How the world backed itself into a corner
Palestine: a policy of deliberate blindness
Le Monde Diplomatique, August 2007
LAST YEAR PRESIDENT Jacques Chirac asked Régis Debray to study the situation in the Middle East. On 15 January 2007 Debray sent the French authorities the following document on Palestine. It is an important key to understanding a long policy drift whose results are now obvious.
By Régis Debray
Dennis Ross, formerly the United States envoy to the Middle East, admitted back in 2000 that mistakes had been made in the 1978 Camp David accords: the diplomatic process had not taken enough account of developments on the ground, especially the settlements. The number of Jewish settlers in the Palestinian territories doubled from 1994 to 2000. As many Israelis have settled in the West Bank since the Oslo accords of 1993 as in the previous 25 years. With an international conference again being discussed, it would be a mistake to continue to ignore the real state of affairs. There is no need for a committee of inquiry. The report has already been drawn up, many times over. No conflict in the world is as well documented, mapped and recorded.
The OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), a United Nations agency, keeps up-to-date, detailed maps of the disputed territories, with photographs, population counts and graphs. It takes an hour to look at them, but doing so might forestall some of the never-ending statements of good intentions.
The maps show that the physical, economic and human basis for a viable Palestinian state is disappearing. The two-state solution and Israeli writer Amos Oz’s “fair divorce” (a territory shared between two national homes, one smaller than the other and demilitarised but sovereign, viable and continuous) are now empty phrases belonging to the realm of might-have-been. Some might argue that we have not yet reached the point of no return and that the Israelis may have won the territorial battle (with only 22% of British mandate Palestine now outside their control) but the Palestinians are sure to win the demographic battle. They invoke the resilience of the local population in the face of the steam roller that is slowly but surely implementing the 1968 Allon Plan and the 1984 “Road Plan 50”.
It is clear from developments on the ground that:
• the purpose of the security wall is not, as is believed, to trace a border that, however illegal (since it encloses over 10% of the West Bank), will at least serve as the dotted line for a future international frontier;
• it is true (as Ehud Omert said on Israeli army radio on 20 March 2006) that Israel’s strategic border lies on the Jordan: the whole valley has been declared a forbidden area and the intervening area has been nibbled away (cross-river transit is only possible at certain points);
• the new east-west bypass roads built at the expense of the old north-south axis clearly chart a territory in the process of annexation, with space for three or four Arab bantustans (Jenin, Ramallah and Jericho). The exhaustion of natural resources in these overcrowded enclaves will eventually lead to massive emigration (much of the elite, especially Christian, has already left); and
• with the construction of the separation wall, the ongoing judaisation of East Jerusalem and reconfiguration of the Jerusalem municipality, the UN’s repeated but purely formal condemnations have no effect on Israel’s grip on the whole city (1).
There is a huge gap between what is said because we want to hear it (local withdrawals, easing of travel restrictions, removal of one checkpoint out of 20, a change of tone) and what is being done on the ground, which we don’t want to see (interlinking of settlements, construction of bridges and tunnels, encirclement of Palestinian towns, expropriation of land, destruction of houses). Some would describe that gap as duplicity, others as ambiguity. The gradual encroachment happens out of sight of the cameras, without causing a stir and without an explicit colonial diktat. Nobody makes a formal complaint, even supposing they can find out what’s going on – difficult if you haven’t grown up locally. Israeli maps and school textbooks refer to the West Bank as Judea and Samaria and, following the Knesset’s recent rejection of a proposal from a Labour education minister, obliteration of the 1967 green line is now a legal fait accompli.
This is not just a gap between the de facto and de jure situations. It reflects a method and tradition going back to the earliest days of the Yishuv (2): the strategy of fait accompli. That strategy has always paid off: the Jewish state was there before it was declared and recognised in 1948, as was the army. What we have is a theatre with two stages: on the international stage we hear repeated vague and encouraging speeches concerning withdrawal, coexistence and a Palestinian state, but the things that count (settlements, roads, tunnels, water tables) happen on the operational stage next door, where the outcome is decided out of public view.
Understanding how public opinion works in a democracy, successive Israeli governments of the left and right take care to administer regular painkillers, plans for unilateral withdrawal or the partial dismantlement of settlements and encouraging announcements that are always conditional and come to nothing. The media live from day to day, with no attempt to remember. Who now recalls that the road map (3) was supposed to be “a final and comprehensive settlement of the Israel-Palestinian conflict by 2005”?
