Israel is sleepwalking towards tyranny not practising democracy

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 28/7/2017

Israeli forces injure Palestinians with tear gas as they gather to enter the Al-Aqsa Mosque following the removal of Israeli security measures in Jerusalem on 27 July 2017 [Mahmoud İbrahem/Anadolu Agency]

Israeli forces injure Palestinians with tear gas as they gather to enter the Al-Aqsa Mosque following the removal of Israeli security measures in Jerusalem on 27 July 2017 [Mahmoud İbrahem/Anadolu Agency]

Let me start by acknowledging that democracy is in short supply in the Middle East. However, only one state claims to be a democratic state. In fact, Israel claims to be “the only democracy in the Middle East,” with the “most moral army in the world”.

Increasingly, extremist Israeli governments with no respect for international law, international humanitarian law or international norms have been using the pretence of democracy to entrench Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine and to place the state’s Jewish identity above democracy. The Nation State Bill, making its way through the Knesset, seeks to do just that, despite claims a future draft would tone this down.

All is not well with democracy in Israel. Every so often former, senior Israeli politicians or retired security personnel warn that Israel is edging towards apartheid and even more recently towards tyranny.

Former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak have warned that Israel’s policies are leading towards naked apartheid; Barak said as recently as last month that Israel was on a “slippery slope towards apartheid”.

Former Israeli officials were blind to the impact of their policies while in office. After all, the settlement project saw a major expansion during Barak’s reign. How is it that he could not see the devastating effect of this on the prospects for peace? It is also true that when it comes to settlements, current Prime Minister Netanyahu needs no excuse to expand the enterprise but still uses this as punishment for perceived Palestinian indiscretions such as joining world bodies or conventions.

To many observers the label of apartheid is already justified. Anyone who has visited the occupied Palestinian town of Hebron can testify that they saw apartheid, felt it and smelt it.

In April former Shin Bet chiefs Ami Ayalon and Carmi Gillon warned that the country’s political system had sunk in the process of “incremental tyranny”. They were speaking ahead of a public meeting at a Jerusalem gallery that was threatened with closure after hosting a meeting organised by the military whistleblowing group Breaking the Silence, one of the main targets of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Ayalon explained that “incremental tyranny [is a process] which means you live in a democracy and suddenly you understand it is not a democracy anymore,” adding that “this is what we are seeing in Israel. The tragedy of this process is that you only know it when it is too late”.

Attacks on human rights organisations within Israel are nothing new. Breaking the Silence,B’TselemAl-Haq, Peace Now and Yesh Din have all been demonised and individuals issued with death threats. MK David Bitan called for the citizenship of B’Tselem Director Hagai El-Ad to be revoked simply because he criticised Israel’s occupation to the United Nations Security Council.

In 2017 Israel passed a law compelling NGOs to reveal their foreign funding which would allow the government to lobby those states that fund these critical NGOs. This scrutiny does not to extend to those that support and fund illegal settlements.

Israel’s targeting of the media is constant and is hardly a sign of democracy. It regularly raids offices of Palestinian radio and TV stations and confiscates equipment. The 2017 World Press Freedom Index placed Israel 91st out of 180 countries, way behind many Western-style democracies that it claims to emulate including Germany (16), France (39), UK (40) and the US (43). Palestine was ranked 135th.

During assaults on Gaza, Israel deliberately attacked buildings housing media channels, which caused damage and casualties. Israel’s most recent attack on the media came during the recent coverage of protests and Israeli army violence at Al-Aqsa. The Israeli Prime Minister threatened to close Al Jazeera’s offices accusing its journalists of “inciting violence,” a claim the Qatari owned network strongly rejects.

In recent months Israel has escalated its war on freedom of speech both at home and abroad, particularly in relation to proponents of the BDS movement. While it generally claims the movement is ineffective, it has appointed Gilad Erdan as minister for strategic affairs to combat individuals and organisations that pursue this tactic for pressuring Israel.

At the 2016 Yediot Achronot conference which attacked BDS, Israel’s transport minister Yisrael Katz called for the “civil targeted killing” of BDS leaders like Omar Barghouti. Thankfully, Barghouti is still alive but he was banned from travelling abroad for a period of time and was recently arrested on allegations of tax evasion, which he denied.

