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An Impossible Partition
UK foreign secretary Jack Straw stood at the dispatch box in a packed House of Commons. After parrying members' questions on the intricacies of European Union (EU) budgetary reform and sugar subsidies, he became more ebullient when debate turned to the Middle East peace process. He commended Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for his "courage" in pulling Israeli settlers out of Gaza and declared, "I am more hopeful about the prospects for a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians than I have been at any time in the past four and a half years." Straw boomed, "I believe that gradually both sides have recognized that the only future for Palestinians and Israelis lies in peace and in two states."1 Straw could have learned something from those who had stood at the dispatch box before him. It was the British government after all, one still flush with colonial territories, that had in the 1930s first given its official imprimatur to partition as the solution to the conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. Partition failed then, as it is failing again today, as it has failed every time it has been seriously proposed, always forthe same reason: There is no workable partition that is acceptable to a majority of Israelis and Palestinians.
Partition of Palestine into one homeland for Jews and another for Arabs was first endorsed as a government plan in 1937. That year, the Palestine Royal Commission, headed by Lord Peel, formed after disturbances in Palestine and the outbreak of the Arab revolt, proposed to divide the country into two states, with the British retaining control of Jerusalem and a corridor leading to the port of Jaffa. The proposed Jewish state would include all of the Galilee in the north and the coastal plain down to the south of Tel Aviv. The Arab state would comprise all the rest of the country. Even with this plan, expectations of settling on a fair border between the two entities were low. "No frontier can be drawn," the report warned, "which separates all Arabs and Arab-owned land from all Jews and Jewish-owned land." The problem was the Arabs, or more specifically, the quantity of them: There were simply too many. While the area allocated for the Arab state would have contained only 1,250 Jews, the Jewish state would have contained more than a quarter of a million Arabs. "It is the far greater number of Arabs who constitute the major problem," the report concluded. Because it was impossible to construct a viable Jewish state given these facts, the Peel Commission recommended solving the demographic "problem" through the removal, "voluntary or otherwise," of all Arabs from the proposed Jewish state not just to other parts of Palestine, but even across the frontier to Transjordan (modern-day Jordan), a solution that today would properly be called ethnic cleansing.2
A year after its release, the Woodhead Commission scuttled the Peel plan because it found that, at a minimum, the proposedJewish state would have an Arab population of 49 percent. The commissioners could not agree on any other partition scheme, and one member concluded that no form of partition was practicable. 3 In 1939, the British government issued a new White Paper on Palestine that also reversed the Peel Commission's key findings. Instead of partition, it endorsed a unitary state in which Arabs and Jews would have equal rights.
The next serious proposal for partition, and the most detailed, came almost a decade later. Toward the end of British rule in Palestine, granted by a League of Nations mandate, the British were losing control of the population and so handed the problem to the newly formed United Nations. In 1947, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), composed of representatives of eleven states, recommended the partition of the country into independent Jewish and Arab states. A majority of the countries in UNSCOP (Canada, Czechoslovakia, Guatemala, Netherlands, Peru, Sweden, and Uruguay) voted for partition, while the minority (India, Iran, and Yugoslavia) proposed a single, federal binational state. Australia abstained. On November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly accepted the UNSCOP majority recommendation, Resolution 181, by a vote of 33-13 with 10 abstentions. Mainstream Zionist leaders endorsed the plan, but most did so "with a heavy heart" out of opposition to the idea of a Palestinian state and a desire for control over a greater area of territory.4 David Ben-Gurion, in his testimony to UNSCOP, had argued against partition because he believed that the entire country should be given to the Jews. He urged postponement of any decision until the Jews, by encouraging immigration, could become the majorityand thus take control of all the country.5 Nevertheless once the plan was passed by the General Assembly, Zionist leaders hailed it as a major diplomatic achievement, and there was widespread celebration in the Jewish community in Palestine and among Zionist supporters around the world.
While international opinion was coalescing around UN plans for partition, the voices of those who would be most affected--Palestinians--had little bearing on the deliberations. Arab leaders in Palestine and Arab states rejected the UN plan. They had proposed to UNSCOP that Palestine be given its independence as a unitary state, that there be a constituent assembly made of Arabs and Jews, that Jews participate fully in its government under proportional representation, and that Jewish immigration be curbed to prevent a Jewish takeover and the loss of the "Arab character" of Palestine.6 Even today, Palestinian speakers, including myself, are often challenged with the claim that had the Palestinians only accepted the UN plan they would by now have enjoyed their freedom and independence for nearly sixty years. But such twenty-twenty hindsight does little to illuminate the reality Palestinians faced. My father, who was twelve years old at the time, remembers that even in his small, rural village there was lively concern over the UNSCOP partition plan. Palestinians were universally against partition for two reasons. He explains: "First, they thought, you don't partition what's yours. They didn't see their rights to Palestine as disputable, so they did not see partition as a reasonable compromise. And also we knew--even as little children--and I remember talking about it, that if the Jews accepted partition it would only be as a foothold for taking the rest of Palestinelater." Palestinians simply didn't see why towns and villages a short distance away and to which they had deep ties should suddenly, by the decree of a distant body, be placed out of their reach behind international borders. It was simply inconceivable. Palestinians were being given hardly anything in the partition; they were losing more than half their country.
