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Lifting travel restrictions still maintains the status quo

Are we in the “managing the conflict” phase? Two recent decisions by the state of Israel both point clearly in the direction of managing a crisis rather than solving it, but they will not help in either.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said on the eve of the Knesset elections that no Palestinian state will see the light on his watch, has closed down every avenue possible for a two-state solution.

While the Palestinian government has maintained an iron clad-security mechanism in cooperation with the Israelis, this has not lessened Palestinian efforts at nonviolent resistance. Every Friday dozens of demonstrations against the wall and settlements, and in favour of an independent state take place throughout occupied Palestine. And every week these relatively nonviolent protests are put down by the Israelis with violence, causing injury and in some cases death.

Efforts at boycotts, divestments and sanctions (BDS) which have gained international traction have been dubbed anti-Semitic by a state that has occupied Palestinians for decades and practices institutional discrimination and racism.

The thousands of travel permits that were distributed to Palestinians on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan have produced a lot of discussions about Israel’s motive. In addition to travel to Jerusalem and Israel, the Israelis allowed 500 Palestinians from the West Bank to travel by way of Ben Gurion Airport, an option denied to Palestinians for 15 years. Men over 40 were allowed into Jerusalem without a permit and 300 Palestinians from Gaza were even given special permits to visit the Holy City. Marketed as goodwill gestures, they appear to reflect an internal Israeli decision to manage the conflict, laying the foundations for an even longer and more protracted occupation than many expect.

Israel’s “benevolence” received mixed reactions from Palestinians. The thousands who entered Jerusalem reflected with their feet the reaction that the move was badly needed relief from the restrictions of the occupation. Others argued that the Israeli actions were a public relations exercise to buy time and avoid dealing with the real issues that have to be confronted vis-a-vis the need to end the occupation. A third, but smaller, reaction came from some businessmen who felt that the decision benefited the Israelis and hurt the Palestinian economy because those allowed into Israel are expected to do their shopping there rather than at home.

The festive atmosphere was best captured in the many lights that adorned the gates and walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. Palestinians from the West Bank, many of whom had not been allowed to travel into the Holy City for years walked in bewilderment around the ancient streets.

This excitement at being in Jerusalem and praying in Al-Aqsa Mosque during the month of Ramadan was short-lived. A series of violent acts that left one Palestinian dead and another in a critical condition, caused a security crackdown in the towns where the Palestinians involved came from. However, this collective punishment didn’t have much of an effect on the festivities that have continued unabated as thousands of Palestinians flock into the historic city.

This and other reasons reflect Israel’s desire to obfuscate and avoid dealing with the local, regional and international calls for an end to its occupation of Palestinian lands. This strategic thinking by Israel is certainly not simply meant to reverse earlier oppressive and restrictive policies. It conveys an understanding that keeping the lid screwed down on a hostile Palestinian population, especially during Ramadan, will only produce an explosion somewhere down the line. This means that some of the extreme security criteria that govern the way that Israel decides on issues such as travel permits for Palestinians need to be relaxed as the Israelis entrench themselves even deeper in the occupied territories.

The fact that both Israel and the Palestinians have little confidence in a negotiated settlement will certainly play into the hands of various political forces that want to change the rules of the game. If this policy continues it will require a Palestinian response that is just as different and strategic. The idea that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will be resolved by a little more political or diplomatic intervention here and there will no longer work. A much deeper and effective policy is required that can look at long term responses and produce the desired Palestinian change of the status quo.

Lessening travel restrictions will not only continue for some time but will probably become more institutionalised and include some further changes at the border crossings with Jordan and between Gaza and the West Bank. For now it is safe to say that the current situation in Palestine will continue for the foreseeable future with little or no major changes on the ground.

Daoud Kuttab is an award winning Palestinian columnist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. Follow him on twitter.com/daoudkuttab

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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