Issue 89 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Winter 2000 Copyright © International Socialism
During the ten days of protest which tore the Palestinian peace process apart, one image stood out from the confusion--a 12 year old boy cowering behind his father as Israeli marksmen pounded their hiding place with bullets. The camera sees the father pleading for help. Then they both slump forward--the boy dead and the father critically wounded.
Mohammed Al-Durra's death became a potent symbol of the growing crisis. Television viewers watching the dizzying spiral of violence in silent fascination on the nightly news, heard time and time again how the irrational 'tribal hatreds' of the Middle East had killed any hope of peace. As Israeli soldiers hunted stone-throwing teenagers from Apache helicopters and executed peace activists in the streets,1 headlines in the press accused the Palestinians of dragging the whole region into war. By mid-October more than 100 people had been killed, 95 of them Palestinians, including at least 13 minors shot by Israeli troops.2 Despite pleas from the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, for a ceasefire during the summit meeting in Sharm al-Sheikh, the next round of funerals, protests, attacks and reprisals had only just begun. ITN's reporter in Jerusalem accurately summed up the despair among commentators and journalists: 'The tragedy is, only a few short months ago, peace was within the reach of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples'.3
Peace is a powerful word. After the last battle-scarred century so many people are weary of war. Nowadays even the most blatant war-mongers are keen to claim the 'peace process' as their own. Noam Chomsky defines the term with bitter sarcasm:
The gap between the myth of the 'peace process' and the sordid realities of imperialism is nowhere greater than in the Middle East. The Palestinians exploded with rage in October 2000 because over the last seven years of negotiations the Israeli state has continued to steal their land, strangle their economy, demolish their houses, turn a blind eye to atrocities committed by Zionist settlers, and inflict collective punishment on entire communities for isolated acts of resistance and revenge. The entire 'peace process' has been characterised by the further systemisation of Israeli oppression, using subtler weapons than in the past. During the 'peace process' state terror has been concealed by urban planning regulations. Illegal territorial annexation has taken place under cover of highway construction. During the peace process the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has almost doubled.5 Arbitrary border closures have robbed thousands of families of their livelihoods.
In return Israel has conceded the bare minimum. Palestinians have been allowed to fly their flag, hang pictures of their president in Jericho bus station, run their own police force. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has toured the diplomatic cocktail circuit, shaken hands with presidents and prime ministers, collected a part share in a Nobel Peace Prize. It has always been clear that even these minor concessions have come at a price. Arafat has loyally repaid his backers by policing his own people, using all the tools of any other Middle Eastern regime to keep opponents down--torture, arbitrary detention, silencing dissidents by assassination. The Palestinians' rage in the October Intifada was not simply directed at Israel and the US. It also targeted a Palestinian elite which had become a byword for betrayal and corruption.6
Since 1993 the process of bargaining between Israel and the Palestinian leadership has given concrete expression to many trends which were previously only hidden undercurrents. The most important of these trends has been the open recognition by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) of the state of Israel, and the reciprocal recognition by Israel of the PLO's right to act as a national authority for the Palestinians. When Israeli and Palestinian leaders stood on the lawn of the White House for the historic photocall after signing the Declaration of Principles in September 1993, the handshakes were not simply the result of a few months of secret diplomacy.7 In reality the accommodation between the two sides had been foreshadowed by developments in PLO strategy over 20 years before.
The PLO's road to the White House lawn started back in the 1970s, when the organisation first began to move towards adopting the goal of establishing a 'mini-state' in historic Palestine. Previously all Palestinian resistance groups had rejected any compromise which did not return Palestinians to all the land they had been driven out of by Israel in 1948. This included the rejection of UN resolution 242, the original partition plan for Palestine which envisaged the creation of two parallel states in the old British Mandate area--one a Zionist state, the other for the Palestinian Arabs.8 However, the events of the 1960s and 1970s pushed key figures within the Fatah guerrilla organisation, which formed the leadership of the PLO, towards dropping the demand for the total liberation of Palestine. Firstly, the catastrophic defeat of the neighbouring Arab states by Israel in the Six Day War of 1967 underlined Fatah's decision that any kind of conventional war against Israel was doomed to failure. Secondly, although young Palestinians flocked into the guerrilla training camps, Fatah's adoption of the armed struggle precipitated a crisis in Jordan. In September 1970, with US and Israeli backing, King Hussein of Jordan sent the Jordanian army into the refugee camps to destroy the armed Palestinian presence in the country. The catastrophe of 'Black September', combined with further defeats for Egypt and Syria in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, hammered home the futility of relying on the Arab states to achieve the liberation of Palestine by force of arms. Khaled al-Hassan of the PLO's executive committee put it like this:
The pressure to compromise was not only external. Fatah had already established itself as the political voice of the Palestinian bourgeoisie in the exile communities. The tactical combination of guerrilla struggle, and negotiations with the Arab states and other regional powers reflected this relationship. The logical next step in Fatah's project of state building was to come to an understanding with the principal imperialist powers.
