Roadblocks to peace

Published : Jun 06, 2003 00:00 IST

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem on May 11. - GIL COHEN MAGEN/REUTERS

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem on May 11. - GIL COHEN MAGEN/REUTERS

Israel welcomes the U.S.-sponsored `road map' to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but continues with its repressive policy against Palestinians.

THE United States Secretary of State, Colin Powell, was in important West Asian capitals in the second week of May to push the Bush administration's new peace plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After the Bush administration officially unveiled the "new road map" in the last week of April, the Israeli government, even while welcoming the proposals, continued with its targeted killings of Palestinians and expansion of settlements in the Occupied Territories. The road map had specifically called for a halt to the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza as part of confidence building measures prior to peace talks between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority (P.A.).

The road map requires Israel to dismantle all settlement outposts built since 2001 and freeze the expansion of existing settlements. Although settlement activity is illegal under international law, the number of Israeli settlers has doubled to reach the figure of 400,000 since the Oslo peace accords. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been a key figure behind the strategy of expanding Zionist settlements since 1967. Israel has demolished more than 10,000 homes of Palestinian civilians since 1967. The pace of demolition by the Israeli authorities increased after the second intifada (also known as the Al-Aqsa intifada) began in 2000.

Sharon, while talking of making "painful compromises" for peace, has, true to his style, started to make impossible demands on the Palestinians. He has also gone on record saying that he would not implement the "road map" if the Palestinians do not give up their "right of return" to areas from which they were forcibly uprooted. Millions of Palestinian refugees are scattered all over the world with the majority of them living in miserable conditions.

It was P.A. President Yasser Arafat's refusal to compromise on this issue and that of the status of Jerusalem that led to the collapse of the U.S.-brokered peace talks at the end of the presidency of Bill Clinton. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has ruled out the waiving of the Palestinian right of return, which is sacrosanct for his people, as a precondition for Israel's approval of the road map. He was reacting to the Israeli Foreign Minister's statement in the first week of May that the creation of a Palestinian state will only be possible if the right of return is given up.

The other major demand of the Israeli government is that the P.A. rein in militant Palestinian groupings such as the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. Recent opinion polls suggest that Hamas is the most popular Palestinian political grouping. Since the Oslo accords, Hamas activists have been in the forefront of the struggle against the occupation forces. Its leadership also gives considerable emphasis to socio-economic activities. Defying official P.A. policy, Hamas and other militant organisations have been organising suicide-bombing missions against Israeli targets. However, Israel always holds the P.A. responsible and unfailingly responds in a draconian way, by using helicopter gunships and aircraft to attack civilian targets and government buildings.

U.S. officials had even started talking to Hamas representatives, indicating that they would welcome its participation in political life, provided it became part of a secular and democratic government along with the dominant Al Fatah led by Yasser Arafat. The Sharon government successfully undermined this initiative by killing a politically moderate Hamas official in Ramallah in September 2001, when the talks appeared to be making some headway. The Hamas retaliated by staging a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv the same month. Another targeted Israeli assassination of a senior Hamas activist in November 2001 made the organisation shelve its understanding with the P.A. of not attacking targets inside Israel. Hamas has now adopted an uncompromising tone. The spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, has rejected the road map. Yassin said: "The road map aims to assure security for Israel at the expense of the security for our people. It is a plan to liquidate the Palestinian cause."

In what could be construed as tacit support for the Israeli government's position, the U.S. Secretary of State said in Jerusalem recently that he too wanted the new Palestinian leadership under Mahmoud Abbas to "dismantle the terrorist infrastructure". Addressing a joint press conference with Sharon, Powell said that he wanted to see "rapid, decisive action" against Palestinian militant groups. However, Abbas indicated that the P.A. was keen to reach a temporary ceasefire with the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, rather than risk civil war among the Palestinians.

In Jerusalem, Powell also announced the Bush administration's decision not to recognise Arafat's leadership, as he had not been an "effective leader". However, U.S. officials have conceded that their views on Arafat are not shared by other governments and organisations. For instance, Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou who was in the region in the second week of May leading a delegation of the European Union (E.U.), made it a point to call on Arafat. (Greece currently holds the E.U. presidency).

Sharon, on his part, was talking tough as usual. He reiterated that Israel would never "compromise" on issues relating to security. As soon as Powell left Jerusalem, the Israeli government re-imposed its ban on travel to Gaza. It had lifted travel restrictions less than 24 hours earlier in a move that was advertised as a goodwill gesture to the Palestinians. The ban prevents Palestinians and foreigners from leaving or entering the coastal strip. After the new restrictions were imposed, five Palestinian were killed by the Israeli security forces in Gaza.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said that the actions of the Israeli government showed that Powell's visit to the region "led to nothing new on the Israeli-Palestinian track because of Ariel Sharon's refusal to give a frank or even tacit acceptance of the road map". The Palestinian leadership announced that it would resume official talks with the Israeli government only after Sharon returns from his meeting with Bush on May 20. Apparently, the Palestinians are expecting the White House to persuade Sharon into making some meaningful concessions so that talks can resume.

In an interview published in Jerusalem Post in the third week of May, Sharon once again rejected any talk of dismantling Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories. Sharon said that all Israeli governments had gone ahead with the policy of building settlements even during periods of peace diplomacy. Saeeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian Minister involved in the negotiations, responded by emphasising that the settlements question is the "main issue on the horizon". He said that the road map clearly says that all settlement activity must end in the first phase.

From available indications, the Sharon government is unlikely to make any concessions. The Israeli government has powerful backers in the Bush administration led by Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. Sharon's demand is that the P.A. first crack down on the Palestinian militants, though he knows the Palestinian security services are in no position to do so. The Palestinian police force has been decimated by the Israeli Army in the last two years. Observers of the region feel that another major terrorist attack would give both Sharon and Bush the excuse to turn their backs on the Palestinians once again.

Meanwhile, the Israeli government continues to demolish buildings and houses in Palestinian towns and subdivisions such as Rafah in Gaza and Nazlat Izza in the West Bank. Since 1967, more than 500,000 olive trees, a source of livelihood for poor Palestinians, have been uprooted by the occupation forces. About 80 per cent of the water supplied in the West Bank goes to Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories. Palestinians are not even allowed to dig wells or build reservoirs to collect rainwater. This kind of systematic repression has led to the internal displacement of around 300,000 Palestinians in the last two years alone.

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