Who is worse?

Edward Said on a humiliating year

Despite the dismal events of the past year, Israel continues to be immune from criticism of its outrageous behaviour in the American ‘peace process’. This is one of the most striking aspects of the 12 months that have elapsed since the Declaration of Principles and the Gaza-Jericho agreements were signed on the White House lawn. Part of the blame rests with the PLO’s current leadership, which from the very beginning saluted Israel’s ‘courage’ in granting Palestinians the right to extremely limited self-rule. (Even that is still far from realisation.) Why the victims of Israel’s policies of dispossession, occupation and repression should thank their persecutors for a grudging admission that they ‘exist’ is difficult to understand, although the recently published memoirs of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) provide at least one important clue. It seems that, to people like himself and Arafat, the psychological need for recognition from ‘the Zionist movement’ was so great as to override almost all other considerations – especially those that concerned the Palestinians’ real, long-term interests. The Palestinian negotiators at Oslo, insecure in their own cause, achievements and history, mistook the satisfaction of their own personal need for acknowledgment as a real political victory. But, as the Palestinian economist Burban Dajani has shown, Rabin’s one-sentence ‘recognition’ of the Palestinians recognised no Palestinian rights, but merely an organisation said to represent that people as ‘a suitable negotiating partner’. In other words, Rabin recognised the Palestinian leadership only in order then to wrest concessions from it. The Palestinian people’s losses, suffering and future were handed over to Israel to dispose of as it wished.

The Palestinians were somehow misled into believing that this threadbare ‘recognition’ constituted an important gain. Rabin used the Palestinians’ self-deception and gullibility to further subjugate them, all the while proclaiming the dawning of a new age of peace and prosperity. By the time of the Cairo Agreement on 4 May, Rabin’s victory was complete. On 12 May Meron Benvenisti said of the Cairo Agreement in Haaretz: ‘A perusal of hundreds of the Agreement’s pages can leave no doubt about who is the winner and the loser in this deal. By seeing through all the lofty phraseology, deliberate disinformation, hundreds of pettifogging sections, sub-sections, appendices and protocols, one can clearly recognise that Israeli victory was absolute and Palestinian defeat abject.’

Arafat was reduced to trying to get himself called ‘President’ in the agreement. The Israelis responded by making a humiliating distinction between what he could call himself in Gaza and what he is used to being known as abroad: ‘Chairman’ and ‘President’ respectively. The British press reported that during the night of 3 May the main contention between Arafat and the Israeli negotiators was whether or not he would be allowed to put his likeness on postage stamps. (The Israelis said no.) In the Cairo Agreement itself, hailed by the media as an important milestone in ‘the peace process’, all sorts of extra controls were imposed on the Palestinian National Authority. Exits and entrances into Gaza and Jericho were to be in Israeli hands, with a merely symbolic Palestinian presence: laws passed by the PNA were subject to approval by Israel, as was foreign trade and all political appointments; even after the Hebron massacre, not a single settlement was either dismantled or prevented from expanding, with Israeli troops and roads safeguarding the settlers’ presence; the military government would remain, and everything in the agreement between the PLO and Israel would be subject to its authority. Sovereignty would remain in Israeli hands, as would water rights, plus internal and external security. Jerusalem, whose status quo was changing by the minute – most of the 80,000 dunums of Palestinian land confiscated by Israel since September 1993 is in the Jerusalem area – was ruled off-limits by Israel. When the agreement with Jordan was signed in late July, Rabin and Peres went out of their way to issue invitations to King Hussein to pray in Jerusalem, a privilege deliberately withheld from Arafat.

What especially bothered me was that the Israelis had compelled the weak, incapacitated Palestinian negotiating team (controlled totally by Arafat) to accept that the areas of limited autonomy and early empowerment handed back to the Palestinians were returned without any acknowledgment of the 27 years of military occupation – years during which the Israelis deliberately destroyed the infrastructure. In principle this meant that, far from vacating the Occupied Territories, the Israelis were forcing the Palestinians to comply with continued occupation and to condone past Israeli practices without regard for reparations or compensation. Thus, to take a relatively small instance, the over two thousand Palestinian houses destroyed by the Israeli military during the intifada were not accounted for. Gaza, which the American economist Sara Roy has characterised as an area purposely de-developed – its population pauperised, its infrastructure destroyed – was dumped in Arafat’s lap. He was supposed to rule and sustain a place the Israelis had made unsusiainable. And the PLO leadership signed an agreement in effect saying that Israel was absolutely without responsibility for all the crimes it had committed. All the infractions against the Geneva Conventions, UN Resolutions – contraventions the PLO had itself played an important role in documenting and publicising – were simply forgiven.

