A Unified Palestine

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The struggle for a just peace in Palestine is more important than ever. The Al Aqsa Intifada has developed into low intensity warfare between the heavily equipped Israeli army and Jewish settlers on one hand and frustrated young stone-throwing Palestinians on the other. The specter of ethnic cleansing rears its ugly head as the violence escalates. Particularly worrying is that one side seems to have no qualms about employing tanks, heavy artillery, attack helicopters and its airforce in densely populated civilian areas to intimidate and pursue its adversary.

The situation is looking desperate. Since the signing of the Declaration of Principles in Oslo in 1993 the peace process has failed to create peace. This is the mainly due to the reluctance of successive Israeli governments to implement the agreements fully, leaving the Palestinians, who at the onset welcomed the peace initiative, angry and frustrated as they see their hopes deliberately dashed by Israeli intransigence.

Unfortunately this conflict has become defined in territorial and national terms, with each side arguing for a national identity and territorial ownership. This is a zero sum game for sovereignty of the land. In this equation the gains by one side are seen as losses by the other. This form of conflict can only ever lead at best to a temporary solution and at worst form the basis for all out war in the future.

It can clearly been seen that current and past strategies for the resolution of the conflict between Palestinian and Jewish aspirations have failed. It is therefore time to think of new ways in which to resolve the conflict, and to establish a lasting peace in the land of Palestine. The solution not yet tried is to redefine the terms of the struggle by moving it away from a conflict in which both parties have fostered separate national identities linked to a geographical territory. The aim of both sides should be to establish a modern democratic state for the entire population living in Palestine.

Establishing a democratic state would replace the Zionist State of Israel. Under such a construct some of the most important issues can be resolved. It would finally allow for the repatriation of all Palestinian refugees now in exile in the camps of Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. It would fulfill United Nations Resolutions regarding the legal rights of the peoples of Palestine. It would guarantee Muslims, Jews and Christians the freedom to worship and would be the basis for building a strong and vibrant nation in which two cultures can come together to create something greater than themselves.

Something as radical as an inclusive democratic state for all the people of Palestine is not something that will be easy to achieve. It takes a willingness on the part of both sides to embrace the idea and actively work together to bring it about. Eventually it will be realized by all that this solution is the only real way forward. It will dawn upon Israelis that they cannot create an apartheid state as both people are inextricably mixed. In reality Palestinians and Jews already live in close proximity to each other in towns and villages throughout Palestine. Even when Israel blockades the West Bank and Gaza there are hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and Jew intermingling in Israel proper. In Jerusalem, Arabs and Jews live in the same streets and in the same buildings.

The two peoples are also closely connected economically. Israel is the main market for nearly all of the output of the Palestinian Territories, mostly agricultural products, and in turn Israel depends on Palestinian workers to keep its economy competitive.

In truth Israelis and Palestinians cannot get out of each others way, but so long as they continue to regard each other as violent usurpers and intruders they will never be able to define their relationship to each other.

It is right that a dispersed people who have been stripped of their land and live in refugee camps should want a homeland of their own, a state in which they will not fear oppression and persecution by others. These sentiments motivated the Zionist movement from the 1880s to 1948 to claim a land of their own, and these same sentiments now drive the Palestinians.

But so far, neither armed conflict nor the peace process has satisfied the aspirations of either side. Both courses of action have divided and alienated the peoples of Palestine rather than uniting them in peace and amity.

Palestinians have to recognize that the other Arab states of the region will not and cannot support them either militarily or in the search for peace as none are prepared to place the rights of the Palestinian people above their own national self interest. All they do is sit on the sidelines mouthing words of sympathy, dispensing monetary aid and taking in a few casualties from the Intifadah. It is clear that the only option for the people of Palestine is to act alone, relying on no one and seeking a solution which includes the Jews. For, as much as Palestinians might like to, they cannot just wish the Jews away, there are now too many of them firmly rooted in the Holy Land. Any solution that tries to exclude them is bound to fail.

For their part the Israelis must also seek a solution that includes the Palestinians. No Israeli use of force has so far guaranteed its borders or the security and safety of its people. They should also realize that they will not always be able to count on unqualified support both financially and militarily from the Americans. The more oppressive they become towards the people of Palestine the less able will any US administration be able to justify its unquestioning support for Israel to the American people.

It is obvious that the partition which was being negotiated to create peace will not work. As both sides become ever more alienated from the other by the blood and mayhem, it is apparent that Israel always intended the separation being discussed to be a form of Middle Eastern apartheid. Even worse is the real danger that hard-liners in the Israeli camp may attempt a mass ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population. Both options are frightening prospects for all of the Middle East.

Only when a real democracy bestows equal rights to all citizens, regardless of ethnic origin or religious belief, and those rights are guaranteed by a constitution and enforced by an independent judiciary, only at that moment will there be a just peace in Palestine.

Mr. Khalaaf Al Habtoor is the chairman of the Al Habtoor Group, a large multinational conglomerate based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. He frequently comments in the Arab media on issues of importance in the Middle East. This article appeared initially in Al Shindagah Magazine, Jan-Feb 2001.

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