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A Handshake Without Meaning

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Saree Makdisi is a professor of English literature at UCLA.

We all saw the photograph: a handshake between Mahmoud Abbas and Ariel Sharon. We heard the happy interviews: Palestinians and Israelis, contemplating peace. But the optimism generated by new Palestinian leadership, the talk of Israeli army redeployments, the summit and even the truce amounts to little more than false hope.

In fact, except for the growing toll of shattered Palestinian communities, bulldozed Palestinian homes, obliterated Palestinian olive groves, expropriated Palestinian land and snuffed out Palestinian (and Israeli) lives, the situation today bears an uncanny resemblance to that of the summer of 1994. That was when Israel began redeploying its army during a similar thaw in relations with the Palestinians, the first implementation of the Oslo “peace” process.

But once the years of optimism and negotiation that followed that redeployment ran their course, Palestinians, enduring their third decade under Israeli military occupation, faced more -- not fewer -- obstacles to their everyday lives. Their freedom of movement and access to their own towns and cities, including Jerusalem, were severely limited. The population of Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank and Gaza had essentially doubled. And Palestinians had gained a kind of control of only about 18% of the West Bank.

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Had the so-called peace process of the 1990s been genuine, Israel would have withdrawn its army and its settlers from the territories it captured by force in 1967. Period. This is the bare minimum required by international law and U.N. Security Council resolutions that Israel has flouted for decades.

No such withdrawal was implemented. And, in hindsight, it ought to be clear that the most significant result of the Oslo negotiations was the consolidation of Israel’s stranglehold on the land it conquered in 1967, little of which it has demonstrated any real interest in ever actually relinquishing.

Sharon’s proposal to dismantle settlements in Gaza has received far more attention than the gains he hopes this seemingly magnanimous sacrifice will buy him in the infinitely more valuable West Bank: the permanent maintenance of large Israeli settlement blocs there; no withdrawal to the 1967 border; the ongoing spread of Israeli-controlled Jerusalem, whose boundaries are expanded by fiat and settlement; and the total rejection of the historic rights of Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes during the violent birth of the state of Israel in 1948.

Having opened negotiations with an eager-to-please but unimaginative Palestinian leader, Sharon is simply proceeding with his original, unilateral “separation” plan. Despite talk of security, the plan’s clear aim is to permanently absorb into Israel as much land -- and as few Palestinians -- as possible, by appropriating large chunks of occupied territory and calling the indigestible fragments left behind a Palestinian state.

One of the architects of the plan, geographer Arnon Soffer, told the Jerusalem Post that separation “doesn’t guarantee ‘peace’ -- it guarantees a Zionist-Jewish state with an overwhelming majority of Jews.” He added that “it guarantees one other important thing.” Between 1948 and 1967, he said, “400,000 people left the West Bank voluntarily. This is what will happen after separation. If a Palestinian cannot come to Tel Aviv for work, he will look in Iraq, or Kuwait or London. I believe there will be movement out of the area.”

Israel’s actions reveal that separation -- rather than peace -- remains its intention. Ignoring the condemnation of the International Court of Justice, it has pressed forward with the construction of an elaborate concrete, wire and steel separation barrier -- not along the 1967 border but intruding into the West Bank, in some places encircling Palestinian communities, in others cutting them off from each other, or turning Palestinians living on their ancestral lands into residents of closed military areas from which they can be summarily expelled.

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Last summer, Sharon’s government began quietly using Israel’s notorious 1950 Absentee Property Law to confiscate land within “Greater Jerusalem” that belonged to Palestinians deemed “absent” because their homes were now on the other side of the barrier. Following an outcry, this process was suspended -- but other mechanisms for land confiscation remain. In the town of Jayyous, near Kalkilya, Palestinians could only watch in December as Israeli bulldozers began uprooting trees on land newly expropriated from them and given to the expanding Israeli settlement of Zufim. The residents of Jayyous are also on the wrong side of the barrier that Israel has built between them and their land.

Actions like these -- rather than photo ops and idle chatter about the prospects for peace -- provide the measure according to which Israel’s intentions must be judged. Israel is only too willing to reset a broken clock so it reads 1994 and to resume these tortuous negotiations with any Palestinian fool enough to participate on Sharon’s terms, while it keeps its eye on the real clock, the one that reads 2005, and restlessly creates ever new facts on the ground -- extending the barrier, expanding settlements, expropriating more land.

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