May 26 2002

Foreign Presence Needed in Palestine Now

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

It is hard to know whether the international presence created by foreign citizens at Yasser Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters helped prevent further violence there during the recent Israeli siege of the site. But there can be no doubt that the multinational presence in Bethlehem of foreign priests, along with the fact that the international community cares about the Church of the Nativity, helped keep control of what could have been an even more dangerous situation during the standoff in that West Bank city.

This reality on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza can be seen at every site of Palestinian-Israeli friction. Any international civilian presence in the occupied territories is an instant guarantee of a considerably lower level of violence, brutality and death.

A simple look at the geography of these Palestinian areas proves this theory. Starting from East Jerusalem and going either north or south, one will quickly find that the number of Palestinian dead and wounded rises the further one goes. It is no coincidence, for example that Jenin which lies in the northern tip of the West Bank was the scene of the most brutal attacks and the most flagrant human rights violations during the recent Israeli military offensive. Rafah, the southwest tip of the Gaza Strip, has seen more killed and injured than any other Palestinian city. There is no doubt that the further away from the center of the media and diplomatic center of Jerusalem, the higher the level of violence.

The exception to this rule is Hebron, near the southern end of the West Bank. Four hundred radical Jewish settlers live in the heart of this city, which has a population of more than 200,000 Palestinians. Even though there have been small skirmishes here and there during the current intifada, Hebron has seen little of the violence that has beset other Palestinian towns, and has not suffered the same high death toll. Since the mass murder committed by a Jewish settler against 29 worshipping Muslims in 1994, an international presence has been created in Hebron, and it should be seen as the main reason for the relative calm. In addition to TIPH — the Temporary International Presence in Hebron, a force of unarmed observers from six countries — a group of American Christian peace activists have also made the city their home. Members of the Christian Peace Team rotate in walking the areas of Palestinian-Israeli friction points armed with nothing more than their personal courage and possibly a camera or a video recorder. The reason is obvious. Killing or injuring a Palestinian might not cause much Israeli or international uproar. But violence to an American or a Norwegian will make its mark.

If members of such international peace groups had been in Jenin, we can safely assume that we would not have witnessed what the New York based Human Rights watch called ‘war crimes that occurred during battles in the city’s refugee camp. A similar case can be made for the potential benefit of outside observers at the array of military checkpoints in the occupied territories, where civilians have died, pregnant women have lost their babies, and an entire society has suffered humiliation.

Indeed, the Checkpoint Watch- a group of women including Israelis and foreign nationals that has begun a rotating checkpoint watch — has found that the presence of the observers has contributed to a significant reduction in the tensions and the suffering that Palestinians experience at the roadblocks, and which have been one of the causes of their frustration and anger.

The idea of international observers, of course, should not be seen as a magic solution. Rather, it is a short-term medication for a long-term ill — the occupation. If implemented correctly and with a fixed term, placement of international observers can alleviate the atmosphere of hatred, disillusionment and anger that has led to the deepening of the cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Having internationals in the occupied territories will also contribute to the need to educate Palestinians as to the mistake of the continued suicide attacks against Israelis civilians. It will also help re igniting hope whose absence has contributed to the creation of the suicide mentality.

Fulfillment of President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell’s promise of an end to the Israeli occupation, followed by the establishment of the state of Palestine, will require much effort and the rebuilding of trust. The lack of trust can be seen not only between the Israeli and Palestinians, but also between them and the rest of the world. The arguments over who is violating this agreement, who is refusing to enforce that security understanding and who is failing to honor yet another legal commitment have been repeated ad nauseam. In order to stop the bickering and provide the peoples of the region with a badly needed calm and sense of security, a major role must be given to an outside force. Such calm can’t be created when a powerful occupying army acts with such reckless disregard for human life and dignity.

If the presence of unarmed foreign civilians has provided an irrefutable reduction in hostility, an armed international force will be much more effective so long as such a force has a clear mission and mandate to enforce the peace. It will also have an added value of providing neutral testimony regarding any infringement of agreed commitments.

Palestinians, Israelis and the international community surely have an interest in the reduction of the tension and the creation of an atmosphere of trust that can usher in successful peace talks. The creation of such a rapid international force is surely a supreme proactive act of peace. The sooner it is created the sooner we will begin the long path to peace, independence and security for all.

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