70 years of Nakba: Why can’t Palestinians walk home?

First published by the Middle East Eye on 18/5/2018

All who are interested in peace in historic Palestine must remember that we did not choose our occupiers; they chose Palestine, knowing it was not an empty land, and we paid with our lives and rights

I would not be writing these words today if Israel had not been created in my homeland, Palestine, against the will of indigenous Palestinians. I might instead be writing to celebrate the independence of a democratic Palestine in which indigenous Jews, Christians and Muslims lived as equals, building the country together after the end of the British Mandate. Palestine would be a full member of the United Nations; it might even have been allowed to enter the Eurovision song contest and won.

Had Israel been created in Wales instead, against the will of Welsh people, I might be writing in solidarity as they commemorated their trychineb (the Welsh word for “catastrophe”). Thankfully for the great Welsh people, they were spared the creation of Israel in their homeland and the expulsion of their people to neighbouring countries.

Atrocious massacres

Palestinians are again in mourning, commemorating 70 years since their catastrophe, which resulted from the creation of Israel in their homeland. They are still seeking their legitimate rights, principally their right to return home.

Many words will be written about what happened in the lead-up to, and during, the Nakba. Those seeking to justify Zionist crimes will argue that it was the victims’ fault for fleeing their homeland, rather than the reality that they were driven out, many at gunpoint, seeking refuge from Zionist Jewish terror. Yes, it was Zionist Jewish terror that deliberately drove Palestinians away from Jerusalem, Yaffa, Haifa and Akka, along with villages such as Deir Yassin and Qibya, the scenes of atrocious massacres by Zionist terrorists.

Israel continues to deny the Nakba, has legislated to punish those who commemorate it, and has denied Palestinians their rights, including the right of return

Palestinians are not the first or only people to flee for their lives. You need only look at Syrians today to see what human beings do in order to survive and to ensure the safety of their children. They take whatever possessions they can carry and run, but always with the expectation to return once the violence ends.

Nobody would deny the Syrian people their absolute right to return to the homes they left, and if they were destroyed, they would be helped to rebuild them. The outcome of what happened in 1947-48 was a catastrophe, which non-Palestinians could only truly understand if it happened to them.

Denying the Nakba

The population of my city of residence, Birmingham, is 1.1 million – almost that of the entire Palestinian population that inhabited historic Palestine in 1948. I can imagine the catastrophe that Brummies (what residents of Birmingham are lovingly called) would have felt had more than half of that population been terrorised into leaving their beloved city, with most never being allowed to return, as their homes were handed over to non-Brummies. Their lives in Birmingham would have become memories overnight, while the trauma of their dispossession would have been carried through generations.

I have no doubt that Mancunians, Geordies, Liverpudlians and Londoners would have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Brummies until they were allowed to return, welcoming them into their homes as they sought refuge from their tormenters.

Israeli security forces stand guard during a protest organised by Palestinians on 10 May 2018 (AFP)

This analogy can be applied to any group of people expelled by another group. However, what is different here is that the wrong committed by Zionism, and then by Israel, has never been righted. Israel continues to deny the Nakba, has legislated to punish those who commemorate it, and has denied Palestinians their rights, including the right of return.

Israel has neither given all who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea equal rights, nor accepted the creation of a Palestinian state on 1967 borders to end its occupation, considered illegal under international law. In fact, it denies there is an occupation in any part of historic Palestine.

Israel has annexed territories it occupies illegally, including East Jerusalem, and has sought recognition of the whole of the holy city as its capital, rather than accepting that it could be the capital of Israel and Palestine. It continues to build illegally in the occupied territories and is considering legalising outposts it has thus far considered illegal.

Demonising Palestinians

Israel has continued its siege on Gaza, now in its 11th year. It controls all access to historic Palestine, including access to the occupied territories, and has implemented a policy to deny entry to human rights activists and campaigners who have supported the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Having failed to silence criticism of its policies, it has cynically sought to conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.

Most significantly, perhaps, Israel has sought to demonise Palestinians. It portrays us as a lesser people, with violence as part of our DNA – a bunch of terrorists with limited intelligence. That, to me, is the most abhorrent of all the abhorrent actions Israel has taken against us since its creation.

What is troubling is that supposedly civilised westerners who claim they fight for equality and human rights, including those holding the highest offices of state, have adopted this narrative, or at least continue to support Israel despite the facts that are there for all to see.

While people across the globe sympathise with Palestinians and understand Israel’s crimes, the political elite refuse to represent their citizens and continue to support Israel when, had its actions been committed against their own citizens or against Jews, they would not rest until it was punished.

How can anyone explain to Palestinians the stance of the US in recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s, but not Palestine’s, capital? How can western leaders support Israel’s claim to self-defence when it kills and maims thousands of Palestinians in major wars against Gaza, or the daily trickle of killings in the West Bank?

International silence

The world’s silence as Israeli snipers used sophisticated weapons, including some supplied by the West, to pick off Palestinian civilians one by one as they marched to return home through the Gaza border has been deafening. The silence in the face of the deaths and injuries of medics and journalists has been particularly galling.

I remind all who are interested in peace in historic Palestine that we did not choose our occupiers. They chose Palestine, knowing it was not an empty land, but one that had a people – my people, Palestinians who have paid with their land, lives and rights.

