“The Palestinians understand that this plan is to a large extent the end of their dreams, a very heavy blow to them… In the unilateral plan, there is no Palestinian state.”
These words, uttered by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon just a week before obtaining Washington’s backing for his ‘disengagement’ plan, suggest that there is more to his proposals than the “historic and courageous actions” hailed by George W Bush or the welcome “opportunity” Tony Blair describes it. Incredibly Bush and Blair, in their White House press conference, claimed not to have heard Sharon’s comments – broadcast on the front page of every Israeli newspaper only the previous week. But they cannot claim to be unaware of the reality of the disengagement: the creation of an over-populated prison in the Gaza Strip to mirror the prison being created by the West Bank Wall, where the fear is that the impoverished Palestinian population, their humanitarian aid suspended and the leaders facing coordinated assassination campaigns, will turn to ever more extreme means to resist their desperate situation.
Despite defeat by his own party – who have no more interest in Palestinian welfare than Sharon, but perhaps a less sophisticated way of achieving their ends – Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan pushes on. It will exacerbate poverty in Palestine and in so doing fuel the seemingly endless downward spiral of violence in which almost everyone loses.
The Palestinians are suffering, in the words of the UN Relief and Works Agency, the “effect of a terrible natural disaster”, but one that has been created by people and politics. A manmade catastrophe where a power imbalance, maintained and exaggerated by Western governments lies at the heart of mass impoverishment and dehumanisation of an entire people. Palestine is a microcosm of everything going on in the world today. One Palestinian partner of War on Want wrote that we have an “inner feeling that we are a expendable people”, a feeling replicated by millions across the developing world living in a global system of Apartheid where birthplace and race dictates whether you live with adequate means of survival or in conditions of modern slavery.
‘The biggest prison in the world’
At first glance Sharon’s plan to disengage settlements and military presence from the Gaza Strip and from four settlements in the West Bank appears to be a step towards meeting the requirements laid down by countless UN resolutions: that Israel must unconditionally end its occupation of all lands taken in 1967 (including all of the Gaza Strip and West Bank). It enabled Sharon to claim in Washington that he “came to you from a peace-seeking country”. But you don’t need to scratch too hard at the surface to realise that Sharon’s own comments on disengagement to Israeli newspapers (that it is a “heavy blow” to the Palestinians) is nearer the mark.
What the disengagement plan does is to “get rid of the people, i.e. to create a situation where Israel has minimum responsibility for the people living in Gaza while continuing to control entry, exit, the sea and airspace” as the BADIL Resource Center in Bethlehem puts it. In effect, Israel will maintain control of the Gaza Strip – which will be allowed no foreign policy, international trade, armed forces or government in any meaningful sense, and will be surrounded by Israeli troops, who reserve the right to intervene if ‘security’ dictates. Meanwhile Israel disinvests itself of responsibility for the 1.3 million Palestinians living on the most densely populated piece of land in the world. In these circumstances living standards can only get worse, if that is possible, as Palestinians are left to rot in Gaza, or what President Arafat now terms the “big prison”.
British MP Richard Burden sums up the plan: “The West Bank and Gaza are both illegally occupied by Israel… It is simply not acceptable for Ariel Sharon to dictate to the world which parts he is prepared to quit and which parts he wants to incorporate into Israel”. Bush takes a different view. As a reward for Sharon’s “bold and courageous” action, the US has torn up international law. Apart from violating his own Road Map principles by endorsing a non-negotiated settlement, Bush stated more clearly than any previous US President that Palestinian refugees will not be able to return to the homes they were forced from when Israel was created. This violates the clauses of the Geneva Conventions and UN Resolution 194, and leaves 4 million Palestinian refugees, many in neighbouring countries, angry and hopeless.
More surprising, Bush endorses the retention of many of the illegal West Bank settlements, that is to say continuing Israeli occupation of some Palestinian land in perpetuity. It leaves large chunks of Israeli land inside Palestine and makes a properly functioning Palestinian state impossible, quite apart from flying in the face of all UN resolutions passed on this issue to date. The Israeli government, in the days following Sharon’s trip to Washington, have stated they will invest tens of millions of dollars in the remaining illegal settlements.
Little wonder that earlier this week 52 former British ambassadors and senior diplomats wrote a critical letter to Tony Blair, who appears to have broadly endorsed Sharon’s plan as an “opportunity” towards the Road Map. The letter accuses Blair of “abandoning the principles which for nearly four decades have guided international efforts to restore peace in the Holy Land” by seemingly endorsing Sharon’s “one-sided and illegal” action. It is unprecedented in modern British history for senior civil servants, former or not, to so openly criticise government policy and is a sign of the seriousness of the disengagement plan and the effects it will have on hope for peace.
