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Forty Years of Occupation! - The Story of Palestine Today
[Members of Combatants for Peace] asked themselves the same question: How could it be possible to keep on living a life where one side is an occupier and the other side occupied? Each one of the Israeli members in our group had reached a point where they dared to doubt and questions the truths they were raised upon and managed to see that their existence as occupiers of another people is a terrible, terrible thing. They managed to see the crack deeply engraved on the flag they were taught to salute, and the stain spread all over the slogan of the Jewish independent state because they understood that no independence is possible as long as it sustains itself through the occupation, oppression, and humiliation of others. - Natan’l Silverman, Combatants for Peace, 9 June 2007

3 July   |   2007   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Four months ago, admittedly a long time in political terms, I was commissioned to write an article for an EU website about the volatile situation in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq. Labelling those three countries as the hotspots of the Middle East, I explored the reasons behind the internecine fights between the Hamas and Fateh factions in Palestine, the equally dangerous standoff between two roughly equal camps in Lebanon, the 8th and 14th March coalitions, and the surges, insurgencies, suicide bombs, raids, killings or kidnappings occurring almost daily on different levels in Iraq.

Alas, things have not changed for the better in any one of those three hotspots today. But my focus in this article is Palestine, a non-country that marks this year the 40th anniversary of the six-day war of June 1967, the ignominious defeat - al-naksa -of the combined Arab armies by Israel and the start of the longest occupation in modern history. Here in the UK, a group of charities, trade unions, faith groups and lobbyists have come together to form a coalition under the slogan Enough! that seeks peace for Israelis and Palestinians based on justice, equality, freedom and the respect of international law and human rights.

But let me roll back the months for a few brief moments and start off by referring to what I deem was one of the more promising events for the region. This was the Madrid+15 conference entitled Towards Peace in the Middle East: Addressing Concerns and Expectations. It took place in January 2007 and consisted of a civil society initiative aspiring for an official political process that would create the suitable overall conditions for a comprehensive resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Madrid+15 was sponsored by a number of Scandinavian countries as well as international organisations. It represented an opportunity to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991, bringing together different political figures and other relevant players to highlight the need for an internationally-backed regional approach to peace and stability in the Middle East. Although this initiative did not excite the imagination of many political pundits, nor did it fire up the interest of the international media, I still consider it an important station in the ongoing conflicts of the Middle East - and more particularly in the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.

At the conference, Gareth Evans, president of International Crisis Group, reminded the participants that he had “never seen any set of conflict issues on which there is a huge and depressing gap between, on the one hand, the collective awareness of what needs to be done and, on the other hand, collective impotence when it comes to doing it.”

The conference strove to emphasise the following five critical points:

  • Any peacemaking initiative should be comprehensive in its ambit, with complementary processes affecting all the players and conflicts of the region. Interim solutions are a distraction that would destroy mutual trust;
  • A focus on Israeli withdrawals that are agreed upon, and are not unilateral as happened in Gaza and south Lebanon;
  • A refusal by Palestinians of temporary borders;
  • Dissatisfaction with the Quartet for its inability to play any active role in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict and the inability of the roadmap to move forward by adhering to any of the timetables agreed upon previously;
  • Regional proliferation of nuclear weapons.

It was also clear that the participants lamented the paucity of the UN and EU roles in peacemaking in the region. The conference considered three possible options, namely:

  • The holding of a Madrid II regional peace conference under UN auspices;
  • An EU initiative that would be independent of the Quartet;
  •  Setting up a committee consisting of the international organisations that helped sponsor Madrid+15 so that they in turn would contact the respective governments when they deem the time right for a new Madrid II conference.