When US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger dangled the prospect of a Palestinian 'mini-state' in front of Fatah's leaders they accepted. As Phil Marshall puts it:
The PLO leadership's willingness to drop its historic objections to the existence of Israel did not produce any tangible results for many years. In fact, in the early 1980s Israel seemed to be on the verge of destroying the PLO forever. The invasion of Lebanon forced the PLO to abandon its headquarters in Beirut and retreat to Tunisia. But by the late 1980s the situation had changed. In 1987 bitterness among the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation exploded into an uprising, or Intifada. Years of humiliation, poverty and repression fed the anger of a generation of young Palestinians who fought tanks with stones and home-made petrol bombs. The movement quickly developed from street clashes into a serious challenge to Israeli control of the Occupied Territories. One woman activist explained how the Intifada involved whole new sections of Palestinian society in the struggle:
The success of the Intifada provided a huge boost to the PLO's fortunes. The heroic resistance in the Occupied Territories put the Palestinian struggle for liberation in the centre of Middle Eastern politics once again. The PLO's leadership took the opportunity to declare an independent Palestinian state at a meeting of the Palestinian National Council in Algiers in 1988.
The Intifada also gave impetus to a process of polarisation within Israeli society. A minority of Israelis were prepared to make a stand against the brutal repression of the uprising. Most of these liberals and left wingers became involved in peace campaigns and human rights organisations out of a sense of moral outrage at the worst excesses of the occupation. Other Israelis who took up the arguments for peace did so because they recognised that in the long term Israel could not hope to ever totally crush Palestinian resistance. Israeli academic Mark Heller argued in 1991:
The impact of the peace movement remained confined to a small section of the Israeli population, however. The Israeli Labour Party's historic grip on power had been gradually weakening throughout the 1980s, as the right wing Likud Party grew in strength. The 1990s were dominated by the success of the right, both in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, and on the streets. Extremist ultra-Orthodox settler groups argued for the expulsion of all Israeli Arabs and organised for a war of ethnic cleansing against the Palestinians. Although the most well known of these organisations, Kach, led by Meir Kahane, was eventually outlawed, the genocidal ranting of the extreme right is a logical development of the arguments of mainstream Israeli politicians:
The growing strength of the religious right explains why the pressure of the Intifada on its own was not enough to push Israel into talks with the PLO. Teenagers armed with rocks and bottles could never hope to defeat one of the best equipped armies on earth. It was the shifting balance of power within the Middle East which pushed Israel into negotiations. The collapse of the Soviet Union allowed the US to establish itself as the dominant power in the region. The display of US firepower in the Gulf War of 1991 convinced even the most reluctant Arab states to make a final peace with American imperialism. The coalition of states which backed the US against Iraq included longtime clients such as Egypt and newcomers such as Syria.
The establishment of the 'New World Order', George Bush's shorthand for American hegemony, allowed the US to move towards setting up negotiations over Palestine. US officials hoped that this deal would allow them to strike a political balance between support for their Arab clients and a continued commitment to Israel. Luckily, Arafat had already provided one further concession to kickstart the whole process--the PLO finally recognised the state of Israel. Eventually Israel realised that the time was ripe to strike a deal. By choosing to take part in secret negotiations in Norway, it hoped to set whatever terms it liked without the interference of the US. In addition, it sensed that the PLO's weakness would create a Palestinian authority which was almost totally dependent on Israel. As Chomsky argues:
In September 1993 Israeli and Palestinian negotiators spelt out in public the details of the 'peace process' for the first time. The Declaration of Principles (DOP) formed the basis for the next seven years of bargaining. The document maps out the extent of the PLO leadership's capitulation in black and white.15 Over the following years Israel used the framework of the DOP to systematise its control over the Occupied Territories while making concessions on the symbols of statehood. During the 'peace process' Israeli strategy has been played out with the approval of the world's press and the support of the US. In this case diplomacy has served as an extension of war by other means.
