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No peace from Netanyahu

Laila El-Haddad | The Guardian

16 June 2009

“Eight nos, but nothing new.” This is the reaction I hear over and over again from Palestinian refugees here in Lebanon’s Wavel Refugee Camp, where four generations wait to return to the homeland from which they were brutally evicted over 60 years ago, in response to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s so-called landmark policy speech.

This is from those who even bothered to listen.

The US and Europe saw his speech as a move towards recognising two states (while dismissing the right of return, a divided Jerusalem and an end to settlements, and the list goes on) and thus some sort of advance towards peace; others suggested it was a step backward.

Both analyses are flawed. One confuses a call for a Palestinian ghetto as a call for a sovereign, viable Palestinian state. The other is based on the assumption that progress was made over the past (few) decades vis a vis Palestinian statehood.

The speech was full of rosy conjectures. The word “peace” was repeated 45 times.

Tellingly, the word occupation was not mentioned once. Neither, for that matter, was international law. Or freedom – except in the context of facilitating some freedom of movement only after Palestinians give up their rights to move freely.

“Peace has always been our people’s most ardent desire,” he explained, citing three “immense” challenges that stood in the way (the Iranian threat, the economic crisis and the advancement of peace).

In fact, it is an illegal, draconian and malicious occupation that has stifled peace and continues to pose the biggest threat to Israel’s security.

In his speech, Netanyahu called for negotiations without preconditions while simultaneously imposing the conditions that would make a just and viable peace impossible: an undivided Jerusalem, no right of return, no sovereignty, continued settlement expansion.

The demands to recognise Israel as a Jewish state annuls the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes from which they were systemically and violently expelled in 1948 in what is now Israel – a right enshrined in international law and at the heart of the Palestinian struggle.

Such a state would promote, subsidise and allow Jewish-only immigration and rights as it does now while denying native inhabitants this same right.

Nations are quick to dismiss the Palestinian right of return, but equally quick to facilitate the return of Darfur, Kosovan, or East Timor refugees in recent years.

This demand also consolidates Israel’s discriminatory policies, and would dismiss in one fell swoop the rights of the Palestinian minority in Israel, who make up 20% of the population. It is effectively saying: we have the right to discriminate against you, to take any measures we deem necessary in order to sustain the Jewish majority. Such measures have already been suggested in the Knesset, like a loyalty oath, even population transfer.

Then there is talk of the illegal settlements. New settlements aren’t the issue. Who needs new settlements if Israeli loophole policies in recent years have provided ample room for expansion?

Currently the illegal annexation barrier, together with settlement-related infrastructure (including settler-only roads, army bases, closed military zones and more than 600 checkpoints) consume 38% of the West Bank, annexing land and livelihoods, dividing villages, towns, and families from one another and tearing apart the very fabric of Palestinian social and economic life.

So, we have not moved forward. But we are certainly a step backwards from the heyday of Oslo, some might say. The fact is, during the Oslo years from 1993 to 2000, four under Netanyahu’s reign, the Israeli settler population expanded by 71%.

Such policies are already being implemented in Jerusalem, where land theft and demolitions continue daily, and where Palestinian Christian and Muslim residents are subject to draconian laws that would strip them of their residency rights there if they fail to renew their ID cards regularly.

Netanyahu’s vision of a Palestinian states is bereft of the very factors that make a state sovereign: effective control over land, sky, and sea, among other things. But this should come as no surprise. Israel’s longstanding policy has been one of repackaging the occupation and postponing viable Palestinian statehood indefinitely by rendering it impossible.

It is a goal summed up by the late Israeli sociologist, Baruch Kimmerling, as politicide: a gradual but systematic attempt to cause their annihilation as an independent political and social entity. In tune with this policy, nowhere in Oslo is there mention of a Palestinian state, only limited self-rule. Netanyahu’s own Likud party’s charter flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Neither is Hamas the issue, with whom Netanyahu foreswore talks. It has not even elected prior to 2006. It did not even exist before 1987. But it enjoys broad support among Palestinians; it was rightfully elected in free and fair elections encouraged and unhindered by the US and Israel respectively; and it is deeply entrenched within society; it is a reality with which Israel must come to grips.

And long before Hamas, Israel was similarly destroying civilian infrastructure, assassinating Palestinians, closing borders, de-developing the economy and sowing lawlessness and chaos in Gaza; all punishment for not being “co-operative” enough; “moderate” enough; tame enough.

All of this, of course, is leaving aside the 1.5 million human beings consigned to a life of living death by Israel and its allies – and by allies I also mean the Arab world. Closed in on all sides, deliberately deprived of the most basics rights of life.

Even after the so-called disengagement from Gaza, the landmark event that supposedly reigned freedom unto Gaza and its people, Israel continued to maintain effective control over Gaza’s borders, her air, sea, sky, even the population registry; and continued to impose a longstanding siege. This despite warnings from experts about the dire consequences that would ensue by not guaranteeing movement and access to people and goods. Gaza faced poverty and unemployment unprecedented in 40 years since Israel’s occupation as a result.

But by Netanyahu’s estimates, this is peace. Gaza is the model – the vision – for what a so-called Palestinian state would look like. In his article for Comment is free, Progress in the Peace Process, Jeremy Sharon said that if the Palestinian national movement is to make any progress, its “maximalist demands may have to be walked back”.

The trouble is, Sharon’s maximalist demands are another’s minimalism: Palestinians have already conceded 78% of their historic homeland in favour of the two-state land for peace deal (I am a proponent of a one-state solution, with equal rights for all, as are increasingly many others).

Netanyahu talked idyllically of a peace in which a tourism-driven economy would draw millions to Nazareth and Bethlehem. He forgot to mention the caveat that tourists would first have to face an apartheid barrier twice the size of the Berlin wall, navigate a Kafkaesque matrix of Israeli administrative control and, if they carry the wrong colour ID, scale sewers if they desire to visit a family member across the way in East Jerusalem.