Life for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories is now so miserable that it has become quite difficult not to be seduced by the theatre of the latest ‘peace push’, such is the desire to see an end to the conflict. When Condoleeza Rice expresses her sincere ambition to create an independent Palestinian state, and when Ehud Olmert hints about a willingness to divide Jerusalem, it is extremely tempting to simply forget about the facts on the ground and dare to hope that perhaps, this time, they’re for real.
Unfortunately, facts matter. It is axiomatic in politics that you don’t simply take what political actors (so to speak) say at face value. While political rhetoric can reveal important insights into the motivations and attitudes of each side, for it to be useful it must be evaluated and placed in a relevant context. In this case, Olmert’s platitudes must be placed in the context of Israel’s actions on the ground and the historical record, in order to evaluate what they might actually mean.
On Wednesday, two very respectable, knowledgeable observers of the conflict posted two very different perspectives on the current diplomatic surge. Tony Karon, a veteran journalist and senior editor at TIME magazine, argues that the Annapolis summit is doomed to “failure”, primarily due to U.S./Israeli rejectionism and the political weakness of both Ehud Olmert, who depends upon the likes of Avigdor Lieberman and the extreme-right Shas party to hold his shaky coalition together, and Mahmoud Abbas, who has no control over Gaza and whose political legitimacy is extremely suspect.
Charles Levinson, a British journalist and Middle East correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph, disagrees, arguing that “[t]hose who think this isn’t a serious peace push are mistaken”. He claims that, despite their threats, it is far from certain that Lieberman and Shas would actually withdraw from the ruling coalition in protest at Olmert’s negotiating positions with Abbas. The political prominence and influence conferred upon both parties by their involvement in the government, he maintains, could well be too important for them to follow through on their threats to walk away. His optimism places him in a distinct minority – both Palestinians and Israelis, including Israel’s military intelligence, view the Annapolis summit with extreme scepticism. “Since the goal of the conference amounts to a mere declaration of interests and doesn’t deal with the core issues,” explained Meretz head Zehava Gal-On, “it will be pointless”. Indeed, the U.S. and Israeli governments have themselves been at pains to downplay any hopes for a “breakthrough” at the summit, the White House press correspondent explaining:
“I think a lot of people are inclined to try to treat this as a big peace conference. It’s not…
I think what happened is it was being spun up as a major peace conference where people are going to be talking about final status issues, and that is not the case.”
Interestingly, Levinson acknowledges the possibility that the entire process is nothing more than “a cynical exercise by Olmert to placate the Bush administration until next summer”:
“If Olmert is not nearly as enthusiastic about peace as some suggest he is, he just has to do the pro-peace song and dance to the US tune for the next six to eight months and then Israel will have the US out of its hair until well into the next administration.”
There would, of course, be a precedent to this. Levinson also mentions the difficulties a peace process would face, even if sincere, given that Hamas are excluded from it. However, after raising these arguments, he simply leaves it at that, his original opinion intact, as if they are somehow insignificant or minor problems. In fact, Israel’s insistence on isolating Hamas reveals a lot about its true intentions.
After the Hamas takeover of Gaza, both Israel and the United States rushed to portray the situation as a “historic opportunity”, a brief “window” of possibility that must be grasped before it is too late. It was an opportunity, certainly, but for what? In considering this question, it is worth recalling the events of the previous year.
Hamas took office in March 2006 after winning democratic elections in January, when they beat a divided and corrupt Fatah whose election campaign was funded in part by the United States. They came into power in the midst of a year-long, unilateral self-imposed ceasefire, talking about possible negotiations with Israel and a long-term truce accompanied by a two-state settlement, based on the 1967 borders. Hamas’ participation in the elections represented a significant ideological progression for the movement, which had vehemently opposed the Oslo Process and viewed the Palestinian Authority as illegitimate. It represented the triumph of the pragmatic, moderate elements within the party over the extremists. Statements by the political leadership, both at home and abroad, demonstrated a clear shift in Hamas’ thinking, to the point where they had effectively accepted Israel’s existence within the Green Line.
In line with long-standing government policy, Israel moved quickly to crush this threatened “peace offensive”. It began illegally withholding the tax revenues collected each month as the occupying power on the PA’s behalf, which, together with a crippling sanctions regime imposed upon the occupied Palestinians by the ‘international community’ (instigated by the U.S.), brought the Palestinian economy to a stand-still and precipitated a humanitarian crisis. The objectives were clear: the Palestinians were being subjected to collective punishment in an attempt to undermine popular support for the Hamas government. As Dov Weisglass, advisor to Ariel Sharon and then Ehud Olmert, explained,
“It’s like a meeting with a dietician. We have to make them [the Palestinian people] much thinner, but not enough to die”.
