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Is it Palestine Anymore? - The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
A couple of weeks ago, an Israeli friend sent me an electronic clipping from one of the British dailies about a toy rabbit that is being shown on al-Aqsa television encouraging Palestinian children to take up arms against Israelis...

5 March   |   2008   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... He was outraged that the Hamas Islamist movement had broadcast a show with the bunny vowing to ‘eat Jews’ for ‘the sake of our homeland’. The piece also included a comment from Israeli Ambassador Ron Prossor in which he argued that Palestinian children were being brainwashed into a pointless, destructive mindset that force-fed them a diet of hatred.

On a parallel albeit skewed dimension with this aberrant TV programme that frankly questions the educational sobriety of its producers lay the unremitting war between Palestinians in Gaza (alongside some parts of the West Bank) and Israel. This war has for months been a daily backdrop to the overall conflict: some Palestinian factions lobbed cross-order Qassam rockets (named after Sheikh Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, a militant Syrian preacher who advocated rebellion against European colonial powers in the Middle East during the 1920’s and 1930’s) into Israeli towns such as Sderot, and Israel retaliated with sporadic attacks against Palestinians.

Last Wednesday, this confrontation escalated alarmingly. Longer-range Grad missiles were launched against Ashkelon, which resulted in a set of Israeli surgical attacks on Gaza that was ostensibly meant to pin-point “terrorist targets” but in fact killed 119 hapless Palestinian men, women and children in a strip of land that has for all intents and purposes become a pen for 1.5 million Gazans. I believe that the Israeli response we all saw on our television screens has three main fulcrums. It is first a show of bravado in that Israel has the might to hit back with horrific strength and horrible consequences. But it is equally an Israeli belief that it can force its will upon another [Palestinian] people, coupled with high levels of angst and frustration that all its attempts at quelling those attacks or subduing this people have failed to date. No wonder that the Israeli deputy defence minister Matan Vilnai crossed a fine psychological line when he used the term ‘shoah’ [holocaust in Hebrew] to warn Palestinians of a looming catastrophe awaiting them. Dr Bernard Sabella, member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, commented aptly on 2nd March in A Dark Overcast Warm Winter that “Israel does not have a peace vision but [only] a security vision”.

A more direct dose of reality was re-injected into the political dissertation this week when a report by eight British charities (including Oxfam, Amnesty International, Save the Children and Care International) indicated that conditions in Gaza today are at their most crippling since the occupation in 1967. The report talked about hospital patients dying as they wait for proper care, with 12-hour power cuts daily, water and sewage on the verge of collapse, 80% of the population unable to feed themselves and the entire population suffering record levels of unemployment and poverty on less than 60 pence daily. Legal experts called Israel’s blockade of Gaza illegal under international law because it constitutes ‘collective punishment’ of the whole population and is grossly disproportional, and aid groups also averred that unless the [Israeli] blockade ended now, it would be impossible to pull Gaza back from the brink.

Sadly, and perhaps not unexpectedly for many seasoned political observers, the situation in Gaza is worsening on a daily basis - and has been heading in a negative direction ever since the Palestinian national unity government disintegrated in 2007 when Hamas also seized control of Gaza from Fateh in what was tantamount to a takeover. The West (led by the USA, with the acquiescence of a majority of EU member-states) decided to boycott Hamas based on the rather naïve nous of political mandarins that Gaza today = Hamas = Islamism = terrorism = a pariah political movement = open to subjugation by extraneous pressures = overlooking purposely the clear Hamas victory in the legislative elections of 25 January 2006. Yet here again we see how such political short-termism is inimical to peace: I for one am neither a supporter of religious fundamentalism nor a political fan of Hamas-like ideologies, but I do know that peace is negotiated with foes, and therefore also with Hamas, not with friends or allies alone.

It is true that since Hamas seized control of the strip, there has been a significant improvement in the security of Gazans. However, Gazans remain distressed by the increasingly serious economic hardships facing them let alone the mounting number of brutal tactics deployed against them by the newly-formed Executive Force and other unruly elements. However, weakening Hamas at all costs becomes redundant per se within the logical frame or political context of this argument since Hamas’ losses are not necessarily Fateh’s gains.

