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A prison camp for Palestinians

Whatever happened to the Middle East peace process? Daniel Nassim reports

A year ago, the prospects for a negotiated settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians were being talked up. In June 1992, the Israeli Labour Party defeated the right-wing Likud for the first time since 1977. The Guardian's verdict on the election summed up the prevailing mood: 'Israel's change of politics casts a shaft of good news ona gloomy world.' (24 June 1992). Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian negotiator in the US-sponsored talks that were already under way, said that 'it looks like the peace process has been rescued from the Likud's attempt to sabotage it'.

A year later, the negotiations are continuing in Washington, but the Israeli authorities seem to be pursuing the very opposite of a peace process. They have instituted mass deportations of Palestinians, dumping them in a Lebanese no-man's land. They have stepped up their routine harassment of the Palestinian community, with beatings, shootings, curfews and internment. Israel has turned the West Bank and the Gaza Strip into giant prison camps, sealing off territories which are home to about 1.8m Palestinians. Most of the 120000 Palestinians who used to cross the 'green line' every day to go to work in Israel have been barred from entry.

What has happened in the space of a year to derail the peace process? In fact the peace process is still going on. What is happening is the consequence of the peace process.

The problem with the peace process is that it accepts the existence of Israel. Once it is accepted that the state of Israel is here to stay, then Palestinian autonomy can mean only one thing: a prison camp for Palestinians policed by Israelis. Palestinians may be given limited autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but only on the condition that they are subject to even tighter Israeli control.

The very existence of the Israeli state implies the denial of Palestinian rights. The problem is not one of Jews and Arabs living together. It is the exclusivist character of Israel, which defines itself as a Jewish state. This means that non-Jewish inhabitants will always be treated as second class citizens. It is a relationship between a state of colonial settlers and its subjects.

An individual's legal identity in Israel depends primarily on whether or not he is Jewish. This determines his access to jobs, land and to welfare benefits. Even the minority of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are not treated equally with Israeli Jews. Palestinians and Israelis live in the same land but lead separate lives-- living in different areas, attending different schools, hardly ever socialising.

The Labour Party, which people looked to as the harbinger of peace, constantly proclaims the need to defend the 'Jewish character' of the state of Israel. From this perspective it makes perfect sense to talk about making territorial concessions to the Palestinians while separating the two communities still further. This is the gist of what Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister and defence minister, said recently when he advocated substituting Jewish for Arab labour in Israel: 'Now is a time we can bring about substantial changes through separation. We must see to it that the Palestinians do not swarm among us, so that the Jews begin to work and increase their ability to do so.' (Jerusalem Post International Edition, 17 April 1993)

This is the reality of the 'two-state' solution advocated by everybody involved in the peace process, from the Palestinian leadership to the American government. As Rabin's statement makes clear, the existence of a Palestinian statelet alongside a state of Israel would not provide an equitable solution to the conflict.

It is quite conceivable that the Western powers, which are pushing the Middle East peace process, could decide to repartition Palestine. But such a move would not bring peace to the region or freedom to the Palestinians. A Palestinian statelet would be too weak to resist Israeli intervention in its internal affairs. It would not be viable economically or politically. It might be able to manage refuse collection or deal with traffic offences, but it would not be truly sovereign. In practice it would be more like a homeland on the South African model.

There is an even more fundamental problem with the 'peace process'. It looks to the West to implement a solution. Many supporters of a Palestinian homeland believe that if the West puts pressure on Israel to make concessions then the Palestinians can achieve their aspirations. Recent events appear to have given some credence to this view. The Americans are threatening economic and diplomatic reprisals against Israel if it refuses to compromise with the Palestinians at the negotiating table.

Think again

However, the Western powers have not hosted peace talks because they are genuinely concerned with the rights of the Palestinians. Their real concern is that Israeli recalcitrance may hinder their attempts to alter the arrangements through which they have traditionally dominated the Middle East. In the aftermath of the Cold War, with the collapse of Soviet influence in the region, the USA is trying to forge closer relations with Arab states and downplay Israel's role as the West's policeman in the Middle East. The festering Palestinian problem is an obstacle to cementing new relations, which is why America is leaning on Israel to negotiate.

Anybody who thinks that the West has apositive role to play in bringing peace and freedom to the Middle East should think again. For 40-odd years the West has sponsored the most brutal repression of Palestinian rights by bankrolling the Israeli state. As a result of Western intervention in the Gulf War, 200 000 Iraqis were slaughtered and thousands of Palestinians were expelled from Kuwait. Even now, the USA is only proposing cosmetic changes in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship; Washington has pledged to defend the integrity of the Israeli state.

Peace in the Middle East can come only when the Palestinians win the right to self-determination, and when the future of the region is mapped out by the people who live there. The first step towards Palestinian liberation is to reject the right of the Western powers to determine the future of the Middle East.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 56, June 1993

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