As Israel celebrates its 50th anniversary, the middle east peace process seems to be stalled. Four years after the signing of the Oslo accords, Sarah Helm returns to the West Bank and Gaza Strip to see how facts on the ground have affected behaviour and expectations among the Palestinians themselvesby Sarah Helm / April 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
I first came to the West Bank Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, on the edge of Hebron, in February 1994, to cover the funeral of Baruch Goldstein, the settler who gunned down 29 Muslim worshippers in the Ibrahimi Mosque inside the Tomb of the Patriarchs. It was a stormy day. The crowds surged in the slopping mud as loudspeakers blared through the fog to announce the arrival of the cort?ge from Jerusalem.
Today, nearly four years later, there is once again a chill wind blowing in Kiryat Arba. In the picnic area and landscaped shrine built by Jewish settlers to honour Goldstein, people are studying the scriptures. Israeli soldiers sip drinks at a cafe just alongside. The cafe owner says that when it is sunny, people come from all over: “It is a place to bring the children and to contemplate.”
“You will see little change,” many journalists told me when I came back. As a correspondent here in the early 1990s, I had witnessed the upsurge of hope which followed the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993; now I wanted to see how the would-be state of Palestine had developed since I left in 1994.
They were wrong to say I would see no change. For a start, my terminology is out of date. I still talk about the “occupied territories.” Others talk now of “autonomous areas” or, even, “liberated” land. Yet already I have seen more Israeli checkpoints than there used to be, and the Jewish settlements on the hilltops appear bigger and more fortified.
In the back of my car is a gas mask and a helmet. We used to make do with press signs and a kaffiyeh on the dashboard to signal to the Palestinians, friend not foe. Most startling of all, the road I am on is not the same. The one I used to take to Hebron wound through Bethlehem, past the village of Beit Jalah and the refugee camp of Deheisheh, and on south, through other Palestinian villages. Now, just before Bethlehem, we veer off on to a speedier highway to Hebron. This new road was built especially for settlers heading to the southern Jewish enclaves such as Kiryat Arba. Only settler cars, or other vehicles with yellow Israeli-registered plates, are allowed on this route. Arabs, with blue or green plates, are directed by Israeli soldiers on to the old roads.
Mounting the hills towards Hebron I recognise a familiar bleakness-in the sad vines, and in the eyes of every Arab along the route, nervously watching us watching them. Hebron has always been the nastiest point of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the mainspring of the cycle of violence lies somewhere in this shabby grey town where Abraham is buried (so they say). Here Jews are not simply living alongside Arabs, as in other parts of the West Bank, but right in among them, relentlessly battling for space.
Hatreds, old and new, are on display everywhere. The pictures of 64 Jews, massacred by Arabs in the pogrom of 1929, can be seen in a settler house on the edge of the old city. Just yards away, I had watched as the bloodied prayer mats of the 29 Muslims gunned down by Goldstein were hung on railings outside the Tomb of the Patriarchs. And it was inside the house of a settler in Hebron that I saw grotesque posters of Yitzhak Rabin, a year before he was assassinated. The Israeli prime minister was depicted wearing a kaffieh, his hands dripping with blood.
The old city huddles around the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a large Herodian structure patrolled by Israeli soldiers and, since the Goldstein massacre, barricaded like a fortress. Since I was last there, this area has been designated Hebron 2, under the Hebron agreement drawn up as part of Israeli withdrawal procedures after the Oslo accords. Hebron 2, I am told, defines the sector of town under Jewish control.
Here is a street for Jews only and there I see a new Jewish bus shelter built outside a settler house. Passengers peer through grills on the bus windows. There is a new Yeshiva and close by a settler with a gun opens the door of his Mitsubishi hatchback. Walking around I sense that Hebron 2 is being annexed as Israeli territory. The 20,000 Palestinians living in this part of town are being annexed too. Some Arabs have moved away, their stores or homes barricaded off. It is the old who have stubbornly stayed put. “I won’t move. This is my shop,” says a wizened Arab man, sitting outside his shoe store. He glances at a passing settler wielding an Uzi. “They called this a peace agreement. But the best we can say is there is peace, but there is no peace.”
