The panel discussion "Radicalization and Survival for Palestinian Refugees" took place at the 61st annual conference in October, 2007.
Moderator: Wegger Strommen, Norwegian Ambassador to Washington
Ladies and gentlemen, good morning. My name is Wegger Strommen and I am not the person in the program who was supposed to moderate this first session. I am the new Norwegian ambassador to Washington, DC, and I am the stand-in for my colleague Ambassador Svein Sevje, who is in Jerusalem at this moment. Sorry about that, but I will try to do my best. What I can say is that I also have, like many Norwegians (at least of my generation), some background from the Middle East. I was there pre-Oslo process, in the 1980s, and probably for 25 years on and off with the Middle East question.
As you will know, it is a great pleasure for me as Norwegian representative, having been involved with the Palestinian refugee issue for all these years — and I remember the shape it was in in the 1980s; I am not going to elaborate this point but it is one of those issues — isn’t it? — that is in a way a stable factor but also constantly evolving. It is there but it is in different and maybe more difficult forms than ever.
To discuss these things this morning we have an excellent panel. Let me first only say that Bernard Rogier is not able to be with us but the three speakers that are going to address us this morning are, first, Benny Morris, then Richard Cook and finally Mustafa Barghouthi. What I plan to do is let them speak for about 15 minutes and then we will have questions and answers and a discussion that will take us up to 11:30.
The first speaker — I will be very brief on the bios. I was raised in a tradition where you do not elaborate this point; let the people speak for themselves. But I encourage everyone to look into the program for the bios of our speakers. All I will say is that Benny Morris, who will go first, is a professor of history at Ben Gurion University in Be’er Sheva, Israel, a very distinguished Israeli historian, probably best known for his work on the history of the Palestinian refugees. I had the privilege of reading his books over the years. Without further ado, I will give him the floor.
Benny Morris: For six decades now, the Palestinian refugees and their descendants – originally 700,000 refugees, today numbering (according to the United Nations) approximately four million; Palestinian Authority figures say five million — have been displaced from their homes in Palestine, in the areas of Palestine that became Israel in 1948. Most of them in 1947-1949 moved to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. A small proportion, a third, moved outside of the country. In that sense, incidentally, most of the refugees are not refugees at all — they are displaced people, people who moved or were moved from one part of their country to another. But they have been living, especially in the camps in Lebanon and Syria and the Gaza Strip, in squalor — stateless, unable to work in many places, living essentially on Western handouts. The Western governments, of course, are the people who have supported the United Nations, UNRWA and so on — the relief agencies. The Arab governments have contributed very little for this relief.
What does the future hold for them? This is really the question here in this conference. I am pessimistic and I think the future holds for them much what has happened to them during the past decades — more of the same, maybe a little worse. They will continue to be stateless, many of them. They will continue to battle against Israel. They will suffer repression in the areas which Israel occupies. They will terrorize Israeli settlers, civilians and soldiers. Essentially, it will remain the same.
It will remain the same because on two levels there are basic gaps between the Israelis and the Palestinians and their Arab backers. On the political level there are central questions on which the gaps are so large that they are unbridgeable. They were proven unbridgeable in 2000 during the Camp David summit which broke down; they proved unbridgeable when Clinton offered a better, improved solution for the Palestinians in his December 2000 parameters. Both the Israeli proposals at Camp David in July and the Clinton parameters in December were rejected by the Palestinians and accepted by the Israelis.
But the point here is that the gaps remain very large — on Jerusalem, on borders, and also – maybe most crucially, and I still think this is the worst and most difficult of the problems faced by the Palestinians and Israelis — the refugee issue.
On the refugee issue, the Palestinians and essentially their Middle Eastern backers — or if you like, the whole Islamic world — demand that the world and Israel recognize the right of return and begin to implement the right of return. This is a common position of all Palestinians, as far as I can tell — Fatah, Hamas and everybody both to the left and the right of them.