The seizure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967 presented Israel with a dilemma. Although the acquisition of more territory had its strategic advantages, it also brought a hostile Palestinian population under Israeli control. Civilian and military planners alike recognised the importance of building a permanent presence in the Occupied Territories. Under the Allon Plan, proposed in July 1967, Israel planned to annex 40 percent of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip.16 Thus throughout the 1970s and 1980s small settlements were established along the Jordan Valley. The greatest increase in building work only took place during the 1990s. During the period of the peace process, settlements have become a central feature of Israeli strategy for the West Bank. The Israeli settler population of the Occupied Territories has increased from 110,000 in 1993 to 195,000 in June 2000.17 The pace of settlement construction has risen by 96 percent since January 2000 according to the Foundation for Middle East Peace.18 Since Ehud Barak became prime minister in July 1999, 1,924 new housing units have been started. In addition, 42 new settlement locations established by the previous government of Binyamin Netanyahu were approved by Barak.
The strategic aims of the Israeli government are clear. Since 1993 Israel has followed a consistent policy of building settlements along the Israel/West Bank border, and in a thickening belt of development around Arab East Jerusalem designed to cut the Palestinian areas of the city off from the rest of the West Bank.19 In September 1999 Barak spelt out the Israeli government's commitment to the 25,000 settlers of Ma'ale Adumim, on the outskirts of East Jerusalem, telling them the settlement will remain:
The ultimate goal of Israeli strategists is the complete fragmentation of the Occupied Territories into isolated cantons, cut off from fertile land, water supplies and the world economy by a network of Israeli settlements and highways policed by the Israeli army. As Amira Hass noted in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz in July 2000, any further transfer of land to the Palestinian Authority will not prevent the Israeli security forces from dominating the Occupied Territories, since 'Ma'ale Adumim alone assures Israeli control of all traffic between the north and south of the West Bank'.21
In Israeli rhetoric the settlements are simply a way of relieving the pressure of population growth. The reality is very different. Both Labour and Likud governments have provided massive financial incentives to prospective settlers.22 Despite these bribes many settlements are half empty. According to Israeli press reports, many would-be settlers have only bought properties in the Occupied Territories in order to claim government compensation in the event of evacuation.23
The character of the settlers themselves is an important factor in Israeli strategy for the Occupied Territories. Using the settlers as a proxy for the Israeli army conveniently deflects blame for violations of the peace accords. Palestinians in villages next to Israeli settlements have for years endured harassment and intimidation from settlers, who rarely face legal action from the Israeli government.24 Often harassment has turned into attacks on Palestinians by heavily armed settlers, most infamously in the Hebron massacre of February 1994, when settler Baruch Goldstein burst into a mosque and sprayed the worshippers with gunfire, killing 29 people.25 Throughout the Palestinian uprising of October 2000 settlers were responsible for vicious attacks on Palestinian protesters. While the horrific deaths of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah made front page news worldwide, the savage torture and murder of Palestinian Issam Judeh by Israeli settlers went unnoticed by the media.26 Neal Ascherson's report from the Occupied Territories in 1998 paints a vivid picture of the mentality which breeds this violence:
Israeli settlement policy has operated within the legal framework of the peace process. Although it has frequently directly violated the letter of the peace accords, ultimately the land classification scheme laid out in the Washington Declaration of 1995 has provided vital cover for Israel's aims. In the declaration land in the Occupied Territories is coded A, B or C. The Palestinian Authority has full control only of A areas (less than 5 percent of the West Bank and 60 percent of the Gaza Strip). Security control of B areas is shared, while C areas are under full Israeli jurisdiction.28 In addition, the two areas of Palestinian self rule are almost totally cut off from the rest of the world by the Israeli army which controls the international borders.
The geology of the Occupied Territories has also shaped the contours of the peace process. Israel consumes water at the rate of the developed countries of North America and Western Europe. In order to support this water use in the arid Middle East, Israel has long been dependent on water sources outside its pre-1967 borders. According to a UN report Israel's current demand for water is around 1,400 million cubic metres a year, 50 percent of which is obtained from water sources in the Occupied Territories or neighbouring countries.29 The inequalities in access to water are nowhere more blatant than in the Gaza Strip. Palestinians are dependent on shrinking supplies of heavily polluted water. Concentrations of nitrates in Gaza City wells are at least 11 times higher than US environmental standards allow.30 From the streets of the refugee camps the Palestinians can catch a glimpse of the Israeli settlements, little islands of suburban bliss, complete with manicured lawns and flower beds:
By contrast, a UN survey of the Tulkarm and Qalqiliyya district in the West Bank in 1997 found that nearly 50 percent of urban areas and almost all rural areas had no sewage system.32 Israel's thirst for water is reflected directly in the political settlement. John Bulloch and Adel Darwish argued before the start of the peace process that Israel would be prepared to hand over the Gaza Strip, a liability in terms of water sources, provided that the water-rich West Bank remained in Israeli hands.33
From the 1960s onwards the PLO leadership has dreamt of following the path mapped out by the bourgeoisie of other Arab states. In Arafat's vision of a Palestinian state, economic self sufficiency is the keystone of political independence. The peace process seemed to offer a chance to rebuild the shattered economy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. At last Arafat had a state of his own to cement the relationship between the PLO and the Palestinian bourgeoisie.
