The political battle continues in the Middle East through gun barrels rather than across negotiating tables. Americans are ill equipped to make sense of this historical conflict that pits two Semitic peoples against each other, each side exacting punishment and blood revenge in biblical proportion. There are important perspectives that Americans should keep in mind in order to understand this conflict and to help end it.
Not Peace, But Piece.
At issue is not peace, but piece, as in land and water. The Palestinian people are living on land taken by Israel in the 1967 war. Israel’s claim to the land is promoted by a radical group of settlers and ultra-nationalists who insist on keeping the ever-expanding settlements. Since the Oslo Accords, Israel, under both Likud and Labor Prime Ministers, has cut and sliced the Territories into tiny pieces by building roads, fences, settlements, irrigation and water systems, and restricted areas in ways that undermine the political and economic viability of a future Palestinian state. The resulting bits and pieces of land amount to less than the state of Rhode Island. Broken up as it is, and with its water resources diverted for use by the Israeli settlements, it is not realistic to expect this territory to support over 3 million Palestinian people. The duplicity of negotiating “peace” while taking away more land has infuriated Palestinians for many years, and fomented radicalism.
Historical Roots Run Deep.
Shortly after I arrived in early 1997, I visited a Palestinian family north of Bethlehem whose home had been demolished by the Israeli army–many times! Each time the family rebuilt the home. They knew it might be destroyed again. But their stubbornness is typical of people who have deep family and cultural roots in this land. Americans do not fully appreciate how deep-seated these roots are. One U.S. official I met in 1998 reported on land confiscation and home demolition which fuel settlement expansion. He expressed frustration at the lack of attention back in Washington to detailed documentation of these activities. Like many of us, this official experienced first hand the irony of sincere hospitality extended by Palestinians whose homes were demolished, as contrasted with hostility of settlers he also investigated. The pervasive indifference of Washington to concrete documentation of illegal and immoral acts committed as part of Israel’s settlement policy is deeply disturbing.
Suicide Bombings and Civilian Killings are Immoral; They Do Not Serve a Strategic Purpose.
The killing of innocent civilians is always unacceptable. The highly publicized suicide bombings of Israeli citizens are unacceptable, as are the assassination of Palestinian activists and killings of innocent women and children inside homes and on the way to school. Killing civilians is counterproductive for Palestinian aspirations for statehood, as well as Israeli hopes for peace. Palestinian suicide bombings unify Israelis on both sides of the political spectrum. The vast majority of Israelis would gladly trade in the settlements for peace and security with their Palestinian neighbors. Overwhelming Israeli military force against Palestinian civilians, as demonstrated by the destruction during the current invasions of Bethlehem and Ramallah, inspires greater animosity and resolve among Palestinians who feel compelled to exact revenge. Radical actions are often the only recourse for Palestinians when the world stands idle in the face of Israel’s overwhelming military force.
Arafat is not bin Laden.
Prime Minister Sharon has successfully labeled Arafat as a bin Laden equal. This simplistic portrayal of Arafat does not accurately represent the complexity of Arafat and the conflict. The Palestinian Authority’s role in one highly publicized arms shipment by the Israeli government, and Arafat’s inability or unwillingness to exert maximum effort to control Palestinian radicals indicate his delicate internal political position and the extreme views within Palestinian society. It is also true that Arafat is the elected representative of the Palestinian people and their aspirations of statehood. American officials and citizens have never been directly threatened by Palestinians during my five years of work in West Bank and Gaza or in Israel. If Arafat was equivalent to Al-Qaeda, as represented by Sharon and the Israeli right wing, Americans could not continue to work safely under U.S. government supported programs in the Palestinian Territories. Arafat has repeatedly welcomed U.S. involvement. Palestinians have a remarkable affinity for Americans and our culture; many are American citizens. Labeling Arafat as bin Laden makes rapprochement much more difficult in the highly sensitive dynamic of this conflict. Singling out Arafat does not explain why so many Palestinians have become radicalized to defy overwhelming military odds against them, nor does blaming Arafat address the historical problem of land confiscation and occupation by Israel.
Occupation is Immoral and Politically Not Viable for Israel or America.
Americans are a fair-minded people. Those of us who work in the Palestinian Territories under U.S. foreign policy, or have visited, are astounded that the occupation of a people can continue with impunity. Most Americans would be shocked to learn of the apartheid-like conditions of Israel’s occupation. Israel requires Palestinians to hold magnetic identity cards, live in fenced off territories, and pass through cattle-like processing centers. The daily humiliation of Palestinians at checkpoints, Ben-Gurion Airport and border crossings, has for years corrupted any sense of humanity or peaceful, neighborly intent. It is in Israel’s interest to extricate itself from a territory where it is not welcome, and where it cannot effectively govern. Israeli occupation of West Bank and Gaza will always be a thorn in relations between Israel and Arab countries. As long as America underwrites the occupation, our relations with those nations will also remain strained.
Was There A Viable Peace Deal on Offer?
Most Israeli and American policymakers would have us believe that Arafat alone scuttled a peace deal during Camp David. The American media bought the line that Israel “offered” so much, that Israel made such a big compromise, and was willing to give up so much. This is only part of the truth. If you count the facts on the ground in July 2000, then, yes, the Israelis “gave up” a lot. If you count from the 1967 borders_which would be consistent with the U.N. resolutions and the U.S. government position that the West Bank and Gaza are occupied territories_its clear that the Israeli offer was not acceptable to Palestinians, Arab countries and many fair-minded observers. Palestinians lost their homes and lands as far back as 1948. They already gave up a lot of land. They are simply claiming lands occupied since 1967, and for at least a symbolic recognition and just resolution of the refugee right of return.
Most Palestinians believed that a peace deal, short of a perfect offer from Israel, was not possible in a single meeting at Camp David because the consultative process required the involvement of Arab states that have a religious and historic interest in Jerusalem. Israel and the U.S. made some strategic errors during the negotiations. The Americans failed to fully consult with Arab countries in advance. It was unhelpful in the delicate peace negotiations before conflict erupted in September 2000 for Israelis and Americans to publicly blame Arafat for not accepting the Israeli offer. Clinton and Barak may have been ready, but legitimate Palestinian concerns made Arafat unable at that time. An acceptable peace deal will require Israel to negotiate in good faith to solve this historic conflict, and take into account the sacrifice of land and resources the Palestinians have already made.
America cannot afford to support, or be perceived to support, Israel as an occupier. The occupation is immoral and untenable. The larger U.S. stakes of Arab rapprochement after September 11 require finesse and fairness. While we should continue with loyal support of Israel as a friend and ally, the U.S. should not support Israel as occupier, human rights abuser, and provocateur. The United States world leadership mantle requires that we act as an honest broker and hold both sides accountable for their failures. The recent U.S. support for two new initiatives–the Saudi proposal for peace and the U.N. vote to recognize a Palestinian state existing next to Israel–and call for Israel to withdraw from the Palestinian Territories are positive steps.
James Packard Winkler lived in Jerusalem and worked in the Palestinian Territories from 1997 to 2001.