by Ziad AbuZayyad
and Victor Cygielman
Is it possible for a Palestinian and an Israeli to write a joint editorial on the 1948-1998 span of their conflictive history? On what is for Israelis a joyful celebration of fifty years of independence, but for Palestinians recalls the memory of a homeland lost and their having become a people of refugees?
It is not easy, but it is possible, provided one believes — as we do in this journal — that with the Oslo agreements signed by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, in September 1993, a fresh start was made by the two peoples. A fresh start does not mean forgetting past mistakes and wrongs, nor the present imbalance between Palestinians and Israelis: for while Israelis have realized their national aspirations, Palestinians are still deprived of most of their land in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, without which national self-determination and statehood will remain empty words. Furthermore, the problem of the Palestine refugees of 1948 and their claim to the right of return remain unaddressed, although the issue of refugees is one of the subjects to be discussed in final-status negotiations.
A fresh start means that we have to begin listening to each other instead of endlessly repeating our own grievances. It means learning to put ourselves in each other’s shoes and trying to understand the sufferings, fears and hopes of the other side. Thus, the Israelis cannot evade the fact that the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the following Arab-Israeli war resulted in a national tragedy for the Palestinians, who fled and were expelled en masse from their homes and lands. Neither can they ignore their moral responsibility for the plight of the Palestine refugees, and they must play their part in efforts to find an equitable and reasonable solution to this festering problem. Could the Palestinian catastrophe have been avoided had the Palestinian leadership of that time accepted the UN Partition Resolution 181 of 1947? Maybe. We shall never know, but for the Palestinians, who constituted in 1947-1948 the majority of the population of British-ruled Palestine and owned most of the land, the carving up of the country into two states seemed totally unacceptable, an extremely unjust solution.
A fresh start means also that Palestinians should try to understand the role played by the Nazi extermination of some six million European Jews in shaping Israeli fears and distrust, and their claim to a secure and safe shelter, a national homeland.
A new relationship between Israelis and Palestinians should be founded on the awareness that, whether we like it or not, for better or for worse, history has thrown us together on this narrow piece of land. As two small peoples, Palestinians and Israelis can choose between compromise and cooperation or the continuation of violence and of futile wars. Oslo was born out of this awareness. And five years ago, in the wake of Oslo, we founded this journal on these very premises.
It is fashionable today to express despair over the deadlocked peace process and some go as far as to deride the signing of the “useless” and “deceptive” Oslo agreement. However, in spite of the pervasive feeling of being entrapped in a political nightmare, caused mainly by Netanyahu’s efforts to empty the Oslo accords of their dynamic content, those agreements and, especially, the beginning of their implementation under the Rabin-Peres government, have already wrought some irreversible changes in the Palestinian-Israeli equation. The principle of “land for peace” embodied in the Oslo agreement has brought about — though limited — Israeli withdrawals from the occupied Palestinian territories and placed five percent of these territories under the full control of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), and twenty-five percent under its partial control. The cities and villages handed over to the PNA are small enclaves in greater areas controlled by the Israeli occupation army and, while the civil affairs of the majority of the Palestinian population are handled by the PNA, they remain, in fact, subject to arbitrary Israeli regulations. Thus, Palestinian cities and villages are regularly cut off from each other whenever Israel decides to “close” the Palestinian territories.
For both parties, Oslo put an end to dangerous, unrealistic visions of mutual destruction. Israeli leaders liked to dream of restoring Israel to its biblical frontiers (a “greater Israel”) in which there would, of course, be no place for the Palestinians; Palestinian leaders liked to dream of an independent Palestinian state in all of Palestine, including Israel. Albeit reluctantly, even Netanyahu, while doing his utmost to prevent further progress, had no other choice — once he promised to adhere to the Oslo agreement — than to accept the principle of territorial compromise, “however painful this is to me,” as he has recently declared.
All these changes brought about by Oslo should not be underestimated and cannot easily be undone. Today, if the peace process is in abeyance, rather than leading to despair, this should encourage us to intensify the dialogue between people of goodwill from both nations, in this journal and elsewhere.
We shall pursue our quest for peace, not by papering over our differences, but by courageously analyzing the controversial issues that are dividing Palestinians and Israelis and by doggedly searching for common ground, based on the mutual recognition of each other’s vital interests and national aspirations.