Gershon Baskin wishes that thousands of Israelis and Palestinians could join him and walk the Green Line in search of understanding and peace. They too would have the opportunity to experience the real possibilities for creating neighborly relations that would benefit both peoples.
Walking (and driving) the Green Line for three days this past week from Mt. Gilboa to Gush Etzion provided a unique opportunity to feel the pulse of the country, to reflect on its natural beauty and to assess the realities shaped on both sides of the border by the separation barrier.
Days prior to the journey, I participated in the Palestinian Investment Conference in Bethlehem that brought together close to 2000 participants from the West Bank and Gaza, Israel and the rest of the world. The Bethlehem Intercontinental Hotel and the newly opened Palestinian Convention Center in Bethlehem were overwhelmed by the huge turnout of participants who came to voice their support for normalcy, stability, and peace. The Palestinian Authority did an outstanding job to ensure real security and order for all of the local and foreign delegates and dignitaries, including the 50 Israeli business and community leaders who attended. The conference, initiated by Prime Minister Salam Fayad and Tony Blair, was an inspiration and a vote of confidence in the peace process and in the business of building a Palestinian state living in peace next to Israel.
The Green Line and the separation barrier in the northern section of the West Bank are one in the same. Admittedly the barrier is a clear wound in the pastoral beauty of the area, but the sense of security that it provides to both Israelis and Palestinians can be felt and witnessed by speaking with residents on both sides.
Israelis and Palestinians alike, in that part of the country, acknowledge that it is not yet possible or wise to re-establish an open border but note that at some time in the future, once there is real peace, it would be desirable. In the meantime, the lack of a border dispute in the area has enabled a process of fruitful dialogue and mutual planning that will bring great benefits to both populations.
Danny Atar, the mayor of the Gilboa Regional Council, and Kaddoura Mousa, the governor of the Jenin district in the Palestinian Authority, have reached a set of wide-ranging understandings and plans for the economic and social development of the area that will produce thousands of new jobs and will cement stability and security on both sides of the border. The sealed border has not prevented the opening of dialogue, negotiations, joint planning and a shared vision for the future.
The northern part of the West Bank is devoid of Israeli settlements. This fact has made it possible to construct the separation barrier on the Green Line. The Palestinians have made it 100% clear in their negotiations with Israel that the Green Line is their point of reference. The 1949 armistice line awarded the State of Israel with roughly 78% of the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. In their acceptance of the Oslo Accord, the Palestinians have continually asserted their acceptance of Israel in 78% of the land while they have demanded that the State of Palestine must be created in the remaining 22%.
YASSER ARAFAT accepted the principle of land swaps that would enable Israel to annex portions of the West Bank where large settlement blocks exist in exchange for parcels of land west of the Green Line in equal quantity and quality. President Abbas has adhered to that principle in the current negotiations. Palestinians state that in Oslo they made a concession on 78% of the land; they are not willing to negotiate on the remaining 22%. Accept this claim or not, in my assessment this is a Palestinian `red line` in the negotiations. There will be no agreement unless the State of Palestine will be established in 22% of the land.
THE SETTLEMENTS throughout the rest of the West Bank have created an untenable reality for both peoples there. After visiting the Palestinian village of Bil`in on the outskirts of the Modi`in Elite (Kiryat Sefer) settlement, we decided to return to Jerusalem on the Palestinian roads. Highway 443 is minutes away and the drive to Jerusalem would have taken some 20 minutes, but instead, after arriving at the blocked entrance to Highway 443, we continued on the roads that provide the Palestinians with the `transportation contiguity` of which Israelis governments have boasted to the US administration.
The countryside is breathtaking. The roads are narrow, winding and dangerous. There is no way possible to build a modern economy and to realize the promise of the Bethlehem Investment Conference without having access to modern infrastructure. The drive back to Jerusalem took over 90 minutes. If we had wanted to continue on to Ramallah or to Bethlehem, the two other main cities in the area, it would have taken considerably more time.
The closure of the main West Bank roads to Palestinians and the development of what they call the `apartheid transportation network` is a result of the existence of Israeli settlements adjacent to their villages, towns and cities. This system of separate roads enables the Israeli settlers to visualize their life in the West Bank as being devoid of Palestinians. When we were on top of the Gilboa, a group of girls from the Kedumim settlement was touring the area. From the top of Mt. Barkan, the topmost hill of the Gilboa ridge, the settlers` tour guide gazed out at the Jenin valley filled with Palestinian villages and described the view of `Ein Ganin` and the Israeli settlements in the distance, almost completely out of range. She did not make any mention of the thousands of Palestinians living just below except for commenting on the strategic and religious importance of holding onto this land.
THE RESIDENTS of Bil`in and hundreds of other Palestinian communities in the West Bank are filled with anger. They seek good neighborly relations with their Israeli neighbors, but not on the expense of their land. The High Court of Israel has ruled to move the separation barrier that has stolen so much agricultural land from the residents of Bil`in. The Ministry of Defense claims that there are no funds to implement the decision of the Court. Meanwhile the victims of the Heftsiba scandal have occupied their homes on Bil`in`s land making the other Court decision into a mockery of justice. Every week the separation barrier in Bil`in turns into a war zone, while in the Jenin area, the separation barrier will shortly become a common economic development zone of peace, security and prosperity.
THESE MICRO snap shots should shed some light on the macro picture. The lessons should be clear. I wish that thousands of Israelis and Palestinians could join with me and walk the Green Line in search of understanding and peace. They too would have the opportunity to experience the real possibilities for creating neighborly relations that would benefit both peoples.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.