by Ziad AbuZayyad
In spite of statements made by the Israeli government that it is ready to return to the political track and resume efforts to achieve a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel’s ongoing military operations in the Palestinian Occupied Territories undermine the possibility of any such return to talks. The situation has deteriorated significantly since the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifada on September 28, 2000, with both sides blaming each other for the failure to end the bloodshed and return to peaceful negotiations. Both sides are hostage to a vicious circle of violence and counter violence, and as a result, some argue that it is no longer possible to revive the peace process.
Following the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, Israel adopted a policy of targeted assassinations against Palestinian activists, using F-16 fighter planes, Cobra and Apache helicopters, tanks, armored personnel carriers and the full weight of its military might. Almost every time a Palestinian activist was killed, his comrades vowed revenge and so the violence spiraled. At the same time, Israel escalated its repressive measures against the Palestinians by imposing closures, curfews and checkpoints, gradually isolating Palestinian residential areas from one another, and finally, invading and reoccupying parts of Area A, which had previously been under full Palestinian control. Today, the entire West Bank is under full occupation, along with parts of the Gaza Strip.
Now, after more than two years of violence, the situation seems more complicated than ever before. The mutual hatred and suspicion on both sides have grown out of all proportion, and the task of rebuilding confidence seems much more difficult than that of building confidence.
Can violence, terror, military attacks, collective punishment and targeted assassinations resolve this conflict? The answer must be no. Israel is keeping more than three and a half million Palestinians under tremendous pressure, aiming to break their will and force them to surrender to the law of occupation and military defeat. Each village, refugee camp, town and city has become a closed jail for its inhabitants, the largest prisons and detention camps in the world.
The economy is on its knees. Unemployment is running at over 40 percent in the West Bank, and is as high as 60 percent in the Gaza Strip. The mood on the street is one of frustration, depression and despair, creating the perfect breeding ground for radicalism, extremism and further violence. And instead of releasing the pressure from the cooker, Israel is increasing it.
Israeli leaders accuse the Palestinian Authority of being responsible for the outbreak of violence, and are determined to punish the PA until the terror attacks stop. This approach has achieved the opposite result. Israel is progressively weakening its partner while insisting that it carry out its job. The war against the PA has seen Israel destroy all aspects of Palestinian life and infrastructure including roads, administrative offices, the security forces, information and statistics. It has totally devastated the economy. Even the credibility of national institutions such as the Palestinian Legislative Council, the President and the security forces has been severely damaged.
This doesn’t mean that the Israelis are not suffering. The suicide attacks inside Israel have caused the loss of many lives, led to a feeling of domestic insecurity and damaged the Israeli economy, especially tourism. These attacks, and all others on innocent civilians, are, of course, condemned by the PA.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government is not offering any political option to the Palestinian people, who are left with the feeling that they are being pushed into a corner, and the only remaining option for them is to fight back desperately and by any means possible. The assassinations carried out by Israel against Palestinian activists, described as “targeted killings”, have also claimed many innocent victims, a fact seen by many Palestinians as a justification for more attacks on Israeli civilians.
Reforming the PA
There is increasing debate on both sides about where to go from here. Serious discussions inside the PA began immediately after Israel lifted the siege on President Yasser Arafat’s Ramallah compound in April 2002. The Cabinet asked President Arafat to accept its resignation and although initially he refused, he eventually agreed and formed a new government - which was later forced to resign to avoid a vote of no confidence by the Legislative Council.
This is the first time that the Palestinian Parliament has forced a government to resign. The message was clear - we want real change and reform. President Arafat was given two weeks to form a new government - but a few days later Prime Minister Sharon renewed the siege on his Al-Moqata’a compound in Ramallah, reducing most of it to rubble.
Many observers believe that Sharon is not interested in seeing any reform in the Palestinian Authority. He has carried out a well-organized campaign to discredit Arafat and the PA, de-legitimizing them on his way to ‘liquidate’ them. Any real reform in the PA will help Arafat restore his legitimacy and credibility and Sharon has no interest in that; on the contrary, it would undermine his plans to get rid of his old enemy Yasser Arafat, as well as the PA, and everything else resulting from the Oslo process which he opposed from the beginning. There is a real fear that Sharon will try to exploit the opportunity provided by US President George W Bush’s preparations for a war against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, to rid himself of Yasser Arafat and the legacy of Oslo.
