Many events have taken place since the outbreak of the Aqsa Intifada in September 2000, but few insightful lessons have been drawn from them. No serious attempts have been made by Israel's political leadership to answer the question of why the second Intifada erupted, and why has it continued despite the terrible price Palestinians have been made to pay under Israeli military occupation. Indeed no lessons were drawn from the first Intifada (1987-1991) over the reasons that led a defenseless population to initiate an uprising and live under the harshest of conditions, while facing the strongest army in the region and one of the most powerful in the world.

The underlying reasons for both Intifadas, despite differences in political circumstances and tactics, are, nonetheless, very much the same. These are the burning desire to end the military occupation, to stop the encroachment of colonial settlements, with the aim of gaining independence and embodying it in a viable sovereign state - without jeopardizing a just solution to the refugee problem. In this, the Palestinians are not demanding any more than other peoples have achieved and enjoy, and nothing that has not been legitimated, time and time again, by UN and Security Council resolutions.

The Second Intifada

The second Intifada erupted as Palestinians gained awareness, seven years after signing the Oslo Accords, that Israel's governing bodies were not interested in reaching a peaceful settlement to the conflict based on a balance of justice, but on an imbalance of military power. The "generous offer" that was proposed by then Prime Minister Ehud Barak and echoed by most of the Israeli mass media was left, unfortunately, without a Palestinian rebuttal, while the understanding reached at Taba between the Palestinian and Israeli negotiators was lost in the leadership contest between Barak and Ariel Sharon, then buried following the latter's victory under the catchphrase of security for Israelis, rather than peace and justice for all. We have seen that Prime Minister Sharon's tactics have brought more insecurity for the Israelis and more repression and suffering for the Palestinians.

In the aftermath of the failure, or expected failure, of political negotiations, and the intensification of armed confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians demanding an end to the occupation and settlement building, an Israeli strategy for unilateral separation emerged, supported by a significant percentage of the population. Some Israelis supported the idea because they believed it would put an end to the evils of the occupation, and remove the "demographic threat" which they see as leading either to a bi-national state or to the implementation of an apartheid system. It is true that the call for unilateral separation signalled the bankruptcy of the view that Israel can continue occupying the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, and expect Palestinian acquiescence. But it indicates a refusal to accept a negotiated settlement with the PLO based on UN resolutions, or to acknowledge the historic injustice that Israel has inflicted on the Palestinian people.

De Facto Annexation

According to Ephraim Sneh1, the separation plan meant the de facto annexation of 30 percent of the West Bank, half in the Jordan Valley, and half in the settlement blocs. He acknowledges that once Israel puts an effective fence on the eastern side of the settlement blocs, it means de facto annexation. The separation plan would leave 70,000-100,000 Palestinians from the West Bank on the Israeli side of the fence, to whom Israel would not want to grant citizenship. Sneh opposes the plan because of the likely reaction of the international community, and because armed operations against Israelis would gain legitimacy not only among Palestinians but also internationally. In addition, Israeli settlements inside the fence would become easy targets.

As for Jerusalem, the Sharon government approved a plan to tighten security and checkpoints along a "seam" between the West Bank and the city, severing it from surrounding Palestinian villages (and the remainder of the West Bank) and all the socio-economic, cultural and religious links between the two.

Nevertheless many Israelis saw advantages in unilateral separation following the collapse of negotiations with the PLO and the rise of suicide bombings inside Israel. They believe that such a strategy would improve Israel's negotiating position and its defenses. They also think that it would hide the ugly face of the occupation, and reduce the daily humiliation of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This is in addition to removing the "danger" of a demographic slide toward a bi-national state or an apartheid system.

However the separation strategy could only take the form of a "border fence" drawn at will by Israel, eating up more Palestinian land, including the major settlement blocs, and leaving East Jerusalem completely under Israeli control. Those who support this strategy would not jeopardize future negotiations on refugees and other strategic issues in the final status negotiations. But Palestinian negotiators know only too well where Israel stands on such issues, and they know that building a separating wall or fence, already operative round the Gaza Strip, can only harden the position of Israeli negotiators. Separation gives no guarantee of security to the Palestinian entity, whatever name it is given or assumes, as Israeli tanks will still be able to enter it within hours, with or without pretext. This is not comparable to Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon where a sovereign state is in existence and there are no problems of refugees or strategic issues to be settled between Israel and the Lebanese. But even in Lebanon, as at least Israelis would acknowledge, the unilateral withdrawal there has not ended the conflict. It cannot lead to an agreement, as it did not result from one. The situation there could still erupt into a major military conflict at any moment.

