- Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid
Fresh Debate on Israel’s West Bank Policies
In 1985 I traveled to the United States for a lecture tour. I was then still the co-director of Al Haq the West Bank affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists, a human rights organization which I helped establish six years earlier. My book Occupier’s Law: Israel and the West Bank had just been published. The main theme of the book and my talks was the settlements: the confiscation of land that the Israeli military government was carrying out on a large scale and the effect of implanting Israeli Jews in the midst of a hostile Palestinian population. I had many good legal and political arguments about why the building of settlements in the Palestinian occupied territories was illegal and should cease. I expected that when I put them before American audiences they would immediately understand. I thought I could depend on their sense of justice and fairness and ability to see this obviously disastrous policy that Israel was pursuing.
It was important to address the American public because it was only through US support and funding that Israel was capable of pursuing the highly expensive project of establishing human settlements in often remote areas and connecting them with the necessary infrastructure of roads, water, sewage and electricity When I began my tour there were less than 42,000 Jewish settlers living on the West Bank. The number today, including East Jerusalem, is close to half a million.
Jimmy Carter was the first US President to get a promise from an Israeli leader for a settlement freeze. This was in 1979. Menachem Begin, the Prime Minster who gave that promise, quickly reneged. Carter admits in his important new book that “Perhaps the most serious omission of the Camp David talks was the failure to clarify in writing Begin’s verbal promise concerning the settlement freeze during subsequent peace talks.” This failure proved fatal and seems to haunt the former President. Jimmy Carter’s Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, is a political memoir that is largely about the Israeli settlements.
From the outset of this highly readable book, Carter makes clear that one of the major goals of his life “has been to help ensure a lasting peace for Israelis and others in the Middle East.” His main contribution to this cause was in negotiating the Camp David Accords of 1979. He writes that “both Israel and Egypt had honored the terms of the peace treaty involving the Sinai, but the original substance of the Accords relating to the other occupied territories had been abandoned or modified in vital ways.” He aptly quotes Abba Eban’s remark that “unfortunately, it is clear that Israeli governmental policy is so distant from Camp David that when Likud spokesmen invoke the agreement, they are rather like Casanova invoking the Seventh Commandment.”
In the spring of 1983 Carter confronted Begin the Israeli prime Minster with whom he had negotiated the Camp David Accords four years earlier. He writes: “As he [Begin] sat without looking at me, I explained again why we believed he had not honored a commitment made during the peace negotiations to withdraw Israeli forces and to refrain from building new Israeli settlements in the West Bank…I paused, expecting the prime minister to give his usual strong explanations of Israeli policy. He responded with just a few words in a surprisingly perfunctory manner and made it plain that our conversation should be concluded.”
Beside the verbal commitment to freeze settlements, Israel agreed in the Camp David Accord that “…there should be transitional arrangements for the West Bank and Gaza for a period not exceeding five years. In order to provide full autonomy to the inhabitants, under these arrangements the Israeli military government and its civilian administration will be withdrawn as soon as a self-governing authority has been freely elected by the inhabitants of these areas to replace the existing military government. To negotiate the details of a transitional arrangement, the Government of Jordan will be invited to join the negotiations on the basis of this framework…”
Begin’s government never intended to uphold these undertakings. Instead it was determined to impose its own interpretations of the promises emptying them of any real content. Israel’s interpretation of the Accord in fact became the blueprint of its policies in the Palestinian Occupied Territories and the basis of the Oslo Accords signed fourteen years later.
Between 1979 and 1981, simultaneously with the Camp David autonomy talks, a number of fundamental changes took place in the occupied territories. As it later became clear these were in preparation for the arrangements that were later to be made between Israel and the PLO in the Oslo Accords. They included the speeding up of the establishment of Jewish settlements, the transfer of responsibility over water resources from the military government to the Israeli National Water Carrier, Mekorot, the creation of Jewish Regional and Local Councils in the West Bank applying Israeli laws, and the establishment of a Civilian Administration to take over the responsibilities for the civilian affairs of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and create a separation between them and the Jewish settlements both territorial and administrative.
