Letter From Israel
by Ran HaCohen
Imagine the following scenario: after ages of discrimination, the United States decides to compensate African-Americans generously and to solve their problems once and for all. All African-Americans are locked up in prison, and the prisons are declared to be an independent African-American state. Sound crazy? That is just what the US and Israel are now planning for the Palestinians.
Things in Israel may have never been worse. Economically, the country is in the worst recession since 1953. Two major economic sectors hi-tech and tourism have suffered fatal blows, the one from the global collapse of the "new economy," the other from the Intifada boosted by the September attacks.
Politically, living here calls to mind the first years of the Third Reich. Day after day you witness a society rapidly losing its human face. The safe haven for persecuted Jews has turned into a safe haven for sadistic war criminals, where nobodyís life, be he Arab or Jew, is secure. As part of an overall campaign to de-legitimize the Arab-Israeli population, this week the Israeli Parliament lifted the immunity of its (Arab) member Azmi Bishara: not for corruption or criminal deeds (a commonplace in Israeli politics), but, for the first time, for things he had said. And even this decision, a dangerous blow to Israeli democracy, threatening the freedom of speech of an elected Parliament member, has been editorially applauded by Israelís "liberal" newspaper Haaretz, which cynically blamed the victim: "If anyone is responsible for the situation having reached this point, it is MK Bishara himself."
At the same time, Israeli state terrorism in the Occupied Territories is reaching unprecedented peaks. Israeli death-squads now kill a Palestinian freedom fighter almost every day. On the other hand, police claim to have "no clue" as to the identity of a Jewish terrorist group that has murdered at least six Palestinians during the past months. Prime Minister Sharon has not yet reached the death toll of his murderous predecessor Ehud Barak during whose term, in October and November 2000, more than 110 Palestinians were killed every month but he is making a good progress: October 2001 was the bloodiest month this year, with more than 90 Palestinian casualties. Sharon, however, is more innovative in abusing the Palestinian population: to annihilate Palestinian freedom of movement altogether, the Israeli army now not only destroys (by ditches) the miserable roads still open to Palestinians, but, to disable Palestinian traffic completely (be it to work, to get water and food, or to hospital), it even confiscates the keys to Palestinian private cars.
But all of a sudden, in the middle of all these atrocities, there seems to be a ray of light. The term "Palestinian state" is being de-tabooed. Sharon now wants to give the Palestinians a state, President Bush even claims that a Palestinian state has "always been part of the American vision" (why didnít they tell us before?), King Abdallah of Jordan says the Arab world should integrate Israel in return for a Palestinian state, and even Chairman Arafat himself airs his threats to declare a state. What a harmony, what a consensus! One almost wonders what the Middle East conflict was all about, if it can be solved by such a simple declaration.
Whoever follows the Israeli press would have no difficulty imagining the Palestinian state offered by Israel. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, a hard-line hawk with a misleading dovish image, one of the founders of Israelís illegal settlements project, says it openly: the Palestinian state will comprise just the areas currently controlled by the Palestinian Authority. His initial hesitant words about dismantling some settlements in the Gaza Strip were immediately withdrawn: no settlements will be evacuated.
The Palestinian Authority is holding or was holding, up to the recent Israeli incursions something like 10% of the West Bank and about two-thirds of the Gaza Strip: separate "autonomous" enclaves in half a dozen Palestinian cities, cut off and hermetically besieged by Israeli forces. This will be the "Palestinian state."
Former Prime Minister Netanyahu was much more honest. I recall a speech he held in the Knesset a few years ago. In his notorious eloquence he asked rhetorically: Is there a state without contiguity? Is there a state without an army? Is there a state that does not control its own borders? Is there a state that does not control its own water resources and airspace? I am telling you, said Netanyahu: there is no such state.
Netanyahu was right. There is no such state as what Israel means by a "Palestinian state." Sharon stresses it over and over again: the "state" will have no borders with Jordan or Egypt, it will be surrounded by Israel from all sides, it will be demilitarize, Israel will control its water and its air space; and the Israeli settlements, consuming about 50% of the West Bank and a third of Gaza and still growing, will all remain intact, and with them the entire network of checkpoints, military bases and roads open for Israelis only, that turn the Occupied Territories into a block of Swiss cheese (as Arafat once put it), with the holes left to the Palestinians. This Palestinian state will be no more a state than the South African Bantustans in the darkest days of Apartheid. It will be the ultimate camouflage for the ongoing occupation.
The Palestinian people do not need such a state. They need land, which was and is being dragged away by Israeli settlements. It needs its own water, 80% of which is being stolen by Israel. It needs freedom of movement, not just to walk to the nearest checkpoint and face an Israeli gunman. It needs an open border to pick up at least some of the refugees spread all over the Arab world.
The envisioned Palestinian "state" will not give any of that. On the contrary: it will serve as a surrogate and as a new justification for the ongoing occupation, which will not be called occupation anymore. It will take the question of Palestine off the international agenda by turning it from a juicy and photogenic resistance to occupation into a simple border-dispute, one of so many around the world. If this was the case, fair enough; but it is not: a Palestinian state alongside Israelís occupation is an outright abuse of the term "state."
The Palestinians are fed up with empty tokens and symbols of sovereignty. This was the logic of Oslo: give Arafat a title ("Chairman," "President"), give him a license to issue postage stamps, police uniforms and pseudo-official travel documents, and the Palestinian problem will be solved by his well-trained gunmen. Most of the Palestinians were ready to live with that temporarily for seven years, expecting it to be the swallow that makes summer; it did not. Even Arafat himself, who for years cooperated with this fabrication of illusions, understood a year ago that the game was over: faced with the choice between joining the furious tiger of the Intifada and being its prey, he chose to jump on its back and ride it. If he changes sides now, he is finished.
So it will take much more than the well-meant words of Scott McConnell "there is a great deal more conversation among Americans than used to be about foreign affairs in general and about wrongs committed against the Arabs in particular. You have seen some evidence of this in President Bush's own words about Palestine" to convince Palestinians of Americaís intentions. It will take much more than nice and harmless promises of a Palestinian state from President Bush. Having sold the Palestinians empty illusions for years, if the US now wants to regain its credibility among Palestinians and Arabs, and Moslems it will have to put the horse before the cart, not behind it. First get Israel out of the occupied territories. A Palestinian state may follow, but not precede the end of Israelís occupation.
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