The Real Meaning of the Hebron Agreement

This essay argues that despite the media hype that surrounded the January 1997 signing of the Hebron protocol the agreement has done nothing to alter Israel's de facto control over the West Bank and Gaza and in fact demonstrates the Palestinian Authority's acquiescence in continuing Israeli sovereignty. Meanwhile, the media have remained silent about the continuing deterioration of daily life in the Palestinian territories. The author proposes that Palestinians themselves can help to end this silence by organizing an information campaign to expose the inequalities of life in the West Bank and Gaza.

EDWARD W. SAID is University Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and the author of numerous books on a wide range of topics, including Orientalism (1978), The Question of Palestine (1979), Culture and Imperialism (1993), and, most recently, Peace and Its Discontents (1996). This is a revised version of an article that was published in the Guardian, 15 February 1997. 


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THE HEBRON AGREEMENT SIGNED with such fanfare and excitement in January 1997 really, of course, was signed in September 1995, as part of the Oslo II accord celebrated with the usual flourishes and patched-together ceremonies on the White House lawn. When I visited Hebron in July 1995, I paid a call on an old friend, Mayor Mustafa Natshe, to find out from him what he saw as the future of his town. Among other things, he told me that he had pleaded with Yasir Arafat and his men during the summer 1995 Taba negotiations that led up to Oslo II not to sign an agreement that would give a Palestinian seal of approval to the 450 illegal settlers-most of them fanatics of the sort that had nurtured Baruch Goldstein and were soon to produce the lamentable Noam Friedman-squatting with such offensive, even murderous, insistence in the center of what is, in fact, an Arab town.

"It isn't just the principle of the thing that is so galling," he said, "but the fact that giving them this foothold in our midst by partitioning the town makes it possible for them to use Hebron as a precedent for staying in all their other settlements, extending their reach further all over the West Bank." Natshe's pleas went unheard, as Arafat and his team pressed ahead with their Israeli peace "partners" (the word now has entered official Palestinian dis- course) who, of course, consolidated their gains with, I suspect, a sense of disbelief. How else could even the most hardened Israeli explain the fact that the Palestinians had accepted a formula for "coexistence" in Hebron which gave 450 people who sat there with the Israeli army guarding them, the choicest 20 percent of the town's commercial center, whereas the 160,000 resident Palestinians were expected to be happy that they got an 80 percent that was so bogged down with conditions, reservations, and stipulations as to make it virtually a peripheral part of the Israeli enclave. What sort of "strategic" calculation on the part of the Palestinian leadership produced acquiescence in that bizarre mathematics whereby an Israeli settler population of less than .03 percent got 20 percent of an Arab city, were allowed to carry their arms, were abetted by Israeli patrols who were given virtually the run of the hills surrounding the town, while the Palestinian police were limited to a few poorly armed men, theoretically subject to Israeli restraints in every- thing they did?


Nevertheless, there seemed to be genuine euphoria among Hebronites, for whom the presence of Israeli settlers and soldiers has been so unpleasant an ordeal; just seeing some of them leave in the hope of not having them come back on quite the same basis as before supplied a good day's worth of celebration. Alas, much of the jubilation will be as short-lived as it was when Ramallah and Nablus went through the same happy catharsis in December 1995. Despite supermagnified Palestinian cheers and exultant announcements, Hebron was not liberated. Only 80 percent of it was given the right to administer municipal affairs (sanitation, health, postal delivery, education, local security, and traffic) under the Palestine Authority's jurisdiction, with Israel still in charge of security, entrances and exits, water, and overall sovereignty. The ambiguities of the situation are evident in press reports from Hebron. On the first day of Israeli withdrawal, reports cited Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Commerce and Industry Minister Natan Sharansky as saying how Hebron is still Israeli, backed up by facts and figures showing continued Israeli control over the city. The next day, one could read editorials and news stories predicting a Palestinian state emerging soon from the messy Palestinian "archipelago" (the word is perfectly apt) that has left both the West Bank and Gaza divided into lots of little parts without territorial continuity or sovereignty. This schizophrenic scenario also must be afflicting Palestinians who want to believe that they are moving for- ward at the same time that all the evidence points in an opposite direction.