The demand for reform within the PA came from the Palestinians themselves, in a bid to bring an end to the present state of crisis and improve living conditions for the Palestinian people. Calls for reform began as early as 1997, following the publication of the PA comptroller’s report which revealed corruption and mismanagement in several PA offices. Re-establishing order within the Palestinian territories, by reorganizing the security forces and reforming the judicial system, became a top priority. Lack of adequate job descriptions in the security forces had led to duplication of work, internal rivalries, and unnecessary intervention in people’s daily lives. Corruption was an inevitable result and provoked a number of complaints. Some members of these forces also found it difficult to make the mental transfer from being members of the resistance to being security officers fighting violence to protect the peace process and cooperating with the Israeli security forces, not as “collaborators”, but as partners.
Rebuilding the destroyed judicial system, enforcing the rule of law and building a civil society are top Palestinian national priorities. Elections for the Legislative Council are vital to monitor and follow up implementation of the reform plan.
A far-reaching debate is also taking place within Palestinian political and intellectual circles about the damage caused to Palestinian national interests by suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. Who is responsible for turning the peaceful, non-violent Intifada into an armed one? What should be done to restore the human image of the Intifada and stop the violence? What could be done to revive cooperation with the Israeli peace camp?
On the Israeli side, a different debate appears to be taking place. The main issues now are security, and whether or not the Palestinians are a peace partner. The right wing argues that there is no Palestinian partner for peace negotiations to justify continuing military activities against them. This argument has generated different beliefs within Israeli society over which direction to take now. Some believe this conflict has no solution and will continue forever. They claim that there is only room for one people on the west bank of the River Jordan - the Jewish people - while the Palestinians should be transferred to Jordan. Others believe that the peace process could be revived, if not now, then maybe sometime in the future. Both support the idea of disengagement from the Palestinians, although the method may differ. The slogan has become, “We are here and they are there” with where exactly ‘there’ might be open to various interpretations.
When the idea of transferring the Palestinians across the river to Jordan was raised 20 years ago, it was rejected by the Israeli public as a racist ideology to be condemned out of hand. Even Rehavam Ze’evi, who advocated this ideology, claimed that he didn’t mean transfer by force. He argued that Israel should encourage the Palestinians to leave of their own volition, or create conditions that might encourage them to leave. Are the conditions created by Israel these days in the Palestinian territories, those required to “encourage” the Palestinians to willingly transfer themselves? And if they will not do that, how far is Israel willing to go? The word “transfer” is becoming legitimate in Israeli discussions these days, as is the ideology itself. It is no longer taboo and is now being discussed publicly, without any of the embarrassment previously felt.
“We are here and they are there” has inspired another politically dangerous idea in Israeli society: unilateral separation. Those who support this option argue that the Intifada and its vicious circle of violence, coupled with the lack of courageous leadership on either side, has destroyed any chance of resuming peace talks. The only way forward is an Israeli-imposed unilateral separation. Israel will keep its forces and settlements in the Jordan Valley, dismantle the tiny isolated settlements in the West Bank, concentrating Jewish settlement in blocks east of the Green Line, and draw a ‘temporary’ security border until the time comes when Israel can find a partner with whom it can negotiate a peace settlement. The Israeli Council for Peace and Security (ICPS), which consists largely of high-ranking former military officers, has been a prominent proponent of this idea. It was also raised by MK Haim Ramon, a leader of the Labor Party, independently of the ICPS.
From a Palestinian perspective this approach is totally abhorrent, given that it creates a de facto annexation of wide areas of the West Bank, unilaterally and without negotiation. Dismantling tiny isolated Jewish settlements from the West Bank could be interpreted by the international community as Israel withdrawing totally and dismantling all settlements. At the same time, Israel is giving the impression to its own people that settling in the area between the Green Line and the new so-called security borders on the east side of the Green Line is safe, secure and legitimate. New facts will be created there, which will be a real obstacle to any future withdrawal.
Furthermore, the Palestinian community will interpret this unilateral separation, combined with Israel’s continued control of the Jordan Valley, as a final settlement imposed by Israel. As such, these annexed areas will become a “legitimate” target for Palestinian attacks, further complicating the situation and destroying any chance for peace negotiations and compromise. It will be seen as surrendering in despair rather than struggling for peace.
A Possible Peace
I believe that peace is not a lost cause. The Palestinians would be willing to return to peaceful negotiations if a real and sincere attempt were made to calm the current situation and map out a clear vision of future relations between the two peoples. The vision is that which President Bush presented in his June 2002 speech: two states for two peoples, living side by side in peace and harmony, Israel and Palestine.
