Israel's role in the West Bank and Gaza was not meant to be that of the oppressor. Yet today it is driving into apartheid.
When Israel succeeded in overrunning this territory in the Six-Day War of 1967, it may have been as surprised as everyone else. In the following months, Israel's Labor government was prepared to trade it all, except East Jerusalem, for a genuine peace with its Arab neighbors. But the Arab answer came from a conference in Khartoum, Sudan: No negotiation, no treaty, no peace with Israel.
Having the Palestinian land and its people, the Israelis created a stable scene on the old pattern of colonial mercantilism. Here was cheap labor and a growing market for Israeli goods. Of course, competition with Israeli products was not permitted. The West Bank and Gaza had valuable raw materials - and water. And they were easily kept in order by military government. Gradually, the long-inert Palestinian people developed a sense of nationhood. Peremptory security regulations were increasingly resented. Israel closed off large areas for military use. Housing permits for a growing population were arbitrarily denied, and new dwellings were bulldozed for having no permit. Collective punishment expanded. Homes of families with a member accused of active opposition were destroyed.
At the same time, the Labor government permitted and then promoted Jewish settlement. Later, Likud governments subsidized it lavishly. Today, reportedly, up to 360,000 settlers live in the territories, most of them commuters in new towns just beyond the 1967 line. They also include the deeply religious and the secular nationalists who claim the territories as part of the land of Israel. Nearly 200 such settlements are located strategically throughout the West Bank. Each has automatic weapons and an Army guard post. Even poverty-stricken Gaza, with 45 percent unemployment, has Israeli settlements covering a seventh of its area, lovely beachfront homes almost alongside squalid Palestinian refugee camps. Peace Now, the Jewish peace organization, says the second quarter of this year showed a 51 percent increase in building starts.
The settlers not only get constant direct military protection, but also a 1,500-mile network of roads - connecting them and bypassing Palestinian villages - which is patrolled by the Army. The military has drawn a crisscross pattern which cuts the West Bank into small parcels, allowing it, when it deems necessary, to cordon off Palestinian communities. All movement is stopped, bringing the already feeble economy to a complete halt. After former Prime Minister Shimon Peres visited Yasser Arafat to urge a ceasefire, he told reporters that he was "appalled" by the unemployment on the West Bank, now put at 32 percent. The population is mostly young. Hanging around without hope, resentful that the Oslo agreements have not brought them the promised improvements, and angry at Mr. Arafat's incompetent and corrupt government, they are open to extremists who preach violence. Their example is the Hizbullah in Lebanon, who fought the Israeli Army into withdrawal.
There is no reason to think this would happen on the West Bank. Mr. Peres told Arafat of decisions taken in the Israeli Cabinet the day before which, he said, made him shudder. This may have referred to the helicopter gunships, naval vessels, tanks, and snipers that have marked the escalation. The UN Security Council has condemned "acts of violence, especially the excessive use of force against the Palestinians." The justification for it all is security, a cry of wolf, which most Israelis, given the present violence, seem to accept, although many protest that security lies in peaceful relations between neighbors. Not since the Roman legions has there been a paramount power in the region such as Israel is today. It is in no danger of being wiped off any map.
The real danger of continued upheaval and death lies in the Israeli settlement program. Successive US administrations have called it an obstacle to peace. In September 1982, Ronald Reagan made the most far-reaching statement of American policy yet. He called for a freeze on settlements, saying they were in no way necessary for Israel's security, but rather diminished confidence. President Reagan added that the United States would not support their retention as extraterritorial outposts. He called on the Arab countries to make peace and suggested full self-government for the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza under Jordanian supervision. Israel's response was angry rejection. Only Jordan's King Hussein showed interest. The other Arab leaders remained silent, whereupon the whole thing died.
In 1991, Secretary of State James Baker, trying to start the peace process after the Gulf War, asked Israel to stop the settlements. In 1997, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright appealed for a "time out on settlements." The reason is clear, leave aside the corrosive effect on Israel's own 1 million Arabs. The maintenance and expansion of strong points under Israeli sovereignty leads straight to an apartheid conflict - and there is no Nelson Mandela to end it.
Friends, it is said, don't let friends drive drunk. The Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are finished. The US and others must quickly create a new forum to stop the killing and restart peace talks on a new basis.
Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society