It’s The Occupation

The War in the Middle East Bill Thomson March 31, 2002

Some 16 months ago I wrote the following:

“As of Friday, October 13, 2000, the death toll in the current Mideast conflict stands at 113, including 92 West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, 14 Palestinian citizens of Israel and 7 Israelis (including 4 soldiers). The ratio of these deaths is consistent with B’Tselem’s (an Israeli human rights organization) report of deaths since the start of the Intifada (uprising) on 12/9/87–1471 Palestinians killed by Israelis; 168 Israelis killed by Palestinians. Atrocities have been committed by each side, as seen in the televised deaths of 12 yr.-old Mohammed Al-Durah, and the murder of Israeli soldiers in Ramallah. According to former Israeli parliamentarian Uri Avnery, Israeli sharpshooters are being used to target the participants in the uprisings, and thus far 24 Palestinian children have been killed and 1134 injured, with 78% of the injuries being to the upper body (especially the eyes), and 21% of the injuries caused by live ammunition. Adam Keller, a spokesperson for the Israeli peace organization Gush Shalom, describes attacks by Jews upon Palestinians in Nazareth as a pogrom, and on Saturday (10/9/00) the UN Security Council unanimously (with US abstention) passed a resolution deploring the ‘excessive use of force’ against Palestinians, as well as the ‘provocation’ (Ariel Sharon’s visit to Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount) that sparked the protests.”

Since that date, two aspects of the situation have changed. Palestinians have committed numerous suicide bombings, and the ratio of the over thousand deaths has changed to three Palestinians killed for each Israeli. Israelis continue to use overwhelming force against a basically unarmed civilian population. As UN Secretary General Kofi Annan put it in a letter to Prime Minister Sharon on March 19, “In this connection, I feel obliged to call your attention to disturbing patterns in the treatment of civilians and humanitarian relief workers by the Israeli Defense Forces …. Judging from the means and methods employed by the IDF – F16 fighter bombers [supplied by the United States-BT], helicopter and naval gunships [supplied by the United States-BT], missiles and bombs of heavy tonnage [also supplied by the United States-BT] – the fighting has come to resemble all-out conventional warfare.”

How are we, as Americans, to interpret such events? Why didn’t the Palestinians accept former Prime Minister Barak’s “generous offer”, which would have given the Palestinians “most of what they wanted”?

Imagine that someone comes to you and makes the following proposal: I am going to let you and your family finally live in your home, relatively undisturbed. Most of the rooms will be yours to do with as you see fit–all I want is one room, the hallways, and control over who goes in and out your front and back door. You may occasionally have to ask my permission to go to the bathroom or into the kitchen to prepare a meal, but I will usually let you pass with only a quick glance. However, remember that anytime I want, I can seal up the hallways and make you go to your room. I understand that you are willing to let me have the rest of the neighborhood. I just need a little bit more to make me feel safe. And I’ll be happy to give you a few acres out by the city dump in exchange for the room in your home.

Would you accept such an offer? If not, what would you counter?

And what about the claim that “we made our adversary a very generous offer”? Maybe it wasn’t perfect, but it was the best they were ever likely to get. And they respond, not with a counter-offer, but with violence. Clearly we have no partner for peace.

What other conclusion can the world make after the unanimous peace offer by the Arab nations at the recent Arab summit was rejected by the Israelis as a “non-starter”? Why the Israeli answer with violence? Where was the counter-offer? Where is the Palestinians’ and the Arab world’s partner for peace?

But what about these suicide bombers? They must be religious fanatics, probably part of the bin Laden network. At least they must be indoctrinated from birth to hate Israelis.

Again, let me answer a question with an offer. This time I’m going to take away your house, send you to the city dump, and let the United Nations build a 15 foot square concrete block house for you and your family to share. Most Mondays and Thursdays you will have running water, but nothing is really guaranteed. If you want contact with water, you will, of course, be able to look out your door at the irrigated lawns and swimming pools of your neighbors on the surrounding hillsides. You can go to school in the camp, but there’s really not much point, since you won’t be able to get a job. Those few of you who persist against all odds and insist on getting an education will be able to attend a university that operates spasmodically, due to curfews and closures. That is, if you can work your way past the scores of roadblocks that exist between your home and the university. You don’t mind getting up at three in the morning and returning home at ten PM in order to attend classes, do you? Oh, and since you can’t find work, you won’t be able to get married, but that’s not really a problem, since the birth rate is too high already.

Want to accept my offer? There’s a short line–no waiting. Or does suicide begin to look like a viable alternative in a situation totally devoid of hope?

What about the official US response? Yesterday, President Bush said that Chairman Arafat needs to do more to stop the violence. I assume that he means by this that Mr. Arafat is supposed to go into the refugee camps, provide food and water, make education available for all, guarantee everybody gainful employment and maybe plant flowers–the scent of the flowers might counteract the odor of raw sewage flowing in the streets. Oh yes, and get rid of the horrendous and humiliating military occupation under which the Palestinian people have been suffering for decades. That’s not too much to ask, is it? OK, so you’re confined to three rooms and surrounded by the fourth most powerful military in the world. We’ll give you a few days, but we want you to be sure and do everything we ask–and don’t forget to do it in Arabic.

Flash to Mr. Bush and Mr. Sharon–IT’S THE OCCUPATION, STUPID.

What then, is to be done in this seemingly intractable situation? Let me conclude with my observations of 16 months ago–which is basically the plan proposed at the recent Arab summit, and the only plan (or minor variant thereof) that can possibly lead to a lasting peace in the area. Blaming Arafat and escalating the violence on both sides will only prolong the death throes of Israeli and Palestinian fear, anger and humiliation.

First and foremost, the national beliefs held by each side need to be fully examined and understood by everyone involved. In a 1998 article, Rumania & Bar-Tel point out that both Israelis and Palestinians both perceive only themselves as historical victims, and both have legitimate claims to the land. Through systematic internal indoctrination, each sees the other as an invader. Palestinians fail to understand the Israeli obsession with security, based on Israeli’s self-perception as an island in an Arab sea, recognizing that to lose a war is tantamount to disappearance as a nation. Israelis’ fail to understand Palestinians’ legitimate claims to the land and need for a viable state, and that Palestinians see themselves as having borne the brunt of an oppressive military occupation for many decades. Both sides assume that through violence they can prevail, without carefully and logically considering the ultimate outcomes of such violence.

A basis for solution already exists, in the form of United Nations Resolution 242 (calling for Israel to withdraw to its 1967 boundaries), reasonable return/compensation for Palestinian refugees, and the application of the Fourth Geneva Accords (protecting civilians in occupied territories). Clearly Jerusalem is a substantial issue, but it is difficult to foresee any sort of permanent peace in which any side is barred from a significant presence in the Old City and absolute access to its holy sites. Both Israeli and Palestinian security must be guaranteed, but the current situation of one overwhelming power, both militarily and economic, and one semi-state with no real territorial integrity or ability to control its destiny, is clearly doomed to failure. For better or worse, these two great peoples are bound together forever, and any fantasies about the desirability of absolute control by either side are a prescription for violence.

Finally, what is the role of America in this process? Unfortunately, our claim to be an “honest broker” in this process is transparently false. One need look no further than our long history of financial and military support of Israel over the last five decades ($92 billion), or the recent declaration of support of Israel by 70 members of the US Senate. Of such actions is not honest-broker ship made. It is long past time for us to retire to the sidelines, and allow this issue to be dealt with by the United Nations, the European Union and other appropriate international bodies. The alternative is more decades of oppression, violence and fear.

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