Although many Gazans blame the Islamists for being unable to end the siege, they also blame Israel for imposing it, the West for supporting it, and Fatah for consenting to it. As such, one reality remains clear to me: any facile or politically-spun belief that the enfeeblement of Hamas is an all-panacea for the ills of the region is proving - for the umpteenth time, in case I need to remind any reader - to be a vacuous argument with severely limited political impact.

The vile al-Aqsa television programme on the one hand, and the ferocious attacks against Gaza as well as incursions into the West Bank on the other, are in their own different ways two unequal examples that have become lamentable mirror images of history repeating itself. In being mirror images of each other, they also become interlocked logarithms of realities that have gone seriously awry. The deplorable al-Aqsa programme represents an example of structural violence that is based on a deep hatred emanating in part from the ills of an occupation that has dehumanised many Palestinians and traumatised their children. So between a war-like occupation, and a war-like reaction, the intensity of polarisation between Israelis and Palestinians is growing daily to newer and higher pitches, and the difficulties ahead for any solution amenable to both sides in the conflict have become even less attainable.

Yet, over long years, I have often struggled to find signs of hope in the midst of despair - not out of a Pollyanna-like optimism that goodness always prevails over evil, but rather because I deem that pessimism does not necessarily lead toward the [re]solution of any conflict no matter how we market out our standpoints to our constituencies. So I would like today to recall those men and women on both sides of the conflict who are challenging the vagaries of the ongoing - asymmetrical and skewered - conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. They are hardy beacons of hope, showing that the overall humanity and compassion of Israelis and Palestinians alike has not been compromised irretrievably.

One such example is a cyber-blog between Gaza and Israel that attempts to defy the odds by promoting peace. ‘Peace man’ is from Gaza whereas ‘Hope man’ lives across the Israeli border in Sderot. Since Hamas Islamists seized control of Gaza last June and Israel sealed the frontier, those two men have been unable to meet or plan for a Gaza-Sderot summer camp for children. However, they maintained their cross-border cyber-friendship alive by creating a joint blog that explores daily life on both sides of the conflict and pushes for an end to the spiralling violence. Both bloggers keep their identities secret for fear of harassment, since dialogue could easily be viewed as collaboration. However, as the Centre for Emerging Futures that helped bring ‘Peace man’ and ‘Hope man’ together stated recently, “connecting individuals in this manner might help change public opinion and eventually perhaps even shape policy.”

So where does the reality stand today, perched between monstrous television programmes and vicious military attacks on the one hand, and timorous attempts at peace-building by Israelis and Palestinians alike on the other?

Last week, I participated in a roundtable discussion at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House). The guest speaker was Dr Menachem Klein, a political scientist from Bar-Ilan University, and one of a group of consultants who helped draft a model peace treaty between Israelis and Palestinians that resulted in 2003 in the 50-page document known as the Geneva Initiative. This document contains detailed provisions that purport to resolve all major outstanding issues between Israelis and Palestinians - including drawing a border between the two states, partitioning Jerusalem into its eastern (Arab) and western (Jewish) sectors, and determining the status of the Palestinian refugees.

What I found particularly interesting in the event was hearing Dr Klein, author of A Possible Peace between Israel and Palestine: An Insider’s Account of the Geneva Initiative, come up with refreshing proposals about [re]solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My readers can discover his views by reading his book as they advocate for a viable, contiguous and sovereign Palestinian state within the framework of a two-state solution. Furthermore, they can decide for themselves whether his is the romantic and idealistic vision of an academic or a hard-nosed approach to a set of seemingly intractable oft-repeated ‘final-status’ issues.

How realistic or pragmatic are viewpoints such as those espoused by Dr Klein today?  

As I write this article, I regret that most pundits have almost concluded that the Annapolis process of 26 November 2007 supporting the roadmap at the expense of international legality embodied in a raft of previous UN Resolutions has already become superfluous and is now considered almost nothing better than political detritus. In fact, Annapolis has proved to be almost as much a flash in the pan as previous initiatives such as Madrid, Geneva, Oslo or Taba.

