Israel/Palestine: Long-Term Dreams, Short-Term Despair

David Wurfel found pessimism and pins his hope on a document by Palestinian prisoners

By David Wurfel

The confusing reality of Israel/ Palestine today is that hope coexists with despair, though, admittedly, the former is in short supply. And it is more often based on religious faith than political analysis. In any case, whether religious or secular, there are both Israelis and Palestinians working for peace; they help us understand the complexities.

To hope is to dream, looking to the future, years or perhaps decades ahead. But even those who do harbor hope are forced to experience contemporary reality, and to derive conclusions from it about the near term. Events have moved rapidly since January and the triumph of Hamas in the internationally acclaimed Palestinian election, one of the most democratic ever in the Middle East. The pace was maintained by the shock of Sharon's stroke and the March elections in Israel. New circumstances have caused some shifts on both sides. In Israel the "unilateral solution," or declaration of new borders by Prime Minister Olmert, gained increased support. In Palestine the new Hamas cabinet--despite some softening--have failed to reverse hard line declarations of the past, even though a number of sophisticated international observers insist they should be given time to make such a dramatic shift. Now both Israel and Western governments are subjecting the whole country to severe economic restrictions, which most Palestinians understand as "punishing the people for exercising their democratic rights." Health and nutrition are brought to disastrously low levels. Hamas meantime is driven into the arms of supporters in Arab countries, while school teachers, policemen, and all employees of the Palestinian Authority, go without pay.

What conclusions are to be drawn by those who examine this complex reality? There is surprising consensus among those who are critics of policies on both sides: more violence, more repression, and more suffering, especially for the Palestinians. Why? In the search for an answer to that question consensus begins to unravel.

Recalling the Past

Israeli leaders have long signalled their intentions as to Palestinians. Yitzhak Rabin, whom Pres. Clinton called a "Prince of Peace," explained most clearly what has been happening in recent years, "[Israel will] create in the course of the next 10 or 20 years conditions which would attract natural and voluntary migration of the refugees from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to Jordan."1 Furthermore, former prime minister and present Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, in a speech at Bar-Ilan University in 1989, stated,

"Israel should have exploited the repression of the demonstrations in China, when world attention focused on that country, to carry out mass expulsions among the Arabs of the territories."

Before becoming prime minister Ariel Sharon had set forth his goals,

"It is the duty of Israeli leaders to explain to public opinion...that there is no Zionism... or Jewish State without the eviction of the Arabs and the expropriation of their lands."2

Even before the March election the current Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert had moved rapidly to announce his intention to annex the Jordan Valley and the three main settlement blocs, and unilaterally determine Israel's other borders.

The website of the Knesset had already made it clear what Israel is against. The Likud Party, which led the former government, defined Israel's intentions until the recent election. Olmert's new post-election coalition has not yet replaced its platform, which states:

"The Government of Israel flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan. The Palestinians can run their lives freely in the framework of self-rule, but not as an independent and sovereign state. Thus, for example, in matters of foreign affairs, security, immigration and ecology, their activity shall be limited in accordance with imperatives of Israel's existence, security and national needs."3

Thus to imagine that Olmert or his government, when talking about "a Palestinian state" or withdrawal of settlements is actually contemplating the recognition of a viable, independent, Palestinian state fails to appreciate the context.

On approval of his cabinet, Olmert declared that "the major settlement blocs" would be "an integral part of the sovereign state of Israel forever."4 He is simply clarifying the ethnic character of the border by moving some Israeli settlements, and creating Palestinian bantustans, i.e. semi-autonomous, isolated communities, as in apartheid South Africa. Each--and the numbers are not finalized--will be surrounded by Israeli territory, with no access to the outside world, aside from Rafah in Gaza, except through an Israeli checkpoint. Earlier a majority of Israelis questioned by a number of different researchers supported the recognition of a "Palestinian state" as part of a negotiated peace settlement, but whether public opinion now accepts a "viable, independent" state for Palestinians is another question. In October 2005 Ha'aretz reported a study by the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies that found 46% of Jewish Israeli's polled supported "the transfer of Palestinians out of" the Occupied Territories, up from 38% in 1991.

The "separation barrier," or Wall, despite being created to provide a sense of security among Israelis, is largely a land grab, many official Israeli denials notwithstanding. Only now is it officially admitted that the Wall will, in most places, become the unilaterally declared border. The 57,000 hectares (or nearly 10% of the West Bank) on the "west," or Israeli, side is mostly farm land for villages on the "east" side, though on completion nearly 50,000 Palestinians in 38 villages will be fully on the west side, next to the Green Line. Farms are slowly being separated from their Palestinian owners by gate closures, crossing permit refusal, and other means. Yet if the Palestinian farmer fails for any reason to cultivate his land for three years, it may be declared "state land" under Israeli law, and then acquired by Jewish Israelis. The worst fears of the World Court, which ruled the Wall illegal because it was a land grab, are being confirmed.5

The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) support for Israeli settler harassment of and even attacks on adjacent Palestinian towns and villages is sometimes explained as simply the result of "ideological affinity" between the two. That may be true for most, but some soldiers find the alliance with ultra-orthodox settlers distinctly uncomfortable. When complaints about these incidents, which have persisted for years, are referred to higher ranking officers, they are usually defended as "appropriately handled," thus one must assume that the political leadership is aware and supportive.

In order to drive away those international observers who report this harassment, in recent years some of those observers have themselves been attacked by settlers, occasionally requiring hospitalization. Ordinary Palestinians, farmers, businessmen, students, labourers, and housewives, report steady settler harassment, sometimes involving serious bodily injury, as a major cause of their suffering. Much of that suffering is also directly caused by IDF treatment, at checkpoints and elsewhere.6 IDF occupation of Palestinian homes without warning, and without explanation, usually involving expulsion of the resident family, is still frequent in 2006.

Machsom Watch, an organization of committed Jewish Israeli women monitoring checkpoints, is another very credible source about Palestinian suffering. They make detailed reports. The following is from a report based on observation of the Etzion checkpoint:

"All of the stories speak of humiliation and simple harassment, of the indescribable suffering of an entire population that wants to live its life with dignity and is unable to do so....It is impossible to move, impossible to make a living, impossible to receive medical treatment - how can one live this way? It is clear to anyone... observing the ongoing nightmare of endless queues and harassment, the unreasonable demands for more and more documents in order to receive a permit which is needed in order to receive yet another permit - this entire arrangement bears no connection whatsoever to the security of Israeli citizens. If anything, quite the contrary.... In light of all this, there is no avoiding the conclusion that the Israeli government is purposely persecuting the Palestinian population by applying a policy of bureaucratic torment..."7

Machsom Watch has also reported deaths in long delayed ambulances and of women forced to give birth on the roadside because they were denied crossing permits.

In May the UN produced a study assessing the broad impact of checkpoints and travel control. "The ability of Palestinians to move inside the West Bank has significantly worsened in the past nine months....A combination of checkpoints, physical obstacles and a permit system has effectively cut the West Bank into three distinct areas in addition to East Jerusalem. Within these areas further enclaves have been created - also bordered by checkpoints and roadblocks... Restrictions on movement are at the heart of the Palestinian economic decline....At a time when humanitarian needs are greater than ever, access by humanitarian agencies in the past six months has become increasingly difficult."8

Palestinians in the Old City

Israeli actions within Jerusalem have also been stepped up in recent months, apparently designed to reemphasize the point that the city has been annexed to Israel and that Palestinians have no rights whatsoever. For one, house acquisitions and occupations by Jewish "settlers," mostly orthodox, have accelerated. In the Arab Quarter of the Old City our guide took us through a maze of tunnels, back alleys, and long stairs to show us locations where Israelis are replacing life-long Palestinian residents. Sometimes it is legitimate, when a landowner welcomes a generous offer from a Jewish buyer. Other times acquisitions are facilitated by deceit and threat of force. Clearly the purpose of Israeli policy is to displace Palestinians residing in the Old City, despite its being proclaimed an "international zone" by the UN. Outside the Old City Israel also uses house demolitions, usually justified as punishment for "a lack of building permit," as an instrument of displacement.