Even if people could have been brought to see partition as reasonable in theory, the terms proposed by UNSCOP added insult to injury. In 1947, there were 1,293,000 Arab Palestinians--Muslims and Christians--and 608,000 Jews in the country. Although Jews were one-third of the population, most had arrived only recently after fleeing the horrors of World War II, and Zionist efforts to buy up the country had met with some resistance. The result was Jews owned about 6 percent of the land.7 Nevertheless, the partition resolution proposed to give Jews 55 percent of the country. The Palestinians, who were two-thirds of the population and owned the vast majority of the land, which they had been working for generations, were to make do with less than half of the country. Jerusalem would be declared an international zone. An example of the inequity in this is UNSCOP's decision that "the Jews will have the more economically developed part of the country embracing practically the whole of the citrus-producing area which includes a large number of Arab producers."8
As the Peel Commission had found a decade earlier, a truly workable partition was impossible: Both of the proposed states were each to be broken into three awkwardly separated sections, while the Jewish and Arab blocs would be untidily intertwined. The Jewish state proposed by UNSCOP would havecontained 498,000 Jews, but also 407,000 Arabs (not including 90,000 nomadic Bedouins)--nearly half of the population--raising fears among Palestinians that the Arabs whose homes were inside the designated Jewish areas might be forcibly removed as the Peel Commission had recommended. The proposed Arab state would have contained 725,000 Palestinians and just 10,000 Jews, while there would be roughly 105,000 non-Jews and 100,000 Jews in the Jerusalem international zone.9
Reading the UN records and debates, it is clear that the UNSCOP plan was adopted with misgivings and with recognition of at least some of its shortcomings, but what animated its strongest proponents was sympathy with Zionist claims for undivided Jewish sovereignty over a substantial part, if not all, of Palestine and a desire to solve the problem of Jewish refugees that had been created by Germany's extermination of millions of European Jews. Even for those who saw the issues of Jewish refugees in Europe and the question of Palestine as distinct, the plan had the attraction of appearing to be final. The UNSCOP majority recognized that "partition has been strongly opposed by Arabs, but it is felt that opposition would be lessened by a solution which definitely fixes the extent of territory to be allotted to the Jews with its implicit limitation on immigration. The fact that the solution carries the sanction of the United Nations involves a finality which should allay Arab fears of further expansion of the Jewish State."10 Just like the Peel Commission, the UNSCOP majority believed that partition, though far from perfect, offered the chance of eventual peace.
The UN partition plan was never implemented. Fighting between Jews and Arabs broke out the day after its approval.Arab protestors attacked Jewish areas, and within weeks the Haganah, the Jewish military, began well-planned operations to conquer territory well beyond that which the partition resolution granted. The war of 1947-48 resulted in the partition of Palestine by force, rather than agreement, leaving 78 percent of the territory in Israeli hands, with the remaining 22 percent--East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip--under Jordanian and Egyptian rule respectively. Fewer than 180,000 Palestinians remained behind in the newly declared State of Israel, while between 700,000 and 900,000 were displaced to the West Bank and Gaza Strip or became refugees in surrounding countries.
There was little more talk of partition and a separate Palestinian state until after the war in 1967 when Israel militarily occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Syria's Golan Heights, and Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. The UN Security Council adopted Resolution 242, which remains the basis of the current consensus for a solution. Resolution 242 emphasizes "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in which every State in the area can live in security"--what has come to be known in shorthand as the "land for peace" formula. In exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, Arab states would recognize Israel, sign peace agreements, and establish normal relations. It was many years before either Israel or the Palestinian national movement was prepared to say it accepted this principle.
With the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords, the Palestinian leadership recognized Israel explicitly and limited its demands to the creation of a Palestinian state only in the West Bank andGaza, an enormous compromise given that these lands constitute just a fifth of the whole country in which Palestinians had been the overwhelming majority. The accords also affirmed the general terms of limited Palestinian self-rule in Gaza and the West Bank. But Israelis and Palestinians deferred all decisions on so-called final status issues, including defining borders, the fate of settlements, Jerusalem, and refugees. At the time, it was impossible to narrow the vast gaps between the two sides. Various "confidence-building measures" were supposed to set the stage for agreement later on. Unfortunately, confidence only sank as developments on the ground made the unbridgeable gaps of 1993 even wider.
Months after the 1967 war, Israel began moving settlers into the West Bank and Gaza Strip in direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that an "Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies." This policy was for decades implemented by both Labor- and Likud-led governments. It was an explicit attempt by successive Israeli governments to change the demographic and geographic realities in the occupied territories, and ultimately force the world to accept permanent Israeli control over them as a fait accompli. The ambition was expanded in 1977 when Ariel Sharon, newly appointed agriculture minister, set in motion a plan to settle two million Jews in the occupied territories by the end of the twentieth century, including settlements in Syria's Golan Heights and in Egypt's SinaiPeninsula (which was returned as part of Israel's peace treaty with Egypt).11 Sharon and his associates planned what they called a "demographic transformation" that would result in a Jewish majority across the 1967 border. Mattiyahu Drobles, co-chairman of the Jewish Agency's Settlement Department, responsible for implementation of the plan, explained in May 1979:"[T]he state of Israel must for political and other reasons, develop the entire region of Judea and Samaria;12 and if in five years' time, 100,000 Jews will not live in this region, I doubt that we will have a right to this region. If Jews will live in Judea and Samaria it will be ours; if they will not live there, it will not."13
Drobles asserted that the settlements should be strategically positioned in "the areas between and around the centers occupied by" Palestinians "to reduce to a minimum the danger of an additional Arab state being established in these territories. Being cut off by Jewish settlements, the minority population will find it difficult to form a territorial and political continuity." 14 His use of the word "minorities" to describe the Palestinians, even though they were and still are the overwhelming majority in the areas targeted by this program, was more a reference to intention rather than an acknowledgment of truth.
Although Israel had not met the goal of outnumbering Palestinians in the West Bank, the results of the settlement effort are impressive by any standard and have created--as planners intended--an irreversible reality. By constructing settlements, as well as an extensive road network connecting them to Israeli cities, Israel has fragmented contiguous Palestinian territory into dozens of isolated patches in which the vast majority of Palestinians are corralled. Their freedom of movement isrestricted by walls, fences, and army checkpoints that turn the simplest excursion into an arduous expedition that may require detours of hours, if it is achievable at all.
