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
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
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
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
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
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.