Price of peace
Amit Agnihotri analyses the legacy of the historic Abraham Accords, signed in August 2020, and documents the obstacles to peace in this volatile region
Peace is a priceless commodity for the residents of the occupied West Bank and while a new agreement between warring neighbours Palestine and Israel has generated fresh hopes of a lasting peace in the region, such aspirations may soon evaporate.
The West Bank, an area in which around 2.9 million Palestinians and about 4.75 lakh Jews live, recently came under the spotlight following a spike in violence that sent alarm bells ringing in the US.
This outbreak of violence forced the White House to seek the good offices of regional powers Egypt and Jordan to thrash out a peace plan. The talks,which took place under the shadow of hostilities, were held in the Red Sea resort of Aqaba.
Violence is not new to the occupied West Bank; the area has been hit by similar bloodshed over many years, claiming the lives of both Jews and Palestinians.
The conflict dates back to 1967, when Israel fought a six-day war with the Palestinians and captured territory in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
Since then, Israel has continued to build Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, much to the fury of Palestinians. According to latest estimates, the settler population in the occupied territories has reached around 7 lakhs.
The Palestinians themselves are divided into two major armed groups: the Palestinian Authority on one hand, based in the West Bank, and, on the other, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip – an area which is largely controlled by Hamas. All three militant factions hope to establish an independent Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem.
In cities like Jenin and Nablus, which have been hit by communal violence over the years, several small resistance groups have begun to emerge,thus making matters worse.
Egypt is significant in this conflict in terms of its influence over Hamas,while Jordan is relevant insofar as the Royal Hashemite Family is the custodian of Muslim and Christian sites in Jerusalem – sites which are sacred to Jews as well.
For the people of the occupied West Bank, this fresh wave of violence is an uncomfortable reminder of last year’s fighting around the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem.The mosque is an area of contention and anger for Jews, as they are not allowed to pray there
In January, Israel’s security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, visited the Islamic shrine in an act of defiance, generating fears of an escalation in violence and promptingcalls from Jordan for restraint on both sides.
The Palestinians were further provoked when, on February 12, Israel retroactively authorisednine Jewish settler outposts in the occupied West Bank and announced a major construction programme of new homes within the established settlements.
The United Nations Security Council, concerned by the spiralling violence, issued a formal statement denouncing Israel’s plan to expand settlements in the occupied territory and the new peace agreement was signed in Jordan shortly afterwards.
Before the ink had even dried on the Aqaba agreement, the future of peace in the region was beginning to look bleak as Israel, which had been expected to make plans to stop Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, began to issue statements authorising their construction.
Indeed, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said that new settlements in the occupied West Bank would not be paused and Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotrich, who is in charge of the West Bank settlements, refused to implement any plan to halt construction.
This was terrible news for Mahmoud Abbas,President of the Palestinian Authority, who had joined the peace talks despite criticism from other hard-line groups.
‘The decision to take part in the Aqaba meeting, despite the pain and massacres being endured by the Palestinian people, comes from a desire to bring an end to the bloodshed,” PA said on Twitter after Hamas, which had fought a bitter 11-day war with Israel in 2021, questioned the meeting saying it would not change anything on the ground.
When stakeholders met again at Egypt’s Sharm-el-Sheikh to move the Aqaba peace pact forward, similar communications in the run up to the month of Ramzan left the peaceniks bewildered.
Israel and Palestine have been locked in a bitter battle for survival for decades and international efforts over the past 25 years have failed to bring about a peacefulsolution.
Resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict remains a major challenge for the US, which is trying hard to bring about peace in West Asia and although Palestine recognisedthe state of Israel as part of the 1993 Oslo accords, lasting peace is still elusive.
Indeed, peace talks have stalled since 2014 and Palestinians have said that Jewish settlement expansion has undermined the chances of a viable state being established.
In 2020, the US-brokeredAbraham Accords – aimed at repairing Israel’s relations with the Arab world – were signed off. Since then, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco have established diplomatic relations with Israelalongside Egypt and Jordan,the only Arab nations previously to have had arelationship with Israel.
In practice, the Abraham Accords mean that there is no need for Tel Aviv to maintain clandestine relations with the Arab nations and Israel can now do business with them openly.
The Palestinians, however,view the Abraham Accords as a betrayal by the Arab nations, who had promised to only normalise relations with Israel after the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
For the US, an open relationship between these Arab countries and Israel suits its policy vis-a-vis Iran, which continues to pose a challenge to Washington’s influence in the strategic West Asian region.
In this regard, Israel, a known US ally in West Asia, has accused Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons and says a nuclear-armed Islamic nation would pose an existential threat to the Jewish state. Tehran denies this charge.
Although Iran had joined an international nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Actionin 2015, former US President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled out of the agreement three years later.
Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden’s effortsto revive the 2015 nuclear deal and convince Iran not to pursue its weapon’s upgrade program have failed.
As Biden thanked Jordan’s King Abdullah for ‘convening the historic gathering’ at Aqaba, the White House National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, sounded more pragmatic when he described the new peace agreement as a ‘starting point’ and noted that its ‘implementation will be critical.’
It would seem, therefore, that the road to lasting peace between Israel and Palestine will be a long and rocky one.
Amit Agnihotri is a Delhi-based journalist who has worked with several national newspapers and focuses on politics and policy issues