Hearing on the news this week the Palestinian Authority is demanding an international protection force for the Palestinian territories reminded me of a day in 1988 when I wished there was such a force. I was returning home from a day covering the intifada in Gaza. Soldiers on patrol near the Kalandiya refugee camp, located in north Jerusalem, would not let me into our house. They said that the area was under curfew.
It was dark and it was just me and the soldiers. I calmly explained to them that our house was not part of the refugee camp, and therefore the curfew didn’t apply. They screamed at me and were not willing to understand. I showed them my press card and tried to impress on them that it was issued by their government. Again they wouldn’t listen, and they threw the Israeli-issued press card on the ground. I picked it up and tried calmly but forcefully explain to them that I needed to go home where my wife and children were waiting for me. The soldier slapped me on the face so hard that I saw stars.
I knew then, as I know now, that when a civilian confronts armed soldiers, logic is not always what rules the day. Certainly when hundred are killed and thousands are injured, the need for international observers is not because of cases like mine. But my experience has been that whenever there were foreigners around, the soldiers acted differently. The moment that these foreigners leave is the moment when most of the human rights violations take place. It is exactly these moments, when a stubborn Palestinian insists on his rights to get home or to demand an end to the Israeli occupation, that the real trouble begins.
An end to the occupation is certainly the fastest and shortest way to end the protests, unrest and violence. But short of that, a permanent international force that can observe and, if needed, intervene to protect civilians is crucial.
Years of occupation and conflict as well as years of attempts at peace making have shown that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is too wide and deep to be solved simply on the basis of the good will of either or both parties.
Israel, which has ruled over three million Palestinians solely through sheer force, has consistently refused to allow international observers.
But after the killings in Hebron in 1994, when Baruch Goldstein opened fire, killing 29 worshipping Moslems, the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin felt compelled to allow a temporary force from Norway. The subsequent Israeli prime ministers, including right-wing Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu have approved the presence of this small international observer force. It is not a coincidence that the lowest number of deaths and casualties in the recent confrontations has been in the city of Hebron, where these Norwegians are still stationed. And as MK Yossi Sarid has stated, the deployment of such force in the occupied territories doesn’t constitute a breach of Israeli sovereignty.
After all, Israel has not claimed that the West Bank and Gaza are part of the state of Israel.
Of course there is a different reason why Israel has always rejected the presence of such an international force. It not only exposes Israel’s human rights violations, but it changes the political and psychological equation. The Israelis are afraid that with a neutral force, they will lose one of the remaining sources of clout over Palestinians: The use of individual, as well as collective punishment, to pressure Palestinians into accepting Israeli political dictates. Israel has always tried to use its military and political advantage to score political points whether in negotiations or in trying to lower Palestinian aspirations.
Five weeks of daily confrontations between Palestinian civilians rejecting occupation and a fortified army has produced death, injury, and hatred. To break this cycle of violence a neutral body must stand in between these two groups to bring quiet and peace.
The road to peace and stability in Palestine and the region begins with the need to end the Israeli domination and humiliation of the Palestinian people.
The United States, which felt the need for international intervention in such hot spots as Kosovo, can’t turn a blind eye to the yearnings of Palestinians for peace and freedom. An international observer force is the right thing to do now. If such a force can save a single life, this endeavor would be worthwhile.
Such quiet, however, ought not be understood as an alternative to a permanent peace agreement that will end the occupation and allow for a free and independent Palestinian state.