Israel’s position on the Palestinian refugees, those four or five million who live outside the state of Israel, is that they cannot return. While individual morality may say that on an individual plane, each person should have the right (and his descendants) to return to his actual homelands, the question is really a national and political question. As the Israelis say, recognition of the right of return and the return of four to five million refugees would simply destabilize Israel, destabilize the Middle East completely, and turn Israel instantly from a Jewish state into an Arab state — if you like, the 23rd Arab state. Israel really wants to remain – most Israelis, 80% of the country’s population who are Jewish — want to remain a Jewish state and believe that turning it into an Arab state is essentially an act of suicide. They would emigrate, they would have to leave. There would be chaos; there would be massacres —whatever. It would look much worse than Iraq today, and most would leave. Many Jews lived in Arab countries over the centuries; as we know, those communities no longer exist. They were all killed off, converted; those who remained, left. They did not find life in Arab states congenial.
So Jewish Israelis do not want a return of the refugees. The problem is that on the Palestinian side there is no concession and there can probably be no concession because it is a matter of identity. It is not just a matter of policy — we can bargain with it, we are using it as a tactic. It is a crucial strategic matter of identity; returning to their homes is the essence of the Palestinian resistance movement and its ideology.
The Arab League in 2002 and then again since endorsed a peace plan for the Middle East which, in my view, the Israeli government should have pursued under Sharon and then under Olmert — and did not, pointing to a number of what they called — they had misgivings about a number of items on this peace plan. One of the major ones being, of course, the problem of the right of return, because the peace plan does say Israel and the Arab states could live in peace with normalized relations and so on if Israel returns to the 1967 borders, gives up all the occupied territories — but it also said that the refugee problem has to be based on UN General Assembly Resolution 194 from December 1948, which everybody knows includes the right of return. So if the refugee problem must be based on this right of return, which is what this peace proposal endorses, Israel can have no truck with it or certainly cannot reach an accommodation on that basis. As I said, it sees a right of return as a matter of suicide.
What all this means really is that this coming conference in Annapolis — any negotiations in the near future between Israelis and Palestinians— will get nowhere. They may produce a lot of air but they will get absolutely nowhere on the crucial issues or on the ground in solving anything.
But let me add, and this is partly in response to remarks made by the previous speaker, Richard Clarke, the problem with the Palestinians is basically an irrelevance at the moment. I am saying this with a touch of exaggeration, because it is the problem which is going to remain on the agenda for the coming decades for Israel and the Palestinians. There is a Palestinian problem; at its core, there is a refugee problem. These are problems that will remain with us and will be existential for both sides during the coming decades.
But they are not the crucial problem in today’s Middle East and in today’s world, which is going to be dominated in the coming two or three years by the Iranian question. It will brush everything off the table because of its importance. The Iranian problem is not a problem, as defined by Mr. Clarke, of actual aggression today by Iran — even though Iran supports militancy against America in Iraq, in Afghanistan perhaps — the problem is what will Iran do once it gets a nuclear bomb.
I am not an Israeli government spokesman but I think Richard Clarke has it right. Israelis do feel existentially threatened by an Iranian bomb and I think the West should also feel — in a more indirect manner but also feel — very threatened by Iran having a bomb. It is clearly what the Iranians are going for and the question is: if sanctions do not work, and they apparently are not going to work because the world has not joined hands in implementing sanctions, what do you do in the face of the expectation that the Iranians will have a nuclear bomb? What will the Middle East look like with a nuclear bomb in Iranian hands?
We have the paradigm of Russia and America during the Cold War, with mutual assured destruction, deterrence working and no one throwing bombs at anybody. This unfortunately might not be the case and the problem is, nobody knows. But it might not be the case in the case of Iran possessing the bomb because it is run by people who do not think rationally in our terms. A principal symptom of this, if you like, is that the Iranian president says there was no Holocaust. If somebody says something major in world history, which everybody agrees happened did not happen, there is something irrational in the way he thinks. I am not saying he is irrational when he says “we should destroy Israel” or “Israel must be destroyed,” which he says continuously. It might be irrational in terms of what he thinks Israel is going to do about it. His saying this — he perhaps should not be saying this, but the irrationality of saying that a major event in recent history which everybody knows occurred did not occur is something which raises a red flag and says: this man does not think rationally.