On U.S. television, the de rigueur scene of Arafat and Netanyahu shaking hands with American mediator Dennis Ross between them showed a grim- faced Arafat anxious to speed away into the night. What he had held out for was supposedly a series of U.S.-Israeli guarantees that there would be a time- table of Israeli army withdrawals, or rather deployments from area B (rural areas and Palestinian villages that constitute about 23 percent of the West Bank, an area which now is patrolled jointly by Israeli and Palestinian detachments although Israel controls security there) and even, according to some wishful thinking, from area C, or the 73 percent of the West Bank (mi- nus Jerusalem) totally controlled by Israel because area C contains all the settlements, roads, military areas, etc. What he got instead was a series of "remarks," as they instantly were dubbed, that had absolutely no binding power on Israel. True, Arafat did get a timetable of dates for redeployment from area B, but they were stretched out over an extra year and, worse, no specific areas were mentioned. As the New York Times coyly put it in a jubilant report of how well things went, the actual amounts of land to be ceded to the Palestinians were left entirely to "Israel's discretion." Now this is precisely how things were left in the Oslo II documents, since just before the Washington signing ceremony, the Israelis calmly removed the specific areas of redeployment already agreed upon between them and the Palestinians and simply left the timetable. Apparently, Arafat strenuously demurred at this, but under American pressure was made to sign anyway. His latest heroics during the Hebron negotiations clearly were meant to make up for what had happened earlier, but he failed again. No wonder he didn't particularly want to answer any questions.


It has been no secret that the United States, which has subcontracted out its Middle Eastern policy to Dennis Ross and his little coterie of experts, placed Arafat under impossible pressure. Israel's political concerns, its exaggerated obsessions with security and terror, and the notion that one armed settler deserved more consideration than thousands of Palestinians all were adopted by the U.S. middlemen, who have acted as anything but honest brokers. There was also an important confluence of strategic aims that united Netanyahu and Ross, namely that there never should be anything resembling real Palestinian self-determination. And, indeed, to date, three-and-a-half years after Oslo began, "autonomy" for Palestinians is all that has been achieved, but achieved in tiny enclaves throughout the West Bank whose roads, access, and exits are controlled by Israel. In addition, an important town like Ramallah now is surrounded by settlements on three sides. Sovereignty in the true sense of the word remains in Israel's hands and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

One well might ask, then, why so many Israelis seem upset by this agreement which, after all, keeps them firmly in charge throughout the still-occupied territories. The reason is an ideological fanaticism so deep and all- encompassing that most Western and even Arab readers do not have an adequate sense of what its imperatives are. Despite the presence in Palestine of millions of Palestinians, they always have been considered aliens, to be tolerated at most, to be driven out or treated either as nonexistent or as juridical inferiors in most cases. In addition, the land of Palestine is considered to be the land of the Jewish people entrusted to Israel; no non-Jews doctrinally are allowed to use or have this land. This is why Netanyahu, more honest than former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, always has refused to accept the formula "land for peace," and why, at no point in the negotiations, now or in the future, is sovereignty accorded to non-Jews as an admissible concept. I believe these positions also are shared by the "acceptable" Israelis (including the ubiquitous Amos Oz), whose views routinely are aired in the Western media as representative of the peace camp and who do a brilliant job of concealing their real views of Palestinians (which are not so different from Likud's) beneath a carpet of conscience-rending, anguished prose. They never bring up sovereignty for Palestinians either. Yes, many of them (including the egregious Henry Kissinger) speak of having a Palestinian state, which they say they would accept, but never has any of them specified sovereignty and real self-determination for Palestinians. Yes, they say, you can have your little insignificant state, but it must be demilitarized, we will keep our settlements, we will be in charge of security, we will control exits and entrances, the economy and a few other things like water; otherwise you can call it anything you like, even a state. We retain sovereignty in all cases.

Trying to put myself in the shoes of the PLO men who continue to produce such (to put it mildly) disadvantageous agreements that do nothing to change the course of Israeli policy, I keep asking what our leaders must be thinking (they certainly do not do very much talking about what they are up to and share very little with their people beyond the usual triumphalist non- sense). All I can come up with is a series of unflattering rationales for going on as before, with equally bad results and equally tragic consequences for the whole people. One rationale is that so long as the peace process guarantees the centrality of the PLO and its leader, then more or less anything goes. A second rationale is that being so outmaneuvered, outgunned, and out- smarted by Israel, you feel you have no choice but to go on, trying to brazen it out vis-a-vis your own people with a lot of hopeful but ultimately misleading speeches and promises. Meanwhile, you surround yourself with supporters who tell you what you want to hear and are anxious to help you set up more feel-good things like a bagpipe band, a few luxurious cars and houses, postage stamps with your face on them, and so on. The best thing of all is to go on as many state visits (none of them necessary) as possible: one day to Stockholm, another to Paris, next to Beijing, then to Cairo. A third rationale is the tactic of making more concessions, accepting all the humiliating Israeli conditions in the wishful fantasy that some day either you'll stop having to make concessions or the Israelis will give you a few things back. Fourth is the rationale that this is politics, a dirty business, and so we proceed with the Israelis like partners in crime; never mind that they get all the advantages, a lot of commercial deals have come our way.

