40 years is enough

With this issue *New Internationalist* initiates a regular Special Feature in addition to the main theme. June marks the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbours; the continuous occupation of Palestinian land in the West Bank and Gaza dates from that point.

‘Make sure you don’t get blown up by a suicide bomber!’ I wonder how many times members of the International Solidarity Movement have heard these words from concerned friends before visiting Palestine for the first time? I know I did. In reality a young man such as myself has probably more chance of dying in a car crash on the way to the airport. So why is this such a common response even among the more politically astute?

Many countries have a strong bias (reflected in everything from media images to foreign policy and economic ties) on the issue of Israel and Palestine. The Middle East ‘Quartet’ (the UN, the EU, the US and Russia), although supposedly neutral brokers in a ‘peace process’, placed sanctions on the Palestinian Authority (PA) last year following the election of Hamas. This happened despite international certification that the voting had been free and fair.

Canada’s new Conservative Government was the first out of the gate, cutting off all aid to the PA in a broadly pro-Israel shift in foreign policy. Others quickly followed suit. While these sanctions were in place, more than $2.5 billion is estimated to have entered Israel from the US alone, including a $228-million military grant. Britain also continues to arm Israel, licensing £22.5 million ($44 million) of arms sales in 2005. For the first time in history, sanctions were applied to a nation living under military occupation.

It is often argued that Hamas is not a ‘partner for peace’. But no such claims were made following the Israeli elections in March 2006, when 60 per cent of the seats were won by centre-right or right-wing parties. Can the current Israeli administration really be called ‘a partner for peace’? Here are the words of the current Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: ‘We firmly stand by the historic right of the people of Israel to the entire Land of Israel. Every hill in Samaria and every valley in Judea [the West Bank] is part of our historic homeland.’

Despite this, Olmert reluctantly accepts the need for negotiations. A similar sentiment is echoed by Hamas, if Israel would respect UN resolution 242 to end the occupation of the Palestinian territories, held against international law since 1967. So what’s the difference between the two? Especially since a new Palestinian unity government was sworn in during March containing 60-per-cent Hamas membership.

The international boycott of Palestine continues. The economy is crumbling. Some 65 per cent of the population are living below the poverty line. Increasing numbers of children are dying on the streets of Jenin and Gaza City. Meanwhile, Israel continues to enjoy preferential trading relations with its major trading partners, the EU and the US.

This first NI Special Feature aims to help reframe the issue. We hope to give Palestinians a voice and support a radical reorientation of Western policies toward the Middle East. Forty years of occupation is more than enough.

*James Robertson* is a New Internationalist street campaigner and activist.