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Israel and Palestine: Coexistence?

October 3, 2001

My comments here this morning are drawn from my life working with and among Palestinians in the occupied territories—first as a teacher, later as a development administrator. After looking at why the Oslo process has failed to bring about a just and lasting peace, I'll turn to the question of where we go from here and the prospects for coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis based on principles of justice and truth.

On a September afternoon in 1993, my wife, Sonia, and I were sitting in a restaurant in the West Bank city of Jenin, surrounded by bustling excitement. The city was filled with convoys of cars and trucks, horns blaring and packed with Palestinians waving the (still illegal) Palestinian flag and crying out with joy. The grim streets of an occupied city had been suddenly transformed into a giddy carnival, as Palestinians celebrated the announcement of the Declaration of Principles (DOP) issued by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from the Norwegian capital of Oslo. The vast majority of Palestinians welcomed this agreement, the product of secret negotiations, as the first step towards the establishment of a Palestinian state in all of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Twenty-five years of life under Israeli military occupation, a half century of dispossession, the hardships of the six-year intifada ("uprising" or "shaking off") against the occupation: all seemed to be nearing an end.

Sitting with us in the restaurant was Ashraf, one of our brightest English students at a nearby Catholic school. Despondently viewing the parades coursing by us, Ashraf shared his doubts that the DOP would lead to a just, lasting peace. "If it does, though," he smiled sadly, "I'll be kicking myself for not joining in the celebration."

Unfortunately, Ashraf's skepticism about Oslo has proven well founded. True, Oslo brought with it short-term benefits: the withdrawal of Israeli occupation troops out of most Palestinian population centers; a subsequent reduction in overt violence; and more attention paid to Palestinian infrastructure needs than under the Israeli regime of what Harvard economist Sara Roy calls "de-development." However, as the peace process entered its seventh year last fall, Palestinians had become disillusioned with the protracted negotiations and increasingly viewed the Oslo process as a way for Israel to solidify its control over the territories it had occupied in 1967.

Oslo's death became evident to all with the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada in late September of 2000. While the immediate causes of the current intifada were the provocative visit of then Likud chairman Ariel Sharon to the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) and the killing of several Palestinian protesters by Israeli police inside the Haram, the actual roots can be found in seven accumulated years of frustration with a "peace" process which, far from fostering justice, had strengthened Israel's occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. As of late September, well over 600 Palestinians, many of them children, had been killed; the wounded numbered in the thousands, with over 2,500 Palestinians permanently disabled. Over 150 Israeli soldiers, settlers, and civilians had been killed by Palestinians. Analysts on both sides until recently expected the cycle of violence to continue unabated. The Israeli Defense Force's Planning Directorate, for example, predicted that the present level of hostilities would continue through 2006.

Contrary to Israeli government claims that Palestinian president Yasser Arafat was controlling demonstrations, more perceptive analysts saw that Arafat was having to follow the Palestinian street in order to retain any sense of legitimacy in the eyes of the Palestinian street. The Israeli military, for its part, continues to use tanks, helicopters, and snipers in what has quickly become a lopsided war.

It's premature to judge whether or not the much-anticipated ceasefire announced last week will hold. It's my sense that while Arafat can gain the support of a wide variety of factions against actions inside Israel proper, attacks against Israeli targets inside the occupied territories, be they military bases or settlements, will continue to be seen by most Palestinians as legitimate. Certainly, the ceasefire will not hold if the only achievement for Palestinians is an easing of the siege on Palestinian towns and villages. Even a freeze on settlement construction, as recommended by the Mitchell Report, will not buy a long ceasefire. Israel, after all, has proven skilled in expanding settlements even during periods of supposed freeze, using "natural growth" as justification. The only thing that will buy a long-term ceasefire would be tangible progress towards a full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories.

If Oslo is dead, then what lies beyond it? A new, regional war? A long, protracted siege of the occupied territories? Perhaps. Pessimistic analysis sadly seems a safe bet, and, as noted above, up until recently Israeli military planners and Palestinian activists were looking at a long-term struggle. It is hard to believe that Ariel Sharon, who can barely bring himself to speak of a Palestinian state in 40% of the West Bank, will come up even to the severely flawed Israeli proposals of Camp David II and Taba. That said, I think that there are some signs of hope for the future, even if only dim at present. The Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci once wrote that we must not only have pessimism of analysis, but also optimism of action, and I plan to give you both in the rest of my talk.

