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COLUMN

Fighting for Peace

Khoon Tee Tan

Apportioning blame in the current Middle East conflict is as thorny an issue as it is hopelessly useless, all the more so when conflicting one-sided views are espoused with little or no regard for the other side of the story. By the time this issue goes to print, the situation may have improved slightly, but for now, intense fighting rages on in the West Bank cities with no end in sight to the violence. This should be a time for those with the luxury of distance from conflict to reflect on the graveness of the situation and to attempt to soothe, not exacerbate, the tensions of those directly affected. At this stage, lamenting the historical incidents (some call them accidents) which have played various roles in leading to the current Middle East situation, will do little in bringing peace to the region. The past may offer some lessons but it is no excuse for ignoring the realities of the present.

“Enough is enough,” declared President George W. Bush last Thursday, in a powerful speech that, among other things, outlined a broad vision for peace in the region. “This can be a time for hope, but it calls for leadership, not for terror.” He was critical of Yasser Arafat, sounding the need for a consistent approach at curbing terrorists, while also demanding an immediate end to Ariel Sharon’s military incursions in the West Bank.

It is time to understand and to acknowledge that a military response to terrorism is no substitute for a political solution or any attempt to address the legitimate grievances of Palestinians and Israelis. Nobody wants to live in fear of the next suicide bombing, but then again, nobody likes to see their homes demolished and be subjected to harsh living conditions in refugee camps. No pregnant woman deserves to be denied the right to medical attention by checkpoint guards. Grievances at this level lead to closed hearts and closed minds, promoting the kind of terror tactics seen in the current conflict.

In a messily complex conflict with so many issues at play, it is all too easy to get tangled in clashes over minute details, while losing sight of the bigger picture, which is for a viable Palestinian state at peace with Israel and vice versa. Achieving broad agreement is important; if one cannot accept both Israeli and Palestinian statehood, then the only option is one without the other -- all-out war. The fact is, broad agreement has been reached before, only to be hijacked by extremist groups on both sides, resulting in more attacks on Israeli civilians, and unabated Israeli settlement activity in Palestinian territory.

When the Oslo agreement was signed in 1993, it was widely seen as a sign to the end of occupation and the beginning of a peaceful solution to a long and bloody conflict. If such views were held by two-thirds of the Palestinian public then, today expectations of a permanent settlement have dipped to a mere 11 percent, if not lower. On the other hand, the popularity of Palestinian Islamists and nationalist opposition groups has soared to 31 percent, surpassing the 30 percent attained by Arafat’s Fatah movement and its allies (Shikaki, Foreign Affairs Jan./Feb. 2002).

It is virtually impossible to control terrorism and to curb terrorist activities under such deteriorating public perception of the peace process. A populace angry with harsh and humiliating treatment provides fertile recruitment ground for terrorist organizations. Restoring faith in peace requires an end to the current conflagration in the West Bank, and the renewal of negotiations. Winning the hearts and minds of the Palestinians is imperative if peace for all is to have any hope. The hawks and hardliners will call it “appeasement,” but Israeli policing of Palestinian territory is as unacceptable as allowing the kind of situation to develop in which bigger pools of the dispossessed offer themselves to militant groups that target Israeli civilians. No amount of Palestinian Authority crackdowns, Israeli “targeted assassinations” and international condemnation will curtail the flow of terror if the people themselves continue to be left in a hopeless situation.

True, in negotiations as in many things, the devil lies in the details. The thorniest issues which remain to be resolved are the political status of Jerusalem, the future of Israeli settlements and the right of return of Palestinian refugees. But today, there exist initiatives from within the region which could pave the way to a meaningful peace, initiatives to which Palestinians and Israelis should give serious thought. The recently concluded Arab Summit in Beirut offers a glimmer of hope: demanding an Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab territories, a just solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees and the establishment of a sovereign and independent Palestinian state, the Arab nations in return agree to sign a peace agreement and to establish normal relationships with Israel.

Even if this initiative were to be followed through, there may be some further attacks by extremist groups and criticism from the hardliners of both sides, but the best way to discredit them, to remove their sources of support and to put in place the foundations of a long-term solution, is by giving people hope for a peaceful settlement, in the way that the Oslo accords did. Both sides need to signal to one another their seriousness and commitment towards achieving peace; the Israelis by halting settlement activities throughout the West Bank and the Palestinians, by curbing terrorist organizations. Unless hope is restored, the alternative is perpetual turmoil in the Middle East, a regional conflict with global implications.