Nothing was more obvious from the proceedings of the conference than that there was an urgent need to revitalise the peace process. But as both Dalia Rabin and Shlomo Ben Ami reminded the participants, there is such a degree of mistrust between the players that ‘international escorts’ were essential and ought to exercise the following five parameters:

  • They should avoid making peacemaking more difficult by hindering any interface between the protagonists;
  • Help create optimal conditions for negotiations, not necessarily those illusory ones that can never exist between occupied and occupier, but persuading both sides that a credible process exists for peacemaking;
  • Assist in preparing for negotiations, including consideration of the Arab League Initiative that should be brought back to centre stage after being ignored for such a long time;
  • Assist in the conduct of the negotiations, perhaps by fleshing out the Clinton Parameters, the Arab League Initiative or the proposals emanating from the Geneva Accord, to focus on a comprehensive end-game approach;
  • Assist in implementing agreements once they are reached, with the commensurate political, economic and military support, to ensure that the agreements do not collapse as has happened time and again in the past.

Ever since Madrid+15, the region has witnessed other chief developments - both positive and negative. Not least is the Mecca Agreement that was hailed as the bridge-builder between Fateh and Hamas (with paid advertisements to that effect in some Arabic dailies), itself superseded quite swiftly by the recent bloody fights between the two Palestinian factions over who wields authority over an authority-deficient Palestinian Authority in Gaza and the West Bank. In this instance, the story unfolded bloodily, the West Bank got severed (at least temporarily) from Gaza, with Palestinians accusing each other of corruption, power hunger, one-upmanship, nepotism, Islamism, radicalism and ultimately treason of the national project.

But Madrid+15 helped achieve something quite valuable: it created a key moment, leaving to the regional players and their international partners the responsibility of seizing the key for that moment and moving forward. But Madrid came and went, as did other well-meaning initiatives, and the process for peace is as anemic and dispirited today as it has been for 40 years.

Where does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stand today? Is it possible to revive this process at a time of world-wide political tumescence and the weakness of both main protagonists - President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert?

The answer, I believe, still lies in the unexplored parameters of the Madrid+15 conference that encouraged the parties, inter alia, to resort to the Arab league Initiative of 2002 as the most valid instrument for steering the peacemaking process forward. As Izhaq Lavar, member of the Israeli Akhshav Shalom (Peace Now) stated in a recent interview, Israel should not miss out on the opportunity for peace with 22 Arab countries who have expressed their willingness to recognise Israel in return for an end to occupation. The occupation: this word keeps recurring despite many attempts to relegate or even sideline it. Indeed, everybody knows the broad parameters of any workable and lasting two-state solution to this conflict. They include boundaries based on the pre-1967 borders, a just solution for Palestinian refugees that also respects Israel’s identity as a Jewish state and an imaginative re-mapping of Jerusalem broadly along the Clinton parameters of December 2000.

Simply put, there is no arguing whatsoever that Israel has a right to live in safe and secure borders. But Palestinians also enjoy the same right and should therefore be given back the lands that Israel occupied in June 1967. Tali Fahima, an Israeli human rights activist who was gaoled for two years for her friendship with Zakaria Zubeidi, a leader of Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in the West Bank, said in an interview to the Daily Telegraph when responding to those who accused her of treachery and collaboration with the enemy, “I am a person who loves my country. But while I am proud of Israel as a country, I am not proud of what Israel does in its occupation of the territories.”

Madrid+15 and the Arab League Agreement intertwine elegantly in their ability to help tailor a solution. In short, Israel must budge from its current forty-year position of disempowering the Palestinians and occupying their lands. But is Israel truly willing to accept the principle of land for peace, or does it intend to occupy another people and hope to get away with it?

A 50-page report issued last month by Amnesty International entitled Enduring Occupation - Palestinians under siege in the West Bank provides grim answers. It says that “Israeli legitimate security concerns are no excuse for blatant violations of international law, nor the mistreatment of thousands of Palestinians in a massive programme of collective punishment”.  The report singles out the barrier being built despite the fact that it was deemed illegal by a ruling in July 2004 of the International Court of Justice in The Hague on The Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The barrier mostly razor-tipped fences and shorter sections of concrete walls, already stretches for 350 kilometres and is planned to cover 720 kilometres upon completion. It would then encircle 12 West Bank villages and 31,400 people, with more than half a million Palestinians living within a kilometre of it. Moreover, the AI report criticises Israel's policy of mobile checkpoints and restricted West Bank roads which had directly caused deaths by imposing unnecessary delays on Palestinians trying to reach hospitals.

