The Common Good
August 2005

The Narrow Gate to Peace

by Jeff Halper | August 2005

The "facts on the ground" are troubling, but there's still hope for building a just peace in Israel-Palestine.

Those of us who live in Palestine-

Those of us who live in Palestine-Israel find ourselves at a fateful crossroads. From Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s point of view, Israel has won its conflict with the Palestinians. Surveying the landscape - physical and political alike - Sharon can feel a great deal of satisfaction. He has finally fulfilled the task with which he was charged in 1977 by Menachem Begin: to ensure permanent Israeli control over the entire Land of Israel while foreclosing the emergence of a viable Palestinian state.

With almost unlimited resources and the enthusiastic complicity of the Labor Party when his party, the Likud, was out of power, Sharon set out to establish irreversible "facts on the ground" that would pre-empt any process of negotiations. He oversaw the establishment of some 200 settlements on land expropriated from Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza; these settlements are home today to almost half a million Israelis.

During the Oslo "peace process," Israel doubled its settler population and constructed, with the permission and financial backing of the United States, a system of 29 major highways intended to irreversibly incorporate the settlements into Israel proper. In the meantime, 96 percent of the Palestinians were locked into what Sharon calls "cantons," deprived of the right to move freely. They are now being literally imprisoned behind concrete walls and electronic fences. Although comprising half the population of the country west of the Jordan, the Palestinians - including those with Israeli citizenship - are today confined to some 70 desolate, crowded, and disconnected enclaves on a mere 15 percent of the country.

Still, Israel faces a fundamental dilemma: how to retain control of the Occupied Territories while ridding itself of their 3.6 million Palestinians. Sharon attacked this problem in three ways. First, since international law defines occupation as a temporary situation resolvable only through negotiations, Israel’s expansion into East Jerusalem and the West Bank would have to be transformed into a permanent political fact that trumped international law. That accomplished, a Palestinian mini-state of five or so disconnected cantons would have to be established that would "relieve" Israel of the Palestinian population while leaving Israel in de facto control of the country’s borders, lands, water, tourism, airspace, communications, and overall developmental potential. Finally, a quisling Palestinian "leader" would have to be found willing to sign off on this Middle East version of apartheid.

The first two tasks proved so easy that even Sharon was taken aback. In an April 2004 exchange of letters, the Bush administration surpassed Sharon’s wildest expectations by declaring that Israel would not be required to withdraw to the 1949 Armistice Line (the "Green Line") nor, indeed, from its major settlement blocs (euphemistically called "major population centers") in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In one fell swoop the United States nullified U.N. Resolution 242 (the very basis of the two-state solution), unilaterally recognized Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem and 25 to 30 percent of the West Bank, and rendered meaningless the "road map" Middle East peace plan sponsored by the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations. And if this was not enough, the Bush letter was almost unanimously ratified by Congress, the House approving it by a vote of 407-9, the Senate by 95-3. (The other three members of the road map "quartet" expressed outrage, as did the Palestinians, but for Israel the United States is the only player that counts.) That left the Palestinians with only the cantons, hardly a viable state capable of offering the traumatized and destitute Palestinians any genuine sovereignty, economy, or hope for a better future.

Empowered by Bush’s unilateral nullification of international law, the Israeli government immediately accelerated its settlement expansion, announcing the establishment of a new city of 55,000 (Givat Yael) between Jerusalem and Bethlehem as well as construction of 3,500 new housing units in the E-1 corridor linking Jerusalem to the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim. And what about the "disengagement" from Gaza, a scorched earth of no strategic value whose fresh water has been exhausted by the settlers and a densely packed Palestinian population of 1.5 million? Nothing but redeployment, eliminating an inconvenient flashpoint and deflecting world attention from Israel’s consolidation of its hold on the West Bank.

