Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 January - 2 February 2005
Issue No. 727
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Samir Ghattas

Armed struggle: a context

Discerning the successes and failures of the Palestinian armed struggle requires a dispassionate analysis of background, writes Samir Ghattas*

During New Year celebrations 40 years ago Israel, along with many Arab countries, was stunned by the first statement issued by Fatah. The Palestinian paramilitary organisation had just declared responsibility for its first freedom fighting operation and its determination to continue the armed struggle whatever the obstacles.

The fedaayin had blown up an Israeli installation intended to divert the Jordan River into Israel. It was a modest and relatively harmless operation by today's standards and it caused no loss of life. But it triggered angry and nervous reactions. Israel accused the Arabs of complicity and threatened retaliation. Ahmed Al-Shaqiri, then head of the PLO, which had been founded only a year earlier (1964), denied any connection between the PLO and the operation or the group that mounted it. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser was disturbed and irritated. This was an inappropriate time to begin the armed struggle and the timing risked events spinning out of control, he said.

True to form, various intelligence agencies initiated rumour campaigns, some claiming that Fatah was an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. To complicate matters Fatah had issued its statement in the name of the General Command of Al-Asifa (storm" Forces. This was a compromise between two factions within Fatah, one pressing to unleash the armed struggle without further delay, the other urging patience, cautioning that precipitous action would jeopardise the fledgling organisation. It was not until after its 15th operation that Fatah revealed its identity. This it did in a letter to the UN secretary-general warning of repercussions should any harm come to Mahmoud Bakr Hijazi, one of its members who had just been apprehended by the Israeli army.

Whatever suspicions, misinformation and rumours hovered around Fatah from 1 January, 1965 to the June 1967 War, there was no doubt whatsoever as to how passionately many Palestinian political forces espoused armed struggle and how ardently such course of action was supported by the Palestinian people in general.

The UN Partition Resolution 181 of 29 November, 1948 and the subsequent defeat of the Arabs became known as the Palestinian nakba (catastrophe). The term sums up one of the biggest humanitarian tragedies in modern history. Not only were the majority of Palestinians uprooted from their homes and driven from their land, Palestine as a geo- political entity was virtually effaced from the map and the national identity of an entire people faced extinction.

Only about 11 per cent of Palestinians managed to remain in what became the state of Israel. Forced to adopt Israeli nationality, they became an ethnic minority in their native land and were referred to as "Israeli Arabs" as part of the design to eradicate all notion of a specifically Palestinian affiliation. With the same intent, Palestinians in the West Bank were attached to Jordan. Amman was declared the capital of both the east and west banks while Palestinians in Gaza came under Egyptian military rule. In Jordan the Palestinians were politically amalgamated into the Jordanian system whereas in Egypt Abdel-Nasser abolished all Palestinian political parties and subordinated Palestinian political activity to the monolithic National Union, and later the Arab Socialist Union, parties.

The vast majority of other Palestinians were condemned to the wretchedness of refugee camps in various Arab countries, where for the most part they remained deprived of fundamental human and political rights. As far as the international community was concerned the Palestinian cause had been reduced to a refugee problem that periodically cropped up on the UN agenda, with, moreover, no Palestinians to speak on their own behalf.

This background is essential in order to understand how crucial the armed struggle, initiated by Fatah at the outset of 1965, was to the survival of the Palestinian people. It was the armed struggle that resuscitated national allegiance, unified the Palestinian people beneath a single political banner and reinstated their cause as the struggle for national self- determination rather than a refugee plight involving disparate groups of displaced peoples. Any assessment -- or revision -- of the Palestinian armed struggle, therefore, must take a range of factors into account. Specifically, it must assess fedaayin operations from the socio-political, and not merely the military, vantage point. It must also consider them in the context of the interplay with Arab national and pan- Arab politics, international developments and Israeli domestic, foreign and military policies. To ignore the complex and multi-dimensional nature of such a dynamic is not only to do injustice to the Palestinian armed struggle but also to jeopardise it unnecessarily.

Conversely, the Palestinian cause is best served by an analysis of the armed struggle that avoids absolutes and over-generalisations and focuses on how it served or debilitated the Palestinian cause at different times in its history. After all, Palestinians, especially today, should realise that recourse to arms is a means towards an end and not an end in itself. It should always remain subordinate to political objectives to which it is neither an alternative nor determinant.

From a purely military standpoint the Palestinian armed struggle has failed to achieve any of its declared objectives. It has not driven back the occupation forces and liberated Palestinian territories. Nor did it succeed in posing a serious challenge to Israel's occupation, never having won any strategic victories over Israel. Apart from the assassination of Rahboam Zaifi in Jerusalem on 17 October, 2001, and only after he had resigned from the cabinet, the armed resistance has scored no successes in targeting Israel's political and military leadership, or even those officials directly responsible for the assassination of dozens of top Palestinian leaders, hundreds of Palestinian militants and thousands of ordinary citizens.