Observing what Israel is engineering for “Palestine” today, (and it is easy to check the copious facts on the Internet with a search engine and some web-links), one detects a series of devastating antipodes to peace let alone to justice and [ultimately] security for both peoples. Just look at the creeping pace of Israeli settlements and outposts, the myriad by-pass roads, the separation barrier that is gnawing further into Palestinian land (despite the Advisory Opinion of the ICJ on 9 July 2004), a multiplication of 561 checkpoints placing Palestinians into insular cantons, as well as the expropriation or annexation of lands, confiscation of water wells, uprooting of olive trees and demolition of houses.

Imagine also for instance that Annapolis 2007 was meant to augur also the release by Israel of Palestinian prisoners as a gesture of goodwill. Yet, whilst 740 prisoners were released by Israel, another 1500 new ones were arrested later. Not only that, but the ratio of killings between Palestinians and Israelis in 2008 (and therefore post-Annapolis) has shot up again to an unsettling 54:1 - epitomising the sad deaths of ordinary and decent human beings.

I regret that what is still romantically referred to as “Palestine” is becoming all the time more non-existent, and the much-vaunted two-state solution that a majority of Palestinians and Israelis aspire for is becoming almost untenable let alone unworkable. With a severe imbalance between the two parties and with the facts on the ground shifting drastically every week in Israel’s favour, how can one maintain hope that peace would triumph over war? Is it any wonder that many younger Palestinians are now speaking more in terms of a bi-national (one-state) solution rather than a two-state solution? Although this option is anathema to Israel since it would compromise the Jewish identity of the state, and frankly quite unattractive to large swathes of Palestinians too despite opinions from the likes of Dr Mustapha Barghouti or the late professor Edward Said, the very fact that it is being mooted seriously again indicates the levels of hopelessness, frustration and anger festering in the midst of a majority of dispossessed Palestinians.

The monthly CrisisWatch # 55 bulletin stated on 1st March that the situation has deteriorated even further in Israel / the Occupied Territories. It does not therefore surprise me that HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan used his moral credibility last week to voice once more the concern of many of his peers when he called upon the Quartet and the US to re-engage in the Middle East peace process in order to end the stalemate of negotiations after the Annapolis conference. Speaking on the sidelines of the Club de Monaco meeting in Doha, a gathering of former politicians, diplomats and intellectuals meant to provide a forum for free and open discussions on current international issues, he added that only a commitment of all sides, and reconciliation among Fateh and Hamas, could revive hope for progress.

However, this well-meaning exhortation is inadequate to mobilise any irenic effort between two warring sides. After all, any confidence in the Quartet - with its envoy Tony Blair - has eroded since three of its four constituent members (namely, the EU, the UN and Russia) are almost absent from the political scene whereas the US - as sole driver of the process - is well short of an honest broker. Nonetheless, Prince Hassan was correct in suggesting that the need for reconciliation between Palestinians is indispensable. After all, Hamas cannot be allowed to squander the Palestinian national dream because it has discovered the merits of power and refuses to cede the reins of governance.

With many players now absent from the end-game, more vigorous strategies by the world polity are necessary.

Let me start off with the Arab camp. In 2002, it produced the comprehensive Arab Initiative (re-launched at the Arab Summit in Riyadh in 2007) which I still deem to be the most compelling and opportune document for peace. But other than this initiative, Arabs have by and large done precious little in view of the enormity of the disaster - with occasional murmurs by the Arab League and some unilateral statements by Arab rulers. Having pleaded the Palestinian case vocally over the years, and having thrown their support behind the Annapolis peace process despite serious misgivings, they cannot sit back now but must use their significant influence and oil revenues to induce Hamas leaders into halting their rocket attacks and aligning with Fateh in the pursuit of a peace deal. In this context, Egypt should also accept more responsibility for securing the common border with Gaza in order to sketch a more protected setting that would literally embarrass Israel into moving ahead with the process for peace without undue pretexts.