Or as one Israeli border officer defined his mission: “no development, no prosperity, only humanitarian dependency“. When sanctions alone failed to produce the desired effects, Israel launched a sustained assault upon the civilian and political infrastructure of the Gaza Strip. Killing close to 700 people, most of them civilians, ‘Operation Summer Rains‘ was a calculated attempt to reduce Palestinian life to such abject misery that the population would turn against their elected government. In the West Bank the number of checkpoints was increased by 40%, dividing the territory into several de facto non-contiguous cantons and destroying what was left of the Palestinian economy, which was already suffering what the World Bank described as “the worst economic depression in modern history“.
With the Hamas government paralysed, starved of funds and a third of its legislators detained in Israeli jails, the U.S. and Israel began arming and training a group of Fatah militants under the leadership of Mohammad Dahlan. It had been predicted that the siege of the territories would eventually lead to internal Palestinian violence, and the U.S. wanted to ensure that the “good guys” won. The conflict that eventually culminated in Hamas’ takeover of Gaza was in fact engineered from the start by the U.S. and Israel, so much so that when the violence erupted, one U.S. official was heard to exclaim: “I like this violence…[i]t means that other Palestinians are resisting Hamas”.
A leaked 16-page internal document detailed the U.S.’ strategy for ‘undermining and replacing the Palestinian national-unity government’. It was essentially two-pronged: on the one hand the U.S. and Israel would cripple the Hamas government and undermine its popular support, whilst at the same time they would arm its opponents and build the “political credibility” of Mahmoud Abbas.
Finally, in June 2007, Hamas struck back against Dahlan’s forces in Gaza, and ended up taking control of the territory. Israel and the U.S., in accordance with the strategy outlined above, rushed to condemn the “coup” and began the current blitz of diplomatic engagement with the Abbas government.
Given the background outlined above, it seems extremely implausible to suggest that, overnight, the Olmert government suddenly became interested in a genuine peace process. More likely, Middle-East specialist Henry Siegman is correct to conclude that “it is [the U.S. and Israeli governments’] determination to bring down Hamas rather than to build up a Palestinian state that animates their new-found enthusiasm for making Abbas look good”, in accordance with the two-pronged strategy discussed above.
This judgement is reinforced by the behaviour of the Bush and Olmert administrations towards Hamas since it seized control of Gaza in June. Virtually every serious analyst of the conflict, from the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (.pdf) to Ephraim Halevy, former head of the Shin Bet, recognises that some basic level of political cooperation between Hamas and Fatah is a prerequisite to any serious attempt at peace. As the International Crisis Group put it,
“Security and a credible peace process depend on minimal intra-Palestinian consensus. Isolating Hamas strengthens its more radical wing and more radical Palestinian forces…a new Fatah-Hamas power-sharing arrangement is a prerequisite for a sustainable peace.”
It’s hardly rocket science: Hamas commands the support of a significant proportion of the Palestinian population. It controls Gaza, and possesses the capability to undermine and sabotage any political settlement that excludes it, for instance by resuming its campaign of suicide bombings. No Palestinian will accept a state on the West Bank only, and no settlement can be reached in Gaza without the cooperation of Hamas. Clearly, then, if Israel and the U.S. were genuinely interested in achieving a peaceful resolution to the conflict, one of the first steps they would take would be to encourage negotiations between Fatah and Hamas.
In fact, they’ve done the precise opposite. Even before the takeover of Gaza, Israel and the U.S. worked hard to destroy any possibility of Fatah-Hamas cooperation. In early 2007, despite having won democratic elections, Hamas agreed to enter into a power-sharing arrangement with Fatah in an attempt to get round the U.S./Israeli sanctions regime. Hamas would concentrate on running the territories, while Abbas would be given the authority to negotiate with Israel, on the condition that any settlement reached would first be put to a national referendum. Instead of celebrating this national unity government, Israel and the U.S. moved quickly to undermine it. Hiding behind a series of “principles”, described charitably by Ret. Major General Shlomo Gazit, former chief of Israel’s military intelligence, as “ridiculous, or an excuse not to negotiate“, the ‘Quartet’ maintained the aid boycott, refused to negotiate with the new government and continued to arm and train Dahlan’s militia. UN special rapporteur for human rights in the Occupied Territories John Dugard was right to describe this approach as “hostile to Palestinian self-determination”. This attitude of viewing any hint of moderation by Hamas as a threat as opposed to a blessing is not consistent with a genuine desire for peace. Since Hamas took control of Gaza in June, Israel, supported by the United States, has explicitly and repeatedly warned Abbas that should he enter into negotiations with Hamas or enter a power-sharing agreement with them, all diplomatic engagement will immediately cease. The aid boycott would resume and the Palestinians of the West Bank would return once again to living under relentless siege. As Olmert explained to Abbas,
“Any renewed cooperation between Fatah and Hamas will be, from our point of view, a breakdown of the political process”.