The families that hailed from Najd would walk home, given a chance to do so, as would the families hailing from dozens of other ethnically cleansed villages in the Gaza district

Seventy years after the Nakba, Palestinians decided they could not wait any longer. Enough is enough. It was time to go home, and that was the reason for the Great Return March. If the refugees did go home, Gaza would no longer be the most densely populated place on earth; its population of two million would fall to 400,000, as 80 percent of its residents are refugees from other parts of historic Palestine.

They would not need large sums of money to be repatriated. They could simply walk to the homes from which they were expelled in 1948.

The Palestinians want to return in a climate of peace. It is in their interest and would be in compliance with UN Resolution 194. The existing residents would also need help to accept justice and 194. In most cases the houses were demolished and other houses built on their site. Clearly, negotiations  would need to take place to find a long term resolution that both sides agree to.

Take the example of Najd, a village just 14km north of Gaza City, whose population of 700 Palestinians was expelled in May 1948 by the Negev Brigade. Its inhabitants fled to Gaza. On its land, the Israelis built Sderot, a town that now has a population of 24,000.

Israeli officials take foreign dignitaries to show them the remains of “rockets” fired from Gaza that landed in or around the town, but they do not mention that they are actually standing on land that was once Najd, before it was ethnically cleansed of Palestinians.

The families that hailed from Najd would walk home, given a chance to do so, as would the families hailing from dozens of other ethnically cleansed villages in the Gaza district.

– Kamel Hawwash is a British-Palestinian engineering professor based at the University of Birmingham and a long-standing campaigner for justice, especially for the Palestinian people. He is vice chair of the British Palestinian Policy Council (BPPC) and a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC). He appears regularly in the media as a commentator on Middle East issues. He runs a blog at www.kamelhawwash.com and tweets at @kamelhawwash. He writes here in a personal capacity.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A girl raises a Palestinian flag as a boy holds a wooden key symbolising return at the Gaza border on 13 May 2018, during a demonstration commemorating the Nakba (AFP)

The PNC meeting was ‘much ado about nothing’

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 7/5/2018

 
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (2nd L) makes a speech during the 23rd session of the Palestinian National Council in Ramallah, West Bank on 30 April 2018 [Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency]
After a 22-year lull, the highest Palestinian legislative authority of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the Palestinian National Council (PNC), finally met in Ramallah for its 23rd session. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas faced severe criticism for holding the meeting in Ramallah, which remains under occupation, thus excluding many members and figures who would not be allowed into the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) by Israel, or who faced arrest and even assassination if they attempted to enter.
The PNC consists of 765 members, including 198 independents, 132 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), 49 representing Fatah, 98 representing other factions and a whole multitude of members representing different Palestinian organisations.

 

The meeting was held in the smart Ahmad Shukeiri Hall in Ramallah, named after the first chairman of the PLO; it was filled to the rafters when Abbas was in attendance over four long days. The front row, reserved for the leadership, looked as familiar as ever; it lacked any significant representation of women, non-Fatah faction representatives or young blood. The 23rd session of the PNC was named the “Jerusalem and protecting legitimacy round” in reference to the dangers Jerusalem faces and the need to renew the legitimacy of a number of the PLO institutions.

The meeting was boycotted by three major Palestinian factions — Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) — and a number of independent figures, including well-known members like Dr Salman Abu Sitta, Abdel Bari Atwan and Dr Anis Kassem.

Dr Salman Abu Sitta at Middle East Monitor's 'Jerusalem: Legalising the Occupation' conference in London, UK on March 3, 2018 [Jehan Alfarra/Middle East Monitor]

Dr Salman Abu Sitta at Middle East Monitor’s ‘Jerusalem: Legalising the Occupation’ conference in London, UK on March 3, 2018 [Jehan Alfarra/Middle East Monitor]

The meeting kicked off on 30 April with chaotic scenes as attendance was established by every name of the hundreds of existing members being read out and recorded as present or absent; various lists of replacements were placed in front of the ageing Chairman of the PNC, Saleem Al-Zanoun, adding to the confusion. The session concluded with a proclamation that the meeting was quorate, made to rapturous applause.

What followed was another rambling speech by Abbas lasting for 1 hour 48 minutes. Listening to it, I struggled to identify anything significant to take away with me, which was astonishing given the gravity of the situation the Palestinians face. Nor was there anything to distinguish it from his last speech to another PLO institution, the Palestinian Central Council (PCC) in January. While supposed to be reading his speech, Abbas went off script regularly, which is not a good idea when every word is scrutinised by friend and foe alike, especially when it comes to his attempts to present his version of history to an international audience. His explanation of the reason for the Holocaust drew almost universal condemnation, including some from the Israeli Prime Minister, Britain’s Foreign Secretary and the editorial board of the New York Times. While a more accurate translation of what he said gives context to his remarks, he should really have learnt by now that venturing into this area provides an open goal for accusations of anti-Semitism and those want to quote him out of context.

Attendees listened to speech after speech from leaders, members and guests representing various organisations and over 30 friendly states. The general message was one of support for the Palestinian cause, rejection of Trump’s US Embassy move and an emphasis on the importance of holding the PNC meeting. However, it was the many conversations, sometimes heated, taking place behind the scenes about possible names for membership of the PNC, PLO Executive Committee and the PCC that drove the real business of the meeting.

