When we examine the historical process which has occurred since the Zionist movement commenced settlement activities, we see the process by which one society invades the space of a second society, and in an historical process pushes it from this territory. This process began at the end of the 19th century and has continued to the present. The first chapter in this process commenced with the purchase of Palestinian lands and their settlement with Jews (until 1948); this was conducted under a foreign government, which permitted it in spite of the wishes of the local Palestinian residents.
In the wake of WW II and especially the trauma of the Holocaust, the UN General Assembly decided on a partition in November 1947. The UN decided to divide the land into six regions, half for Jews and half for Palestinians. The Palestinians and Arabs did not agree that the problem of Jews in Europe should be solved at their expense. They therefore did not accept the partition and as a result, the 1948 war broke out. For the Israelis this is a War of Independence whilst for the Palestinians it is Al Naqba, or the catastrophe. The result of this war was the creation of the state of Israel on 78% of the land (chapter two – taking by force). The Gaza Strip was held by the Egyptians and the West Bank was conquered by the Jordanians. A majority of the Palestinian residents were expelled or ran away, thus becoming refugees. Within Israel there remained 155,000 Palestinians who became citizens of the state of Israel. Very quickly a process of confiscating the lands of the Palestinians citizens of Israel and transferring them to Jewish use was begun, and this process continues today. In the 1967 war Israel conquered Sinai and the Gaza Strip from the Egyptians, the West Bank from the Jordanians and the Golan Heights from the Syrians. Very quickly this same process of land confiscation began in the newly occupied territories, with land confiscation (including the purchase of land) and the establishment of Jewish settlements. All of this was done in contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, which amongst other things prohibits the transfer of population from the occupying country to the occupied territories, and also forbids civil alterations in these territories which are not for the benefit of the occupied population.
In 1977 the president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, visited Israel and began a peace process with Israel, at the end of which Israel returned all of Sinai to the Egyptians in exchange for a peace agreement. It should be remembered that this was done on the backdrop of the Cold War. Prior to this, Egypt switched from a Soviet to an American orientation. In my estimation, part of this deal included the return of Sinai to Egypt, and on this background peace with Egypt was obtained.
Later and in wake of the Persian Gulf War, a Middle East peace process began. In order to receive international legitimacy for the attack on Iraq, the United States established a coalition of states that supported the attack. The Arab countries had an important part in the coalition, especially Syria and Egypt. In exchange, the United States pressured Israel to attend the Madrid Conference, which opened the peace process in the Middle East. With the beginning of the second term of Yitzhak Rabin as prime minister of Israel, Israel agreed to return the Golan to Syria in exchange for a peace agreement. In my opinion, this peace agreement was not reached as Syria did not wish to make a separate peace before the Palestinian problem was solved. At the Madrid Conference, Israel did not agree to negotiate with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). Therefore, a Palestinian delegation from the occupied territories was composed, headed by Dr. Haider Abdel-Shafi from Gaza. The peace talks blew up on the backdrop of Israel’s refusal to stop building settlements.
In 1993 Israel and the PLO signed the Oslo agreements. This was the first time in the history of the conflict in which there were negotiations between the two leaderships. This was also the first time that the two sides recognised the rights of the other in this land. The Oslo agreements were not peace agreements; they were interim agreements which bypassed the fundamental questions between the two sides. Questions such as refugees, a Palestinian state, borders, settlements and Jerusalem were left for negotiations on the final agreement between the two sides. In the Oslo agreements the establishment of a Palestinian authority was agreed upon, as was the beginning of the return of the territories to this authority and the conduct of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The Oslo agreements therefore created an interim situation, between the situation of war which had existed between the sides until then and the attainment of the hoped-for peace.
Not much time passed since the beginning of the peace process created by the Oslo agreements until we began to understand that in actuality there were two processes occurring in parallel. Apart from the peace process which included negotiations between the two sides and occasionally the return of territory to the PA, Israel vigourously continued to build settlements. During the seven years of the Oslo process, the number of settlers in the occupied territories almost doubled. The settlement process was thus accelerated under the guise of the peace process. The meaning of this: confiscating hundreds of thousands of dunams of land, the demolition of almost 1,000 Palestinian homes, the imposition of a closure on the occupied territories and expulsion of civilian population. If we recall that the essence of the conflict is that one side invades the living space of the other and in an historical process pushes it from this territory, the Oslo agreements did not halt this process. Two processes were created simultaneously: a peace process under American pressure and a war process under pressure of the settlers and right wing.
The refusal of Israel to apply the Fourth Geneva Convention, in wake of the 1967 war, created a situation in which an army fights a defenceless civilian population. In my opinion, the refusal of Israel to apply the convention stems from its desire to build settlements in the territories, something that is prohibited according to this same convention. What happened to Israel is that the creation turned on its creator. The pressure of the settlers and their supporters, in addition to the fear that they could even result in a civil war, meant that the Israeli government did not dare agree to a halting of settlement building, and that all Israeli governments since the signing of the Oslo agreements continued and even accelerated building of the settlements and thus caused a cessation of the peace process. It is
on this background that the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin should be understood, a murder committed by a fanatical religious nationalist who saw Rabin as a traitor because he began returning territory to the Palestinians. He hoped that thus he would stop the peace process.
