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International Day of Peace?
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

17 September   |   2006   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

On 2 nd September, the Israeli PM Ehud Olmert authorised construction bids for another 690 new houses in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank. They would be built in two settlements near Jerusalem - Ma'ale Adumim (or red hills in Hebrew, with a population of just over 31,000) and Betar Illit (populated by the haredim or ultra-orthodox Jews).

The American pro forma criticism in the face of this latest move was to remind Israel that the roadmap - arguably still a cornerstone for peace between Israel and the Palestinians - does not allow for the expansion of settlements in the West Bank. However, having already stated in the past that it would keep both those settlements in any eventual agreement with the Palestinians, Israel responded that it was not "expanding" settlements but "thickening" them within existing built-up areas. In fact, this decision followed the war between Israel and Hizbullah , and many political pundits suggest that the Israeli government is expanding settlements, let alone shelving its Kadima manifesto that would have led to withdrawals from the West Bank, to deflect the internal criticism it has faced from its unsuccessful strategy in Lebanon.

This latest piece in the Israeli-Palestinian jigsaw puzzle, highlighting Israeli geography minus Palestinian demography, came also days before 21 st September, when governments and individuals from 57 countries will celebrate the UN fifth International Day of Peace. This annual event w as decided by the fifty-fifth session of the UN General Assembly (A/RES/55/282) to encourage the global community to sanction a day of peace and non-violence. Over the past five years, it has also become a bashful sign of hope let alone a tool for education in a riven world. After all, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, there are 65 ongoing international and internal armed conflicts across the world today, and this 24-hour event is meant to observe peace and allow unimpeded access of humanitarian aid and flow of information, as much as freedom of movement and relief, from armed onsets.

But how would a Palestinian man, woman or child react to this day of peace in Gaza or the West Bank? I believe there would be two different sets of reactions. The first reaction would be one of hope, embracing any event that holds a conceptual process for peace, prosperity and tranquillity for over 3 million West Bankers still under direct occupation. After all, and perplexing as it might seem to some non-Middle Eastern observers, Palestinians have not surrendered their hope for a two-state solution despite the myriad obstacles - from a thirty-nine year occupation to illegal settlements, from the appropriating of natural resources to the building of a separation wall and the suppression of a people. Irrespective of recurrent episodes of doom and gloom and an ill-judged resort to murderous violence at times, Palestinians in their majority still cling to hope in their secular quest for peace with justice and dignity.

But the second reaction would be one be of dismissive scepticism. This is due to the fact that they have been led down the garden path (to use a colloquialism) so many times before by Israel, the USA, even the EU and some Arab states, that they no longer dare to believe that peace is achievable. This yo-yoing paradox between hope and cynicism is a clear indication of a challenged people who are still struggling for their inalienable rights, namely the withdrawal of an occupying force and the implementation of successive UN Resolutions formulating the establishment of a sovereign, viable and contiguous state that they could call Palestine in real - not virtual or symbolic - terms. It is not enough for British PM Tony Blair to visit the region and use the word 'Palestine' for it to become a reality. True, this reality exacts a stern and plain obligation from Palestinians to get their unruly house in order. But it also exacts an equal obligation from Israel and the world community - especially the Quartet comprising the UN, USA, EU and Russia - to ensure that such a state is allowed to come into existence through negotiation. One example: hardly had Palestinian President Abbas and PM Haniyeh declared that they had agreed on a Palestinian government of national unity that Israeli FM Livni laid down a host of updated conditions before any negotiations could even be broached between the two protagonists.

Peace needs toil, discipline and goodwill, and my concern is whether we will ever learn to change our mindsets from confrontation to conciliation in order to build peace. When will we realise that such a change also requires painful, concrete and mutual compromises? Or will we continue to speak eloquently from both sides of our mouths?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2006   |   17 September


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