Israel has also turned its attention to critics abroad. In March 2017 the Knesset passed a law that would empower the immigration authorities to deny proponents of the BDS movement abroad entry to Israel. Commenting on the new law Erdan said “the rules of the game have changed,” and that organisations seeking to harm Israel’s “national security” through boycotts would be denied entry to the country.

A few days after the law was passed Chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), Hugh Lanning, was denied entry to Israel. A few days later I was travelling with my wife and son to visit family in East Jerusalem when I was also denied entry. This was particularly ironic given it is the year Britain plans to celebrate the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.

The first question I was asked during my interrogation was whether I had heard of the new BDS law. I believed that I was denied entry because of my role in PSC where I am a member of the executive committee, and our promotion of BDS. I did wonder at the time whether the law would be applied equally to Jews holding foreign passports and residing abroad who supported BDS or a more limited boycott of the illegal settlements.

When campaign director for Code Pink, Ariel Gold, made it into Israel recently I noted that a Jewish supporter of Palestinian rights and of BDS had been allowed in. However, she was ‘outed’ in the press and accused of “tricking” her way into the country, which she denied. She is now worried about being denied entry in the future.

At least Gold made it to Tel Aviv. On the 23 July Jewish Rabbi Alissa Wise and two other faith leaders were not allowed to board a flight to Tel Aviv by Lufthansa on the orders of Israel. Wise is from Jewish Voice for Peace. It’s important to remember that Israel has a Law of Return for Jews but denies the right of return to Palestinians.

Israel’s borders extend as far as it wants them to and in Alissa’s case they extended all the way to Washington and will be coming to an airport near you if critics of Israel decide to visit. Israel has developed criterion for entry denial and will demand that airlines deny boarding to individuals in their country of departure.

The implications for critics of Israel and organisations that promote BDS are clearly significant in term of accessing the country to show solidarity with Palestinians. However, they are unlikely to be perturbed about campaigning for the rights of Palestinians and promoting BDS, unless Israel’s lobby in key countries succeeds in wrongly criminalising BDS as the US is currently attempting to do.

In reaction to recent events around Al-Aqsa, Minister of Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi – a key Netanyahu ally – threatened Palestinians with a “third Nakba”. The reference here is to the Arabic term for catastrophe or the mass expulsions of Palestinians from their homeland in 1948 and then 1967. How democratic is that?

It seems to me that Israel has found it difficult to reconcile its role of delivering the Zionist project and acting as a democracy. It has to deal with non-Jews that it wishes had all been ethnically cleansed in 1948. Their sheer existence is a demographic threat and as we saw recently in Jerusalem, if they had all gone the ‘third Temple’ would have been built by now in place of Al-Aqsa Mosque in a state only for Jews.

Israel claims to be Jewish and democratic but the reality is that it is a settler, colonialist and apartheid state with a stockpile of nuclear weapons to boot.  It seems that if democracy does not deliver its colonialist aims then – as some of its own senior citizens fear – it will head towards tyranny. I acknowledge that Israel is not there yet but the direction of travel worries me as a Palestinian and should worry Israelis who want to make peace with their neighbours.

Those that support Israel in the West should also worry. Will they heed the fears of former Shin Bet chiefs Ami Ayalon and Carmi Gillon, or will they only know it when it is too late.

Interview: ‘It seems Abbas has led Palestinians to a dead end’

Interview by Muslim Press on 3/7/2017

Muslim Press has conducted an interview with British Palestinian academic and writer on Middle East Affairs Kamel Hawwash about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the role Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is playing in this regard.

“It seems Abbas has led the Palestinians to a dead end. Gaza is still under siege ten years on, the settlements continue to grow in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, over 6,000 prisoners still languish in Israeli jails, reconciliation with Hamas has failed and the refugees have not been able to return to their homes in historic Palestine,” Prof. Hawwash said.

Here’s the full transcript of the interview:

Muslim Press: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has recently met with US President Donald Trump. What’s your take on this meeting? Does Abbas speak for all Palestinians? 

