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Palestinians under SiegeEdward Said
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Vol. 22 No. 24 · 14 December 2000

Palestinians under Siege

Edward Said

6430 words

[ This article refers to a number of maps which are too detailed to be rendered readably on this website. They are available (via these links) as Acrobat PDF files. Map One shows the situation in Hebron now, with the Arab town dominated by Israeli settlements. Map Two follows the sequence of Israeli transfers of West Bank territory to Palestinian self-rule between 1994 and 1999. Map Three gives a detailed picture of the West Bank after the second Israeli redeployment earlier this year. The current demographic status of annexed East Jerusalem can be seen on Map Four. A breakdown of land expropriations in the same part of the city between 1967 and 1999 is given in Map Five. The map of Israel’s ‘Final status’ proposals for the West Bank put forward in May 2000 are shown in Map Six. All maps were provided by the Foundation for Middle East Peace, Washington.]

On 29 September, the day after Ariel Sharon, guarded by about a thousand Israeli police and soldiers strode into Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif (the ‘Noble Sanctuary’) in a gesture designed to assert his right as an Israeli to visit the Muslim holy place, a conflagration started which continues as I write in late November. Sharon himself is unrepentant, blaming the Palestinian Authority for ‘deliberate incitement’ against Israel ‘as a strong democracy’ whose ‘Jewish and democratic character’ the Palestinians wish to change. He went to Haram al-Sharif, he wrote in the Wall Street Journal a few days later, ‘to inspect and ascertain that freedom of worship and free access to the Temple Mount is granted to everyone’, but he didn’t mention his huge armed entourage or the fact that the area was sealed off before, during and after his visit, which scarcely ensures freedom of access. He also neglected to say anything about the consequence of his visit: on the 29th, the Israeli Army shot eight Palestinians dead. What everyone ignored, moreover, is that the natives of a place under military occupation – which East Jerusalem has been since it was annexed by Israel in 1967 – are entitled by international law to resist by any means possible. Besides, two of the oldest and greatest Muslim shrines in the world, dating back a millennium and a half, are supposed by archaeologists to have been built on the site of the Temple Mount – a convergence of religious topoi that a provocative visit by an extremist Israeli general was never going to help to sort out. A general, it’s as well to recall, who had played a role in a number of atrocities dating back to the 1950s, and including Sabra, Shatila, Qibya and Gaza.

According to the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, as of early November, 170 people had been killed, 6000 wounded: these figures do not include 14 Israeli deaths (eight of them soldiers) and a slightly larger number of wounded. The Palestinian deaths include at least 22 boys under the age of 15 and, says the Israeli organisation B’tselem, 13 Palestinian citizens of Israel, killed by the Israeli police in demonstrations inside Israel. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have issued stern condemnations of Israel for the disproportionate use of force against civilians; Amnesty has published a report detailing the harassment, torture and illegal arrest of Arab children in Israel and Jerusalem. Parts of the Israeli press have been considerably more forthcoming and straightforward in their reporting and commentary on what has been taking place than the US and European media. Writing in Ha’aretz on 12 November, Gideon Levy noted with alarm that most of the handful of Arab members of the Knesset have been punished for objecting to Israel’s policy towards Palestinians: some have been relieved of committee work, others are facing trial, still others are undergoing police interrogation. All this, he concludes, is part of ‘the process of demonisation and delegitimisation being conducted against the Palestinians’ inside Israel as well as those in the Occupied Territories.

‘Normal life’, such as it was, for Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip is now impossible. Even the three hundred or so Palestinians allowed freedom of movement and other VIP privileges under the terms of the peace process have now lost these advantages, and like the rest of the three million or so people who endure the double burden of life under the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli occupation regime – to say nothing of the brutality of thousands of Israeli settlers, some of whom act as vigilantes terrorising Palestinian villages and large towns like Hebron – they are subject to the closures, encirclements and barricaded roads that have made movement impossible. Even Yasser Arafat has to ask permission to leave or enter the West Bank or Gaza, where his airport is opened and closed at will by the Israelis, and his headquarters have been bombed punitively by missiles fired from helicopter gunships. As for the flow of goods into and out of the territories, it has come to a standstill. According to the UN Special Co-0rdinator’s Office in the Occupied Territories, trade with Israel accounts for 79.8 per cent of Palestinian commercial transactions; trade with Jordan, which comes next, accounts for 2.39 per cent. That this figure is so low is directly ascribable to Israel’s control of the Palestine-Jordan frontier (in addition to the Syrian, Lebanese and Egyptian borders). With Israel closed off, therefore, the Palestinian economy is losing $19.5 million a day on average – this already amounts to three times the total aid received from donor sources during the first six months of this year. For a population which continues to depend on the Israeli economy – thanks to the economic agreements signed by the PLO under Oslo – this is a severe hardship.

