I joined a debate on RT UK on this letter in the Guardian which I signed on 1/8/2018
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]
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Interview on Press TV Top Five on 25/1/2018
I was interviewed by RT UK on 28/9/2017
First published by the Middle East Monitor on 25/8/2017
Israel’s demolition of Palestinian homes is now almost a daily occurrence. The reasons vary but the phenomenon is ultimately a form of collective punishment; the humiliation of the occupied by the occupier and a means to achieve “demographic control” of occupied Palestinian territory.
The Zionist state publicises the demolition of homes of the families of Palestinians who are alleged to have attacked Israelis, whether civilians or occupying forces; Israel claims that this is a deterrent to others who might be contemplating such attacks. Demolition can happen immediately after an attack or some days later; families await their fate not knowing when the roof over their heads will be destroyed by an Israeli bulldozer.
The most recent of these demolitions was of the family home of Omar Abdel Gelil Al-Abed from the village of Kobar near Ramallah. Abed is accused of killing three Israeli settlers on 21 July in the nearby illegal settlement of Halamish in the West Bank. As with other demolitions, this was carried out under heavy protection from the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) accompanied by clashes with local residents.
Israel may also “seal” the home of an assailant rather than demolish it, as was the case with Hassan Ankosh, one of three young Palestinians who carried out an attack at Damascus Gate in occupied Jerusalem. The homes of the other two assailants were demolished. The decisions were approved by Israel’s High Court.
However, Israel has never demolished the homes of Jewish Israelis who have attacked Palestinian civilians. On the same day that Israeli forces delivered demolition orders to the families of four Palestinian assailants, the Supreme Court decided not to demolish the homes of three Israelis convicted of brutally killing 16-year-old Muhammed Abu Khdair in 2014. Jewish terrorist Yosef Haim Ben-David and two minors were convicted of kidnapping and burning the Palestinian teenager to death in 2014. The Israeli court rejected the Abu Khdair family’s petition to demolish the homes of the terrorists; retired Israeli judge Elyakim Rubinstein ruled that too much time had passed between the “abominable act of murder” and the submission of the petition.
The judge’s ruling was telling. He emphasised that “Regulation 119” in Israeli law permitted the demolition of homes of anyone suspected of “terror activity” and of their “accomplices and supporters,” whether they are Jewish Israelis or Palestinians. “We can understand how the victim’s family feels… we are dealing with a deterrent and not a punitive measure. It should be remembered that the perpetrators were given lengthy prison sentences,” added Judge Neal Hendel, reiterating the Israeli government’s contentious claims that such punitive demolitions deter “terrorists” from carrying out attacks.
More recently, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan arguedfor the demolition of the homes of the Israeli Arab citizens from Umm Al-Fahm whose attack at the entrance to Al-Aqsa mosque triggered the closure of the holy site and subsequent standoff between Palestinians and security forces.
There is, of course, no evidence that demolishing the family homes of Palestinians deters others, otherwise the attacks would by now — after thousands of demolitions — have surely stopped altogether. In fact the demolition of Ghassan Abu Jamal’s home in 2015 was followed by an attack by his cousin Alaa a week later. “Alaa knew what the consequences of an operation were for the family,” commented Muawiyah Abu Jamal, “but when he was humiliated in front of his three sons, it obviously hurt his sense of pride.”
Palestinians see these demolitions as a form of collective punishment against the families of assailants who had nothing to do either with planning or carrying out such attacks.
Image of Israeli bulldozers after demolishing the Arab Bedouin village of Al-Araqeeb [Sarah Stern/Twitter]
Some Palestinian homes are demolished due to a “planning policy” which in practice is the mechanism for controlling the demography through Israeli policies designed to ensure a Jewish majority from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea and in specific areas such as the prized city of Jerusalem.
The discriminatory policy of denying planning permits for Palestinians to build on their own land or to extend existing homes to accommodate natural growth is well documented. This denial is particularly significant in Jerusalem, where Israel regularly approves plans for illegal settlements in occupied East Jerusalem, but denies permits to Palestinians a stone’s throw away for home extensions of just a few square metres. Israel has often argued that building within existing illegal settlements is necessary for the same “natural growth” argument which it refuses to accept from Palestinians.
The Jerusalem neighbourhood of Issawiya has been awaiting approval for an infrastructure plan for over 15 years but it seems that it must wait a lot longer. In the meantime, some of its residents have built on their privately-owned land but have either had their homes demolished or, in a further humiliating act, have had to demolish their own homes to avoid extortionate fines by the Municipality if it carried out the demolition. This was the case of Firas Saleh, who was forced to demolish his own home, in front of his children, or pay $80,000 for the privilege of the Israeli authorities demolishing it. The children had helped to build it and were devastated. Khaled Mahmoud had his 4 bedroom apartments demolished, making 40 people homeless. He had been trying to secure a building permit since 2002 without success. Both families undertook to rebuild their homes.
Another Palestinian neighbourhood under constant threat of house demolition or eviction is Silwan on the edge of the Old City of Jerusalem. The most recent victims were the Abu Sneineh family whose home was demolished in early August but was partially rebuilt by the family and neighbours, only to see the new structure demolished by the Israelis as well.
Others who are targeted regularly by Israel for home demolitions are the Bedouin Palestinians on both sides of the Green (1949 Armistice) Line. The “unrecognised” villages of Al-Araqib and Umm Alhiran have been targeted for demolition of all structures, with the former being demolished and rebuilt at least 114 times since 2010. Israel wants to move the Bedouins to American-style reservations and build Jew-only settlements on the site of Umm Alhiran. The residents of Khan Al-Ahmar in the West Bank have also lived under the threat of eviction and demolition of their village.
In the past three weeks, Israel has targeted Palestinian schools in Jabal Al-Baba and Jubbet Al-Dhib, and confiscated the only source of power for a school in Abu Nuwar by removing its solar panels. In the case of Jubbet Al-Dhib, its pupils started the new school year with lessons in tents.
With no evidence that demolishing homes of Palestinian attackers really deters others, and knowing that house demolitions can only increase the hatred of Israel amongst Palestinians, it appears that this policy has failed spectacularly in what it sets out to do. Israel often accuses the Palestinian Authority of incitement and blames it for attacks against Israelis. However, it is to the Israeli occupation and its carefully developed oppressive policies that we should look for incitement.
Would you think kindly of an occupier who has just taken the roof from over your head for any reason whatsoever, let alone political reasons? Israel’s demolition policy is, in the end, a spectacular own goal.
First published by the Arab Weekly on 6/8/2017
Israel has been replacing Arabic road names with the Hebrew names.
The Israeli Ministerial Committee on Legislation recently approved a draft bill that would end Arabic’s status as an official language of the country, despite an Arabic-speaking population that includes 20% of the state’s citizens.
This would have significant practical and moral implications for Israel’s Palestinian Arab citizens and Palestinians in Jerusalem who are not citizens but whom Israel labels “residents.”
It would be a further blow to their fight for equality and to remain in their homeland regardless of what state exists on it. It will add to their insecurity as citizens who may be transferred to a future Palestinian state either politically or physically or stripped of their citizenship to fulfil extremist Israeli politicians’ desire to make the country a purely Jewish state.
Arabic is used when certain services are provided and when Palestinians are required to complete official forms applying for official documents or services.
Israel has been replacing Arabic road names, particularly in East Jerusalem, with the Hebrew names that appear on signs in both Hebrew and Arabic, including “Al Quds” being listed as “Yerushalayim” in Arabic.
This, Israel hopes, will be implanted in the minds of Palestinians and visitors who will become accustomed to the Hebrew names rendering the Arabic version as part of some distant history.
It is worth remembering that Israeli Arabs are a minority only because of the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians from the area when Israel was created in 1948. The discrimination and insecurity felt by Palestinian citizens of Israel is palpable.
The Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel (Adalah) said Israel has enacted more than 50 laws that discriminate against Palestinian citizens of the state. They include a “citizenship law” that bars Palestinian citizens from marrying Palestinians from the occupied Palestinian territories and taking them to live in Israel.
Israeli society itself discriminates against them through “admissions committees,” which Jewish communities can use to bar Palestinian citizens from living among them.
As for Bedouin citizens of Israel, the situation is dire. Israel has not recognised 45 villages they inhabit, depriving the areas of essential services. It has embarked on a plan to transfer them to a smaller number of locations and, in some cases, to build settlements for Jews only on sites they inhabited.
Even the Muslim call for prayer has been under attack and the government moved to silence its projection outside mosques because it “disturbs” illegal settlers who moved into predominantly Muslim areas.
Contrast this with Canada where French is the mother tongue of 22% of the population but when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses news conferences abroad, he repeats his remarks in French, recognising the minority speaking part of his fellow Canadians.
Israel, on the other hand, is moving ahead with a “nation-state bill” that gives primacy to Jewish citizens. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu claims that “there is no contradiction at all between this bill and equal rights for all citizens of Israel.”
Any rational and fair-minded observer would reject that assertion and see this bill and the stripping of Arabic of its status as an official language as further proof, if any was needed, of Israeli policies that discriminate against a sizeable minority of its citizens and one that erodes visible signs of the historic Palestine’s Arab heritage.
A famous Arab song says: “The land speaks Arabic,” which people in historic Palestine still do but Israel wants them to only speak Hebrew. Rather than enrich Israel, it would be the poorer for the actions of an extremist exclusionary government.
First published by the Arab Weekly on 30/7/2017
London – The results of the tawjihi — General Secondary Education Certificate Examination — were recently announced across the Palestinian territories to great cheers and celebration in some households and deep disappointment in others.
The future isn’t what it used to be. Palestinian children chat outside a school in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Jabel Mukhaber. (Reuters)
Palestinians see education as a vital asset to their development both as individuals and as a society under occupation.
The next step for those who excelled in the tawjihi is to find a place at university. Medicine and engineering continue to be the most sought-after studies for those with a score of 90% or higher.
However, hope that a university education will help Palestinians secure a job and go on to build a family is a pipe dream for most. “Hope” is the operative word here, and is a commodity that is in short supply for Palestinians, particularly the young.
The number of unemployed Palestinians totalled 361,000 in 2016, the Palestinian Central Bureau for Statistics said, rising from 21.7% in 2007 to 26.9% in 2016.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) said the unemployment rate for Palestinian youth has reached 40%. The unemployment rate in Gaza is more than 40% and youth unemployment is more than 60% and 85% among young women. Gaza, of course, has suffered from a 10-year siege that has exacerbated the situation. The unemployment rate among men in East Jerusalem is reported to be 12.3% and 26.8% among women.
Palestinians recently marked Israel’s 50-year occupation of East Jerusalem, which means anyone born after 1967 has grown up under Israeli military rule. The occupation has not been a static affair. Israel annexed East Jerusalem shortly after its occupation, claiming it as its united eternal capital. It has also actively pursued the construction of illegal settlements in the Palestinian areas, for Jews only, in a deliberate attempt to change its demographic makeup or, as the Palestinians see it, to Judaise it.
Some 300,000 Palestinians live in East Jerusalem. Their official status is “resident.” They are neither Israeli citizens nor holders of a Palestinian Authority passport. In 2014, the Israeli Ministry of Interior revoked the permanent residency status of 107 Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, including 56 women and 12 minors. Since 1967, the residency status of 14,416 Palestinian residents of Jerusalem has been revoked. In practice, this prevents them from returning to live in their place of birth.
In 2012, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) reported that 78% of Palestinians, including 84% of children, in the district of Jerusalem live below the poverty line. There are no official statistics collected by Israel as to the rate of unemployment among Palestinians. However, the Statistical Yearbook of Jerusalem, put out by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, said 40% of males and 85% of females do not participate in the workforce.
Only 41% of Palestinian children are enrolled in municipal schools. There is a shortage of 1,000 classrooms in the official municipal education system; 194 classrooms were added in these schools from 2009-14 and an additional 211 are planned. More than 40% of classrooms in the official municipal system are considered inadequate.
A particularly important statistic is that of school dropout rate. This stands at 26% in 11th grade and 33% in 12th grade; the national average stands at just a few percent. Those who drop out face a bleak future in terms of employment. Opportunities for employment are extremely limited. The jobs that do exist are low-pay and in many cases short-term.
Where youngsters hope to join a family business, particularly in the old city, they see a short, strained attempt by Israel to force them out of business through excessive taxation and other demands.
Many end up working part-time for low wages inside Israel with little hope of saving for a house, rent or to start a family. This forces many to continue living with their parents, resulting in overcrowded conditions.
Even if Palestinian families own land and have the means to extend their homes to accommodate offspring, Israel generally denies building permits. Such permits are not denied for their Jewish neighbours. As a result, some Palestinians end up working in the West Bank, putting their residency status in Jerusalem at risk.
The occupation also affects their lives by subjecting young Palestinians to regular arrests, sometimes for being suspected of throwing stones or being involved in carrying out what they see as acts of resistance. Cases of young Palestinians being mistreated in custody, such as being asked to sign confessions in Hebrew, which they do not speak, are well documented.
Young Palestinians have expressed a general sense of humiliation and do not see their status quo changing for years to come.