Just weeks ago President Clinton was negotiating a ‘final status’ peace
agreement in the Israelis and Palestinians. What seemed like a sudden deterioration
in the region belies the deeper frustrations with the peace process which
had been mounting for some time.
For his purposes, Ariel Sharon timed his move perfectly. Meant to derail
any further negotiations over the issue of Jerusalem, Sharon’s visit to
al-Haram al- Sharif took place at the most sensitive moment in the talks.
Sharon also guaranteed an angry reaction from the Palestinians by provoking
them on the anniversary of the event for which he is most despised—the
massacre of upwards of 2,000 civilians at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee
camps during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Finally, in a show of
force within the Likud party, Sharon took his high-profile tour the day
his chief potential rival for party leadership, Benjamin Netanyahu, returned
after being exonerated of corruption allegations.
Strictly speaking, it was Sharon’s right to make such a visit. But all
rights come with inherent responsibilities. You should be held accountable
for the foreseeable consequences of your actions.
Israeli officials claim that the Palestinian Authority orchestrated the
clashes, claiming that there is no such thing as a spontaneous uprising.
Though perhaps flattered by the accusation, Arafat would be the first to
admit that he does not hold such sway on the streets. The rioting had been
spearheaded primarily by sectors with which Arafat holds the least influence—youths,
students and Islamists who see the Oslo process as a road to permanent
subjugation. At best, Arafat could hope to slow or redirect an uprising
which stems from the growing sense of hopelessness and disenfranchisement
The man who could have prevented the bloodshed is Ehud Barak. In dozens
of previous cases the Israeli government has prevented Knesset members
from visiting East Jerusalem at politically volatile moments. But despite
the urgings of members of his own party, Barak refused to postpone Sharon’s
visit, hoping to safeguard his already crumbling coalition government from
a potential right-wing backlash. Instead, he ended up with a country on
the verge of war.
Nor is it shocking that armed Palestinian police have begun entering the
fray. The real surprise is that more of the 40,000 strong Palestinian security
forces did not react sooner. If not unjust, it’s at least unrealistic to
expect them to stand idly by as immediate relatives, mostly teenagers armed
only with stones, are mowed down by machine-gun mounted helicopters and
It’s especially unfair to expect such restraint from a people who have
waited for years to express a right of self-determination well established
in international law and recognized by virtually the entire world. Palestinian
frustration was running particularly high as it was just two weeks ago
that Arafat yet again acquiesced to Israeli and American demands to postpone
the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state. Sharon’s recent escapade
comes as a cruel reward for such patience.
Stability in the region hangs in the balance. To restore calm Palestinians
will need reason to believe in the peace process and for this the U.S.
will have to show a willingness to pressure Israel. Such prospects do not
look good thus far as the U.S. has only blocked UN Security Council resolutions
condemning the killing of Palestinians, instead putting forward drafts
which do not even mention Israel by name.
The necessary first step to put negotiations back on track will be for
Israel to halt its overwhelming use of force and to open an international
investigation into the killings. What incentive would Palestinians have
to return to the bargaining table, if the Israeli government refuses even
to take an honest look at its recent actions.
If the Oslo process is reinstated, it will again pivot on the three key
issues: borders Jerusalem, and the return of Palestinian refugees. But
beneath these issues lies the more fundamental concern of whether peace,
once established, can possibly last unless the incipient state is built
on firmer foundation.
If all sides were suddenly to sign for peace under current conditions,
the unified state of Palestine would most likely consist of two blocs of
land—Gaza and the West Bank—25 miles apart. All control over electricity,
gas and the most prized resource in the region, water, would ultimately
reside with Israel. Over half the economy and the bulk of Palestinian jobs
would be based in Israel. The national airports would be manned by Israeli
personnel with the right to run computer checks on all persons entering
and leaving the country. Domestic ports would be in Israeli territory.
Palestinian passports could not be issued without Israel’s say-so. Even
the design of Palestinian postage stamps would be subject to Israel’s veto,
which Israel has already exercised repeatedly. This is not the model of
a sovereign state, but a state which could be shut down at the flip of
a switch. It’s also a model for future conflict.
One of the most troubling issues will be freedom of movement. With independence,
Palestinians expected at least to be able to travel without interference
in their own territory. But “facts on the ground” will stand in the way.
While Arafat, Barak and Clinton recently negotiated into the late hours,
Israeli road crews pulled round-the-clock shifts extending the network
of bypass highways in the West Bank. These multi-lane freeways, which connect
Israeli settlements to each other and to Israel proper span at least 50
meters across and are enclosed on both sides by high chain-link fences.
The roads currently criss-cross the entirety of the West Bank and will
remain under Israeli control after a Palestinian state is declared. In
theory, these roads should increase not obstruct the circulation of people
and goods. In practice, they function as a series of barriers to Palestinian
passage. Closed to Palestinian traffic, the roads are legally crossed only
through tightly guarded Israeli checkpoints.
The problem of the road system will only worsen as the number of Israeli
settlements continues to grow. Over the last nine months, Barak has ordered
the construction of more new settlements than Benjamin Netanyahu did in
three years. While returning 94 percent of Gaza and the West Bank to the
Palestinians certainly sounds generous, it comes as a patch-work which
will not hold together. If there was any lesson learned from the Intifada,
it’s that nothing sows popular frustration faster than having to ask for
outside permission every time a person wishes to visit a relative or friend
in an adjacent neighborhood in their own nation.
A simple signature from Arafat will not calm the streets. Likewise, a territorial
transfer agreement along the lines currently on the table will not create
a viable Palestinian state. For the past several months, Arafat’s approval
ratings have been plummeting—not, as is often claimed, due to a fanatical
fringe bent on igniting popular impatience, but among working and middle-class
Palestinian families who are beginning to view their much-heralded new
nation as little more than a glamorized bantustan. No one wants peace more
than those who experience on a daily basis the violence and indignity of
occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. But before we again set high hopes
on the Oslo process, it’s worth remembering that a peace without justice
will not last. Until certain fundamental issues are addressed, diplomacy
in the Middle East will remain the myth of Sisyphus. Z
Ian Urbina is a policy analyst for Middle East Research and Information
Project (MERIP) in Washington, DC.