The devil in the detail

The seven-year effort by ­United States President Bill Clinton to secure a ­Middle East peace settlement ­depended this week on whether he could overcome Palestinian objections.

The main sticking points for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his delegation are: the division of Jeru­salem’s Old City between Israel and the proposed Palestine state; the tortuous border between Israel and the West Bank and the future of Jewish settlers on the West Bank; and, the biggest problem of all, the right of the 3,7-million Palestinian refugees to ­return to their homes in Israel.

The US plan proposes that “what is Arab should go to the Arabs and what is Jewish should go to the Jews”.
That seems simple. The division between West Jerusalem, which is predominantly Jewish, and East Jerusalem, which is predominantly Palestinian, is stark. There is no wall between the two, but there is an invisible line running down the length of the Number One Highway, which cuts the city in two.

Since the intifada began in Sep­tem­ber, it has been increasingly rare for ­people from one community to visit the other side. ­Israeli taxi ­drivers will not take fares to the Arab side. Theoretically, the divide is ­already there. The problem is the Old City, which falls into four parts: the Jewish ­quarter, where 3 500 people live; the Armenian quarter, where there are 2 000; the Arab quarter, which has 25 000: and the Christian quarter, which has about 500. All are pushed together in the tightly packed streets.

The US proposal is that Israel should have the Jewish quarter, plus part of the Armenian ­quarter, to ­provide a corridor from West Jeru­sa­lem to the Jewish quarter and the all-important ­Wailing Wall. The Palestinians would get the Arab and Christian quarters and the remainder of the Armenian quarter.

Dividing an area of less than 1km2 thus will not work unless both sides are willing to live peacefully together. But peaceful coexistence is made even more difficult by the religious divide. The Muslims want all of their holy site, the Haram al-Sharif. The Jews also want it, for the Wailing Wall. Clinton suggested that the Muslims should have the upper half of the site and the Jews the lower.

Clinton has also proposed that Israel should cede 95% of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip. In return for taking some West Bank land containing Jewish settlers, Israel has offered the Palestinians more land in either Gaza or the Negev desert. The Palestinians say this is less generous than it sounds.

First, the West Bank land ceded to them will be closer to 90%, because Jerusalem and the Dead Sea are included in the calculation. Second, the Israelis want to keep three big ­isolated Jewish ­settlements on the West Bank: the Ariel block near Nablus in the north, the Ma’ale Adumim corridor between Jerusalem and Jericho in the centre, and Etzion, near ­Hebron, in the south. These settlements, the Palestinians argue, make it hard for Palestine to be viable as an independent state.

But the big problem is again Jerusalem. ­Under the US plan, Israel would keep many of its settlements east of the city, which would leave Arab East Jerusalem almost cut off from the West Bank. If the proposal went ahead, the Palestinians say, it would chop the Palestinian area immediately east of Jerusalem into 10 ­islands.

The most awkward problem of all is that presented by the 3,7-million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza. Except in Jordan, no attempt has been made to assimilate them. The US proposal is that they should give up their claim to a right of return to Israel and ­accept a right of return only to the new state of Palestine. Israel would allow up to 100 000 refugees to return to the ­Jewish state, others would be ­resettled elsewhere with compensation. There would be further compensation for losses.

Finally, land ­ceded by Israel in the Negev or Gaza could be used to resettle the bulk of the refugees. Although the US plan is not specific, the latter proposal is aimed mainly at Palestinians now in Lebanon. Potential compromises could result in Tel Aviv increasing the number of refugees ­allowed to return to Israel and a US-European Union-Japanese reconstruction programme to create new cities in Gaza for refugees from Lebanon.

Other refugees could be absorbed in the countries where they live at present. The Palestinian negotiators insist that the right of return to Israel has to remain, even if the people concerned are not planning to ­exercise it. The team’s statement said: “There is no historical precedent for a people abandoning their fundamental right to return to their homes,whether they were forced to leave or fled in fear.”

But the negotiators added: “The Palestinians are prepared to think flexibly and creatively about the mechanisms for implementing the right of return.” Under the US plan, an international force will supervise the implementation of the ­final agreement and Israel will be given three years to withdraw from Palestinian territory. But Israel will be allowed to keep a force at specific locations in the Jordan ­Valley for another three years, and maintain three early warning stations for 10 years.

The Palestinians want details of where these Israeli units will be ­positioned and the size of the force. The negotiating team said: “Israel has yet to make a persuasive case ­regarding why it would require either a standing force in the Jordan Valley or emergency deployment rights, much less both. This is ­especially the case given that international forces will be present in these areas.”

The Palestinian negotiator, Yasser Abed ­Rabbo, this week published maps of the proposed US ­division of the Old City, Jerusalem as a whole, and the West Bank. A Palestinian close to developments spoke of the negotiations as “an evolution of the maps”. He said that maps were crucial to understanding why the Palestinians had needed to see the details of Clinton’s proposals.

He pulled out maps dating back to the British mandate in the early years of the last century, showing how at the end of each decade the Jews had spread further and further eastwards from the coast. That continued expansion, as seen in the Jewish settlements on the West Bank, had to be stopped, he said, if Palestine was to become a reality. He was pessimistic about the chances of peace. “The struggle is endless,” he said.

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