In the wake of the war against Saddam, the Palestinians felt as if they were being carried out of the Middle East scene. Forgotten by the media and relegated to a secondary level of interest, not only by the USA and the West, but also by the Arabs é at least momentaneously, they rediscovered the bitterness of being forsaken and left to their own fate under the odious occupation.
This frame of mind was already at work well before the war on Saddam, which was anyway one of the shortest of this kind. Whether what happened worsened it or not is a matter of analysis. If the USA fought in Iraq just for the profit of its oil interests and to open this country é traditionally supportive of the Palestinian cause- to the Israelis, this is not good news for those who suffer in the re-occupied West Bank and Gaza. But if the USA was out really for freedom, the Palestinians deserve more consideration from those who claim to be on the side of democracy, justice, and freedom. These are the reflections prevailing today out there. They have been lately expressed very clearly by two events: 1- The appointment of a new government headed by the number 2 of the PLO, Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazen), which may be viewed as an opening to the American-led peace process. 2- The suicide bombing of Kfar Sava (24 April), which expressed the rejection of such a process on the conditions held so far by Americans and Israelis.
Of course, we should notice that the quick reaction of the US government to Mr Abbas new assignment encouraged the Palestinian doves. It was very important indeed to show that the Bush administration is still caring about the peace process. And since Mr Bush himself invited the new Palestinian Prime Minister to Washington, this gesture is quite appeasing for the Palestinian leaders who felt somehow dispirited, not to say humiliated by the contradictory attitudes of the American administration, particularly when Sharon’s positions vis-é-vis Arafat were accepted, without discussion, in Washington.
It is noticeable also that the Palestinian bitterness was not focusing on the sole attitude of the USA. As soon as September 24, 2002, the “Negotiations Affairs Department” of the PLO, then headed by Abu Mazen himself, issued a report headlined: “Double Standards”, about ” how the International Community has taught Israel that it is above the law”. In this report, the United Nations é especially the Security Council- was held responsible for belittling the human tragedy of the Palestinian people under the occupation, to the extent of missing all the opportunities to punish Israel for the same crimes other parties have been condemned and punished for. The report quotes similar cases in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, East Timor, Rwanda, occupied Kuwait, and Iraq.
While examining the reactions of the UN to these cases, four kinds of failure have been noticed:
Violations of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law: In Yugoslavia, for example, the Security Council established a commission to inquire into international responsibility for grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions while it also threatened the perpetrators of war crimes with international prosecution. But in the case of Jenin, there was no compulsion for Israel to cooperate with the fact-finding commission sent by the UN Secretary General. Consequences: Israel refused to allow the Commission to conduct its mission. The truth about what happened in Jenin will thus never be established by a UN investigation team.
Colonies and Demographic manipulation: In the case of Bosnia Herzegovina as in the case of Kosovo, the attempts to drive large numbers of population from a place to another, were not only opposed as discrimination and terror, but also followed by a forcible international coalition operation. Similarly, either in Rwanda or in East Timor, the attempts to establish ethnic dominance or to replace the indigenous population by another, caused a deterring forcible reaction. But when Israel uses similar methods with the civilian population of the Palestinian territories (expropriations, houses’ demolitions, deportations, isolations, lands’ annexations, etc), no action other than issuing condemnatory statements has been taken.
The Right to Return: The return of the refugees and the displaced to Kosovo was a key demand of the Security Council. It has been a non-negotiable condition in the Rambouillet talks. The Tutsis of Rwanda and the East Timorese have also benefited from the support of the International community. But the Israelis have always rejected the right of return of the Palestinian refugees, and they have never been troubled about such a rejection, which encouraged General Sharon to make of it – i.e. the rejection- a condition for his acceptance of the Map road.
The obligation to withdraw from occupied territories: Here also the examples are as numerous as varied. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the occupation of the Falklands by Argentina, the intervention of Indonesia in East Timor, the intervention of the Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo, the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, etcé All these events caused rapid and determined reactions from the International community. The condemnations were followed by military acts to compel the invader to withdraw. In the case of Israel, which occupied the Arab territories since 1967 é and well before-, nothing of the kind occurred. If there were condemnations and demands for withdrawal, they have never been followed by clear acts of pressure and coercion.
For all the previous reasons and for many others we did not mention, the “Double Standards” report concludes the following: é The virtual immunity of Israel from measures that are routinely applied by the organized international community in parallel cases has had a very damaging impact on attempts to persuade the Israeli government to engage in a genuine peace process based on international standards that govern the relations of all other states é.
If this was the frame of mind prevailing about a year ago, and if with all honesty we recognize that the situation did not improve meanwhile, is there today after the change in Iraq, a hope for renewing the peace process?
The report we mentioned above was issued two months after the famous pledge of Mr Bush in his speech of June 25, 2002. In this speech, the US president recognized two points: é It is untenable for Israeli citizens to live in terror. It is untenable for Palestinians to live in squalor and occupation é. Whence: ” My vision is two states, living side by side in peace and security.”
Still, it seems that the Palestinians at that time could not fulfil one of Mr Bush’s conditions, when he called them to elect new leaders. First, because of the belligerent attitude of Sharon whose soldiers were bullying them. And second, because they could not trust the Americans whom they accuse of unfairness and partiality. For if the Double Standards apply to the UN, how about the USA, which is the first and biggest supporter of their enemies? The Palestinian street is convinced that even if the whole world supports Israel é which is far from being the case-, without the US support, the Israelis would not carry on the policies they have been pursuing since 1967.
