Israelis must offer peace sign

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The Bush Administration’s attempt to form a broad coalition against terrorism has received support from Arab and Muslim countries; yet some countries have asked the United States to re-examine its unconditional support of Israel. This Arab demand alongside other recent developments, several commentators seem to think, may help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since President Bush finally has a vested interest in the area. But if the administration’s current efforts to revive the peace process are any indication of what is to come, then there is little chance that a viable solution to the bloody conflict will be found.

A few days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Secretary of State Colin Powell began urging Israel to resume meetings with the Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had previously set a pre-condition of “one week without violence” before any meeting could take place, but following massive U.S. pressure he gave in. Foreign Minister Peres and Chairman Arafat met for a few hours.

This meeting, similar to previous ones over the past year, produced no results, indicating that if the Bush administration wishes to help bring peace to this conflict-ridden area — and is not merely interested in a public relations stint for the sake of the anti-terrorism coalition — then convening meetings is not enough. Bush must also urge Israel to radically modify its policies and to initiate concrete faith-building measures. This will not be an easy task.

Israel’s unwillingness to appease the Palestinians is intricately tied to its perception that it has ownership over victimhood. This deeply-rooted belief not only informs many of Israel’s ruthless policies in the occupied territories, but is frequently manipulated to provide a distorted justification for Israel’s actions. Indeed, Israel, my homeland, has managed to convince itself and the world that the Palestinians are the aggressors, as if 34 years of occupation and subjugation count for nothing.

A year has passed since the eruption of the second intifada and, according to the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem, during this period 552 Palestinians have been killed — including 133 minors — and more than 15,000 have been injured. While Israel has also suffered devastating losses, they are much fewer, with 167 Israelis killed — including 27 minors — and several hundred wounded. But even these cold numbers do not, in any way, convey the total imbalance between the two entities.

An incident that took place just a few hours after the Peres-Arafat meeting exemplifies the existing power differential and is indicative of the insidious role Israel often plays. It was on the eve of the most sacred Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, when everything in Israel, including TV and radio stations, shuts down. Knowing that their actions would be hidden from the public’s eye, Israeli paratroopers evicted 118 Palestinians from their homes in the South Hebron area, forcing them off their land.

The Palestinians residing in this hot desert region are extremely poor and vulnerable; they live in tents, their livestock are kept in manmade caves, and their water is obtained from wells that their ancestors dug many years ago. Before forcing them to leave, the Israeli military ruined their tents, destroyed the caves and wells and uprooted olive trees which these Palestinians harvest each year. The paratrooper’s cruel actions were carried out simply in order to dissuade the Palestinians from returning to their land, thus suggesting that Israel wishes to annex it in the future.

This incident intimates that even if Peres and Arafat were to meet every day there will be no peace unless Israel abandons its draconian policies towards Palestinians. Thus, if the new U.S. initiative is in earnest, Bush must demand that Israel not only convene with Palestinian representatives, but that it arrest the military siege of the occupied territories and, more importantly, dismantle Jewish settlements as a sign that Israel too is interested in peace.

Neve Gordon’s essay “Terrorism in the Arab-Israeli Conflict” co-authored with George Lopez, recently appeared in the book Ethics and International Affairs (Rowman and Littlefield). He teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University, Israel.

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