Friday, January 4, 2013

The Holy Land by Kieran Colfer

[This article appeared in Time magazine, May 13, 2008]

As we look forward to tomorrow's joint celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the formation of the Israeli state and the 40th anniversary of Palestinian independence, it is a good time to look back at how the peace process between these two nations, shaky at times, has developed, and how easily it could have turned out otherwise.

At the end of June 1967, the world was stunned by the lightning Israeli victory over the joint armies of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, in what came to be known as the "Eight-Day War". Israeli tanks stood at the gates of Damascus, and the paratroopers of Ariel Sharon's Southern Division were taking pictures of each other at the foot of the pyramids outside Cairo. The Egyptian and Syrian air forces had been effectively annihilated on the first day of the war, and some Israeli commentators were joking that "there were now more Egyptian soldiers in Israeli POW camps than there were in Egyptian barracks".

A lot of historians contribute the complete success of Israel's pre-emptive strike on the Egyptians and Syrians to the refusal on May 30th of King Hussein of Jordan to sign a mutual defense treaty with General Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, thus keeping Jordan out of the conflict. King Hussein had already been having secret meetings with Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban and Premier Golda Meir for three years beforehand concerning peace and secure borders, and so wanted no part of what he called "Nasser's mad adventurism".

This could have been quite different: in November 1966 an Israeli patrol was blown up by a mine on the border with the Jordanian-occupied West Bank, and a retaliatory strike on a PLO camp in the occupied territories had been planned. This was called off, however, at the last minute. Had it gone ahead, it may have undone all the diplomatic efforts of the last 3 years and driven Jordan into the Egyptian camp.

As it turned out, King Hussein now saw in Egypt and Syria's misfortune a chance to overtake Nasser as the de facto leader of the Arabic world. So, as the United Nations scrambled to produce the abortive Resolution 242 (the so-called "land for peace" resolution), intense back-channel negotiations between the Jordanian and Israeli governments resulted in the Bethlehem Agreement in July 1967 in which Jordan agreed to act as the mediator between Israel and the Arab states. Under the peace agreement brokered by Hussein, Israel agreed to withdraw from their positions around the capitals of Egypt and Syria, and return the Sinai and the Gaza Strip to Egypt and the Golan Heights to Syria in return for peace agreements. The Golans would have to be demilitarized and special arrangement would be negotiated for the Straits of Tiran. This in fact had already been unanimously agreed by the Israeli cabinet on June 19th and sent to the US State Department to pass on to the governments of Egypt and Syria, but for some reason it had never been delivered. America's mistake was now Jordan's gain, as King Hussein, although condemned in the Arabic press as a traitor and an Israeli stooge, could now play "The Great Peacemaker".

As the government buildings where they deliberated were within shelling distance of Israeli tanks, the Arab leaders had no choice but to accept this deal. On the 25th of June, the peace treaty was signed between the warring parties, and on the 30th the Israeli forces started withdrawing under UN supervision. The month of June 1967, which had started out looking so promising for the Arab cause, had turned out to be a disaster. Even worse was to come for the Arab nations, when it was pointed out to them that by signing a peace treaty with "The State of Israel", they were de facto recognizing it as a valid political entity - something which they had refused to do since 1948. One American commentator later described it as "The greatest trick pulled on anyone in the region since Delilah convinced Samson his hair needed a trim".

Even though he was now being feted as "the Harbinger of Peace in the Middle East", King Hussein was not content to rest on his laurels. The talks with Israel had opened up some new possibilities which he was now keen to explore in order to achieve a lasting peace for everyone. For the next few months diplomatic circles around the world were abuzz with rumors of even more high-level discussions between Israel and Jordan, but when the plan was finally unveiled on December 25th it made everyone's jaw drop. In exchange for Israel renouncing all political and territorial claims to the West Bank, Jordan would also withdraw its occupation forces and allow the territory to declare independence. For the first time in history, there was to be a Palestinian state, with its capital in East Jerusalem.

In addition to Palestinian independence, both sides also agreed to donate part of their GDP to a common fund for the reconstruction and development of the new Palestine. Israel would also instigate a lottery program, where every year, 30,000 refugees from the 1948-49 Arab exodus would be offered the right to return to their original homes, or if they declined, a grant of $20,000 and automatic Palestinian citizenship. This program was eventually to be funded by Jewish groups in the USA and overseas. On the Palestinian side, the new Palestinian government had to agree to allow free access to the holy places of all faiths. So, for the first time since the destruction of the third temple, Jews would be able to pray freely at the Wailing Wall.

