Posted on February 13, 1995 in Washington Watch
I am writing from Jerusalem. It is the month of Ramadan and all around me is a city in pain. It is my third visit to the this year, and in some ways it is the most difficult.
I have come with U.S. Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown as part of his mission to promote economic development and the peace process. But one and one half years after the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian agreement, there is little evidence of peace or economic progress – especially for the Palestinians.
On this trip, I have met with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and other ministers of his government. I have met with PLO Chairman Yasir `Arafat and other Palestinian ministers. In addition, I have met with separate groups of Israeli and Palestinian business and political leaders, and talked with ordinary citizens on both sides.
The “official line” being touted after the Cairo summit is that the “process is back on track” and that there is a “new momentum towards peace.” But the reality is quite different.
All that Israelis will talk about is “the terror.” From the most liberal and the most conservative Israeli the message is the same: “terror must stop for peace to go forward.” It is a deeply felt consensus view.
All the Palestinians see is occupation and the terror that accompanies it. In the West Bank, in particular, it is evident that little has changed. The closure of Jerusalem is nearly complete. In some ways, the city has become a “no man’s land.” It’s economy and its spirit are being killed as its ties with the West Bank diminish. Despair has replaced the hope that many felt just one year ago. And many of Jerusalem’s young speak of leaving – they say, “There is no life for us here.”
In traveling in any direction out of the city you can see the raped hilltops; fresh earth turned over and new settlements being constructed. There is new building in the established settlements. In so many ways, it is business as usual.
Going into or leaving Gaza, again, seems strikingly similar to occupation. It is difficult to see what has changed.
If there is peace, someone forgot to tell the Israelis at the checkpoints or their Palestinian victims. Young men with guns facing grown men in a line. The young Israelis shouting rudely, giving orders; the older, brooding Palestinians acting nervous and afraid, keeping their anger in. It is a classic portrait of power versus powerlessness. The daily humiliation of the checkpoint can’t help but create hatred.
Inside Gaza you can see change. There are Palestinians in uniform and Palestinians in charge. The city is a little cleaner now and there is some building underway. But one gets the feeling that Gaza is in the eye of a storm – it is waiting. How long it can wait is difficult to tell.
Take the building, for example. Near the coast in Gaza city you can see large buildings in various stages of completion, buildings not unlike those being erected in other Arab cities. But no matter what the degree of completion, the buildings wait. There is no infrastructure: no adequate water, electricity, telephone service and especially sewage treatment. Real streets in Gaza City are few and far between. Whatever the Israelis did during their 27 year occupation of Gaza, building or paving streets was not one of their priorities. Neither was sewage. One of the most common sights seen while traveling through Gaza City are the enormous ponds that cars must go through, even on most major roads. It’s like riding through the park in Washington after a huge rainfall – except this wasn’t rainwater, it was waste water.
The business men in Gaza are also waiting: for loans, for the right to export their products, for the right to leave the country to seek investment, for material and massive and promised international aid that was to jumpstart their economy and give them the infrastructure they need to grow.
And the young men in Gaza are waiting, too. For jobs, for opportunities, for hope in a better future.
I came away from this trip with the sad realization that this process is giving peace a bad name. Many people don’t even want to hear about peace or talk about it. There is a deep cynicism developing – something that summits and declarations won’t cure.
I also came away with the conviction that this cycle of anger and fear, cynicism and despair, and violence can be broken; but it do so requires addressing their root causes.
Peace requires that attitudes change. But for attitudes to change, reality must change first.
When the declaration of “mutual recognition rights was signed” was signed, Palestinians and Israelis were both ready for such change to occur. But daily life has not changed, and old attitudes are retrenching.
Palestinians remain powerless. Their land continues to be taken from them, the humiliation and control and terror of the occupation remain facts of life. And this powerlessness has produced deformities in the culture: anger, despair and cynicism.
Israelis remain in control. But their control is never complete and so they become victims of Palestinian despair and anger. And they, too, are deformed by the resulting anger, fear and cynicism.
It is interesting even to hear the way Israelis describe the “peace process.” They say “we can not give any more peace unless the terror stops.” “Giving peace” means, for them, relinquishing control, surrendering power. This is something masters are always afraid to do for fear the slaves will turn on them to avenge past wounds. And so the Israelis have attempted, from the beginning, to have peace while still maintaining control – seeking to define the limits of peace every step of the way. At times, the peace process might be better described as dictation and imposition, instead of dialogue and negotiation.
What is equally disturbing is the Israeli refusal to see cause and effect. The Israeli leadership and their supporters appear unable to assume responsibility for the anger and the violence that their skewed relationship with the Palestinians has brought into existence.
In their way of computing reality, it is as if all history begins with each new act of terror: nothing happened before it, and no one (other than they) has suffered before the victims of this particular act. There is no effort to see the violence in a cycle or to understand why the perpetrators acted as they did or why there are people whose anger and despair bring them to support this or that crime.
Hence, in their view, Israelis speak about terror as if it were a mere malignancy, a foreign implant, that has invaded the peace process with ont on reason – to destroy it. The simplistic solution, in this view, is to “eradicate” or “exterminate” the terror by rounding up or otherwise eliminating its supporters.
Of course, it must be granted that there are groups and individuals who seek to destroy the peace process with terror. But if the process were really working, then the danger and despair off which these fanatics prey would evaporate, leaving them isolated in their respective bodies politic. Ignoring that connection causes the Israelis and those who support them to view the elimination of terror in purely military and police terms.
Yet by acting on this view, the Israelis perpetuate acts of collective punishment (its own form of terror) designed to demonstrate their power and to remind the Palestinians of their powerlessness. It is lost on the Israelis that this simply produces more despair and anger, and creates more Palestinian victims who will support desperate acts of striking out against the master – and so the cycle of violence is perpetuated.
All of this is an old story, it was to have changed with peace and the “mutual recognition of rights.” So far, it has not.
There are so many others things I learned on this visit, so many specific recommendations I will make in an effort to end the cycle and bring real change to the daily lives of people in the Israeli and Palestinian people.
But the first and simplest observation I can make is that: yes, the terror must stop and yes, the process is impeded by the continuation of violence. But for the terror to stop and to dry up its support, there must be a change in the daily life of Palestinians. And that requires less Israeli control, less humiliation, more opportunity and more respect for Palestinians’ equal rights as human beings. These are the changes tat were hoped for in September of 1993.
These are what peace was to have brought – and peace will not become real until these changes become real.
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