The Quest for Strategy

Original Article: Between Lines, Oct, 2002

Azmi Bishara
October 2002

On 3 September, Muwatin, The Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy hosted a one day conference in Ramallah entitled “From Occupation to Reform: The Missing File”. A wide swathe of Ramallah’s political, intellectual and cultural elite attended and participated in the conference, despite the continuously imposed Israeli curfew on the city for the last three months. Following is a transcript of MK Azmi Bishara’s (National Democratic Alliance – Tajamu’/Balad) keynote speech – significant not merely for its insightful content, but also for the degree to which Bishara’s opinions are respected within ’67 and ’48 Palestinian circles. Note: The conference took place before the 10 days Israeli siege of the Muqata’a which ended on 29 September.


The issues which we will discuss this morning appear to me as the principle issues of this period that we are confronted with.
Although we may differ in analyzing the policies of the US administration and the alliance that has been fostered between the US and the Zionist Right wings after the events of September 11, together with the holding hostage of our generation as a casualty of these events (for what appears to be an extended period of time), we cannot differ on some basic facts evident in American and Israeli strategy. At the same time, we are unable to speak of any similar semblance of clarity of facts, regarding a Palestinian strategy. This is so, despite the fact that many people have made themselves blue in the face discussing the issue (of Palestinian strategy). It is therefore more valuable to explore the reality in which the initiative of discussing Palestinian strategy takes place, rather than the question of strategy itself.


I am constantly surprised at how, when the subject of the presence or absence of Palestinian strategy is discussed, impatient questioners seek to boil down the matter to whether “you are for or against suicide operations.” The reduction of the national strategy to this question exemplifies the extreme Palestinian political poverty in these difficult times, which is also quite tragic.
Allow me to be clear from the start: when we talk about strategy, we are not talking about various actions, demonstrations, military operations and the different steps to take etc. This is not a question of strategy. Many of today’s operations are motivated by vengeance, reaction or anger and are not a by-product of any strategy. Likewise the prevalent discussions regarding the issue of reform, are not taking place within a context of strategy, but are more so motivated by questions of (national political) survival, and gaining time.
Neither can the military operations that take place be considered strategy, nor are the criticism of these operations strategy – despite the fact that such criticism may occupy a full-page advertisement in the daily newspaper. If some military operations themselves are reactions, criticisms of these operations are secondary reactions, and certainly do not fit within any strategy that warrants those who publish or sign such (petitions of criticisms) to offer themselves as an alternative leadership to the Palestinian people. (The reference is to a full-page advertisement, funded by the European Union which appeared in Palestinian daily newspapers in July, calling for an end to military operations inside the Green Line. The petition collected signatures of a variety of Palestinian elites.)
In this sense, strategy is a continuum – it is not just a collection of individually distinct things. It is an intellectual, political and even emotional continuum as well as a question of will. Strategy is a question for the leadership, not for individuals. A head of a household has a strategy, which pertains to the administration of household affairs – but he is not required to have a political strategy. Likewise, it is not the responsibility of Palestinian intellectuals to formulate a political strategy. We are talking about strategy for the leadership of a people. Let us make this distinction up front so that all discussions do not transform into questions of “what is the strategy?”
And when discussions do address the issue of strategy, they must be undertaken with patience, and with the ability to listen rather than with a “give me the summary” approach so common. Because the question of strategy is wider than the topic of military operations and reform. It is a comprehensive issue that addresses the relation between the current situation and the goals we seek to accomplish through political means. We are then talking about political strategies – not talking about strategies in a laboratory.


