Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Five years ago...

November 11th, 2009 is the fifth anniversary of the death of Yasser Arafat... Back in a January 2002 entry (reprinted below), this blogger mused re the role Arafat should play, if any, going forward. Subsequently the Israeli government decided "to wait Arafat out", and kept him walled up in the ruins of the Mukhata for several years. On his passing they claimed that it would be a turning point for peace... Unfortunately it was not.

Fast forward to today... Reading the old entry makes one realize how little things have changed - the situation is no better (worse if you consider the Fatah-Hamas split); there is no Palestinian leader who can speak for all the people; the continued humiliation of the Palestinians by the GOI continues; and the facts on the ground are the same. Some of the players are the same, for example George Mitchell, the author of the 2001 Mitchell Report, has been resurrected by President Obama as his Special Envoy to the Middle East; and the U.S. continues to flail around in its attempts to improve the situation...

Five years after Arafat's death, a Palestinian state remains elusive

OPED 10 Arafat - the end of the road? (Reprinted from January 22nd, 2002)

A passage from the Mitchell report succinctly sums up the situation between Israel and the Palestinians:

"Despite their long history and close proximity, some Israelis and Palestinians seem not to fully appreciate each other's problems and concerns. Some Israelis appear not to comprehend the humiliation and frustration that Palestinians must endure every day as a result of living with the continuing effects of occupation, sustained by the presence of Israeli military forces and settlements in their midst, or the determination of the Palestinians to achieve independence and genuine self-determination. Some Palestinians appear not to comprehend the extent to which terrorism creates fear among the Israeli people and undermines their belief in the possibility of co-existence, or the determination of the GOI to do whatever is necessary to protect its people. Fear, hate, anger, and frustration have risen on both sides. The greatest danger of all is that the culture of peace, nurtured over the previous decade, is being shattered. In its place there is a growing sense of futility and despair, and a growing resort to violence."

A topic that is currently the subject of much discussion is the role, if any, that Yasser Arafat should have going forward. The Sharon government recently labeled Arafat as "irrelevant", and then, following the interception of the Karine-A, as a "bitter enemy" and "terrorist". Should Israel treat Arafat as a potential peace partner, as a terrorist, or should they even eliminate him? This is a question with no easy answers.

Prior to Oslo Israel controlled the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip. Following the start of the 'peace process' Israel ceded some territorial control to the Palestinian Authority. The government of Israel essentially made a bet that Arafat could/would do what they could not - that for a certain amount of land, an 'international' airport, trappings of state, etc. he would crack down on extremists and prevent attacks on Israel and Israeli settlements. The majority of the difficult questions (e.g. status of Jerusalem, the 'right of return', etc.) were left to be settled later. Thus an explicit choice was made to deal with Arafat... Though known to be corrupt, to enrich himself and his cronies at the expense of the common folk, to be responsible for the arrest, torture, and death of many of his own people, all this could be overlooked as long as he kept his side of the bargain and kept things quiet. Unfortunately, the bet failed and Arafat has failed to deliver. Whether this is because he is a glorious freedom-fighter fighting for his people (Palestinian version), or because he has always sought the complete destruction of the state of Israel (Israeli version), or because he feels that he wouldn't be long for this earth if he really attempted to crush the extremists on his side (the self-preservation version), is a judgement that people and history will have to make. So, what to do now? There are no good choices left.
  • Taking back control of all the PA-administered territory is not an attractive option. The last time Israel controlled the West Bank and Gaza Strip there was terrorism against them. One thing you can't say is that Israel is soft on terror. They assassinated Palestinian killers at their discretion, they curfewed and road-blocked where they felt necessary, they demolished, dug up, smashed where they felt it would help, but still the cost was so high that they felt that withdrawal was in their best interest. Retaking the entire area will simply restore an untenable situation.
  • Simply ignoring Arafat, or eliminating him is also not a great option. One of the unfortunate side results of the bet made is that there are no other 'moderate' Palestinian leaders to challenge the old guard, assuming that they would be willing to risk their lives by doing so... So there are no other significant leaders to deal with.
  • Dealing with Arafat is not an attractive option, given his ongoing support for terrorism and the blood on his hands. Additionally it is doubtful that he could stop all attacks on Israel even if he wanted to (and there is much evidence that he does not want the violence to end...)
Well aware that there are no clear courses of action Israel is temporizing, cracking down militarily but not going all the way while waiting for the situation to clarify itself. Born from frustration at the ongoing violence, Israel seems also to be taking every opportunity to humiliate the Palestinians by striking at every symbol of Palestinian sovereignty, in addition to the daily humiliations that the Palestinians have to endure. This tactic is a mistake and can have no positive outcome, but will only result in increased hostility and anger and the further radicalization of all Palestinians. As noted in the quote above this is something that does not seem to be understood by those carrying out these actions.

A look at a map of the West Bank and Gaza Strip on the left clearly shows that peace will never be possible as the situation currently stands. The Palestinians control scattered, unconnected, islets of territory, completely surrounded by areas under Israeli control. Israeli settlements vie for scare resources (e.g. water) and are spreading throughout the area. The difficult-to-answer question of whether Arafat should have a future role in the 'peace process' seems almost a moot point given the current situation on the ground. Yet, if perchance the situation is to be improved, this is a question that will have to be answered.

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