PALESTINE: Camp David signals PA leadership's capitulation

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PALESTINE: Camp David signals PA leadership's capitulation

RAMALLAH — The media hyperbole and fanfare surrounding the summit meeting between the leaders of Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the United States at Camp David in Washington over the last few weeks illustrates the importance the US attaches to imposing its solution on the Palestinian population. It also indicates Washington's need to convince the world that a process of real negotiation and compromise is taking place towards a final "fair and lasting peace" agreement.

The Camp David summit represents one of the final steps along the path that began with the signing of the Oslo Accords between the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Israeli government in September 1993. What has become painfully evident since Oslo is that this path leads only to the extension of Israel's control over all of historical Palestine and the imposition of a system of separation reminiscent of South African apartheid.

At the end of the on-again, off-again Washington summit there was no signed agreement, yet the broad blueprint of the final agreement had emerged.

When Oslo was signed in 1993, further discussion on several issues was postponed to talks on a "final status" agreement between the Israeli government and the PA. These issues concerned the fate of Palestinian refugees, what would happen to Israel's Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the status of Jerusalem and the contours of the future Palestinian "state".

Since 1993, Israel has worked to create a fait accompli by using Oslo to expand its presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. At the same time, the Palestinian opposition has been silenced through repression by both Israel and the PA. The extremely difficult economic situation and cynicism about the political process has made it difficult to mobilise the once-vibrant Palestinian movement.

The right of return

The question of Palestinian refugees is the central issue in the conflict between the people of the Middle East and the Zionist colonisers of Palestine. Israel was formed in 1948. More than 800,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes and land in the years before and following the establishment of the state of Israel.

The eviction (today known as ethnic cleansing) of the native Arab population was a essential for the Zionist movement to achieve its goal of a Jewish-only state. The Zionist leaders at the time established the Jewish Trade Union Federation Histadrut and the Kibbutz movement with the major aim of excluding Palestinians from both land and labour. The physical expulsion of Palestinians from their land was the logical endpoint of this colonial project.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees settled in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and other countries. Living in make-shift tents, over time their areas developed into crowded "camps" — enclosed areas filled with concrete dwellings and often lacking basic infrastructure such as sewerage, electricity, water and phones.

Since 1948, Palestinian refugees have formed the backbone of the Palestinian revolutionary movement. The demand raised by the refugees and their children — the right of return — has been considered sacred by all Palestinians. No Palestinian leader, until recently, has dared question this fundamental right. Al haq al Awda is scrawled over the walls of all camps across the Middle East.

The right of return strikes at the heart of the Zionist project because to allow Palestinians to return to their land and homes would challenge the racist character of the Israel state. Any Jew, from any country in the world, is guaranteed the right to live in Israel but non-Jews are prevented from doing so.

Israel's laws guarantee privileges to Jews but deny them to non-Jews (such as the right to own land). More than 6 million Palestinian refugees are living in the Arab world and Israel's leaders fear their return because it would alter the demographic majority of Israel's Jewish population. A key aim of Israel and its US-backers over the last 50 years has been to neutralise the Palestinian refugee question.

Capitulation?

All indications are that the PA has capitulated on this key demand — despite official media proclamations by the PA that this is not the case.

During the Camp David talks, a broad sketch of the likely agreement emerged: Palestinian refugees would be allowed to return to the "Palestinian state" and there would be no future claims against Israel; Israel would allow 100,000 refugees to return under a family reunification scheme and express "sorrow for the plight of refugees" without taking responsibility for causing the refugee problem in the first place.

What are the indications that the PA may accept this scenario? A few weeks before the Camp David summit, PA leader Yasser Arafat's chief economic advisor, Khaled Islam, requested US$40 billion of which half would be used to resettle refugees in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Jordan has also requested a similar amount to resettle the Palestinian refugees in that country.

Several months ago a scandal broke out in the Gaza Strip over comments made by the head of Preventative Security in the Gaza Strip, Mohammed Dahlan, to the central refugee committee in the area. Dahlan reportedly told the leaders of the committee that they would have to forget about the right of return and accept monetary compensation instead. When the head of the committee complained about Dahlan's comment to Arafat he was arrested and held for several days by Preventative Security.

