Palestine: the Forgotten Reality

The view chages, the facts remain

Palestine: the forgotten reality

By Alain Gresh

There has been a subtle change these last years in the way Europe’s media and political leaders look at the Palestinian problem and solution to the Middle East conflict. During the Oslo years it seemed clear the solution lay in intensive negotiations to achieve a withdrawal of Israeli troops from the territories occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem, lasting borders between the Palestinian state and Israel, and an acceptable solution for the Palestinian refugees. The talks at Camp David in July 2000 and Taba in January 2001 focussed on those issues.

The next interval was marked by the second intifada (which broke out at the end of September 2000), the immediate violent reaction by the Israeli army (months before the first suicide attacks launched under the banner of the intifada), Ariel Sharon’s election as prime minister, the escalation of Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians, and the army’s resumption of total control over the occupied territories. Yet, from the standpoint of international law – regardless of what we may think of the strategy and tactics of the Palestinian Authority (PA) – the core problems remain: the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem are still occupied territories, Israel remains an occupying power and the creation of a Palestinian state remains the key to peace.

Ed: Full article below

Yet, from the various statements by European leaders, we see a clear change in perspective: it’s now up to the Palestinians – the occupied – to prove their goodwill. The European Union’s references to the obligations of both camps do little to disguise this rallying to Sharon’s vision, in which all progress towards peace now depends on the PA, which is required to reform itself, get rid of the Palestinian armed groups and show its willingness to coexist with Israel. The media too is reflecting this new perspective, tending to downplay or blank out the realities of Israeli policy on the ground, its disregard of international law and the war crimes being committed.

Media coverage of Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last summer is a case in point. For weeks the cameras were directed at the settlers being evacuated, dwelling on their suffering as well as that of the soldiers ordered to force them out. Few journalists pointed out that occupation is a war crime according to the International Criminal Court. Or that a number of these settlers were fanatics ready to shoot at Palestinian civilians or that far more Palestinians than settlers have been displaced from Gaza these last years (tens of thousands) without raising concern in the West.

Worse still, the Gaza withdrawal is portrayed as a significant gesture by Sharon. It has reinforced his credit in the United States and Europe (and opened the way for a grand official visit to France). Yet, as the United Nations points out, Gaza remains an occupied territory: the army is still carrying out frequent incursions and the Israeli government has even decided to impose a security zone inside Palestinian territory, evacuating part of the population to do so. The recent threat to cut off electricity to the entire Gaza Strip amounts to collective punishment, in contradiction of the Geneva Conventions. The US organisation Human Rights Watch said on 23 December that such an act would be “a violation of international humanitarian law?. Its statement also noted that, from 24 September to 12 November, Israel barred more than 5,000 Palestinian workers from Gaza from entering Israel, adding that “the impact of lost days of work is particularly serious in Gaza, where the poverty rate continues to climb… and 68% of the population in Gaza lives below the poverty line? (1).

Mustapha Barghouti, who ran against Mahmoud Abbas in the election for the presidency of the PA in January 2005 and won 20 % of the votes, has published an article called “The truth you don’t hear? (2). His assessment of the situation in the West Bank and Gaza is very different from the Israeli version which, he says, “presents an image that is absolutely at odds with reality?. And equally at odds with the image given by most of the western media.

Settlements, too, are rapidly increasing. According to Barghouti, “the total population of settlers … numbers some 436,000: 190,000 in Jerusalem and 246,000 in the West Bank. Just 8,475, or 2% of the total number of illegal settlers in the occupied territories, were removed from the Gaza Strip and Jenin area. Yet in the same period, the settlement population in the West Bank has grown by a massive 15,800.?

A single gate

Barghouti tells of the daily life of Palestinians since the building of the separation wall, which completely surrounds a town like Qalqilya, with one single gate to which the IDF have the key: “A permit is required to cross the wall; one that is near impossible to obtain. And even if you succeed in obtaining the permit, you still have to negotiate unaccommodating gate opening times. In the Jayous area, you can cross between 7.40 and 8am, between 2 and 2.15pm, and between 6.45 and 7pm: a total of 50 minutes a day. Sometimes the army ‘forget’ to open the gates, and schoolchildren, teachers, farmers, patients and ordinary people are left to wait indefinitely.?

