The Context for Peace Talks: What We Need to Address

Originally published on September 18, 2013, on Geopolitika.lt (in Lithuanian)

Israeli and Palestinian delegations are at the negotiation table again, and the world is guessing what will follow. Some guesses are based on the fruitfulness of the previous talks, while some are based on the current situation in the region. Let’s put these two approaches together, focusing on both the conditions of these peace talks and their context. In short, the questions are: how likely is it that a deal acceptable for both sides is made and what are the obstacles to such a deal?

To begin, we have to define the very discussion points of these negotiations. Let’s start with the occupation mechanisms in the West Bank. It wouldn’t be difficult for Israel to dismantle all the checkpoints and other obstacles to freedom of movement, including opening up the roads that can currently be used by the Israeli settlers for everyone living in the West Bank to use. It would be significantly more difficult to relocate the settler population: even if economic incentives were removed, the majority of settlers – which comprise over 360,000 in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – might leave, yet the situation with those who have moved here for religious reasons most likely would be different.  We can engage in various speculation, yet, looking at statistics, it’s clear that such speculations don’t have a strong base. 

Second, we have to address the question of East Jerusalem that currently remains occupied. The Palestinians living there seem to be forgotten, in a permanent limbo state: they’re not Israeli citizens yet they’re not considered part of the West Bank either. If Israel were to give back the territories that the Palestinians had pre-1967, it  would have to give up East Jerusalem. If not, how much would it mean for the Palestinians to have Jerusalem without its Old City, historically significant to three major world religions? It is understandable, though, why Israel doesn’t want to give it up. Could it be turned into a territory officially overseen and perhaps governed by international organisations? That, too, is highly unlikely, after many years of troubles. 

Let’s leave the capital for now and move to another unit of the Occupied Territories: the Gaza Strip. Being one of the world’s most densely populated areas, Gaza has seen a lot of violence, including illegal white phosphorus attacks. What’s awaiting Gaza – called world’s biggest open-air prison by some – if a Palestinian state gets created? In addition to the fact that Hamas doesn’t have a good relationship with Fatah, and the fact that the Israeli government is not open to negotiations with Hamas, the question of the strip’s borders remains. Is it likely that, after boycotting goods from the West Bank, withholding taxes from the Palestinian government and occasionally engaging in bigger scale military action, Israel would open its borders and allow Palestinians to move freely? After all the effort of the Israeli governments put into convincing its citizens that only a fenced and besieged Gaza would stop shooting rockets into Israel, a Palestinian state doesn’t seem like a likely end result again.

Finally, even if a compromise is found on the issues just discussed, another question remains: the right of return, guaranteed for all refugees by the Fourth Geneva Convention. Let’s not forget that the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948 forced 750,000 Palestinians out of their homes; now, in town-like refugee camps run by the UN, we have over 1.5 million refugees. For third-generation Palestinian refugees it must be difficult to imagine that most of their parents or grandparents had their own homes and even land pre-1948, and the question of that land is not forgotten.  

So what would it mean for Israel to acknowledge and respect Palestinians’ right of return? This would first of all interfere with the very concept of a Jewish state. Both this concept and the two-state solution are directly based on the wish to maintain Israel as a majority Jewish state. Now, it’s worth mentioning that the unwillingness of the Palestinians and other states to recognise Israel as a Jewish state is oftentimes misrepresented. It’s not always explained that for Palestinians, such a recognition would mean giving up their rights to come back to their homeland. At the same time, it’s impossible to imagine the Israeli government considering giving the Palestinians more than the 1967 borders and giving up their control over the West Bank (of which they currently have 60 percent). 

To better understand the process of these peace talks and why the government of Mahmoud Abbas would try to stop them, we must also dive into the immediate context of these talks. As these talks are happening, East Jerusalem and the West Bank are seeing new settlements being built. According to a recent announcement, these territories are to hold 1200 more homes: it was announced by the Israeli government on August 11 of this year, just three days before the first round of negotiations planned. Just this year, in 2013, the number of illegal settlers living in the West Bank has increased by more than 7,000: such statistics is the very reason why a scenario in which the settlers agree to leave the West Bank doesn’t seem realistic. Physically possible, yet politically improbable. 

In addition to an expanding network of illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories, house demolitions as well as raids and arrests have become everyday occurrences in the lives of Palestinians, including the youngest ones. Defence for Children International states that in the month of July of this year there have been 195 of Palestinian children (under 12 years old) held in Israeli detention facilities. Finally, there are also raids by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) conducted in refugee camps as well as residential areas. These raids also take place in the Area A of the West Bank, which is controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA). 

This is a brief context in which, after a five-year break, peace talks are being held. Knowing this context of Israel’s systemic practices, the Israeli initiative to release a couple of tens of Palestinian prisoners doesn’t seem highly significant. 

Now, what are the prospects of these peace talks? In short, the prospects are grim and hardly leading anywhere. The proposal that was shared with the public at the beginning of September perfectly illustrates Israel’s unwillingness to give up its current privileges: Israel wants to keep approximately 40% of the West Bank, to keep the Jordan Valley (a highly fertile region), as well to maintain its control of the Jordanian border. The settlers are not moving anywhere either. It’s not surprising that a big protest erupted in Ramallah on September 6: its participants were claiming that the position held by Mahmoud Abbas and his government doesn’t represent everyone. For many of the Palestinians, at the very top of their demands is the right to return to their lands. 

It’s interesting to see how, oftentimes, a phrase ‘to find a compromise’ is used when discussing these talks. Yet what compromise could we be discussing when one side is unwilling to give anything up, and the other one doesn’t have much to give up? What concessions can Palestine, all divided and occupied, grant to Israel?  And could we call Israel’s promise to adhere to the International Law a concession or a compromise when that promise is what Israel should be legally doing anyways? 

It’s utterly unlikely that Israel would start dismantling the West Bank Barrier which has by now become symbol of racial segregation, allegedly protecting Israel from terrorist attacks (the reduction of which could be partially explained by the fact that the Second Intifada had ended). Due to the mismatch between the official demarcation line, also known as the Green line, and the Barrier (that is, the Barrier cutting into the West Bank), the territory of the West Bank has been shrunk even more. Over 11,000 Palestinians are stuck in between the Green Line and the Barrier, requiring permits to live in their own homes. 

Taking into consideration the contemporary history of the region as well as the current base from which Palestinians are expected to negotiate, a two-state solution doesn’t seem like a guarantee of justice for both sides. A one-state solution – a single state throughout the whole historic Palestine – probably sounds too radical for both Israeli citizens and for the Palestinians themselves. It’s radical because, by definition, it would require a structural change. It would take dismantling the West Bank Barrier, oftentimes compared to the Berlin Wall; it would take putting an end to restricting the freedom of movement of the citizens of Gaza; it would take granting the Palestinians the right of return, for them to be able to come back to the lands from which they were once forcefully removed. It’s really difficult to imagine a real long-term peace in the region if these conditions are not in place. 

The young residents of the West Bank that I myself got a chance to talk to don’t think they are asking for something radical. “Israel is here and it’s not going anywhere, we understand that,” people say. “What we want is to have one state and to live in it with freedom and equality.”

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