Independent

 

Humiliation of Palestinians triggers rush to war

 

Dying Peace Process

 

By Phil Reeves in Jerusalem

 

9 October 2000

 

What on earth went wrong? Were we not being told less than three

months ago that Israel and the Palestinians were closer to a deal than

they had ever been? Were we not being cheerfully reassured that an

historic watershed had occurred at the Camp David summit and that

though it ended without an agreement things would never be the

same again?

 

And yet the descent into violence in the Middle East has been swift

and terrifying. It has happened, above all, because the parties

involved, including Yasser Arafat, for too long underestimated the

rage and frustration that had built up among the Palestinians. Even

now, the Israelis are continuing to make the same mistake by insisting

Mr Arafat has only to snap his fingers to stop it all.

 

The truth is that most Palestinians long ago abandoned any faith in the

Oslo peace process. They judged it on the basis of what they actually

saw not what was said by the US State Department and Israeli

spinmeisters.

 

They saw that Israeli security officials still barred Palestinians from

moving freely between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip despite

the wildly over-hyped opening of a "safe passage" through Israel a

year ago. They saw that Israeli bulldozers carried on knocking down

Arab houses and clearing Arab land to make bypasses for Jewish

settlers.

 

They saw their workers trooped through the cattle pens at Gaza's

border with Israel to work for a pittance in menial jobs victims of

Israel's economic throttle-hold, which far overshadowed recent signs

that the Palestinian economy was picking up. They saw the Israelis

crank up the demographic war against the Arab world by opening

their doors to almost one million arrivals from the Soviet Union over a

decade many of them not Jewish. And, in particular, they saw Ehud

Barak building on occupied land at a faster pace than his hard-line

predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, making a mockery of the pretence

that the Oslo negotiations were founded on UN Security Council

Resolution 242.

 

Mr Barak's aides marketed him skilfully to the world as a peace-maker.

It is perfectly true that he was willing to discuss the division of

Jerusalem and it is true that this took some courage not least

because it wiped out any prospect of rebuilding his collapsed coalition

government.

 

It is also true that overall, Israel softened its conduct in certain areas

for example, by announcing the end of the grotesque practice of

revoking residency permits of Arabs in east Jerusalem in an effort to

reduce their numbers, and at least, officially ending the use of

torture by the security services.

 

But these moves are seen by ordinary Palestinians as nothing more

than their rights. Nor was it enough. The whole peace process

continued to be blighted by a fundamental lack of good will, and a

strong suspicion that ultimately Mr Barakbelieved that peace was a

matter of bamboozling Mr Arafat into compliance.

 

Complacency also afflicted the Palestinian leadership Mr Arafat and

his officials, or the "Oslo class" as Palestinians on the street

sneeringly began to call them. They were seen as a world apart,

glossy courtiers jetting from one international capital to another while

those confined within the Palestinian Authority's disjointed scraps of

territory were left to fester.

 

Mr Arafat's tactic of securing loyalty by handing out business

contracts had sown the roots of corruption. As one monstrous

mansion after another appeared on the skyline of the otherwise

squalid,broken-down landscape of Gaza, the public's cynicism and

sullenness deepened. But the world looked the other way. A close

associate of Mr Arafat told The Independent last week: "They mistook

silence for acquiescence, and not the eye of the storm, and today we

are seeing the beginning of the storm." He could not have put it better.

 

Yet the signs were there although they were ignored by the

leadership on both sides, and also by the Americans, keen to score a

foreign policy triumph before President Bill Clinton left office. Last

November, for instance, 20 prominent Palestinians signed a blistering

petition accusing Mr Arafat of being responsible for corruption in the

Palestinian Authority, and expressing deep disillusion with the Oslo

process. Mr Arafat's response was to arrest half the signatories.

 

Throughout, the Americans soldiered on, believing not least for

domestic political reasons that getting a deal was more important

than attending to the danger signals. They underestimated the level of

emotion among the Palestinians so badly that Mr Clinton felt able to

blame Mr Arafat for the failure of the Camp David talks, despite the

latter's apparent willingness to make concessions over such

fundamental issues as Jewish settlement on the West Bank.

 

America's credibility as mediator had long been questioned by

Palestinians, and with reason. "The Palestinians always complain that

we know the details of every proposal from the Americans before

they do," one Israeli government source told The Independent

recently. "There's a good reason for that; we write them."

 

It is ironic, sad even, that Mr Barak's one notable achievement in

office, the withdrawal of Israeli troops from south Lebanon, also

fuelled the fires destroying his one main goal that of securing a

Middle East peace deal on Israeli terms. The Palestinians, like the rest

of the Arab world, saw the pull-out as a victory for the Hizbollah

guerrillas that had fought Israel's 22-year occupation for so long.

Those now fighting in the streets considered it to be inspiring proof

that violence, albeit by a far weaker side, faced with overwhelming

military force, can achieve results.