Kamel Hawwash: Abbas’ first meeting with the American President in Washington seemed to have gone well. Donald Trump even tweeted that he was ‘honoured’ to meet the Palestinian President but he then deleted the tweet. He continued to repeat his belief that bringing peace between Israel and the Palestinians is the ‘ultimate deal’. The second meeting was less positive. Reports suggested that Trump focused on what Israel calls Palestinian incitement, which had been fed to trump during his meeting with Netanyahu, hours earlier. Trump is said to have accused Abbas of lying to him about his actions to end incitement. It also emerged that Trump had raised the issue of the PA’s monthly payments to families of Palestinian prisoners and martyrs (those killed while allegedly attacking Israelis, including occupation forces). As to the peace process then little emerged from the meetings to give the Palestinians hope. However, Abbas was still committed to negotiations, brokered by the Americans.

MP: Has Israel been pressuring the PA since Trump was elected? 

Kamel Hawwash: Israel has been moving the goal posts again. It is now raising the issue of ending Palestinian ‘incitement’ as a major issue in advance of any negotiations and is requiring that the PA ends payments to families of prisoners and those the Palestinians see as martyrs. It has further been attempting to relegate the importance of reaching a deal with the Palestinians to a secondary issue that is part of a regional deal rather than important in its own right. This has to be set against the context of what Israel claims to be thawing relations with some of the Gulf States and the talk of partial normalisation between Israel and key players in the region including Saudi Arabia.

MP: What are the results of Abbas’s policies toward Israel for Palestinians?

Kamel Hawwash: It seems Abbas has led the Palestinians to a dead end. Gaza is still under siege ten years on, the settlements continue to grow in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, over 6,000 prisoners still languish in Israeli jails, reconciliation with Hamas has failed and the refugees have not been able to return to their homes in historic Palestine. In addition, the PA’s security coordination with Israel is seen as ‘sacred’ by Abbas which the Palestinians find difficult to understand when Israel continues to flout all agreements signed with the PA. The lack of hope is the most dangerous outcome from his policies, despite a small number of achievements, including the upgrade in Palestine’s status to a UN non-member observer state in 2012.

MP: Trump has said he will find peace between the Palestinian people and Israel. How would that be possible while Israel is still expanding illegal settlements?

Kamel Hawwash: It is difficult to see how Trump can bring peace between the two sides considering how biased his team of negotiators is and his in favour of Israel and his choice of US Ambassador. The three key players, his son-in-Law Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt and Ambassador Friedman, could easily be on the Israeli side as they support much of Israel’s policies, especially the settlement enterprise. Trump has not appointed a single adviser who could be seen as pro-Palestinian or indeed an American of Palestinian heritage. He has abandoned long standing US policy regarding the illegitimacy of the settlements and does not mind if the parties want a 2-state or one-state solution. His vision is rather confused.

MP: What’s the significance of Jared Kushner’s meeting with Netanyahu and Abbas?

Kamel Hawwash: This may have finally exposed the bias of the American team towards Israel. Reports indicate Kushner had left his meeting with Netanyahu for Ramallah effectively to pass on Israeli demands to the PA rather than offer some balance or provide an indication of his ideas for relaunching the peace process.

Kamel Hawwash is a British-Palestinian engineering professor based at the University of Birmingham and a longstanding 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 commentator on Middle East issues. He runs a blog at http://www.kamelhawwash.com and tweets at @kamelhawwash.

Mahmoud Abbas has led the Palestinians to a dead end. He must go 

First published by the Middle East Eye on 29/6/2017

The president has hit a new low, cutting the salaries and electricity of Palestinians in Gaza. The next intifada will be against the Palestinian National Authority and this should worry Israel and Abbas


Photo: A photo of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas from 2016 (AFP)

The embattled 81-year-old Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has been in power since 2005. His reign has not brought the Palestinian people any closer to freedom and independence, but where is he leading them to now?

Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in January 2005 following Yasser Arafat’s death under suspicious circumstances in November 2004. He is president of the state of Palestine, leader of Fatah and chairman of the PLO. He is committed to negotiations with Israel based on a two-state solution, and has been since he signed the 1993 Oslo Accords on the White House Lawn to great cheers. 

In short, he has played a hugely significant role in leading the Palestinians as a negotiator, a prime minster and a president and, while the blame for his administration’s failure can be shared among a number of key personnel, he set the overall direction of travel and must therefore carry the can for its disastrous consequences.

Under his watch, the Palestinians scored a small number of successes, including an upgrade of Palestine’s membership of the United Nations to a non-member observer state in 2012 allowing it to join several international organisations including UNESCO and the International Criminal Court. This was part of a strategy to internationalise the conflict.

