There would appear to be two strands of interaction between Palestinians and Israelis in the current negotiations process. One deals with final status issues and involves the top political leadership on both sides, Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmed Qurei and Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni. The other deals with day-to-day practicalities and is led by Salam Fayyad and Ehud Barak.
Last week’s visit by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice resulted in all parties proclaiming progress on a number of issues. But those statements only served to leave the Palestinian public bemused. At the same time as these positive statements were made, the Israeli Peace Now organization released a settlement watch report that showed that construction and expansion of 101 illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem was continuing apace.
The Peace Now report was well documented and carefully researched. It left little room for doubt. It also asserted that as well as "normal" settlements, construction and expansion of settlement outposts–which the Israeli government itself considers illegal and has committed to remove–continues. The expansions undertaken include an increase in the number of housing units, more and better infrastructure and an increase, in some cases, in the expanse of the settlements and the number of settlers.
For a cynical, tired and battered Palestinian public there is one measure above all with which to assess progress in negotiations: what happens in Israeli settlements. Palestinians understand well that all the many different kinds of collective punishment that Israel imposes on them are a direct outcome of two distinct Israeli objectives: the number and spread of settlements and the desire to control the occupied territories.
For as long as construction in and expansion of settlements continue, Palestinians know that there is no real progress in negotiations and there will be no real let-up in the measures Israel uses to control their movement, i.e., the many checkpoints and barriers dotted around them. On the contrary, settlement expansions generally mean tighter "security" measures and more restrictions as Israel seeks to consolidate its control.
Thus Israeli "gestures" like those trumpeted last week come to mean nothing in the general assessment of Palestinians (in addition to Israeli peace activists). There are still hundreds of checkpoints and hundreds of thousands of settlers. Meanwhile, it took a lot of effort to pinpoint even one of the checkpoints or roadblocks Israel claims to have removed.
Making gestures is not illegitimate. But there is great danger in making gestures that have no impact on peoples’ lives. Such gestures simply serve to erode the credibility and the public standing of those involved in negotiations on the Palestinian side. At the same time they make life easy for groups like Hamas who stand ready to exploit empty words that only serve to prove their arguments.
Hamas claims that the Palestinian leadership’s dogged pursuit of negotiations will not attain the legitimate and internationally enshrined rights of the Palestinian people to freedom, independence and statehood. The equally dogged determination by Israel to continue the settlement peace bypass project–unabated and in spite of international legality and its own stated commitments–simply bolsters that argument.