In the two decades from 1972 to 1993, Israel increased the number of settlers in the West Bank, not including Jerusalem, from 800 to 111,600. In the following ten years--which roughly coincided with the Oslo peace process--the number increased at twice the rate, exceeding 234,000 by 2004.15 In East Jerusalem, the settler population jumped from 124,400 in 1992 to almost 176,000 in 2002.16 Overall, the settler population now exceeds 400,000. The settlements and their attendant infrastructure and Jewish-only connecting highways control 42 percent of the West Bank, according to Israel's human rights organization B'Tselem.17
The colonization program has affected every part of the West Bank and Gaza, but has been particularly focused on Jerusalem. After the 1967 war, Prime Minister Golda Meir instructed her officials to strictly limit the Arab percentage of the city's population to no more than 28.8 percent in order to bolster Israel's claim to sovereignty over the conquered city.18 Israel expropriated massive tracts of Palestinian-owned land. According to Amir Cheshin and Avi Melamed, successive advisers to Israeli-imposed Jerusalem mayors Teddy Kollek and Ehud Olmert, the intention of the policy has been "rapidly to increase the Jewish population in East Jerusalem" and "to hinder the growth of the Arab population and to force Arab residents to make their homes elsewhere," often under the banal guise of "urban planning."19 A standard Israeli method for trying to force the growing Palestinian population out of the city was by systematically denying it building permits. In someneighborhoods it was illegal for Palestinians to build a single home even though ample space existed for them to do so.20 These policies of demographic gerrymandering and involuntary displacement continue to be strictly implemented. In mid-2005, for example, Israel announced that it would destroy eighty-eight homes in the Silwan area of East Jerusalem, making 1,000 Palestinians homeless. The rationale for the demolition of the homes Israel declared "unauthorized" was to create an "archaeological" park on the site Jews claim as the ancient city of King David. One of the elderly homeowners, Hashim Jalajil, contemplating the demolition of the house he was born in seventy-six years previously, protested, "How can they build a garden for a man who died thousands of years ago? What, is King David going to come here and drink coffee? I now have 50 people to look after, aged from 2 to 51 years old. Where are we going to go?"21 After international criticism, the municipality put the demolitions on hold but did not cancel the plan. Palestinians in East Jerusalem, where Israeli authorities demolished two hundred other homes in 2004-5, making 600 Palestinians homeless,22 feared this was simply a temporary reprieve that would be lifted once the furor died down.
As thousands of journalists descended on the Gaza Strip in August 2005 to broadcast the scenes of Jewish settlers being dragged away by unarmed Israeli soldiers, many commentators hoped that the much-vaunted "disengagement" demonstrated that the facts on the ground created by Israel since 1967 are indeed reversible. As traumatic as the pullout was for Israelis, they argued, it broke an important taboo. Many Israeli leftists who once demonized Ariel Sharon enthusiastically embracedhim, believing that he was the Israeli De Gaulle who would begin to reverse the colonization he had devoted his political life to masterminding.
Ghassan Khatib, then Palestinian Authority minister of labor, lamented in the run-up to the Gaza settler pullout that "while talking about vacating settlements with less than 2,000 housing units in Gaza, Israel has been busy constructing, this year alone, something like 6,400 housing units in illegal settlements in the West Bank, mostly centered on Jerusalem."23 Many Palestinians, like Khatib, suspected that the Gaza plan was just a smokescreen for intensified colonization in the West Bank. Prior to the supposed disengagement, it was fair to counter such skepticism by arguing that politically speaking, it was as much as any Israeli leader could do to take eight thousand settlers out of Gaza. To place additional pressure on Israel before the Gaza withdrawal would have been futile and possibly counterproductive. The time to test Israel's intentions and those of the international community was after completion of the settler pullout.
Within weeks, Israeli authorities announced plans for thousands of new settler homes all across the West Bank, including 3,500 as part of E-1, a program to expand Ma'ale Adumim, already the largest settlement. When completed, E-1 will permanently break the north-south contiguity of the West Bank. Michael Tarazi, then legal adviser to the Palestinian Authority's minister for Jerusalem affairs, protested that the land slated for E-1 constituted "the last undeveloped area that provides access for Palestinians in east Jerusalem to the rest of the occupied territories," while Dror Etkes, a settlement expert with the group Peace Now, said that building in E-1 "is tantamount tostanding over the roadmap," the internationally endorsed peace plan leading to a two-state solution, "and pissing on it." Nevertheless, then--deputy prime minister Ehud Olmert affirmed that nothing would deter Israel from completing the homes, bringing a further twenty thousand settlers into the West Bank.24 On October 18, 2005, just weeks after the Gaza disengagement euphoria, the Guardian reported that:
new building on Jewish settlements during the first quarter of this year rose by 83% on the same period in 2004. About 4,000 homes are under construction in Israel's West Bank colonies, with thousands more homes approved in the Ariel and Ma'ale Adumim blocks that penetrate deep into the occupied territories. The total number of settlers has risen again this year with an estimated 14,000 moving to the West Bank, compared with 8,500 forced to leave Gaza.
Israel is also continuing to expand the amount of territory it intends to retain. In July alone, it seized more land in the West Bank than it surrendered in Gaza: it withdrew from about 19 square miles of territory while sealing off 23 square miles of the West Bank around Ma'ale Adumim.
