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Israel and Palestine: Shifting paradigms

It's time for Israelis and Palestinians to reconsider how they view the conflict and their own aspirations.

Last updated: 17 Feb 2014 10:31
Massoud A Derhally

Massoud A Derhally is a freelance business intelligence, risk advisory and media consultant and a former Middle East reporter for Bloomberg News.
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Israel doesn't like parallels being drawn between it and the South African apartheid system, writes Derhally [Reuters]

"I knew that people expected me to harbour anger towards whites," Nelson Mandela wrote in the Long Walk to Freedom, recalling the morning after his release from 27 years in jail. "But I had none. In prison, my anger towards whites decreased, but my hatred for the system grew. I wanted South Africa to see that I loved even my enemies while I hated the system that turned us against one another."

The late South African president chose the path of truth, justice and reconciliation. Just as blacks and whites drafted a new constitution for a united South Africa so too can Israelis and Palestinians if they choose to live as equal citizens of one state. Segregation would end, political prisoners released, Palestinian refugees in exile allowed to return, loss and dispossession addressed through compensation, a truth and reconciliation commission formed, democratic elections held. Talk of existentialism and boycotts will be irrelevant.  

Given these grim realities, and in the face of ethical and legal obligations, it's not by chance that countries and private enterprises are divesting from Israeli companies. PGGM, the largest Dutch pension fund, divested from Israel's five biggest banks last month because of their involvement in financing illegal settlements. Norway's sovereign fund followed suit, blacklisting two Israeli companies because of their involvement in settlement construction.

A transformational point

Israel doesn't like the parallels being drawn between it and the South African apartheid system. But equivalences exist. Israel has in place a formal system that undeniably privileges Israeli Jews while it legalises discrimination against Palestinians (Christian and Muslim) through dozens of checkpoints, segregated roads, arbitrary arrests, house demolitions, land confiscations, collective punishment and forced deportation. Israeli legislation bans Palestinians (and no other ethnic group) from living in Israel after marrying an Israeli citizen.

Just as South Africa was at a transformational point when apartheid ended and Mandela gained his freedom, Israel today in the face of a growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, is also at an important juncture. Nearly 66 years after Palestinians were forced out of their homes and 20 years after the Oslo Declaration of Principles was signed, there is little one can point to that shows any measure of success from the so-called peace process.

Since the 1993 Oslo agreement, Israel has paid lip service to the two-state solution, using the cover of "peace talks" to pursue a policy of containment that manages the conflict while in tandem spearheading an expansionary settlement agenda. The settlement enterprise with its segregated roads, security checkpoints, eight-metre wall that is double the size of the Berlin wall (projected to reach 403 miles), contravenes the spirit of peace talks and coexistence. Settlements are an intrinsic and systematic tool of every Israeli government to establish a fait-accompli on the ground that accentuates the marginalisation of Palestinians.

In violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention the number of Israeli settlers across the West Bank has surged from 262,500 in 1993 to more than 520,000, with more than 200,000 in East Jerusalem (the intended capital of a Palestinian state), according to the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Earlier this month, Israel announced further settlement construction in occupied Palestinian land, even as US Secretary of State John Kerry presses on with a controversial and flawed peace deal that would, according to the Israeli media, leave 80 percent of Israeli settlers in place and negate the rights of Palestinian refugees. 

While Israel's economy has thrived in tandem with the growth of settlements, Palestinian lives have regressed. The Palestinian Authority which loses about $300 million a year in fiscal revenue retained by Israel is constantly cash-strapped, unable to pay the wages of civil servants, dependent on donations from international organisations and pledges from countries that seldom materialise or are partially met.

About 36 percent of the West Bank's 2.9 million Palestinians suffer from clinical depression, higher than rates in the US, the UK, China and Australia, according to Mohammad M. Herzallah, founder of the Palestinian Neuroscience Initiative and a doctoral candidate at Rutgers University.

Meanwhile, nearly 2 million Palestinians in Gaza remain under siege, in one of the most densely populated strips of land in the world with 50 percent youth unemployment.    

Given these grim realities, and in the face of ethical and legal obligations, it's not by chance that countries and private enterprises are divesting from Israeli companies. PGGM, the largest Dutch pension fund, divested from Israel's five biggest banks last month because of their involvement in financing illegal settlements. Norway's sovereign fund followed suit, blacklisting two Israeli companies because of their involvement in settlement construction. Danske Bank, Denmark's biggest bank, has also divested from Israel's largest lender Bank Hapoalim.

An outcry that forced actress Scarlett Johansson to give up her ambassadorial role with the Oxfam international charity over her involvement with Israel's Sodastream company, which operates in the occupied West Bank, cast light on the moral implications of doing business in illegally annexed land.

As in South Africa, more entities will come to refuse doing business with Israel, trade relations will deteriorate and as the rand was undermined, confidence in the shekel too will erode. Military occupations just aren't palatable.

The BDS movement "is approaching the turning point…in which the civic action from below will meet the official policies of governments and parliaments from above, and sanctions against Israel will become a fait accompli", Avraham Burg, a former speaker of Israel's Knesset assembly, wrote in Haaretz this month. Israel "will remain helpless when confronted by a civil rebellion that moves the discourse from who's stronger/tougher/more resilient to a discourse on rights and values", he added.

The two-state solution still viable?

The clock is ticking. Just as the apartheid regime in South Africa had a choice, so too does Israel. President F. W. de Klerk once thought the solution in South Africa would be separate states for blacks and whites. He realised however that was not tenable and took unilateral moves recognising the African National Congress, releasing Mandela from prison and held elections.

There was a time that a two-state solution may have worked. By virtue of Israel's doing, the realities on the ground make it increasingly unlikely. A secular democratic state, however, for both peoples is not a mirage. It requires sacrifice and compromise, foremost that both people forego their obsession with nationalism and its illusions, in exchange for a stake in one nation as equal citizens. That ultimately will be instrumental to true reconciliation among Israelis and Palestinians. Inherently, it is the fundamental reason why "peace talks" have been unfruitful.

It's time for a real paradigm shift in the way Israelis and Palestinians think about the conflict, their aspirations and a lasting solution. More than being an idealistic aspiration, a one-state solution for two people is the realistic choice.

The alternative won't just mean more violence, but also a far larger and different intifada or uprising than the previous two Israel suppressed militarily. It will extend beyond its geography and cast Israel into isolation, ostracising it as a pariah state so long as apartheid continues. No injustice can last forever.

Massoud A Derhally is a freelance business intelligence, risk advisory and media consultant and a former Middle East reporter for Bloomberg News.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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