The news of Palestinian independence caused a furor nowhere more than in Israel itself, where a deep rift in the public attitudes was soon to make itself felt. On one side there were the pragmatists who saw it as a way to get lasting peace, and on the other the religious conservatives who believed that as Palestine was the land God gave to Abraham for his people, no-one had the right to give any of it up. Indeed, the famous quote by Golda Meir: "We will have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us, and the best way to achieve that is to give them a place they can call their own," was in response to a statement by Ariel Sharon that "When you are in a struggle to the death, you don't take your foot of the other fellow's neck and offer him your shoes". The public was so divided and tensions were so high in fact that at one point civil war seemed a possibility. However, the assassination of Meir by the yeshiva student Uzi Bar-Dayan at a rally and the uncovering of the "General's Plot", where Ariel Sharon and other high-ranking IDF officials were found to be plotting a coup to overthrow the government if it went ahead with the agreement, swung public opinion firmly away from the conservatives. As one wreath at Meier's funeral put it: "Jews don't kill Jews over Arabs".

The decision to set the date of the declaration of Palestinian independence as the same date as the foundation of the Israeli state was seen as a political master-stroke. On one move, the day that was up until now mourned in the Arab world as "Al Naqba", or "the Catastrophe", was now to become a day of celebration. The last few weeks were a desperate scramble on both sides to get the necessary political and legislative pieces into place, but on May 14, 1968, the new State of Palestine came into existence and took its first steps on the world stage. It was immediately recognized by the US, Great Britain, the rest of Western Europe and the USSR. The Arab states soon followed suit, willingly or unwillingly - behind the scenes they had been told "you are either part of the solution or part of the problem".

Soon after independence, Saudi Arabia, unwilling to let Jordan take all the credit for the new state, announced its own reconstruction fund for Palestine, and the other Arab nations soon added their own contributions. The new state blossomed, and what had started as a trickle of refugees from the camps in Jordan. Syria and Lebanon soon became a flood. Indeed, so much new money was pouring into the country that Israeli Arabs were heard to joke that they'd be better off on the other side of the border! While organizations like the PLO still had as their main aim the liberation of the whole of Palestine and the destruction of Israel, its membership plummeted. As one former PLO commando commented: "better to live like a sultan in Palestine than die a martyr in Israel". Indeed, the PLO eventually entered the mainstream of political life though their Fatah organization, and PLO leader Yassir Arafat eventually became Palestinian President in 1982.

With the coming of the 1970s, the international focus turned to the Gaza Strip. Still chafing under increasingly authoritarian Egyptian control, its people started clamoring to join their brethren in the west bank. A "Peace Wall" was set up by the Egyptian authorities between the Gaza Strip and Israel to prevent its population deserting en masse - Egypt had now gone from "The Liberator of Palestine" to the jailer of the Palestinian people. Eventually in 1975, after a 3-year Intifada (or "uprising"), the Egyptians agreed to turn over control of the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Government in East Jerusalem. Israel, whose economy in the preceding years had profited considerably from the peace and the largess bestowed on its new neighbor, agreed to allow complete freedom of movement between the two halves of Palestine. Peace at last reigned in the Middle East.

The last few years have not exactly been trouble-free, but in general the region has been a quiet one. Relationships between Israel and its neighbors, while never warm, have become at least cordial, with Israeli embassies opened in Riyadh, Cairo, Dubai and Tehran, and East Jerusalem. This year Israel takes its seat as one of the rotating members of the UN Security Council. Indeed, some people say that the final seal on the Peace process will be the highlight of tomorrow's celebrations, the opening of the Museum of Understanding on the border between Israeli West Jerusalem and Palestinian East Jerusalem. The museum covers the history of the region equally from the viewpoint of both sides, with Jewish recollections of the Holocaust sitting alongside Palestinian accounts of Al Naqba. Indeed, some say there is an accidental and coincidental symmetry to the opening ceremony, with both men who will light the Eternal Flame in the courtyard having histories of suffering. The Mayor of West Jerusalem still has the faded identity number from Auschwitz-Birkenau tattooed on his wrist, while the Mayor of East Jerusalem lost his leg to an errant Israeli shell while fleeing his home in 1948 and lived the early years of his life in a refugee camp in Jordan.

The Eternal Flame that will be lit tomorrow will symbolize the loss and suffering of every nation and people in this "Holy Land". It will have the flags of both Israel and Palestine flying permanently above it, and engraved on bronze around its base are three words, one in Hebrew, one in Arabic, and one in English:

Shalom,

Salaam,

Peace.

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