Youssef Natcheh, a Palestinian archaeologist who used to work on ceramic restoration at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque, tells me that he is no longer allowed to travel to Jerusalem. He now wants to work on the Mameluke buildings in Hebron. We walk together to the border with the other sector of town, defined by the Hebron agreement as Hebron 1-the Palestinian controlled area, where most of the town’s 150,00 Arabs live. A picture of Yasser Arafat proclaims this side of the town as Palestinian land. Spikes lie across the main shopping street, which is strewn with rocks, showing where the boundary runs. From the other side comes the roar of a surging crowd and the clatter of gun fire. The Palestinians have been burying a young man, shot by a settler at the market yesterday, and protests have erupted. Israeli soldiers are firing at the crowd. News now spreads that a Palestinian protester has been shot dead by an Israeli rubber bullet. Flames burst at my feet-a molotov cocktail has been thrown from a roof. I recognise Marwan Dana, a Palestinian journalist. “Welcome, welcome back,” he shouts with a smile. “You have come to see what has changed. What do you think? They say it is peace, but, you see, there is no peace.” I beat a retreat.
leaving hebron behind, I stand at a vantage point high on a West Bank hill. To the north are the West Bank cities of Nablus and Jenin; to the east, the Jordan Valley. About ten miles south lies Jerusalem, with Hebron and the southern West Bank beyond. To the west is the Palestinian city of Ramallah, and just beyond runs the green line, separating the West Bank from Israel.
It is a spectacular blue day and a perfect spot to observe the contours of “Palestine” four years after the signing of the Oslo accords. The US-brokered accords were signed under the principle of exchanging land for peace. Oslo allowed Palestinians to hope for the application of UN resolutions 242 and 338, which demand the withdrawal of Israeli forces from territories occupied in 1967. The accords appeared to offer Palestinians the best hope they ever had that a state of Palestine might at last be constructed. The promise was that the Gaza Strip would be linked to the West Bank to form an “integral” whole. The accords also raised hopes that east Jerusalem would become the Palestinian capital.
So what kind of Palestine is being shaped as a result of Oslo? The only reliable way to find out is to see what is happening on the land. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been about land-an endless jostling for land. In Hebron they jostle over whose prayer mat should be laid on the flagstone nearest Abraham’s bones. In Jerusalem the two sides battle for control of an entire city. Beyond the cities they battle over who should be able to build on a field or a hilltop, who should patrol the desert, cultivate an olive grove, tap the water or build the roads.
Everywhere the land is moving. A field has been bulldozed to make way for a road. The road leads to a hill and on the top I can just make out tents and shining lights-signs that the land has been staked out for a new Israeli settlement. In months, there could be pink-roofed houses up there. Then a shop, a school-and soon a fully fledged Jewish settlement; a further breach of the spirit, if not the letter, of the Oslo deal. (The Israeli group Peace Now says the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza has gone up from 106,000 in 1992, before the signing of the Oslo deal, to 161,000 in October 1997-an increase of between 8 per cent and 9 per cent each year.)
Even the piece of land we stand on is not what it was the last time I was here. Today we are standing on tarmac; it is route 60, one of the many arteries built since Oslo to link the settlements across the West Bank. To our west is a new route 45, linking the east-west settlements. Israel recently seized 4,600 donums of Palestinian land “for public purposes”-to build route 45.
