and Oslo, preparing their people instead for a change in the global situation.
Strangely and sadly, the very same people who ten years ago muttered "No alternative" appear morning and night nowadays on the TV screen, mouthing slogans like: "We'll fight until we have liberated all our lands!" They cry, "Back to the UN resolutions!" - as though they themselves had not exchanged them for the Oslo Accord. It is they, not the Islamists or the Left, who have taken the role of spokespersons for the new intifada. These are the same people who, throughout the past decade, have pushed for normalization - people who worked hand in glove with the CIA, people who arrested their former comrades at Israel's behest. They are members of the same armed squads that until now conducted gang wars, settling accounts with each other, in order to gain positions of leverage in the Territories.
Foremost among them is the Tanzim (or "organization"). This is a force composed of members of Fatah, the Arafat faction within the PLO. Its adherents are to be distinguished from the people he brought with him from Tunis. Arafat turned the "Tunisians" into the core of the PA's ruling establishment, but he also built up and armed the leaders of the local popular movement, including many who took part in the original intifada. These make up the Tanzim. They bear grudges against both Arafat and the corrupt "Tunisians", but they do not constitute an alternative to the PA. In the recent clashes, Arafat has used the Tanzim in order to avoid committing his official security forces. The Tanzim activists have agreed to this arrangement in order to improve their position with regard to the future distribution of power. Yet this intifada derives its power neither from Arafat with his Tunisians nor from the Tanzim. It comes from the outraged street. Seven years after Oslo, the people has come back to the starting point: there is no way other than struggle. The seven-year-old diplomatic surrender has produced only poverty, not a state. It burdened the people with a dictator who is now attempting to save his skin by riding the wave of rage.
No doubt the young men throwing stones would like the current battles to become a War of Independence, freeing them from the Israeli yoke - from the roadblocks and the settlements. But this is far from being Arafat's program. He is dependent on the US and Israel down to the very last rifle. Without their approval he has no money to meet his budget. Indeed, without their approval he cannot travel or make a phone call or turn on an electric light, for all these things remain under Israeli control. (Twice this month, for example, Barak has closed Gaza's airport.) Arafat is in no position, therefore, to throw off the American framework and opt for a lengthy guerrilla war. Instead, he attempts to buy time, hoping that the US will finally give him the bit more rope he wants. On the one hand, then, he refrains from declaring a state and burning the bridges. On the other hand, he refuses to sign a final-status agreement ending the conflict. The narrow space between these alternatives is dangerously volatile, as the present explosion shows. In the absence of an independent, revolutionary leadership, the new intifada can lead to nothing except protracted conflict.
The central problem, then, remains: the Arab street, especially the Palestinian street, has no political alternative to the existing leadership. The Palestinian opposition, for example, had seven whole years to prepare for this moment. Instead of offering a program to counter corruption, guarantee democratic freedoms, nullify the economic arrangements of Oslo, defend the workers, dismantle the settlements, free the prisoners - instead of all that, opposition put its efforts into "dialogue" with the PA, attempting to get it to toughen its positions in the talks with Israel.
There can be no alternative to Oslo as long as Yasser Arafat and the PA are in charge. This leadership is presently squirming under the pressure of the masses, maneuvering in order to stay in power. It has deceived and robbed its people. For these reasons, a change of leadership is today the most pressing Palestinian need.
Arafat and the PA represent the Palestinian bourgeoisie. The various factions of Fatah, including the leaders of the Tanzim, are not essentially different. Their purpose is to re-cut the cake, gaining jobs and leverage. If the people is to gain independence, it will have to look elsewhere: to the working class. Only a leadership that is free from private material interests will be able to reject the hegemony of America and Israel, binding the Palestinian people instead to the struggle for a worldwide socialist program.