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Rethinking “the conflict” in Israel/Palestine: only occupation

By Chris Beall

Five years ago, as an undergraduate student studying abroad at the American University of Beirut, I enrolled in a political science course entitled “the Arab-Israeli Conflict.” While this course was my first real engagement with this topic, exploring the issue through the lens of political science came with inherent limitations. All of the century-long tragedies, misunderstandings and bloodshed that comprise “the Arab-Israeli Conflict” were presented in a sort of constantly stale, circumscribed air of game theory and shuttle diplomacy. Barely missed peace breakthroughs were reduced to equations of narrowly expended political capital. Even the real ugly stuff—Sabra and Shatila, for example—took the form of almost inevitable strategic miscalculations and overplayed hands.

Whatever was gained in terms of a basic understanding of “the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” I always felt there was something else missing. Five years later, having just returned from the region, I find this same absence in the way people are talking about Israel/Palestine. Across the entire discourse, “the Conflict” seems to always exist in a sort of phantom academic space, lacking depth or perspective. All the statistics, the body counts, the metrics of daily oppression happen in news columns, human rights reports and policy documents. They happen on paper. That’s it. Khalas.

Paper is important, no doubt. But for anybody even casually engaged with this subject matter, it is often too easy to lose sight of any underlying reference point here, to the extent that “the Conflict” begins to exist only textually, numerically, cartographically, perhaps photographically or in breaking news video feeds. Our thinking of “the Conflict,” and subsequently the solutions we form, no longer correspond to reality. Worse, we pass on and inherit this artificial discourse: we still talk about Israel/Palestine as if it were 1967, as if the State of Israel were still a tiny fledging newcomer in the international community, as if Arab nationalism were still a thing in the region, as if the world were still divvied up in a globe-spanning Cold War. The facts accumulate, the data snowballs, but the narratives framing “the Conflict” remain totally unchanged. The world keeps talking, without ever stopping to think what, exactly, we are talking about.

FACING REALITY

This past summer, as a Leitner Summer Fellow and Legal Fellow with Palestine Works, I interned with the Al-Mustakbal Foundation for Strategic and Policy Studies (AMF) in Ramallah, the de facto capital of the West Bank. AMF is a legal think tank that seeks to pave the way for private sector initiatives to help facilitate peace and justice for Palestinians. My role at AMF was to explore the ways that decades of past fact-finding efforts may be used to design future Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation systems. But during my time in Occupied Palestine, all the nuances and complexities that I’d been taught about the issue became irrelevant, and faded from my understanding of the conflict, to the point that it seems futile to even be talking about some “Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” even less so, some laughable notion of an “Arab-Israeli Conflict.” The academic construct we know and study—to say nothing of the even more problematic public discourse—simply does not exist. In its place, I’ve been left with something more raw and elemental, more upfront and visceral: basic occupation, through and through.

You see it in the two-hour waits at Qalandia Checkpoint, where thousands of Palestinians (those fortunate enough to have Jerusalem residence status, or those granted rare mobility permits) cross daily from the Occupied West Bank into equally Occupied East Jerusalem. In the way that parents hold their kids up on their shoulders to keep them from being crushed by the swell of humans pushing forward to enter three long and narrow shoulder-width hallway cages, moving like single-file automatons in an industrialized slaughterhouse, all metal and turnstiles and razor wire.

You see it in the streets of Hebron, deep in the West Bank, where the Arabs going about life in their streets erect nets above their shops, to catch the trash that illegal (as ruled by the International Court of Justice and a U.N. panel) Jewish settlers living in the stolen houses above nonchalantly toss out their windows. The same nets that don’t stop the urine or human excrement intentionally splashed onto the Arab streets below. These streets being the new Arab commercial center, after their last ones were deemed Jewish-only and thus inaccessible. In the way the kids get their backpacks checked at the road barricade, every day, to and from school.

You see it in what passes for justice at the Ofer Military Courts (when, for whatever reason, you’re surprisingly granted access to these military detention hearings). In the teenage Palestinian defendant who was shot three times in the leg by Israeli forces as he walked home one night, on account of sparking his lighter. He claims to have been lighting a cigarette, which the IDF presumed to be a molotov cocktail. After a preliminary investigation that produced no evidence at the scene of his shooting, the prosecutor produces a report filed hours after the incident, detailing a molotov cocktail obtained 30 meters away and conveniently destroyed onsite and hence irreproducible before the court. The kid lands an additional 18 month sentence: just long enough to complicate what remains of his high school education, as if the original bullet wounds weren’t enough.

