A Trail of Lost Opportunities: Blaming the Victims All Over Again
This year in Jenin, April was the cruelest month. The Israeli army partially lifted its siege of the refugee camp outside Jenin, allowing humanitarian relief workers and journalists in for the first time in weeks. The accounts of the carnage have been horrific; the “sickly-sweet” stench of death is reported to be overwhelming. The European Union has asked for an investigation into possible war crimes committed there. Other West Bank towns offer similar scenes of destruction: Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus, Tulkarem. This has been the result of Israel’s efforts to destroy the “terrorist infrastructure” that had fomented a wave of suicide bombings that targeted Israeli civilians — in essence, a thinly disguised operation to answer terror by further terrorizing an already subjugated and disenfranchised civilian population.
But while the tanks were rolling into the West Bank over the last few weeks, we kept hearing repeated depictions of Yasir Arafat as an ineffectual leader who had no intention to achieve peaceful coexistence with his neighbors. His refusal of Ehud Barak’s “generous and historic” offer during the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at Camp David in the summer of 2000 has been characterized as yet another example of the Palestinian penchant to never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. This theme of “lost opportunities” is a recurring one in the Israeli narrative of the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, and one that is unquestioningly repeated in the U.S. news media. Accusing Palestinians of constantly missing opportunities to resolve the crisis — without much consideration given to what those opportunities were or their circumstances — means affording the Palestinians the blame for their own victimization.
One of the first “lost opportunities” was the United Nations partition plan of 1947, which called for the establishment of two states, one Arab and the other Jewish, on the land of Palestine which was then under British mandate as it had been since 1917. The partition plan gave the minority Jewish settler population, who comprised one-third of the inhabitants and owned 7 percent of the land in Palestine, a state on 55 percent of historic Palestine. Left with less than half of what they were entitled to, the Palestinians naturally rejected the plan; the Jews, on the other hand, accepted the offer. In coming years, the Israelis, whose state was declared a year later, in 1948, would repeatedly refer back to the partition plan as indicative of the Palestinians’ lack of desire for coexistence or peace.
As the tanks and helicopter gunships pounded the towns and cities of the West Bank, and as Israeli bulldozers scooped up the decomposing bodies from the refugee camp outside Jenin to be placed in mass graves, in the hope that these dead men and women will tell no tales about the massacre and atrocities that took place there, we kept hearing about the “irrelevance” of Arafat and about the “generous offer” that he refused to accept during the negotiations at Camp David in the summer of 2000.
That myth about the historic offer and its generous conditions has gone pretty much unchallenged, despite articles by those attending the conference who have indicated otherwise, most notably the essay by Robert Malley, the Special Assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs and participant in the Camp David summit, published in the New York Review of Books last August. The Israeli “offer” was essentially vague proposals that were to be viewed as “bases for negotiations”: these included Palestinian sovereignty over 91 percent of the West Bank, and Israeli annexation of the other 9 percent of fertile land in return for 1 percent of pre-1967 Israel (a tentative offer of the land swap was desert land adjacent to the Gaza Strip that had been used as a toxic waste dump by the Israelis). The return of refugees and the status of Jerusalem, two key issues in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, were spoken of in even vaguer terms.
The current violence in the West Bank is presented as Israel’s own “war on terror,” as Israel exercising its right to self-defense. There is ample condemnation of the Palestinian suicide bombings that target civilians, and rightly so —but there is no linking those practices to the brutal and oppressive occupation by the Israelis of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. As much as we would like to think — or the Bush administration would like us to think — terror is not an absolute term, nor does Palestinian “terror” occur in some sort of political vacuum.
Suicide bombings which target civilians are immoral — there is no doubt about that. But what is just as immoral, or even more so, are the conditions in the Occupied Territories that breed the despair and frustration that lead to such acts. The disenfranchisement of Palestinians and their daily humiliation; the poverty and the deprivation; the collective punishments, house demolitions, arrests and torture, roadblocks and checkpoints, curfews and settlement construction. The Israelis want to uproot and eradicate the “terrorist infrastructure” in the West Bank. But this “terrorist infrastructure” is nothing more than the structure of violence, poverty and hardship that are the result of 35 years of Israeli occupation. The only way to dismantle the “terrorist infrastructure” would be to put an end to the occupation. But, unfortunately, the arrogance of power blinds the Israelis to this possibility.
Unless the Palestinian and Israeli leaderships alike ensure that the rights and dignity of the Palestinians are fulfilled and respected, there will never be peace in the region. And not working toward real peace would be the real lost opportunity.
— Diana Abouali is a doctoral student in History and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University.
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