Diplomatic and real realities in the Israel-Palestine conflict

By: Jacob Høigilt, Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

Over the last few years I have encountered a number of professional Western diplomats who express their disbelief in any serious Israeli intention of achieving peace with the Palestinian. To be sure, these diplomats also fault the Palestinian leadership for their ability to bungle almost any initiative and opportunity they encounter. But unlike the refrain in much of Western media and public opinion, they do not view Israel and the Palestinians as two equal parties with equal blame for the stalled peace process. They recognize that the onus is on Israel to achieve progress, and that while most Israeli politicians and citizens live quite happily with the current situation, Palestinians suffer daily, both physically and mentally.

Predictably, then, the current efforts by John Kerry to create some momentum are dismissed with resigned smiles or short laughs by seasoned diplomats. In this, they and any ordinary Palestinian are quite agreed. However, while diplomats and policy analysts tend to view the conflict  and the politics surrounding it in terms of a game, assessing the performance of key players and speculating on their next moves, there is nothing game-like about the reality experienced by Palestinian villagers in the West Bank. Some quite sinister developments are currently taking place there, and I cannot help wondering if the diplomatic/analytic jargon shared by many in the field, myself included, prevents us from recognizing how serious the situation is.

Let me offer three recent examples. One of them happened this week, in fact. On the Israeli/Palestinian website +972, an independent photographer posted a series of pictures he had taken at Israeli military checkpoints inside the occupied West Bank. The photos pictured posters in Hebrew saying «Kahane was right». Meir Kahane founded the Kach party, which was designated as a terrorist organization by both Israel and the US after one of its members, Baruch Goldstein, massacred 34 Muslims in the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron in 1994. Kach refers to Goldstein as a «hero». Kahane for his part has suggested that the whole West Bank be annexed and its Palestinian residents forcibly removed. The fact that these posters are allowed to remain highly visible at Israeli military checkpoints in occupied territory is a sign that should be taken seriously. It goes to show just how lightly Israeli authorities treat Zionist terrorism – in fact, one might be forgiven for asking if they silently approve of it.

This suspicion is strengthened by the daily reports of settler attacks against Palestinian villagers. Another piece of news, from 10 October: A group of six armed young settlers from an outpost (illegal even by Israeli law) attacked the village of Burqa near Ramallah. The attackers vandalized the mosque and put three private cars to fire in front of their owners’ homes. The attack was ostensibly in retaliation for the killings of Israeli soldiers in the West Bank recently. This kind of thing happens almost daily across the West Bank now, and the settlers will often leave graffiti saying things like «Death to Arabs» on the local mosque wall. They do this with almost complete impunity, even though the West Bank swarms with Israeli soldiers who are supposed to prevent such acts.

Where is this heading? Some of the most reflected and best informed Israeli officials are not in doubt. In the Oscar-nominated documentary «The Gatekeepers», former Shin Bet directors express their disapproval of current Israeli policies and trends in no uncertain terms.  Avraham Shalom, director from 1980-1986, warns of a moral collapse in Israeli society: «We have become cruel. To ourselves, too, but mainly to the occupied population.»

This is the context in which we must view the brutal attacks that happen on a daily basis in the West Bank against farmers and other ordinary Palestinians. To the extent that such attacks can happen without sanction, they point to a future where more large-scale cruelties can be committed against the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, with or without state complicity. The West Bank is in the process of being left in the hands of a monster – a settler movement that does not accord Palestinians human value. And Israel does not seem to care.

This is an urgent issue, but it is not one that is captured well in the game jargon that pervades policy circles. Perhaps that is also why no Western governments have mustered the will to confront Israeli authorities assertively. The language used by professional diplomats and policy analysts is too far removed from the dirty realities on the ground to be able to convey how dangerous the current development in Israel and the occupied territories is.