Caroline Lucas, Member of European Parliament, 9 June 2007

When you ask our government or indeed the EU what they are going to do about it, they move their hands and say there is nothing they can do. Well that’s very strange because for example there is a thing called the EU-Israel Association Agreement. That agreement means that Israeli goods get preferential access to EU markets, and that agreement has a human rights clause, and that human rights clause says that in the event of human rights abuses on either side the agreement shall be suspended. So our question to our government today should be this - how many human rights abuses do you need? How many women dying in child birth, because they can't pass the checkpoints through the Israeli authorities, do you need?

Along with Israeli intransigence comes also the inaction of the Quartet who are hardly performing at all, and who are still brandishing a roadmap that is no better than a road without any map. Besides, they are largely being influenced by a US Administration not amenable to any real movement on the Israeli-Palestinian track. The Peruvian diplomat and UN Middle East envoy Alvaro De Soto made this abundantly clear in his 53-page End of Mission Report earlier this year when he stated that whilst Palestinians are weakening their own position with their in-fighting, Israel was constantly setting unachievable pre-conditions for talks with Palestinians. De Soto criticised the Quartet severely for its failed diplomacy and irrelevance to the contemporary political equation. Harsh words indeed from a top diplomat, but they reflect a reality that has impacted negatively the prospects for regional peace and perpetuated the occupation of Palestinians by Israel for forty years.

So is it time to act now?

It is time to act now, but the question is to define the direction of any such action and the commitment of the parties to it. Some political sectors still maintain that the Quartet is the real answer to the conflict. Perhaps so, but overall the Quartet has proved time and again its ineptitude, and the biggest disappointment within it has been the EU input that has funded much peace-building but its ready €uros have had very little political leverage over peace-making. As Rami Khouri, Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and  International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, put it so pithily, the EU must stop sliding towards becoming an Israeli-American errand boy, and get back to vigorously playing the role that it had played in a low-key manner in recent decades, as the conscience of the rule of law: of international legitimacy, UN resolutions, and the global will to see Arabs and Israelis living in peace and security in two adjacent states.

Unfortunately, many people in the region view the EU as having reneged to a large extent on those lofty principles. Describing Europe as a pile of cotton candy, Khouri also suggests that Europe urgently needs to acknowledge what a dire mess it has got itself into in the Middle East, and work its way out of this predicament by reverting to its former role as a bastion of firm fairness.

In this context, the decision of the US Administration to choose Tony Blair, former British Prime Minister, as the special envoy of the Quartet, does not inspire much confidence in the Middle East. Israeli and [some] Palestinian Authority officials might welcome him, but the large swathes of masses still recall the fate of the previous envoy, James Wolfensohn, former World Bank president. After all, he was an excellent choice for fund-raising and institution-building, but he could not make political progress in the face of an immobilised peace process, an imminent Palestinian civil war and an American president who would not deeply engage in peacemaking and refused to let anyone else try to do so either. If Tony Blair were to achieve any lasting legacy over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and if he were going to re-activate the Quartet as a key facilitator toward the resolution of the conflict, he must use his powers of persuasion to overcome his own partisan record let alone assume the proactive political role of a peace envoy that delivers results - not only spins with vacuous gestures.

Today, it is quite true that the Palestinians find themselves in a mess that is partly of their own making. They are bitterly divided and fighting each other, with each side assuming the moral high ground. Only this week, for instance, the Palestinian Authority decided to pay the salaries of nearly 140,000 Palestinian Authority workers, including tens of thousands in Gaza, but excluded payment to almost 19,000 workers who had been appointed by, and reported directly to, Hamas. This is an intra-Palestinian situation that is both lamentable and dangerous regardless of all the negative attributes and radical agendas that Hamas might import to the larger political arena. But even this latest negative profile of Palestinians does not obviate the fact that they have been under occupation - a menacing occupation at that - for over forty years. It is therefore high time they are granted their freedom and allowed to have a viable, contiguous and governable state that not only stands “shoulder-to-shoulder” next to Israel but that can be sovereign and actually be allowed to exercise those tools of sovereignty.