Just as the city of Hebron has been carved into sectors since I was last there, so the whole of the West Bank appears to have been dismembered. What we used to call, before Oslo, “the Israeli-occupied territories,” are now designated as sectors A, B and C. The Oslo agreement envisaged a phased Israeli withdrawal and the sectors designated different degrees of autonomy for the Palestinians who live there. Under the terms of Oslo, part of Gaza, as well as six large West Bank towns-Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarem, Qalqilyah, Bethlehem and Ramallah-have now been granted full autonomy (status A). But the autonomy only applies within the towns’ tightly-drawn boundaries and movement beyond is restricted. The towns-about 3 per cent of West Bank territory-are encircled by land still under Israeli military control, although under Palestinian municipal control (status B). This land-the outlying Palestinian villages-makes up 24 per cent of the West Bank territory. Meanwhile, Jewish settlements, Israeli military locations and any remaining land are under full Israeli control (status C)-73 per cent of the territory. Under the Oslo accords Israel should by now have withdrawn from all the West Bank and Gaza Strip, except for settlements and military bases, which are to be discussed (along with Jerusalem) in the final stages of negotiations.
Driving around this patchwork “Palestine,” I am reminded of a drawing sketched for me by Ariel Sharon during an interview in 1992, when he marked out six blobs superimposed on a rough map of the West Bank. He described the blobs as “cantons” and explained that his idea of Palestinian autonomy involved allowing the Arabs to live there. Israel’s main concern must be security, he explained. Allowing a Palestinian state in the West Bank would pose an unacceptable threat. At that time, Sharon was out of power, and his map seemed like a footnote of history. Now he is back in Benyamin Netanyahu’s Likud government, and the signs are that his map is becoming reality. There are, indeed, six large ghetto towns on the West Bank, as well as hundreds of mini-ghetto villages piled in heaps on hillsides. The settlers nearby enjoy the amenities of high class suburbs and freedom of movement. Where the settlements are thickest the Arab population is moving away. People talk of Palestine as “Palestinustan.”
Do these facts on the ground mean that the Oslo process is a charade? There are many who warned from the start that the Oslo accords would prove to be a trap for the Palestinians. Despite the rhetoric about land for peace, it was argued that the accords contained the seeds of their own destruction, by failing to include any legally binding restraint on the further building of Israeli settlements, or land seizures, while the lengthy negotiations were under-way. In the meantime, the accords simply state that “neither side will take any step that will change the status” of the lands pending a final agreement.
Facts on the ground-bricks and mortar-are being reinforced by new habits on the ground, among the Palestinians. The people I speak to tell me that they no longer even try to go to Jerusalem because they cannot obtain permits to pass the checkpoints. I enter the village of Silwad to see how life is changing inside a mini-canton. Two teenage boys tell me that day-to-day life inside the village has improved since Silwad was designated “area B”; they have a degree of autonomy, within the village boundaries. The Israeli patrols have not stopped, but they come less frequently, say the teenagers. A woman with two small children says that people feel more secure than they used to. “The children go to school and I know they will come back in the afternoon.”
But none of the villagers I speak to have been to Jerusalem, just 15 miles south, for a long time. “We don’t have Jerusalem identity cards, so we can’t go.” Several farmers in the village recently lost a stretch of land, acquired for the Jewish settlement of Ofra, an enclave built for ultra-Orthodox Jews. (Legal challenges in such cases are almost always fruitless.) The Israelis are building an electronics factory there, the villagers say. Will this mean jobs for them? They laugh. “It’s for the Jewish. We don’t go there.” Do they think there is peace? “There is peace and there is no peace,” several voices reply, reciting the phrase I first heard in Hebron.
i cross into “liberated Ramallah”-designated “area A”-where Palestinians have total autonomy. Here, the largest city in the West Bank, the evidence of changing habits is magnified. The streets are packed with people. Palestinian police direct the traffic. There are numerous new jewellery and ice-cream shops, and building sites everywhere. There are bars with tables outside. The checkpoint has gone from outside Hanan Ashrawi’s house. The smell of burning rubber has been replaced by the smell of chestnuts. There is even a discotheque called Cheers. Dotted around the streets are smart, whitewashed buildings with Palestinian flags: Yasser Arafat’s “ministries.” Palestinian VIPs come and go in their dark limousines. Here is the majlis or “council,” where the new Palestinian assembly meets.
