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The Disintegration of Palestine

1.

Nablus is a pleasing city, the most populous in the West Bank. A visitor is struck by the limestone dwellings on verdant mountainsides that surround the ancient town, first settled three millennia ago in the northern part of the West Bank. The city is now inhabited by nearly 200,000 Palestinians who are suffering badly from the Israeli occupation and the growing disintegration of their society.

Ghassan Shakah is the mayor of Nablus, a somewhat stout gentleman in his early sixties who studied law at the University of Alexandria and speaks perfect English. As a militant of the Palestine Liberation Organization, during the 1970s and 1980s he spent long periods in Israeli prisons where he lived on eggs. “Sometimes I was offered meat or fish, but it was rotten so I ate only eggs. For years after leaving jail I couldn’t face an egg.” Today as mayor he often meets with the Israeli commander of the Nablus district as he tries to relieve the misery of his people. The Israeli, he said, is “a colonel in a brown uniform but I don’t even know his name. He’s a nice guy, not at all arrogant, and he speaks perfect Arabic.” The mayor reconstructed for me a recent conversation he had had with the colonel:

Mayor: Our people are suffering terribly. You destroy our electricity and water systems, we repair them with German and Norwegian money, and you destroy them again. We can’t bear this collective punishment any longer.

Colonel: One third of the suicide bombings originate in Nablus. Yes, we’re hurting you, but we’ve no other way to stop the terror.

Mayor: You’ve destroyed our police stations, and we have no police and no courts. You never mention the cause of all the trouble—your cruel occupation.

Colonel: Stop the terror.

Mayor: But I told you, we have no police in the streets. You’ve forbidden them to wear uniforms or to carry guns.

Colonel: Oh, that is a policy issue, so I have nothing to say. The occupation is a political decision, so I have nothing to say. As a soldier, I am here to obey orders.

Mayor: You are not only destroying our houses, but our economy and our culture.

The Israeli army originally entered Nablus in April 2002, and soon destroyed the muqata, headquarters of the district governor, and many other buildings. Since mid-December 2003, it has intensified its incursions, seeking suspected terrorists, militants of Hamas, and munitions makers. Using bulldozers, tanks, helicopters, and F-16 aircraft, the Israelis have destroyed or badly damaged two mosques, three churches, and hundreds of other buildings and homes.

Walking through and near the old city I saw pharmacists’ shops, insecticide factories, and pharmaceutical factories, all turned into heaps of rubble because they were said to be factories for guns and munitions. An entire city block that housed a soap factory has been leveled. I saw the rubble of a house, which supposedly sheltered a militant, that collapsed on ten adults and children, killing eight of them, according to Amnesty International, when the Israelis bulldozed it. I visited an elderly woman whose house was largely destroyed; its remaining room was used by the Israelis to imprison thirty-five youths for two days as they awaited interrogation. Schools, Palestinians told me, have been turned into interrogation centers.

Of late, the Israelis have been targeting various quarters of the city very late at night, kicking in doors and taking prisoners, but they still occasionally enter during the day. Israeli sharpshooters can sometimes be seen at their posts on hills and rooftops. On a street in the Balata refugee camp, where I met many undernourished children, a boy of six was eating a sandwich on his doorstep when a soldier shot him dead for no reason. So his uncle and other residents told me when I talked to them separately: they could not all have agreed on the same story if it was false. The Israeli army promised to investigate the killing, but so far has issued no findings.

Thousands of young and old have been interrogated and hundreds of young men have been indefinitely detained, Mayor Shakah said. Nablus is sealed at several established exits from the city as well as at “mobile checkpoints” that are quickly set up by the Israeli soldiers; for citizens to pass in or out has become very difficult. Most businesses have ceased to function, unemployment exceeds 70 percent, and without police there is no enforcement of law and order.

Mayor Shakah’s brother was recently murdered by a rogue faction of Fatah, and the gunmen narrowly missed the mayor himself. As repression by the Israeli army and security services continues, popular support for Hamas rises and the Palestinian Authority’s control disintegrates. The mayor and governor have tried to resolve quarrels among different factions through unarmed citizens’ committees; but many, possibly dozens, of suspected collaborators with the Israelis have been summarily killed by vigilantes. Such fragile security is similar throughout much of the West Bank as the Israeli army moves in and out and the Palestinian Authority becomes more and more impotent. Violence flares up sporadically, adding to the death toll already inflicted by the Israelis. In March, beset by the occupation, armed hoodlums in the streets, and pressures within the PA, Mayor Shakah was threatening to resign.

I left Nablus on the road to Qalandiya, about twenty miles to the south. At a junction soldiers at a mobile checkpoint suddenly appeared, and my shuttle taxi was ordered to stop. In it with me were the Palestinian driver, two other men, an adolescent boy, two elderly women in traditional dress, and a beautiful young woman without a head scarf. An Israeli soldier with a pistol advanced on us, ordering us out of the car, followed by another soldier with an assault rifle pointed at our heads, the first soldier shouting at us in Hebrew to bare our stomachs, backs, and chests.

