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Where do we possibly go now? - The Israeli-Palestinian conflict
The truth is that many people set rules to keep from making decisions - Mike Krzyzewski, in Leading with the Heart

28 April   |   2006   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

I do not know much about basketball, but I came across Mike Krzyzewski's name some weeks ago in a message from a friend of mine who works in Saudi Arabia. It seems that Chicago-born Coach K - as he is also known - is quite famous in the USA, and his book "Leading with the Heart" deals with successful strategies for basketball, business and life. This particular sentence from his book brought home to me the latest developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After all, where does the truth lie in this thirty-nine-year-old conflict? In fact, is there a truth we defend anymore, and what are its rules anyway? What are the decisions being made that impact Israelis and Palestinians in their daily lives?

Following the overwhelming election of Hamas to the Palestinian Legislative Assembly, and the Knesset parliamentary elections some two months later in Israel, it seems that the situation has steadily gone from bad to worse. Despondency and uncertainty are not novel staples for the occupied Palestinian people, but it is becoming increasingly clear that new levels of anxiety have taken root. To quote Jeff Halper, co-founder in 1997 of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, in his article The Power of Saying No , 'Occupation is patently illegal: settlements and the construction of a massive system of Israel-only highways that link the West Bank settlements to Israel proper; the extension of Israel's legal and planning system into occupied Palestinian areas; the plunder of Palestinian water and other resources for Israeli use; house demolitions and the expropriation of Palestinian lands; the intentional impoverishment of the local population; military attacks on civilian populations - to name but a few.'

Indeed, the two peoples and three religions of this land are locked in a mortal embrace that is pivotal not only to their own futures but also to the whole region. Israeli disdain for Palestinian human rights, let alone their officious attempts to starve out the Palestinian political structures, does not only counter those principles that undergird the integrity of all democratic elections. It also prevents Hamas from entering the mainstream of politics and ends up strengthening the hands of those who are waging a civilisational battle between the West and the Arab / Muslim worlds in the stomping grounds of the Middle East. This is why it is uncanny that the US, the EU and Japan deemed it judicious to stop all financial aid to the Palestinian institutions until Hamas subscribes to their set of conditions. Besides, intra-Palestinian one-upmanship, internecine tugs-of-war and ugly snarls should not become a Western excuse for freezing such aid.

But how does this decision - amongst others - affect the Palestinian street? An Oxfam Report dated 10 April 2006, communicated in a letter to the Middle East Quartet, made the following pungent observations:

  • Donor aid to the Palestinian Authority accounted in 2005 for about 25% of Palestinian gross disposable income and paid the salaries of 152,000 employees, providing vital support to almost one million people, or one in four of the Palestinian population. Stopping this aid would clearly have a major impact on ordinary people.
  • Palestinians are already on the edge of survival, with over 60% of the population living on less than $2.10 per day. Their plight will now worsen if international donors withhold aid to the Palestinian Authority. But such a step would weaken the Authority, the letter added, and therefore deprive Palestinians of crucially needed health and education services at a time when the Palestinian economy is suffering a serious reversal of development due to Israel's endemic occupation and attrition let alone the unending nature of this conflict.
  • Suggestions that international donors channel humanitarian assistance through international non-governmental organisations rather than through the Authority in response to the Hamas election victory are not the way forward. As Rami Khouri, a seasoned Beirut-based syndicated journalist, often admonishes his readers, this would further undermine Palestinian institutions that are vital both for immediate assistance and for any prospects of longer-term development and stability. Moreover, few international NGO's have the capacity to channel such funds anyway, and essential services would suffer from any rash decision.

This Oxfam red flag should not come as a surprise. Today, the Israeli occupation (with the separation wall as its latest tool) is seriously jeopardising Palestinian livelihoods. Farmers are prevented from reaching their fields, accessing their water supplies or selling their produce in nearby markets. Furthermore, Israel's repeated closures of the Karni crossing into Gaza, amounting to two out of every three days so far this year, have had a devastating impact on its 1.3 million people and their agriculture. Essential food supplies, including bread, sugar and yoghurt, have become extremely scarce. Those closures have cost Palestinians up to $500,000 a day, according to UN estimates from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). Israel is bound to allow Palestinians free access to markets in accordance with its obligations under the Paris Protocol 1994 for economic relations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Such Western behaviour is sophomoric since halting aid to the Palestinian Authority will yield the wrong answer. In fact, Norway this week broke ranks with this consensus by promising to increase aid to the Palestinian Authority. France and Switzerland too are re-visiting their tactics. But more worrying even is the fact that Israel has also withheld the largest component of revenues, roughly $55 million a month, in customs. The Authority cannot be kept afloat without those funds that are rightly theirs, and it will be unable to pay its civil servants (including security personnel) or provide basic services. The additional monies coming from Iran or the Arab League are far too irregular as financial plug-ins.

