I went to Israel and Palestine in the last week of August as part of a mission with a group formed by Nelson Mandela known as The Elders, whose objective is to take action in defence of democracy, peace and human rights. The group is made up of people with no connections to governments, although many of us have occupied important political positions in the past. Members of the group include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who presided over the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa; Gro Brundtland, the former prime minister of Norway; Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland; Jimmy Carter, who needs no introduction; and Kofi Annan, former UN secretary general. With the exception of Kofi Annan, all those mentioned joined the mission to the Middle East, which I led.
Hopes of a peace agreement in the region have resurfaced thanks to international action and especially the commitment of President Obama. The US president has repeatedly said that the United States wants an agreement based on the existence of two sovereign states, both based in Jerusalem, with acceptance of the borders existing prior to the 1967 war. In that year, Israel took land from Egypt (the Gaza Strip) and Jordan (the West Bank), which are considered Arab-Palestinian lands.
However, the peaceful solution is far from simple. And the conditions to achieve it are more complex today than they were fifteen years ago when the Oslo Accords were signed, which envisaged the two state solution and established the legal basis for the Palestinian Authority, the seed of the future Palestinian State.
At present, around 50% of the Palestinian land in the West Bank is occupied by Israeli settlements. The Gaza Strip, from where until recently Palestinians were firing rockets at Israel, is subject to a strict blockade. Even shipments of food are dependent on the good will of the Israeli government. The alternative is the network of tunnels which is used to transport contraband, not just food but also arms which the Israelis say are not declining.
In the West Bank, in recent years, under the justification of protecting their settlers from terrorist attacks, Israel has been building high walls or electrified fences and numerous security checkpoints. The disruption caused produces a constant state of anxiety and hatred among the Palestinian people. To complicate matters further, the settlement policy is being transferred inside cities, as occurred a short time ago in Jerusalem, with the eviction of Arab families from their homes.
The Israeli government justifies occupation on security grounds. Not just of the State, but of the Israeli people, who are still terrified of the Hamas-sponsored suicide bomber attacks suffered in previous years.
The rise of Hamas has increased perceived security risks to Israel and the Israeli people, and has led to the creation of two representative bodies on the Palestinian side, which have internal disputes and do not speak with the same voice in their external relations, in general, and with Israel, in particular. Fatah, the party of the late Yasser Arafat, has authority over the non-occupied territories in the West Bank, recognises the State of Israel and rejects the terrorist activities which it had adopted in the past. Hamas controls Gaza, does not officially recognise Israel and sees what the Israelis perceive as terrorism as resistance.
Shimon Peres, the former prime minister and current president of Israel, who I know and have admired for many years, points to this internal division as one of the great obstacles to peace, which is greater still due to Iranian and Syrian support for Hamas. Peres dismisses the accusation that there is an Israeli cordon around Gaza. He says there are regular supplies of food, which is confirmed by the president of the Palestinian Authority, Abu Abbas, who is connected to Fatah. He also says inhabitants of Gaza are frequently treated by Israeli health services.
For Abbas and the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, who we met in Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority will be strengthened in the elections scheduled for January 2010. However, his own candidacy has sparked controversy, judging by the telephone call I had with Ismael Haniyeh, the highest leader in Gaza, and the meeting with Abdul Dweik, former president of the Palestinian Assembly, and with two of his colleagues, all of whom have recently been released from Palestinian prisons controlled by Fatah. Hamas wants hundreds of its leaders to be released in time to help with the electoral campaign. But more than this, they want guarantees that the international community will respect the results, whatever the outcome.
In this context, how can hopes for a solution to the conflict be sustained?
There are two elements that can move the situation closer to peace. The first is international pressure, led by the United States, if it is strong enough to bring all sides to the negotiating table. Firm action by President Obama's special envoy, Senator George Mitchell, has shown US willingness not to give ground to Israeli government hawks. On the other hand, there are signs that the two state solution may be accepted by Hamas.
The second and most important element is the reaction of ordinary people, moved by a mixture of scepticism, the numerous failed attempts and the need to believe that something must be done to revive the prospect of hope. We talked with literally hundreds of Palestinian and Israeli citizens. In Bil'in we saw the peaceful resistance of Palestinians whose lands have been divided by a wall. We also saw an example of cooperation at a local level, between Wadi Fukin, a Palestinian village, and Tzur Hadassah, a neighbouring Israeli village, both supplied by the same sources of water. And we heard young voices, some victims of Palestian rockets, others of Israeli coercion, who had decided to say "Enough!". We met Israeli businessmen who are investing and are willing to invest more in the West Bank. In short, there are subjective and objective elements that make peace a possible dream.
Let's hope so, or as they say over there, Insha'Allah! Mekave!