Published on Monday, October 9, 2000 by the Independent / UK
Humiliation Of Palestinians Triggers Rush To War
by Phil Reeves in Jerusalem
What on earth went wrong? Were we not being told less than three months ago that Israel and the Palestinians were closer to a deal than they had ever been? Were we not being cheerfully reassured that an historic watershed had occurred at the Camp David summit and that – though it ended without an agreement – things would never be the same again?

And yet the descent into violence in the Middle East has been swift and terrifying. It has happened, above all, because the parties involved, including Yasser Arafat, for too long underestimated the rage and frustration that had built up among the Palestinians. Even now, the Israelis are continuing to make the same mistake by insisting Mr Arafat has only to snap his fingers to stop it all.

The truth is that most Palestinians long ago abandoned any faith in the Oslo peace process. They judged it on the basis of what they actually saw – not what was said by the US State Department and Israeli spinmeisters.

They saw that Israeli security officials still barred Palestinians from moving freely between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – despite the wildly over-hyped opening of a "safe passage" through Israel a year ago. They saw that Israeli bulldozers carried on knocking down Arab houses and clearing Arab land to make bypasses for Jewish settlers.

They saw their workers trooped through the cattle pens at Gaza's border with Israel to work for a pittance in menial jobs – victims of Israel's economic throttle-hold, which far overshadowed recent signs that the Palestinian economy was picking up. They saw the Israelis crank up the demographic war against the Arab world by opening their doors to almost one million arrivals from the Soviet Union over a decade – many of them not Jewish. And, in particular, they saw Ehud Barak building on occupied land at a faster pace than his hard-line predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, making a mockery of the pretence that the Oslo negotiations were founded on UN Security Council Resolution 242.

Mr Barak's aides marketed him skilfully to the world as a peace-maker. It is perfectly true that he was willing to discuss the division of Jerusalem and it is true that this took some courage – not least because it wiped out any prospect of rebuilding his collapsed coalition government.

It is also true that overall, Israel softened its conduct in certain areas – for example, by announcing the end of the grotesque practice of revoking residency permits of Arabs in east Jerusalem in an effort to reduce their numbers, and – at least, officially – ending the use of torture by the security services.

But these moves are seen by ordinary Palestinians as nothing more than their rights. Nor was it enough. The whole peace process continued to be blighted by a fundamental lack of good will, and a strong suspicion that ultimately Mr Barakbelieved that peace was a matter of bamboozling Mr Arafat into compliance.

Complacency also afflicted the Palestinian leadership – Mr Arafat and his officials, or the "Oslo class" as Palestinians on the street sneeringly began to call them. They were seen as a world apart, glossy courtiers jetting from one international capital to another while those confined within the Palestinian Authority's disjointed scraps of territory were left to fester.

Mr Arafat's tactic of securing loyalty by handing out business contracts had sown the roots of corruption. As one monstrous mansion after another appeared on the skyline of the otherwise squalid,broken-down landscape of Gaza, the public's cynicism and sullenness deepened. But the world looked the other way. A close associate of Mr Arafat told The Independent last week: "They mistook silence for acquiescence, and not the eye of the storm, and today we are seeing the beginning of the storm." He could not have put it better.

Yet the signs were there – although they were ignored by the leadership on both sides, and also by the Americans, keen to score a foreign policy triumph before President Bill Clinton left office. Last November, for instance, 20 prominent Palestinians signed a blistering petition accusing Mr Arafat of being responsible for corruption in the Palestinian Authority, and expressing deep disillusion with the Oslo process. Mr Arafat's response was to arrest half the signatories.

Throughout, the Americans soldiered on, believing – not least for domestic political reasons – that getting a deal was more important than attending to the danger signals. They underestimated the level of emotion among the Palestinians so badly that Mr Clinton felt able to blame Mr Arafat for the failure of the Camp David talks, despite the latter's apparent willingness to make concessions over such fundamental issues as Jewish settlement on the West Bank.

America's credibility as mediator had long been questioned by Palestinians, and with reason. "The Palestinians always complain that we know the details of every proposal from the Americans before they do," one Israeli government source told The Independent recently. "There's a good reason for that; we write them."

It is ironic, sad even, that Mr Barak's one notable achievement in office, the withdrawal of Israeli troops from south Lebanon, also fuelled the fires destroying his one main goal – that of securing a Middle East peace deal on Israeli terms. The Palestinians, like the rest of the Arab world, saw the pull-out as a victory for the Hizbollah guerrillas that had fought Israel's 22-year occupation for so long. Those now fighting in the streets considered it to be inspiring proof that violence, albeit by a far weaker side, faced with overwhelming military force, can achieve results.

2000 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.