Think Again: Palestine
President Obama got the leaders of Israel and Palestine to shake hands this week. But a meeting in Midtown does not a Palestinian deal make. Here’s why.
BY ZAHI KHOURI | SEPTEMBER 24, 2009
"Economic Peace Is Possible."
No. Neither sustainable economic development nor peace is possible without political freedom.
The idea of "economic peace" suggests an economic conflict, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is certainly not that. Although economic issues do figure into Palestinian concerns, they are not nearly as important as addressing the rights of Palestinian refugees, terminating Israel's occupation of Palestinian land, and establishing a viable, independent, and sovereign Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital. To suggest that economics are what this is about would be to sideline history and to willfully ignore the reality of Israel's occupation. This conflict is political and it calls for a solution that is political.
Besides, even if economic growth were issue No. 1, the greatest impediment to economic development and opportunity for Palestinians is not the absence of industrial parks as advocated by the Israeli government under its model of "economic peace." Rather, it is the denial of basic freedoms and rights to Palestinians under occupation and the myriad restrictions Israel imposes on the free movement of Palestinian goods and people within, and in and out of, the occupied Palestinian territory. It is the inability of Palestinians to access the 60 percent of the occupied West Bank under Area C (Israeli control), including the 40 percent that Israel claims for its settlement enterprise. And it is the forced isolation of occupied East Jerusalem, long the economic heart of the Palestinian economy, from the rest of the West Bank. All these economic constraints are fundamental to the architecture of Israel's occupation.
In short, "economic peace" is a slogan designed to give the appearance of positive movement while distracting from the real issues and the ongoing dispossession of Palestinians. It does not mean, nor does it promise, an end to Israel's occupation. Rather, it offers economic crumbs in an effort to normalize and better manage the occupation.
"As with Gaza, a West Bank Withdrawal Endangers Israel."
Wrong. Israel argues that its withdrawal from Gaza was rewarded with rocket attacks by Hamas. The attraction of such an argument lies in its simplicity. But just as "economic peace" is designed to divert attention away from the real issues, the argument that a Gaza withdrawal was dangerous for the Israelis is designed to mask the reality that Israel never stopped occupying the Gaza Strip.
Contrary to popular belief, Israel's unilateral disengagement from Gaza in 2005 did not bring about an end to the occupation. Yes, Israel removed its settlers (who, in many cases, relocated to settlements in the West Bank). And yes, Israel withdrew its troops -- though only as far as the border. From that close distance, Israel has imposed a medieval-style siege on Gaza that continues to this day. Israel remains an occupying power under international law because it retains effective control over Gaza's borders and its land, sea, and airspace, allowing it to suffocate and starve Gaza as it is doing today.
The scale of the humanitarian crisis that Israel has created in Gaza is hard to convey. Even before the election of Hamas in 2006, there were severe restrictions on the amount of food, water, fuel, and other essentials allowed to enter the Gaza Strip. In 2006, then-senior Israeli government advisor Dov Weisglass callously claimed that "the idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger." The result was that by the end of 2007, well over 80 percent of Gaza's population lived below the poverty line. Authorities have also clamped down on Gaza's imports and exports, suffocating the Palestinian economy. By November 2007, the U.N. World Food Program was already warning that less than half of Gaza's food import needs were being met. Following the election of Hamas, Israel tightened these economic restrictions further to enforce a complete closure, further compounding the humanitarian crisis. It is within this context that Israel's disengagement from Gaza must be judged.
Of course, rocket attacks from Gaza are not a proper response to Israel's harsh policies. Palestine is a just cause fought for in the name of rights, universal principles, and international law; its actions must be faithful to that. The lesson that should be drawn from Gaza is that the only guarantee of security for Israel is a full end to its occupation and domination -- not just an end in name. The only form of withdrawal carrying the promise of peace is a full withdrawal -- from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, along with Gaza -- that allows for the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state.
"Arab Intransigence Blocks Peace."
Four words: the Arab Peace Initiative. First proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002 and subsequently endorsed by 57 Arab and Islamic states, the Arab Peace Initiative offers full normalization of relations with Israel in exchange for Israel's full withdrawal from all territory occupied in 1967, as well as a just and agreed upon solution for Palestinian refugees in accordance with U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194. That resolution, in essence, says to Israel: Do what is required of you under international law and U.N. resolutions, and the Arab and Islamic world will normalize relations in return. Israel's response so far has been to ignore the Arab Peace Initiative, squandering what is a historic opportunity.