You see it simply in talking to people, in the cafes playing backgammon or in bars drinking beer—Muslim, Christian, atheist, no matter. Your list of quotes grows, a theatre-of-horrors of aphorisms: “I just want to know what the sea feels like” (on life-long movement restrictions); or “Our government cares more about trees than people” (on the demolition of Israeli-Bedouin homes to make room for the expanding Yatir National Forest); or “When God hates a man, he makes him Palestinian” (self-explanatory).

Somehow, the daily realities that I so briefly experienced in my short 11 weeks across the West Bank and Israel get diluted and muddled out in a discourse about land swaps, statistics, political boundaries, negotiating priorities and domestic approval rates. The fallacy of allowing these sorts of issues to stand in for the entirety of “the Conflict” obstruct and deny the vast majority of circumstances that actually comprise what we’re talking about. In reality, what the world treats as a political game actually carries important and tangible human consequences, which should not be ignored.

STATISTICS, FACTS AND TRUTH

None of this is to say that statistics, fact finding, or policy formulation don’t have role to play in all this. Rather, my concern is merely how these tools are employed. Currently, the work being done in the territories remains paralyzed by a stubborn determination to achieve an unrealistic political end goal, which in turn offsets the prospect of peace.

For example, I know from my work that Israel’s separation wall appropriates 9.5 percent of the West Bank’s land area. I know that Israeli military courts in the West Bank have 99.7 percent conviction rates for whatever unfortunate creatures get rounded before them. I know that 85.2 percent of the fertile and mineral-rich Jordan Valley has been declared off-limits to Palestinians. That Israel and its settlers have diverted over 80 percent of available water from West Bank aquifers. These kinds of statistics and figures are everywhere, and I know all of this because it has been researched and documented through the hard labors of lawyers and researchers and human rights advocates, who are not paid nearly enough for the important work that they do. These sorts of numbers add color to what we think of “the Conflict.” They show us what it looks like, what we are dealing with, what kind of stakes we are talking about. But in the absence of a discourse that recognizes the human costs of these findings, the question remains: what are we actually talking about?

The term “facts on the ground” originated in the parlance of Israeli settlers, who in anticipation of Israel being forced into political concessions took it upon themselves to incrementally alter the foundational makeup of Israel/Palestine. Crudely, if you build enough rich and lush illegal Israeli settlements encircling Palestinian East Jerusalem, then the very idea of a Palestinian East Jerusalem becomes starkly unworkable from the standpoint of some final status agreement. And these guys were successful. Since the Oslo Accords, the number of illegal settlers living in the West Bank has more than doubled, from 262,500 to at least 520,000 today. Yet, while these facts on the ground have surely frustrated the peace process, I believe that they have done absolutely nothing to change our discourse about the “Conflict” or what we believe the end goal of talks should be. We envision a solution in the form of two sides willingly coming to the negotiating table, because we envision “the Conflict” as two sides locked in a century of zero-sum politicking and combat.

But such a conception of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is a false one. In my time over there, I never once encountered any semblance of it. It’s still by all means a military occupation, and of course there are frictions involved. But while the constantly disproportionate and asymmetrical episodes of violence are always tragic—for all parties involved—they are completely predictable products of a wholly willful and unnecessary occupation: one which implies not some adversarial struggle to be hashed out and negotiated, but rather a systematic assemblage of cruelty, in which, recent flare ups included, the daily and relentless oppression flows almost entirely one way.

CONCLUSION

This was my experience as a Leitner Summer Fellow working from Occupied Palestine: a bizarre package of disillusionment and hope bundled all into one. Until we shift our focus from solving “the Conflict” to blatantly and concretely calling for an end to the occupation, the hard work of our researchers and human rights fact-finders will remain dormant. For now, we’ve acquired a whole vocabulary and lexicon in a language that we do not yet speak. But when the discourse changes, I believe we’ll suddenly find ourselves fluent in a language that promises both action and tangible change. At which point, we’ll ironically unlock the true and horrific impact of the “facts on the ground” on the people of Palestine. I’ve no doubt that lawyers and human rights advocates will play some role in this process, but returning from my summer in Occupied Palestine, more than anything else, I’m left with the realization that this “Conflict” expired a long time ago, and that it’s time for our discussions to follow suit. Whatever we do, the survival of Palestine can no longer hinge on some idealized, long-awaited political solution to all of this. It’s time, instead, for a fresh discourse: the type that’s lessons cannot be learned from a political science course, but instead seeks both guidance and legitimacy in its struggle toward upholding basic and universal human rights.

Chris Beall was a 2015 Leitner Center Summer Fellow. He interned last summer with the Al-Mustakbal Foundation for Strategic and Policy Studies through Palestine Works in the West Bank.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Photo courtesy of Chris Beall.

