Peace between Palestinians and Israelis? Open borders in a manner similar to the EU one day? Is it possible? As the grim gruesomeness of the nightmare in Gaza winds down, many understandably have doubts for a lasting peace, let alone open borders. However, if a new era of peace can be envisioned and be carried out in an innovative manner, there is hope for progress like never before.
For too long we have seen the absence of progress and hope. Far too much tragedy has occurred since my initial visit to the Holy Land in 1998. Over the years, I have seen the divide widen evermore between Palestinians and Israelis in its reduction to name calling, sloganeering, stereotypes, racism, and horrific violence. When a collective desire evolves to end the endless bloodshed, perhaps then peace will come and will be sustained.
Regardless of the minutiae involved in whatever politicking and deal-making that may come to pass in any subsequent peace negotiations, I continue to hope, for the broader sake of peace, that there will one day be an internationally planned and supported, Palestinian-led expansion into the Sinai Peninsula.
There is not much there now in northeastern Sinai, save the small city of Arish. Much in the way of sustainable development could be undertaken from the Gaza Strip until Arish’s outskirts. Envision a new Palestine with a gorgeous Singapore-like capital on the sea dipping down in a shape resembling Florida. It stretches into southern Sinai and the Gulf of Aqaba. Taba and south of it some: all are Palestinian territory. It would be an independent, democratic Palestinian state with access to the present West Bank and East Jerusalem.
As far-fetched and incredulous as it sounds now, Israel may well one day invest in such a Palestine’s development, as might Egyptian, Palestinian, Jordanian, and other international counterparts. The Union for the Mediterranean may also feel compelled to spearhead sustainable development in partnership with other agencies as well as increase the call for foreign direct investment. The results could be amazing.
Imagine an underground tunnel someday, train and vehicle capable, from Gaza to the West Bank south of Hebron, under joint Israeli-Palestinian control. (Quite hard to fathom now I know, due to the reality of the events on the ground as I write, in this most bellicose summer of 2014). From the south of Hebron, there could be transportation links to the greater West Bank and East Jerusalem. Such infrastructure would provide a major economic boost to Gaza and to the West Bank in confluence.
In pursuit of a new vision of Palestine, the West Bank and East Jerusalem would formally become Israeli territory as a special administrative region and remain multicultural in character. Freedom of movement would be allowed to and fro for those Palestinians who stayed as permanent residents; if they so chose, they could also apply for Israeli citizenship. In either scenario, they would be free to travel to, develop, and contribute to the development of the new Palestine.
The economic development of Gaza and greater Palestine would bring welcomed opportunities for many. The West Bank, as Israeli territory, would ostensibly increase the wealth of the Palestinian residents there as development grew due to Israeli migration, allowing those residents to grow the economy of greater Palestine in turn. Israel would have strategies, incentives, as well as investments in place to foster the success of such a Palestine. What major risks exist in this scenario? What threats abound?
A democratic Palestinian state in Sinai would not by virtue of its existence pose an intrinsic existential threat to Israel. With new freedoms given to Palestinians and no punitive restriction of movement between East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, and greater Palestine, the risks present are mitigated due to Israel proper still having secure borders in place.
Immigration control into greater Israel, in preservation of its largely Jewish identity and character, while having more multicultural districts in East Jerusalem and the Judea and Samaria Area, is my essential outlook. There would be freedom of movement for Palestinians as presently exists for tourists visiting Israel. While passport control would be required for a time at established border checkpoints, I envision eventually an EU model with open national borders. Can it work, especially in light of Israel’s security concerns?
The threat of terrorist attacks, in general, will greatly subside when Israel grants Palestinians comprehensive freedoms and rights. Palestinians, however, in this scenario, would have to be willing to concede East Jerusalem and the West Bank as Israeli territory in exchange for a new vision of Palestine. Taking such steps will not be easy. Gaza and Ramallah, as seats of power, must take the case to the people. There has to be grassroots support. Otherwise, all is a house of cards that has little chance of succeeding.
Questions of course remain. Would the immense level of opportunity available in Gaza and greater Palestine compel many in the currently occupied territories to relocate there on their own accord? Palestinian permanent residents might take additional homes in the new Palestine as they increased their wealth, but it could be a tough sell initially. Most likely Gazans and others would spearhead the expansion process into the Sinai Peninsula due to the proximity factor.
The lingering question, which I have yet to address, is would the Egyptians ever be open to a Palestinian state on land now theirs? Without Egyptian support, all is moot. One answer is that Egypt could be given billions of dollars for the land in eastern Sinai from various sources and nations, particularly from Israel, the Palestine National Authority, and Union for the Mediterranean member countries. Egypt would receive additional aid to sustainably develop the Sinai Peninsula, which at present is very much underdeveloped. Arish could expand westward, for example, and become a wonderful and prominent resort city; deserts could be transformed into oases.
All parties involved could in the end effectively obtain what they want. The Israelis would get to expand to the Jordan Valley and unify territory into greater Israel. Palestinians would get to have a state from the Mediterranean to the Gulf of Aqaba as well as retain permanent residence status in East Jerusalem and the West Bank; they could also individually decline Palestinian citizenship in favor of Israeli. Lastly, the Egyptians would make out like bandits and get to sustainably develop the rest of Sinai.
During my first visit to Israel and the West Bank in 1998, roughly a year before the Second Intifada, I came to know both the Israeli and Palestinian people. As cynical and unhopeful as many have become for a meaningful peace in the years since (particularly in times like these), I still believe that with the right vision and innovative thinking as well as leadership, peace is not only possible in the future but can be sustainable.
I ask all Israelis and Palestinians to try to begin envisioning a new era of collective harmony where you are right now. Remember that if a future of peace is at all conceivable, it is also obtainable.