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Where to Go From Here?

Khoon Tee Tan

So in its attempt to uproot Palestinian “terrorists” and destroy the “terrorist infrastructure,” the Israeli army has managed to rocket and bulldoze the “cities of terror” into submission, while making thousands of arrests of suspected militants. On the other hand, the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) has made its stand clear: Palestinian suicide attacks and those of others fighting against foreign occupation should not be linked to “terrorism.”

The OIC stand is understandable, but not necessarily right. Political expediency aside, the member governments of the OIC have been quick to recognize that under present circumstances, there is no better way to gain American diplomatic and even military support than by framing the rhetoric of one’s fight in the context of fighting terrorism. This is what Sharon was very swift to pounce on in the immediate aftermath of Sept. But is he entitled to calling his a “war on terror”? Yes, and no.

Yes, because one should not confuse means and ends. Acts of terror constitute means that serve the ends of its perpetrators, and there is no doubt that they are repugnant and appalling means, irrespective of what the ends are. So killing civilians is “terrorism,” and engaging such militants in combat is rightly called a “war on terror.”

No, because rather than attempt to address the issues that contribute to terrorism, Sharon and his predecessors have instead exacerbated Palestinian anger by expanding Israeli settlements throughout the West Bank and Gaza with impunity, claiming security and religious reasons. Dehumanizing military rule continues to be imposed on occupied Palestinian territory. How is one to fight terrorism without removing its immediate causes?

The ends that most Palestinians seek to achieve are deserving: self-determination and an internationally recognized Palestinian state on land which is legally theirs. If the Israelis call the forcible confiscation of Palestinian land in 1948 the “war of independence,” then the Palestinians are surely entitled to call their present-day struggle a struggle for independence from Israeli encroachment. But this, of course, hardly mitigates targeting Israeli civilians.

So where do they go from here? Sharon and a majority of Israelis are skeptical, cynical and even contemptuous of Arafat’s peace intentions, especially since he turned down the “generous offer” at Camp David in 2000. Arafat and many Palestinians on the other hand believe that Israel is to blame for the current intifada due to its continued encroachment and land poaching from Palestinians. Each is partly in the right.

Much of the negative perception of Arafat among Americans and Israelis stems from Clinton and Barak; both blamed Arafat for the failure of the Camp David talks. It was said that Arafat had turned down the best offer he could possibly get, and was hence a fanatic with no real intention for peace. There are several reasons why such political caricaturization provides less than half the story; the main reason being that Barak’s offer actually required Arafat’s acceptance of Israeli sovereignty over otherwise illegal settlements in the West Bank, and in effect meant giving up large swathes of occupied Jerusalem to Israel, something strongly rejected by both Palestinians and Arabs.

Arafat’s blame for Israel, on the other hand, masks severe corruption and incompetence in his administration of Palestinian territory. While raw executive power may be needed to secure stability in times of strife, Arafat has failed to put in place any framework for even local democratic elections, and is likely to leave behind a succession problem. He has also contributed to the pool of resentment and hatred by encouraging the intifada from time to time, something that may seem politically expedient, but also damages his credibility as a statesman.

There can be no telling for sure what will happen next, following the recent military campaign. But certain political trends hint at what the future holds under the present leadership, and it doesn’t look very rosy at all.

Sharon intends to withdraw the military to “buffer zones,” which lie within striking distance of Palestinian towns while protecting Israeli settlements; in effect, further annexation of Palestinian land. Being a champion of Jewish settlements himself, he has called for the return of a million overseas Jews to expand the Israeli population, perhaps also to counteract the 20% Arab minority in Israel that is growing faster than the Jewish population. He is likely to reject the right of return of Palestinian refugees as it would erode Israel’s Jewish identity. But it remains to be seen if he will negotiate a compensation deal with the Palestinians to solve the Palestinian refugee problem once and for all. Given Sharon’s intra-party fight with Benjamin Netanyahu, his Likud competitor, who has all along called for stronger military action against the Palestinians, there is a limit to which he can make concessions even if he was willing to.

The recent military strikes would likely lead to further radicalization of the Palestinian cause. Arafat, if he still holds office, will reject any notion of Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza settlements without at least a fair swap of land, a likely position of any Palestinian leader with political legitimacy anyway. And in the wake of its withdrawal, the Israeli army leaves behind what is now even less of a state than it was before.

The Palestinian Authority no longer has any security apparatus or infrastructure to bring order to Palestinian society. There is still some uncertainty as to which organization will carry the Palestinian flag in future negotiations with Israel. Sharon refuses to negotiate with Arafat, whom he deems “irrelevant,” and has been encouraging his military commanders to negotiate with their local Palestinian counterparts, but this could well lead to a fracture in Palestinian leadership and legitimization of militia groups, causing more confusion and greater uncertainty. And as for the Arab League’s offer of a land for peace deal? Sharon has suggested a regional peace conference, which the Americans should host; several moderate Arab countries would be invited, as would Palestinian representatives, but not Arafat. A change of tack and mood in an avowed loather of the Oslo peace process and a rejectionist of American and UN intervention? Well, more like wily political sidestepping of the Arab peace offer, rather than conspicuous silence or outright rejection, in order to avoid being branded a hardliner by the international community. Sharon even softened his tone on Arafat later on, saying it was not for him to decide whom the Palestinians choose as their representative.

If progress is to be made towards a Middle East peace, it is obvious that some things have to give and compromises have to be made in order to reach an acceptable solution for both sides. Both Sharon and Arafat, nimble and foxy politicians as they are, have failed to prepare their people to make necessary compromises and worse still, have augmented the extremist sentiments in their own societies. Perhaps the time has come for someone to nudge both sides towards agreement and peace, and to enforce the peace and provide the security the Israelis and Palestinians crave for?