2017 is the year of sad anniversaries for Palestinians

First published by the Arab Weekly on 19/2/2017

Israel continues to violate UN resolutions with im­punity and Palestinians can expect more bad anniversaries to mark.


A 2016 picture shows a Palestinian youth waving the national flag on the 68th anniversary of the Nakba (AFP)

2017 is the year of anniver­saries for Palestinians. Sadly, none can be celebrated.

The first of these will be May 15th — the 69th an­niversary of the catastrophe, known as the Nakba when Israel was cre­ated in the Palestinian homeland without their permission. It also marks the period when 750,000 Palestinians were driven out to neighbouring countries by Zionist gangs and Israeli armed forces.

Early June brings the 50th an­niversary of the six-day war, when Israel captured the remainder of historic Palestine, the Syrian Golan Heights and the Egyptian Sinai. While Sinai was returned to Egypt, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Syrian Golan Heights remain occupied. This occupation is seen as illegal by the international community. Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem and the Golan is not recognised by any other country.

June also marks the tenth anni­versary of Israel’s blockade on Gaza.

In November, two events that ir­revocably changed the future of his­toric Palestine will be marked. No­vember 29th is the 70th anniversary of the UN General Assembly passing Resolution 181, which recommend­ed the partition of Palestine at the end of the British Mandate.

The resolution recommended the creation of independent Jewish and Arab states and a special interna­tional regime for the city of Jerusa­lem. While the Zionist movement accepted the resolution, the Pales­tinians and Arab states rejected it because they viewed it as violating the principle of self-determination

November 2nd is perhaps the most significant anniversary. This year marks the centenary of what the Balfour declaration, the letter from British Foreign secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild of the Zionist Federation in which he stated:

“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

The declaration was made before Britain was given the mandate on Palestine and without any consulta­tion with the indigenous popula­tion of Palestine. Through this, Britain prom­ised a land it did not have to a people who did not live on it without consulting those whose land it was.

Last December, in a speech to the Conservative Friends of Israel, British Prime Minister Theresa May referred to the Balfour declaration as “one of the most important let­ters in history” and that “it demon­strates Britain’s vital role in creating a homeland for the Jewish people”. She said “it is an anniversary we will be marking with pride”.

In his address to the UN General Assembly in 2016, Palestinian Presi­dent Mahmoud Abbas stated: “We ask Great Britain, as we approach 100 years since this infamous declaration, to draw the necessary lessons and to bear its historic, legal, political, material and moral responsibility for the consequences of this declara­tion, including an apology to the Palestinian people for the catastrophes, misery and injus­tice this declaration created and to act to rectify these disasters and remedy its consequences, includ­ing by the recognition of the state of Palestine…This is the least Great Britain can do.”

It seems Abbas’s words fell on deaf ears. Not only has Britain refused to apologise, May recently rolled out the Downing Street red carpet for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

In the meantime, Israel continues to violate UN resolutions with im­punity and Palestinians can expect more bad anniversaries to mark.

Can the Istanbul conference for diaspora Palestinians lead to unity of vision?

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 16/2/2017

The situation continues to get worse for Palestinians as they remain under occupation in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, and the latter has also been under siege for a decade. Those who make-up one-fifth of the Israeli population continue to suffer from official racism, with over 80 laws that discriminate between them and their fellow citizens who happen to be Jews. Palestinians driven from their homeland in 1948 and 1967 continue to eke out an existence, mostly in refugee camps under desperate conditions, with the added strain of more recent displacement from Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein and Syria since the start of the Arab Spring. Those not in such camps are in a growing diaspora all over the world.

Their aspirations for freedom from Israeli occupation, for equal rights in Israel and for the right to return to their homeland from their decades’ old enforced exile are both legal and moral. However, Israel continues to deny them these rights and garners support for its position from the so called international community, which places Israel’s existence and security significantly above the rights for Palestinians that they all demand and provide for their own citizens.

The Palestinian leadership is split broadly between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. An honest assessment of their performance shows that both have failed to deliver either a daily dignified existence for the Palestinians they rule under occupation or an improvement in the prospects for delivering their national rights.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting with Donald Trump this week showed that their vision of the future is all about Israel, with little mention of the 12 million Palestinians who exist both in historic Palestine, refugee camps and the diaspora. As far as Netanyahu is concerned, the Palestinians must recognise Israel as a Jewish state and accept that it must control all security “West of the river Jordan”. This effectively ends any pretence that he and his fellow extremists in the Israeli government may have emitted indicating their support for a Palestinian state. Netanyahu’s new language for peace is about “substance, not ‘labels’”. He said this in response to a question about the two-state solution which the “international community” has championed as the only game in town. Well, Netanyahu just blew the whistle in Washington for the end of the two-state game.

