Matthew Rees is the author of Cain's Field: Faith, Fratricide and Fear in the Middle East (New York: Free Press, 2004) and has been the Jerusalem bureau chief of Time magazine since 2000. Educated at Oxford University and the University of Maryland, he served previously as Middle East correspondent for The Scotsman, Scotland's national newspaper, and as Middle East correspondent for Newsweek. Mr. Rees addressed the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia on November 22, 2004.
In Cain's Field, I examine the disunity within both the Israeli and Palestinian societies, a disunity that has contributed to the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In order to describe it, I utilized stories, not of leaders, but of ordinary people whose sagas may not have been otherwise heard. I aimed to illustrate how these internal conflicts affect the lives of people not normally covered by the Western media.
The past approach to diplomacy has been to try to achieve peace agreements and then deal with internal divisions. I conclude that this process must be reversed; first deal with the internal divisions and then bridge the differences between the sides.
The legacy of Arafat
Arafat's legacy is a history of symbolism characterized by constant undermining and undercutting the very people whom he professed to support. In Cain's Field, I describe the experience of Zakariya Balush, who served as Arafat's liaison to Arab intelligence organizations and later as the deputy head of General Intelligence in Gaza. Balush became disillusioned with Arafat only to receive a call from him indicating a promotion while consequently implying the insecurity of his new posting. I also found in my investigations that Arafat injected millions of dollars into the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, even as he let his own security forces go without pay for months on end.
Towards the end of his life, Arafat became a sort of pathetic figure and his physical degeneration can be seen as a parallel to the overall well being of the Palestinian people. A year ago, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer but never sought treatment. The Palestinians also have something eating away at them. Arafat tried to portray them as victims, a portrayal that was adverse to the wishes of many of them. After the fighting at Jenin, the international media showed the inhabitants of the town as victimized. Many of these inhabitants were outraged and would have preferred being depicted as having stood up to Israeli might. This refusal to be characterized as a victim reflects upon a different kind of Palestinian identity that is based upon pride.
The Palestinian elections in January 2005 mark an important opportunity as they can serve as the basis for the foundation of a democratic state. Mahmoud Abbas lacks the legitimacy that Arafat enjoyed; he was a successful fundraiser for the Palestinian cause in the Gulf states and a good negotiator, but has no power on the ground. The participation of Hamas in the elections could see it become part of the democratic process as an alternative to violence and terrorism. There is a hint that Hamas can channel its energies to other things than terrorism. During an interview, Abdul Aziz Rantisi discussed with me the concept of the hudna (ceasefire), explaining that once land has been under Muslim rule it must always remain Muslim, so it is impossible to cede land to Israel. Muslims must at least have a rhetorical option to say that one day the land will be recovered. According to recent polls, Hamas garners 30-40% of popular opinion.
The new leadership will have to deal with divisions between the internal and external leadership. The external leadership, brought back along with Arafat from exile in 1994 and given the top posts, lacks legitimacy on the ground. It is viewed as foreign and degenerate by many Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Their legitimacy rests upon the Oslo process and little else. The internal leadership consists of those that were heads of the movements that spurred the first intifada and thus have popular following but they lack resources.
Shortcomings of the international media
The international media has huge faults in its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For example, it reports that Arafat was besieged in his compound for three years when he could leave the compound and did do so in June 2002, when he traveled to Jenin and Bethlehem. In Jenin he received an angry reception over his failure to protect the people of the city. Upon arriving at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, he found that there was no one to greet him and, outraged, he returned to his compound and did not leave it again until his last trip to Paris. Arafat realized that he had lost popular support and retreated into his memories.
Journalists are generally in the region too briefly to develop a proper sense of what they are covering in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Typically, for the first two years, journalists write the same stories as their predecessors. The following two years are spent trying to write new stories while still attempting to get a sense of the two societies. Most are not in place long enough to develop original insights. Journalism is too focused on the surface of things.
To bridge the internal divisions within both Israeli and Palestinian society, each must begin to see the other as individuals rather than as members of a larger general group. In this way, problems become personal rather than general and unattached.
The real foundation for getting past this disunity is democracy. People must feel as if they can find expression within their own society and that others will listen. Israel has democracy, but it is not always a society in which people tend to listen to each other. Palestinian society, on the other hand, does not have anything approaching democracy at the moment. Democracy will give groups an outlet other than violence or hate or rejecting other groups. That is why the prospect of elections is so important now.
This summary account was written by Samantha Vinograd, a research assistant at the Middle East Forum.