For Peace, For the Future: A State for Palestine
Now that Ariel Sharon, a war criminal, has exceeded all limits by ordering an attack on the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, we join all men and women of good will everywhere in crying with indignant consternation for peace,
for a State for Palestine.
Ramallah under siege. Yasser Arafat isolated there. Bethlehem occupied. Every day new Palestinian suicide martyrs immolate themselves as they kill Israeli men and women. How long must this go on? There is a small spark of light in the middle of this dark tragedy. In mid-march, the United Nations issued an historic order: it backed the creation of a Palestinian state and called for an immediate cease-fire. The measure was announced during Israel’s cruelest attacks on the Palestinian civilian population. Afterwards, Saudi Arabia presented a very concrete proposal to end the war: that the Arab world recognize Israel as a state and that Israel withdraw from the territories it invaded during the Six-Day War in 1967.
Meanwhile, the United States has shifted its traditional position somewhat, which could bring Israelis and Palestinians closer together, but no one seems to be in any hurry. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, increasingly questioned by Israeli critics for bringing their society only war and more war instead of the peace he promised, is determined to get the Palestinian Authority (PA) to stop the shooting from their side before negotiating, while his own soldiers continue killing Palestinians. Arafat, on the other hand, is rightfully demanding that Israel withdraw its tanks and troops from the occupied territories before opening talks with Sharon’s government. Meanwhile, US mediator Anthony Zinni is leaning hardest on the Palestinians, the weakest side. The negotiations will be long and complex, with interruptions more than probable. As this process unfolds, it is worth taking another look at a conflict as serious as it is decisive for the future of a region whose moments of peace have been but ellipses between wars.
Sharon is taking the conflict to the edgeOn September 28, 2000, retired General Sharon made his first move in a new chess game, following the most elementary norms of Game Theory: in contemplating one’s own moves, one must precisely calculate as many of the adversaries’ future moves as possible. When Sharon showed up at al-Haram al-Sharif, a walled section of Jerusalem’s Old City, flanked by dozens of police and soldiers to claim Israeli sovereignty over the mount where Salomon’s Temple once stood, his move was aimed at provoking both Jews and Palestinians. He knew his presence in this holy place would incite a Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, since the temple mount is flanked by the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Mosque of Omar, Islam’s third most sacred site after the Saudi Arabian cities of Mecca and of Medina, the spot from which Muslims believe Muhammad rose to heaven. This grassroots Palestinian uprising would in turn justify militarizing the occupied territories, thus taking the conflict to the edge of the abyss. He secretly hoped that this would additionally destroy the PA and Arafat’s leadership by further radicalizing the Islamic Resistance Movement, also known as Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, creating an environment that would deepen the internal divisions among Palestinians and seal the failure of the 1993 Oslo agreements.
Ariel Sharon never liked those agreements despite the fact that they favored the Israeli theses. Quite simply, he does not accept the idea of a Palestine state, now or ever. His whole strategy has been aimed at creating the right conditions to declare war on the Palestinian people and declare the PA a terrorist organization. The essence of the problem is that Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories responds to the Zionist project, which has never contemplated coexisting with the Palestinian people.
"When they are gone..."Some scenes from Palestinian cities can help one comprehend what has happened and what is still going on.
Last spring, a small delegation from our development NGO, Peace and Third World, was in Palestine. A few hours after arriving in Jerusalem, we went on to Bethlehem, less than 20 minutes away by road. Along the way, we passed heavily equipped Israeli military barricades. The soldiers were very young and we later found out that most were Russian by birth. On the outskirts of Bethlehem, a completely closed-off city, is the Palestinian municipality of Beit Jala, whose population is mainly Christian; everywhere one turns one sees the destruction caused by Israeli tanks and cannons. When I asked an old and visibly poor couple about their life, the husband pointed to a Jewish settlement called Gilo just in front of us and said in Arabic, "We had our olive trees there, but one day they came with their tanks and machinery and they pushed us off. That’s where we had our home, but they destroyed it." His wife took a great iron key from beneath her skirts and swore that "when they are gone, we’ll go back to our home."
Those elderly people did not talk to us about their poverty, their material shortages; they talked about freedom. They told us about their country with tears in their eyes. I understood at that moment all of the terrible significance of the word "occupation." Beit Jala is frequently occupied by Israeli troops in reprisal for sniper shots against Gilo, a fortress protecting Jewish settlers built on lands forcibly confiscated from the municipality of Beit Jala. Like this couple, hundreds of Palestinian families have watched the occupiers bulldoze their homes and their olive groves in a matter of hours. Is it all that surprising, then, that resentful sharpshooters vent their rage against the settlers?