President Trump did not discount the two-state solution or even a one-state solution. At his joint press conference with Netanyahu he said: “So I’m looking at two states and one state and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like.”

The 15 February 2017 — When Bibi Met Donald — is thus a deep line that has been drawn in the sand of this conflict. It should be a wake-up call not only for the Palestinian leadership, but also for all other Palestinians everywhere. Their situation is set to worsen and prospects for freedom and independence appear bleak.

One of the by-products of the Oslo Accords and the formation of the Palestinian Authority, was a radical change in the role of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s role and that of the Palestine National Council. This also led to a disconnect between the Palestinian institutions and Palestinians in the diaspora, who care deeply about their identity and homeland and who have much to offer to the struggle.

While the PLO does still exist, it now appears as a line in the PA’s budget; to observers it appears to be wheeled out (at least its Executive Committee is) as required by PA President Mahmoud Abbas — who also happens to be the PLO Chairman — to rubber stamp decisions already made in Ramallah. The PNC has been largely comatose since it met in Gaza to approve a change to the PLO charter back in 1996. In fact, both the PLO and PNC are in need of reform to include factions that are currently unrepresented. Furthermore, the ailing PNC needs fresh elections.

I wrote about the need for Palestinian unity to counter both the Paris Conference and a Trump presidency at the beginning of the year. Sadly, while there has been another attempt to bring Fatah and Hamas together, this time in Moscow, there is still no tangible evidence that this is going to happen soon.

If the leaderships of the two parties cannot overcome their differences then perhaps Palestinians in the diaspora can show them the way and send a clear message that the status quo is unacceptable. Unity and an agreed strategy for taking back control of the Palestinian people’s future cannot wait any longer.

There is a ray of hope that Palestinians from the diaspora could provide the impetus to move matters on. This comes in the shape of a Conference to be held in Istanbul on 25 and 26 February, billed as “The People’s Conference for Diaspora Palestinians”.

The conference objectives are:

  • Affirming the right of the Palestinians to liberation, self-determination and the role of the diaspora Palestinians in this.
  • Affirming the right of the Palestinians to return and working towards achieving this.
  • Undertaking political work to achieve the civil and human rights of the Palestinian people.
  • Political participation for the diaspora in the Palestinian national decision-making.
  • Build and strengthen the unity of the political situation of Palestinians in the diaspora.

The organisers, who have past experience of organising conferences for Palestinians in Europe that attract thousands, have on this occasion focussed on bringing together in Istanbul leading Palestinian figures and activists from around the world with the aim of taking stock, and identifying ways of connecting with existing Palestinian institutions, such as the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Palestinian National Council (PNC). They have reached out to participants from across the political spectrum and seem to have had some success in attracting a number who would perhaps not normally attend the annual conferences for Palestinians from Europe.

However, as with many Palestinian initiatives, the conference has not been without its critics. The PLO’s Expatriate Affairs Department emailed its contacts in the diaspora warning against the “factional use of the national constants and tampering with representational role of the PLO.” The statement articulates the department’s concerns at the lack of engagement by the conference organisers with itself and the Refugees’ Department. It argues that the short lead up time may result in there being inadequate preparation for a substantive discussion of the issues to be tackled by the delegates. It also expresses concern about possible interference by non-Palestinian actors in the conference which may influence its direction.

It is important to note that the PLO’s Expatriate Affairs Department does not offer an alternative to this gathering that would meet the conference objectives, nor can it point to a record of seriously attempting to reconnect the PLO with the Palestinian diaspora. However, it raises legitimate concerns about the conference which the organisers need to alleviate for it to be the ray of hope it could be for reconnecting the 12 million Palestinians around the world.

The organisers carry a heavy responsibility to ensure that what happens in Istanbul is what it says on the label: enough is enough as far as division and factionalism are concerned; saving Palestine requires Palestinian unity.

Can the Istanbul conference be a turning point in the struggle that leads to an agreed vision for the future? There are 12 million reasons why it must be given every opportunity to try.

Trump’s status quo for Palestine-Israel isn’t so bad, unless you’re a Palestinian

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 7/2/2017


Israeli police detain a Palestinian protester during a demonstration against US President Trump [Shadi Hatem/Apaimages]

The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States appears to have emboldened Israeli politicians. Many clearly feel that their strongest ally will henceforth provide them with the chance to complete their colonial project and in the process end any hope of freedom or independence for the Palestinians.

In a major policy shift prior to Trump’s election, a Republican platform removed reference to the long held outcome of a two-state solution to the conflict and deferred to Israel to determine whether it is interested in negotiating a deal with the Palestinians; it omitted any reference to a solution that would establish an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. “The US seeks to assist in the establishment of comprehensive and lasting peace in the Middle East, to be negotiated among those living in the region,” the Republican platform said. “We oppose any measures intended to impose an agreement or to dictate borders or other terms, and call for the immediate termination of all US funding of any entity that attempts to do so. Our party is proud to stand with Israel now and always.”

