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Wednesday, November 29, 2000 

Why This New Intifada, and How It Might Be Cooled Down


Many people ask why a new intifada, or Palestinian uprising, has broken out, especially at a time when the world believed that Palestinians and Israelis were coming close to achieving a lasting peace. This is a legitimate question.

The negotiation process that began with the Oslo agreement in 1993 was designed to bring peace and prosperity to the region, but in real terms Palestinians are worse off economically and politically today than before the Oslo process began.

It is worth remembering the true roots of the most recent effort to resolve the conflict and reconcile our differences.

In 1988, the democratically elected Palestinian National Council, then meeting in exile, voted to accept a two-state solution based on UN Resolutions 242 and 338, which call on Israel to return all the lands it occupied in the 1967 war. This historic decision recognized not only Israel's right to exist but also its right to exist on 78 percent of historic Palestine.

The PNC agreed that an independent Palestinian state would be established in Gaza and the West Bank. With this act, the indigenous people of Palestine acknowledged a peaceful and secure Israel within the borders that existed until June 4, 1967.

The decision paved the way for the Madrid talks, in which Israel also accepted (for the first time) UN Resolutions 242 and 338, and for the talks that led to the Oslo agreement. Both parties now had agreed to apply the UN resolutions and to the principle of land for peace.

Finally - or so we thought at the time - Israelis and Palestinians had the opportunity to change the face of the region and transform hatred and bloodshed into peace and cooperation.

Now fast-forward to the beginning of 2000. Palestinians partially control only 40 percent of the West Bank and 70 percent of Gaza, and this under restricted conditions while Israel is still haggling over the terms of interim withdrawal.

In the meantime, Israel, particularly under the Barak administration, is establishing more facts on the ground by accelerating settlement construction and land confiscation (more than 50,000 new Jewish settlers have moved into the West Bank since Oslo); Jerusalem remains closed to most Palestinians; and Palestinians are severely restricted in their ability to travel between Palestinian towns and between Gaza and the West Bank.

Clearly, Oslo allowed Israel time to literally cement its occupation of territories that were supposed to become the Palestinian state.

Despite this ongoing violation by Israel, Palestinians remained committed to the peace process and tried to deal with the daily hardships it entailed.

When the Clinton administration pressured the Palestinians to attend the summit at Camp David, we warned that neither side was ready to negotiate final status issues. After all, we were still trying to get Israel to live up to its past interim agreements. Final status issues, including Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestinian refugees, had not been addressed in the previous seven years.

Yet we agreed to attend, in large part because Secretary of State Madeleine Albright assured President Yasser Arafat that whatever happened at Camp David, neither side would be blamed if it failed.

The Camp David summit was ill timed and the proposals presented there only confirmed our suspicions. The Palestinian leadership faced a much stronger partner in Israel, and we found that the United States, instead of being a disinterested mediator, teamed with the Israelis in pressuring us to make concessions of such magnitude that they would not be acceptable to the Palestinian people. And in the case of Jerusalem, the deal we were offered at Camp David would also have been unacceptable to the wider Arab and Islamic worlds.

Thus the summit failed, and within hours, despite Mrs. Albright's promise, the Clinton administration was publicly blaming the Palestinians.

Despite Israeli claims that Mr. Barak had gone further than any other Israeli leader, the proposal he presented at Camp David still did not provide the minimal conditions for a viable Palestinian state, nor did it satisfy our rights to East Jerusalem or adequatly address the tragedy of the refugees. His proposals may have been less unacceptable than previous Israeli offers, but they were still unacceptable.

Still, Camp David was a great leap forward for both parties, and many former barriers were crossed. Unfortunately, Mr. Barak was so consumed by domestic politics upon his return that he began to carry out a series of shortsighted decisions aimed at saving his government. The most tragic was the decision to permit Ariel Sharon, with whom Mr. Barak was hoping to create a coalition government, to visit the Haram al Sharif, Islam's third most holy site.

We as Palestinians have learned to live with many injustices during the past 52 years, and we have made many compromises in our pursuit of peace. But our human dignity is non-negotiable. When Mr. Sharon carried out his provocative march on the Al Aqsa Mosque accompanied by some 3,000 armed Israeli soldiers, the Palestinian people, both Christian and Muslim, felt utterly betrayed by Mr. Barak and Israel. Our limit had been reached.

The protests that followed Mr. Sharon's visit quickly turned into a popular uprising fueled by years of frustration and humiliation. This is an uprising composed of people from all walks of life. Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories is the last military occupation in the world, and the occupied are merely demanding their right to freedom, self-determination and democracy.

In Yugoslavia last month, people rose up to overthrow their government to obtain their rights, and were embraced by the world. Palestinians are rising up against a foreign military occupation, and yet we are being condemned for our actions.

The United States and Israel demand that the Palestinian leadership put an end to the violence and stop the uprising, as if there were a magic button we could press to convince people to go home and placidly continue their lives under military occupation.

Israel's use of excessive and brutal force is beginning to destabilize the entire region. The use of tanks, missiles and American-made Apache helicopters on unarmed demonstrators in our towns and villages is terrorizing and radicalizing the population. The Israeli violence must end, and the siege of our villages must be lifted.

An international peacekeeping force must be assembled to ensure the protection of basic human rights as well as the monitoring of any future agreement. Only in this way will a conducive environment be fostered to allow UN Resolution 242 to be implemented without more bloodshed.

If such a new approach is felt clearly by the Palestinians, this will give us hope that there is a chance to proceed forward. The peace process, as begun in the Madrid talks of 1991, must once again replace the war process, and the logic of reason replace the logic of power.

The writer, an executive member of the Palestine Liberation Organization in charge of Jerusalem affairs, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune. 

Copyright 2000 The International Herald Tribune 

Correction: 80,000 settlers not 50,000 settlers have moved into the West Bank since 1993.


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