What hasn’t slowed down is the rate of Israeli settlement building. On the contrary, according to the authoritative Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories (RISOT), it has almost doubled over the past few years. The Report adds that ‘1924 settlement units have been started’ since the start of the ‘pro-peace’ regime of Ehud Barak in July 1999 – and there is in addition the continuing programme of road-building and the expropriation of property for that purpose, as well as the degradation of Palestinian agricultural land both by the Army and the settlers. The Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights has documented the ‘sweepings’ of olive groves and vegetable farms by the Israeli Army (or, as it prefers to be known, Israeli Defence Force) near the Rafah border, for example, and on either side of the Gush Katif settlement block. Gush Katif is an area of Gaza – about 40 per cent – occupied by a few thousand settlers, who can water their lawns and fill their swimming pools, while the one million Palestinian inhabitants of the Strip (800,000 of them refugees from former Palestine) live in a parched, water-free zone. In fact, Israel controls the whole water supply of the Occupied Territories and assigns 80 per cent of it for the personal use of its Jewish citizens, rationing the rest for the Palestinian population: this issue was never seriously discussed during the Oslo peace process.

What of this vaunted peace process? What has it achieved and why, if indeed it was a peace process, has the miserable condition of the Palestinians and the loss of life become so much worse than before the Oslo Accords were signed in September 1993? And why is it, as the New York Times noted on 5 November, that ‘the Palestinian landscape is now decorated with the ruins of projects that were predicated on peaceful integration’? And what does it mean to speak of peace if Israeli troops and settlements are still present in such large numbers? Again, according to RISOT, 110,000 Jews lived in illegal settlements in Gaza and the West Bank before Oslo; the number has since increased to 195,000, a figure that doesn’t include those Jews – more than 150,000 – who have taken up residence in Arab East Jerusalem. Has the world been deluded or has the rhetoric of ‘peace’ been in essence a gigantic fraud?

Some of the answers to these questions lie buried in reams of documents signed by the two parties under American auspices, unread except by the small handful of people who negotiated them. Others are simply ignored by the media and the governments whose job, it now appears, was to press on with disastrous information, investment and enforcement policies, regardless of the horrors taking place on the ground. A few people, myself included, have tried to chronicle what has been going on, from the initial Palestinian surrender at Oslo until the present, but in comparison with the mainstream media and governments, not to mention the status reports and recommendations circulated by huge funding agencies like the World Bank, the European Union and many private foundations – notably the Ford Foundation – who have played along with the deception, our voices have had a negligible effect except, sadly, as prophecy.

The disturbances of the past few weeks have not been confined to Palestine and Israel. The displays of anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment in the Arab and Islamic worlds are comparable to those of 1967. Angry street demonstrations are a daily occurrence in Cairo, Damascus, Casablanca, Tunis, Beirut, Baghdad and Kuwait. Millions of people have expressed their support for the al-Aqsa Intifada, as it has become known, as well as their outrage at the submissiveness of their governments. The Arab Summit in Cairo in October produced the usual ringing denunciations of Israel and a few more dollars for Arafat’s Authority, but even the minimum diplomatic protest – the recall of ambassadors – was not made by any of the participants. On the day after the Summit, the American-educated Abdullah of Jordan, whose knowledge of Arabic is reported to have progressed to secondary school level, flew off to Washington to sign a trade agreement with the US, Israel’s chief supporter. After six weeks of turbulence, Mubarak reluctantly withdrew his ambassador from Tel Aviv, but he depends greatly on the two billion dollars Egypt receives in annual US aid and is unlikely to go any further. Like other leaders in the Arab world, he also needs the US to protect him from his people. Meanwhile Arab anger, humiliation and frustration continue to build up, whether because their regimes are so undemocratic and unpopular or because the basics – employment, income, nutrition, health, education, infrastructure – have fallen below tolerable levels. Appeals to Islam and generalised expressions of outrage stand in for a sense of citizenship and participatory democracy. This bodes ill for the future, of the Arabs as well as of Israel.

In foreign affairs circles during the last 25 years, the word has been that the cause of Palestine is dead, that pan-Arabism is a mirage, and that Arab leaders, mostly discredited, have accepted Israel and the US as partners, and in the process of shedding their nationalism have settled for the panacea of deregulation in a global economy, whose early prophet in the Arab world was Anwar al-Sadat and whose influential drummer-boy has been the New York Times columnist and Middle East expert Thomas Friedman. Last October, after seven years of writing columns in praise of the Oslo peace process, Friedman found himself in Ramallah, under siege by the Israeli Army (and under fire). ‘Israeli propaganda that the Palestinians mostly rule themselves in the West Bank is fatuous nonsense,’ he announced. ‘Sure, the Palestinians control their own towns, but the Israelis control all the roads connecting these towns and therefore all their movements. Israeli confiscation of Palestinian land for more settlements is going on to this day – seven years into Oslo.’ He concludes that only ‘a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank’ can bring peace, but says nothing about what kind of state it would be. Nor does he say anything about ending military occupation, but neither do the Oslo documents. Why Friedman never discussed this in the thousands of column inches he has published since September 1993, and why even now he doesn’t say that today’s events are the logical outcome of Oslo defies common sense, but it is typical of the disingenuousness that surrounds the subject.

The optimism of those who took it on themselves to ensure that the misery of the Palestinians was kept out of the news seems to have disappeared in a cloud of dust along with the ‘peace’ which the US and Israel have worked so hard to consolidate in their own narrow interests. At the same time, the old framework that survived the Cold War is slowly crumbling as the Arab leaderships age, without viable successors in sight. Mubarak has refused even to appoint a vice-president, Arafat has no clear successor; in Iraq and Syria’s ‘democratic socialist’ Ba’ath republics, as in the Kingdom of Jordan, the sons have taken over – or will take over – from the fathers, covering the process of dynastic autocracy with the merest fig-leaf of legitimacy.