Ibrahim Abu Lughod, a leading Palestinian professor of politics, points to the impressive new apartment blocks on his street, built since Oslo by wealthy Palestinians. He says he can now travel to nearby Bir Zeit University without seeing an Israeli soldier, although he complains that his students are being barred from coming. “Three students wanted to go back to Gaza to see their families. I told them not to go. They wouldn’t listen. One came back after three months. The others I never saw again.” He shows me his new Palestinian curriculum. It is no good continuing to teach that Lod or Jaffa are still part of Palestine, he says. “We have to teach that Jaffa once was a Palestinian city. But it is now in Israel.”
Even writer and lawyer Raja Shehadeh, one of the staunchest critics of Oslo, appears to be enjoying the limited “liberation” of Ramallah. “Let’s go to Kit Kat,” he suggests jauntily, sporting a new Scottish tweed cap. Kit Kat was once a restaurant in Salahaddin Street, in east Jerusalem. Tucking into his pasta, Shehadeh explains that inside these “liberated” areas Palestinians have been pacified, thanks to the removal of Israeli soldiers and limited economic revival. “That is exactly what the Israelis wanted to see,” he says. “It helps them atomise Palestinian society.”
Kit Kat is not the only business to have moved out of Jerusalem in recent months. The closure of Jerusalem to Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza has devastated commerce there, and many stores and restaurants are moving to Ramallah. People no longer try to go to Jerusalem. “They begin to see Ramallah as their de facto capital,” says Shehadeh. “Which is also just what the Israelis want.”
Many people want to stay inside the autonomous sectors because life is easy. But they no longer feel connected to what is going on in other villages, where life may be harder. “Palestinian experience of day-to-day life is very different, depending on where you live,” says Shehadeh. “On the buses to Ramallah you hear the women complaining openly that the suicide bombings are causing pointless deaths. But you would probably not hear that in Hebron.”
My old friend, Ziad abu Amr, is now a member of the Palestinian assembly; when I call him he tells me that he is unable to see me. He is off to Europe to lobby for Palestine to join Nato. Nato? What delusion is this? Palestine can’t even run its own postal service, never mind its own army. To send a letter to Ramallah you must still write: Ramallah via Israel.
Nowhere is self-delusion so prevalent as within Arafat’s entourage. The president’s men talk of “liberated” Palestine, but their limousines must pass by the settlements and through the Israeli checkpoints on their way to their “ministries.” As one Palestinian official said: “Arafat likes to spend a lot of time abroad because there he is treated like a statesman. Here, he is just like the local mukhtar (mayor), ordered around by the Israelis. We must be the only people with a president and a passport, but not a state.”
Arafat allows Palestinian intellectuals to chatter away at symposiums about the need for “human rights” or “civil society,” while he sets about closing down newspapers which criticise him and intimidating those who work against him in his own parliament. He has even closed down Khalil Tufakjee’s settlement monitoring office in Jerusalem-perhaps because he doesn’t like to be told the truth about what is being done to his land. Some even speculate that Arafat may see benefits from Israel’s ghettoisation of Palestine: it helps him to keep his own people in check.
For those Palestinians who use violence, Arafat has set up his infamous “state security courts.” Raji Sourani, the human rights campaigner arrested in 1995 for protesting about the new courts, looks a broken man. “Under Israeli occupation you knew you might pay a price for opposition,” he says, “but it did not destroy your faith. Being arrested by your own people is different. It leaves a special bitterness.”
going through ramallah was like going through a dream, but we are now back to reality. Just a mile away our car crosses back into zone B, where three Israeli soldiers patrol the security by-pass road which rings the town. At the green line border with Israel we are waved through, thanks to our yellow plates. We are heading towards the Gaza Strip. En route, I look out for the familiar old Mercedes “service” taxis which used to chug back and forth across Israel between Gaza, Jerusalem and the West Bank. Easily identifiable by their white plates and chock-a-block seating, packed with Arabs going on family or hospital visits, the taxis played a key role in maintaining the bond between the different parts of Palestine. It was always fun to take the “service” and listen to Arab passengers’ commentary on the latest events.
