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Last Act; Is this the end of Palestine?

Think back two years. Ariel Sharon was not only alive but healthyand staking his place in history on an idea he had never trulybelieved: that the Arabs of Palestine might be ready for peace withthe Jewish state. This idea may have run against both his deepestconvictions and his basic instincts. But somehow he carried many ofhis old comrades with him: comrades from Israel's old wars andcomrades from the political right--where, after a briefparliamentary stint on the left, he had positioned himself.

Carrying comrades to a place they had not been before also entailedmaking enemies, and Sharon's enemies were bitter and vindictive.Nonetheless, he carried out the withdrawal of all 8,000 or soIsraelis from Gaza unconditionally and without making explicitdemands on the Palestinians--or inexplicit ones, for that matter.He also dismantled four settlements in the West Bank, from what heand his friends called Samaria. No one thought that these would bethe last to be vacated, no one. And Israel's entire securityestablishment (army, intelligence, the diplomatic corps) laid outvarious maps for discussion that were uncannily reminiscent of the(overly generous) proposals put forward by Ehud Barak in the waningdays, the pathetic waning days, of the Clinton administration.

Condoleezza Rice even persuaded a few American Jewish zillionairesto ante up roughly $15 million to buy, as a parting gift from theJews at once symbolic and practical, for the Gaza Arabs thehothouses that had helped make local agriculture, for the firsttime in history, so abundant and also valuable. Ask about thehothouses of Gaza now, and people will laugh. Ask about the rest ofGaza, and people will cry.

They cried even before Gaza was put through the trauma of civil war.For what was unraveling was the whole idea of the Palestine nationitself. Of course, some said, "I told you so." (I count myselfamong those entitled to say that.) I was never taken in by thedream of Palestine, although I realized that Israeli dominion overso many Arabs did somewhat dim the incandescence of the Zionistreality, a free Jewish people, free in politics and in spirit, inarts and in science and above all in literature, in law, and in thepress, free from the religious coercion of the rabbis, a nationspeaking its own language at home at last.

No people moves without an elite committed to the whole. That thePalestinian elites were and are corrupt is a historic reality, ashabby reality. It was the Palestinian aristocracy that sold offits lands for Jewish settlement from the very beginning of theZionist experiment. And the last act broadcast on television: thedismantling of the gaudy riches of Palestine's "revolutionaries" inGaza.

Contrast this with the secular, although economically impoverished,aristocracy of the kibbutz, created by the early Zionists, which, asDorothea Krook has shown, shaped the ethos of both the movement andthe state. There was an exhilarating and learned asceticism to theJewish pioneers, an asceticism that has almost altogether vanishedbut remains as contingent reproach. It is needed now.

Most of the Arabs of Palestine resented the Jews. But resentment isnot a foundation for a nation. In some uncanny way, Yasir Arafatgrasped the guilefulness of Palestinian peoplehood and so wasalways inventing new myths (e. g., Jesus was the firstPalestinian). There has been a big to-do in academic circles overthe last quarter-century about "imagined communities" as nations.This was meant to help legitimize groups whose coherence wasincoherent. But, alas, even Benedict Anderson, in fitting his laxdefinitions with history, does not refer at all to thePalestinians. The British Communist historian Eric Hobsbawm doesallude to the Palestinians in his book on nationalism, but only todismiss them as a nationalist movement.

One of the harsh truths that we have learned is that terrorism maybe the prime expression of a fledgling nationalism, perhaps evenits only collective expression. But it does bring a certain dreadto its adversaries, and Palestinian terrorism has over the decadesbrought that dread to Israel. A suicide bomb also makes a big andincredulous splash, and with that comes to its instigators thesense that they can no longer be ignored. Of course, their haplessbut willing instrument is dead. Poor man, increasingly we can alsosay poor woman, poor pregnant woman.

'Palestine" is not the only place where the very idea of the nationis so weak that its violent eruptions seem to be dismal admissionsof failure. But, however impoverished the reality, it has caughtthe fancy of many outside Palestine. The fact is that, had theseoutsiders--some cynical, some hopelessly muddle-headed--notembraced the cause, the cause already would have perished from itsown exhaustion.