Richard Burden MP spoke for the fears of many when he said he believed that Bush’s endorsement had “single-handedly boosted the credibility of extremists on both sides and given a new impetus to the cycle of violence”. The very same week as Bush’s endorsement, Israel assassinated Hamas leader Abdul Aziz Al Rantissi, only a month after the assassination of his predecessor Sheik Yassin. Scores of other civilians were killed in Gaza in the weeks following both murders, almost totally unreported, as Israeli forces killing ordinary Palestinians is hardly news. Not only will disengagement do nothing to end the violence, it also risks spreading it right across the Middle East. Little wonder when the international community seems to reward violence so highly.
As a recent War on Want report ‘Poverty in Palestine’ demonstrates, Palestinian impoverishment is centrally caused by the political structures of the occupation. The Israeli government would love us to believe that the situation facing the Middle East is primarily a religious dispute – indeed they are trying to turn it into one. A religious dispute seems foreign to us, intractable even, and there seems little point in getting involved. But the occupation is actually about something far more accessible: an ‘old-fashioned’ struggle for resources and power.
The occupation has systematically impoverished the Palestinian people over 35 years. It gives Israel full control over every aspect of Palestinian life. For example, it allows Israel to control and distribute all water resources in the Palestinian Occupied Territories. So while the average Israeli consumes 350 litres of water per day, the average Palestinian consumes only 50 to 70 litres – well below the World Health Organisation minimum level needed for healthy life (all figures from War on Want’s ‘Poverty in Palestine’). In refugee camps Palestinians sometimes only manage to obtain 19 litres of water per day. And within eye shot of these refugee camps are the gleaming white (and illegal) Israeli settlements to which the Occupied Territory’s water resources are diverted and used for gardens and swimming pools. The Third World meets the First World.
The occupation also serves to negate countless other Palestinian rights. In the Oslo period alone, when Israel was supposedly negotiating to end the occupation, 35,000 acres of Palestinian land was stolen for Israeli settlements. During the first year of the Intifada 500,000 Palestinian fruit trees were uprooted by settlers and soldiers. Palestinian employment is totally dependent on the Israeli system of identity cards, closures, curfews, roadblocks and so on.
This systematic denial of rights forms the essence of the occupation. The Palestinians’ poverty is deeply political. International organisations working in Palestine must realise that, in the words of anti-wall campaigner Victor de Currea-Lugo they “cannot be limited to only providing Palestinians with painkillers, and this only when the Israeli government permits it”. An end to the occupation is an essential first step to ending this humanitarian disaster, and it is not only justified but essential that humanitarian organisations advocate in this debate. But Sharon’s plan does not bring the end of the Occupation closer. In fact, by using it to trade away other parts of international law and Palestinian rights, it could take us significantly further from this first step.
When a Wall is not a wall
The ‘disengagement’ of Gaza is mirrored on the West Bank by another ‘disengagement’ policy: the Separation Wall or as the Israeli government refer to it, the Security Fence. The Wall, when completed will be a 650km barrier, 90% of which is built on Palestinian land. It will cut off 270,000 Palestinians from Palestinian territory in the West Bank and a further 200,000 in East Jerusalem (Labour Middle East Council briefing, March 2004). It is estimated that when the Wall is completed agricultural production will decrease by 22.8% (Parliamentary Question to Hilary Benn, 17th March 2004).
The town of Qalqilya, for example, with 46,000 inhabitants, is completely surrounded by the Wall. The population is at the mercy of the teenage conscripts from the Israeli Defence Force who control the single gate through which they must pass to reach their fields, their families, the nearest hospital and other essentials of life. 15 of Qalqilya’s 39 wells have been confiscated (all facts from the Labour Middle East Council briefing, March 2004). Life is so unbearable in towns like Qalqilya that many people have already left. What small business remains has been decimated. People die when they cannot get to hospital. Schooling is at a minimum as children are traumatised by the violence they have grown up with. Animals and crops die as farmers cannot reach them.
Even the World Bank have strongly opposed the Wall’s construction saying: “Under consideration is a unilateral and unplanned step of Israel, as a substitute to negotiations” (quoted in Ha’aretz, 18th May 2003). In effect it changes “facts on the ground” by annexing large parts of the West Bank to Israel. But it does more than this. The Wall is part of an on-going attempt to make life unendurable for Palestinians. Several members of Sharon’s cabinet are openly in favour of “transfer” of the Palestinian population to Jordan. In any other country we would call that ethnic cleansing.
Earlier this year the UN General Assembly asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for a legal opinion on the Wall, into its legality and into the detrimental impact it already seems to be having on a population for whom Israel is responsible. Yet on 28th January 2004 the British government, which has for years been telling the Palestinians to take up their grievances through peaceful and legal means, wrote letters to the ICJ to try and block them doing just that.
The UK’s grounds for opposing an ICJ ruling include the fact that the case is bilateral and one party (Israel) has not agreed to participate, as well as that a ruling would be detrimental to the work of the UN as a whole. It is difficult to understand how much more difficult the UN’s work can become, given that the peace process is moribund, if not dead, and that the UN’s humanitarian arm in the Territories announced last week that it had to abandon emergency food aid to 600,000 refugees in the Gaza Strip because of Israeli obstruction.
