Although there is danger in carrying historical comparisons too far, a reporter who covered Algeria's war for independence from France from 1954 to '62 finds similarities and lessons for the guerrilla war the Palestinians have now begun against Israel, and for prospects of settling that war and making real peace.
"Make no mistake," Arab East Jerusalem's senior politician, Faial al-Husseiny, recently told French TV interviewers who asked him about the daily violence in the Palestinian territories. "We are now in a battle for our national independence. We won't stop until we get it." In many ways, the bloody but ultimately successful Algerian war for independence, resolved largely by a peace partner of great vision, the late French President Charles de Gaulle, had even less promising beginnings than did the Palestinian effort.
The Algerian revolt of 1954 was launched by a mere dozen angry young men. So, in effect, was the Palestinian intifada, which began in the 1950s, when Yasser Arafat and a handful of university students and professionals with conservative, Islamist ideas in Gaza, Kuwait, and Cairo, conspired to form al-Fatah, an Arab acronym for the Palestine National Resistance movement, which has led both resistance and peace movements until today.
Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, had similar roots, mainly the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but first brandished its guerrilla and terrorist arm against Israel during the 1987 Palestinian uprising against Israel.
Palestinians said they would learn from Algeria's mistakes: trying to fight the French Army in static conventional warfare, and mindless terror against civilians - a tactic which the Palestinians, ignoring the bitter setbacks it caused the Algerians, have revived in Israel.
Like al-Fatah and the umbrella Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), created in 1963, Algeria's National Liberation Front (FLN) suffered factional quarrels. It produced troublesome individuals and splinter groups. Some refused to stop terrorism when FLN moderates like Ferhat Abbas so decreed, for the sake of compromise peace deals with the French.
Some adopted quietist tactics, preaching and lying low. Some even joined the camp of their French adversaries, who had occupied Algeria for 130 years. Both the Algerians and their Palestinian understudies had to cope with enemy agents, double agents, and traitors. Both have had to rely on often fickle, conditional, financial and arms aid from Arab neighbors and self-interested friends and allies like Egypt, Syria, and Iraq.
Like the Algerians, the Palestinians soon were disillusioned with the strings tied to Arab, Russian, or Chinese aid. Both developed their own commercial and banking networks. With only 10,000 fighters, the Algerians faced 1 million French settlers and nearly half a million French troops, some of whose commanders mutinied in April 1961, when they perceived that De Gaulle planned to "give away French Algeria" and tried unsuccessfully to overthrow him.
The PLO - like the FLN's government-in-exile and its "external" army, based in the privileged sanctuaries of Tunisia and Morocco - was often ridiculed by younger Arabs as the "establishment institution" or as "tea-drinking bureaucrats."
Arafat's al-Fatah, expelled first from Jordan by King Hussein in 1970-71 and then from Lebanon in 1982 to distant Tunisia, tried to model itself on Algerians, including those who fought inside Algeria until General de Gaulle and such world leaders as US President John F. Kennedy helped to bring them victory.
Other comparisons exist, but they stop at one crucial issue. The European settlers of Algeria had France as a putative homeland to "return" to. Today's 350,000 or so Jewish settlers in the Palestinian territories have neither real nor putative "homelands" to return to. As Israelis, most have come to identify deeply with the regions they have settled as part of a God-given, biblical "Greater Israel."
Some of the most determined of them, especially Americans, indicate they will use their own weapons - like those once wielded by the Europeans of Algeria - to fight, rather than leave. This is a really tough part of any peace settlement, involving recognition of an independent national state, mainly composed of Arab Muslims and Christians, alongside the mainly Jewish state of Israel.
Rather than the fractured, "autonomous" Palestinian Bantustans, sandwiched between Jewish settlements and crisscrossed by strategic Israeli military roads, that future state must have well-defined and defensible but open boundaries with its neighbors, Israel, Jordan, and Egypt.
To Palestinians, this requires Israeli withdrawal of the occupying Israeli police and military forces. Many settlements would have to go, too. This would involve painful choices by all concerned, as it did during the very different, and largely unplanned exodus of Europeans from Algeria.
Planning now for these Palestinian and Israeli choices, during the heat of the growing guerrilla struggle, would save much grief later.
That later time will be when all parties, including the US Congress and Washington administrations, which have single-mindedly supported Israel's policies and strategies (if not always its tactics), have finally come to their senses and helped craft a lasting peace based on justice, equity, and breathing space for both peoples.
John K. Cooley, an American author, reports for ABC News. He was a Monitor correspondent in the Middle East and North Africa in the 1960s and '70s.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society