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21 August 1997 Edition

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The death of a peace process

Fionntán O Súilleabháin has just returned from the Palestinian territories where he found anger and despair at Israel's attitude to the peace process

Last month's suicide bombing in Jerusalem which left 15 dead and hundreds injured was described as heralding the end of the Middle East `peace process'. However, this ignores the fact that no such process has been in existence since the right wing Likud party leader Benyamin Netanyahu assumed office last year. He immediately declared war on the peace process which had been initiated by the assassinated Labour leader, Yitzhak Rabin and the PLO's Yasser Arafat.

In many ways, the bombing was a tragedy waiting to happen - the result of the extreme anger, disappointment and despair which is currently being felt by the Palestinian people. It's a despair which I felt right across the Palestinian territories - even before what Yasser Arafat has described as a `war against the Palestinian people' was launched following the suicide bombing. This was very evident from Nablus in the Northern part of the West Bank down to the powderkeg of Hebron in the south and from the claustrophobic razorwire-sealed reservation that is the Gaza Strip right across to Palestine's main city and hoped for future capital, Jerusalem.

As an Irish person in this part of the world, I was astounded by the many things which our two peoples have in common.

Most conspicuously, there was the policy of militarisation, including mass surveillance and checkpoints. British policy has been the source of both countries' ills - an historical fact of which every Palestinian is very mindful. Also, the common spirt of resistance; and the repressive policies of community punishment witnessed most horrifically in the past month. Added to these the cultivation of high levels of unemployment in both nationalist and Arab areas; the question of political prisoners; the forced population movements, gerrymandering of boundaries and above it all the warmth and hospitality of peoples imbued with a strong sense of community.

The comparisons between the insular, defensive and siege mentality of both Zionism and Loyalism was particularly striking and called to mind the photographs of Peter Robinson complete with military garb and M16 posing near the West Bank some years ago - his clarion calls for `more security' would be well understood in Tel Aviv.

In Nablus in the West Bank, a centre of resistance during the intifada, as I plodded wearily up the steep backstreets in the midday heat of 38 degrees, a large poster outside a shop grabbed my attention. It was a picture of a bewildered looking child beneath the Arabic/English caption - `Where is the peace?' - `Where is the freedom?' It could have been the Six Counties.

The shopkeeper, curious as to my interest, asked my nationality, which led to the customary Arabic hospitality and warmth of inviting me inside for a cup of tea and a chat. He told me about their current perilous situation and asked my opinion on `your war with Britain'. `You know it was Britain which created the problem for us too' Omar said, in a reference to the British Balfour Declaration of 1917 which proposed the establishment of a Zionist state in the land of Palestine. Arabs don't forget this - neither the British arbitrary detention laws of 1945 which introduced internment without trial nor the laws which allowed British troops to shoot on sight any Palestinian carrying a firearm - references which I was to hear again in other towns.

In this part of the world the stranger is made king and time is something of which they have plenty - particularly for the guest. However, across the West Bank, time is something which shopkeepers have too much of these days. As we chatted for hours, I noted the absence of any customers. This is the price of limited self-rule. ``It is a tax on `freedom','' declared Amid, another resident of Nablus, referring to the collective punishment of the closure policy implemented in the new limited self-rule areas. Here Israeli soldiers place a ring of steel around the new Palestinian towns sealing them off from the surrounding West Bank hinterland. Visitor numbers and business has plumetted since this punitive policy was introduced four years ago. Before this, many Palestinians from outside Nablus visited their relatives. However, with waits of up to 36 hours at checkpoints, the inconvienence has been too much for many people.

Nasser, another local, has a similar experience in business. Returning from Syria to open a dental practice in his native city, he now finds that his income has dropped by 60% over the past six months.

The interest of people such as Nasser in international affairs is quite typical and not surprising since for every Palestinian living in the occupied territories there are two living in exile - mostly in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan or Syria.

Neighbouring towns are undergoing a similar crisis. In the most northernly self-rule town - Jenin - there were 100 taxis per day allowed into Israel prior to withdrawal. The number of permits has now been reduced to just 10. Across the occupied territories the Palestinian economy is going through a major crisis. Restrictions are imposed on any form of industry or commerce which might in any way lessen Palestinian dependence on the state of Israel. Locals are well aware of this strategy which they see as an attempt to create a wave of resentment, and anger amongst the people towards the new Palestinian National Authority in the hope that locals will say `sure weren't we better off under the old regime' - thus strengthening Israel's hand in any future negotiations over the rest of the West Bank and Jerusalem, which is proving to be the greatest point of contention.

Regarded by Israel as the `eternal' city and real capital as opposed to the modern, artificial and futuristic complexes of Tel Aviv and by Palestinians as the capital of a future homeland, the issue of Jerusalem may well prove to be the most diffiuclt problem to solve in the Arab/Israeli conflict.

A Palestinian city for several thousand years it was fully annexed by Israel after the 1967 war. They then embarked on a policy of Judaisation of the city, expanding westwards, creating a new vibrant, modern, commercialised and cosmopolitan city centre where Palestinians are not to be seen. It is close to this area where the suicide bombing occurred last month and is a world apart from the original city of Arab East Jerusalem with its bustling markets, traders, poverty and every quarter bearing the footprints of history. Geographically just one mile apart, culturally a vast gulf separates them.