The question of whether we are “for or against military operations”, is meaningless unless it is known beneath which strategy these operations take place and to where these operations will lead. Likewise with reform: reform in what context? We must be capable of explaining this in comprehensible terms that people can understand. It is not even necessary to have the goal of the “liberation of the Palestinian people” – it could be for transitional goals: there are stages of strategy. What are the transitional goals that this strategy will lead towards, and how are these to be achieved? The political leader must be capable of explaining this, and if he is incapable of doing so, he does not deserve to be a political leader. You cannot be a political leader simply by virtue of continuity, or faction – particularly if your political strategy is pushing the people towards death. While death is something basic and exists in struggle and can even be asked for throughout the course of struggle, it must be explainable.
Otherwise we are neither talking about a responsible leadership or society. I am aware that struggle and liberation requires sacrifice, particularly when you are talking about a colonial-settler movement of a nature, whose uprooting will be more difficult than any other form of colonization. It is not as though these people came within a set mandated period and think in terms of possibly returning. Rather, the nature of this colonialism is such that it says, “I am here, so as to remain, so as to take your place.” It is clear that ridding oneself of this form of occupation, is not possible without a resistance strategy (strategiyet moqawama).


This is the principle issue, without which nothing else can be understood. I do not understand the arguments that take place in some Palestinian circles, regarding “reform” (as a way to achieve Palestinian rights), and which is disconnected from the concerns of the street – the checkpoint, the settlements etc. I think the question of reform must take place within the context of an overall national struggle and within the pursuit for the strategy to liberate ourselves from occupation. Because I do not see a process of incremental reform, or for that matter of state building taking place in Palestine, which can lead to liberation from occupation without resistance (moqawama).
This was the presumption of all those who supported Oslo – who were not cynical. I am talking about the people who supported Oslo from a position of principle and who said “Through the Oslo process we are engaging in an incremental process that will lead towards the ending of the occupation.” This strategy believed that after the Gulf War, and after the establishment of a uni-polar American hegemony in the region and the world, the Palestinians could begin a process of establishing a state in parts of the West Bank and Gaza. This stream of thought now believes that despite the passing of many turbulent times, the strategy is in principle a constructive one, though it is now in need of reform (i.e. – reform of the PA is in order).
I myself am categorically opposed to this strategy. This strategy is completely mistaken and will not lead to liberation. The strategy for liberation must have an elementary principle known as resistance. (al moqawama).
What do we mean by moqawama? – That the occupation pays the price of its occupation to the extent that it is incapable of withstanding it morally, materially, emotionally, politically, economically and socially. The goal of moqawama is not to defeat the occupation militarily. The goal of resistance is not to defeat the occupation in a decisive battle, nor for that matter to pull the occupation into a decisive battle. The goal of resistance is to make the occupation pay the price of its occupation in conditions that those beneath occupation are capable of withstanding so that the struggle can continue.
We cannot infiltrate into an American project of “reform”. We cannot say that we will exploit the US pressure to reform the PA, to implement and infiltrate our own reform. We must see the question of reform in its context. In actuality, there is no reform taking place: there is reform of the security branches so as to establish a principal and centralized security branch that is capable of interacting with the Americans and the Israelis regarding the issue of “fighting against terror”. Everything else is a mere sideshow.
Elements within the Palestinian national movement seek to piggyback onto this sideshow so as to infiltrate the reform subject and exploit it. But such aspired-for reform occurs within a conflicting strategy: the strategy of acquiescing to the West, that believes in an incremental process of appeasement in which the US (mainly) and Israel (in secondary fashion) impose their will, insatiably and without end.