Not only does he not think rationally but his protégés or his bosses, the mullahs in Iran, have not raised a voice in protest. It is not: okay, there is a wild man — he happens to be president of Iran but we can sort of dismiss him; he is an idiot or he is mad or whatever. But he is not, because he actually says things which nobody raises their voice against in Iran — or nobody of significance criticizes. You do not see Khamenei or anybody jumping up and saying, “What are you talking about? You are getting us into trouble, you are saying stupid things.” Nobody says anything, which seems to indicate that he is expressing the will of this clan of mullahs.
If this is the nature of the regime, a regime having such bombs – whether they use them immediately or whether they use the threat of using them immediately – will cast the whole of the Middle East into terrible chaos. The question is: in the absence of economic sanctions working to stem this nuclear project, what does the world do?
The Americans, as Mr. Clarke said, are capable of doing it. They are capable of destroying the nuclear infrastructure. They would probably, as he said, have to go after the air bases, the naval bases and so on — but it can be done by a large power like America with conventional means. The problem is that if America does not do it, Israel probably will feel it has to do it and does not have the conventional means to do it in a way, which will have a lasting effect. They can perhaps bomb some sites but it will not probably do much more than defer the nuclear project by one or two or three years, which will again leave Israel confronting the problem in one or two or three years. What do you do? This raises the specter of possible use of unconventional weapons to destroy the Iranian facilities. That is really the bottom line of this problem.
So it is worth thinking about when confronting the question of what one should do about Iran before it is too late. Living in a world in which Iran possesses nuclear weapons, given the current Iranian government, is a real problem.
Wegger Strommen: Thank you very much, Mr. Morris. All I will say about Richard Cook is that for more than 20 years with UNRWA, now the director of UNRWA in Lebanon — joined UNRWA I think in — you were in UNRWA when I was in the Middle East in the 1980s already. Before that, a distinguished career in private practice as a commercial lawyer. Mr. Cook, you have the floor.
Richard Cook: Thank you very much, Ambassador, ladies and gentlemen. Although the Palestinian problem is a regional problem, I am going to concentrate this morning on one aspect of it and that is Lebanon. I am often asked: what are the conditions like for Palestinians in Lebanon? Are they really as bad as we hear? I invariably reply that they are every bit as bad and often worse than I saw during my ten years in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, from 1993-2003. I normally receive different reactions to this. If the person is from the Occupied Territories, it is often indignation that such a comparison could be made at this time.
But the reality is that most Palestinian refugees in Lebanon live in appalling conditions, some of the worst I have seen in my 22 years in the region. After decades of discrimination and exclusion from civil rights that most of us would take for granted in our countries, chronic unemployment and under-employment have left a high percentage of refugees living below the poverty line. The situation creates frustration. It creates despair, anger and a loss of hope that makes them vulnerable — particularly the young — to those who wish to use their circumstances to promote their own ideals.
Most refugees merely want to survive. They wait for a political solution to a problem that they have waited for for 59 years, a solution they are losing hope of ever seeing come as the third generation of refugees remains in the same conditions as the first generation of refugees. Successive Lebanese governments have refused to provide Palestine refugees with the civil rights enjoyed by Lebanese citizens and many other foreign nationals living in Lebanon — that is, until the present government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who has opened the doors that remained firmly shut for decades.
Palestinians in Lebanon continue to be denied employment in the professions and trades in which they have proved themselves so capable elsewhere, such as law, engineering and medicine. They have only been able to obtain employment in menial work, mostly in agriculture and construction, and rarely on the official labor market. When they do obtain work permits their employers pay social security insurance but the refugees are denied the right to receive the benefits from it. A recent report by Amnesty International has underlined the discrimination that the Palestinians face in the labor market.
They are also denied the right to own property by a 2004 law, whereas previously they were able to — albeit with limitations — own property. Now they are even denied the right to inherit property from their fathers and mothers. This makes it difficult for them to do anything about their circumstances by leaving the camps and living elsewhere.
The situation prevents the vast majority of Palestinians from improving their own conditions as well as improvements in their own communities in which they live. In the absence of any public services by the government in Lebanon, this places an even bigger burden on UNRWA. Expectations of the agency are high and the consequences are serious when the agency fails to meet those. Frustration, desperation and anger grow as a result.
