Two more Palestinians were killed by Israel on January 25. One was a 22-year-old youth shot dead by troops; the other was a 16-year-old boy who died in hospital, one day after being shot by Jewish settlers. The previous day, a Palestinian woman died at an Israeli checkpoint, after the car taking her to hospital was prevented from passing through. Although the Palestinian casualty rate has come down, as the al-Aqsa intifada has settled into a hostile stand-off with occasional clashes, rather than the all-out war of the early months, such deaths remain the daily reality of the intifada. More than 400 Palestinians have now died since the intifada began at the end of September.
As Crescent went to press, meanwhile, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were expected to resume talks in the Egyptian resort of Taba, after a two-day break because of the killing of two Israelis on January 23. Described by Israeli authorities as restaurateurs who were visiting the West Bank town of Tulkarm on a business trip, they were shot dead after eating a meal at a restaurant. The operation was initially attributed to Hamas, but a Hamas spokesman later denied responsibility. Palestinian police later claimed to have arrested four men for the shootings. Palestinian sources said that the two Israelis were soldiers or intelligence agents on an undercover operation.
When Israeli negotiators, led by foreign minister Shlomo Ben Ami, withdrew from the Taba talks after the killings, they repeated their routine threats to abandon the ‘peace process’ unless Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat halts ‘Palestinian violence’. However, they left their staffs in place, a clear sign that they would soon return. Sure enough, on January 25, they said that they would resume the talks after the burial of the two men that morning.
The Taba talks, which began on January 21, are the first direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, without the mediation of US officials, for several years. They are not expected to reach any major settlement soon, although an agreement of sorts may be announced before the Israeli elections on February 6. However, the fact that they are taking place, and the circumstances in which they are taking place, expose a number of key realities about the peace process.
The first is that the US role was never as an honest broker. Its involvement and efforts were solely responsible for the maintenance of the process despite the intransigence and stubbornness of both sides. For years the importance of US mediation has been emphasised. Now that, at the end of former president Bill Clinton’s term, it is no longer available (for a short while at least), the Israelis and the Palestinian ‘leaders’ have proven perfectly willing to deal with each other directly rather than let the peace process die.
The second is that the Israelis, despite all their threats to withdraw from the peace process if the intifada continues, and also their demands that Arafat control the ‘violence’ before any settlement is possible, are in fact desperate to maintain the process. The Israelis clearly understand that it is not in Arafat’s power to stop the intifada, and that he is the only Palestinian leader they can talk to because no-one else is willing to listen to them. Despite the hard line taken in the past whenever Israelis were hurt in the intifada, the Taba talks were not stopped when an Israeli soldier was injured by a car-bomb in the Ghazzah strip on January 23, and broken off only briefly after the shootings in Tulkarm.
The Taba talks are based on proposals put forward by Clinton during the last weeks of his presidency. They were accepted with reservations by the Israelis, on condition that the Palestinians accept them too. Arafat initially rejected them, but later (after a ‘decent’ period to impress Palestinians with his steadfastness) accepted them “on principle” and with reservations. The proposals are built around ‘compromises’ on the two key issues on which the Camp David talks in July 2000 collapsed: the status of Jerusalem and the Palestinians’ right to return to their homes.
On both counts, Clinton’s proposals are thinly-disguised versions of Israeli ones. On Jerusalem, the proposal is to divide the city, with Israel having control over west Jerusalem, the Jewish quarter in east Jerusalem, and a corridor linking them. This corridor would divide the Palestinian part of the city. Israel would control the western wall of the Haram al-Sharif (the ‘wailing wall’) and areas below it; the Palestinians would control the rest of the Haram. The Palestinian part of the city would also be separated from the rest of the Palestinian areas by a tranche of Jewish settlements that have deliberately been developed around the city in recent years, which would remain under Israeli control. On the Palestinians’ right to return, the Clinton proposals suggest that Israel permit the symbolic return of up to 100,000 Palestinians, in return for Palestinians forfeiting all further claims. Again, this is clearly a proposal that favours the Israeli position. The Israelis’ response was to offer to accept 1,500 refugees.
The other key element of the Clinton plan is that of a final land-settlement. This is widely described as offering 95 percent of the West Bank and all of Ghazzah to the Palestinians. This, however, is a blatant untruth, and reflects Israeli propaganda. In fact, the plan offers the Palestinians 95 percent of everything except Jerusalem and the areas that Israel refuses to negotiate on, including security zones and settlements. The Israelis’ latest ploy is to offer the Palestinians small areas of desert land in return for the territories in the West Bank that it plans to keep.
In sharp contrast to the long diplomatic stand-off of recent months, the Taba talks appeared to make swift progress. Four committees were quickly established, on land and Jerusalem, refugees, security and the holy sites. The Israeli media soon reported progress, informing its readers that Israel had proposed a new designation of “sacred basin” for the area encompassing the western wall, the Mount of Olives and Silwan, which would have a special status and not entail any sovereignty. It was also reported that Israel had shown a new readiness to give up a large number of settlements that it had previously insisted on maintaining. The Israelis also claimed that the Palestinians had for the first time presented maps of their own agreeing “in principle” to the Israeli annexation of some land.
How can this sudden change in mood be explained? Years of political stalemate, culminating in the outbreak of the intifada, seem suddenly to have broken into progress, just as the indispensable mediator left the scene. The prosaic reason is that Israel has elections on February 6, and prime minister Ehud Barak — trailing opposition candidate Ariel Sharon in all polls — has realised that he must show that there is a real possibility of a settlement if he is to win them. He also needs the votes of “Israeli Arabs”. It is for this reason that Arafat was put under tremendous pressure to come to the table, and offered a few (largely cosmetic) concessions to make it possible for him to do so without losing face in his own constituency.
In the longer term, however, the intifada has demonstrated that the peace process is essential for the survival of the zionist state in particular, and Arafat as well. Both parties know that without it their days are numbered. Arafat would quickly be overtaken by more representative Palestinian leaders if it came to all-out conflict with Israel, and Israel knows that it cannot defeat the Palestinians, it must persuade them to reach a settlement by which Israel can survive without its vital interests being surrendered.
However, the reality of Palestine’s situation is seen in the streets of Palestine rather than the negotiating rooms in Taba. Ordinary Palestinians know that the Israelis cannot be trusted to keep their word; every time an agreement has been signed, the Israelis have promptly broken it. The constant expansion of the settlements is perhaps the greatest evidence of that.
The Palestinians now clearly know that it is their determination during the intifada, and their refusal to be bowed by zionist brutality, that has any impact. They also know that the zionists can only be defeated; they cannot be lived with. And all parties in Taba know that it is that Palestinian awareness that will define the future struggle, rather than any ‘peace’ settlement.