Hebron, Jericho, Gaza, JerusalemIn Hebron, a Palestinian city located in the self-ruled Palestinian territory, some four hundred Jewish settlers control the heart of the city with support from Israeli tanks under the pretext of protecting the Tomb of the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Venerated by both Muslims and Jews, the site receives the respective visitors in two separate parts of the same formal building. Some years ago, a Jewish fanatic massacred some twenty praying Muslims in the mosque area. In Hebron, 120,000 Palestinians live on the periphery under a curfew, unable to go to the center of their own city.
Jericho is built in a depression of land in the middle of the desert, surrounded by eight Jewish settlements situated on the highlands from which they control the whole city’s water and electricity supply. Located as it is many kilometers from the nearest Palestinian population, the city of Jericho is under siege.
Gaza is a small arid strip of land separated from Jericho by kilometers of territory under Israeli military occupation. About eighteen thousand Israelis—a third of them settlers and the rest soldiers—occupy about 40% of Gaza, while the other 60% is the overcrowded home of a million and a half Palestinians. Electrified fences and high walls surround them, preventing them from going to the West Bank cities and fields in search of work, to visit relatives or for pleasure. Under such siege, Gaza has a 55% unemployment rate and loses US$3 million every day.
Jerusalem, the only city that has represented full cultural and religious plurality for centuries, is right at the center of the knotty negotiations due to its symbolic nature, since sovereignty over such a sacred space is at stake. The city is today a sprawling metropolis surrounded by enormous buildings that exemplify Israeli might. In a brutal process, the Israelis are visibly gaining new territory every day, meter by meter, in eastern Jerusalem, where the Arabs are imprisoned. The municipal government is using repressive measures to pressure the Palestinians into giving up their homes: it has prohibited them from making any home improvements, while also impeding the construction of new buildings. Even more draconian, Israeli settler families take possession of their homes with military support, raise the Israeli flag over the flat roofs and protect themselves from their Palestinian neighbors with walls and wire. To further decimate the Palestinians demographically, the Israeli government has built a set of housing developments on the edge of the historic city.
The terrorism of the occupier This setting is geographically composed of hundreds of tiny Palestinian islands surrounded by Israeli settlements and troops, making the Palestinian territory look like the spots on a leopard. A new highway system connects the settlements, making it impossible for the Palestinians to govern a continuous territory. Arafat himself must request permission to travel and is frequently forced to remain in Gaza or in Ramallah as a kind of punishment. The Palestinian towns and boroughs are invariably closed, leaving their inhabitants unable either to come or to go without express Israeli permission. Israel controls the electricity supply and the water, so strategic in this dry area of the world.
and the resistance of the occupied
The question is as serious as it is simple: What gives the Israeli occupiers the right to feel offended by the resistance of the occupied and try to appear as victims? It is utterly unacceptable that Ariel Sharon stalls any possibility of dialogue in response to an attack committed by Palestinians while Israel’s Council of Ministers votes thumbs up to the killing of Palestinian leaders.
Having gotten to this point, it is logical to ask when the use of violence is legitimate. If the response is "never," why demonize Palestinian violence while raising Israeli violence to the category of reprisal in self-defense? And if the answer is "only for self-defense," doesn’t this justify the resistance of the occupied people? Terrorism is considered the weapon of the weak Palestinians because the powerful Israelis control the doctrinal system, which doesn’t classify their own terror as such. Nonetheless, terrorism, like other forms of violence, is above all a weapon of the strong.
Naturally, no one can agree with the indiscriminate response of certain Palestinian sectors to Israeli state terrorism. Some Palestinians have committed actions that only feed Ariel Sharon’s militarism even more. Car bombs in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv or suicide bombings, in addition to killing innocent people, only help the victimizer peddle his image as victim while simultaneously organizing and wreaking his vengeance on the innocent Palestinian population.
Israel’s occupation is arrogant and progressiveThis unstoppable spiral of violence is rooted in far older events. In 1947, the United Nations sanctioned the partitioning of historic Palestine, granting 54% to the future state of Israel and 46% to the future state of Palestine. The Palestinian people and the Arab world refused to accept a political solution that created an artificial state to resolve a problem seriously affecting the West following the Jewish holocaust in Nazi-controlled countries.