UNRWA has had a general fund crisis over many years and it has been difficult for the agency to meet those expectations. We have had to focus our resources on the core services – basic education, primary health care and poverty alleviation. Its attempts to improve the services it provides, or at least to maintain the quality of them, have been frustrated.
This government of Fouad Siniora has indicated that it wishes to end the deliberate policy of exclusion by opening the door to more jobs for Palestinians, ownership of property, resolving the legal status of Palestinians who hold no form of official Lebanese documents, and improving the humanitarian conditions in the camps and other gatherings of refugees.
Perhaps I should explain before I go on: there are three categories of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. There are those who are registered with UNRWA and therefore come within our 1948 criteria working definition; those who are registered with the Ministry of the Interior but not with UNRWA because they do not meet our criteria; and those who have no legal status whatsoever. These are known as non-ID Palestinians. UNRWA would normally provide only services to the first group, those registered with UNRWA, but recognizing the serious circumstances of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon we provide services to the first two groups and many of the third group, which is the illegal status refugees.
Going back to the conditions people live in, they are some of the worst I have seen in my career in the region. No human being should be expected to live in these conditions. They lack even the basic facilities, far below acceptable international standards. Shelters are frequently constructed of poor-quality materials to a very poor standard. They lack adequate ventilation and natural light. No electricity, running water or sanitation facilities is often the case.
As a result, refugees suffer from eye problems, respiratory problems, skin diseases, in addition to other diseases that you link with poverty and overcrowding. Conditions in the streets mirror those in individual homes. Overcrowding is the biggest factor that we face today. Bourj al-Barajneh, for instance, a camp in the Beirut area, has a population density higher than several cities in the world that we consider are high-density — Shanghai, Bombay, Hong Kong. The camps are located today on the same area of land on which they were originally located. As the refugee population has grown there has been no corresponding increase in land, leaving the inhabitants with one option: to reduce their living space per person or to build upwards. There is no control of construction in the camps in Lebanon and consequently buildings have grown haphazardly and dangerously. Poor environmental health conditions reduce the impact of our services to the refugees, services that over the last 57 years have been extremely successful in reducing the diseases linked to poverty and poor public health conditions.
Only 53% refugees live in camps. This is something that is often misunderstood. Many of them live in urban areas, rural areas, in gatherings. The conditions there in the gatherings are often worse than in the camps.
But despite all this, the refugees most often request one thing first: hospital treatment. Hospital treatment in Lebanon is rarely public; it is often in the private sector and is extremely expensive, virtually up to American standards, I would suggest. As a result, I have often met refugees who have been faced with bills of over $20,000 for themselves or their family members. When you earn $100-200 a month that is almost an impossible mountain to climb.
Also during my years working with Palestine refugees, I have been extremely taken by their commitment to education. It is their way out; it is the way to a better life. That I have seen even during the worst days of the Intifada in the West Bank and Gaza. That commitment in Lebanon, when I first arrived — it was quite apparent that it was weaker. The attitude of youngsters and of their parents is: why get an education when at the end of it there is nothing? There is no job. Why go to brevet standard? Why go to baccalaureate standard? Why go to university? So they leave — many drop out.
Added to their problems is the problem that UNRWA has been chronically under-funded for years. Although donors such as the United States and the European Union continue to give more funds on a regular basis, the population growth and the cost of living is simply outstripping the additional funding. Consequently, something has to give. We have had to take measures to accommodate this shortfall but the impact has been clear: the quality of our services has reduced to a people that so badly need our services.
We have attempted to reinject the quality into services by including additional budget in our general fund, based on our five-year medium-term plan, and it has failed. If I could give you an example, this year in Lebanon our general fund is $69 million for the year. This year I doubt whether we will get $54 million — that means a 22% cut in our budget. That is a budget that is very carefully worked out on what are the basic needs of the people.
The change in government policy, if I may go back to that — in October 2005 the prime minister called me into his office and asked me to brief him on the conditions in which Palestinian refugees lived. He explained that there was a dialogue going on, the Lebanese-Palestinian dialogue, and he wanted to include improvements in humanitarian conditions in the camps and elsewhere. He requested us to support that initiative and December 2005 we submitted a report to him that outlined the conditions faced by Palestine refugees, the action that UNRWA could take, the action that UNRWA could not take, and how could the government help. It included a list of $50 million of projects that were basic needs for the Palestinians. So far we have pledged $24 million. The prime minister has been very active, along with UNRWA, in trying to raise money.