First, then, pessimism of analysis. The myth of the "peace" process must be abandoned. The mechanisms of Oslo and the subsequent Palestinian-Israeli agreements have not fostered a peace of reconciliation. Rather, they have allowed, through their ambiguity, the stronger party, Israel, to dictate facts on the ground. The Oslo process ripped Palestinian rights outside of the framework of international law and declarations, placing all aspects of the conflict, from refugees to borders to settlements, on a negotiating table clearly tilted in favor of the more powerful party. So instead of an insistence that Israeli settlements in the occupied territories contravened the Fourth Geneva Convention, the negotiations promoted the idea of the eventual annexation of settlement blocs into Israel. Instead of upholding the "land for peace" formula of UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, the negotiations became centered over the percentage of land Israel would annex. Instead of discussing how the right of refugees to return to their homes, guaranteed in UN General Assembly Resolution 194, would be implemented, the Oslo process pushed the refugee issue of to the side.

The myth of Israel's "generosity" must also be abandoned. Following the breakdown of the Camp David II summit this past summer, the United States and the world media were quick to praise Israel for its generous offer of a Palestinian state and then Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak's willingness to discuss Palestinian sovereignty in Jerusalem. Lost in the praise for Israel's supposed readiness to "compromise," however, were enormous compromises the Palestinians had already made by forgoing negotiations concerning Palestinian-owned land on the Israeli side of the Green Line (the "border" between Israel and the occupied territories) and in West Jerusalem. Lost also were the actual maps of the West Bank and Jerusalem presented by the Israelis at Camp David—maps depicting a Palestinian state bifurcated into discontiguous cantons by Israeli settlement blocks which would be annexed to Israel.

Concerning Jerusalem, Israeli maps presented a "Greater Jerusalem," which would annex surrounding settlements in the West Bank into the municipality and engulf islands of Palestinian "autonomy" within the city, thus realizing Israel's long-time dream of controlling Jerusalem geographically, cutting it off from its West Bank hinterlands, while ridding itself of the burden of Palestinian Jerusalemites.

An Israeli cliché has it that "Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity." Lost in this rhetoric is the fact that Israel is missing an opportunity that may be fast closing: to strike a deal for a two-state solution with the present Palestinian leadership. While it didn't come with bells and whistles, it appears that there was a clear Palestinian proposal on the table at the Taba negotiations in late January of 2001. This Palestinian proposal made several unprecedented moves: most notably, it accepted in principle an adjustment to the June 4, 1967 boundaries, with an Israeli annexation of 2.34% of the West Bank in a 1 to 1 exchange for territory inside the Green Line.

Given the emotional investment in the 1967 borders, coupled with the fact that Egypt received all of its territory occupied in 1967 back in return for a peace agreement, the boldness of this move should not be underestimated. This Palestinian proposal would have allowed for Israeli sovereignty over the majority of Israeli settlers. Palestinians, furthermore, agreed that Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem would fall under Israeli sovereignty, and also accepted the principle of a limit to the number of Palestinian refugees who would be allowed to return inside the Green Line. All of these proposals represent concessions moving away from the guarantees of international law and resolutions. The majority of Palestinians, I believe, would support a Palestinian state created along these parameters.

Israel thus has an unprecedented opportunity to strike a deal for a viable two-state solution. If Israel misses this opportunity, the alternatives are sobering: the perpetuation and intensification of an apartheid regime in the occupied territories; the eventual strengthening of Israeli voices such as Rehavam Zeevi's calling for transfer; or the eventual creation of a secular, binational state in all of Mandate Palestine, something which would require a dramatic revision of Israel's self-understanding as a Zionist state.

The "peace' process has, as noted above, created an apartheid reality in the occupied territories; any Palestinian "state" which would arise out of the Oslo process would be a South African-style bantustan. Barak was elected prime minister under a slogan of separation: "us here, them there." With Israel wanting to retain most of its illegal settlements in the occupied territories, this slogan of separation is the slogan of an apartheid regime in which Palestinians are confined to designated reservations which they can be free to call a "state."

The signs of the bantustanization of Palestine are numerous:

  • Barak and Sharon's governments have been active on the settlement front. Today there are 194 settlements with 400,000 settlers in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, all of them illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention to which Israel is a signatory.

  • Israel is dismembering the West Bank with a network of "bypass roads" that connect and further fortify the settlements. In late September of 2002, Israel declared a 20km-long swath of land in the West Bank a closed military zone, preventing all Palestinians from entering save those who live on or farm the land there—this amounted to a de facto annexation of West Bank land.

  • Even as settlement continues at a vigorous pace, Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem and Area C (area under full Israeli control), constructed "illegally" because the Israeli military authorities would not issue building permits, are demolished. Israel's insistence that it will not share sovereignty over Jerusalem most likely means a continuation of Israeli siege of Jerusalem, which prevents most Palestinians from entering their capital.