A turning point has been reached, however, and for this the Palestinian Intifada is a significant marker. For not only is it an anti-colonial rebellion of the kind that has been seen periodically in Setif, Sharpeville, Soweto and elsewhere, it is another example of the general discontent with the post-Cold War order (economic and political) displayed in the events of Seattle and Prague. Most of the world’s Muslims see the uprising as part of a broader picture that includes Sarajevo, Mogadishu, Baghdad under US-led sanctions and Chechnya. What must be clear to every ruler, including Clinton and Barak, is that the period of stability guaranteed by the tripartite dominance of Israel, the US and local Arab regimes is now threatened by popular forces of uncertain magnitude, unknown direction, unclear vision. Whatever shape they eventually take, theirs will be an unofficial culture of the dispossessed, the silenced and the scorned. Very likely, too, it will bear in itself the distortions of years of past official policy.

Meanwhile, it is correct to say that most people hearing phrases like ‘the parties are negotiating,’ or ‘let’s get back to the negotiating table,’ or ‘you are my peace partner,’ have assumed that there is parity between Palestinians and Israelis and that, thanks to the brave souls from each side who met secretly in Oslo, the two parties have at last been settling the questions that ‘divide’ them, as if each had a piece of land, a territory from which to face the other. This is seriously, indeed mischievously misleading. In fact, the disproportion between the two antagonists is immense, in terms of the territory they control and the weapons at their disposal. Biased reporting disguises the extent of the disparity. Consider the following: citing an Anti-Defamation League survey of editorials published in the mainstream US press, Ha’aretz on 25 October found ‘a pattern of support’ for Israel, with 19 newspapers expressing sympathy for Israel in 67 editorials, 17 giving ‘balanced analysis’, and only nine ‘voicing criticism against Israeli leaders (particularly Ariel Sharon), whom they accused of responsibility for the conflagration’. In November, FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) noted that of the 99 Intifada stories broadcast by the three major US networks between 28 September and 2 November, only four made reference to the ‘Occupied Territories’. The same report drew attention to phrases such as ‘Israel … again feeling isolated and under siege’, ‘Israeli soldiers under daily attack’, and, in a confrontation where its soldiers were forced back, ‘Israelis have surrendered territory to Palestinian violence.’ Highly partial formulations of this kind are threaded through network news commentary, obscuring the facts of occupation and military imbalance: the Israeli Defence Forces have been using tanks, American and British-supplied Cobra and Apache attack helicopters, missiles, mortars and heavy machine-guns; the Palestinians have none of these things.

The New York Times has run only one op-ed piece by a Palestinian or an Arab (and he happens to be a supporter of Oslo) in a blizzard of editorial comment that favours the US and Israeli positions; the Wall Street Journal has not run any such articles; nor has the Washington Post. On 12 November one of the most popular US television programmes, CBS’s Sixty Minutes, broadcast a sequence which seemed to be designed to let the Israeli Army ‘prove’ that the killing of the 12-year-old Mohammad al-Dura, the icon of Palestinian suffering, was stage-managed by the Palestinian Authority. The Authority, it was said, had planted the boy’s father in front of Israeli gun positions and moved the French TV crew that recorded the killing into position nearby – all to prove an ideological point.

Misrepresentation has made it almost impossible for the American public to understand the geographical basis of the events, in this, the most geographical of contests. No one can be expected to follow and, more important, retain a cumulatively accurate picture of the arcane provisions that obtain on the ground, the result of mostly secret negotiations between Israel and a disorganised, pre-modern and tragically incompetent Palestinian team, under Arafat’s thumb. Crucially, the relevant UN Security Council Resolutions – 242 and 338 – are now forgotten, having been marginalised by Israel and the US. Both resolutions stipulate unequivocally that the land acquired by Israel as a result of the war of 1967 must be given back in return for peace. The Oslo process began by effectively consigning those resolutions to the rubbish bin – and so it was a great deal easier, after the failure of the Camp David summit last July, to claim, as Clinton and Barak have done, that the Palestinians were to blame for the impasse, rather than the Israelis, whose position remains that the 1967 territories are not to be returned. The US press has referred again and again to Israel’s ‘generous’ offer and Barak’s willingness to concede part of East Jerusalem plus anything between 90 and 94 per cent of the West Bank to the Palestinians. Yet no one writing in the US or European press has established precisely what was to be ‘conceded’ or quite what territory on the West Bank he was ‘offering’ 90 per cent of. The whole thing was chimerical nonsense, as Tanya Reinhart showed in Yediot Aharanot, Israel’s largest daily. In ‘The Camp David Fraud’ (13 July), she writes that the Palestinians were offered 50 per cent of the West Bank in separated cantons; 10 per cent was to be annexed by Israel and no less than 40 per cent was to be left ‘under debate’, to use the euphemism for continued Israeli control. If you annex 10 per cent, decline (as Barak did) to dismantle or stop settlements, refuse over and over again to return to the 1967 lines or give back East Jerusalem, deciding at the same time to hold onto whole areas like the Jordan Valley, and so completely encircle the Palestinian territories as to let them have no borders with any state except Israel, in addition to retaining the notorious ‘bypass’ roads and their adjacent areas, the famous ‘90 per cent’ is rapidly reduced to something like 50-60 per cent, the greater part of which is only up for discussion some time in the very distant future. After all, even the last Israeli redeployment agreed at the Wye River Plantation meetings of 1998 and reconfirmed at Sharm el Sheikh in 1999, has still not occurred. It bears repeating, of course, that Israel is still the only state in the world with no officially declared borders. And when we look at that 50-60 per cent in terms of the former Palestine, it amounts to about 12 per cent of the land from which the Palestinians were driven in 1948. The Israelis talk of ‘conceding’ these territories. But they were taken by conquest and, in a strict sense, Barak’s offer would only mean that they were being returned, by no means in their entirety.

