by Iqbal Siddiqui (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 19, Sha'ban, 1419)
Palestinian protests against the Wye agreement broke out in Ghazzah and the West Bank towns on November 20, as the true nature of the agreement and Israeli attempts to further distort it became apparent.
The immediate grounds for the protests were the failure of the Israeli authorities to free political prisoners. Under the Wye agreement, the Israelis agreed to free 750 Palestinian prisoners over three months. The Palestinians understood this to refer to political prisoners; the first batch, released on November 20, consisted largely of common criminals, including thieves and drug dealers, whose sentences were due to end soon.
Another major cause for dissatisfaction has been the rapid expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and Israeli seizures of land for the building of roads linking the settlements with ‘Israel’ proper. Immediately after the agreement was finalised, the Israeli authorities began seizing large tracts of land from their Palestinian owners, without notice. Olive orchards close to harvesting, as well as houses and other buildings, are bulldozed without the owners receiving any compensation. Protests to the Palestinian authorities have been brushed off. The realization that the costs of the Wye agreement to the Palestinians will render any minor benefits irrelevant, is growing.
The Palestine National Authority (PNA) held a major celebration in Jenin on November 20 to mark the handover of Palestinian territory from Israeli control to PNA control. The Israelis began the redeployment of their troops on the same day, following the ratification of the Wye agreement by the Knesset on November 19. This ratification followed Palestinian assurances that it had or would arrest numerous Islamic activists as demanded by Israel, and that a PLO executive committee had reaffirmed the annulment of clauses in the Palestinian Covenant calling for the destruction of Israel.
Even then, however, the version of the Wye Agreement that the Israeli cabinet approved and the Knesset ratified was significantly different to that agreed in Wye. During their discussions, the Israeli cabinet redrew the maps agreed in Wye, and imposed new conditions, including a threat to annex West Bank land, in defiance of UN resolutions, if they feel that Arafat is not meeting his obligations.
Arafat accepted both the re-drawn maps, and, tacitly, the Israeli conditions. This unilateral re-writing of the agreement is typical of how the Israelis have consistently manipulated the ‘peace process’ - already weighted in their favour - and have been allowed to do so by both the west and Arafat himself. And even this re-written ‘agreement’ was ratified only by 7-5 vote, with five members of the Israeli cabinet abstaining; such is the seriousness of Israel’s commitment even to a ‘peace process’ heavily biased in its favour.
The extent and nature of the Israeli ‘troop withdrawal’ merits some examination. The first phase of the redeployment, completed last month, involved the ‘handing over’ of 7.1 percent of West Bank territory (about 160 square miles) from joint control to total PNA control, and of 2 percent from Israeli control to joint control. The distinction between joint and total control is that in areas of joint control, the PNA has civil authority, but the Israeli maintain responsibility for security. In areas of total control, the PNA take over responsibility for security matters too, although the Israelis retain the right to enter the areas ‘in pursuit’ of suspected militants.
According to the timetable agreed at Wye, the first phase of the ‘withdrawal’ should have been completed by November 16. In fact, it began on November 20, only after Israel had redrawn the maps and imposed new conditions. The next phase is due to be completed by December 14, involving Israel handing 5 percent of the West Bank to joint Palestinian control; again, more Israeli delays and manipulation can be expected before this is completed. The third phase of the agreement, to be completed by January 31, is for Israel to transfer 7.1 percent from joint control to PNA control, one percent from Israeli control to PNA control, and 5 percent from Israeli control to joint control. By this time, however, the agreement will probably have been re-written beyond recognition.
Assuming this process is completed as scheduled, the PNA will then have total or joint control over 40 percent of the West Bank (about 920 square miles), compared to the total control over 90 percent of the West Bank which it should have had by this time had the original Oslo Agreement been implemented.
Meanwhile, the Israelis have begun expanding their West Bank settlements, despite the fact that they are supposed to be withdrawing from them according to the terms of the peace process. Israeli foreign minister Ariel Sharon indicated government support for this process on November 14 when he called on settlers to seize every hill top and area they could, saying that what they took now would be theirs to keep. Observers in Palestine say that settlers are expanding their existing settlements and seizing new lands on a daily basis, with the active help of Israeli troops. They are also fortifying their settlements and converting some of them into permanent Israeli military bases.
The issue of road building has also come to the fore. The Wye agreement includes provision for Israel to build roads linking its settlement to ‘Israel proper’. Land for these roads is being forcibly seized from Palestinians without notice by Israeli troops who bulldoze all trees, crops and property. The roads built will be up to 30 metres wide, and Palestinians will be forbidden from building close to them, which will more than double the amount of land under Israeli control. They will also be fortified, and Palestinians will only be permitted to cross at designated points where they will be subject to Israeli security checks.
The building of these roads has led to clashes between Israeli troops protecting the bulldozers, and Palestinian youth protesting further seizures of Palestinian lands. Such protests against the Wye agreement have dwarfed the PNA’s celebrations of their great victory, although they have been scantly covered in the west. For the time being, they have also attracted little public censure from Israel. For all their public objections to the ‘concessions’ they are making, the Israelis know that the Wye Agreement is good for them and is unlikely to genuinely halt the ‘peace process.’
Muslimedia: December 1-15, 1998