Issue 202 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1996 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature article: A state of war

Clare Fermont

The 1993 Oslo peace accords, signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, always promised violence, not peace. PLO chairman Yasser Arafat was rescued from near irrelevance after the Gulf War so that he could stand next to Bill Clinton at the White House, sign a deal that surrendered the Palestinian struggle, and shake the hands of his people's oppressors. In exchange, small `bantustans' were carved out of the Occupied Territories over which he could preside and fly the Palestinian flag. Their sum total is 3 percent of the West Bank and 60 percent of Gaza, a desperately poor area that most Israelis were glad to get rid of. Four million Palestinian refugees were given nothing at all and most of historic Palestine was signed away for ever. Israel got almost everything it wanted, including military and economic control of the `bantustans' and recognition by all bar one of the Arab states.

So what explains the explosion three years later? Since the Oslo accords, and particularly since Benyamin Netanyahu and Likud were elected in June, the impoverishment, repression and humiliation of Palestinians have increased, particularly in areas supposedly under Palestinian control.

Life in the refugee camps has become immeasurably worse. Hardly any of the $2.5 billion promised to Arafat at Oslo has materialised, and virtually all the Palestinian authority's small income has been poured into Arafat's police and secret security forces.

Poverty has been transformed into near starvation, and frustration into desperation, as Israel continues its six month blockade of the Territories.

Border closures deny tens of thousands of Palestinians their sole source of income, and the Palestinian `economy' loses around $3 million a day. Edward Said, in the London Review of Books, described the suffocating reality for most refugees:

`It is one of the many ironies of the peace process that Palestinians are more legally restricted in their movements and work than before. With a stroke of the pen Arafat agreed to the cantonisation of the Palestinians under his jurisdiction, while Israel retained control of who could go where.' Arafat has done much to stoke up the anger. He raised expectations when accepting the peace deal, and now almost everyone can see that his promises were false. At the same time he has used an iron fist against any dissent. His security forces have harassed, imprisoned and tortured Palestinians with impunity.

But the Israeli government has done most to rub the noses of Palestinians in the dirt of the Oslo accords. It has reneged on, or delayed, nearly 50 key elements in the accords. The previous Labour government, the `peacemakers', began the betrayal. For example, more than 4,000 Palestinian prisoners should have been released three years ago, and a Palestinian safe passage should have been established linking Gaza to the West Bank. Neither promise has been fulfilled.

Labour also delayed withdrawal of troops from Hebron, where 400 extreme Zionist settlers are `protected' from the 130,000 Arabs by a garrison of soldiers.

Netanyahu highlighted the betrayal by proclaiming that Hebron would only be handed over if `security' (for Jewish settlers) could be guaranteed and if Palestinian institutions were closed in east Jerusalem.

Labour used the lull in the Intifada caused by the accords to continue the creeping annexation of Arab land. The number of Jewish settlements on the West Bank rose by nearly half by the time Netanyahu was elected. Labour got away with this partly because they honoured the freeze on new settlements in Jerusalem and kept open the prospect of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

With Netanyahu, the subtlety and pretence disappeared overnight and so did the illusions of many Palestinians. The most blatant provocation was in Jerusalem, where the government made it clear that it would cut east Jerusalem off from the West Bank by a wall of Jewish settlements. The match that lit the fuse was the arrogant opening of the tunnel under Temple Mount, the third holiest shrine in Islam. This single act sparked both religious outrage and political anger.

But when the explosion came, much of Israel reeled back in horror. In the Occupied Territories the rebellion showed that the spirit of Palestinians that has survived generations of defeat is still alive and strong. Inside Israel hundreds of thousands of Israeli Arabs staged strikes and demonstrations in solidarity. And, crucially, some of the 30,000 armed Palestinian police showed that when push came to shove, they were going to defend their people, despite overwhelming military odds. Such a sight terrifies rulers the world over and was a painful reminder that Arafat's authority is not guaranteed.

