Issue 263 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review
There was nothing generous in Israel's last offer to the Palestinians argues Sabby Sagall
The second Intifada began in September 2000 following Sharon's provocative visit to the holy Muslim site of Harim-Al Sharif. This can only be understood because of the complete failure of the 'peace process' to deliver any reforms to the Palestinian people, let alone a state.
The peace process itself must be seen as Israel's reaction to the first Intifada (1987-92). For five years ordinary Palestinians fought against Israel's brutal occuption of the West Bank and Gaza Strip which it seized from Jordan and Egypt during the Six Day War of 1967. Thousands of ordinary Palestinians took part in strikes and mass demonstrations. Some 1,000 died, with tens of thousands injured. Great hopes were raised by the negotiations that led to the Oslo accords (in 1994 and 1995). Israel finally recognised the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and allowed its leadership under Arafat to return from exile. But these hopes were dashed by the complete failure of the accords to deliver any benefits for ordinary Palestinians and things grew steadily worse.
First, illegal Israeli settlement construction continued apace. From 1999 to 2000, under the premiership of Barak, Israel built the highest number of houses. Between 1994 and 2000 Israel confiscated 35,000 acres of Arab land in the West Bank. And between 1993 and 2000 the number of settlers increased by 85 percent and the number of settlements by 30. There are today some 225,000 Israeli setters living on land expropriated from Palestinians since the 1967 war, as well as the additional 150,000 living in East Jerusalem as part of the plan to Judaise the Arab part of the capital. Moreover, Israel planned to keep the bulk of Palestinian agricultural land, with most of the land 'returned' to the Palestinians being the least productive.
Secondly, under the Oslo agreements, control granted to the Palestinian Authority in the autonomous areas remains limited. They have jurisdiction over health, education, tourism and local policing. But Israel retains control over security (widely defined), roads, water, airspace, airwaves, borders and foreign policy. Nothing illustrates better the daily humiliation suffered by Palestinians than Israel's control over water supplies. A Palestinian journalist, Nawaf Al-Tamimi, has described how in his village at night Palestinians can hear water being piped to a nearby illegal Israeli settlement for garden sprinklers and swimming pools. So the scope of Palestinian control amounts to no more than that exercised by a local authority. As Edward Said stated, 'Oslo II gives the Palestinian Authority the appurtenances of rule without the reality--a kingdom of illusions with Israel firmly in command.' For Israel the 'peace process' was undertaken in order to 'repackage the occupation', creating a situation of neocolonial dependency.
Thirdly, the period since Oslo has witnessed a catastrophic decline in the Palestinian economy resulting in a collapse of living standards. Israel's closure policy has restricted and often banned the movement of Palestinian labour and goods from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The closure policy also distorts Palestinian trade. Imports greatly exceed exports, while domestic production has inclined towards traditional activities at low levels of output. Israel's policies deny Palestinian producers free access to Israeli markets while Israelis have unimpeded access to Palestinian markets.
Israeli government spokespersons are fond of repeating the claim that they made a 'generous offer' to the Palestinians in the US-sponsored Camp David talks of July 2000, insisting that they offered them 90 percent of the Occupied Territories. Though this figure is clearly an exaggeration (Edward Said puts it at 50 to 60 percent), what Israel actually offered was several non-contiguous areas, surrounded by Israeli settlements and military bases. They were also split up by the 400 kilometres of settlers only roads. The Occupied Territories were thus to be cantonised into disconnected areas without independent borders. This created a series of separate 'Bantustans' under Israel's control. As one Israeli leftist put it, it is like saying the prisoners are in control of the prison because they occupy 90 percent of the jail whereas the governor and warders occupy only 10 percent.
Israel embarked on the Oslo negotiations because it wanted containment of the militant Islamic movements, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which grew in influence during the first Intifada. Arafat's PLO came to be seen as the only force that could suppress or at least contain them. Arafat had some control over them at the beginning of the 'peace process' but, as the situation worsened, this became less possible. Apart from the physical impossibility of policing the Palestinians while he himself is incarcerated, recent years have seen an acceleration in the growth of Islamist influence (though with Arafat's house arrest, support has swung back to him). There is no evidence that Arafat could control even Al-Aqsa Brigade activists formally linked to his Fatah movement who have been operating autonomously.
It is ominous that Sharon has not attacked Gaza, a hotbed of so called 'terrorist infrastructures'. It suggests a key difference between the strategies of the previous Israeli governments under Rabin/Peres and Barak and that of Sharon today. Whereas the former wanted to create Palestinian Bantustans with Arafat as a kind of tribal leader granted home rule, Sharon's purpose has been the transfer of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. So he has now destroyed a large part of the infrastructure of Arafat's Palestinian Authority but without touching Gaza. This suggests he may well be planning the transfer there of large numbers of Palestinians from the West Bank. If so, whether he can get away with it will depend on the fighting spirit of the Palestinians and their supporters.