On April 24, 1996 — Israel’s forty-eighth Independence Day — PLO leader Yasser Arafat made good on his 1993 pledge to the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to amend “those articles of the Palestine Covenant which deny Israel’s right to exist.” In a historic decision, 504 out of the 572 members attending the twenty-first Palestine National Council (PNC) in the Gaza Strip voted to change the Covenant and replace it with a new version based on the 1993 and 1995 Oslo accords, the PNC’s 1988 Declaration of Independence and political statement (which explicitly recognized the state of Israel) and those UN resolutions pertinent to the Palestinian question, especially 242 and 338 (which call for a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict based on the principle of land for peace).

The decision pulled the Oslo peace process out of its worst crisis since its inauguration in September 1993. A spate of Islamist suicide attacks in Israel in late February and early March (leaving a toll of 58 dead and 200 wounded) had drawn from the Israeli government truly massive reprisals, freezing all relations with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and instituting the severest closure ever imposed on the Occupied Territories. Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres made any return to negotiations contingent upon the PA rooting out Hamas’ “terrorist infrastructure in the self-rule areas” and the PNC changing the Covenant.

In the weeks after the suicide attacks, PA security forces in the West Bank and Gaza Strip arrested upwards of 900 Palestinians for their “suspected links” to Hamas’ military arm, the ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam militia responsible for three of the four suicide operations, raided 30 Palestinian welfare and educational institutions and took control of 59 mosques in the Gaza Strip. On April 18, in their first meeting since the crisis erupted, Peres met Arafat in the Gaza Strip, applauding the PLO leader for “doing a serious job against Hamas.” Two weeks later, the PA’s head of Preventive Security in Gaza, Muhammad Dahlan, announced that all members of ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam had been arrested by the Palestinian police save its military chief, Mohammad Dayf. The decision to change the Covenant capped Arafat’s Israeli and international rehabilitation.

The immediate fruits for the PA are likely to be Israel’s lifting of the closure, some movement on the Israeli army’s stalled redeployment in Hebron and the release of around 30 women political prisoners from Israeli jails, though all will probably occur after the Israeli elections on May 29. More significantly from Arafat’s point of view, the restitution of the political process meant that Oslo’s final status negotiations — in which the difficult issues of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, refugees and borders are to be addressed — would commence as scheduled on May 5.

The chief beneficiary of Arafat’s labors, however, is Peres. At the time the PNC was amending the Covenant, the Israeli leader was embroiled in US-mediated negotiations with Lebanon and Syria to extract his military forces from their second Lebanese fiasco in three years.

Israel had many motives for launching Operation Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon on April 11, the least of them being to ensure the “security” for the residents who live near its northern border. Angered by the Hizballah’s increasing prowess in hitting Israeli soldiers inside occupied south Lebanon, Israel’s principal objective in the operation was to compel the Lebanese and Syrian governments to deal with Hizballah the way Arafat (under like Israeli pressure) has dealt with Hamas.

It failed. Despite the killing of over 160 Lebanese civilians and the deliberate displacement of a further 500,000, the US- and French- brokered “understanding” that ended the war on April 26 confines hostilities to military targets inside the occupied zone while prohibiting attacks on Lebanese and Israeli civilians outside it.

Equally galling from Israel’s point of view is the fact that an operation devised largely to isolate Syria’s President Hafiz al-Asad served only to strengthen him. During the 16 days of Israel&rsqou;s offensive in Lebanon, the Syrian leader played host to no fewer than six foreign ministers, including three trips to Damascus by Secretary of State Warren Christopher. From the outset, Asad made it clear that he would not countenance any deal other than return to something like the 1993 status quo. Despite quite conscious attacks against Lebanon’s civic and economic infrastructure (and rocked by international opprobrium heaped on Israel after the massacre of 102 Lebanese refugees at Kafr Qana on April 18), Peres in the end was forced to submit to Asad’s terms. Likewise, Hizballah, Lebanon’s premier Shi‘i movement, announced that it would adhere to the “understanding” because it “represents a victory for our organization.”