Since the invasions (of Operation Defensive Shield, April 2002) a process has taken place whereby the US administration, advertising itself as being responsible for having saved the Palestinian leadership from the raging Israeli bull, has initiated a process of unending blackmail to impose American conditions upon the PA leadership. However, by definition, it is impossible to appease this US administration because it has decisively determined not to deal with the PA leadership for strategic purposes that relate to the people of the region and to the Palestinian people. The US administration has determined that whosoever (amongst the Palestinian leadership) seeks to co-exist with Israel must proceed in a completely different manner in the future (i.e. must be nothing other than liquidating anti-Imperial dissent). Today’s Palestinian leadership is unacceptable because it shows the way for all the people of the region to deal with Israel in this manner (i.e. not in the manner expected from them).
For this reason, the US position is that the change in Palestinian leadership must take place before the elections take place and that people of principle importance to American interests be (located) in sensitive positions before the elections. The Americans are not calling for elections to loose them. And it is not by chance, that an expansive campaign of arrests is currently taking place. Israel is arresting the pivotal national political cadre essential in mobilizing for resistance – political leaders as well as field leaders. They already have at least 8,000 prisoners in jail, just as in the first Intifada. This is an essential primary step in preparation for elections. There is a big difference between preparing for elections when these people are in prison, and when these people are on the streets. Likewise it is different to prepare for elections when certain people are in office and when certain others are not.
Now, as previously mentioned, when I speak of a resistance strategy, I am not talking about military operations. The mentality and discourse of immature competition, of “who did what”, of coffee-table assessment that “this operation was good”, or “no it was bad”, of “look how many martyrs we have” etc. – continues to accompany Palestinian armed struggle and is yet to be concluded. We are still measuring our achievements by the number of our martyrs rather than the losses that we have been able to inflict. There still is the mentality of competition – that this faction has done such and such, and “we cannot be left behind”. But this is not the point.
The essential but undeclared principle behind resistance is that the Palestinian people are pulsating with life and are rejecting the status quo: that we are alive – that the situation is not normal – that we refuse to normalize to a situation of occupation – that if we are hurt, we can also hurt back. This is a reflex that is a natural instinct. It is evidence for life. But at the same time, it is not sufficient as a political strategy and for a situation as complicated as the Palestinian predicament. Instead we are talking about the formulation of political strategies governed by certain goals and achievements.
I am sorry to say this, but from my modest assessment of history of Palestinian struggle, armed struggle was never a strategy. Perhaps it was once a strategy to build a movement. Perhaps it was a strategy to prove that we existed. But armed struggle was never a political strategy to achieve goals and liberation. Yet this (debate over armed struggle as a means for liberation) has yet to be concluded. This has a huge influence upon the existing mental and political culture of entire Palestinian generations raised upon this language. There is a huge responsibility to conclude this part of our history in good faith. If it was a success, let it be concluded as such. If it was a failure, let it be concluded as such. If it was not a strategy, then let it be concluded as such. I am not saying that it was a failure: I am saying that we must conclude that it was not a strategy for liberation, and recognize that armed struggle was always governed by different goals in different contexts.


When we then sit down to discuss the strategy of resistance, we must take into account the following issues:

First: The capacity to make our adversary pay the price.

This does not take much accounting: the Palestinian people have proven that they are capable of making their enemy pay a steep price. But this is not the whole story. The real question is to know how this translates politically. It is not sufficient for them to merely pay the price. I say to you that the Israelis have paid a high price. And don’t let cynical people say that the military operations do not have any influence. On the contrary – they do. Any state that respects itself has the primary task of preserving the security of its citizens. That is the justification for its existence. If it is unable to do that, it has an elementary problem. Let us not be cynical about this (the influence of military operations).
But this is not sufficient for strategic accounting. What is the political affect of this (paying the price) upon the enemy? Does this lead to a decisive battle where someone’s back will be broken? There is no resistance movement in the world, which has an interest such as this. Are we to allow ourselves to be drawn into a decisive battle without taking this into account and in a way which has not been studied before hand? Can we afford that- just because three or four people (a resistance cell) decided it as such – irrespective of their motivations? This is incomprehensible, and furthermore not acceptable for a national movement that seeks to struggle. This is not up for discussion. The true question is how these things (military operations) translate politically.
The goal of the national liberation movement must be to splinter the occupiers’ society in order to decrease its capacity to withstand the price being paid. If we see that what is being done (by the resistance), unites the occupiers’ society and increases its capacity to pay the price of its occupation, (because it enters into a stage of nervous nationalistic chauvinism where its historical complexes are brought to the surface etc.) then things must be stopped and studied. We have a deep national experience that must be studied and its lessons must be garnered.

Second: The capacity for Palestinian society to withstand the price that it is paying.

