In the letter he sent to Netanyahu on April 17, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas demanded Israel “stop all settlement activities” as a precondition for direct negotiations. A week later, Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign minister, condemned Israel, saying “settlements are illegal under international law, an obstacle to peace, and threaten the viability of a two-state solution.”
Certainly, settlements are illegal under international law. Yet it is dangerous to portray the issue of settlements as a precondition for resuming direct talks, as it obscures the real obstacle to peace: Israel’s policy to maintain the status quo and the PA’s complicity in perpetuating the occupation. By calling settlement expansion “an obstacle to peace” and a precondition for bilateral peace talks, the PA and international community team up with the Zionist occupation to concentrate attention on Israel’s settlement policy and to continue with the so-called peace process.
Since the terms of current public discussions have shifted from internationally illegal settlements towards nationally illegal outposts, any concession Israel makes on settlement activity will be considered “a far-reaching step toward peace” in the eyes of the international community. It is still in our fresh memory that the world – believing that bilateral negotiations are the key to a just resolution – welcomed Israel’s decision to impose a moratorium on settlement expansion in 2009 as well as the direct talks that followed it.
A politically cheap concession on settlement policy effectively serves as a safety valve for Israel to dodge external criticisms, whitewash Israel’s image and pressure the Palestinians to resume direct peace talks that never lead to actual peace. Noam Sheizaf, an independent journalist of +972, argues: “From the perspective of any Israeli prime minister, and certainly a right-wing one, it is very tempting to stay in the negotiating room forever – postponing indefinitely the near-civil-war that will accompany the evacuation of settlements, while earning the international legitimacy of ‘the peacemaker.’”
Maintaining the Status Quo
Although many engage in the dichotomous arguments of a one-state solution versus a two-state solution, they may be wasting their time and energy, because, at the moment, Israel is not compelled to choose either one of them.
A rightist intellectual William Kristol candidly states, “Israel has ruled the occupied territories for over 45 years and the indefinite maintenance of the current status quo is also an option.”
The current Israeli government has no incentive or intention to change the status quo. With its continuous economic growth (roughly 5 percent GDP growth for the last two years) and sense of security guaranteed by the separation walls, Israel has embraced its occupation as, currently, its most advantageous option.
“From an Israeli cost/benefit perspective, keeping things as they are will remain preferable to the alternatives of either pulling out of the West Bank or to annexing it,” Noam Sheizaf contends.
Freedom for Sale
Israel’s desire to conserve the status quo corresponds with the PA’s current policy of “economic peace.”
In his book Freedom for Sale, John Kampfner argues that in some autocratic regimes (e.g., Singapore, China) there exists “a pact” between the middle class and the government, in which the former gives up their political freedom in return for economic freedom, effectively dissuading any attempt to overthrow the repressive regime.
A similar pact can be found between the PA and Israel: the PA, lead by neo-liberal Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, helps maintain the occupation while the latter grants limited economic rights on condition that Palestinians abandon resistance.
Jeff Halper, the founder and director of Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, explains the idea of “viable apartheid” in his recent interview with Al Jazeera, “Fayyad is saying to Israel, we don’t need territory. If you give us economic space, […] it’s good enough.”
The Singaporean model of autocracy earns legitimacy from economic performance. Similarly, the PA’s policy of “economic peace” provides (relative) materialistic satisfaction to Palestinians, solidifying the status quo by giving them “something to lose.” According to the UNCTAD 2011 Report, the economy of the Occupied Palestinian Territories grew by 7.4 percent in 2009 and 9.3 percent in 2010. As a result, Fatah received increased support from June 2009 (40.6 percent) to May 2011 (57.8 percent), according to the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion.
PA security forces, trained by the United States Security Coordinator (USSC), cooperate with Israel to persecute resistance movements within the Occupied Territories. In August 2010, PA forces arrested, detained and violently attacked members of dissenting political parties within the PLO who had opposed the PA’s decision to resume direct negotiations, Electronic Intifada reported.