The last several months has seen armed clashes between the PA and residents in several camps across the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Although these clashes have not been related to political issues as such, many observers believe they are an attempt by the PA to demonstrate control over the camps. Gun battles between PA security forces and residents in different camps have erupted at least three times over the last four months. Refugee activists have also been arrested and held without trial by the PA.

The Camp David summit participants agreed that the most contentious issue under discussion was Jerusalem and that other issues had been generally agreed upon. Given that the Israeli position is clearly opposed to any return of refugees, one can only assume that the PA has now accepted this.

Separation and control

According to media reports, Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the PA "95% of the West Bank". On the surface this sounds generous and close to what Palestinians have been demanding since adopting the "two-state solution" to the conflict in 1988. However, further analysis reveals the lies behind the statistics.

Israel insists on controlling Jerusalem. According to Israel's definition of Jerusalem, it covers at least 30% of the West Bank. When this is removed from the "95%", Palestinians would receive around 65% of the West Bank.

Furthermore, Israel will annex three major settlements within the West Bank — the Ariel, Maale Adumim and Gush Etzion blocs. These settlements are in the north, centre and south of the West Bank. Their connection to Israel will mean the division of the West Bank into three Palestinian enclaves. The settlements are connected by "bypass roads" (a euphemistic term for major highways) which have been under construction since 1992 and which allow Israel to setup checkpoints thereby dividing Palestinian areas from one another at any time at Israel's choosing.

This differs little from the plans has proposed by Israel since it occupied the West Bank in 1967, particularly the Allon Plan proposed by general Yigal Allon, one of the leaders of Israel's army in 1967. A succession of plans since that time, including Benyamin Netanyahu's "Allon plus" plan and a similar plan put forward by Ariel Sharon, head of the opposition Likud Party, are basically variations of this.

The guiding principle behind these plans is physical separation so as to avoid direct control by Israel over the Palestinian population but to ensure Israel's control of the West Bank's economy, land and natural resources.

The difference between 1967 and today is that Israel has managed to establish the infrastructure and political conditions necessary for implementing such a scheme — this includes the construction of settlements connected to Tel Aviv, bypass roads and a pliant Palestinian leadership.

US imperialism

Israel was from the outset based on a movement that aimed to colonise the Middle East. It would not have survived without the support of, at first, the British government, and then the US. The primary reasons for support US support was to establish a reliable ally in the strategic oil-rich region and to provide a beachhead against revolutionary movements in the area.

Israel has been rewarded handsomely. It is the largest recipient of US aid in the world (more than US$5 billion a year) and has living standards equal to Europe.

Israel was founded on the backs of the Palestinian people, and for this reason the key anti-imperialist dynamic in the region has been the Palestinian-Israel conflict. Israel has been faced with the problem of how to create a nation from a diverse group of people with no common national characteristics other than sharing a religion. The Oslo process represents the solution that best suits the interests of the Israeli state and US imperialism.

Since 1985, an Israeli bourgeoisie has arisen that clearly controls the reigns of state power. As a new state, Israel was built by the Labor Zionist movement which claimed socialist and left-wing credentials. In reality, the Labor Zionist movement resembled more closely the fascist movements in Italy and Germany with their elevation of the nation above class or individual.

Rule by the Labor Zionist movement was the strategic choice of the Zionist movement leadership because it offered a solution to the major obstacle facing colonisation — how to exclude cheaper Palestinian labour from the market and how to settle Jewish immigrants. The weak Jewish bourgeoisie was an unreliable option because they preferred to utilise cheaper Palestinian labour rather than new settlers expecting a higher wages.

The Labor Zionist movement championed "Hebrew Labour" and utilised the collective form of settlement called the Kibbutz (mistakenly described as "socialist" by liberal, "left-wing" Zionist apologists).

The Labor Zionist bureaucracy has never been hostile to private capital or the development of a home-grown bourgeoisie. Rather, this elite has fostered and supported the growth of a local bourgeoisie through preferential treatment by the state and more recently the privatisation of state-owned companies. Since the economic crisis of the mid-'80s, Israel's bourgeoisie has run the state in alliance with segments of the old political elite and strongly backed by US imperialism.

The Oslo process represents the economic and political program of the "new" Israeli bourgeoisie. It needs to "normalise" relations with other countries in the Middle East (until the Oslo agreements, Israel was boycotted by most Middle East countries) and move Israel's economy from one based on low-tech industries such as textiles and garments to a high-technology economy which uses cheap Arab labour in factories in Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian areas, in joint ventures with foreign (particularly US) capital.

