The Palestinians' Unmitigated Disaster

A day after Israeli troops killed its second leader within a single month, the Islamist terrorist organization Hamas put on a brave face. The Israelis “are dreaming,” if they think this would weaken Hamas, announced Ismail Haniyeh to a crowd of over 70,000 mourners at the funeral for Abdel Aziz Rantisi. “Every time a martyr falls,” Haniyeh insisted, “Hamas is strengthened.”

This sort of boosterism and puffery has a long history among Palestinians. The last time Israeli forces did real damage to the Palestinian war machine, in May 2002, for example, Khaled Meshaal of Hamas announced that the Israeli devastation was actually “a Palestinian victory that lifted the morale of our people.” Not to be outdone, Yasir Arafat of the Palestinian Authority (PA) claimed that same month, “The more destruction I see, the stronger I get.”

These leaders may be fooling themselves by pretending that defeat is victory, but growing numbers of Palestinians are wising up to the bitter realities of losing a war. Their mood has darkened since February 2001, when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came to office intent to establish that violence against Israel does not work.

The results have deeply affected Palestinian life. In one town of 5,000 on the West Bank, a resident told the Times of London how his town has been “isolated from the whole world, even from other villages. Everybody has to be in their homes by 6 p.m., and the Israeli patrols come around every day to check.”

Protracted isolation has led to steep economic decline. Recent PA figures show that 84 percent of the Palestinian population lives in poverty, as defined by the World Bank, four times the number that did so before the Palestinians stepped up the violence in late 2000. PA residents number 3.5 million and their economy produces $2.5 billion a year, meaning the average per capita income is US$700 a year.

A World Bank study in 2003 found that investment in the PA declined from about $1.5 billion in 1999 to $140 million in 2002. The United Nations found in 2003 that Palestinians have turned to subsistence agriculture — growing their own food — in place of the more sophisticated work they had previously been doing.

Commenting on the situation, the UN special envoy to the region, Terje Roed-Larsen, describes the Palestinian economy as “devastated.”

(That said, conditions should not be exaggerated. Foreign aid adds $800 million a year, bringing annual per capita income to about $1,000 – or about the same as Syria and higher than India and all but a few sub-Saharan countries. Palestinians are thus by no means the poorest people in the world.)

In a word, Sharon’s tough policies have established that terrorism damages Palestinian interests even more than it does Israeli ones. This has led some analysts deeply hostile to Israel to recognize that the “second intifada” was a grievous error. Violence “just went haywire,” says Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University. An “unmitigated disaster,” journalist Graham Usher calls it. A “crime against the Palestinian people,” adds an Arab diplomat.

After the execution of Hamas’s other leader, Ahmed Yassin, last month, sixty prominent Palestinians urged restraint in a newspaper ad, arguing that violence would provoke strong Israeli responses that would obstruct aspirations to build an independent “Palestine.” Instead, the signatories called for “a peaceful, wise intifada.”

Ordinary Palestinians, too, are drawing the salutary conclusion that murdering Israelis brings them no benefits. “We wasted three years for nothing, this uprising didn’t accomplish anything,” says Mahar Tarhir, 25, an aluminum-store owner. “Anger and disillusionment have replaced the fighting spirit that once propelled the Palestinian movement,” finds Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, a reporter for Knight Ridder.

As for Israelis, as early as July 2003 the military brass reached the conclusion that Israel was achieving victory. More sharply, Israeli analyst Asher Susser concluded in the Middle East Quarterly back then that the Palestinian effort to break the Israeli spirit through terror “has failed” and resorting to force “was a catastrophic mistake, the worst the Palestinians have made since 1948.”

In this context, rapidly eliminating two Hamas chieftains in a row deepens Palestinian perceptions that Israel’s will to defend itself is strong, its military arm long, and that terrorism is tactically wrong. Perhaps more Palestinians will realize the time has come to accept the existence of the Jewish state.