When the aging Arab poets, fashionably grey haired and in their eighties, tremble and read their beautiful words on the stage of the Al Midan Theatre they are like the trunks of olive trees, testaments to the suffering.
They say many things.
There has to be a way to stop the deaths. That diplomacy by bulldozer, tank and suicide bomb will never work, that their memory and hope for land will never die.
Time, with the ebb and flow of history, has a way of wearing people down. In others, it builds an iron will.
For some, the clash of fundamentalisms of this contested place is their raison d’etre.
The consensus is still that the two state solution is the only one that will work in the long term and needs to be one which protects the Arab minority in Israel and the Jewish minority that will be left in a new Palestine state. The one state solution supporters represent the fringe and have not yet effectively made their case.
Zionism is a rich and storied history that has outlasted socialism and communism in the 20th century. The First and Second Aliyahs were successful models of Jewish and Arab co-existence in their early years. Zionism’s relationship with the victorious Western Allied powers ensured its success at a deep cost to the existing Palestinian population as Benny Morris and Illan Pappe have widely written about. Were it not for the collateral damage, the uprooting of hundreds of villages and the displacement and dispossession of the Palestinian people in the process following the Second World War, there would be much to be proud of in this young nation. But Zionism today means finding a just peace, rather than expanding settlements in the West Bank and risking the further isolation of Israel.
It was 1967 that Israel declared victory in the Six Day War, taking the Sinai and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria and East Jerusalem and the West Bank from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. In 1982, Israel found itself in Lebanon. Many lives were lost, families displaced and lands dispossessed. Ariel Sharon was a central player in that suffering. Much water has flowed in the Jordan River since then, but time has yet to bring wisdom, peace or security to the lands of Israel and Palestine.
Israel has since withdrawn from the Sinai and Lebanon, but has still held on to the narrative that there must be security before peace before a Palestinian state has the right to exist. Israel has brazenly and consistently refused to meet its international obligations, preferring to define its own agenda on its own terms.
Israel, after all, has had good reasons to distrust its Arab neighbours. But there should be a statute of limitations on using the loaded word of security, especially when it is used as a pretext to shift the facts on the ground and solidify its matrix of control.
There’s no such thing as an enlightened Occupation.
If the Oslo Accords harkened the modern day peace process in 1993 and brought in the contemporary period of Israel and Palestine, then Camp David and the Geneva Initiative are its relics – the Roadmap to Peace doesn’t rate a mention. It’s been nothing more than a public relations exercise in high diplomacy between Condolleeza Rice and Dov Weisglass and one in which the situation has clearly deteriorated on the ground.
The Taba Agreement known as Oslo II, which Yitzhak Rabin signed the month before his death, set out detailed timelines for Israeli withdrawals from Areas A, B and C by October 1997. What Oslo inadvertently did was to formalize the structure of the Occupation. In January of 1997, the Hebron Protocol gave 20% of the city to settlers effectively killing the Oslo Accords. By October 1999, there was to be a final status agreement on Jerusalem, the right of return, water and settlements. Nothing came of it.
Then came in the dying days of his Administration leading the Camp David Accords where Barak still says he put everything on the table and that Arafat balked. The deal was in the right direction, but it was improbable that Arafat could have sold the deal to his rival factions. He was holding out for something marginally better.
Months later, it was Sharon’s march to the Temple Mount where he cut an impressive figure, marching with a swagger and a military escort of 1,000 that rewrote the political landscape and the modern story of Israel and Palestine and relations between the two peoples.
Things have never really been the same since. It precipitated the violence, the Arab election boycott that brought down Barak and sent Sharon to power. By 2002, the siege on the West Bank and Gaza Strip had begun. It was remarkably effective in redefining political center of Israel as none other than the tag team of Ariel "The Tank" Sharon and his Finance Minister and Likud comrade, Bibi "The Bulldozer" Netanyahu.
Security before peace was the rallying cry. And today, security before peace is still the rallying cry. Ten years from now, will this be the deadlock that was never unravelled, picked apart and dissected, to be done away with as an impediment to peace?
If the issues were simply human rights, security and self-determination, this would have been solved long ago. This is also about the politics of land, resources, demographics and power. It is about whether the refugees have a right to return.
Israel represents a strategic foothold in the Middle East for American interests. So it is impossible to disconnect the Israeli/Palestinian conflict from the geopolitics of the Arab world. America has the power to turn on and turn off the pressure in guiding Israel towards peace with the Palestinians. Sharon can no more be guided towards peace and away from his intentions in the West Bank than you can take a gambling addict away from a slot machine. Peace by comprimising the West Bank would be anathema to Sharon and his power base in Likud and the Israeli right.