The very next year, Israel took control of the bulk of historic Palestine, in the process destroying no fewer than 530 Arab towns. The three-quarters of a million Palestinians expelled from their homes then are part of the four million refugees who still cannot return to their lands today. The 1948 war allowed Israel to increase the territory under its domination from 54% to 78%, while the remaining 22% remained in Jordanian and Egyptian hands until the Six-Day War in 1967.
During that new war, Israel also took over the West Bank of the Jordan River, at the time under Jordanian administration, and the Gaza Strip, occupied by Egypt. This total occupation lasted until the 1993 Oslo agreements, when Israel conceded the Palestinians self-rule—not sovereignty—over a small part of the remaining 22% of Palestine that Israel occupied in 1967. It was also agreed in Oslo that Jericho would be the first city under Palestinian Authority administration, with the promise that in 1999 a Palestinian state could be proclaimed on a territory consisting of approximately 16% of historic Palestine, leaving 84% for Israel.
The Palestinians ceded too muchThe Palestinian negotiators under Arafat’s direction ceded a lot in Oslo. First, they formally recognized the state of Israel. Recognizing Israel’s right to exist as a state, with safe borders, involved a mental, political and cultural revolution, given that it is in fact the result of colonial actions. Israel, on the other hand, has not yet undergone a corresponding revolution: it still does not formally recognize the Palestinians’ right to their own state, with all the security that implies. In other words, one side unilaterally recognized the other in Oslo, which is why it must be spoken of as a concession.
Secondly, the Palestinian side sacrificed the idea of raising its demands over the 46% of Palestine that the United Nations sanctioned in 1947 when it divided the territory between two sovereign states. Thirdly, it set aside United Nations Resolution 242, which obliges Israel to return to the pre-1967 borders, which would have meant Palestinian control over at least 22% of the territory, and without submitting to Israeli blackmail.
Furthermore, Oslo did not touch on the rights of the millions of Palestinians in exile who are under the protection of UN General Assembly Resolution 194. Israel wants nothing to do with this issue, since recognizing the refugees’ right to return to their places of origin would endanger its Zionist project. Nor did Oslo take up the issue of Jerusalem, despite the fact that the Palestinian side would settle for having its capital in the eastern zone of the city.
Oslo also failed to address important issues such as borders, water control or even the extremely serious issue of the Jewish settlements built in territories designated for Palestinian control. Despite the fact that the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits any occupying power from constructing settlements on conquered territory, international law was set aside in Oslo, together with the UN resolutions, in order to make everything negotiable. Israel and the United States imposed their thesis that progress would only be made in the negotiations if international law were suspended. In the end, the Oslo agreements did not even include the creation of an international commission to verify the agreements.
After Oslo, the PA extended its jurisdiction over education, health, culture, direct taxes and domestic policy beyond Jericho to cities such as Hebron, Nablus, Ramallah, Jenin, Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Gaza. In 1995, a second agreement divided the West Bank into three zones: Zone A (4% of the territory), in which the PA exercises civil administration and internal security; Zone B (27%), which it is responsible for administrating while sharing security with the Israelis; and Zone C (the remaining 69%) where Israeli control is total.
After Oslo, the logic of warWhat happened to the Jewish settlements after Oslo? Between September 1993 and February 2001, Israel has added dozens of new settlements, more than doubling its settlement population in Palestinian territories, which now exceeds four hundred thousand. It is a policy of achieving consummated, and thus irreversible, acts on the ground, to provide a position of force in any negotiation and ensure enclaves within the future Palestinian state. Each new settlement means a new problem for peace. This has been the logic of war, not of peace, followed by three Prime Ministers starting with Benjamin Netanyahu, then Ehud Barak and now Sharon.
The Israelis have also increased the enclosure of Palestinian populations, a castigation strategy that has increased in this year of Intifada. It involves immobilizing the population within its municipalities, villages and cities, making it impossible to go work in Israeli fields or cities or in other Arab boroughs, engage in trade or even move around freely. This policy has increased the poverty affecting 64% of the Palestinian population.
Despite failing to touch on essential themes, the Oslo agreements initially awoke great hope in the Palestinian population: they were better than nothing and were viewed as results of the first Intifada (1987-1992). The prolonged popular uprising did make a decisive contribution, sending the international community a firm message to end Israeli occupation. Today, however, only 3% of the Palestinian population favors those agreements. The Oslo road is closed.
Kill, kill, killWhat is called the Al-Aqsa Intifada against Israeli occupation has been going on for over a year, ever since Sharon’s provocative visit in September 2000. This latest Palestinian uprising also expresses the frustration with the meager results of Oslo and includes a critique of the policies pursued by Yasser Arafat, who is held responsible for those agreements and for the widespread corruption in the circles around him.
Over 1,100 Palestinians have died so far during this Intifada, compared to 320 Israelis. A sizable number of the Palestinians killed were youngsters who were out throwing rocks and got a well-aimed shot to the head for their trouble, on some occasions with dum-dum bullets, which explode after entering the body. The use of tanks, Apache helicopters with mounted artillery and F-16 fighter planes illustrates the disproportionate means and indiscriminate nature of many of the Israeli attacks. Seeing how the Israeli machine operators vengefully mow down houses and entire villages leaves a lasting impression. I saw one of these villages on the road to the Judean desert and was deeply moved by the piles of stones where until recently a whole town had stood. Such destruction causes the deepest pain among the Palestinian people, since it represents the intent to wipe out family identity, memory and the entire past.
Zionists: With impunity and immune to all guiltThe Israeli government has continually opted for military means to fight the Palestinian uprising. Its strategy is to combine selective assassinations with indiscriminate collective punishment. Israeli madness, the madness of its leaders, must be explained in the light of what Zionism means within the Palestinian drama. Zionism is based on three basic assumptions. The first is that the Jews are a people, and this means much more than a religious community. The second is that anti-Semitism and persecution is a latent threat to the Jewish people. And the third is that Palestine (Eretz Israel) was and still is the Jewish people’s land.
A series of assumptions grows out of this rhetoric. Israel is defined as a Jewish state, the country of Jews, not of Israelis, which means that it belongs to all Jewish people, regardless of the country they live in. In practice, this gives a Jew from anywhere in the world more rights than the Arab population that always lived in Israel or even that stayed there after the occupation.
A collateral consequence is that the right of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who had to flee the wars of 1948 and 1967 to return to their homes and recover their possessions is not recognized for the simple reason that they are not Jews. In this case, such racist discrimination is actually permitted by the international community.
The Zionist rhetoric is also used to support arguments favoring the creation of a Hebrew state in Palestine. Zionists say that Palestine was always an arid land populated by nomadic tribes, a dismissive concept with which they seek to deny the existence of a Palestinian identity. In their view, these people are simply Arabs who should be taken in by neighboring countries such as Jordan.
The Jewish National Fund administers 92% of Israel’s lands and refuses to allow non-Jews to reside in or open a business in them. The basis for the land confiscations can be found in the maxim "redeem Israel," an Old Testament argument taught in the schools. The Palestinians who stayed inside Israel’s borders after the 1948 war make up about 20% of the population. They can vote and run for election, but the discriminatory policy practiced against them is spectacular, and they are of course recognized as Arabs rather than Palestinians.
Israel was born in war. It is a militaristic state that uses the struggle against the Palestinian people as a cohesive factor since its own population comes from Russia, Central Europe, the United States, Argentina, Yemen and other Arab countries. The security issue is the pillar on which Israel’s entire foreign and domestic policy is built, including its education plans. Israel’s rightwing leaders are bent on expelling the Palestinian people to Jordan. Only if this is not possible—and it would appear not to be—will they contemplate some form of compromise.
Underlying this aggressive and repressive policy is a deep-running ideological discourse: recollection of the past, of the holocaust, brandished always as permanent proof of innocence. Nothing that the Jews or the Israeli state might do can be subject to sanction or condemnation because the terrible past of persecutions has redeemed them forever from any blame. That is the basis for believing themselves unpunishable and impermeable to any guilt. Through that prism, the Palestinians are singly responsible for the fact that Israel must kill to survive.
The conflict is in a black holeThe new international political reality following the terrible attacks on New York and Washington initially offered signs of change in the dynamic of the Middle East conflict. The United States seemed for the first time to be interested in seeking stable solutions to a problem that is an open wound in the Arab world and a breeding ground for new and more widespread forms of radicalism. Although motivated not by justice but by the pragmatic need to neutralize a source of instability, the US leaders appeared for a brief moment to understand that the pulverizing of the Palestinian people had gone too far. Sharon, however, refused to listen to any council of moderation and in the ensuing months set out on an even more wanton militaristic course.
The Israeli military offensive has only generated an even greater spiral of violence, in which the response of the secret Palestinian organizations has been especially hard and indiscriminate. The result is the unleashing of a war that the United States appears to want to halt with its proposal in favor of a Palestinian state that was recently approved by the UN Security Council.
The sincerity of the US position, however, remains to be seen. Will it force the Israeli government to withdraw from the occupied territories and recognize the Palestinian state or is it only trying to win Arab allies for new military campaigns against Iraq and other countries?
The current state of war seems to have taken the conflict down a black hole. The international community is asking for a return to the negotiating table, but just reopening negotiations is not enough. The Palestinians rightly believe that any negotiation must now be based on "peace in exchange for territories" while Israel understands the process as "peace in exchange for peace." And since the Oslo approach has been exhausted, new negotiations would need to be opened that would lead to a viable and authentically sovereign Palestinian state. Otherwise, the conflict will not be resolved and the violent upheavals, suicide attacks and selective killings—in short, the war in all its forms—will be repeated again and again.
A new peace planA peace plan of this nature requires first and foremost that the United States move from expressing good intentions to exerting real pressure on Ariel Sharon. Nonetheless, given that pax americana hasn’t functioned heretofore, there are serious doubts that it will hereafter. Oslo is dead. The United States must understand that only an international peace conference in which Israelis, Palestinians, the bordering Arab nations, Russia, Europe, China and the United States participate can impose—and I reiterate impose—a solution to a problem that involves both justice and world security. Otherwise, Palestine could become the focal point of a new world war in an era in which nuclear weapons can be bought and sold on the global market.
In the second place, Ariel Sharon must forswear any temptation to impose at the negotiating table events that have been consummated on the ground in the form of the multiplication of Jewish settlements on lands that must be part of the Palestinian state. Another central point is that Sharon must stop playing with confrontation to stall the possibility of a peace process. He calls for an end to terrorism as a precondition for negotiating but continues planning the murders that he unilaterally considers legitimate. Meanwhile, Arafat finds himself continuously obliged to justify to his people that the shooting stop, the Intifada be repressed and Hamas leaders be picked up by his police, without anything in exchange.
A sovereign state, not a protectorateA viable Palestinian state requires some basic conditions. One is continuous territory in the West Bank that adds up to at least the 22% of the former Palestine, which would push Israel back to the 1967 borders. Others include the withdrawal of the bulk of the Jewish settlements, recognition of Jerusalem’s status as the Palestinian capital, Palestinian control over water and electrification, sovereignty over its foreign policy and defense, so far denied the PA, and a satisfactory, albeit gradual, solution to the problem of the refugees’ rights. And, of course, safe borders for both states.
There is nothing easy about reaching agreement on these points and there is no doubt that the intentions of Israel and the United States march to a different drummer. They want a very asymmetrical solution, with a strong Israeli state and a weak Palestinian one. And they will work to get the Palestinian leaders to accept a state that looks and acts more like a protectorate than a sovereign nation.
Certain prior conditions must also be fulfilled to open negotiations at this particular time. The first, which Israel staunchly refuses and the United States has so far rejected, is the sending of observers and even UN peacekeeping forces to the area. The second is to get the international community involved in the process rather than leaving the United States as the only or even principal arbiter.
Coexistence is the only alternativeExisting difficulties within both Israel and Palestine must also be surmounted if this process is to be successful. On the Israeli side is the worrying leadership of Ariel Sharon, a violent, vengeful and racist military man who was responsible for the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, a case still pending in international courts. On the Palestinian side, it must be recognized that Arafat’s leadership has been considerably weakened. He should not negotiate without previously reaching an internal agreement with the different Palestinian organizations, because he could commit a new error if he does not.
Three critical tendencies can be identified in Palestinian society today. One disapproves of the accords reached by the PA and Israel in Oslo and criticizes the growing authoritarianism and corruption observed in the PA, but remains prudent in order to maintain national unity and not affect the inter-Palestinian correlation of forces. Another is made up of the traditional left of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which together with the old Communist Party, now converted into the Palestinian People’s Party, is much more belligerent in its criticism of the PA’s behavior in Oslo. They have not, however, been able to present a realizable alternative program. The third tendency is that of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which are fighting the whole negotiating process and wagering on armed struggle. Their dream of the Islamic past feeds their frustration with the present. Some of their internal tendencies, however, do not discard negotiating with Israel, but only from a position of equality.
Each side and all the factions within them can place their bets as they wish, but the ball can only come to rest on one particular slot on the roulette wheel. The future holds no other alternative than coexistence based on mutual respect and the existence of two states, each with full citizenship rights. Palestinians and Israelis will always be there. War only spreads the tragedy and stretches out the conflict. The 1967 war was dangerous enough, bringing us close to nuclear confrontation. How close will we come this time?