Palestine’s tale of woe, revolt and elusive statehood

It is now time to deliver on Palestinian statehood

The unequal battle in Gaza is every day increasing the toll of civilian casualties including children and women adding daily to the anguish and suffering of common Palestinians. Since 6 July when Israel started its offensive of air raids and artillery shelling followed by ground offensive on 17 July, more than 1300 Palestinians comprising mainly civilians have died. In excess of 50 Israeli soldiers have also been killed. Despite the rising deaths, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is riding an unprecedented wave of popularity, from left to right of the political spectrum in Israel for his leadership in the military’s Gaza offensive.

The Gaza Strip, which covers an area of 146 square miles with a population of about 1.6 million, is densely populated. Its capital Gaza City is the 40th most densely urban area in the world. Air bombardment and artillery shelling targeting purported Hamas rocket emplacements, arms cache or infrastructure in such densely populated areas necessarily cause serious collateral civilian victims. A UN run school in a refugee camp in Gaza has also been hit killing 16 people and causing children casualties, raising human rights violation issues. There has been widespread condemnation by the international community. Yet, in a clear intent at escalation, Israel has called up 16,000 reservists to scale up the offensive in Gaza.

It must be remembered that the Palestinian conflict stems from the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine adopted by United Nations (UN) General Assembly in November 1947. This Plan recommended the partition of the Economic Union of Mandatory Palestine at the end of the British mandate on 15 May 1948. It provided for the progressive withdrawal of the British army and the delineation of boundaries to create two States namely a Palestinian and a Jewish State with Jerusalem holding a special international status, by 1 October 1948. The Plan aimed at addressing the opposing claims of Arab nationalism in Palestine and Zionism (Jewish nationalism). It called for Economic Union between the two States and for the protection of religious and minority rights. The Plan was accepted by the Jewish Agency whereas the Arab leaders and governments rejected the Plan for the territorial division of Palestine arguing that it violated the principles of national self determination enshrined in the UN Charter which conferred the right to decide on their own destiny to the people.

High-handedness

After the adoption of the UN resolution, David Ben-Gurion, the President of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, which was engaged in a fierce struggle against British rule, declared on 14 May 1948 the establishment of the State of Israel on a unilaterally delineated area of Palestine, as from the 15 May 1948, the date of the end of the British Mandate for Palestine. On the following day, the armies of four neighbouring Arab countries (Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq together with a military contingent of Saudi Arabia) invaded Israel. After a year of fighting, a ceasefire was declared and temporary borders known as the Green Line were established. Jordan annexed the West Bank and Egypt captured the Gaza Strip. The UN estimated that more than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled during the conflict from the Palestinian territory which would become Israel, leaving behind their properties and homes.

Israel was admitted as a member of the United Nations by a majority vote on 11 May 1949. In line with a deliberate policy of immigration of Jews from Arab and other countries, the population of Israel rose from 800,000 to two million from 1948 to 1958. Since then Israel has fought several wars with neighbouring Arab States. The 6-Day-War in 1967 launched by an Israeli pre-emptive attack against Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq demonstrated the military superiority of Israel. It resulted in the annexation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights by Israel. Jerusalem’s boundaries were enlarged to include East Jerusalem and the 1949 Green Line became the administrative boundary between Israel and the occupied territories.

On the occasion of Yom Kippur on 6 October 1973, a Jewish holy day, Egyptian and Syrian forces launched a surprise attack on Israel in the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. The war ended on 26 October 1973 with the Israeli army repelling the invading forces.

The PLO: from outcast to interlocutor

The Palestinians set up the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1964 comprising various Palestinian groups fighting for the liberation of Palestine such as the Fatah, which was led by Yasser Arafat, or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which was headed by George Habash, a Palestinian Christian. As is the case in so many Arab countries, Palestinians comprise both Muslims and significant Christian minorities of various denominations as well as Druze and other communities. PLO’s stated goal was the liberation of Palestine through armed struggle. It obtained an observer status at the UN as from 1974. As an armed guerrilla organization, the PLO carried forward the fight for a free Palestine and was responsible for various daring and violent actions against Israel in the 1970s and 1980s, in what it regarded as a war of attrition. The PLO was considered as a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel.

As from 1977 there were a series of initiatives by various American Presidents to broker a peace agreement between the Palestinians/the neighbouring Arab countries and Israel. In 1977, President Anwar-El Sadat of Egypt became the first Arab head of State to recognise Israel. Following the Camp David Accord in 1978, Egypt and Israel signed a Peace Treaty in 1979 whereby Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula and agreed to enter into negotiations over the autonomy for Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Undermining the peace process

However, the chances to arrive at a lasting peace between the two protagonists have drifted irrevocably as from 1980 through the provocative and obdurate actions of Israel. Under the influence of hawks and right wing orthodox elements, often included in coalition governments, there has been a radicalisation of the Israeli position regarding the conditions of a peace settlement. Thus, in 1980, the Menachem Begin government provided incentives to Israelis to settle in the West Bank, causing increasing acrimony amongst the Palestinians in the area. They also passed a law interpreted as reaffirming Israel’s 1967 annexation of Jerusalem by government decree, thereby raising questions about the special international status of the city. In 1981, Israel annexed the Golan Heights. In numerous UN resolutions, these actions were considered illegal and having no validity by a majority of UN Member States.

