World Special Report


Israelis and Palestinians alike fear the coming election may spell an end to the peace process

Barry Came,Michael Snider February 5 2001
World Special Report


Israelis and Palestinians alike fear the coming election may spell an end to the peace process

Barry Came,Michael Snider February 5 2001

Almost every evening, not long after the sun sinks into the Mediterranean Sea off Gaza’s sandy shore, the grim serenade begins. The single crack of a rifle shot, echoing across the dunes, heralds its coming on most nights. But sometimes, when there has been a death during the day, it arrives with sudden force: in the rattle of machine-guns, the reverberating boom of tank fire, and the thud and whistle of high-powered explosives tearing through concrete. “Those are the worst nights,” says Ihnaid Abu Khatlah. “The whole sky blazes with tracers and those bright flares that fall on the little parachutes.” Not far away, down by the beach on the other side of the electrified fences and the rolls of razor wire, Moshe Saperstein agrees. “It’s become such a routine,” he says with a grimace, “that when there is no gunfire at night we can no longer get to sleep.”

Abu Khatlah and Saperstein are not quite neighbours. But they both live in the Gaza Strip, that benighted sliver of land on Israel’s southern coastline that is one of the most densely populated places on the face of the earth. Crammed into the Strips 360 square kilometres are 1,192,000 Palestinians. More than 600,000 are registered refugees, people like Abu Khatlah, who has spent all but 11 of his 64 years eking out an existence in one of the eight teeming, noisome camps that blot Gaza’s landscape. Israelis also inhabit the Strip: some 7,000 Jewish settlers living and working in 18 separate but interconnected agricultural and industrial colonies. Saperstein is one. He and his wife, Rachel, both 60, occupy a pretty bungalow on a sandy knoll in a well-ordered suburb of paved roads, watered lawns and flowering bougainvillea. “It could be such a paradise,” sighs Rachel, proudly showing a visitor the view from her living room window, beyond which the Mediterranean sparkles blue in the sunshine.

Neither the Sapersteins nor Abu Khatlah and his family have been enjoying anything even remotely paradisiacal for the past four months. Ever since Ariel Sharon triggered the latest Palestinian intefadeh, or uprising, with his provocative visit last September to a Jerusalem site revered as the Temple Mount by Jews and the Noble Sanctuary by Muslims, the settler couple and the refugee family have been trapped in a kind of hell, enduring long days of near palpable tension, even longer nights of bullet-ridden violence. Both are victims, prisoners of the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships’ inability to find a way to live together. But prisoners, as well, of their own enduring national myths and mutual incomprehension. “There will be no peace until the Jews are gone,” sobs Abu Khatlah, burying his head in his flowing headdress as he recalls the death of his 26-year-old son, killed by Israeli gunfire in the Gaza Strip last Nov. 7. “Our conflict with the Palestinians simply does not have any kind of resolution,” declares Moshe Saperstein, his severed arm and blinded eye bearing witness to the rigours of a lifelong battle with his Arab neighbours.

The views are extreme. They certainly fail to capture the more moderate sentiments of large numbers of Israelis and Palestinians, most of whom cherish a deep yearning for peace after more than half a century of hostility. But they also reflect the vast gulf that remains to be bridged as Israel and the Palestinians stand on the brink of what may yet be another of the fateful turning points that mark the blood| spattered history of their relationship. On Feb. I 6, Israelis go to the polls to elect a prime minister. If the public opinion surveys are correct, I Sharon, the 72-year-old unreconstructed 1 hawk of Israeli politics, stands the best chance of winning. As of late last week, all of the polls gave him a 15-percentage-point lead in his race with current Prime Minister Ehud Barak, 58— a still commanding, albeit slightly diminishing, lead. And even the Palestinians admit that a triumph for the intransigent Sharon would in all probability severely, perhaps fatally, wound the unfolding effort to reach a peace agreement. It would, said Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat last week, be “a real disaster.”

Barak’s prospects for snatching victory from what appears to be looming defeat rest almost solely upon his ability to present Israel’s electorate with a program that holds out the promise of a real peace with the Palestinians. The broad oudines of an agreement have been in place for months, ever since the dying days of U.S. President Bill Clinton’s administration. Under Clintons personal tutelage, the Israelis and Palestinians were cajoled into placing all of the key questions, once taboo, onto the negotiating table. They involve some kind of arrangement for Palestinian political control of Arab East Jerusalem, including shared jurisdiction over the Jewish and Muslim holy places within the old city’s 16th-century walls.

