It feels strange to discuss possible solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Do we prefer a one-state formula or two states, one next to the other? Which of the two solutions is more possible? These questions sound so remote from the harsh reality on the ground, where a resolution of the conflict never seemed so distant.
Currently, Israel is dramatically and unilaterally changing the regional landscape. The project misleadingly called the “Security Fence” is perpetuating and vastly expanding the colonies Israel has established in the areas it occupied in 1967, while sacrificing a handful of settlements located in the remote and most populated Palestinian areas. The project also complements the system of Jewish-only roads and numerous checkpoints that already fragment the West Bank — it concentrates the Palestinians in densely inhabited, impoverished enclaves, and ensures complete Israeli control over the region’s most precious resources: open land and water.
Many Palestinian communities in the West Bank are already fenced in from all sides (and sometimes also cut in the middle) by a system of trenches, concrete walls and barbed-wire fences. Gaza too is sealed. Movement between the Palestinian pockets is extremely difficult. Access to healthcare, education, and work is limited and in some cases impossible. Poverty is everywhere (60 percent of the population is under the UN poverty line of two dollars of income a day). In a matter of months, the project will be successfully completed. It will lock the Palestinians in small ghettos, connected by subterranean roads that will be controlled by Israel. There will be no airport, seaport, and the passage by land to neighboring countries will be manned by Israeli soldiers. The end result — already in place in the Gaza Strip and several West Bank “strips” — is a system of crowded, open-air prisons. And if the inmates will get out of hand and revolt, the wardens will target them with air raids and artillery shells.
Note that what is happening in the territories occupied in 1967 is not essentially new. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not 40 years old but 120 years old. Throughout this period, the Israeli Yeshuv-turned-state used a variety of means to seize as much land as possible and displace or strangle the native population. A major breakthrough in this effort took place during the 1948 War, when at least 700,000 Palestinians either fled in fear or were forced out of their towns and villages at gun-point. Their homes were systematically razed to the ground by the newly founded sate of Israel and they were not allowed to return.
As for those Palestinians who in 1948 held fast to their homes (and who withstood a further round of expulsions in the 1950s), they were granted Israeli citizenship and today constitute 20 percent of Israel’s population. But policies of displacement and land grab have continued to be practiced consistently also inside Israel, against its own Arab citizens. In the Negev, to give just one example, some 80,000 Bedouins live in “unrecognized villages,” which the state refuses to supply with water, electricity, adequate schools and medical facilities. As we speak, Israeli forces are hard at work to involuntarily resettle this population in crowded townships. Hardly a week passes without homes, sometime whole villages, being destroyed, cattle confiscated, and fields extirpated, while the government is generously distributing lands in this area to Jewish settlers. This is just one front of push-and-grab operations inside Israel. Overall, the opinion that the state should revoke the citizenship of its Arab citizens and that they should be fenced out or even expelled is becoming mainstream among Israeli Jews.
In the late 19th century Jewish immigrants to Palestine were rallied by the slogan: “A land without people for a people without a land,” and it seems that the Zionist movement has never given up on emptying the land of its native people. Another well-known slogan spoke about the redemption of “an acre here and an acre there” (dunam po ve-dunam sham). The ingeniousness, historical vision and relentlessness of the Zionist project are all apparent in this slogan, taught to us in school: different patches of land may be obtained by resorting to different means — some bought, other confiscated, yet others taken by force. The land won may initially not be contiguous, some of it here and some of it there, but in the end, “acre-by-acre,” it will all be taken.
There is nothing in the slogan about the people already inhabiting those acres. As late as the 1970s, Israel’s Prime-minister Golda Meir insisted that there is no such thing as a Palestinian people. And Ariel Sharon, who had a profound impact on Israel’s colonization of the West Bank since the late 1970s, repeatedly said that if the Palestinians want a state they should find it in Jordan. And yet, in recent years, the same Sharon suddenly adopted the rhetoric of a two-state-solution, and called for the establishment of a Palestinian entity in areas Israel occupied in the 1967 war.