Israel has always claimed that the ever-tighter sieges, closures, and checkpoints that cripple Palestinian movement within the occupied territories are necessary for "security," particularly against potential Palestinian suicide attacks in Israeli cities. Yet the system of wide-scale closures was instituted in 1991, three years before the first-ever suicide attack inside Israel.25 Since the first Oslo accord was signed in 1993, ostensibly institutinggreater Palestinian autonomy, dozens of Israeli military checkpoints and hundreds of unmanned roadblocks have sprouted between Palestinian towns and cities, choking that autonomy. The number of physical obstacles to Palestinian movement placed by the Israeli army in the West Bank stood at 376 in August 2005 and rose to 471 in January 2006--a 25 percent increase in the six months after the Gaza disengagement.26 Many of the manned checkpoints have evolved into vast, permanent structures. The construction of a new multimillion-dollar Israeli border police terminal at Qalandia in the West Bank, between Ramallah and East Jerusalem, prompted one Palestinian to lament that soon "the seemingly innocuous-sounding words 'checkpoint' and 'roadblock' will be transformed into a respectable, legitimate-looking border crossing, a fact on the ground as solid as the long concrete wall it faces."27
Israel's separation wall snakes for hundreds of kilometers through the West Bank, slicing streets down the middle, dividing villages, cutting families off from each other, students from their schools, doctors and patients from hospitals, and farmers from their crops. John Dugard, a South African lawyer and former member of that country's postapartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, wrote in his capacity as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied territories that the impact of the wall and "the restrictions on freedom of movement imposed by the Israeli authorities on Palestinians resemble the notorious 'pass laws' of apartheid South Africa and in some respects went far beyond them since the apartheid regime never had roads reserved for whites." He points out that "[m]any roads in the West Bank are set aside forthe exclusive use of Jewish settlers."28 One farmer, Sharif Omar of Jayyous in the West Bank, explained the impact of the wall on his family in Simone Bitton's film Wall (2005):
I have four daughters and three sons. All of them have university degrees, praise be to God, thanks to the income from my land. Today, I fear the Israelis will take my land away. I have 2,700 [fruit and olive] trees on the other side of the wall.
Like millions of other Palestinians in the West Bank, Omar is unable to cross the wall except through gates that are few and far between, and which are rarely and irregularly opened by the army. Omar echoed the view of many Palestinians when he observed:
The Israeli army claims that the wall will guarantee the security of both peoples. I cannot see how they plan to bring security to both peoples when they are not building on the Green Line [1967 border], which we see as a political boundary. They push the wall six kilometers into Jayyous. How can this provide security? They dig 28 meters from our homes and they say the wall is supposed "to prevent the touch between the two peoples." We were six kilometers away and now we are 28 meters away! It's a big lie. The truth is they want to expropriate our land. It is an indirect way to try to get us to abandon our villages. How? Because if they take our land and leave us with nothing to make a living, to feed our children andgrandchildren, we will have to leave to look for work elsewhere. In practice, it is an expulsion operation in disguise, so that the world can continue to praise Israel or be silent and treat us like terrorists.
Peace Now confirmed Omar's fears when it reported that "the main building effort in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank is now focused on the area between the Green Line and the separation fence, and it is aimed at turning the fence into Israel's permanent border."29 The UN and human rights organizations have estimated that up to 800,000 Palestinians will be directly and adversely affected by the wall. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled the wall illegal in July 2004 chiefly because it recognized that "the construction of the wall and its associated regime create a fait accompli on the ground that could well become permanent, in which case, ... [it] would be tantamount to de facto annexation" of vast areas of Palestinian land.30 The accumulated result of Israel's settlement policies, says Israeli anthropologist Jeff Halper, is the "reconfiguration of the country from two parallel north-south units--Israel and the West Bank, the basis of the two-state idea--into one country, integrated east-west," that simply cannot be partitioned.31
The implications of recognizing that Israel has or is about to render a two-state solution practically impossible are enormous, which is perhaps why diplomats continue to exude escapist optimism about the prospects for peace. Nonetheless, public spin aside, the ramifications of Israel's unchecked expansionism are being noticed. A leaked 2004 secret report by the UK's Department for International Development and the Foreign Officestated, "Without action soon, there is a real danger that facts on the ground may make a viable two-state solution almost impossible."32 Given this realization, could any action from the international community or from within Palestine save the possibility of partition?
Many Palestinian rights activists hailed the 2004 decision by the ICJ ruling the Israeli wall illegal and ordering its removal as a major victory. Indeed, the decision, which came in response to a Palestinian petition, confirmed the international consensus in support of Palestinian self-determination and Israel's withdrawal from the occupied territories, essentially a consensus on a two-state resolution of the conflict. But this consensus has now been in existence for decades, and its reaffirmation in the world court seems unlikely to indicate any serious action by governments to implement it.
Almost twenty-five years before the ICJ issued its verdict, the UN Security Council, in Resolution 465 (1980), determined "that all measures taken by Israel to change the physical character, demographic composition, institutional structure, or status of the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem, or any part thereof, have no legal validity and that Israel's policy and practices of settling parts of its population and new immigrants in those territories constitute a flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War and also constitute a serious obstruction to achieving acomprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East." The resolution called "upon the Government and people of Israel to rescind those measures, to dismantle the existing settlements and in particular to cease, on an urgent basis, the establishment, construction and planning of settlements," and called upon all UN Member States "not to provide Israel with any assistance to be used specifically in connection with settlements in the occupied territories." This resolution was not unique. In Resolution 476 of 1980, the Security Council reaffirmed "the overriding necessity to end the prolonged occupation of Arab territories occupied by Israel since 1967, including Jerusalem," and stated its "determination in the event of non-compliance by Israel with this resolution, to examine practical ways and means in accordance with relevant provisions of the Charter of the United Nations to secure the full implementation of this resolution." What could be clearer than that? And yet here we are four decades into the occupation, and never has the United Nations taken a single "practical" measure to halt or reverse any of Israel's ongoing violations.
Today there is even less willingness by governments to confront Israel and hold it accountable. The reason that the Palestinians had to go to the ICJ in the first place--to seek an advisory opinion restating what had already been said--is that the Security Council will neither pass new resolutions nor see to it that old yet valid resolutions are implemented. Not only do the powerful states on the Security Council block action to enforce Palestinian rights and punish Israeli violations, but the United States and virtually all the EU countries opposed the Palestinian decision to take their case to the ICJ.
