Despite the victory of the radical Hamas movement in the 2006 elections to the Palestinian Authority, Israel still refuses recognise the Hamas government in Gaza, which it labels a “terrorist organisation”. Instead, it will only deal the United States-backed regime of Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah Party, which despite losing the election continues to cling to power in the West Bank territories.
In the meantime, Israel continues with its economic blockade and armed attacks against the 1.4 million people living in the Gaza Strip. With the Red Cross now reporting that 167 Palestinians have been killed in the first two months of 2008 alone, can there really still be any realistic prospects for a just and lasting peace in Palestine?
The recent “incursion” of Israeli Defence Force (IDF) tanks into Gaza has thrust the Palestinian conflict with Israel back into the spotlight and put the latest round of peace talks on hold. Aside from the death and destruction wrought by the IDF attacks, many people who want peace for the people of the Middle East are frustrated at the derailing of the peace talks. Just when it seems that some progress might be made, an incident flares up and the talks are called off.
Following the Israeli attacks, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared that talks were off, although under US pressure he has reversed that position, stating that peace talks are a “strategic choice”.
Ever since the Palestinian Authority elections brought a Hamas government into power, Western enthusiasm for Palestinian democracy has waned. This was not the result the West had bought and paid for. Aid to the Palestinian Authority was cut, and partisan support for the defeated Fatah, which had retained more support in the West Bank but lost in Gaza, was stepped up. When Fatah refused to accept the loss of political support in Gaza, fighting broke out, which resulted in Hamas defeating the Fatah militias and consolidating their control.
This establishment of political authority and a modicum of stability by the legitimately elected government in Gaza was immediately condemned by Israel and its Western allies as a coup. The exclusion of Hamas from its democratic rights within the West Bank received no criticism, as Western governments went into denial over the election results and focused all their diplomatic and economic aid on Abbas’ Fatah “government”.
When rockets continued to be fired across the border from Gaza, Israel went further, seizing the opportunity to place the strip under a “blockade” reminiscent of a mediaeval siege. Israel began to control the movement of people in and out of the Gaza strip even more tightly than before, as well as preventing the movement of essential goods, including medicines and food.
Israel metes out collective punishment
Gaza has become one huge prison camp and the blockade has been described as a collective punishment being meted out to all residents of Gaza. The economy has completely collapsed. Seventy-five thousand of the 110,000 workers employed in the private sector have lost their jobs. According to a recent report by British agencies Cafod, Care International, Amnesty International and Save the Children, conditions there are the worst they have been in the entire time since Israel invaded and occupied the Gaza strip in 1967. The report calls on Israel to meet its responsibilities as the occupying power, to allow the people of Gaza access to food, clean water, electricity and medical care.
The latest upsurge in fighting came when the IDF sent tanks into Gaza, ostensibly in response to the death of an Israeli in a Qassam missile attack. The Qassam is a simple free-flight (unguided) missile, which Hamas in particular frequently launch from the Gaza Strip into Israel. While the missiles have caused some casualties, the Qassam is seldom very effective except in terms of its morale effect, both on Israelis, who have to take cover whenever a missile launch is detected, and on Palestinians, for many of whom the Qassam firings represent a real sign that the struggle against oppression is continuing.
On this occasion, the IDF acted quickly, sending troops and tanks back into Gaza, supported by air strikes. While the claim was that their mission was to prevent the launching of more Qassams against Israel, the reality was the deaths of over 100 people. Israeli peace group B’Tselem reported that of the 106 dead between February 27 and March 3, 54 were civilians and 25, or nearly a quarter, were under the age of 18. Casualties amongst children included the deaths of two teenagers in their house, shot in the head and chest while standing looking through their window. Others included a group of children playing soccer in the street of their Jabaliya refugee camp. Two were killed and another two wounded in an Israeli air strike. No militants were injured or killed in that strike. Israeli military sources claimed that ninety percent of the casualties were armed combatants.
In the past 7 years, Qassams have killed 12 people. Israeli air strikes, rockets and assassinations have killed approximately 2600 inhabitants of Gaza in the same period.
The real origins of the conflict
Despite all the hype surrounding each new round of talks, no progress has ever been made towards bringing real peace to the Middle East, and while the issue is complex, the reason is simple. The peace talks have never had, as part of their aim, the objective of a just solution for the Palestinian people. Ever since the Palestinian Liberation Organisation was compelled to accept the two-state solution, peace has been possible only through the complete subjugation of the Palestinians, something they have stubbornly refused to allow.
To provide some background history: when the original partition of Mandate Palestine was carried out in 1948, Israel received 55% of the land and “Palestine” received the remaining 45%. Partition took place against a backdrop of terrorist attacks against the British and against local Palestinians by organisations like the Irgun and the Stern Gang. Leaders of these organisations, people such as Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin, would go on to become Prime Ministers in independent Israel.
