CAIRO — The Palestinian issue comes home. Although the problem has always been whether Arab or Jew--or somehow both--will rule that ancient land, the answer has generally been expected to come from more distant actors. Now, however, the decisive struggle over the West Bank and Gaza seems to be moving from international to intercommunal relations.
Yes, the broad-based Palestine Liberation Organization claim that it speaks for the 1.5 million Palestinians under occupation persists; the dominant refrain is still "we are the PLO." But growing numbers of those same Palestinians are coming to believe that the battle for full self-determination must be waged in their own backyards.
A recent, repressive wave of measures against Palestinian activism in the West Bank and Gaza--the harshest in 20 years of Israeli rule--amplifies the point. Beginning in spring, scores of Palestinians were placed in detention (imprisonment without charge), major universities were closed, the rate of deportations increased and several unarmed students were shot (one fatally) by Israeli troops. Although this came in the context of rising tensions, of violence and death suffered by both Arabs and Jews, no single incident explains the severity or scope of the crackdown.
Some analysts attempt to find explanations in the broader dynamics of Israeli policy, domestic and international, but the prevailing Arab reaction is that nothing better can be expected of the occupation. Palestinians appear convinced that the near future will only bring increasing repression.
Conviction that the farther future will one day arrive lends paradoxical optimism to the pervasive gloom in occupied lands. There is nothing novel about Palestinians peering at bleak events and seeing pictures of future roses. Yet the nature of Palestinian optimism changes. It becomes more specific, more concerned with tactics and strategy, more inventive.
Not long ago, those same optimists indulged in confident assertions that peace with Israel would eventually be based on the return of the occupied territories. But they could not suggest how this might be accomplished. Challenged in 1984 to demonstrate that his position was not simply an act of faith, one such spokesman, Anwar Nuseibeh, told me "we are a people of faith." Even then, a younger generation saw this as complacency. Yet the most visible evidence of would-be activists in those days was the intensity of their own infighting. The distinguishing feature of the West Bank and Gaza today is that Palestinians are as one in broad purpose, now more tolerant of each other's approaches. The trend toward unity is not simply a product of decisions made by PLO leaders in their Diaspora. Steps taken at the recent Palestine National Council meeting in Algiers are as much a reflection of the sentiment in the occupied territories as a response to the international context.
Mutual tolerance among political activists seems based on the principle that all challenges to the occupation are legitimate. Supporters of mainstream and radical PLO factions go about their usual political business as others search for new ways to fight the occupation. Separation between "usual" and "innovative" politics blurs.
Journalist Daoud Kuttab proclaims in the firmly nationalist West Bank news paper Al Fajr that Palestinians now believe "any change" will ultimately be to their benefit, including "annexation to Israel, provided . . . political rights are given." Convinced that Israel will reject the offer, Kuttab is attempting a refined political ploy to "show the world that we are for peace and justice."
The Committee Confronting the Iron Fist follows a different route. Composed of Arabs, Israelis, Armenians, a sprinkling of Jewish and Arab-Americans and anyone else who cares to join, this organization of "peaceniks" engages in consciousness-raising politics. Its tactics embrace protest tunes, poetry, scathing speeches and hand-scrawled posters. Its members embrace vast enthusiasm and much idealism. Their leader was placed in administrative detention in mid-April.
Another approach is pursued by psychologist Mubarak Awad who opened the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence in 1985, to apply Gandhi-like techniques in the fight for self-determination. His is not a theoretical endeavor. Awad leads adherents in practicing nonviolent struggle; he has been arrested in the past and would not be surprised if arrested again. While many Palestinians still confuse nonviolence with pacifism and defeatism, Awad sees progress; more established groups, he says, "no longer attack us verbally." He thinks the strategy may prove its worth in "about 20 years."
All Palestinian activists have been affected by the crackdown. Journalists worry about arrest or deportation. Peaceniks scrape their souls to believe that songs and poetry can help bring a just peace between Israel and a Palestinian state. Political leaders are careful of what they say--and to whom.