First published by the Arab Weekly on 25/12/2016
London – Palestinian Christians and Palestinian Muslims are looking back with deep concern at a year in which they saw their struggle for freedom and independence battered.
The Palestinians end the year with no sign of reconciliation between the main political factions Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, which governs the West Bank. Gaza’s siege continues unabated, Jewish settlements are expanding and Israeli settler incursions into Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque grow in number and frequency.
Fatah’s seventh congress included a marathon 3-hour speech by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that simply confirmed commitment to the established direction of travel. Abbas was re-elected party chairman and he, in turn, reaffirmed his commitment to negotiations with Israel for the ultimate goal of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with minor land swaps and with East Jerusalem as its capital and a fair resolution of the refugee problem.
The Palestinians find their cause, which once took centre stage, competing with Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen for international attention. Israel has benefited from the diversion of attention away from its continued illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories and its daily oppressive practices.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu repeatedly reminds his allies that Israel faces major threats in a tough neighbourhood. He claims that this is the wrong time for Israel to concede territory to the Palestinians, which may allow either Hamas or the Islamic State (ISIS) to establish a foothold in the West Bank, threatening Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion International Airport.
The status quo is that Israel effectively controls the whole of historic Palestine, further colonises Palestinian land, judaises Jerusalem and blockades Gaza. The Palestinian Authority provides it with security cooperation that Abbas considers sacred. Israel is therefore comfortable, despite occasional uprisings.
Add to that a deal with the outgoing US administration to deliver $38 billion in military aid over the next ten years and a promise to protect it from any criticism or imposition of a peace deal at the UN Security Council and 2016 can be considered to have been an excellent year for the 68-year old state.
However, that is not the end of the good news for Israel. The 2016 Republican Party platform for the first time rejected the description of Israel as “an occupier”, omitted any mention of a two-state solution and conflated settlements with Israel itself.
During the campaign, US President-elect Donald Trump first declared his intention to be “neutral” on the Palestinians and Israel so as to broker a deal but he changed his tune when he spoke at the conference of the main Israel lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He not only declared his unwavering support for Israel but promised to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a position his advisers reiterated after his election.
If implemented, this would break long-standing US policy and is guaranteed to generate unprecedented anger among Palestinians and their supporters around the world.
US President Barack Obama has, it seems, given up on any last-minute moves to reignite the peace process or to impose some pressure on Israel through the Security Council. However, he remains committed to the two-state solution, despite some senior Israeli officials’ calls for it to be abandoned.
Speaking at the Saban Forum, an annual gathering of senior Israeli and US policymakers, US Secretary of State John Kerry concluded that “more than 50% of the ministers in the current Israeli government have publicly stated they are opposed to a Palestinian state and that there will be no Palestinian state”.
He said Israeli settlement construction is a deliberate obstacle to peace and warned that such expansion was undermining any hope of a two-state solution. Kerry was speaking as the Knesset was about to move forward on a bill that would legalise illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank, despite the world being united in considering all settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem illegal.
Efforts by France to have a peace conference before the end of the year also failed. French President François Hollande could not even convince Netanyahu to attend a pre-Christmas meeting with Abbas in Paris. Netanyahu would only accept such an invitation if France gave up on its peace initiative, rendering the meeting useless.
Perhaps the real reason for Netanyahu declining the French invitation is that on January 20th Trump moves into the White House. Why engage with France or anyone else when Trump and his administration are making the right noises as far as Israel is concerned?
Trump’s election has further emboldened Israeli leaders including Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who declared “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 conclusion by Bennett is a reflection of Israeli thinking at the highest level.
While many have been arguing for some time that Israel has been making a two-state solution impossible through changing the situation on the ground, it is now being declared dead by its main backer, the United States.
It is therefore likely that as the centenary of Balfour Declaration is marked in 2017, together with the 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation, we will be no nearer to a resolution to the conflict. With this the Palestinian leadership is likely to turn to international institutions, including the International Criminal Court, to pursue actions against Israel to at the very least remind the international community of the need to find a solution.
As for ordinary citizens around the world, it seems that supporting the Palestinians through the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) is the main form of effective solidarity they can exercise to help the Palestinians reach their legitimate goals of freedom, equality and independence.