The consequences of the separation wall on Jerusalem were outlined in a recent report by EU heads of mission in East Jerusalem (3), who say that Israeli policies have resulted in:

- Near completion of the barrier around East Jerusalem, far from the Green Line (the 1967 ceasefire line);

- the construction and expansion of illegal settlements by private bodies and the Israeli government, both inside and around East Jerusalem;

- the demolition of Palestinian houses built without permits (which are near impossible to obtain);

- the expansion plan for the settlement of Maaleh Adumim, which threatens to complete the encirclement of Jerusalem by Jewish settlements and to divide the West Bank into two separate geographic sectors.

The EU consuls in Jerusalem stated clearly that Israel’s actions in Jerusalem were in violation of its commitments to the “roadmap? and of international law. This initiative got exactly nowhere: the EU decided not to publish their report. Amira Haas, the Haaretz corrspondent for the occupied territories, known for her courageous reporting, commented on Hamas’ win in the municipal elections of December 2005 in the West Bank: “Hamas’s victory in the local elections bloomed in fertile soil. People have had enough of the lies that have accompanied their lives over the past 13 years: that Oslo is peace; that the establishment of the Palestinian Authority is an accomplishment and a symbol, neutralizing all its failings; that the PA is a state? (4).

Hass does not exonerate Hamas. She says its propaganda is based on three lies: Hamas claims the Gaza Strip has been “liberated? in spite of the fact that it is the result of a unilateral Israeli decision; that the withdrawal is the result of “armed struggle?, even though “the suicide bombings in Israel only strengthened the Israelis’ support for all forms of a takeover of the West Bank?; that the legislative elections of this January, in which Hamas has decided to take part, are fundamentally different from those of 1996, whereas they are part of the same framework which was put in place with the Oslo accords.

The fairytale persists

Elsewhere, too, the elaborate fairytale persists. Take the various calls to make the PA more democratic. Clearly the EU wanted only one person to win the presidential election a year ago, Mahmoud Abbas: so the many pressures by Fatah (his party) on the electoral commission were therefore neither denounced by the international observers nor relayed by the media. Javier Solana, the EU’s high representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), has threatened the PA with withdrawing support from Brussels if Hamas wins the upcoming January elections. The brave new Europe of the 25 will accept the elections only if its chosen candidates are elected.

Is all this so surprising? After all, the EU is busy boosting its relations with Israel. The EU is now faster to put pressure on the PA than to apply the sanctions called for by the EU-Israel Association agreement in the event that human rights are violated – a daily occurrence in the occupied territories. And faster to receive Israeli leaders to “encourage? them in their current policy, even though this will lead directly to the annexation of a large part of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. France, regrettably, has renounced its independent stand in favour of Palestinian rights and is now orchestrating a wider rapprochement with the US in the Middle East, from Iraq to Afghanistan, reversing its longstanding strategy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The peace process started with the Oslo accords is dead and buried. Though it could perhaps have provided an opening towards a settlement and created opportunities that have been lost, there is now no going back. So should we now put our faith in the success of the roadmap and the victory of the new, centrist Sharon this March? No, because the equation is still the same: the Palestinians continue to live under occupation, their daily life is unbearable, their aspirations to independence scorned. It is an illusion to think that in this coming period we may see a change of direction by the Israeli government without sustained international pressure to force it to apply international law, no more, no less. We also need international sanctions to support the Palestinians and help mobilise the active groups of peace-loving Israelis.

As Mustapha Barghouti says: “One way to correct this situation is to do what was done very successfully in the case of South Africa, which is to impose sanctions. A key aspect of this lies in the discontinuation of military ties with Israel, the fourth largest military exporter in the world. We need a movement of military non-cooperation that concentrates on divestment and connects economic agreements with Israel’s abidance by international law and the implementation of international resolutions.?

The EU-Israel Association agreement offers Brussels many possibilities since it explicitly states that the agreement can be suspended should there be a violation of article 2: “Relations between the parties, as well as all the provisions of the agreement itself, shall be based on respect for human rights and democratic principles, which guides their internal and international policy and constitutes an essential element of this agreement.? Indeed on 10 April 2002, in the middle of Operation Defensive Shield on the West Bank, the European parliament, with a large majority, requested the Commission and the Council to suspend that agreement. Without success. It is time for the EU to rethink and match its deeds to its words. It can do that by supporting the enactment of international law and playing an active role in the Middle East.

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