President George Bush, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have committed themselves to give the world a new year’s gift in 2009: an independent state of Palestine. After decades of war and homelessness, oppression and occupation, settlements and walls, this is a welcome move. However, much needs to be accomplished in 2008 for this vision — unlike previous ones — to become a reality.
Despite skepticism, various pieces of the Palestinian statehood puzzle are falling into place. The Bush Administration has countered the pro-Israel lobby and spoken of the strategic importance of Palestinian statehood for the United States. Standing next to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah last October, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that the creation of a Palestinian state is in the national interest of the United States. US National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley was then sent to the region as proof that the issue has now taken on a national security priority. And now, President Bush has made his first trip as president to the occupied Palestinian territories.
For his part, Mahmoud Abbas has shown determination to negotiate a peace agreement, despite the daily pressures on the Palestinian people created by ongoing Israeli military attacks, movement restrictions and expansion of Jewish-only settlements on Palestinian land. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called for “a significant change of the reality” Israel created in our region in 1967 when it occupied Palestinian and Arab lands. Though he did not mention his name, he confirmed President Carter’s apartheid fears when he told journalists that long-term Israeli survival is jeopardized if the two-state solution doesn’t become a reality. Otherwise the Palestinian struggle “would become a South African like apartheid struggle,” he said. The world community has also dug deep into its pockets and pledged a record 7.4 billion dollars in assistance to the nascent Palestinian state.
But for Palestinians, whether living in East Jerusalem, Hebron, Jenin, Rafah or Gaza, everything is meaningless unless they see a true reversal of the negative results of Israel’s 40-year-old occupation. Exclusive Jewish settlement activities declared illegal and rejected by the world community have been the single greatest impediment to Palestinian freedom and the necessary contiguity for any sovereign state. When President Bush’s convoy travels to Bethlehem, he will no doubt see Israel’s Har Homa settlement built on the Palestinian lands of Jabel Abu Ghnem, part of which is owned by Palestinian Christians who live in the very fields where shepherds heard the good news of the birth of Jesus. The U.S. has called on Israel to cease all settlement activity. But just days after Annapolis, Israel announced plans to build another 300 homes in Har Homa. While Israeli settlers have freedom of travel, the Palestinian land owners and millions of other Palestinians can’t travel to nearby Jerusalem to visit holy places, go to work or school, or visit their families.
In reaching Bethlehem or Jericho, President Bush’s convoy was dwarfed by the eight-foot wall Israel has built deep in the Palestinian West Bank. The wall, along with all Israeli settlements, has been declared illegal by the International Court of Justice at the Hague. It is a constant reminder to Palestinians of the prison in which they find themselves whether behind bars in brick and mortar jails or hemmed in by the wall, checkpoints and border closures. The result is perhaps the longest and most severe collective punishment in modern history. More than ten thousand Palestinian political prisoners languish in Israeli jails, many without charge or trial. Hundreds of checkpoints set up in the West Bank since 2000 have not been removed despite the Israeli human rights group B’tselem’s recent report which noted that the security situation improved for Israel in 2007. Even in Gaza where Israeli settlements and army checkpoints were removed, Israel continues to curtail the movement of people and goods. There is no justification for the continued punishment of Gaza’s 1.5 million Palestinians, no matter what political movement exercises nominal control there. In fact, Hamas has made explicit offers for a ceasefire, but Israel has rejected them.
An independent Palestinian state living alongside a secure state of Israel requires political will and an environment that will produce public support for peace. These elements are essential for negotiations in 2008 to succeed. Nothing would provide public support for peace talks more than an end to Israeli settlement activity and the release of Palestinian political prisoners. We can only hope that President Bush toured the West Bank with eyes open to the daily suffering of Palestinian life, and that he matches his commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state with the resolve necessary to hold Israel to its commitments.
DAOUD KUTTAB is an award winning Palestinian journalist. He is a Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.