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PEACE AND DISTRUST

Print edition : Mar 11, 2005

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In Gaza City, the symbol of peace against the backdrop of portraits of Palestinian prisoners in Israel.-MOHAMMED ABED/AFP

In Gaza City, the symbol of peace against the backdrop of portraits of Palestinian prisoners in Israel.-MOHAMMED ABED/AFP

The ceasefire declared at Sharm al-Sheikh seems fragile, in the continuing absence of an Israeli commitment to respect the rights of Palestinians to their life and land.

THE ceasefire agreed upon by Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority (P.A.) President Mahmoud Abbas at the Egyptian resort city of Sharm al-Sheikh has led to a comparative calm in Israel and the occupied territories of Palestine. In the first week of February, the two sides pledged "to stop all violence against all Israelis and Palestinians everywhere".

In a move orchestrated with the blessings of the United States, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak invited Sharon and Abbas for the summit. Also present at the meeting was Jordan's King Abdullah.

It was Sharon's first visit to Egypt after becoming Prime Minister. His presence triggered protests across the country. University students protested on campuses and mediapersons staged a two-hour sit-in at the headquarters of their union in Cairo. Israeli and U.S. flags were burnt on the streets of Cairo. Soon after the ceasefire agreement, Egypt and Jordan re-appointed their Ambassadors to Tel Aviv, who were withdrawn after Sharon took office four years ago.

With the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jehad tacitly agreeing temporarily to cease their activities, it is hoped that the lull in violence will last longer this time round. The two groups initially rejected Abbas' ceasefire order, saying that they were not consulted. Ultimately, they seemed to have fallen in line. Their leadership took into consideration the mood of the Palestinian people, who have suffered immeasurably in the last couple of years. Israeli roadblocks, targeted killing and the drying up of employment opportunities have made the occupied territories hell for the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian people.

Most Palestinians, however, have no illusions about Ariel Sharon or the end-game he has in mind for the occupied territories. A senior Palestinian diplomat based in New Delhi said that the Palestinians had reconciled themselves to a "comfortable Israeli occupation" for a year. He warned that if there was no tangible progress, they would have no option but to wage yet another intifada (uprising) against the occupation. More than 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis have lost their lives in the more than four-year-long second intifada that began in September 2000. Palestinians had kept the peace for five years after the Oslo II agreement was signed in September 1995. But they got nothing tangible in return, except a West Bank pock-marked with ever-expanding Israeli settlements.

THE signs this time too are not encouraging. Even before the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) started their much-heralded pullout from the Gaza Strip, Israeli settlement activity was accelerated in the West Bank. Moves are afoot to expedite the construction of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, the designated capital of a future Palestinian state. Palestinians continue to be killed, though in fewer numbers, in the weeks following the ceasefire agreement.

The much-hyped talk of Palestinian political prisoners being freed is yet to materialise. Until late February, only Palestinians held for minor criminal offences and visa violations were released. The Israeli authorities insist that Palestinian prisoners with "blood on their hands" will not be released. They tend to put even those remotely involved in militant activities and incarcerated in Israeli jails into this category. The two sides have agreed to set up joint committees to look into the cases of more than 7,000 Palestinian political prisoners. A Palestinian whose two children are in Israeli jails told the Al Jazeera television network that it was Sharon who "has blood on his hands. We have no trust in him. The Israelis sign agreements and they renege on them. Our trust is in God alone".

Reports in the U.S. and Israeli media say that both countries are acting according to a plan. On her visit to Tel Aviv in the first week of February after being confirmed as the U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice urged Israel to make "hard decisions" needed for the creation of a Palestinian state. She wanted Israel to make "fundamental choices" so that a contiguous Palestinian state could be created.

However, a week after the Sharm al-Sheikh summit, Sharon said that the new agreement was not heading towards a "final status" talks under the U.S.-sponsored "road map". So far Sharon has not pledged to stop the frenetic construction of settlements in the West Bank. Nor is there any indication that Israel is planning to stop the construction of what Palestinians describe as the "apartheid wall" in the West Bank. The Palestinian position is that Israel should immediately start implementing the "road map". The first step in this direction is freezing of Israeli construction activity on the West Bank.

In the third week of February, soon after the Sharm al-Sheikh agreement, Israel announced that it was planning to build yet another settlement on the West Bank to house the Jewish settlers who were to be shifted from the Gaza Strip. The 8,500 settlers he had pledged to remove from the Gaza Strip will now be given a red carpet welcome in the West Bank, where 230,000 Jewish settlers already live, mostly on prime agricultural land expropriated from the Palestinians. U.S. President George W. Bush had stated last year that Israel could keep some portions of the West Bank. The U.S.-sponsored "road map" only called for a freeze on Israeli settlement activity on land seized after the 1967 war.