And what will be of Jerusalem as its boundaries are being redrawn today? Can there still be a shared capital?
The "politics of time" means that stalling every official process, adding settlements and saying that there is no partner for peace merely bolsters the Sharon agenda of expanding and solidifying the settlements in the West Bank. Sharon’s modus operandi has always been, ‘never be outflanked on the right.’ Now that Arafat’s dead, who will be the next Palestinian bogeyman that will be deemed a ‘terrorist’ and incapable of making peace?
The "politics of time" are not just about rewriting history, they are also about redrawing the acceptable political language of what’s possible. Ultimately, this has served to delegitimize Palestinian rights enshrined in international law and UN resolutions.
Can the atmosphere for peace be built again? Who among the Israelis and Palestinians will make it happen? Will the new Palestinian leader be alive to see it or be killed by the rival factions in the struggle for power?
In all, more than 200 settlements have been constructed and over 400,000 Israelis have moved across the 1967 boundaries (200,000 in the West Bank, 225,000 in East Jerusalem and 6,000 in Gaza). Since 1993, the number of settlers has increased by 70,000. Under Barak, the settlements were consolidated into seven settlement "blocs" which isolate Palestinian villages from one another "into dozens of small, disconnected and impoverished enclaves" according to the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions. Added to this have been a massive system of 29 highways and by-pass roads funded entirely by the US, slicing through the Occupied Territories for the exclusive use of settlers.
The imposition of collective punishment, administrative detention, and unequal treatment before the law is the reality of the Occupation. Home demolitions continue. The unemployment rate is 40% in the West Bank and over 60% in Gaza. The military raids continue. People die every week. This is not only unjust, it is unsustainable.
Power relations are never kind; they discriminate, they are ugly, they conspire against beauty, they bring out the worst in people, they are brutal in how they decimate the human desire for freedom.
Were it not for the genuine belief that there is a better way to live among one another, all hope would have been lost long ago. There’s still this sense that people can be good to one another and care for each other, that they can see past differences, have families and be free to live one’s life. It is on display when the Israeli and Palestinian activists in Ta’ayush organize demonstrations against the Separation Wall, when ICAHD rebuilds a house, when Bustans builds medical clinics and organizes human rights observers during the olive harvest, when the coffee shops of Tel Aviv are filled, where the streets close down on Shabbat so families can take their afternoon strool, when Adalah is taking a case to the Supreme Court or when the Mossawa Center is lobbying members of the Knesset. They are not the ones in power, but they hold the Israeli and Palestinian ‘street.’ They monitor power for a living by putting themselves on the front lines.
The political footprint of Ariel Sharon is not too pretty when you look into it too much. To say that many are cynical about the Ariel Sharon/George W. Bush love-in would be an understatement – they are brothers-in-arms. They are trigger happy right wing unilateralists not prone to compromise.
It is the great irony of the modern age that Ariel Sharon, the ‘father’ of the settlements, long the political front man for the settlement lobby and Eretz Yisrael, Greater Israel, is now the poster boy for peace and the unilateral Gaza withdrawal. Time will tell what his legacy will be.
Where is the Israeli Left in all this? The silence is deafening.
For a just peace in Israel and Palestine, it almost requires a Democratic US President, an Israeli Labour Prime Minister and a stable Palestinian leadership. None of these factors exist today. So if it happens on their watch, it will be nothing short of a miracle. But this is the Holy Land, so something may just come of it.
The assertion that when Palestinian violence ends and only when Israeli security is ensured is the point at which Palestinian self-determination will be considered, needs to be challenged. While there are legitimate concerns, the clearly disproportionate actions of constructing a Separation Wall, annexing territory, expanding settlements and all the infrastructure required to resource them is resulting in a situation where even the UN Special Rapporteur for Palestine is calling the situation in the West Bank as akin to "Apartheid."
At every stage, there is continued control over illegal settlement blocs, movement restrictions for Palestinians and the maintenance of a weakened Palestinian state with little sovereignty.
Will the Israeli and Palestinian street step up to the table or will they keep taking it on the chin?
The movement towards a just peace will require the application of international law and international pressure, diplomatic pressure by the EU and the US and for Israelis and Palestinians to engage in mass non-violent resistance opposing the Occupation. The conditions for a just peace require nothing less.
There must be better way to live together than what’s been on offer by the Israeli and Palestinian leadership thus far.