Palestine: hopes for just settlement run into “realities on the ground”
13th April 2005
The death of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in November 2004 provided yet another opportunity for western media hacks and politicians to indulge in more myth making about the Middle East. The most vulgar of these was that the passing of Arafat was a cause for optimism and presented the Palestinians with the opportunity to achieve their national aspirations. In this schema the only obstacle to a just peace settlement had been the obstinate personality of Yasser Arafat; his inability to compromise and support for “terrorism”. Of course this is nonsense. Firstly, it distorts the role that Arafat played as a leader. Secondly, and more fundamentally, it makes the false claim that a just settlement was ever on offer to the Palestinians.
The Peace Process – From the Oslo Accords to the Road Map
All the proposed settlements, from the Oslo Accords of 1994 to the current “Road Map”, have failed to recognise the democratic rights of Palestinian people; their right to self-determination, the right of return for refugees, and their right to exercise sovereignty in Jerusalem. Yasser Arafat only became an obstacle when he could no longer carry out the role allotted to him under the Oslo Accords. As “President” of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) Arafat’s task was to control his people. Though portrayed as an embryonic sate, the PNA was essentially a brutal and corrupt bureaucracy designed to repress the national aspirations of the Palestinians rather than represent them. That Arafat had seventeen different security agencies under his personal command defined the character of this body.
While the PNA policed the Palestinian population, under some spurious guise of self government, real power remained in the hands of the Israeli state. In this period of the peace process the quality of life for Palestinians deteriorated rapidly. The seizure of land and expansion of settlements accelerated, while Palestinian areas were put under regular economic and military blockades. This led to a growing resentment within the Palestinian population directed towards both Israel and the PNA. This came to a head in 2000 with the outbreak of the second Intifada.
Earlier that year US President Bill Clinton hosted the Camp David talks between Arafat and Israeli PM Ehud Barak. These talks have taken on a mythical status in the proceeding years. According to Israel, the US and numerous right wing commentators, the Palestinians were offered “everything” at Camp David. This supposedly included a Palestinian state covering Gaza and most of the West Bank, sovereignty over East Jerusalem and the return of refugees. In reality no such offer was made. The Palestinian “state” envisaged in the Camp David plan would be divided into three unconnected cantons, exercising a limited authority over 65 per cent of the territory seized by Israel in 1967. Also its capital would not be in East Jerusalem. What the Palestinians were offered as their capital was the small village of Abu Dis, on the outskirts of Jerusalem (known as al-Quds in Arabic). Abu Dis would be renamed al-Quds, allowing the Palestinians to claim it as their historic capital. However, Israel would retain control over the real Jerusalem. The Camp David plan also demanded that the Palestinians give up the right of refugees to return to their homes. No Palestinians would not be permitted to return to the areas they were driven from in 1948, which were now within the Israeli state, or to areas in the West Bank that contained Jewish settlements and had been effectively annexed by Israel. The only options for refugees were to return to the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority or settle in the countries in which they were exiled. What the Palestinians were being asked to do was endorse their continued dispossession.
This was the inevitable consequence of the Oslo Accords. It was not case that that the peace process started off all right and then went wrong. From its very inception it was designed to bring about such an outcome. What kept it going was the illusion, fostered by the Palestinian leadership, that it was the first step of a transitional process that would fundamentally address the demands of the Palestinian people. However, after six years of bitter experience those illusions had largely been dispelled. The contents of the Camp David Plan confirmed for Palestinians that the peace process had failed them. Arafat’s rejection of the plan therefore reflected the views of the majority of his people. However, there were no principles behind his position. He had conceded all these long ago. This was merely a means of retaining his position of leadership. To stay in power he was prepared to ride the wave of popular opinion, while at the same time trying to get another settlement. The problem was that a Camp David style settlement was the only one on offer. Arafat could therefore not deliver either for his people or for the US and Israel, which were demanding that he sign up to such an agreement and crackdown on any opposition. At the time of his death Arafat had become a marginal figure. There is no doubt that Arafat’s death produced a genuine outpouring of grief amongst Palestinians. However, this was based more on his role as the historic symbol of their resistance than as the President of the PNA. Arafat the defiant resistance fighter had died long ago.
New Palestinian leadership
The death the Arafat gave the US and Israel the opportunity to talk up the prospects of a new settlement. If the main obstacle was gone then it followed that a settlement could be reached. To this end US and Israel focused on the promotion of a new Palestinian leadership with which they could do business. This centred on the figure of Mahmoud Abbas, the chairman of the dominant Fatah faction and a former Prime Minister in the PNA. However, there was nothing new about Abbas. As a veteran leader of the PLO he had been involved in all the earlier negotiations. It was Abbas who had signed the Oslo Accords of behalf of the PLO. He was favoured by the US and Israel because he was on the on the right wing of the PLO and had opposed both the first and second Palestinian uprisings.
World leaders welcomed the election of Abbas as Palestinian President in January as a step towards democracy, a peace settlement, and the development of an independent state. However, this election was far from democratic. It was held under conditions dictated by the Israelis, with the US putting tremendous economic and political pressure on the Palestinians to elect its favoured candidate. Even the campaigning and voting was controlled by Israel. This was particularly the case in East Jerusalem where electioneering was banned, and Palestinians had to cast their votes outside the city. The elections were not free and fair, but subject to tight control and manipulation.
