Negotiating or Just Talking?

By Issa Samander

Assad is a farmer from a small village near the northern West Bank town of Tulkarm. The family concern has done well over the years, producing some 12,500 liters of olive oil and three tons of almonds and other produce a year. It has been enough to establish Assad’s family in the middle class and pay for all his children to attend university.

But this year, Assad’s family had to buy olive oil for domestic consumption. Why? Assad’s land, in the illegally Israeli-occupied West Bank, is on the wrong side of Israel’s illegally built wall. He is unable to harvest and unable to reap. His livelihood is devastated through no fault of his own.

Assad is neither unique nor special. His fate is the fate of thousands of Palestinian farmers who greet every statement about progress in negotiations with disdain. They know, we all know, that what is said on the news simply does not reflect what happens on the ground.

So why, when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in town, say it? Why talk of progress when we see ourselves and read about the never-ending expansion of settlements, when we can’t get to work in the morning for roadblocks and checkpoints and when we can’t reach our lands for walls and barbed wire. Why talk of peace? Peace does not consist of a signed document. Peace, here, can only mean an end to occupation.

The illegal Jewish settlements in occupied territory are the first and foremost signifier of occupation. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has proven beyond doubt, ever since this round of negotiations began at Annapolis in November last year, that he is the champion of the settlement enterprise. He has, without shame, stood before the cameras and said as much. His words have been borne out in the recent report by the Israeli organization Peace Now. Olmert is expanding settlements across occupied territory.

Talk of removing "dirt mounds" in areas no one has ever heard of only rubs salt into a festering wound. Talk of gestures that affect no one and relieve no suffering does not appease but provokes. Talk of deploying Palestinian security forces that are under express instructions not to confront the greatest threat to Palestinian lives and livelihoods, the Israeli occupation, does not comfort but enflames, especially when Palestinian security accomplishments in Nablus are undermined at the same time.

So how is it these politicians–American, Israeli as well as Palestinian–can stand before the cameras and smile and talk about progress? Do they actually believe that Palestinians–farmers, students, ambulance drivers, business people, young or old–are fooled for even one second? And if they don’t, do they believe their empty words carry no consequences?

The proof is in the pudding. When we no longer see Israeli bulldozers digging up our land we may believe there is progress. When we can bring our produce to the market without begging permission from the Israeli army, then we may believe there is progress. When we can attend our places of worship, our schools, our hospitals, visit our relatives and travel to neighboring towns and villages without waiting for permission from teenage soldiers in the middle of nowhere, then we may believe there is progress. When we see those nice red-roofed houses that have spread like a cancer across our hilltops start being taken down rather than put up, then we may believe there is progress.

We are a simple people, mostly farmers. We hear promises from the high and mighty and we remember that we’ve heard them before. We remember even better that they never brought us anything. We have long memories, like the trees we plant and they uproot.

Peace will start when the occupation ends. It really is that simple. And until the powers that be in Washington really understand this, negotiations will remain just talk. We need to ensure at the beginning of negotiations that the occupation ends. Then peace can be made between states. An occupied people cannot make peace with its occupier- Published 7/4/2008 © bitterlemons.org

-Issa Samandar is coordinator with the Land Defense General Committees, a grassroots organization that helps Palestinian farmers appeal land confiscations. (This article was originally published in BitterLemons – www.bitterlemons.org)

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