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Middle East Violence: Tragic, Preditable

War Resisters League

The recent violent repression of Palestinian protesters by Israeli security forces is both tragic and tragically predictable. In the current issue of our magazine, the Nonviolent Activist, we editorialized about the flaws of the peace process, pointing to several items that were obvious to us as grassroots nonviolent activists—concerns that often appear hidden from the view of the power brokers who engage in negotiations, and, often from the media.

We take no pride in the prescience of our analysis. The cost in human lives, particularly Palestinian, and hope is too great. We re-release this editorial in the hope that the concerns we raised might influence (in some small way) public discussion about events in the Middle East.

Parsing A Peace Process

As nonviolent activists we want to believe in any efforts toward peace that include face-to-face negotiations by traditional enemies. There have not been many historical moments as moving as the sight of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat shaking the hand of Israel's then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn in 1993. Arafat was beaming, and why not? He'd come a long way from his days as a "terrorist chief" and international pariah. Rabin, too, had come a long way from ordering the arrests and shootings of untold Palestinians as head of the Israeli military; by the time of his 1995 assassination, he was seen (at least by some) as a beloved peacemaker.

Last July, in a continuation of the peace talks that produced the Oslo Accords in 1993, Arafat and current Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak secluded themselves at Camp David in Maryland for two weeks, apparently breaking new ground in compromise proposals but not being able to reach a final agreement. The fact that they kept at it for so many days was a hopeful sign (though at times one had the sense that perhaps neither really wanted to go home, given their own domestic political problems). And then there was President Clinton staying up late, flying home early from Japan, all the while looking rather desperate to secure a legacy as peacemaker in the Middle East.

It is a great relief that there is less violence and more talking in Israeli-Palestinian relations than there was 10 years ago, so why can't we just rejoice in the effort instead of critiquing it with the inevitable "But … "?

Because there are aspects of the process that are disturbing. Perhaps the most troubling is the U.S. role as peace broker. Clinton's "father-knows-best" benevolence not only sticks in the craw, it makes the whole process suspect. One rule of conflict resolution is that a party to the conflict should not act as mediator. But ever since Oslo, the mediator of the peace talks has been the United States, Israel's constant ally in the world community and its main financial backer. The $3 billion, including $1.8 billion in military aid, that U.S. taxpayers let Congress send to Israel is one of the key reasons that Israel has been able to maintain its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and to build—and continue to build—settlements there. ($3 billion is a low estimate; with other grants and loans the total may be more than $5 billion.) The United States could put a lot of pressure on Israel to move to true peace, but for its own reasons (including wanting this key ally in the Middle East as well as domestic politics) it hasn't.

Thus, despite the ongoing peace process, successive Israeli governments have built new settlements, demolished more Palestinian homes, expropriated more land and constructed more bypass roads that divide the Palestinian population centers from each other. Settlements and development surround Jerusalem in a very intentional effort to lessen Arab numbers and weaken their influence in the city. And the refugees remain in the camps.

Arafat's ego has probably not helped the Palestinians either. As he basked in his role as head of the Palestinian almost-state, the Palestine Authority has shut down opposition media, arrested critics and turned its guns on its own people.

Can such a flawed process create a longterm peace? Is an imperfect peace better than no peace? These are frustrating questions for those of us who profess nonviolence. On one hand, the flawed process has already led to new problems and will lead to more. On the other hand, of course it is better than not talking.

We'd love to be asked our opinion. We'd send the negotiations to neutral territory and get the United States out of the process. We'd cut military aid to the whole region and demand disarmament of all sides to the conflict. In the best possible world, we'd abolish the nation-state so that governments' power games no longer endanger people's lives.

Meanwhile, we (along with people around the world who care about human rights) urge the Israeli government to stop the settlements, the demolitions and the expropriations now. We demand that the U.S. government exert its considerable influence to bring about such a halt. Finally, we insist that the U.S. abandon its plan to recognize Israel's claim to all of Jerusalem by moving the U.S. Embassy to that city. Simple justice and the hope of peace in the future demand no less.

War Resisters League
339 Lafayette St.
New York, NY 10012
212-228-6193 (fax)
1-800-975-9688 (YouthPeace and A Day Without the Pentagon)
web address:

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