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Am Johal: It's The Occupation, Stupid!

It's The Occupation, Stupid!

The Al Aqsa Intifada is a disaster for Israelis and Palestinians as it hits its fourth year with no significant advances, no real agreement in sight or an end to the violence.
By Am Johal

Four years ago on September 28, 2000, when Ariel Sharon made his operatic visit to the Temple Mount, no one could have predicted how dire the situation would become so quickly: Close to 6,000 dead, the building of the Separation Wall inside Palestinian Territory despite an International Court of Justice decision calling it illegal, mass movement restrictions, continued passage of discriminatory legislation, military assassinations, much of the Palestinian population under closure and curfew, thousands of home demolitions and the uprooting of olive groves, socio-economic discrimination, racist incitement, subsidization of settlers, the number of jobless at an all time high, continued police violence, no cessation of suicide bombings, an economy in freefall, continued West Bank settlement expansion, the Gaza withdrawal still on hold and the Roadmap to Peace ostensibly dead. This is seemingly the pathetic legacy of the Al Aqsa Intifada years and Ariel Sharon's Likud government.

Places like Jenin, Nablus and Hebron have seen their cities terrorized. Gaza has been relentlessly bombarded despite all the talk of withdrawal. Buses in Jerusalem and Beersheba have been bombed. Israel continues to flaunt international human rights and humanitarian law in full view of the international community with little response.

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What is one of the worst things perhaps in this new reality, which is quite similar to the old reality, is the level of normalization this political climate has taken on in Palestinian and Israeli society. The Palestinians are still in trauma, shell shocked by the effects of the Occupation are still testing the atmosphere for change.

Its unfortunate result is the prevalence of several positions within the Israeli silent majority which perpetuate the present situation. First, that Israeli security concerns justify violations of Palestinian human rights through the use of collective punishment, mass movement restrictions and construction of the Separation Wall inside the Green Line. Second, that unilateral Israeli action is necessary to maintain Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state. And thirdly, that the Palestinian Authority and Yasser Arafat are not credible partners for peace.

Challenging the present political climate in favour of one which is driven by a need for human rights is not high on the agenda of any of the mainstream political movements in Israel today. It was after all the Labor Party which started the West Bank settlement expansion and plans for the Separation Wall.

As the leaders talk peace, the situation on the ground rarely shifts. From Hebron to Bethlehem to Nablus to Jericho, to Jenin to Gaza, the humiliating and daily effects of the Occupation are direct and all encompassing. This power relationship that exists today is still clearly not yet on an equal footing nor is there any relevant plan that sees this as the goal in the near future. The Roadmap to Peace and the Geneva Accord are deeply flawed. The Geneva Accord in its present form would have a Palestinian state cede control of its borders, airspace and underground water reserves to Israel.

Since Sharon became Prime Minister he has justified much of his unilateral policy in the Occupied Territories on the basis of "fighting terror" and an unwillingness to deal with Arafat. This game of violent response and counter-response between the Israelis and Palestinians has resulted in the Palestinians losing more than four times the number of lives through military repression, and territory as a result of the Separation Wall and within the other side of the West Bank through settlement expansion and its supporting infrastructure development. The borders of Jerusalem are also being expanded through annexation policies designed to create territorial contiguity for the benefit of settlers.

Despite the Roadmap's claims to push for an end to the Occupation and a move to a two state solution, its conditions placed on the Palestinian state are rigid and do not acknowledge the role Israel plays in maintaining a weakened Palestinian state. Arafat and the Palestinian Authority today has little power and is regularly undermined by Israel and its own lack of leadership.

Sharon's vision is ultimately to incorporate the West Bank into de facto Israeli control without absorbing any of the existing Palestinian population into Israel. In fact, some Israeli Cabinet Ministers openly talk about transferring some of the existing Israel Arab population to the West Bank. The refugee issue is not even on the map in any realistic way in the major peace plans being offered up today by Yossi Beilin, former Shabak director Ami Ayalon, Sharon through his unilateral disengagement plan or in the US led Roadmap to Peace.

The Americans have been total failures in guiding Israel towards peace, having bought into the argument that Israel requires operational space to deal with Palestinian resistance. The US continues to fund Israel between 3 - 5 billion dollars annually. In the Emergency Wartime Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2003 (Public Law 108-1, HR 1559), the US Congress approved $9 billion in US loan guarantees to Israel stipulating that the funds could only be used by those areas under Israeli control prior to 1967. This past week, they sold 5,000 American bombs to the Israeli Defense Forces seemingly in preparation for a possible future conflict with Iran.

The UN Special Rapporteur for Palestine, John Dugard, stated in his report that the growth of settlements together with the construction of the Wall "suggests that territorial expansion remains an essential feature of Israel's policies and practises in the [occupied Palestinian territories]."

The great legacy of the Second Intifada and the Sharon era will be the Separation Wall standing 26 feet tall, over 400 miles long, constructed with concrete and, in parts, enclosed with razor wire and with plans to set up a trace zone with fine sand to pick up footprints and to have parts of it mined. Palestinians living between the Green Line and the Separation Wall will particularly be isolated. When completed, 70,000 Palestinians will find themselves within this "no man's land" without access to Israel and the Palestinian territories on the other side of the wall. Water and food shortages resulting from movement restrictions have occurred regularly and the economy continues to suffer due to curfews, closures and checkpoints.

As Dugard noted, "The Wall has all the features of a permanent structure. The fact that it will incorporate half of the settler population in the West Bank and East Jerusalem suggests that it is designed to further entrench the position of the settlers. The evidence strongly suggests that Israel is determined to create facts on the ground amounting to de facto annexation."

What is being done today in the name of protecting Israeli security is clearly disproportionate to the threat being posed and is being used as a cover for land expropriation in the West Bank and Jerusalem. The Israelis and Palestinians continue to live through a 'Grand Dissonance' - leading parallel but uneqal lives disconnected from each others narratives resulting in disastrous consequences.

Naomi Klein's recent observation about the 'Likudization' of world politics is hardly a ringing endorsement of the Ariel Sharon regime. There is certainly value in bringing to international light the grave excesses of Israeli government policy in the past four years and of the Second Intifada in general.

There has been a gross failure of leadership at every level in this conflict. Fundamentalism of the religious and right wing variety has increased amongst Jews and Palestinians. Ariel Sharon's position as a moderate in Israel is not well earned considering his long history of military repression. Yasser Arafat needs to cultivate a new generation of leadership.

In short, after four years of pathetic leadership, the Israeli/Palestinian situation is no further ahead.


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