The last decade has seen significant steps along these lines. Exports from food and beverage sectors fell by almost 20% between 1996 and 1997, while high-tech industry exports increased by 34.7%. The government of Israel has pursued a policy of import liberalisation and free trade agreements with many countries, reducing the cost of imports. Between 1992 and 1997 imports of clothing and finished products almost tripled while exports from that sector remained static. Israel has free trade agreements with the US, Canada, Hungary, Poland, the European Union, Turkey.

A Middle Eastern 'Costa Rica'

The process of privatisation began in the mid-1980s, when several state-owned enterprises were sold, but it accelerated in the late-1990s. The total proceeds from privatisation amounted to $400 million in 1985-90, $2.2 billion in 1991-93 and $1 billion in 1994-96. The large state-owned conglomerates which dominated Israel's economy in the first decades have been largely sold off to private capitalists.

Until now, the "solution" to the Palestinian "problem" has remained elusive. Critically, the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip of the late 1980s and early '90s revealed the impossibility of continued direct occupation by Israel.

The Oslo process was designed to end the uprising and place a compliant Palestinian leadership in control of the Palestinian population. This was done through supporting the growth of a Palestinian bourgeoisie drawn from the ranks of the PLO apparatus, the local Palestinian bourgeoisie who have traditionally served as "middle-men" for Israel's imports to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and wealthy Palestinians in the diaspora.

These Palestinians enthusiastically adopted the neoliberal economic framework of the World Bank. A recent workshop, "Leadership and Good Governance in the Palestinian Authority", was organised by the World Bank in the US and was attended by Palestinian ministers. They returned espousing Costa Rica as a model for the Palestinian economy, with its free trade zones, non-unionised and cheap labour and incentives to attract foreign investment.

The capitalists are the only group in Palestinian society that benefit from the economic and political agreements because of their relationship with Israel's capitalists. The Palestinian economy is dominated by monopolies controlled by various capitalists close to President Arafat. These monopolies are connected to companies in Israeli that see the West Bank and Gaza Strip as an important market.

The Palestinian delegation to Camp David was composed largely of these capitalists. Khaled Islam is Arafat's chief economic advisor and owner of the largest capitalist conglomerate in Palestine. His interests include the Jericho Casino, the two largest hotels in Palestine and one of the major Palestinian banks.

Jamil Tarifi is minister of civil affairs and the head of Palestine's largest construction company. Abu Ala is speaker of the Legislative Council and one of the wealthiest men in Palestine. Nabil Shaath, minister of planning and international cooperation, is head of the gravel and sand monopoly as well as numerous private companies. Abu Mazen, Arafat's deputy, owns the largest advertising company in Palestine.

Opposition

All indications are that a formal agreement is close. Negotiations are set to resume but the major issue facing the Palestinian leadership is how to sell an agreement to the population.

During the Camp David summit, a broad-based opposition made it clear that the people would accept no less than the right of return, a Palestinian state and Palestinian sovereignty over Jerusalem. Numerous demonstrations were held across the West Bank and Gaza Strip demanding that the negotiators stick to the official Palestinian "red lines".

The largest opposition group, Hamas, warned that any agreement that gave away these rights would not be binding on the people. The head of the Refugees Department of the PLO resigned because he had been excluded from the negotiations on refugees.

It became clear that the Palestinian negotiators could not sign an formal agreement that gave up the movements fundamental demands without meeting tremendous opposition at home. Instead, they chose not to sign but to continue negotiations over the next few weeks.

Despite attempts by the PA organise big demonstrations in support of "the hero Arafat" upon his return home, they were poorly attended .

On one level, US President Bill Clinton and his propagandists are correct: the next few weeks will be critical and will go down in history as an extremely significant period in the struggle of the Palestinian people.

Not because there is any chance of a just peace resulting from the talks, but because the eventual agreement will represent the final capitulation of the Palestinian leadership to an imperialist-imposed solution.

Whether the Palestinian people accept such a "solution" is the question mark that hangs over the negotiations and will only be answered in the next stage of the Palestinian people's long struggle.

BY AHMED NIMER