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Opportunity to miss an opportunity

Israel | A war anniversary and stepped-up negotiations haven't changed the Israeli-Palestinian equation

Issue: "Shattered dreams," April 5, 2008

JERUSALEM-Patriotic Israelis this year are celebrating the 40th anniversary of their defense against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan that expanded their national boundaries-an engagement they call the "Six Day War." Many foreign reporters and aid groups in the region prefer to call it the "Middle East War of 1967" and are more skeptical of Israeli interests that want to occupy and possibly even expand the territories they seized in 1967 in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights.

The anniversary comes with renewed tension as the death count in the occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank continues to mount and as the politics of occupation become more difficult for Israeli leaders to navigate and a lightning rod for criticism in the West.

The 75 percent Jewish population in Israel is split over what to do with the Jewish settlers who have set up small villages in the largely Palestinian territories in hopes of colonizing the regions for Israel. Ill will runs high between the 380,000 settlers and their 4 million or so Palestinian neighbors.

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In the conflict between Palestinians and the Israeli soldiers forced to guard many of the settlements (and to prevent terrorism from emerging from the West Bank and Gaza Strip), the number of Palestinians killed between 2000 and 2006 has increased to 4,046-up 171 percent from 1,491 between 1987 and 2000. The number of Israelis killed has also increased to 1,019-up 141 percent from 422 in 1987 to 2000. As a result, Israel put up 710 roadblocks in the territories in 2004, according to the UN.

Those numbers are in part what spurs the Bush administration, with Vice President Dick Cheney in the West Bank last month and President Bush scheduled for another visit, to press for more robust peace negotiations. Despite warmer relations, the stakes-and obstacles-remain high.

"The Arabs never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity for peace," says an Israeli reserve army captain and tour guide in the region-in a sentiment shared by many Israelis. They believe the roadblocks and military occupation are necessary to maintain security, prevent terrorism, and protect the nation of Israel.

But some Israelis disagree. "Israel extracted more than it invested [in Palestine]," said Neve Gordon, a professor in politics and government at Ben Gurion University in Israel. "It doesn't let the Palestinian economy stand on its own two feet."

Israel purposefully does not monitor the standard of living of Palestinians, said Gordon. Other research shows that roughly 52 percent of Palestinians live below the poverty line as the myriad roadblocks make commerce difficult for farmers and other small business owners.

Per capita gross domestic product (GDP)-a basic indicator of economic growth-has fallen 40 percent for Palestinians since 2000, largely as a result of fewer Palestinians working in Israeli territories. That is down from 10 percent GDP growth rates between 1996 and 1999, three times the growth rate of Israel.

Israel's economy, however, has hummed at a 5 percent growth rate for the past four years. The currency of the shekel has gained 31 percent against the dollar in the past two years, unemployment is at the lowest level in the past decade, and the country has reduced its debt.

While a more conciliatory leadership has risen up in the Palestinians' Fatah political party, led by Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, and is interested in peace discussions with Israel, the more radical Hamas militant group has gained power in the region and continues campaigns of violence.

Many international-relations experts want Israel to give back the occupied territories as suggested by international law. Some ultra-Orthodox Jews and zealous settlers would like a theocracy and to see the boundaries of Israel expand. But, at the same time, many Israelis suggest doing so would just bring more aggression: "Almost no Palestinian will accept that the Jewish people have any national or historical rights to a state alongside Palestine; almost no Israeli will reject the right of Palestinians to build a peaceful and democratic state alongside Israel. This gargantuan gap is what prevents peace," reads a March editorial in the Jerusalem Post.

A survey in the same newspaper indicates that 50 percent of Jews don't want Arabs living in their neighborhoods, while 56 percent of the Arab public is OK with living in Jewish neighborhoods. Fifty-four percent of Jews said they had no Arab friends while 19 percent of Arabs said they had no Jewish friends.

"The occupied territories are Israel's ghetto and Lebanon is its frontier," said Gordon during a recent speech at Columbia University in New York. Israel's war with Lebanon in 2006 was largely viewed as a flop, and many Israelis are disappointed with current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert-approval ratings dipped as low as 3 percent-for his handling of it.

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