Richard Falk: People must shame UN for quashing ‘apartheid Israel’ report

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 20/3/2017

Professor Richard Falk, former UN special rapporteur for Palestine, was hosted in London by the Middle East Monitor yesterday as part of his book launch tour. He introduced his book “Palestine’s Horizon Toward a Just Peace” eloquently to a packed hall. He had earlier been met with a barrage of hate by a Zionist mob at the London School of Economics. Thankfully, this particular session was not interrupted by the yobs.

However, the real interest of the audience seemed to be in a more recent publication which he co-authored with Virginia Tilley for the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA). The report entitled “Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid” was launched on 15 March concluded that

“Israel is guilty of policies and practices that constitute the crime of apartheid as legally defined in instruments of international law.”

Rather than prompting a debate in the UN and the Security Council, its publication and conclusion was met with outrage by Israel and its ally the United States. Pressure was exerted on the recently appointed United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres to quash the report. This he did by directing ESCWA to withdraw the report because it did not have his approval. The demand was rejected. ESCWA’s Executive Secretary, Dr Rima Khalaf, eventually resigned from her role and the report was taken down form ESCWA’s website. A spokesman for the UN Chief confirmed “that Guterres had ordered that the report to be taken down but sought to make clear that the request was ‘not about content’ but about ‘process’.”

Israel’s Foreign Ministry spokesman likened the report to Der Sturmer – a Nazi propaganda publication that was strongly anti-Semitic. Both US and Israel envoys to the UN welcomed the secretary-general’s action with Danny Dannon claiming “anti-Israel activists do not belong in the UN. It is time to put an end to the practice in which UN officials use their position to advance their anti-Israel agenda. Her removal from the UN is long overdue.”

Palestinians who had initially welcomed the report condemned Guterres’ actions. Palestine Liberation Organisation executive committee member Dr Hanan Ashrawi said in a statement:

“Instead of succumbing to political blackmail or allowing itself to be censured or intimidated by external parties, the UN should condemn the acts described in the report and hold Israel responsible.”

She explained, according to WAFA, that the report constitutes

“a step in the right direction and highlights the true reality on the ground, which is one of apartheid, ethnic cleansing and military occupation.”

She called on Guterres to do what is right, reinstate the ESCWA report and “undertake serious and concrete measures to hold Israel accountable for its persistent violations of international law and human rights.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced he would be bestowing Palestine’s Medal of the Highest Honour in recognition of Khalaf’s “courage and support” for Palestinians.

The rigorous report, authored by two highly respected academic experts said it had established on the “basis of scholarly inquiry and overwhelming evidence, that Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid.” But also stated that “only a ruling by an international tribunal in that sense would make such an assessment truly authoritative.”

Speaking in London, Falk suggested the key addition the report makes to the discussion about the impact of Israeli policies on Palestinians is that it looks at the impact on a people as a whole. The report said the “strategic fragmentation of the Palestinian people” was the main method through which Israel imposes apartheid, with Palestinians divided into four groups oppressed through “distinct laws, policies and practices”. It identified the four sets of Palestinians as: Palestinian citizens of Israel; Palestinians in East Jerusalem; Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; and Palestinians living as refugees or in exile.

This somewhat contradicts Guterres’ claim that due process was not followed. In reality though, the secretary-general must have been expecting the knocks on the door and the endless phone calls from US and Israeli representatives and decided he had ultimate say about what report is produced in the UN’s name regardless of its rigour and scholarly review. It is no secret to say that the new Trump Administration signalled – even before taking office – that what it judged to be unfair treatment of Israel by UN bodies would end, regardless of Israel’s flagrant breaches of countless UN Security Council resolutions and international humanitarian law.

When asked how to make the report more effective within the UN system following its removal, Falk said the best strategy would be “to raise the visibility of this issue at this time and shame the UN into taking seriously its own study”.

“I am confident enough that if the study is examined by intellectual sources around the world, they will, even if they don’t agree with its conclusions they will regard it as a serious objective undertaking.”

Falk went on to reveal that after submitting the report, ESCWA anonymously sent it for evaluation to three of the most distinguished international jurists around the world and that “each of them acting separately submitted very positive reports”. Only one submitted suggested changes which the authors duly made.

Reflecting on the way the UN had dealt with the ESCWA report, Falk likened its treatment to what happened to the Goldstone report on Israel’s 2008/9 war on Gaza which Goldstone later regretted. Falk assured his audience “I am not Goldstone fortunately” referring to the request that he and Tilley repudiate their own report, which he confirmed “was of course a little bit unrealistic”.

When asked what advice he has for the Palestinian Authority and President Abbas, Falk recognised the difficult position the Palestinian leadership is in admitting they are “between a rock and a hard place”. He acknowledged that “it is easy to criticise them but hard to be them”. However, he suggested the Palestinian leadership has an opportunity here “to take this path of emphasising the moral and legal high ground, which they have started to do.” He suggested this would be building on the 2012 upgrade in Palestine’s UN status to a non- member observer state which he described as a “ghost state”, and initiating proceedings in the International Criminal Court (ICC) in relation to the 2014 attack on Gaza and the illegal settlements. He acknowledged that the ICC itself is under tremendous political pressure and it is not clear “whether anything tangible would emerge out of this”.

Falk suggested that “[for the Palestinians] taking this report seriously would be another way of advancing their campaign to say international law is on our side. Israel’s administration of the Palestinian people is an international crime and generates the collective responsibility of international society.”

The challenge for them, he argued, would be “either you refute the finding of apartheid or you act upon it. If you act upon it you have a responsibility to do whatever is possible to end the commission of that crime or be complicit in its effects.”

It is now up to supporters of justice to shame the UN and for the Palestinian leadership to seize the opportunity the report presents to garner further support for their cause but more importantly action against Apartheid Israel.

Banning BDS supporters is incompatible with a Western-style democracy

First published by the Middle East Eye on 14/3/2017

The next time you hear Israel laud its democratic credentials, remember the ban on BDS supporters and take it with a pinch of salt

Israel’s parliament began the year with a volley of bills designed to entrench its occupation of the Palestinian territories, insult the indigenous Palestinian population and place a heavy price on anyone critical of its policies.

What is particularly galling is that to achieve this, it has used its loudly touted claim to be a Western-style democracy.

The year kicked off with the passing of the “regulation bill” on 6 February 2017, designed unashamedly to retroactively “legalise” 4,000 Jewish Israeli homes which were previously deemed illegal under Israel’s own laws.

The bill, supported by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was condemned by human rights group Peace Now which described it as a “fatal blow to democracy” and, if passed, would “turn Israeli citizens to thieves and stain Israel’s law books”.

While Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, did call the law unconstitutional and while it is likely to eventually be struck down by the Israeli Supreme Court, its initial passage shows a dangerous direction of travel for Israeli democracy.

Silencing the call to prayer

On 12 February, Israeli ministers endorsed a draft bill, which would restrict the Muslim call to prayers. In the draft, the athan, the Muslim call to prayer – and an integral part of Palestinian culture and history since the siege of Jerusalem in 637 AD – was insultingly characterised as “noise pollution”.

Those initiating the bill argued that it disturbs non-Muslims – or more specifically, illegal settlers who have moved into predominantly Palestinian areas including East Jerusalem.

With the two bills and under the guise of a democracy and responding to the wishes of its citizens, Israel is using its predominantly Jewish Israeli votes in the Knesset to target Muslim history and Palestinian culture.

‘Threat to the state’

The impact of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement on Israel was downplayed by Israeli leaders until 2015, the 10th anniversary of the launch of the boycott call by Palestinian civil society.

Suddenly, it was identified as a “strategic threat to the state” and one which both Israeli leaders and supporters of Israel around the world decided to combat. In response, Netanyahu appointed Gilad Erdan as minister of public security, strategic affairs and public diplomacy, to tackle both BDS activism and Iran’s nuclear programme. Several pro-Israeli organisations and individuals gathered to find the most effective ways to quash the movement they described as seeking to delegitimise Israel and later labelled as anti-Semitic. Some $25m was allocated to their fight.

Last March, at the Yediot Achronot conference in Jerusalem, Intelligence Minister Israel Katz called for the “civil targeted killing” of BDS leaders like Omar Barghouti. Several months later, Israeli authorities imposed a travel ban on Barghouti. His residency status in Israel continues to be under threat.

With the BDS movement showing no signs of abating, Israel has since moved to pressure its allies to quash and criminalise it in their own countries. It has also worked hard to push back against rising support for the Palestinian cause and against its oppressive policies on university campuses in the West.

Some US states have moved to criminalise boycotts, such as in California and New York. France’s highest court of appeal ruled that promoters of a boycott against Israel were “guilty of inciting hate or discrimination”, while a Paris Municipality recently passed anti-BDS resolutions. The UK government has specifically outlawed local authorities from using their pension policies to participate in the movement.