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One last in memoriam: the Oslo Accords

By Chris Beall Oslo

Since the reelection of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s Likud party in Israel’s Knesset election on March 17, there’s been a lot of talk about what these results mean for whatever still exists of a “peace process.” For many commentators and onlookers—human rights advocates among them—five more years of a Likud government brings a deep pessimism concerning the likelihood of foreseeable peace between Israel and Palestine. I, myself, tend to share this pessimism, and I don’t think it very hard to buy into the premise that, in some abstract way, a vote cast for Likud is kind-of-sort-of a vote for extremism on all sides of the battle lines.

Seriously, imagine the jubilee that must be sounding from the yellow-bannered bunkers of Dahiyeh and South Lebanon, or the under-reconstruction tunnel networks in Gaza, right about now. Rather than facing the domestic scrutiny and credibility crises that groups like Hezbollah and Hamas certainly deserve among their own constituents (and the world, for that matter), these groups may instead cite Netanyahu’s particularly ugly campaign tactics, and get back to business as usual. Whether they point to the Prime Minister’s reversal of his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech, his rejection of a two-state solution under his watch, or his fear-mongering warnings of Arabs “voting in droves,” it seems that at least in the short term, Bibi’s bought them some time.

Violent non-state actors like Hezbollah and Hamas justify and publicly legitimize their own acts of violence and/or terrorism under the politically calculated assumption that actual coexistence alongside Israel is not, and has never actually been, on the table. With campaign comments like the above, Netanyahu has single-handedly provided a great deal of weight to the skepticism that asks whether such coexistence is possible, in the absence of external pressure. And external pressure, in its vilest form, is exactly what groups like Hamas are selling.

To be clear: nothing justifies terrorism or the indiscriminate killing of unarmed civilians. Even stripped of such moralism, there’s a million pragmatic flaws in the idea that such violence can ever accomplish these sorts of groups’ espoused political goals. But any analysis would be remiss if we overlooked a certain problem of democracy here. Without diving too deeply into my fuzzy undergraduate memory of Rousseau and social contracts, there’s something especially depressing in the fact that Netanyahu’s revolting, xenophobic green light comes with the backing of a democratic majority (technically a plurality, but you get what I’m saying). On the last days of the campaign trail and behind in the polls, Bibi stood ideologically naked, exposing to the world how he actually feels, or at the very least, how he strategically would have needed to feel in order to get reelected in Israel—and it worked.

There’s real hazard in talk like this. When the workings of representative government mutate a toxic elected official or political party into a toxic body politic writ large, then, at least in this conflict, it becomes dangerously easy to casually slip into overblown common denominators: the essentialized and “inherently” dichotomous fictions of Israeli v. Arab or Muslim v. Jew. Stated differently: What is undoubtedly a century-old political problem—surely one with a political solution—suddenly starts to feel a lot more explainable and readily understandable in terms of the binary narratives offered by the extremist opponents of that exact, hoped-for political solution. These sorts of groups, which have existed on both sides in various forms well before 1948, are the ultimate antagonists of lasting peace in the region.

Instead of accepting such narratives, which can only exacerbate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the question right now should become, “How else might we make sense of all this?” As discussions about the status of a two-state solution heat up internationally, we must revisit the political circumstances that have birthed this Likud reelection—a victory fueled by ethnic tensions and toxic dichotomous language.

THE MANY SLOW DEATHS OF OSLO

Palestinians, Israelis and the international community alike have all grown increasingly frustrated and wary of the Israeli-Palestinian peace framework first adopted under the 1993-1995 Oslo Accords. At risk of bulldozing the nuances, a crude summary: The Oslo I Accord, negotiated in Norway in 1993, established mutual recognition between the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and created the Palestinian Authority to semi-autonomously govern some of the occupied territories for an intended interim period. The Oslo II Accord, signed in Taba, Egypt in 1995, created the current Areas A, B and C jurisdictional schema in the West Bank, which is still in force today, and established a degree of economic and security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Collectively, neither plan promised Palestinian statehood, but created a procedural apparatus for hashing out an embryonic prototype of an eventual two-state solution. By showing tangible and immediate acts of goodwill on both sides, the goal was to build a negotiating relationship that would foster a final-status agreement. The Oslo Accords promised mutual-recognition and small steps towards peace, with the ultimate goal of reaching a final agreement based on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 within five years of the Accords’ adoption.

