What can Yassir Arafat really do about the violence swirling in Israel and the occupied territories? Not much. He may withdraw his paramilitary forces and ask the Palestinian police to crack down on young rioters — but that will only shatter his already weak position. Besides, Israeli forces are already cracking down on Palestinian youth. And the rioters will keep it up because, to borrow a line from the 70s movie "Network," they are fed up and they won’t take it any more. They’re not going to listen to Arafat and they’re going to continue their pathetic struggle against those they see as a hostile and brutal occupying force.
With what are they fed up?
Simple things like itching for a bath in the heat of summer in squalid refugee camps where sewage runs raw and no fresh water is available, and looking across the way to Israeli settlements where dogs and cars get washed. Serious things like seeing their homes bulldozed. Sensitive things, like watching their parents struggle to make a living as menial laborers while hearing stories of the way it was, when they owned orange groves and olive trees. Christian and Muslim Palestinians alike in the occupied territories and in Diaspora are aching to travel freely to see their holy sites.
They are fed up with being disenfranchised, compromised, occupied, and ignored. They are tired of seeing their cause and their dead not register on the radar screen of world public opinion, and American public opinion in particular. So these Palestinian Davids are using the only weapons they have against the Israeli Goliath. Stones.
Despite demands from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and American President Clinton there’s really nothing Arafat can do. He’s in a pickle. Just like Presidents Johnson and Nixon couldn’t stop the campus uprisings against the Viet Nam War in the 60s and 70s. Just like the Chinese government couldn’t stop protesters in Tiannenmen Square — not peacefully, at least. Just like Milosovec couldn’t calm the Serbian supporters of his rival. And just like King George’s governors couldn’t quell the Boston Tea Partiers and all that followed. Sometimes rebellions take on a life of their own.
Arafat’s choices are to pull the trigger on his own people (like the Chinese government or the National Guard at Kent State) or to prolong the quote/unquote talks as long as he can until the situation simmers down on its own. And that’s not likely to happen as long as Israeli soldiers are shooting children armed with stones. Or he can wait for the Americans to take the lead.
Barak’s choices are to keep the current level or turn up the heat. Or he, too, can wait for the Americans to take the lead.
Because the solution lies with the Americans, not with the Arafats in this situation.
But not in ongoing mediation.
Then what? If not talk, what kind of action could they possibly take that could make a difference in such an ancient conflict? Money. The kind that flows from the US Treasury to Israel’s military institution.
Israeli soldiers shot and killed 12-year old Mohammad Al-durah in his father’s arms. Other teens have been killed; toddlers, too. I know of at least one young man who was shot dead outside the clinic where he had just given blood to help the wounded. Today’s news continues with no reprieve: Palestinians riot, Israeli settlers rampage, and the military responds with deadly methods. Some call it self-defense. Some call it aggression.
No matter what you call it, this and all Israeli military action is heavily underwritten by American tax dollars. In fiscal year 1999, the US gave Israel one billion eight hundred million dollars in military aid. That breaks down to almost $5 million a day — which makes the American government and the American taxpayer party to this recent horror.
No wonder Arab anger at Israel boils over toward America.
The only way to stop the violence is to stop the flow of American military aid to Israel. When Israel finds it can no longer shoot Palestinian children with financial impunity it will need to reconsider its strategy.
Most Americans don’t want this blood on their hands. When they demand that Congress and the President suspend American military aid to Israel, then there may be a moment’s peace.
And in that moment, perhaps, Arafat and Barak can sit and talk as more equal parties in this conflict; two parties acting with their own resources. Neither basking in the unconditional backing of the world’s greatest power.
If this happens President Clinton might, maybe, finally, get a chance for the credit he so badly wants for brokering a lasting Middle East peace.
Anisa Mehdi is producing a PBS documentary on cultural and political Islam with Alvin H. Perlmutter.