Mind you, the US administration, as well as the Israelis and some Fateh leaders had hoped that pressuring Gaza would force Palestinians to turn away from Hamas and thereby sap its strength. Yet, Hamas’ support remains more or less steady since 2006. This strategy underlines the fact that the political world has not yet understood the reality of Hamas as a counter-force to the inability of Fateh to deliver peace and stability for Palestinians. Ironically though, Fateh simply cannot deliver such peace and stability when Israel constantly disempowers the Palestinian side or emasculates it by not providing it with any concrete concessions that it can sell to its own constituencies or that are necessary for making peace. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, who was in the Middle East region earlier in the week, restated the US Administration policy that it refuses to recognise the importance of Hamas to the process of peace. Mind you, she did give a nod and a wink to Egypt to “negotiate” with Hamas if it helps save Annapolis from total oblivion. However, as Aaron David Miller, author of The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace, commented recently, “You cannot make peace with half of the Palestinian polity and go to war with the other half.”

Israel constantly claims that its military operations (such as the latest one codenamed Operation Warm Winter) are a reaction to the constant rocket attacks by ‘Hamas terrorists’ in Gaza. I agree that Israel has the tactical responsibility - even the sacred duty - to defend its citizens from those incessant attacks. However, Israel is also disingenuous when it claims that it cannot do anything to stop those attacks. It could begin to end the occupation in earnest let alone listen to its own majority public opinion (currently over 67%) who would wish it to negotiate with Hamas - a movement that has admittedly refused to recognise Israel but has agreed to a religious hudna (long-lasting truce) with Israel. After all, a truce by Hamas - based as it is on a religious reading - has more credibility than oral promises from other factions.

The Palestinian camp is also severely divided, with grave mistrust between its leaders, not unlike much of the Arab world too. This is a reflection of Arab political insolvency, but in focusing upon Palestinian divisions and internecine battles, we tend sometimes to forget the overriding fact that Palestinians are under occupation since 1967. It is therefore the responsibility of Israel, both under international and humanitarian laws, to pull out of the territories rather than hide behind grandiose meetings, conferences, statements and interviews that are devoid of any practical implementation let alone are politically otiose. Until such time as Israel realises that it is against its own national interest in the long run to perpetuate this conflict, no progress is achievable.

However, what I fear most is that by the time Israel reaches this inescapable conclusion, many Palestinians will have turned against PNA President Mahmoud Abbas, labelled him a quisling, and likened his cabinet in Ramallah to the Vichy regime in France during WWII. Then, the two-state option might be over for good since the demography and geography of the territories will have altered so irreversibly that it would become well nigh impossible to move toward a viable, contiguous and sovereign state that enjoys the trappings of statehood and exists side-by-side with Israel.

Coming back to Dr Menachem Klein’s talk, one of his assertions was that both Israeli PM Ehud Olmert and his FM Tzipi Livni fully realise in the abstract the level of concessions necessary for peace. However, their rational realisation does not compute well with their emotional reluctance to undertake those practical steps. As he put it quaintly, Ehud is not communicating with Olmert, and Tzipi is not communicating with Livni. This lapse of communication between the political yins and yangs of much of the Israeli establishment destroys the hope for any concrete peace process.

Today, at the adult age of sixty, Israel still tries to react toward Hamas in the same angry way it reacted to Hizbullah in southern Lebanon in July 2006. It should perhaps listen to Ali Abunimah, a research fellow at the Washington-based advocacy group Palestine Center,who derided the joint American-Israeli strategy of ignoring Hamas by saying, “You can’t talk to them. You can’t deal with them. You just cover your ears, close your eyes and pretend they don’t exist”.

So where are we on 5 March 2008?

Palestinians are in a political pickle, with no real strategy, whilst Israel continues with its heavy-handed aggressions. Terrorism and violence are still part of the language between Israelis and Palestinians - such as the deplorable attack at the yeshiva (Jewish religious seminary) resulting in eight deaths and many more injuries. The Arab World is pretty disconnected too and much of the West - especially the European Union - is loudly absent from the political scene.

With this concatenation of ill omens, I would argue that if things do not move dramatically for the better, the situation would deteriorate further and there will soon be no viable hope left on which to build a viable “Palestine” anymore!

No more Palestine: would such an outcome import stability or peace into the whole region? Would it conceivably solve the political ills of the Middle East, or make life safer for all its inhabitants? The answer is quite clear, don’t you think?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2008   |   5 March


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