So what is Palestine? It is an improvisation from a series of rudefacts. Palestine was never anything of especial importance to theArabs or to the larger orbit of Muslims. Palestine was never evenan integral territory of the Ottomans but split up in sanjaks thatcrossed later post-World War I borders, a geographical andpolitical jumble. When General Allenby captured Jerusalem, it was agreat happening for believing Christian Europe, not a tragedy forIslam. When the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan for Palestine was passed,envisioning a "Jewish" state and an "Arab" (not, mind you,Palestinian) state, even the idea of a separate Arab realm was metat best with a yawn. Though almost no Arab wanted Jewishsovereignty in any of Palestine, virtually no Arab seemed to craveArab sovereignty, either. Foreign Arab armies did the fightingagainst the Haganah, and foreign states sat for the Palestinians atthe cease-fire negotiations, as they had sat for decades at theinternational conferences on Palestine convened by the powers.Palestine was being fought over to be divvied up by Cairo, Amman,and Damascus. The Syrian army was overwhelmed by the Israelis. Norewards there. It was different for King Farouk and Abdullah I, whogot land in reward for their soldiers' combat.

Indeed, from 1949 through 1967, what was the West Bank of ArabPalestine was annexed--yes, annexed--by Jordan, and what was theGaza Strip was a captive territory of Egypt, unannexed so thatGazans had no rights as Egyptians (whereas the West Bankers hadrights as Jordanians). The Palestine Liberation Organization,founded in 1964, was not founded to liberate these territories. Itwas founded to liberate that part of Palestine held by Israel.

We are long past this history, and Israel had become accustomed tothe idea-- if not exactly the precise reality--of an independentPalestine for the Palestinians, the name of their desire. EhudOlmert gladly would have signed on the dotted line if thePalestinian Authority could bring itself to realize it would getwhat it could get (and perhaps even a little more) if thePalestinians would finally stop their war against the Jews. Andtheir rage.

But the Palestinians' war against the Jews is actually also a waragainst one another. While Mahmoud Abbas probably would havesettled for being president of a cartographically realisticPalestine, there were integral parts of Fatah, and particularly itsfighting gangs, that still held out for the grand irredentistmap--if not "from the river to the sea," something more than wasordained in 1967. Could Abbas, in the end, rein them in? Not whenHamas had set the terms of the intra-Palestinian conflict as all ornothing. Those are characteristic Hamas conditions, with otherArabs as with the Jews. It is true that Fatah men of combat werebattling for their lives. But they were not battling for peace withIsrael.

The disintegration of Gaza began as soon as the Israelis departed.This was not an issue of what Israel did or did not do. Theur-religious and the ur- nationalist were in psychological controlof the strip from the beginning. Hamas did not shoot (many) rocketsacross the border into enemy territory. But its surrogates did.Hamas did nothing about this, and Fatah really couldn't. Theycouldn't, although Lieutenant General Keith Dayton, the Americancoordinator in the area, assured they could, especially aftersupplying arms to Fatah and persuading Olmert to supply moreweapons, which, as luck would have it, are now in Hamas'spossession. The ordinary Gazans clearly were not pleased by thechaos and the haphazard murders on the streets. They were and areobjects not subjects, victims not victimizers. But Hamas is alsobitter, embittered by its costly victory. For them, there remainsthe project of Reconstruction, in the American Civil War sense, ofthe souls of their neighbors.

The final fall of Gaza to Hamas puts the whole question of Palestineand the Palestinians into a new perspective. There are now threecohorts of Palestinians between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.(Four, if you count the Palestinian majority under Hashemiterule.)

Let's deal first with the easiest of these to grasp: the Arabs ofIsrael, citizens of Israel with freedoms--legal and social--thatare unimaginable in any Arab country. Their loyalties are alwaystested by kin and undermined by the residual discriminations of theJewish state. But their loyalties are also the subject of aninevitable internal struggle. They are, after all, the privilegedPalestinians, the Palestinians who live in a decent society. Butone thing of which they will not hear--and that is a perfectlylogical proposal--is that some of them, together with their landand homes, become part of whatever Palestine will be. The hostilityto this idea will, by way of compensation, radicalize these IsraeliArabs and thus make them more and more suspect by their Jewishfellow citizens.