The closing session took place in the late hours of day four, concluding with a shorter speech by Abbas and the emerging decisions of the PNC. Abbas was “re-elected” by proclamation as President of Palestine and Chairman of the Executive Committee of the PLO. The PNC Chairman reminded the meeting how decisions are reached in the PNC, by standing up and applauding. There is no ballot. This drew heavy criticism from Nabil Amer, a former PLO Ambassador to Egypt, who had wanted to stand for the Executive Committee. He was initially told not to speak by Abbas but was eventually allowed to say a few words by the PNC Chairman. He simply reiterated his intention to struggle for decisions to be taken through a ballot and called on the PNC to hold Legislative Council and Presidential elections without delay.

Amer’s remarks were only heard after the PNC agreed to Abbas’s list of members of the Executive Committee, which he claimed had been agreed with “nationalistic factions”. Fifteen names were presented, including seven former members and eight new people. Those familiar to followers of Palestinian politics were Mahmoud Abbas, Saeb Erekat and Hanan Ashrawi. Abbas explained that the Committee had kept three seats vacant to allow the PFLP, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which boycotted the meeting, to join the PNC. In the case of Hamas, he conditioned this on the movement agreeing to abide by existing agreements. “We don’t want to see them out of our national unity and we don’t like exclusion,” he claimed.

The PNC was also asked to approve membership of the smaller PCC, which was to take on the terms of reference of the PNC due to the difficulties it faces in meeting annually, as it should. Presenting the names, the newly-installed Executive Committee member Azzam Al-Ahmad, known for his role in negotiating reconciliation with Hamas, stressed the great efforts made to ensure the widest possible geographic and factional representation on the PCC.

Earlier, 35 PNC members urged Abbas to end the sanctions he had imposed on the Gaza Strip since May 2017 to force Hamas, which has controlled the coastal enclave since 2007, to hand over power to the Palestinian Authority. Abbas skated around the subject but confirmed that the April salaries for those on the PA payroll in Gaza would be paid immediately and that the lack of payment had been due to a “technical hitch” and was not intended to punish the besieged workers.

In his closing remarks, Abbas took a swipe at those who boycotted the meeting held under occupation. “When we said [that we will] meet in this beautiful Ahmad Shukeiri Hall we are in our country, in our homeland not under the pikes of the occupier,” he insisted. “Yes, there is an occupation, but we can say what we want here. I am not prepared to go and seek a place to meet in an Arab country or any other when I can meet on my land.”

The closing statement of the 23rd PNC meeting is long but uninspiring. It reiterates the decisions of the PCC held in January, which remain un-actioned, including suspending recognition of Israel until it recognises Palestine and the end of security cooperation with the occupying power.

Much will now be written about the PNC meeting, its legitimacy, operation and decisions. Those who questioned its legitimacy will not change their stance, but what can they do to oppose them? The significant Palestinian factions which boycotted the gathering are unlikely to suddenly accept the invitation to re-join a body that they consider illegitimate. Healing the pain of the division has been taken off the table. Fatah and the small number of individuals around the Palestinian President will continue to operate without wide consultation and take crucial decisions on issues facing the Palestinian people. There is no accountability for the actions of the Palestinian leadership including, the Palestinian National Authority. Has it delivered any meaningful improvement to the lives of Palestinians or moved them closer to achieving their legitimate rights? Can refugees in Jordan, Lebanon or Syria see an end to their exile? Are the Palestinians in the diaspora represented in the PLO’s institutions in the proportion that they should be, or are they simply a number to call upon when the scale of the suffering of the Palestinians since the Nakba needs to be highlighted? Sadly, the reality is that there is no new emerging strategy to meet the aspirations of the Palestinians or to oppose the Trump juggernaut as it implements Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s diktats on “peace” through what is touted as the “deal of the century”.

The 23rd meeting of the PNC has come and gone and will in my view be remembered as one of the least significant events in Palestinian history; it was definitely “much ado about nothing”. However, Abbas pleased the meeting by announcing that Palestinian child prisoner Ahed Tamimi, convicted for slapping an Israeli soldier, will be made an honorary member of the Council. We might have to wait a little longer, but perhaps a President Ahed Tamimi or a member of her generation will one day take up the baton and lead the Palestinians to justice, freedom and equality.

 

UNRWA, the US Embassy move and the Israeli occupation

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 24/4/2018

Gazan's gather outside the UN offices in Gaza to protest US cuts to UNRWA's funding, on January 28, 2018 [Mohammad Asad / Middle East Monitor]

Gazan’s gather outside the UN offices in Gaza to protest US cuts to UNRWA’s funding, on January 28, 2018 [Mohammad Asad / Middle East Monitor]

This will be remembered as the year when the United States of America broke with the international consensus by moving its Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thus recognising the Holy City as the capital of Israel. The deliberate timing of the move to coincide with next month’s 70th anniversary of Israel’s creation in historic Palestine —the Nakba (Catastrophe) — has angered Palestinians whose faith in the US as an honest broker in the peace process has always been low but is now non-existent.

Palestinian anger has been fuelled further by the Trump administration’s removal of references to Palestinian land captured by Israel in 1967 as “occupied” from its latest annual human rights report. “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2017” broke with previous policy by changing the section on the human rights situation in Israel and Palestine from “Israel and the Occupied Territories” to “Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza”. At a stroke, the US State Department has removed reference to the occupation of any land taken by force by Israel in 1967, including the Syrian Golan Heights.

US threats of aid cuts - Cartoon [Arabi21News]

It is rather ironic that the report still claims: “Our foreign policy reflects who we are and promotes freedom as a matter of principle and interest. We seek to lead other nations by example in promoting just and effective governance based on the rule of law and respect for human rights. The United States will continue to support those around the world struggling for human dignity and liberty.”

