- By Sam Bahour
The entire U.S. administration’s Middle East A-team–President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, and Special Envoy Mitchell–is defying the mass majority of political analysts by dismissing the status quo in the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip, and insisting that the latest round of Palestinian-Israeli direct talks has the potential to lead to an agreement which will resolve the conflict. I have a deep fear that they may be correct in predicting an agreement will be signed, but I do not have an iota of confidence that it will end the conflict.
Conventional wisdom on both sides of the Atlantic predicts that the current peace talks will hit a cement wall before the one-year time frame expires. The numerous explanations for the predicted failure are all sensible given the region’s track record. International law is blatantly ignored, the logic of might is right trumps justice and the international community continues to turn its back to its own obligations toward the occupied Palestinian people.
On the Palestinian side, reality is a mix between frustration, despair, disunity and betrayal. The Palestinian negotiating team claims to be a legitimate leadership but there is not one functioning institutional body that can claim to be the source of their self-defined legitimacy. This quasi-leadership understands its legitimacy crisis so well that only a few months ago they were forced to cancel legally-required municipal elections out of concern of losing, even though Hamas was boycotting the elections–so much for Palestinian democracy.
The fear is that the Palestinian negotiating team is in their final round in the game of political survival. If these current talks do not reach an agreement–any agreement–the only way for Mahmoud Abbas and his cohorts to remain in office will be by way of the barrel of a gun, similar to how most other Arab states exist today.
However, the Palestinian people are not your average Arab population; they understand that their demise was not served up at the hands of the Palestinian leadership, legitimate or otherwise. First to blame is Israel for its dispossession of Palestinians and what is commonly referred to as military occupation. The 1948 dispossession took place in broad daylight for all to see, although many preferred blindness. Israel was created on the remains–both living and dead–of Palestinians, leaving some 5 million refugees dwelling in squalid refugee camps for over 60 years and many others displaced in their own homeland. It is no wonder that Israel fears for its security.
The military occupation part of Israel’s crimes against humanity began in 1967 and is becoming less and less recognizable with every new Israeli settlement and violation of the Fourth Geneva Conventions. International law defines military occupation as a state of affairs which is temporary by nature. After forty-three years it is becoming much harder to classify Israel’s occupation as temporary. As a matter of fact, the occupier, Israel, has dumped volumes of professional media spin over the past four decades to convince the world that the lands in question are in fact "disputed" and not militarily occupied. If the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip are not occupied, then what are they? Are the negotiations launched in Washington D.C. aimed at ending an internationally-recognized (and U.S. recognized) military occupation or are they rearranging some other reality which is yet unnamed?
If we view the facts on the ground in Israel-Palestine for what they are today, then only one word applies: apartheid. Realizing this reality as apartheid is not new. President Jimmy Carter referred to it in his recent book title; past Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak both spoke the "A" word as being the direction in which Israel is heading.
True, apartheid is best known for its application in South Africa and for its ultimate collapse there. However, the system of apartheid did not stop with its failure, it moved on to be defined in international law for what it was: a crime. The 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court defined the crime of apartheid as inhumane acts of a character similar to other crimes against humanity "committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime." If this definition does not reflect what Israel is doing to Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel proper, then blindness reigns supreme.
Thus, if these current direct talks are aiming to produce an agreement that ignores or attempts to coexist with the unrelenting, slow-motion, ethnic cleansing of Palestinians that Israel continues to this day, then it will be worthy of merely a few photo-ops that will be forgotten before the negotiating teams return to their respective homes. Even the creative idea floating around of using a failure in the talks to get the UN to admit Palestine as a state–if it does not remove the underlying system of apartheid–would merely be rearranging the legal status to serve the continuation of Israel’s crimes against humanity.
The most dignified failure these talks can hope for is that the international community finally come to its senses, preferably with the U.S., and passes a UN resolution with specific punitive actions that identifies the status in Israel-Palestine, all of historic Palestine, for what it is: the crime of apartheid.
Only when the definition of the problem is crystal clear can we formulate an appropriate solution and have renewed faith in the international community’s ability to act on what it knows very well to be reality: that Israeli actions over the last six decades have nullified the two-state solution. A new model of co-existence must be envisioned, a model built not on racism, separation and exceptionalism, but on mutual and equal human and civil rights across all of Palestine and Israel.
If the current peace talks surprise the world and result in a true sovereign Palestine, free of Israeli control and domination, then I’d be happy to be mistaken; if not however, it’s time for the world to at least call reality for what it is. Anything less is an insult to our collective intelligence.
Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American business consultant living in the Palestinian city of Al-Bireh in the West Bank. He is co-author of HOMELAND: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians (1994).