Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Rami G. Khouri, "War is mutual, so must be the peace," Daily Star (Lebanon), June 28, 2006.

Israeli troops Monday massed on the northern border of Gaza and threatened to invade, in retaliation for continuing Palestinian rocket attacks against southern Israel, the killing of two Israeli soldiers and the kidnapping of a third on Sunday. Why do I feel that we have been through this before, without any real success in the past?

Perhaps it is time for Israelis and the world to acknowledge something they have always preferred to avoid: The pullout from the Gaza Strip last year did not result in the intended effect of resurrecting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Why? Because the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank was not alone the main issue of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

I have been attending in Switzerland this week a conference of American, Middle Eastern and European research scholars discussing major political issues in the Middle East, including Israel and Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation, and domestic political culture. The gathering confirmed to me how large is the gap between Arab analysts and the political establishments in the United States, Europe and Israel.

The basic divergence in perceptions of the Arab-Israeli conflict focuses on the causes, meaning and consequences of three main ongoing Israeli unilateral moves - building a separation wall in the West Bank, the pullout from Gaza, and, according to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's promises, a pullout from much of the West Bank in the coming years. Most people in Israel and the West see the latter as a bold initiative that reflects a historic change in the mindset of the Israeli public and political elite, who have decided that they must separate from the Palestinians and their lands occupied in 1967.

The reason that Israeli unilateralism has not triggered a renewed peace-making effort is very simple: this is not a unilateral conflict. Easy moves that reflect the concerns of one side only, while leaving the underlying causes of the conflict untouched, will only keep the conflict alive. The only way out of this is the hard way: coming to terms with the core dispute over the land of historic Palestine and the rights of all its people.

For the Palestinians, the dispute is not only about Gaza and the West Bank; it is a wider national conflict that can be resolved by addressing the full dimensions of Palestinian national rights in an integrated manner. This means statehood in the West Bank and Gaza, a capital in Arab East Jerusalem, and resolving the 1948 Palestinian refugee issue fairly, on the basis of international legitimacy and law. In return, the Palestinians have to make the hard decision to live in peace and mutual assured security with a predominantly Jewish Israeli state in its 1967 borders.

The Hamas victory in the last election was badly misinterpreted by Israel, the United States and much of Europe. The victory reflected widespread Palestinian perceptions that must be grasped and engaged politically, including the failure of nearly 40 years of Fatah, and of Yasser Arafat's policies; the failure of foreign diplomatic intervention, including recent European moves toward US-Israeli positions; the absence of solid Arab support; the Israeli center-right majority's preference for unilateral moves that deny Palestinian national rights; and, subordination of Arab-Israeli issues to the American-led "war on terror." Palestinians feel they are on their own and that they must prepare for a long political and military struggle with Israel.

The Hamas victory represents a reaction to all these perceptions, and reflects the dominant Palestinian strategic approach that aims to achieve three main goals: to resist Israel militarily and politically, while exploring opportunities to negotiate with it on equal terms, not the unequal, humiliating and failed terms of the past; to continue to develop the republican institutions of a pluralistic democracy; and to rebuild Palestinian society on the basis of good governance, local security, and a revived economy.

The Palestinian mindset and the Hamas victory both reflect these broad analyses and aims. Palestinians look at themselves and their national issues as an integrated whole, not as a narrow West Bank-Gaza matter or through the lens of the "demographic threat" they pose to Zionist purity. Palestinian priorities include resolving the refugee issue, reclaiming all lands occupied in 1967, and stopping Israeli attacks, assassinations and colonial expansion, in return for coexistence with a non-colonial, law-abiding Israel.

The message is simple: If Israel will not allow Palestinians to live in peace, dignity, and national integrity, Israelis themselves will not be permitted to enjoy those same rights. If Israel is prepared to negotiate seriously and fairly, and resolve the core issues emanating from the 1948 war, rather that the secondary ones from the 1967 war, a fair and permanent peace is possible.

Sending yet another Israeli assault brigade to kill and torment more Palestinians in Gaza will only heighten that reality, not override it. Israelis must wise up one day and accept that unilateralism - whether invading or retreating with their army - does not solve the problems of a bilateral conflict.

Rami G. Khouri writes a regular commentary for THE DAILY STAR.
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