We find ourselves in familiar territory reminiscent of the failed Oslo Peace Accords of over 10 years ago. High hopes and great expectations abound amidst a new atmosphere of peace talks, promising once again to finally break through the deadlock of Palestinian-Israeli violence.
What are we to make of this new air of optimism in the wake of the cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians? America's provision of $350 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority, and its support of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, are to be applauded. Abbas' own flexibility over the location of returning refugees is promising. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's determination -- in defiance of his cabinet - to dismantle settlements and withdraw from Gaza is a welcome development. Even Palestinian factions have agreed to the temporary tahadiyeh (lull). Though the withdrawal from West Bank towns has been slow, limited control of Tulkarm and Jericho has been granted. But peace will not endure without a final end to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Summarized in the words of Mitchell Plitnick, Director of Education and Policy, Jewish Voice for Peace, "It's wonderful that both sides have pledged to stop bombings and shootings. But as long as other forms of violence continue, the cease-fire will be short-lived. The occupation, with its home demolitions, checkpoints and daily harassments, and a wall slicing through the West Bank disrupting daily Palestinian life, is itself a constant and massive act of violence."
Talk of settlement withdrawal echoes hollow while new settlements continue to be built (a throwback to Oslo). According to the Israeli press, further land expropriations amount to more than 10,000 dunams (some 2,700 acres) from villages south of Mount Hebron for building the separation fence, and more than 6,400 housing units for settlements in the area. Israel has announced ambitious building plans for Maaleh Edumim, a settlement east of Jerusalem, which would actually cut off Arab Jerusalem from the rest of Palestine. Further outrage erupted when Jewish investors recently bought up a part of the old city from the Greek Orthodox Church. If action does not match the peace rhetoric, if settlement building does not cease, if illegal outposts are not evacuated and home demolitions are not halted, the peace process will fail. If Palestinians are not given their own state, if they cannot share the holy city of Jerusalem with Israel, and if the Palestinian refugee crisis is not justly resolved in line with international law, with consideration for a limited right to return or alternate adequate compensation, then we will again revert to bombs, tanks and missiles.
Israel and America - one, the powerhouse of the Middle East, and the other, the global super-power supporting Israel both militarily and financially - are obligated to take the initiative in this process. The Palestinian National Authority (PNA), Arab states and international community should be encouraged to take part in a collective effort. The American government needs to stay the course and hold both sides accountable; supporting both sides, it could take a pro Israeli/pro Palestinian posture, asking for more from their respective leaders and helping each side change their national goals and aspirations. According to recent polls the expulsion of Palestinians and the annihilation of Israelis are ideas that still prevail on both sides. The US needs to push Israel to cease construction of the wall, and begin dismantling it, and use this as an incentive to the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) to take more responsibility for its own security. Israel further needs to release the hundreds of prisoners held on dubious charges, in addition to those recently released. Withdrawal should not stop at Gaza. Gaza - which belonged to the Philistines, not Israelites - does not hold the biblical significance of the historic heartland - the West Bank - for the settlers. The international community needs to ensure that the Gaza withdrawal is replicated on the West Bank, resulting in the complete and final end of the Israeli occupation of the territories.
Israel's human rights abuses, war crimes and crimes against humanity - repeatedly condemned by the international community - remain an obstacle to peace. Any self-respecting democracy cannot justify such abuses - yet Israel continues to ignore UN resolutions, seemingly without consequence or accountability to the global community. The failure of other Arab nations to cooperate is no justification for the ongoing abuses. Likewise, the PNA needs to take responsibility for terrorism, disarm its factions, and stop relying on the IDF to infiltrate suicide bombings. While Abbas speaks of stamping out resistance, he at the same time talks of integrating Hamas - a militant group (notwithstanding its formidable social support network that ought be the envy of the PNA and PLO) that still has a charter reeking of intolerance maintaining that all of Palestine is a holy waqf (holy endowment) given to Muslims by Allah. Though on a positive note Hamas has decided to join the PLO and take part in the PLC elections, its charter remains the same.
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The Oslo Accord allowed for some Palestinian autonomy, but under the auspices of Israel, it gave the Palestinians no negotiating leverage. This semi-autonomy was not much more than an attempt to pacify the Palestinians with the illusion of self-rule. And at Camp David, Israeli Prime Minister Barak refused to even outline the land he was talking about giving back. Ironically, with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, even the more radical countries of the Middle East are more inclined to support Israel, the new superpower of the region, however, regional Arabs cannot ignore overwhelming public opinion concerning their Muslim and Christian brothers and sisters -- the refugees.
