People tend to see the Palestinians through the lens of their chosen stereotype. For many westerners, they arrived on the scene violently, as "terrorists": hijacking aeroplanes, killing Israeli athletes at the Olympics, causing havoc in league with other unsavoury groups. For the Arab world, and for many recent ex-colonies, they were a people who had been turned into refugees and freedom fighters by a new strain of old colonialism.
In the first intifada in the late 1980s, their cause became synonymous with that of a child facing the might of the Israeli army, with nothing in his or her hands except stones. In the second, and current, intifada, the child has become a suicide bomber, exploding amid the slaughter of innocents, with nothing in his or her heart except a despairing desire for vengeance. And overarching the Palestinian people is the iconic, troubling figure of their unchallenged leader, Yasser Arafat: vowing peace with a pistol strapped to his waist, wearing a keffiyeh shaped in the map of his people, stretching from the Jordan to the Mediterranean.
The Palestinians have all these faces - and many, many more. They are a cause, a history, a nation and a land. But who are they? What makes them a people? And why has the simple justice of their case - that of an exiled people's quest for a homeland - become enmeshed in the most protracted, implacable and dangerous conflict of our time?
The people. There are nine million Palestinians alive today. More than five million are refugees, with about a quarter still living in "temporary" UN-administered refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. These are the survivors and offspring of the 726,000 Palestinians (some 75 per cent of the then total population) who fled or were driven from their homes by Jewish militias during the 1948 war in which Israel was born and most of Palestine lost. Another 300,000 were displaced, many for a second time, when Israel conquered the rest of Palestine in 1967.
Some 1.2 million Palestinians are in Israel, one in five of Israel's citizenry. They are the Palestinians who stayed in their homes in 1948, or were "internally displaced" within Israel's 1949 armistice lines. There are 3.6 million Palestinians in the occupied territories, including the refugees: 1.3 million in Gaza and 2.3 million in the West Bank, of whom 220,000 live in Israeli-occupied East Jerusa-lem. As a people, the Palestinians are Arab, up to 94 per cent Muslim, 6 per cent Christian, plus a smattering who are or were Jewish.
They are bound together by their memory of, and their ancestry in, the culture, history and land that was the Mandate for Palestine, but is now Israel and the occupied territories. Even more, for the vast majority of them, is the fiercely imagined consciousness that they are a nation which is entitled to self-determination in part of that land, and that, as refugees, they have the right of return to the rest. Nor is this only imaginary: both rights are enshrined in international law and a slew of UN resolutions, routinely passed since the start of the Palestinians' dispossession.
Their representatives. Since 1964, the Palestinians have found their main political expression through the Palestine Liberation Organisation, "the sole legitimate representative" of the Palestinian people. For most of its existence and still today, at least formally, the PLO has been the Palestinians' quasi-state in exile. It has an executive, a parliament, a national fund, a national army, a national Covenant, and a Basic Law or constitution. It also provides health and education services, as well as information, economic and diplomatic offices.
Egypt set up the PLO in 1964 as much to curb the increasingly rebellious Palestinians as to free them. After the Arabs' defeat in the 1967 war, the PLO was taken over by Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement and other guerrilla factions, making it for the first time a genuinely Palestinian liberation movement. Arafat has remained the organisation's chairman ever since. The factions provide its political leadership, though with Fatah always the first among equals.
Under Arafat's stewardship, the PLO scored two successes and one huge failure. First, it managed to unite a dispersed people, mostly, under the banner of one national liberation movement. Second, it proved adept at steering worldwide attention to a people that, prior to 1969, had been ignored or, in the case of Israel, denied. Until recently, more governments recognised the PLO than recognised Israel, a unique achievement for a liberation movement. This international acceptance translated into broad diplomatic support for its core demands that Israel withdraw from the land it occupied in the 1967 war and for the Palestinians' right to self-determination.
Yet, at the same time, because the world is also resolutely committed to Israel's continued existence as a Jewish state, the PLO has been strikingly unsuccessful in wresting back the land taken from its people first in 1948, and then again in 1967.
It is a contradiction that explains the long, arduous road the PLO has travelled from its original aim of liberating all of historic Palestine to its recognition of Israel behind its pre-1967 armistice lines. The turning point for the PLO came in 1988. Since then the organisation has accepted that any Palestinian sovereignty would be confined to a state in Gaza and the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Five years later, in 1993, the PLO was forced to accept much less, on a temporary basis: not a state but a Palestinian Authority with "limited autonomy". In return, Israel recognised the PLO "as the representative of the Palestinian people" and began negotiations that most people hoped would resolve the conflict through an Israeli withdrawal and "two states for two peoples".
The Palestinian Authority. The PA does not represent Palestinians worldwide nor does it officially conduct peace negotiations with Israel: those prerogatives officially remain with the PLO. It represents Palestinians in the occupied territories and, since its establishment in 1994, has acquired many of the functions (though none of the sovereignty) of a state.
It has a president (Arafat), a prime minister, a cabinet, an elected parliament and 23 ministries, ranging from education to women's affairs. It employs 130,000 people, 74,000 of them civil servants, plus 56,000 security personnel, dispersed in one or other of the PA's 12 police and intelligence forces. Like the PLO, the PA has enjoyed huge international support: since 1993 it has received more than $6 billion in aid or loans from various donors.
