The Region: Palestinian suicide strategy

Alienate your friends, lie to yourself, celebrate defeat and taunt the world's only superpower.

barry rubin column 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin column 88
(photo credit: )
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 pretense 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 more. 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. The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs.