Friday, July 3, 2009

Day 2 in the Holy Land

After touring East Jerusalem all day yesterday, today represented a pronounced shift to a greater focus on the present-day conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Visiting the Holy Basin yesterday was certainly amazing, with the cross-section of major holy sites for the world's three major monotheistic religions all in one square-mile. The supposed site of Jesus' crucifixion is essentially next door to where the Prophet Mohammad ascended into heaven. It's simply an unbelieveable part of the world.

Today we got a sense of the Palestinian perspective of the conflict from some very high officials in the Palestinian Authority, which would not have been possible in most other circumstances (outside of this group). First was a meeting with the Negotiation Support Unit in Ramallah. What amazes me is how Yasser Arafat is still glorified among the PLO and the PA. Granted he certainly played an instrumental role in the PLO's founding and governance in the Palestinian territories during his tenure as president, but his glaring flaws seem to be generally overlooked. His corruption and supposed sponsorship of terrorism, which weakened the Palestinian stance in past negotiations with Israel, only hurt the Palestinian cause. It isn't hard to imagine that the Palestinians as a whole are still feeling the negative effects of Arafat's legacy.

Aside from that, it seems clear that the PLO and the PA under Mahmoud Abbas have taken relatively moderate stances regarding negotiations with Israel. This was shown in their willingness to engage with Israel to map out a two-state solution, which Israel appears to have all but abandoned under newly-elected Prime Minister Netanyahu. The PA's willingness to accept a two-state solution based upon the 1967 borders contrasts sharply with Israel's apparent refusal to discuss such issues as Palestinian statehood and self-determination, two fundamental rights that in my opinion all deserve. A true, sustainable peace will never bear fruit as long as Israel denies Palestinian autonomy, which would serve as the basis for any lasting normalization of Israel with the Palestinians and the rest of the Middle East as a whole. However, even as the two-state solution is advocated by parties on both sides, the chance for such a solution is withering away by the day. The more settlements are built in the West Bank, and the more infrastructure is destroyed in the Gaza Strip, the less likely that a Palestinian state will be able to emerge even if a peace agreement is reached. Check-points and road-blocks throughout Palestine limit internal movement and Palestinian control over its territories, thus denying the ability to exercise any semblance of autonomy.

This was the theme that resounded thoughout our various visits today. In a world where Palestinians would be guaranteed basic rights and equal protection under the law as Israeli citizens, it seems that they would by and large accept a one state solution where Israelis and Palestinians would share a state. But this is something that Israel would never accept, especially with the growing size of the Palestinian population. Therefore, a two-state solution seems to be the only viable alternative, except for the fact that its capacity to function as a state is diminishing. So what is the answer? The Palestinian officials today seemed to harbor similiar feelings. How is a solution possible under current conditions? Israel would have to take extreme measures by reversing its normal course of action. What incentive does Israel have to do that? Maybe more answers will come as the trip progresses.

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