The political battle continues in the Middle East through gun barrels rather
than across negotiating tables. Americans are ill equipped to make sense of
this historical conflict that pits two Semitic peoples against each other, each
side exacting punishment and blood revenge in biblical proportion. There are
important perspectives that Americans should keep in mind in order to
understand this conflict and to help end it.
Not Peace, But Piece. At issue is not peace, but piece, as in land and
water. The Palestinian people are living on land taken by Israel in the 1967
war. Israel's claim to the land is promoted by a radical group of settlers and
ultra-nationalists who insist on keeping the ever-expanding settlements.
Since the Oslo Accords, Israel, under both Likud and Labor Prime Ministers,
has cut and sliced the Territories into tiny pieces by building roads, fences,
settlements, irrigation and water systems, and restricted areas in ways that
undermine the political and economic viability of a future Palestinian state.
The resulting bits and pieces of land amount to less than the state of Rhode
Island. Broken up as it is, and with its water resources diverted for use by
the Israeli settlements, it is not realistic to expect this territory to support
over 3 million Palestinian people. The duplicity of negotiating 'peace' while
taking away more land has infuriated Palestinians for many years, and
Historical Roots Run Deep. Shortly after I arrived in early 1997, I visited a
Palestinian family north of Bethlehem whose home had been demolished by
the Israeli army—many times! Each time the family rebuilt the home. They
knew it might be destroyed again. But their stubbornness is typical of
people who have deep family and cultural roots in this land. Americans do
not fully appreciate how deep-seated these roots are. One U.S. official I met
in 1998 reported on land confiscation and home demolition which fuel
settlement expansion. He expressed frustration at the lack of attention back
in Washington to detailed documentation of these activities. Like many of
us, this official experienced first hand the irony of sincere hospitality
extended by Palestinians whose homes were demolished, as contrasted
with hostility of settlers he also investigated. The pervasive indifference
Washington to concrete documentation of illegal and immoral acts
committed as part of Israel's settlement policy is deeply disturbing.
Suicide Bombings and Civilian Killings are Immoral; They Do Not Serve a
Strategic Purpose. The killing of innocent civilians is always unacceptable.
The highly publicized suicide bombings of Israeli citizens are unacceptable,
as are the assassination of Palestinian activists and killings of innocent
women and children inside homes and on the way to school. Killing civilians
is counterproductive for Palestinian aspirations for statehood, as well as
Israeli hopes for peace. Palestinian suicide bombings unify Israelis on both
sides of the political spectrum. The vast majority of Israelis would gladly
trade in the settlements for peace and security with their Palestinian
neighbors. Overwhelming Israeli military force against Palestinian civilians,
as demonstrated by the destruction during the current invasions of
Bethlehem and Ramallah, inspires greater animosity and resolve among
Palestinians who feel compelled to exact revenge. Radical actions are often
the only recourse for Palestinians when the world stands idle in the face of
Israel's overwhelming military force.
Arafat is not bin Laden. Prime Minister Sharon has successfully labeled
Arafat as a bin Laden equal. This simplistic portrayal of Arafat does not
accurately represent the complexity of Arafat and the conflict. The
Palestinian Authority's role in one highly publicized arms shipment by the
Israeli government, and Arafat's inability or unwillingness to exert maximum
effort to control Palestinian radicals indicate his delicate internal political
position and the extreme views within Palestinian society. It is also true
that Arafat is the elected representative of the Palestinian people and their
aspirations of statehood. American officials and citizens have never been
directly threatened by Palestinians during my five years of work in West
Bank and Gaza or in Israel. If Arafat was equivalent to Al-Qaeda, as
represented by Sharon and the Israeli right wing, Americans could not
continue to work safely under U.S. government supported programs in the
Palestinian Territories. Arafat has repeatedly welcomed U.S. involvement.
Palestinians have a remarkable affinity for Americans and our culture; many
are American citizens. Labeling Arafat as bin Laden makes rapprochement
much more difficult in the highly sensitive dynamic of this conflict.
Singling out Arafat does not explain why so many Palestinians have become
radicalized to defy overwhelming military odds against them, nor does
blaming Arafat address the historical problem of land confiscation and
occupation by Israel.
Occupation is Immoral and Politically Not Viable for Israel or America.
Americans are a fair-minded people. Those of us who work in the
Palestinian Territories under U.S. foreign policy, or have visited, are
astounded that the occupation of a people can continue with impunity. Most
Americans would be shocked to learn of the apartheid-like conditions of
Israel's occupation. Israel requires Palestinians to hold magnetic identity
cards, live in fenced off territories, and pass through cattle-like processing
centers. The daily humiliation of Palestinians at checkpoints, Ben-Gurion
Airport and border crossings, has for years corrupted any sense of humanity
or peaceful, neighborly intent. It is in Israel's interest to extricate itself from
a territory where it is not welcome, and where it cannot effectively govern.
Israeli occupation of West Bank and Gaza will always be a thorn in relations
between Israel and Arab countries. As long as America underwrites the
occupation, our relations with those nations will also remain strained.
Was There A Viable Peace Deal on Offer? Most Israeli and American
policymakers would have us believe that Arafat alone scuttled a peace deal
during Camp David. The American media bought the line that Israel 'offered'
so much, that Israel made such a big compromise, and was willing to give up
so much. This is only part of the truth. If you count the facts on the ground
in July 2000, then, yes, the Israelis 'gave up' a lot. If you count from the
1967 borders—which would be consistent with the U.N. resolutions and the
U.S. government position that the West Bank and Gaza are occupied
territories—its clear that the Israeli offer was not acceptable to
Palestinians, Arab countries and many fair-minded observers. Palestinians lost their
homes and lands as far back as 1948. They already gave up a lot of land.
They are simply claiming lands occupied since 1967, and for at least a
symbolic recognition and just resolution of the refugee right of return.
Most Palestinians believed that a peace deal, short of a perfect offer from
Israel, was not possible in a single meeting at Camp David because the
consultative process required the involvement of Arab states that have a
religious and historic interest in Jerusalem. Israel and the U.S. made some
strategic errors during the negotiations. The Americans failed to fully
consult with Arab countries in advance. It was unhelpful in the delicate peace
negotiations before conflict erupted in September 2000 for Israelis and
Americans to publicly blame Arafat for not accepting the Israeli offer.
Clinton and Barak may have been ready, but legitimate Palestinian concerns made
Arafat unable at that time. An acceptable peace deal will require Israel to
negotiate in good faith to solve this historic conflict, and take into
account the sacrifice of land and resources the Palestinians have already made.
America cannot afford to support, or be perceived to support, Israel as an
occupier. The occupation is immoral and untenable. The larger U.S. stakes
of Arab rapprochement after September 11 require finesse and fairness.
While we should continue with loyal support of Israel as a friend and ally,
the U.S. should not support Israel as occupier, human rights abuser, and
provocateur. The United States world leadership mantle requires that we act
as an honest broker and hold both sides accountable for their failures. The
recent U.S. support for two new initiatives--the Saudi proposal for peace and
the U.N. vote to recognize a Palestinian state existing next to Israel—and
call for Israel to withdraw from the Palestinian Territories are positive
The author lived in Jerusalem and worked in the Palestinian Territories from
1997 to 2001.
Note: This opinion editorial, in its entirety, may be distributed, reproduced
and/or posted in print or electronically. If used, the author only requests that
an email be sent to him at Jim_Winkler@dai.com advising where so.