In less than four weeks, the civil infrastructure of two emerging Middle Eastern democracies has been laid to waste, and over 400 Palestinians and Lebanese, mostly civilians, have been killed by Israeli forces.
The urgency of finding a just solution to the Israeli- Palestinian dispute has never been more compelling. But if calm is to be restored, the international community must convince Israel that security comes not through warfare but through peace.
While Israel enjoys the security rewards of peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, it has been strangely reluctant to pursue the same with Lebanon or the PLO.
Instead, at the heart of Israeli policymaking today lies a deluded faith in the benefits of unilateral action over diplomatic engagement; in tactical military redeployments over comprehensive military withdrawal, and in conflict “management” over conflict resolution.
Nowhere has the faulty logic of Israel’s approach been more transparent than in its purported disengagement from occupied Gaza. When Israel pulled its soldiers and settlers out of Gaza last year, the move was marketed internationally as a brave step that would bring the Middle East closer to peace.
Yet Israel itself sabotaged that opportunity. Israel could have responded to President Mahmoud Abbas’s invitation to use the impetus of the Gaza withdrawal to repair the diplomatic process and create a political horizon. It could have ended the occupation of the Gaza Strip instead of retaining effective control over Gaza’s borders, sea- and airspace.
Instead, Israel chose a strategy of collective punishment by prohibiting goods and people from moving between Gaza and the West Bank, blockading Gaza from international markets and denying its residents such basics as flour, milk and sugar.
The U.S.-led boycott of the Palestinian Authority that followed our democratic parliamentary elections in January only exacerbated the economic and humanitarian crisis.
Meanwhile, Israel’s bombardment of civilian population centers aggravated tensions. In the month leading up to the capture of the Israeli soldier now held by Palestinian militants, Israel assassinated eight Palestinian leaders and killed 28 civilians, including nine children and a pregnant woman.
Despite the dismal failure of the disengagement policy, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appears determined to repeat its mistakes. Israel is entrenching its control over those areas of the West Bank that are essential to the viability of a future Palestinian state through accelerated construction of the wall and settlements.
The resulting political geography would concretize the imprisonment of over two million Palestinians in a fractured West Bank, just as 1.4 million Palestinians are currently caged up in Gaza. Needless to say, there is no possibility of establishing a Palestinian state under such conditions.
In order to continue its occupation and colonization of Palestinian lands, Israel perpetuates the myth that it lacks a Palestinian interlocutor with whom to negotiate. When Fatah and Hamas unveiled the National Conciliation Document, offering united support for a two-state solution, Israel drowned out the good news by pummeling Gaza’s civil infrastructure and terrorizing its residents.
There is a way out of this spiraling crisis. Israel originally committed itself to releasing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners during the Sharm el-Sheikh summit in February 2005.
Palestinians have proposed that the Israeli corporal be returned safely to Israel in exchange for a fraction of the more than 9,000 Palestinians Israel has imprisoned or detained, including 120 women and nearly 400 children.
But Israel is refusing to negotiate a prisoner exchange. Instead, it abducted 33 Palestinian ministers and parliamentarians and intensified its bombardment of Gaza.
Israeli unilateralism is founded on the false premise that Israelis can attain peace and security without affording Palestinians their liberty and independence.
Ten months after Israel’s redeployment from Gaza, the escalating crisis throughout the Middle East demonstrates the resounding failure of this policy.
It is a failure that must be rectified immediately, and one that none of us can afford to see repeated.
Manuel Hassassian is the Palestine Liberation Organization representative to Britain. This article was first published on July 21, in the International Herald Tribune.