All that remains is to find that Palestinian leader who will sign off on such a state. Although Arafat was ready for major concessions (after all, he recognized the State of Israel on 78 percent of the country and was willing to compromise even on the 22 percent that remained), he would not betray his people and was reduced - with active American complicity - from Nobel Peace Prize winner to so-called enemy of humanity. Neither will Abbas play that role. (He has already been characterized by Israeli political leaders as "an Arafat without a uniform.") Not to worry: Quislings abound.

All this leaves the Palestinians in an untenable situation. Having moved in the late 1980s from a one-state approach to a two-state objective, the Palestinian Authority - like the international community, the mainstream Israeli left, and liberal Zionist circles in the United States and elsewhere - finds itself locked into a political program that has been overtaken by Sharon’s "facts on the ground" and American betrayal. If the solution to the conflict requires the establishment of a viable Palestinian state on all (or almost all) of the lands occupied by Israel - as envisioned in every peace initiative since the formulation of U.N. Resolution 242 in 1967 - it would appear that solution is dead and gone. The Palestinians seem to face a bleak set of alternatives: continuing to pursue a viable state that Israel has - in my opinion - eliminated; accepting a truncated, non-viable "Bantustan" and apartheid; or going back to the idea of one democratic state in Israel/Palestine that, compelling and just as it sound, dismantles Israel as a Jewish state and is thus a nonstarter.

This is where we come in. Confident as Sharon is that he has won, hopeless as the Palestinian position appears to be, one element, I would submit, is missing from the equation: us, members of what is known (somewhat awkwardly) as the international civil society. The people, gathered into hundreds of organizations worldwide that support Palestinian rights - faith-based communities, human rights organizations, political groups, trade unions, Israeli and Jewish peace groups, Muslims, Christians, intellectuals, students, unaffiliated members of the public - have at their disposal a growing awareness of the importance of human rights and instruments of international law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (authored by a French Jew, René Cassin), the Geneva Conventions, the U.N. system, the International Court of Justice, and the newly formed International Criminal Court - all these and more are acquiring a crucial role in international affairs, although we are far from wresting from governments powers of effective implementation. The global framing of fear, security, terrorism, enmity, "good and evil," domination, militarism, and American Empire espoused so effectively by the neo-cons is being challenged by a powerful human rights reframing. "We refuse to be enemies" is one of the slogans of the Israeli peace movement.

This is a development that Sharon has not taken into account. Believers in realpolitik tend to ignore or discount human rights and international law as significant forces in international affairs - and even see them as an "illegitimate" challenge to nation-state sovereignty, a favorite line of the neo-cons. Apartheid might well emerge in Israel-Palestine, but progressive civil society resistance will render it untenable.

So if we are actors in this drama, what should we be demanding? At a minimum the end of the occupation, whatever form a political solution eventually takes. And what do I mean by "demanding"? Protest, resistance - and even sanctions. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t complain about violence on the part of the Palestinians and yet reject effective nonviolent measures against the occupation - such as economic sanctions - that support their right to self-determination. You can’t condemn the victims of occupation for employing terrorism while, by opposing divestment, sheltering the occupying power that employs state terror. You can’t end the isolation and suffering of people living under occupation while permitting the occupying power to carry on its life among the nations unencumbered by a boycott of its economic and cultural products.

Sanctions, divestment, and boycotts are absolutely legitimate means at everyone’s disposal for effectively opposing injustice. As penalties, protest, pressure, and resistance to policies that violate fundamental human rights, international law, and U.N. resolutions, they are directed at ending a situation of intolerable conflict, suffering, and moral wrong-doing, not against a particular people or country. When the injustice ends, the sanctions end.

Because they are rooted in human rights, international law, and the will of the international community, because they are supremely nonviolent responses to injustice, sanctions carry a potent moral force. A campaign of sanctions, even if it proves impossible to actually implement, mobilizes what has been called "the politics of shame." No country wants to be cast as a major violator of human rights. Precisely because it is so difficult to enforce international humanitarian law, holding up a country’s oppressive policy for all to see is often the only way of pressuring it to cease its oppressive policies. The moral and political condemnation conveyed by a campaign for sanctions and the international isolation it threatens sends a powerful, unmistakable message to the perpetrator: Cease your unjust policies or suffer the consequences.

