May 16, 2001
RAMALLAH, West Bank - With great precision, an international fact finding committee has identified the principal hindrance to calming the crisis and resuming the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. In its report, completed at the end of April, the committee, headed by former United States Senator George Mitchell, declared: "A cessation of Palestinian-Israeli violence will be particularly hard to sustain unless the government of Israel freezes all settlement construction activity." The implications of this statement are clear. The intifada, if it is to end, must first be seen for what it is: Palestinian resistance to Israeli military occupation, exemplified by Israel's continuing confiscation of Palestinian territory and destruction of Palestinian property in order to build and expand illegal settlements.
For Palestinians, the primary goal is the return of our land and the establishment of a viable, contiguous state on a portion of historic Palestine. Continuing Israeli settlement not only makes this goal impossible to attain; it also has caused us to doubt whether the Israeli government really wants peace.
Israel is continuing to colonize the territory from which it is ostensibly negotiating a withdrawal - since the Oslo accords were signed in 1994, the number of Israeli settlers on Palestinian land has increased by nearly 70 percent. As a result, every new brick laid in Israeli settlements is transformed into a stone of Palestinian defiance.
The Palestinian Authority fully supports implementation of the Mitchell committee's recommendations, including the one that calls on us to "make a 100 percent effort" in addressing Israeli security concerns.
The Israeli government, however, has accepted only those parts of the report it finds palatable. Indeed, upon hearing the report's recommendations, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon responded by announcing that his government would seek a $375 million increase in subsidies for settlement expansion, and reaffirmed a decision to confiscate more Palestinian land and raze more homes in order to build a "bypass" road around Palestinian East Jerusalem for Israeli settlers.
Even Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, long viewed as the leader of the Israeli "peace camp," has also rejected the committee's call to freeze settlements. Instead, he has embarked on a campaign to legitimize expansion under the guise of "natural growth." But the committee called for an end to all settlement activity, including "natural growth," correctly understanding that there is nothing natural about political outposts created and encouraged by the Israeli government and designed to retain control of Palestinian land. According to a recent poll in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, a majority of Israelis agree: 62 percent favored a settlement freeze as a means of ending the current crisis.
Ominously, when confronted with sensible diplomatic initiatives for resolving the current crisis, like the Jordanian-Egyptian peace proposal of April and now the Mitchell report, Mr. Sharon's strategy is clear - divert attention from diplomacy by escalating violence and creating an environment that makes any negotiation look like untimely compromise. The Israeli government has intensified its aggression over the past several days; most recently, a hit squad killed five Palestinian policemen as they ate dinner. Israeli press reports indicated that government officials acknowledged the policemen posed no threat to Israeli security and were not suspected of any wrongdoing. Yesterday, as Palestinians marked Al- Naqba Day, which commemorates the beginning of the suffering and exile of the Palestinian people, Israeli forces shot at demonstrators.
Mr. Sharon's rejection of the Mitchell committee's report and his intensification of violence are reckless policies. Too many innocent lives on both sides have been lost to continue down this road. The Palestinian Authority believes that the Mitchell committee's recommendations - along with the complementary Egyptian-Jordanian initiative - offer a road map to guide both sides back to the peace table. We call on the United States and the international community to use the committee's recommendations as the basis for reviving serious negotiations toward a permanent agreement. We are prepared to do our part to see that these recommendations become reality. We call on Israel to join this effort.
Yasir Abed Rabbo is minister of culture and information in the Palestinian Authority and a member of the Palestinian Negotiation Team.