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POLICY BRIEF Number 9 / 18 May 2000

The Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine
2425-2435 Virginia Avenue, NW / Washington, DC 20037 / Tel: 202.338.1290 / Fax: 202.333.7742 /

Clashes in the West Bank and Gaza: The Underlying Causes

By Hisham Sharabi


In the past few days, violence has once again swept across the West Bank and Gaza, spreading to all the major Palestinian population centers and involving thousands of Palestinians in clashes with Israeli military forces. A reported 786 Palestinians have been wounded and seven killed, while ten Israeli soldiers have been wounded. Reports in The Washington Post, the New York Times and other papers have blamed this renewed violence on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's efforts to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who has allowed yet another deadline--13 March 2000--to slip by without the conclusion of a "framework" agreement.

In reality, the violence coincided with the 52nd anniversary of al-Nakba, the "catastrophe" when, in 1948, some 800,000 Palestinians (not tens of thousands as reported in The Washington Post on May 16) were driven or fled from their homes before advancing Israeli troops. The clashes also reflected Palestinian frustration over Israel's failure to release hundreds of political prisoners.

Israel's Game Plan

With every delay in the negotiating process, it has become increasingly apparent that Israel, with the acquiescence of the United States, will continue to ignore international law. Israel may also be able to coerce or manipulate Arafat into accepting a formula that will preserve Israeli settlements, maintain Israeli control over the Palestinian economy and Jerusalem, and deny Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes or receive more than token compensation and reparations. Last week, in Eilat, Israeli negotiators presented their envisioned map for the future Palestinian "state"--a crazy-quilt of noncontiguous pockets of land representing just 66 percent of the West Bank (calculated after vast portions had been removed from consideration by Israeli fiat). Not surprisingly, the Palestinian negotiators rejected this offer.

Meanwhile, Palestinian chief negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo resigned amid reports that secret talks are underway in Sweden between Palestinian negotiators led by Ahmad Qurei and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Israeli Internal Security Minister Shlomo Ben Ami. Abed Rabbo's press release stated that he considers behind-the-scenes negotiations to be "an Israeli ploy ... to create loopholes in the Palestinian position."

On Monday, Barak led the Knesset to approve the "transfer" of three villages on the border of Jerusalem to full Palestinian control, but only if the Palestinians agree to "suspend" negotiation of the long overdue third redeployment (now set to be carried out next month). One of these villages is Abu Dis, which Israeli leaders have suggested could serve as a substitute capital of a future Palestinian state. No amount of Israeli rhetoric will make Abu Dis into Jerusalem for the Palestinians, for whom Jerusalem remains the center of life despite checkpoints restricting their entry into the holy city.

Realities on the Ground

This week's violence began around the Israeli checkpoints--the ever-present reminders that Israel controls the lives of Palestinians whether or not they live in an area over which the PA has administrative control. The much-cited statistic that more than 90 percent of Palestinians live under Palestinian governance does not mean much in view of the harsh conditions under which they exist:

  • Israel continues to demolish Palestinian homes. Amnesty International reported in December 1999 that, since 1987, some 16,700 Palestinians were made homeless when Israel destroyed 2,650 houses.
  • In an effort to ethnically cleanse East Jerusalem of its Palestinian inhabitants, Israel, according to the United Nations, between 1967 and 1999, cancelled the identity cards of 6,264 Palestinians in Jerusalem. All told, this has affected the lives of more than 25,000 people, including family members.
  • Israel continues to confiscate more than 80 percent of Palestinian groundwater, accounting for 25 percent of Israel's total water consumption. On a per capita basis, Israelis consume four times as much water as Palestinians, forcing some Palestinians during last summer's drought to buy back their own water at high prices from Israeli settlers (see CPAP Information Brief No. 4, "The Palestinian Water Crisis," dated 18 August 1999).
  • Living standards for Palestinians have declined since the Oslo negotiating process began in September 1993. Real per capita gross national product has dropped by 20 percent, while the core unemployment rate has tripled because of closure and other Israeli policies.
  • Land confiscation and settlement construction continue at a rate even higher under Barak than under his predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu. In 1999 alone, Israel confiscated more than 49,178 dunams, of which 19,691 were used for settlement expansion and establishment of new settlements. Israeli settlements now total 180 and house some 400,000 settlers. Settlement expansion and the building of more by-pass roads are turning the West Bank into an Orwellian grid of asphalt and barbwire.
  • The Palestinian refugees and their descendants, their ranks further swelled in 1967 by a second wave of Palestinians fleeing Israeli aggression, today number almost five million (of whom 3.6 million are registered refugees). Many live in squalid camps spread over the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, waiting to return to their homes and villages--a return guaranteed to them by UN Resolution 194 (supported by the United States). Although the refugee issue is one of the so-called "permanent status issues" to be resolved in a final peace agreement by September 13, Israel has already declared its unwillingness to allow any of the Palestinians who became refugees in 1948 to return to their homes inside Israel (see CPAP Information Brief No. 31, "The Palestinian Refugees Right of Return under International Law," dated 6 April 2000).

Creating Dependency

The Palestinians have agreed to an historic compromise--to accept 21 percent of the land of Mandate Palestine as the future Palestinian state. This "land for peace" approach is one that the Palestinian leadership has calculated will lead, through negotiation, to a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian people, once hopeful that the "peace process" would result in a just resolution of the decades-old conflict with Israel, now realize that the process is leading instead to an entrenched system of apartheid, economic de-development, dependence, disconnection, and despair. Today, nearly ten years since the 1991 Madrid Conference, the Palestinians are increasingly aware that the negotiations currently underway will lead to fractured, non-contiguous, South Africa-like bantustans on a small fraction of historic Palestine. If the current piecemeal process of negotiation is allowed to run its course, Palestinians will lack control of their borders, their resources, their freedom of movement, and their economy. The United States, if it truly seeks peace and stability in the Middle East, should see in the recent clashes in the West Bank and Gaza a sign of things to come.

Key Recommendations

  1. The U.S. government should live up to its claim to be an "honest broker" by redirecting its diplomatic efforts toward the application of international law and its own guiding principles of life, liberty, and justice for all.

  2. U.S. opposition to Israeli settlement building has devolved from labeling it as "illegal" to describing it as "not helpful." Instead, the U.S. should insist upon the removal of Israeli settlements.

  3. The U.S. should seek an Israeli commitment to proceed with permanent status negotiations on the basis of a return to the 1967 borders according to UN resolutions 242 and 338.

  4. The U.S. should act to preserve the refugees' right of return, as guaranteed by UN Resolution 194.

  5. In the interest of fairness, the U.S. should support the Palestinians' proposed compromise on Jerusalem, namely shared Israeli-Palestinian administration of Jerusalem as an international city serving as the capital of two states.

Hisham Sharabi is Chair of the Board of Directors of The Jerusalem Fund and of the Executive Committee of the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine. The above text may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the author and to the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine.

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