Both Palestinians And Israelis See Violence As The Only Road To Peace
8 March 2002 By Stentor Danielson
Just when a peace deal seems within reach, the violence in the Middle East surges again. Bill Clinton had a space on his shelf cleared for a Nobel Peace Prize after hearing then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s proposal for a Palestinian state in 95 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat declined the deal (either because he’s a bad person or because he knew too many of his constituents wouldn’t stand for such a huge step so soon), and Palestinian militants took a visit by current Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem as a pretext for launching the second intifada.
Hopes for peace were revived last month when New York Times columnist Tom Friedman revealed that Saudi Arabia was prepared to offer full normalization of relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors (who, aside from Egypt and Jordan, do not officially recognize the Israeli state) in exchange for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad voiced his support for the Saudi plan on Tuesday. But peace was not to be, as both Israel and Palestine decided they had no choice but violence, leaving over 80 dead in the past week.
Sharon is not a peaceful man. He won his office on the premise that Barak’s dovish stance toward the Palestinians had failed. But he has, until recently, been careful to play the "tough love" and "self defense" angles and assert that he had his sights fixed on peace (peace with any Palestinian leader other than Arafat, at least).
Now, Sharon has ratcheted up the rhetoric. He declared that Israel would wage war until the Palestinians begged for peace. "Now they have to be hit ... They must be beaten," Sharon said. "We have to cause them heavy casualties and then they’ll know they can’t keep using terror and win political achievements."
This is the type of thinking that Palestinian militants have been doing all along. If we hurt them enough, they’ll say "uncle" and give us what we want. Neither side seems to have learned from this strategy’s failure over the past few decades.
The kind of terrorism that Palestinian militants have been implementing throughout the intifada is born of desperation, lashing out at an unreasonable oppressor. Whatever the reality of Israeli conduct toward Palestinians, Palestinians feel oppressed, and react accordingly. They see Israel continuing to occupy territories it seized illegally over half a century ago. They see their villages razed by Israeli forces while Jewish settlers (often the most racist of Israelis, which does little to undermine Palestinians’ anti-Semitic stereotypes) build their homes on stolen land. They and their families are subjected to restrictions on their movement. They see Israeli attempts at retaliation and assassination of militant leaders that often fail to kill the right people. This clouds the judgment of many, and violence starts to seem like a reasonable alternative. Because the response is so clearly wrong, too many Israelis ignore the real injustice that has motivated it.
Israel’s leaders have now reached a similar point. Sharon feels that his nation is oppressed by the constant threat of irrational Palestinian violence, attacks that could hit a bus or a pizza shop as easily as they could hit a legitimate military institution. He sees his country surrounded by undemocratic regimes all too willing to use the Palestinian cause to manipulate public opinion. Violence seems like the only reasonable alternative.
The line between war and terrorism that is so often used to draw a distinction between Israeli policy and Palestinian terrorism is blurred when we realize what resources each side has. The United States has given Israel the finest military equipment in the Middle East. Israelis have no need to throw rocks and strap explosives to their bodies when their government (and they have a real government, unlike Arafat’s precarious coalition) can do the job with tanks and helicopters. Yet in the past week we’ve seen one of the first instances of bona fide terrorism against Palestinians, as a bomb planted at an Arab school in East Jerusalem injured seven students and a teacher. Don’t be surprised if that’s not the last.
Many Israelis and their sympathizers in the American media, particularly those fed up with "land for peace" schemes, portray Palestinian violence as holding Israel hostage. It’s like a Mafia protection racket - give us what we want, and we won’t commit a crime against you. Sharon’s escalation of the war has reversed the roles. His message to the Palestinians is, give us the peace deal we want (with our terms on the return of refugees, control of Jerusalem and so on) and we’ll stop using violence against you.
Both sides feel that they are at the mercy of irrational violence. Both sides are convinced that they are only responding to the other’s provocations. And because of that, both sides are locked into a violence-only worldview. Every Israeli helicopter raid convinces more Palestinians that violence is the only answer. And each round of Palestinian gunfire convinces more Israelis of the same.
I am not foolish enough to think that peace is achievable within the lifetime of any living Israeli or Palestinian. But that foolish hope must be kept alive in the Middle East, to rein in the excesses born of despair.
Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told the BBC, "When you kill hope in the minds of Palestinians and Israelis that peace is achievable, what do you think the outcome will be?" We are seeing the start of this outcome right now.
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