Sharon has made it clear, if not in words but at least in deeds, that the new agreement gives him the right to expropriate more Palestinian land on the West Bank in lieu of the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. It has turned out to be a win-win situation for the Israeli government. The densely populated Gaza Strip was getting increasingly difficult for the IDF to control.

When Sharon first announced the Israeli government's intention to withdraw its military from the Gaza Strip in late 2004, the Palestinian militant groups described it as a victory for the Palestinian resistance forces. Now Sharon is donning the garb of a statesman while withdrawing the IDF from the Gaza Strip. The Israeli and Western media are portraying Sharon as a changed man, willing to give peace a chance.

In fact, the Palestinians have made all the meaningful concessions. As desired by Washington and Tel Aviv, the P.A. declared its willingness to disarm the various Palestinian factions. This promise has angered the militant groups. An Islamic Jehad spokesman said: "The arms of the resistance are for the defence of the people in the light of the aggression." Since Sharon took charge, the Israeli government has on several occasions issued statements declaring that progress towards full Palestinian statehood depended upon the disarming of the Hamas, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and the Islamic Jehad. However, acceding to such a demand will mean civil war in the occupied territories. This is something the new P.A. President is not willing to contemplate, despite the pressure from Washington.

The militant groups have decided to lie low for the time being and gauge the extent of their popular support in the coming elections to the Palestinian National Assembly. They do not want to be made scapegoats if the latest ceasefire agreement collapses. Both Hamas and the Islamic Jehad have said that they were not bound by the truce, but reiterated their readiness to observe "a one month period of calm". A Hamas spokesman said that his organisation endorsed the need for calm to allow the new P.A. President "to ease into his job and exert pressure on the enemy". The Hamas spokesman described the Sharon-Abbas summit as "disappointing" and said that the agreement reflects only the position of the P.A.

Hamas and Islamic Jehad pointed out that Abbas had yet again given a blanket assurance on behalf of the Palestinians to cease "all acts of violence" at a time when Israeli settlement activity was unabated. The IDF checkpoints in the occupied territories make commuting a humiliating experience for the average Palestinian. The construction of the "apartheid wall" goes on, gobbling up more of West Bank land. Commentators have observed that in the Oslo II agreement, the word "occupation" did not appear even once. Abbas was one of its architects. Not surprisingly, the latest ceasefire agreement does not refer to emotive Palestinian issues such as the right of return of refugees and making East Jerusalem the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Yasser Arafat was offered a better deal by the Clinton administration during Camp David II. Washington only wanted him to give up the claim on Jerusalem and the right of return. He was vilified and demonised in the West for having refused to compromise on these two sacrosanct Palestinian demands. Condoleezza Rice did not deem it fit to pay respects at the grave of the late Palestinian leader when she went to meet the P.A. President at Ramallah. During her meeting with Abbas, the U.S. Secretary of State reiterated the importance of the Palestinians eschewing violence in their struggle against the occupation. No such advice was given to the Israeli government, whose Army went on the rampage on many occasions in the occupied territories and has been responsible for several massacres in recent years alone.

A report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in the last week of January said that Ariel Sharon had asked the Bush administration to put pressure on Syria and Iran. "Anyone who wants Abu Mazen [Abbas] to succeed must increase the pressure on them," Israeli officials told the newspaper. Various factors may have prompted the Bush administration to ratchet up the pressure on Syria and Iran in recent weeks, but giving Israel a helping hand has always been a priority of all U.S. administrations since the 1960s.

The respected Israeli commentator Uri Avneri wrote recently: "Some people say, only half in jest, that the USA is an Israeli colony. And indeed, in many respects it looks like that. President Bush dances to Ariel Sharon's tune. Both Houses of Congress are totally subservient to the Israeli right-wing - much more so than the Knesset. It has been said that if the pro-Israeli lobby were to sponsor a resolution on Capitol Hill, calling for the abolishment of the Ten Commandments, both Houses of Congress would adopt it overwhelmingly. Every year the Congress confirms the payment of a massive tribute to Israel."

A senior Arab diplomat based in New Delhi said that the only way to achieve a lasting peace in the region was by implementing the key elements of the Madrid Conference of 1991 and the Oslo Accords of 1993. He said that the only way Israel could get lasting security was by implementing the "land for peace" formula agreed in the 1990s. At this juncture, Israel is only promising "security for security" to the Palestinians. According to the diplomat, this cannot lead to a durable peace. The Palestinians, he said, have been forced to make a temporary compromise, keeping in view the "very bad international situation". Arab governments fear that the U.S. is trying to "create new facts on the ground". The Bush administration's recent moves relating to the P.A., Syria, Iran and Lebanon are seen as part of the overall game plan the U.S. has for the region.

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