The Palestinian leadership also played its part in denying a real choice to their people. This was seen in the controversy over the selection of Fatah’s presidential candidate when Abbas was nominated without any discussion or debate. Some opposition did emerge around the figure of Marwan Barghouti, the imprisoned Fatah leader, who announced that he would run as an independent. Barghouti, who played a prominent role in both the first and second Intifada, had a base of popular support in the West Bank, and polls showed that he had a good chance of winning. However, under pressure from Fatah he withdrew his candidacy. This episode demonstrated both the anti-democratic nature of the Palestinian leadership and the weakness of the opposition to it. For Fatah the watchword was national unity. This meant rallying around Abbas and sidelining any sceptical voices.
With Marwan Barghouti out, and the Islamic parties boycotting the polls, the presidential election was effectively a coronation. Abbas won 62 per cent of the vote, with his nearest rival Mustafa Barghouti, who had run on a broad left and anti-corruption platform, gaining 20 per cent. While this was a substantial majority, it was not as emphatic as it would appear. One significant feature of the poll, which was trumpeted as being historic, was the low turnout (less than 50 per cent of eligible voters). While this was partly due to Israeli restrictions in East Jerusalem, it also reflected scepticism amongst the Palestinian population about the political process, and a lack of enthusiasm for Abbas.
Demands on Abbas
During the election Abbas made commitments about sovereignty over East Jerusalem and the right of return for refuges. The problem for Abbas, as it was for Arafat, is that these are not on the agenda of the US and Israel. Rather than being invited to negotiations on these substantive issues, the Palestinian leadership was immediately faced with demands to “reform”, to reign in the armed militias and crackdown on “terrorism”. This was the purpose of the meeting hosted by the British Government in London in March. Boycotted by Israel, this meeting dealt with the drafting of measures to reorganise PNA’s security apparatus and direct it towards suppressing any resistance to the occupation. These measures include the centralisation of the Palestinian security and intelligence services and the strengthening of links with the Israeli military.
Alongside these military measures, the London conference also proposed a series of measures to liberalise the Palestinian economy. These included cuts in public spending and the introduction of a new pension law to “enable reduction of public sector wage bills and facilitate a civil service reform.” This comes at a time when, as a result of Israel’s economic blockade, the level of unemployment is at 27 per cent and the poverty rate at 48 per cent in the Occupied Territories. Despite promises of aid the donor nations only came up with £1.2 billion, only a fraction of which represented new money. What the London conference envisaged as a future for the Palestinians was military repression and neo-liberalism.
Sharon’s Gaza plan
This has been made even more explicit by the Israelis, who have continued the land seizures, assassinations, and military incursions, despite the election of Abbas. They are working to impose their own settlement, so that when negotiations commence the Palestinians will be confronted with a fait accompli. Central to this is Sharon’s plan for a pullout from Gaza. Though talked up as a first step towards withdrawal from the occupied territories, the Gaza plan is actually about consolidating Israeli control.
While Sharon’s plan envisages the removal of settlements from Gaza, this is primarily a strategic and diplomatic move, and does not represent a broader policy of removing settlements. The Israeli Government has concluded that the densely populated Gaza is never going to be a viable area for expansion. That there are still only 9,000 Jewish settlers in Gaza after more than thirty years demonstrates those limitations. This compares with over 250,000 settlers in the West Bank. Also, Israel doesn’t need a settler population in Gaza to exercise control. Under Sharon’s plan the 1.3 million inhabitants of Gaza will be effectively cut off from the rest of Palestinian population. Its borders and airspace would be controlled by Israel, and the Israeli military would be free to mount incursions whenever they pleased. Gaza would be turned into one huge prison camp or ghetto.
The intention of the Gaza pullout is to create a cover for the consolidation of Israeli control over the West Bank. While western leaders have been lauding Sharon over Gaza, the expansion of settlements, the construction of the “security wall” and building of roads in the West Bank has been continuing apace. Over the last twelve months there has been a significant expansion of settlements in the West Bank. At 21 settlements the expansion took place outside existing construction lines. Israel is also expanding and making more permanent the 99 settler outposts in the West Bank. In March the Israeli Government announced the expansion of the Maaleh Adumim settlement, east of Jerusalem. With 30,000 residents, the settlement is the single largest in the Occupied Territories. A corridor containing 3,500 houses will be built to link it with Jerusalem, and the area enclosed by the “security wall”. This will effectively cut the West Bank in two, barring any direct route between the southern Palestinian cities of Bethlehem and Hebron and those in the north, such as Ramallah and Nablus. Such a development would effectively kill off any prospect of a viable Palestinian state. The borders of the West Bank would be redrawn so that the territory resembles an hourglass, with Palestinian movement between the north and south entirely at the discretion of the Israeli security forces. Whatever is left as the basis of a Palestinian state will be divided into small enclaves surrounded on all sides by Israeli troops and heavily fortified borders. All this is taking place despite the Road Map plan calling for halt to settlement expansion, and holding out the hope of a contiguous Palestinian state. By stating that any final settlement will have to take the “realities on the ground” into account, George Bush has effectively endorsed Israel’s expansionist policies.
Any optimism that surrounds the Road Map plan and the election of Abbas as is totally baseless. The US plan, even if it is taken on face value, does not address the denial of democratic rights to Palestinians either on self-determination, refugees or Jerusalem. It is a formula for the continuation of their dispossession. While the US and Israel may make gestures towards Abbas, there will be no movement on the substantive issues, only demands for further reform and crackdowns. As the peace process continues to fail the Palestinian the fragile hopes placed in Abbas will fade. The relative calm will not last, with political deadlock and continued provocations likely to spark a new eruption in the Intifada. If nothing else, this will dispel the myth of Arafat being the barrier to peace.