The problems facing the Palestinian Authority (PA) are immense. The PA inherited an economy wracked by soaring unemployment and endemic poverty, and distorted by the impact of 30 years of Israeli occupation. The Palestinian economy is totally subordinate to the Israeli economy. Key indicators of living standards give a sense of the scale of the problem. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) the unemployment rate in the Palestinian territories is 21.5 percent (18.2 percent in the West Bank and 31.6 percent in the Gaza Strip).34 The gap between incomes in the Palestinian territories and Israel is immense. UN figures show that the average Gross Domestic Product per person was $1,692 in the Palestinian territories in 1995, whereas in Israel it was $15,600.35
Levels of poverty have remained very high despite seven years of peace negotiations. In the PA-controlled areas of the Gaza Strip growing population is putting huge pressure on resources. Between June 1997 and June 2000 the number of refugees registered by the United Nations agency UNRWA increased by 10.5 percent. In the same period the number of refugees per primary healthcare facility increased from 43,885 to 45,812.36 The population survey conducted by the PCBS in 1995 found an average household size of 7.99 people in the Gaza refugee camps, and 2.77 people per room. In the Gaza camps more than 40 percent of household members are living three to a room.37
It is an understatement to say that the mechanisms available to the PA for overcoming these problems are inadequate. The contrast between the Palestinian economy and the Israeli economy represents the gap between the Third World and the First World. The total value of Israeli exports in 1995 was $19 billion compared to Palestinian exports of $340 million.38 Even more revealing is the percentage of Palestinian exports going to Israel--in 1995 that figure was 94 percent.39 Despite the hopes of the PA that the Palestinian bourgeoisie in exile would provide a patriotic source of investment for the territories' economy, the amounts actually committed to economic regeneration are still very small:
The reasons are obvious enough. National sentiment alone is not sufficient to overcome misgivings about investing capital in an economy which has a rudimentary financial system, a tiny manufacturing base, high levels of poverty and political instability, and is at the mercy of Israeli border closures.
Despite the pleas of PA officials Israel has been remarkably reluctant to rely on the mechanisms of the free market alone to enforce control of the Palestinian economy. Although the negotiations of the past seven years have produced numerous agreements over the establishment of an airport and port facilities in the territories, the Palestinians are virtual prisoners in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Lengthy administrative procedures make passage in and out of the territories difficult at the best of times. Trucks wanting to cross into the West Bank from Jordan must obtain Israeli visas and Jordanian security clearance. Only vehicles licensed before 1967 are allowed to cross, and they must re-cross the border the same day before 3pm to avoid a 12-day security check costing $700.41
Israel has systematically used the mechanism of border closures to undermine the Palestinian economy. Between 1967 and 1993 movement in and out of the territories was relatively free. From March 1993 all Palestinians wanting to enter Israel or East Jerusalem have been required to obtain a permit. In addition Israel has increasingly often simply closed the border and refused to let Palestinians in or out of the Occupied Territories.
