IIt was the end of the 1980s and The Guardian Middle East correspondent Ian Black was discussing business with his competitor in the Sunday Times, the late Marie Colvin. “We were discussing when there could be a Palestinian state,” Black recalls of their conversation in Jerusalem. “We thought maybe it would happen in two or three years.”
Israel and the Palestinian territories were embroiled in the first intifada, an uprising against the occupation that lasted from 1987 to the early 1990s. It was a period when violence soared, but also a time of nascent hope that the prolonged control military over Palestinian life could finally end.
Some believe it almost did so when the Oslo accords, a series of steps aimed at fulfilling the Palestinians’ right to determine their own destiny, were signed in 1993.
Black left Jerusalem shortly before that newsworthy event, jokingly lamenting that it was a “flawless moment.” Still, even when he was reporting in the years before that, “the direction of travel,” he says, was pretty clear towards some attempted resolution.
Today, that hope has almost faded. In the three years that I have spent as a correspondent for The Guardian in Jerusalem, I cannot recall a single conversation with another reporter in which a Palestinian state was considered a likely scenario in the near future.
Three decades have separated Black’s assignment from mine. In that time, the Oslo accords have been derailed by the assassination of an Israeli prime minister by a far-right fanatic, a second much bloodier intifada has left the peace process in shambles, and the occupation has entrenched itself.
There is now much talk in Israel about making its military control over the Palestinians permanent. Various Israeli and Palestinian anti-occupation voices claim that it already is. They argue that the ’90s-era ideal of two states side by side is becoming an impossibility, and a single, undivided and unequal Israeli state has emerged.
“You have spent the last three and a half years reporting on the reality of one state, while I spent my years with the underlying assumption that a two-state solution was possible,” said Black, 67.
As my Guardian colleagues talk to their predecessors for the newspaper’s 200th anniversary, there will undoubtedly be equally large differences in their paces. But in many ways, on a smaller scale, Black’s daily life mirrored mine.
I would buy morning papers at the store while I could read them online. I would travel, to the West Bank or Gaza, by the same roads that I use. He even attended informational meetings with some of the same people.
This is particularly notable on the Palestinian side, whose aging leadership has largely refused to focus attention on a younger generation. In 1991, Black described Hanan Ashrawi, calling her “the most famous spokesperson your people have ever had.” Ashrawi withdrew only in December, saying that the Palestinian political system needed “renewal and revitalization” to include youth and women.
What has changed is the scale and effectiveness of the occupation we report on. Looking at his old clippings, Black said he saw an article he wrote in the mid-1980s. “I was surprised to find that there were only 30,000 settlers.”
Roughly 600,000 Israeli Jewish settlers now live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem with no intention of leaving, connected through a network of roads maintained by the government. Palestinians remain largely confined to urban enclaves.
Was this outcome predictable during Black’s time, when there was so much hope for a resolution? One criticism made of the Guardian is that it has focused too much on voices in Israeli society calling for an end to the occupation, which has the effect of perhaps deceptively magnifying its internal influence. Readers have been left wondering how Israeli politics has leaned so far to the right since then.
“I think in the big picture, The Guardian allowed itself, including the correspondents and myself including, to have illusions. I really do, ”Black said. But he explains: “Israeli society was more divided then, some 30 years ago, than it is now.” The turning point, he says, was the second intifada, which decimated any trust between Israelis and Palestinians.
Black has left Jerusalem, but remains deeply committed. Since leaving the newspaper, he has become a Visiting Principal Investigator at the London School of Economics Middle East Center. His book, Enemies and Neighbors: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017, has become a landmark story. I keep a copy in my office.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism