Peace, and war

Published : Oct 28, 2000 00:00 IST

The many peace processes initiated to find a solution to the Palestine problem have not helped in any way, and Palestinians continue their fight for justice with determination and hope.

"From the start, Zionist ideology was ruled by the thesis that the return of Jews to their land was bound up with a lofty mission to make the Middle East bloom again and to establish friendly cooperation between two Semitic peoples which, in the Midd le Ages, had together been the torchbearers of progress and science."

- David Ben-Gurion, Israel: years of Challenge, London, 1964, page 13.AFTER years of bitter conflict, the era of "friendly cooperation" between the two "Semitic peoples" began in the Nordic capital city of Oslo in 1993. The new deal was a jolt to those grown accustomed to the cynicism of the deadlock over Palestine since the epochal Arab defeat of 1967. The "declaration of principles" at Oslo (or DOP) was couched in terms of extreme vagueness, with an obvious dual purpose. There was first, the need to reward the Arab regimes that had with unseemly glee and conspicuous in difference to popular sentiment, participated in the American war of destruction against Iraq in 1991. And then there was the need to remind Israel that after close to half a century in existence, it had to acknowledge the minimal requirement that a mode rn state should define its territorial boundaries.

For the Palestinians, the singular gain from Oslo was their recognition as a people. To begin with, they were represented by a delegation headed by the Kingdom of Jordan, in line with the long-standing Israeli insistence that the demand for a Palestinian state was so much misplaced clamour, since Jordan already fulfilled that role. In the final pact, though, the "Palestine Liberation Organisation team" was accorded the exclusive honour of representing the long dispossessed people. A secondary benefit fo r the Palestinians was the acknowledgment by Israel and its American sponsors that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which had been occupied by the Israeli armed forces in 1967, would be viewed as a "single territorial unit, whose integrity (would) be pr eserved during the interim period".

It soon became evident that on Israel's part, the purpose of entering into the DOP was only to set a firm deadline for completing its penetration and colonisation of territories occupied in 1967. And its hidden motivation in acknowledging the Palestinian people was only to make them accomplices in their own subjugation. After years under the jackboot of military occupation, the Palestinians, as represented by the PLO, were being promised a limited degree of self-government - but only so that they could preserve and safeguard the special rights and privileges that their Jewish colonisers were staking out. In the absence of any specific mention in the DOP, the Jewish settler colonies that had been built in the occupied territories since 1967 also gained the right to preservation and, as it turned out, to further expansion.

Inherent in the Oslo process was the notion of separate jurisdictions over land and people. Israel would retain all rights to the land and its resources. It would continue to dictate the allowable limits to sovereignty in the Palestinian territories and strictly oversee the rights and entitlements conferred on the population. Even the basic civic function of conducting a census would be denied, for the simple reason that it would not do to have the world know about the dimensions of the human problem in Palestine. As for the right to natural resources, the rule was to reserve the best part for Jewish settlers.

The Palestinian Authority that was conceived as an instrument of self-rule was to be entrusted with the onerous task of safeguarding this system of inequity. It was to be the last bulwark for the perpetuation of Israeli territorial expansionism. Beyond i t stood the tanks and the helicopter gunships that have now been deployed against civilian protestors in the occupied territories.

In May 1994, the "principles" adopted at Oslo partially acquired the overt meanings that its authors had cleverly hidden till then. At the moment that he was called upon to sign the Gaza-Jericho Agreement in Cairo, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat - with the e yes of the world on him - paused dramatically and seemed to signal that he would rather tear up the document than seal it with his approval. It was a theatrical gesture which reflected all the disappointed expectations of the Palestine side, the betrayal of hope by the clever manipulation of verbal ambiguities in the DOP. The Cairo accord effectively legitimised a system of dual rights. It enshrined the Israeli right to fortify and defend its settlements in Gaza and Jericho, to reserve roads and highway s for its exclusive use and to restrict the Palestinian population to strictly defined areas.

