Many scholars continue to recommend the need for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations while overlooking the harsh reality that Israel is on a predetermined course.

Short of ideologically realizing the vision of the Land of Israel free of Palestinians, Zionism is singularly preoccupied with how to permanently keep the land without ruling over, or incorporating, the Palestinians who inhabit it. Given the reality of Palestinian presence, the non-security related “solution” pursued for the past five years by Ariel Sharon and now by his successor, Ehud Olmert, is a “long term interim agreement” or “provisional agreement”—more properly, a unilateral decision rather than an agreement, hopefully with US-EU backing. This essentially means further annexations and unilateral demarcation of borders, no real negotiation with the Palestinian Authority, that is, Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah and now Hamas, and repudiation of final status issues (Jerusalem, borders, refugees). Commitments to the road map or previous agreements have already been canceled, though Israeli officials claim their planned withdrawals, annexations, and unilateral border setting are being done through the road map. (1)

Many scholars continue to recommend the need for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations while overlooking the harsh reality that Israel is on a predetermined course. Negotiations are the preferred route, for not only do they offer hope for both peoples, but also the alternative is not pretty, particularly for the Palestinians. However, nothing and no one, not the US, the EU, or the UN are prepared to put the brakes on Israel’s destructive path. As long as Israel has unwavering US support and protection, and the EU puts the Atlantic alliance above justice in Palestine and stability in the Middle East, little can be done. Below I’ll look at the meaning of interim and provisional agreements and review at length what several well-known scholars and observers are saying. I argue that the occupation has become so deeply entrenched that the possibility of its reversal based on “performance” frameworks is irrelevant.

The self-proclaimed Israeli intention to conduct a provisional withdrawal also referred to as disengagement, from the West Bank neither clarifies what the Israelis mean by “withdrawal” nor what the implications are for Israeli-Palestinian peace. The essential question is this: is Israel’s planned withdrawals a series of steps that eventually lead to relinquishing of the West Bank based on a just and realistic peace or are they a step toward separating from major Palestinian population centers, giving continuity to Jewish settlement, and annexing major portions of the West Bank?

The characterization of the Israeli moves as interim or provisional that will lead to permanent withdrawal and peace at some unspecified future time is fraught with ambiguity and contradiction. The public Israeli contention is that, in the absence of negotiating partners, “withdrawal” (whose eventual extent and scope is unclear) may de facto lead to two states that may eventually live in peace. Certainly, this is what many Israelis who support the “centrist consensus” hope for. Viewed optimistically, this implies, or can imply, negotiations after the interim withdrawal that may lead to complete and final withdrawals based on UNSC 242 and 338, land for peace, an end of conflict based on a permanent and comprehensive peace. Israeli policy is portrayed, including by the US, as an intermediate or transitional measure in terms of time and final terms. In principle and practice, ending an occupation does not require negotiating partners or recognition as a precondition, and negotiations can be conducted after the occupying power has withdrawn—in this case, only from some parts of the West Bank.

Rami G. Khouri of The Daily Star is optimistic that Israel’s actions are a “historic reversal” of policies since 1967, that Sharon’s “long term interim agreement” and Hamas’ “long term truce” will lead to coincidental interests. He notes:

Kadima members have said that if elected, they would continue withdrawing unilaterally from parts of the West Bank, while completely leaving Gaza’s affairs in the hands of the Palestinians. The first step, revealed this week by former Shin Beth [sic] security service director Avi Dichter, would be to dismantle more isolated settlements in the West Bank, while consolidating the large settlement blocs near the 1967 border. Disengagement from the Palestinians is now seen as more conducive to Israeli interests than colonization and military occupation…. A Hamas-led government is poised to manage those areas vacated by Israel, move quickly on building a more secure, stable, law-governed society, and enforce an extended truce that probably has already started. Hamas will quietly watch Israel withdraw from more occupied lands, and focus on building a well-governed polity in Gaza and much of the West Bank (my italics). (2)

It’s unclear how much of the West Bank will be incorporated into Israel through annexation and unilateral demarcation of borders. Most suggest close to half. It’s safe to say, however, that these plans are not based on the principles of withdrawing to the 1967 borders with minor adjustments for security and defensive purposes, evacuating most of the settlers, completely dismantling the control regime, and sharing sovereignty over Jerusalem.

In practice, Israelis are pursuing the following outcomes: a) permanent incorporation into Israel of Greater Jerusalem, the “settlement blocs” (one of which, Ma’aleh Adumim, cuts the West Bank in two), lands both west and east of the “separation barrier,” and the recently annexed strip (“security zone”) along the West Bank’s border with Jordan; b) geographic, economic, and political atomization of Palestine (West Bank) whose people’s movement, trade and contact with each other are through bridges, tunnels, and isolated roads; c) “border” passages or crossings (gates and checkpoints) along the separation barrier, including around (East) Jerusalem, controlling Palestinian movement into and out of the west and east sides of the wall/barrier; d) demographic and geographic continuity of a Jewish majority from Israel to the West Bank.

