The humanitarian crisis in the Occupied Palestinian lands has reached unimaginable proportions, with the economy strangled by closure, salaries unpaid, and a medical emergency situation killing both the chronically ill and those requiring immediate treatment.
In one significant way, this Palestinian crisis is unparalleled in recent history. This is not because their situation is worse than that found in Darfur or Rwanda, but because this entire Palestinian humanitarian tragedy is the result of the deliberate actions of a state which holds them captive, whose policies are either supported or tolerated by the major powers.
It is former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan that is bearing fruit today. The old warrior was elected in 2001 on a platform committed to ending the Oslo peace process and destroying any semblance of Palestinian self-governance.
For four years, Sharon successfully stymied peace-making efforts, from the Mitchell Plan through its later modifications leading to the "Road Map." Carefully and cleverly Sharon learned to say "yes" to each initiative, so that he continued to be seen in the US as a peace maker, while at the same time placing impossible conditions on his "yes" which had the effect of subverting the very initiative to which he had agreed.
In turn, Sharon frustrated the Mitchell, Tenet, Zinni, and Powell efforts. He, of course, had accomplices along the way. On the one hand, he had the support of the Bush Administration, which gave only half-hearted support to the initiatives they themselves launched. And then there were the brutal and stupid terror tactics used by Hamas and others whose behavior only served to give legitimacy to Sharon's obstructionism.
In the absence of any significant US pressure, Sharon was able to declare the peace process stalled, requiring unilateral Israeli action. He built a wall, expanded settlements, implemented a unilateral redeployment from Gaza and fortified Israeli blockades of the captive Palestinians, setting the stage for where we are today.
The bizarre Bush vision, first pronounced in June of 2002 which declared that Palestinians first had to establish a working democracy before they could gain their freedom, also played a part. This "cart before the horse" approach only served to delay meaningful negotiations and prepared the ground for the Hamas victory that sealed the Palestinian fate.
Today, Palestinians are trapped, with no way out. Hamas won their victory not, as our polling showed, because of corruption, but because after 12 years of a "peace process" in which Palestinians became less free and poorer, "peace" had been given a bad name and the party associated with it had been discredited.
The Israelis were now able to say they had no one with which to negotiate and get away with it.
The results of the Palestinian elections not only provided Israel with a way forward to implement their unilateral plan for the territories, it also imposed new burdens on the captive Palestinian population.
There is, today, no Palestinian economy to speak of. The closure of the West Bank and Gaza has devastating consequences: no imports or exports means that produce rots at the checkpoints and factories have closed. The already weak economy has shrunk another 27%, unemployment has doubled, poverty has increased by 50% and personal income has decreased by 30%.
Now even the last significant source of Palestinian employment, the civil service, is threatened by the inability of the government to pay salaries. With no money coming into the territories, Israel refusing to pay the Palestinians the VAT taxes owed to them (illegally, I might add, but then, so too is most everything else Israel does in its relations with the Palestinians), and with the strangled Palestinian economy producing no revenues, government receipts which last year totaled nearly $180 million per month are now down to $25 million. As a result 150,000+ Palestinians, ¼ of the work force, has received no income in three months.
It was in the face of this disaster that the European Union (EU) was able to force the US to rethink its boycott and allow for a still undefined "mechanism" to be created to allow monies to be funneled into the territories.
A victory, maybe, but more like an institutionalization of the Israeli-created catastrophe. The Palestinians will now survive like beggars on international handouts.
I remember Nabil Shaath once said (in 1994) that if the Oslo process worked, Gaza would become like Singapore. If it failed, it could become Somalia. He, of course, was hoping for Singapore. Tragically, the Somalia metaphor has won out.
The Somalia parallel, sadly, includes fratricidal warfare, as Palestinian violence has turned inward following a tragic, but inevitable course. This is what happens when a people lives under unbearable oppression for a prolonged period, with no hope for change.
Can something be done to transform this devastating state of affairs? It can. But it will take time, courage, and political will.
The Palestinians cannot be expected to dig themselves out of the hole by themselves. They lack the resources and ability--since they have been denied the opportunity to develop both. While most Palestinians and Israelis want a just peace, support for these disempowered majorities requires external support. Europe cares, but will only act within self-imposed limits. And the US cannot be expected to act any differently than it has in the past several years.
Arab leadership is, therefore, required. A clear message must be sent to the Palestinians and the West. Palestinians must be urged to stop the violence because only Israel wins. Hamas and especially its external leadership must be told to stop its obstructionism, because it is destroying the last chance for Palestinian survival. There is a fine line between stubborn dogmatism in the face of disaster and just plain self-destructive suicide.
The West must be told, and not quietly, to make it clear to Israel's leadership that their behavior toward the Palestinians is not just "an obstacle to peace," it is criminal and will not be tolerated and because the consequences of this behavior are not only killing Palestinians and aggravating Israeli-Palestinian tensions, it is also fostering extremism and deepening the divide between the Arab world and the West. Too much is at risk.
Israeli behavior must be stopped: the VAT taxes must be paid, the blockade of the West Bank and Gaza must end, the construction of the wall and new settlements must cease, and assassinations and other forms of repression must end.
Finally, the new Israeli government, without hedging, must be pressed to begin serious negotiations with President Mahmoud Abbas. His position should be strengthened, not weakened. Both Palestinian and Israeli majorities want meaningful negotiations leading to peace. They will support external pressure that will help to end the conflict.
Arab leadership has a role to play. They are respected in Europe and the EU has shown that it can push the US to act. Efforts must be made now, before this crisis spins out of control.
Palestinians must feel that there is external support and hope. They must see a radical transformation in their daily lives. If they are expected to make the right choice, they must feel they have a real choice to make.