In Israel and the Palestinian territories, decades of conflict have not offered ripe soil for mutual understanding and peace on reasonable terms. Endless confrontation has eroded hopes for successful negotiations. Nonetheless, the frequent reference to a ‘status quo’ in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is mistaken – in my opinion, it’s pure political rhetoric and this conflict is anything but one of attrition.
Every day, new settler houses are being built in the West Bank and east Jerusalem – on Palestinian land. Everyday bricks are added to the anti-terrorist fence (or apartheid wall, as some call it), thereby outcasting communities of shared history, as well as hindering commerce and splitting communities (and families) apart. The Israeli government, meanwhile, has authorised the building of hundreds of thousands of new settlement houses in the West Bank and the so-called ‘barrier’, which is in part a 26 ft tall (8metres) concrete wall, will soon reach completion. This construction and the ongoing settlements are durable problems that will hinder any proposal for a peaceful solution. Israeli politicians will never surrender land they claim to control for security reasons (the wall does not follow the UN’s ‘green line’ but includes an extra 10% of the West Bank). ‘Status quo’ may refer to stalled political negotiations, but it certainly does not reflect reality on the ground. Israelis are taking over Palestinian land and expropriating it on flimsy grounds, day-by-day.
Israel is paranoid about its security – for good reasons. Yet, what its government is orchestrating in the West Bank’s areas B and C (respectively 60% and 22% of the West Bank) is the use of security as an alibi to permanently station its military forces, control Palestinian mobility, and seize unoccupied (or partly occupied) Palestinian land.
Never will I come to terms with such practices. Article 49 of the 4th Geneva Convention is clear about the military occupation of land: the occupier may not under any circumstances exploit and profit from the resources of occupied lands. But this is exactly what is happening. Israel’s practices in the Jordan Valley are a case in point: settlers monopolise access to water and grow scores of palm trees for dates; and they also farm fish, grow passion fruit, bananas, etc. – on deprived land where locals lack the ability to farm for themselves. A mere afternoon with an Israeli NGO in the West Bank is evocative of the scale of the settlers’ enterprise on land that was more-or-less extorted from local farmers, who, ironically, often end up working for those who exploit their land.
Economic use of foreign territory is bad enough, but expropriation and the violation of basic rights is worse. A new Israeli government should be more reasonable and recall its military from the West Bank’s area C and return most of the occupied land. But removing settlements (that are now authentic communities and villages) is politically unimaginable, meaning that politicians will never negotiate on the basis of fair claims for both parties. Furthermore, the situation in Hebron‘s H2 zone, where Palestinians survive (their existence cannot be described as a ‘living’) under constant threat of arbitrary arrests and persecution is unacceptable from any state claiming to be democratic.
The end of the abominable barbed wire and check points that separate two peoples who have lived side by side for millennia is not foreseeable, but nor is it impossible. The main problem is a lack of political will on the Israeli side and growing antagonism on the side of the Palestinians who experience constant injustice. The latter is unfortunately manipulated by Hamas and other groups favouring armed resistance against Israel.
Meanwhile, European and American foreign policy towards Israel is toothless.
Israel has no immediate interest in ending its policies in the West Bank and Gaza. Settlements expand Jewish influence in the West Bank and relieve Israel from housing shortages; the separation wall cuts off Jerusalem’s Arabs from Ramallah and the rest of the West Bank; and the on-going control of Gaza by Hamas’s extremists justifies Israel’s harsh clamp down on West Bank inhabitants. Clearly, allies are not genuinely pressuring Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition. Now that Iran is coming back onto the agenda, Israel will be key to the US in defusing a potential Iranian-initiated nuclear proliferation. Surely, if Iran were to acquire the A-bomb, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – not to mention Egypt and Syria – would be next. But power politics of this sort keep swallowing up concerns over the daily life of the Palestinian people.
Let’s not forget them. We, the west, started this mess by failing to uphold our promises before and during World War I and allowed it to develop because we felt guilty – and rightly so – about World War II. We ought to try harder to solve the dispute, especially whilst the wise Abbas is still around. I do not dare to imagine what could happen under more radical Palestinian leadership. Today, at least, radical policies and rhetoric come mainly from Netanyahu’s government, including extreme views from Avigdor Lieberman, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and others who, in my opinion, use Hamas and Gaza as a scapegoat time and again. Israelis should stop buying into their discourse and demand that both parties reconcile to negotiations.
Israel is the Middle East’s only democracy – at least for Israelis. It should start acting like one. Israeli public opinion should let its government know they are heading straight to a dead end. Let’s not wait until the great people of Israel and Palestine bleed each other dry. Israeli policies are dangerous and harmful for the Jewish state, for the stability of the region, and for Israelis and Jews worldwide. The tragedy is that everybody loses in the end. Building walls and ghettos will not protect anyone; it will only nurture revenge and hatred. Israel is increasingly on the wrong side of history. It is planting the seeds of its own demise.
Maximilien Berg is an MPhil student at Oxford University.