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A Prisoner of Hope? - The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
In the meantime, like Sisyphus, those who seek a better public life have to keep rolling the rock uphill - Is Persuasion Dead?, Matt Miller, New York Times, 6 June 2005

10 June   |   2005   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Earlier this month, the Palestinian Legislative Council elections due to take place on the 17 th of July were postponed until the autumn. Meanwhile, the European Commission had already indicated its decision to deploy an EU Election Observation Mission (EOM) to monitor them. The Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, had stated that 'following credible Presidential elections in January, the elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council offer the opportunity to complete the democratic transition at national level. The election process offers all players in Palestinian politics the possibility to pursue their aspirations through democratic means. I hope the EU mission, headed by V é ronique de Keyser, will contribute to building confidence in the democratic process.'

Over the years, and in line with the Quartet Roadmap objective for the establishment of an independent and democratic Palestinian state living in peace with Israel, the European Commission has been at the forefront of the international community efforts to support the electoral process. Some €17 million have been allocated since 2003 to prepare the elections. Of these, €3 million are destined for the EU Election Observation Mission. This is one element in the €200-300 million a year made available from the EU Community Budget for the Palestinian people.

However, even such a hefty financial commitment by the EU is not helping stave off the dire economic conditions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. According to a recent UN report, the number of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip relying on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for food aid has increased ten-fold since September 2000 - from 130,000 to 1.1.million. In the same period, those Palestinians living below the poverty line has also tripled from 20% to 60%. Those gloomy forecasts have been confirmed by a report of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on 23 May 2005. The report indicated that despite a new climate of dialogue among Israelis and Palestinians, fewer than half of all men of working age and only 10% of women of working age are employed - in other words, every employed Palestinian supports six persons in the total population. It drew particular attention to the youth unemployment rate of 40% among 15 to 24-year olds, or one-and-a-half times the aggregate rate.

In fact, the ILO report largely echoed the concerns of many international organisations that the closure of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, along with the separation wall, have resulted in restricting severely the movement of Palestinian workers and thrown some 150,000 of them into unemployment over the last four years. No wonder then that Peter Mandelsohn, EU Trade Commissioner, stressed in a speech at the Hebrew University on 19 May 2005 that the role of trade was fundamental for stability in the region. He suggested that the European Commission would like the EU PanEuroMed system of cumulation of origin to be extended to Israel and the Palestinian Territories in order 'to encourage and facilitate trade between the two areas and between the Middle East and the wider Mediterranean.' He emphasised that Gaza must remain within the "customs envelope" established between Israel and the Palestinians by the Paris Protocol following the "disengagement" from Gaza, and called upon Israel to recognise the interim Trade Agreement between the EU and the Palestinian Authority, without which the EU would 'be hard-pushed to move on with a system of cumulation.'

One serious and visible manifestation of this overall economic strangulation by Israel against Palestinians is the separation ( hafrada in Hebrew) wall that is being built with segregationist haste by Israel. Large tracts of Palestinian farmland have already been destroyed in the process of building the wall or have ended up on the wrong [Israeli] side. Many Palestinian villages are now in no-man's land between the wall and the Green Line and are declared as 'closed zones'. In fact, one fundamental complaint against the separation wall is the fact that it is not following the 1967 borders but is zigzagging into Palestinian land and eating up further chunks of territory. This was underlined in the Ruling of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague on 9 June 2004. The predatory course of the wall is thereby making the creation of a viable Palestinian state in the overall context of a future resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict much less likely.

No wonder then that Baruch Kimmerling, George S Wise Professor of Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, warned as far back as 2003 that the Israeli policy of 'politicide' since 1948 consists of a process intended eventually to dissolve the Palestinian people as a social, political and economic identity. Meron Rapaport, an Israeli Ha'aretz journalist, also wrote to underline that Israel's plan of attack is to close off the Gaza strip before withdrawing in order to concentrate on expansionist policies in the West Bank. PM Ariel Sharon, according to Rapaport, hopes that this will annihilate the Palestinians politically, condemning them to work for poverty wages in industrial estates along the separation wall.

Indeed, many NGO's and Churches are increasingly concerned at the worsening situation, and a growing number - such as the Church of Scotland or the United Church of Christ - are considering the recommendations of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva to adopt a series of disinvestments and boycott measures against Israeli firms or organisations that support or profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.