To begin with, some facts. In 1948 Israel took over most of what was historical or Mandatory Palestine, destroying and depopulating 531 Arab villages in the process. Two thirds of the population were driven out: they are the four million refugees of today. The West Bank and Gaza, however, went to Jordan and Egypt respectively. Both were subsequently lost to Israel in 1967 and remain under its control to this day, except for a few areas that operate under a highly circumscribed Palestinian ‘autonomy’ – the size and contours of these areas was decided unilaterally by Israel, as the Oslo process specifies. Few people realise that even under the terms of Oslo, the Palestinian areas that have this autonomy or self-rule do not enjoy sovereignty: that can only be decided as part of the Final Status Negotiations. In other words, Israel took 78 per cent of Palestine in 1948 and the remaining 22 per cent in 1967. Only that 22 per cent is in question now, and it excludes West Jerusalem (of 19,000 dunams there, Jews owned 4830 and Arabs 11,190, the rest was state land), (see note 1) all of which Arafat conceded in advance to Israel at Camp David.

What land, then, has Israel returned so far? It is impossible to detail in any straightforward way – impossible by design. It is part of Oslo’s malign genius that even Israel’s ‘concessions’ were so heavily encumbered with conditions, qualifications and entailments – like one of the endlessly deferred and physically unobtainable estates in a Jane Austen novel – that the Palestinians could not feel that they enjoyed any semblance of self-determination. On the other hand, they could be described as concessions, making it possible for everyone (including the Palestinian leadership) to say that certain areas of land were now (mostly) under Palestinian control. It is the geographical map of the peace process that most dramatically shows the distortions which have been building up and have been systematically disguised by the measured discourse of peace and bilateral negotiations. Ironically, in none of the many dozens of news reports published or broadcast since the present crisis began has a map been provided to help explain why the conflict has reached such a pitch.

The Oslo strategy was to redivide and subdivide an already divided Palestinian territory into three subzones, A, B and C, in ways entirely devised and controlled by the Israeli side since, as I have been pointing out for several years, the Palestinians themselves have until recently been mapless. They had no detailed maps of their own at Oslo; nor, unbelievably, were there any individuals on the negotiating team familiar enough with the geography of the Occupied Territories to contest decisions or to provide alternative plans. Whence the bizarre arrangements for subdividing Hebron after the 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinians at the Horahimi mosque by Baruch Goldstein – measures undertaken to ‘protect’ the settlers, not the Palestinians. Map One here shows how the core of the Arab town (120,000 inhabitants) – 20 per cent of it, in fact – is under the control of roughly four hundred Jewish settlers, about 0.03 per cent of the total protected by the Israeli Army.

Map Two shows the first of what was intended to be a series of Israeli pullbacks made in widely separated – that is, non-contiguous – areas. Gaza is separated from Jericho by miles and miles of Israeli-held land, but both belong to an autonomous Area A which, in the West Bank, was limited to 1.1 per cent of the territory. The Gaza component of Area A is much larger mainly because, with its arid land and overpopulated and rebellious masses, Gaza was always considered a net liability for the Israeli occupation, which was happy to be rid of all but the choice agricultural land at its heart, the various settlements, retained until now by Israel along with the harbour, the borders, entrances and exits. Map Two, Map Three and Map Four (Four was presented by Israel as an optimal withdrawal map at the Camp David summit, though announced earlier) show the snail’s pace at which the hapless Palestinian Authority has been allowed to take over the large population centres (Area A); in Area B, Israel allowed the Authority to help police the main village areas, near where settlements were constantly under construction. Despite joint patrols of Palestinian and Israeli officers, Israel held all the real security of Area B in its hands. In Area C it has kept all the territory for itself, 60 per cent of the West Bank, in order to build more settlements, open up more roads and establish military areas, all of which – in Jeff Halper’s words – were intended to set up a matrix of control from which the Palestinians would never be free. (See note 2)

A glance at any of the maps reveals not only that the various parts of Area A are separated from each other, but that they are surrounded by Area B and, more important, Area C. In other words, the closures and encirclements that have turned the Palestinian areas into besieged spots on the map have been long in the making and, worse still, the Palestinian Authority has conspired in this: it has approved all the relevant documents since 1994. In October Amira Hass, the Ha’aretz correspondent in the Palestinian territories, wrote that in 1993 the two sides

agreed on a period of five years for completion of the new deployment and the negotiations on a final agreement. The Palestinian leadership agreed again and again to extend its trial period, in the shadow of Hamas terrorist attacks and the Israeli elections. The ‘peace strategy’ and the tactic of gradualism adopted by the leadership were at first supported by most of the Palestinian public, which craves normalcy

– and, I would have thought, a real ending of the occupation which, to repeat, was nowhere mentioned in any of the Oslo documents. She goes on:

Fatah (the main faction of the PLO) was the backbone of support for the concept of gradual release from the yoke of military occupation. Its members were the ones who kept track of the Palestinian opposition, arrested suspects whose names were given to them by Israel, imprisoned those who signed manifestos claiming that Israel did not intend to rescind its domination over the Palestinian nation. The personal advantage gained by some of these Fatah members is not enough to explain their support of the process: for a long time they really and truly believed that this was the way to independence.

