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The Map and the Fence

As the Iraqi war has wound down, the United States has been promoting a “road map” intended to solve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Together with the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia, the US defines the road map’s destination as “a final and comprehensive settlement of the Israel–Palestinian conflict by 2005.” The “settlement, negotiated between the parties, will,” they hope, “result in the emergence of an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbors.”

Phase I of the map requires the Palestinians “to undertake an unconditional cessation of violence,” while “Israel freezes all settlement activity” and “immediately dismantles settlement outposts erected since March 2001.” In Phase II, if the mutual security and many other measures of Phase I have been fulfilled, “an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders” will be created by December 2003. In Phase III, a final peace treaty will be signed sometime during the year 2005, which will resolve borders and the status of Jerusalem, refugees, and the settlements—and the Arab–Israeli conflict will be over.

While postwar Iraq remains in chaos, we can wonder whether the road map is realistic, or whether it is a leap into wishful thinking. Recent developments, including the hedged acceptance of the plan by Ariel Sharon’s cabinet and the meeting on June 4 of President Bush with Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas in Jordan, suggest that the President is now more committed to making the road map work than was hitherto supposed. But can he?

1.

In late April, in the north of the Gaza Strip, near the Mediterranean Sea, I visited the town of Beit Hanoun, which has been devastated by the Israeli army, and the surrounding countryside. Following several suicide bombings and other violent episodes, the army, according to the mayor of Beit Hanoun, destroyed twenty-five water wells and the sewage system, which resulted in drinking water being mixed with raw sewage. Standing near a blasted bridge I could see jagged, broken sewage pipes emptying into a pool of fetid water. “When we repair the bridges and the pipes,” the mayor said, “the Israelis bomb them again.”

In the northern Gaza Strip many houses had been destroyed or badly damaged. Paved roads were broken up by Israeli bulldozers; great tracts of farmland—citrus groves, olive trees, greenhouses as well—were uprooted to create no man’s lands around the Israeli settlements of Alai Sinai, Nevets Sala, and Nisanit. Wooden watchtowers near the settlements protruded from the barren earth; I saw Israeli soldiers watching us through binoculars from the crests of sandy hills. Among the shanties of tin and plaster in the refugee camp of Jabaliya, I met an elderly gentleman beside the rubble of his house, which had recently been destroyed by an Israeli tank. “Do you hate the Israelis?” I asked him. “No,” he answered, “I hate what they’ve done.”

A week later, I was in Tel Aviv, standing outside Mike’s Place, a pub facing the sea which had been blown up the night before by a suicide bomber, killing two Israelis and a foreigner, wounding sixty others, and causing much wreckage; body parts and blood had been spattered about. Crowds of Israelis were gathered there, weeping quietly and hugging one another.

I returned to Jerusalem, where Sharon’s government has been tightening its grip on the eastern, largely Palestinian sector of the city. The destruction of Palestinian dwellings and the building of Israeli houses continue inexorably. “The construction of over a dozen Jewish enclaves in predominantly Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem is aimed at blocking any possibility of dividing Jerusalem in the future,” The Jerusalem Post reported on April 8. A Palestinian urban specialist, Nazmi al-Ju’be, describes how the Israeli “Ring Road” that “encircles the current borders of the Jerusalem Municipality” connects the Israeli settlements surrounding Arab Jerusalem with largely Jewish West Jerusalem. The road also cuts off from Jerusalem the Arab neighborhoods just outside the municipal borders, making them “encircled islands separated from their urban surroundings.” Israeli settlements in eastern suburbs effectively detach the Palestinian West Bank from Jerusalem. The final result of this strategy “will be the transformation of Arab Jerusalem into a ghetto and slum.”1 Extremely difficult residency regulations also encourage Palestinians to emigrate.

I left for the town of Qalqilya, in the northern West Bank, on the internationally recognized 1967 border with Israel and only ten miles from Tel Aviv. It took me six hours to travel a distance of fifty miles from Jerusalem, since the route was blocked by four Israeli checkpoints. Outside Qalandiya, we had to wait in the hot bus for more than two hours for no apparent reason; along the way, we were twice ordered to get out of the bus to show our papers to Israeli soldiers, who were correct but gruff toward the Palestinian passengers. To me the inconvenience was mild, but my fellow passengers reminded me that they must endure such humiliations every day. Otherwise they were silent and calm. Moving on, we passed several Israeli settlements crowning nearby hills; the roads on the way up to them were busy with trucks carrying lumber and cement, suggesting that the settlements—more than 190 in the West Bank, all forbidden by UN resolutions and the Fourth Geneva Convention—continue to expand.

There are now more than 200,000 settlers in the Occupied Territories. Amram Mitzna, until recently chairman of the Labor Party, protested again in early May against the growing settlements. “They continue to create facts on the ground,” he said, “in total contradiction of the things the prime minister has been telling the public.”

