What are the obstacles to Arab-Israeli peace?

Peace be upon you, salamu aleikum, shalom. I would first like to thank the Jewish Centre for inviting me to speak, and all of you for coming to hear this debate.

What I always find most challenging about such events is to try and solve a decades-old conflict in a 15-minute speech, but I will start by addressing the two major obstacles.

The first is an oppressive military occupation of Arab land that is in its 36th year, the longest military occupation in modern times. This is not something that can or should be glossed over. This occupation controls the daily lives and destinies of millions of people. I doubt any of us in this room have lived under a military occupation, and I don’t know how many have been to the occupied territories to see what such life is like. I have, and it is a constantly soul-destroying, angering, humiliating, hopeless and unjust situation. I would like to think that everyone in this room agrees that the oppression of another people, and the occupation and colonisation of their land, regardless of the victim or perpetrator, is wrong, and I hope this debate will not be a forum for justifying such odious, morally indefensible acts. Nevertheless, it is a fact that Israel occupies Palestinian land, not the other way round, and whenever there is occupation there will be resistance to occupation. It is a sad but logical equation.

The occupation manifests itself in several ways, all presenting obstacles to peace. One is settlements, the colonisation of Palestinian land that is illegal under international law, the Geneva Conventions and several binding UN Security Council resolutions dating back more than two decades. Colonising this land obviously means confiscating it from its owners, leaving them destitute.

Some 6,000 settlers control one third of the Gaza Strip, leaving the other two thirds for over 1 million Palestinians, making it the most densely populated territory on earth. Israeli settlers in the Gaza Strip have access to 699 times more land per capita than refugee camp residents.

The Israeli Human Rights organisation B’Tselem last year reported that settlements control almost half the West Bank, and let us not forget that they are situated on prime agricultural land containing much-needed water wells and aquifers. While Palestinians go thirsty and malnutrition is rife, settlers sustain water-intensive crops and fill swimming pools. Indeed, each settler is allocated around 18 times more water than the average Palestinian, and this water does not belong to the settlers. Israel diverts 88% of the renewable water resources of the occupied territories for its own use or for the use of its settlements.

While the building of settlements obviously goes against any intentions of peace, settlement construction was at its fastest during the Oslo years, and the number of settlers doubled to 400,000. This was largely due to huge government incentives and subsidies, as well as a concerted effort at changing the demography of the occupied territories and creating facts on the ground. Indeed, even the most generous Israeli proposal entails keeping its major settlements, which are the size of cities. This project has continued under the prime ministership of Ariel Sharon, who made much earlier this year of the evacuation of a few uninhabited outposts while building even more in their place.

There are also bypass roads linking the settlements, which require more confiscation of Palestinian land and dissection into enclaves, restricting freedom of movement, and greatly hindering economic and social development.

There is also the issue of settler violence, which often goes unreported, unpunished and actually supported by accompanying troops.

Again, Israelis are colonising Palestinian land, not the other way round.

Another manifestation of the occupation is the barrier Israel is building in the West Bank. Israel claims that it is being built for the security of Israelis, but then why is it not being built on Israel’s borders? If I have a problem with a neighbour, I build a barrier between us, not on his land and house. As such, the barrier has been described by the UN and numerous human rights organisations as a violation of international and human rights law.

– The barrier will de facto annex some 50% of the West Bank, isolating communities into cantons, enclaves and "military zones".

– Nearly 16% of Palestinians in the West Bank will be "outside" the barrier in the de facto annexed areas by Israel and due to unbearable living conditions –”the loss of land, markets, movement and livelihoods–”faced with expulsion. This includes over 200,000 residents of East Jerusalem, who will be totally isolated from the rest of the West Bank. They will even need written permission from Israel to be able to live there.

– 98% of the settler population will be included in the de facto annexed areas.

– The barrier is not a new idea – The Iron Wall was an article written by Vladimir Jabotinsky in 1923. He was the founding father of the Zionist movement we now know as Likud. Here’s a quote: "This colonization can, therefore, continue and develop only under the protection of a force independent of the local population – an iron wall which the native population cannot break through. This is, in toto, our policy towards the Arabs. To formulate it any other way would only be hypocrisy." Thus the barrier has been 80 years in the planning.

– The barrier, when completed, will cost around a quarter of a billion dollars, so while the Israeli government says it is not permanent, its cost is somewhat prohibitive in terms of taking it down again.

– The barrier’s "buffer zone" paves the way for large-scale demolitions and the expulsion of nearby residents as in many places the barrier is located just meters away from homes, shops, and schools.

The barrier in all of its forms encircles regions with the highest Palestinian population density into three ghettos in the West Bank while "by-pass" roads further divide these areas. The isolation from basic services in these areas along with the loss of land, markets and resources, equates to the inability for communities to sustain themselves adequately and with dignity.