As for the Palestinians, President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad are the most accommodating Palestinian leaders ever to hold office. Yet Israel is frittering away their time at the helm; Israeli leaders evidently feel no urgency to negotiate. Eventually, this window of opportunity will close. As settlers flock to the territories, Palestinians will determine that a Palestinian state is no longer viable. When the debated solution turns from two states to one state with equal rights for all, Israel may well regret it did not seize multiple opportunities to return all of the West Bank and East Jerusalem as part of a peace deal.
"Settlements Are Not the Issue."
They are crucial. Israeli settlement activity is precisely the undertaking that is foreclosing the possibility of a Palestinian state. Recent U.S. efforts to restart meaningful negotiations have faltered around Israel's refusal to implement a comprehensive settlement freeze in keeping with obligations under both international law and the "road map." Israel's refusal to comply has undermined the credibility of the peace process and eroded Palestinian public confidence in the ability of negotiations to bring tangible results.
Rather than favoring Palestinians or Israelis, a credible peace process holds both accountable to commitments made in the name of peace. The true test of meaningful negotiations, as distinct from negotiations for their own sake, is what happens on the ground. The faux freeze Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now proposing -- build units already in the pipeline and then implement a brief six-month freeze, all the while continuing pell-mell with construction in East Jerusalem -- is powerful on-the-ground evidence that Netanyahu and his coalition intend to build greater Israel at the expense of Palestinians.
Israeli settlements pose the greatest threat to the two-state solution. Settlements and their related infrastructure, like settler bypass roads, account for more than 40 percent of the West Bank, fragmenting the territory, monopolizing freshwater resources, and confining Palestinians to a series of disconnected cantons where unemployment, poverty, and hopelessness have reached endemic levels. Settlements run counter to the very principle of "land for peace" on which the Middle East peace process is built, and they make a viable and sovereign Palestinian state a physical impossibility. Without a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, there is no two-state solution.
"Israel's Occupation Is Not Apartheid."
It is. In fact, it would be most accurate to call it occupation, colonialism, and apartheid all rolled into one. This is the conclusion reached in a recent report commissioned by the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa, titled "Occupation, Colonialism, Apartheid?", that brought together a team of international scholars and legal experts to assess Israel's occupation vis-à-vis international law.
On apartheid, the report identifies a series of discriminatory laws, standards, and practices that Israel applies exclusively to Palestinians living under occupation -- laws, standards, and practices which do not apply to Israeli settlers living in the occupied West Bank and that are intended to "maintain [Israel's] domination over Palestinians in the OPT [occupied Palestinian territories] and to suppress opposition of any form."
In particular, the report identifies three pillars of apartheid as it existed in South Africa, noting that they also exist in the occupied Palestinian territory today. The first pillar consists of laws and policies that "establish Jewish identity for purposes of law and afford a preferential legal status and material benefits to Jews over non-Jews." The ramifications of this include the massive disparity in terms of the rights and privileges enjoyed by Israeli settlers compared with Palestinians, such as the denial of the right of return for Palestinian refugees compared with the 1950 Law of Return allowing all Jews to immigrate to Israel or, since 1967, the occupied Palestinian territory.
The second pillar concerns Israeli policies intended to segregate the population along racial lines. These policies center on the confinement of Palestinians to areas that resemble "Bantustans" (the largest being Israel's complete closure on Gaza), policed by Israel using a network of walls, roadblocks, checkpoints, and a special permit regime. Meanwhile, the Israelis construct settlements and a separate road system to service them, all built on confiscated Palestinian land that Palestinians can no longer access.
The final pillar focuses on repressive measures initiated under the rubric of "security." For example, Palestinians are subject to arbitrary arrest, administrative detention, extrajudicial killings, torture, and an oppressive code of military laws and military courts that fall short of international standards for a fair trial. These measures are reinforced by restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, association, movement, and so on, which are ultimately designed to suppress Palestinian dissent while reinforcing Israeli control.
In short, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who grew up in the Jim Crow South, has it right when he uses the term apartheid to describe Israel's policies in the occupied Palestinian territory. And the facts are increasingly on the table. Whether the Barack Obama administration, already saddled with a brutal fight over health care, has the courage to challenge Israel's "economic peace," siege of Gaza, intransigence, settlements, and apartheid remains to be seen.
Zahi Khouri is chief executive of the Palestinian National Beverage Co. (a Coca-Cola franchisee), chairman of the Palestinian Tourism Investment Co., and chairman of the board of the NGO Development Center, a Palestinian nongovernmental organization.
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