Palestinian and Israeli negotiators opened separate talks with US officials in Washington on November 19, the first stage of a new effort to restart the ‘peace process’ that was stalled by the launching of the Al-Aqsa intifada at the end of September. US president Clinton was expected to join the talks the next day. As Crescent went to press, the talks were expected to continue until December 22, with Palestinian officials saying that there was a possibility of direct talks between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators once Clinton became involved.
For the time being the talks, at an air-base near Washington, are being moderated by Dennis Ross, Clinton’s special envoy to the Middle East, and Aaron Miller. Both are Jews, and Ross is a former official of AIPAC (the American-Israeli Political Action Committee), the largest zionist lobby in the US.
However, the Palestinian people made clear their opposition to the talk with a partial strike throughout Ghazzah and the West Bank on November 19, called to protest against Palestinian president Yasser Arafat’s agreeing to send representatives to attend the talks.
Meanwhile, there was no substantial change on the ground, with Israel continuing its violent crackdown on the Palestinian community. Three Palestinians, including a 14-year-old boy, were killed and up to 33 other wounded by Israeli gunfire in Ghazzah on November 20. The youth, Hani as-Sufi, was shot in the head during a clash at Rafah, on the border with Egypt, when Israeli soldiers opened fire on Palestinians throwing stones.
The other two martyrs were Palestinian emergency workers, aged 28 and 35, who died when an Israeli military jeep opened fire on their fire-engine as they drove near the Netzarim junction in Ghazzah city, a frequent trouble-spot and the site of the martyrdom of 12-year-old Muhammad al-Durra in the earliest days of the intifada. Eye-witnesses said that the red truck, with Palestinian Authority insignia, came under unprovoked fire as it passed an Israeli military post at the junction. A passing taxi-driver, Jihad Eid, said that “for more than one minute, they fired into the truck,” and that pools of blood were visible in it and on the road.
These deaths brought the number of Palestinians martyred in the intifada to 334. Six Palestinians had been martyred the previous Friday, December 15, among them 17-year-old Muhammad Daoud, who was buried near Nablus the next day.
That week had also seen a major Israeli effort to assassinate Palestinian activists by targeted sniper fire. On December 11 Anwar Mahmoud Hamran was shot down by snipers firing from a hilltop 400 metres away. A member of Islamic Jihad, he was hit by 19 bullets as he stood outside his stationery shop in Nablus. The next day Yousef Ahmed Abu Swayeh, a field leader in Fattah, was shot down outside his home in a village south of Bethlehem in similar circumstances. He was hit 17 times.
Abbas al-Awawi was hit in the chest by three bullets while talking to a friend outside his shop in al-Khalil (Hebron) on December 13. He was a member of Hamas. Another Hamas member, Hani Abu Bakar, who had served time in both Israeli and Palestinian prisons, was shot down at a military road-block near Khan Younis, in the Ghazzah Strip, on December 14. He was driving his minibus near the Kitsofim settlement when he was ordered to stop by an Israeli tank. Five soldiers then emerged from a nearby car and riddled the minibus with bullets without further ado.
The attempts in Washington to relaunch the ‘peace process’ need to be seen in the context of the continuing Israeli violence in occupied Palestine. The intifada, although sparked by Ariel Sharon’s deliberately provocative invasion of the Masjid al-Haram in al-Quds on September 28, is largely a rejection of the peace process, in which the US and Israel have repeatedly forced further concessions from Arafat while offering precisely nothing themselves. The Palestinian people have recognised that peace is not the objective at all, but the imposition of a surrender on the Palestinians through which the zionists’ permanent occupation of Palestine will finally be legitimised for the first time since the creation of Israel in 1948.
The Israeli position since the beginning of the intifada has been that Palestinians must stop their violence before the Israelis will return to the negotiating table. This stance is deliberately designed to create two major misconceptions: firstly that the violence is predominantly on the side of the Palestinians, when in fact it been the zionists who have used massive force and are continuing to do so; and secondly, that the Palestinians want a return to talks, and the zionists are making a concession by agreeing to talk again.
In fact, the violence is almost entirely one-sided, as the casualty figures show. The Palestinian protests have not been peaceful — there is no reason why they should be — but the Israeli force has been wildly disproportionate. And it is not the Palestinians who are anxious to get back to talks, but the Israelis, who risk seeing their strategy legitimising their occupation of Palestine disappear from under their feet.
In fact, the only Palestinian who is anxious for talks to resume is Arafat, for his existence and survival depend on the goodwill of the Palestinian peoples’ enemies in Washington and Tel Aviv. He has pinned his hopes on a settlement, but cannot afford to make one that is unacceptable to the Palestinian people. This is why he was forced to stand firm at Camp David in July, resulting in the stalemate that led to the intifada. However, he must be desperate for the cycle of protest and repression to be broken, for he knows that his continued leadership of the Palestinians is on a knife-edge.
The major issues that the talks stalled on at Camp David were the status of Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees’ right of return. Both these are points on which neither side can afford to budge at this stage. A possible compromise was unofficially proposed by Israeli officials earlier this month: that Israel should recognise a Palestinian state in return for the Palestinians agreeing to leave these two points to be settled later. In the original peace plans, the questions of statehood, the status of Jerusalem and the Palestinians’ right of return were supposed to be linked in the final settlement.
This proposed offer, which is not officially being discussed at the latest talks in Washington, is effectively intended to buy off the Palestinians’ claims on Jerusalem and the right to return, by the offer of a moth-eaten ‘state’ which is effectively little more than a municipal council. But Arafat has placed so much emphasis on statehood in the past that the Israelis and Americans obviously believe that this could be a workable resolution to the problem. Of course, once this deal is done, they will refuse to make any concessions on Jerusalem and force Arafat to accept their terms.
Whether such a deal can be finalised at this time, and whether this is the main deal that the zionists plan to push in Washington, remains to be seen. The talks are being held against two deadlines: the end of Clinton’s presidency in late January, and the Israeli elections in early February. These could either force an early settlement; or become reasons for a settlement to be delayed. One thing is certain: the history of the peace process so far suggests that deadlines are more likely to be missed than met.