Whereas few Palestinians have raised their voices against this, prominent Israelis have published denunciations of their government. Shulamit Aloni, herself a member of Rabin’s government, said after the Cairo pact was signed that had the British in 1948 made their withdrawal from Palestine conditional on as many restrictions and disabilities, there could never have been a state of Israel. In a long and passionate article published on 15 May in Haaretz, Danny Rubenstein, Israel’s principal (and best) commentator on Palestinian affairs, noted that there was a major difference between the 30 years of British rule in Palestine (1918-48) and the 27 years of the Israeli regime in the Occupied Territories. During their stay in Palestine the British built the port of Haifa and several airports, six power stations (which supplied the whole country with electricity) and dozens of roads and public buildings that are still in use; the Israelis, by contrast, did not build a thing in the Occupied Territories except prisons, now ironically being administered by Palestinian police.

I find it curious that the Israelis have the gall to deplore the fact that no infrastructure allowing an orderly transfer of authority exists in the Territories. After 27 years of oppression, with the Israeli authorities doing all they could to cripple Palestinian society, how could it be otherwise? The Israelis deploring this fact seem to forget how many Palestinians (including hundreds of Fatah militants) have been deported, how many municipal councils dismantled, how many institutions closed, how many travel limitations imposed, and how many newspapers, other publications and the entire variety of cultural activities most rigidly censored.

Since autonomous rule began and Arafat returned to Gaza, there have been daily reports of how the Israelis have continued to abuse the Palestinians. But these reports are to be found buried in the back pages of Arab journals and a few European ones, and in no American newspapers except for the Christian Science Monitor, thanks to the extraordinary reporting of Lamis Andoni. More checkpoints have been added on the West Bank. Thousands of prisoners remain in Israeli jails: those that are freed are required to return either to Gaza or Jericho, not to their homes. Visiting PLO officials are forbidden to enter Jerusalem, or are kept waiting for hours at the border, or are denied entry altogether. Many of the main provisions of the Oslo Declaration have been brazenly flouted. The carefully specified timetable has been thrown out, with the cavalier pronouncement by Rabin that ‘no dates are sacred’. Passage between Gaza and Jericho, 90 kilometres apart, was supposed to have been guaranteed for Palestinians; until now it has not, which violates the principle granted by the Israelis that the West Bank and Gaza are one territorial unit. Elections were supposed to have taken place soon after the Oslo Declaration was signed; but not only have there been no elections, there has been no agreement on what they are supposed to be for, or on who is to vote and how. Palestinians displaced in 1967 are supposed to be able to return, but the joint committee intended to facilitate this hasn’t even been named. The Paris meeting of donors on 9 September was torpedoed by the Israelis to punish the Palestinians for daring to schedule four million dollars of medical projects in East Jerusalem. In the meantime, and completely against the letter and the spirit of the Oslo Agreement, Israel has continued to change the status quo in Jerusalem, and to build a six hundred million dollar road system throughout the Occupied Territories. Israel still refuses to describe itself as an occupying power.

The Israeli press is full of reports of Palestinians being routinely humiliated during high-level meetings with their supposed partners. Zeev Schiff, a well-known Israeli commentator who is extremely close to the Israeli Cabinet, reported in Haaretz on 16 August that at their most recent encounter Arafat and Rabin did everything but spit at each other, with Arafat conceding frequently to Rabin: ‘You are stronger than I am.’ In the meantime the Israelis parade themselves in Western capitals as men of peace, complimented by Clinton and Mitterrand, and honoured with even more unconditionally-given American money – more than six billion dollars during the past year alone. Left to pay teachers’ salaries, hospital expenses and the costs of the tiny Palestinian police force, Arafat has to go from place to place begging for a little more money. (He has, however, managed to set up an expensive intelligence operation for himself, with at least six and possibly seven branches all spying on each other.)

‘We have retained power in the Occupied Territories, despite the transfer of authority that recently took place,’ General Danny Rothschild recently reminded reporters. When he was asked about the Palestinian National Authority’s power he said that its authority was limited to providing ‘services to residents’. Nothing else. What sort of leaders accept such an arrangement on behalf of their people from a state and a mentality that has waged unremitting war against that people for at least half a century? What sort of leaders describe their failures as a triumph of politics and diplomacy even as they and their people are forced to endure continued enslavement and humiliation? Who is worse, the bloody-minded Israeli ‘peacemaker’ or the complicit Palestinian? When will the two peoples wake up to what their leaders have wrought?