Middle East

Israel/Occupied Territories

It's the Occupation, Stupid

A Palestinian mother grieves for her four- year-old son during his funeral in the Gaza Strip on October 4, 2004. (Photo: Said Khatib/AFP-Getty Images)

Four years ago on Sept. 28, 2000, when Ariel Sharon made his operatic visit to the Temple Mount, no one could have predicted how dire the situation would become so quickly: close to 6,000 dead; the building of the separation wall inside Palestinian territory despite an International Court of Justice decision calling it illegal; mass movement restrictions; continued passage of discriminatory legislation; military assassinations; much of the Palestinian population under closure and curfew; thousands of home demolitions and the uprooting of olive groves; socio-economic discrimination; racist incitement; subsidization of settlers; the number of jobless at an all time high; continued police violence; no cessation of suicide bombings; an economy in freefall; continued West Bank settlement expansion; the Gaza withdrawal still on hold and the road map to peace ostensibly dead. This is the pathetic legacy of the Al Aqsa Intifada and Ariel Sharon's Likud government.

Jenin, Nablus and Hebron have been terrorized. Gaza has been relentlessly bombarded despite all the talk of withdrawal. Buses in Jerusalem and Beersheba have been bombed. Israel continues to flout international human rights and humanitarian law in full view of the international community with little response.

One of the worst things perhaps about this new reality, which is quite similar to the old reality, is the level of normalization this political climate has taken on in Palestinian and Israeli society. The Palestinians are still in trauma, shell shocked by the effects of the occupation.

The unfortunate result is the prevalence of several positions within the Israeli silent majority that perpetuate the present situation. First, that Israeli security concerns justify violations of Palestinian human rights through the use of collective punishment, mass movement restrictions and construction of the separation wall inside the Green Line. Second, that unilateral Israeli action is necessary to maintain Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state. And third, that the Palestinian Authority and Yasser Arafat are not credible partners for peace.

Challenging the present political climate in favor of one that is driven by a need for human rights is not high on the agenda of any mainstream political movement in Israel today. It was, after all, the Labor Party that started the West Bank settlement expansion and planned the separation wall.

As the leaders talk peace, the situation on the ground rarely shifts. From Hebron to Bethlehem, from Nablus to Jericho, from Jenin to Gaza, the humiliating and daily effects of the occupation are direct and all encompassing. The road map to peace and the Geneva Accord are deeply flawed. The Geneva Accord in its present form would have a Palestinian state cede control of its borders, airspace and underground water reserves to Israel.

Since Sharon became prime minister he has justified much of his unilateral policy in the occupied territories on the basis of "fighting terror" and on an unwillingness to deal with Arafat. This game of violent response and counter-response between the Israelis and Palestinians has resulted in the loss of many more Palestinian lives through military repression, and territory as a result of the separation wall and within the other side of the West Bank through settlement expansion and its supporting infrastructure development. The borders of Jerusalem are also being expanded through annexation policies designed to create territorial contiguity for the benefit of settlers.

Despite claims that the road map pushes for an end to the occupation and a move to a two state solution, the conditions it places on the Palestinian state are rigid and do not acknowledge the role Israel plays in maintaining a weakened Palestinian state. The Palestinian Authority today has little power and is regularly undermined by Israel and its own lack of leadership.

Sharon's vision is to ultimately bring the West Bank under de facto Israeli control without absorbing the Palestinians into Israel. In fact, some Israeli Cabinet Ministers openly talk about transferring some of the existing Israeli Arab population to the West Bank. The refugee issue is not even “on the map” in any of the major peace plans being offered up today, including Sharon’s unilateral disengagement plan and the U.S.-led road map to peace.

The Americans have been total failures in guiding Israel towards peace, having bought into the argument that Israel requires operational space to deal with Palestinian resistance. The U.S. continues to fund Israel $3 billion to $5 billion dollars annually. In the Emergency Wartime Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2003 (Public Law 108-1, HR 1559), the U.S. Congress approved $9 billion in loan guarantees to Israel stipulating that the funds could only be used in those areas under Israeli control prior to 1967. This past week, they sold 5,000 bombs to the Israeli Defense Forces seemingly in preparation for a possible future conflict with Iran.

The U.N. Special Rapporteur for Palestine, John Dugard, stated in his report that the growth of settlements and the construction of the separation wall "suggests that territorial expansion remains an essential feature of Israel's policies and practices."

The great legacy of the second intifada and the Sharon era will be the 26-foot-tall, 400-mile-long, concrete and razor wire separation wall. As if that weren’t enough, there are plans to set up a trace zone with fine sand to pick up footprints and to have sections of it mined. Palestinians living between the Green Line and the separation wall will be particularly isolated. When completed, 70,000 Palestinians will find themselves within this "no man's land" without access to Israel or the Palestinian territories on the other side of the wall. Water and food shortages resulting from movement restrictions have occurred regularly and the economy continues to suffer due to curfews, closures and checkpoints.

As Dugard noted, "The wall has all the features of a permanent structure. The fact that it will incorporate half of the settler population in the West Bank and East Jerusalem suggests that it is designed to further entrench the position of the settlers. The evidence strongly suggests that Israel is determined to create facts on the ground amounting to de facto annexation."

What is being done today in the name of protecting Israeli security is clearly disproportionate to the threat being posed. It seems an obvious cover for land expropriation in the West Bank and Jerusalem. The Israelis and Palestinians continue to live through a 'Grand Dissonance' - leading parallel but unequal lives disconnected from each others narratives resulting in disastrous consequences.

Naomi Klein's recent observation about the 'Likudization' of world politics is hardly a ringing endorsement of the Sharon regime. There is value in bringing to international light the grave excesses of Israeli government policy in the past four years.

There has been a gross failure of leadership at every level in this conflict. Fundamentalism of the religious and right wing variety has increased among Jews and Palestinians. Sharon's position as a moderate in Israel is not well earned considering his long history of military repression. Arafat needs to cultivate a new generation of leadership.

In short, after four years of pathetic leadership, the Israeli-Palestinian situation is no further ahead.