Doing all we can?
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw repeats the usual Foreign Office line to the House of Commons. “It is unrealistic to believe that any outside interlocutor… can achieve that because the divide is so great and the hatred and fears on both sides so profound”.
But it might be worth trying.
We could start with arms sales. Following Sharon’s accession to power and the commencement of the worst period of human rights violations in the Territories to date, to double British arms sales to Israel was hardly the best use of diplomatic leverage. British weapons exported to Israel include components for tanks, F-16s, combat helicopters, as well as machine guns, tear gas, ammunition and much more. As we can all see from nightly TV reports, there is no doubt that these arms are used against an occupied people. Oxfam even asked MPs recently whether the murder of Hamas leader Abdul Aziz Al Rantissi was carried out with British weapons and components. The UK also purchase weapons from Israel – weapons tested against the Palestinians in the Territories.
Why do we continue to pump development aid into the Palestinian Authority – building schools, hospitals and government infrastructure – when we then provide Israel with the means to destroy the buildings this aid pays for? And it is also a question for NGOs. As Victor de Currea-Lugo wrote: “Why do the international NGOs provide food and other non-food aid when the biggest problem is human rights violations?… It is easier to distribute safe water than discuss on the political level the Israeli control of the water resources in Palestine”.
Then we could progress to economic pressure. As a minimum the EU-Israel trade agreement should be suspended. The agreement which grants Israel preferential access to European markets provides within its charter for the suspension of the agreement if its human rights provisions are not met. Yet judging by Parliamentary questions on the issue it seems no such measure has even been considered. On 26th March 2004, Government Minister Dennis MacShane MP stated that the UK “Government do not intend to raise the suspension of the EU/ Israel Association Agreement… [because] close engagement provides us with the greatest chance of encouraging both sides to take the necessary steps”. Given that it is difficult to imagine a much worse situation, it would be interesting to know what success close engagement has brought in recent years.
Every Palestinian NGO we are in contact with supports full economic sanctions against Israel. As one – the BADIL Center in Bethlehem commented – “people really should not worry about negative impact on the Palestinian people, we have nothing more to lose”. Despite common perceptions about the importance of the US to Israel, Europe is a far bigger trading partner than the US. We could operate effective pressure if we wanted to.
Watching a heavyweight beating a child
Even if we were looking at two sides fighting an equal battle, the British Government’s role falls far short of “balanced”. While blocking the Palestinians attempts to obtain justice through the international court, selling Israel arms and trading at preferential tariffs, they offer, at best, shallow condemnation of Israel’s numerous and severe violations of international law, backed by no action whatever. Following Jack Straw’s condemnation in Parliament of Sheik Yassin’s illegal assassination, the British representative then failed to vote in favour of condemning Israel when the issue reached the UN Security Council.
But more importantly we are not dealing with two equal sides. We are dealing with an occupier and the occupied. And rather than try to redress this inequality, to enforce the international law that it is legally obliged to uphold, to empower the victim, to give some hope to a people who feel more powerlessness and humiliation then we can possibly understand; the British government re-interprets the problem, arms the bully, and maintains the power imbalance that lies at the heart of Palestinian poverty.
Until the Palestinians are returned a fair share of what defines them as a nation with a history attached to a specific geographical land, and until they are afforded full social and economic rights, there is no prospect of peace in the region. Until there is a realisation that poverty, injustice and humiliation lead to violence and serious efforts are made to redress those causes, starting with an end to a violent and miserable occupation, there is no prospect of peace in the region. Until Western governments take their responsibilities seriously as enforcers of international law, and use their power to change an unjust situation which they have had a hand in perpetuating, there is no prospect of peace in the region.
Many campaigners currently focus on the illegality of the Wall – that it should be built on the Green Line. But Hasan Barghouti of the Democracy and Workers’ Rights Center says, there is a bigger point: “If the Israeli’s want to build a million walls inside the Green Line, they are free to do so. However we do not believe that people who build walls are thinking about the future. They will never be part of the Middle East if they separate themselves.”
Every step of the Israeli occupation has resulted in stamping on Palestinian dreams of their own country and their own future. The main difference is that Sharon is a little more honest. The current excesses we are witnessing – the Wall, assassinations, closure, curfews and other serious violations of human rights – are only extreme manifestations of this decades-long policy, which has been supported by the West.
But Sharon, like most Israeli leaders, is not so honest when it comes to his own people. For many Israelis also have dreams – of peace and security - and every country has a right to security, to live in peace. These dreams too are being destroyed by the Occupation. The only possibility of Israeli security is a radical change of course. It is well summed up by David Zonsheine, one of the growing number of refuseniks who refuse to serve in the Israeli army in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. He served in Gaza before the Intifada: “That was 1994. No buses exploded then, no suicide bombers, just the common occupation in everyday life… We did not stop terrorism – we were creating it.”