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GLW Feature: Israel The Obstacle To Peace

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Israel The Obstacle To Peace

By Ahmad Nimer

RAMALLAH — The May 15 commemorations here of Al Nakba (the Catastrophe), the anniversary of the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel, held special significance for Palestinians — for not since 1948 itself have the Palestinian people faced such a severe Israeli assault as they have in the last eight months.

In a move wrought with symbolism and loss of life, only days after the Al Nakba demonstrations the Israeli military unleashed F-16 warplanes on Palestinian targets in the West Bank.

At the same time, a flurry of negotiations began on the recommendations of the Mitchell report, the findings of an investigation team established under US auspices soon after the intifada, the uprising, began last September. The report's aim was to determine the best way to return the parties to the negotiating table.

Both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority have indicated that they support the Mitchell report, although each has cast the findings in a somewhat different light.

The Mitchell report has called for an end to violence between the two sides, a freeze on Israeli settlement construction, an end to “incitement” and a return to political negotiations after a “cooling-off period”.

US envoy William Burns travelled to the region and met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat to discuss implementation of the report. Both sides agreed to resume CIA-auspiced coordination between Palestinian security forces and the Israeli military.

Sharon also announced a “unilateral cease-fire” and refrained from responding to a series of car bombings and armed attacks on Israeli settlers in the West Bank which left two settlers dead and six wounded.

The Palestinian Authority has called the Israeli cease-fire a “media stunt”, pointing out that three Palestinians have been killed in clashes with the Israeli military since its announcement. Israeli soldiers continue to close off Palestinian areas and to demolish houses and raze crops near Palestinian villages, particularly in the Gaza Strip.

Among the Palestinian masses, the Mitchell report has been met with deep scepticism. People fear that an agreement may be reached that will bring the situation back to the intolerable status quo that existed prior to the intifada.

After eight months of severe Israeli repression and the deaths of nearly 500 Palestinians, an overwhelming majority of Palestinians believe that it would be unacceptable to end the intifada without some real achievements.

What the authors of the Mitchell report fail to acknowledge is a fact well understood by the Palestinian people — the origins of this intifada lie not in the deliberately provocative September visit of Ariel Sharon to the Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem but rather in the results of eight years of political negotiations. Moreover, without dealing with fundamental issues, there will be no real peace in the Middle East.

53 years of dispossession

The reasons for this lie in Al Nakba itself. Israel's establishment in 1948 followed decades of Zionist settlement in the historic land of Palestine. On the eve of 1948, Zionist settlers controlled 6.6% of Palestine, while Palestinians owned 87.5% of the total area. Following the war, Israel controlled 77.4% of the land, with the areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip falling under Jordanian and Egyptian control respectively.

Zionist colonisation differed from other European colonial models, in that it aimed to evict the indigenous population from the land rather than subject it to colonial rule.

Following a series of Zionist-instigated massacres, military attacks and a campaign of fear, more than 700,000 Palestinians fled their homes and land. Around 500 Palestinian villages and towns were depopulated and destroyed. Of the original indigenous Palestinian population, only 100,000 Palestinians were to remain in what became Israel.

In the wake of the 1967 war, Israel again occupied swathes of historic Palestine, this time the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, displacing a further 300,000 Palestinians.

Unlike those who remained inside the territories annexed in 1948, Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip were not given Israeli citizenship. A special set of rules, known as military orders, were drawn up to govern their lives. Every aspect of Palestinian life in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was governed by the Israeli Military Authority.

In the years since 1967, Israel has confiscated 79% of the land in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Simultaneously, it has undertaken a strategic program of settlement construction, designed to divide Palestinian areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip from one another.

Since the signing of the Oslo accords in September 1993, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has doubled to 200,000. In East Jerusalem, the number of Israeli settlers has exceeded 170,000, almost equal to the number of Palestinian residents.

Economic transformation

The war of 1967 had two important consequences for Israel. Firstly, while the occupation of land was beneficial to Israel in terms of resources, territory and economy, it also brought with it a large increase in the Palestinian population.

This posed an enormous problem for the Zionist state: how to control the land while avoiding the absorption of Palestinians into Israel.

Secondly, the war of 1967 marked the transformation of Israel into a strategic satellite of United States regional policy. Following the war, Israel received massive transfers of US aid in both the forms of military aid and financial gifts.

Israeli policy addressed the first issue through a series of settlement plans, the most significant of which was the Allon Plan of June 1968, which aimed to control the occupied territories through simultaneous settlement-building and offers of Palestinian autonomy and self-rule in the major population centres.