When faced with such grim realities, what remains indisputable for those familiar with the peaks and troughs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that the pressure cooker syndrome within the occupied territories is being exacerbated by Israel's unilateral, punitive and humiliating measures - such as the completion of the separation wall around Jerusalem, expanded settlements and enhanced closures. So much so that many Palestinians have once more begun losing confidence in the future let alone in their own leadership and movement for being far too closely engaged with the US Administration and unable to bring a qualitative and just resolution to the conflict. In fact, many political pundits have already suggested that the postponement of the legislative elections came about not solely from an attempt by the Palestinian Authority to tackle the Hamas ascendancy in the polls but also from a request by the USA and Israel not to hold elections during the Israeli putative withdrawal from Gaza.

According to Ari Shavit's Opinion entitled A New New Middle East in Ha'aretz on 3 June 2005 , the strategic community in Israel is similarly pessimistic about the future. They are anticipating the start of a third Intifada , alongside a resumption of suicide bombings and possibly even a regional war. Conversely, Palestinians speak with increasing bitterness about life in their "prison" inside the Israeli wall. Yet, with the Palestinian political establishment unable to shift the dynamics of the conflict, and with another armed insurrection remaining dangerous and counter-productive, there is talk about non-violent civil unrest against the oppressive yoke of a continuing occupation. No wonder then that Eival Giladi, a heavyweight adviser to PM Ariel Sharon, is trying to deflect the obvious dangers to Israel of another combustion by reportedly trying to raise loan guarantees of some $500 million for the Palestinians to release them from their stranglehold. He is also pushing ahead a colossal international project to build approximately 150,000 housing units in the Gaza strip in order to accelerate modernisation and restore sustainable development and eventual stability to the Palestinian heartland.

Reconciliation with Separation: Is it Possible in the Palestinian-Israeli Case? , an article written recently by Dr Bernard Sabella, Associate Professor of Sociology at Bethlehem University, examined candidly the work toward reconciliation undertaken by NGO's or government-funded groups in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Enumerating the motivations of various encounter groups from the dual prism of the Israeli disengagement from Gaza and the increasing spectre of the separation wall, Sabella suggested that those groups 'should re-direct all their energies and goodwill towards exposing these infractions rather than to dwell, as some of them insist, on the importance of changing attitudes. But attitudes will only change when the Israeli practices on the ground respect international law and guarantee the basic rights of our Palestinian people.'   Sabella further admonished international groups to 'expose how the separation policy of the state of Israel is impacting, among other things, the human rights of Palestinians negatively.'

Sound and measured advice indeed, and one that resonates in another incisive article by James J Zoghby entitled Freedom, too, is needed! in the Jordan Times of 7 June 2005. Zoghby takes President Bush to task when he stresses, 'Without freedom, democracy is not sustainable and can collapse in a disaster of renewed violence.' He also advises those who wax lyrical about democracy without considering freedom as its sine qua non , 'Palestinians need to hope that their lives can change; that their society has the power to take control by expanding economic possibilities, regaining access to their land and defining their own history. It is this sense of empowerment that will end the humiliation and despair.'

Despite my long involvement with the irenic process in the Middle East, both politically and ecumenically, I have recently begun tilting toward a belief that 'reconciliation' as understood heretofore by the Oslo Accords and subsequent collective or individual initiatives might prove futile. Perhaps what is necessary today for the parties is not reconciliation but rather the obverse formula of a clear separation that is predicated on clear principles - akin to a trusteeship, with ironclad guarantees from the Quartet and the quiescent Arab World. In this scenario, the EU would play a much more determining role that transcends its current economic and financial support structures that are seriously lacking any political clout.

As I look at the aggregate problems facing the region, and more particularly at the adversities of a systemic occupation, I am often tempted to throw in the towel. But then, I recall Matt Miller's exhortation in the New York Times and so with many like-minded Israelis or Palestinians, redouble my efforts as I decide to keep up my role as a prisoner of hope .

I am only responsible for Israel's security, not its sanity - Ezer Weizman, MK (1924-2005), Israeli Defence Minister, 1978, on the Israeli policy of settlements

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2005   |   10 June


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