Are Israelis and Palestinians finally on the road to peace? A cursory glance at commentary in the US press would seem to suggest so. Since Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, and Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas announced a truce in early February at the Sharm al-Sheikh summit, many observers see a “window of opportunity” they are encouraging both sides to leap through.
Sharon has announced he is now coordinating with the Palestinians on his originally unilateral plan to pull Israeli troops and settlers out of Gaza and the Israeli cabinet voted to approve the “disengagement.”
The New York Times editorial gushed about the disengagement that “it would be churlish to greet [Sharon’s] historic decision with anything other than enthusiasm.” (24 February). The Chicago Tribune praised Sharon’s “impressive” perfomance and marveled as he “defies death threats and warnings of a civil war to move his nation toward the kind of actions that are imperative for a two-state solution and a lasting peace.” (24 February).
Behind the photo opportunities and historic handshakes, however, the evidence on the ground is that Israel is taking advantage of the new mood not to build peace, but to build more settlements. Without an immediate halt in settlement construction, the possibility for a territorially contiguous, free Palestinian state alongside Israel will remain a distant mirage, no matter how many times President Bush talks about it, and the present easing of tension will be no more than a short respite from more horror to come.
Phase One of President Bush’s Road Map peace plan says that both sides must immediately halt all violence against eachother, and Israel must freeze all construction of Jewish-only settlements on occupied Palestinian land. But Palestinians still watch helplessly as Israeli bulldozers chew up their farms and orchards. Palestinian Authority prime minister Ahmed Qureia complained that “Israel is throwing sand in our eyes by continuing with the settlement process” in the occupied West Bank.
At a press conference with foreign reporters on 15 February, Sharon confirmed that Israel intends to keep “Jewish population blocs” inside the West Bank. Last Spring, the Bush administration explicitly endorsed Israel’s intention to do so. Israel’s housing minister Yitzhak Herzog announced in mid-February that Israel would build a new settlement called “Gvaot” near the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Herzog also said that settlers set to be evacuated from Gaza would be free to move to other settlements in the West Bank. “I cannot prevent an individual who wants to use his compensation to buy a house in Gush Etzion from doing so,” he said, referring to a growing settlement near Jerusalem. (Reuters, 15 February 2005)
Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper reported that Israel is forging ahead with plans to expand Ma’ale Adumim, the largest settlement in the West Bank, which lies between Jerusalem and Jericho and cuts the West Bank in two from north to south. If this expansion goes ahead, as it seems it will, it confirms that Israel intends there to be no possibility for a contiguous Palestinian state. (“Herzog’s Greater Jerusalem,” by Shahar Ilan, Haaretz, 16 February).
Israel’s Yediot Aharonot newspaper revealed that according to the state land authority, Israel plans to build more than 6,000 new homes in settlements in the West Bank — many in Ma’ale Adumim — and that the government will also legitimize 120 unauthorixed settlement outposts. (BBC, 25 February 2005)
A recent study by Israel’s Peace Now using aerial photography and field research found that “the main building effort in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank is now focused on the area between the Green Line [1967 border] and the separation fence, and it is aimed at turning the fence into Israel’s permanent border.” (“Quietly carrying on building,” Ha’aretz, 8 January 2005). A confidential report by the Israeli attorney general that found that “almost every major ministry in the Israeli government assisted in the construction, expansion and maintenance of illegal settlement outposts.” (“Israelis Act to Encircle East Jerusalem; Enclaves in Arab Areas, Illegal Building Projects Seen Intended to Consolidate Control,” The Washington Post, 7 February 2005)
This evidence bolsters Palestinian claims that the separation wall — ruled illegal last July by the International Court of Justice — is not a temporary security measure as Israel argues, but a land grab carried out while world attention focuses on Gaza. The deception, however, is not Israel’s alone, but requires the active participation of all those invested in the “peace process” as it is currently configured and who prefer to talk about the Gaza as if it were the only and most important thing happening.
There is a vast and growing gap between the Bush administration’s peace rhetoric and what is happening on the ground. Lately it has been easier to ignore these contradictions because exhausted Israelis and Palestinians are ready to give anything a chance. But time is very short.
Post-“truce” talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority to handover the West Bank city of Jericho to Palestinian control quickly stalled over where to place Israeli roadblocks around the town. Israel refused Palestinian demands for free movement from Jericho to Ramallah. Many Palestinians feel that what is happening now is not a genuine quest for peace, but simply discussions between the jailor and the prisoner on easing prison conditions.
Meanwhile, in Ramallah, democratic “reform” Palestinian Authority-style continues. The recent wrangle over the approval of a Palestinian cabinet has been presented as a struggle between the Arafat old guard and young reformers grouped around Abbas. While Palestinian Authority prime minister Ahmed Qureia has forced by the Palestinian Legislative Council to bring a number of technocrats into the cabinet, but he also brought in Mohammed Dahlan, the Gaza strongman closely allied with Abbas. Dahlan, the Gaza security chief in the heyday of Oslo is implicated in massive corruption and human rights abuses in Gaza. Qureia himself was the subject of a Legislative Council investigation into allegations that his family cement business sold concrete to Israel to build the separation wall in the occupied West Bank. Despite the investigative committee’s recommendations for action, nothing has been done. Rather than genuine reform, the tussle in Ramallah appears to be little more than a redivision of the spoils among top figures in Fatah, the movement that monopolizes power in the Palestinian Authority.
If Palestinians feel that Abbas’ Palestinian Authority is receiving international aid and support only to act as a proxy police force on behalf of a deepening Israeli occupation, it will rapidly lose what legitimacy it has. Abbas’ problem was well illustrated by one Palestinian police officer in Gaza who told the Associated Press, “I will never raise my weapons against the [Palestinian] fighters … I can only ask them not to fire.” No Palestinian leader can order Palestinians to engage in civil war on Israel’s behalf. In recent municipal elections in the Gaza Strip, Hamas trounced Fatah, an indication that despite a campaign of assassination against their leaders by Israel, Islamist opposition groups remain the strongest force in some parts of the occupied territories.
Other noteworthy developments on the ground bode ill for Palestinians. Under Israeli and American pressure, scandal-plagued UN Secretary General Kofi Annan recently decided not to renew the term of Peter Hansen, the Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which employs thousands of Palestinian refugees and cares for the basic needs of millions. Hansen, a seasoned and widely-respected professional, had angered Israel by vigorously defending his agency and staff against false Israeli allegations that they were involved in armed activity. Hansen’s departure will be a blow to Palestinians, and only the more so if he is replaced by the new breed of UN official that Annan’s dismal reign has ushered in, who are self-interested politicians first and international civil servants a distant second.
The dynamic that exists looks ominously like the failed Oslo peace process during which Israel doubled the number of settlers on Palestinian land, and never let up on forced land confiscation and house demolitions, sustaining a cycle of violence which claimed thousands of innocent lives. Despite the continuing euphoria created by Sharon’s theatrics, there is no evidence that Israel has any intention of seizing perhaps the last opportunity to save itself through the two-state solution. Neither is there any sign that its chief sponsor, the United States, has any intention of pressuring it to do so.
Note: This article was published hours before a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a nightclub in Tel Aviv killing four people and injuring several dozen others.
Ali Abunimah is a co-founder of The Electronic Intifada.