Some commentators compared the ICJ's ruling on the West Bank wall to its 1971 decision that South Africa's occupation of Namibia was illegal. That decision was a prelude to international sanctions against the Pretoria government. Sanctions did not materialize in response to the court ruling itself, but as a result of broad and active diplomatic and political campaigns to isolate the apartheid regime. The question for Palestinians is not whether they have a court decision or a Security Council resolution upholding their claims--they have always had that--but whether they have the political clout to turn these decisions into actions. Over time, international law has been increasingly marginalized as a basis for resolving the conflict. Israel has sought to sideline it. The United Nations has now been pushed aside in favor of the Quartet, an ad hoc body made up of U.S., Russian, and EU representatives, and the secretary-general of the UN. Though this group provides a semblance of international sponsorship for Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking, in practice it has been dominated by the United States and has placed no check on Israeli settlement construction.
The resort to the ICJ did confirm the strength of the Palestinians' legal case, but it also proved just how little political support they have to get their rights implemented through international bodies. International law is simply powerless unless the political will exists to enforce it by compelling an offending country to comply.
Aaron Miller, a twenty-five-year veteran of the State Department and a key official during the failed Camp David summit in July 2000, reflected in 2005 that "[f]or far too long, many American officials involved in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, myself included, have acted as Israel's attorney, catering and coordinating with the Israelis at the expense of successful peace negotiations."33 Miller's mea culpa was not the first such declaration, and like those of other officials who have said similar things, he waited until he was retired to speak out--until it made no difference.
For decades, Palestinian leaders pinned their strategy for a Palestinian state on the hope that the United States would eventually apply the necessary pressure on Israel to end the occupation and remove the settlements: Since the United States stands in the way of international action to force Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories, then Palestinians ought to try to influence the United States. How realistic is this strategy?
The first and only time the United States decisively challenged Israel was after Israel, in concert with Great Britain and France, invaded Egypt in 1956. The Eisenhower administration forcefully insisted that the Israeli occupation of Sinai was illegal and under U.S. pressure Israel pulled out unconditionally. If Eisenhower's successors had stuck to his policies, the United States might have maintained and increased the widespread popularity it enjoyed in the Arab world in the years after World War II as a country that was seen to stand for fairness, democracy, and a clean break from the colonial policies of European powers that had bedeviled the region for so long.
From Eisenhower's tough stance in 1956, the erosion of U.S. support for international law as the basis for peace in the Middle East was gradual but relentless. U.S. economic, military, and diplomatic aid to Israel increased dramatically after 1967 as policymakers saw Israel as an ally in the Cold War. Nevertheless, from the beginning of the 1967 occupation through the Carter administration, the United States, like virtually every other government in the world, viewed the Israeli settlements as illegal.34 During the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, the U.S. position was softened so that the settlements were described only as "obstacles to peace." After the signing of the Oslo Accords, President Bill Clinton and his officials diluted the position even further, typically referring to the settlements as merely "unhelpful." Under President George W. Bush, the United States has openly endorsed the settlements.
President Bush made his first major foray into the conflict with a Rose Garden speech on June 24, 2002. His much anticipated intervention weighed in at 1,867 words. By my count, more than 1,000 words were devoted to criticizing and making demands of the Palestinians, while just 137 words dealt with what Israel should do. There was no criticism of Israeli actions whatsoever. The speech was so unbalanced that Jerusalem Report editor David Horowitz told National Public Radio that the Sharon government "might almost feel that they could have drafted it themselves."35 Bush entirely accepted the Israeli view that "terror" alone was the source of the conflict. In Bush's conception, it was up to the Palestinians to "reform" themselves before any demands, no matter how mild, could be made of Israel.
Given this ominous start, Palestinians were apprehensive when Bush unveiled his Road Map peace plan in April 2003. But the Road Map did not confirm their worst fears. Holding out the prospect of "a final and comprehensive settlement of the Israel-Palestinian conflict by 2005," the plan reaffirmed the need to "end the occupation that began in 1967, based on the foundations of the Madrid Conference, the principle of land for peace," and in accordance with UN resolutions. Phase one of the Quartet-endorsed Road Map seemed eminently reasonable and if it did not spell out solutions to all contentious issues, it was still a good place to start. At the outset, the plan demanded from the Palestinian leadership an "unequivocal statement reiterating Israel's right to exist in peace and security and calling for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire to end armed activity and all acts of violence against Israelis anywhere." Israel was required to issue an "unequivocal statement affirming its commitments to the two-state vision of an independent, viable, sovereign Palestinian state living in peace and security alongside Israel," and to observe "an immediate end to violence against Palestinians everywhere." Simultaneously, Israel was to freeze all settlement construction including what it claimed was "natural growth" within the boundaries of already existing settlements. Yet after launching the Road Map to great international fanfare and optimism, Bush quickly gutted it of its useful content by acceding to pressure from Israel and its political allies that all Israeli actions should be conditioned on prior Palestinian action. Bush made increasingly strident demands of the Palestinians while Israel's obligations were ignored.
A year later, President Bush dropped a bombshell, assuringIsrael that the United States would back its demand that any final peace settlement would leave the major settlement blocs in Israeli hands forever. "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers," Bush wrote to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, "it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines" that defined Israel's borders until the 1967 war.36
Palestinian leaders and observers around the world were deeply dismayed, and reacted as if Bush's assurance had been a great departure from recent U.S. policy. Yes, Bush was abandoning the core of the Road Map, but it had been the Road Map, with its uncharacteristic evenhandedness, that had been the short-lived departure. Bush's letter to Sharon did little that Bush's predecessor had not already done. In a speech to the Israel Policy Forum on January 7, 2001 in the final weeks of his term, and in writing to Israeli and Palestinian leaders shortly before he left office, President Clinton had explicitly endorsed "the incorporation into Israel of settlement blocks."37 Bush was simply renewing the signal to Israel that it could predetermine the outcome of any negotiation by creating new realities on the ground.
