A Palestinian Verdict: Terror Worked
The question on the Palestinian street now is who will successfully claim credit for expelling Israel from Gaza and northern Samaria – Hamas, an organization that carries out terrorist attacks, or Fatah, the official Palestinian ruling party?
Whatever the answer turns out to be, one thing is certain. Both factions are presenting Israel’s withdrawal of settlers and troops from Gaza and the northern West Bank as a Palestinian military victory.
The Arabic word indihar is being used these days by Palestinians who view the pullout as a victory for the al-Aksa intifada, which erupted in September 2000. And there appears to be a growing number of Palestinians who are convinced that the withdrawal is nothing but an Israeli retreat achieved through the blood of thousands of shahids, or martyrs.
Still, many also consider the disengagement strategy of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a conspiracy designed to tighten Israel’s grip on the West Bank and Jerusalem.
The “Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic” translates indihar as “banishment and defeat.” Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders in the Gaza Strip were the first to refer to the disengagement as a “fruit of the resistance attacks” against Israel over the past few years. In recent days, even senior Palestinian officials, who are likely to play a role in peace negotiations, have begun labeling the pullout as an Israeli defeat.
On the streets of Ramallah and other West Bank cities, Palestinians across the political spectrum were unanimous this week in defining the disengagement as a retreat in the face of rocket and suicide attacks. Only a few said they regarded the move as a direct result of the peace process and international pressure on Israel.
“Of course this is a victory for the blessed intifada,” said Samir Tahayneh, a 22-year-old university student who describes himself as a Fatah supporter. “Had it not been for the Kassam rockets and suicide bombings, Israel would never have thought of running away from our lands. The disengagement proves that the only way to liberate our lands is through the resistance, and not at the negotiating table.”
Scores of people interviewed over the past week in various parts of the West Bank echoed those sentiments.
“We have always said that the only language the Jews understand is force,” commented Ala Abu Jbarra, a 30-year-old shopkeeper. “The Oslo process did not give us as much as the second intifada. By God’s will, we will pursue the struggle until we liberate the rest of our lands.”
A survey conducted by the Hamas-affiliated Palestine Information Center Web site reported that more than 94 percent of Palestinians see the Israeli indihar in the Gaza Strip as an “achievement for the Palestinian resistance.”
Less than 6 percent of the 2,551 respondents said they viewed the withdrawal as a result of political negotiations and international pressure.
It follows that the political battle on the Palestinian street is over who gets credit. The faction that prevails in this propaganda contest will get an edge in its bid for power. Both Hamas and the ruling Fatah party are separately preparing mass celebrations in the “liberated” areas with the hope that each can claim responsibility for driving Israel out of the Palestinian territories.
In an attempt to circumvent Hamas, Fatah leaders earlier this week kicked off celebrations by holding two mass rallies in the Gaza Strip. The message was that the disengagement is the result of the “sacrifices” made by Fatah fighters during the intifada. At another rally in Ramallah, organized by the Palestinian Authority’s Political Guidance Commission, Palestinian leaders hailed the disengagement as a significant victory for the “resistance.”
Col. Ribhi Mahmoud, acting director of the Political Guidance Commission, welcomed the Israeli indihar as a first step toward liberating Jerusalem. He and several spokesmen who addressed the rally drew parallels between the disengagement and the Israel Defense Forces “retreat” from Lebanon in May 2000.
“Palestinian blood has defeated the mighty sword of Israeli occupation,” declared Sheikh Hassan Youssef, the de facto Hamas leader in the West Bank. “Our blood has forced Israel to abandon its strategy of occupation, just as the Lebanese did.”
Qais Abdel Karim, a top leader of the Marxist-Leninist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, told the crowd that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was forced to take the decision to leave the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank because of stiff Palestinian resistance.
“Sharon was forced to announce the so-called disengagement under the pressure of Palestinian steadfastness and resistance,” he said, drawing thunderous applause. “This is the first time that Israel is forced to dismantle Jewish settlements established on Palestinian lands.”
Abdullah al-Ifranji, a senior Fatah activist in the Gaza Strip, said the majority of Palestinians view the withdrawal as a “fruit of four years of the second intifada.” But, he added, the disengagement is also seen as the result of “tremendous political efforts” made by Yasser Arafat and his successor, Mahmoud Abbas.
Ifranji admitted that his party was engaged in a competition with Hamas over post-disengagement celebrations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“In the past six months, Hamas has prepared 40,000 military uniforms, 70,000 green flags and 100,000 hats,” he said. “They have also bought dozens of jeeps and painted them in Hamas’ color — green. They want to appear as if they were the ones who liberated the Gaza Strip.”
On the other hand, Fatah has prepared only Palestinian flags that will be distributed to Palestinians celebrating the disengagement. However, various Fatah members in the Gaza Strip have already announced that they will hold paramilitary marches in the settlements after they are evacuated.
Hamas officials claim that the Palestinian Authority has allocated millions of dollars for the Fatah-orchestrated celebrations, with most of the money coming from European donors. According to a senior Hamas official in the Gaza Strip, the European Union has decided to finance the Fatah celebrations with the hope that the message to the Palestinian public would be that the disengagement is a victory for the peace process, not terrorism.
“Of course the Palestinian people are not naive and no one will buy this argument,” said the Hamas official. “Even Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] knows deep inside that the withdrawal is the result of the resistance operations, but he can’t say this in public.”
Many Palestinians are worried that the presence of thousands of Hamas and Fatah gunmen in the emptied settlements after the disengagement, along with some 20,000 Palestinian policemen, will lead to violent clashes. Hence Abbas’ repeated calls to the Palestinians over the past few days for calm during and after the pullout.
Aware that the Palestinian security forces would not be able to stop Hamas supporters from reaching the Gaza settlements, Abbas met this week with the Islamic movement’s leaders and implored them to restrain their men. The two sides agreed to set up joint committees to oversee the celebrations and avoid internecine fighting.
Yet Abbas, like many Palestinians, has to know that a confrontation of some sort with Hamas is almost inevitable.
His agreement to form joint committees with Hamas is seen as capitulation to demands set by the movement. Until last week, Abbas had adamantly refused even to talk about such coordination with Hamas.
“We in Fatah are not seeking a clash with Hamas,” said Ifranji, the Fatah leader from the Gaza Strip. “We are saying that Palestinian blood is a red line that should not be crossed. On the other hand, we won’t accept a situation where Hamas would try to harm or undermine the Palestinian Authority.”
The fact that so many Palestinians see disengagement as a reward for violence and as indihar has many Palestinian officials in Ramallah and Gaza City extremely worried.
“I’m afraid that the disengagement, which is not being carried out as a result of peace talks, will weaken the moderate camp among the Palestinians,” a top Abbas aide said. “That’s why we need to work together with Israel and the international community to make this move appear as if it were part of the peace process.”
Khaled Abu Toameh, an Israeli Arab, is the West Bank and Gaza correspondent for the Jerusalem Post and U.S. News and World Report.