Between March 1968 and September 1971, the UN Security Council adopted a total of 51 resolutions. Over thirty per cent of these served to condemn some or other action carried out by Israel. Had we but space enough and time, each one could be explored at length. In any case, it is Resolution 242 that holds the most significance for us, since it was Resolution 242 that primarily shaped the conflict in the early part of the seventies.
The Arabs accepted it, of course. The Israelis did not. The Swedish diplomat Gunnar Jarring was appointed by the UN Secretary General to facilitate the basic realisation of the demands contained in it. Jarring essentially insisted that Egypt enter into a peace agreement with Israel, and that Israel pull out from the Egyptian territories it unlawfully acquired in the 1967 war. These demands accorded with the international consensus at the time.
But the Israeli government was adamant in its refusal to withdraw. High-ranking officials spouted feverish, hackneyed twaddle about territorial vulnerability, and declared that ‘Israel will never accept and will even be prepared to fight over’ the issue of withdrawal. And crucially, from 1971 onwards, the monstrous clout of the United States sat squarely behind the Israelis.
All this ensured Jarring’s inevitable failure, and left the Egyptians in a difficult position. They had always and quite reasonably wanted the Sinai Peninsula returned to them in exchange for peace. But Israeli intransigence rendered diplomacy futile. Thus Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, was faced with a stark choice: he could capitulate, or he could aggress.
In 1973, he and Syria chose the latter, though not before issuing multiple warnings. Of course, such warnings went unheeded by the Israelis, who had never held in high regard the martial ability of their Arab neighbours. They considered the Arabs to be weak and incompetent. What a surprise it must have been, then, when Egypt attacked, and inflicted heavy casualties, and fought as they had never fought before. The Israelis were alarmed, but collected themselves sufficiently to evade defeat. Nevertheless, the October War impelled Israel to recognise Egypt as a force to be reckoned with.
And so Israel did not want very much to engage Egypt again. What it desired instead was to take Egypt out of the picture. Conveniently, the Camp David Accords of 1978 served to do exactly that. They brought about what Jarring and Egypt had rightly wanted all along: the Sinai for peace. With Sadat thus appeased, Israel was done; indeed, nought came of those Accords that encouraged ‘the resolution of the Palestinian problem in all its aspects’. For returning unlawfully occupied land to Egypt — as he was obliged under international law to do — Menachem Begin shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Sadat. This perverse conferral showed the world, not for the first or last time, precisely what the hallowed gong really was; that is, a load of old dreck.
Having neutralised Egypt, the Nobel laureate oversaw in 1982 a punishing invasion of Lebanon. The Palestine Liberation Organisation had been based in the south of that little country, and Israeli propaganda at the time focused on the threat to national security that the PLO apparently presented. In actual fact, as the Oxford historian Avi Shlaim noted, ‘[i]t was not the military power of the PLO but its growing political moderation that provoked anxiety in Jerusalem’. Shlaim went on to expose the real rationales for invasion:
The chief architect of Israel’s war in Lebanon was defence minister Ariel Sharon. A ruthless and cynical politician, he was also a great believer in using force to solve political problems. Sharon’s `big plan’ had a number of objectives. The first objective was to destroy the military infrastructure of the PLO in southern Lebanon and thereby to break the backbone of Palestinian resistance to the imposition of permanent Israeli rule over the West Bank. The second objective was to help Bashir Gemayel, leader of one of the Christian militias, in his bid for power so as to bring about a new political order in Lebanon and one which was expected to be amenable to a peace agreement with Israel. The third objective was to defeat the Syrian forces in Lebanon and to replace the Syrian protectorate of the country with an Israeli protectorate. In short, the idea was to use Israel’s military power in order to accomplish a politico-strategic revolution round Israel’s eastern and northern borders. It was not the much-vaunted Israeli aspiration to peaceful co-existence with the Arabs that inspired this war but Sharon’s relentless drive to assert Israeli hegemony over the entire region.
In the event, thousands upon thousands of Arabs were killed, and the UN Security Council was kept extremely busy. At the conflict’s end, Israel was the occupying power in South Lebanon. Directly out of the devastation arose Hezbollah and therefore further bloodshed. All the while, the Palestinians remained lashed with woe. As Finkelstein succinctly noted, the operative language in the Middle East was still, on account of Israel, the language of force.
It is high time that we turned to the occupied Palestinian territories themselves. By 1987, illegal settlements blotted Gaza and the West Bank, and continued unstoppably to swell. Such expansionism and its attendant violence were of course abhorrent, but the settlements were significant for another reason: they fragmented the land and would therefore serve to prevent its full restoration to its rightful residents. In a 1986 UN report, the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian people had the following to say on the matter:
The information reviewed by the Committee left no doubt that Israel had persisted in its policy of confiscating Arab-owned land in the occupied Palestinian territories and of increasing the size and number of its settlements, despite the fact that such policy is in violation of the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civil Persons in Time of War, of 12 August 1949… and contrary to United Nations resolutions. At the same time, Israel had continued in its policy of Judaization of the occupied Palestinian territories through their gradual economic and administrating incorporation into the Israeli national system and the creation of conditions aimed at forcing the Palestinian population to emigrate from their land.