By ‘advantage’ Hass means the VIP privileges I mentioned earlier. But then, as she points out, these men, too, were members of ‘the Palestinian nation’, with wives, children and siblings who suffered the consequences of Israeli occupation, and were bound, at some point, to ask whether support for the peace process did not also mean support for the occupation. She concludes:

More than seven years have gone by, and Israel has security and administrative control of 61.2 per cent of the West Bank and about 20 per cent of the Gaza Strip (Area C), and security control over another 26.8 per cent of the West Bank (Area B).

This control is what has enabled Israel to double the number of settlers in ten years, to enlarge the settlements, to continue its discriminatory policy of cutting back water quotas for three million Palestinians, to prevent Palestinian development in most of the area of the West Bank, and to seal an entire nation into restricted areas, imprisoned in a network of bypass roads meant for Jews only. During these days of strict internal restriction of movement in the West Bank, one can see how carefully each road was planned: so that 200,000 Jews have freedom of movement and about three million Palestinians are locked into their Bantustans until they submit to Israeli demands.

To which one should add, by way of clarification, that the main aquifers for Israel’s water supply are on the West Bank; that the ‘entire nation’ excludes the four million refugees who are categorically denied the right of return, even though any Jew anywhere still enjoys an absolute right of ‘return’ at any time; that restriction of movement is as severe in Gaza as it is on the West Bank; and that Hass’s figure of 200,000 Jews in Gaza and on the West Bank enjoying freedom of movement does not include the 150,000 new Israeli-Jewish inhabitants who have been brought in to ‘Judaise’ East Jerusalem.

The Palestinian Authority is locked into this astonishingly ingenious, if in the long run fruitless, arrangement via security committees made up of Mossad, the CIA and the Palestinian security services. At the same time, Israel and high-ranking members of the Authority operate lucrative monopolies on building materials, tobacco, oil etc (profits are deposited in Israeli banks). Not only are Palestinians subject to harassment from Israeli troops, but their own men participate in this abuse of their rights, alongside hated non-Palestinian agencies. These largely secret security committees also have a mandate to censor anything that might be construed as ‘incitement’ against Israel. Palestinians, of course, have no such right against American or Israeli incitements.

The slow pace of this unfolding process is justified by the US and Israel in terms of safeguarding the latter’s security; one hears nothing about Palestinian security. Clearly we must conclude, as Zionist discourse has always stipulated, that the very existence of Palestinians, no matter how confined or disempowered, constitutes a racial and religious threat to Israel’s security. All the more remarkable that in the midst of such amazing unanimity, at the height of the present crisis, Danny Rabinowitz, an Israeli anthropologist, spoke bravely in Ha’aretz (17 October) of Israel’s ‘original sin’ in destroying Palestine in 1948, which with few exceptions Israelis have chosen either to deny or to forget completely.

If the geography of the West Bank has been altered to Israel’s advantage, Jerusalem’s has been changed entirely. The annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967 added 70 square kilometres to the state of Israel; another 54 square kilometres were filched from the West Bank and added to the metropolitan area ruled for so long by Mayor Teddy Kollek, the darling of Western liberals, who with his deputy, Meron Benvenisti, was responsible for the demolition of several hundred Palestinian homes in Haret al-Maghariba to make way for the immense plaza in front of the Wailing Wall. (See note 3) Since 1967 East Jerusalem has been systematically Judaised, its borders inflated, enormous housing projects built, new roads and bypasses constructed so as to make it unmistakably and virtually unreturnable and, for the dwindling, harassed Arab population of the city, all but uninhabitable. As Deputy Mayor Abraham Kehila said in July 1993, ‘I want to make the Palestinians open their eyes to reality and understand that the unification of Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty is irreversible.’ (See Map Five. Recent small arms fire directed at the new Jerusalem settlement of Gilo from the neighbouring Palestinian village of Beit Jala has been unanimously reported in the media without anyone mentioning that Gilo was built on land confiscated from Beit Jala. Few Palestinians will forget their past so easily.)