There was yet no hint that Israel had little intent to stick to its commitment that the period of transition would be no longer than five years from the Oslo accord. Initial suggestions came when the schedule approached for handing over Hebron to Palesti nian control. In 1994, the West Bank town had witnessed an appalling demonstration of religious zeal by the American Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein, who told the world exactly what he thought of the peace process by shooting dead 29 Palestinian worshipp ers at a mosque. As the pressure from Jewish settlers over retaining the town of the biblical patriarch Abraham's grave mounted, the Israeli government repeatedly defaulted on its deadline over handing over control to the Palestinian side.

In 1997, an agreement over the disposition of Hebron town put the seal of approval over the principle of partition on unequal terms between a settled population and an occupying power. It was a partition on disastrously skewed terms. Jewish settlers were given effective and unconstrained control over 20 per cent of the town area. All of Hebron would be encircled by Israeli armed detachments and the Palestinians would be entitled to maintain a police force of no more than 400 personnel, with a specified and modest number of weapons, which were to be assigned to them every day by their Israeli masters.

Even with the massive concessions it had won on vital issues of principle, the Israeli side proved unwilling to adhere to the committed transition period. This led in turn to another furious round of bargaining under American tutelage, which produced the Wye River Memorandum. Bits and pieces of territory, in all aggregating 40 per cent of the West Bank, were to come under total or partial Palestinian sovereignty before final status negotiations were to begin. But the main feature of the Wye Memorandum w as the security section. Under the Likud zealot Benjamin Netanyahu, who had won election in 1996 on the promise to shred up the Oslo principles, Israel was intent on placing the full onus for any breach of its security on the Palestinian Authority.

The Wye Memorandum begins with the observation that "both sides recognise that it is in their vital interests to combat terrorism and fight violence". But in putting this mutual recognition to effect, there is a distinctly skewed ascription of responsibi lities: "The Palestinian side will make known its policy for zero tolerance for terror and violence... A work plan developed by the Palestinian side will be shared with the U.S... to ensure the systematic and effective combat of terrorist organisations.. . In addition to the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation, a U.S.-Palestinian committee will review the steps being taken to eliminate terrorist cells..."

All the while, Israeli detentions, persecution and unlawful executions of Palestinians were continuing in an environment of complete impunity. In both the material and political sense, the situation in Palestine was building up to a combustible mix ever since the popular uprising of 1988-92 was appeased in the illusory promise of Oslo. The Baruch Goldstein bloodbath and Netanyahu's provocative opening up of an archaeological tunnel adjoining the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem in 1996 - these were important milestones in the steady unravelling of the Oslo process. When he undertook his infamous visit to the Al Aqsa mosque on September 28, Ariel Sharon must surely have been aware of the bloody aftermath of the decision made by his rival for Likud party lead ership - 56 Palestinians killed in over a week of rioting.

The arrogance of conquest had for long subsisted alongside the abject privation of an occupied population whose existence itself was denied. The street in Palestine has given its verdict on the Oslo process, casting it decisively into the scrap-heap of h istory. With an unmistakable sense of relief, the Israeli government has called a "time-out" in the peace negotiations and begun drafting a contingency plan for a final severance with the Palestinians.

According to a report in The New York Times dated October 22, there are two concepts of separation under study at the highest levels of the Ehud Barak administration. In its "absolute form" of separation, Israel would create its own borders, effec tively ceding the territories that escape annexation for a prospective Palestinian state. In a narrower variant, the Jewish state would implement a separation based on cordoning off the Arab areas and strictly restricting movement of people into Israeli territory.

The latter option is the more likely one. For reasons derived from its history as a state based on expulsion and ethnic cleansing, as also its identity as a nation that offers the right of return to all the world's Jewry, Israel is averse to defining its borders in any reasonable manner. Israeli society today is a seething mass of ethnic diversities and animosities that are only submerged when the basic premise of shared enmity with the Palestinians is invoked. And to contain otherwise the tensions with in, Israel needs territory to expand.