I realise Hamas has not yet implemented those steps required from it by the donor countries. Nor, for that matter, do I undervalue the imperative for such an ideological shift. Yet, we have to appreciate that Hamas is an Islamist movement that has engaged in electoral democratic politics at local and national governance levels, and any attempts to 'crush' it could make it give up politics and plunge the region into further vortexes. But what never ceases to amaze me in this half-baked logic is that both Israel and the Quartet had a Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority as their interlocutor for well over a decade when Hamas was not even a political blip on the electoral screen. Yet, Israel never offered Palestinians any real compromises that would render a viable peace feasible. Now that this Authority - that was often reviled, accused of not reining in violence, and hardly ever given a plausible and credible peace format it could take to its constituents - is no longer in power, we are being told that things would be okay with Fatah - but not with Hamas!

The irony is overpowering here! After all, Palestinians elected their new representatives in the Legislative Assembly in protest against servility and a long-running political stalemate, and it would be wise for the EU at least to give priority to Hamas' deeds rather than its statements. True, this new Islamist regional political reality (called Hamas in Palestine) has not yet formally renounced violence, nor has it recognised Israel or accepted previous agreements (including the Beirut Arab Summit Declaration of 2002 offering Israel full diplomatic relations with the Arab world in return for its withdrawal from the occupied territories). But many politicians and pundits had already judged it in less than 100 days, whereas the previous Authority stayed in the corridors of power for much longer - although it was hardly offered more than a few morsels of peace. So do we seek real peace, or do we seek to squelch the Palestinian will and the imposition of a unilateral concordat that might suit many parties save the destitute original residents of Palestine?

Although I am not at all a supporter of Hamas, I believe that the window of opportunity for a viable peace still remains open. But as the occupying power, with clear-cut obligations under International law and the Geneva Conventions de lege lata , it is Israel's responsibility to undertake the necessary steps that facilitate a durable peace. What one needs are more than cosmetic moves such as the future possible dismantlement of small outposts - the likes of Ma'ale Mikhmas on a remote West Bank hilltop. What one does not need either is the implementation of unilateral moves that could stymie any future process since a solution that comes about by imposition rather than negotiation remains short-lived and lacks both legitimacy and legality. Instead, what one needs is a series of concrete steps toward peace. Given my belief that the two-state solution narrowly remains the better option today, Israel should return the 1967 occupied territories following some negotiated tradeoffs. Palestinians should also be granted their own internal security, along with an agreement on foreign guarantees for Palestine's external security. Furthermore, the status of Jerusalem could be resolved by re-formatting the Clinton-Barak ideas of 2000. But this would mean that the separation wall - a great semi-circle of concrete running around Arab east Jerusalem and the West Bank - cannot continue gobbling up Palestinian land. After all, the Israeli High Court enounced in its judgment in June 2004 the need for 'proportionality' and for accommodating the welfare of Palestinians, adding that "satisfying the provision of the law is an aspect of national security". One month later, the Opinion of the ICJ at The Hague consolidated this judgment by describing the present demarcation of the wall as illegal, and implicitly recognising that it might become acceptable were it built along the pre-1967 lines.

Another principled building block toward peace is the Palestinian inalienable right of return. Last week, at the inaugural seminar of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Doha, Qatar, Ambassador Thomas R Pickering, former US Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, called for Israel to recognise the right of return for Palestinian refugees who either left or were driven out in 1948. Appreciating Israeli fears of being "demographed" out of existence with an influx of Palestinian returnees, the career diplomat suggested that the first step would entail recognition of the right of return. The second step would define this right so that those who left in 1948, but not their progeny, could return - with a narrow limitation on the numbers of family reunifications within Israel. The third step would entitle the other refugees to relocate to a future Palestine - or elsewhere worldwide in line with an international programme. Although this solution does not reflect UN General Assembly Resolution 191(III) 'in effect or with intent', I believe it is a primer that imports wisdom, equity and realism into a deadlocked political discourse.

Veteran negotiators need to refine, improve, reject, modify or adopt any future formula for peace. Both Israelis and Palestinians merit peace with security. However, the occupation, or the new / expanded controversial frontiers being mapped out on looted land, can bring peace and security to neither party. Firm decisions, not more rules, are required if we are meant to target the truth - in this case, a genuine and lasting peace between two warring parties.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2006   |   28 April


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