Why does the PA pursue “economic peace” at the expense of Palestinian independence? It seems that, confronted with Israel’s formidable military supremacy guaranteed by the US, the PA chose to cope with the occupation instead of putting an end to it. Jeff Halper states, “The Zionists have always said that once the Arabs despair, […]‘despair of the land of Israel ever becoming Palestine’ – that was the end, victory for them. Israel feels that it’s what we have got now.”
In addition to its economic performance, the PA gains legitimacy and discourages popular resistance by pretending to strive for independence and freedom. Although the PA knew the answer in advance, Abbas, in a political performance, sent a letter to Netanyahu who expectedly rejected the PA’s demand to stop settlement construction. A joint statement followed Netanyahu’s response letter, “Israel and the Palestinian Authority are committed to achieving peace.”
In light of the current situation where the PA implicitly accepts a permanent state of inferiority, transforming the occupation that is ‘“tolerable” for Palestinians and sustainable for Israelis, direct talks will only damage the Palestinian cause. Bilateral negotiations allow the Zionist state and the PA to earn legitimacy from the international community and undermine the Palestinian resistance movement. Instead, efforts should focus on rendering the comfortable status quo for Israel and the PA uncomfortable.
Ways to Raise the Cost of Occupation
Non-violent means, including diplomatic pressure, the BDS movement, and active civil disobedience are all essential to create an incentive for Israelis to alter the status quo. Nonetheless, as Israel enjoys America’s unquestionable support, any criticism from the international community against Israel will always fall short of real pressure. And it is unlikely that the BDS movement will inflict substantial economic pressure on Israel in the near future.
Although the recent success of hunger strikers proved that non-violent resistance can be effective to win minor concessions from Israel, the current isolated struggle will bring no fundamental change to the status quo. As the separation walls made it easier to control every aspect of Palestinian lives inside the Occupied Territories, the First Intifada type of game-changing popular resistance has become extremely difficult, if not impossible. The separation walls not only prevent the Israeli consciousness from meeting the Palestinian suffering, but also create a divide within the already-fragmented Palestinian society, making all kinds of unified popular struggle unfeasible.
Furthermore, as the death of Mustafa Tamimi – a Palestinian who was hit by a tear gas canister at a peaceful demonstration in Nabi Saleh last December – illustrates, Israel continues to violently suppress peaceful protesters with impunity.
The current situation leaves only one option: armed resistance.
Nelson Mandela, after realizing that non-violent resistance alone will not defeat the South African apartheid regime, established Usmkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the African National Congress’s armed wing which played a crucial role in ending the apartheid government. In his “I am Prepared to Die” speech, Mandela asserted, “We felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. […] We were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the Government.”
Let us not forget that the Palestinians, as an internationally recognized people with the right to self-determination, can legitimately exercise their right to armed resistance against the colonial government. In UN Resolution 2649 (1970), the UN affirmed “the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples under colonial and alien domination recognized as being entitled to the right of self-determination to restore to themselves that right by any means at their disposal.”
Armed resistance has been successful to pressure Israel. Israel withdrew its forces from Sinai after the 1973 War; the First Intifada lead to the Madrid Conference and the Oslo Accords; Israel retreated from the Gaza Strip following the Second Intifada; and Hezbollah’s protracted war caused Israel to retreat from southern Lebanon.
But armed actions should target only military installations and personnel. In international law, a clear distinction exists between freedom fighters and terrorists: the former target only military objectives. ANC did not target civilian objectives, affirming that MK “must continue to distinguish itself from the apartheid death forces by the bravery of its combatants, its dedication to the cause of liberation and peace, and its refusal to act against civilians, both black and white.”
After years of despair and lack of progress, it’s time for the Palestinians to drop the olive branch and grab a freedom fighter’s gun.
Seira Yun is currently working for a Palestinian NGO based in Nazareth.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar’s editorial policy.