Such humiliations were not lost on a largely apathetic (Jewish) Israeli public. At the close of the Lebanon debacle, Peres was no further ahead in the polls than at its start. But among Israel’s 850,000 Palestinian citizens, Peres’ standing plummeted. In protest demonstrations across Israel, Palestinian leaders from Hadash and the Democratic Arab Party not only condemned Israel’s atrocities in Lebanon and collective punishments in the Occupied Territories, they threatened to withdraw their support for Peres in Israel’s prime ministerial elections.

If the risk of Peres losing the elections is less now than before, this is largely due to Arafat’s intervention, politically through his mauling of Hamas and symbolically through changing the Covenant. But regardless of who wins the Israeli elections, the basic parameters of Oslo will remain. The Oslo process is predicated less on “mutual recognition of Israel and the Palestinians’ legitimate and political rights” (as the 1993 Declaration of Principles states) than on the gradual realization of US and Israeli military hegemony in the region, articulated in terms of Israel’s “security.”

Yet, should this goal be achieved, it may not only foreclose any Palestinian claims to genuine self-determination and return; it may also trigger the region’s next war, with Iran as the target, preferably (as Israel’s Lebanese adventure has shown) unallied with Syria.

Internal Closure

Oslo II, the interim agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip signed on September 28, 1995, was deliberately ambiguous. This allowed for two mutually exclusive contingencies. The first was that the PA’s limited and disaggregated autonomy over about 58 percent of the Gaza Strip and 31 percent of the West Bank could become territorially contiguous and evolve, through further transfers of territory to the PA over three six-month intervals, into something resembling a Palestinian sovereign entity. Unstated in the agreement — but nevertheless shared by PA and Israeli negotiators — is the premise that these transfers will constitute future borders since they will be instituted during the final status talks. But these territorial transfers are not automatic; the agreement makes clear that they are contingent on the PA meeting Israel’s perceived security requirements, including the “personal security” of some 300,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip.

Should the PA fail to deliver on (Israeli) security, Oslo II’s second contingency would come into effect. Israel has the power to effect reentry, mobility and presence anywhere in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to ensure its security, including inside the eight “autonomous areas” where the PA currently enjoys nominal jurisdiction.

This security hegemony is maintained not only by the 130 Jewish settlements, but also by Israel’s ongoing construction of 26 new bypass roads that will link settlements in a grid-like arrangement and the establishment of 62 new Israeli army bases on the peripheries of the Palestinian enclaves.

This infrastructure of settlements, roads and bases not only enables Israel to “close” the Gaza Strip off from the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem; it operationalizes a system of “internal closure” which allows the Israeli army to slice the Gaza Strip into two parts. In the West Bank the potential for internal isolation is even more insidious, cantonizing the Palestinians into their 465 villages, six “autonomous” towns (Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarm, Qalqilya, Ramallah, Bethlehem) and two “occupied” cities of Jerusalem and Hebron.

The political impact of the suicide attacks has been to activate Oslo II’s second contingency. On March 4, Peres imposed “internal closure” on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. For the next 11 days, more than 1.3 million West Bank Palestinians were put under wholesale curfew, with all mobility between villages and towns prohibited. In the Gaza Strip, the Israeli army “repositioned” itself and set up checkpoints between the Gaza Strip’s northern and southern areas. The toll inflicted on Palestinian economic and civic life, even temporarily, was catastrophic.

In the West Bank, Palestinian NGOs estimated that for the duration of the internal closure about 200,000 Palestinians (i.e., 80 percent of the labor force) were prevented from reaching their workplaces. This was in addition to the 40,000 who had lost jobs in Israel when Peres imposed the original closure on February 25. Daily losses to the Palestinian economy were approximately $6 million. But the overall loss is “incalculable,” says the PA’s deputy minister of economics, trade and industry Samir Hulayla, “given the damage such measures cause to investments and business confidence in the autonomy.”

According to the PA Health Ministry, the internal closure shut down 245 clinics in the West Bank due either to shortages of medical supplies or the inability of staff to get to work. The Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees reported that at least five people died due to being turned back or delayed at army checkpoints, including a 21-day old baby girl who died from treatable respiratory ailments.

In the Gaza Strip, 22,000 Palestinians were denied access not only to their jobs in Israel, but also to new “industrial zones” that straddle the Gaza Strip-Israel “border.” All exports and imports to and from Israel were terminated, causing severe shortages of flour, sugar, salt and dairy products as well as medical supplies and raw industrial materials. Even when the internal closure was lifted on March 15, “stricter security procedures” by the army at the three Palestinian crossing points cut the number of trucks crossing from a pre-closure rate of 400 to 40 a day. One result was a reduction of flour imports from 250 to 40 tons a day. A bread famine in the Gaza Strip was averted solely due to emergency measures by UN Relief Works Agency and the PA.

These events underscore the absolute dependency that still exists between all spheres of Palestinian society and Israeli military rule which, if anything, has become more acute since the Oslo accords were signed in 1993. As ominously, they demonstrate the heightened military hold Israel now commands over the Occupied Territories.

Had the Israeli army attempted anything comparable to this internal closure in the pre-Oslo period, especially during the intifada, it would have provoked massive civic unrest and stretched Israel’s military resources to the limit. But in the post-Oslo era of joint PA-Israeli “security coordination,” in a matter of hours the Israeli army simply reoccupied Palestinian villages and refugee camps in the West Bank by instructing the PA police, in the words of Israel’s Chief PA Liaison Officer Moshe Elad, “to step aside.” In the West Bank’s six nominally “self-governing” cities, the PA’s main security task is to keep a lid on the simmering populations incarcerated there. The only Palestinian protest to the closure was a series of tightly controlled PA-Fatah demonstrations under the banner of “Yes to Peace, No to the Siege.”

Many Palestinian and Israeli analysts attest that this internal closure was the most draconian counter-insurgency measure imposed by Israel on the territories in 28 years of occupation. And it was executed without a single Israeli soldier being attacked, Israeli settler being killed or any real show of Palestinian resistance, armed or otherwise. “It’s the Gaza model applied to the West Bank,” said Israeli commentator Israel Shahak. “And it works.”

Punishment or Policy

The question is whether internal closure — and the cantonized future it augurs for Palestinian “self-rule” — marks a strategic turn on the part of the Israeli government or a tactical one, brought on as colossal (and collective) punishment against Palestinians in the occupied territories for the loss of so many Israeli lives in the suicide attacks. The sole remaining hope of Arafat and the PA is that it is the latter. But this is no longer clear.

For the Likud-led Israeli opposition and segments of the military establishment, internal closure is now perhaps the only mutant of Oslo they could live with. Even before the suicide bombings, Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu made it clear that a Likud government would not “tear up” the Oslo accords, but it would not tolerate the establishment of a Palestinian state and would restrict the Palestinian autonomy to its existing “self-rule” areas. After the bombings, Netanyahu spelled out the security measures that would underpin such an arrangement. A Likud government “would talk to the Palestinians,” he said on March 19. “But we will be the ones who will defend ourselves. The Oslo concept has failed. Yasser Arafat cannot and does not want to protect us. We must put our defense back in our own hands and give our security forces the freedom to hit where and when they deem right.” Polls conducted after the attacks showed that a consistent 44-46 percent of the Israeli electorate agreed with him as do many ministers in Labor’s ruling coalition government.

Is this now Peres’ vision? On March 10, he stated that Israel’s reoccupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip was not on his agenda so long as the PA “disarms and arrests Hamas supporters.” But it appears increasingly that he has adopted every other aspect of Likud’s version of Oslo. In the wake of the attacks, Peres reinstituted a series of punitive security measures from the pre-Oslo era. In the West Bank, the army blew up five homes belonging to Hamas suicide bombers and fugitives. Twelve Palestinian welfare, school and university institutions were ordered closed for six months because of alleged Islamist affiliations. Some 300 Palestinians were administratively detained (i.e., held without charge or trial) in regular and undercover army raids throughout the West Bank, including inside Palestinian villages formally under the PA’s jurisdiction. On March 14, Peres stated that he was in favor of expelling any Palestinian connected with the recent wave of suicide attacks once Israel “goes through the necessary military and legal checks.”

In an apparent reversal not only of policy but of deeply held personal conviction, on March 3, Peres approved the construction of a two-kilometer-wide “buffer zone” to run along the 350-kilometer West Bank-Israel Green Line. This aims to physically segregate Palestinians from Israelis by means of fences, electronic surveillance fields, helicopter patrols and an augmented allotment of 500 soldiers and border police on hand to take out infiltrators. Palestinians henceforth will only be able to enter Israel or East Jerusalem via one of the 18 official crossing points.

According to former head of the Israeli General Security Services (Shinbet) Carmi Gillon, this does not constitute a full-fledged “separation” since that would cost billions of dollars (the price tag for the above measures is about $80 million) and preempt the final status talks on borders. Yet it does make a mockery of the various Oslo economic agreements. The separation zone amounts to a de facto West Bank security border in which the transit of goods, capital and labor will be subject to Israeli veto. This transforms the proposed relationship between Israel and the Palestinians from one of partnership, as stated in the Paris protocol, to one of Palestinian subordination to Israel.

Finally, the series of military orders accelerating the construction of 220 kilometers of bypass roads was expedited in the aftermath of the suicide attacks. These roads have already confiscated 21 square kilometers of West Bank and Gaza Strip territory. The overall cost is $350 million. A glance at the topography of roads reveals that they are designed not simply to serve the “transport and housing needs of the Jewish settlements,” says Palestinian geographer Khalil Tafaqji. The roads’ “primary purpose is to surround and control the main Palestinian areas so that they can be militarily divided one from the other.”

Opposition from Within

Whether strategic or tactical, the danger of these decisions is that they will set in place a cantonization that may prove irreversible. This would not necessarily spell the end of the Oslo process, for Oslo, as Palestinian intellectual Azmi Bishara defines it, is “a structureless political situation” whose content has yet to be determined. It would, however, foreclose the possibility of a Palestinian entity emerging in the West Bank and Gaza Strip based on territorial contiguity and genuine political and economic sovereignty. The future that these measures conjure is rather one of “functional autonomy,” in which Palestinians have power over all local civic matters while Israel retains control over all territorial, resource and security matters. This solution to the Palestinian problem was proposed by Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Dayan after the 1967 war.

If this is the future, what should be the Palestinian response? After the suicide attacks, the posture of Yasser Arafat has been a mix of weak diplomatic protests at Israeli measures and a ruthless crackdown against his Islamist opposition. The latter has won him plaudits from Peres and the State Department, but it has utterly undermined the legitimacy of Oslo among Palestinians wrought by Israel’s West Bank redeployment last fall and the Palestinian Council elections in January. Coupled with the house demolitions, the mass arrests and, above all, the closure, the mood in the territories has swung back, not so much in support of Hamas, but against the peace process and its exclusivist privileging of Israel’s security.

In addition to driving the PA’s Islamist opposition into a de facto underground, these measures have begun to fracture the very constituencies upon which Arafat has based his rule thus far.

Following a PA police raid on a rally at Nablus’ al-Najah University and the killing of a Palestinian by PA intelligence personnel in al-Bira, Palestinians in both cities struck in protest. On April 3, about 1,000 Palestinian students from Birzeit University marched on the third session of Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), the body empowered to represent Palestinians from the self-rule areas. For the PLO leader, the most ominous feature of these protests was that all three were led by neither the Islamist nor secular opposition, but rather by the civilian wing of his own Fatah movement.

This constituency has power on the street and in the PLC, a factor that contributed to the 88-member council unanimously condemning the PA’s security forces for their illegal actions at al-Najah and in al-Bira. It was also telling that, of the 54 PNC members who voted against amending the Covenant, over half were elected PLC members, including such dissident Fatah leaders as ex-prisoner activist Qaddura Faris and ex-PLO Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Rafiq Natsha.

Whether these forces — combined with other sectors of Palestinian civil and political society — can form the nucleus of a new democratic opposition to the PA is unclear. But what is already clear is that any opposition fighting on behalf of the rule of law, human rights and accountability will not only have to take on the PA, but also the Israeli state and army that stands behind it. Arafat has assumed this authoritarian agenda not out of instinct or preference but because this is the only agenda which Israel will allow.

How to cite this article:

Graham Usher "Closures, Cantons and the Palestinian Covenant," Middle East Report 199 ( ).
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