A positive aspect of the recent Lebanese-Palestinian dialogue has been to bring together Palestinian factions that have previously refused to sit down with UNRWA. In my four years in Lebanon, the pro-Syrian and pro-Fatah and pro-PLO factions have simply refused to meet with me together. However in the last few weeks they have agreed to do so, a remarkable turn of events.
It is also clear that the crisis in Nahr al-Bared has strengthened their unity, even if it is only temporarily. Since the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in February 2005 the Palestinians in Lebanon have expressed to me, both at the political level and at the street level, that they feared being dragged into the internal conflicts in Lebanon and to be made a scapegoat for the actions of others. Nahr al-Bared has confirmed their worst fears as tensions between the local Lebanese and Palestinian communities have risen due to the anger caused by the militant infiltration of the camp.
Nahr al-Bared has been a conflict in the northern refugee camp that has been well covered by the media; I am sure most of you will have seen it. It was a particularly ferocious battle that left almost 170 Lebanese soldiers dead, a yet unknown number of militants, and nearly 50 civilians — including one of my own staff members. The conflict lasted 104 days and resulted in the displacement of over 30,000 Palestinians and Lebanese. Two days after the fighting commenced an exodus of civilians from the camp and its surrounding area started. Most fled to Badawi camp, which is another camp in the northern region. The camp doubled its population overnight. Since that time, the displaced and the host families have been living in squalid conditions awaiting the return to their homes. Some are now returning to the adjacent areas around the camp, where approximately 65% of the buildings are repairable.
I have had the opportunity to fly over in a helicopter the camp itself. I have spent time viewing the damage. It is clear to me that there is little of the 200,000 square meters of the camp left intact. Those buildings that are still standing are beyond repair. UNRWA still awaits the approval from the army to enter the camp and therefore to assess the situation on the ground.
The militants were able to infiltrate the camp because of the weak Palestinian security network in Nahr al-Bared. Unlike other refugee camps, the inhabitants were unable to prevent the infiltration. The prime minister has emphasized consistently that the conflict was not a Lebanese-Palestinian issue but a fight against international terrorists, hardly any of whom were Palestinian. He has however made it clear that these security voids in the camps in Lebanon, uncontrolled by the Lebanese authorities for decades, cannot continue to exist. The reconstructed Nahr al-Bared will be a different situation altogether.
Tension between the Lebanese and Palestinian communities in the north have been high and the displaced people have expressed to me their fear to leave the camps themselves, because they are so scared of what will happen when they go out. They also fear that they will not return to their homes and that their homes will not be rebuilt, despite the assurances of both the prime minister and UNRWA. They repeatedly refer to the camps that have been destroyed in the past and not rebuilt – Tel al-Zaatar, Damor, Jisr al-Basha and Nabatieh.
Trauma is also evident in the faces of the people I meet. Most spent weeks living in a conflict zone and many have lost family members. Those who have returned to the adjacent areas around the camp, either to their own homes or to temporary accommodation, find themselves in a harsh environment with makeshift electricity, water and sewage systems, and destruction surrounds them. One would never have wished them to return to this sort of situation but that was their wish. It held significant symbolism for them to return to their camp. As one woman told me, an old woman who had come from Palestine in 1948, “I accept I will not go back to Palestine but I cannot accept I will not go back to my camp.”
The recovery and reconstruction of the camp will be an immense task but there is no question it must be done. UNRWA and the Lebanese government have launched emergency appeals for the next 12 months to provide for the needs of the community, amounting to $83 million. In addition, a multi-donor trust fund administered by the World Bank for the recovery and reconstruction of the camp and the adjoining areas is in the planning stages and will cost somewhere in the region of $300 million.
