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The End of the Interim Arrangements

By Edward Said

Al Ahram Weekly, Oct 29-Nov 4, 1998


As I write these lines, the Palestinian, Israeli and American leaders -- all of them weakened by domestic crises and weakness -- have just spent several days closeted together in the Wye Plantation a few miles from Washington with the announced intention of bringing the interim agreements first announced from Oslo to some sort of conclusion. This was necessary before May of next year since that is the date when the scheduled discussions on the final settlement must take place. Bill Clinton announced at the outset that he wanted an agreement out of the Wye meetings sooner rather than later and, despite the obvious differences between Palestinians and Israelis, he certainly got it, public ceremony and all, at least enough of an agreement to show that he is still "in charge" of foreign affairs. In other words from the US point of view one main requirement of these meetings is that Clinton would appear once again to be "presidential", without in any way compromising or showing himself to be less pro-Israel than he has been hitherto. The mild demurral at the end about releasing Jonathan Pollard, which was a brazen ploy by Benjamin Netanyahu to scupper the talks and get something for nothing -- the idea that he wants Pollard back after the spy stole enormous amounts of US intelligence including, among other things, a map of the PLO's Tunis headquarters where a few weeks later Abu Jihad was assassinated and 60 Arabs lost their lives, is by any standard a stunning piece of arrogance -- left Clinton looking slightly more dignified than otherwise. My guess is that his own intelligence people put a stop to the idea, but there's no guarantee that Pollard won't be released in a short while. Clinton, after all, is Clinton.

The US press as usual reported the proceedings with a flagrant disregard of the facts. No one bothered to point out, to take one example, that the 40% supposedly being given to Arafat's corrupt Authority was broken down into bits and pieces that tell a very different story, all of it subject to Israel's choice of date and location of the land to be partially vacated. No settlements and no bypassing roads are to be given up: on the contrary, Israel has asked the US for an additional 1.3 billion dollars for the redeployments. The West Bank has been, and is still divided into three areas -- Area A, which is entirely Palestinian-run except for security, water, and exits and entrances; Area B, jointly patrolled by Palestinian and Israeli soldiers, with security, water, building permits, exits and entrances entirely controlled by Israel; Area C, which is completely Israeli. Before Wye, these amounted respectively to 2.8%, 24% and 72% of the land area. Wye gave the Palestinians an additional 1% from area C, and 14.2% from area B, thus putting about 18.2% under Palestinian Authority control, again with the same exclusions and provisos. In addition Israel will transfer about 13% more from Area C to Area B, where -- to repeat -- Israel really controls things, including of course the 3% designated as a nature preserve (whatever that is supposed to mean). In effect then the Palestinians got (if that is the right word) a total of 18.2% of the West Bank added to Area A, the rest to Area B. In no case did the Palestinians acquire sovereignty, control over exits and entrances, water, and overall security. In addition, as a glance at the map shows, the Palestinian areas are for the most part non-contiguous and allow no free passage between them. Of course Jerusalem remains off limits to residents of Gaza and the West Bank.

Most of the rest of the "Wye River Memorandum" is taken up with security arrangements which in effect commit the Palestinian Authority to Israel's security but not the other way round. Palestinian lives and livelihoods are not worth so much as a sentence in the memorandum's extremely dodgy language. In addition, the CIA is to play an active role in adjudicating security issues such as extradition, combatting the "terrorist" infrastructure, incitement and the like. Israel in the meantime can do what it likes, including the building of more settlements, taking more land, adding to Jerusalem's area, and helping itself to all the West Bank water it wants. The fate of Palestinian human rights looks grim indeed, subject to dictatorial control by an already despotic Arafat backed up by the CIA and Israel. But the real problem with all the land transfer arrangements is not only that it gives Israel a unilateral say over which land is to be transferred: it also allows Israel a generous number of "phases" by which the transferral is to be completed, without any mechanism to enforce delays or delinquencies. Given its record since the Oslo agreements were first signed, with the free passage provisions never implemented, no one ought to be sanguine that redeployments of the Israeli army will take place according to schedule, especially with the egregious Ariel Sharon in charge.

As for the changes in the National Covenant that Israel has demanded, that will require a hasty convening of the group which Clinton, for reasons that do him no credit, has chosen to address. The Palestinian airport and the Gaza seaport were left suitably vague, though there was a pretty mean Israeli insistence that even Arafat's plane be searched by them before takeoff and after landing. Once again, security at the putative port and airport are to be in Israeli hands. All in all, then, a dishearteningly mean spirited, niggling document without too much chance of real enforcement (technically, one Palestinian grenade will put off Israeli deployment for months) and no chance at all to change the relationship between the two sides. The Israelis will continue to be the masters, Palestinians -- pardon the expression -- the abject niggers.

What now? A number of things propose themselves. In the first place the Palestinian leadership should be roundly censured by as many people as possible for so disgracefully supine a negotiating performance. Arafat and company have now completely delivered themselves to the combined Israeli and US intelligence apparatus, thereby putting an end to anything even resembling a democratic and independent Palestinian national life. And this, by the way, has been sacrificed to the survival of Arafat and his coterie of advisers, hangers-on, and security chiefs, for whom as a group the idea of Palestinian civil society with an independent judiciary and legislative body is a silly inconvenience to be disposed of, like the land they have given up, with scarcely a look back. From now on any resistance to Israeli colonisation will be dealt with summarily; opponents of what Arafat and his men are doing will be considered "haters of peace". Second, the notion that literally hundreds of Palestinian prisoners are being left to rot in Israeli jails (Netanyahu gave up 750 of the 3,5000 reportedly still held) is a scandal for which Arafat should personally be held responsible. Third, the deferral of later deployments, later consideration of safe passage for Palestinians, later permits for industrial parks and the like is also scandalous. Who can believe that the Palestinian Authority has either the will or the mechanism or the leverage to press these matters?

In sum, Arafat and his people have done the usual thing: given up without very much of a struggle and certainly without the slightest trace of a strategic or moral vision. Yes they will argue that something like Wye is better than nothing, but is it? In effect Palestinians are now tied into security arrangements for Israel that continue to devalue and debase Palestinian life, to say nothing of Palestinian aspirations, which are not even mentioned. The catastrophe of l948 has been erased, as have the conquests of l967 and l982. Refugees will remain refugees, and Palestinians will continue to have Israeli soldiers as their keepers. The devil only knows what the horrendous settlers are about to let loose on the largely unprotected and exposed citizens of the West Bank and Gaza. Certainly Arafat will do nothing for them, except urge them over and over to wait for "our" state, in the meantime robbing them blind, letting corruption continue, buying off each and every potential opponent, jailing, torturing and killing anyone who stands up to him.

An absolute imperative now is to urge Palestinians as much as possible to try to deter people from attending and participating in that Council meeting which is supposed to change, cancel, or fiddle with the charter. It's a document I don't much care for, but the idea that people should be rounded up (like the usual suspects) just to do Israel's bidding with not a whit of a change in all of Israel's highly discriminatory laws against Palestinians strikes me as totally preposterous. The only real course for Palestinians today is to urge their representatives to vote with their feet, not to attend this ludicrously unrepresentative Council meeting, and to begin once again to plan for a new Council, one whose members are neither appointed by nor beholden to Arafat. The time grows less and less before we will have allowed this ruinously incompetent and corrupt leadership to sell us out totally, and the sooner we start to organize a major Palestinian meeting to take place outside the Arab world, the better. The midnight hour has already struck.

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