At issue, as well, is territory, specifically the return to the Palestinians of all but a small portion—between five and seven per cent—of the West Bank and Gaza Strip lands under Israeli military occupation since the 1967 Six-Day War, and where some 200,000 Jewish settlers have established, in clear violation of international law, an intricate web of colonies. Finally, the proposed agreement deals with the four million Palestinian refugees scattered in the occupied territories and overflowing camps around Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. A few, no more than 150,000, would be allowed to return to Israel proper. More would be given the right to return to Palestinian-controlled territory. Most would be offered compensation in lieu of return.

Ironing out those proposals has proved to be beyond the capability, or the willingness, of the Israeli and Palestinian leadership. While Israelis viewed the projected agreement as their most generous offer ever, the Palestinians saw the situation in a far different light. It entailed the abandonment of their longheld position, endorsed in a host of United Nations resolutions, that envisages Israel withdrawing to its pre-1967 boundaries, dismantling all the settlements and, if not permitting the return of all Palestinian refugees, at least acknowledging Israel’s role in creating the refugee problem in the first place.


When Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met last week in the Egyptian resort of Taba, there was one major difference from earlier attempts to resolve their conflicts. No one was looking over their shoulders. For months, while Bill Clinton pushed and prodded them towards a peace agreement, U.S. negotiators were along every step of the way. But with George W. Bush newly installed in the White House, Washington took a big step back. Suddenly, the two sides are on their own.

During Clinton’s final 18 months in office, he turned a deal between the Israelis and Palestinians into something of a personal crusade. He visited the region six times, presided over four Mideast summits in one year, and invited Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to the White House more often than any other foreign leader. But conservative critics accuse him of “legacy-hunting”—pushing the parties further than they could go without losing support among their own people, in order to secure his place in history. “The failure was due, to a certain extent, to his own egotism,” says Robert Kagan, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “He was looking to his own legacy.”

The new Bush administration seems to have taken those sentiments to heart. Things would be different even if Clinton were still in office: until the outcome of the Feb. 6 Israeli election is clear, any progress in peace talks is unlikely. And Bush, as a foreign-policy neophyte, is in no position to do the kind of one-on-one arm-twisting that Clinton came to enjoy. “In foreign policy there are situations that require the personal touch of the president,” says Stephen Zuñes, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco. “Frankly, the new president doesn’t have the knowledge to do that.”

At the same time, Bush’s team has signalled that it has other priorities in the Middle East and does not want to focus so much effort on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Bush advisers say more attention should be paid to overall stability in the region, and intend to strengthen U.S. ties with major Arab countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Still, the failure of Clinton’s peace efforts may have left the region more volatile than ever, and a bigger headache for his successor.

Beyond that, Arafat and his entourage viewed with a jaundiced eye exactly what was on offer. “They claim to be giving us 90 or 95 per cent of the West Bank, but take a close look at their maps,” says Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian negotiator, currently lecturing in political studies at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah. “The Israeli setdements that remain will isolate East Jerusalem and cut the West Bank in halfwith a line of setdements that run from Jerusalem down to the Jordan River. The Jordan Valley remains in their hands for some time to come. What is more, they have taken all the best land with the best water. We end up with a truncated state divided into three or four pieces that would not really be viable.”

Initially, Arafat attempted to line up support for his recalcitrant policy among the Arab states. But that campaign failed to produce anything more than lip service to his cause. “Only Saddam Hussein in Iraq has any real interest in prolonging the conflict,” argues one European ambassador in Israel. “In Egypt, [President] Hosni Mubarak wants him to cut a deal, as do all of the oil-rich sheiks down in the [Persian] Gulf The last thing King Abdullah in Jordan wants to see is a Palestinian army on his borders down in the Jordan Valley. He’d prefer an international force, failing that the Israelis. Even the Syrians would not be averse to a deal, if they are not willing to say so publicly. Syrian President Bashar Assad knows fidi well that his army is in bad shape. There have been no spare parts for the Syrian air force for a decade. He’d probably lose all his warplanes in the first day of any real shooting war.”

If Arafat was reluctant to negotiate, it was Sharon who provided him with the excuse not to. When Sharon decided to take his stroll around the Temple Mount, below which sits the Wailing Wall, he set a match to smouldering Palestinian resentment. Years of almost daily humiliation under the heel of a none-too-gentle military occupation finally erupted in another intefadeh. The costs so far have been heavy: close to 5,000 injured and 375 dead, the vast majority Palestinians. The Israel Defense Forces have earned an international black eye for permitting, if not actually authorizing, the use of excessive force in putting down street demonstrations that are largely, though not completely, the work of rock-throwing youngsters. Economic life in the Palestinian-controlled areas has skidded to an abrupt halt. “The Palestinian Authority is basically broke,” says a Western diplomat who monitors Palestinian affairs. “All the municipalities are now bankrupt and the PA itself is existing on a line of credit from the European Union.” Countless victims are entangled in the midst of this sorry state of affairs, among them Ihnaid Abu Khatlah and Moshe and Rachel Saperstein.

