What Palestinians want from the Arab League summit

First published by the Arab Weekly on 31/3/2019

Palestinians know Arab citizens support them but they will want Arab leaders to be equally supportive through the delivery of strong positions in Tunis.

Daily struggle. An Israeli soldier stands guard as Palestinians watch Jewish settlers (unseen) touring the Palestinian side of the old city market in Hebron, last February. (AFP)

As Arab leaders gather in Tunisia for the 30th Arab League Summit, they will have their hands full examining files as complicated as Syria, Libya, Yemen and the Palestinian territories. For Palestinians, the summit comes at a time their cause is facing threats by the administration of US President Donald Trump.

The United States is not only pushing for an Arab backing for its self-proclaimed “Deal of the Century” but also wants Gulf countries to fund it. The United States is expected to announce details of its Mideast peace plan after the Israeli elections April 9. The Palestinian leadership will be hoping to restore the cause to the forefront of the issues to be discussed in Tunis.

The United States recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017 and moved its embassy to the city while Israeli snipers were killing Palestinian protesters at the Gaza border fence.

The Palestinians saw some movement to restore the prominence of their cause in the Arab League’s summit last year in Saudi Arabia. Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud affirmed in his speech that the Palestinian issue is a top Arab priority and will remain so until the Palestinian people have their legitimate rights restored and establish an independent state. Palestinians were buoyed that he named the meeting the “Jerusalem Summit.”

However, since that summit, matters have worsened significantly for the Palestinians. Last July, Israel passed its racist Nation State Law, which gave only Jews the right of self-determination in Israel, changed the status of the Arabic language from an “official” language to one “with special status,” labelled Israel as the homeland for Jews from any part of the world (while Palestinians can’t return to their former homes) and labelled Jewish-only settlements as a “national value.”

The situation in Gaza has deteriorated as Israel refuses to end its 12-year siege.

The Trump administration defunded the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, almost forcing its collapse, and ended US aid to the Palestinians, including finances to East Jerusalem hospitals, which deliver important care to Palestinians in the occupied territories.

In Tunis, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will ask his Arab brothers to fill the financial gap left by the US administration’s decision to end its funding. He will ask them to pressure Romania and Honduras not to move their embassies to Jerusalem.

However, Abbas will face a dilemma in relation to the free and escalating normalisation taking place with Israel. In the past year, Israeli sporting teams have taken part in competitions in several Gulf countries where the Israeli flag was raised and national anthem played. Israeli ministers openly visited and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was welcomed to Oman in October. I say “free” normalisation because Israel has not done or offered anything in return.

Normalisation is counter to the generous Arab Peace Initiative made by the Arab League in Beirut in 2002. The initiative predicated normalisation on the return of illegally occupied Arab land to the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon. Abbas will want the Tunis summit to reaffirm its commitment to the initiative and an end to free normalisation.

Surely, Trump’s recognition of Syria’s Golan Heights as Israeli territory should strengthen Abbas’s hand in asking for an end to normalisation, which only serves to embolden Israel to entrench its occupation and oppression.

Whatever issues there are between Arab countries and the Syrian regime should be put to one side because the Golan belongs to the Syrian people, not the Assad regime, and, in turn, to the Arab people.

As for Palestinians, then they will want the Arab leaders to stand with them as they face the wrath of Israeli oppression and violence in Gaza and the West Bank. They will want a strong stand against Israeli attacks on al-Aqsa Mosque, which continues to be a target for Israeli extremists.

They know Arab citizens support them. However, they will want Arab leaders to be equally supportive through the delivery of strong positions in Tunis. They will want them to prioritise concrete actions in their favour over normalisation with Israel.

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