Ghassan Khatib
Bitterlemons (Opinion)
May 12, 2008 - 5:40pm

With both Israelis and Palestinians commemorating 60-year anniversaries at this time, it is instructive to look at what the respective sides are remembering. For Israelis, 1948 brought independence and statehood. For Palestinians, 1948 brought only disaster, the forced displacement of between more than half of their number, a majority that was to be shoehorned into refugee camps across the Arab world.

The different commemorations show the depth of the conflict and the conceptual chasm separating the two sides. But with the passing of time what Israelis used to call "the Palestinian narrative" is inexorably becoming undisputed and well-documented historical fact. Both Palestinian and Israeli historians are coming to the consensus that pre-state Jewish militias were in fact supported by the British Mandate authorities and in 1948 executed a pre-planned and systematic ethnic cleansing of the indigenous population of Palestine. This cleansing led directly to the establishment of Israel and the Palestinian refugee problem.

In Europe, there also seems to be a new understanding of the proper historical context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. As generations change there is greater understanding that the way Europe tried to solve its "Jewish problem", "compensating" Jews for European persecution by supporting the creation of Israel to settle Jews here, only caused suffering to another people.

It is with this historical context in mind that it should be clear how far Palestinians went to reach historical reconciliation when they decided at the end of two decades of internal political debate to give up their historical rights and adopt a political position based on international legality and the relevant and specific resolutions of the United Nations.

This process culminated in the late 1980s with the adoption of a two-state solution and the recognition of the right of Israel to exist in peace and security within the 1967 borders, or 78 percent of historical Palestine. This historic compromise was meant to clear the way for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the rest of Palestine, requiring only an end to Israel's occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

The Palestine Liberation Organization subsequently signed the Oslo accords (and several other agreements) that attested to its commitment to this compromise. But developments since then gradually created the feeling among Palestinians that such an historic step was not enough for Israel, which apparently wanted to have its cake and eat it. Israel, starting to enjoy an end to hostilities and war not only with the Palestinians but also with Arab countries, became less and less motivated to pay the necessary price for such peace, i.e., ending its occupation and allowing the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

The reason was manifold. Partly, in the course of negotiations and after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, Israel was able to transform the Palestinian leadership and make it economically, politically and otherwise dependent on Israel and foreign aid. At the same time, Israel continued its expansion of settlements in occupied territory, clearly signaling that while it wanted to reap the economic and political dividends of peace, it was not prepared to give up its occupation. In 2000, seven years after Oslo, Israeli peace groups and international monitors showed that Israeli settlements in occupied territory had doubled. The occupation had not been rolled back. Rather it had been consolidated.

The failure of the peace process to bring an end to occupation together with the transformation of the Palestinian leadership and its poor governance record led to a gradual and consistent decline in Palestinian public support for the historic leadership that had become dependent on Israel and a corresponding increase in support for the opposition, led by the fundamentalist Islamic political movement, Hamas. Eventually Hamas won free and fair parliamentary elections in 2006 and subsequently also forcefully took control of the Gaza Strip.

With the end of the terms of PA President Mahmoud Abbas, US President George W. Bush and possibly Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert more or less coinciding with the 60-year commemorations, the two peoples and the conflict are at a crossroads. On the one hand, the trends favoring the use of force and continued conflict look likely to continue as a faltering peace process limps along without tangible result. Only the adoption of strategies that respect the legitimate rights of both peoples can reverse this trend.


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