As a secular and oppressive nation at odds with her own religious mandate "to aid the strangers in her midst", Israel is a house divided. "The occupation and its disguise as a temporary interlude cause culture and morality in Israel to be constructed on the basis of a moral double standard that approaches the schizophrenic. The declared moral pre-eminence of the nation stands against its actual and plainly apparent lack of morality resulting from the oppression of the Palestinian people" writes Hannan Hever in his article Israeli Fiction and the Occupation. Increasing numbers of Israelis, no longer content to blame the victim or to play the victim card themselves, are now prepared to compromise for peace. Setting aside the memory of the holocaust, pogroms and the Diaspora, some 400 Israeli soldiers staged a demonstration questioning their role in the occupied territories. A growing number of Israeli soldiers themselves are questioning the need for this occupation. No longer convinced that this is a matter of defense, they are refusing to serve. Israel's violation of U.N. Security Council Resolutions and General Assembly resolutions over the past decades - such as the U.N. resolution 194 (Palestinian refugees' right of return) and resolution 242 (land for peace formula) - can no longer be ignored. The IMF or the World Bank, the U.N. and the international community have repeatedly condemned the actions of Israel. But she somehow continues to violate international law without penalty. The PLO under the late Yasser Arafat failed as a negotiator, and failed to hold the terrorists in check; uncompromising Palestinian radicals are sure to be around for some time, but by maintaining a military presence in the territories and refusing to freeze its settlement construction, Israel is placing the entire world in peril.
Considering the perennial suspicions of both sides - to some Israelis the suicide bombings only confirm that some Palestinians want to 'drive them into the sea' and refuse to recognize Israel. For some Palestinians, desperate Israeli responses prove the authorities have no intention of giving up an inch of land. Both assumptions result in more Arab martyrs and Israeli military retaliation. A dispensational biblical hermeneutic over the past several decades has led many right-wing fundamentalist Christians to give uncritical support for present day Israel despite her many international violations. Combine this with growing numbers of zealous religious Zionists and increasing numbers of radical Islamists and we find that there exist uncompromising religious extremists on every side who continue to stymie the peace effort. The fact is that there will always be extremists, and security will need to be maintained on both sides - but that need not prevent the pursuit of a peaceful resolution to a two-state solution.
Certain right-wing religious pundits are driven by a particular prophetic belief that Arabs and Jews cannot live together in peace. History belies this. In British and Ottoman Palestine, Arabs and Jews lived and worked in close proximity in a thriving society and growing economy with a large citrus produce export industry, among others. In European Trade with Palestine scholar Alexander Schloch notes that the Jaffa orange crop of 1873 yielded 33 million in number. For this to occur there had to be fertile cultivated land and a significant stable population, as citrus groves required meticulous maintenance and considerable labor. Another prevailing myth about Palestine at the turn of the 20th century is that it was not only uncultivated, but unpopulated. The 1922 British census recorded a population of 660,000 Arabs, as compared to 83,000 Jews. The absorption of Palestinians into the State of Israel after the 1967 take over led to an economic boom as Palestinian cheap labor and abundant Israeli produce were shared; Jewish colonization aside, Israelis and Palestinians grew accustomed once again to working together which muted the crisis at hand. That is until the first Intifada of 1987 -- the inevitable outcome of the disparity in the power balance between the Israeli military might and unarmed Palestinians. This was the beginning of the end of the first peace camp. Excessive military force against the Palestinians became routine and ever more legitimized in the eyes of the Israeli state under the guise of self-defense. Meanwhile the military systematically destroyed the Palestinian infrastructure and pubic institutions, and carried out raids and assassinations beyond the boundaries of international law.
The combined effect of British political double-dealing, Jewish immigration and land purchase in the wake of the holocaust, subsequent Arab riots and the eventual outbreak of war in 1948 followed by three subsequent wars birthed the current Arab/Jewish conflict. As a result of the 1948 Exodus or Nakba (disaster) some 700,000 Palestinians either fled or were wrongfully expelled from their homes and remain refugees to this day. Many live in the humiliation of exile under occupation. Here lies the root cause of the conflict.
The 'right of return' grants any Jew automatic Israeli citizenship, while Arabs are denied the right to return to their original homes. How much longer can the world ignore a displaced, disenfranchised and demoralized people who have been dispossessed for 60 years, occupied for four decades years, and whose desperation continues to threaten regional and global security? Mutual recognition, tolerance, understanding and compromise are essential to any peace process. Whatever our political, spiritual or ideological leanings, without recognizing and resolving the injustices continually inflicted upon the Palestinians, peace will elude us once again and the world shall reap further devastating consequences, as the cause for Palestinian freedom reaches farther ashore.