PALESTINE: TOTTERING BETWEEN WAR AND PEACE
pROF. z M kHAN
June began with some hope for the long-suffering Palestinian people as the new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas began to engage with Israel, the US and other Mid-Eastern regimes to stabilise the Palestinian Authority and move towards the ultimate goal of creating a Palestinian state.
Although people like Abbas are looked at with some suspicion as the quintessential quislings — like the present leadership in Afghanistan and Yugoslavia — hopes for some improvement in the Palestinian situation had begun to grow.
The mood in the region seemed positive even if Yasser Arafat had been completely sidelined and ignored, signifying a new version of “regime-change” after Afghanistan and Iraq.
p>After quite a while the Middle East seemed to be moving towards a hopeful future. The resentments generated by the US-led attack on Iraq seemed to have simmered down to a manageable level in the entire region. Within Iraq, too, the pro-US leadership emerging now could not be said to be more dangerous or injurious to Iraqis themselves than Saddam’s. It is going to be more democratic and pluralistic rather than Saddam’s one-family rule.
The real source of trouble in the Middle East, however, has been the continuing Arab Israeli conflict of half a century. This conflict is bad not only for the region or the Muslim world, but for far more countries than that. Even some of the rift in US-EU relations can be directly attributed to it. The EU, for its own economic and political compulsions, wants a balanced relationship with both Israelis and Arabs while the US is closer to Israel than to its Arab allies, even to the extent of supporting some of Israel’s transparently unfair policies towards Palestinians.
Early June saw the three sides – Israelis, Palestinians and the US – subtly moving away from their uncompromising positions of the past, which made any meaningful step towards settlement of the issue nearly impossible. Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas said at the Sharm-al-Sheikh summit in Egypt that Jews had suffered worldwide over the last several centuries, and the Palestinians wanted their sufferings to end finally.
For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon admitted that there was no solution to the problem except the two-state solution – Israeli and Palestinian states, side by side. For the first time he admitted that the proposed state of Palestine must have “contiguous” national territory. Thus he conceded a crucial Palestinian and Arab demand. Presently, the Palestine National Authority, the territory marked as future Palestinian state, is not contiguous, but hemmed in by an endless number of Jewish settlements, Israeli military posts and enclaves within it.
President George W Bush seemed happy even though he admitted that hard work lay ahead, like prevention of future terrorist attacks by Palestinians, finalisation of the status of Jerusalem – equally sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians – and the Palestinian right to return to their homes from which they were evicted by Israelis at the time of Israel’s creation. The last two issues are difficult, but not impossible, to solve.
Already Palestinian intellectuals like Edward Said have said that Palestinians who settled in countries like America, Britain, France or some Arab countries 55 years ago are well-heeled in their adopted countries. That makes things easier for Israel, which will have to pay compensation as it got from Austria and Germany for similar reasons. There is already some agreement on that.
Everything seemed to be moving smoothly till the old spoilsport Ariel Sharon tried to kill the new peace initiative within a couple of days of agreeing to follow the US “roadmap” to peace. He nearly destroyed hopes of peace by launching a missile attack on Hamas learder Abdel-Aziz Rantissi’s home on June 10 without any provocation whatsoever. Three people were killed and Rantissi and his teenage son were wounded in the helicopter-borne missile attack. Hamas vowed to avenge the uncalled for aggression.
President Bush was, naturally, “deeply troubled”. His spokesman Ari Fleischer said the President was worried that “the strike will undermine efforts by Palestinian authorities and others and does not contribute to the security of Israel.” Within the next-two days the revenge came—16 Israelis were killed in a suicide bombing which wounded another 100. Then came the Israeli reprisal attacks—more helicopter-borne missile strikes. By mid-June the toll had gone up to 60.
People have been asking why did Sharon begin the unprovoked attack even though he had dismantled about a dozen Israeli settlements within days of the agreement. The most plausible explanation is that he did not want the Israelis to think that he was no longer a great warrior and had gone soft. It was his bravado that had launched the present Intifadah in 2000.
Despite his posturing Sharon knows that force alone will not solve anything. Before mid-June there was mounting US pressure on him to resume talks, which he did. Israeli and Palestinian officials said they were negotiating Israeli withdrawal from parts of the Gaza strip to positions held before the beginning of the current Intifadah in September 2000.
So, what it all boils down to? Possibly the emergence of a Palestinian state within the next few years – a demilitarised state side by side a nuclear-armed Israel that has all the weapons that America itself has. But even that is a gain for the Palestinians, who have nothing more to lose and no meaningful support from anyone. g
PROF. ZM kHAN teaches political science at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.