These changes were carried out unilaterally by Israel through military orders issued by the Israeli commanders responsible for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The transfer of the functions of the civil administration to the Palestinian Authority established by the Oslo Accords while keeping Jewish settlements under an exclusive Israeli jurisdiction was consolidated by the Agreement between Israel and the PLO fourteen years later. Carter quotes “Prime Minister Rabin emphasizing that the agreement for which he had been honored had avoided the tight restrictions accepted by Menachem Begin at Camp David: ‘Jewish settlements will be placed under an exclusive Israeli jurisdiction; the Autonomy Council will have no authority over them. The forces of the Israeli army will be redeployed in locations determined only by us, unlike the Camp David agreements which mandated a withdrawal of the Israeli army forces. …”
In a later chapter entitled “The Wall as Prison” Carter adds: “There has been a determined and remarkably effective effort to isolate settlers from Palestinians, so that a Jewish family can commute from Jerusalem to their highly subsidized home deep in the West Bank on roads from which others are excluded, without ever coming in contact with any facet of Arab life.” Earlier he had written that “the honeycomb of settlements and their interconnecting conduits effectively divide the West Bank into at least two noncontiguous areas and multiple fragments, often uninhabitable or even unreachable…” This is the very crux of the matter concerning the settlements in the Occupied Territories which unfortunately the Palestinian leadership managed to miss when they negotiated with Israel in Oslo. The Jewish settlements are not confined, isolated enclaves in the midst of the Palestinian territory. It is the other way around: Palestinians are now living in isolated enclaves which are not contiguous. The settlements are integrally connected to Israel.
There was nothing accidental in how matters have developed since the 1979 Camp David Accords. It was specifically in order to defeat and frustrate what Israel had promised the US and Carter at Camp David that plans were quickly drawn up such as the Master Plan for the Development of Settlement in Judea and Samaria 1979-83 which the Likud Government of Menachem Begin adopted. This made clear that Jewish settlements would isolate and fragment Palestinian areas and create contiguous blocs of Jewish settlements connected to Israel. In 1984 a comprehensive Roads Plan (Plan No. 50) was published and gradually implemented. The Accord proved a watershed. After Israel signed it we who were living in the West Bank began to see significant changes in the hills around us. Massive and speedy establishment of settlements, the digging of the hills to make roads and the transformation of the hills which in a few decades exceeded the changes that had taken place in these biblical areas over the past two thousand years.
To anyone who has followed the history of the Occupied Palestinian Territories none of this should come as news. As early as 1984 Meron Benvenisiti published his series of surveys of Israel’s policies, The West Bank Data Project, in which he described in great detail Israeli plans for building settlements, isolating and strangling Palestinian communities. These excellent studies were published by none other than the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington DC. Carter’s significant book while providing the reader with a good insight into the Arab- Israeli conflict does not reveal new unknown material. Why then the huge controversy around his book?
The answer is simple. It is because these facts about Israel and its obstruction of the peace with its neighbors are being said by someone of Carter’s stature who is not easy to dismiss or discredit. It is also because in writing his political memoir Carter is demolishing the Israeli case in America. The position that the lobbyists on behalf of Israel have been arguing for years is that the territories Israel took control over in 1967 are not occupied but disputed. So successful has this been that former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld recently referred to them as “the so-called occupied territories.” The other well circulated misinformation is that it is Israel who has traditionally been seeking peace with the Palestinians. Peace has not been achieved not because of Israel’s settlement drive but because the Palestinians don’t want peace. The cornerstone of Israel’s public relations position over the past six years has been that it was the Palestinians who refused the best offer Israel could make. This only proves that they do not want peace but rather the destruction of the state of Israel. In the chapter entitled, “Bill Clinton’s Peace Efforts,” Carter encloses Prime Minster Edud Barak’s “generous offer” with quotation marks. He proceeds to show why it was not an offer that any Palestinian leader could possibly have accepted because it fell far short of the minimum that would enable the Palestinians to live in a viable state on their land. Someone of Carter’s stature has finally come forth, pointed his finger and said the obvious: “The Emperor is naked.”
