CHAPEL HILL -- News coverage of last week's Israeli election inaccurately reframed the players and repositioned the issues. Ehud Barak is presented as a peacemaker whose concessions were spurned by the Palestinians; Palestinian violence led the Israelis to turn their collective back on the peace process and embrace the hard-line Ariel Sharon as prime minister. This narrative is misleading on all counts.
The Oslo Accords, signed in 1993, claimed to be a new beginning, an agreement by which Israel and the Palestinians would gradually resolve the outstanding issues. Israel would withdraw from territory occupied in 1967 in return for peace. But the accords were realized only partially, and the post-Oslo period has been devastating for Palestinians.
By the beginning of September 2000, when the Palestinians began their new uprising, Israel had withdrawn from only 18 percent of the West Bank and Gaza. Israel's Peace Now movement claims that, in the years since Oslo was signed, housing construction in the occupied territories increased by 52 percent, the number of Israeli settlers in occupied territories increased by 53 percent, and 740 Palestinian homes have been demolished. The Israelis imposed complete closure on the occupied territories for more than 300 days during those "peace process" years, closures that inflicted billions of dollars of losses on Palestinians.
What Palestinians saw during the "peace process" was the loss of land and a plummeting standard of living.
International law does not permit the acquisition of territory by force. Occupied people must be respected, their property protected. Richard Falk, a widely respected scholar of international law, points out that "As long as Israel maintains its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, it is bound to respect the fundamental human rights of the Palestinian people under the Fourth Geneva Convention."
Israeli writer Uri Avnery sums up the Israeli peace movement's view of Barak: "While speaking about peace, he enlarged the settlements. Cut the Palestinian territories into pieces with 'bypass' roads. Confiscated lands. Demolished homes. Uprooted trees. Paralyzed the Palestinian economy. Did not do a thing to put an end to the daily harassment of Palestinian civilians at the hundreds of army roadblocks all over the territories. Caused a huge accumulation of rage in the hearts of the Palestinians. Conducted negotiations in which he tried to dictate to the Palestinians a peace that amounts to capitulation."
Palestinians began a new uprising NOT because they wanted to reject peace but because the Israeli occupation has gone on for decades, and under Barak things seemed to be getting worse. Since Barak took office in July 1999, for example, construction began on 2,270 new housing units in the occupied territories.
As of late last week, "peacemaker" Barak's army had killed 351 and wounded 11,195 Palestinians. Many of them are children. (50 Israelis have died, and 610 have been injured over the same period.) During the present uprising, Israel has attacked medical personnel, killed civilians by shooting into their homes, and relied on live ammunition for crowd control.
Barak claimed that massive force was necessary because stone-throwers threatened Israel's very existence. But stones thrown in occupied territories cannot reach Tel Aviv. If the occupying armies were not in those cities, Israelis would not be threatened.
International agencies, from Amnesty International to Doctors without Borders, have condemned the severity of Israel's actions. American allies throughout the world have called on Israel to abide by its international obligations to its occupied population and stop the violence. Israeli opposition forces have demanded that the Barak government stop killing Palestinians. Only in the United States do we get an undiluted Israeli version of events, a narrative that makes the victims responsible for their own deaths.
Fewer Israelis than ever went to the polls. Israeli Arabs, who had voted overwhelmingly for Barak in the last elections, were appalled by his violent efforts to put down the new uprising. The Israeli peace movement saw no one for whom to vote. Huge demonstrations by Israelis opposed to Sharon have taken place in the past few weeks. With no peace-oriented candidates, Israelis in record numbers stayed home or voted with blank ballots.
Nonetheless, those who voted elected a man widely recognized as a war criminal. Sharon is responsible for the massacre in the Jordanian town of Qibya in 1953, the start of a bloody career. The Israeli Supreme Court held him indirectly responsible for the massacres of nearly 2,000 Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla in 1982, and insisted that he give up his Cabinet portfolio. His political rehabilitation has been slow, but he has now achieved his dream.
The likeliest positive outcome of this election will be the ending of the Oslo "peace process." Israelis and Palestinians must now return to U.N. resolutions to create peace. Those resolutions demand the end to occupation and the right for displaced Palestinians to return.
Americans do have a role to play. The United States provides billions of dollars in aid to Israel each year. Israelis advocating peace have long claimed that the U.S. policy of unconditional support for Israel makes their work much harder. They point out that extremist Israeli groups promoting new settlements and the annexation of occupied territory have until now received U.S. aid despite their flagrant disregard of international law.
The news has missed the story on all counts. Neither Palestinians nor Israelis have rejected peace. Both have rejected the violence that continues today. The only way to end that violence is to return to internationally accepted norms of behavior. We must call on Israel to stop the occupation, and we must call on our own government to stop sending all governments in the region the weapons they use to kill their neighbors and their own populations.
Sarah Shields is an associate professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill who teaches courses in Middle Eastern history and Islamic civilization.
© Copyright 2001, The News & Observer