MIDDLE EAST: Pivotal Issues

February 16, 2005

Backgrounder
Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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Why have Palestinian prisoners and the West Bank security fence become the central issues of the Arab-Israeli peace process?

Neither issue is part of the so-called road map, the internationally backed peace plan the Palestinians and Israelis have agreed to implement. But Palestinian militants have made demands for the prisoners’ release from Israeli jails and a halt to construction of the fence conditions for maintaining a ceasefire, announced June 29, that has dramatically reduced violence in the region. In backing the militants’ calls, some experts say, Palestinian and U.S. officials have indirectly allowed organizations that have supported terror--Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Fatah--to become players in the peace process.

Does the focus on Palestinian prisoner releases and the Israeli security fence threaten to derail the road map?

Yes. Both issues, though explosive, have to be dealt with at some point, says Aaron Miller, a long-time U.S. negotiator in the Arab-Israeli conflict and the president of Seeds of Peace, a nonprofit organization that aids children in conflict zones. But focusing on them now delays progress on returning to the negotiating table to deal with more central issues, such as freezing Israeli settlements, withdrawing the Israeli army from the West Bank, and cracking down on terror.

"Prisoners have always been a central issue in the Arab-Israeli peace process, but it’s a very divisive issue that almost never leads to increased confidence [between Israelis and Palestinians]," Miller says. "It’s a loser issue."

Does the Bush administration support the release of all Palestinian prisoners?

No. President Bush has said he, like the Israelis, does not support the release of those Palestinians who are likely to commit terrorist acts once they are released or those with "blood on their hands" from prior involvement in terror attacks. But he has applauded moves by Israelis to release some of the hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons who are being held for lesser offenses or without charge. Some 500 prisoners have been released by Israel since early June--334 of them in the past week.

Why do U.S. officials support the release of any prisoners?

Because, some experts say, they want to shore up support for Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who has taken up the highly emotional issue in an effort to increase his standing among the Palestinians. The administration distrusts Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat and instead deals directly with Abbas.

Why is the prisoners’ release a sensitive issue for Palestinians?

Because many Palestinians know one or more prisoners, says Miller. There are between 5,500 and 7,000 Palestinians now in Israeli jails, according to most estimates. As of July 3, 763 of these were "administrative detainees," who under Israeli law can be held for six months without charge; the six-month detention can be renewed indefinitely. Of the recently released prisoners, 161 were administrative detainees, according to the Israeli Defense Forces.

Why has the West Bank security fence become an issue?

Largely because the barrier--an ongoing construction project of concrete walls, electric fencing, and barbed wire that Israeli officials say is vital to keeping suicide bombers out of Israel--is not being built along the generally accepted "Green Line" border between Israel and the West Bank, but is snaking into territory Palestinians consider their own. In doing so, it is placing Israeli settlement communities built in the Palestinian territories on the Israeli side of the fence and isolating some Palestinian villages from the West Bank. Palestinians fear the barrier is preemptively defining the border of a future Palestinian state; Israel denies this.

What’s the general route of the fence?

According to some non-governmental organizations that monitor the issue, the barrier would encircle a wide zone containing most of the Palestinian population centers and 40 percent to 50 percent of the land in the West Bank. So far, about one-quarter of the projected 350-mile fence has been completed; construction began in August 2002.

What’s the U.S. position on the barrier?

President Bush, in a Rose Garden news conference with Prime Minister Abbas July 25, called it "a problem," and U.S. officials are reportedly working with Israeli officials to reduce the fence’s impact on the lives of the Palestinians, likely by modifying its course. On the other hand, U.S. officials have not insisted that construction stop, nor do they appear willing to make the fence a major point of contention with the Israelis. Broadly put, U.S. officials appear to feel that Israel has a right to build a wall along the 1967 Green Line to increase its security, but object to Israel’s attempt to define boundaries unilaterally.

What have Palestinian leaders said about the barrier?

Abbas and Arafat say the wall in its current form must go. "If the settlement activities in Palestinian land and the construction of the so-called separation wall on confiscated Palestinian land continue," Abbas said at the White House July 25, "we might soon find ourselves at a situation where the foundation of peace, a free Palestinian state, living side-by-side in peace and security with Israel, is a factual impossibility. For the sake of peace… all settlement activities must be stopped now and the wall must come down," he said.

Would Abbas and Arafat accept a wall built along the Green Line?

It’s unclear; this possibility has not been discussed formally by the Israelis and Palestinians.

How much progress is being made on the key road map issues: freezing Israeli settlements and cracking down on Palestinian terror groups?

Very little, experts say. On the issue of settlements, Israel has dismantled about a dozen "illegal outposts" built outside of Israeli government-approved settlements in the West Bank and has pledged to remove all 100 or so outposts built since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took office in 2001, as dictated by the road map. But construction of new homes has continued in formal settlements, says Geoffrey Aronson, the director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.

On the Palestinian side, leaders have said they will not confiscate weapons from or arrest members of Hamas or other terror groups while they are observing the ceasefire— a move they fear would lead to civil war. "I cannot go after Hamas now while they are committed to the truce," Palestinian Security Minister Muhammad Dahlan said July 29. This has infuriated Israelis, who say they will not push for more concessions from settlers or cede security control of the West Bank to the Palestinians until they see a crackdown against the Palestinian extremists.

How long will the June 29 ceasefire last?

Hamas and Islamic Jihad agreed to a three-month truce, providing a series of written conditions are met by the Israelis. Yasir Arafat’s Fatah movement, in a separate document, agreed to a six-month ceasefire, if additional conditions are met.

What are Islamic Jihad and Hamas’s ceasefire demands?

An immediate end to all forms of Israeli "aggression" against Palestinians. That is defined as the destruction of Palestinian property, closures of cities, limitations on President Arafat--now confined by Israeli soldiers to his Ramallah compound--confiscation of land, and the arrests and targeted assassination of militants. The demands also call for the release of all Palestinian and Arab prisoners without condition.

What are Fatah’s demands?

In addition to the above, Fatah calls for the "separation wall" being built by the Israelis to be removed, and an end to the building of settlements. They also want Israeli troops to immediately begin to withdraw to positions they occupied before the current intifada, or armed Palestinian uprising, began in September 2000, and call specifically for the quick implementation of the road map, to be overseen by international monitors.

How do these demands compare to what’s in the road map?

The road map, a three-phased plan that’s meant to lead to the creation of a Palestinian state and progress toward regional peace by 2005, calls for an immediate end to violence by both sides as its first step. But unlike the current ceasefire agreements, it demands from Palestinian militants "an immediate and unconditional ceasefire to end all armed activity and acts of violence against Israelis anywhere." It also calls on the Palestinians to undertake "visible efforts on the ground to arrest, disrupt, and restrain individuals and groups planning violent attacks on Israelis" and begin operations to confront and dismantle terror groups.

Regarding the settlements, Israel is to immediately dismantle settlement outposts erected since March 2001 and freeze all settlement activity, including so-called "natural growth" of settlements--a phrase that broadly refers to new construction within settlements to accommodate the children of current settlers and other needs. Israel is also required to withdraw progressively from areas occupied since September 2000.

How can the peace process move beyond the prisoner issue and back to the elements of the road map?

Many Mideast experts say it will take an increased focus on negotiations and diplomacy, mediated by the United States and other nations, to push both sides toward peace. The road map alone does not say in what order each side should take most steps--it lists benchmarks that must be met on the way toward the final goal of two states, Palestine and Israel, existing in peace. The basic problem of which side should go first on the most divisive issues has not yet been addressed, and without this, some experts fear the current calm in the Middle East is deceptive and dangerous.

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