But there are no service taxis today. Gaza, home to 660,000 Palestinians, was always the saddest part of “Palestine.” Today Gaza is not so much sad as forgotten. We no longer hear about those who live here on the sand dunes. Under the Oslo accord, the “integrity” of Gaza and West Bank was to be preserved. Nobody quite knew what the drafters meant by “integrity,” but it was assumed that the link between these two parts of Palestinian land would be reinforced. The accord provided for “safe passages” to be constructed to allow Palestinians from the West Bank to travel across Israel to Gaza-and vice versa. There was even talk of tunnels or bridges to link the two territories.
A two kilometre wide no-man’s-land now rings Gaza. The only people passing through the Erez checkpoint are being ushered through a special entrance for VIPs and international organisations. There today is Freih Abu Middien, being checked over by an Israeli soldier. He is Arafat’s minister for justice.
For ordinary Gazans it has become almost impossible to come or go. Closure of the strip used to be an exception. Now, it seems, it is the rule. Gazans cannot get permission to leave the strip for work, worship, study or medical treatment. Some 1,200 Gazan students are barred from attending West Bank universities. Even fishermen are barred from fishing more than 12 nautical miles out from Gaza’s shores.
Across the no-man’s-land, Asya Abdul Hadi is waiting to collect me. She has not been to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv for three years. She was recently refused permission to visit the US embassy in Tel Aviv to collect a visa after she won a fellowship to work as a journalist on the Denver News. Despite letters from the US authorities, she was not even allowed to make the one-hour trip to Ben-Gurion airport; she had to ride seven hours across the desert to Cairo, in order to fly to the US from Egypt. “They don’t want us even to set foot in Israel any more. They want to cut us off completely and push us towards Egypt,” she tells me. “The only people who can move in and out are the Palestinian VIPs-the very insignificant persons,” she giggles. Asya, like many bright young Palestinians, plans to emigrate. She wants to marry an American she met in Denver and move there for good.
“You will be amazed. It’s really cleaner. There is so much building,” people said to me before I returned to Gaza City. Perhaps it was because I have not seen true squalor for a long time that I found it hard to recognise the new cleanliness. In Jabalia camp, where the intifada began in 1987, there were the same swarms of children playing in the puddles after a heavy rain storm. There were still as many donkeys and carts as cars. I saw the new traffic lights (bought with French aid money); it was certainly curious to see donkeys stopping at the lights. And Palestine Square had been manicured and landscaped, so that people could stroll happily in front of pictures of Arafat. In another park was a monument to the UN.
But for all the “liberation” of parts of Gaza, and for all the western aid, nobody pretends that Gaza’s economy is improving. Construction materials for the new port and airport cannot even reach the building sites. Four years after Oslo, the strip has 60 per cent unemployment, and GDP has fallen 15 per cent.
The Hamas leaders have reverted to their pre-Oslo discourse. Immediately after Oslo, Islamists began to refer to “Israel”-a tacit acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the state. But today they are talking again of the “Zionist entity.” Sitting in a suit and tie in a small refugee shack is Sheikh Saed Msameh, who tells me that Hamas warned from the start that the “peace process” was a trap. “The Zionists want land, security and peace-and want to give us nothing.”