The Israeli “disengagement” or withdrawal is, in its final form, an attempt at permanent colonization, though without extensive military occupation and obligations. Israeli colonization and annexation, including the wall’s completion, are devised to preclude the creation of a geographically contiguous, viable Palestinian state. Permanent disengagement may mean eventual removal of military presence from the remaining Palestinian enclaves, with or without Palestinian agreement. Obviously, gaining Palestinian acceptance of such a withdrawal, which means acceptance of Israeli unilateral border setting, is preferable and will depend, in the next four years, on whether they deem they have a negotiating partner who would sanctify Israeli unilateralism in a final peace agreement, that is, after they’ve solidified their annexations. However, even if they enter into negotiations with Hamas before further large-scale rearrangement of the West Bank, they will not be deterred from their plan, which obviously means that negotiations, as Hamas itself understands, would be hollow.

The logical outcome is that “peace” will be dictated to the Palestinians, whether or not they enter into a final peace treaty with the Israelis. Hence, the insistence that Hamas must meet certain conditions is a public relations maneuver. In the short term, the initial step is the evacuation of isolated settlement outposts (really, mostly those east of the wall/barrier) and their relocation in larger and denser colonies that are to be part of the annexed lands while maintaining a military presence in the evacuated areas. Neither short-term dismantlement of small, peripheral colonies nor final withdrawal, or more precisely, reconstitution and redeployment of the military presence outside of what is to be the Palestinian areas, constitutes an end to the occupation of the West Bank. If Israel fails to gain Palestinian acceptance through a final negotiated peace on its own terms, the provisional or interim withdrawal can last indefinitely. The Israelis are interested in ending conflict and violence but not their occupation. Colonization and annexation of Palestine by force, even as its people live in the midst, is still occupation.

Hamas, which understands clearly that there’s been no peace process in recent years, including Israeli intentions behind provisional withdrawal, apparently welcomes Israeli retrenchment, interpreting this as an opportunity to get on with the business of orderly governing and social and economic development and rebuilding of Palestinian society while maintaining a long-term truce that will eventually lead to full Israeli withdrawal. The movement is subject to different interpretations and pressures from different leaders but its pragmatism and adaptation to changing circumstances are not in doubt, including its unilateral adherence to the cease-fire. In a March 6 interview with Helena Cobban, Mahmud Zahhar, named foreign minister in Hamas’ cabinet, said that he expects:

[T]hat after the Israeli election there will be a further Israeli withdrawal in the West Bank…You know, when Israel undertakes unilateral withdrawals, they are costless to us, because they do not tie us up in negotiations. They are a big victory for us!

And that, in two years,

I see a further Israeli withdrawal in the West Bank. There will be a flourishing in our economy and in our society. We’ll be represented in the international community, and people around the world will see a good example of how a people without resources can build strong industries.

This led Cobban to observe that

Nearly all the Hamas leaders and activists whom I interviewed viewed the prospect of negotiations with Israel with considerable wariness, referring to Fateh’s record in such negotiations and concluding that those negotiations had just been a very damaging trap. But Zahhar was the most outspoken on this issue of any of them. “The conflict should not (Cobban’s emphasis) be solved in our age, because the power equation here is not yet balanced,” he said at one point. “… If the Israelis leave us alone a while, and want to come to talk to us later, then okay.” (3)

Zahhar apparently is awaiting a future age in which the balance of (regional) power will eventually change and force Israel to talk real peace. Since Israel has no interest in making peace, he assumes that there is nothing to lose in letting them withdraw. Indeed, every Israeli retrenchment locally translates to proportionate relief for Palestinians, meaning relative peace and quiet, daily life conducted at a lower threshold of repression or harassment. However, the Palestinian’s economic hardship, impoverishment, and national frustration will continue, and worsen, under a revised Israeli occupation. Zahhar is eager for Hamas to replace the military occupation in the areas the Israelis vacate, and therefore to form Palestinian self-governance and self-determination, though the vast majority of Palestinians support peace with Israel and Hamas negotiations with it based on a two-state solution whose context is complete withdrawal. This Hamas understands well and accepts.