As in previous years, this creeping annexation of the occupied Palestinian territories was accompanied by measures designed to suppress all forms of resistance and of political, social, cultural and economic expression of the Palestinian people, as well as by acts of violence and provocation by Israeli troops and by armed Jewish settlers against Palestinians.
But occupation was not at all limited to mere settlement. The selfsame report noted that Israel had
continued in [its] policy of establishing complete economic control over the occupied Palestinian territories and of transforming them into a dependent entity whose socio-economic development would be geared to the benefit of Israel and not of the Palestinians…
Importantly, any opposition to the occupation was brutally crushed. The Israelis deported activists; they employed torture; they arbitrarily arrested Palestinians and detained them in inhumane conditions, often without charge or trial. Moreover, freedom of movement was greatly restricted. Meanwhile,
acts of collective punishment… had become an almost routine occurrence. There were numerous reports of the use of tear-gas and the shooting of demonstrators, the storming of schools and refugee camps, the destruction of homes of residents accused of involvement in security incidents, house-to-house searches, beatings, the closing of schools and destruction of school property and various other forms of intimidation and harassment directed at the local population. Newspapers had been closed down on repeated occasions and censorship measures against the Arab press and individual journalists, writers, publishers and bookshop owners had continued unabated.
It is not difficult to see why the Palestinians staged an uprising. Any people would have done so, had they been forced to suffer under the foregoing conditions. The uprising, called the First Intifada, lasted for six years until September 1993. It had begun rather peacefully, but ended up claiming the lives of 160 Israelis and 1,162 Palestinians.
And so we enter the last twenty years of the conflict. The First Intifada is generally taken to have concluded with the signing of the Oslo I Accord. Its more important offspring, Oslo II, was signed in 1995 and widely hailed as a breakthrough in the so-called peace process. If it were really so, however, then why, as Finkelstein asks, did it need to run to over three hundred pages of text? Israeli withdrawal from unlawfully occupied territories — a simple enough idea — could surely have been expressed a little more succinctly.
But of course, when one untwines the noisome entrails of Oslo II, one quickly sees that the Palestinians made great and grave concessions. Among them were the following. First, the agreement talked not of Israeli withdrawal, but of Israeli ‘redeployment’. For instance, it gave the Palestinians control of only 30 per cent of the highly fragmented West Bank, and permitted them to use only 20 per cent of its water. Second, Oslo II reaffirmed that Israel had full jurisdiction over offences committed in the West Bank by or against Israelis. Moreover, it bound Palestinian police to protect Israeli settlers and settlements, but absolutely denied them the right to ‘apprehend or place in custody or prison’ any Israeli. Third, Oslo II stated that Israel could keep in place the restrictions it had placed on the free movement of Palestinians. Fourth, this feted — or fetid — agreement makes no provision for the payment of reparations; instead, the following clause is quite unbelievably contained in Article XX:
The transfer of powers and responsibilities from the Israeli military government and its civil administration to the Council, as detailed in Annex III, includes all related rights, liabilities and obligations arising with regard to acts or omissions which occurred prior to such transfer. Israel will cease to bear any financial responsibility regarding such acts or omissions and the Council will bear all financial responsibility for these and for its own functioning.
All in all, then, it is hard to vanquish the feeling that Oslo II signified another nail in the coffin of the prospect of a just and lasting peace in the region. The late Edward Said suggested that the PLO in Oslo I gave ‘official Palestinian consent to enforced occupation’; his judgement seems equally to apply to Oslo II. Finkelstein, in Image and Reality, encapsulated pithily the essence of the 1995 agreement:
Once beyond dispute, Israel’s withdrawal will now be subject to the give-and-take of ‘permanent status negotiations’. With Palestinians on one side, and Israel and the US on the other, little imagination is needed to predict who will give and who will take.
He perceptively added that
Oslo has allowed for the full rehabilitation of Israel. No longer condemned as an occupying power, Israel rather stands beyond reproach as a full-fledged peacemaker.
In fact, the Oslo agreements enabled Israel to consolidate its empery over occupied Palestine. They enclosed the Palestinians in their Bantustans with a veneer of self-rule just thick enough to forestall opposition. At the same time, the watchful stare of human rights organisations would be compelled to refocus on the apparently empowered Palestinian authorities.
The Wye Memorandum, signed in 1998, did not change one whit the course of the conflict. The righteous Finkelstein noted at the time that the Memorandum confirmed that the Palestinian Authority was nothing more than Israel’s surrogate, and that it ‘reek[ed] of the rancid Israeli (and American) discourse on terrorism’.
