I Have a Palestinian Dream

There is a desperate need for a new Palestinian strategy. What is now being done is clearly not working. More of the same will only produce more suffering, more tension and ever deepening disaster. A reassessment is long overdue.

To begin such an effort, it is important to outline some of the constants that define the parameters of the current situation. The first of these, I believe, is the simple fact that the Sharon government is unwilling to make peace on terms that provide the Palestinians with their basic rights. This Israeli government’s current objectives appear to be: the military defeat of the Palestinians; the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority and the delegitimization of its leadership; and the end of the Oslo process and the imposition of "peace" on Israel’s terms.

Second, it is clear that the Administration will not intervene to restrain Israel’s aggressive behavior. They are not pleased with Israel’s actions and would like to see a negotiated settlement to the conflict on the terms outlined by Secretary Powell. But they will not act in a public or decisive manner to pressure Israel. Therefore, despite the fanciful hopes or the insistence of some Arabs, there will be no U.S.-led Kosovo-style rescue, or Kuwait-style liberation -- nor will there be a U.S.-imposed, or even U.S.-supported peacekeeping or protection force sent into the occupied lands. In fact, there will not even be a U.S.-supported U.N. resolution that calls for the formation of any of the above. Given the absence of any possibility of any outside rescue effort, it is important to look elsewhere.

Third, not only are Palestinians losing on the ground, but they are losing the information battle in the U.S.. There is no organized effort in the United States to publicize the Palestinian point of view. Israel and its well-funded supporters, therefore, have a clear playing field that they use to their advantage. They have succeeded in defining the terms of the current debate and in demonizing the Palestinian Authority, its president, Yasser Arafat, and in portraying themselves as the victims and the Palestinians as the aggressors.

Fourth, there will be no European rescue. The European Union, as well as other international players -- the Russians, Chinese, the non-aligned nations, Organization of the Islamic Conference, etc. -- will express concern and pass an occasional resolution, but they will not act. They have no real leverage -- or more accurately, no interest in using whatever leverage they do have, since they do not wish to force an open confrontation with the United States. Even the Arab states, though deeply distressed and angered at the situation unfolding in Palestine, will not be able to rescue the situation.

Finally, it is important to recognize that the collapse of the peace process and the resumption of violence has hardened Israeli public opinion. As a result, Sharon’s hand has been strengthened and the Labor party has been weakened to the point of collapse.

If the above observations are correct, then none of the previous strategies will work, be it requests for U.N intervention, appeals for international solidarity, or more violence against Israelis (whether soldiers, settlers or innocent civilians) .

I can hear someone in the Arab world complaining right now about the right to "armed struggle against occupation". And it reminds me of a story. In 1979, while I was running the Palestine Human Rights Campaign, I had the pleasure of hosting the late Tawfiq Zayyad, Mayor of Nazareth. During a town meeting, he received a hostile question from a young man who challenged Zayyad’s criticism of PLO-led guerilla attacks from Lebanon. The questioner ended his remarks, reminding the mayor of the "inalienable" right of an occupied people to use armed struggle to resist occupation. Zayyad responded, "It is correct that you have the right to armed struggle. But when you use that right as badly as you have used it, then you forfeit the right and have to find a better way to liberation".

I believe we are in the same situation today. The suicide bombings in Israel and this bizarre effort to turn the West Bank into South Lebanon by introducing new weapons systems are destructive and, I might add, stupid. They have resulted in increased suffering and done great damage to the Palestinian cause. At this time, violence in any form only begets more violence. As one Palestinian leader noted a short while ago, "When we use stones, they use guns. When we use guns, they use tanks," and so it goes. If this is the case, and it is, then what possible good would rockets be?

And with Israel’s vast public relations abilities, they have been able to transform the reality of every event to meet their political needs. Stone throwers become violent criminals and assassinated young men become "ticking bombs" -- with no evidence presented or needed to make their case.

It is, therefore, critical to find a new way. To begin, however, it is vital that the violence must end. This will be hard to do. Israel’s brutally aggressive behavior continues and only seems to deepen Palestinian anger and heighten passions. But it must, nonetheless, be stopped -- even if it is done at great cost to the Palestinian Authority.

It must be stopped because this violence is totally counterproductive. What has it yielded other than death -- for Israelis and for even more Palestinians? Not only has violence failed to produce anything positive and actually increased repression and suffering, it has repeatedly sabotaged the efforts of the Palestinian Authority to negotiate and create more favorable conditions on the ground. It has been politically disastrous as well. The bombings and killings have damaged the world’s view of the Palestinians' legitimate struggle for self-determination, and have allowed the likes of Sharon and Netanyahu to transform their public personas in the West from the brutal bullies that they are into defenders of a beleaguered people.

When the violence ends, the Palestinian people can then begin a full-scale campaign designed to change the political dynamics in their favor. The area most in need of change and potentially most responsive to change is public perception -- both in the United States and Israel.

A small and courageous groups of people are currently engaged in civil disobedience in the occupied territories against the occupation forces. These efforts should gain support and grow in size. Large scale and completely peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins and disruptions of traffic can occur in Jerusalem, on West Bank roads, and at check points. Only if they are preceded by a period of peace, and are themselves completely peaceful, can these actions have their desired impact.

As Martin Luther King and other practitioners of such tactics have taught, non-violencce resistance follows the same rationale as "jui-jitsu". When facing a more powerful foe, never play into his power, but attempt to turn his power into his weakness.

A peaceful march of tens of thousands of unarmed Palestinians converging on the city of Jerusalem from all points in the West Bank, carrying banners that read "Let my people pray" or "Let my people go home" would tie the hands of the Israeli military. If they use violence, they will lose. If they allowed the march, the Palestinians would gain new power and win. A key point here is to empower the Palestinian people and to enable them to regain their victim status and to strip the Israelis of their mantle of self-defense. There are many other such tactics that could be developed into a comprehensive campaign.

All of this must be complemented by a political peace initiative launched by the leadership and proposed to the people of Israel. It should hold out the terms of a comprehensive peace -- based on terms that meet the legitimate needs of all parties. And it should be realistic. For example, while the Barak offer was clearly unacceptable, it appears that the Clinton offer, especially after the parties narrowed their differences at Taba in January 2001, was more acceptable. To be able to put this Clinton "plus" back on the table -- coupled with a period of peace and a campaign of non-violent protest -- might have a transformative impact in Israel and in the U.S. It would certainly cause Sharon some great discomfort. He needs the violence to survive -- a real peace campaign would weaken his hold.

The current path has led to a dead end. The anger in Palestine today is so great and the pain so deep that it will be very difficult to carve a new path. But the Arab world, and those who care about a just and lasting peace, must work together and begin a discussion about a new and radically different approach. Vengeance by either party is counterproductive and leads to certain destruction.

Let us begin a debate.

James Zogby is the founder and president of the Arab American Institute, a policy research insitute based in Washington D.C.


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