By Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center
and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs.
July 9, 2006.
Understandably, most people in the world fail to understand Palestinian ideology
and strategy today largely because it is so bizarre compared to politics as usual.
Before examining the basic principles of the Palestinian approach it is useful to
consider how things usually work, and thus what people who don’t know much
about Palestinian politics think they are like.
Normal politics features realizable goals, paying keen attention to the balance of
forces, avoiding losing conflicts, and seeking a stable state.
They also include such things as putting a high priority on raising living
standards and building effective institutions to serve the people.
Every day Western governments, media and academics try to impose this model
on Palestinian behavior, politics and ideology. Yet it just doesn’t work. The
things many in the West think motivates Palestinians – getting a state, ending
the occupation – are of no interest in their own right. Indeed, the only way to
maintain the pretence is a combination of amnesia and abandoning of the kind
of rational analysis used to view any other political situation in the world.
I must add that in private (though virtually never in public) Palestinian
intellectuals sound a lot like me. Over and over again, one hears disgust,
despair and profound cynicism along the lines described below.
Given the current Palestinian ideology and strategy the conflict is unsolvable,
and there is no way to stop the violence. On the other hand, as a result,
Palestinian tactics are unworkable, politics are disorganized, and military
strategy is self-defeating. The Palestinians can harass Israel, but not much
HERE ARE the basic points for understanding Palestinian politics:
- There are hardly any moderate Palestinians in public life and even those
few generally keep their mouths shut, or echo the militant majority. With few
exceptions – countable on your fingers – a Palestinian moderate in practice can
usually be defined as someone who apologizes for terrorism in good English.
The mantra of “helping the moderates” cannot work under these conditions.
- Fatah and PLO strategy rests on the belief that defeat is staved off as
long as you keep fighting. Their only true victory is to continue the struggle. Of
course, the cost of this is not only violence, suffering and disruption, but also a
failure to achieve anything material.This is why the “cycle of violence” concept is useless. Palestinians don’t attack
Israel because Israel attacks them, but because that is their sole program.
- Whatever the common people think privately, the vast majority of
activists believe everything must be subsumed to the struggle.Democracy, living standards, women’s rights and so on have no value outside
contributing to the battle against Israel. This is why the idea of appealing to
Palestinian material interests or finding some leader who puts the priority on
achieving peace and plenty fails.
- The interim goal is to be able to claim phony victories, which are actually
costly defeats. If after 40 years of armed struggle the movement’s great
triumphs are destroying one Israeli outpost a year or kidnapping a single soldier,
this shows its remarkable weakness on the battlefield. Inflicting damage on
Israel via rocket attacks serves no Palestinian strategic objective except to
make people feel good about damaging Israel (even while they suffer far more
damage themselves).Celebrating martyrs simply means bragging about your own casualties.
- The movement’s social policy is remarkably reactionary. Despite its leftist
veneer it does not activate the masses except as an audience to cheer on the
heroes. Fatah has no economic or social policy; Hamas seeks to turn Palestine
into Iran or Afghanistan.They have more in common with the world view of the Middle Ages than with
Chinese or Cuban visions of guerrilla war. Palestinian groups use only a tiny
proportion of the potential for large-scale social mobilization, a feature far more
characteristic of the supposedly soft Israeli society.
- Not only is infrastructure unimportant, it interferes with waging all-out
struggle. If Palestinians become obsessed with job creation, educational or
health systems or a successful economy this makes them satisfied with their lot
and less willing to fight and die for the cause.This concept, jarring for Western observers, is common in the Middle East.
Consider Saddam Hussein’s irresponsible aggressions and the Syrian rulers’
preference for stagnation over reform.
- Use your people’s suffering to win international support. No fear of
destruction or popular suffering deters Palestinian leaders. After it was charged
that Hamas laid mines on a Gaza beach killing civilians last month, an American
newspaper opined that Hamas would never do this to its own people.On the contrary: There is a long pattern of sacrificing Palestinian lives and
welfare for propaganda gains. Children are encouraged by the official
Palestinian media to become terrorists and hence martyrs.
- Lie endlessly, not only to everyone else but to yourself, portraying Israel
as always wrong and America as always hostile. Their inability to transcend
propaganda and the incessant demonization has ensured – except for rare times
during the Oslo process – that the Palestinians cannot maneuver successfully in
dealing with these countries.
THIS IS A losing strategy: Destroy your infrastructure, subvert international and
even Arab support through extremism – no one is now even surprised that Arab
states do nothing to help the Palestinians out of their mess – throw away
chances for interim gains (like getting a state) to avoid compromising the
chance for total victory, repeat old mistakes, rejoice over defeats as producing
martyrs, taunt the world’s sole superpower, exalt anarchy, and forfeit any
chance of winning sympathy on the other side.
Such a suicide strategy, like suicide bombing, can inflict losses on the enemy
but cannot defeat it. Indeed, by sacrificing so many possible benefits it ensures
that the gap steadily widens in favor of the other side.
Far from any sign of resistance to this disastrous approach it seems capable of
providing decades more of glorious defeat and martyrdom.
Maybe it will even go on long enough for those in the West who keep
expecting something different to understand what’s going on.