Not long ago Prince William visited a Palestinian refugee camp on the West Bank and solemnly told a gathering: ‘My message tonight is that you have not been forgotten’. HRH was mistaken. The Palestinians have been forgotten. A once sympathetic world has moved on. Their once fervent Arab supporters have enough problems of their own without wanting to worry about them. Washington is apathetic. Israel has marginalised them. They are helpless. They are destined to yearn for an independent state forevermore just like the Kurds.
One reason is Palestinian intransigence: their refusal to recognise Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. Ironically, this suits the other main reason – Israeli aspirations. It allows the Netanyahu government to steadily nibble away at Palestinian land on the West Bank to develop Eretz Israel or Land of (Biblical) Israel. Critics say the unspoken Israeli motive is the eventual annexation of the West Bank just as it did with East Jerusalem.
It is well on the way of doing so. A US State Dept survey showed that a consolidation of the sprawling settlements and illegal Jewish outposts awaiting ‘legalisation’ meant that almost 60 percent of the West Bank is now off limits to Palestinian development.
A State Dept official in the Israel-Palestine negotiations under President Obama, Frank Lowenstein, has studied the latest West Bank maps. He told the New Yorker that not only were the Palestinian population centres now cut off from one another, but there was virtually no way to squeeze a workable Palestinian state into the areas that remained. Indeed Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, has been quoted as saying that the Americans believed ‘the chances of a viable Palestinian state are next to nil’.
Washington once took an active role in trying to rein in expansion by Jewish nationalists, most of it illegal under international law, and find a solution. Not now, though. President Trump once airily said he would find one as if it were just a real estate matter. He appointed another developer, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to chase it up.
In June, Kushner said he would soon present a tightly-guarded peace plan and might do so without the support of Abbas. The very idea of a credible peace plan is simplistic when one side – the Palestinian – refuses even to talk to the mediator. They broke off talks when Kushner’s father-in-law recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In any event, no plan has been forthcoming.
The ‘ultimate deal’, as Trump calls it, is by now out of the question. For a start, the population in the Jewish settlements has been growing twice as fast as in Israel itself. It is now 435,000. Right-wing nationalists essential to the Netanyahu coalition insist the West Bank is really Judea and Samaria, the Biblical homeland chosen for them by God. Try negotiating on that basis.
It also suits the Israeli economy as housing in the settlements is cheaper. A senior Israeli minister recently took the opportunity of using the murder of a settler by a Palestinian as a good enough excuse to build several hundred more homes.
Palestinians regard Israel policy as one of ‘displacement’, forcing them to move by making everyday life intolerable. The biggest area of the West Bank is under military rule. A total of 770,000 of Palestinians have been detained in the past 50 years. Most are prosecuted in military courts whereas settlers are dealt with by Israel’s civil courts. Palestinians can be jailed for up to 20 years for throwing stones, the only resistance weapon most have available. Settlers have guns and are able to enforce their own ‘justice’.
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent for the Australian for six years, notes these statistics in his memoir, Balcony over Jerusalem. He describes a demoralising existence for the Palestinians. One Israeli regulation includes a mind-numbing 101 different permits for doing everyday things, such as to attend a wedding or a funeral or visit someone in hospital or even attend court. Palestinians need one to visit Jerusalem provided they leave by 9pm. None of this applies to the settlers. It is 21st century apartheid.
The Palestinians and their long-time Arab backers must rue lost opportunities going back 50 years and the famous UN Resolution 242 after the 1967 Six-Day War. Under it, Israel would have withdrawn from the West Bank and other land it occupied in return for being recognised as an independent state and being able to live in peace. Even Israel supported that. But the PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, said No, demanding more concessions. He blinked again at Camp David in 2000, opting for a second violent intifada against Israel. Bill Clinton said Arafat’s decision was ‘the most colossal political error of my lifetime’. Many long-suffering Palestinians would agree. They know that, like it or not, the Jewish state is here to stay as well as a means to improve their own well-being.
If there is a threat to Israel, it is that Jews no longer represent the majority in the combined areas of Israel, Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The West Bank alone has three million Palestinians. There must be a limit to how long they can tolerate being denied civil rights as Jewish settlers waving the Torah as if it were a title deed take over more of what in modern times has been private Palestinian land.
It is a tragedy, says Lyons, because of the triumph of what Israel had achieved in the first seven decades of its life was ‘being destroyed by a greed for more land’.
FOOTNOTE. The Israel-Palestine question probably has been the most thankless, insoluble geopolitical problem in the past half century. Google it and you will get 5,850,000 results. It says a lot about the world’s interest when Googling the Kardashian family yields no less than 222,000,000 results.
John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.