To some, the degree of step-by-step conditionality structurally built into the Oslo Accords meant that they never realistically stood a chance from the start. Perhaps. But it is also true that both Israel and the Palestinian Authority did take tangible measures—sometimes at great political cost—to meet and exceed their obligations under Oslo. Indeed, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin paid for Oslo with his own life, assassinated by a Zionist fanatic just weeks after signing Oslo II. And yet, by and large, the Accords were met with popular support from both Israel and Palestine. Although Hamas and Islamic Jihad boycotted Palestine’s post-Oslo 1996 elections, the results do represent a high-water mark for hopes of peace and mutually negotiated Palestinian sovereignty. Yasser Arafat’s landslide victory with 88 percent of Palestinian presidential votes represented more than tacit approval for the PLO’s peace efforts, and a popular mandate for Oslo itself.

Things fell apart, of course. A brutal terrorism campaign launched by Hamas, combined with Israel’s own lackluster implementation of Oslo initiatives (settlement freezes, to take just one example), would mean that by the end of that five-year Final Settlement deadline in 1999, both parties had largely forgotten those mutual acts of goodwill first birthed by the process. The failure of the Camp David peace attempt in 2000, the Second Intifada and Israel’s launch of Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 represented the first major death of the Oslo Process.

In the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary election, Hamas’ radical Islamist coalition won a shocking 74/132 seats in Palestine’s interim-legislature, causing a subsequent civil war between Fatah and Hamas. This election, the lasting rift between Gaza and the West Bank and monolithic statements made about Palestinians being untrustworthy partners in peace could easily be said to represent a second deathblow to Oslo. The loss of popular support for the formalized peace process among Palestinians would mark a much more difficult derailment of peace, not easily fixed by any forced-sit down among the parties.

As hinted above, such a loss of popular support should not have surprised anybody. The Palestinian disillusionment with the Oslo Accords was entirely reasonable, in the face of ongoing Israeli colonial projects, renewed direct occupation, shattered optimism at sovereignty and the Palestinian Authority’s own crippling corruption and gross maladministration. With a constricted Bantustan economy (or an outright blockaded economy in Gaza, post-2007) and unceasing loss of dignity under the brutalities of occupation, ordinary Palestinians failed to ever see any tangible and concrete benefits stemming from the political trust-building process that was the Oslo Accords.

FIVE MORE FOR BIBI: THE LAST DEATH OF OSLO

Until recently, little had changed in the lives of Palestinians. The period since 2006 has been marked by continual settler expansion, the demolition of Palestinian homes and agricultural crops, restricted access to resources and sources of Palestinian livelihood and intermittent periods subjected to direct and disproportionate Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) violence. Whether one supports or condemns the Palestinian Authority’s recent efforts to pursue heterodox, perhaps even quasi-unilateral solutions to their ongoing plight, what we are seeing today is a logical ending and a final release from the paralyzing aftermath of the Oslo Accords.

Truthfully, nobody knows where this leads us. And it is this exact renewed sense of wilderness that in large part explains Netanyahu’s latest electoral miracle: a development that will likely position him as Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister since David Ben-Gurion. Change is scary. With Abbas pursuing justice in international forums entirely beyond the horizons of the traditional peace process, and with Palestinian nods toward ending security cooperation in the West Bank (the definitive ending of Oslo), the political utility of Bibi’s cheap resorts to xenophobic provocation isn’t exactly surprising. For a man who has furiously opposed the Oslo Accords since their inception, Bibi now finally gets to be the political leader who will steer Israel beyond whatever remains of their grasp. He’s finally won.

Granted, the immediate outlook of peace under Netanyahu is unsurprisingly bleak, and will almost certainly get worse before things can get better. But as we collectively watch the Oslo Accords die one last death in Israel/Palestine, there is still immense hope to be shared that all parties involved will learn something from the Accords’ presently unwinding failed legacy.

Above all else, Oslo’s last shot at a noble death would entail the recognition that, while this century-old conflict’s solution will surely be political in nature, this does not mean that peace can exist solely as some gentleman’s agreement, between politicians. Rather, a future peace must address the immediate and tangible concerns of the conflict’s most direct stakeholders, those that have suffered most viscerally and shed the most blood: ordinary Palestinians and Israelis alike. People actually have to care about peace, or at least be shown its rewards and its benefits. Political goodwill is important, but cannot survive in the absence of popular support. While the failure of Oslo reveals that public patience is a limited resource, it is also, thankfully, a renewable resource. We shouldn’t lose sight of that.

Whatever comes next, Oslo should haunt us and influence how we approach peace in the future. Otherwise, the Oslo Accords will be remembered as little more than a photograph in our children’s history textbooks—two guys shaking hands on the White House lawn, and none of it meant a damn thing at all.

Chris Beall is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Vince Musi/The White House/Creative Commons