Monday, August 10, 2009

Surveying the Map to Peace

Another Small Step toward solving the Israeli Palestinian Conflict.106

Conflict, especially conflict hosted by “sides” with strongly established disputes, prospers when the details of those disputes are clouded in uncertainty and confusion. Perhaps the most striking example of such disputes centers on matters such as the ownership of land, water rights, access corridors and the like. Both parties have traditional “certainties” as to the legitimacy of their own claims. These may be as obscure as traditional tribal activities (“We have always pastured in the valley since our ancestors.”) The conflict might be based on the results of warfare, where no precise settlement was considered necessary to calm the concerns of the vanquished. On occasion, even simple discrepancies of maps form the basis of such conflicts.

Ownership, historically, almost always falls to the side still inebriated with a recent military victory. After all, claims to title are most easily promoted when all the parties with counter claims have run off to somewhere else. When months and years slip by, lubricating such affairs, ownership returns to the traditional, except the tradition now validates the newer claims of the victor over the vanquished.

The wars at the center of this system need not be formal ones. Insurgents have the same appetites for new “homelands” as the most stridently nationalistic armies in a parade. Once the first shot is fired in anger and fear, the legitimacy of the title is cast onto the “table,” awaiting only the moment when one side or the other can prevail long enough and strongly enough to claim it as a prize. We see it in Iraq at the borderlines between Kurds and Arabs. We see it in Zimbabwe where homeless past residents gaze at their old possessions now comfortably “owned” by some friends of the autocrat. We see the recently relocated white farmers in Kenya, the displaced white apartheids from old Boer South Africa, the Hutus and Tutsies of Rwanda staring from their new homes at their old homes. The list is effectively endless.

No matter the details, such assignments of “rightful ownership” seldom resolve the seemingly perpetual feelings of injury nursed by the relocated, last residents. This is the case with the West Bank. The “old war” which delivered the territory into Israeli hands is only persuasively material to the elders who participated in it. To the modern generation, although still burdened with the task of living with the consequences of the change in ownership, the causes creep into history, becoming much more comfortably academic or legalistic. To the vanquished, those causes remain the open wound, seeping daily venom of hatred and desolation, tales of the “old home” shared relentlessly with the teenagers who already dream of owning a rifle.

Of course, wars do actually change ownership, at least for a while. Peace, on the other hand, seems intent on restoring whatever property rights grow to sufficient value to make a trade seem like “good business.” Insurgencies are, in this day and age, carefully crafted to be just troublesome enough to make such “peace” a bargain for those old victors.

Between the West Bank and the State of Israel there is a border, of sorts. It is not really a traditional border for those who feel that traditions must be older than the Great War which “planted” the border where it is now, but there always remains the question of all the guns. The longer all parties “live” with such a line, the more traditional it becomes. When a generation passes on both sides of that line, too many of the details explaining its exact origin become dusty, established and academic – especially with the winners of the conflict, especially with their children.

There are treaties which define the precise edges of both the State of Israel and the Palestinian West Bank. There is a great concrete wall, now covered with folk art and grafitti, which seems to effortless stray from those treaty lines. There are property disputes with a constant, strange, chilling likelihood of being always resolved in favor of the Israelis. There are desolate, impotent Palestinians sentenced to watch passively as the line of settlement boundaries inches further and further to the East, deeper and deeper into what country remains the West Bank. There are Palestinian teenagers who throw rocks, or worse, who become faces on posters of bloodied martyrs, but the glacial inevitability of the line never even pauses for a breath, never rests through a night. It just creeps ever more deeply into the remnant of the West Bank, leaving in its wake finished, polished symbols of unattainable urban luxury. Losing the land is bad enough, but gazing at the Israeli version of a bar-be-que pit society is salt in those old wounds.

It is clear now that attempts to resolve ownership issues cannot be approached on a "national basis." No matter how positive developments may become on the "state" level, they inevitably fall apart when specific details of the ownership of specific tracts is negotiated. At the opposite end, the rare agreements made between individuals are crushed by the perfect storm of the relentless state conflicts. Judicial rulings, reflecting the unquestionable disparity of firepower, habitually favor the Israeli interests. Some such decisions have commandeered traditional Palestinian property in cases where legal outrages have been brazenly open.

The solution:

Of course, there is no totally encompassing, absolutely guaranteed solution. That existential vacuum of even a possible step forward has become far too valuable an asset on both sides. To the West, it opens real estate for more settlements. To the East, it provides an endless source of more martyrs. Too much blood flowed on that decades ancient day when “ownership” was first changed, and too many scars and scabs have filled the grandfatherly tales of the “old homes and fields.” (Here, please consult an old post on MeanMesaObama's Foreign Policy for the 21st Century: How Can We Help? However, even amid this current pathos there seems to be a possible starting point.

The carefully (by both sides) crafted confusion about the ownership of what remains of the Palestinian lands must cease. Little pockets of disputed title which gradually grow into rock throwing and gun fire are simply priced too high. The proposition is simple enough: a survey.

For any MeanMesa visitor with the experience of “purchasing right of way,” the full scope of establishing title and purchasing a thousand little bits of land for a new road way is clear enough. Hundreds of legal descriptions of land concessions of a thousand square feet, condemnation hearings, legal challenges and all the rest can turn a right of way project into a career. Nonetheless, the project must be completed. At the end of it, every disgruntled land owner must be satisfied or, at least, nearly satisfied, before the six lanes of the magnificent new urban collector can be built.

As a first step -- and a workable first step might actually mean a great deal -- the existing claims of ownership of every tract of the disputed territory can be researched, surveyed and formalized. This is the task required at the outset for resolving the border dispute between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The entire West Bank must be surveyed. Every land claim from either side to any part of the territory must be recorded, codified, investigated and resolved. The precise property lines of those tracts, and the long series of broken treaties which mangled them, must become common, accepted knowledge made material with surveyors' hubs and the stakes denoting property lines. Once this Herculean task is complete, the ownership matter descends to its inevitable Court fight, a desolate swamp of litigation. Here, though, we can see enough history of Israeli court decisions to know that both the survey and the resolution of ownership claims must be decided by an uninterested third party authority, perhaps the United Nations.

Both parties must agree beforehand on the process. This would not be an agreement on the outcome of the challenged ownership, just an acceptance of the results of the survey and the litigation. Once the precise picture of disputed land claims becomes highly defined, specific questions of ownership claims can be addressed with the hope of resolving the conflict.

We all know, now, the value of resolving this conflict. We also have a well seasoned understanding of those whose interests will suffer most when the present confusion is removed. After all, we have endured the bombs, bullets and convenient lies of all the players for a few generations of dead Americans, Israelis and Palestinians – enough generations of all of the dead. It is foolish to allow the fuse, always either lit or smouldering, of the next conflict to hide in the ill defined confusion of irreconcilable land disputes -- especially when, not only the ownership has not been settled, but the terms and details of the dispute are in dispute.

So? Let's plunge the UN into the field survey business and get on with it.

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