9 - 15 December 1999
Issue No. 459
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Turning a nightmare into a dreamBy Ghadi Karmi *
An extraordinary event has just taken place. The world's political capitals are still reeling from its effects. No one can believe what has just happened and comments, analyses and interpretations are still pouring into newspapers and television.
But a few days into the start of the final status negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis taking place in Ramallah, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat suddenly called them to a halt. He said that he had an important announcement to make at a press conference to be held imminently at his Gaza headquarters. It was clear that the Israeli side knew nothing about this. Their repeated angry requests to the Palestine Authority for an immediate explanation in the aftermath of this announcement were met with silence.
The press conference which took place in Gaza had obviously been prepared with great care. The whole of the world's media, TV, radio, journalists and top commentators were assembled, tipped off that an event of paramount importance to the peace process was about to take place. The roads around Arafat's headquarters were choked with people, camera crews, journalists and police. When Arafat suddenly appeared before this assembled mass, he looked tired and strained. Dismissing the aides closely flanking him, he ascended the platform resolutely, only his translator by his side, and stood behind the microphones. There was an instant hush as he adjusted his kuffiyya slowly and then cleared his throat. It was noticeable that his expression had all the alertness and sharpness of eye it had once possessed. He took out a prepared statement and read from it in Arabic, pausing only for the translator to render the text into English.
"I have asked you all here," he said, "in order to tell you and through you the whole world that the charade called the peace process is at an end."
There was an audible gasp. Cameras clicked frantically. Mobile phones started ringing. "Patiently, we Palestinians have waited in hope that the process started in Oslo in 1993 would lead us to an honourable settlement, enable us to live dignified, decent lives in our own land, in genuine and equal partnership with our former enemies. In that time, I and my colleagues in the Palestine Authority have been repeatedly vilified for tolerating Israeli broken pledges, swallowing countless humiliations, making demeaning concessions, even policing my own people to ensure Israel's security. Though many attacked me or begged me to break off the peace process before, I counselled forbearance and steadfastness in the face of all the Israeli provocations because I truly believed that, with patience, we would gain our rights in the end." He paused to wipe his brow.
"And now, five years later," he continued, "what have been the fruits of all this endurance? I will tell you what they amount to: We are in sole control of only three per cent of the West Bank and 60 per cent of Gaza. Our compromise was to be 90 per cent of the West Bank, but Prime Minister Barak now offers us 18 per cent -- less than four per cent of our original homeland -- to be the basis of the state we have worked so hard to gain. By the end of negotiations we may be lucky enough to get 40 per cent, some say 60, all divided up by settlements and by-pass roads, our towns and villages surrounded by check-posts and Israeli soldiers. Barak says he would like to build solid, electrified walls separating us from them. Even without such walls, we are cooped up in our three per cent like chickens, our movements watched and controlled or even totally prevented. The Gaza-West Bank safe passage, greeted with joy, is nothing really but an obstacle course constricted by regulations, patrols and permits. Even members of my Council have to seek permission to travel.
"Daily, and while we negotiate, our land is being confiscated for settlements expansion -- 200,000 settlers in Gaza and the West Bank alone and 150 settlements to house one million Israelis in the future, sitting on the top of our aquifers and strategic positions. Since Ehud Barak came to power, settlement expansion has accelerated at a rate not seen under any previous administration. The settlements he recently removed comprised 12 caravans... Simultaneously, he was giving the order for Itmar, the settlement outside Nablus, to increase its size tenfold, and its five satellites were made legal, surrounding and choking our city.
"Barak says Jerusalem is Israel's capital. Our history and physical presence there apparently count for very little. If we want a capital, we can have it at Abu Dis, by gerrymandering Jerusalem's borders. We will have access to our holy places -- if we can get permits and pass the checkpoints into the city, that is -- but they remain under Israel's security control.
"Meanwhile and despite recent promises, Palestinian residency permits in Jerusalem are still being confiscated and Palestinian houses demolished as illegal.
"Our refugees and displaced people, waiting for 51 years to come home, will not be allowed to do so. The hope that lightened the burden of their wretched lives is ended. None can return to Israel, but Barak does not object to some 1967 refugees returning to the Palestinian territories, after Israeli clearance and agreement of course. The rest must be settled in their host countries with international funding. Already, the US has been active on this front, pressuring Arab states to fall in line.
"I could go on for much longer, detailing the sufferings of our people, their poverty, the multiple daily abuses inflicted on them. The last straw came with Barak's announcement that UN Resolution 242 did not apply to the Palestinian territories. With that, he demolished the last vestige of legality which this peace process ever had."
He cleared his throat. The silence was complete.
"For all these reasons, I have decided to end this farce. We will not participate further in this peace process. If it is to re-start, it will be on our terms only. These are as follows: full implementation of UN Partition Resolution 181 with Jerusalem under temporary UN trusteeship. Full implementation of UN Resolution 194 with the right of return and compensation for all displaced Palestinians. And a negotiated settlement under UN auspices only."
And he ended on this note: "I am leaving you with this. If there is anyone out there who wants to take up my offer, get in touch. You know my telephone number."
With that, he turned and left the platform. A crush of journalists and cameramen pressed forward, shouting, asking questions, waving papers, but he shook his head and walked back into the building. The international repercussions were dramatic. There was consternation and confusion. All peace moves in the region were paralysed. There was jubilation throughout the refugee camps and all those who had condemned Arafat quickly lost their hostility. By his extraordinary act, he had demonstrated what we all instinctively knew, that, weak and isolated as the Palestinians are, they yet hold the ultimate key to peace.
And with that I suddenly woke up before the TV screen to see Arafat and Barak both smiling with President Chirac in Paris. The nightmare that had turned into a delicious dream had become a nightmare again.
* The writer is a London-based Palestinian academic.