Mouth-watering aromas of a shabbat meal under preparation waft through the Sapersteins’ tidy bungalow in Neve Dekalim in southern Gaza. They are driving Moshe to distraction. A large


• Nov. 2,1917: Britain issues the Balfour Declaration, calling for a Jewish state in Palestine.

• 1924-1939: Waves of Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution in Europe swell the Jewish population in Palestine.

• Nov. 29,1947: The United Nations, reacting in part to the Holocaust, partitions Palestine into Arab and Jewish states.

« May 14,1948: Israel declares sovereignty, and the armies of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq invade Palestine.

War rages for 19 months.

• Dec. 11,1949: The United Nations adopts a resolution allowing the 800,000 Palestinian refugees who fled the war to return.

• Oct. 29,1956: Egypt nationalizes the Suez Canal and provokes the Suez Crisis. Israeli troops fight alongside those from France and Britain.

• May 29,1964: The Palestine Liberation Organization is formed in Jerusalem.

• June 5,1967: Israel defeats Egypt, Syria and Jordan

in the Six-Day War, leaving it in control of Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai.

• Feb. 3,1969: Yasser Arafat is named PLO chairman.

• Oct. 6,1973: Egypt and

Syria invade Israel simultaneously on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. The war ends 20 days later with Egypt and Syria recovering some territory lost to Israel in the Six-Day War.

• Nov. 22,1974: The United Nations recognizes the right of Palestinians to statehood.

• Sept. 17,1978: Israel and Egypt sign the Camp David Peace Accords.

• June 6,1982: In an attempt to destroy the PLO, Israel invades Lebanon.

• Dec. 9,1987: The Palestinian uprising known as the intefadeh begins as a riot in the Jebaliya refugee camp and lasts six years.

• Sept. 13,1993: Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat sign the Oslo Peace Accords, outlining autonomous zones for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

• Oct. 26,1994: Rabin and Jordan’s King Hussein sign a peace treaty.

• Jan. 20,1996: Arafat wins the first Palestinian election since the formation of Israel.

• May 24, 2000: The Israeli military withdraws from southern Lebanon after 22 years of occupation.

• July 11, 2000: U S. President Bill Clinton hosts Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Arafat at Camp David, but talks collapse over the issue of controlling Jerusalem.

• Sept. 28,2000: Likud leader Ariel Sharon visits a Jerusalem site holy to Muslims and Jews, sparking a wave of violence that continues almost daily.

Michael Snider

man of more than ample girth, he is on the 12th day of a hunger strike, staged by a group of 39 settlers in Jerusalems Zion Square to protest Baraks declared intention to dismantle the colonies in Gaza as part of a peace agreement. “We come home on the weekends,” he says, eyeing the kitchen, “when we are finally allowed to eat.”

Moshe and Rachel are natives of New York City. They immigrated to Israel in the wake of the 1967 war, when Israels armies drove the Egyptians out of the territory where their home now stands. “We were 27 years old,” says Rachel, “very young and very idealistic.” For 30 years, they taught school in Jerusalem, raising three daughters before retiring to Gaza—“out of religious obligation”—three years ago. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Moshe lost his right arm and right eye in the fighting at Ismailia on the Suez Canal. If the memory rankles, he betrays no sign of it. “I’m always misplacing things,” he grins, waving the stump of an arm that is severed just below the shoulder. “In the army,” he adds, “I managed to attain a rank that I think is unique in military history. I was a sub-private.”

The humour quickly vanishes, however, when the conversation turns to his presence on territory confiscated by military force from previous inhabitants. “Were not interlopers here,” he counters. “Gaza has the longest continuous Jewish presence in the Holy Land. Until 1929, when the Arabs drove the Jews out, we had been in Gaza for more than 1,600 years.” Would he leave if it was required under a peace agreement with the Palestinians? “If it was a real peace, I think most of us would grumble under our breaths, but we would eventually depart.” Rachel quickly intervenes. “Not me!” she vows. “They’d have to come in here and drag me out f by the hair!”

I Neither of the Sapersteins has much regard for

I the Palestinian leadership, nor much hope for the peace talks between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators that concluded at week’s end in the Egyptian resort town of Taba on the Red Sea. “Arafat’s a thug,” says Moshe. “As far as that crowd’s concerned, there will never be an end to these troubles until all the Jews are gone.” Rachel gestures out of her living room window, down towards the beach where, two days earlier, Roni Tzalach, a 32-year-old local settler, had been murdered. “They killed poor Roni right there,” she says. “Shot him in the head. That’s the kind of people they are. All they know is killing and terror. There’s been nothing but trouble in Gaza ever since our government let Arafat and his gang of mafia come back from Tunis. And now, we’re all locked up, living behind fences, like a jail.”

