Following President Bush’s meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Aqaba, Jordan, the Middle East peace process is once again officially underway. To maximize the diplomatic momentum developed thus far, rhetoric must translate into concrete improvements on the ground and all sides will need to address issues that are at the heart of the conflict.
From the moment Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon used the word “occupation” to describe Israel’s relationship to the Palestinians, many began questioning whether the time is ripe for a resolution of this decades-long conflict. His call for an end to “occupation” has nonetheless prompted a false sense of hope among many.
Sharon did not indicate any willingness to relinquish Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, merely expressing instead a desire to end any Israeli responsibility for the Palestinian population – a sentiment echoing Israeli prime ministers since 1967. It is this core tenet of Israel’s vision that has prevented the creation of a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and thwarted efforts to resolve the conflict.
After the occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip in 1967, Israeli leaders wrestled with how to ensure control over the land and resources of these areas while avoiding responsibility for the Palestinians living there. Their “solution” has been virtually uniform: Palestinians should be given some voice in their own affairs, while control of land, resources and economy remained with Israel. Since 1967, successive Israeli governments have implemented a series of strategic plans to achieve this.
Guided by the Allon Plan (1967), the Sharon Plan (1977) and a plan by the World Zionist Organization (1978), Israel has constructed settlements and connecting roads designed to isolate Palestinian population centers and prevent their expansion, meantime ensuring Israel’s permanent control over large swaths of land.
After the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993, Israel moved to “remote” control. The Israeli army transferred limited powers to the new “self-governing entity,” the Palestinian Authority, and redeployed outside Palestinian towns, thus decreasing risks to Israeli soldiers while maintaining the occupation through a nexus of Israeli checkpoints, closures and permits necessary to move outside or between Palestinian areas.
At the same time, Israel launched a massive settlement expansion that Sharon had planned in 1991. Motivated by large economic incentives, Israeli settlers flocked to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, doubling the number of settlers there between 1994 – 2000. These settlements were linked to Israel by “bypass roads” that expanded the road network proposed in the Allon and Sharon Plans.
A key piece in the overall plan is currently under construction – a concrete “separation” wall, 25 feet tall, that will surround the Palestinian cantons in the West Bank. Maps outlining the final contours of the wall illustrate the complete concordance between Israel’s grand vision of the West Bank and the earlier Allon and Sharon maps.
There is a lot of attention on the road map’s plan for dismantlement of Israeli settlement “outposts” built since March 2001, and a planned freeze on all settlement activity. But dismantling these “outposts” will have no impact on major settlement blocs, and ending settlement expansion does not go far enough: large settlement blocs – Sharon’s “facts on the ground” – already protrude into the West Bank and Gaza.
In his recent statements, Sharon has not changed the Israeli position at all. “It is in Israel’s interest,” he said at the end of the Aqaba Summit, “not to govern the Palestinians but for the Palestinians to govern themselves in their own state.”
The problem is Sharon’s vision of that state – one he outlined in a December 2002 speech: “(the) Palestinian state will be … allowed to maintain lightly armed police and interior forces to ensure civil order. Israel will continue to control all entries and exits to the Palestinian state, will command its airspace and not allow it to form alliances with Israel’s enemies.”
Focusing on Sharon’s use of the word “occupation” or possible dismantlement of “outposts” blinds us to the larger reality – an apartheid-style Palestinian “Bantustan,” where the fig leaf of autonomy hides the reality of continued Israeli occupation. If Israel is allowed to implement its strategic plan, the newest efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are doomed to fail.