Such a change runs counter to international law. Washington’s alleged commitment “to support those around the world struggling for human dignity and liberty” can certainly not be seen as applying to the Palestinian people.

This US administration is chipping away shamelessly at the legitimate rights of the Palestinians, which they have demanded for 70 years. Trump claims to have taken Jerusalem off the table, that there is no occupation and that the settlements are no longer referred to as “illegal”. This leaves just one more issue to take off the table, the Palestinian refugees’ right of return.

In December 1948, the UN General Assembly passed resolution 194 in which it resolved that Palestinian “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.”

OPINION: The Middle East Quartet still includes the US, so can it still play a role in the peace process?

There are now 5.5 million Palestinian refugees clinging to this right; the Great March of Return has seen tens of thousands of them marching peacefully to the border area in Gaza to reaffirm it. While they wait for that right to be implemented, they continue to be supported by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The agency was established in 1949 to carry out direct relief and works programmes for “Palestine refugees in the Near East”. UNRWA began its operations on 1 May 1950 and its services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, microfinance and emergency assistance, including in times of armed conflict. They are delivered in the main countries where the Palestinian refugees continue to live: the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. In Gaza, UNRWA provides services to refugees who make up 80 per cent of the population.

UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from UN Member States. It also receives some core funding from the regular budget of the United Nations, which is used mostly for international staffing costs.

READ: UNRWA gets cash injection after US cuts

The agency is facing a funding crisis, exacerbated by the US decision to cut its contribution. In January, the State Department announced that it was withholding $65m out of its $125m interim aid package earmarked for UNRWA stating that “additional US donations would be contingent on major changes” by the agency.

When asked what major changes the US Administration asked of UNRWA to continue its funding, the official spokesman was unable to point to specific requirements. Speaking at a meeting in the British parliament organised by the Palestinian Return Centre, Chris Gunness expressed the agency’s surprise at the defunding given that last November US officials had praised UNRWA’s high impact, accountability and flexibility.

The PRC meeting looked at Britain’s relationship with UNRWA. Gunness praised the government’s ongoing financial support but then set out the problems that the agency is facing, which he described as an “unprecedented financial and existential crisis.” He told the meeting that the Trump administration is actually “defunding UNRWA to the tune of $305 million” having only paid $60m in January when $360m was expected. Despite having already started to procure food and non-food items in the expectation of receiving the full amount from the US, UNRWA was told by the State Department that no more would be forthcoming.

US embassy might be moved to Jerusalem – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Gunness described the scale of UNRWA’s work in numbers: it educates 525,000 children, for example, 270,000 of whom are in Gaza. Its health projects offer 9 million patient consultations a year. It employs 33,000 people, including 22,000 teachers and education staff, the overwhelming majority of whom are refugees themselves; this gives a huge boost to the economy in Palestinian refugee camps. It also supports small-scale projects through micro finance. “UNRWA is not a light bulb you can turn on or off,” insisted Gunness. “You cannot just offer a third of an education to half a million children.”

UNRWA’s resources have been stretched by the crisis in Syria, the spokesman pointed out. Additional needs have been generated by the 150,000 Palestinian refugees who were among more than half a million living in Syria to flee to neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan.

Gunness warned that even after the recent Rome conference which sought to raise $466 million for UNRWA, only $110m was raised, including $50m from Qatar alone. Although Saudi Arabia subsequently pledged another $50 million, the agency only has sufficient funds to see it through to July of this year.

The real problem, he said, is the lack of a political solution; this is a conversation that the donor community “is not prepared to have. They seem to believe dialogue about reform somehow replaces it, but it does not. Their focus continues to be on how efficient UNRWA is in delivering its services and the rising costs.” The costs are rising, he added, because there has been 70 years of unaddressed dispossession and 50 years of occupation. “That is what drives the bill up. There are more and more refugees because there is an unresolved political plight and the children of refugees have become refugees.” This “protracted refugee situation” also applies to UNHCR.

When asked what would happen to the refugees if UNRWA collapsed, Gunness said, “Palestinian refugees are human beings with rights.” Those rights do not disappear if UNRWA is not around. “Their options will remain as integration wherever they are, third country repatriation or repatriation, which means going home.” He confirmed that the preferred remedy for dealing with refugees by UNHCR is the right of return in that it produces the most stable outcome.

READ: 100 days since Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem, the facts

Speaking at the same meeting, Oxford-based Palestinian academic Karma Nabulsi warned that the US defunding of UNRWA is designed to “dismantle it”. Professor Nabulsi argued that UNRWA was created by the UN following the “dismantlement of our country and destruction of our society” under its watch. “It was,” she reminded the audience, “initially meant to exist for 6 months to a year but with the passing of time, it had become ‘stabilised’.”

The current crisis, she insisted, is more extreme than those previously, “because it goes at the heart of who we are as a people and that we are a people.” UNRWA, she said, “is the only institution that recognises our inalienable rights and our status as refugees and the obligation of the UN to uphold those and protect us. Its demise would be like you have wiped us off the face of the earth.”

She contrasted the reaction to Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem with the UNRWA funding cut. There was pushback by the international community, including the UN Security Council and the General Assembly, against the embassy move. “The attack on UNRWA, however, has happened very quietly. Not many people understand it or see how important it is.”