Rather than punishment, a campaign of sanctions rests upon the notion of accountability. A country threatened by sanctions stands in violation of the very principles underlying the international community - not to mention the fundamental religious principle that every individual is created in God’s image, endowed with inalienable dignity. Sanctions, divestment, and boycotts are invoked when injustice and suffering have become so routinized, so institutionalized, so pervasive, so resistant to normal international diplomacy or pressures that allowing the situation to continue compromises the integrity of the international system and the moral standing of its members - countries, corporations, and citizens alike. Sanctions target the strong parties. The very basis of a call for sanctions is that the targeted country has the ability to end the intolerable situation.

A campaign of selective, strategic economic sanctions against Israel as the strong power is therefore appropriate. They are not invoked against Israel per se, but against Israel until its occupation ends. When, as in the case of South Africa, occupation does end, Israel takes its place once more in the international community.

Beyond this, we must actively advocate for a just and sustainable resolution of the conflict that recognizes the existence and national rights of two peoples to Israel-Palestine. Any solution, we should insist, must rest at a minimum on these essential elements: 1) national expression for the two peoples; 2) a viable Palestinian existence in whatever political arrangement is reached; 3) a just and acceptable resolution of the refugee issue; 4) a regional dimension that opens new possibilities of resolving the conflict lacking in the more narrow two-state (or even one-state) approach; and 5) acknowledging and addressing Israel’s security needs.

This is the vision behind the "road map," the first internationally accepted initiative that calls explicitly for an end to the occupation and a viable Palestinian state (the non-American members of the quartet shrewdly call it the "Bush vision" so as to give him some degree of ownership and therefore, hopefully, commitment). Civil society advocates of a just peace should be campaigning, it seems to me, for a revitalization of the moribund road map, the only diplomatic initiative on the table. In the absence of any alternative, our silence about the road map - and the silence of Palestinians in particular - is puzzling.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict poses a fundamental challenge to progressive civil society: the danger of depoliticization. The Israeli framing of the conflict, dovetailing perfectly with the neo-cons’ post-9/11 discourse, depoliticizes it by casting Jews and Arabs as primal antagonists, enemies since a mystical "time immemorial."

Rather than grievances, structural inequalities, competing claims and exclusion - political issues that can be resolved - we are sold a "clash of civilizations," good against evil, us-against-them, Crusading Christianity against Radical Islam (where the Jews, destined to perish in the fiery Armageddon pursued by fundamentalist "Friends of Israel," are somehow allied to the former). If the problem is indeed merely "them," then the only solution is...a final solution. This, the mother of all framings, leaves no room for dialogue or hope for peaceful resolution. It is a framing of ultimate hopelessness. With the Arab-Israeli conflict as its banner, the us-against-them framing indeed leaves nowhere to go but Armageddon.

We must protest. But we must also counter hopelessness, injustice, and permanent conflict with an assertive framing of our own, one based on human rights. This is what offers a way out, and this is why the neo-cons have so vehemently rejected it as a force in international affairs. And here, in Israel-Palestine, at the gates of Mordor, is our battleground. If, in the light of day, on the southern border of Europe, in our face, an occupation actually wins, an entire people is literally imprisoned behind electrified fences and 26-foot concrete walls, and a new apartheid system emerges before our eyes (in which Jews, heaven forbid, become the new Afrikaners), it makes a mockery of all the values we hold dear. What is a world worth in which human rights and justice - based on the fundamental dignity of human beings, rooted in religious tradition or secular values - is rendered irrelevant, a laughingstock of neo-cons and oppressors?

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has assumed significance far beyond a localized spat between two Middle Eastern tribes. Lose this struggle against the occupation, and we lose all hope in the ability of civil society to bring into being a truly better world.

Jeff Halper, an Israeli anthropologist, was the coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (www.icahd.org/eng) when this article appeared.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)