In 2000, the Palestinians erupted in protest once again. The Second Intifada was much more violent than the first, and many thousands died in the course of it. Now, violence and suffering, no matter what form they take, are awful and entirely undesirable. Ideally, no one would have to make use of either. But what is to be done by a people if all hope of a just, diplomatic resolution has been extinguished by its oppressor? What else can they do? It might be instructive to look to the universally revered Nelson Mandela for guidance on this matter. Mandela, of course, had challenged the abhorrent apartheid government of South Africa — to which the Israeli government has borne more than a passing resemblance, and with which it was rather friendly. In his statement at the Rivonia Trial in 1964, Madiba said that
[a]ll lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the Government. We chose to defy the law. We first broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against, and then the Government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its policies, only then did we decide to answer violence with violence.
But the violence which we chose to adopt was not terrorism.
Who would dare to disagree? Most of the British press certainly would not. Mandela went on:
What were we, the leaders of our people, to do?
Were we to give in to the show of force and the implied threat against future action, or were we to fight it and, if so, how? We had no doubt that we had to continue the fight. Anything else would have been abject surrender. Our problem was not whether to fight, but was how to continue the fight. . . . the hard facts were that fifty years of non-violence had brought the African people nothing but more and more repressive legislation, and fewer and fewer rights.
. . . .
At the beginning of June 1961, after a long and anxious assessment of the South African situation, I, and some colleagues, came to the conclusion that as violence in this country was inevitable, it would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the Government met our peaceful demands with force.
His stance was most concisely captured in the Manifesto of Umkhonto we Sizwe:
The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices – submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means in our power in defence of our people, our future, and our freedom.
Perhaps the Palestinians felt and feel the same.
2005 saw Israel ‘unilaterally disengage’ from the Gaza Strip, and thereby ostensibly bring to an end four decades of unlawful occupation. In practice, Israel retains an enormous amount of control over the territory, and continues to devastate its economy. For example, Human Rights Watch in 2012 reported that ‘Israel’s punitive closure of the Gaza Strip, particularly the near-total blocking of exports from Gaza, continued to have severe consequences for the civilian population’. Amnesty International in the same year stated that
[t]he blockade prolonged the humanitarian crisis faced by Gaza’s 1.6 million residents, more than 70 per cent of whom were dependent on humanitarian aid. A near-complete ban on exports continued, stifling the economy, and severe restrictions on imports fuelled shortages and high prices. The blockade constituted collective punishment – a breach of international law – and particularly affected children and the sick.
Of course, Gaza has been ravaged by more explosive means as well. In 2006, Hamas was elected to represent the Gazan people; the elections were free and fair, but Israel and the United States expressed outrage and Israel moved to tighten the blockade. Nevertheless, in June 2008, Hamas entered into a ceasefire with Israel. In December of that year, Israel launched the first, aerial phase of a brutal campaign that lasted three weeks and cost the lives of 1,400 Palestinians. Nine Israelis were also killed. Unease has simmered in Gaza ever since, though spasmodic escalations often occur. It remains a wretched place. The West Bank, pockmarked as it is by hundreds of checkpoints and hundreds of thousands of settlers, looks almost equally as miserable.
The Palestinians’ plight is bleak and desperate. Israel is of course primarily to blame. It is extremely hard to see the Jewish state making any meaningful concessions in the immediate future. But others too are culpable.
The United States for one: it gives Israel enormous support, and the two governments invariably stand alongside each other as impedances to a just and lasting peace. No country has received more aid from the US in the last sixty years than has Israel. Corporate and strategic interests and a powerful pro-Israel lobby mean that a gigantic $3bn annual aid package is rather unlikely to shrink.
Moreover, there is the establishment at large. It perniciously and duplicitously characterises the resistance of Palestinians as ‘terrorism’, as groundless barbarism that has arisen absolutely ex nihilo, or from some pathological hatred of Jews. Take, for instance, the position of Rupert Murdoch, a man whose unspeakable power shapes the vacuity and ignorance of millions across the world. Murdoch’s 2009 speech to the American Jewish Committee was so replete with sinister subreptions that it is difficult to select just one for quotation. At any rate, his position is reflected in his media, and so it is with others too.
But of course, it is not violence per se to which the establishment is opposed. The same journalists and politicians — fantoccini all — lionised the Libyans in spite of their war crimes, and anointed them ‘rebels’; they are likewise lauding the Syrians; it is their egestions and villainy that keep Western armaments eternally humming, in anticipation of the next phantasmal threat to ‘our way of life’. Thanks to them, the Palestinian to us is either a ‘militant’ or an Unperson.
Yet, however abjectly, the Arab Spring still does trickle in the occupied territories. If that little rill is smashed and gouged by some maddened and foaming rhinoceros, then it will throw up a thousand midges. Two or three might succeed in pricking the pachyderm’s imperviable hide, but their stings are merely symbolic. Of course, this analogy has its flaws: the rhinoceros, after all, can validly lay claim to being endangered. And aggression of any kind is best renounced. But what must be understood is that the Palestinians are not acting without reason. They would rather like their freedom.