Nabulsi reminded the audience that the US Embassy move, the siege on Gaza and other Israeli policies are classic settler-colonialism, which the Palestinians have experienced for a century. “Colonialism displaces the people and sets up a new country instead. It is a process not an event.”

Nevertheless, Professor Nabulsi finished by sharing a reason for optimism. “Because it is an ongoing event, we have a chance to stop it,” she pointed out. “It is not over.”

Palestine- Israel two-state solution is off the rails

First published by the Arab Weekly on 15/4/2018

Whatever the real motives, the outcome would be an entrenchment of Israel’s presence in the West Bank.

Another brick in the wall. A 2016 file picture shows Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara during an inauguration ceremony of Hahemek rail line. (AP)

Early in his administration, US President Donald Trump stated that he would support whatever the parties agreed to in relation to a one-state or two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was a major departure for the United States, which had consistently stated that the two-state solution was the only way to achieve peace. Former Secretary of State John Kerry had argued in December 2016 that if Israel’s choice was “one state, Israel can either be Jewish or Democratic. It cannot be both.”

During the 2015 election campaign, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu promised there would be “no Palestinian state under his watch.” His coalition partners agree either implicitly or explicitly that the two-state solution is not on the table, particularly following Trump’s election and the formation of a US negotiating team that is wholly pro-Israeli, both in tone and in action.

The Trump administration is still working on the “ultimate deal” that it claims will be difficult for both Palestinians and Israelis to accept. The undertones to the Palestinians are that this will be for “implementation, not negotiation.”

The United States angered Palestinians by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and cutting funds to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, the agency tasked with delivering services to Palestinian refugees.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas severed ties with the US team, arguing the United States cannot be an honest peace broker having made these two critical decisions. However, his efforts to convince other countries or the European Union to take a lead and his call for an international peace conference to take place in mid-2018 have not borne fruit.

The Great March of Return has seen tens of thousands of Palestinians camp and demonstrate on the Gaza border with Israel calling for implementation of their right of return, which the Israelis met with violence, killing tens of protesters and injuring thousands.

Israel refuses to allow the refugees to return, 70 years since UN Resolution 194 giving them this right was adopted. The Gaza march has highlighted the Palestinian refugee problem to the US team, making it clear that, unless the issue is resolved, there will be no peace, whether in one or two states.

The Palestinian leadership clings to the two-state solution despite the ever-increasing number of settlements and settlers in the West Bank. Israel is making it impossible to achieve. It is expanding settlements and key members of Netanyahu’s coalition, such as Education Minister Naftali Bennett, have called for annexing the West Bank.

In any case, Israel has been acting as if it has sovereignty over the whole of historic Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Its latest project demonstrates this clearly. Reports claim that it is starting construction of a railway that would cross into occupied territory in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The three-phase project would see the railway established on 200 hectares of land. Palestinian agricultural land, trees and water sources would be destroyed in the process. The plan includes building 11 West Bank railways with a length of 475km and 30 stations, some of which would be in illegal settlements.

The Palestine Liberation Organisation condemned the Israeli government for the project.

It is likely that the plan would encourage further settlement construction, as housing in illegal colonies is generally cheaper than it is in Israeli towns and cities. This, together with fast railway connections, would lead to more Israelis residing in illegal settlements. Their opportunities for interaction with the Palestinians would be further limited because it is not clear how Israeli security concerns would be addressed to allow Palestinians to use the railway.

Going further, Reuters reported that Israeli Transport Minister Yisrael Katz recently proposed linking Israel’s freight network with Jordan and Saudi Arabia, a project he presented to Trump Middle East Envoy Jason Greenblatt. He claimed this could benefit the Palestinians “If the Palestinians connect to a railway system, the entire area will get a significant economic boost,” he said.

Whatever the real motives, the outcome would be an entrenchment of Israel’s presence in the West Bank and an erosion of the last possibilities for a Palestinian state.

Israel claims it does not want to see one state emerge as a long-term solution to the conflict. However, these projects are a clear indication that it is creating a one-state reality that can either mean equal rights for all in one state or an apartheid state in which Jewish Israelis dominate Palestinians. It is derailing the two-state solution.

Reconciliation or permanent division for Palestinians?

First published by the Arab Weekly on 1/4/2018

The takeaway message on reconciliation is that it has been kicked into the long grass.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (C) attends a meeting with the Revolutionary Council of the ruling Fatah party in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on March 1. (AFP)
At an impasse. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (C) attends a meeting with the Revolutionary Council of the ruling Fatah party in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on March 1. (AFP)

The Palestinian people are reeling from two explosions that effectively demolished hopes for Fatah/Hamas reconciliation. One was a real explosion that targeted the Palestinian prime minister’s convoy as it entered Gaza and the other was a political grenade that Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas lobbed into the mix during a speech to the Palestinian leadership shortly after that incident.

Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s car escaped the attack but vehicles at the back of the convoy were damaged. Hamdallah went on to inaugurate a water treatment plant as planned and then left the besieged strip to Ramallah. Accusations followed as to who was responsible for the attack. The Palestinian Authority immediately blamed Hamas, which opened an investigation into the attack but denied responsibility for it.

It is true that Hamas is in charge of security in the Gaza Strip following the failure of repeated attempts at reconciliation to extend the jurisdiction of the Hamdallah government over Gaza. It is, therefore, embarrassing for Hamas that this incident happened under its watch. However, it is not immediately obvious what Hamas would gain from attacking the PA prime minister.

Hamas released a video of its investigation. Suspects Anas Abu Khousa and Abdulhadi Alash’hab died during attempts to capture them. Another suspect was injured and was hospitalised. Two security officers died in the confrontation.

The Hamas video includes confessions by others saying they helped Abu Khousa plan and carry out the attack and concludes with the assertion that the investigation revealed that the bomb was primed a day before Hamas Security Chief Tawfiq Abu Nuaim was informed of Hamdallah’s impending visit. While it did not accuse either the PA or Israel of orchestrating the attack, the video asked: “Who informed the cell of the PM’s visit?”

Abbas did not wait for the outcome of Hamas’s investigation, opting to address the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah with what was a truly explosive speech. Abbas castigated Hamas for the attack and for scuppering reconciliation efforts that have come to a halt.

Abbas claimed that the PA had engaged with reconciliation efforts since October 12, 2017, but “was shocked to have achieved nothing in relation to enabling the government to take control in Gaza.”

He claimed the attack was part of a “plan” to separate Gaza from the motherland to create the “state of Gaza” and that this was always a US and Israeli goal, which started with the coup in 2007. Now US President Donald Trump wants to implement this alongside taking Jerusalem and the refugee issues off the negotiating table, making his “ultimate deal” unacceptable to Abbas.

He claimed the recent humanitarian summit at the White House on Gaza was part of the Trump plan.

Abbas asserted that, following intensive meetings in Egypt, Hamas had said it would implement conditions set by the PA in previous agreements but said Hamas reneged when it told the PA that “security is yours above ground but ours below.” This was a reference to what Abbas claimed Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar meant when promising to build tunnels and manufacture more rockets in the Gaza Strip.

Abbas gave Hamas an ultimatum: Either the PA takes control of everything — in accordance with the agreements — and therefore responsibility for Gaza or Hamas can keep control but that means taking full responsibility for the Gaza Strip.

Abbas concluded with a promise that he will take all “national, legal and financial actions necessary to protect the national project” without outlining what these would be. He looked angry, tired and short of ideas.

The takeaway message on reconciliation is that it has been kicked into the long grass. It may even be the case that 2018 will see what Palestinians always hoped is a temporary division between their two biggest factions become permanent. This does not augur well for Palestinians in general and for the 2 million besieged residents of Gaza, in particular. The future is bleak.

The Great March of Return: An opportunity for Palestinians to return to Najd or is it Sedrot?

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 30/3/2018

There is nothing like a trip to Beirut and a visit to Palestinian refugee camps to remind visitors of the nub of the Palestinian catastrophe, the Nakba which refugees continue to endure to this day. They were thrown out of their homeland simply because another people wanted to make it their own and were prepared to use all means possible to have it, regardless of the catastrophic impact this would have on fellow human beings. The Palestinians did not ask to be occupied by the British or the Zionists and did not offer their land for another people, who would?

The 750,000 expelled in 1948 have now grown to nearly six million, most of whom are refugees living in camps in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The others are not formally refugees but like their fellow Palestinians – who are formally refugees according to United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) – have an unshakeable connection to historic Palestine and wish to realise their right to return peacefully to their towns and villages in historic Palestine.

In 1948, 100,000 Palestinians fled to Lebanon. According to UNRWA their numbers grew to an estimated 452,000 by 2015, living in 12 refugee camps. However, a consensus carried out by Lebanon in 2017 reported a much lower figure of 174,000. Asked to explain the difference the Agency’s spokeswoman Huda Samra told AFP: “UNRWA does not have a headcount of Palestinian refugees who are currently residing in Lebanon. What we have as an agency are official registration records for the number of registered Palestine refugees in Lebanon”.  In addition to the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, the consensus found that 17,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria had also moved into refugee camps in Lebanon as a result of the security situation there.

I am currently in Lebanon and ahead of Land Day, which is marked today, I took the opportunity to visit Sabra and the Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. The names are infamous for a massacre that was carried out by Lebanese militia under the watch of the Israeli army during their devastating invasion of Lebanon between 16 and 19 September 1982. Estimates of how many were massacred vary between 800 and 3,500 mostly Palestinian civilians but also some Shias. The man in control of the area was none other than Ariel Sharon who went on to become Israeli prime minister.

I visited the Bourj Al-Barajneh camp last year and was therefore better prepared for what I was about to see than I was last year. To reach the Shatila camp from Sabra, you walk through a busy market which winds its way to the entrance where you are met with Palestinian flags and those of some of the factions. Images of Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, abound, though there are far more of the man Palestinians lovingly call Abu Ammar than there are of Abu Mazen.

If you have just come from some of the affluent neighbourhoods in Beirut, entering the camp is like a time warp into a different era. No smart blocks, no wide roads or shops selling designer clothes and certainly no Porsches or Jaguars. Mopeds are the most common means of transport and even they have to occasionally slow down to pass one coming in the other direction. You encounter row upon row of winding alleys hardly large enough for two people to pass at the same time. But it is the electricity cables that hang overhead that characterise the camps. I had hear about them but seeing them is a different thing.

Israel and its supporters would want you to blame Lebanon for the conditions in the camps, which the government acknowledges are desperate. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said Lebanon had a “duty” towards Palestinians and acknowledged, “Over the past decades, the social and humanitarian problems faced by Palestinian refugees have accumulated, and the reality in the camps has become tragic on all levels,” However, he insisted Lebanon would, under no circumstances, accept their naturalisation. Hariri knows, neither do they.

They want to return to Palestine and they have a right to return according to UN Resolution 194, which resolved on 11 December 1948 that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.”

However, Israel has always refused to implement it – as it has countless other UN resolutions – claiming it would spell the end of the state. The international community is also complicit in the plight of the refugees for it has not acted in 70 years to pressure Israel to allow them to return. The Arab countries have also been found wanting. The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative –which the Palestinian Authority accepts – lowered the ceiling from the right of all refugees to return to finding a “just solution”. What could be more just than their unconditional return?

The refugees have therefore been left with no alternative but to take matters into their hands. This started in 2011 when, on 15 May, refugees made their way to the border with Israel in a number of bordering countries. In Lebanon, their protests were met with live fire from Israeli border soldiers which resulted in the death of 11 civilians and injuries to 100. Israel’s claimed Lebanese forces shot them.

Frustrated by the lack of progress to deliver their rights, Palestinians are once again on the move to remind the world of this unfinished business, their return. This time they have chosen Land Day and the besieged Gaza Strip to be the theatre for this latest episode in their quest to return, the “Great March of Return”. Figures show that 80 per cent of the nearly two million Palestinians in Gaza are refugees. They include those refugees from Najd, a Palestinian village bordering Gaza that was ethnically cleansed in 1948 and on whose land an Israeli settlement was created. It is called Sderot a city that is home to 24,000 Israelis and lies less than a mile from the border. Readers will recognise it as a colony that has received many rockets fired from Gaza and has become part of itinerary of visitors to Israel who stand and sympathise with the residents without giving a second’s though to the Palestinians just across the border on whose land it now exists.

Organisers of the Great March of Return insisted it will be a peaceful procession and that “it is a procession of human right that demands an implementation of the right of return.” according to spokesman Ahmed Abu Rteime. He insisted the Palestinians would only be armed with “the camera and the word” assuring that “there will be no burning of tyres, stone throwing or any confrontation with the Israeli occupation forces”. He said that the protestors would keep a 700 metre distance from the border.

“We are talking about a new style of peaceful resistance. Our goal is to revive our cause politically and peacefully,” said Abu Rteima.

The Israeli army’s response has been typically belligerent warning “these demonstrations might be used as a cover to damage the security infrastructure or harm the Israeli citizens or soldiers.” The Israeli army vowed that its forces would respond with a strong hand against such attempts. Israeli planes dropped leaflets and flyers in Arabic to the eastern areas of the Gaza Strip, warning residents not to approach the borders fence.

Israel, which killed disabled and wheelchair bound Ibrahim Abu Thuraya in December 2017, is certainly prepared to use live ammunition on peaceful protesters. Palestinians will bravely bring their plight to the attention of the world today but those of us looking on from the outside fear for their safety.

Instead of the Israeli army attacking the Palestinian refugees, the residents of Sedrot should be inviting those hailing from Najd to return to their hometown. That would be a much better way to mark Land Day. It would also give great hope to the refugees in Shatila camp and others.

 

Israel, Occidente y la hipocresía

Publicado por primera vez por Monitor de Oriente el 21/3/2018

La actual crisis entre Reino Unido y Rusia nos presenta un ejemplo más de la flagrante hipocresía de Occidente a la hora de lidiar con Israel y, prácticamente, la de todos los demás países. ¿Por qué mencionar a Israel en el caso del intento de asesinato de dos personas en las calles británicas en el que está involucrada Rusia, no Israel? Lo hago para señalar la preocupación repentina por las leyes internacionales que ha reaparecido dentro de los círculos políticos occidentales.

Junto con el secretario general de la OTAN, Jens Stoltenberg, el secretario de Exteriores británico, Boris Johnson, pronunció unas declaraciones acusando a Rusia de utilizar un agente químico militar, y afirmó que ambos tenían claro que “el uso de este agente es una clara violación de la Convención de Armas Químicas y de las leyes internacionales”. Un día antes, declaró en el BBC’s Andrew Marr Show que Rusia llevaba 10 años incumpliendo las leyes internacionales, acumulando reservas del agente químico nervioso. Brendan Lewis, presidente del Partido Conservador, en una entrevista en Pesto on Sunday, también se refirió a las acciones de Rusia como una ruptura con las leyes internacionales.

Johnson fue respaldado por los ministros de Exteriores de la UE, que emitieron un comunicado de apoyo al Reino Unido. “Todo uso [del agente nervioso] supone una violación de la Convención de Armas Químicas, de las leyes internacionales, y del orden reglamentario internacional”, declararon.

Poco después del envenenamiento de Sergei Skripal y su hija, Estados Unidos, Francia, Alemania y Reino Unido emitieron un comunicado conjunto condenando el ataque, que se produjo en la pequeña ciudad inglesa de Salisbury: “Es un ataque contra la soberanía británica, y cualquier uso de este agente por parte de un Estado es una clara violación de la Convención de Armas Químicas y de las leyes internacionales”.

Rusia ha sido acusada antes de saltarse la ley internacional respecto a sus acciones contra Ucrania y a lo que Occidente considera la ocupación de Crimea, que Rusia niega. En marzo de 2017, la Misión Estadounidense en la Organización para la Seguridad y Cooperación en Europa declaró que “Estados Unidos se muestra profundamente preocupado por las constantes violaciones de las leyes internacionales por parte de Rusia y de los principios y compromisos de nuestra misión en Crimea.”

El comunicado también acusó a las autoridades de ocupación rusas de “cometer continuos abusos contra los tártaros de Crimea, los ucranianos étnicos y demás grupos que se oponen a la ocupación rusa de la península”.

Cuando el fallecido Saddam Hussein envió a sus tropas a Kuwait en 1990, la comunidad internacional sólo permitió que esa ocupación durara siete meses. El dictador iraquí había anexionado Kuwait, declarándolo la 19ª provincia de su país. Sin embargo, se formó una coalición de fuerzas de 35 países para liberar Kuwait, con la que se expulsó a los iraquíes a principios de 1991. En aquel entonces, nadie se refirió a la resistencia kuwaití contra la ocupación iraquí como “terrorismo”.

Tanto Irak como Rusia recibieron sanciones por lo que la comunidad internacional consideró actos ilegales en Kuwait y Ucrania, respectivamente. Ahora, hay quien habla de más sanciones impuestas a Rusia tras el ataque en Salisbury. Incluso se ha pedido que el equipo de fútbol inglés boicotee el Mundial de Fútbol de la FIFA, que se celebrará en Rusia este verano. Respondiendo a una pregunta formulada en la Cámara de los Comunes, Boris Johnson declaró ante sus compañeros diputados que si Rusia está implicada, “será complicada una representación normal de Reino Unido en el Mundial”.

En Occidente, muchos se preguntan cómo Rusia puede seguir ocupando un asiento como miembro permanente del Consejo de Seguridad de la ONU, gracias al cual tiene permitido ejercer un veto cuando lo desee. Eso significa que puede rechazar cualquier resolución que critique a Moscú o a sus aliados, o incluso que simplemente considere imponer sanciones contra, por ejemplo, el gobierno sirio por sus acciones.

Aquí nos encontramos con la hipocresía de Occidente, que parece estar dispuesto a todo con tal de otorgar a Israel una protección especial ante las críticas o ante sanciones, a pesar de llevar 50 años ejerciendo una ocupación ilegal de territorios palestinos, sirios y libaneses, y 70 llevando a cabo una limpieza étnica del pueblo palestino. Al igual que Rusia e Irak, Israel ha anexionado tierras ocupadas ilegalmente, incluidos Jerusalén Oriental y los Altos del Golán.

Estados Unidos ha criticado duramente a Rusia por utilizar su veto respecto a Siria e Irán. En 2015, la entonces embajadora estadounidense en la ONU, Samantha Power, afirmó que los vetos rusos “ponen en peligro la legitimidad del Consejo de Seguridad de la ONU”. Su sucesora, Nikki Hayley, llegó a amenazar con que, si Rusia continúa utilizando su veto, Estados Unidos tendría que tomar medidas unilaterales en Irán. Hayley hizo esta advertencia después de que Rusia vetara una resolución que condenaba a Irán por violar un embargo de armas a los líderes hutíes en Yemen. La hipocresía particular de EEUU reside en su propio uso del poder del veto en 43 ocasiones para apoyar a Israel. En la última ocasión, lo usó para protegerse de las críticas contra su propia decisión de reconocer Jerusalén como la capital del Estado sionista en diciembre del año pasado. Esto no incluye todas las veces que la amenaza del veto estadounidense ha resultado en que ni siquiera se haga una votación respecto a las resoluciones en el Consejo de Seguridad, entre ellas una ocasión en la que la OLP intentó conseguir el reconocimiento de Palestina como Estado en 2014.

La hipocresía de Reino Unido se refleja en su apoyo a las sanciones contra el régimen de Saddam Hussein en Irak y contra Rusia, pero su absoluta negativa a la hora de considerar sancionar a Israel por cualquiera de sus acciones, incluida su ocupación colonial y sus asentamientos ilegales, los crímenes de guerra y crímenes contra la humanidad de los que ha sido acusado. Reino Unido se ha opuesto a todo boicot o sanción contra un Estado acusado de Apartheid por un informe de la CESPAO que fue retirado bajo presión de Estados Unidos e Israel.

Importantes miembros del gobierno británico y de los Amigos Conservadores de Israel trabajan horas extra para proteger a Israel. El secretario de Medio Ambiente, Michael Gove, para su total desgracia, describió como “antisemita” al movimiento pacífico de Boicot, Desinversiones y Sanciones (BDS), cuyo objetivo es presionar a Israel para que cumpla las leyes internacionales. Gove ha llegado a pedir a Reino Unido que desplace su embajada a Jerusalén, algo que violaría todas las leyes y convenciones internacionales.

Ahora, el Reino Unido ha indicado que, probablemente, no enviará a miembros de la familia real al Mundial de Rusia, pero ha anunciado que el príncipe William – segundo en la línea de sucesión del trono – hará una visita oficial a Israel este año, a pesar de la ocupación ilegal que ejerce el país en terreno palestino, su anexión ilegal de Israel, su muro de apartheid y su asedio ilegal de Gaza, que constituye un castigo colectivo y, por lo tanto, se trata de un crimen de guerra.

Por lo tanto, los palestinos y sus partidarios tienen muchas razones para increpar a la comunidad internacional por su hipocresía a la hora de tratar con Israel, cuyas acciones ilegales y violaciones de la ley internacional han sido constantes durante sus 70 años de existencia. Recuerden esto la próxima vez que un político occidental defienda las rupturas de Israel de las leyes como un “acto de defensa propia”. Es el único país del mundo al que los miembros permanentes del Consejo de Seguridad de la ONU y demás países de Occidente proporcionan una inmunidad excepcional.