New Israeli settlements block the path to peace

April 02, 2002|By Neve Gordon

JERUSALEM -- Although many people have begun to think otherwise, there is a solution to the Middle East crisis.

What is the fundamental issue trapping Israelis and Palestinians within a horrific cycle of violence? The answer to this could also guide retired Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, the U.S. envoy to the Middle East, as he tries to bring calm to the region.

History, as always, is a good teacher. For seven years after the September 1993 signing of the Oslo accords, there was relative quiet in the region. And then in September 2000, as if out of the blue, the second intifada erupted.

At the time, the media readily blamed Yasser Arafat for the bloody turn of events, appropriating former President Bill Clinton's claim that then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had been willing to make great concessions while Mr. Arafat continued to be an impulsive peace rejectionist.

Over the past year, other narratives have been advanced suggesting that Mr. Barak did not offer the moon to the Palestinians and that he presented his proposal as a take-it-or-leave-it package, therefore giving Mr. Arafat no option but to reject the Israeli proposition.

Since it remains unclear which narrative is more credible, perhaps one would do better looking for an answer in a different place, where the truth is more apparent.

Examining the geography of the occupied territories, which is visible for all to see, helps expose the root causes of the existing blood bath. It reveals why, just when matters seemed to be heading toward a peaceful solution, the Palestinian rebellion broke out.

Geography is at the heart of the Oslo accords. Not unlike Israel's peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, the accords were based on U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967, which states that peace between Israel and its neighbors should include two principles: "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict" and respect for the right of every state in the area "to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force."

Considering that the basis of the agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is land for peace, one would have expected Israel to stop building houses and settling Jews in the occupied territories -- territories that were to become, according to the Oslo accords, the nascent Palestinian state.

Nonetheless, the Jewish population living in the territories nearly doubled between 1993 and 2000, increasing from 110,000 to about 200,000.

What these numbers plainly indicate is that while Israel was using the rhetoric of peace, it was doing everything in its power to create an irreversible situation on the ground, settling thousands of Jews on expropriated land.

The Palestinians who filled the streets in September 2000 knew this all too well and decided that the time had come to expose the wide gap between words and deeds.

In this sense, the Palestinian protests were also directed against Mr. Arafat, who, like his Israeli counterparts, had appropriated the rhetoric of peace while ignoring the reality of everyday life.

The committee chaired by former Sen. George Mitchell that investigated violence in the Middle East appears to have recognized that the settlements are the major obstacle to peace and expressly stated that "a cessation of ... violence will be particularly hard to sustain unless the government of Israel freezes all settlement activity."

Despite this warning, Israel continued its settlement policy in the past year, hoping to ensure that whole regions of occupied territory will never be returned to the Palestinians. Working hand in hand, Likud and Labor built 34 new settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, eight of which have been erected in the past two months.

If land for peace is the framework, these new Jewish settlements, like the 145 that were built before them, are the major obstacles for peace.

Currently, they also cause friction between Israelis and Palestinians, and, therefore, Mr. Zinni would do well to demand from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that he immediately dismantle all new settlements as a sign that Israel is willing to negotiate in good faith.

Ultimately, though, Israel will have to dismantle all Jewish settlements and withdraw to the 1967 borders.

At such a point, the possibility of a lasting peace will emerge.

Neve Gordon teaches in the department of politics and government at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. He can be reached via e-mail at ngordon@bgumail.bgu.ac.il.

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