Premier-designate Ismail Haniyah, in a Gaza press conference on 26 March made clear that Hamas will not accept, that is, confer legitimacy, to unilateral Israeli withdrawal without Palestinian agreement and that they do not wish continuous conflict and violence for the region. “We want rights and dignity for this [Palestinian] people, and to put an end to this decades-long complicated situation…We will not hang onto the tails of the occupation. But this doesn’t mean that we consider the borders they decide on to be those of the Palestinian state.” (4)

No one really understands the full consequences of “withdrawal” for Israel and the Palestinians. The intimate, contorted, serpentine-like embrace of Jewish colonial settlements and fragmented Palestinian communities not only is inimical to Palestinian political and economic viability, but also to the colonies’ sustainable territorial and geographic integration into Israel. According to Richard Falk, unilateral solutions of this sort lay the foundation for further violence and

[N]ever had any chance of resolving the conflict in a sustainable way. It completely ignores Palestinian rights, including the duty of Israel to withdraw from all territory occupied since the 1967 war, as well as those issues on which international law supports Palestinian claims—refugees, Jerusalem, settlements, water rights and the barrier.

What is necessary, Falk continues, is that the US, EU and Israel encourage the “pragmatists” over the “maximalists” in Hamas. They need to:

[P]rovisionally respect the election results, establish normal diplomatic relations and maintain desperately needed external aid flows, an important source of Western credibility and leverage. As of now, they are all pushing in the opposite direction…The US and Europe insist that there will be no contact with Hamas and no economic assistance unless its leaders explicitly renounce terrorism, recognize Israel, accept all prior agreements between the Palestinians and Israel, and annul that part of the Hamas charter that calls for Israel’s destruction.

The chance of Hamas meeting these political conditions all at once is essentially nil since they amount to a renunciation of struggle and almost a declaration of surrender.

It is only through diplomacy based on respective rights that a durable peace can be achieved. Hamas must be persuaded to abandon terrorist tactics and rely on political moves to achieve Palestinian self-determination. For this to work, Hamas must be assured there will be real gains towards statehood. However, first Washington will need to learn two lessons—promoting democracy involves accepting the outcome of elections and Israeli unilateralism will not solve the conflict. (5)

Joel Beinin argues along similar lines as Falk. After showing that Hamas’ victory was not just due to corruption but also to the Israeli occupation with its repressive measures, economic hardships, destruction of PA infrastructure, unilateral measures, including the Gaza withdrawal, and refusal to negotiate, including abandonment of the Taba agreement in 2001 and the Saudi proposal in 2002, he maintains that:

Neither the Bush administration nor Israel appears to recognize its own responsibility for strengthening Hamas and weakening secular and more moderate Palestinian political forces. Will Hamas recognize Israel and abandon armed struggle when it assumes political responsibility for the Palestinian people? If this happens at all, it is unlikely to come as a single dramatic declaration. A long transition comparable to the torturous negotiations among the Irish Republic Army, the British government and the other Irish political forces would probably be required.

Israel and the Bush administration have two options—to stonewall the new P.A. government on the grounds that Hamas is a terrorist organization, or to engage cautiously and encourage the adoption of pragmatic policies by offering real progress toward a viable and independent Palestinian state in exchange. (6)

Rashid Khalidi correctly maintains that the Palestinians want peace with Israel, a two state solution, a secular state, and that Hamas-head Ismail Haniya may accept this if Israel withdraws. He demonstrates that Israel’s occupation is responsible for breeding Islamic extremism. Khalidi arrives at a conclusion similar to those of Beinin and Falk by arguing that the US and Israel will be responsible for the “disastrous consequences” that follow from their decisions. He strikes a note of pessimism, reflective of current conditions, when he states that the US and Israel “seem prepared to try to starve the Palestinians financially, to refuse to engage constructively with a PA run jointly by a Fatah president and a Hamas-led cabinet, and to refuse to explore whether a just and lasting settlement is possible between Israelis and Palestinians.” (7)

But what does exploring a just and lasting settlement—and that Hamas may accept a two state solution if Israel withdraws—mean? Withdraws before negotiations? Commits itself to a comprehensive settlement? And how, as Beinin frames it, is “real progress toward a viable and independent Palestinian state” to be realized? The complex, almost exasperated ambiguity of these statements is emblematic of the impossible situation Israel has created. Stopping Israeli unilateralism requires forcing Israel to immediately implement a series of concrete steps and to reverse ongoing actions before any negotiations can take place, though even such steps, confidence building measures, are uncertain to produce the desired outcome, certainly without forceful monitoring and pressure. A settlement freeze at this time or the dismantling of the isolated, thinly populated outposts, for example, will have little effect because no viable Palestinian state can emerge without the abandonment of the colonies and the expropriated lands surrounding them, either as part of a withdrawal or subsequent to withdrawal, as part of a peace settlement that follows. More important, Israel under the current regime must want peace. I am not convinced this is so.