This same formula formed the cornerstone of Israeli strategy since 1967. The Oslo accords of September 1993 were merely its latest incarnation — and their unquestioned success is one of the root causes of the current intifada.

One impetus for achieving such a settlement with Palestinians in the occupied territories is the post-1980s transformation of Israel's economy from low-tech textiles and garments to more high-tech sectors. The dominant Israeli conglomerates are now deeply linked to US financial interests, and are an auxiliary to the US economy.

Before this transformation, Palestinian workers formed a large pool of cheap workers for labour-intensive Israeli industries, particularly in the agricultural and construction sectors.

Simultaneously, the Palestinian economy was purposely de-developed, with strict Israeli military orders preventing investment. Over half of Israeli military orders during the first intifada in the late 1980s, for example, were concerned with economic restrictions on the Palestinian economy.

The occupied territories also formed a large market for Israeli goods — up to 10% of Israeli exports in some years.

To transform its economy from low- to high-tech industries, however, the new Israeli bourgeoisie needed to “normalise” economic and political relations with the other countries in the Middle East, both to sell its goods and to invest in factories using cheap Arab labour in Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian areas.

The shift has been rapid: exports from food and beverage sectors fell by almost 20% between 1996 and 1997, while high-tech exports increased by 34.7%. Between 1992 and 1997 imports of clothing and finished products almost tripled while exports from that sector remained static. The government of Israel has pursued import liberalisation and free trade agreements with many countries, both in the region and throughout the world.

The major impediment to Israel's new role as regional economic power is the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The spectre of continuing intifadas haunts the Zionist state and prevents full normalisation with the Arab world.

The massive sympathy felt for the Palestinian struggle throughout the Arab world also threatens those Arab regimes which would prefer to fully embrace the Israeli market. The Jordanian and Egyptian governments, in particular, continue to carry out widespread arrests of those promoting a too active solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

Right of return

The kernel of the Palestinian question is found in the events of Al Nakba. The five million Palestinian refugees in the world today — mainly located in the refugee camps of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria — demand a return to the land from which they were displaced 53 years ago.

What would become of the Israeli state if this right of return was won? The answer to this question is shared unanimously by all spectrums of Israeli political opinion: if the right of return is recognised, then Israel would cease to exist in its present form.

The right of return of Palestinian refugees would challenge the very foundations of the exclusively Jewish state. The four million Israeli-Jewish citizens would be outnumbered by the five million returnees, the three million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the one million Palestinians currently residing in Israel.

Israel would then have only two choices: either become “a state for all its citizens”, as Palestinians demand, or fully take on the character of the South African apartheid regime, wherein a small minority rules the majority through racist laws.

It is thus this struggle for return which gives the Palestinian national movement its anti-imperialist dynamic.

Whether the Mitchell report and the US pressure that is being brought to bear will force the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government back to the negotiating table is not yet clear.

The massive opposition to this from the Palestinian masses presents a significant obstacle, but the weakness of the Palestinian left and the intifada's lack of a coherent strategy still makes it a real possibility.

One factor required, however, for such an unpopular move is a political and military force capable of ending the uprising and arresting political opponents of the Palestinian Authority.

Many Palestinians believe that such a force exists in the West Bank, in the form of the Palestinian Preventative Security led by Jibril Rajoub. The Preventative Security has been accused by some activists of recording the whereabouts and activities of those active in the intifada.

Rajoub has led the security coordination with the Israeli military and the Preventative Security is also the best funded, most heavily armed and well trained of all Palestinian security bodies, with the CIA.

In the Gaza Strip, however, the Preventative Security has been active in the intifada and it is the Palestinian General Intelligence which has not participated.

Some now speculate that the Israeli government may attempt to impose by force an arrangement whereby each Palestinian area comes under the control of a different security apparatus, a scenario more likely to occur in the war of succession which may follow Arafat's eventual death.

If US and Israeli pressure prove futile in halting the intifada, it is also possible that Sharon's government will further escalate, even to the lengths of all-out war and the massacres of Palestinian civilians carried out in Lebanon during the 1980s.

Another scenario is a re-run of Al Nakba: the forcible eviction of Palestinian residents from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a course of action which would provoke a massive response from Palestinians living inside Israel and the Arab population in neighbouring countries.

Regardless of its immediate future, the intifada has revealed the almost unanimous opposition within Palestinian society to the Oslo process and their still-total commitment to the right of return.

It has also demonstrated that there can be no solution to the Palestinian question, and indeed no peace in the region, without addressing the root cause of the problem — Zionism.

As long as Israel remains a Zionist state — supported by imperialist largesse and by very definition racist — then no amount of negotiations or “peace” plans can halt the struggle against it.


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