The Oslo process did not just remain a dead letter: with the military reoccupation of Zones A and B (4) in April 2002, it went into reverse.
Territorial fragmentation cuts off local authorities from any possible central Palestinian administration and from each other, while the systematic physical destruction of national institutions, Palestinian infrastructure and political leaders by the Israeli army ensures internal anarchy and the spread of clans and gang violence: bottomless chaos. Clearly the path that has been taken is not that of nation building but the deconstruction of all possible governance beyond the separation wall. It is the logical counterpart of a 30-year annexation process that will be endorsed, when the time comes, “in view of the new reality on the ground”.
In these circumstances, constant invocation of the road map by all parties has more to do with autosuggestion than a sober look at the consistent transformation of reality. That reality may not be visible from Geneva, Paris or New York, but it is immediately apparent to anyone travelling throughout the country after a few years’ absence. It is a land carved up by military force, where the Israeli settlements are no longer shapes on a Palestinian background – instead the Palestinian areas appear as shapes on a solidly-infrastructured Israeli background: a land where water reserves are confiscated and a temporary travel restriction is very close to a permanent ban.
Some may take comfort in these ideas:
• since it was possible to withdraw settlements from Gaza, it should be possible in the near future in the West Bank. That is to ignore the fact that the withdrawal of 8,000 settlers from one place in Gaza was soon followed by the unpublicised installation of 20,000 settlers in another (the West Bank/Jerusalem). Gaza is not part of the promised land, whereas Judea and Samaria are its backbone. Sharon did not make any secret of the fact that withdrawal on the margins would be compensated by strengthening the Israeli presence elsewhere (438,000 settlers to date, including 192,910 in East Jerusalem);
• the dismantling of four small settlements in the north (1,000 settlers) and the proposed concentration of 60,000 settlers in the most populous blocs, Maale Adumim, Ariel and Gush Etzion, will create a free space. But with the settlements linked in a continuous string under cover of the security wall, the West Bank has been effectively cut in two. The wall separates Palestinians from each other even more than it separates them from the Israelis.
What is taking shape is not the Palestinian state announced and desired by all: it is an as yet unperceived Israeli territory enclosing three self-governing Palestinian enclaves.
All parties have a vested interest in preserving the international pretence (5). For the Israelis, history is being created under the cover of the pretence. The Palestinians cannot be told the truth – they are under occupation yet hoping for a better life and not self-destruction; wishful thinking provides notables, elected representatives and officials with a living, status, dignity and a raison d’ętre. The Europeans chose to salve their consciences by providing financial and humanitarian aid to apologise for their political passivity and voluntary blindness. The thinking of the Americans owes more to the Old Testament than the New; their link with Israel is a parent-child relationship beyond criticism. This shared illusion of self-protection results from the coincidence of opposing interests.
Is this situation tenable to the end of the century? It seems doubtful, given Israel’s obsession with security, which makes it less secure, and its disregard for the demographic and religious trends in the region (6). Could not at least one European government convey to our Israeli friends that we are not all taken in by the deception, and that those who deceive may not be be its first victims – but will certainly be its last?
Translated by Wendy Kristianasen
Régis Debray is a writer and philosopher, and honorary chairman of the IESR (European Institute of Religious Studies), Paris
(1) See Dominique Vidal and Philippe Rekacewicz, “Jerusalem: whose very own and golden city?”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, February 2007.
(2) A Hebrew term used by the Zionist movement before the creation of the State of Israel to designate Palestine’s Jewish inhabitants and new immigrants.
(3) The road map, a proposal for ending the Israel-Palestine conflict, was adopted by the Quartet (UN, US, EU and Russia) on 30 April 2003.
(4) The Palestinian territories comprise the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip (45 km long and 10 km wide). The Oslo accords divided them into three zones:
– Zone A comprising, since 1994, Gaza and the towns of Jericho, Jenin, Qalqilya, Ramallah, Tulkarem, Nablus, Bethlehem (Hebron was the subject of a separate agreement in January 1997), in which the Palestinian Authority has civil jurisdiction and police powers; – Zone B comprising the remaining areas of the West Bank, in which the Palestinian Authority has civil jurisdiction but shares responsibility for internal security with the Israeli army;
– Zone C comprising the Israeli settlements establishing in the West Bank, Gaza (since dismantled) and East Jerusalem, which remain under the control of the Jewish state.
(5) See Alain Gresh, “Palestine wrecked”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, July 2007.
(6) See the report (PDF) submitted to the UN secretary general on 5 May by Alvaro de Soto, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process.