Resolutions 242 and 338 of the United Nations Security Council today constitute the sole basis for peace in the region. The Oslo declaration, the Cairo accord and the Wye River Memorandum have all been cast in the mould of these resolutions. But the basi c principle of Land for Peace that was enshrined in these resolutions today stands repealed by unilateral Israeli action.

Reflecting the clever draftsmanship of an Israeli partisan, Article 242 only demands the withdrawal of its forces from "territories" occupied in the 1967 war. This element of verbal sophistry is absent in the French version, which quite specifically dema nds withdrawal from des territoires conquered in the six-day conflict. Such withdrawal was to be exchanged for recognition from neighbouring Arab states, though the Palestinian problem was still conceived as little more than ensuring the return of certai n unnamed "refugees".

Resolution 242, which made no mention of its territorial rights and national identity, was for long the stick that Israel's sponsors in the West used to goad the Palestinians with. At its 19th session in 1988, the Palestine National Council effectively m ade this leap of faith, tacitly promising the pre-negotiating recognition of Israel if its national rights were to be honoured.

Shortly afterwards, the intifada began in the occupied territories. After long having subsisted as a client of various Arab regimes that had their own vested interests in containing their urge for national liberation, the Palestinian people were f inally taking their destinies into their own hands. They were paying an enormous price in terms of human life, but the world had begun to notice and respect the conspicuous heroism with which they were doing it. With the final destruction of Arab solidar ity in the war of destruction against Iraq, the intifada seemed to lose its way. The Palestinians allowed themselves to be beguiled by the bogus promise of American sponsorship of the peace process. Little did they realise, as the eminent Palestin e-born social theorist and activist Edward Said has put it, that the standards of truth that prevail in the U.S. are even more appalling than in Israel. In the robust idiom of the unapologetic coloniser, the Israeli is apt to look at the Palestinians as a defeated people who have irretrievably lost their rights to sovereignty. For the American, the Palestinians are non-existent as a people, while Israel is a haven of democracy in a hostile ocean of Arab autocracy, and an enormous reservoir of spiritual solace for the angst-ridden.

Edward Said has, in the strictly analytical sense, described Yasser Arafat as a "collaborator" for his participation in the Oslo negotiations. What he fails to provide is a complete catalogue of the Arab leaders and regimes that could be described in thi s manner. It is a fact that since its arrival on the world scene as a major political entity in 1969, the PLO has waged more battles against Arab regimes than against the Israeli state.

In 1970, the Hashemite king of Jordan, Husain began his crackdown on the Palestinians who had secured a degree of political influence and articulation in his domain. "Black September" led with a few tortuous twists, though the correlation to the civil wa r in Lebanon is distinct. Beginning in 1975, this conflict continued with horrendous consequences till the Syrian regime intervened to crush the Palestine military forces. The message was clear: the Palestinians could not hope for any more latitude in th e Arab world than the vested interests of established regimes would permit. The espousal of popular democratic revolution and Arab unity could not possibly go beyond the level of rhetoric.

In 1982, the PLO fought a prolonged conventional war with the invading Israeli armed forces, acquitting itself with considerably more credit than most Arab standing armies had in the preceding years. In 1990, the PLO responded to the upsurge of popular s entiment against the corrupt oil monarchies of the Gulf, by closely aligning with Iraq in the crisis over Kuwait. The position was very clear - the double standards that the West had adopted in the Arab world had to end. After having enjoyed the grudging patronage of the Arab regimes in the region, despite the occasional threat they posed to political stability, the Palestinians were now cast away as political orphans, to be adopted by the Americans and Israelis.

The new intifada has re-awakened Arab support for the cause of the dispossessed people. The Arab regimes have been true to form in handling this newest challenge to their collective national identity. The radical states have reached for their thes aurus to hone their rhetorical flourishes ever finer. And the oil monarchies have reached for their cheque books. But increasingly it is clear that the obstacle to true self-determination for the Palestinians lies not merely in Israel, but also in the te rritorial instincts of the established Arab regimes.

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