An Anti-Apartheid Measure

There are Israelis who present the wall as a means of preventing the emergence of an apartheid system. They argue that apartheid exists only when a minority rules over a majority and that physical segregation is not a sufficient condition for apartheid. They argue that since Palestinians will soon become a majority in Mandate Palestine (perhaps as early as 2010), Israelis favor separation to safeguard against the gathering danger of political apartheid. According to this view, political and physical separation is the only way to avoid Jewish minority rule over an Arab majority in the near future, and for the State of Israel to remain both Jewish and democratic (ethnocratic some say). But there is no reason that apartheid should exist only when a minority rules over a majority. What is significant is a system of segregation (geographic, political and cultural) that is imposed by a powerful group against the will of a less powerful one. This is exactly what is happening in the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

Since separation will be unilateral and imposed by force, it cannot resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is why it is seen by Palestinians as another Israeli attempt to force on them an unacceptable and unjust situation. Thus, sooner or later, resistance will appear which is likely to unleash further measures of suppression that can only feed into the creation of a system of apartheid as new Palestinian areas come to be cordoned off into "reserves" to facilitate military control and collective punishment. Indeed the apartheid system, as exemplified by Bantustans, is embodied in the classification of Palestinian areas into A, B, and C; in the by-pass roads linking settlements to Israel; in the demolition of hundreds of Palestinian houses when no Jewish house has been demolished, and the attempts to legislate for the construction of Jewish-only communities.

A Negative Future

Thus Palestinians can only see a negative future under unilateral separation. The aim is not the acknowledgement of Palestinian political and civil rights, but to strengthen Israeli control over the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the slicing, particularly from the West Bank, of a sizeable area for annexation. Once again Palestinians are faced with a fait accompli, and with a situation that presents a threat to their national destiny and future well-being.

Unilateral separation is more than just "they are there and we are here", for Israelis are "here as well as there" and Palestinians are stuck in areas cordoned off for them by military force. The fact that these could, in the future, be called a state is neither here nor there, as it is the Israeli government which decides what Palestinians can and cannot do if no genuine understanding of Palestinian needs, narrative and rights is implemented in an agreement between the two peoples. Unless both sides are reconciled, any unilateral move, particularly from the stronger, occupying party will amount to the imposition of a settlement by force. A settlement must come not through a swing in the balance of power, but instead through a balance of justice and equity. A settlement imposed by force is bound to invite resistance from the Palestinians.

Apart from the political and territorial implications of unilateral separation, it is a racist idea. It is based on the imposition of spatial confinement on a national group (i.e., the Palestinians) into sliced off areas, restricting the movement of people and goods. Unilateral separation reflects an assumed superiority on the part of Israel that as a state, it is above international law and legitimacy as embodied in UN and Security Council resolutions, and in UN Charter and Human Rights conventions.

Israelis who think unilateral separation can move Palestinians and Israelis closer to peace are deluding themselves and delaying the prospect of a viable settlement of the conflict. Whether they know it or not they are leaving Palestinians with only one option, and that is a continuation of the struggle against Israel as long as it stands between them and the achievement of their national aspirations.

Putting Palestinians behind walls and barbed wire fences will not make the injustices done to them disappear, nor will it make the need to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict less urgent. It only serves to ignore the problem and refuses to acknowledge the need for an historic compromise that a majority of Palestinians, through the PLO, have shown a clear readiness to reach. It is a compromise based on a two-state solution, with Jerusalem as capital of the two states, and a just solution to the refugee problem. If this settlement is not made possible, then the Palestinians will have to fight against the apartheid system being imposed on them and the destruction of their national project for a viable, democratic and independent statehood.

Negotiations Must Have a Role

If the interests of peace are to be respected then negotiations must be given a role to play. A peace proposal would also have to include the following interlinked elements: ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, (including East Jerusalem); the evacuation of colonial settlements, and the implementation of a fair solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees. Peace has to be anchored in the acknowledgement of the historic injustice that has been dealt to the Palestinians by the formation of the Israeli state. This is the only option that accepts Palestinians as a people, with rights like any other, instead of attempting to demonize them through labeling them terrorists or building walls to confine them to "reserves".

1 Labor Minister of Transport in the Sharon government, former Deputy Minister of Defense in the Barak government, and in 2000, head of a project preparing a unilateral separation plan in case the Camp David talks failed.