In order to achieve peace, Israel must re-examine its political agenda and decide whether it wants peace in return for land, or else it wishes to continue handing out to Palestinians small doses of political sedatives that it prescribes every so often - almost like a physician treating a truculent patient. Such an attitude cannot produce win-win scenarios, nor does it build good faith. It exacerbates the situation further by polarising both peoples and making the prospects for peace even dimmer.

Eyal Weizman, in his book Hollow Land, examines the ravages of occupation through the professional angle of architecture. He underlines the fact that architects, like other professionals, ought to bear witness to the truth of injustice, and to insist on political responsibility. In reviewing Weizman’s book, Robert Bevan (author of The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War) wrote that “architecture and architects in Israel are complicit in the colonisation process whether they are aware of it or not … It is not just the obviously architectural components - the illegal settlements, the separation barrier and the remodelling and gerrymandering of Jerusalem - but a three-dimensional strategy that extends from aquifers below ground to the militarisation of the air and even the airwaves above.”

So should I surrender any hope for a just solution to this conflict that has occupied lands and minds alike for forty years?

The Irish author George Bernard Shaw once said, “Some men see things as they are and say: ‘why?’ But I dream of things that never existed and say: ‘why not?’” So this is perhaps my decade-long dream - some would add a pipe dream. After forty years of occupation, and with the politics of the region in a horrible mess, I would like to be true to a wonderful Arabic neologism - mutasha’il - that blends optimism and pessimism together and traces its origin to the late Arab Israeli author Emile Habiby who used it for the title of his novel The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist. Today, I too am a pessoptimist because I am still hopeful that there is enough integrity and goodwill in the world to achieve the overarching goal of peace for the sake of our common humanity, whilst at the same time I remain painfully aware that everything happening in the Middle East cries out against integrity and underlines instead callous self-interest.

A non-solution for a non-country is a recipe for regional and even global disaster. We have witnessed this reality time and again, but we still refuse to draw the necessary conclusions. For instance, since the electoral victory of Hamas, the Palestinian cause and the peace process have together suffered further setbacks. Again, some of those have admittedly been of their own making, but it must also be stressed that the policy of the incumbent US Administration has helped strengthen radical forces, debilitate Palestinian institutions, undermine faith in democracy and weaken President Abbas despite the qualified support trickling his way. All this has ostensibly been done for the sake of supporting moderation and peace, in itself a moot thesis, yet we certainly are no further ahead in our peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians today.

So my question, after forty years of occupation, is why ask for more of the same? Is it not time to show courageous vision?

Moshe Machover, Israeli socialist dissident, Professor at Kings College London (Philosophy), 9 June 2007

Two score years ago the first public announcement by Israelis against the occupation appeared as a paid advertisement in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. It was very brief, so I ask you to the gist of it. This is what it said: Occupation entails foreign rule. Foreign rule entails resistance. Resistance entails repression. Repression entails terror and counter-terror. The victims of terror are mostly innocent people. Holding on to the occupied territories will turn us in to a nation of murderers and murder victims. Let us get out of the occupied territories immediately!

The occupation can only end when pressure is applied from outside. Who is going to apply this pressure? The United States is not going to apply the pressure because Israel is its rotwiller, Israel is its local enforcement - a junior partner in the Middle-East, it is a special relationship - Israel is the US rotwiller. The British government is not going to stop it because the British government is the poodle of the United States, this is another special relationship. So who is going to apply it? We are going to apply the pressure. Civil society, ordinary people apply pressure by applying boycott - by boycotting Israeli goods, and exports, by boycotting tourism to Israel, by boycotting academic institutions which are part of the machinery of oppression and torture. And then if enough are mobilised then the occupation will end. This by itself will not be a solution but it will open the road for a solution which is based on equal rights for all, on peace and justice.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2007   |   3 July


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