Sunday, December 14, 2003

Author’s Note: This essay is intended to be a look at the conflict in the Middle East by examining the prospects for the Geneva Accords.

The Geneva Accords: An Opportunity for Peace in the Middle East?

Amos Oz has a vision of peace in the Middle East. Oz, a prominent Israeli peace activist, who, along with other Israelis, including former generals and cabinet members, met with high-profile Palestinians to form the Geneva Accords. The result of two years of secret negotiations, the Geneva Accords represent a breakthrough in the peace process. Doling out hard-hitting compromises that shatter the idealistic visions of both sides, the Geneva Accords consist of specific actions that both the Israelis and the Palestinians can adopt in order to end the suffering caused by the occupation of Palestinian territories and the suicide bombing responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israeli men, woman, and children. However, the future of the Accords is fraught with obstacles. In order to see exactly what they are, we need to first gain a good understanding of the history of the problems the Accords are trying to solve, then we will be able to move on to assess the prospects of this peace agreement.

The political aspect of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict goes back to the early 20th century. During World War I, the Ottoman Empire fought with the Central Powers and against the Allies. When they lost, France and Britain split the Ottoman Empire into pieces and Britain took control of the areas of Iraq, Palestine, and Transjordan with the Treaty of Sevres. At the time there were mainly Palestinians living in Palestine, though a handful of Jewish settlers could be found throughout the territory. However, back during the war in 1917, Britain had issued the Balfour Declaration stating that the government of Britain was sympathetic to the Zionist goal of creating a homeland for the Jews in Palestine, saying "His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country." This document encouraged Jews from Britain and across Europe to immigrate to Palestine with the hopes that they would have their own state for the first time in over eighteen centuries. The rise of Nazi Germany and anti-Semitism in Europe also encouraged many Jews to set out for a new life in Palestine. By the end of World War II, both the Jews and the Palestinians living in Palestine wished for Britain to leave. Some even formed terrorist groups and attacked anything representing British power in the region.

In 1947, Britain turned the issue of Palestine over to the newly formed United Nations. By the end of 1947, the United Nations adopted Resolution 181 calling for British Palestine to be split into a Jewish and an Arab state. Jerusalem would remain an international zone with neither government controlling the city. Israel then declared its independence from Britain on May 14, 1948. However, the Palestinians and neighboring Arab countries did not like this plan and were offended by the non-Muslims in control of what they saw as Muslim land. The night of May 14, 1948, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon invaded Israel. After more than a year of on and off fighting, battles and cease fires, Israel immerged victorious on July 20, 1949, after it signed the last armistice agreement with Syria. When all was said and done, Israel actually gained territory in comparison to the lines drawn by the United Nations.

Tensions remained high in the region, however. Egypt sponsored terrorists who committed attacks on Israel and in July 1956 nationalized the Suez Canal and denied Israel use of it. October 25, 1956, Egyptian President Nasser signed an agreement with Syria and Jordan placing him in command of their armies. Four days later, Israel, with the backing of the British and French invaded the Sinai Peninsula. President Eisenhower then demanded that Britain, France, and Israel cease their aggression. When the dust cleared, Israel had taken the entire Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. At the request of the United States, Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula, content with its military victory that took less than 100 hours to achieve.

However, violence was far from over. In the early 1960’s, several Palestinian terrorist groups formed, rising from the ashes of those sponsored by Egypt, and combined themselves in the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) led by Yassir Arafat. These terrorists took the lives of hundreds of Israelis. By 1967, Israel again found itself surrounded. Egypt had initiated a blockade, Syria was shelling over the border, and the armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq, with 250,000 troops, 2000 tanks, and 700 aircraft could be found on the borders of Israel. Israel then launched a pre-emptive strike on June 5, 1967. A cease fire was declared on June 10, but the damage had already been done. Israel now controlled the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights, and had routed the Arab armies, although Israel lost over 777 men in the fighting. With all the additional territory, Israel also found itself in control of over 750,000 Palestinians. Many other Palestinians had left the area and fled into the neighboring countries in order to avoid the fighting.

On Oct. 6, 1973, Egypt and Syria again attacked Israel. This time, however, Israel was unprepared. After taking two days to recover, Israel drove the attackers back into Syria and Egypt and would have continued if not for a United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding the cessation of military activities. Israel ended up not gaining any territory and suffering 2,688 casualties in the war.

The history of Israel’s large scale military actions ends with the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The Palestinian Liberation Organization was operating out of that country with out fear of punishment, so Israel invaded to destroy the terrorist cells. While there, Israel encountered Syria’s army and defeated it soundly. By 1984, Israel withdrew to Southern Lebanon where it stayed until 2000.

Today, Israel no longer fears invasion, instead, they face the horror of terrorism. Many of the Palestinian terrorist groups formed in the early 1960’s still exist, and newer ones, such as Hezbollah and Hamas continue to fight for a Palestinian country in the place of Israel.

Despite the continuing violence, some progress has been made. In 1979, Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel. Egypt would give Israel full diplomatic recognition and allow it to use the Suez Canal, the Strait of Tiran, and the Gulf of Aqaba. In return, Israel would withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula and dismantle a military base and town near the border. This peace treaty has held until today, though there is no love lost between the two countries.

Progress has also been made on the Palestinian front. After first refusing a state of their own in 1948 along with Israel and being occupied both by Egypt, Jordan, and Israel, the Palestinians have a semi-autonomous government. In 1993, Yassir Arafat and Prime Minister Rabin signed an agreement stipulating that a Palestinian authority would govern the West Bank and Gaza Strip and would negotiate with Israel on Palestinian issues. Yassir Arafat, the former terrorist mastermind of the Palestinian Liberation Organization became the leader of the Palestinian Authority. This arrangement worked out fairly well until the collapse of President Clinton’s Camp David peace talks. This collapse, coupled with Ariel Sharon’s (the future Prime Minister of Israel) walk on top of the Temple Mount on Sept. 29, 2000, gave rise to the Al Aqsa Intifada, or uprising. The Palestinian terror groups began launching suicide bombings across Israeli settlements and cities. As of Dec. 10, 2003, 2611 Palestinians and 829 Israelis have died during the uprising.

In addition to the political and military battles between the Israelis, Palestinians, and the neighboring countries, it is important to take a look at some other major influences on the conflict. Some of these influences come in the form of other countries in the region. Obviously there are the bordering countries, of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, but there are also Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and most of the Arab and Muslim world who have something at stake in the conflict. As was mentioned before, Iraq has played a part in attacking Israel by lending troops and equipment to the Egypt and Syria. More recently, under Saddam Hussein during the Al Aqsa Intifada, the Iraqi government would donate 25,000 dollars to the families of suicide bombers. Saudi Arabia has contributed financially to the Hamas, though it claims it does not fund the terrorist wing of that organization.

Arabs and Muslims across the world identify with the Palestinians. They see Israel as an invader and an oppressor, raiding Palestinian homes and refusing to let refugees return to their homes. They see Israel, a Jewish nation, intruding upon the holy places of Islam, such as at the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the third holiest place in all of the Muslim world. Arab governments often encourage outrage to be directed at Israel so as to blame domestic problems on somebody else. Conspiracy theories abound among those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, one of which claims that the media and the United States are controlled directly by Israeli Jews.

On the other side of the conflict lies the United States. Although the U.S. opposed Israel’s Suez Canal war during the Eisenhower administration, the U.S. has drifted squarely unto the side of Israel, giving them military and economic aid. There are many reasons for this. One is that some Arab countries such as Egypt were under the influence of the Soviet Union, so it was natural for the U.S. to support the country opposing Egypt. In addition, Israel is one of the only democracies in a region full of dictatorships, so it should be expected that the world’s leading democracy would by default support the decisions of Israel over those made by authoritarian governments. Also, many American fundamentalist Christians have sympathy for Jews as they see the Jews declaring their own state and building a third Temple as a necessary step towards the seconding coming of Christ. All of these factors mix together to create a United States sympathetic to Israel. The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks only served to reinforce this position as the United States found it could hardly condemn Israel for cracking down on terrorism as it did the same thing but on a larger scale.

Despite Britain and France’s collusion with Israel during the Suez Canal war, Europeans and the United Nations, for the most part, support the Palestinians. Unlike the American’s, Europeans don’t feel a connection with Israel and they see Israel’s actions in the West Bank and Gaza to be overreactions worthy of condemnation. The United Nations General Assembly regularly condemns Israeli actions. The United Nations Security Council would often do the same if it were not for the United States’ insistence on vetoing any resolution that does not also condemn Palestinian terrorism.

In addition to the other countries involved in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the influence of religion in the conflict should not be discounted. As was mentioned before, many Muslims see Israel as an intrusion on sacred Muslim territory and that it is a religious duty for them to resist Israel. Many of the suicide bombers believe that by taking as many Israelis with them as possible, they will become martyrs and have a one-way ticket to heaven. Israel also has a radical religious element on its side. Many conservative Jews want to rebuild the Temple that was destroyed by the Romans in the first century. However, the Muslims now have their third holiest site located where the Temple was, and to blow that up would be to welcome World War III with open arms. As was mentioned before, the Temple Mount is such a volatile place that when Ariel Sharon visited it, many Palestinians saw the trip as a sign that Israel was going to take the area. Consequently they launched the Al Aqsa Intifada. Another aim of conservative Jews is to expand Israeli territory back to where it was in Biblical times, meaning taking over the West Bank and Gaza Strip permanently. Palestinians live in constant fear that Israel will one day declare the Palestinian areas as a part of Israel. That is one reason why they oppose the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the wall currently being built there by the Israeli government. The Israelis say the wall is to stop Palestinian terrorists from sneaking past check points but the Palestinians accuse the Israelis of using the wall to finalize borders that are in dispute. Religion is also the reason why many fundamentalist Christians support Israel. They see Israel as a necessary step towards the end-times and they see the Palestinians as an obstacle to Israel. When all of these religious issues mix together, it serves to make the overall situation more convoluted and virtually impossible to solve. And yet this is what the Geneva Accords are trying to do.

Perhaps the first obstacle the Geneva Accords needs to overcome before it can even get to solving the issues at hand is to be adopted by the governments of Israel and the Palestinians. The Geneva Accords are not a product of government negotiations; but rather, they are the result of a group of prominent Israelis and Palestinians who were frustrated with their governments. As a result, both governments find themselves opposing the Accords from the start as they represent a threat to the government’s positions. It is obvious that the current leaders in both governments will not accept the Accords, so in order to be adopted, the Accords will have to gain enough popular support (from both within Israel and Palestinian territories and around the world) in order to put pressure on the governments to force them to concede or weaken them so a new leadership can take their place.

The next obstacle to overcome would be making sure the governments agree on all the points laid out in the Geneva Accords. Israel would have to agree to Jerusalem to be split in two with the western half being the capital of Israel and the eastern half being the capital of Palestine. Israel would also have to agree to cede all control over the Temple Mount to the Palestinians while the Palestinians would do the same with the Western Wall. The Palestinians would also have to accept the fact that the refugees will not be allowed back into Israel and Israel would have to accept that its settlements in the West Bank will have to be dismantled and the settlers moved back into Israel proper.

All of these concessions will bed difficult for the Israeli and Palestinian people to accept. The refugees have lived in camps for decades hoping to go back to their former homes and now would have to give up their dreams. Arabs across the region would have to fully accept Israel as a nation with a right to exist where it does. Jewish settlers would have to give up their new homes and dreams. Conservative Jews would have to give up their goal of rebuilding the Temple. But if that does happen, peace will come about.

However, though the majority may want peace, it is the minority that will decide how much peace there will be. The refugees will not accept the fact that they cannot return to their homes. Hamas, a terrorist organization which has a large base of support from the refugees would surely assassinate any Palestinian leader who agreed to such a deal. As it is now, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have already vowed to fight the Accords. The Jewish settlers and radical conservative Jews would also likely take up arms against their leaders. They have already done this once with the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin, who had compromised with the Palestinians and recognized the Palestinian right to self-government.

After taking all these factors into account, one would be hard pressed to state that the Geneva Accords may actually bring about an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Even if the governments did accept this solution, and the majority of Israelis and Palestinians were willing to compromise on this agreement, the radical minority on both sides would ensure that violence continued. However, the Geneva Accords do accomplish one very important thing vital to the peace process: they show that peace between Israel and the Palestinians can be achieved. The Accords prove to the world that those who want peace bad enough can sit down and work out an agreement acceptable to both sides. This fact may encourage moderates on both sides step up their efforts to change the attitudes within their own societies.

After taking a brief look at the long and nuanced history of violence in Middle East and the other major influences on the conflict, including the countries with interests in the region and United Nations, as well as the role of religion in the dispute, it can be seen that the Geneva Accords cannot bring peace to the Middle East. The conflict in the Middle East still has too much life in it to be laid to rest by this peace plan. However, this plan is definitely a step in the right direction. It creates hope for the future where none was before and shows that peace is possible for those who desire it.

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