In the present conditions, not only have principles for a peace settlement, including UNSC 242 and 338 and international law been ejected, it is also difficult to see clearly how any of the previously agreed frameworks could be implemented. Israel has gone too far in changing the face of the West Bank. Sara Roy, after surveying the dismal record of Israeli repression, mutual violence, terrorist suicide bombings, impoverishment, deteriorating conditions, and expansion since Oslo, prophetically stated as early as June 2003 that

Any attempt by the US and Israel to impose a political settlement on Palestinians while maintaining the occupation and Israel’s matrix of control will fail. This is what doomed Oslo and will doom the road map. The violence insures the continuation of the conflict and fundamentally jeopardizes the interests of the US in resolving it. The end of occupation is a necessary condition for ending the bloodshed. Without it, nothing is possible. (8)

She asserted that: “A complete end to Israeli occupation [that is, to the June 4, 1967 lines] must be the first step. Only when occupation ends can one talk about what it entails, and what must follow from it.” She recommended that this be followed by a sequence of steps, including Palestinian unilateral ceasefire, a settlement freeze, and interjection of an “international buffer” between the two peoples, suggesting that the “rest” (peace settlement) can then be concluded.

This forceful clarity is even more relevant today, nearly three years later, because the occupation has become ideologically, politically, economically, legally, socially, infrastructurally, and physically entrenched and, perhaps, irreversible. This conclusion is not new. Israelis, such as Meron Benvenisti, Haim Hanegbi, Ilan Pappe, and especially Jeff Halper have seen this ineluctable trend for the last several years. A radical framework requiring complete withdrawal, in the context of a blue print for peace supported by the international community, in my mind is the most effective response to current conditions and will lead to Hamas making peace with Israel. However, a framework based on full withdrawal first is politically unattainable given America’s unconditional support of Israeli policies—regardless of how adverse these policies are to US interests and to Israel’s long-term peace and security.

Israel has rendered a negotiated settlement based on a two state solution all but unrealizable. At the same time, it will never contemplate a unitary state. By its own actions, it is endangering the very thing it presumes to safeguard: a democratic Jewish state. The result is the cruelly apartheid state in the process of being implemented and a future of violence and instability in the Middle East. Ilan Pappe expresses it plainly:

Israel nowadays is like a plane flying on autopilot. The course is preplanned, the speed predetermined. The destination is the creation of a Greater Israel which will include half of the West Bank and a small part of the Gaza Strip (almost 90 per cent of historical Palestine): this will be a Greater Israel without a Palestinian presence, with high walls separating it from the indigenous population of Palestine, who will be crammed into two huge prison camps in Gaza and what’s left of the West Bank. Palestinians inside Israel can either leave and join the millions of refugees languishing in the camps or submit to an apartheid system of discrimination and abuse. In many parts of the Western world the media still describe this as the only safe route to peace and stability. The discourse of peace employed by the Quartet—the US, the EU, Russia and the UN—since the Road Map came into being seems to blind many reasonable observers, who still seem to believe that this course makes sense. But it should have long been clear that Israel is heading for disaster. (9)

The failure to achieve a negotiated Palestinian-Israeli peace after four decades of occupation is not due to a lack of imaginative and realistic frameworks and principles or to changing political events and leaders. Failure is due, first and foremost, to ideological obstacles, to Zionist ethno-religious nationalism that has not yet accepted coexisting with another people. The situation is bleak short of concerted international action to force Israel to adhere to international law.

-Issa Khalaf holds a Ph.D. in political science and Middle East Studies from Oxford University. He contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.


1. “Kadima Planning West Bank Pullout,” Washington Post, 3/6/06.
2. “Accord that dares not to speak its name,” The Daily Star, 3/8/06.
3. “Interview with Zahhar,” posted on Cobban’s website March 18, ‘Just World News’, http://justworldnews. org/).
4. “Hamas tells Israeli voters it wants to end deadlock,” by the Associated Press, in Haaretz, 3/26/06.
5. Richard Falk, “Respect Democracy, Engage Hamas,” Topeka Capital-Journal, 3/11/06, found in Middle East Report.
6. Joel Beinin, “Why Hamas Won and Why Negotiations Must Resume,” San Francisco Chronicle, 2/8/06, found in Middle East Report.
7. “Maybe too far to go back for Hamas, Financial Times, 3/7/06.
8. “How to stop Hamas: first, end the occupation,” The Daily Star, 6/20/03.
9. Ilan Pappe, “As long as the plan contains the magic word ‘withdrawal’, it is seen as a good thing,” London Review of Books, Vol. 26, No. 9, 6 May 2004.

*this article was reprinted from