The Camp David summit in July broke down because Israel and the US presented all the territorial arrangements I have been discussing here – only slightly modified to give Palestinians back two ‘nature areas’, a euphemism for desert land, so as to increase their portion of the total land area – as the basis for the final settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Reparations were, in effect, dismissed by the Israelis, although they are not an entirely alien idea to many Jews. I have seen no mention in the Western media of a long report on Camp David written by Akram Haniyeh, editor of the Ramallah daily Al-Ayyam, and a Fatah loyalist who, since his deportation by the Israelis in 1987, has been close to Arafat. Haniyeh makes it clear that from the Palestinian point of view Clinton simply reinforced the Israeli position, and that, in order to save his career, Barak wanted a quick conclusion to critical issues such as the refugee problem and Jerusalem, as well as a formal declaration from Arafat ending the conflict definitively. (Barak has since called for early elections as a way of staving off a total Parliamentary defeat.) Haniyeh’s gripping account of what took place is soon to appear in English translation in the Washington-based Journal of Palestine Studies. It shows that the ‘unprecedented’ Israeli position on Jerusalem was in fact tailored to that of the Israeli right-wing – in other words, that Israel would retain conclusive sovereignty over even the al-Aqsa mosque. ‘The Israeli position,’ Haniyeh says, ‘was to reap everything’ – and to give almost nothing in return. Israel would have got the ‘golden signature’ from Arafat, final recognition and ‘the precious “end of conflict” promise’. All this without a complete return of occupied territory, an acknowledgment of full sovereignty or a recognition of the refugee issue.

Since 1967 the US has disbursed more than $200 billion dollars in unconditional financial and military aid to Israel, while offering blanket political support that allows Israel to do as it pleases. Britain, whose foreign policy is a carbon copy of Washington’s, also supplies military hardware that goes directly to the West Bank and Gaza to facilitate the killing of Palestinians. No state has received anywhere near as much foreign aid as Israel and no state (aside from the US itself) has defied the international community on so many issues for so long. Were Al Gore to become President this policy would remain unchanged. Gore is uncompromisingly pro-Israeli, and a close associate of Martin Peretz, Israel’s leading pro-rejectionist and anti-Arab rhetorician in the US, and owner of the New Republic. At least George W. Bush made an effort during the campaign to address Arab American concerns, but like most past Republican Presidents, he would be only sightly less pro-Israeli than Gore.

For seven years, Arafat had been signing peace process agreements with Israel. Camp David was obviously meant to be the last. He balked, no doubt, because he had woken up to the enormity of what he had already signed away (I’d like to think his nightmares are made up of unending rides on the bypasses of Area C); no doubt, too, because he was aware how much popularity he had lost. Never mind the corruption, the despotism, the spiralling unemployment, now up to 25 per cent, the sheer poverty of most of his people: he fin-ally understood that, having been kept alive by Israel and the US, he would be thrown back to his people without the Haram al-Sharif and without a real state, or even the prospect of viable statehood. Young Palestinians have had enough and, despite Arafat’s feeble efforts to control them, have taken to the streets to throw stones and fire slingshots at Israeli Merkavas and Cobras.

What Israel has depended on in the past, the ignorance, complicity or laziness of journalists outside Israel, is now countered by the fantastic amount of alternative information available on the Internet. Cyber activists and hackers have opened a vast new reservoir of material which anyone with a minimum of literacy can tap into. There are reports not only by journalists from the British press (there aren’t any equivalents in the US establishment media) but also from the Israeli and Europe-based Arab press; there is research by individual scholars and information gleaned from archives, international organisations and UN agencies, as well as from NGO collectives in Palestine, Israel, Europe, Australia and North America. Here, as in many other instances, reliable information is the greatest enemy of oppression and injustice.

The most demoralising aspect of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict is the almost total opposition between mainstream Israeli and Palestinian points of view. We were dispossessed and uprooted in 1948, they think they won independence and that the means were just. We recall that the land we left and the territories we are trying to liberate from military occupation are all part of our national patrimony; they think it is theirs by Biblical fiat and diasporic affiliation. Today, by any conceivable standards, we are the victims of the violence; they think they are. There is simply no common ground, no common narrative, no possible area for genuine reconciliation. Our claims are mutually exclusive. Even the notion of a common life shared in the same small piece of land is unthinkable. Each of us thinks of separation, perhaps even of isolating and forgetting the other.

The greater moral pressure to change is on the Israelis, whose military actions and unwise peace strategy derive from a preponderance of power on their side, and an unwillingness to see that they are laying up years of resentment and hatred on the part of Muslims and Arabs. Ten years from now there will be demographic parity between Arabs and Jews in historical Palestine: what then? Can the tank deployments, road blocks and house demolitions continue as before? Might it not make sense for a group of respected historians and intellectuals, composed equally of Palestinians and Israelis, to hold a series of meetings to try to agree a modicum of truth about this conflict, to see whether the known sources can guide the two sides to agree on a body of facts – who took what from whom, who did what to whom, and so on – which in turn might reveal a way out of the present impasse? It is too early, perhaps, for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but something like a Historical Truth and Political Justice Committee would be appropriate.

It is clear to everyone on the ground that the old Oslo framework which has done so much damage is no longer workable (a recent poll conducted by Bir Zeit University shows that only 3 per cent of the Palestinian population want to return to the old negotiations) and that the Palestinian negotiating team led by Arafat can no longer hold the centre, much less the nation. Everyone feels that enough is enough: the occupation has gone on too long, the peace talks have dragged on with too little to show for them, the goal, if it was to have been independence, seems no closer (thank Rabin, Peres and their Palestinian counterparts for that particular failure), and the suffering of ordinary people has gone further than can be endured. Hence the stone-throwing in the streets, yet another futile activity with its own tragic consequences. The only hope is to keep trying to rely on an idea of coexistence between two peoples in one land. For now, though, the Palestinians are in desperate need of guidance and, above all, physical protection. Barak’s plan to punish, contain and stifle them has already had calamitous results, but it cannot, as he and his American mentors suppose, bring them to heel. Why is it that more Israelis do not realise – as some already have – that a policy of brutality against Arabs in a part of the world containing three hundred million Arabs and 1.2 billion Muslims, will not make the Jewish state more secure?

