Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat :
Ghassan Charbel
Editor-in-Chief of Aswat Asharq Al-Awsatt newspaper

Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat : Getting Out of The Tunnels

The Palestinians have been knocking on the door of the world’s conscience for seven decades. It has been responding with tranquilizers, bandages, and blankets. After that, it forgets about them. A generation of youths refused to consider the Nakba their inevitable destiny. Yasser Arafat, George Habash, Ahmed Jibril, and others took up rifles. The injustice persisted and went further, and so the rifles were passed down to more violent and ferocious generations.
This story does not begin with Yahya Sinwar and the tunnel he is said to be sheltered in. Tunnels preceded it. It does not start with Al-Aqsa Flood. Floods, though they had been less severe, preceded it. It could be said that the foundation of Israel, in and of itself, pushed the Palestinian people into a dark tunnel. An entire nation was uprooted and torn apart, with some languishing under the yoke of occupation and others scraping by in the tents of exile. Israel has done nothing but deepen the unjust and dark tunnel the Palestinians are in. The Nakba pushed the entire Middle East into a tunnel. It is not right to forget that most of the region’s “revolutions” and coups strongly leaned into their stance on the liberation of Palestine in their Statement No. 1. It was difficult for the people of the region to step away from this conflict.
In the late sixties, the fury of the Palestinians aggravated under the shadow of the bitter 1967 defeat. Dr. Wadie Haddad, a leading figure in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who headed its Foreign Operations Branch, put forward the slogan “Behind the enemy everywhere,” launching the plane hijacking operations. The series of operations culminated in 1970, when a few planes were hijacked and forced to land in “Airport of the Revolution” (Dawson’s Field) in Jordan. I heard from Wadie’s comrades that their goal had been to remind the world of the injustice perpetrated against the Palestinians and liberate captives held in prisons of the occupying forces.
Two years after the planes were made to land in the “Airport of the Revolution” Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad), a Fatah leader, became alarmed at the world’s insistence on disregarding the Palestinians’ rights. He engineered the operation to infiltrate the Munich Olympic Games and personally took part in preparing for its execution on the ground. “Abu Iyad” told me that killing the Israeli athletes had never been the objective; rather, his aim was to remind the world of the Palestinians’ plight and exchange the detained athletes for captives detained in Israel.
The airplane hijackings did not achieve its objective, but it made a bang, announcing that there could be no stability so long as the Palestinians were deprived of a state. Israel retaliated to this “Munich Flood” with a series of painful assassinations. In both cases, many loudly accused the Palestinians of terrorism and targeting civilians.
Those who have followed the episodes of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict over the past few decades make note of the precedents. Neither the tunnels nor the planes are new. One day, Fadel Shrourou, a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command leader, invited me to join him on a “drive” in South Lebanon. I went expecting the trip to end with a visit to a PFLP-GC base there. Somewhere between Sidon and Tyre, he took a turn and drove his car up a mountainous area.
I was surprised when we parked in a location that suggested nothing in particular. Then two armed militants came into view. We took a winding dirt road and found ourselves facing a large hole carved into a rock. We used a lamp to light our way inside. It was the first tunnel PFLP-GC had ever dug. Shrourou explained the importance of ensuring that fighters had access to a location where they could protect themselves from Israel’s dominance of the skies, and store weapons and supplies.
Years later, I went to Damascus to meet PFLP-GC leader and founder Ahmed Jibril so we could flip over the pages of his life together. He told me that the Palestinians had no choice but to use tunnels and that he had been inspired by the experiences of the Koreans and the Vietnamese. He also spoke with pride of how the PFLP-GC had used rudimentary paragliders to carry out the first attack of its kind inside Israeli territory. When the Al-Aqsa Flood operation was launched, I recalled Jibril’s tunnels and paragliders, which have turned into Sinwar’s tunnels and drones. Of course, a long distance separates Jibril’s tunnels from those of Sinwar. The world changed, Iran changed, and Hamas was born.
Neither Sinwar’s tunnel nor the Rafah tunnels are the story. The entire Middle East is in a dark and dangerous tunnel. That is how I felt in Manama alongside my colleagues as I followed the Arab Summit in Bahrain. Israel’s horrific atrocities in Gaza have left the entire region at a crossroads. Al-Aqsa Flood did not instigate one war, but a series of wars, albeit of varying degrees of intensity. Netanyahu's blind policies have deepened the tunnel that Israel and the region are in. The participants’ sense of the gravity of the situation was evident from their responses to questions about the final statement, the Bahrain Declaration, or the next stage.
The Bahrain Summit was not expected to produce miracles. The Arab body has been debilitated by its many wounds of fragmentation and interference. The Middle East is home to ancient hatreds and many wars. The state of relations among the great powers portend a new cold war, the recent Chinese-Russian summit sent many signals and carried many indications. However, at the end of the proceedings, the Arab Summit affirmed that there is only one way to pull the region out of the tunnels it has been pushed into. The region needs a ceasefire, and it must set a political track that leads to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state within a predetermined time frame.
Israel’s political blindness pushed the region to this disaster. Netanyahu squandered the opportunity presented by Yasser Arafat’s acceptance of a realistic solution. He ignored the Arab Peace Initiative announced in Beirut. He took joy in undermining the Palestinian Authority and opening the door to the era of tunnels and floods. The world woke up to the bang of what we see unfolding now. However, for the journey out of the tunnels to begin, the US must unequivocally commit to leaving the tunnel of favoritism and hesitation. With absence of an independent Palestinian state, it will be difficult to avoid the emergence of another generation of tunnels and floods.