Tuesday, September 17, 2013

From handshake of peace to handcuffs of subjugation

Two decades after the Arafat-Rabin meeting kicked off the peace process, Israel continues to oppress Palestinians and usurp their land under the cover of negotiations
  • By Diana Buttu, Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 18:56 September 15, 2013
Diana Buttu is a former legal adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News
Twenty years ago this week, the late Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the late Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli prime minister, shook hands on the White House lawn, launching the ‘peace process’ and purportedly marking a new era in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Many Palestinians believed that this handshake would result in an end to Israel’s rule over them; that Palestinian rights would be recognised and upheld (including the right of refugees to return to their homeland) and that Palestinians would finally be free.

We had good reason to be optimistic: The handshake marked the beginning of a series of Israeli and international promises to the Palestinians that within five years Israel would end its military occupation, evacuate its illegal colonies and finally allow Palestinians to live in freedom.

For Israelis, the ‘peace process’ yielded positive results. Between 1993 and 1999, 45 countries established diplomatic ties with Israel; more than in the four preceding decades combined.

The Israeli economy flourished in part due to the financial support provided by the international community to the Palestinian people; funds that would have otherwise been paid by Israel. Israelis benefited from the new security arrangements (leading to the most secure years in Israel’s history to that point) as Palestinians were now absurdly responsible for providing security to their oppressor and occupier.

Finally, the PLO now recognised Israel’s ‘right to exist’ without securing any Israeli recognition of Palestine’s ‘right to exist’. Most importantly, it was business as usual for Israel’s colonies: Between 1993 and 2000, the colonist population in Palestine nearly doubled — from 190,000 in 1993 to 370,000 in 2000, marking the fastest rate of growth of colonies in Israel’s history.

Yet, for Palestinians, the peace process was a disaster. Palestinians were assured that Israeli checkpoints preventing their free movement, that the repeatedly missed deadlines for Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the failure to release all political prisoners from Israeli jails were necessary “pains” along the path to achieving independence from Israeli rule.

They simply needed to be patient. However, 20 years later, they are no closer to being free: Due to Israel’s military rule, their children can only dream of visiting occupied Jerusalem or the sea; they live surrounded by checkpoints, walls and colonies and they live under a blockade, deprived of their basic rights. The Palestinian economy is worse now than it was 20 years ago.

It is therefore unsurprising that the Israeli government continues to demand a return to negotiations: The kind that improved Israel’s economy, improved Israel’s diplomatic status and simultaneously allowed Israel to continue to steal Palestinian land.

Today, even as the Israeli government demands a return to peace talks, it continues – like all of the governments preceding it, including Rabin’s – to build new colonies and expand existing ones. The colonist population has tripled since 1993 and even with the resumption of negotiations, the Netanyahu government has announced more than 1,500 new colony housing units.

Thirteen years ago, I sceptically joined the Palestinian negotiating team’s legal unit. I was sceptical because I saw what the first seven years of the Oslo Accords had yielded yet I also naively believed that an agreement was attainable. I believed that the numerous accounts of a “changed” Israeli leadership and the various opinion polls indicating that Israelis “wanted peace”.

I quickly learned, after partaking in these negotiations, that while “Israelis wanted peace” they wanted it on their terms — by getting rid of the Palestinians whether by caging them into Bantustans or keeping them as refugees, stealing their land, and all the while being rewarded by the international community for talking to the Palestinian leadership.

These lessons were learned very early on during the negotiations. Israeli leaders refused to engage in any discussion about the fate of Palestinian refugees; they deemed occupied Jerusalem as “off the table” (meaning that Palestinians would never be able to control their holy sites again); Palestinians were told that they needed to “accommodate” Israel’s illegal colonies and on the most basic issue — the international border — Israel refused to recognise the 1967 border, stating instead that Palestinians needed to be “practical” and not demand their rights.

All of this was allowed to continue as the international community simply watched. There were no sanctions for Israel’s illegal behaviour and no ostracism for Israel flying in the face of international law. Even as the international court ruled Israel’s wall illegal, the international community simply stood by idly.

Much can be said about the ‘failures’ or ‘shortcomings’ of the peace process. Indeed, many have concluded that “if only X happened, there would be peace”. But, after two decades and ample opportunity to correct these shortcomings and failures, I can only conclude that the 1993 handshake was designed not to be a handshake of peace but a handcuff of subjugation. The international community, Israel and the Israelis cited in the opinion polls who “want peace” could have acted to assure Palestinian freedom.

Given their past experience with the peace process, it is little wonder that Palestinians remain highly sceptical that these new ‘talks’ will yield positive results. Israel is now demanding that it be recognised as a “Jewish state” (a euphemism for Palestinians acquiescing to racism), that it continue to hold on to Israeli colonies in the West Bank, that Palestinian refugees not be allowed to return to their homes (simply because they are not Jewish) and that occupied Jerusalem forever remain solely in Israel’s control.

Rather than push for a resumption of negotiations, as the US and the EU have done, the international community must now start holding Israel accountable. Rather than reward Israel for pursuing ‘talks’ with the Palestinians, the international community should sanction Israel for failing to evacuate its colonies; for continuing its blockade over the Gaza Strip, for denying Palestinians their rights (including the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel) and for continuing to maintain its military rule.

Anything short of this will simply continue to reward Israel’s illegal behaviour and send a message to Palestinians that the peace process was never designed to bring about peace — only their destruction.

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