Israel’s Moment of Choice

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A Palestinian boy sits inside the ruins of his family house which was destroyed during the 50 days of conflict between Israel and Hamas, in the Shujaiyeh neighborhood of Gaza City, on Sept. 24, 2014. Credit: AFP

When the Palestinian consensus government was sworn in on 2 June 2014, ending seven years of Palestinian political and institutional division, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately rejected it, telling Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a public statement that he must choose between peace and Hamas.

In the wake of Israel’s brutal war on Gaza, however, even Netanyahu’s right-wing government now understands that a unified Palestinian government is in everyone’s interest, including Israel’s. The real choice today is not between peace and Hamas but between occupation and freedom. The time has come for Israel to choose between a deteriorating status quo that promises only continued confrontations and further isolation for Israel or a path toward genuine peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians alike by ending Israel’s military occupation once and for all.

Unlike Netanyahu’s coalition, which includes ministers explicitly opposed to the creation of two states, the Palestinian government was formed on a peace agenda: recognizing Israel on the pre-1967 borders, renouncing violence, adhering both to international law and previous agreements signed with Israel. Bringing Hamas and other Palestinian factions together on such terms was the Palestinian gift to the prospects of real peace, and the only solution to ending the division that has plagued the Palestinian people.

For Netanyahu, 'peace' means returning to the status quo ante: Gaza besieged and severed from the West Bank as the latter continues to be colonized under a smokescreen called the 'peace process.'

A unified Palestinian government administering both Gaza and the West Bank as one integral territory is not an option but a national obligation and an international demand. While such a government was imperative for addressing Gaza’s accumulated problems and sheer human suffering before the war as a result of Israel’s criminal siege, it has become the only life line for both Gaza and the West Bank after Israel’s military onslaught on both areas this summer. No other entity has the domestic and international legitimacy to help end the siege on Gaza, provide relief and reconstruction for the 1.8 million Palestinians while reintegrating Gaza with the West Bank, and address the legitimate security requirements of Palestinians.

Israel’s latest war on Gaza was not the first but it must be the last. Under no circumstances can such senseless mass murder and destruction – which has seen the lives of 2,200 people, mostly civilians, including more than 550 children, taken away, with more than 10,000 injured, and almost quarter of Gaza buildings and infrastructure obliterated – be permitted again. This calamity left most Palestinians, and with us the majority of world opinion, with one conviction: never again.

The Palestine National Movement embodied in the PLO made its choice on behalf of the Palestinian people on 15 November 1988. The Palestine National Council voted overwhelmingly for a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, ipso facto recognizing Israel on the pre-1967 lines. Five years later, the PLO formalized this recognition as part of the Oslo agreements. Despite the lack of reciprocal recognition from Israel and its vagueness and open-ended provisions, many Palestinians supported Oslo, hoping that it meant Israel too had reached its moment of truth and choice: ending its occupation of the land occupied in 1967 and addressing Palestinians’ legitimate historic rights, including the right of return.

Alas, we were wrong. In hindsight, successive Israeli governments have instead used the 'peace process' for the exact opposite purpose: to avert and delay that moment of choice. Neither in 1993 nor today Israel is ready to answer the one basic question: where it wants its final border to be? Instead negotiations have been used by Israel as a conflict management tool and a smoke screen for the ongoing colonization of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In short, the 'peace process' has been used by Israel to delay and prevent the outcome of a Palestinian state.

The recent and biggest land grab in years, confiscating 4,000 dunams (about 1,000 acres) south of Bethlehem, the very heart of where the Palestinian state is supposed to be established, is another confirmation that the current Israeli government’s master map has nothing to do with the 1967 lines. Rather, facts on the ground follow the map of the 'Greater Israel project.' That is, Israel is the only state, controls the whole of Palestine, and is unilaterally partitioning the occupied territories by a complex system of military rule, annexation (colonization), exclusion (ethnic cleansing) and separation (siege and apartheid), keeping Palestinians disconnected, atomized, and unable to function as one political and economic unit.

Twenty one years of a failed 'peace process’ are enough to conclude that the bilateral route to ending occupation is working - but in the wrong direction. We must try something else. Israel must be denied access to its 'we are talking' comfort zone, and the Palestinians must exit the state of limbo we have been in since Oslo.

Today we are saying this is Israel’s moment of choice. Either Netanyahu must declare that the status quo is a military occupation of the territory occupied in 1967, in which case after 47 years it must come to an end. Or he must declare that the status quo is not an occupation and that Israel intends to continue taking effective control of the entire territory of historic Palestine and denying basic individual and collective rights to Palestinians living inside and in exile. Netanyahu’s habit of giving lip service to the first, while following the second, can no longer continue.

Israel can’t have it both ways: land without people, control without responsibility. This has gone on for far too long. Either Israel takes full responsibility or it gives up control of the lives and territory of millions of Palestinians.

President Abbas demanded a firm expiry date for occupation. No more business as usual. Repeating that the status quo in Palestine is unsustainable must not be just a statement, but our and the international community’s goal. On 15 November this year, the Palestinian people will celebrate the 26th anniversary of our Declaration of Independence, reaffirming the collective choice we made in 1988. By next year, we either celebrate our real and full independence or we will have redefined the status quo and with it our national goals and ways to achieve them.

Dr. Husam Zomlot is a senior foreign policy advisor for Fatah and a former PLO representative in the U.K.  

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