image of jerusalem 2013

Rude Awakenings?
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

19 December   |   2005   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

O little town of Bethlehem, How still we see thee lie! A wall is laid where tourists stayed, And people can't go by. And in thy dark streets shineth No cheerful Christmas light; The grief and fears of five sad years Are met in thee tonight.

How silently, how silently The world regards it all, As now thy heart is torn apart    By Israel's ghetto wall. They terrorise a people - A war crime and a sin; Their winding "fence" can make no sense; Revenge can still get in.

O ye who now rule Bethlehem, Cast down the iron cage, The walls of hate that separate And harden and enrage; The land grab and apartheid This violence must cease; If there's to be a land that's free, A Bethlehem at peace.

With Christmas fast approaching, it is inevitable that the world focus has turned again on Bethlehem, the little town of the nativity that witnessed the Mystery of the Incarnation some two thousand years ago. But Bethlehem is in trouble, and the Christmas traditional carol 'O Little Town of Bethlehem' was recently re-worded by the UK chapter of The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD-UK) to reflect the gloomy and sober challenges facing this town.

Yet, the seasonal focus on Bethlehem has equally provoked fresh concern about the overall political conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. In fact, all the interest heaped upon Bethlehem - from lack of access to it by tourists and Palestinians alike due to the so-called 'border crossing', to the wall that now surrounds it, to concomitant land appropriations - is a microcosm of a much wider and longer-lasting problem affecting the whole Palestinian region.

So what is happening in the Palestinian territories, starting with Jerusalem, today?

A critical Report issued by the EU last month focused on Israeli actions in East Jerusalem. According to its authors, the Heads of EU Missions in Ramallah and Jerusalem, the latest political developments "are reducing the possibility of reaching a final status agreement on Jerusalem, and demonstrate a clear Israeli intention to turn the annexation of East Jerusalem into a concrete fact." The report highlights Israeli violations of its Association Agreements under which goods from the Israeli settlements cannot enjoy special tariffs extending to Israel itself at the very same time that the EU is also upgrading its economic and political ties with Israel. The report focused, inter alia , on the following two matrices:

    East Jerusalem is of central importance to the Palestinians in political, economic, social and religious terms.   The completion of the separation wall, the construction and expansion of settlements in and around East Jerusalem, the demolition of Palestinian homes, the growing separation of Palestinians resident in East Jerusalem from those in the West Bank, and negative discriminatory taxation, expenditure and building permit policy by the Jerusalem municipality are all reducing the chances of a final status agreement on Jerusalem.
  • The plan to expand the settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim into the so-called E-1 area, east of Jerusalem, would complete the encircling of this city by Jewish settlements. Further, it would divide the West Bank into two separate geographical areas, and this fact on the ground would be exacerbated further once the separation wall is completed whereby Jerusalem will be cut off from its Palestinian satellite cities of Bethlehem and Ramallah.

But Jerusalem, the hub of Israeli efforts for isolation, is not alone in relation to those inter-linked policies. One need only travel to Qalandya on the northern edge of Jerusalem to notice how the 420-mile separation wall is creating ominous facts across the whole Palestinian territories. Not only that, but the de facto posts being built along the length of the whole wall are another element in a web of construction that intends to redraw Israel's borders deep inside the Palestinian territories. This is an overt tactical attempt by Israel to place Jerusalem outside the remit of any future negotiations and thereby secure the whole city as its capital in any future post-negotiation phase.

Indeed, while many politicians marvelled at Israel's withdrawal from Gaza last August, PM Ariel Sharon has been accelerating the construction of this wall, expropriating more land in the West Bank than it surrendered in Gaza, and building thousands of new Jewish settlements - let alone expanding the main Jewish settlements of Ariel, Ma'ale Adumim and Gush Etzion. Indeed, new building on Jewish settlements during the first quarter of this year rose by 83% on the same period in 2004, with about 4000 new houses under construction. Moreover, the total number of settlers has risen again this year with an estimated 14,000 moving into the West Bank, compared with 8,500 forced to leave Gaza. Moreover, whilst Israel withdrew from 19 square miles in Gaza, it still managed to retain indirect control of the crossings (including the Rafah crossing, despite the agreement over EU international monitors) and sealed off 23 square miles of the West Bank around Ma'ale Adumim. Such synchronised collective measures go against International law in general, and the Fourth Geneva Convention in particular, and are altering the geographic - let alone demographic - realities of the conflict. In the words of David Shearer, Head of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Jerusalem, the separation wall is sealing Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank. "The access the Palestinians have enjoyed to their places of worship, to some of the best schools, to hospitals is now being severely restricted."  