Suddenly the lines from Washington were buzzing with pleas to the Egyptian and Jordanian leaders, as well as to Arafat and Netanyahu, to meet in order to defuse the crisis. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz warned, `If the parties do not quickly gain control of the situation, serious bloodshed is to be expected, making the Intifada pale in comparison.'

The Washington summit brought few surprises. Netanyahu refused to budge on the major issues, although he did make conciliatory noises about Hebron. But any major shift in policy is unlikely unless his hand is forced. He was elected, after all, on a platform of stopping any further land for peace, of `Judaising Jerusalem' and of getting tough on Palestinian opposition. His government is held together only with the help of extreme religious groups.

Egypt's President Mubarak made angry noises and he didn't go to the summit. But he threatened nothing. Perhaps he was thinking about his US aid. Or perhaps it was the Israeli-Egyptian economic conference due to be held in Egypt soon when billions of dollars worth of joint projects are to be discussed, including a $3 billion oil refinery at Alexandria.

Similar dollar considerations meant that Jordan's King Hussein, the US's latest pet Arab ruler, played along with Clinton's charade at the summit. His demeanour was a sad reflection of the success of the Israeli-US policy of picking Arab rulers off one by one.

The summit brought little more than humiliation for Arafat, who simply appealed for calm. Nothing could have been expected of Clinton. He may be annoyed that Israel has flouted his much heralded peace initiative, but five weeks before an election he was not going to undermine the US's unwavering support for Israel.

He refused to condemn Netanyahu's actions and said he would block any UN resolution condemning Israel. No mention was made of Israel's annual $5 billion aid, the withdrawal of which would instantly bring Netanyahu to heel.

The Palestinian daily al-Quds al-Arabi saw clearly what was happening: `The Palestinian people's problem lies in the squandering of their struggle at the negotiating table and in the insulation walls built by Arab leaders to prevent the intifada "virus" from reaching their shores.'

Many other Palestinians are questioning the wisdom of the Oslo peace deal now that its inevitable consequences are so clear. Some are also beginning to see that the combination of uncompromising Zionism and capitulating Palestinian nationalism means that more radical politics are needed. They have already organised demonstrations against Arafat's excesses. Now there is a chance to organise a political alternative to Arafat's collaboration and surrender an alternative that would unite all the oppressed against all the oppressors in the Middle East.

Caught in the Web

Jerusalem is an amazing city. As you look down from one of the surrounding hills, the skyline is dominated by religious buildings mosques, synagogues and churches. In the old city the atmosphere and architecture are undeniably Arab, yet the streets are packed with people from every corner of the world, many wearing clothes that identify their religion.

This Jerusalem is being fundamentally changed. Israel is attempting to decide the future of the city without further negotiations by creating what it calls `facts on the ground'. It is building a wall of Jewish settlements to separate east Jerusalem from the West Bank, and create an eternally divided city that it hopes will be the capital of Israel.

Such a project arouses religious and political passions across the world, particularly among the 1 billion Muslims who see Jerusalem's many Islamic shrines being threatened. It arouses Palestinian passions as Jerusalem is on their land and must be their capital if there is to be a Palestinian state of any meaning.

Both the Labour Party and Likud have used zoning and housing policies, as well as discrimination over residence permits, to create a Jewish majority in east Jerusalem. This was achieved in 1994, when the total number of Jews rose to 165,000 and the number of Arabs fell to 150,000. Since then the gap has widened. The four huge Jewish settlements that surround east Jerusalem are now being connected to complete the encirclement. A web of new roads runs through and around the city connecting the settlements while separating Arab villages and neighbourhoods. Palestinians need a special permit to enter the expanded area of Jerusalem, which now takes up almost a quarter of the West Bank, so many find it impossible to reach the city or travel freely around the Territories. This is no less than apartheid.

Netanyahu's government has boasted that it will never honour the commitment to negotiate the future of Jerusalem. Its behaviour in the city exposes both the extent of the Zionist project and the humiliation that Oslo represented for Palestinians. It also explains why the opening of the tunnel sparked such an eruption of anger.

Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page