Magazine article Geographical

The Barriers to Peace: With the Middle East Peace Process in Tatters and Relations between Palestinians and Israelis at an All Time Low, Michael Keating, Who Recently Worked in the Region for the United Nations, Examines the History of the Conflict and Highlights the Role Extremists Are Playing in Undermining Hopes for Peace

Magazine article Geographical

The Barriers to Peace: With the Middle East Peace Process in Tatters and Relations between Palestinians and Israelis at an All Time Low, Michael Keating, Who Recently Worked in the Region for the United Nations, Examines the History of the Conflict and Highlights the Role Extremists Are Playing in Undermining Hopes for Peace

Article excerpt

"What peace process?" was the Egyptian foreign minister's reaction when asked about the effect on the Middle East peace process of the Israeli Air Force's targeted killing on 22 March 2004 of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas.

He had a point. Since the outbreak of the second intifada, or uprising, in late 2000, about 3,000 Palestinians and almost 1,000 Israelis have been killed, and many thousands more have been wounded. Both sides have suffered economically, though for the Palestinians the impact has been nothing short of catastrophic. The social and psychological damage inflicted on both sides has been profound and is worsening. And whatever mutual respect once existed is rapidly deteriorating.

Palestinians don't appear to understand how devastating has been the impact of suicide bombs on ordinary Israelis, and how it has totally undermined what might otherwise be widespread sympathy for both their political cause and their social and humanitarian plight, Israelis appear either ignorant or indifferent to the hardship and humiliation suffered by every Palestinian and to the searing sense of injustice they feel as a result of 37 years of intrusive military occupation.

A ceasefire seems unlikely. Indeed, after the assassinations of Yassin and Haines leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi, and Hamas's vow to avenge their deaths, it's more likely that the violence will continue, both in the shape of terrorist and suicide attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians, and of military incursions and targeted assassinations in Gaze and the West Bank.

Whether the peace process still exists is a moot point. It has long roots and has progressed in fits and starts over the past decades (see box). Its central objective has been to find a basis upon which a Jewish and Palestinian state can co-exist in a tiny corner of the world, one about the size of Wales and achingly loaded with religious, historical and cultural significance to Jews, Christians and Moslems alike. A growing number of voices are arguing that it may be too late for a 'two-state solution'--but for often very different reasons.

Pessimists on both sides argue that it's too late because Israeli settlement, road building, barrier construction and security-related activity in the West Bank has reduced what could be an independent Palestine to an economically unviable string of semi-isolated and impoverished population centres. And besides, they say, the politically vigorous settler movement will never allow a non-Jewish sovereign entity to be established on what it considers to be Jewish land.

The determination of religiously motivated settlers to prevent a two-state solution is complemented by some of the more radical Palestinian Islamists, who view Israel's very existence as unacceptable. They, too, are a minority within their society, but they are equally determined and fully prepared to use violence as a means to that end.

While the prospects of the creation of a viable Palestinian state look poor, the alternative is even less clear. Growing attention is being paid on both sides to demographics. According to some Israeli academics, of the estimated 10.3 million people living in 'Greater Israel'--or 'historical Palestine'--only about half are Jewish. The others include 3.3 million Arabs in the West Bank and Gaze, about 1.2 million Arabs within Israel proper, and half a million others in Israel, including Christians and migrant workers. Israel is thus faced with a 'demographic threat'.

On average, the birth rate among Arabs is far higher than that of the Jewish population. Hence, it's been argued, the only alternatives to the establishment of a Palestinian state, are either an apartheid system in which a rapidly increasing Arab majority is controlled by an Israeli minority, or a democratic state in which equal rights are enjoyed by all--but one that would, over time, lose its Jewish identity. …

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