The world has finally come to its collective senses by explicitly acknowledging that Israel’s 37-year military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem must come to an abrupt end in order for peace in the Middle East to have even a remote chance of success. With this belated awakening, a fair and frank question has come to the forefront.
Will the Palestinians accept the end of the Israeli occupation as their cue to cease, once and for all, their five-decade struggle to correct the historic injustices done to them? The easy answer is no.
Fifty-five years of historical injustice does not subside with the signing of a peace treaty, official or unofficial, whatever the extent of public relations invested in the effort. Prospects for peace must start to be measured by how well justice is served, and not by how much fanfare is generated.
The fact of the matter is that many Israelis, some say the silent majority, are now finally convinced that their country’s illegal occupation of Palestinians must end, but they are holding themselves back, some say holding the Palestinians hostage, by wanting clear guarantees that what will follow Israel’s return to the 1967 armistice border is absolute security for every Israeli citizen.
Absolute security is a myth. It is a political myth so perfected by the Israeli propaganda machine that when Palestinians attempt to call attention to its mythical nature they are accused of propagating the cycle of violence. No one can meet this security threshold. Israel, especially Israel’s Prime Minister Sharon, has used the myth of absolute security as a strategy to avoid assuming historic responsibility. Not the US, not Yasir Arafat, not a well-groomed Palestinian Prime Minister - nobody, not even a demilitarized future State of Palestine - can guarantee Israelis, or any people on the planet for that matter, absolute security.
The sooner that Israel concludes that its security cannot co-exist with an illegal occupation of another people, the closer the Palestinians and the Israelis will be to embracing each other’s fears and working jointly toward alleviating them.
On the other hand, there are no easy answers in the Middle East.
The reality of the region, particularly the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which is the region’s cornerstone conflict, is that Israel’s illegal occupation is only one of a multitude of wrongs that Israel must address. In today’s global, short-term memory approach to conflict resolution the UN, US, EU and Russia are aiming to resolve only the most recent Israeli historic wrong the 1967 occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. However, the initial wrong that culminated in the 1948 expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from today’s Israel is purposely being neglected in the hope that the embattled Palestinian society will somehow forget that their inalienable rights were violated.
Palestinians call this right the Right of Return. It is a right embedded in international law, a right afforded to individuals; a right that no government, not even a recognized Palestinian government, can invalidate. Although the most recent peace initiatives, namely the Geneva Accord and the Nusseibeh-Ayalon Statement, prefer to dismiss this right, one must be politically and morally naïve to believe that doing so would bring the two embattled peoples any closer to a real final-status solution - one that will have a fair chance to bring real security to both peoples. Only honest and serious historic accountability - with all the necessary international verifications - would be grounds for celebration of the start of true reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis.
Untangling 37 years of Israeli occupation means rehabilitating injured Palestinians; restoring the lives of thousands of Palestinian political prisoners so they may become productive elements in society; clearing the way for a full and unfettered assumption of power of a central Palestinian government; building thousands of housing units and hundreds of schoolhouses; installing massive amounts of basic infrastructure; absorbing hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and Palestinians living in the Diaspora; and re-establishing property rights for those Palestinians who lost their lands to Israeli settlements, military installations and the separation wall over the last three decades, among other tasks.
All this is going to require not months, not years, but generations. It will require hundreds of billions, maybe trillions of dollars. Palestinians are going to be kept extremely busy catching up with the rest of the world while simultaneously moving ahead to compete effectively in today’s globalized world. Nevertheless, this daunting developmental task should not lull the players in the conflict into believing that those Palestinian historic rights violated by Israel prior to 1967 will ever be forgiven, forgotten or dispensed with, especially not while the remaining 22% of historic Palestine (West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem) remain illegally occupied by Israel.
Historic reconciliation is possible. Just look at the mutually constructive relations today between Israel and Germany. Israel and Palestine are not destined to be enemies forever, but ignoring the core inalienable rights of Palestinians will not bring the two any closer together. Rather than seeing yet another generation of Palestinians and Israelis living a false hope that yet another incomplete interim or final status agreement will bring normalcy to their lives, we would all be better off if Israel would face up to the necessity, sooner rather than later, of assuming its ultimately unavoidable historic responsibility vis-a-vis the indigenous Palestinian people.
Going back to the original question at hand, Will the Palestinians accept the end of the Israeli occupation as their cue to cease, once and for all, their five-decade struggle to correct the historic injustices done to them?
The most realistic answer lies somewhere in the shades of gray between no and yes. To put the Palestinians and Israelis on the track toward historic reconciliation, Israel must stop holding the region hostage. It must begin by unilaterally ending the illegal occupation of Palestinians and working to establish a Palestinian state based on internationally accepted borders and international legitimacy.
The emerging State of Palestine, having learned from the hard mistakes of the Oslo era, may be able to create the moral and political authority to bring the Palestinians back from the abyss. For Israel or the US to deny Palestinians the right to full sovereignty based on internationally recognized borders - in the hope that some outdated, semi-elected Palestinian leadership might have the ability to write off 20 years of history - betokens ignorance of the lessons of world history.
If the future State of Palestine succeeds, the conflict may end without a press release or final handshake. If it fails, then Israel, the military superpower of the Middle East, has all of the brute force necessary to defend its borders from any future hostile attack. If reconciliation wins through, then both peoples, jointly, can tear down the walls between them and truly be, separately and jointly, a light among nations.
Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American living in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian City of Al-Bireh in the West Bank; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.