By October 2000 - after seven years of negotiations - the PA controlled, to a certain extent, 41 per cent of the West Bank (including nearly all the towns). In some areas, it had control over both civilian and security affairs, in others over civilian affairs only. Israel controlled the remaining 59 per cent, including occupied East Jerusalem, with 40 per cent of that land the preserve of Jewish settlements. The situation was only marginally better in Gaza: Israel still controlled 32 per cent of the land.
The intifada. Even this limited territorial share has gone since the al-Aqsa intifada erupted in September 2000. In April 2002, Israel reconquered the West Bank in its entirety, reimposing direct martial rule on its people. It has expanded its hold over Gaza to 42 per cent, through huge land clearances to protect the 21 settlements (housing 7,500 settlers) that are peppered over the strip. It has also destroyed many of the national institutions that the PA had built, the particular targets being police and security installations and government ministries.
There are two main reasons why things reached this stage. First, whatever Arafat's prowess as a guerrilla leader, he was dreadful at government. Instead of using the space that the Oslo Accords afforded to build institutions based on law and popular participation, he ruled, as he had always done, through nepotism, violence and planned corruption (since 1995, roughly $900m from the PA's revenues has "disappeared" into the president's coffers, unaccounted for). The result was a crisis of faith among Palestinians, if not for the goal of peace based on independence, at least for the political arrangements imposed to bring such peace about.
The second reason was Israel's strategy. It used its enormous imbalance of power over the Palestinians to consolidate its conquests in the 1967 war through its settlement policy. Between 1993 and 2000, under Labour and Likud governments alike, settlement construction in the occupied territories increased by 52 per cent, linked by a road network that integrated the settlers into Israel proper. This had the effect of isolating the segments of Palestinian-controlled territory, not only from each other, but progressively cutting off each town, village and refugee camp. By September 2000, what for most Israelis was a peace process had become, for most Palestinians, Israel's latest mode of dispossessing them of their land. And they resisted it as colonised peoples tend to do: by taking up arms and launching the intifada, the second national Palestinian revolt in less than a decade.
Since September 2000, nearly 3,000 Palestinians and nearly 1,000 Israelis have been killed. The aim of the uprising has never been clear, beyond anger, frustration, a cycle of revenge and, eventually, political competition between the militias. The suicide bombs, slaughtering scores of innocent Israeli civilians, caused overpowering Israeli anger. The consequences are that roughly 3,000 Palestinian homes have been razed. Because of Israel's closure policies, the Palestinian economy is in free fall: nearly half the labour force is jobless, and two-thirds of the people live in penury.
Roughly 6,000 Palestinians are in prison, including such future leaders as Marwan Barghouti, Fatah's leader in the West Bank. Arafat is marooned. The PA has been reduced to the role of paymaster and service provider. Besieged and fragmented, much of Palestinian society is today in a state of collective withdrawal. In the absence of political and national solutions, people seek local and tribal ones, eking out strategies of survival.
The losses have been not only human and material, but also strategic. Of all the threats to the Palestinians' hopes for independence, the gravest is the "wall", a vast security barrier made up of concrete walls, fences, trenches and patrol roads that was begun in June 2002, and is built entirely on Palestinian land. If completed as mapped (and Israel's high court has already ruled that one section of its proposed route should be changed), the wall would swallow 17 per cent of the West Bank, further separating Palestinians from their fields, their towns and each other. It would, in effect, destroy all prospect of a viable Palestinian state.
Graham Usher is Palestine correspondent for the Economist and Middle East International
Why they still support Arafat
Both Israel and the United States have concluded that there is at present no negotiating partner on the Palestinian side. Since June 2002, George W Bush has predicated all movement in the peace process on the Palestinians choosing a "new and different leadership". Other politicians concur that among the many obstacles strewn across the road to peace, Yasser Arafat looms large.
Yet Arafat remains indomitable in his ruined Ramallah compound. In the eyes of his people, nothing adds so much lustre to his throne as the attempts to unseat him. Polls regularly show that he remains the most popular Palestinian politician in the occupied territories. Were there to be presidential elections tomorrow, he would romp home (which is one reason why Israel and the US will not permit them).
How to explain the paradox? Many Palestinians agree that the "old man" is rotten at government. He was also hopeless at negotiations. He tumbled into traps Israel laid for him, and failed to project leadership when leadership, or at least clarity, was essential.
Arafat's enduring appeal does not come from his leadership; it comes from the national consensus he symbolises. Most Palestinians believe him when he says he is ready to die a "martyr" if this is what it takes to gain sovereignty over East Jerusalem; that he would "never" renounce the right of return (even though he would doubtless prove flexible in its implementation); and that he supports, as do they, the right of his people to use all means to resist occupation. There are few Arab leaders whom Palestinians would trust to protect the essence of their cause. Arafat is one of them.
He is the man for leading us to freedom, not the man for building a state, says one aide. This perhaps explains the paradox. If, despite everything, most Palestinians still nail their flag to a helm steered by Arafat, it is because they know they are nowhere near statehood. They are still in the life-and-death struggle to be free.