Israel has already confiscated 36 groundwater wells and at least another 14 wells are threatened for demolition in the barrier’s "buffer zone".
The Jerusalem district will, in total, lose 90% of its land when the barrier is completed.
In Bethlehem and Hebron concrete walls are coming right up to main holy sites, Rachel’s Tomb and Abraham’s Mosque respectively; Rachel’s Tomb is already inaccessible to Palestinians. Again, Israelis are building a barrier on Palestinian land, not the other way round.

Another means of consolidating the occupation are checkpoints, which are the means by which closures, blockades and curfews are implemented. There are over 200 checkpoints throughout the occupied territories. Palestinian lives are controlled by soldiers some of whom are still teenagers. They cannot leave, or even travel within towns, cities and villages without going through a checkpoint. The devastating economic and social effects of such restrictions, and human rights abuses at checkpoints such as denial of medical aid and beatings, are well documented by Israeli human rights organisations and others. As closures, blockades and curfews are forms of collective punishment, they are human rights abuses.

Again, Israelis have checkpoints and impose curfews and closures on Palestinian land, not the other way round.

So too are house demolitions, whereby tens of thousands of Palestinian have been made homeless during the 1990s and since. Just a fortnight ago thousands were made homeless in Rafah. One Amnesty study stated that Palestinian homes are demolished “for no other reason than they are Palestinian”, as an attempt to evict them from the land to consolidate control.

Again, Israelis are demolishing Palestinian homes, not the other way round.

The second major obstacle to peace is Israel’s reluctance to deal equitably with the refugee issue. On this note, I’d like to engage with the audience. There is a Jewish man of whom I am very fond, who was forced to become a refugee in the 1940s, whose father died from the trauma of his expulsion and dispossession, whose family were expelled from their home and land and left with nothing. Why, because his only crime was being Jewish. Please raise your hands if you sympathise with this man –” I should hope to see a full show of hands (full show of hands raised).

Now, I will tell you the same story, except this time the man is my father, a Palestinian from Jerusalem whose family were expelled in 1948 with nothing, became refugees in Lebanon, and whose father died as a result. Their crime? Being Palestinian. Please raise your hands if you sympathise with this man (full show of hands raised).

Good, you all recognise that a refugee is a refugee, and his plight is unjust and should be remedied regardless of his religion, ethnicity or the circumstances of his dispossession. Throughout history excuses have been given for ethnic cleansing, whether the victims were Jews, Armenians, Native Americans, Aborigines, Gypsies, Palestinians, Hutus or Tutsis. But the fact is that there is no excuse for such a crime, and again I hope that this debate will not be a forum for justifying or excusing, in this case, the dispossession of the Palestinians.

750,000 of them became refugees in 1948, another 300,000 in 1967, and today there are millions of them. Their right to choose between returning to the homes, compensation or both, are enshrined in international law, UN resolutions, the Geneva Conventions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, among others. Those sympathetic towards Israel gasp when the refugee figures are mentioned, saying that their return endangers the Jewish character of Israel, but should we not be gasping at how Israel and the international community has allowed the largest refugee population in the world to persist for over half a century?

It is likely that many, if not most refugees would not want to return, but it is their right to choose and they should be granted it. Their right to property and restitution are individual, inalienable rights, just like Jews seeking restitution for the Holocaust. I am often asked by sympathisers of Israel: what about Jews in the Holocaust and the Arab countries? And I say my support for property and restitution rights are unflinching for any dispossessed population. Indeed, these rights have been implemented in the case of the Holocaust, Afghanistan, the Balkans and other examples. Why should the Palestinians be any different?

I doubt many of you have visited Palestinian refugee camps –” I have, and their squalor and misery are beyond description. No human beings, for whatever reason, should be made to live like that. I am often told: well that is the fault of the Arabs. It is absolutely true that their treatment in Arab states is for the most part appalling, but this should not detract from the fact that the root cause of their dispossession is Israel.

Those fearful of the diminishing of a Jewish character to Israel forget the fact that there was a predominantly Arab character to that country before 1948 which was forcibly snuffed out, and supporting refugees’ rights is not to call for the destruction of Israel or the throwing of Jews into the sea, but simply to recognise that human rights should come above dangerous ideas of ethnic or religious supremacy. How is it fair that a Palestinian refugee cannot return to his or her home in, but a convert to Judaism automatically gains the right to live anywhere in Israel.

This is the same with Israel’s Arab citizens, who are discriminated against in many aspects of life including employment, housing and land rights, education, social welfare and government expenditure. Indeed, according to Israel’s electoral law, an Arab political party cannot be established without it explicitly accepting that Israel is the state for the Jews –” this is institutionalised racism.

I ask you this simple question: How would you feel if you and your family were kicked out of your homes with nothing, and told that you could not return because this was incompatible with the wishes of the person that kicked you out?

