Thursday, July 29, 2010

To avert disaster, stop isolating Hamas now - Chris Patten

Wednesday, Jul 28, 2010

By Lord Chris Patten of Barnes, president of Medical Aid for Palestinians

As we all know, peace will come to the Middle East when Israel and Palestine agree to a two-state solution, with a viable Palestinian state rising from the rubble of more than 60 years of turbulence to live peacefully alongside Israel within the 1967 borders as modified through negotiation. All that is required is political will, brave leadership and a following wind. However, visitors to Israel and occupied Palestine may require increasing quantities of blind faith to go on repeating this mantra. There is no other acceptable outcome. But the chances of the dynamic external interventions necessary for this to happen seem slight.

In the West Bank you see more construction of large urban developments than I have seen anywhere in Europe (apart from perhaps the southern Andalusia coast before the credit crunch). These are primarily Israeli settlements, the colonies planted illegally in Palestinian territory and now housing about half a million people. There are 149 of these colonies according to the UN's Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs and there are a further 100 outposts - the smaller "facts on the ground" that are destined to grow.

As the Obama administration has told us there is an "unprecedented freeze" in settlement activity. Who is fooling whom? What is described as a moratorium on settlement building is destined to end in September when the so-called proximity talks between Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, and Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister, are supposed to lead to something more substantial than simply talking about talking. Let's hope the next freeze is a little chillier. What is happening is that Jerusalem is being ringed by huge Israeli suburbs and further building is planned to the south.

Moreover, under the Oslo Agreement - and this is one of the few parts that Israel abides by - the development of 60 per cent of Palestine is determined by Israel in the "Category C zone". Here, Palestinian construction is tightly controlled. Meanwhile, new highways carve up the West Bank, joining up the Israeli colonies. They are forbidden to Palestinian travellers unless they have a permit.

Some of the checkpoints on roads in the West Bank have been scrapped. But there are still more than 500 restrictions on traffic and some of the 68 checkpoints recently removed were no longer necessary because of the building of the Wall. This is being built mainly - 85 per cent of it - on West Bank land. It eats up 9.4 per cent of Palestinian territory, dividing families from one another and from their livelihoods. Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister, took the line of the Wall as his definition of what might be the borders of a Palestinian state. And Mr Olmert really wanted one!

The encirclement of Jerusalem by new colonies such as Maale Adumin cuts off Palestinians from what should become, in any settlement, a shared capital. More practically, it separates them today from the six specialist hospitals that serve their needs. Palestinians are also being squeezed out of the city, often with the support of settler groups.

In spite of all this, parts of the West Bank such as Ramallah have seen good economic growth recently, a tribute to the policies of Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, a good and incorrupt man in a wicked world. But what you cannot point to is the creation of a nascent state. Jerusalem is increasingly cut off. Worse still, as David Cameron highlighted in Turkey, Gaza is totally separated from the rest of Palestine. It is cut off by a brutal siege.

The objective is collective punishment of the one and a half million people who live there simply because they have a Hamas administration. Instead of trying to draw Hamas into peace talks, provided they commit themselves to a complete ceasefire we try to isolate them, forgetting all the lessons we learnt in Northern Ireland when dealing with Sinn Féin/IRA.

People in Gaza are not starving. They are kept alive by international aid, topped up by what can be smuggled through the tunnels below the Egyptian frontier. The aim is to choke the economy and push the Gazans into the unwilling embrace of Egypt.

These are not the obvious harbingers of a two-state solution. Meantime, the Palestinian population is likely to double within just over 15 years and the water resources are rapidly being depleted. If the "facts on the ground" continue to be the determinant of an eventual outcome, we should all hold on to our hats. The only alternative to two states is what? Presumably, the other outcome would be one state in some shape or form. But could that possibly be both Jewish and democratic?

The colonies grow. The planners plot. The evictions continue. The politicians argue, scheme and prevaricate. The Gazans serve their interminable prison sentence. Is it not time for the US, Europe, the Arab League and other concerned parties to rescue Israel and Palestine from a drift to further disaster. We should try to end the fragmentation of Palestine and promote a reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. We should also set out in a Security Council resolution what we think an agreement in Palestine and Israel should comprise, and then work to achieve it. If others will not sign up to this the European Union should go it alone. Unless we act soon, the "facts on the ground" will win the day. That is a grim prospect for the region and the rest of us.


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