As from 1981, there has been a repeated cycle of escalation and violent retaliation against any attack by the Palestinians or Hezbollah or Hamas by Israeli forces in Lebanon (1982, 1988, 2006) or in Gaza in 2006, 2008-2009, 2012 and presently in 2014. The first Intifada or uprising against Israeli rule broke out in 1987 in Gaza and the West Bank lasting 6 years and causing more than a thousand deaths. The second Intifada, started in 2000 after the provocative visit of the Israeli Prime Minister (PM) Ariel Sharon on the Esplanade on Temple Mount, lasted till 2005.

However, under Yitzhak Rabin the Israeli Labour Party PM, the Oslo Accords signed in 1995 between Shimon Peres of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas for the PLO gave the Palestinian National Authority the right to govern parts of Gaza and the West Bank. For its part, the PLO recognized Israel and pledged an end to terrorism. As from 2000, Israel started constructing a 700 kilometres West Bank Barrier as a separation wall in the West Bank and partly along the Green Line between Israel and the Palestinian West Bank. According to an Israeli human rights organisation, 8.5% of the West Bank area will, on completion of the wall, be on the Israeli side of the barrier. In 2004, the International Court of Justice asserted ‘that the construction of the Wall, and its associated regime, are contrary to international law’.

Have all these hostile actions been deliberately taken to stoke resentment, complicate and undermine the peace process?

Furthermore, Israel has since 2007 maintained a strict blockade over the Gaza Strip. It severely restricts all border crossings in territory it controls and naval pathways into the Strip. The blockade restricts access to food, water, electricity, gas, construction materials and other necessities. It bans many products and tightly regulates the flow of others. The blockade aim is to weaken the authority of Hamas in power in Gaza since the elections in the Palestinian territories in 2006 and to prevent Hamas from getting materials to build rockets and mortars to hit Israel.

Palestinians are not only separated geographically in Gaza and the West Bank but are governed separately as well by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority respectively. According to Oxfam, the blockade has ‘devastated Gaza’s economy with more than 40% of the people of Gaza i.e. nearly 50% of its youth presently unemployed and 80% of the people receiving international aid. The construction industry has been decimated as construction materials are not allowed in Gaza. Exports are now less than 3% of their pre-blockade levels with transfer of agricultural produce and other goods to the West Bank and exports to Israel entirely banned.’ To make matters worse, since the military took power in Egypt in 2013, the Egyptian authorities have shut most of the major tunnels to Egypt which constituted a lifeline for Gaza. Israel’s blockade of Gaza creates a humanitarian crisis.

It is on such a blockaded Gaza with its densely populated people suffering from deprivations and lacking essential amenities that air raids and artillery are pounding daily with bombs and shells since 6 July raining death on the civilian population and causing mass movement of refugees to flee the war zones. It is a Catch-22 situation. Successive initiatives by various US Presidents and others to broker a peace agreement have all failed owing to the US approach of prescribing a process, a direction and a mechanism for a peace agreement rather than focusing on substance. There is also a deep-seated mistrust between the protagonists. In addition, Israel refuses to discuss directly with Hamas. There cannot be a sustainable peace agreement without including Hamas at the negotiating table.

In the light of the history of the conflict, the ingredients of a peace agreement encompass the return of all occupied territories since the 1967 war including East Jerusalem, the right of return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, the two-state solution and the recognition of each other’s sovereign right to exist coupled with an end to violence as well as a mechanism to address any violations. Tradeoffs will have to be bilaterally negotiated around these key elements which could include territorial swaps to assure security. It is also evident that no peace agreement can be achieved without some firm arm twisting by the US and pressure from keys Members of the UN bearing in mind the history of the conflict and the tenor of the numerous related UN Security Council resolutions and UN resolutions by a majority of Member States and other international bodies.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict reminds me of the story of the camel and the Arab who in a stormy night allowed the camel to shelter in his tent resulting in the Arab being subsequently kicked out of the tent. Palestinians are fighting to obtain a State in land and territory which wholly belonged to them. Israel has both a State and recognition by the Palestinian Authority and the UN.

The legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people for a sovereign State seem crushed by Israeli high-handedness, and the entrenched geopolitical interests of the States of the region and their superpower allies unconditionally supporting them to maintain their regional leverage at the expense of a swift and fair settlement of the long outstanding Palestinian issue. It is now time to deliver on Palestinian statehood.

Time is of the essence as the accumulated frustration of the Palestinians is acute. After 66 years of struggle and compromises Palestinians are still being perversely denied their right to finally have a separate sovereign State to safeguard the rights of their people as has been the case for Israel. The intransigent stand of Hamas regarding an end to the Israeli blockade as a condition for a cease fire in the teeth of heavy casualties attests to a sense of alienation and desperation of the Palestinians in the light of both the fecklessness of the countries of the Arab League and the ineptitude of the key members of the UN and its Security Council to resolve the Palestinian issue. Are we witnessing a sea change in the ground strategy to force a resolution of the conflict?


* Published in print edition on 8 August 2014

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