So what is the future for the refugees? Whilst the large challenge ahead of us is the reconstruction of Nahr al-Bared at the moment, it is essential that we do not forget the communities elsewhere in Lebanon. To leave refugees living in these appalling conditions for years to come will only breed more frustration, desperation and anger — an opportunity for extremists both within the community and from elsewhere to feed off the vulnerability of the refugees, particularly the young. Palestinians in Lebanon have been discriminated against for decades and excluded from the civil rights that we ourselves take for granted. The present government has had the courage and commitment to change things and to make a difference in the lives of the refugees. To be allowed to live a decent and dignified life until such time as their political status is resolved is surely not too much to ask. The alternative is to have more generations of young people growing up with no hope and the dangers that that brings. Thank you very much.
Wegger Strommen: Thank you very much, Mr. Cook. The last speaker, Mustafa Barghouthi, serves as director of the Health Development Information and Policy Institute and secretary general of the Palestinian National Initiative, which he co-founded in 2002. No doubt many of you will remember that he was a candidate for the presidency of the Palestinian National Authority in 2005 and was elected to the Palestinian Parliament as an independent candidate in 2006.
Mustafa Barghouthi: Thank you so much for inviting me. I am very pleased to see many of you again. If you allow me, I would like to start with the big picture, in relation to the title of this session.
I think one ought to start by asking the question of why people go into radicalization or fundamentalism, if you like. I think in the Middle East in particular — and that applies to all people there, not just Palestinians — there are three factors that have been instrumental in pushing people towards radicalism.
The first factor, which is well known to everybody, is poverty and corruption combined together, creating a very serious feeling of disappointment, depression, absence of hope — especially to the younger generation.
The second factor has been the absence of democracy and the inability of people to express themselves or change the situation they live in by democratic and peaceful means. That combined with suppression of democratic forces has led frequently to the inclination toward radicalization.
But probably the best example of what is happening is what happened recently in Palestine, where Palestinians — although they are living under severe occupation for 40 years — managed to develop the best model of democratic practice in the Arab world. That democratic model was simply suppressed and liquidated by Israel and also by the embargo that was imposed not only on the Hamas government but also on the national unity government, which represented 96% of the Palestinian electorate. I do not think you can go more democratic than that yet there was this embargo. That embargo and the failure of the democratic process, including Israel’s arrest of one-third of the elected members of the Palestinian Parliament — 45 people — sends a very dangerous message to the people: you cannot make change by peaceful means; you cannot make change through democratic practice; the only way to create change is through violence. That to me is a very dangerous matter.
The third factor that has contributed to radicalization – and it should be seen as such – has been the lack of solution to the Palestinian question over the last 60 years. For 60 years, half of the Palestinian population has been dispossessed from their homes. The West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem have been subjected to 40 years of occupation, the longest occupation in modern history. All through these years the so-called Palestinian refugees, in addition to other parts of the Palestinian people, have been subjected to severe forms of suppression.
I think the best person who described what really happened in 1948 is a very good Israeli historian whose book unfortunately is not publicized enough, which came out last December, and that is Ilan Pappe. He describes in detail, and I really advise all of you to read the book, what happened in 1948, calling it ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people. In 1956 the refugees in Gaza were subjected to massacres and attacks by the Israeli occupying force. In 1970 they faced very severe oppression during the September incidents. In 1982 they were subjected in Lebanon to the Sabra and Shatila massacre, which is well known to you. In 2002, in response to the Arab initiative for peace, Israel invaded and reoccupied every city of the West Bank, creating the Jenin massacre and other attacks on different refugee camps. And it goes on.
Now we see a situation where for Israel there is no plan to solve the Palestinian question. There is no plan to solve the Palestinian refugee issue. What we see is only one demand: to liquidate this issue and end it. As a medical doctor by education and by practice, let me tell you that it would be extremely dangerous to concentrate on the symptom of the disease and not look at the cause of the disease. That also applies, by the way, to social science and to politics. We should not mix between the cause and the result, even when the result — as violence — becomes a cause in itself.
In our situation, the Palestinian refugee situation, we are looking at a problem of dispossession, oppression, marginalization and constant social and economic strangulation of a whole population. Let me just give you an idea, because I was asked to do so, about the situation now in the Gaza Strip, because I think that situation exemplifies how serious the problem is.