Qalqilya, a dusty, bleak West Bank town of 40,000, has been devastated by the construction of the new high Israeli “separation fence” intended to reach from Jenin in the north southward past Tulkarm, Qalqilya, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron, and points beyond. The Israelis call Qalqilya “a hotel for terrorists,” and in fact at least five of the dozens of suicide bombers have used Qalqilya as a transit station en route to Israel.

By building the separation fence, Israel clearly plans to expropriate 2 percent of the northern West Bank during the first stage alone; Palestinian specialists predict that the fence will eventually have the effect of turning over to the Israelis at least 10 percent of the entire West Bank. In some places it runs along the “green line,” the 1967 border, but elsewhere penetrates deeply, up to several miles, into the West Bank. Around Qalqilya, in order to accommodate the fence, the Israelis have leveled farmland, fruit trees, olive groves, plant nurseries, and greenhouses.

Some members of the mayor’s staff took me to see the parts of the fence that run near the town. It is placed in a huge gash in the land between 65 and 110 yards wide. Above a barbed-wire barrier, you see a towering concrete wall nearly 30 feet high with watchtowers nearby; a security road runs alongside it and trenches full of rocks, and more barbed wire, all creating a cordon sanitaire. Near Qalqilya the fence deviates from the green line to protect the Jewish settlements of Zufin, Alfe Menashe, and Oranit, in effect incorporating them into Israel proper while isolating the Arab villages of Jayus, Ras Atiya, Daba, Ras Tireh, and Habla and cutting them off from their farmlands.

The mayor of Qalqilya told me that thousands of his people have fled abroad in search of work, and that thousands more have become “internal refugees” chased from their land and reduced to penury. “Fifteen aquifer wells in the area of Qalqilya have been taken by the Israelis, who have diverted the waters for their own use,” the mayor said. “This destroys our agriculture and our source of income. Qalqilya is being choked to death.” Western aid officials in the West Bank told me that the Israelis are working twenty-four hours a day to complete the fence, apparently intending it to form a new border of the West Bank before peace negotiations get underway.

Jonathan Cook, an American journalist living in Israel, wrote recently in the International Herald Tribune that “the security wall will cage in more than two million Palestinians.” Sharon, he writes, admitted in a recent interview with the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth that the wall will be at least 625 miles in length, whereas the green line is only 224 miles. The fence is creating a “tiny de facto Palestinian state before the road map forces a bigger one on him.” Palestinian research based on land expropriation orders projects a map showing a wall winding its way “deep into the heart of the Palestinian state, twisting and turning in an elaborate route designed to keep a large number of the settlers on ‘Israel’s side’ of the wall and minimize the amount of territory left to the Palestinians.” After the wall is finished, at a cost of more than $2 billion, the Palestinians, Cook writes, will live behind concrete and electrified fencing, restricted to their main population centers.2

Liberal Israelis denounce the fence. In Haaretz, Gideon Levy wrote eloquently that the Israelis have no idea of the cost to the Palestinians: “farmers whose fields have been expropriated, vintners whose vinyards have been trampled, shepherds whose pastures have been lost….” Everywhere in the northern West Bank, Levy writes, “the noise of iron cutting into rock can be heard…[and] a fleet of trucks and bulldozers, uprooting mountains.”3

2.

Until recently, few outside the Arab world had ever heard of Mahmoud Abbas (“Abu Mazen”), the new Palestinian prime minister. Born in 1935 in the town of Safed (now in Israel), he has for more than thirty years been a leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, but his name has never been associated with violence, and he has long identified with the dovish wing of Fatah, the largest faction of the PLO. His doctoral thesis for the University of Moscow in the early 1980s questioned whether six million Jews died in the Holocaust or whether in fact the number was much lower, and it tried to establish a connection between Zionism and Nazism. Some Israeli intellectuals consider Abu Mazen a “Holocaust revisionist.”4

For two decades Abu Mazen has cultivated Israeli politicians, especially doves. As deputy to Yasser Arafat, in 1993 he signed the Israeli– Palestinian Oslo accords for the PLO on the lawn of the White House. A close friend described him to me as “a diplomat, not a leader, and not a fighter. He hates confrontations and withdraws into himself and sulks when challenged—his chief weakness. As a negotiator he has a gift for compromise. He respects Arafat but his relations with him are complex.”

To the militant Muslims of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Abu Mazen is an enemy. Last November, before a closed meeting of refugee officials in Gaza, he criticized the violence of the al-Aqsa intifada that began in September 2000, and called for abandoning the armed struggle:

  1. 1

    See Nazmi al-Ju’be, “The Ghettoization of Arab Jerusalem,” in the Jerusalem Quarterly File, Institute of Jerusalem Studies, November 2002.

  2. 2

    See Jonathan Cook, “A 1,000-Kilometer Fence Preempts the Road Map,” International Herald Tribune, May 27, 2003.

  3. 3

    See Gideon Levy, “Apartheid Wall,” Haaretz Magazine, English edition, May 2, 2003—an astonishing document.

  4. 4

    For a detailed history of Abu Mazen, see Yossi Klein, “The Pragmatic Refugee,” Haaretz Magazine, English edition, April 18, 2003.

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