With comparatively inexhaustible resources at its disposal, it is clear that Israel is establishing irreversible facts on the ground that would ensure permanent Israeli control over the entire land whilst foreclosing the emergence of a viable Palestinian state. The majority of Palestinians today live in "cantons" that deprive them of the right to move freely. They find themselves gaoled behind a wall that is at places twice as high as the Berlin Wall. This policy would ensure the emergence of a truncated Palestinian mini-state, with the institutionalised domination of one people over another. As Yossi Belin, Israeli Member of the Knesset (Parliament) and a former Israeli minister and negotiator, averred recently, this rampant and unchecked Israeli unilateralism is reducing the Palestinian prospects to negligible proportions. After all, the Road Map is moribund and a two-state solution is becoming increasingly redundant as a practicable option.

In fact, what one witnesses today are an ascending resort to unilateral acts as dictated by might and a descending adherence to International law. Whether one looks at the situation through the prism of International law, the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, or the vestiges of the Road Map as promoted ostensibly by the Quartet, the future looks dim. No wonder then that the International Crisis Group (ICG) have warned that the potential situation could soon have even more dangerous repercussions. Their recent report added, 'Current policies in and around the city will vastly complicate, and perhaps doom, future attempts to resolve the conflict by preventing the establishment of a viable Palestinian capital in Arab East Jerusalem and obstructing the territorial contiguity of a Palestinian state."

Much was made recently of PM Ariel Sharon's decision to sever his ties with the right-wing Likud party and to form a new party for the forthcoming parliamentary elections on 28 March 2006. His new party, Kadima (Forward, in Hebrew), has been touted as a centrist one and has attracted the likes of Chaim Ramon and Tzachi Hanegbi. It has been claimed that this party can take the hard but necessary decisions in order to move 'forward' with the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. In fact, Israel's Channel One TV ran a story on the basis of an interview that Sharon's pollster Kalman Gayer had given to Newsweek magazine in which he had claimed that Sharon would be willing to compromise on Jerusalem in a future peace agreement with the Palestinians. This caused an uproar in Israeli political circles, and Prime Minister Sharon used the opportunity of a speech he gave at a conference held by Or Yarok (Green Light) to rebut those claims. He stressed that "united Jerusalem will remain the undivided capital of the State of Israel." Much as I would wish to believe that this new party would be a vehicle to move the peace process forward, its formation augurs the unilateral imposition upon the Palestinians of an Israeli peace plan that would be more forthcoming than what Likud would offer the Palestinians but still substantially less than what the Palestinians would consider as their ever-dwindling minimum demands. This is why Palestinians must prepare themselves soon for a day of reckoning - not unlike what happened at Camp David during the Oslo Accords - when they would be expected to react to what might be portrayed as a make-it-or-break-it once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for peace. Would they accept the plan, and end up with a state that is anything but viable, or would they reject it and incur the diplomatic wrath of the USA and some EU states? Would they risk appeasement, or would they unleash a counter-productive response that might weaken their position further?

There has recently been a lot of discussion amongst NGO's about possible non-violent measures against Israel as a means of pressuring it to relinquish the occupied territories and adhere to the norms of a workable peace process. Measures such as sanctions, divestment and boycotts have been considered as legitimate means for opposing injustice. An argument has also been made that a campaign incorporating sanctions (including stringent economic ones) is neither punitive in nature, nor does it target Israel per se , but resides upon the notion of accountability and focuses strongly on the occupation. This argument would also underline the moral element in a larger political condemnation of Israeli policies and could delegitimise the occupation to the point where its complete end would become acceptable. In fact, if Israel as the Occupying Power were not held accountable by law for ending the intolerable occupation - which lies within its responsibility to end - the entire international system of justice would be dwarfed and become insignificant.

Such measures by sectors of civil society could have a deterring effect upon Israel. For example, an Early Day Motion (EDM 596) sponsored by Menzies Campbell MP, in the British Parliament on 14 July 2005 "encourages the UK Government to work with intergovernmental organisations to establish a human rights observation force in the Occupied Territories, and to press for an end to the occupation in a just and peaceful solution to the conflict on the basis of UN resolutions and the international rule of law." However, those secondary measures notwithstanding, there is a critical need to enforce primary political measures too. This is why the EU should assume a more pro-active political role, not least the re-affirmation of east Jerusalem as a component of the conflict, and strive to act upon the unpublicised findings of the EU Report. Parallel to the EU, Palestinians also should evince more statesmanlike leadership and strive for better harmonisation amongst their leadership. This would help achieve a more unified and concerted position amongst all different Palestinian flanks within Israel and the occupied territories. After all, the results of the recent local elections in 42 West Bank and Gaza communities, as much as the appreciable creation of a new political slate, The Future , by Marwan Barghouti, reflect the necessity for more synchronisation and unity in the face of ever-growing challenges.

With the international community overwhelmed with Iraq, the lesions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are becoming increasingly prurient. The sooner it is dealt with, the less are the chances of another rude awakening in the Middle East.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2005   |   19 December


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