Johann Hari: Palestinians should now declare their independence

Benjamin Netanyahu has responded to the US request with a big concrete slap

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Could the Israeli government make it any more obvious they have no intention of sharing the Over-Promised Land with its other inhabitants?

This week the Obama administration – who give Israel $3bn a year, more than they dole out to any other nation on earth – made a meek and craven request for Israelis to simply have a pause in seizing even more land, and to sit down with the Palestinians. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded with a big concrete slap: the announcement of 1,600 more homes to be built on occupied Palestinian land from which Arabs will be forcibly kept out. He has made it plain he will not loosen his grip by an inch, announcing: "Even if [Palestinian President] Abu Mazen comes along and says he's ready to sign a peace deal on the spot, we will restore settlement construction to its previous levels." No compromise. Never.

How does this look to the Palestinians? Their story is so rarely explained without disinformation that it still seems startling when it is stated plainly. Until 1948, the Palestinians were living in their own homes, on their own land – until they were suddenly driven out in a war to make way for a new state for people fleeing a monstrous European genocide. They lived huddled and dazed in the 20 per cent of their land they were allowed to keep. They hardly fought back: they wept and dreamed of return. Then in the 1967 war, even these small strips were conquered with tanks and platoons.

Day by day since then, the remaining Palestinian land has been taken and given to fundamentalist settlers who claim it was given to them by God. They watched while Israeli Prime Ministers said they didn't exist – "there are no Palestinians", announced Golda Meir – or described them as animals: Menachem Begin called them "beasts walking on two legs", while Yitzhak Shamir said they should be "crushed like grasshoppers... heads smashed against the boulders and walls." They tried peacefully resisting, launching a programme of sit-downs and civil disobedience. Yitzhak Rabin responded by ordering the occupying Israeli army to "break their bones." After decades of this treatment, they fought back with violence – some of it targeted horribly and unacceptably at Israeli civilians.

And so today – with the active support of the governments of the Western world – the Palestinians live in a permanent military headlock. They are split in two. The Gaza Strip is blockaded on all sides, its population of 1.5 million imprisoned in a cramped, collapsing concrete maze the size of the Isle of Wight. For nearly three years, the essentials of life have been slowly choked off, in a process one Israeli official described with a chuckle as "putting the Palestinians on a diet". The items blocked from coming in include pasta and children's exercise books. The UN has shown that 70 per cent of Gazans are living on less than $1 a day, and 60 per cent have no daily access to clean water. Every time I go there, I think it can't be worse, yet it is. They used to use cars. Now it's donkeys.

On the West Bank, the land-theft continues. To protect the settlers and their programme of taking Palestinian land, there is a huge military infrastructure, made up of check-points and random searches and settler-only roads. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Richard Ben Cramer offers one story he witnessed that typifies and distils life on the West Bank: "One school headmaster, a dignified elder man, who passed the same checkpoint on his way to school every morning, was made to undress – not once but often – and stand naked while his students passed by. This was richly humorous [to the occupying soldiers]."

There is a solution. Everyone knows it: divide the land. There are two peoples – the Palestinians and the Israelis. Let them live in two states, with 1967 borders, with full compensation for the victims of 1948. Although it is painful to accept swathes of your own dispossession, the Palestinian leadership has supported this programme since 1978, and even Hamas – the ugly fundamentalist group – tacitly accepts it. Yet it has not been offered to the Palestinians. Every time they have sat down to negotiate, even more has been stolen from them: settler numbers doubled during the Oslo "peace process". It culminated in an offer of a series of broken Batustans controlled forever by Israel – one no Palestinian leader could accept.

And now there is an endless ratchet. Swathes of East Jerusalem are being turned into biblical heritage theme parks and settler-belts that cut the city off from the West Bank. In 2008, 4,600 Palestinians lost their residency papers and so were expelled from the city, 20 times more than the year before.

For a long time, I believed that the Israeli people – with their own history of unimaginable suffering – would change their behaviour on their own. They would surely reject life as eternal jailer, after the jail cells they have end-ured. They would surely see that this process of slow strangulation would only make Palestinians more determined to fight back. If nothing else, they would surely see that the Palestinians would – because of their higher birth-rate – soon be a majority between the Jordan river and the sea, and there was no future for Israel as a Jewish minority ruling over a Palestinian majority like some 1980s Afrikaaner tribute band.

While there are some heroic Israelis who argue back – Gideon Levy, David Grossman, Uri Avnery, Gush Shalom, my military refusenik friends – they are disappointingly few. It may be that surviving the most horrific atrocities doesn't make you compassionate, but more often makes you hard, and paranoid. It may make you see the ghost of your murderer even in your victims: Adolf Hitler in a Gazan child. I think of the survivors of the Rwandan genocide I have known, who promptly charged off to pillage Congo, killing millions.

There is very little the Palestinians can do to change their situation alone. They are virtually disarmed, with a few rockets and some stone-throwing kids, against the fourth most powerful army on earth. But international pressure – applied intelligently, without hyperbole – can strengthen their hand, and the Palestinians are considering a move that would catalyse it. They are considering a unilateral declaration of independence, and an appeal for the world to recognise them as a state. It wouldn't cause the occupation to vanish – but it would make the situation plain for all to see. They are a people; they deserve a state, as much as the British or the Israelis. Netanyahu talks about the dangers of Israel being wiped from the map, yet Palestine is being wiped from the map every day by his tanks and his guns. Why should they have to "earn" their right to their own land by proving obedience to an abusive foreign power?

Western governments support this erasure of Palestine: the EU with diplomacy and arms sales and by providing Israel with its largest markets, and the US with hard cash. A declaration of Palestinian independence would force them to either defend that position to (mostly appalled) electorates, or change it. Already, France's Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, has hinted that he would feel obliged to support a declaration. Would Obama veto the creation of a Palestinian state at the UN Security Council?

Netanyahu is clearly panicked. The negotiators would meet as one head of state to another – rather than as a broken supplicant appealing to his master. He has angrily declared that the Palestinians will face "consequences" if they choose this path, including the annexation of settlement blocks. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saed Erekat replied: "The purpose of such a move is to keep hope alive... We're fed up with your time-wasting. We don't believe you really want a two-state solution."

The Palestinians want the same freedom that the Jews pined for – a safe home of their own. They should declare independence. Then it is up to us – the watching billions – to pressure our governments to make it real, rather than a howl in the dark.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

To read Johann Hari's expose of the leading American conservation groups - and how they sold out the environment - click here

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