During his election campaign, Trump was explicit in his promise to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem when he addressed the pro-Israel AIPAC conference: “We will move the US Embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.” This would give de facto recognition to Jerusalem, which Israel claims to be a united city, as the state capital. It would also break with longstanding US policy that the status of the holy city would be confirmed through a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, a position shared by the international community.

The direction of travel of the new administration has been so blatantly pro-Israel pre- and post-election that it was reasonable for Israel’s extremist government to conclude that once in the White House Trump and his people would provide it with unlimited support and cover for its ongoing illegal policies. Right-wing Education Minister Naftali Bennett was quick to declare that, “Trump’s victory is an opportunity for Israel to immediately retract the notion of a Palestinian state in the centre of the country, which would hurt our security and just cause.” This, Bennett concluded, is the position of the president-elect, as written in his platform. “It should be our policy, plain and simple. The era of a Palestinian state is over.”

Trump’s choice for US Ambassador in Israel, David Freedman, is a well-known supporter of Israel; his appointment seemed to be a means of facilitating the embassy move. Freedman vowed to “strengthen the bond between our two countries and advance the cause of peace within the region, and [I] look forward to doing this from the US embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.” He also let it be known that he would live in his private apartment in Jerusalem and would work out of Jerusalem rather than Tel Aviv.

Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, reflected on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first call with President Trump, saying that Israel has a “true friend in the White House” and that the government is “very happy about the new administration.”

However, since his inauguration, Trump seems to have rolled back on his commitment to move the embassy, much to the surprise of many. His spokesman Sean Spicer told journalists at a recent daily press conference, “We are at the very beginning stages of even discussing this subject.” His response was to a question from Sky News, which Spicer dodged and whose correspondent asked, “What is the strategic interest for the US in the embassy move?”

Furthermore, at his press conference on 2 February, the spokesman reacted more strongly to the recent escalation of new illegal settlement announcements than perhaps Israel expected. While making no specific mention of the two-state solution when talking about peace, he said: “The American desire for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians has remained unchanged for 50 years. While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal.”

The omission of the “two-state solution” is in line with the Republican Party’s revised platform. It is now all about “peace”. How that is achieved is presumably in line with what the platform suggested, leaving it to Israel to determine what it will look like.

During the election campaign, Donald Trump talked of potentially winning the presidency and then brokering a lasting peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. “Let me be sort of a neutral guy,” he added. “I have friends of mine that are tremendous businesspeople, that are really great negotiators, [and] they say it’s not doable.” Acknowledging how difficult the task would be, he said: “That’s probably the toughest deal in the world right now to make. I will give it one hell of a shot. I would say if you can do that deal, you can do any deal.”

Perhaps Trump is now realising that he cannot broker a deal between the two main protagonists while taking sides with one of them. He may even see the danger of escalating settlement construction but is surrounded by so many pro-Israel advisers — including his son-in-law Jared Kushner and his nominee for US Ambassador to Israel — that he cannot bring himself to act against this in order to maintain his self-proclaimed ‘neutrality’.

However, the other essential, missing ingredient in any negotiating strategy he may develop on this issue is discussion with the Palestinians; he refuses to speak to them. The Palestinians are reduced to sending messages via other friends, including Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and King Abdullah of Jordan, both of whom seem to have access to Trump. No successful negotiator can speak to one side while completely blocking the other and hope to come up with a deal acceptable to both. Trump could have opened dialogue with the Palestinians prior to Netanyahu’s forthcoming visit to Washington, to give himself a new card to play with the Israeli leader, but there are no signs of this happening. The reality is, therefore, that Netanyahu does not know what to expect from the unpredictable US president.

By rolling back on the US Embassy move to Jerusalem and issuing an implicit criticism of settlements it may be that the Trump administration is realising that the status quo is not that bad after all. While the president turns his attention to job creation in the US, the Palestine-Israel conflict can be shuffled down the list of priorities. He can live with his spokesman mentioning “peace” every now and again, and warning about the unhelpfulness of settlements while maintaining that they are not the problem.

So Trump will create jobs and Israel will continue to build illegal settlements. The US Embassy move will continue to be on hold and the Palestinians will continue to suffer under Israel’s brutal military occupation. The status quo really isn’t that bad after all, unless you are a Palestinian.

Debate: Why the status of Jerusalem is not the crux of the matter

First published by the Arab Weekly on 5/2/2017

Since his inauguration, Trump seems to have rolled back on his embassy com­mitment, much to the surprise of many.


Road signs are seen in front of the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim in the occupied West Bank, on January 17th. (Reuters)

The question of whether the Trump administra­tion would quickly honour the pledge to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has exercised the minds of Palestinians, Israelis and the wider world.