|TOTAL BORDER CLOSURES, IN PERCENTAGE OF DAYS PER YEAR42|
In a number of cases Israel has applied a policy of 'internal closure', effectively trapping the entire Palestinian population in Palestinian towns and villages by sealing off roads between urban areas. The impact of border closures on the Palestinian economy has been catastrophic. In the case of one particular company, Reem Sports Shoes, 50 percent of production used to reach the Israeli market--by 1996 that figure had dropped to 10 percent. Meanwhile Israel continues to pump exports into its captive markets, as the author of a UN study notes:
Israel's status as an occupying power is written into the peace deals. The Declaration of Principles states clearly that Israel retains 'responsibility for defending against external threats as well as the responsibility for the overall security of Israelis'.44 Israeli forces encircle the Occupied Territories and have access to virtually the whole West Bank, in order to provide security for the burgeoning settler population. A US State Department report on the Occupied Territories for 1997 found widespread human rights violations. Israeli forces were responsible for abuse, torture and extra-judicial execution of Palestinians suspected of terrorist offences:
Savage collective punishments were imposed on the families of suspects, including sealing up the family home with concrete and curfews on whole towns. Thousands of people, mainly young men, were held in detention without charge or trial, and dozens more were shot at check-points or during street protests.46
The dismal human rights record of the Palestinian security forces only adds an extra footnote or two to the list of Israeli crimes. But it has dealt a shattering blow to the hopes of the thousands of Palestinians who cheered the arrival of the first PA policemen in 1994. The PA security forces have been responsible for deaths in custody, harassment of journalists and academics, and extra-judicial execution of terrorist suspects.47 The night editor of the Arabic daily paper Al-Quds was arrested for refusing to run a story about Arafat's meeting with the Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem on the front page. Arafat's comment on the arrest was simply, 'It is impossible that an editor does not listen and obey the wish and will of the Chairman'.48 Much of the repression has been a deliberate attempt to crush any criticism of PA corruption and mismanagement of the ailing economy. As Mohammed Shaker, political editor of Al-Quds, pointed out in a radio interview, most of the inadequate Palestinian budget is spent on the PA's seven security organisations.49
For Israel the peace negotiations, far from requiring sacrifices, have provided an ideal mechanism for deflecting Palestinian anger onto the Palestinian Authority itself while allowing Israel to maintain full military control of the Occupied Territories. In August 2000, in a speech to the National Security College, Barak spelt out the Israel's position:
The last seven years of the 'peace process' have demonstrated exactly what Israel considers its 'national interests' to be: external control of the Occupied Territories; unlimited access to the water and other natural resources of the West Bank; domination of Palestinian internal security; and total subordination of the Palestinian economy and workforce to Israeli needs. It is the painful realisation that this 'peace' is just another name for war that has fuelled the anger of protesters in the Occupied Territories. The complicity of their own leaders in this process has made the betrayal even harder to understand. As Edward Said wrote in The Guardian:
It is important to realise that the PLO leadership's bankruptcy is not simply a result of its choice of endgame in the negotiations. In reality the current crisis has been written into Fatah's strategy since the 1960s. The failure of the PLO to deliver on the promises of national liberation is ultimately the same as the failure of the other nationalist governments around the Middle East. The PLO's humiliating capitulation to imperialism has taken place in a more extreme setting, but in substance it is no different to the compromises made by the rulers of Egypt, Syria and Iraq. They have all grown fat from their connections with imperialism, while the basic problems for ordinary people everywhere in the Middle East have remained the same--low wages, high prices, unemployment, privatisation, and lack of access to healthcare and education. United Nations figures from 1995 show that the average income in the Occupied Territories is the second highest of the Arab countries. Egypt has not been under foreign occupation since the 1950s, yet on average Egyptians were $600 per year poorer than Palestinians.52
In most of these countries the collapse of the project of national liberation has given new life to Islamist organisations. In the Palestinian territories the Islamist movement Hamas has long posed as the radical alternative to the PLO. The experience of Sudan, Turkey and Algeria should be a clear warning that the Islamists offer no alternative for the vast majority of Palestinians. In all three countries Islamist governments, far from ushering in a new era of Islamic prosperity and co-operation, presided over cuts in welfare, job losses and repression.53
The problem with Arafat is not that he aimed too high, but rather that the PLO's vision of Palestine in reality amounted to nothing more than yet another replica Middle Eastern state--the police, the bureaucrats, the portraits of the president on every street corner. Later on will come the IMF loans, structural adjustment, McDonald's and privatisation. The only real hope for change lies in building a different kind of movement, one which is based on the involvement of millions of ordinary people, organised into a force which can shake all the rotten regimes of the Middle East. One of the most hopeful signs from October 2000 has been the demonstrations and protests around the region in solidarity with the Palestinians. The Intifada's shout of defiance has echoed around the world. A Palestinian movement which tried to build on that reflex of solidarity, and link the struggle for liberation from imperialism with the power of the Arab working class, could provide a real alternative to the corruption of the Palestinian Authority and the suicide missions of Hamas. The peace process has shown the futility of trying to win concessions from the imperialist powers without challenging the logic of capitalism which drives imperialism forward. The road to liberated Palestine and the democratic, secular state the PLO used to invoke does not pass through Gaza or Jerusalem. It runs through Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad.