Televised images of Israeli combat soldiers killing unarmed Palestinian children and helicopters strafing Palestinian neighborhoods have publicly exposed the Israeli military force that undergirds and shapes the Oslo process.

Despite previous crises and setbacks over the past seven years, government officials and media sources have portrayed the negotiations as a slow, at times troubled, but nonetheless steady journey towards a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But after recent events, the public is now well aware that something is seriously wrong with this picture. It is difficult to reconcile even a troubled peace process with the merciless images of war — especially with this one-sided war in which a heavily armed military force is crushing—the word “massacring” may be more appropriate—crowds of largely unarmed protesters.

It is hardly a contest on the war front, but an equally important battle is being waged over the meaning of the conflict. This parallel battle for public opinion, and through it government support and political legitimacy, mirrors the dynamics of the military conflict. Israel strategically deploys a superior arsenal (in this case, media access and connections coupled with well-funded and sophisticated spin control) to enforce its version of events, while the Palestinian leadership squanders the opportunity to mount effective resistance based on the moral and political appeal of a defenseless, oppressed yet galvanized population.

The intensity of the conflict indicates larger forces at play than spontaneous protest and military escalation. We are witnessing more than the pent-up outrage of a people for whom seven years of peace negotiations has meant increased poverty, repression and humiliation from both Israeli occupation forces and their own corrupt and brutal self-rule authority. We are also witnessing a harbinger of the Barak government’s plan for final status, the liberal Israeli vision of peace—ethnic separation enforced by a military iron fist.

Orchestrated Violence?

Israeli officials charge—and media outlets uncritically accept—that Arafat is orchestrating the violence for political gain. This charge is truly Orwellian in its inversion of logic and reality.

In a move calculated to maximize Palestinian anger, Sharon, along with 1,000 well-armed police and border guards supplied by Barak, chose to champion Israeli sovereignty over the Haram al Sharif with a personal visit on the anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacres. The ensuing Palestinian protests were spearheaded initially by Islamists and students—the very sectors that most despise Arafat and over which he exerts the least control. And far from intervening decisively, the PA’s 40,000-strong security forces, which Arafat does control, have largely avoided direct confrontation with the Israeli army, offering only sporadic support to rock-throwing demonstrators facing off against Israeli helicopter gunships, armored units and combat platoons. In this context, the charge that Arafat is directing and radicalizing Palestinian protest from behind the scenes is a transparent pretext to shift blame for the violence and pressure the PA to crack down on “the street”—which paradoxically has the effect of distancing Arafat and the PA even further from popular sentiment.

Notwithstanding Israeli claims, the issue of who is actually orchestrating the violence seems rather obvious. Israel’s massive and coordinated military assault, with tank deployments ringing major Palestinian population centers throughout the Occupied Territories, testifies to careful planning. In recent months Barak and army leaders have openly threatened the strategic deployment of overwhelming military force to crush Palestinian “violence” in the event of a unilateral declaration of statehood by Arafat. Other components of this very public plan included annexing large areas of Palestinian territory and besieging encircled population centers.

Lack of international response to this brazen threat set the stage for the recent conflagration. It should not be necessary to recall that Palestinians have an internationally affirmed right to self-determination. The PLO’s 1988 Declaration of Independence already constitutes a declaration of statehood, recognized by almost all countries in the world (except of course Israel, the US, and a handful of others). Israel’s self-proclaimed veto over Palestinian statehood, and Arafat’s playing politics by repeatedly postponing the (re)declaration, in no way negate the legal, moral and political basis of this fundamental Palestinian right.

Yet the international community stood silently by when Israel asserted an explicit commitment to deploy massive and illegal military force against Palestinians for declaring their right to statehood. Now that Israel has chosen to implement this plan, albeit a bit later under different circumstances than anticipated, it is hardly surprising that most world leaders have issued only weak appeals for “both” sides to stop the killing, even while Israeli helicopter gunships fire American-supplied TOW missiles into residential Palestinian neighborhoods. This muted reaction is only the latest and most egregious example of the “even-handed” approach adopted throughout the Oslo process, whereby the two parties are left to their own devices to work things out irrespective of power imbalances or human rights considerations.

Ominous Developments in Israel

Inside Israel, police contingents have killed nine and wounded hundreds of Palestinian citizens of Israel in northern towns like Nazareth and Umm al-Fahm. Many of the casualties were struck in the head and chest with live ammunition, apparently the victims of shoot-to-kill targeting. According to rights groups, scores of demonstrators have been detained, beaten and tortured. Unlike their counterparts in Gaza, these protestors do not include armed police within their ranks, or even experienced stone-throwers. The use of excessive force against Israel’s Palestinian citizens comes on the heels of a recent campaign by Galilee police commander Alik Ron, who accused Arab communities in northern Israel of harboring a network of Islamic terrorists. Though later proven false, these widely reported charges generated a wave of anti-Arab sentiment among the Israeli public. Many Israeli Palestinians fear that Ron’s slanders, followed by the brutal police response to unarmed protests, are part of a broader campaign to isolate and intimidate Israel’s Arab minority.

Implications for the Oslo Process

In the short-term, all progress towards final status talks has stopped. The larger question is whether Barak can revive momentum for his peace plan, repeated endlessly to the Israeli public of “us here, them there.” This model of socio-economic, cultural and especially physical separation between Jew and Arab derives from the original Labor Zionist ideology that culminated in the 1948 military expulsion of 90 per cent of the indigenous Palestinian population from what became Israel. Through the Oslo process, Barak is seeking international sanction and legal ratification for this longstanding vision of ethnic and religious segregation.

“Us here, them there” has a formula to resolve the contentious final status issues of statehood, land, refugees and Jerusalem. Palestinians are to be separated from Israel politically and geographically, linked only economically in the form of cheap labor and captive markets. Arafat will be anointed president of his cherished state on 90 per cent of the West Bank and Gaza. But the population will remain confined in territorially non-contiguous bantustans, encircled by and controlled through a network of Israeli settlements, roads and military checkpoints, and subject to repressive PA security forces. In return for Israeli sovereignty over the settlements, the Barak camp has even floated the possibility of ceding sovereignty over Arab areas in northern Israel, thereby ridding the state of 300,000 Palestinian citizens. As the final element in this plan, over three million Palestinian refugees will be denied their internationally recognized human right to return to homes within Israel, and instead given some cash and the “choice” of involuntary resettlement in either the new statelet of Palestine or surrounding Arab countries.

At Camp David, the narrow dispute over the old city of Jerusalem overshadowed broader agreement on these basic elements of “us here, them there.” While the recent crisis has temporarily set back prospects for a final status agreement, it may also reinforce Barak’s fundamental message to the Israeli public that Jews and Arabs are better off apart — including in divided Jerusalem. To Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories and inside Israel, the message is even more clear: the alternative to Israeli-imposed peace is the ruthless iron fist of war. It remains to be seen whether Palestinians can effectively put forward alternatives of their own.

How to cite this article:

Roger Normand "The Iron Fist in the Peace Process," Middle East Report Online, October 04, 2000.

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