RAMALLAH, West Bank -- First there was a small explosive sound, then a terrible piercing whistle that I could feel in my hair and skin. Then a huge explosion as an Israeli missile toppled the Voice of Palestine transmission tower about 300 yards from where I was talking with a friend. Terrified, we ran inside and turned on CNN--where, a little later on Thursday, we saw that Madeleine Albright was calling on Yasser Arafat to get Palestinians to drop their rocks. We stared at the TV in disbelief.
I have followed American media coverage of the events in Palestine; I have seen many of the same television reports as you. And I can imagine that the American people are wondering why my fellow Palestinians have resorted so abruptly to violence. Why are they abandoning a peace process that seemed like their only hope, and engaging in a self-destructive confrontation with a much stronger force? Why choose to do so now, when Israel has a prime minister willing to go "so far," as the news reports say, toward compromise? Have all the Palestinians gone mad?
By the same token, we are bewildered by the American view of the conflict. How can America portray Palestinians and Israelis as equals in violent confrontations? How can they ignore that there is an oppressor and an oppressed, an occupying power and a people under occupation? Secretary of State Albright's distress over the two Israeli soldiers killed by an angry Ramallah crowd sounded bitterly ironic to Palestinians, who heard no such remorse over the deaths of some 100 Palestinians. Do their lives mean so much less than Israeli lives to the rest of the world?
At this terrible moment, the gap in understanding seems almost beyond bridging. But in order to try, I ask you to look through Palestinian eyes at how the peace process has evolved.
When the Oslo accords were signed in 1993 after six years of the intifada--the popular uprising against Israeli occupation--Palestinians believed that a whole world of opportunity was opening. Confiscation of lands to build Jewish settlements was going to stop, we believed. We would have the right to choose our own destiny; we were going to have our own state with East Jerusalem as its capital; and a just solution would be found for the millions of Palestinian refugees who had been forcibly scattered around the world. Finally, justice would be done.
To us, these phrases were not abstract rhetoric. They were real issues that influenced all aspects of our lives. We needed all our land to accommodate our growing population. We longed to be free of comprehensive and humiliating Israeli control over our economy, our schools, our daily movements. We wanted the thousands of families who were disinherited 50 years ago by the creation of Israel to have the right to live as citizens in the land of their ancestors. We wanted compensation for what a half-century in refugee camps has done to their lives. And we wanted East Jerusalem because it is the heart and soul of our religion, our economy, our culture and our identity.
But most important, after our long struggle for freedom, we wanted peace. We wanted to have normal lives.
I used to drive from Bethlehem every morning to work in Ramallah. I would stop and get coffee, and Israeli soldiers would hold me up for half an hour at the coffee shop for an identity check. Every day they were the same soldiers, and every day I was the same person. What I and millions of Palestinians wanted was a life free of that kind of humiliation. We wanted to be able to go to downtown Ramallah for dinner and walk back home without harassment. We wanted never again to dodge rubber (or real) bullets, or put an onion under our noses to ward off tear gas. We wanted to teach our children how to enjoy life, not how to stay alive.
In the hope that those dreams would eventually come true, we were ready to give up our claims to historical Palestine. We were even ready to wait more than five years, until the target date of May 1999, for the so-called final status negotiations to yield these results.
Instead, what has happened is this: Israel has avoided implementing interim agreements; settlement activities and confiscation of lands have doubled if not tripled; the peace process has turned into a never-ending, never-yielding quagmire, making no significant improvements in our lives. We still have to submit to Israeli rules to move between cities, to travel abroad, to export or import goods, even to try to teach our children their history.
Through all these years, the U.S. government has been completely biased in favor of the Israeli interpretation of the agreements. And despite our desire for more independent mediators from France or the European Union, the Americans have monopolized the sponsorship of negotiations.
Even more damaging has been the U.S. attempt to neutralize the frame of reference for the peace process. By that I mean the series of U.N. and Security Council resolutions, adopted over the past 33 years, declaring that Palestinians have the right to return to their country, that they deserve compensation for what happened to them, and that Israel should withdraw to the land within its 1967 boundaries--which did not include East Jerusalem. These resolutions provide international legitimacy for the Palestinian cause, and we believe they must be adhered to. We were reassured by precedents set in Iraq and Kosovo, when the United States refused to compromise on the U.N. terms demanded of Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic. But it seems that when Israel wants to flout international accords, Americans do nothing but agree.
Neutralizing that frame of international legitimacy reduced the Palestinian cause from one of the great tragedies of the 20th century to a mere border dispute. The way the Oslo process has been carried out, the Israelis are portrayed as generously giving away land--instead of withdrawing from occupied territories in accord with U.N. resolutions.
Despite their disappointment, Palestinians were willing to wait and to give peace a chance. For years we told ourselves that what happened in these interim negotiations would not really count--surely the final status talks would be based on international legitimacy.
The emergency Camp David summit called in July by President Clinton was what finally disillusioned us. What the Western media were describing as broad concessions by the Israeli prime minister were far short of Palestinian expectations--and, most important, far short of what the U.N. resolutions demanded. The final proposal at Camp David would have given us a helpless and disconnected state, scattered across less than half the territory we believe should be ours. It offered nothing to Palestinian refugees and continued to postpone the issue of Jerusalem--giving Israel time to change the demographics and nature of the whole city.
Still the Palestinian leadership urged people to remain calm. Arafat agreed to postpone the declaration of an independent state. Palestinians decided to wait until after the U.S. elections to see if there would be any change in the American position. But the Israelis, as usual, decided that what they cannot force the Palestinians to accept in negotiations they can force them to accept on the ground.
It is in this context that Ariel Sharon's visit to al-Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary, must be seen. The visit sent a two-fold message to Palestinians. First it was a humiliating show of force and disrespect to our national and religious aspirations, because we consider Sharon to be a war criminal responsible for killing hundreds of innocent Palestinians in Lebanese refugee camps in 1982. (That conviction is shared by millions around the world, including hundreds of thousands of Israelis.) Second, it was a political message to Palestinians: Do not dream about Jerusalem.
Even so, it was not Sharon's provocation that started all this violence. It was the brutal reaction of Israeli police to the Palestinians who protested it. This response delivered another message to Palestinians: We can do whatever we want; you cannot even protest.
It is at that point, I believe, that the Palestinian people decided that they wanted out of this peace process. They want a new process, or at least to bring more balance to this one by involving more nations than Israel and the United States. They want a process in which international legitimacy is respected and adhered to. A process that protects and respects their lives.
I do not believe that Yasser Arafat ordered or in any way set off the Palestinians' spontaneous outburst of rage. I do believe that, if he chooses, he has the ability to halt it. But America and Israel have driven him into a corner. When the United States demands that Arafat condemn Palestinians' violence and order them to stop, it gives him nothing in return--not even acceding to the simple and just request to establish an international committee to investigate the current conflict. What America is really asking is that he stop being the leader of the Palestinian people. For if he calls for an end to the protests, he will lose finally and forever his people's respect and support. And anyone who replaces him is likely to be even more fundamentalist and more extremist than Arafat has ever been.
The empty streets of Ramallah, the empty schools, the unfulfilled promises of picnics we make to our children, and their unanswered questions all suggest that it is time for Palestinians to give their warriors a long overdue rest. But Israel's actions have taught us that it does not respond to anything but violence. So it appears we have to wait a few more days, months or maybe years; we have to wait until other nations join the process, or until Israel realizes that in order to achieve peace and security it needs a solution even more than we do. We must wait until a solution that can last--one that can promise our children a better future--becomes possible.