 There may be one or two more possibilities but none of them explains the Palestinian streets' acceptance of this appalling situation, which seems to be getting worse daily. Many of Arafat's advisers are intelligent men and women, quite a few of them with long histories in progressive politics. Why are they so silent? And why do the most gifted so willingly accept a few material advantages (a car, an office, a position, a VIP designation) in return for continuing to work with a man whose tactics they loathe and whose mistakes over the past few years they know, and have said openly, have brought us as Palestinians and as Arabs to one of the lowest points in our history? Why silence, and why cooperation? Do they feel no obligation toward the truth and for the misery of a people whose continuing dispossession could have been alleviated a thousand times more effectively than the PLO has done?


In the meantime Netanyahu, Madeline Albright, and Dennis Ross will manage the peace process with the same results. Most people in the United States and in Europe genuinely believe that peace has improved things for the "area" and that for the first time in thirty years the Palestinians are getting their freedom. This is the cruelty of the Palestinian dilemma. On the one hand, we want to show that we desire peace, whereas on the other, because of that "peace," the daily lives of all but a tiny handful of wealthy businessmen, security chiefs, and Palestinian Authority employees, has become a good deal worse. Since the summer of 1996, the mainstream media in the United States and Europe (this is equally true of print outlets, radio, and television) have been filled with stories about the diplomatic front, the negotiations, the impasses, and the final breakthroughs and completely void of anything that portrays the reality of Palestinians' lives on the ground. There has been no coverage whatever of the thousands of students in Gaza who cannot go back to their schools and universities on the West Bank (forbidden by Israel); nothing about the large number of Palestinian prisoners still festering (and in some cases being tortured to death) in Israeli prisons; nothing about the horrors that a large family in Gaza with an unemployed father and eight children must go through just to survive; nothing about the systematic, almost daily reprisals against Palestinians who try to prevent their own dispossession by Israeli settlers and army; nothing about what it means for a Palestinian to try to get in and out of Gaza, or the case of all West Bankers who have been forbidden entry into Jerusalem for a year; nothing about the checkpoints that make the little West Bank enclaves seem like stifling ghettos; nothing about life under Arafat's dreadful regime, with books, newspapers, and magazines censored or banned, threats from the security services to average people, corruption on an operatic scale killing the possibility of regular daily business; above all, nothing about the total absence of law or the rule of law in the Palestinian autonomy areas. The New York Times never reports on any of these situations with the kind of frequency that would make them the true background to the diplomatic stories it much prefers to repeat every day. How often do Western news consumers get a chance to see before their eyes the map that Israel has imposed on Palestinians, the crazy, unthinkable patchwork of areas A, B, C, and how Israel has been attempting to destroy even the possibility of a Palestinian national existence?

Given all this, plus of course the sense of frustration and hopelessness felt by every Palestinian at the cruel farce our leaders are forced to enact, it be- comes an absolute duty to describe the actualities of quotidian life under the peace process unadorned and in the greatest detail possible. The world must be told by us what our people under occupation still are going through under the totally misleading reports-Israeli, American, and official Palestinian-of the peace process, whose most recent episode in Hebron is surely one of the most ironically cruel. This is not a matter of money, but of discipline and will. If everyone of us first took it upon himself/herself to be in- formed about what people in Ramallah or Hebron or Bethlehem or Jerusalem are going through and then attempted somehow to break through the official and media silence-a letter to the editor, a call to a radio or television station, the setting up of groups to do this kind of work systematically and collectively-then we will be beginning our attempt at liberation, a minuscule and even laughably modest attempt, it is true, but surely a great deal better than passivity and collective silence. The present situation cannot last. There are too many inequities and injustices right at the heart of Palestinian life, and the Israeli scene, with its mad settlers, religious fanatics, simmeringly angry army brass, inept government, and frustrated well-intentioned civilians who are tired of tension and frustration, is too volatile for another Hebron-style negotiation not to produce more violence, more suffering, more incoherence. Who is preparing for the next phase?


EDWARD W. SAID is University Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and the author of numerous books on a wide range of topics, including Orientalism (1978), The Question of Palestine (1979), Culture and Imperialism (1993), and, most recently, Peace and Its Discontents (1996). This is a revised version of an article that was published in the Guardian, 15 February 1997. 


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