Most of the controversy around this book does not seem related to its content but revolves around the use of the word ‘apartheid’ in the title. Are Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians in the occupied territories as bad as those once practiced by the white South African government in South Africa before the fall of the apartheid regime?
From what I hear from South African friends about their experiences of living under that illegal regime, they are worse. Indeed, I concur that Israel’s policies in the occupied territories are sheer madness. All it takes to reach this conclusion is to look at the wall Israel is building mainly in the Palestinian territory (that Carter describes in a separate chapter), and the roads built in Palestinian land which Palestinians are not allowed to use. The Palestinian countryside is being destroyed and communities are strangled and enclosed within high towering walls.
It is simply not possible to settle a foreign population within another country, take its lands, discriminate against it, deprive it of the use of its roads and not be guilty of apartheid. The South African government that invented and practiced the system of Apartheid did not deny the existence of the blacks but offered them a separate lesser status and rights than the whites. Israel in essence denies the national existence of the Palestinians. Those who claim it is possible to build Jewish settlements in their midst without denying them their rights are able to arrive at this strange position only because they deny the very existence of the Palestinian people, the indigenous inhabitants of the land. They accept what is propagated by the right wing forces in Israel that the Palestinians are the creation of the Arab states in enmity with Israel. If Palestinians do not exist then they cannot be discriminated against. Israel cannot be guilty of apartheid against them. The reality is otherwise. Palestinians do exist as a separate nation that is denied its right to self determination.
There is more to Carter’s book than its title. Whether or not apartheid is the best word to describe Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories should not be the main issue. When he used this word Carter knew exactly what he was doing. He was inviting controversy and challenge. He said openly when asked why he chose the title: “I wanted to provoke debate. I wanted to provoke discussion.”
From the point of view of a Palestinian who has suffered the consequence of Israel’s policy of building settlements and seen promises, pressures and governments come and go in Israel and the US, the one constant in life is that more settlements get established and the existing ones are expanded. Thus Carter’s, “provocation” to the American public and government into discussing their blind support of Israel’s criminal behavior towards the Palestinians and their country and stopping their real financial and political support for the illegal settlements, is long overdue. The facts speak for themselves and the effect of the Israeli policy on Palestine and on prospects of peace in the region is disastrous.
In 1985 when I traveled to promote my book about the Jewish settlements, I heard the same arguments everywhere I spoke as if many in the audience were reading from the same script: the settlements are necessary for Israel’s security. Much as I tried to point out how ludicrous this position was by citing the expert opinion of retired Israeli generals who argued the exact opposite, there was no real readiness to listen. Whatever Israeli PR professionals were saying must be true. Now the script has changed. What did not change is the absence of any real debate. Twenty five years later settlements are proving the biggest obstacle to peace and are threatening not only Palestine, but far beyond it. As Carter writes, “The Middle East is perhaps the most volatile region in the world, whose instability is a persistent threat to global peace. It is the incubator of much of the terrorism that is of such great concern to Americans and citizens of other nations.”
The US which as Carter writes “stands almost alone in its undeviating backing of Israel” plays an extremely important role in Israel. He adds that “strong support for peace must come from the US.” So far this is not happening. Provoking debate in the US, however this is achieved, is of extreme importance for future peace in our region. The former US President seems to be succeeding in doing just this. With his well documented book and its provocative title, Carter is working to achieve “one of the major goals of [his] life” as he makes clear at the outset of his book: “to help ensure a lasting peace for Israelis and others in the Middle East.”