Reflecting the solid, bipartisan consensus behind the Bush-Clinton green light to the settlements, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 407-9 in June 2004 to endorse Bush's letter of assurances. During the 2004 presidential election campaign that summer, Bush and his Democratic challenger, Senator John Kerry, clashed on many issues, but not on Palestine-Israel. This is good politics in America but disastrous policy. TodayIsrael remains a taboo subject and any politician who wishes to see his or her career flourish knows better than to speak outagainst its policies. Hillary Clinton learned that lesson the hard way. Castigated as first lady for expressing sentiments in favor of a Palestinian state, she has become one of the leading pro-Israel hawks as a U.S. senator from New York.
The core of support for America's pro-Israel policies may be found in communities that are well-organized and highly influential through national lobbying groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and countless local counterparts that channel campaign donations to friendly candidates and punish perceived opponents. The prevailing views of American Jews are reflected in U.S. policy. While support for a Palestinian state has consistently grown and was at 56 percent in 2005, according to the American Jewish Committee's Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion, only 15 percent of American Jews believes Israel should withdraw from all the settlements, and fewer than half believes Israel should withdraw from any settlements. Three-fifths of American Jews oppose any compromise over Jerusalem. Thus there does not appear to be a large constituency among American Jews to put real pressure on Israel, especially since leaders of communal organizations and the most activist Jews tend to be more hard-line. While American Jews have traditionally supported the Democratic Party, pro-Israel sentiment has recently taken a much firmer hold in the Republican Party as Christian fundamentalists have become its active support base. Religious leaders such as Pat Robertson, who warned President Bush that any pressure on Israel to relinquish occupiedterritories would interfere with "God's plan," have become increasingly vocal.38
Some Palestinian Americans believe that their lack of influence on U.S. policymaking could be redressed by intensified efforts to emulate pro-Israel lobby groups who have wielded such great influence on U.S. politicians, and they decry what they see as a lack of participation by their community. However, the trajectory of Barack Obama of Illinois is instructive in this regard. In the 2004 elections, Illinois swept Obama, a rising star in the Democratic Party, into the United States Senate with a stunning 70 percent of the vote--a rare Democratic gain. He participated in many events in the Chicago-area Arab community, including a 1998 fund-raiser for an Arab American community organization where Edward Said was the keynote speaker.
Obama's criticism of U.S. policy in the Middle East at private fund-raisers suggested the emergence of someone who would finally speak for evenhanded U.S. policies toward Israelis and Palestinians. Because of these positions, and no less because of his progressive stances on economic and social justice in the United States, Obama was the first U.S. politician who inspired me to pull out my checkbook.
But after Obama's nationally televised address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, everything seemed to change. Obama became a media darling and the new hope of the floundering Democratic Party. In the campaign's final weeks, he started to sound like a mainstream hawk, proclaiming his support for tough sanctions and military strikes against Iran if it refused U.S. demands to give up its nuclear energy program.Dropping the criticism of Israel, Obama declared that the onus for peace in the Middle East "is on the Palestinian leadership, which ... must cease violence against Israelis and work to end the incitement against Israel in the Arab world."39 His thoughtful analysis had gone out the window and been replaced by talking points that could have been written by any of the major pro-Israel lobby groups.
As Obama eased into his role as senator, and was increasingly tipped as a possible running mate for Hillary Clinton in 2008, his public statements were at times even more hard-line than those made by the Bush administration. During a January 2006 visit to Israel, for example, he opposed allowing Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem to vote in Palestinian Authority legislative elections, even after the Bush administration urged Israel to allow the election to proceed.40 So, if a man like Obama will not speak frankly on Israel for fear that it might cost him political capital, what hope is there for any change in U.S. policy coming from within? Obama's politically expedient about-face and the lack of any real political debate over U.S. support for Israel suggests that a shift in policy, if not impossible to achieve through direct participation in electoral politics, would take decades--and that will simply be too late.
Other sources of diplomatic pressure on Israel seem to offer equally slim hopes. For many years, Palestinians looked to the European Union or the United Nations, also members of the Quartet, to provide an independent counterbalance to U.S. bias toward Israel. Unfortunately, both bodies have abandoned any attempt to play such a role. One crucial test came in May 2004, when Israel embarked on the wide-scale destruction of homesin the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. United Nations relief officials reported that in just over three weeks, Israeli army bulldozers had leveled 277 houses, making 3,451 Palestinians homeless.41 Many human rights groups condemned the demolitions as war crimes, including B'Tselem, which declared that "such massive destructions of civilian property are illegal under international humanitarian law," and that the deaths of Israeli occupation soldiers "cannot justify the severe harm to civilians, who were not involved in the hostilities."42
As the demolitions went on and dozens of Palestinian civilians in Rafah were killed by Israeli forces, the Quartet's inaction became increasingly perplexing and embarrassing. UN secretary-general Kofi Annan was asked why the Quartet did nothing to stop the Israeli attacks. He acknowledged, "You would want to see immediate action by the Quartet ... to stop the demolition of the houses, and that is going to take the kind of action and will and resources and confrontation that quite frankly, today, I don't see anyone in the international community willing to take."43 After the demolitions were over, several governments donated millions of dollars to rebuild many of the destroyed homes. Another stark example came in July-August 2006 when key actors refused to call for a ceasefire in the Israeli air assault that killed hundreds of Lebanese civilians and destroyed their country's infrastructure. This silence in the face of Israeli crimes, and willingness to clean up the mess, follows a pattern and has prompted many Palestinians to feel that international aid uncoupled from pressure on the Israelis simply prolongs, not alleviates, their misery. Palestinian Authority information consultant and author Ghada Karmi haschallenged donors "to consider that Israel's occupation of Palestine is set to continue so long as they remain prepared to underwrite it."44 Palestinians have unsuccessfully called on the EU, Israel's largest trading partner, to take effective action against abuses that European officials have long recognized and condemned. Under the terms of its Association Agreement with the EU, Israel benefits from preferential access to European markets. The trade accord states that its application "shall be based on respect for human rights and democratic principles which ... constitute an essential element of this agreement." Yet the EU has never enforced this part of the agreement.
