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Just weeks ago President Clinton was negotiating a final status peace agreement in the Israelis and Palestinians. What seemed like a sudden deterioration in the region belies the deeper frustrations with the peace process which had been mounting for some time.
For his purposes, Ariel Sharon timed his move perfectly. Meant to derail any further negotiations over the issue of Jerusalem, Sharons visit to al-Haram al- Sharif took place at the most sensitive moment in the talks. Sharon also guaranteed an angry reaction from the Palestinians by provoking them on the anniversary of the event for which he is most despisedthe massacre of upwards of 2,000 civilians at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps during Israels invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Finally, in a show of force within the Likud party, Sharon took his high-profile tour the day his chief potential rival for party leadership, Benjamin Netanyahu, returned after being exonerated of corruption allegations.
Strictly speaking, it was Sharons right to make such a visit. But all rights come with inherent responsibilities. You should be held accountable for the foreseeable consequences of your actions.
Israeli officials claim that the Palestinian Authority orchestrated the clashes, claiming that there is no such thing as a spontaneous uprising. Though perhaps flattered by the accusation, Arafat would be the first to admit that he does not hold such sway on the streets. The rioting had been spearheaded primarily by sectors with which Arafat holds the least influenceyouths, students and Islamists who see the Oslo process as a road to permanent subjugation. At best, Arafat could hope to slow or redirect an uprising which stems from the growing sense of hopelessness and disenfranchisement among Palestinians.
The man who could have prevented the bloodshed is Ehud Barak. In dozens of previous cases the Israeli government has prevented Knesset members from visiting East Jerusalem at politically volatile moments. But despite the urgings of members of his own party, Barak refused to postpone Sharons visit, hoping to safeguard his already crumbling coalition government from a potential right-wing backlash. Instead, he ended up with a country on the verge of war.
Nor is it shocking that armed Palestinian police have begun entering the fray. The real surprise is that more of the 40,000 strong Palestinian security forces did not react sooner. If not unjust, its at least unrealistic to expect them to stand idly by as immediate relatives, mostly teenagers armed only with stones, are mowed down by machine-gun mounted helicopters and anti-tank missiles.
Its especially unfair to expect such restraint from a people who have waited for years to express a right of self-determination well established in international law and recognized by virtually the entire world. Palestinian frustration was running particularly high as it was just two weeks ago that Arafat yet again acquiesced to Israeli and American demands to postpone the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state. Sharons recent escapade comes as a cruel reward for such patience.
Stability in the region hangs in the balance. To restore calm Palestinians will need reason to believe in the peace process and for this the U.S. will have to show a willingness to pressure Israel. Such prospects do not look good thus far as the U.S. has only blocked UN Security Council resolutions condemning the killing of Palestinians, instead putting forward drafts which do not even mention Israel by name.
The necessary first step to put negotiations back on track will be for Israel to halt its overwhelming use of force and to open an international investigation into the killings. What incentive would Palestinians have to return to the bargaining table, if the Israeli government refuses even to take an honest look at its recent actions.
If the Oslo process is reinstated, it will again pivot on the three key issues: borders Jerusalem, and the return of Palestinian refugees. But beneath these issues lies the more fundamental concern of whether peace, once established, can possibly last unless the incipient state is built on firmer foundation.
If all sides were suddenly to sign for peace under current conditions, the unified state of Palestine would most likely consist of two blocs of landGaza and the West Bank25 miles apart. All control over electricity, gas and the most prized resource in the region, water, would ultimately reside with Israel. Over half the economy and the bulk of Palestinian jobs would be based in Israel. The national airports would be manned by Israeli personnel with the right to run computer checks on all persons entering and leaving the country. Domestic ports would be in Israeli territory. Palestinian passports could not be issued without Israels say-so. Even the design of Palestinian postage stamps would be subject to Israels veto, which Israel has already exercised repeatedly. This is not the model of a sovereign state, but a state which could be shut down at the flip of a switch. Its also a model for future conflict.
One of the most troubling issues will be freedom of movement. With independence, Palestinians expected at least to be able to travel without interference in their own territory. But facts on the ground will stand in the way. While Arafat, Barak and Clinton recently negotiated into the late hours, Israeli road crews pulled round-the-clock shifts extending the network of bypass highways in the West Bank. These multi-lane freeways, which connect Israeli settlements to each other and to Israel proper span at least 50 meters across and are enclosed on both sides by high chain-link fences. The roads currently criss-cross the entirety of the West Bank and will remain under Israeli control after a Palestinian state is declared. In theory, these roads should increase not obstruct the circulation of people and goods. In practice, they function as a series of barriers to Palestinian passage. Closed to Palestinian traffic, the roads are legally crossed only through tightly guarded Israeli checkpoints.
The problem of the road system will only worsen as the number of Israeli settlements continues to grow. Over the last nine months, Barak has ordered the construction of more new settlements than Benjamin Netanyahu did in three years. While returning 94 percent of Gaza and the West Bank to the Palestinians certainly sounds generous, it comes as a patch-work which will not hold together. If there was any lesson learned from the Intifada, its that nothing sows popular frustration faster than having to ask for outside permission every time a person wishes to visit a relative or friend in an adjacent neighborhood in their own nation.
A simple signature from Arafat will not calm the streets. Likewise, a territorial transfer agreement along the lines currently on the table will not create a viable Palestinian state. For the past several months, Arafats approval ratings have been plummetingnot, as is often claimed, due to a fanatical fringe bent on igniting popular impatience, but among working and middle-class Palestinian families who are beginning to view their much-heralded new nation as little more than a glamorized bantustan. No one wants peace more than those who experience on a daily basis the violence and indignity of occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. But before we again set high hopes on the Oslo process, its worth remembering that a peace without justice will not last. Until certain fundamental issues are addressed, diplomacy in the Middle East will remain the myth of Sisyphus. Z
Ian Urbina is a policy analyst for Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) in Washington, DC.