The men obeyed instantly. The elderly women remained in the car; the young woman stepped fearfully aside, refusing to bare her stomach, a sacrilege for Islam, and though the soldiers shouted they did not touch her. The first soldier checked all our identity cards; he screamed at me to take off my Boston Red Sox cap, and then returned to his armored car to run my US passport through a computer. Two days before, a Palestinian woman had blown herself up in the Gaza Strip with explosives strapped around her waist, killing four Israelis and wounding several Arabs.

Suicide bombings have killed or wounded dozens of Israelis since January 2004. The recent pitched battles between Israelis and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, in which dozens of Arabs have died, and the suicide bombing in the Israeli port of Ashdod in mid-March, which killed ten Israelis, showed an alarming escalation of violence on both sides. Then, on March 22, an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City killed Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader of the Islamist group Hamas, sending a torrent of anger through the Arab world and provoking condemnation by Britain, the European Union, and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. The milder reaction in Washington (the assassination was “deeply troubling,” said the State Department) reinforced Palestinian suspicions that the Bush administration had acquiesced in the assassination and evoked demands from Hamas militants for more terror not only against Israel but now against the United States.

But when our group set out again for Qalandiya, the Palestinians with me were silent. Were they resigned to such humiliation, or was their anger so deep that they could no longer express it?

2.

Does the Geneva Accord signed last December still offer any hope for peace? The fifty-three-page document—negotiated for more than two years by two teams of dovish Israelis and Palestinians—incorporates many of the proposals made by President Clinton at Camp David and elaborated at Taba three years ago.

According to the Geneva Accord, the PLO would formally recognize Israel as a Jewish state and simultaneously create a demilitarized Palestinian state, each maintaining its capital in West Jerusalem and East Jerusalem respectively; with only small exceptions, Israel would withdraw to its pre-1967 borders, i.e., from all of the Gaza Strip and nearly 98 percent of the West Bank, compensating the Palestinians for the remaining 2 percent with a land grant abutting the Gaza Strip; Israel would cede sovereignty to the Palestinians over the Temple Mount–Noble Sanctuary in East Jerusalem, while retaining sovereignty over the Western (Wailing) Wall; Palestinian political prisoners would be released in stages. Palestinian refugees or their heirs would largely relinquish their “right of return” to their lost property inside Israel but could receive compensation for it. Any repatriations would be subject to “the sovereign discretion of Israel.”1

The negotiating teams were headed by Yossi Beilin, a justice minister in the last Labor government, and by Yasser Abed Rabbo, a veteran Palestinian militant and cabinet minister, who has been close to President Yasser Arafat. But the details of the accord were worked out mostly by small groups that were expanded at various stages. The original drafts were written in Switzerland by Daniel Levy, an adviser to Beilin, and Ghaith al-Omari, an adviser to Rabbo, with occasional help from Robert Malley, a former assistant to President Clinton on the National Security Council staff.

Dr. Menachem Klein belonged to the inner negotiating circle. An eminent academic and adviser to Beilin and an expert on Jerusalem, he told me that “as legal experts, Daniel Levy and Ghaith al-Omari not only wrote the original drafts, they kept refining the language in the ongoing drafts that we other members finally approved….”

Security and territorial issues were negotiated on the Israeli side by retired Major General Amnon Shahak, a former army chief of staff, and on the Palestinian side by General Zuhair Manasra, former commander of the Preventive Security Service on the West Bank, and by other experts. David Kimche, former deputy head of Mossad (the Israeli CIA) and then director general of the foreign ministry, attended the last session and helped to refine the text. His participation, I was told, was crucial in persuading the Palestinians not to insist on any reference to the “right of return” of refugees to Israel in the final accord. Kimche came with the support of four former heads of the Shin Bet, the Israeli FBI, who believe that the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza harms Israel. The hardest issues were territorial, the division of Jerusalem, and the Palestinian right of return. Dr. Klein said,

In any final peace agreement many details must be negotiated, but I predict that 90 percent of the final deal will duplicate the Geneva Accord. It’s not a perfect document; it’s a package of compromises. A unitary binational state, comprising Jews and Arabs, is a delusion. Most Israelis want a Jewish state. On the other hand, an apartheid regime—Prime Minister Sharon’s unilateral project of withdrawing from some areas and enclosing the Palestinians behind walls and fences—will inevitably lead to more opposition from abroad, a Palestinian revolt, and failure. Sharon won’t admit the limits of force, but Palestine can’t digest his project, and eventually both he and Arafat will realize that the only choice is Geneva.

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    For the full text of the Geneva Accord, see www.monde-diplomatique.fr /cahier/proche-orient/a10414 or www.informationclearinghouse.info/article- 5019.hfm.

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