David Ben-Gurion, first Prime Minister. put things this way in an interview with “moderate” Zionist Nahum Goldman before he died:
I don’t understand your optimism. Why should the Arabs make peace? If I was an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them? Our God is not theirs. We come from Israel, it’s true, but two thousand years ago, and what is that to them? There has been anti-Semitism the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that? They may perhaps forget in one or two generations’ time, but for the moment there is no chance. So it’s simple: we have to stay strong and maintain a powerful army. Our whole policy is there. Otherwise the Arabs will wipe us out. (Nahum Goldman, The Jewish Paradox, p99.)
Fifty-five percent of Palestine was never going to be sufficient for the Zionists seeking for Eretz Yisrael or Greater Israel, however. By 1948, Israel had already expanded its territory to 78% of Palestine. A combination of forced removals, massacres and fear resulted in the flight of approximately 726,000 refugees and the destruction of over 400 Palestinian villages. These refugees, many of whom fled in possession of the title documents for their property, have never been permitted to return to their homes. Moshe Dayan, Chief of Staff of the IDF 1953-58 and Minister of Defence during the 1967 and 1973 wars, stated:
Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you because geography books no longer exist, not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either.
Wars over the following two decades gave Israel control over the Gaza Strip, the West Bank of the Jordan River and the Golan Heights, which had previously belonged to Syria. The Sinai was taken from Egypt but returned.
Two states no solution
So what does the two-state proposal actually mean for the region?
The current Palestinian Authority officially governs an area comprising 220 separate pieces of land, crisscrossed by Israeli roads. While some rationalisation would possibly take place, Palestine cannot under this plan be anything other than a fragmented country dependent on Israeli forbearance for its survival.
Israel did withdraw its settlements from Gaza in 2005. It is worth noting, though, that rather than withdrawing from its settlements in the West Bank, Israel’s actual practice has been to continue to expand them. Last week, Israel announced the establishment of 750 more houses in disputed territory around Jerusalem. By this week, another 750 had been announced inside Palestinian East Jerusalem.
Furthermore, far from being the original 45% of original Palestine laid down in 1947, a solution which already denies the Palestinians access to the remaining 55%, the new Palestinian state will represent only about 22% of the total land, much of it poor land with water access only courtesy of Israel. Israel’s irrigation programmes receive their water from West Bank aquifers and rivers. Much of the West bank’s productive land has already suffered the destruction of its olive groves and other economically important assets at the hands of Israeli bulldozer drivers.
Israel will control the borders between different parts of this “state”. Such a “Palestine” can only be a breeding ground for further generations of unresolved anger at injustice, and consequently a source of unending violence and insecurity for Israelis.
Ironically, if the map were to be redrawn to allow a single land area for Palestine, that would then require that Israel be divided into two or more parts. The two-state solution works for no one.
So if that is the two-state solution, why do the Palestinians seem prepared to consider it?
The two-state model has been forced upon the Palestinians by the relentless pressure of Israel and the West over the decades since Israel was formed. When the United Nations voted to approve the creation of the State of Israel within British Mandated Palestine in 1947, no Arab, Asian or African government, with the exception of South Africa, supported the proposal. Partition was foisted upon the Palestinians without any regard for their views of the matter.
The Palestinian Liberation Organisation had as part of its charter the establishment of a single secular state in historic Palestine, with equal rights for all, regardless of religious belief. Difficult to achieve? Perhaps. But as South Africa has shown, certainly possible, and certainly a loftier ideal than the alternative that partition has delivered. And certainly one more likely to bring sustainable, just peace to the region.
Over the course of the “negotiations” between Israel, the Western powers and an increasingly weak PLO, the Palestinians were forced to abandon the claim to a single state in Palestine, and to work instead for a two-state model that can never achieve the conditions needed for a lasting resolution to the Middle East conflict.
Significantly, this is recognised by the current Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. On March 13, 2003, Olmert had this to say in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz about the one-state versus two-state issue:
More and more Palestinians are uninterested in a negotiated, two-state solution, because they want to change the essence of the conflict from an Algerian paradigm to a South African one. From a struggle against “occupation”, in their parlance, to a struggle for one-man-one-vote. That is, of course, a much cleaner struggle, a much more popular struggle - and ultimately a much more powerful one. For us, it would mean the end of the Jewish state.
Imagine that! Israel, the island of democracy in the Middle East threatened by the dangerous concept of “one man [sic] one vote”. What is more, Olmert has not changed his views. As recently as November 29 2007, in an interview published in Ha’aretz, he reiterated this view:
If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights (also for the Palestinians in the territories), then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished.
This is tantamount to an admission that all Israel’s maneuverings are actually about denying the Palestinian people their rights. It is no wonder that the Israelis and the West are so determined to push the Palestinian Authority into a deal, one which will not deliver peace, but might afford a modicum of legitimacy to the current injustice the people of Palestine are subjected to.
Since the two-state solution is unsustainable and unjust, while a one-state alternative provides the only possibility of real justice, peace and progress for the people living in historic Palestine, activists and advocates for Palestinian rights should be placing one state for Palestine clearly back into the consciousness of people here in New Zealand.