Banning boycotters

BDS supporters, however, have been, for the most part, free to enter Israel – to observe the situation on the ground and engage with groups promoting boycotts. But this changed on 6 March when the Knesset passed a law banning any foreign citizen who supports or promotes the boycott of Israel from entering.

In a statement after the bill passed, the parliament said: “A visa will not be granted nor a residence permit of any kind to any person who is not an Israeli citizen or permanent resident if he, or the organisation or body in which he is active, has knowingly issued a public call to boycott the state of Israel or pledged to take part in such a boycott.”

The law was quickly slammed by Jewish groups around the world including Jewish Voice for Peace, and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The ADL tweeted: “Israel’s democracy, pluralism, open society serve as best defense against BDS. New law harms rather than helps.”

In Britain, Jewish groups including the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Jewish Leadership Council and Union of Jewish Students criticised the move, calling it “anti-democratic”, “indiscriminate” and “deeply problematic”.

The first to be banned

The first victim of the new travel ban was Hugh Lanning, chairman of the UK-based Palestine Solidarity Campaign. A longstanding human rights campaigner, Lanning was denied entry to Israel this past Sunday, less than a week after the passing of the bill.

Lanning, a frequent traveller to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, had never been barred from entry before, so it is reasonable to assume that the new law is behind his barring. Shortly after his entry was denied, Yiftah Curiel, spokesperson for the Israeli embassy in London, tweeted: “Lanning is the chairman of the PSC, an organisation that leads the campaign in the UK to demonise and boycott Israel.”

PSC Chair Hugh Lanning

In a statement on Monday, PSC director Ben Jamal said: “By introducing this law, Israel is violating fundamental freedoms essential to a democracy – the right to free speech, to criticise government policies and human rights violations, the right to advocate non-violent actions to address human rights abuses, the right of free movement and travel. A democratic country does not behave in the way Israel is behaving.”

Lanning, who is now safely back in the UK, told MEE: “What an honour – the first to be deported using the law.” He added that his questioning was “long and bizarre, mainly focused on people I had met, what I did as a chair, was I politically active?” More importantly, Lanning was “never charged with or accused of doing anything wrong on this or previous visits.”

He reiterated Jamal’s statement that: “If Israel believes that by introducing these draconian undemocratic laws it will intimidate its critics into silence it is mistaken. The PSC will not stop raising its voice to highlight the systematic violation of Palestinian human rights in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel itself.”

Messages of support for Lanning and condemnation of the ban and his deportation have poured in, privately and over social media. Examples include trade unions PCS, UNITE and ASLEF.

Even from among Israel’s supporters, the sentiment is that this ban is a step too far. An integral part of any western-style democracy is freedom of expression. Israel’s initial objection to academic boycotts was that they restricted the opportunity to debate and criticise.

Now, by passing this law, it has closed the door itself on dialogue that could take place in Israel and the occupied territories. Not only does democracy lose, but Israel also loses support from those that gave it the benefit of the doubt as the self-proclaimed “only democracy in the Middle East”. This includes support from Jews with an actual connection to Israel through family members who may now be denied entry because they support a limited boycott of goods made in illegal settlements.

The next time you hear Israel laud its democratic credentials, take it with a pinch of salt.

Interview for Muslim Press

First published by Muslim Press on 7/3/2017

‘Moving US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would be explosive’

In an interview with Muslim Press, British Palestinian academic and writer on Middle East Affairs Kamel Hawwash said, “Moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would be explosive as assessed by the Muslim world, the Palestinians and Jordan.”

Below, the full transcript of the interview has been presented.

Muslim Press: Recently, the White House said that further expansion of Israeli settlements “may not be helpful” to ending the conflict. How do you analyze such statement?

Kamel Hawwash: The Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem are illegal. The USA considers them to be ‘illegitimate’. They have been seen by the international community as an obstacle to peace. To simply refer to them as only unhelpful to ending the conflict, encourages Israel to continue to build hammering the final nail into the 2-state solution coffin. In his joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu last month, President Trump asked Nentanyahu to hold back on settlement building when a clear statement that Israel must halt all settlement building would have had a far more helpful impact on the prospects for peace.

MP: Israel’s High Court has ordered the removal of parts of a Jewish settlement outpost that were built on private Palestinian land, hours after parliament passed a law legalizing similar cases. How do you assess the court’s order?

