American Friends Service Committee
Patrica Watson, Editor
Sara Burke, Assistant Editor
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
2161 Massachusetts Ave.
Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.
Middle East Report, May 2000
James Matlack is Director of the AFSC Washington Office,1822 R Street, NW, Washington, DC 20009; 202/483-3341; <firstname.lastname@example.org>
A rabbi asked his students to define when the dawn has come and thus the time for morning prayers. One suggested, "It is light when you can tell a donkey from a horse." Another said, "When you can distinguish a fruit tree from a fig tree." The rabbi turned away all their answers, and told them: "When you can look into the face of every man and woman and see there the face of your brother and sister, then it is light. All else is darkness."
From May 3rd to 19th I traveled in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, West Bank, and Gaza as part of a delegation of Washington-based colleagues with whom I work in Churches for Middle East Peace. It was my fourth trip to the region. This time was as powerful and complex an experience as the others, with an added sense of urgency that the overdue "dawn" of a just and comprehensive peace accord may result instead in another cycle of violence and suffering. Our schedule emphasized religious leaders and counterparts, government and UN officials, academics, non-governmental and community representatives, and refugees. The immersion was both intellectual and emotional. I felt challenged, sad, scared, discouraged, infuriated, and inspired all at once as I tried to open myself to such intense, layered experiences.
Our journey was bracketed by major episodes of violence. On the first night in Beirut we were shaken awake by sonic booms from Israeli planes staging a major raid against the electrical grid of Lebanon. These attacks grew out of escalating shelling across the Southern border of Lebanon with civilian casualties on both sides. Israel's military superiority and its policy of reprisal raids against civilian infrastructure were evident the next morning as we inspected a damaged power sub-station in the hills of East Beirut. Since more rockets had been fired at Kiryat Shmona, everyone expected a second, larger Israeli air strike. When a deal was brokered that forestalled such an attack, the world press said that the situation was "returning to normal." From the view of Lebanese, "normal" meant that Israelis could come up out of bomb shelters but in Lebanon half the population will face loss of full electrical power for months and years to come.
Toward the end of the trip in Jerusalem, the 52nd anniversary of the founding of Israel was celebrated. For Arabs and Palestinians, however, the date is known as Al-Nakba or "the catastrophe" during which so much was lost--homes, lands, crops, possessions, normal family life, and the integrity of Palestinian society. Many have been refugees now for half a century. On this anniversary date, the protests and clashes reached expected intensity and beyond. At least five Palestinians died in the worst such violence in more than three years.
We focused upon two topics throughout the trip--the fate of the Palestinian refugees and the future of the city of Jerusalem. Both are "final status" issues in the Israeli/Palestinian negotiations and neither seems close to resolution.
The Palestinian refugees have not been dealt with on the same basis as other large refugee flows since World War Two. Amid the painful and controversial dispossession process in l948-l949 tens of thousands of Palestinians fled their homes and villages, leaving behind everything they possessed. Many thought that they would return in a few days. (Another wave of refugees was generated by the 1967 war.) Those Palestinians who straggled into Gaza were cared for primarily by Quakers for nearly two years.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees
in the Near East (UNRWA) went into operation in early 1950. Since
then, the Palestinians have been the only refugees not handled
by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. This special
status has allowed treatment that seems at odds with recognized
international standards. Solely dependent upon UNRWA, the Palestinians
have faced worsening conditions in recent years as the UNRWA budget
falls ever further short of meeting their basic needs. From previous
trips and from direct visits this time to camps in Lebanon, Syria,
West Bank, and Gaza, I came away with a sense of deepening crisis.
The outcome could be explosive. Most refugees feel neglected,
abandoned in the "peace process," and likely to be
betrayed in any shallow deal that the Palestinian leadership may
be forced to sign with Israel in coming months. Helplessness after
more than two generations of unrequited loss and suffering turns
to despair, then to rage, especially among the young in the camps.
