Palestine - The New Intifada

The Palestinian Intifada (uprising) which erupted on September 28, 2000 was in no way accidental. Ariel Sharons provocative visit with 1,000 armed men to the Al Aqsa mosque was only the spark that set it off. Murray Smith looks at where the Intifada came from and where it can go.

In December 1987 the first, six year-long intifada was sparked off by a minor incident where four Palestinians were run over by an Israeli lorry. But it represented an outpouring of suppressed rage after 20 years of Israeli occupation. It also reflected increasing frustration with the inability of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), whose leadership was in exile in Tunis, to offer any way forward.

The second Intifada is equally an explosion of pentup anger, not only at the continuing occupation of most of the West Bank and Gaza, but at the degradation of the conditions of life for the mass of the Palestinian population and the continuing and indeed accelerating process of colonisation by Israeli settlers. The new Intifada marks the end of Palestinian patience with seven years of the socalled peace process, which was supposed to lead to the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

In fact, the Israelis are no nearer accepting a viable independent Palestinian state than they were ten years ago. The propositions put forward by Barak at the failed Camp David negotiations in July offered no solution that is acceptable to the Palestinians. They offered no solution to the issue of shared sovereignty over Jerusalem, no solution to the problem of the refugees, no promise of total Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, and no prospect of dismantling any but a small minority of the Israeli settlements. What the proposals amounted to was a plan to trisect the West Bank into three cantons by annexing blocs of settlements.

Israel would retain control over links between the cantons, as well as the border with Jordan and would have overflying rights. Something like this is precisely what Israel has had in mind all along. The objective has never been to coexist with a genuinely independent Palestinian state. It has been to retain overall control over the occupied territories, to dominate them economically, politically and militarily and to leave the Palestinian Authority with a travesty of a state whose essential role would be to control the Palestinian population as it ekes out a miserable existence in a series of bantustans. Their reward for this would be the formal trappings of power and the material privileges that accrue to it.


Seven years ago the Oslo- Washington agreements between Israel and the PLO were signed, symbolised by the famous handshake between Rabin and Arafat on the White House lawn with Clinton looking on like a proud father. Oslo was the result of the combination of two processes.

In the first place, Arafat and the PLO leadership were faced with an increasingly unfavourable relationship of forces within Israel-Palestine and in the Middle East generally. They were confronted with the might of Israel backed by the USA, and they had no reliable allies among the Arab states. From 1974 onwards the PLO edged towards envisaging the establishment of a Palestinian state, no longer in the whole of historic Palestine, but in the areas occupied by Israel in 1967 (22 per cent of pre-1948 Palestine). In 1988 they formally recognised the right to exist of the State of Israel. The situation of the PLO became acute in 1991 with the defeat of Iraq (which the Palestinians had supported) in the Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The first negotiations which would lead to the Oslo agreement took place at Madrid in October 1991. Parallel with this, the Intifada from 1987 onwards made it increasingly difficult for Israel to continue a straightforward military occupation. It was too costly in terms of its effects on the economy and on Israeli society. The first twenty years of the Israeli occupation had brought about significant changes in Palestinian society. Israeli land considerable extent, proletarianised, working either in Israel or in the local economy for the Israeli market.

This process, plus the expansion of higher education, produced the layer of radicalised youth who were the backbone of the Intifada. Arafat was ready to sign the Oslo agreement, ready to repress those Palestinians who expropriations had weakened the hold of the traditional landowners and the peasant population had become, to a opposed it, ready to make concessions in partial negotiations because he believed that at the end of the day he would get a viable Palestinian state. But as the negotiations dragged on in fits and starts for seven long years, it became increasingly clear that this was not the case. Click here for details.

What have been the concrete results of this agreement? What has Oslo meant for the different components of Palestinian society?

The objective has never been to coexist with a genuinely independent Palestinian state. It has been to retain overall control over the occupied territories, to dominate them economically, politically and militarily.


The agreements created the Palestinian Authority which from 1994 on installed itself in the occupied territories. It gradually took complete control of the main population centres, including security, and administrative responsibility for other populated areas, with Israel retaining control of security. It dutifully played its allotted role of policing the population, arresting hundreds of Islamists and leftists who were opposed to Oslo. The Oslo agreements were a very good thing for some Palestinians - the landowners, the bourgeoisie and the bureaucracy of the Palestinian Authority. The land-owning class saw its situation reinforced and became a key support of the PA. More than half of the ministers in the government formed after the 1996 Palestinian elections came from this class.

The second beneficiary was the Palestinian bourgeoisie, a parasitic class feeding off its role in the import-export trade between Israel and the territories and its control over the distribution of imported goods. This class had considerably enriched itself under Israeli occupation and continued to do so under the PA.

The Palestinian economy is totally dependent on the Israeli economy. 95 per cent of exports go to Israel, 85 per cent of imports come from Israel. Israels control of frontiers and transport make it virtually impossible to develop other commercial relations. Palestine has a trade deficit of approximately half of its GDP, which is financed by foreign aid, essentially from the USA, Europe and Japan. After 1993, the leading layers of the Palestinian Authority bureaucracy came together with the local capitalists to form a bureaucratic bourgeoisie.