Abbas may well argue that another of his successes has been the security coordination with Israel instigated under Oslo. It is one of the strongest cards Palestinians have to threaten Israel. Abbas has, however, called it “sacred”, arguing, “If we give up security coordination, there will be chaos here. There will be rifles and explosions and armed militants everywhere,”

Beyond this list, it is difficult to point to any other significant successes. On the contrary, Abbas’ setbacks and failures have put the Palestinian cause in the worst position it has been since Israel’s creation in 1948.

Peace process 

The Oslo Accords were meant to deliver a Palestinian state within five years. Twenty-four years and countless negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian side, mostly led for the Palestinians by Saeb Erekat, later, and there is no Palestinian state

And while 136 member states of the UN recognise Palestine, of the so-called international community, only Sweden has afforded this recognition to the Palestinians. Significantly, neither Israel, nor the US recognise Palestine as a state, arguing recognition should only come at the negotiation table.

The last significant attempt at peace talks, led by US secretary of state John Kerry, ended in complete failure in 2014 and was followed by Israel’s third war on Gaza in which more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed. As he was leaving office, Kerry laid much of the blame for failure of the talks at Israel’s door, singling out its settlement policy led by the “most right-wing” government in its history.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised the Israeli electorate that there would be no Palestinian state under his watch in 2015. A significant number of his cabinet colleagues are against a state ever materialising and believe in the annexation of significant chunks of the West Bank to Israel.

Abbas remains committed to restarting negotiations with Israel and is now banking on the Trump administration to launch another initiative.

Settlements

In 1993, the number of settlers in the West Bank including East Jerusalem stood at 148,000. By the time Abbas had taken over as president, they had reached 440,000. Under his presidency, the number has risen to almost 600,000.

They live in 127 illegal settlements “recognised” by the interior ministry as “communities” and about 100 illegal “outposts”. In 2005, Israel vacated 16 settlements in Gaza under Ariel Sharon’s unilateral “disengagement” plan.

The ever rising number of settlers and settlements has for many analysts already ended the prospect of a viable Palestinian state emerging.

Relationship between PNA and Hamas

Ever since its creation in 1987 shortly after the start of the first intifada, Hamas has pursued a significantly different approach to the conflict than Abbas’s Fatah party based on the liberation of historic Palestine and the establishment of an Islamic state in the area.

Left with no hope of a just solution that brings them freedom, the Palestinian people will rise again

In 2006, it decided to combine its military strategy with participation in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections which it won handsomely. Abbas accepted the results and asked Ismael Haniyeh to form a government, which was then boycotted by the international community.

Following a bloody confrontation between Fatah and Hamas in Gaza in 2006, Israel imposed a siege on Gaza which continues to this day. The Egyptian border crossing at Rafah has effectively been closed since January 2015.

Despite many attempts at reconciliation between the two factions, the division between Hamas and Fatah remains deep. Hamas rules Gaza and Fatah rules the West Bank. The two million Palestinians of the Gaza Strip have paid a heavy price for this division.

Price paid by Palestinians in Gaza increases – again

Frustrated by a lack of progress in ending the division, but perhaps playing to the Israeli and American gallery under US President Trump, Abbas has recently undertaken several steps to pressure Hamas which may result in the formal separation of Gaza from the West Bank.

In recent weeks, he slashed the salaries paid to 60,000 civil servants in Gaza and informed Israel that the PNA would no longer pay for the electricity it supplies to Gaza which has reduced the supply to the strip to a couple of hours a day.

This hits not only ordinary Palestinians hard, it also hurts vital services such as hospitals and sewage treatment works. The PNA has also reportedly cut its funding to the medical sector depriving it of badly needed equipment and medicines.


Young Palestinians in Rafah burn Abbas’ portrait during a protest against the Israeli blockade of of Gaza in April 2017 (AFP)

However, reports that the PNA has been blocking the treatment of Palestinians in Gaza outside the strip have truly angered Palestinians everywhere.

Many that I have spoken to both inside Palestine and in the diaspora described this as “shameful”. “How can Abbas impose collective punishment on his own people while maintaining security cooperation with Israel?” one asked.

If Mahmoud Abbas thought his actions would hurt Hamas and bring it to heal, then he has once again miscalculated badly. Reports have emerged of talks between Hamas and Abbas’s arch-rival Mohammed Dahlan which could see the latter return as leader in Gaza.