No one can predict the violence that may be engendered by such
anger but to underestimate the dire prospects would be folly.
The Right of Return
The bedrock for every refugee we spoke with is the "Right of Return." All their yearning and accumulated sense of grievance are anchored in the legal case for return (and/or compensation), as codified in UN Security Council Resolution #194. All parties and governments should already be discussing in careful terms how to seek its fulfillment. But the stakes are so intense that no orderly planning or even public discussion has taken place--only strident stances for and against the very idea.
The case is most extreme for the Palestinians in Lebanon where the unified, emphatic view of all Lebanese factions is that the Palestinians must leave in the end. None will be absorbed into Lebanese citizenship. Meantime these refugees are the most literally imprisoned in their camps with no current escapes or future prospects. Not surprisingly, these refugees are fiercely committed to UN #194 and deeply opposed to Yasser Arafat and his accords with Israel.
The situation is better in Syria; Palestinians have more access to the general society, but refugees there remain tense, suspicious, and strongly aligned with the "rejectionist" stance toward Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinians in Jordan, West Bank, and Gaza have a better prospect of being absorbed where they now reside but conditions of poverty, over-crowding, and inadequate UNRWA budgets lead to stress, anger, and potential outbursts. The camp Palestinians are the most likely source of another full-scale Intifada uprising, absent genuine peace and improvement in their lives. For some we met with, this stage may be near.
What can and should be done on the refugee issue? The most striking
aspect of this tormenting issue was the near-unanimous response
we got from Palestinians we talked with: a sharp distinction should
be made between the Right of Return and the actual
plans for implementation of UN #194. The indispensable first step
has to be a full Israeli recognition of the right of these
refugees to go back, to have restitution for a half-century of
loss. Some said that an apology for the suffering over the years
in exile would be welcome as well. This formal, public, and unreserved
embrace of #194 was separated, however, from the actual plans
for return and/or compensation. Pragmatism was the necessary mode
once the "Right" was officially honored. Reasonable
and staged movements of refugees in manageable numbers were anticipated,
not a flood of returnees descending upon Israel to disrupt its
society and Jewish character. Refugees should be given choices,
not compelled in any direction. Israel should take in some returnees.
Many would want only to visit old home-sites, not to settle in
Israel. Others might go to the West Bank Palestinian entity/state.
(Gaza simply cannot absorb more residents.) Others should be enabled
to seek third-country options. With such dispersal, and sufficient
funding, the refugee problem could be resolved.
Whether or not refugees actually return to their homes and villages, the issue of compensation will be tough to handle. Everyone who goes through a refugee camp meets older Palestinians who still have the front-door key for the home they left behind. Some international plan for payment in response to the losses incurred in l948 and l967 must be created and budgeted. Many who will choose not to (or will be unable to) go back feel that they are absolutely owed for their considerable losses. As more than one refugee told us, if Jews are now getting cash payments for their losses and their slave labor in World War II, why should Palestinians not be compensated in similar fashion?
When the price for Israeli relocation of settlers down from the
Golan Heights may be $15 billion or more from the US government,
how can the long-standing claims of Palestinians be ignored? The
political complexity of reaching a suitable plan for compensation
under UN #194 will be exceeded only by the blunt impossibility
of securing adequate funding to afford the payments that should,
in law and justice, be made.
One afternoon we took a "circle tour" around the expanse of Jerusalem with Jeff Halper, the coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. Jeff pointed out the new road systems, the ring of Israeli settlements, the large tracts already designated for Israeli expansion under various planning and zoning schemes, the utter disregard for traditional Palestinian land and residency rights, and the calculated effort to choke off all possible future expansion for the Palestinian population. [See Peacework February 2000]The city of Jerusalem continues under "closure" to ordinary Palestinians in the West Bank, with military check-points on all approach roads. Although some work permits are issued for jobs in the city, entry can be denied at will. All other reasons for access to the city--medical emergency, educational, commercial, cultural--require a special permit. While foreign visitors with a passport and traveler's checks can readily worship at the holy shrines in the Old City, local Christians and Muslims are usually unable to reach them from the West Bank.