Other actions--seldom reported in the Western press-- in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim for their capital, assert unrestricted "Israeli sovereignty" over the entire city. Hitting some headlines in the Greek Orthodox world was the unprecedented attack by the IDF against Orthodox worshippers on Holy Saturday (by the Orthodox calendar) at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Some priests and laity were wounded. Earlier Roman Catholics in Bethlehem had been denied permits to enter Jerusalem to celebrate Easter.

Most observers believe that tightening Israeli restrictions will only lead to increased Palestinian anger, and will feed extremism. Such an outcome would then justify the Israeli escalation of violence, as it has so often in the past.

Thus prolonged Palestinian unilateral ceasefires, as Hamas has given for more than a year, cause the IDF some uneasiness. They launch "targeted assassinations," home invasions, house demolitions, and armed incursions into Palestinian cities to stimulate a reaction. Thus the terrible suicide bombing in Tel Aviv which killed 10 and wounded many other Israelis in late April had been preceded, since the beginning of the month, by the killing of at least 26 Palestinians -- including 5 children -- and injury of 161Palestinian civilians.

There had been 369 raids by Israeli forces, mostly into the West Bank. Gaza had undergone sustained shelling by Israeli forces and continued closures, resulting in a dangerous depletion of food and medical supplies. But the Palestinian deaths and injuries in early April were, typically, seldom mentioned in the Western media. Is this Israeli policy to force Palestinian submission to the Occupation?

Perhaps, however, when the Prime Minister talks of a "unilateral solution" and setting the border by Israeli fiat, there is a different strategy. Many commentators have noted that Israeli policy now seems to be designed to create for Palestinians a life so miserable that they will want to leave: "voluntary transfer," just as Rabin suggested. However, if this is the intent, the policy has not so far worked on any scale, partly because so many of the exits from Gaza and the West Bank are blocked by Israeli forces (and by those of other countries), and partly because Palestinians are so fiercely attached to the land.

Recent public comment by the Israeli governing elite indicates a keen awareness that they are enjoying a level of policy support in Washington that is not likely to last (unless Hillary succeeds George?), inviting the boldest actions within the next two years. Does this suggest an urgent need for diversion of world attention from Israel, as by means of an attack on Iran--which might permit "involuntary transfer" to slide under the world's radar screen, as Netanyahu had suggested?

Some argue that preparations for such an attack have already begun in Washington, at Israel's urging, recently emphasized by Olmert's speech to Congress. Some also believe that the threat of independent Israeli action helps spur the US initiative.

It is daunting to try to understand the purpose behind the escalation in Israeli killings of Palestinian civilians, house demolitions and harassments. Maybe there is no purpose; perhaps the "logic" of violence has simply spun out of control. But this escalation cannot continue forever, partly because what is now abundantly evident to its domestic and foreign critics may eventually become clear to the Israeli government, that present policy is counter-productive, bound to threaten, not protect, Israeli "security." Meanwhile the "demographic threat" grows, with the Palestinian birth rate much higher than the Israeli.

Or possibly, despite its rhetoric, Israeli leadership is more realistic. If so, they may be more inclined to "live with" an unresolved, ongoing conflict, in which Israel holds the upper hand, for years after proclamation of the "unilateral solution."