In 1995, the US Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which recognised Jerusalem as the capi­tal of Israel and required a change in the embassy’s location by May 1999.

However, this was effectively re­sisted by every US president since then despite occasionally promises to carry it out as the United States continued to seek a peace deal between Israel and Palestinians.

During his election campaign, Donald Trump was explicit in his promise to move the embassy when he addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in March 2016 and said: “We will move the US embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.”

Trump’s choice for US ambas­sador to Israel, David Friedman, seemed to be a means of facilitat­ing this move. Friedman vowed to “strengthen the bond between our two countries and advance the cause of peace within the region and look forward to doing this from the US embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem”.

Friedman also let it be known that he would live in a private apartment in Jerusalem and would work out of Jerusalem rather than Tel Aviv.

Since his inauguration, however, Trump seems to have rolled back on his embassy com­mitment, much to the surprise of many. His spokesman, Sean Spicer, said recently: “We are at the very beginning stages of even discussing this subject.”

Spicer dodged a question from a Sky News corre­spondent who asked: “What is the strategic interest for the US in the embassy move?”

The reality is that there is no strategic benefit for the United States in moving its embassy. The mere speculation that the move could happen raised alarms across the world.

The Palestinians warned of dire consequences with Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) officials threatening to revoke rec­ognition of Israel. The Palestinian president and the king of Jordan met in Amman in late January and agreed to “take steps” if the move happened.

Undoubtedly Trump knows that the United States’ strategic interest would be in securing a peace deal between Israel and Palestinians rather than unleash a backlash that he cannot predict or control by moving the US embassy.

The status of Jerusalem would be part of what would be a historic peace deal that he said he wanted to negotiate. Trump’s own experi­ence of negotiating should tell him to avoid measures that antagonise either party to a negotiation.

Some have argued that the em­bassy move would be so damag­ing to US strategic interests that a peace deal would be pushed well beyond Trump’s term in office.

In moving its embassy to West Jerusalem, the United States would be recognising Israel’s sovereignty over West and East Jerusalem, which no other country does. It would further be violat­ing international law. UN Security Council Resolution 478 rejected Israel’s declaration that Jerusalem (East and West) “complete and united” is its capital.

An embassy move could com­plicate matters if other countries followed suit. British support for a move of the US embassy came from former secretary of State for Justice Michael Gove. He wrote in the Times of London that “Israel is the only state where we don’t locate our embassy in the nation’s capital and the only ally the For­eign Office has refused to let the queen visit”.

He added: “So let’s celebrate the centenary of the Balfour declara­tion by moving our embassy to Jerusalem next year and inviting [Queen Elizabeth II] to open it. What are we afraid of?”

A Foreign Office spokesman quickly dismissed the idea, stat­ing: “The UK has an embassy in Tel Aviv and a consulate-general in Jerusalem. We have no plans to change the location of our diplo­matic presence in either Israel or the occupied Palestinian territo­ries.”

Observers note, however, that although a possible embassy move seems to have stirred the Pales­tinian leadership into action, the continuation of the status quo is more damaging to the prospects of signing a peace agreement. Palestinians point to the contin­ued judaisation of Jerusalem, the expansion of illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land, which may be annexed by Israel at a later stage.

Critics argue that unless a major effort is put into combating the settlement project, there will be no Jerusalem left for the Palestin­ians to claim as their capital or a contiguous plot of land in the West Bank to claim as their free inde­pendent state.

They say that the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem is highly sensitive but is not the crux of the matter: The end of the occupation without annexing Palestinian ter­ritories and the right of return are.

To see article on the Arab Weekly website click here

Only through unity can the Palestinians counter Paris and Trump

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 17/1/2016

Image of the Middle East peace talk about Israel-Palestinian territories’ in Paris, France on January 15, 2017 [Cem Özdel/ Anadolu Agency]

Image of the Middle East peace talk about Israel-Palestinian territories’ in Paris, France on January 15, 2017 [Cem Özdel/ Anadolu Agency]

Many more air miles have been collected and many more fine dinners have been consumed in five-star Parisian restaurants off the backs of the Palestinian people, to bring together representatives of 70 countries at a conference to regurgitate the “only way forward” — the two-state solution — to solve the Palestine-Israel conflict. It is, of course, obvious to any objective observer that this “solution” is dead in the water. The final communique could have been written by any one of the participants on their home computer.

Unusually, I find myself in agreement with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that the Paris conference was “useless”, albeit for different reasons, which I will come to. However, he went too far when rejecting it before it was even convened, claiming that the conference was “Palestinian deceitfulness under French auspices, aimed at adopting further anti-Israeli positions.” Describing it as “among the last twitches of yesterday’s world,” Netanyahu added that, “Tomorrow’s world will be different, and it is very near.”

Full article here