Today, they have seen how the USA é with G. Britain- challenged some of its European allies, additionally to Russia, China, and many others in the world that opposed the bold enterprise of change in Iraq. If the Palestinian people opposed the war, it was not because of any attachment to Saddam é how a people craving for freedom would hate the deliverance of another oppressed people? -, but for at least two different reasons:
In his desperate search for any Arab support, the Iraqi dictator pushed the hypocrisy to the extent of sending huge sums of money to the families of the suicide-bombers, while his own people was agonizing and missing everything. Thus doing, he sought to be considered as the champion of the Palestinian cause in the eyes of the naive Arabs. Naturally, how could the tormented Palestinians dismiss this much-interested generosity when all the gates seem so closed? Of course, they would raise Saddam’s portraits in their demonstrations, since they know how much he was hated in Israel. However, the former Iraqi regime was neither the only nor the last among the Arabs who support the armed struggle of the Palestinian people. He just used a breach in the defunct peace process opened by the failure of the concerned parties. That’s why Abu Mazen has opposed the militarization of the initifadha (uprising). He has probably noticed that not only the casualties of the Palestinians were greater than those of the Israelis, but that the Initifadha, which was at first a simple civilian protestation against the Israeli provocations, has been hijacked by some parties (inside and abroad) and used to justify their own policies, at the expenses of the civilian population.
Like other Arabs, the Palestinians have many doubts concerning the American projects in Iraq and the rest of the region. And since the Americans, are the main supporters of Israel, and since they consider Saddam as an enemy, so é the enemy of my enemy is my friend é. Thus goes the dictum. Whether Saddam was an abominable dictator or not, is not the problem. The point is that the USA was adopting the double standards’ attitude: It saw the evil of Saddam, but it did not see the evil of Sharon. That’s the determining factor. And that’s why many Arabs é Palestinians included- still refuse to see in the British-American intervention in Iraq any liberty for the Iraqi people. How could the Iraqis be free, they contend, when the foreign invaders are ruling the country? Besides, the “liberation” claim has been previously used by these same British, who finished by occupying all the territories that were ruled by the Ottomans. They established themselves as the masters of the Arab populations, divided the lands and shared some of them with the French, gave Palestine to the Zionists, and appointed even the ruling class that would take over once they leave. How can the Arabs trust those who betrayed them after all their promises? And who would grant the present situation would not breed another é Sikes-Picot é agreement that would snatch lands and oil and rights from the Arabs, and give them to Israel or to any other foreign power?
Against this disastrous vision, which é let’s say it é is winning broad credit in the Arabo-Islamic world, in the absence of any perspective of peace, a few elite is trying to swim against the tides. Amidst this elite, Abu Mazen, the new Prime Minister, who not only was one of the main makers of the Oslo process, along with Arafat himself, and other negotiators of the Fatah movement, but had been also one of the first Palestinian leaders who tried to negotiate with General Sharon, years before the Oslo process started, as he acknowledged it in his memoirs about Oslo.
It is noteworthy that at the time the Palestinians é following a suggestion of Abu Mazen- tried to contact Sharon é then, simple member of the Knesset-, it was perhaps unimaginable that they could one day reach any agreement with Isaac Rabin. But the idea was that if they could find an opening with the hard-liner right wing Sharon, then maybe it was possible to persuade a leader like Rabin or Peres. The fact that it was a Likudist Prime Minister, – (Mr. Begin)- and not among the moderate- who reached a peace agreement with Egypt, encouraged them to contact Sharon. But the latter turned them down.
I mention this story, which Abu Mazen himself related in his book about Oslo, in order to make a statement: It is not the Palestinians who rejected Sharon, but the other way round. Many years after this aborted contact, and after the beginning of a peace process and its premature death, and after the election of Sharon as Prime Minister, Mahmud Abbas would find himself in charge of leading the negotiations with him. Coincidence or irony of the history, this is anyway the theatre and these are the characters on the stage. What they would make of the fate of their peoples is at some degree what their peoples are ready to accept or not.
How would the American administration help them find their way?
Now that the Iraq war is behind us and the reconstruction before, the Palestinians hope that Mr Bush at least fulfils his own pledge of June 25, 2002. They know that with the victory he has acquired in Iraq, his hands are less tied by the Congress, sometimes perceived as too influenced by the Israeli lobby in Washington. So, if Mr. Bush wants to achieve some progress in the Middle East, now is the right time to act, they contend, before a longstanding sojourn in Iraq turns the tides against the Americans, who would be felt more as an occupying force and less as liberators. And if additionally, the complicated problems of the new system are not accurately and efficiently resolved, if the answers the Americans and their Iraqi allies give to the population are not at the measure of the expectations, anger would follow the joy. Saddam would be forgotten and the new enemy would be designed as the Americans.
Before reaching such a situation, some measures must be taken, not only in Iraq, but also in the Palestinian territories, to make people touch the new realities resulting from the desire of freedom to which the Americans claim identification.
Strengthened by his fast success in getting rid of Saddam, Mr. Bush should not forget that nothing is played forever in that region of the world. If his vision of the Middle East is clear, it should bypass the old reflexes and create a new dynamism in the region, far away from the Double Standards that have prevailed so far. A new Middle-East is perhaps seeing the dawn. It depends at some extent on whether Bush’s vision was serene or troubled by the old scale.
Hichem Karoui is a writer and journalist living in Paris, France.