Will There Be Peace?
By Mohamad Bydon '01
During his recent trip to the Middle East, Secretary of State Collin Powell announced that he and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had agreed to test Yassir Arafat's peace-making resolve: "[T]here will be seven days of trial or tests in order to see how the Palestinian Authority manages to keep its undertakings." Those undertakings are to include the "complete and utter cessation of terrorist actions, of violence and of incitement" which will lead, as the hypothetical situation decrees, to the existence of "complete quiet." The seven day test will be followed by a six week cooling-off period.
Although I do not doubt its sincerity, Powell's statement includes two incorrect assumptions. First, beneath the comment lies the perception that the Palestinians are the sole perpetrators of violence -- it is they, after all, who must put an end to their terrorist actions. Unfortunately, by placing the burden of establishing "complete quiet" upon the shoulders of the Palestinians, Powell seems to be ignoring the role that Israeli soldiers and settlers have played in the recent wave of bloodshed that has gripped the nation of Israel and its Occupied Territories. Let me be more precise: the violence that has occurred in the Holy Land has not been restricted to the acts of Palestinian rock-throwers and suicide-bombers. Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers have been active participants. They have confiscated Palestinian land, demolished Palestinian homes, burned Palestinian fields and killed Palestinian youths. Indeed, during these nine horrible months, Israeli bullets have claimed the lives of 479 Palestinians.
Of course, 116 Israelis have been killed by Palestinian bombers and snipers, but the essential point remains the same: there are two sides to this conflict, both of whom are guilty, both of whom bear responsibility for the violence, and both of whom must be pressed to implement solutions that will lead to a fair and lasting peace. The task of halting the flood of retaliatory killings and assassinations is a formidable one, requiring the intense efforts of both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. Since the cease-fire began, eight Palestinians and six Israelis have died. Sharon reaffirmed on the 17th of June that his government will not negotiate under fire, that it will not proceed with the peace process until the Palestinians end their reign of terror against Israel. That same day, Israeli soldiers shot and killed an unarmed 12-year-old Palestinian boy.
The second mistaken assumption in Secretary Powell's statement is that Yassir Arafat has enough control over the violence to impose "complete quiet" whenever he so chooses. Entangled in the belief that the Palestinian Authority (PA) has loosely controlled the popular insurrection all along, the unspoken theory underlying the comment states that, just as Arafat started this whole mess, he can end it. This conception, which has unfortunately garnered support in many American media outlets, emphasizes Arafat's role while almost completely ignoring any legitimate basis for Palestinian frustration.
Rarely does anyone bother to ask: why are these Palestinians so mad anyway? We are led to believe that they are mad because Arafat, and the Islamic militants he let out of jail, have told them to feel that way. Unfortunately, the answer is not so simple; the root causes behind the Palestinian rebellion go well beyond Arafat and Islamic fundamentalism. This uprising, or Intifada, has been driven by a combination of factors, the most prominent of which are poverty, mass unemployment, overcrowding, hopelessness, and the injustice of a system that guarantees the civil and human rights of Jews but not Palestinians. Arafat's government and Islamic militants have merely taken advantage of these clear and present conditions to garner support for their self-serving agendas; extremists are reaping the field that Israeli oppression has sown.
If Powell wants to put an end to the Palestinian Intifada, he must compel the Israeli Prime Minister to address Palestinian grievances. One out every three Palestinians lives below the poverty line according to the United Nations, and in many communities the unemployment rate has skyrocketed to over 50 percent. Terje Roed-Larsen, the Secretary-General's Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, recently commented that the economic situation is contributing to the continuing violence and instability. "Security cannot be built on uncertainty; peace cannot be built on anger." Additionally, restrictions on movement and the imposition of strict curfews have turned entire Palestinian villages into open-air prisons.
The issue of settlements must also be addressed by Sharon's government. Rene Kosirnik, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, correctly noted that the Fourth Geneva Convention protects civilians in areas of conflict, like the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Referring to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Kosirnik said, "The installation of a population of the occupying power in occupied territory is considered an illegal move, it is a grave breach of law." He went on to call the installation of Israeli settlements "a war crime," much to the chagrin of the Israeli government. Poverty, uncertainty, the numerous border closures and the existence of settlements in the Occupied Territories are among the most serious Palestinian concerns.
It is my belief that Secretary of State Collin Powell truly wants to see the existence of "complete quiet" in the region. In order to accomplish this goal, however, he must realize that a lasting cessation of hostilities cannot be established by ordering Arafat to just do it. Rather, he must tackle the difficult, complex issues that have led to those hostilities. And yes, Mr. Powell, Mr. Sharon and Mr. Arafat must all publicly acknowledge the root causes of the latest wave of unrest and take steps to ameliorate the depressive situation of the Palestinian people and the gross inequality between Jew and Arab in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Only then will we see stability in the Holy Land, and only then will Israel be able to secure its borders.
At this point in history, Israeli and Palestinian have -- what I may cautiously call -- an opportunity. The forces of peace cannot afford to sit along the sidelines for six weeks while extremists on both sides strengthen their hawkish calls. When Sharon finally agrees to come to the negotiating table, he and Arafat will have to put forth a sincere effort in order to move the peace process forward. If they do not, we shall witness another brutal cycle of violence. If they do, however, we may at last enjoy "complete quiet"