Clear-headed observers on the Israeli side have seen what Palestinians experience daily—namely, that the Oslo "peace" is apartheid. In early September a group of veteran Jewish peace activists gathered for a conference entitled, "Israel Over Palestine: Are We Headed for Apartheid?" Their conclusion: "The establishment of a Palestinian state truncated by a massive system of by-pass roads, encircled by Israeli settlement blocs, subject to closures and restrictions on freedom of movement and commerce, with no control of its borders or natural resources, will only create a reality of apartheid; a Palestinian state as a bantustan."

What of optimism of action? Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions strikes a surprisingly hopeful note: "Although I fear for the loss of life looming before us," he writes, "I take hope that the uprising on both sides of the 'Green Line' will in the end give birth to new possibilities for a just and viable peace between Israel and the emerging Palestinian State."

Two clear alternatives to the Oslo framework exist:

  1. Return the Palestinian/Israeli question back to the framework of international law and resolutions, a framework set aside by Oslo: a two-state solution will only be just and viable if it is grounded in international law concerning the illegality of settlements in occupied territory and in international resolutions calling for withdrawal from all occupied territory in exchange for peace. In mid-November of 2000, a group of 120 Palestinian intellectuals sought to keep hope for such a solution alive, appealing to the Israeli public to begin a new peace process, this time based on international legitimacy. "The hoped for co-existence between our two peoples can only become possible if a reconstructed peace settlement is equitable," the signatories wrote. "This requires moral recognition of the historic injustice visited upon Palestinians. The land is destined to be the home of our two peoples. The need for a solution based on mutual respect and accommodation is dictated not only by the search for security and stability, but also by the quest for freedom and prosperity of future generations." This past September, a group of over 600 Palestinians and Israelis issued a joint call for an international protection force in the occupied territories. We "view with grave concern the unbearable and inhuman situation imposed on the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza," they wrote. "Such a situation has been brought about by the repression, blockades and daily humiliation exercised by the military occupation and by the daily harassment that settlers inflict on the Palestinian population." They continued by calling for "the immediate provision of an international protection force to protect the Palestinian people in its struggle for the exercise of its right to self-determination and freedom, and to put an end to the military occupation of its land."

  2. Permit the eventual emergence of a bi-national state in all of Palestine/Israel. If a two-state solution, based firmly on international resolutions and law, is not implemented soon, then this is the only other alternative, apart from the horrific ones of perpetual apartheid, transfer, or genocide. Some, like Edward Said, believe that the settlement enterprise has progressed so far that no viable two- state solution is possible. Perhaps he's right. Even if he isn't, it's certainly the case that the clock is running out for Israel to grab the opportunity, perhaps its final opportunity, to strike a two-state deal with a Palestinian leadership still willing to negotiate. Israelis are fond of saying that Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. In this case, however, it's the Israelis who are in real danger of missing an opportunity.

For over fifty years, Mennonite workers in Palestine have affirmed with the prophet Isaiah that justice is the foundation of peace and reconciliation (Isaiah 32:16-17). The implementation of existing UN resolutions on the withdrawal from the occupied territories in exchange for peace and the right of return for Palestinian refugees, along with an equitable sharing of Jerusalem, could form the just basis on which a peace of reconciliation might be built; unfortunately, the tendency of the Oslo negotiations has been to operate outside of the framework of international law and resolutions, leaving the weaker, Palestinian party at Israel's mercy at the negotiating table.

The current violence is clear proof of the inherent instability of a peace of coercion. There are Israeli groups and individuals who understand that Oslo's peace of coercion and pacification was severely flawed and needs to be replaced by a peace process based on ending the occupation for good. These are the voices for true coexistence: Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights and Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions sitting down in front of bulldozers; Neta Golan providing a one-woman international protection force in the West Bank; Amira Hass and Gideon Levy of Ha'aretz newspaper documenting and protesting against Israeli actions in the occupied territories; Meron Benvenisti and Uri Avnery decrying an encroaching Israeli apartheid.

Coexistence is not, as the Peres Center for Peace would have it, about promoting joint economic ventures while the Israeli matrix of control in the occupied territories remains in place. Rather, it is about Israelis joining with Palestinians in a struggle for justice and peace. There can be tangible results to the efforts of these courageous Israeli peacebuilders: this September, the eviction of Palestinian farmers from their cave dwellings in the Hebron foothills was halted (one hopes not only temporarily) thanks to the passionate advocacy and intervention of Israeli groups. May we do what we can to support these courageous Israeli peacebuilders as they join with dispossessed Palestinians in a struggle for a just, sustainable peace. Thank you.

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