A roadblock to peace

Print edition : November 21, 2003

The wall Israel continues to build in the West Bank despite a U.N. General Assembly resolution, has served only to escalate violence and obstruct the process towards a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

IN a vote that reflected international opinion, the United Nations General Assembly, on October 21, overwhelmingly approved a resolution demanding that Israel tear down the wall that it was constructing on occupied Palestinian territory. Though General Assembly resolutions are not legally binding, the near-unanimous resolution calling on Israel to "stop and reverse" the construction of the wall is significant. Interestingly, the resolution was submitted to a vote by the European Union (E.U.), which is one of the sponsors of the "road map" for peace. Only the United States, Israel and two other tiny states - the Marshall Islands and Micronesia - voted against it. "The world has just sent a powerful message that the shortest way to peace is not through walls, but rather through a meaningful peace process that will end the Israeli occupation which began in 1967," said the Chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, after the vote. He described the resolution as "politically, juridically and morally" very important.

A Palestinian boy is confronted by an Israeli guard as he sneaks through the security wall separating Arab East Jerusalem and Jerusalem city on his way to school.-HRVOJE POLAN/AFP

International condemnation notwithstanding, the Israeli government seems determined to go ahead with the construction of the wall. Soon after the General Assembly passed the resolution, Ehud Olmert, a senior Israeli Cabinet member, said that the work on the wall would continue. "The fence will continue to be built. We have to worry about Israel's security and it is clear that we will not act according to the instructions of a hostile, automatic majority, which has always acted against Israel," Olmert told the media. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had told an Israeli newspaper in the second week of October that Israel was determined to complete what had come to be known as the "apartheid wall", running more than 350 km. The Bush administration had at one time threatened to reduce the $9 billion loan guarantees for Israel if the Sharon government went ahead with the construction of the wall.

But with the election process about to begin in the U.S., Sharon is confident that the beleaguered Bush administration will not go against the interests of the Israeli state. A few days before the General Assembly vote, the U.S. had vetoed a Syrian-sponsored resolution in the U.N. Security Council that sought to declare Israel's construction of the wall illegal. Four other Security Council members Britain, Bulgaria, Cameroon and Germany, abstained from voting. After the October 15 Security Council vote, the Palestinian Ambassador to the U.N., Nasser al-Kidwa, said that the issue "of the expansionist wall will remain an issue of strategic importance". He went on to emphasise that as long as work on the "expansionist wall goes on, there is no road map. There is no peace".

Ever since Israel started building its "separation wall", violence has escalated in the occupied territories. The Sharon government's rationale for building the wall is that it would guarantee security for Israeli citizens. The Bush administration has accepted this argument, ignoring the facts on the ground. "Every time we do something you tell me America will do this and do that... . I want to tell you something clear: Don't worry about American pressure on Israel. We the Jewish people control America and the Americans know it," Sharon was quoted on Kol Yisrael radio while in conversation with Labour leader Shimon Peres on October 3, 2001.

For the Palestinians and the rest of the international community, the apartheid wall is yet another blatant instance of land-grabbing by Israel. The construction of the "wall", if completed, will be one of the most expensive projects attempted by the Zionist state. The Israeli media have reported that on any given day around 500 bulldozers are at work to help build the wall. The "snaking wall" will gobble up more Palestinian villages and farmland while taking in illegal Jewish settlements within its protective environment. More than 50,000 Palestinians would be losing their livelihoods soon because their lands would fall on the Israeli side of the illegal wall. World Bank experts have predicted that the wall will bring economic and social catastrophe to the Palestinians living in the western part of the West Bank. According to Palestinian officials, already two-thirds of the Palestinian population lives under the poverty line.

The land that the wall has encroached on is the most fertile part of the West Bank; it has almost 40 per cent of the agricultural land in the West Bank. Two-thirds of the water resources of the West Bank are also in this area. According to the World Bank, the first stage of the wall will affect the livelihood of over 200,000 Palestinians. The wall will imprison hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in enclaves of high walls and barbed wires. According to many Israeli commentators, the wall is only a pretext to annex the entire Jordan valley. The land between the wall and the Green Line (the line dividing Israel and the occupied territories) has been declared a "closed zone" by the Israeli Army. This means that the area is now open only to people of Jewish origin and Israeli citizens. Palestinians living in these areas will have no claim on their lands any more. All other Palestinians are prevented from entering these areas.

Mustafa Barghouthi, the Director of the Palestinian Health, Development and Information Policy Institute, told the media recently that once the wall is completed, a total of 600,000 people will be isolated in this zone and 58 per cent of the West Bank will be annexed by the Israelis for all practical purposes. "The apartheid wall is a clear indication of Israel's policy of ethnic cleansing - by annexing all this Palestinian land, the Israelis hope to force the Palestinians to leave," said Barghouthi. Palestinians, as well as many Israelis, have realised that Sharon, by building the wall, is attempting to demolish the two-state solution. Sharon has been quoted in the Israeli media as saying that he was in favour of creating, in the occupied territories, "Bantustans" on the lines of those that existed in apartheid South Africa.

Palestinians already encumbered by Israeli barricades and checkpoints will now find life even more difficult. According to Barghouthi, there are now 482 Israeli military checkpoints across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, effectively dividing the West Bank into 300 clusters and the Gaza Strip into four pieces. In places where the wall has been built, travel has become more difficult than before. A Palestinian doctor from Tulkaram, whose office is in Kalkilya, has to drive five hours every morning to cover a distance of 15 km, because he is now forced to go via Jenin, Nablus, the Jordan Valley, Ramallah and the trans-Samarrah road. According to Bargouthi, 82 Palestinians in need of medical attention died because they were denied permission to pass through Israeli checkpoints. There were 52 cases of women giving birth at checkpoints, in which 17 of the babies died. According to the Health, Development and Policy Institute, between September 2000 and January 2003, Israeli forces have killed 239 schoolchildren and wounded over 2,500 on their way to and from school. The upsurge in violence in the last three years has already resulted in the death of 3,567 people, including 2,655 Palestinians and 846 Israelis.

The Palestinian Authority (P.A.) has said that if Israel does not stop work on the wall, it will go to the International Court of Justice at the Hague for an advisory opinion on the legality of the barrier. In Israel itself, there are sane voices demanding that work on the wall be stopped forthwith and serious talks be resumed with the P.A. In early October, a group of Israeli Knesset (parliament) members met with prominent Palestinian politicians in Jordan. Among those involved in the talks was former Israeli Justice Minster Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian Information Minster Yasser Abed Rabbo. The dialogue has been on for the last one year and a draft document for a permanent peace agreement was initialled by the participants.

The talks had the blessings of Yasser Arafat and the P.A. Ariel Sharon, on the other hand, accused the Israeli Labour Party and the Left in his country of cooperating with the Palestinians "behind the back of the government". The draft peace proposals signed by both sides were based on the Taba agreements of 1999, signed during the last years of the Clinton presidency. The draft agreement signed in Jordan tries to chalk out a common ground on key issues listed as permanent settlement questions, including the status of Arab East Jerusalem, frontiers, Palestinian refugees and Jewish settlements. This development shows that there is still hope to resolve the Palestinian issue in a just, honourable and peaceful way.

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