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From Camp David to the Al-Aqsa uprising

By Nadim N. Rouhana, 10/6/2000

This story ran on page A19 of the Boston Globe on 10/6/2000.

The eruption of violent confrontations between Israeli forces and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is a direct outcome of the Camp David negotiations and the American third-party role.

Camp David gave no hope that any final status issue between Israel and the Palestinians would be satisfactorily resolved. Under proposed agreements, large Jewish settlement blocs in the occupied territories would be annexed to Israel. Israel will not acknowledge the Palestinian refugees' right to return. It refuses to accept moral responsibility for the refugees' dispersion, agreeing only to negotiate their resettlement elsewhere and compensation.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's proposals on Jerusalem, hailed in Israel and in the United States as daring and generous, expand Jerusalem boundaries deep into the occupied West Bank - against UN resolutions and international consensus.

Furthermore, Palestinians have long questioned American even- handedness. The dynamics at Camp David substantiated Palestinians' fear that the United States would exert heavy pressure on them to agree to an unjust settlement.

President Clinton's blaming of Arafat for the failure of the meetings and his remarks about moving the US embassy to Jerusalem if progress was not forthcoming, were seen as a thinly veiled threat to accept a diktat. In addition, Camp David, without apparent rationale, reduced the conflict to the combustible issue of sovereignty over the holy places. This dramatically transformed them into the symbol through which to express defiance against Israeli and American pressure and to signal the Palestinian leadership to resist the pressure.

Thus, when Ariel Sharon came with a thousand troops to demonstrate that Israel is the master of the Moslem holy places in the Noble Sanctuary, they instantly became the lightning rod for protest and the symbol of resistance.

Israel reacted to popular protest in the holiest place in the country by using brutal force. There must be some explanation for why, in less than a week, more than 60 Palestinians were killed and more than 1,800 injured. The explanation that Israel offers - the involvement of Palestinian police in some incidents in the West Bank and Gaza - stands naked in Israel. The reason for using blind force lies elsewhere.

The Israelis, who have generally distinguished themselves in precise planning of pointed security operations, are committing a major mistake in reading the large security picture. They see the unrest as premeditated by the Palestinian Authority in order to secure negotiation gains. According to this analysis, the Palestinian community does not have its own public opinion, national fears, or political will.

Israel initially explained the seven-year uprising the same way, only later learning that the PLO was as stunned by its eruption as was the Israeli security service. Israelis fail to grasp that Yasser Arafat, with little to show his people under the terms of the Oslo process, is in no position to mobilize masses, either to act or to cease acting, even within the limited areas under his control.

He certainly does not control the Palestinian citizens in Israel or the Palestinian refugees in the camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria who suspect that he has abandoned their cause. In fact, the unrest is as much a message to the Palestinian Authority as to the Israelis themselves. Arafat, therefore, would be committing political suicide if he doesn't embrace the unrest.

The failure of the Paris talks to reach a ''cease-fire'' without Israeli acceptance of international investigation into Israel's use of force reflects the constraints that the popular anger places on Arafat. Israel is determined to show the Palestinians that they cannot achieve any gains by using force.

But the Israelis are adding fuel to the one dispute that they should have prevented at any price - one that because of its ostensible religious dimension can escalate beyond the control of the leaderships and that can transform the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict altogether. The protests are already known as ''The Al-Aqsa uprising'' all over the Arab world.

The United States should understand that pressuring the Palestinian Authority to accept an agreement that is determined by gross power imbalance instead of a just historical compromise based on international legitimacy and UN resolutions provides fertile ground for eruptions. It should review both the policy that guided the Camp David negotiations and the dynamics of its own mediation.

As a start, the United States should demand that Israel immediately stop violence against civilians and support establishing an international mechanism for investigating the excessive use of force.

Nadim N. Rouhana is associate professor at UMass-Boston and an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University.

(c) Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

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