What were the Palestinians thinking when they revolted against Israel two years ago?
By all appearances, they’re much worse off now than before the clashes began.
My uncle Sakher, in the village of Beit Iba near Nablus, told me it’s never been this bad, not even during the first intifada that started in 1987. Beit Iba has been under almost constant Israeli curfew for more than three months.
Sakher can’t reach his job in Ramallah. A diabetic, he knows that running out of insulin when the curfew is practically strict could spell big trouble.
Hussam, my brother-in-law who lives in the town of Yaabad, can’t travel to the nearby city of Jenin for regular therapy on his right arm, which was injured by an electrical accident at work. Israeli checkpoints have turned the 15-minute drive into an often hours-long ordeal. Hussam worries that his pregnant wife, Shaima, may give birth at one of those checkpoints instead of in a hospital bed.
In the past two years, the Israeli army has demolished the Palestinian Authority’s institutions, shelling, bulldozing and cleaning out ministries. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has rolled back Palestinian self-rule as much as possible, without actually returning to the type of occupation Israel imposed before the Oslo accords were implemented in 1993.
So, are the two parties further from peace than they were before the Jerusalem intifada began?
The answer, surprisingly, may be no.
Despite the death and devastation of the past two years, there may be a glimmer of hope hidden in the rubble. A look back at how Israel arrived at its two biggest peace deals — the peace treaty with Egypt and the Oslo accords with the PLO — show how confrontation helped lead to peace.
In the years preceding the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel had become complacent with its occupation of Arab lands it captured so easily six years earlier. Israel had inexplicably rejected several Arab peace initiatives, including Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s 1971 offer of a full peace treaty.
In October 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated attack against Israeli forces in the Sinai and Golan Heights. Israel eventually won the war.
But Israelis were unnerved by the effectiveness of the Egyptian and Syrian forces to penetrate Israeli military lines. The war forced Israelis to ask themselves if they really wanted to remain in a perpetual state of conflict with neighboring countries.
So ended Israel’s complacency.
Israel eventually warmed to Sadat’s peace overtures. In March 1979, after months of intense, personal mediation by President Jimmy Carter, Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty that led to Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai.
The first Palestinian uprising against Israel’s occupation began in 1987. Known as the intifada, the revolt occurred so suddenly that it took Israel and even the PLO by surprise. It started in the Gaza Strip after an Israeli army truck hit and killed four Palestinians. The protests quickly spread to the West Bank.
Israeli soldiers responded to Palestinian stone-throwing children with live ammunition and plastic and rubber bullets. Aside from the terrible human toll, the intifada served as a huge embarrassment to Israel.
With Israel under increasing international pressure to end the killing, ordinary Israelis began demonstrating against their government’s brutal response to the intifada. The uprising forced Israelis to ask themselves if they really wanted to occupy another people indefinitely.
Israelis answered that question when their country and the PLO signed the Oslo accords in 1993. The intifada played an unspoken role in those negotiations by convincing Israelis they needed to make peace with the Palestinians.
The current uprising started two months after then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made what he said was his last, best offer for a final Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement. The talks at Camp David broke down, but resumed in Taba, Egypt, where Israel reportedly made even better offers to the Palestinian side.
Israelis have patted themselves on the back so much over Barak’s supposedly generous Camp David offer that many have forgotten to ask some important questions. Like the Yom Kippur War and the first intifada, the Jerusalem intifada may shock Israelis into asking those questions.
Do Israelis really want to live next to a Palestinian state that lacks ultimate control over its borders and, by extension, its ability to conduct international trade and guarantee the unfettered entry and exit of its citizens?
Do Israelis really want to live next to a state that is divided into three cantons on the West Bank, with Israeli settlements and roads further slicing up the area — infringing on Palestinians’ domestic trade and travel?
Do Israelis really want to live next to an unstable Palestinian quasi-state that is simply not viable?
The Israelis’ answers to these questions may ultimately save them and the Palestinians from further grief.
Muhammed El-Hasan is a Palestinian American journalist living in Los Angeles.