Coming from the man who masterminded the settlements, the outposts, and, most recently, the strangling of West Bank towns with walls, this new rhetoric signals a historical achievement. The fruits of 120 years of “an acre here and an acre there” are finally within sight. The Arab population of the historical Palestine has become sufficiently disintegrated and dispossessed. The tenuously related, landless enclaves of the West Bank are being terminally fixed — they have nowhere to expand to. Sharon, Olmert and Barak can now change their language — to the applause of the Bush administration and the Western nations.
If the Palestinians hoisted their flag in their isolated ghettos, or held elections, Israel couldn’t be happier. Calling the open-air prison-system a state will allow it to wash its hands off the impoverished inmates.
So, is a solution possible? Some say that the reality that Israel has created on the ground is irrecoverable and that the partition of the historical Palestine into two states is no longer practical. Others argue that it is the one-state solution which is infeasible, as Israelis will never agree to a power-sharing deal of the Northern Ireland type.
Both arguments are wrong — nothing is impossible. De Gaul pulled all of France’s million settlers out of Algeria when few believed he would. For decades, South African whites said they will never agree to share power with the country’s black majority, and then, overnight, they agreed to do exactly that. The Iron Wall fell, and so did the Berlin Wall. As we do not know the future, we have no way of ascertaining the impossible.
But if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to find a just and stable solution — one state, two states, some other solution — this will have to involve a true sharing of land, water, and, indeed, power. It will have to be the result of bilateral negotiation between two equal partners. It will have to allow both groups to exercise their cultural and political rights, to hold on to their narratives, languages, and religious traditions.
To such true sharing, the Zionist movement has never agreed. Some argue that the 1947 partition plan amounted to a sincere offer to share the land. But everyone who studied the history of the region knows that the Jewish subscription to this plan was meant to seize an “acre here” while waiting for the “acre there” to materialize. The Yeshuv had no intention to settle for what it was offered then. Others say that in Oslo Israel truly intended to share the land with the PLO, but ask any Palestinian in the West Bank: The Oslo 1990s, when Israel doubled the settlements’ population, built many new colonies, and erected the outposts, were the worst decade of Israeli occupation — until the 2000s, that is.
The well-oiled machine of push-and-grab has been running for decades without ever stopping. Indeed, it steadily gained momentum and has almost a life of its own now. The ears of Israelis have become so accustomed to its constant sound — the rattle-and-hum of demolition and uprooting to make room for new settlers — that they no longer hear it. They hear their occasional calls for peace. They hear when they are shot at. But they long ago stopped hearing the monotonous drilling of the colonizing machine, and they cannot imagine the quiet that will result from turning it off.
I have witnessed this unrelenting machine in action. With my friends in Ta’ayush and other peace groups we have built homes that it has tore down, only to see them demolished again, and again, and again, five times over. The bulldozers always come back. Or take the struggle of the residents of Susya, in the South Hebron hills. Years of tremendous efforts of hundreds of people on the ground, in court, and in the media, have by no means secured the fragile status quo of the handful of families clinging to their tiny, simple huts. Israeli soldiers knocked them down at the time of prime-minister Barak, and despite all efforts, the bulldozers will return at some point, to clear the area for the nearby settlers.
The machine of displacement never tires. It continues its work in the occupied territories and in Israel proper, from Rafah to the Negev, from Hebron to Jerusalem, from Budrus to Bil’in, from Jenin to Sakhnin. It grabs an acre here and an acre there. Let me be clear: no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is possible so long as it continues its work.
But dismantle it, and everything is possible.
Yigal Bronner teaches South Asian Literature at the University of Chicago. He is an activist in Ta’ayush: Arab-Jewish Partnership and a refusenik who spent much of the past decade fighting for peace and against injustice in Israel/Palestine.