Palestinian resignation in face of continued suffering at Israel's hand and that of the West remains steadfast, though it does not preclude protest -- mostly nonviolent and unreported in the West-- whenever the opportunity arises. But whether the patient, nonviolent approach of most Palestinians to the Occupation could survive the continued escalation of Israeli oppression and international isolation is another question; certainly it would strengthen the fanatical fundamentalist minority. The extreme economic and political pressure exerted by the US and its allies is clearly not producing the kind of positive change in the Hamas leadership for which it was supposedly designed; instead it has produced a humanitarian disaster. Though Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh has agreed to allow negotiations with Israel through President Abbas,9 his failure to condemn the suicide bombing in Tel Aviv in April was counterproductive for Hamas. And all the while conflict between Fatah and Hamas escalates.

Despite the absence of hope based on current political analysis, there is widespread sentiment in Palestinian circles that a future shift in the conjuncture of international forces, which now so favors Israel, could at some point benefit Palestine. Certainly George W. Bush is not forever; disastrous adventures eventually produce widespread unintended consequences. Islamist movements are on the rise in the Middle East. Many Palestinians are also aware that the "demographic problem" will give them leverage in the long run--just as Israelis fear. But this is presently no solace for Palestinian families whose suffering multiplies day by day. Still, Palestinians--a majority of whom admit Israel's right to exist in peace within pre-1967 borders--also recognize the desire of some Israelis to drive them out, and thus take perverse pleasure in the simple fact that they remain. That, for now, is their "victory."

Past Negotiations

Trying to understand this complexity, and the respective motivations of the parties, is hard enough; identifying realistic solutions is even more difficult. The so-called Geneva Accord, an unofficial document drafted in 2003 by a group of distinguished citizens from Israel and Palestine, along with the Beirut Declaration of the Arab League in 2002, provide guides for what might be possible, though criticized by some figures on each side. Most recently the "prisoners' document," drafted in jail, primarily by Marwan Barghouti, after negotiations among Palestinian inmates of different factions and incorporating much of the Geneva and Beirut declarations, is getting overwhelming support among Palestinians. If adopted by both Fatah and Hamas, it should open up new opportunities for settlement. What these documents have in common is the requirement that Israel withdraw from the Occupied Palestinian Territories in return for commitments from its neighbors to allow it to live in peace--in effect, the UN position. All Arab countries would formally recognize Israel, just as Israel would be required to recognize the sovereign state of Palestine.

Clearly these, or any other proposals that would be likely to bring real peace for Israel and Palestine, require the greatest concessions from the Israeli and American side. There is little prospect of this happening quickly or easily, though Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas have agreed to resume conversations. It is obvious that now, when both Palestine and the Arab world are in some disarray, is the time Israel is likely to get the best deal. Thus it is the task of the friends abroad of both Israel and Palestine to pressure Israel, by far the more powerful party to the dispute, to complete--not just restart--the peace process. The growing unpopularity of the Bush Administration, at home and abroad, and the increasing role of the Jewish peace movement in North America, alongside the stronger stand being taken by some churches, are hopeful signs. At the same time the US--perhaps pushed by Europe and the UN -- must take the lead in halting the blockade of Palestine. Hamas and Fatah must also take initiatives to control violence, while extending the Hamas ceasefire with Israel.

As the May 19th statement of the executive committee of the World Council of Churches put it: "Peace must come soon or it may not come to either people for a long time."10

David Wurfel is a retired professor of political science living in Toronto.

Notes

1 Quoted by David Shipler in the New York Times, 4 April 1983
2 Agence France Presse, November 15, 1998.
3 www.knesset.gov.il/elections/knesset15/elikud_m.htm
4 Ha'aretz, 4 May 2006
5 UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, "Humanitarian Impact of the West Bank Barrier, with special focus on Crossing the Barrier: Palestinian Access to Agricultural Land," Jerusalem, Jan. 2006.
6 See www.breakingthesilence.org.il for testimonies of former IDF soldiers.
7 www.MachsomWatch org
8 UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, "Territorial Fragmentation of the West Bank," 18 May 2006.
9 USA Today.com, 15 May 2006

10 www.oikoumene.org/index.php?id=2259

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2006

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