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Letters

Vol. 23 No. 1 · 4 January 2001

The two recent articles in the LRB on Israel and the Palestinians, by Charles Glass (LRB, 30 November 2000) and Edward Said (LRB, 14 December 2000), both propose that Israel officially admit its ‘great lie’ – the denial of Palestinian nationhood – preferably at Said’s fantasy seminar on Historical Truth and Political Justice, presided over by academics like himself. Said suggests that this ‘might reveal a way out of the present impasse’. Can he be serious?

At no time in the last fifty years has there been greater recognition in Israel of Palestinian nationhood and right to sovereignty than there is today. If anything, this has only increased the fear of large sections of the Israeli electorate that a Palestinian state, on a territorial base free of Israeli control, and with help from outside (Iran, Iraq, Islamic terrorists on the Bin Laden model), might constitute an irredentist threat. Said points out that the land offered the Palestinians today is only a fraction of what they owned before 1948 and warns that Israel is surrounded by three hundred million Arabs and even more hostile Muslims – precisely the kind of rhetoric which alarms those Israelis. His demonisation of the Israelis – the ‘malign genius’ behind the Oslo Accords, their ‘reliance’ on a subservient American press (can he really believe that the New Republic determines US policy?) – is absurd. The Israelis do not lack their own futile rhetoric – the ‘eternal unity’ of Jerusalem under Israeli rule, for example, when the city is so clearly divided – but the tenor of the negotiations so far makes nonsense of the idea that it is the incompatibility of ‘discourses’ or ‘narratives’, or even ‘ideological’ support for the settlers, which perpetuates the Israeli occupation and the undeniable injustice and suffering experienced by those living under Israeli rule. Negotiations broke down because there is still a gap between Israel’s minimal security demands and Palestinian minimal sovereignty requirements, though this gap had been substantially narrowed. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, if this is the model for Said’s seminar, did not precede black African independence but followed it, and the only practical consequence of a similar Israeli/Palestinian commission might be the payment of reparations to Palestinian refugees – something already proposed by Israel at Camp David, but explicitly offered without any admission of guilt.

There has indeed been much controversy in Israel over the historical record, and not only among academics, as Charles Glass’s article suggests. The education committee of the Knesset is currently arguing over proposed changes to the (secular) school history curriculum – a reflection of the impact of the ‘revisionist’ historians. An Israeli district court is shortly to hear a libel case brought against a researcher who investigated a massacre of Palestinian villagers during the 1948 war. The long neglected rights of Israel’s Arab minority have never been more in the public eye. Meron Benvenisti, whom Said attacks, is one of the most outspoken critics of Israeli policy. In Sacred Landscape, published last year, he documents Israel’s systematic annihilation of the hundreds of Arab villages whose inhabitants were driven out or fled in 1948. Israelis and Palestinians have never held a closer dialogue than in the post-Oslo period (including countless seminars with participants from both sides). But all this has little or no political resonance.

Said’s rubbishing of the Oslo Accords dismisses both the optimism they first aroused in the Palestinians living under Israeli rule and the degree of co-operation which was in fact achieved. The problem with Oslo was not that it was a ‘gigantic fraud’ on Israel’s side, connived at by a corrupt and inept Palestinian leadership, as Said argues. Oslo represented a genuine step towards a settlement, but to be successful it had to be rapidly and honestly implemented, so that the benefits of compromise could be demonstrated to both sides before extremists on both sides could impede further progress. That this did not happen was largely Israel’s responsibility (three lost years under Netanyahu). But to present the Palestinians solely as victims, as Said does, it to deny them the strength of their weaknesses. Said’s proposition that Arafat’s volte face after Camp David – the immediate cause of the present impasse – was dictated by failure of nerve, rather than the calculation that an uprising would serve his purposes better than an agreement, is unconvincing.

Naomi Shepherd
Jerusalem

Vol. 23 No. 2 · 25 January 2001

Edward Said (LRB, 14 December 2000) failed to note two points not irrelevant to his contentions. First, the great quantity of new Palestinian housing that has greatly enlarged every village on the West Bank, turned many into sizable towns and some into veritable cities – Ramallah, for example, is now something of a metropolis. Much of this housing is spacious, even luxurious. This hardly fits Said’s depiction of Palestinians in the grip of unrelieved poverty under Israeli occupation. And it is not just Arafat’s cronies and a few compradors who have prospered: there are tens of thousands of fine new houses. Second, Said tells us nothing about an important aspect of the present uprising, as of the earlier Intifada: the prevalence of Muslim intimidation and outright violence against Christian Palestinians – everything from street corner insults to vandalism of homes, shops and churches. This has driven many Christians to emigrate, turning even Bethlehem into a Muslim city – its ex-Christian Christian souvenir shops are all owned by Muslims now.

