|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
30 July - 5 August 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
A Palestinian state in 1999?
"Palestinians will not wait forever; every child knows there will be a Palestinian state," said one Palestinian official. According to this view, the question is when?
"The Oslo agreement [signed between Israel and the PLO in 1993] set a deadline of 4 May 1999 for concluding permanent settlement talks," the official underlined. "By that date, even the thorniest issues, such as statehood, the status of Jerusalem and refugees, must have been settled." If they are not -- and there seems to be no positive indication, following the deadlock in the peace process -- "Arafat has the right to declare Palestinian independence unilaterally," he said.
Arafat may indeed have the right to take that step, but will he?
Some observers believe that Arafat's threat of declaring a Palestinian state unilaterally is only a tactic to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to honour the Oslo Accords. "Arafat is trying to convince the Israelis to negotiate now," Palestinian analyst Ali Jarbawi told Reuters. "He is telling them, 'Please don't make me do this.' ... He wants to continue with the peace process until it yields a Palestinian state [with the consent of the two parties]."
Even the most optimistic analysts do not expect Palestinian-Israeli talks to conclude by May 1999. Since coming to power in June 1996, the right-wing Netanyahu has refused to implement even the interim measures agreed in Oslo. The second and third redeployment of Israeli troops in the West Bank, the release of 4,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, opening a safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza and allowing Palestinians to have their own harbour and airport are only a few examples of the many obligations Israel has failed to honour.
Observers warn that if no understanding is reached between the Israelis and Palestinians, the air will be rife with unilateral actions from both sides. "If you are the underdog, if you try your best to accommodate, if you accept concessions and then nothing happens but more Jewish settlements, it might be a good strategy to blow it up, blow it up and wait until it settles," Jarbawi said.
He added that, "Mr Arafat, who is not a healthy man, may choose to declare a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza to complete his life's work before he dies."
Arafat's repeated threats to declare a state with or without Israel's agreement have met a harsh response from Netanyahu. The Israeli premier said recently that a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state would be "an act of war."
Israeli newspapers quoted officials as saying that among the options Israel would consider in case Arafat declared a Palestinian state unilaterally are: annex those areas in the West Bank that the Palestinians do not control, set up a blockade of the new state or send Israeli troops to recapture the self-rule areas in the West Bank and Gaza. In the worst case scenario, every road intersection in the West Bank and Gaza would be a potential clash point between Palestinian and Israeli troops.
A survey by a Palestinian think-tank last month found that 50 per cent of 1,335 Palestinians surveyed backed violence against Israel.
But others remain cautious. Marwan Bishara, a Palestinian journalist and researcher, described the idea of declaring statehood unilaterally as "unwise". He added: "It will be the straw that will break the back of the peace process. The declaration would be the pretext for Netanyahu to annex any territory that is not currently under Palestinian self-rule, or almost 90 per cent of West Bank. This would mark the end of the peace process and get him [Netanyahu] off the hook."
However, Bishara said he did not expect Arafat to take such a move, given his desire not to anger the US administration. "The immediate strategy of the Palestinian Authority is to stick to the US role in the peace process," he said. "Palestinians think that however bad America's position may be, it is still better than dealing directly with Israel."
Other analysts, however, think Arafat should go ahead and declare a Palestinian state. "Palestine would be a state with a government and it would gain the recognition of the majority of countries," Mahgoub Omar, an Egyptian expert on Palestinian affairs, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Such a move would change the current pattern of negotiations to that between an occupying nation and a state striving against occupation."
According to Omar, if worst came to worst and clashes erupted in the Palestinian territories, Israel would be the losing party, and not Arafat. "Israel did not leave Gaza willingly," he said. "Israel withdrew from places where Palestinian population density was high." He added: "Imposing a [tougher] siege on Palestinians would not make much difference because they are already living under siege. In short, there is nothing new which Netanyahu can do to the Palestinians."
However, Bishara maintained that the declaration of a state would merely be a relief for the conscience of some Palestinian officials. "It would only be a step so that before they die they can at least say, 'We declared a state,'" he said.
Bishara added that it was untenable to declare a state in a few months when all that is under Palestinian control right now is nothing but isolated and small pockets or cantons. Following the limited redeployment of Israeli troops in the West Bank under the former Labour government, Qalqilye, Nablus, Hebron were turned into small cities isolated from each other by Israeli roads and settlements. "Even Arafat would not be able to fly his helicopter from Nablus to Hebron anymore," Bishara said. "He would simply be locked in Gaza for an unlimited time."
Hamas, the PA's main opposition in the self-rule areas, also opposes Arafat's intention to declare a state unilaterally. "There is a big difference between words and down-to-earth procedures," Mahmoud Zahhar, Hamas' Gaza spokesman, told the Weekly from his home in Gaza. "We [Palestinians] should first agree on the main principles of the constitution of the future state, if it is ever declared."
Zahhar repeated Hamas' opposition to the Oslo Accords and called for the unconditional release of all detainees in Palestinian jails. He added that it was necessary for the Palestinian factions to come together to discuss possible options of resisting occupation and the expansion of Jewish settlements. "We also need to adopt a democratic, multi-party system which should wipe out the left-overs of the past five years of corruption and mismanagement," Zahar said in reference to the PA.
Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin had earlier said he was opposed to the declaration of a Palestinian state while Israel remains an occupation power in the West Bank and Gaza. He wondered what use a Palestinian state would be if Israel continued to control the movement of Palestinians and if they were not able to enjoy any of their rights as citizens of an independent state.