What can separation mean?

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An apparently deep and unquestioning desire on the part of most Israelis and Palestinians seems to be the need to exist in separate states. There has been a lull for some weeks now in the negotiations on all fronts in the peace process, much of it the result of Israeli unwillingness to venture anything very new or forthcoming. But Ehud Barak has in fact been quite explicit during this time, as well as since his election, regarding his political aim of separating Arabs and Jews from each other now and in the future. Along with this has gone an extraordinary series of steps concerning “secure” (the phrase is always mistranslated as “safe”) passage for Palestinians between Gaza and the West Bank, as if from the Israeli point of view Palestinians are a sort of infectious species whose presence across the land of Israel has to be contained, confined, detoxified. The opening of a new checkpoint at the northern end of Bethlehem is part of the same paranoia: one Palestinian has already been killed there and the continued likelihood of tension wherever the two peoples rub up against each other is very high indeed. What needs to be remembered, however, is that this is an unequal situation, in which Israel has all the power and holds all the land, whereas Palestinians are in the position of objects disposed hither and yon more or less at Israel’s will.

Nor is this all, since the situation is complicated by the separatist logic of Palestinian nationalism. It is eminently deserving that a people stripped of its identity, dispossessed of its land, forced to undergo decades of oppression, exile, and military rule should wish to be restored to the community of nations as a fully-fledged member. The Palestinian case, however, is more complicated than any other in the history of liberation or independence struggles. A dispersed people, the Palestinians today exist under several jurisdictions, including of course a Palestinian Authority that functions without real independence under Israeli tutelage. A million Palestinians are Israeli citizens, and about two million are Jordanians. Many thousands more live in various Arab countries with “undetermined” status. All Palestinians rightly aspire to a condition of national coherence and sovereignty, even as their supposed representatives are negotiating to freeze the current undesirable status quo in such a way as to create a mini-state that will not, and can never, enjoy full independence. Barak’s logic of separation is therefore ironically matched by a Palestinian desire to exist separated from Israel, even though in all instances no such separation is truly possible. Wherever one goes in Palestine/Israel the two populations are in fact mixed together, thanks in large measure to the horrifying efficiency of Israeli settlement policies since 1967. All over the land of historical Palestine (including 40 per cent of Gaza and all around Jerusalem) Israelis are living in close, if tense and unwelcome, proximity to Palestinians. So whether it is Barak’s dream of an imposed cage-like wire fence separating the two from each other, or the Palestinian desire to exist in a utopian land without an obtrusive Jewish-Israeli presence, both sides of the coin are unrealistic and destined for decades of future violence. Honesty enjoins me to reject both ideas as fundamentally, as well as philosophically, unworkable, given the realities which are currently overlooked in the uncritical technicalities of the US-sponsored peace process.

The facts — yes, they are facts and they cannot be denied at all, except by outright lying or self-delusion — are that Israel today is simply not a purely Jewish state and that Palestine is simply not a purely Palestinian Arab state. Perhaps our dream 20 years ago for a Palestinian state was realisable then, but today we have neither the military nor the political nor the moral will or capacity to create a real independent Palestinian state. I repeat: I can understand and in many ways support the idea of Palestinian independence, if it could be achieved. But how are we to uproot 350,000 Israelis, how are we to empty the recently built Jewish parts of east Jerusalem, how are we to remove the settlements, how are we to defeat the settlers and the army anytime in the present or near future? We have no way to do any of those things, and obviously negotiations will not do it. It has taken six years of concessions to Israel to achieve partial independence of about 13 per cent of the West Bank, minus security, water, air and border controls, which Israel still holds. What possibility is there of a truly independent Palestinian entity under current or even foreseeable circumstances? None at all. Israeli dreams are equally unimplementable, no matter how many roads, fences, checkpoints (including the most recent one in Bethlehem) and separations Barak and his advisers keep inventing. Neither Palestinians nor Israelis can be made distant from the other. In the area between Ramallah in the north and Bethlehem in the south, 800,000 Israelis and Palestinians live on top of each other, and cannot be separated. That is the truth.

Therefore the only acceptable political logic for Palestinians is to move our struggle from the level of high-ranking negotiations to the level of the actual on-the-ground reality. The Authority simply does not have the popular backing for what it is doing in Oslo, first of all; and second, Arafat has no successor in the near future who can maintain control the way he does now. If we are to avoid horrible suffering and more violence in the future, we have to transfer our efforts from the sky to the earth. We must adopt a strategy with like-minded Israelis — this is a crucial alliance — on matters where we have similar interests: secular rights, anti-settlement activities, education and equality before the law, whether it is Palestinian law, which is anti-democratic, or Israeli law, which is equally anti-democratic when it comes to non-Jews as well as secular Jews. This sort of project cannot be undertaken with officials who work either for the Israeli government or the Palestinian Authority, both of whom have an interest in the status quo. I have no doubt that what I say here will have no effect on the ongoing peace process, nor on the thinking of the current leadership. I write in order to be heard by other Arabs and other Israelis, those whose vision can extend beyond the impoverishing perspectives of what partition and separation can offer. We know that trying to draw lines between peoples whose cultures, histories and geographical proximity cannot be separated will not solve the basic problems of conflict between them. Political separation is at best a makeshift measure. Partition is a legacy of imperialism, as the unhappy cases of Pakistan and India, Ireland, Cyprus, and the Balkans amply testify, and as the disasters of 20th-century Africa attest in the most tragic way. We must now begin to think in terms of coexistence, after separation, in spite of partition. And for this, as I said above, the only solution is a politics of the local, people on the ground who tackle injustice and inequity on the ground, far away from the misleading summits with Clinton, and the treacherous secret channels of Oslo. Those leaders are far from the real long-term interest of their people, but they do what they have to do. They can do no more.

So let us see these new partitions as the desperate and last-ditch efforts of a dying ideology of separation, which has afflicted Zionism and Palestinian nationalism, both of whom have not surmounted the philosophical problem of the Other, of learning how to live with, as opposed to despite, the Other. When it comes to corruption, to racial or religious discrimination, to poverty and unemployment, to torture and censorship, the Other is always one of us, not a remote alien. These abuses recognise only the victims of unjust power, and these victims must resist all efforts to cause their further suffering. That is the platform of the future.

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