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Update – 22 March 2010

Posted by Jack Chrapot on 22 March 2010 at 3:30pm

by Jack Chrapot

When visiting Israel in the northern summer of 2000, I spent a day in Jenin in the West Bank. It was a time of optimism for peace in the region; the Camp David talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians were under way; Jews were visiting markets and spending their money in West Bank villages and towns; Palestinians were working in Israeli cities. A feeling of harmony and hope prevailed over the land that warm July morning.

My family was staying at the Nof Tabor Motel at Kibbutz Mizra which is well placed on the road from Afula to Nazareth in the central part of Galilee. A twenty-minute drive south takes you through the Valley of Jezreel and in the direction of the green line that marks the border between Israel and the West Bank or the future Palestinian State. You pass green fields, irrigated pastures, kibbutzim, moshavim and a handful of Israeli Arab villages. We stopped at one of those villages on the way and I was surprised at the scenes of relative prosperity, beautiful whitewashed villas and clean streets.

A solitary Palestinian policeman sat on a tower at the border which marked Palestine Authority Area A and he allowed us through without any checks. My first glimpse of Jenin was a disappointment. In the foreground a seemingly endless line of rusted motor vehicle hulks marred what would otherwise have been a delightful view of the city. I was told they were relics of a booming trade in stolen motor vehicles from the other side of the green line.

In a dimly lit coffee house, I met some of the locals and, over a cup of coffee, we discussed the events of the day. One of my companions, a doctor, hoped that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak would dismantle most of the settlements as part of the forthcoming peace deal. He acknowledged that Jerusalem was a special place for the Jews and they had fairly administered the city. Surprisingly, Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Authority drew harsh criticism from all present. This included accusations of corruption and of failing the people of Jenin which had been handed over to the PA in 1995 as a result of one of the Oslo interim agreements.

Oslo gave the Palestinians limited autonomy in certain areas. All civil power and responsibility, including that of an armed police force, rested with the PA. But while prosperity had come to some in the region, I was told that the situation in Jenin had actually deteriorated over the past five years. Little was being done to solve a desperate unemployment problem that left one of every four able- bodied citizens unable to find work. The district was suffering from a variety of environmental scourges including air pollution and problems with the treatment of sewage and industrial waste materials. Serious water shortages were exacerbated by the wastage of water through high leakage levels. Local hospitals were inadequately maintained, standards of hygiene were poor and the supply of medical drugs was erratic.

These were things that mattered to my coffee companions whose feeling was that while Arafat had developed a questionable reputation as a fighter, he was certainly not an administrator who cared for the delivery of infrastructure services and improving the lives of his constituents. While some rudimentary attempts had been made to provide a management strategy for the city, there was little to show for the millions of dollars that were pouring into PA coffers from the U.S., the Europeans and the Arab States. The result of almost five years of Palestinian self-rule was a discernible decline in living standards for the citizens of Jenin.

But Jenin contained a greater tragedy – that of its refugee camp. Established in 1953 by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, which still provides humanitarian relief to refugees in many of the camps dotted around the region, the Jenin refugee camp was renowned for its squalid conditions. It had long been a hotbed of the seething radicalism of Islamic militant groups. My guide would not take me to the camp but promised a view from afar.

A question occurred to me. Why was it necessary to maintain fourteen thousand people in such conditions five years after the area had come under Palestinian control? The doctor laughed at my naivety informing me that the residents of this camp and scores of others in the West Bank and Gaza were the strongest weapons in Arafat’s armoury.  They were his foot soldiers who could be called into action whenever he needed them. And their very existence in such places as these would always garner support for the cause when comparisons were drawn with the other side.

I noted that good doctors can heal the sick and asked him how does one heal two or three generations of people who have lived the tragedy of existence in such a place, such a predicament?

“When you wake every morning with no job to go to and no hope for the future, what do you become?” The doctor answered his own question – “A person without a soul.”

He added that a person without a soul needs very little persuasion to take away the lives of those who do have souls. Over the next two years his meaning was to become more apparent.

As we sat there in the cafe, a television set flickered and the voice of a talking head on CNN captured our attention. Arafat and Barak were being hosted at Camp David by President Clinton. Negotiators spoke of a right of return for the refugees to their own state of Palestine and there were suggestions of a multi-billion dollar international fund for compensation, repatriation, resettlement and rehabilitation. Barak was about to offer Arafat an independent Palestinian state comprising of a contiguous area covering most of the West Bank and all of Gaza, with the Palestinian suburbs of East Jerusalem as its capital. Barak’s plan entailed the dismantling of most of the settlements. There would be a right limited to some Palestinians to return to parts of Israel within the green line – the remainder would be compensated. 

Compensation would also be possible for the hundreds of thousands of Jews who also became refugees from Arab lands as a result of the conflict and who had been absorbed into the Jewish State.

My hosts laughed at Clinton. They laughed at Barak and they laughed at Arafat. They knew that Arafat was going to walk away from Barak’s offer as he would walk away from President Clinton’s later offer. Arafat had been armed by Oslo and he would not accept an offer of territorial compromise. The PA Minister of Planning and International Cooperation and peace delegate Nabil Sha’ath had said in a speech in Nablus in January 1996 –

“We decided to liberate our homeland step-by-step. Should Israel continue, no problem. If and when Israel says ‘enough’ we will return to violence. But this time it will be with 30,000 armed Palestinian soldiers.”

So the two-state compromise would never be enough for Arafat no matter how much land was given over and irrespective of whether the dilemma of Jerusalem or the refugees could be solved.

The conflict is not about land, occupation, settlements, security barriers, checkpoints, Jerusalem, the right of Jews to walk on the Temple Mount or even the refugees. These are all issues that can be resolved by a continuation of the process of negotiation. But if you don’t want to negotiate and you continuously ignore the steps towards peace then there’s another problem. Perhaps it’s Israel’s very existence?

That’s what the good doctor told me on the day I travelled on the road to Jenin nearly ten years ago. That’s what he and his friends were sheepishly laughing about.

The subsequent breakdown of negotiations, the violence and bloodshed of the second intifada, the Second Lebanon War, Operation Cast Lead and the war of the elites and the media have not surprised me in the least. Clinton tried and failed to bring peace to the region and likewise, the second Bush. Sadly, Barack Obama who promised so much on his election simply failed.

Obama’s hostile reaction to the Israeli Interior Ministry’s ill-timed announcement approving 1,600 new housing units in a Jewish area of North Jerusalem on the eve of proximity talks might well have been justified. However, his outbursts following Israel PM Netanyahu’s apology has served to set back hopes for peace in the region for another ten years.

While Netanyahu’s ears were burning, Arafat’s old friend and successor Mahmoud Abbas was listening and it was all music to his ears. Abbas refused Ehud Olmert’s far ranging peace offer in 2008 and has been avoiding face to face peace talks ever since that day. He failed/refused to prevent incitement against Jews in PA sanctioned media and, as soon as American peace negotiators were out of sight last week, he paid homage to a Palestinian mass murderer who slaughtered innocents in cold blood. About this, Obama was silent and no embarrassing apology was required, given or expected from Abbas. The spirit of Oslo has been destroyed, the Road Map to peace set on fire and people without souls will again set the agenda in this region.

And in a Jenin coffee house, my old friends must be laughing their heads off.