MAXWELL:  Israel’s Barak aims for peace and security

7/11/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


More than a year before being elected Israel’s 10th prime minister, Ehud Barak gave Israeli television viewers more than a hint of his understanding of the Palestinian question and how he would manage the stalled peace process.

Gideon Levy, a columnist for the Ha’aretz newspaper, asked Barak what he would have done if he had been born a Palestinian. Barak’s candor shocked many Israeli Jews and pleased most Palestinians.

Barak’s response? “I would have joined a terrorist organization.”

This was not the answer Israelis had wanted to hear or had expected. But it was the only honest one that Barak _ one of Israel’s most highly decorated army generals _ could have given.

With that long-ago answer, Barak unwittingly laid the framework for the “peace process” portion of his inaugural speech Tuesday in Jerusalem.

At the outset, he let his hawkish detractors, both Israeli and American Jews, know that he intends to work toward a real peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors _ while protecting the state’s security: “It is our historic duty to finish the job and bring about a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, which has seen so many wars. It is our duty, to ourselves and our children, to take bold steps to strengthen Israel by ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. This government is intent on doing all in its power, taking every step and doing all that is necessary for Israel’s security, achieving peace and preventing war.”

After reassuring the nation that he will protect Israel’s security, the prime minister voiced an empathy for the plight of Palestinians rarely heard in the Knesset. “I know not only the suffering of my people, but also recognize the suffering of the Palestinian people,” he said.

“My desire and aspiration is to put an end to the violence and suffering and to act with the elected Palestinian leadership, headed by Chairman Yasser Arafat, working in cooperation and with respect together to find a fair and agreed on arrangement for a coexistence of freedom, prosperity and good neighborliness in this beloved land in which two peoples will always live.”

Indeed, the suffering of the Palestinian people is great. After recently spending several days in the Gaza Strip and two weeks in the major Palestinian-controlled towns and villages in the West Bank, I am convinced that Israel _ a country I love and hold to a high moral standard _ is committing many serious human rights abuses, even if carried out in the name of security. In fairness, I must acknowledge that the Arab nations of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria also mistreat their Palestinian refugees.

Even worse, the National Palestinian Authority, under Arafat, terrorizes its own people and robs them blind. In other words, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip get it from all sides. They are stateless. They are one of the truly dispossessed peoples of the world. The Gaza Strip itself, at one time called the “Soweto of Israel,” is not a state nor has it been annexed to Israel.

Much of the squalor and, of course, the overcrowding are directly attributable to Israel’s economic stranglehold over the Gaza Strip, which is fenced in from the Erez Crossing in the north to the Rafah Crossing at the Egyptian border in the south. The Israel Defense Forces control all borders. To leave the Strip, Gazans must obtain a permit from the Israelis. Unless the trip is work-related, most residents never get permits and, therefore, never travel into Israel or the West Bank. I met many people, born since 1967, who have never been out of the Strip, which is only 40 kilometers long and 6 kilometers wide in some areas. The region is trapped between the Negev Desert and the Mediterranean.

The lucky few who get travel permits, even those who work on farms and help build Jewish settlements, must be back in Gaza by early evening. Many Gazans who work in Israel arrive at the Erez Crossing before 6 a.m. each day. At 8 a.m., some of them still have not cleared security. After clearance, they board buses and are deposited at various work sites throughout the Holy Land.

Professional truck drivers, collectively the most important link between the Strip and Israel, also have a rough time. One morning, as I was going into Gaza City for an interview, I spoke with a driver who had arrived at the checkpoint at 7 a.m. with a load of melons. He was 14th in line. When I returned at 4 p.m., he was still there. Only six trucks in front of him had been cleared.

Because of the fear of concealed bombs, the IDF’s search of the trucks is microscopic. Soldiers, some wearing white gloves, comb the vehicles from top to bottom _ raising hoods, removing seats, dismantling exhaust stacks, examining undercarriages. To cope with the long wait, drivers throw blankets beneath their trucks, play games with colleagues, eat and nap. Each cab is unique, sporting each driver’s special possessions. In effect, the cab is a home away from home.

When the trucks are cleared, they travel in small convoys to their respective destinations. They are escorted by Israeli security forces. If one vehicle breaks down, the others must remain on the spot until it is repaired. Produce regularly rots on the trucks.

Until quite recently, the Strip was a source of cheap labor for the Israelis. As many as 80,000 Palestinians crossed the border each day to do work that few Israelis will do. Although few of the jobs paid more than a living wage, the Palestinian economy benefited.

In the wake of each terrorist bombing, however, Israel has sealed its borders, throwing workers out of jobs. Each closure further hurts Gaza’s struggling economy. Today, Israel brings in most of its menial labor from other countries and hires fewer than 10,000 of the Strip’s nearly 1-million Palestinians.

Until the United Nations Relief and Works Agency stepped in a few years ago, Gazans could not start businesses that would compete with Israeli companies. Because of these and other measures, foreign investment in the Strip is next to nothing, causing unemployment to hover around 70 percent. Again, the corrupt Palestinian government, which steals millions from the national treasury each year, may retard the economy more than the Israelis. Many Palestinians say, in fact, that they lived better when the Israelis occupied Gaza.

For his part, Barak clearly understands the hardship caused by the economic suffocation of a national minority. No one, not even Palestinians, expect economic and civil equality to come overnight _ if ever. But Barak’s apparent determination to work with the Palestinian Authority is a victory for the entire region and the Gaza Strip in particular.

In the end, if Barak’s vision of peace becomes reality, perhaps Israelis’ fears of being blown to bits will lessen, and perhaps fewer Palestinian boys will experience the dehumanizing dispossession that forces them into terrorist organizations _ as Barak said he would have done if fate had dealt him a cruel hand.