As a result, Abbas has flat-out rejected all of Hamas’ overtures and requests for negotiations. His hands are by now well and truly tied. The fact that Israel and the U.S. have vehemently opposed, on the flimsiest of grounds, a development recognised by almost everyone as a necessary prerequisite for peace speaks volumes about their true intentions.
Facts on the Ground
It is also instructive to compare Olmert’s diplomatic statements with Israel’s actions on the ground. The latest round of the ‘peace process’ began, as discussed, in mid-2007, when Israel and the U.S. rushed to take advantage of the split between Hamas’ Gaza and Fatah’s West Bank. Yet, here is how John Dugard described the situation on the ground (.pdf) in August:
“The construction of the wall (or barrier) continues; settlements continue to expand; checkpoints remain in force; the Judaization of Jerusalem continues; and the de facto annexation of the Jordan Valley is unaffected. Military incursions, accompanied by arrests, continue unabated. House demolitions remain a feature of life in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.”
Construction of the wall, deemed illegal under international law by the World Court, has continued. 80% of the route travels through the West Bank, at one point jutting out some 22km into Palestinian territory in order to enclose the Ariel settlement bloc. Israel has tried to defend it as a “security measure”, but in fact it’s clear that the route was drawn not to protect Israel but to annex the major settlement blocs. As veteran Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar and Israeli historian Idith Zertal write in their recent history of the settlement enterprise, the wall is being “constructed with no reckoning and no logic other than the purpose of enclosing as many settlements as possible on the western, Israeli, side and dividing up and seizing Palestinian lands.” When finished, the wall, described by the OCHA (.pdf) as a “de facto border”, will annex approximately 10% of the West Bank to Israel, trapping some 60,000 Palestinians between the wall and the Green Line. As John Dugard explains,
“The closed zone includes many of the West Bank’s most valuable water resources. Completion of the wall around the Ma’aleh Adumim bloc will separate East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, restricting access to workplaces, health, education, and to places of worship. Further south, the route of the wall around the Gush Etzion settlement bloc will sever the last route between Bethlehem and Jerusalem and isolate the majority of Bethlehem’s agricultural hinterland.”
While Olmert hints vaguely about returning parts of occupied East Jerusalem to the Palestinians, construction continues on a wall that, when completed, will sever East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank. The recent IDF expropriation of over 1,100 dunams of land from four Palestinian villages, between East Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim, further undermines Olmert’s claims. The purpose of this and other recent moves is to free up the E-1 area for Israeli development. If this goes ahead, Israel will have achieved territorial contiguity between East Jerusalem and the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement. The Palestinians would be cut off from East Jerusalem and the West Bank would be divided into de facto non-contiguous cantons, destroying any hope for a viable two-state settlement.
The settlements, described (.pdf) by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan as “the single biggest impediment to realizing a viable Palestinian state with territorial contiguity”, have continued to expand. Construction has continued on settlements both east and west of the wall, with political and humanitarian consequences described by the OCHA as “profound”. According to the OCHA (.pdf), the current rate of annual growth in the settlements is 5.5%, almost three times that of Israel proper, which if continued will result in a doubling of the settler population to nearly 900,000 in just 12 years. Some of the construction has occurred in settlements in the Jordan Valley, an area constituting roughly 25% of the West Bank that has effectively been annexed by Israel. Declaring it a “closed military zone”, Israel regularly demolishes Palestinian house in the Jordan Valley and orders entire villages to evacuate. As John Dugard reports,
“That Israel intends to remain permanently in the Jordan Valley is clear from Government statements and is further manifested, first, by restrictions imposed on Palestinians and, second, by the exercise of Israeli control and the increase in the number of settlements in the Jordan Valley.”
There is simply no way to look honestly at the settlement project and conclude that Israel intends to withdraw from the West Bank. The Israeli government allocates huge areas of land to settlements, way out of proportion to their actual size, to prevent Palestinians developing on it, and then allows the settlements to build right on the edges of this inflated jurisdiction to expand still further into Palestinian territory. Strategically placed on the most fertile areas of land and along the Jordan Valley, the continuing development of Israel’s colonial infrastructure in the West Bank gives lie to the government’s claims that it is sincere in wanting a genuine two-state settlement. It follows that the current “peace process” is nothing but a farce, intended not to achieve a lasting peace but rather to build Abbas’ “political capital” at the expense of Hamas, and to maintain Israel’s image as a peacemaker even as the theft and dismemberment of Palestine continues. As much as we may want to believe that the Annapolis summit represents a genuine push for peace, the facts tell a different story.
Cross-posted at The Heathlander