The achievements of the Palestinian armed struggle -- again in military terms -- are paltry at best, especially when compared to the liberation armies of other peoples. This does not apply only to the past four decades but also to the armed struggle during the 1936-39 uprising and in the 1947-48 period. Customary Palestinian charges of Arab betrayal and international conspiracy do little to ameliorate this assessment.

The point is not to disparage the Palestinian armed struggle but to underscore the need to bring other criteria to bear in our assessment. Indeed, it is when we consider political and sociological factors that we can discern the vitality of the armed struggle and recognise, in particular, the astounding skill of Yasser Arafat in maximising political gains in spite of all setbacks and even military defeats in the Palestinians' many armed confrontations.

What is particularly remarkable about the Palestinian armed struggle is how adroitly it blended propaganda with military operations. It has been particularly successful in capitalising on psychological factors. By playing on Western sensitivity to any danger to Israel it succeeded in projecting itself as a force far more formidable than was justified by any estimation of the real threat it posed to Israel and by playing on Israeli sensitivities to losses, especially the loss of life, it succeeded in undermining morale and sewing dissension inside Israel. We must acknowledge the success of the Palestinian struggle in mounting a protracted psychological war of attrition against Israel that has had major political payoffs.

If we discard the delusions to which most Palestinian fedaayin factions were prey at the outset, as evinced in proclamations that they were on the verge of liberating Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, we must also acknowledge that the Palestinians evolved a sophisticated approach to the armed struggle. If, initially, it was regarded as the only feasible strategy for liberating Palestine it subsequently became only one of many available alternatives for achieving legitimate objectives. This was by no means a retreat but an indication of an important asset -- the ability to admit to error in judgement and to make appropriate re-adjustments. In this case, they recognised that there are limits to armed strength and, simultaneously, that strength is not gauged by military might alone but by dozens of other factors that enter into the calculation of the balance of power between the Palestinians and the occupation.

At the same time we should not belittle the achievements of Fatah's early fedaayin. So successful were they in setting the revolutionary tone and spirit of the struggle that others had to follow suit if they were to retain any political standing. In order to counter the rising influence of Fatah, Al- Shaqiri, the first PLO chairman, had to form the Palestine Liberation Army. In a similar vein, the Movement of Arab Nationalists transformed itself into the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and declared itself committed to the armed struggle while the splinter groups that had emerged from this front, including the General Command and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, declared likewise. The same applied to most other resistance factions that eventually emerged, the major exceptions being the Palestinian communist movement and the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, each for their own reasons.

Another major breakthrough occurred in the wake of Fatah's success in its confrontation against Israel's superior military strength in the battle of Karama on 21 March, 1968. Virtually overnight the concept of armed resistance evolved from a tactic espoused by a handful of factions into a powerful grassroots movement that enjoyed widespread support throughout the Arab world and the principles and aspirations of which became ingrained in Arab mass culture.

Henceforward Arab regimes had at the very least to pay lip service to the revolutionary tone propagated by Fatah. More importantly, the Palestinian armed struggle had succeeded in releasing itself from the grip of the official Arab order and establishing the autonomy of Palestinian decision-making.

This, in turn, led to what was Fatah's greatest achievement -- official Arab recognition of the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Soon afterwards this was crowned with recognition by the international community. The PLO became the first liberation organisation to be admitted as a permanent observer into the UN. Arafat became the first leader of a national liberation movement to stand before the UN in the name of his people and their cause.

Throughout these developments the Palestinian people, in spite of their dispersion, coalesced as a distinct nationality with a rightful cause. In spite of their hardships and defeats (Black September in 1970 in Jordan, against Syrian forces in Lebanon in 1976, against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and their expulsion from there in 1982) the sense of Palestinian identity grew increasingly robust. It was no longer possible for an Israeli prime minister to echo Golda Meir's notorious response when asked her opinion on the Palestinian issue: "The Palestinian people? Where is that people?"

The Palestinian armed struggle had secured the recognition of Palestinian identity not just from the Zionist left but from all shades of the Israeli political spectrum, including the Likud whose leader, Sharon, recently said that Israel could no longer continue to control the Palestinian people.

It is impossible to imagine that the Palestinians could have scored such political gains over the past four decades if they had not resorted to arms as part of the exercise of their legitimate right to resist. However, it is impossible to attribute these achievements to arms alone. Promoting such a claim could lead to disaster. We need to bring a fresh approach to bear in assessing the Palestinian armed struggle as it is currently being waged. If not, we may soon find ourselves performing an autopsy on an Intifada torn apart by opposing drives, one to escalate the armed struggle and the other to demilitarise it.

* The writer is the director of the Maqdis Centre for Political Studies in Gaza.

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