It is unfair to claim that the PA has not done its share to make peace possible. Throughout 1995 and the first half of 1996, Israel was hit by a wave of suicide attacks. The PA made a tremendous effort to halt them, and the result was clear; between June 1996 and the end of 2000 there were almost no terror attacks in Israel. The PA succeeded in marginalizing all radical and fundamental elements. There were confrontations, arrests and dialogue, but in the end there was calm.
What did Israel offer the Palestinians in return? An intensive campaign of building and expanding Jewish settlements in the Palestinian Territories and constructing by-pass roads to integrate the Jewish settlements with Israel. The number of settlements doubled. The process of transferring land and authorities to the PA under the terms of the Oslo agreement was interrupted, then partially implemented by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, before being totally frozen by Ehud Barak’s. But over this five-year period, the PA respected its obligations and prevented any attacks on Israel, waiting for a solution to be achieved through the mediation of the US administration.
Looking back at that period, we find that the US was deeply involved in efforts to find a political solution to the conflict. This gave the Palestinians hope that Israeli settlement building was temporary and that a solution was close at hand. Active American involvement helped contain the situation, enabling both sides to focus concurrently on security and political negotiations.
Re-establishing Normal Life
Life for the Palestinians is now nothing short of hell. An entire population is being humiliated, imprisoned and collectively punished, living in a climate conducive only to desperate acts of retaliation. Altering this climate will help to isolate extremists, allowing people to return to work and rebuild their lives. Relieving the pressure on these people will enable the reform process to continue at all levels. Three factors - joint peace making efforts, a return to normal life and a reformed PA - will not just improve life for the Palestinian people, but will bring security to the Israelis too.
Israel has reoccupied all areas which had been under full Palestinian control prior to September 2000. Without a full withdrawal from there, there will be no chance to progress with reforms in the PA or to restart peace-making efforts. Israel claims that keeping its forces in these areas prevents suicide attacks. This is simply not true - on the contrary, it is precisely the present desperate situation in the Palestinian territories and the lack of a political option that provokes such attacks. It has been proven that the Israeli pre-condition of stopping violence in order to go back to the peace process is not only unrealistic, but is in fact a recipe for continuing violence. The last few weeks have shown that suicide attackers are still able to get to major cities inside Israel even with Israeli forces occupying the Palestinian areas.
Withdrawal to pre-28 September, 2000 lines will help alleviate the climate of frustration and anger in the Palestinian territories and facilitate a return to normal life. Rebuilding the destroyed Palestinian economy, reforming institutions and improving the situation on the ground must be done at the same time that serious attempts are made to achieve and maintain a ceasefire. The aim now should be an Israeli withdrawal to these lines, accompanied by measures to rebuild the Palestinian Security Forces, reviving cooperation between them and their Israeli counterparts to maintain security and halt the violence.
Steps to achieve this should be taken mutually, concurrently and within a limited timeframe outlined in an action plan. All this should be linked to similar political steps to revive the momentum of the peace process. If these steps are successful, they must be followed by a determined effort to conclude a peace agreement between the parties, sponsored by the Quartet, (the US, Russia, the EU and the UN) and the international community, with a clear commitment and guarantee that it be implemented within a specific timetable and following pre-defined guidelines. Such an agreement should be the outcome of an international peace conference, a substantial, not ceremonial, one with working parties and quantifiable results. I am quite sure that thorny issues such as Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees could be solved within the framework of a comprehensive package deal.
The US had committed itself to the creation of a Palestinian State, through its support for UN Security Council Resolution 1397 and President Bush’s June 2002 speech. The provisional state proposed recently by the Quartet may return us to an open ended interim period, which could lead to further violence and a deepening lack of stability within the region. Any country without clearly defined borders is not a proper nation. And any peace plan without a road map and an international commitment to implement it, will lead nowhere. A Palestinian-Israeli peace would not be the end of the road. A comprehensive settlement with Syria and Lebanon would reinforce that peace and finally achieve stability in the region.
Israel has tried using its huge military machine to apply the worst kinds of state terror and suppression against the Palestinian people, but still it could not achieve peace or security for its people. Both sides have paid a very painful price in this conflict. It’s time to say enough is enough and switch to the track of political negotiations, moving to resolve the conflict peacefully. The US carries a large responsibility to bring the two parties back to the process of making peace rather than making war.