On Friday, 19 July, 2013, US Secretary of State John Kerry triumphantly touted progress in negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. As we have seen in the period since the Oslo Accords, US Presidents have made a deal between the two foes a top priority, especially in the middle of their second term when words like ‘legacy’ are thrown around by the administration. Though the international media and the parties themselves seemed surprised by Kerry’s announcement, historians and academics where not shocked. It is widely accepted that secret backchannel negotiations have taken place to bring the parties to the table. Praise from a high ranking Israeli negotiator, exclaiming that “Years of diplomatic stalemate are about to end” indicate that negotiations have been taking place for some time and that the leaders of both sides, Prime Minster Netanyahu and President Abbas, could be more involved than indicated by the media.
Is a US brokered peace deal best for Israelis and Palestinians? The failures of the past 25 years, beginning with America’s involvement in the 1991 Madrid talks, have proven that the US is not always a fair and impartial moderator. During the Sinai I and II agreements of the 1970s, the United States found the carrot to be more effective than the stick in getting Israel to negotiate with the Egyptians. Using soft power negotiating incentives to secure the return of the peninsula to Egypt, the Americans promised the Israelis first purview to any agreements brokered by the US in the region – this extended to agreements between Israel and any other country, territory or group of people. The Sinai agreements affect the negotiations going on now since Israel has access to documents and discussion points before the meetings.
Fast forward to 2013 and multiple failed peace negotiations and agreements later, and the thought of yet another US-led peace initiative does not inspire confidence in Palestinians or their supporters. In addition to the special relationship between Israel and the United States, the US has been weak in its calls for Israel to end human rights abuses and breaches of international law. The most recent example being President Obama’s failure to halt illegal settlement building in the West Bank. After demanding a settlement freeze in 2009, Obama and Secretary of State Clinton stood idle as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu blatantly disregarded the decree. Most recently, Netanyahu has moved toward settlement building in Area E outside of Jerusalem in retribution for Palestinians appealing to the United Nations for statehood in late 2012. Area E is controversial because it forms a district that would most certainly be part of a future Palestinian state exchanged for annexed portions of the West Bank that is dotted with permanent, entrenched settlements. In a subsequent political gaffe, Obama rescinded the settlement freeze and effectively ended the early push in his presidency for a Middle East Peace deal, even before the Arab Spring began.
With Secretary of State Kerry’s recent announcement and the hesitation from both parties, one has to wonder if this new agreement will change the facts on the ground. Since the Oslo Accords, Palestinians have lost faith that their leaders can provide security and end the occupation, much less carve out a state. The West Bank has been occupied since the 1967 war and after the Second Intifada in the early 2000s the situation has deteriorated. The Oslo Accords divided the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C giving the Palestinian Authority control over Area A, Palestinians and Israelis jointly control Area B and Area C is in Israeli control. Looking at a map of the West Bank from the 1990s, one could confuse the region with a piece of Swiss cheese. All of these pockets of divided control meant that freedom of movement was greatly reduced for Palestinians. Now, when traveling from an Area A (mostly the large cities in the West Bank) to the family farm in Area B (mostly Palestinian villages and land surrounding cities) Palestinians must pass through multiple check points. In order to accommodate Israeli settlers, a series of ‘settler only’ roads were constructed which bypass checkpoints and take the most direct routes into cities.
Additionally, in 2003 construction of the wall, or security barrier, between Israel and the West Bank began. In some places, the barrier is a fence; however, in other areas, such as between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the barrier is an eight meter high concrete wall. The barrier is to deter Palestinian suicide bombers from entering Israel. It also separates Israelis from the human rights abuses taking place in the West Bank, effectively their back yard. This system of barriers and checkpoints not only disrupts the flow of people but also goods and services. As a result, since the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian economy has continued to decline.
In 2005 Prime Minister Sharon unilaterally disengaged from the Gaza Strip. This means the Strip is no longer technically occupied. Since disengagement, Israel has continued to bombard Gaza with aerial offenses. The most recent assault, Operation Pillar of Defence, in November 2012 began after Israel assassinated a high ranking Hamas leader, Hamas began launching rockets into Israel in retaliation and Israel responded. Prior Operation Pillar of Defence there was Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2009/10 when it is believed Israel not only rained down bombs from the air but also used illegal white phosphorus to subdue the Gaza population. With an unemployment rate hovering around 80 percent, minimal freedom of mobility, and a booming youth population, many argue that Israel’s handling of the Gaza Strip incites Hamas’ violent reaction to its policies.
Will the new deal Kerry is touting change anything for the 1.7 million people living in Gaza or the other 1.7 million Palestinians living in the West Bank? What about America’s silence in regards to the 20,000 Bedouin, Israeli citizens that have lived in the Negev desert for centuries, who have been forced out of their villages in the past few months? Though Kerry’s agreement is still secret, it is certain that a prisoner exchange will be included in the deal. For the millions of Palestinians who have experienced wrongful imprisonment – most Palestinian males over the age of 25 have been imprisoned or know a relative who has – this is a small victory. However, freeing political prisoners will not allow a young mother living in a small village outside of Bethlehem safe passage to the hospital in the city when her child is ill, nor will it cement President Obama’s legacy as the Mid-East peace broker he seeks to become.
Some might reckon that, judging by its track record, the US should stay out of any future negotiations. Europe too, with its legacy of colonialism in the region and high tolerance for Israel’s human rights abuses, should leave the region to its own problems and solutions. Although the US and its European allies have been poor mediators in the past, western influence and, more importantly, money will be needed when it comes time to discuss any final status negotiations.
What Palestinians have learned since the time of the Oslo Accords is that US brokered peace deals and high level meetings between officials will not materialise into statehood or peace and security. Palestinians are increasingly aware of the need for grassroots efforts to oppose occupation. Whether this means a third intifada or appeals to the United Nations, Palestinians know they will only get to the negotiating table by first going to the street and demanding equality. Like other countries in the region experiencing mass protests and sweeping regime changes, Palestinians too, are taking to the streets. In cities like Hebron and Nablus some claim the third intifada has already begun with small outbreaks of civil disobedience.
Although leaders of Western countries may not be prepared to hold Israel responsible for human rights violations and breaches of international law, the citizens of the world are. International groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, Interfaith Peace-Builders, and the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation spread the word and support campaigns such as BDS (Boycott Divest and Sanction) helping individuals everywhere to do their part to end occupation. Palestinians are not alone. With the help of the international community, Palestinians can end occupation and reclaim their state. Leaders on all sides will not act until their populations demand it.