Exactly 30 years ago, in the summer of 1993, secret negotiations in the unlikely capital of Oslo had many in the wider world dreaming of lasting peace in that longtime crucible of conflict: the land of Israel and Palestine.
“Think of the message this sends to those who are enemies, one people against another, across our world,” remarked the late Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin to us correspondents. He signed the so-called “Oslo peace accords” at summer’s end, winning the Nobel Prize in the process alongside the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. “The message is that the most bitter and most vengeful of enemies, yes, they can make peace.”
You see the unmistakable signs of what’s coming: no peace, but war
Thirty years on, those two peoples have just launched yet another, murderous, bloody round of conflict. For decades in this small yet so contested slice of the Middle East around Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, you would hear the same definition of the status quo, used by both Israelis and Palestinians — “No war, no peace.”
Then came Oslo and the hope of a lasting settlement, with two states living side by side. That is an ideal that has been shattered into smaller and smaller pieces in the years since. Now you see the unmistakable signs of what’s coming: no peace, but war. This kind of war makes a mockery of what the Norwegians so astutely managed 30 years ago. It is the kind of conflict that could well escalate beyond the Holy Land.
The latest bloodshed may look familiar, a replay of history by those who forget that the same old script has never worked. You see the Israeli army going into the West Bank with overwhelming force on the ground and in the air to take out those described as terrorists, knowing full well that every Palestinian fighter it kills will spawn more recruits, leaving Israel less, not more secure.
The Palestinians fight back with much lighter weapons, knowing full well, too, that the street battles will displace thousands of their own people yet again, cost hundreds their homes, leave families torn apart. Yet they boast — that’s the word for it — of one frightening variable.
Not for nothing is the town of Jenin (the epicentre of the latest fighting) known to all Palestinians as “the capital of the martyrs”. This small city in the hilly, far north of the West Bank, has been home to a squalid refugee camp since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the first Palestinian exodus. These days it’s the cradle of the suicide bomber and drive-by shooter, increasingly capable of taking the battle to the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
What’s different this time, according to a trusted Palestinian contact from my days in Jerusalem, is that this next generation “believes they have nothing left to lose except their misery, unlike their parents or their grandparents who fled Israel”. He despairs, for sure, of the Israelis, but also of his own corrupt, feckless, inefficient Palestinian leadership, so clearly non-democratic after having postponed elections for years. “We have a third intifada (uprising) coming, and it’s going to be a bloodbath.”
What’s also different this time is that on the other side, the Israeli government (led by Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, also charged with corruption) has far-right ministers who see scorched earth as the road to travel, thereby mirroring the young warriors of Jenin. When you listen to Israeli Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, it is evident that such crimes are on the horizon. “Jenin needs a military operation,” he said, “to take down buildings, eliminate terrorists, and not one or two, but tens and hundreds, if necessary thousands.”
The United Nations wields so little of the clout that Kofi Annan once had
Above all, there is no restraining hand in our wider world. Time was when the USA or the European Union would step in, work with both sides, calm the men of violence. No longer. Ironically, the Biden administration has been trying, quietly, to persuade Arab world kingmakers such as Saudi Arabia to finally accept the state of Israel — but the chances of that happening recede every time the Israeli army uses the military hammer against the Palestinians in a place like Jenin. This is especially true whilst the Saudis insist on the creation of a Palestinian state.
The truth is that Biden himself won’t even talk to Netanyahu, given Bibi’s brazen attempts to control the Israeli Judiciary and make it less likely to prosecute him — the first time an American President has treated an Israeli leader with such silence. Washington is possessed by the threat of China. Europe is likewise obsessed with the war in Ukraine. China’s Xi Jinping seeks a voice in the region, but he is not as yet a serious player.
Meantime, the United Nations wields so little of the clout that Kofi Annan once had, not least when he helped engineer a truce between Israel and Lebanon after a six-week war in 2006. Working with Annan on that mission, I remember well his fear that the Holy Land could trigger a wider, Middle East conflict, with Iran using surrogates in Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to unleash what he called “a devastating conflagration, a regional Intifada-cum-Jihad”.
That fear has returned. The nightmare is out there for all to see — a local conflict, in and around a Jenin, or a Nablus, or even a Bethlehem, escalating to embroil the region’s heavyweights. Just listen to some Jewish settlers on the West Bank, openly vowing to murder those who threaten them and storming into towns to shoot civilians and set Palestinian homes ablaze. Then hear a leader of the so-called Brigades of Jenin, at the mass funeral after the latest bloodshed. “We bury our dead,” he said, M-16 raised to fire a salute, “and we are ready ourselves to join them tomorrow.”
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