Karma Nabulsi

THE PREVAILING Western view of what is happening to the Palestinians today is simple. A people hopelessly divided among factions, held to ransom by fanatical leaders, terrorised in the streets by gun-toting militia, paralysed by the failings of their third-rate ruling elites. A nation of dependants, wards of the international community, unwilling or unable to help themselves in spite of the millions in foreign aid, goodwill and concentrated attention poured into that tiny piece of land. In the press, one finds nothing but dissension and chaos between Hamas and Fatah; between Prime Minister Ismail Haniya and President Mahmoud Abbas; between the Palestinian Authority and the PLO; between the refugee camps and the cities; between Gazans and West Bankers; between Palestinians under occupation and those in exile outside.

Against the background of such a portrayal, it is no wonder that Tony Blair should invite as his guest this week Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert a man elected on the plan that Israel must unilaterally impose its own will on the Palestinians "because there is no one to negotiate with." Little wonder also that the U.S. Congress recently passed a resolution branding the entire West Bank and Gaza as a terrorist area.

Of course there are political divisions, fostered and engineered by Israel and its Western sponsors. But this is an image that fundamentally misrepresents not just what is going on in Palestine today, but also the profound political shifts that have taken place since the death of Yasser Arafat. In several crucial ways, Arafat represented Palestinians, inside and outside Palestine. Most important, he shaped and maintained the national consensus on how to deal with Israel.

This consensus essentially amounted to two propositions. First, that Israelis and Palestinians had to reach a negotiated settlement, based on U.N. resolutions and international law; and secondly, that until negotiations were successfully concluded, Palestinians had not only a right but a duty to resist Israeli military occupation. This dual strategy of negotiation and resistance was not unique to Arafat or to the Palestinian people in their long struggle for freedom. It has been the cornerstone of all liberation struggles throughout the colonial era.

But this consensus was splintered by the death of Arafat. Mr. Abbas, on assuming the role of PLO chair, ran for President of the Palestinian Authority on the promise to follow Arafat's legacy. Yet under Arafat he had always reflected the preference for a strategy of negotiations without resistance, which Arafat (and most Palestinians) believed was inadequate to achieve an Israeli withdrawal, or even the possibility of bringing the Israelis to the negotiating table.

Throughout their epic history, Palestinians have faced repeated attempts to divide and undermine their national liberation movement. In Beirut throughout the summer of 1982; in the years of the first intifada, where people rose in resistance to military rule; in the second intifada; during the siege of Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah, and especially today, in the collective punishment meted out to Palestinians for voting in a government that represents their right to hold fast, Palestinians have not surrendered their will to be free.

Indeed, attempts to make Palestinians surrender their rights have always generated more opposition. These sieges have not just failed, they have reinforced a greater sense of collective purpose, and restored popular unity. It is therefore futile for the Israelis and the West to attempt yet again to divide the Palestinians, by withholding aid and refusing to talk to their elected representatives. Violent resistance will only end when the military rule of the Israelis over the Palestinians ends. Peace only comes with justice. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau asked: "There is peace in the dungeons, but is that enough to make them desirable?"

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

(Karma Nabulsi is a politics fellow of St Edmund Hall, Oxford University, and a former PLO representative.)