We met with Mayor Ehud Olmert of the Jerusalem Municipality. It was a frank exchange in which our respective views were clearly stated. He saw no basis for the campaign for a "Shared Jerusalem" and insisted that the whole city would stay under Israeli sovereignty. He also said that his administration had sought funds for extensive infrastructure improvements in Arab sections of East Jerusalem. There is some truth in this claim, but not much. The funds have not been granted in many cases. Palestinians continue to pay 20% of the city taxes and receive only 5% of the actual expenditures.
A more accurate version of the situation may be conveyed in a story that we were told by another Israeli. A locally-elected Palestinian official complained to the Mayor's office that a specific Arab village in the municipality had been grossly neglected. A letter promptly came back refuting the complaint by citing recent expenditures for new roads, schools, and other improvements in the village, including a new lighting system to be installed that very week. The only problem--the village was imaginary, made up to see what spurious claims would be made on its behalf by the mayor's staff.
A just and lasting peace accord must restore a Palestinian political
presence to those areas of East Jerusalem that have been areas
of traditional Arab residence and that were taken by force of
arms in 1967. UN resolutions #242 and #338 do apply to East Jerusalem
as "occupied territory" until a final peace settlement
is reached. Exactly what form the sharing of the city may take
is open to various proposals but it cannot be exclusively Israeli.
Equity and restitution in the sharing formula become increasingly
difficult as more and more lands around the city are taken from
local Arab residents and foreclosed to their building needs.
The Peace Process
The overall outlook for the basic "peace process" seems bleak. The negotiations are stuck on all fronts (except for Israel's unilateral withdrawal from South Lebanon). The current combination of political, diplomatic, and emotional factors seems as likely to lead to a breakdown and a surge of violence as to a breakthrough to sustainable peace accords.
Yet Arafat is forced to some of his abuses by the weakness of the Palestinian side in the negotiations as well as the insistence that he be the "enforcer" of order and security at the behest of Israel and the United States. Critics of Arafat in the US Congress often blame him for being undemocratic and in the same speech berate him for not arresting every potential terrorist regardless of due process. The greater burden and opportunity lies with the Israelis. They have the military and economic power, bolstered by political backing and prodigious amounts of aid from the United States. Too many Israelis appear (especially to Palestinians) ready to base their nation's future on supremacy of armed force rather than just accords and relations with their neighbors.
Jews and Israelis have ample cause to worry over their historical vulnerability to persecution, but such a mindset in contemporary Israel is an anachronism. Sadly, the genuine imperative of "Never Again" in Europe has become transmuted into "Ours Alone" in the Holy Land. Israeli national security is now assured beyond all doubt. Individual security of Israelis, however, cannot be secured by persisting as a Sparta, an armed enclave in a hostile region. Only a just peace, a magnanimous peace offered by Israel, can protect the future security of the Jewish nation. The paradox is clear: Only the Israelis can offer the Palestinians a genuine peace accord with shared roles and restitution; only the Palestinians--by accepting such a just peace offer--can assure Israeli acceptance among their Arab neighbors and a final lessening of the long enmity.
Alas, magnanimity is in short supply, while florid political posturing
is much too familiar on all sides. The outlook is grim in part
due to the fragility of Barak's governing coalition. He
may have been hemmed in by die-hard opponents so that he could
not now win Knesset backing either for a treaty with Syria to
pull back from the Golan Heights or for a genuine peace accord
with the Palestinians. A forced façade of an "agreement"
with the Palestinians along with further postponement of actual
progress on the core issues seems much more likely. But after
long duress and so many earlier promises with such phony results,
patience among the Palestinians may run out, with unpredictable
but explosive consequences.