What future for Palestine?

June 5 marks the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War, during which Israel attacked and defeated the armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, seizing the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the West Bank from Jordan.

The Sinai was returned to Egypt through a peace agreement negotiated in 1978; the Golan Heights remains under Israeli control. For the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank, which fell respectively under the control of Egypt and Jordan after the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel, the war marked the beginning of a brutal military occupation that continues today.

Some 750,000 Palestinians fled their homes in response to Zionist violence during 1948. According to BADIL, a Palestinian refugee advocate organisation, the 1967 war led to the further displacement of tens of thousands of Palestinians from within the West Bank and Gaza. The current number of Palestinian refugees from 1948 and 1967 and their descendants number more than 7 million.

The key aim of the Zionist movement in historic Palestine has been to seize as much land as possible, with as few of its indigenous inhabitants remaining as possible, in order to artificially create a Jewish majority in a state that has yet to define its final borders. This aim was behind the initial expulsion of the Palestinian people, and it is behind the continued subjugation of the Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories that comprise just 22% of historic Palestine.

Fourteen years after the Oslo Accords; 40 years after the annexation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT — the Gaza Strip and the West Bank); and 59 years after al Nakba ("catastrophe" — the Palestinian term for the events of 1948), Palestinian suffering continues to intensify. There is still no realistic prospect of a viable Palestinian state being established in the near future.

None of this has taken place without Palestinian resistance, however. In 1987, this resistance exploded in a mass uprising — the intifada. The intifada developed at the grassroots level and was directed through local popular committees that organised acts of mass protest and civil disobedience, bringing the struggle for Palestinian national self-determination onto the world stage in a dramatic way and convincing the majority of Israelis that the occupation was unsustainable. The intifada created the impetus for the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993 between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) led by Yasser Arafat.

Oslo

Signed in Washington DC, the Oslo Accords (final negotiations on the agreement took place in Norway's capital) were ostensibly aimed at establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel in the short-term future. The PLO made a series of historic concessions, accepting the notion of a Palestinian state within the remaining 22% of historic Palestine. The Palestinian Authority (PA) was established to take control of limited aspects of Palestinians' lives in the West Bank and Gaza.

However, Israel used the "peace process" to consolidate its hold on the OPT. Dependence of the newly created PA on Israel was entrenched. Not only did the Israeli government contravene the basic principles of the Oslo agreement by expanding its colonial "settlements" in the OPT, it also sought to prevent the occurrence of any more outbreaks of resistance by having the PA play the role of prison warden.

The leadership of Fatah, the dominant Palestinian faction led by Arafat, obliged. Fatah enforced a system of tight control through its security services, particularly the CIA-trained Preventive Security Services. The aim was to prevent any resistance developing outside the official PA/PLO framework.

When Palestinian frustration with the positive change from the Oslo Accords erupted in the Al Aqsa intifada in September 2000, Israel cracked down mercilessly. Israel has maintained a steady stream of military offensives against the Palestinian population in the OPT ever since. According to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, between September 2000 and May 2007, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) killed 4486 Palestinians; 31,403 Palestinians were wounded during the same period.

Israel's response to the increasing international pressure to find a solution to the "Palestinian problem" was to launch a long-planned major military operation in the West Bank aimed at destroying the infrastructure of a possible future Palestinian state. Using a string of Palestinian suicide bombings as justification, "Operation Defensive Shield", launched in March-April 2002, destroyed virtually all of the PA's infrastructure in the West Bank.

While Israel (sometimes at least) pays lip service to a "peace process" and to the concept of Palestinian statehood, military operations such as Operation Defensive Shield and the July-August bombardment of Gaza last year reflect the Israeli elites' goals more accurately: to violently terrorise the Palestinian population into submission and to destroy any state infrastructure Palestinians try to consolidate.

Palestinians have no partner for peace. Israel's primary aim is to prevent, or delay as long as possible, the emergence of an independent Palestinian state, and in the meantime to establish "facts on the ground" — i.e., Israeli settlements, outposts, bypass roads, and the "separation barrier" throughout the West Bank — to be taken into consideration if and when the time finally comes for a final status agreement.

