Editor's Notes: Palestinian inflexibility bulldozes Israeli vagueness

The security barrier already represents an Israeli declaration of intent to relinquish 93 percent of the West Bank.

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit: )
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
The officer is not an unsympathetic man. He gazes bleakly out from his vantage point on the outskirts of the settlement of Hashmonaim, watching the handful of mechanical diggers and bulldozers and trucks making their imperceptible progress as they further the construction of the West Bank security barrier in the valley below him, and he sighs. "It is their land, and of course they're going to struggle for it," he says. "But they will lose." He waves a hand vaguely into the middle distance. "They lost at Bi'lin," a few short kilometers away - the previous focal point of struggle against the construction of the barrier. "And they'll lose here. The fence will be built." When he says "it is their land," the officer is not taking a political position. He is not pontificating about Israeli and Palestinian sovereign rights. He's talking about the specific olive tree-covered hillsides outside the village of Ni'lin now being gashed by the winding ribbon of freshly moved earth that the barrier will follow. In deference to that ownership, olive trees that happen to stand in the path of the bulldozers and mechanical diggers as they make their way along the route are dug up and replanted to the side, hopefully to thrive afresh, with their owners scheduled to be afforded access to their groves via gates in the barrier. "Sometimes there are some problems" with these crossing points along the fence, the officer acknowledges, "but generally they work." Thoroughly unmollified by such Israeli concern for their ongoing welfare, the villagers of Ni'lin and assorted Israeli and international protest groups now regularly confront the tractors and the security forces here with stones and slingshots and physical violence, to protest both the particular course of this section of the fence and the entire, overall fact of the fence's construction. The results have lately been fatal. An 11-year-old boy was shot in the head during protests in late July; an 18-year-old was killed at his funeral the next day. Making the most waves, because the shooting was captured on camera and plainly did not occur in the heat of confrontation, a third protester was shot with a rubber bullet in the toe on July 7, after he had been arrested, handcuffed and blindfolded. Sensitive to partisan political waters, the officer won't say whether he thinks his defense establishment bosses have plotted an astute course for the barrier in this stretch, answering my questions with one-word answers wherever possible. No, it does not run along the Green Line, he says flatly. Yes, the Green Line is back there, behind us, he confirms, glancing over his shoulder toward the main road, Highway 443. And yes, too, if the planners wanted settlements such as Hashmonaim to benefit from the fence's protective embrace, this was pretty much the route it had to follow. But finally unloading just a little, he looks across at me, wipes the sweat and the dust from his eyes and pronounces: "The Palestinians could have waged their struggle differently." The officer, an IDF veteran it turns out, spent many years of his career in Gaza, and what he means, as he then elaborates with a loquaciousness quite at odds with his previous taciturnity, is that the entire resort to violence, from the start of the first intifada in 1987, has been "a nightmare" for the Palestinians. "I remember Gaza way, way back," he says, "when 90,000 or 100,000 of them would come in every day to work in Israel, all the way up to Haifa. There were no real [security] checks. Nobody bothered them, and they didn't disturb us." Does he mean that if the strategies of the first and second intifadas had been eschewed, and the Palestinians had stuck to nonviolent protest and diplomacy, they would have had a state by now? Or that they could have flourished economically had they remained under full Israeli control, and would have spared themselves, and us, all that bloodshed and all these intensified security impositions? He doesn't answer directly, instead reminding me that Ni'lin used to be known as a "village of peace" - not because its 4,500-strong populace was renowned for any particular affection for Israel, but because of its very proximity to Israeli residential areas. Israelis living nearby used to go shopping in droves here in more tranquil times, and Ni'lin felt the financial benefits. Indeed, he goes on, until very recently, as the barrier was gradually filled in elsewhere along its route north of Jerusalem, the fact that Ni'lin was so close to one of the few remaining gaps meant that some villagers rented out rooms to Palestinians from more remote West Bank areas, who would sleep the night and then sneak through the open land into Israel to work. The upsurge in protest means that these last few unfenced kilometers are more closely patrolled now, the officer tells me, and so this source of income is drying out too. HE'S RIGHT, of course, that had the Palestinians chosen nonviolent struggle, both sides would have been spared many nightmares these past two decades. He's certainly right that, were it not for the strategic waves of suicide bombers dispatched through the hillsides of the West Bank into Israel to kill and maim men, women and children, prime minister Ariel Sharon, in his penultimate incarnation, would never have built an ultra-sophisticated, border-style obstacle separating much of the West Bank from Israel. That pre-disengagement Ariel Sharon had been urging Israelis to "grab the hillsides" of Judea and Samaria so that those territories could never be relinquished, and he vehemently opposed constructing anything that might look like a border until a traumatized, bloodied Israeli public forced his hand. But given that shift by Sharon - the grudging consent to build the barrier - followed by his decision to relinquish Gaza even without an agreement, I question the logic of this officer who accompanied me to the Nil'in stretch of the barrier last week. Has the Palestinians' murderous intifada strategy