Ironically, when the EU and other Quartet members did finally get around to imposing economic sanctions it was against not Israel but the Palestinians, after Hamas's victory in general elections in January 2006. Hamas leaders reflected widespread Palestinian sentiment when they pointed out that the Quartet operated according to a double standard, threatening to cut off aid unless Hamas renounced violence, even though the group had maintained a year-long truce in the face of continued Israeli assassinations and land seizures. "America sees with only one eye and hears with only one ear," complained Salah Bardawil, Hamas's leader in the Palestinian Authority legislative council. "Now we are being asked to recognize Israel when it is annexing half of the West Bank behind the isolation wall."45
The divide between diplomatic rhetoric about the urgent need for a Palestinian state and diplomatic actions has never been more pronounced. It often seems that the endless rounds of meetings, seminars, and conferences by the Quartet, which always reaffirm support for the two-state solution, are designedto conceal the lack of political courage to confront the ways Israel has made this very solution impossible.
Supporters of Israeli policy have been extremely successful in their arguments that it is Palestinian violence that stands in the way of peaceful partition. This position, however, ignores several key facts. The immediate cause of the uprising that broke out in the occupied territories in September 2000 was Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem accompanied by a thousand police. But the revolt was fueled by deeper Palestinian despair that years of negotiations and compromises had done nothing to rid them of the occupation or the ever-growing settlements, as well as by Israel's response, which was disproportionately brutal.46 Young Palestinian militia leaders, having spent their whole lives under Israeli military rule, had reached the conclusion that armed struggle was once again the only way to make the cost of the occupation so high that Israel would have to end it.
Palestinian violence included various forms of resistance against the Israeli occupation, some legitimate, such as attacks that targetted Israeli tanks and troops in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, and some illegitimate, such as suicide bombings against noncombatant civilians. However, one cannot discount the truth that Palestinian violence occurs within the context of much greater and more pervasive Israeli violence. The claim that there is "no moral equivalency" between the Israeli army's killing of Palestinians and the deliberate killing of civilians byPalestinian bombers rests on the assumption that Israel does all it can to avoid harm to civilians and that its violence is motivated purely by self-defense rather than the conquest of land.
Yet it is indisputable that the occupation and the settlements are maintained solely through the organized and systematic use of violence. The Israeli settlement project could not proceed without the use of violence. Imagine the success rate if settlers went knocking on doors asking Palestinians to kindly step out of their way. The scale of the violence that the settlements have entailed is breathtaking. Between 1993 and 2002, Israel forcibly confiscated 240 square kilometers of Palestinian land for settlements and their infrastructure (an area one and a third times larger than Washington, DC), destroyed or uprooted an estimated 1,034,852 trees, many of them fruit-bearing citrus and olive trees essential to the Palestinian economy and culture, and demolished over 4,000 Palestinian homes, affecting almost 100,000 people, according to a study by the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE).47 From any moment you choose to measure, the ratio of unarmed Palestinian civilians killed by Israel is always far greater than the number of unarmed Israeli civilians killed by Palestinians.
While there is a mountain of testimony from Israeli, Palestinian, and international human rights groups and UN officials documenting Israel's violence against Palestinians, there is no denying that Israel has been successful in presenting Palestinian violence as the cause rather than the effect of its own practices. As long as Israel's actions continue, some Palestinians are always likely to fight back. Such resistance has rendered the settlement effort extremely costly to Israel, but it has beenunable to stop the confiscation of Palestinian land, and therefore the attrition of any viable partition plan.
Within Palestinian society there is a constant debate about whether armed resistance has come at a moral and political price that is too high for Palestinians and has cost them much-needed allies. A visit to the occupied territories by Mahatma Gandhi's grandson, Arun Gandhi, in September 2004, sparked renewed discussion about the role of nonviolence in the Palestinian struggle for freedom. In a speech before the Palestinian Authority legislative council, Gandhi called upon 50,000 refugees to march back home en masse from their exile in Jordan, forcing the Israelis to choose between yielding to a wave of people power and gunning the marchers down in cold blood.
Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas gained credit in Western eyes by repeatedly criticizing his own people for "arming the Intifada" and has called for nonviolent resistance. This appeal has also been taken up in Israel. Yoel Esteron, former managing editor of Ha'aretz, wondered, "[W]hat would have happened if four years ago the Palestinians had chosen passive resistance?" Esteron opined: "It is worth it to them to choose Gandhi's way. And it is worth it to us. If the Palestinians stop committing suicide on our buses, this will be a more effective weapon than explosive belts ... . Ostensibly, the key rests in the hands of the stronger side. Wrong. If Israel were to lay down its weapons, it would be forced to pick them up again after a few murderous terror attacks ... . The key is in the Palestinians' hands."48
Such arguments assume that in response to nonviolent protest the Israeli government will change its policies and theIsraeli public will support Palestinian claims resulting in real change. But much of the broad-based popular intifada of 1987 to 1993 was characterized by peaceful mass protests, strikes, and civil disobedience, including the refusal to pay taxes imposed by the occupation. The first Intifada certainly forced Israelis to realize that they could not rule indefinitely over millions of disenfranchised Palestinians, but Israel met this challenge not by laying down its arms or slowing the construction of new settlements, but with escalating violence and more settlements. It was this experience that led many Palestinians to believe that nonviolence was futile and that Israeli fire could only be fought with more fire.
