(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Before Oslo, Palestinians primarily desired unity and an end to the occupation. But as soon as the first intifada began to fade, divisions among Palestinians emerged. Throughout the Oslo years, these rifts continued to widen. While scores of Palestinians took to the streets, armed with stones and kitchen appliances, during the first intifada, the present uprising is increasingly characterized by the deadly firepower of small arms.
In December 2002, then Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas warned of the increased use of weapons - an evolution that he hoped to reverse. His short-lived government was ill-equipped to tackle the problem, and his successor, Ahmed Qurei, proved no more capable of confronting the weapons chaos in the region. The failure to reach a substantive and acceptable peace agreement has given rise to strong feelings of betrayal and futility. As a result of these internal divisions, Palestinians also turn their aggression and feelings of futility against fellow Palestinians.
The real extent of Palestinian infighting is often overlooked, as most people tend to view the conflict in simpler terms: Israel versus the Palestinians. This black and white portrayal of the Middle East conflict fails to account for shades of gray. One can only achieve a comprehensive understanding of Palestinian society through examining everyday disagreements and clashes between the various political factions, families and cities. These divisions have also led to an increasingly violent "intrafada" during the course of the Aksa Intifada. From 2000 to 2007, 16% of Palestinian civilian deaths were caused by Palestinian groups or individuals.
Similarly to other groups and nations, Palestinians assemble and amass weapons due to feelings of insecurity. By amassing weapons, Palestinians hope to alleviate and counterbalance the insecurity they feel as a result of the occupation and Israel's military practices. It is a paradox that small arms have flooded the country in part to increase the nation's feeling of security, when the impact of a highly armed Palestine will ultimately generate greater insecurity and simultaneously erode human development.
PALESTINIANS HAVE lived with low level conflict for more than half a century. This has resulted in a lowering of the threshold of violence. Acts which in other societies are seen as brutal have become "normal" behavior. This evolution is not unique to the Palestinians. Subject, oppressed, or embattled peoples throughout history have commonly turned on themselves. The occupation and war conditions under which Palestinians currently live readily foster internal hostility and the loss of civil liberties. Because Palestinians are accustomed to seeing weapons and are also exposed to verbal and physical abuse of the military occupation, verbal disagreements easily turn into fist fights and sometimes even escalate into gang or family feuds. Growing up in a spiral of violence means that individuals find it harder to determine the limits of aggression.
The governing structure of Palestinians also causes internal fighting. According to many, the Palestinian Authority is inextricably linked to past failures and blunders, including the failed Oslo and Camp David Accords. As Palestinian cities are increasingly cut off from each other - a result of Israeli closures, control of movement, and the building of the separation wall/fence - the power of the PA to control, oversee, and adjudicate society has diminished. The situation in many Palestinian cities has become quasi-anarchic, as alternative power centers fill the vacuum. Their nature varies according to each city. Sometimes it is the strongest political faction, or those with the greatest means of physical violence to enforce fiefdom. There has never been a monopoly of force, a shortcoming linked to the quasi- or semi-state nature of the PA. This problem is compounded because the means of physical violence rest in the hands of non-democratic institutions and groups.
ALTHOUGH THERE have always been opponents of Yasser Arafat, the rift between his supporters and adversaries deepened with the 2003 US insistence that he no longer hold the key position in the Palestinian government. Palestinians thus bowed to American pressure and restructured their institutions to establish a new post of prime minister. The administrations of both Abbas and Qurei reflect divisions within the governing elite. Although the Palestinian people rallied behind Arafat after the US insisted on his deposal, the subsequent instability of the governing nucleus reflects the uncertainty of the larger populace regarding the responsibilities and powers accorded to the positions of chairman and prime minister. As Arafat's power declined, the internal regime struggle intensified. Governmental changes have resulted in a schizophrenic administration, part of which holds that Palestinians need a national liberation movement under strong and authoritative leadership - a view espoused by Arafat and his supporters. Others advocate a move towards a mini-state requiring regular, democratic and transparent administration, a trend originating from the new prime minister's post. Since the governing elite is unable to clearly define its aims and priorities, this uncertainty is passed down to the populace, and fragments opinions.
Palestinians are at times encouraged and even advised by outside forces to engage in internal violence and fighting. The American government, for example, repeatedly praised Arafat when he cracked down on his own people. As a result, Palestinians opposed to or critical of America and its policies are likely to turn away from the PA and join those groups who contest US actions. The PA's weakness is in great part characterized by this clash of international and local demands - which it tries to meet simultaneously. Many Palestinians believe that the arrest of members of Palestinian armed factions wanted by Israel is deplorable, since the main priority should be to construct a unitary front against the occupation. It is a paradox that the demand for unity should cause splintering, and that the Palestinian government could be perceived as "collaborating" with America and Israel.
Palestinians have become refugees divided between themselves on the West Bank and Gaza. With each additional kilometer of the Israeli "security fence," the distinction between in- and outsiders becomes more complex. Since travel between Palestinian cities is restricted, controlled or even denied, each encircled enclave is left to fend for itself. Central authority and control is thus impaired and at times made impossible. As a result, Palestinian cities (such as Nablus) fall into the hands of local mobsters and gang-lords.
The writer is the founder and director of the Palestinian human rights Monitoring Group (PHRMG) based in east Jerusalem.
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