Now to Palestinian obstacles to peace. Firstly, Yasser Arafat is an obstacle, but not in the way the Israeli government would have us believe. The accusations of directing terror (which is a vague term with no universally accepted definition) are many, but evidence is scant. People often gloss over the fact that Arafat has been effectively under Israeli house arrest for almost 2 years, confined to one room in a shattered building, often without electricity, water and outside communication –” hardly conducive to the claims made against him. He has also condemned the deaths of civilians in Israel, which is more than can be said of Ariel Sharon and the deaths of Palestinian civilians. The Palestinian Authority is often accused of not doing enough to fight terror, but this is an institution economically bankrupt and shattered by Israeli aggression, its police forces and prisons decimated. It is also forgotten that Israel is the occupying power, yet it too is unable to stop attacks, many of which originate in areas under its full control.

It is also forgotten that Arafat was Israel’s and America’s yes man during the Oslo process, recognising Israel more than once without any reciprocity, and continuing to negotiate while Israel built more settlements, demolished more houses, confiscated more land and Palestinians thus got poorer. Talks continue to this day under these same conditions, as well as Israel’s construction of its barrier in the West Bank.

No, Arafat is an obstacle because of the corruption and autocracy he has fostered, which have adversely affected Palestinian development and interests. This is all the more shameful because of the plight of his people. Yet with Israel’s constant calls for reform as a precondition for negotiations, it has been instrumental in thwarting such reform, blocking elections scheduled for January and a meeting that same month in Britain, as well as favouring unelected Palestinian prime ministers with little public support.

And now I come to suicide bombings. Firstly, let me state that I am opposed to suicide bombings and they are an obstacle to peace, but it must be recognised that they are a tragic consequence of Israel’s occupation policies. To deny this is to deny the obvious, horrendous suffering of the Palestinians. After all, the occupation preceded suicide bombings, not the other way round.

If one looks into the background of a suicide bomber, one often founds terrible tales of loss, degradation and despair. Again, this is not to excuse suicide bombings, but to understand why they occur. Surely the answer to their end is to alleviate the hopelessness and misery faced by Palestinians. This has been recognised most recently this week by Israeli chief of staff Moshe Yaalon, who is certainly no dove. Certainly the answer is not to tighten the screws further, build barriers on someone else’s land, bombard their towns of origin, put entire populations under curfew, demolish the houses of relatives who knew nothing of the bombers’ intentions, and carry out assassinations which result predominantly in civilian deaths.

If one looks at the pattern of assassinations, one sees that they are often carried out during periods of relative calm in terms of attacks against Israelis. This has led many, even Israelis, to suspect that Sharon wants to prod militant groups into action so that he can avoid negotiations and continue his policies in the occupied territories.

After all, are suicide bombings really any worse than F-16s dropping bombs on residential building, or Apache helicopters firing missiles into a market place, or bulldozers demolishing houses with the occupants still inside, or soldiers shooting at children? One is militia terror, the other is state terror backed by nuclear weapons, hi-tech weaponry and billions of dollars of annual American aid, resulting in almost 3,000 Palestinian deaths and tens of thousands of injured, mostly civilians.

In conclusion, Israel has shown itself to be the main obstacle to peace in the Middle East. It has attacked every one of its neighbours, occupied and colonised Arab territory for decades, and oppressed Arab peoples. It has rejected numerous peace initiatives and acted against those it has publicly accepted. At Camp David, Barak’s generous offer entailed keeping occupied territory and settlements, and leaving Palestinians with a non-contiguous state with no control over resources, borders and foreign policy. At Taba, Barak walked away from talks that both sides agreed came closest to an agreement than ever before, despite Arafat’s plea on Israeli TV to return to the negotiating table. Sharon’s vision of a Palestinian state is a set of Bantustans on around 42% of the occupied territories. When last year the Arab world, including Hamas, offered to recognise and have full diplomatic relations with Israel in return for full withdrawal from occupied Arab land (ie. compliance with international law), Sharon not only rejected this, but protested at its inclusion in the roadmap. During a 5-week unilateral Palestinian ceasefire this summer, Palestinians continued to be killed, injured and arrested, their houses continued to be demolished, settlements expanded, the barrier continued to be built, and the Israeli parliament passed bills denying the very existence of the occupation and stating that settlements are an internal matter which will be dealt with at its own discretion.

This is not a country, or at least a leadership interested in peace, because it is not willing to comply with international and human rights law or realise even the semblance of justice for its victims. Most dangerously, Israel carries out its policies while claiming to speak on behalf of the Jewish people. The last thing Jews need is to be associated with occupation, oppression and dispossession, the very things they have faced historically and which go against the teachings of their faith. Given the Jews’ unique suffering, they should be the first to stand up and say that Israel’s aggressive, expansionist practices are not in their name. This is the surest way of offsetting the anti-Semitism that Israel is causing by doing what it does in the name of world Jewry. Those sympathetic with Israel should treat it like a relative who has erred. You point out their errors not because you are their enemy, but because of compassion for their wellbeing and moral standing.

Former Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Dayan once stated: "Because we took their land, we will always be at war." I think, then, that the answer to ending this conflict is contained in his words.