In the years preceding his mysterious death on 11 November 2004, Israeli, American and some Palestinian officials painted the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as an obstacle to peace. Although it was not the first time his character was maligned, this campaign was the most damaging at many levels.
Shortly after taking office as Israel’s Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon held Arafat hostage in his West Bank headquarters. He also held Palestinian economic, civil and political life hostage by constructing a wall in the West Bank, expanding settlements, extending the network of checkpoints, and suspending the peace process. Furthermore, Sharon managed to hold U.S. foreign policy hostage by blurring President George W. Bush’s two-state vision and derailing the Roadmap.
In the year since Arafat’s departure, violence continues. Israel’s construction of the Wall and expansion of settlements also continues. The peace process remains on hold; the Roadmap is at a dead end; and Israeli dictates on the negotiating table at Camp David have been translated into the unilateral disengagement from Gaza.
Was Arafat the man really an obstacle to peace, or was he the last holdout against Israel’s unilateralism?
Israel and the United States promoted the Gaza disengagement as an opportunity to restart the peace process in a post-Arafat era. However, under the terms of Israel’s plan, overall control over Gaza was and continues to remain with Israel.
In a 17 October 2005 letter to the Quartet, special envoy James Wolfensohn explained that “the government of Israel with its security concerns, is loathe to relinquish control, almost acting as if there has been no withdrawal, delaying making difficult decisions and preferring to take difficult matters back into slow-moving subcommittees.” Wolfensohn’s sentiments are shared by many in the Palestinian Authority (PA). Several Palestinian-Israeli meetings regarding the Rafah border crossing with Egypt have failed to produce an agreement. The crossing is just one of a number of outstanding post-disengagement access issues including the Gaza seaport, airport and a territorial link between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
“Israel is addicted to occupation–”to control,” said Ghassan Khatib, the PA Minister in charge of coordinating such issues with Israel. “Israel does not seem to understand that both Israeli and Palestinian security depends on Israel letting go.” According to Khatib, Israel “continues to press for ultimate control” in terms of the flow of people and goods between Gaza and Egypt.
In recent meetings, Israel has called for live transmissions to monitor crossings and veto power over persons and goods traveling through Rafah. Palestinians point out that since 12 September 2005, when Israel concluded the evacuation of its settlers from Gaza, it has tightened its control over all of Gaza’s entry and exit points. Palestinians argue that without the free flow of people and goods between Gaza and the West Bank–”and between Gaza and the world–”Gaza will remain embroiled in a humanitarian crisis and political instability.
International agencies agree. A 31 October 2005 report by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported deterioration in humanitarian conditions in Gaza since 12 September 2005. The report documented repeated and prolonged closures of Karni and Erez crossings to workers and traders, and the construction of an eight meter high wall in the northern Gaza Strip.
Occupied East Jerusalem
In what seems to be a pay-back for the Gaza evacuation, Israel has launched an aggressive campaign to consolidate its occupation of East Jerusalem. The fate of Jerusalem, a key issue that prevented Arafat from signing a peace deal at Camp David, is being decided off the negotiating table through Israel’s construction of the Wall, which further isolates Jerusalem from the West Bank and destroys Palestinian institutions. Palestinians warn that Israel’s actions in Jerusalem are an obstacle to the two-state negotiated solution that Bush has endorsed.
According to Hind Khoury, the PA Minister for Jerusalem Affairs, the Wall will cut off approximately 55,000 Palestinian residents in Jerusalem from their city. Palestinian Christians and Muslims, including many Jerusalemites, will be denied free access to the holy sites located there. More than 6,500 Palestinians have already lost their residency rights. More than 50 Palestinian homes have been demolished, while 64 additional homes have demolition orders pending against them. According to the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, there are more than 10,000 outstanding demolition orders against Palestinian structures in East Jerusalem.
In the meantime, Israel plans to build 3,500 Israeli housing units to the east of Jerusalem, in the Ma’ale Adumim settlement area, which will completely cut off East Jerusalem from the West Bank.
The Palestinian Economy
In the World Bank’s 2004 report, Stagnation or Revival? Israeli Disengagement and Palestinian Economic Prospects, it explains that donor aid is not enough to bring about Palestinians’ economic recovery. The international agency said that Israel’s disengagement would do little for Gaza’s economy, and proposed that such be accompanied by a series of measures including the easing of restrictions on the movement of Palestinian people and goods.
In specific, the World Bank recommended that Israel remove checkpoints and barriers in Gaza and the West Bank; open internal routes between West Bank cities and from these cities to the borders; ease movement into and out of East Jerusalem; develop Gaza-West Bank transport links; and improve the management of border passages and facilities.
Palestinian economist Mohammed el-Samhouri says that in the past five years, the Palestinian economy has lost a third of its gross domestic product (GDP), 40 percent of its pre capita income, two-thirds of its private investment, and more than half of its exports. As a result, two-thirds of the population is poor and over a third is unemployed, says el-Samhouri. In a recent poll, the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion found that 44 percent of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip would relocate to the West Bank if they had a job and the opportunity.
El-Samhouri, who coordinated the Palestinian technical committee overseeing Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, explains that at Wolfensohn’s request, the PA produced a “Quick Impact Program,” which included 35 projects covering a wide spectrum of areas like water, energy, housing, education, governance, the private sector, and so on. He reports that $750 million has been allocated to fund some of the projects.
One Year Later, U.S. Position Unchanged
Despite the fact that Arafat is no longer in the picture, the United States, which claimed that Arafat was an obstacle to its Roadmap, shows no intention to set a new timeframe for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Despite the PA’s fulfillment of its obligations under the Roadmap’s first phase, the Bush administration has yet to push Israel to act. Bush has adopted the position of Israel during the Arafat days by saying the ball is in the Palestinian court and that the onus is on Palestinians to prove they can control, if their calls for statehood are to move forward. Only now, the test is in Gaza.
Although some progress has been made within the PA institutions since Arafat’s passing, full-fledged state building efforts remain hostage to Israel’s occupation. Despite this, Palestinians held democratic presidential elections in January 2005 and by the end of the year, four sets of municipal elections will have been successfully held. Palestinians are preparing for legislative elections in January 2006. “Palestine is the only country where we are asked to achieve democracy before we achieve freedom,” notes PA Chief of Staff Rafiq al-Husseini.
One year after Arafat’s passing, the issues that plagued his leadership remain. Israeli dictates and unilateralism, an increase in the size and number of settlements, the construction of the Wall, restrictions on Palestinians’ movement, and the debilitation of the Palestinian economy and civil infrastructure have not abated.
One year later, the United States itself has not fully addressed the real issue: the occupation.