Oct 12 2000

Withdraw from Netzarim

Published by at 12:00 am under Articles,Palestinian politics

The year was 1994, long after the Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn. The memorandum of understanding between Israel and the PLO had been signed and the details of the areas from which Israel was to withdraw were known.

A Palestinian lawyer decided to use politics rather than law to solve his clients’ problems. His clients were appealing the sealing of their homes by Israel, a collective punishment that is meted out against the families of Palestinians convicted of violent attacks against Israelis. 

The lawyer went to the head of the civil administration, Gadi Zohar, and made a proposition. “You are soon leaving the populated cities of the West Bank and Gaza, where most of the sealed houses are located,” the lawyer said. “You will also be soon releasing many of the prisoners whose family’s homes have been sealed because of their resistance activity. Now that we are in a peace process, why not allow the reopening of these homes so that the released prisoners can go back to the warmth of their own homes and thus have a genuinely new start.”

The Palestinian lawyer concluded that this would be a nice gesture for peace and would accelerate the badly needed process of reconciliation.

Zohar listened quietly to the lawyer’s arguments, but answered that such a move would be impossible. Although he agreed it made sense, “the security apparatus would never approve it,” he concluded. The homes will continue to be sealed until the last Israeli soldier redeploys from the major cities. After that Palestinians can do what they want.

Sure enough Palestinians did open their homes, some even before the Israelis actually withdrew. Mubarak Awad, the head of the Palestinian Nonviolence Center, and a few volunteers carried out the reopening of many of these homes, in clear violation of Israeli law and policy. And when the Israeli evacuated the major cities, Palestinian policemen opened the rest of the homes, in front of cameras and with a lot of fanfare.

I remembered this story this week in light of the counterproductive Israeli policies vis a vis Palestinians and other Arabs. Ever since the Oslo Accords were signed, Palestinians and many Israelis (including high-level IDF generals) have been calling for the removal of soldiers from such hot spots as Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus and the tiny settlements of Netzarim and Kfar Darom in Gaza.

Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Binyamin Netanyahu, and Ehud Barak all refused, saying that they will only withdraw from these locations as part of a final-status agreement. As a result, these hot spots, located in the middle of densely populated Palestinian areas, became the target of Palestinian anger.

Scores of Palestinians and Israelis have been killed and hundreds have been wounded as Israeli soldiers tried, often in vain, to protect these two unimportant locations, from which Israel has conceded it will eventually withdraw.

Last week, Israeli soldiers, under Palestinian popular pressure, had to evacuate Joseph’s Tomb. When the angry Palestinian mob entered, some hotheads thought they could revenge the killing of their friends and relatives by desecrating the site. President Yasser Arafat did well by ordering the repair of the damage as a reflection of Palestinians’ respect for all religions.

The same has not happened in Gaza, where the Netzarim and Kfar Darom (now basically military posts) have continued to reap tragic results in the death and wounding of so many Palestinians that they have been called the “martyrs’ junction.” This general Israeli rejection of any withdrawal unless it is part of an overall agreement only makes the situation worse.

A look at the Lebanese situation is a good example. Israel refused to release 19 Lebanese that were abducted illegally from Lebanon. In the High Court, Israeli officials said that these Lebanese, held for more than 10 years, are actually being held “as bargaining chips” to be traded for air force navigator Ron Arad, whom Israel believes is still held by Hizbullah.

This intransigent and illegal position (according to international law) has prompted Hizbullah to capture three Israeli soldiers to trade for its own men held in Israel. Wouldn’t it have been better if Israel had released the prisoners when it withdrew from south Lebanon without being forced to do it under pressure.

The question is not whether Israel should be magnanimous; it is a question of being able to read the political map correctly.

Did Israel think that Hizbullah would sit quietly as its leaders are still held as hostages in Israel. Do they think that Palestinians will be quite while soldiers are humiliating them in Joseph’s Tomb, Netzarim, and similar flash points. How many more people will have to die before Israel can see that holding on to the Netzarim junction is counterproductive.

Until now, Israel has refused to quit the Netzarim and Kfar Darom junctions under pressure, so as not to appear to be capitulating to violence. But what about after the situation calms down. Will Israel have the wisdom, foresight, and courage to withdraw from these locations, or will we need to see more blood before it does.

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