The continued war actions of Israel against the Palestinians resulted in serious damage to the Palestinian leadership. The PA committed itself to fighting terrorism in the framework of the Oslo agreements. Arafat took a great risk in signing the agreements, which did not include the cessation of settlement building, by using his special status as leader of the Palestinian people. He was accused of being a collaborator with Israel for signing an agreement which did not include an end to settlement building. As on the Israeli side, also in Palestinian society there is opposition to reaching an historical compromise with Israel, by accepting its right to exist. In general I can say that Arafat faced two types of opposition within his society: one, those who object to the very idea of a compromise with Israel and its very existence; the second, those who agree to an historical compromise with Israel and its right to exist, but thought that the Oslo agreements were a mistake – because of the continued settlement building. Terror activities that continued after the Oslo agreements were conducted primarily by those who objected to any kind of compromise with Israel. They hoped that by doing so they would cause the peace process to explode. The acceleration of settlement building during the peace process resulted in the victory of those opposing the process within Palestinian society (just as continuation of the attacks helps those opposed to peace on the Israeli side). On this backdrop the outbreak of the second Intifada in 2000 should be understood. Some argue that it broke out as a revolt against Arafat, and that he joined it in order to maintain his leadership.
There is a huge difference in the definition of war between the two sides of the conflict. Israel defines war as battles between two sides and injury by fire. For the Palestinians, land confiscation and the building of settlements is an act of war, house demolitions are an act of war, stealing water is an act of war, the deportation of civilian population is an act of war, closure is an act of war and so forth.
The difference in the two sides’ definition of war causes difficulty in reaching a cease-fire. When Israel announces a unilateral cease-fire, it means an end to fighting as it understands it. It does not include an end to settlement building, an end to land confiscation, an end to house demolitions and so forth. For the Palestinians, there is no cease-fire without a cessation of these things. During the current Intifada Israel has continued with massive land confiscation, settlement building, house and neighbourhood demolitions, deportations, closures and sieges, all of which make Palestinian life impossible.
Since the Sharon government came to power, it has conducted a personal campaign against Arafat. In the wake of every attack carried out by the Palestinians, Arafat is blamed. It does not matter whether the attack is carried out by his supporters or objectors, in or out of line with his policies, Arafat is blamed. Arafat is a national leader, attempting to fulfill his national goals; he is not the security agent of Israel. He is willing to act against terrorism when it suits the national goals of his people as he understands them. He will not do so when it is against the interests of his people, or when he will not receive support from a majority. It was Arafat who led the PLO from complete rejection of the existence of Israel to a recognition of it and attempt to reach an historic compromise between the two national movements. He gambled on the Oslo agreements and took a great national and personal risk. Now, those who caused the explosion of the peace process are focusing their energies on getting rid of Arafat (who was democratically elected). They know that years will pass before any leader who will replace Arafat will reach the status that will permit him to make compromises with Israel, as Arafat can. They hope that in this time they will be able to build so many settlements that the situation will be irreversible. Now, when they are waging war against the Palestinians, they are suddenly worried about the democratisation of Palestinian society. This is a trick to prevent the cessation of settlement building. Arafat was amongst the first Arab leaders who supported the US attack on Afghanistan. In return, Sharon received a free hand to attack the Palestinians, and a call by President Bush for the replacement of Arafat.
It appears that the decision of the Israeli right to make a pact with the Christian-fundamentalist right wing is bearing fruit. This pact is based on the fear that support of Israel, fed by guilt feelings about the Holocaust, is declining due to the passage of time and the actions of Israel. The Israeli right wing hopes that on the background of the possibility of a war between cultures – Christians against Muslims, North against South – that Israel will join the Christian world against the Muslim one. This is similar to serving the American interests during the Cold War, and again Israel is faithfully serving the American-Christian interest in the Middle East. In return, the United States will turn a blind eye to the ongoing occupation and continued settlement building and will prevent – so they hope – damage to Israel because of its actions. It must be remembered that some of the fundamentalist Christians support Israel, and especially the Israeli right, in hope that it will cause a fulfillment of the prophecy concerning the apocalypse, during which all residents (apart from the believing Christians) will be destroyed and Jesus will return from Nazareth.
Settlement building traps Israel. On one hand, a continuation of this situation badly hurts international support of Israel and its existence – as happened to the apartheid regime in South Africa – and will prevent the possibility of peace in the Middle East. On the other hand, a halting of settlement building and evacuation of existing settlements could bring Israel to a civil war. In the wake of the Oslo agreements there were settlers who said ‘the Israeli government must decide, war with the Arabs or war with Jews’ (such patriots!). Continued settlement building during the Oslo process shows what the Israeli government chose.
The establishment of settlements is beginning to be viewed as a strategic danger for Israel. American support for Israeli actions makes it difficult for the United States to enlist Arab countries i
n the coalition to fight the Iraqi and Iranian efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction. The continued occupation distances the ‘enlightened’ world from Israel. As settlement building accelerates the price of evacuating them becomes higher, including the danger of internal destruction of Israel as a result of this evacuation.
On this background it is possible to understand the efforts of the Barak government – in negotiations – to retain settlement blocs in Israeli hands, in the hope of thus diminishing the danger of civil war as a result of peace agreements. The Barak government was willing to agree to an exchange of territory in order to retain these settlement blocs. In my estimation, the decision of the Sharon government to establish Jewish settlements in these areas was done with the goal of torpedoing the possibility of an exchange of territory.
I estimate that a similar danger faces the Palestinian leadership on the path to peace. In addition to those objecting to any compromise with Israel, any compromise on the full right of return for Palestinian refugees could result in a revolt in refugee camps against their leadership.
When one is aware of the dangers which face the leaderships of the two peoples on the path to peace, it is possible to understand why Arafat always speaks of ‘peace of the brave’ toward which he and Rabin started to walk. It takes much courage on the part of the leaders of both peoples to chose the path of peace. One leader has already paid with his life for this choice. This is also the reason for the talk of the need to force peace on the sides, from the fear that they are afraid, or unable, to pay the internal price for a peace agreement between them.
Amos Gvirtz is the Chairman of The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.