really failed them? Yes, in recent years, it has failed the hundreds of thousands of Gazans and West Bankers no longer able to find employment in Israel. It has failed the farmers of Nil'in and Bil'in and countless landowners and others along the barrier's route whose access to their lands and their jobs and their schools is no longer free and unremarkable - though I don't recall any of them staging regular protests, with enthusiastic international support, against the suicide bombers who prompted the change. But Israel has gone from Gaza. And the extraordinarily costly West Bank security barrier - constructed at as profound an investment as any national boundary anywhere - represents an immense, undeniable declaration of Israeli intent to retreat from the overwhelming proportion of the West Bank as well, with the settlements on the "wrong" side of the fence necessarily rendered second class and vulnerable. In its original conception, the barrier, which has proved so effective a defense against the bombers, was planned to place about a seventh of the West Bank on the "safe side," the Israeli side, and was lambasted as such by the Palestinians and, indeed, by many Israelis. Serially petitioned by Palestinian landowners, the Supreme Court relentlessly forced it westwards, so that the final route will take in only about half the intended West Bank territory. The Palestinians continue to oppose the very fact of its construction, with considerable overseas backing. The mainstream international community, meanwhile, recognizes the security imperative behind the barrier, but wishes it were constructed along the Green Line. And so, as the demonstrators of Nil'in and their supporters spend the next year or so waging their weekly or even daily struggle against the building of these final few kilometers, a more accurate assessment, I think, is that the Palestinian employment of intifada violence has rid them of Israel's presence in Gaza, and produced, in the shape of the barrier, physical evidence of Israeli readiness to relinquish almost all of the West Bank. And this has been achieved in the absence of genuine Palestinian recognition of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, and amid a rise of Islamic extremism resolutely committed to using all means to achieve Israel's destruction. Far from alienating Western support for the Palestinians, furthermore, the last two decades of conflict have produced an increasingly overt consensus even among Israel's friends that the final route of the barrier - which would then be acknowledged as the border - must run pretty much along the pre-'67 lines. Today, we don't merely have familiarly hostile individuals and forums and nations demanding our retreat to the parameters of 41 years ago, but the likes of France's markedly pro-Israeli president and Britain's son-of-an-Israel-loving-clergyman telling us the same. And we have a US presidential contender, Barack Obama, making only his second brief visit here, who is certain enough that he understands the historical flux as to boil down Israel's claims in Judea and Samaria to a "buffer zone," and declare, as a friend, that if Israel wants to maintain all or part of it, it needs to take into account the "antagonism" this will cause on the other side. HOWEVER MUCH we might wish to agonize and indulge in internal recriminations as to the cause, the fact is that Jewish biblical and historical claims on Judea and Samaria, though they might be recognized in theory, are of little practical consequence even to Israel's friends these days. And even the security argument - Israel's right to sufficient territorial depth to enable it to protect itself against proven aggressors - resonates increasingly narrowly. The Palestinians and those who spoke for them rejected the UN's division of British mandatory Palestine, and they tried relentlessly to wipe out the State of Israel even in the 1948-1967 period when neither Gaza, nor the West Bank, nor east Jerusalem were in Israeli hands - facts which savagely undermine the argument that the conflict would be resolved if only Israel relinquished that same land. Israel has a profound historical connection to these territories, was acutely vulnerable to attack when it did not hold them, and captured them in a war forced upon it - strong arguments, all, against a subsequent return to the '67 lines. And yet, in trying to keep it all, Israel is gradually losing all support for keeping any of this territory. There is still widespread international backing for Israel's right to exist, a widespread understanding that we deserve to survive. But there is far too little understanding of what dimensions are required for that survival, of what constitute defensible borders - in no small part because Israel has been unable to articulate them consensually and effectively, and then fight for them. So, sure, the Palestinians might have waged their struggle differently, and the villagers of Ni'lin and elsewhere would have been spared the diggers fencing them in. But is it not really we Israelis who should have waged our struggle differently, for what we deem are vital parts of this land... if we could only agree on where the barrier, the border, existentially needs to run? Is Palestinian inflexibility not bulldozing Israeli vagueness? In the months before Ehud Barak set off for the Camp David talks with Yasser Arafat in 2000, there were members of his Labor Party - very senior and very dovish members - who were confident that Israel would be able to reach a permanent accord with the Palestinians under which it would maintain not merely a few slivers of West Bank territory to encompass major settlement blocs, but those big blocs, a presence in the Jordan Valley and a fair amount of additional land besides. This week, it has been reported that Israel has essentially offered the Palestinians 100 percent of the West Bank in the Olmert-Abbas negotiations over recent months - a 93% withdrawal, 1.5% of Israeli territory in the "safe passage" corridor from Gaza to the West Bank, and 5.5% of Israeli sovereign territory in the Negev to match a 5.5% expansion of sovereignty to encompass major West Bank settlements including Ma'aleh Adumim and the Etzion Bloc. A 100% deal. And the Palestinians have turned it down.