Here we have the experience of the Lebanese resistance, which was being waged in a land in which not everybody was for it (the resistance.) The situation of the Palestinian liberation movement is better off when compared with that of the Lebanese resistance, from the principle of having the society behind you. The Lebanese resistance movement had to constantly maneuver so as to assess to what degrees the Lebanese street could withstand what was taking place. Sometimes internal struggles would explode. Thus the capacity for a society to remain steadfast and withstand a long-term battle is of utmost import. Is this being taken into consideration when operations are conducted?

Third: The need for a political discourse.

There must be a coming to terms with the fact that there is no action of this kind, which is not accompanied by a political discourse. First and foremost, Palestinian society must be made aware through a political discourse that explains what the goal is. It must know – not necessarily every detail of strategy, but rather the wide steps being taken and where they lead, so as to increase its capacity for sumoud (steadfastness). If it is made aware of this, then it knows that it is in the hands of a responsible leadership, and despite certain ebbs and flows, can grasp where it is and where it is going.
Furthermore there is a political message directed towards the enemy which must make apparent over what precisely the battle is over. The adversary must know this so that he himself may reduce his ability to remain steadfast. If, for example, in the case of the South Lebanon resistance, Israeli society knows that the battle is for a withdrawal to the international border, it is a great difference from knowing that it will be a withdrawal to Kiryat Shmona (Israeli settlement near the Lebanese border). It becomes clear then that the price the society is willing to pay is different in these two circumstances. Likewise the capacity to remain steadfast is completely different. This was seen in 1948 as well, where the Yishuv (pre-’48 Zionist community), was willing to pay a high price for what it perceived to be at stake – the prevention of another holocaust. In terms of today’s figures, they were willing to pay the equivalent of 100,000 people killed. In the War of Attrition along the Suez, (in the wake of the ’67 War) Israel’s capacity to pay the price was very low. For that reason, information on Israeli casualties was hidden from the public. The government knew that Israeli society could not accept such losses, particularly after Egyptian president Abdel Nasser accepted the Rogers plan.
And in general, the capacity for a society to withstand losses in its troops is less than its capacity to withstand losses amongst its civilians. In this sense, it is opposite from what one might expect. Losses amongst civilians give the impression amongst their society that everyone is within the same basket, and everyone is a possible target. The society therefore concludes that there is no need for discussion or negotiation, but that “we have to remain steadfast.” However an attack upon soldiers is an attack upon politics. Soldiers wear an official uniform, which represents the state and its policies. A society can separate itself from a policy. Furthermore, its capacity to withstand losses as a result of a policy is greatly reduced, because it is in theory prepared to change the policies of the state, if it is the state that is targeted.

Fourth: The message to the world: a Struggle for Liberation

Finally there is the message to the world, particularly the West. What has taken place in the previous few years is a complete confusion as far as the political message that we have sent. Precisely at the moment when a sympathizing consensus was in the midst of forming regarding the Palestinian struggle against occupation, as a form of anti-colonial resistance (and not a question of “terrorism”), the Palestinian political narrative underwent a retreat. One narrative being projected was not emancipatory in the slightest, and instead tried to project the Palestinian cause as within Western interests for the region. In this case even the smell of liberation, progressive values or democracy was absent. In fact, those who espoused this narrative (the PA) were deliberately cynical of these ideals perceiving them as a historical mistake. But a narrative of this nature, which lacks any essence of liberation, is incapable of arousing solidarity.
The other narrative that emerged was one which pushed the framework of the national struggle in the direction of a religious struggle. It is incomprehensible that an anti-colonialist, liberation movement will be transformed into a religious struggle. What do Europeans have to do with this? Solidarity with a liberation struggle means that there are underdogs – people who are oppressed unjustly, and who are fighting against oppression and whose cause is humanitarian and emancipatory. The test then is how to frame ones struggle in an understandable humanitarian discourse. If you cannot do this, then there is a problem.


