What are we to make of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's extraordinary talk of relocating almost all Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and 10 settlements in the West Bank as part of a "disengagement plan" from the Palestinian territories?
Could it be that Sharon, one of the driving forces behind the building of these settlements, has realised that the settlements are the key obstacle to peace and Israeli security?
Unfortunately, the proclamation has much more to do with the Israeli obsession with demography than a sincere desire for peace.
The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated areas on Earth. Some 7000 Israeli settlers monopolise the best 30% of the land, leaving more than a million Palestinians to subsist on what remains. The 10 West Bank settlements that Sharon proposes relocating are also in the middle of Palestinian population centres. The five settlement blocs spread throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem in which 385,000 Israeli settlers now live, are not mentioned in the plan.
Palestinians make up about 20% of Israel's population. If the population living in the Occupied Territories is taken into consideration, this proportion rises to about 40%. Successive Israeli governments since Israel occupied these territories in 1967 have debated how to incorporate Palestinian land into Israel without diluting its Israeli majority.
In the same January 12 speech in which he outlined the Disengagement Plan, Sharon also stated that "Israel will strengthen its control over those same areas in the land of Israel which will constitute an inseparable part of the state of Israel in any future agreement."
"The land of Israel" is the Israeli term for the entirety of historic Palestine, including the Occupied Territories. The means by which Israel would strengthen its control over these areas was made clear in the next sentence of his speech when he proclaimed that Israel would "greatly accelerate the construction of the security fence".
The "security fence" is a barrier that Palestinians refer to as the apartheid wall. Israel is building it though the West Bank to separate Palestinians from their land. When complete, the wall will have divided the Palestinians of the West Bank into a series of isolated cantons surrounded on all sides by Israeli settlements, cut off from Jerusalem and the Jordanian border, totally dependent on the Israeli electricity grid and with all of the West Bank's main water sources in Israeli hands.
Ironically, by pressing ahead with a plan that leaves the Palestinians little, Sharon has forced several Palestinian leaders (including Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie) and even some leaders of the Israeli peace camp to speculate that the principle of "two states for two peoples" is no longer workable.
Given the size and distribution of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, they argue, the only way forward might be to work towards the formation of a secular, democratic and multicultural state in which Israelis and Palestinians would live as equals.
Advocates of the proposal argue that the sheer size and distribution of the Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank make a two-state solution impossible, and that the country was once a multicultural and multi-faith society and can be again.
At this stage the one-state solution remains an idea for which none of the major parties on either side are willing to openly declare their support.
What has become clear, however, is that for the foreseeable future no end of the conflict is possible.
The Israelis, who have the money, the tanks and the patronage of the world's only superpower, believe that a final settlement should reflect the realities of the existing power relationship, and can be achieved by bending the Palestinians to their will.
The Palestinians, who have no tanks and no powerful allies but see themselves as the victims of an historic injustice, remain determined not to bend to Israeli pressure and to cling to the principle that peace and justice are inseparable.
[Michael Shaik is a coordinator for the International Solidarity Movement and a member of Australians for Justice and Peace in Palestine.]
From Green Left Weekly, February 18, 2004.
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