The Palestinian Commercial Service Company, wholly owned by the PA, holds majority shares in the 34 biggest Palestinian companies. Licences to import and export and distribution rights were allocated on political grounds and corruption was rife.

The lifestyle of this privileged layer contrasted sharply with the poverty and deprivation of the mass of the people. 100,000 people, a fifth of the Palestinian workforce, are employed by the PA in the public sector. Jobs, some of which are fictitious, are allocated on the basis of political loyalty, real or affected. 40,000 of these public sector employees are employed by the security forces, of which there are 13 different kinds. This represents approximately one policeman for every 30 Palestinian adults. Although the PA was not yet a state it was well equipped to fulfil the repressive role of one.


Twenty per cent of the Palestinian labour force work either in Israel or in the settlements. They are completely dependent on the whims of the Israeli army which can close the frontier at any hint of trouble and has repeatedly done so. These workers have not been able to work since the Intifada began. Most of the rest of the labour force works in agriculture, transport and commerce, all tied into the Israeli economy. Unemployment was running at between 25 per cent and 40 per cent before the Intifada.

The effects of the Israeli blockade have pushed it up nearer 70 per cent and created enormous hardship for the population of the West Bank and Gaza. The number of Palestinians working inside Israel has fluctuated over the years. It has actually declined over the recent period.

For example, before the first Intifada 100,000 workers from Gaza worked in Israel, during the Intifada the figure went down to 60,000, and it was only 25,000 before the outbreak of the second Intifada. This illustrates the nature of the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians.

The colonial-imperialist character of this relationship does not necessarily depend on the exploitation of Palestinian labour by Israeli capital. In this sense, comparisons with apartheid South Africa, which spring to mind in relation to the bantustans, are inaccurate. The original Zionist project did not envisage keeping the Arab population as a source of exploitation. It involved replacing the Arab population by a Jewish population. After 1967 Palestinian labour was however heavily utilised in the Israeli economy. In the mid-70s 25 per cent of the industrial workforce in Israel was made up of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and those from the occupied territories. In the building industry the figure was 50 per cent.

One might have expected this process to accelerate under the peace process. In fact it was the opposite which occurred. The aim of Rabin and Peres was not to encourage Palestinians to work in Israel but on the contrary to work towards a complete separation between Israel and the territories which would make up the future Palestinian statelet.

Since 1993 we can see two phenomena at work which tend to reduce the role of the Palestinian working class in the Israeli economy.

First of all, there has been a conscious policy of replacing Palestinian labour inside Israel by immigrant workers, mainly from Asia and the former Eastern bloc. In 1999, there were at least 200,000 of these international workers, half of them illegal, making up 10 per cent of the active population. They earn less than half of the wages of an Israeli worker and have to work long hours with no holidays or pension rights. Unlike the Palestinians, they do not pose any security problems to Israel. Although on the scale on which they are now employed, they will certainly begin to pose other problems for Israeli society.

Secondly, the Oslo accords enabled Israeli capital to begin penetrating the Arab world, through those parts of it which had established diplomatic or commercial relations with Israel. One aspect of this has been a tendency to partially replace the exploitation of Palestinian labour in the occupied territories by delocalising production to take advantage of the even cheaper labour in Jordan and Egypt. The result of the Oslo accords has therefore not only been political repression of the Palestinians through the continued occupation of large parts of the territories. It has not only been the continuing expropriation of Palestinian land to build settlements and the network of roads which connects them. It has also been a major attack on the right to work and the living standards of the Palestinian working class.

According to the World Bank, GNP per head of population fell by 20 per cent in the West Bank and Gaza between 1993 and 1996. In 1996 it was 500 per head per year in the West Bank and 300 in Gaza. That compares with 7,000 per head per year in Israel. So for the mass of the Palestinian population Oslo has meant falling living standards, continued harassment by the Israeli army and the settlers and a situation where their movements are controlled at all times. Not only between Israel and the territories, not only between Gaza and the West Bank, but even between towns on the West Bank.

And presiding over this increasingly catastrophic situation has been a repressive and corrupt PA. In fact, beyond enriching itself and the Palestinian elite and policing the population, the PA has done very little else to justify its existence.


That is the background to the Intifada. There is no doubt that it was a spontaneous uprising. And although it came as a surprise to the world at large the Israeli authorities had been warned for some time by their intelligence services to expect some kind of outbreak, particularly since the demonstrations for the release of Palestinian prisoners in May 2000.

But this spontaneous upsurge was very quickly organised. And the moving force that organised it was neither the Islamic fundamentalists of Hamas nor the Palestinian Left, which has consistently shown itself incapable of presenting a serious opposition to Arafat. It was forces belonging to Yasser Arafats own political party, Fatah. And to be more precise it was the cadres of the Tanzeem who had been formed in the first Intifada. Tanzeem means simply organisation in Arabic.

The Tanzeem is a militia, or a network of militias, which depends not on the PA but on Fatah, which is the dominant force in the PA. Some of its members are also members of the official security forces. Although they recognise Arafats authority, its members are essentially loyal to local leaders. Most of them are veterans of the first Intifada, and they provide the backbone of the present uprising.

The Tanzeem have been active in denouncing the corruption of the PA, in resisting land expropriations to build new settlements and in defending Palestinian prisoners. There is great hostility between them and the Tunisians, the bureaucracy-in-exile that Arafat brought back with him in 1994 and which took up the key posts in the PA administration.

This layer is the most associated with the pervasive corruption, the most pro-American and the most disposed to make concessions to Israel. The principal spokesperson for the Tanzeem is Marwan Barghouti, general secretary of Fatah in the West Bank and presented by the Israeli authorities as the organiser of the Intifada. Barghouti had been expressing the doubts of many activists about the peace process since 1997 and has led a campaign to democratise Fatah with the evident intention of ousting those leaders most compromised with Israel.

His pronouncements since the beginning of the present Intifada have systematically expressed scepticism about the negotiations and put the emphasis on continuing the Intifada to force the Israelis into negotiations on Palestinian terms.
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Interviewed by the Paris daily Le Monde (October 26, 2000), Barghouti explained: We have created local coordinating committees of the movement. Thirty parties are represented, from the communists to the Islamists. These committees decide on the progress of the Intifada on a daily basis.

These local committees are co-ordinated by a Committee of national and Islamic political forces. To the question Who leads these committees? Barghouti replied: The decisions are collective but Fatah has the majority. As to the aims of the Intifada, Barghouti explained: The Intifada wont stop, unless negotiations open on other bases.We will use every means of resistance in the occupied territories but we will not carry the war into Israel. (Rouge, weekly paper of the French LCR, November 30, 2000)

That in a nutshell is the attitude of the leadership of the Intifada. It invites several comments. First of all the fact that Fatah is leading the movement is acting to some extent to limit the influence of Hamas. This is not unimportant. The Islamists had built up considerable support since 1993 on the basis of being the firmest opponents of Oslo and also of not being tainted by the stench of corruption that has surrounded the Palestinian Authority.

Secondly, the fact of not carrying the war into Israel is correct from the point of view of not pushing the Jewish population into the arms of the Right, although it has so far had a limited effect. However, there have been some such attacks and there will no doubt be others. They could come either from Hamas or from within Fatah itself.

Palestinian public opinion would not at present condemn them. In a recent opinion poll 66.2 per cent of Palestinians were in favour of suicide attacks against civilian targets in Israel. In a similar poll conduced in March 1999 only 26.3 per cent were in favour.

The difference can no doubt be accounted for by months of seeing unarmed Palestinian civilians killed by the Israeli army. Most importantly, Barghouti and the leadership of the Intifada are giving expression to the aspirations of the Palestinian masses.

What Barghouti is saying to the Israelis is in substance: we recognise the State of Israel but we will make life unbearable for you in the Occupied Territories until you come to an agreement that we can accept. Because what you are offering now is unacceptable. He goes on: The Israelis want everything: peace, security, stability, plus the settlements and a Palestinian state without Jerusalem and without real sovereignty. Thats impossible. They must leave the territories, and then there will be no more clashes.

The Tanzeem is providing leadership not only politically but militarily. For the Intifada has evolved gradually but unquestionably from spontaneous demonstrations and stone-throwing to systematic guerrilla activity against the army and the settlers. And the Israelis have responded by resorting to one of their traditional methods, assassinations of Fatah cadres.

Yasser Arafat has always sought to balance between the PLO/PA bureaucracy and the Palestinian masses. After his return to Palestine in 1994 he was seen as closely associated with the new ruling elite. In the present situation he has chosen to put his authority behind the Intifada and support the Tanzeem. It is at least in part a question of political survival. His authority has been seriously undermined by the failure of the peace process.

"The Israelis want everything: peace, security, stability, plus the settlements and a Palestinian state without Jerusalem and without real sovereignty. Thats impossible." Marwan Barghouti, General Secretary of Fatah, in the West Bank.

In the same opinion poll quoted above, only 25.7 per cent of Palestinians said they had confidence in him. Six months previously it was 31.8 per cent. Sheikh Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, went up from 6.1 per cent to 12.2 per cent. Significantly, 32 per cent of Palestinians said they had no confidence in any Palestinian political leader.

But Arafat is not only reacting to Palestinian public opinion. What Israel is offering him and the PA is hardly appetising. To preside over 3 million Palestinians, half of whom are under 16 and 30,000 of whom come on to the labour market each year, in a devastated economy and at the mercy of the Israeli army and the settlers, crammed into 20 per cent of historic Palestine while the other 80 per cent is occupied by a population of 6 million in present-day Israel.

Arafat and Fatah are probably ready to haggle over Jerusalem but not abandon it, and to accept certain annexations but not a state cut up and dotted with Israeli settlements.

In fact to paraphrase Barghouti, the Israelis have in the seven years since Oslo pretty much had everything. They have had relative peace and security, they have been able to establish diplomatic and commercial relations in the Arab world and sign a peace treaty with Jordan. And they have given very little in return. There is still no Palestinian state, and none of the key issues - Jerusalem, the borders, the refugees, the settlements - have been resolved.