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Still Eyeless in Gaza

Palestinians and Israelis prefer to look right through each other, a cognitive gulf that explains the flaws in each side's latest peace plan

By Sam Jaffe

It's noon on the second Friday of Ramadan, and the day's prayers have just ended at the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Some 250,000 Palestinians are flooding out into the narrow alleyways of the Old City, walking the same stones that Solomon, Jesus, and Saladin trod. They flow through the Damascus Gate, the main exit on the Arab side, where they board buses that will take them back to their West Bank villages and cities.

Standing tensely above these masses atop of walls and parapets are Israeli soldiers and policemen. The cops are in full riot gear, despite the 80-degree heat. Every soldier's M16 is loaded and ready to combat another explosion like the one that ignited the current intifada in September, 2000, and has since left thousands dead.

No violence erupted this day. But even in the midst of this boiling conflict, one thing seemed painfully obvious: Israelis and Palestinians, crunched together and seemingly always on the verge of violence, never made eye contact. The soldiers scanned the crowd impersonally. The Palestinians walked by impassively, ignoring their armed enemies.

WAITING GAME.

  The scene was a metaphor for the two sides' failure to settle the tensions between them. Both know that things must change, that the killing has to stop. But neither of their latest plans has any chance of achieving that result. With the election of Amram Mitzna to head the opposition Labor Party, Israelis are starting to talk seriously about his idea of a unilateral withdrawal -- pulling back from Palestinian population centers and dismantling outlying settlements that are hard to defend.

On the Palestinian side, the hot topic is a limited ceasefire -- one that would call for a cessation of terror attacks inside Israel, but allow the bombings and shootings inside the territories.

While each idea sounds like a slight improvement upon the current cycle of bloodshed, the appearance of progress is an illusion. Both proposals might lead to a temporary reduction in the death toll, but neither will bring the sides back to the peace table. Each, in fact, is an expression of sumud -- an Arabic word that translates roughly as stamina, but in the context of the current conflict rises to a metaphysical level. Sumud is the ability to withstand blows or afflictions without losing an inch of ground. It means using an iron will to outlast your enemy, to never surrender, even when defeated militarily.

Sumud is a strategy best suited to a war of attrition. In this conflict, one side probably will outlast the other. But that could take decades, if not centuries. In the meantime, sumud is an obstacle to the restoration of rationality and reason. That helps to explain why the latest "peace" proposals are more political artistry than serious attempt to stop the bloodshed.

NEW APARTHEID?

  On the Israeli side, the idea of a unilateral withdrawal, which is becoming popular with the left and center of the political spectrum, is relatively simple: Extract the military and Israeli settlers from the dense Palestinian population centers and build an impregnable fence to keep the two sides from attacking each other. Supposedly, this plan would reduce the killing and provide leeway to negotiate a treaty. "True, it has a lot of flaws," says Raffi Goren, an Israeli university professor who's a lifelong member of the Labor party. "But at least we're doing something. It's the only thing we have left."

Unfortunately, the concept has plenty of holes. Foremost is that no Palestinian is enamored of the idea. According to the plan, Israel would continue to keep all of Jerusalem and the entire Jordan Valley, which abuts the border between the West Bank and Jordan and is almost uninhabited, except for the Palestinian town of Jericho. Most Palestinians see the concept as segregation -- something akin to South Africa's old apartheid.

"We don't want an end to some of the occupation, we want an end to all of it," says Bethlehem University geneticist Moein Kanaan, who recently signed an appeal to end terrorism despite having spent time in Israeli jails.

Another flaw is that the building of a hermetic security fence around the West Bank, which Israel began late last year and expects to finish sometime in 2003, has made more than 170,000 acres of land inaccessible to Palestinian farmers, which will have a dramatic effect on the territory's economy. Probably the biggest problem, though, is that the plan's promises of security are ephemeral: Even if the fence succeeds in excluding Palestinian bombers, it wouldn't stop mortars or rockets from falling on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. If such an attack occurs, it inevitably will lead to another Israeli invasion of the Palestinian territories, making the entire enterprise moot.

EYES WIDE SHUT.

  Just as Israeli talk of a unilateral withdrawal leaves Palestinians unmoved, Israelis don't understand why Palestinian factions are bothering to negotiate a partial ceasefire. Talk of such a move has been brewing since August, and it reached a fever pitch after representatives of the militant Hamas group met with aides to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Cairo on Nov. 17. The gathering failed to reach a deal, though both sides claimed that a foundation had been laid for one -- and even Islamic Jihad, the most extreme of the Palestinian terrorist groups, started to hint that it might join in an agreement.

No doubt, that's partly because the Palestinian plan envisions not an end to the hostilities but merely a different venue. It calls for limiting terror attacks to settlements inside the West Bank and Gaza, meaning that the bus bombings and suicide shootings that now occur in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and Haifa would instead occur in places like Ariel, Gilo, and Itamar. To Israelis, that's a concession without meaning. "A Jew killed is a Jew killed, wherever it happens," says David Witztum, an Israeli lawyer in Beer Sheva. "Why would we want to compromise when they're still blowing up our children and grandmothers?"

So, while both sides draw up grand plans to alter the nature of the conflict, neither seems to realize that the other isn't listening. The intifada and its bloodshed will continue until the two start talking to each other -- until they at last make eye contact.

Jaffe is a freelance writer who specializes in covering the Middle East

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