Thursday, September 15, 2005

Crossroads in Palestine

PV Vivekanand

Israel is out of the Gaza Strip after occupying the area for 38 years. For all technical purposes, the Israeli departure from Gaza should herald an end to the Jewish state's occupation of the West Bank, including Arab East Jerusalem, and make way for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state there. That was what was envisaged when the Arab-Israeli peace process was launched in Madrid in late 1991 under international auspices and co-sponsorship of the US and the then Soviet Union. It was clearly understood that the relevant UN Security Council resolutions would be the basis for an eventual Arab-Israeli peace agreement involving the Palestinains, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
A lot of water has flown under the bridge since then, with the key players being replaced and that leading to a scrambling of the process, mainly because of Israel's refusal to abide by agreements and the principle of land in exchange for peace. Gone are any reference to the UN Security Council resolutions.
Today, we stand at crossroads. Israel left the Gaza Strip only because it was not in its interests to continue its occupation of the Mediterranen costal strip which was a hotbed of Palestinian resistance and it was proving too costly for the Jewish state to maintain its military and civilian presence there.
What we do suspect is that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wants to put a fullstop to here and consider the evacuation of the Gaza Strip an end in itself and refuse to apply the same criteria to the West Bank. He has created situations that would create uncertainties and conditions that he could cite as obstacles to any effort to discussing the future status of the West Bank and Jerusalem and thus deadlock the process.
Keeping the Gazans as virtual prisoners and denying them access to the outside world, including the West Bank, is a central pillar of Sharon's strategy to frustrate the Palestinians against their leadership and turn them away from expecting anything positive from negotiations. That is the kind of game the Israelis have always played and there is no reason to expect Sharon to be any different.
At this juncture, the various Palestinian factions face the challenge of unifying their positions and presenting a common front that overrides all Israeli designs and leaves Sharon with no option but to negotiate peace based on Israeli departure from the West Bank. Some compromises would have to be made on both sides, but the essence of land for peace should remain undiluted.
This is the challenge facing the Palestinians today if they were to call Sharon's bluff and foil his plans to close the door on reliquishing the West Bank.
Without the Palestinians rising to the challenge, the so-called peace process would breathe its last at the borders of Gaza.