We are talking about an area which is less than maybe 150 square miles, considering the fact that the Israeli army has already occupied parts of the Gaza Strip, with 1.4 million people living there, surrounded by the Israeli army from all directions. Israel claims that it has withdrawn from Gaza but the reality is that it did not withdraw — it actually rearranged and reorganized its occupation of Gaza. People in Gaza cannot cross any border because all the borders are constrained by Israeli control. The Israeli air force scans Gaza around the clock with planes that can fly for 42 hours without a pilot and without refueling. If they see somebody on the screen that they do not like, they can shoot him with a missile. Also the sea is surrounded by Israeli boats and even fishermen cannot go out and fish, because each time they try to do so they will be shot at.
The Gaza Strip is a place where 70% of the population at least are refugees. Now 90% of them live below the line of poverty. Recently, because of the most recent embargo, 67,000 workers have lost their jobs and joined the army of unemployed people, approximately 80% of the labor force if we include women. The vast majority have to live on food aid with very serious shortages of medication and medical facilities, to the level that four or five days ago the hospital facilities in Gaza decided to close down all surgical operating theaters because of lack of anesthetic drugs. Imagine what would happen to a woman who needs a caesarian section or to a child who needs an urgent operation in such conditions.
Now Israel has decided to upscale this embargo by cutting off regularly fuel and electricity from the Gaza Strip. It is a situation where there has been an embargo for almost more than a year and a half, where construction material does not exist, and that led to disasters. One of these disasters was a sewage flood — imagine, a sewage flood — in the Beit Hanun area in the north, which can happen again simply because UNRWA does not have access to construction materials to fix the infrastructure there.
What does the international community do in front of this? It gives Israel a green light to continue. Israel feels completely impunitive and feels that it is above international law. It feels it can continue the invasions and incursions and this embargo, and we do not really see any serious international pressure to lift this embargo that is causing such a severe humanitarian crisis.
Of course violence is a problem. Of course shooting missiles does not help anybody and is not really constructive. It did not help the Palestinians, anyhow. But the big question that is not discussed in the media is why several times the Palestinians have offered a ceasefire — complete, comprehensive, reciprocal ceasefire, where violence would be stopped from both sides — and each time it was rejected.
Now we are talking about the possibility of a peace conference in Annapolis. Meanwhile, I have to alert you to four processes that did not stop, four processes that continue to happen on the ground in the West Bank and in the Occupied Territories in general which affect the population in total, including refugees.
The first process has been the continuation of expansion of settlement activities. Although it is mentioned in the first point of the Roadmap that Israel must cease settlement expansion completely; although fourteen years have passed since Oslo was signed, during this period Israel has expanded existing settlements in numbers and in population by 100%.
The second process that is going on is the building of a wall. The wall is frequently described as a fence. I know a fence is a nice thing that exists between neighbors, but calling it a fence does not change its nature; does not change the fact that it is eight to nine meters high, of concrete material; does not change the fact that it is three times the length of the Berlin Wall; and does not change the fact that this wall is not separating Palestinians from Israelis — because it is not built on the borders. In 90% of the cases this wall is built inside the Palestinian territories, separating Palestinians from Palestinians. At the moment it is creating a new kind of problem for 800,000-900,000 people who will be stuck between the wall and the borders with Israel and will be unable to get to their jobs, to their farms, to their schools, to their universities, or to health facilities.
The third process that is happening on the ground, and I know Israelis do not like this word but they have to face the reality, is practically the creation of an apartheid system — something that President Carter described very well in his book, a situation where a Palestinian in the West Bank can consume no more than 50 cubic meters of water from the West Bank while illegal Israeli settlers can consume up to 2,400; a situation where for the first time in the history of human beings not only people are segregated but also roads and streets are segregated; a situation where there are 570 permanent military checkpoints and approximately 610 flying military checkpoints that prevent people from moving around. That represents, according to the World Bank, the main obstacle of having any serious economic development or activity on the ground. A situation where the GDP in Israel was six times more than the Palestinian GDP back in 1993 and now it is thirty times more. Meanwhile Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are obliged to buy products at the Israeli market price, and more than that they are obliged to give their own income tax to Israel who then decides whether to give it back to the Palestinian Authority or not, depending of course on the behavior of the Palestinian Authority.
By the way, those who concluded these agreements — and as you can see, were very successful — are now appointed back to be the Palestinian negotiators.