Any political struggle, which has administration over liberated areas, – even without an agreement, raises the importance of state-building. I do not see here a conflict as though it were either a question of “pursuing a strategy of resistance”, or pursuing a strategy of (state)-building. Or “either a national liberation movement, or the Palestinian Authority”. As long as you have areas that are government by the PA, there is a PA. Is there an opportunity to contest this? The question then is how to reconcile the need between resistance and the need for state-building. There are civil responsibilities that must be taken care of: administratively, educationally, infrastructurally, the health sector. Our confession to the existence of two needs (resistance and sate-building) does not mean that the two issues are mutually distinct from one another. A dialogue must be able to take place between the two.
Let us take the case that perhaps single-handedly saved the Palestinian national spirit during the time of the great invasions of April (in Operation Defensive Shield): the case of Jenin camp. In this case, what was the relationship between the PA and the resistance? (i.e cooperation between the two?) This was not a case of military operations against Israeli civilians inside the Green Line. It was an obvious case of people trying to defend themselves from the re-occupying army in an Area A designation, because they were wanted. Did these people really have any choice?
Lets put the romanticizing of what took place aside. According to my conversations with some of the leaders who defended the camp and who are now in prison, deep conflicting positions took place between those in Jenin camp and their leaderships. (i.e. the choice to resist was taken independently by those in the camp, and was in violation of PA orders). This is a perturbing scenario, not a situation of strategy at all. Neither is it a case of resistance, nor is it one of state building. (i.e. the mythical dichotomy of waging a strategy of resistance vs. state building is inapplicable, and in fact deceptive.)
Lets look at it in another light: Does the administration of Jenin in a good manner contradict the need to defend it when it is invaded? I’m not talking about areas inside the Green Line, nor within the ’67 Occupied Territories: I’m talking about villages and towns within what is known as Area A, and the need to defend them, and the ways in which we defend them. This relates to the direct relationship between the PA, its capacity to state-build hereafter, and Palestinian society trusting it in this task, and between, the PA’s position vis-à-vis the occupation and resistance to occupation.


These are times marked by great confusion, made worse by the events of 11 September, and likely to be complicated further if there is a US-led strike against Iraq. The question that must be asked now, relates not so much to the relationship between resistance and state-building, but to the popular horizon of the Intifada. As a result of the continuous invasions, the severe closure, and our admission into a period of full reoccupation of the areas once known as Area A in search of wanted individuals, arrests, and assassinations, and beneath the present international conditions, including the positions of the American administration – the importance of the popular character of the Intifada must be underscored. We are living through a period where the Israeli army dictates the activity of, and has direct authority over the residents of the West Bank. This makes it incumbent upon Palestinian social forces to think, not merely about strategies of resistance, or the relationship between resistance and reform or state-building, but also about the possibility of organizing popular mass struggle, which, in my estimation will have its own price to it, but will also bear valuable fruit.
After September 11th, and the “defining of terrorism”, and after a series of (Palestinian) operations which took place, the time has come for Palestinian society to return to itself, and confront the Israeli military occupation machinery as civilians in circumstances of a liberation struggle. If national dialogue is conducted along the basis of “are we for or against military operations”, the dialogue will fail. The Palestinian national dialogue begins when we sit, and discuss what our political goals are, and how we can struggle together in a positive manner. If we can find the organizational context, and can find the enthusiasm for this context and for its necessity, you will also find the desire to arrive at a collective venture.
I think that Israeli society is more tired than we imagine it to be. Despite all its mobilization, and all of its façade of the Generals, there is a fatigue within Israeli society from this battle – security-wise, economically, humanly, socially etc. They have had to pay a high price. And there is a need to toll the bell, and pose certain questions in a decisive and definitive manner. There are traces of the beginning of restlessness and movement in Israeli society. We must now press them. Palestinian society should pour to the streets, as a besieged oppressed society posing the question: Why should we observe curfew in a collective manner? (an increasingly prominent phenomenon throughout the West Bank – BTL)
If there is a society and it has leadership and organization, this can be implemented within the strategy I have mentioned, capable of combining between state-building, reform, a political message and resistance. I realize the situation is complicated. The issue is a combination of economics with politics, resistance and popular participation. We do not have to explain everything. We are not indebted to any satellite station to reveal Palestinian strategy. We must set the foundations to this strategy and that is all.

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