Facts on the ground

The 2003 "Road map for peace" — sponsored by the "Quartet" (the US, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia) — was yet another superficial attempt to achieve Palestinian statehood. Under US pressure, Israel withdrew 8500 settlers from the Gaza Strip in August 2005. However, far from "ending the occupation", Israel has sealed Gaza's residents off from access to the outside world, launched regular military incursions into the area, and turned the strip into an open-air prison. While Israel no longer aims to settle the land in Gaza, it is determined to prevent it from being free from Israeli rule, which may allow it to become a bulwark for Palestinian resistance. Israel controls the airspace and coast and has maintained control of the movement of people and goods through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, which it rarely allows to open.

In the January 2006 PA elections, Palestinians rejected Fatah's failed approach to the struggle for self-determination. Hamas won 74 seats in the 132-seat Palestinian Legislative Council; Fatah won 45. For Israel, this meant two things. Firstly, it created a very dangerous situation because, with the PA in the hands of Hamas, Israel had lost the intricate network of Palestinian intelligence and security it had cultivated through the PA since Oslo. Secondly, it provided the Israeli regime with a new pretext to postpone final status negotiations and continue the land grab in the West Bank.

The response of Israel and the US to the democratic expression of Palestinian popular will was to enforce a harsh sanctions regime. The US and Israel have tried to strengthen the hand — and the private security forces — of Fatah and PA President Mahmoud Abbas (a Fatah leader) in an internal power struggle with Hamas.

A January 7 article posted at Conflictsforum.org by Alastair Crooke and Mark Perry noted: "In the immediate aftermath of the Hamas elections, last January, [Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott] Abrams greeted a group of Palestinian businessmen in his White House office with talk of a 'hard coup' against the newly-elected Hamas government — the violent overthrow of their leadership with arms supplied by the United States. While the businessmen were shocked, Abrams was adamant — the US had to support Fatah with guns, ammunition and training, so that they could fight Hamas for control of the Palestinian government."

Sanctions

Sanctions remain in place against the PA and international aid will largely only go through the office of Abbas. As a result, poverty has worsened in the OPT, especially in Gaza, where 1 million people out of a total 1.4 million are dependent on UN food relief programs to survive. The economy, health, education and basic infrastructure, including electricity and water provision, of the Palestinian territories have been deliberately destroyed by Israel.

Despite numerous rounds of ceasefires and negotiations between Hamas and Fatah and the establishment of a unity government following talks in Mecca in February, factional conflict between the two groups has continued, claiming hundreds of Palestinian lives and destroying the fabric of society in Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has referred to the election of Hamas as providing a "window of opportunity" for enforcing his plan of reaching an international agreement on the border question — based on the route of the Apartheid Wall around the West Bank. This would incorporate 40% of the West Bank into the Israeli side and consolidate four Palestinian enclaves within the territory, separated from each other by Israeli settlement blocks. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, almost half a million Palestinians will be affected by the wall's route — that is, cut off from their farming land, cut off from the West Bank itself, or surrounded by the wall.

Many of these people will be forced to leave their homes and move deeper into one of the four Palestinian enclaves in the West Bank, which they may or may not one day be allowed to call their "state". Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem has reported a 52.8% growth of Israeli settlers in the West Bank between 1997 and 2004; there are now half a million.

The increasing incorporation of the West Bank into Israel through the expanding settlement grid, the separation barrier and other results of Israel's occupation policies all contribute to a growing understanding that an independent Palestinian state based on the OPT is unlikely to be viable, let alone just. If current trends reach their logical conclusion, any "independent Palestinian state" achieved during the final status negotiations will be based on five disconnected concentration camps: the Gaza Strip and four enclaves in the West Bank. The Palestinians will have 10% of their historic homeland.

A revived discussion about a democratic, secular state for all of the land's inhabitants that incorporates the right of return for Palestinian refugees is taking place among Palestinian and Israeli activists and academics. Israeli professor Ilan Pappe is a leading proponent of this option, and believes that the South African experience provides valuable lessons for Palestine. In an April 26 article for Electronic Intifada, Pappe argued: "By introducing the one democratic state, it offers a new orientation for a future solution instead of the two-state formula that failed, and it invigorates new thinking of how the Israeli occupation can be defeated — through boycott, divestment, and sanctions."

He points out that an international boycott campaign is not counter-posed to a political struggle within Israel and the OPT for a just solution, but argues that a successful boycott campaign "will not change this position [of Jewish Israelis, in support of an exclusively Jewish state] in a day, but it will send a clear message to the public that these positions are racist and unacceptable in the 21st century. Without the cultural and economic oxygen lines the West provides to Israel, it would be difficult for the silent majority there to continue and believe that it is possible both to be a racist and a legitimate state in the eyes of the world."