The fourth process that is going on is the complete separation of Gaza from the West Bank, which in my opinion — in addition to declaring Gaza as a hostile territory — would represent a serious blow to the possibility of peace based on the creation of the two-state solution.
So what is the solution to this problem? The Israeli narrative that you see and that you read says that Palestinian refugees cannot come back home. If that is the case, would that mean that Israel would agree with the creation of the Palestinian independent state to become the homeland of Palestinians, in accordance to international law, where the borders will be the 1967 borders? Would that mean that Israel would accept the creation of a state with Jerusalem as its capital? Would that mean that Israel finally would accept that Palestinians have sovereignty and their own borders that they control? The answer unfortunately, if you read the Israeli positions today and especially the negotiating positions, is no to each one of them. Israel does not want to allow refugees to come back. Israel does not accept to discuss the issue of Jerusalem. Israel does not accept a Palestinian entity that controls its own borders and has its own sovereignty. Israel insists on maintaining the illegal settlements that were built in the Occupied Territories.
Practically, if we are fair with each other and if we analyze objectively what the Israeli leaders are saying, the answer is the following: Israel does not want to negotiate final status issues. If that is the case, then Israel is practically insisting on destroying the two-state option and destroying the historic compromise that Palestinians have come to terms with, which is a compromise where they would have a state within the 1967 borders, less or almost half of what was assigned to them by the UN partition plan in 1947. If that is the case, then what will happen? That means that Israel does not only want to eliminate the right of refugees but practically is creating social, economic and political conditions that are so strangulating in the Occupied Territories, with one aim clearly: to force more people to leave the Palestinian territories and become refugees also. That means a very high risk of the destruction of the two-state option.
The Arab initiative has offered a very good opportunity for peaceful resolution of the conflict, an initiative that is based on Israeli withdrawal from all occupied territories, a solution of the Palestinian refugee problem on the basis of 194, in exchange for peace, recognition of Israel, and peaceful and normal relations not only with Palestinians but with all Arab countries.
Mr. Benny Morris said that there is a paradox, in his paper, between offering an Arab initiative where the right of Palestinian refugees would be recognized and then negotiated. I do not see a paradox. I see a fact here, where what is said is that the right of refugees is a right that is recognized by international law and is recognized by UN Resolution 194, but what the Arabs and Palestinians are offering is negotiations of the implementation in a way that would lead to peace.
Israel has always accused the Palestinians and the Arabs of missing opportunities. In my opinion, Israel is now missing the greatest opportunity, which is to end this conflict and this crisis on the basis of the Arab initiative. Frequently Israel used to say that Arabs wanted all or nothing. In reality, what we see here in relation to the Occupied Territories is that Israel is the one that wants all or nothing.
I ask the question that was asked frequently by many other academics and intellectuals: if the two-state option is destroyed, then what is the solution? Is it a one-state option? Would Israel accept that? With democratic rights, everybody would live together with equal rights? Or is it a dream, that a situation of apartheid will be maintained in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and in Palestine in general?
I struggled all my life for non-violence and for democracy. But I tell you, if Israel thinks that Palestinians will accept to continue to live as slaves of occupation, then it is wrong. This will not happen.
One time a refugee asked me, “Is there something worse than being exploited, oppressed, dispossessed and discriminated against?” I told him, “Yes, there is something worse than that, and that is to have all of the above and be blamed for it.” So please, do not allow the continuation of the process of blaming the victim for what is happening on the ground.
I just heard Mr. Benny Morris speaking about an existential threat to Israel. I would like to disagree with him because I do not think there is an existential threat to Israel. Israel is a super military power; it is well known that Israel owns no less than 500 nuclear warheads. It is well known that Israel has now a larger nuclear force than France. It has a larger air force than Britain and it is the fourth largest military exporter in the world. I think that they are talking about existential threats now could be a call for another devastating war that people do not need.
I want to end by saying one thing. Political solutions could be found; compromises could be identified; but there is something that cannot be compromised, and that is that all people, whether they are Israelis or Palestinians or Americans, have equal rights and equal duties. Thank you.
About this Transcript:
The panel discussion was held during MEI's 61st Annual Conference at the National Press Club, Washington DC
Assertions and opinions in the Insight do not reflect necessarily the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.