The Palestinian people seem to have lost faith in the peace process, having waited for seven years after the signing of the Oslo accords and realised that Israel has no intention to honour its commitments. The Arab Summit in Cairo, too, seems to have disappointed them.
ONLY a spark was needed to ignite the fire-storm. Ariel Sharon, the opposition Likud party leader, provided that. Sharon's name is synonymous with some of the bloodiest events in West Asia in the last three decades. It is almost universally acknowledged that it was his visit to the Muslim religious place of Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem on September 28 that unleashed the violence in Israel and the occupied territories. When Palestinians protested against the visit, the 3,000-strong Israeli security force that accompanied Sharon fired indiscriminately, killing seven persons. Since then Palestinians have been taking to the streets every day to demonstrate against the Israeli occupation forces.
The wanton use of excessive force has inflamed Arab opinion. For the first time since 1990, when the Gulf War erupted, there have been massive demonstrations in all Arab capitals, including those of pro-Western sheikhdoms. Palestine is witnessing the wor st violence since the Israeli occupation of 1967. Within Israel itself some Israeli Arabs were lynched by Zionist fanatics. Tanks and helicopter gunships are used against demonstrators, who are armed with stones. Many young Palestinians have been killed by "rubber bullets" fired from point-blank range by Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories. In fact these are lethal bullets with a thin coating of rubber.
Despite ultimatums and threats from the Israeli government, the "Al Aqsa intifada", as it is popularly called, continues unabated. Prime Minister Ehud Barak's National Security Adviser Uzi Dayan had threatened that if the violence escalated, Pales tinian leaders would be targeted by Israeli security forces. More than 130 people have already been killed, the overwhelming majority of them Palestinians. In the third week of October, buildings belonging to the Palestinian Authority were targeted. Thes e included President Arafat's office, the police headquarters, and television and radio stations.
In Gaza Strip, there were air strikes at buildings around the offices and residence of Arafat. Arafat described the Israeli action as a declaration of war. The violence escalated further after the Arab League summit in Cairo on October 21 and 22, the fir st held since 1996 and the first in which Iraq participated since 1990. It is clear that for the Arabs, the Palestinian issue transcends all others. It is not a coincidence that the attack on the United States naval ship in Aden happened when emotions we re running high all over West Asia.
The Arab masses expected a concrete action from their leaders, but what emerged from the summit was a communique that was long on rhetoric. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt had earlier admitted that Arabs were "all angry and full of resentment", but he s aid that it was the duty of the leaders to protect them from "indulging in sensational attitudes". There were no strong measures to back up the rhetoric. President Muammar Gaddafi of Libya did not even attend the summit, claiming that it was an exercise in futility.
The moderate Arab nations had decided beforehand that there would be no economic sanctions against Israel. Countries like Egypt and Jordan, which have diplomatic links with Israel, have not exercised the option of severing these ties. Syria and Iraq call ed for a tougher line but they found themselves in a minority. The Syrians have demanded a diplomatic boycott of Israel. Even the Saudi Crown Prince, Prince Abdullah, had harsh words for Israel and its main backer, the U.S.
Earlier in October, the United Nations Security Council condemned Israel for using excessive force against Palestinian civilians. The U.S., the traditional ally of Israel, abstained from the vote but, interestingly, did not use the veto. However, Washing ton rectified this aberration by rushing to the support of Israel when the General Assembly overwhelmingly condemned "the excessive use of force" by Israel against Palestinian civilians, on a resolution sponsored by Arab and other Islamic nations and als o Cuba on October 20. Ninety-two countries, including India, voted in favour of the resolution. Only the U.S. and four South Pacific islands supported Israel. Israel's international isolation has never before been more obvious.
The U.N. Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, was in Israel in early October, leading the international efforts to avert an all-out war. Arab states want the U.N. to play the key negotiating role in the future. Even the allies of the U.S., including the Europe an Union (E.U.), feel that peace will have a better chance under U.N. auspices.
The situation has been further complicated by the kidnapping of three Israeli soldiers by the Hezbollah from the disputed Chebaa farms area on the Israel-Lebanon border. Barak has threatened to take "forceful action" against Lebanon and Syria, accusing b oth countries of being responsible for the actions of the Hezbollah.
The Hezbollah has issued a statement insisting that the soldiers would only be exchanged with Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners incarcerated in Israeli jails. It is said that whenever Israel is in a crisis, it starts a war. It may be tempted to do so ag ain, given that major Arab countries such as Egypt, Syria and Iraq are militarily unprepared for a showdown with Israel, the strongest power of the region. Moreover, Israel is backed by the only superpower.
The Americans seem to have given up all pretences of being a neutral party. Since the last Camp David summit, Arafat has been viewing American moves with undisguised suspicion. According to senior Palestinian officials, at the summit President Bill Clint on, donning the garb of an honest broker, in reality offered the Palestinians hardline Israeli negotiating positions.