Ihnaid Abu Khatlah is imprisoned as well, but in conditions far more onerous than those endured by the Sapersteins. He lives in the Palestinian refugee camp at Rafah in the extreme southern end of the Gaza Strip, within sight of the watchtowers that guard the border with Egyptian Sinai. It is a crowded, noisy, malodorous place, a warren of unpaved alleys and low houses fashioned of raw concrete blocks with corrugated metal roofs. Abu Khatlah occupies one of those houses,

three square rooms surrounding a courtyard. He has been there for most of his life, long enough to sire three sons.

“We came to this area in 1948,” he says, “after the Jews drove my family out of Beersheba, where we had lived for generations. We’re farmers. We had 80 dunums [one dunum equals about eight hectares] of land in Beersheba.” He stands in his doorway, head wrapped in traditional kaffiyeh as well as, incongruously, a scarf, and points down to the Mediterranean, beyond a detachment of Israeli troops dug into a fortified bunker. “We also had 40 dunums on the coast. So we came here to get away from the fighting. I was 11 at the time. I did not think then that I would be here so long.”

For years, Abu Khatlah used those 40 dunums to provide a living for his wife and his growing sons. He raised poultry and potatoes and managed a grove of olive trees. Two years ago, the Israeli authorities confiscated 22 of his 40 dunums. “They had no right to do that,” he says. “I had deeds to the land, registered from the time of the Turks.”

Still, Abu Khatlah and his sons somehow lived off the vastly reduced proceeds from their diminished lands. But last Nov. 7, disaster struck. “It was around 8 p.m,” Abu Khatlah recalls. “I was with Saed, my second son. We had finished work, but I stayed behind to tend to the chickens. Saed set off for home when I suddenly heard shots, coming from the Israeli bunker. I ran to Saed but he had been hit. He was lying on the ground. There were wounds in his stomach, blood everywhere. I did not know what to do.”

Abu Khatlah’s eldest son, Mohammed, 32, soon arrived on the scene. “I could see the fire coming from the Israelis in the settlement at Bedolah,” he recounts. “I did not know it was my brother who had been shot, but I knew that both he and my father were in the area where the Israelis were shooting.” Mohammed and his father, assisted by neighbours, managed to transport Saed to hospital. But he died hours later, three 7.62-mm gunshot wounds in his abdomen. He was 26, husband of a 24-year-old pregnant wife, father of Shadi, a two-year-old boy. One month ago, Saed’s widow, Fatmah, gave birth to her second child, a daughter, named Shadiya.

The precise chain of events that led to Saed Abu Khatlah’s death will likely never be known. Nor will those of many of the others who have perished since the I Palestinian uprising began last I September. One major reason is I that, unlike in the last intefadeh, s Israeli military police investiga1 tions of fatal shootings by soldiers are no longer mandatory because the army now legally defines the situation as an armed conflict. Despite the high death toll, only five military police investigations have been carried out. “It’s created a very dangerous situation,” says David Holly, a retired British Royal Artillery officer, currently studying for a doctorate in war studies at King’s College, University of London.

'Only Iraq has any interest in prolonging the conflict’

Holly, who served in Bosnia, was hired by Amnesty International to conduct a military investigation in January into the widespread claims by human-rights organizations and others that the Israelis were using excessive force. After touring Israeli and Palestinian territories, and talking to Israel Defense Forces lawyers, Holly claims to have found evidence to support the charges, especially at the hot spots in the Gaza Strip. “Call it a soldier’s instinct,” Holly remarks, “but I have a gut feeling that something went terribly wrong in Gaza. It might have something to do with a breakdown in the chain of command, or NCOs looking the other way, or frightened 18-year-old conscripts in a scary situation. But if soldiers are not punished for indisciplined actions, sooner or later they’re going to get the message that it’s all right to kill Palestinians.”

The situation is not likely to improve under any government headed by Sharon, who has a well-earned reputation for fostering military indiscipline, both on his own part and on the part of those under his command. Many moderate Israelis were pinning virtually all their hopes on the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that were suspended on a note of surprising optimism last week in Taba, just across the border from the Israeli resort of Eilat. All of the leading proponents of peace in both camps participated in the talks, which are now scheduled to resume after the election. “We have never been closer to a peace agreement,” said Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami. It all may, however, be too late in the day to save Ehud Barak’s hold on the prime ministership. And if he loses his job next week, the faint hope for an early end to Israel’s torment may well go with him.