The new city centre bears a resemblance to Dublin's Grafton Street. Here hip young Israelis sporting Hard Rock Cafe sweatshirts, T-shirts proclaiming `Uzi does it', Nike runners and Levi's 501's stroll the cobbled streets in and out of a host of Western outlets such as MacDonalds and Dunkin Donuts. None of your strongly brewed Arabic tea here but rather cappucino, croissants and cinnamon bagels with cream cheese are consumed while the Ray Bans are removed and the American M16's casually thrown to the side of the table. The siege mentality is glaringly obvious.

Over the past few months, Israel's attempts to Judaise Arab East Jerusalem have intensified in the hope of driving the natives from their city. Due to a higher birthrate among Palestinians the state has introduced several measures which they hope will force Arabs to leave - an experience with which Northern nationalists have been long familiar. It involves the gerrymandering of city boundaries, rezoning, expropriation of land for settlements, refusal to grant housing permits, tax raids on shops, other seizure of property, economic deprivation, transferring employment to the Jewish part of the city and last month the decision by the Iraseli Ministry of Education to prohibit the Jordanian curriculum in Arab East Jerusalem's schools. They now plan to replace this with Israeli textbooks - the latest form of cultural imperialism - which is presumably in the hope of driving Arabic children from their city to West Bank schools. This would serve to reduce Jerusalem's Arab population which should give Israel the edge in any future negotiations about the city.

The `Jerusalem question' cannot be overestimated in importance for Palestinians, being the crossing and focal point of the Northern and Southern parts of the West Bank. It is also the commercial and spiritual centre containing the Muslim world's most scared shrine after Mecca and Medina - the Temple of the Rock - beside which the Israelis have begun the provocative construction of a Jewish settlement which has resulted in widespread disturbances.

However, the most pressing issue facing East Jerusalem at present is Israel's closure policy which was introduced in 1993 under the pretext of `security' and which is at an all-time high at present. This has resulted in the forced separation of Arab East Jerusalem from the rest of the Palestinian areas and has dealt a fatal blow to the city's economy. Small shops in relatively poor areas have been equated for tax purposes with large stores in the Jewish city centre, making business impossible. West Bank Palestinians have been prevented from entering their own city. Cars in the new limited self rule areas have been given different coloured number plates to those in East Jerusalem to aid identification.

As one travels to this focal point of the West Bank and the Middle East's greatest tourist attraction, it is not uncommon to see lines of Palestinians spreadeagled by the roadside being searched to see if they have the relevant permits to enter their own city. Many passengers will specifically request a taxi which circumvents the capital's checkpoints. However, seeing elderly women being ordered off the buses at gunpoint and sent back to their West Bank towns was a common experience. Such policies have resulted in Jerusalem now becoming more isolated than at any time in its history. This policy of isolation is very easy for Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to pursue since he has the full backing of the US government. Throughout the spring, the United States has ignored world opinion by supporting Israel's huge settlement construction programme in East Jerusalem by their use of the veto at the UN. Security Council. On many occasions this year, the US has been the only country out of 152 nations to vote alongside Israel at the UN. On 12 June, it defied world opinion and recognised Jerusalem as the `eternal' capital of the state of Israel - a decision which the Islamic Council described as on a par with Britain's Balfour Declaration of 1917 which laid the foundation of the Jewish state. Such policies are sending Netanyahu the message that he can do whatever he likes, including destroying the world's hopes for peace in the Middle East. He knows he will always have the enthusiastic backing of Uncle Sam.

However, many Israels oppose their government's arrogant policies in relation to Jerusalem and this summer on the 30th anniversary of the Israeli occupation, a large number of Israeli and Palestinian women joined together to organise a major peace event called Sharing Jerusalem: 2 Capitals for 2 Peoples which sought to highlight the demand for the recognition of the right to self determination of both peoples in the land through the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel with a shared capital. This successful event included a performance by Sineád O'Connor.

This desire to share was a trait which particularly struck me about the attitude of the Palestinians. Also, their willingness to compromise and the reasonableness of their demands. Indeed, their stance has often been described as `unreasonably reasonable'. I found that most did not seek to recover the entire conquered land of Palestine within its pre-1947 boundaries but rather resigned themselves to accepting the right of the Jewish state to exist within the pre-1967 boundaries which excludes the West Bank, the tiny barren Gaza Strip (a narrow tract of land less than the size of County Dublin) and East Jerusalem as well as Syria's Golan Heights. Such is their intense yearning for peace.

Everywhere I went in Palestine I found that these warm and welcoming people are also imbued with a spirit of resistance and community, a sharp political consciousness as well as a strong sense of history. It is difficult to guess what may be ahead for them on the road to freedom. But underneath their obvious despair a spirit of confidence seems to resurrect itself. It is a vision of a new dawn, a promised land beyond the razor wire of a stateless people. The loss of identity and sense of statelessness is expressed by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in his poem Bitaqat Hawryeh (Identity Card):

Record, I am an Arab
Without a name
Without a title
Whose land has been taken away
I and my grandsons are left with nothing
Except these rocks
Will your government take them from us?
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