Kamel Hawwash: The pretence that some settlements are legal and others illegal is a false description of reality as they are all illegal. The distinction between ones built on private Palestinian land and Israeli land wrongly claims to be ‘state land’ is the distinction used. This is rejected by everyone, except Israel whatever its own courts rule.

MP: What’s your take on Donald Trump’s “two-state” switch? How would this affect Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Kamel Hawwash: In declaring that he will live either with one state or two states as a solution to the Palestine/Israel conflict has effectively put to bed long standing US policy which was for a 2-state solution. This has raised confusion everywhere as it is not clear what he means by a one-state solution, except he says he is for whatever the two parties agree to as if there was some symmetry and equality of power between them. The impact of this shift is still being assessed by both parties to the conflict and other stakeholders and it is not as yet clear how they will interpret this.

MP: Trump has also said that Washington was working to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. What would be the consequences of this action?

Kamel Hawwash: Moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would be explosive as assessed by the Muslim world, the Palestinians and Jordan. It is against longstanding policy of the International Community and recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is against international Law. It is therefore not even in America’s strategic interest for the move to go ahead when its stated strategic interest is in resolving the conflict as a whole.

MP: Is the recent UNSC resolution an effective move to restore the rights of Palestinian people?

Kamel Hawwash: UNSC 2334 restated the position of the international community on Israeli settlements calling them illegal restating the existence of an illegal occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. However, it was passed without a mechanism for enforcing it. This has allowed Israel to flout it with impunity, announcing thousands of new settlement units since its passage and more specifically since Trump’s election. The International Community must apply sanctions on Israel for it to end this illegal enterprise.

MP: Iran has held a conference supporting the Palestinian intifada. What could you say about this?

Kamel Hawwash: The Palestinian people have a right under International Law to resist the illegal occupation of their homeland. Rising against this violent occupation is a means of achieving this. Lessons to be learnt from past uprisings should be considered and the most effective means of ending the occupation should be shared. The Palestinian people are committed to peaceful means of achieving this.

The Palestinian leadership must embrace the Conference for Palestinians Abroad

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 6/3/2017

In my last article for MEMO, I wondered whether the Conference for Palestinians Abroad (CPA) could lead to Palestinian unity of vision. It was a privilege to be with an estimated 6,000 Palestinians from 50 countries in Istanbul for the conference, which took place on 25 and 26 February, both as a founding member and to test that question.

The dates are important because I believe that the launch of this conference will mark a milestone in the Palestinian struggle for justice, freedom, equality and the restoration of our rights. The 26 February will forever by the day when Palestinians who live outside Palestine and who are refused the right to return to their homeland said loud and clear that enough is enough. We will no longer be sidelined or ignored, either by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO, our non-representative representative); Israel (the cause of our catastrophe); or those in the “international community” who had a hand in our dispossession and expulsion from our homeland by Zionist terrorists in 1948 and who continue to deny us our rights to this day.

The unequivocal message from Istanbul was that the Palestinians will not give up their right to return to the places from which we were ethnically cleansed. This was exemplified by Palestinian poet Mohammed Abu Daya who brought his original title deeds to the conference and after a moving speech handed them to one of his many grandchildren, imploring him to commit to returning, and receiving a promise from him that he will struggle to return to that very plot of land one day. Some may see this as unrealistic and theatrical. However, that would be to misunderstand the core Palestinian issue. The struggle has always been about Palestinian refugees returning to their homes instead of languishing in the diaspora, whatever political structure exists in historic Palestine.

Reaffirming the right of return was at the heart of the conference but the final statement also reaffirmed the commitment by Palestinians in involuntary exile to liberate Palestine from the “river to the sea”. Such language is usually mistranslated by Zionists to mean the destruction of Israel and “throwing the Jews into the sea”. That is pure propaganda from Zionists who, by the way, happen to believe that the Palestinians must be thrown out of their own land for there to be a truly Jewish state west of the River Jordan.

They are forever looking for means to achieve this, claiming that “Jordan is the Palestinian state” or that a state can be created in the Sinai to which the Palestinians in “Judea and Samaria” (the occupied West Bank) can be sent, by force if necessary. Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely has no qualms about claiming the whole of historic Palestine for Israel. “We need to return to the basic truth of our rights to this country,” she believes. “This land is ours. All of it is ours. We did not come here to apologise for that.”

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, buoyed by Donald Trump being in the White House, claims that there will not be a Palestinian state. Indeed, the far-right Bennett has called for the annexation of most of the illegally-occupied West Bank, starting with the illegal colony-settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, and bringing it under Israeli “sovereignty”.