Said’s Christian Arab origins scarcely deny him the right to choose his own emphases, but it is not quite accurate to say, as he does: ‘Recent small arms fire directed at the new Jerusalem settlement of Gilo from the neighbouring Palestinian village of Beit Jala has been unanimously reported in the media without anyone mentioning that Gilo was built on land confiscated from Beit Jala. Few Palestinians will forget their past so easily.’ The implication, obviously, is that the people of Beit Jala have been avenging the loss of their land. I do not know who originally owned the uninhabited and uncultivated rocky hillside on which Gilo was built, though ownership would scarcely have been vested in an entire village. But I do know Beit Jala very well, having been a frequent visitor to the Salesian monastery of Cremisan over the years. It is an exceptionally prosperous village and, as all the news photographs show, its Gilo-facing houses are veritable mansions. Beit Jala is also becoming exceptional in today’s West Bank in still being solidly Christian. It would be passing strange if rich Christians were to expose themselves and their fine houses night after night to Israeli return fire – including 120mm tank guns – for the sake of the al-Aqsa Intifada, whose focus is so distinctly Muslim, and indeed the inhabitants of Beit Jala have had absolutely nothing to do with the firing. The Muslim militiamen from Bethlehem who entered the village every night to fire at Gilo could have done so far more advantageously from the surmounting hilltop. They chose instead to fire from village houses and courtyards. If the local Christians were also driven out by Israeli retaliation, their very fine houses would remain, as do the houses of Bethlehem once occupied by Christians and now inhabited by Muslims. Beit Jala is not fighting Gilo, as Said suggests: it is really a case of Muslims attacking Christians by way of Israeli counter-fire. It is enough to look at Gilo and the hill above it on a detailed topographic map to see the compelling tactical reasons why this must be so.

Edward Luttwak
Chevy Chase, Maryland

Edward Said writes: ‘Tens of thousands of fine new houses’ are what Edward Luttwak claims to have seen on a visit to the West Bank. Fine, nice houses, rich ones, too! Did he count them? Amnesty published a report last winter on the number of Palestinian house demolitions undertaken by the Israel military since 1987: 2650 houses were destroyed and 16,700 Palestinians made homeless. Other statistics are no less brutal. By December 2000, losses to the Palestinian economy came to about $1,782,500,000 (this included $93 million withheld by Israel in unpaid revenue): the figures are from USAID. According to the World Bank, 90-120,000 jobs have been lost due to the closures. Since each wage-earner supports six people, this means that 744,000 Palestinians are without a wage-earner to support them. The United Nations estimates that 45.5 per cent of the Palestinian population in the Territories (1,370,000 people) are suffering serious economic handicaps. Unemployment in Gaza and the West Bank combined has gone from 11 per cent in the first part of 2000 to 30 per cent. Israel’s GNP is $17,000 per capita: the prosperous house-building West Bank’s is $1600, Gaza’s $900. doesn’t sound like a place in which to prosper.

Luttwak’s other point, that Beit Jala is Christian, that the gunners there are Muslim, and that the real problem is not Israeli-Palestinian but Christian-Muslim, is entirely debatable. The theft of land, however, is not. Gilo was built on land confiscated from Beit Jala. He may not like to admit it, but it is a fact. Why did Beit Sahour, also a mostly Christian village, stage a long tax revolt that practically ruined its economy during the first Intifada? Was it because of Muslim pressure? There, too, the villain was Israeli occupation and the injustices, immiseration and humiliation it has imposed on all Palestinians. There has been no significant history of Christian-Muslim sectarianism among Palestinians until the last few years, and this, as the case of Nazareth amply demonstrated, was either encouraged by the Israeli Government inside Israel, or aggravated in the Occupied Territories by the Israeli occupation. One of the characteristics of Zionist ideology is that it takes sectarianism between groups for granted, so as to come to the conclusion that Jews must live separated from everyone in order not to endure persecution.

Lastly, I find it offensive that he should allude to my ‘Christian Arab origins’. What is that supposed to mean? Would he feel it justified if I referred to his origins with regard to the ‘arguments’ he presents?

Naomi Shepherd’s response to my piece (Letters, 25 January) is a demonstration of the problems presented by the current situation. She doesn’t make a single factual point in refutation of any of the historical and present realities that I laid out. Not one. All she presents is some mumbo-jumbo (the normal flattering unction of the Israeli ‘peace’ camp) about early optimism for Oslo among Palestinians living under Israeli rule, and even more unspecified ‘co-operation’ between the two sides. Optimism, if there was any, and co-operation were confined to Arafat’s circle and to those who believed that the Palestinian ‘problem’ looked as if it might be solved at minimal cost to Israel. But where were the positive feelings and co-operation when the settler population and areas quintupled in size and number, bypass roads cut up the whole area, house and orchard demolitions went on furiously, frequent closures imprisoned millions of Palestinians, and when in addition to de-developing Gaza and the West Bank, Israel used helicopter gunships and tanks to destroy Palestinian homes and cause ten thousand injuries and over three hundred deaths in two months, none of this in contravention of Oslo? Oslo wasn’t a genuine attempt at a settlement: it was a fraud to perpetuate Israeli control and occupation, as Israeli leaders made clear to their people. The maps – carefully, deliberately, malevolently plotted inch by inch – created the bantustans and settlements, and they don’t lie, as Shepherd, who lives in occupied Jerusalem, should know. And yes, the Palestinians are the victims, and have been all along. It is one of the appalling distortions of Zionism that so many supporters of Israel fail to own up to this elementary truth.

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