In a last-ditch attempt to save the Oslo peace process, Clinton hosted another summit, at the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el Sheikh, in the third week of October. By then a lot of innocent Palestinian blood had been shed. What Clinton could get was onl y a commitment from Arafat and Barak that they would both strive for peace. Both the leaders refused to append their signatures to a joint statement. Although Israel did not concede the Palestinian demand for an international inquiry into the causes of t he current upsurge, a "fact-finding committee" under U.S. and U.N. auspices will be set up. Many Arabs think that with the U.S. having a decisive say, the truth may not be unearthed. The disillusionment of the Palestinian people with the U.S. seems to be complete.
The Palestinians signed the Oslo accords in 1993 thinking that they were guaranteed self-determination, full equality and an end to the military occupation of Gaza Strip and the West Bank by May 1999. After waiting for seven years and realising that Isra el had no plans to cede control of overall security and resources in the West Bank, the Palestinian people, not surprisingly, have lost their faith in the peace process. The scale of the violence this time has surpassed those of the uprisings of the late 1980s and the early 1990s. Since 1994, more than 50,000 Jewish settlers have moved into the occupied territories.
An Israeli peace group had warned in September that the negotiations conducted between representatives of Israel and Palestine under the supervision of the U.S. was likely to frame the basis for a war. The peace process has not worked because the Israeli government has refused to give up its goal of not allowing Palestinians to return to their homeland and insisted that Jerusalem will be Israel's capital and that the city cannot be shared with Palestine. The Jewish settlements in the occupied territorie s and Jerusalem will remain in order to "safeguard" Israeli security concerns, it maintains. In the Israeli scheme of things, "external security", foreign affairs and water will remain exclusively in its domain, even if an independent Palestine comes int o being.
The Palestinian people have felt let down by the Cairo summit, and the intifada continues. The summit has called for the creation of an Arab Fund of $1 billion, $800 million of which would be earmarked for the protection of the "Arab and Islamic c haracter" of Jerusalem and $200 million for the families of Palestinians killed or wounded in the intifada. The joint communique issued after the summit reiterated the Arab commitment to a "just, lasting and comprehensive peace" with Israel and ca lled on the Jewish state to show a similar commitment.
The communique emphasised that there could be no peace unless Israel ceded all land occupied after the 1967 war. The Arab leaders also called on the U.N. to deploy a "protection" force for Palestinians and the setting up of an international tribunal for Israeli "war criminals". Israeli opinion-makers have praised the "balanced approach" of Arab leaders such as Mubarak at the summit. Barak said that the summit was hosted in "a responsible and considered fashion, and sees regional peace and Israeli and Pa lestinian agreement as the main goal for all the states in the region." At the same time, he condemned the "language of threats" that emerged from the Arab summit.
At the ground level, Israel's reaction to the summit was to escalate further the violence against Palestinians in the occupied territories. On the day the summit ended, Israeli helicopter gunships and tanks went into action, after Barak announced the "su spension" of the peace process. The helicopters targeted civilian areas in Bethlehem.
Meanwhile, Israel has announced that the "time out" it has declared in the peace process will continue. Barak, for all practical purposes, seems to have abandoned the peace process. He has once again indicated that he is going in for the formation of a n ational emergency government, which will include Ariel Sharon. Sharon is a sworn enemy of the peace process. Arafat has reacted to the latest developments by suggesting that Barak "can go to hell" and that the Palestinian people will "continue on the roa d to Jerusalem, the capital of the independent Palestinian state, whether (Barak) accepts or does not accept it".
Hannan Ashrawi, the Palestinian Council member who has for long been involved with the peace process, said that Barak, with his latest actions, had "managed to rob the peace process of any credibility, any legitimacy, any substance and any relationship t o reality". Speaking after the conclusion of the Cairo summit, Ashrawi said that the peace process "exists only as a fiction in the minds of a few, merely in the minds of Arab leaders, who still think that they can salvage peace from the jaws of destruct ion and war that is being waged against us."
Barak, after being elected on a promise to bring comprehensive peace to the region, has undone all what his predecessors, including Menachem Begin and Benjamin Netanyahu, did to take the peace process to an advanced stage. Saeeb Urekat, the chief Palesti nian negotiator, has said that the world is "witnessing an all-out war against the Palestinian people". There are reports that Israel is on the verge of implementing plans for a complete separation of Israelis and Palestinians in the event of a total bre akdown of the peace process. There will be corridors connecting the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories to Israel proper. The grand Israeli strategy is to reduce Palestine to the status of a "Bantustan".
Many Palestinians seem to be have second thoughts about the Oslo peace process. They instead want a full implementation of the original U.N. resolutions (24, 338 and 194); the removal of all Israeli settlements and military roads, the evacuation of all t erritories occupied since 1967, and a boycott of Israeli goods and services. A mass movement against Israeli occupation has started, which has the potential of upsetting the political status quo in the region.