Standing next to Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu placed two conditions that must be met before “peace”: The Palestinians must recognise Israel as a Jewish state and, “Israel must retain the overriding security control over the entire area west of the Jordan River.” The latter is de facto Israeli sovereignty over historic Palestine from the river to the sea. While he has not explicitly called for the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, Israel would continue to rule over an occupied people for ever, making their lives so miserable under the pretext of security that they would leave of their own accord. In Zionist terminology, this is known as “silent transfer” and it is very much part of Israel’s strategy for a Palestinian-free land.

None of the above inflammatory statements by the most senior Israeli ministers has been condemned by any member of the so called international community. It seems that Western governments are happy for Zionist Israelis to claim the whole of historic Palestine as theirs, but not for the Palestinians whose land it is to do so. If modern day Zionists with no real connection to historic Palestine can lay claim to the whole land on the basis of what they claim to be a Biblical legacy, then surely Palestinians have every right to lay claim to their homeland, which they inhabited prior to Israel’s creation was forced upon them and from which they were expelled over the past 70 years.

I must stress that I did not get any impression from the CPA that liberating Palestine would necessitate or result in the mass expulsion of Jews, unlike the mass expulsion of Palestinians which took place in 1948. The conference focused on the emergence of a just political solution with the right for Palestinian refugees to return at its heart. Had I detected any sense of the former at the conference, I would certainly have withdrawn.

The failure of the two-state solution demonstrates the need for creative thinking to meet the needs of those who truly wish to coexist in historic Palestine. A solution is needed which would end separation. There should be no racist settlements built only for Jews or a new town built only for non-Jews. The solution must allow all who inhabit historic Palestine to live in peace wherever they desire. It should allow those refugees in Gaza, Jenin, Syria, Brazil, Europe and elsewhere to return to their land and homes. A reconciliation commission would need to be set up to deal with the details where the reclamation of exact sites is not physically possible.

Following the Trump-Netanyahu press conference in Washington, the Palestinian leadership’s 24-year long negotiations strategy — the charade of the peace process since signing the catastrophic Oslo accords — has collapsed. The PLO has been almost silent since that 15 February media circus, apart from calling for the international community not to abandon the two-state solution, bringing new meaning to the term “flogging a dead horse”.

It is time for fresh thinking that can strengthen the hand of a future, democratically-elected Palestinian leadership. The 6.3 million Palestinians abroad can play a vital role in shaping this. However, in the absence of a clear plan by the PLO to revitalise diaspora input, the CPA is the only game in town. The outcome of the conference was a commitment to continue to build both the new institution and Palestinian community, as well as lobby organisations abroad.

What is needed for this to materialise is for every Palestinian outside the borders of their homeland to make a commitment for contributions to the struggle in his or her adopted country. They should be knocking on the doors of their local decision-makers, lobbying for a just solution. They should take a more active part in the political system through joining political parties and standing for both local and national elections. They should be supporting and joining local solidarity groups, both as activists and donors. They should be forming alliances with other human rights groups and Jewish groups committed to justice for Palestinians. They should raise their voices in the media, locally and nationally, using articulate and convincing speakers and writers. They should also be knocking on the door of the PLO leadership in support of the CPA to ensure that the message is received and it is understood that they will no longer accept being ignored.

The CPA needs to find a sustainable way to continue to function long into the future. For that, it will need to widen its membership base in order to put to bed accusations that it is led by one group. The more community organisations which join, bringing together the widest possible spectrum of Palestinian views, the more representative the CPA will be. In turn, the more effective that the CPA is, the louder will be the call to the PLO to wake up and respond to that half of the constituency that it is meant to serve but which it has ignored since 1993. It can take strength from blessing the CPA, working to encourage Palestinians abroad to join it and developing appropriate links to it, leading to elections for the Palestine National Council, the people’s parliament.

Can the PLO rise to this challenge, as it must? Can its necessary reform include true representation for Palestinians abroad? Not only do they hope that it can, but all Palestinians would also want this. Fulfilling its responsibility would strengthen its hand in uniting and representing the Palestinian people and seeking a just solution for them. Ignoring or smearing the CPA will only add to the PLO’s own weakness, bringing it to the point of irrelevance. No Palestinian would want that to happen or for it to be interpreted as a desired outcome of the gathering of 6,000 Palestinians in Istanbul last month.

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.