"Palestine is already recognised as a country. It has embassies all over the world, a president who is treated on equal footing with Netanyahu. Our people are here and so is our land. The question is how much more territory can we rid of the occupation."
- PLO activist Tawfiq Abu Houssa (The Times, July 10).

On May 4 or 5 next year, Yasser Arafat intends declaring the establishment of a sovereign state of Palestine. In many areas, the groundwork is being laid to prepare for that announcement—and for Israel's response.

May 4, 1999 is the date set in the Oslo Accords for finalisation of Israeli-Palestinian talks, and the implementation of the "final status" of the negotiated settlement between the two protagonists. But the Oslo process is way behind schedule, and analysts say the ailing PLO chairman believes that Israel is fast becoming so isolated that he can afford the gamble of declaring a state unilaterally, bringing the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to a close.

In effect, Palestine already exists. Arafat enjoys a warmer reception in many world capitals than Israeli prime ministers ever have. Forty-three countries (including the United States, Canada, China and EU member states) already recognise the Palestinian passport, and more than a dozen maintain missions of some variety in the autonomous areas. Arabs participate in international forums, conferences and sports events under the banner of Palestine.

Aside from passports, other trappings of statehood are also in place: an army, an 88-seat legislative assembly, ministries and government offices, flags, vehicle number plates, postage stamps. There is even a fledgling airline, although its three aircraft operate from El-Arish in the nearby Sinai while slow-moving negotiations over the Gaza International Airport continue. Two-and-a-half million people live under full or partial PA control, a population greater than that of many of the world's sovereign nations, including Bahrain, Cyprus and numerousAfrican states.

July's sweeping vote in the UN General Assembly in favour of upgrading the Palestinians' status in the world body above that enjoyed by the Vatican or Switzerland was described by a senior Arafat aide, Nabil Abu Rudeineh as "a huge step towards the imminent declaration of statehood".

The boundaries of the state-in-the-making are tied directly to current negotiations over Israeli troop withdrawal from further parts of Judea-Samaria. Some critics of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu say the precise reason he is baulking at handling over more land now is because this will enable Arafat to include more territory in his "Palestine" (Of course, this also means that Arafat would be better off holding off on his independence declaration, in order to have the largest area possible when he does go ahead).

Should Israel not carry out a further pull-back by next May, Arafat will have just three per cent of Judea-Samaria, along with most of Gaza. Another 27 per cent of Judea-Samaria (known as "area B" in the Oslo accords), is under PA civil control, but Israeli soldiers are still deployed there—making it difficult (although not impossible) for Arafat to include these areas in his state.

It is likely that he will claim—in principle, at least—the entire area of Judea-Samaria and Gaza.

The likelihood of violence

The big questions both Israelis and Palestinians face are:

With regard to the first question, the Jerusalem Report has noted that, although Israeli leaders are understood to be considering annexation, Netanyahu's aides were reluctant to address the issue directly (July 6). World reaction to annexation would be overwhelmingly hostile, particularly in the present anti-Netanyahu climate.

Answers to the other questions may be found in an Israeli military intelligence national security appraisal for 1999, which has placed the likelihood of war next year as "very high", according to Yediot Ahronot (July 10).

The report said the Palestinians were ready for a military showdown, and linked this possibility directly to Arafat's assertion that he would declare an independent state next May.

It said Arafat may first attempt to increase Israel's international isolation even further before giving the nod to violent street protests (led by PLO activists mobilised by PA security chiefs), and simultaneously activating the more than 50,000 armed troops at his disposal.

The security appraisal reported that the PA had prepared counter-terrorist units, along with Arafat's infamous "Force 17", for missions such as conquering Jewish communities: "It is known that a number of Palestinian security units have already held planning sessions and even practised attacking settlements in the territories."

A recent dispute between PA and Israeli forces over Palestinians' access to a road in Gaza provided a glimpse of risks posed to Jewish "settlements" should the PA choose to flex its muscles following an independence declaration. During the stand-off, the PA had succeeded in a matter of minutes in cutting off 10,000 Jews from the rest of Israel. A concerted similar effort throughout Judea-Samaria could isolate more than 150,000 Jews living there.

Among Arabs, the ground seems ripe for confrontation. A Palestinian opinion survey released on July 2 found that support for anti-Israel violence among Palestinians has reached a four-year high, with 49,7 per cent of those surveyed saying they supported "armed attacks against Israelis". (Before the 1996 election of the Netanyahu government, 22 per cent of Palestinians polled said they favoured violence.)

Preparations for conflict reportedly involve the smuggling of weapons, including anti-tank missiles, into PA-ruled areas. An Israeli intelligence document submitted to the government said arms were being brought in from Jordan (across the Dead Sea), and from Egypt (via tunnels into the Gaza Strip). "A continuous effort, directed by official [PA] security sources, is to smuggle weapons into the PA areas with the aim to increase and broaden the range of the amount and quality of weapons in their possession," said the report, quoted by Ha'aretz (July 7).

Although Arafat has been characteristically taciturn on the possible Israeli reaction to his promised independence declaration, his outspoken Education Minister, Hanan Ashwari, has not. In an on-line ABC News Internet "chat" aired on July 8, Ashwari said a strong Israeli response would be "consistent with the rhetoric of threat, intimidation, and racism that constantly emanates from the current Israeli government. Palestinian statehood is not subject to Israeli approval nor can it be withheld or preempted by Israeli measures…

"While we do not have the military power of Israel nor the 200 thermal nuclear warheads [sic] that it has, nor the unlimited nor unbridled support of the US, we have moral, legal, and human powers and [in] any equation ultimately this type of power should prevail." Of course, Israel is more concerned about the Palestinians' tangible power, in addition to the likely military alliances it would make with Israel's enemies.

For the Palestinian Arabs themselves, it is far from certain an independent state would be wholly advantageous. As Christopher Walker noted in the London Times recently, not only do the usual symbols of statehood already exist in Arafat's domain, so too do "many of the less salubrious facets of a modern Arab state, such as endemic official corruption, autocratic rule, appalling prison conditions, more than occasional torture and a general low official regard for such basic rights as press freedom." (July 10).

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