Then, there is the West Bank. The optimism about peace prospectsthere is, at least, very much premature. And, frankly, from what Iknow about locales like Jenin and Hebron, I wonder why commentatorsthink that the Judea and Samaria territories are so different fromGaza. In fact, these Palestinian cities historically have beencenters of Arab extremism, although--and this is a curiouscharacteristic of Arab extremism--this rarely ties one locale toanother. So what you have is the bane of fanaticism without thebonds of community. Indeed, the defining loyalty among manyPalestinians is loyalty to family, clan, and tribe, not progressivesocial formations, as they say. But Rashid Khalidi does not focuson these persistences in his book Palestinian Identity, which heoptimistically subtitled The Construction of Modern NationalConsciousness. In fact, the persistence of these antique ties isanother reason why the Palestinians are far from being a coherentpeople. But, then, Pakistan is also not a nation, and neither isIraq. I recall that Palestinian embroidery differs in every townand city. That is quaint, and it makes for pretty dresses in manystyles. But it is not a model for a nation-state.

The initiative remains with the Gaza Palestinians, which is to say,Hamas. It will not be tempted, as many of the journalistic prophetsinformed us when the group won the parliamentary elections, tobecome responsible. Rage is actually its way in the world, and itis a shrewd, if not wise, tactic. Your adversary becomes uncertainand jittery, afraid to provoke but loath to ignore. Rockets willcontinue to land in the towns and kibbutzim of the Negev andfurther into Israel. More advanced weapons will be smuggled intoGaza--alas, from Egypt, which did not, over the past years,demonstrate either the will or the capacity to stop the running ofwar materials from the Sinai to the Strip.

Israel must now make choices that will determine Egypt'sresponsibilities. Given the fact that Hamas has declared war onIsrael, Jerusalem could decide to simply seal its border with Gaza.Enemies at war do not generally supply one other with food andmedical provisions, let alone gas and electricity. What shouldpersuade Israel to make such arrangements? To win goodwill?Nonsense.

Of course, Egypt could assume greater responsibility, including theshepherding of endangered Fatah Palestinians to safety. But acorollary to that would be the obligation to truly bar weapons frombeing sent underground to Hamas. So what if Israel responds toHamas rocket and missile assaults harshly and with the precisionthat its air power permits? Is not Mubarak afraid of Hamas'scousins in the streets of Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood, alreadychafing under the regime's heavy hand? Israel might also recapturethe Philadelphia Corridor and police the Gaza border with Egypt.

There is at least one assumption that we can make: Israel will notpermit attacks without appropriate response. The abandonment ofSderot by a third of its population is a stain on Zionism. It willnot occur again. And, with Israel under such intense pressure fromGaza, it is hardly possible to imagine that even Fatah will be ableto resist the temptation of armed mischief. And why do I say evenFatah? I shouldn't.

Then, of course, Hezbollah may be tempted, and Syria, too. Theresulting combination--assaults from the north, the east, and thewest--would be a peril for Israel. But the most serious near-termdanger actually comes from the West Bank. For rockets and moreprecise weapons aimed at the thickly populated heart and narrowwaist of Israel from almost any place in what is now Fatah landwould revive both the anxieties and military reflexes of the stateand its population. Surely that would not be good for the Arabs.

That is why U.S. policy must not assume that there are facile waysto render the West Bank peaceful. Almost everyone has admitted,some with bitterness, that what keeps that area of Palestine moreorderly than Gaza is the proximate presence of Israeli troops nearArab population centers.

Would that there were a mature national will among the Palestinians.It might even be able to temper the rage of the Arabs against oneanother. Not until their sense of peoplehood conquers their rageagainst one another will they be in the psychological position tothink of peace with Israel. I doubt this will happen any time soon.This is the end of Palestine, the bitter end.

By Martin Peretz