Many Palestinians are now convinced that Gaza is the only bit of “Palestine” on which Israel will allow them to construct their “entity.” “All that we have taken we shall hold,” said David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, during the 1948 war which led to the creation of the Jewish state 50 years ago. The strategy today, say the Palestinians in Gaza, is to apply the same principle to the West Bank and Jerusalem. But they can see that even Netanyahu is not interested in holding on to Gaza-an overpopulated third world strip of sand on the edge of the sea.
finally i return to Jerusalem. Before I left, it was an article of faith for every Palestinian that east Jerusalem must become the capital of Palestine. Today I see signs everywhere that defeat has been conceded. Palestinians are not coming here to pray as they used to. The east Jerusalem bus station is much quieter than I remember-more than 160,000 Palestinians used to come to shop in Jerusalem every week. Friends tell me that Arab weddings and funerals are becoming increasingly rare because relatives cannot obtain east Jerusalem identity cards. Israeli soldiers now slouch outside Orient House which, after Oslo, was briefly designated as Palestine’s future seat of government. Foreign dignitaries were at first received there by Palestinian leaders-but now even lowly diplomats rarely come to Orient House. The Israeli foreign ministry warns them off.
Even Palestinians with east Jerusalem identity cards worry about their status. Under new Israeli rules any Palestinian from east Jerusalem who leaves the city for a certain period and sets up elsewhere-even for a few weeks or months-automatically loses the right to come back. The Israeli human rights groups, Betselem and Hamoked, have described the new regulation as “administrative ethnic cleansing.” The term “Arab east Jerusalem,” which everyone used, is another dated piece of terminology: Jews now constitute the majority of the population living in east Jerusalem. Peace Now estimates that some 200,000 Israelis and 180,000 Palestinians live there.
There are even Palestinians in Jerusalem who now openly say that hopes of a two-state solution should be abandoned in favour of a bi-national state, incorporating the West Bank and Gaza into Israel. Sari Nusseibeh, a leading Palestinian academic, wonders whether the Palestinian demand for a state, was not, after all, “an old-fashioned, stupid demand.” Oslo did not offer the Palestinians the two-state solution that they wanted, he concedes, but the unfairness of the deal was maybe “a reflection of things as they are, of an imbalance of power.” Nusseibeh points out that the Arabs have lost two wars with Israel. “Our failure is not just the failure of Oslo. Arab power in the region has been in decline since the defeat of the Ottomans.”
Nusseibeh is not entirely pessimistic: ultimately the Palestinians will win the demographic battle in the region. It was right, he believes, to accept the Oslo deal so that Palestinians at least have a foothold on their land-a foothold on which their presence will grow. Nusseibeh also advocates staking a claim to a foothold in Jerusalem, even if that involves further compromise. He is one of an influential group of Arabs who are supporting a controversial-and largely secret-plan, discussed with left-wing Israelis, under which Palestinians would accept a re-drawing of the boundaries of east Jerusalem. The east Jerusalem which would become the Palestinian capital would consist, not of the Arab side as it is drawn today, but of a group of Arab villages out on the edge of town, towards Ramallah.
Since I left the region, it seems that not only have hillsides and roads been shifted to create new “facts” on the land, but the entire Palestinian discourse has shifted too. The contours of the conflict and the principles of a “just peace” are being blurred and changed. What is east Jerusalem? Is it the Arab side of the city, seized by Israel in 1967? Or is it a different conurbation on the edge of the West Bank? What is Palestine? Is it the West Bank and Gaza, with a Jerusalem capital, or is it a collection of cantons and a strip by the sea?
There are still some in the region who say that Oslo provides hope for a lasting peace. Arafat’s political cronies and assorted Palestinian fat cats have reaped good profit from the Palestinian “junta.” Others among the dwindling band of Oslo faithful are unswerving pragmatists who believe that Oslo has delivered something better than nothing.
Yasser Arafat could declare the Oslo process null and void, but he has staked too much of his credibility on Oslo to stage a retreat. Any party which abandoned Oslo now would inevitably be damned on the international stage as an “opponent of peace,” which is one reason why all parties, whether Palestinian or Israeli, maintain the illusion of a peace process.
There are those who predict a new intifada. But a new intifada would not only be against Israel but against Arafat. When the Palestinians rose up in 1987 they had faith in their cause. Today, it would probably mean civil war. When I first came to the region, before the Oslo accords, Palestinians used to say: “There is no peace.” Now they say something bleaker: “There is peace and there is no peace.”