One of the things that the violence-obsessed media coverage conceals is that nonviolence is and has always been integral to Palestinian resistance. The word for it in Arabic is sumud--steadfastness. When Israeli walls and roadblocks prevent people from moving, and yet children and old women, workers, students, mothers each day, every day climb hills and mountains to get where they need to go, that is sumud. When Israeli occupation forces uproot trees and farmers replant them, that is sumud. When Israel uses every administrative and legalistic means to force Palestinian Jerusalemites to leave the city for good, but instead they stay, even if it means being painfully separated from family members in the West Bank, that is sumud. Millions of Palestinians practice nonviolence every day, yet this is ignored by the media and by politicians and is totally invisible to the vast majority of Israelis.
During the Oslo years, a Hamas bombing was far more likely to bring the region's leaders rushing to Sharm al-Sheikhfor a summit than the countless protests, strikes, and sit-ins against the growing settlements or in support of thousands of prisoners. More recently, Palestinian villages like Biddu and Bil'in that lie in the path of the separation wall have mounted grassroots nonviolent campaigns to try to save their land, only to be met with bullets. Many Palestinians, as well as some international campaigners like Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall, have been killed by the Israeli army during such peaceful, unarmed actions.
The "oft-heard accusation that the Palestinians have not chosen civil revolt instead of violence," observed Ha'aretz columnist Gideon Levy, "ignores the fact that they always encounter a violent reaction" from Israel no matter what the form of protest.49 Now, with the restrictions on Palestinian movement, and the high risks of undertaking nonviolent resistance, the chances of such campaigns gaining enough momentum to stop the settlement drive and force an Israeli withdrawal remain negligible.
At the heart of the rarely questioned nostrum that peace will come through the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel lies an assumption that the country can be partitioned in a way that is practical and acceptable to a majority on both sides. Some sort of viable partition exists out there, according to this logic, ready to be seized if Israeli and Palestinian leaders are sufficiently courageous and defeat their respective extremists, who are seen as the key obstacles to reaching the desired goal. This idea, which tends todominate political commentary, avoids the central question of whether it is really possible to separate two deeply intertwined populations, and whether they really want what separation would entail. Ongoing diplomatic efforts concentrate exclusively on whatever latest incident has derailed the train from its journey to the ever-close but ever-unreachable destination of a mutually acceptable division of the land.
But both Israeli and Palestinian public opinion reveals how illusory this idea is. In poll after poll, 60 to 70 percent of Israelis consistently say that they favor the creation of a Palestinian state and the dismantling of West Bank settlements if only there were a suitable Palestinian partner with whom to work. Yet Israelis keep electing leaders who build ever more settlements. What explains this puzzling inconsistency? A 2005 survey carried out by Israel's Dahaf Institute on behalf of the Palestinian Center for Israel Studies suggests an answer: It found that only 34 percent of Israeli Jews would support a full withdrawal to the 1967 border, while 65 percent opposed it. The reason for the discrepancy in the polls is that most do not specify the boundaries of this Palestinian state nor assert that all or even most of the settlements would have to be removed.50 When most Israeli Jews speak of settlements, they think of distant outposts established by religious zealots. They often exclude from their definition the largest and most populous colonies like Ma'ale Adumim, Gilo, and Gush Etzion, which they simply view as "neighborhoods" or suburbs of Jerusalem. Yet these are the very settlements that have destroyed the contiguity of the West Bank and cut Palestinians off from Jerusalem and from each other. According to Dr. Assad Ghanem, thePalestinian researcher who commissioned the study, "Only a minority of Israelis are willing to accept the state that the Palestinians are talking about, and this fact was only revealed because we formulated the survey questions from our own standpoint rather than from the standpoint of Jewish Israeli pollsters." Israeli journalist Amira Hass observed that, in the 1990s, as settlements continued to expand,
the number of Israelis who had a vested interest in the settlements grew dramatically. In the '70s and '80s the numbers were very small and that's why Peace Now could come out with a slogan that was accepted that said that peace is incompatible with settlements. The 1990s were the opposite ... . You have at least one more million Israelis [who] have family in settlements. The settlements are something natural. They go and visit and they drive on roads; they have no idea ... on which land the roads were built. For them it's as natural as the sunrise. You have an enormous number of soldiers who defend these settlers so they grow their affinity with those settlers ... . You have an unknown number of people who are working in the intelligence because you also have to defend these settlements. They all have family; all these people know about the settlements and grow to accept it as a natural thing. You have teachers, you have doctors, you have all sorts of ministry employees, you have infrastructure workers, contractors, construction workers. So there is a whole mass of Israelis which in the years of the so-called peace process were growing more and more attached to the settlements.51
Israelis and most American Jews polled like the idea of a Palestinian state, but not if it means actually giving up real control over much of the occupied territories.
Part of the conventional wisdom of the peace process has been that Palestinians can be forced to accept the large settlement blocs as a fait accompli, thus indulging the Israeli unwillingness to give them up. But fewer than 4 percent of Palestinians in the occupied territories accept Israeli annexation of the large settlements, indicating that there is little readiness on either side to agree on a partition line of any kind.52 Even the most forthcoming Israeli peace plans envisage removing no more than about 20 percent of the settlers in the West Bank and fall far short of minimum Palestinian expectations. Palestinians through years of peace talks have watched as Israel has used its superior power to take ever more of the land. They have tried all the possible approaches available to the weaker side: armed struggle, nonviolent resistance, and appeals for international intervention. That the two sides might reach voluntary agreement is unlikely, to say the least, and there seems to be no constellation of internal or external forces that will push Israel out of the West Bank against its will.
So where does that leave the two-state solution? The stark reality is that partition, despite the copious lip-service it receives, has always been hard to attain; today in the face of Israel's takeover of what is left of Palestinian land and the international refusal to confront it, partition is unachievable.
Copyright © 2006 by Ali Abunimah