A veteran member of the Fatah movement reminisced this week about a fateful meeting held by the organization’s leadership in Beirut at the start of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Fatah chairman Yasser Arafat had to choose between caving in and leaving, or fighting the “strongest army in the Middle East.” A stormy debate took place between those who wished to stop fighting and conserve their arms for future campaigns, and those who wanted to continue the armed struggle to the end.
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Arafat, as was his wont, refused to be hurried. After hours of discussions, he withdrew to his room and prayed. He then opened the Koran and a phrase calling for waging war against infidels jumped out at him. “We’re fighting,” he said, upon returning to the meeting.
Thirty-two years have passed since then and the Palestine Liberation Organization – which ended up leaving Beirut for Tunis – is now permanently located in Ramallah. The Palestinian state that was only a distant dream then has become a realistic goal, at least as far as most countries are concerned. The leadership, which in those days was constantly hounded and hiding from shelling, is now living in spacious villas in Ramallah, travelling in lavish official vehicles.
The pictures of piles of bodies lying among the rubble in the streets of Shujaiyeh shocked many people around the world last week. However, Fatah veterans were reminded of Beirut in the 1980s, and of those critical discussions in the Lebanese capital.
The leadership today is different, but it, too, stands at a critical juncture, needing to reach a decision. Senior members wonder where the Palestinian people are headed, and who can be relied on.
A cease-fire is not yet on the horizon and the Gaza Strip has become an ugly battlefield – not only between armed Palestinian factions and the Israel Defense Forces, but also between states fighting over interests that do not necessarily coincide with those of the Palestinians.
A speech delivered by President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday, and a subsequent statement issued by the Palestinian leadership, led to one conclusion: The Palestinian Authority is fed up with the international community’s empty promises to implement Palestinian national aspirations. Furthermore, the Palestinian people have no one to rely on but themselves.
The current Palestinian leadership has concluded that it must now choose between a continued reliance on world leaders who excel in declarations but not in deeds, or its local base, the “street,” which often serves as a guide on the way to achieving a state.
It seems the die has been cast, with the choice falling on the “street.” Whereas earlier the Palestinian leadership tended to adopt the Egyptian initiative that called for an immediate cease-fire to be followed by negotiations over the terms for maintaining a truce, Ramallah has now accepted the position of the factions in Gaza, headed by Hamas, according to which there will be no cease-fire until the terms of the truce are determined.
Veteran Fatah member Saeb Erekat was emphatic Wednesday when he said it would not be possible to separate quiet on the security front from a calm economic front, implying a lifting of the siege and an opening of the border crossings. Erekat said this was a demand not only of Hamas but the entire Palestinian people, and that the international community must safeguard the implementation of such an outcome.
Abbas, who up to last month talked of the hallowed security coordination with Israel, sounded very forceful when he declared that no one in the world would enjoy peace unless Palestinian children did so as well.
These words may not have been well received in Israel, but their message is clear. As in Beirut long ago, the Palestinians are now standing with their backs to the wall, without many options. The world must decide whether it wants to leave behind its complacency and indifference, and lead a process that will end this conflict once and for all.
The other option is that the pragmatic Palestinian leadership will abandon the diplomatic process and leave the Israeli government, along with the international community, mired in besieged Gaza. In addition, Israel will have to figure out how to manage the lives of three and a half million people in the West Bank and Gaza.