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Israel Palestine: toward separation or integration? by Aref Nammari

Special to the Daily Times-Call (published May 25, 2003)

As a mode of thinking, separation has dominated all discourse on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at the exclusion of all other possibilities. Ten years after the now-dead and buried Oslo Peace Process, yet another peace initiative, the "Road Map," is in the works. My belief is that it will find its place among the numerous other failed attempts at peace through separation. Establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is not a central issue, nor is it a prerequisite for peace. The roots of the conflict lie elsewhere.

The overriding approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been "two peoples, two states." This thinking stems from the irreconcilable differences between Zionist and Palestinian claims and narratives. On one hand, political Zionists start with the premise that Jews constitute a separate and distinct people, and given their long history of being the subject of hatred and persecution, they are entitled to live in peace and freedom in their own country between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea. On the other hand Palestinian Arabs see this same and as their home. Their ancestors have lived there for centuries. Accepting the Zionist claim meant they had to give up their land, which has shaped their identity and culture.

From the very beginning, then, the idea of saving the Jews of Europe from persecution and maintaining the Palestinian Arab identity were on a collision course. Achieving one meant the exclusion of the other. Separation and exclusion of the other were central to the fulfillment of each of the party's dreams, national identities and aspirations. Separation would have been easy if there was a clear way to divide the land. But the fact is, there isn't. Dividing the land means injustice and unfairness.

The 1947 Partition Plan gave the Jewish state 52 percent of Palestine, which at the time was a British protectorate won from the Ottoman Empire in World War I. At the time, Jewish ownership did not exceed six or seven percent. Palestinians asked: Why should we concede the majority of our land to a minority of the population? The post-war partition plan reinforced among the Palestinian Arabs the notion that they were viewed as a people possessing no political rights. The notion was reinforced by the Balfour Declaration in 1917, in which the British government endorsed the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The declaration referred only to the Palestinians' "civil and religious rights," failing to address their legal and political rights. A deep sense of betrayal, of injustice and of victimhood took root among the Palestinians.

Despite the myth that Palestine was "a land with no people, "the leaders knew well that Palestine was not a vacant land. The realization of the Zionist dream meant confronting the fact that Palestine was already inhabited. The idea of a Jewish state rests on the principle of separation and exclusion: Jews cannot be free from persecution unless they form a homeland for the benefit of all Jews. Consequently, the indigenous Palestinian population is relegated to an inferior status. This view spells disaster not only for Jews, but also for Palestinians. It is a path leading to certain confrontation and conflict.

This was predicted by Jewish thinkers such as Martin Buber, Judah Magness and Hannah Arendt. They were right. The military conflict in 1948 led to the defeat of the Arabs, the dispossession of Palestinians and the creation of the state of Israel on 78 percent of Palestine.

During the war, about 750,000 Palestinians were either expelled or fled their homes. Those Palestinian refugees and their descendents have ever since been denied the right to return to their homes, while Jews worldwide were granted unrestricted immigration and citizenship rights.

Palestinians cannot comprehend why a Jew born in Russia, Poland or Germany has the right to settle in Palestine while they, who have lived there for centuries, are denied that right. After the second Arab-Israeli war in 1967, the situation was exacerbated by years of military occupation and humiliation of Palestinians, which bred more anger and hostility.

In 1993, Israeli and Palestinian leaders met quietly in Oslo, Norway, to craft a long-term peace plan. The Oslo agreement was "based on the principle of separation between Jews and others", the raison d'etre of Israel. An important requirement of Israel and Oslo was for the Palestinians to renounce the historic loss: to forget the past and to be content with 20 percent of their homeland. Israel went into Oslo with the intent of transforming the Palestinians into guarantors of Israel's security while offering only a semblance of sovereignty over a disjointed and dismembered territory.

Those same principles are now being emphasized by the "road map" proposed by the Bush Administration. Oslo and the road map do not address the central question, which is how to reconcile the claims of both Israelis and Palestinians to the same piece of land. The question is, can we accept in today's world of supra-national globalization the notion of a state for the exclusive benefit of a particular ethnic or religious group? The reality of the situation is that the lives of Israelis and Palestinians have become so intertwined, despite their inequality and asymmetry of power, that a clean separation is not a feasible or a viable long-term solution.

It is time for both Israelis and Palestinians to start speaking about sharing the land and of living together in a truly democratic and secular society with equal rights of citizenship. This idea does not mean diminishing Jewish life or surrendering Palestinian aspirations and

identity. It does mean, though, that neither party can claim exclusivity to the land and both must give up ideas of special status based on ethnic or religious criteria.

Many Israelis and Palestinians, frustrated with the realities of the present, call for the emergence of a new kind of thinking that is both innovative and daring to go beyond stalemate, exclusion and rejection. The starting point of such thinking is the assertion and the acknowledgement of the other as an equal. Once this first step is taken, the rest becomes possible. The vision of a new reality becomes attractive and a real alternative to the reality of the present.

However, this first step is not easy to take. The feelings of persecution, suffering and victimhood are so deeply rooted that it is very hard, almost impossible, to accept any ideas that hold Israelis and Palestinians to the same principles of equality. Nonetheless, we need to start. Both peoples need to acknowledge the extent to which our suffering is intertwined. We cannot allow the suffering and the tragedies of one to justify the infliction of suffering on the other. Neither of the two peoples have the monopoly of suffering - we both are victims and we both have suffered. It is time to say enough.

It is incumbent upon us, ordinary people, Palestinians and Israelis, to start talking to each other beyond the simple, recriminating, us-versus-them rhetoric. We have to engage in a public debate and dialogue to challenge the ideas of blind nationalism which is the real obstacle to true reconciliation. We must take this first step, because the alternative is the sad continuation of war and bloodshed.

Both Palestinians and Israelis are there to stay and ,consequently, in the words of respected Columbia University professor Edward Said, the only possible conclusion must be to find ways for "coexistence and genuine reconciliation." This is, I believe, the only possible way to redress injustice.