And if Abbas thought his hard-line approach against Hamas would endear him to Trump and his senior advisers then his recent, frosty meeting with Jared Kushner surely confirms the opposite. The more he gives, the more Israel and its American backers led by a fanatically pro-Israel team will want.

This time his actions against Hamas may give the Americans something Israeli leaders crave: a final separation between Gaza and the West Bank. This would certainly fulfil Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennet’s vision of a Palestinian state “only in Gaza” and the annexation of the West Bank, giving the Palestinians limited autonomy there.

Whatever strategy Abbas has followed is unravelling. He is leading the Palestinians to further fragmentation and separation.

It is time he admitted this and stood down. If not, then his own miscalculations could hasten the end of his rule. Even those around him that have benefited handsomely from his rule must now realise the game is up.

Left with no hope of a just solution that brings them freedom, the Palestinian people will rise again. This time it will be against their own expired leadership which has now denied babies and cancer sufferers in Gaza medical treatment for political purposes. The next intifada will be against the Muqata’a. This should worry Israel as much as Abbas.

Every picture tells a story; can the Palestinians expect any justice from this bunch?

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 23/6/2017


Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets with Jared Kushner (3rd L) in Jerusalem on 21 June 2017 [Handout / Amos Ben Gershom / GPO]

Throughout his first trip abroad as US president, during which he visited Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, Donald Trump expressed his desire to bring peace to the region. It would be, he said, the “ultimate deal.”

He promised Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas: “We want to create peace between Israel and the Palestinians. We will get it done. We will be working so hard to get it done.”

In order to put the “ultimate deal” together, it is reasonable to expect that a team with knowledge of both sides of the conflict would be gathered together to determine the facts and the rhetoric before a truly honest broker could succeed in the task. No such attempt at balance was made during Trump’s election campaign; his Middle East adviser then was Walid Phares, who is of Lebanese Christian Maronite heritage and well-known for his pro-Israel position. Trump had no adviser on his team who could provide a pro-Palestinian perspective.

As president, we now see that the team that Trump has put together to launch another attempt at a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians not only lacks any balance whatsoever, but is also tilted entirely in Israel’s favour.

Trump’s senior adviser on the Middle East, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, recently returned to the US after a 15-hour trip to the Holy Land during which he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the PA’s Abbas. The photograph circulated of his meeting with Netanyahu is a revealing snapshot of the team planning to launch Trump’s new peace initiative; every picture tells a story, and this one is no different.

Kushner himself is an orthodox Jew and the son of Holocaust survivors. The real estate developer’s family has donated tens of thousands of dollars to the illegal West Bank settlement of Bet El. He started his visit in his new role as Trump’s “senior adviser” by offering condolences to the family of Israeli police officer Hadas Malka who died during an attack by Palestinians recently. Although he would have a much longer list to choose from, he did not seek out the family of any Palestinian killed by Israel to show that he understood the suffering on both sides.

In the picture too is Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, Jason Greenblatt. Trump’s company lawyer from New York is also an orthodox Jew. He does not see Israeli settlements as an obstacle to peace and does not think that the United States or any other party should try to impose an agreement on Israel. In a recent visit to the Zionist state, Greenblatt met with leaders of the settlement movement, including the Yesha leaders Oded Revivi and Yossi Dagan.


Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets with Jared Kushner (L) in Jerusalem on 21 June 2017 [Handout / Amos Ben Gershom / GPO]

The final member of the US trio in the official photograph is David Friedman, Trump’s pick as ambassador to Israel; an orthodox Jew and bankruptcy lawyer, Friedman is also committed to the settlement enterprise and advocates moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in contravention of international law. Like Kushner, he has close ties with the illegal West Bank settlement of Beit El. Indeed, Friedman heads Friends of Beit El Institutions, an organisation which recently funded a five-story block in the Israeli colony built on occupied Palestinian territory. Friedman does not believe that the colony-settlements are an impediment to peace or that annexing the West Bank would compromise Israel’s Jewish or democratic character.

Representing Israel in the picture is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a man who has led the far-right Israeli government for a total of 13 years, alongside Israel’s US-born ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, who has been in post for the past 4 years. During the 2015 Israeli election campaign Netanyahu promised that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch; he now insists that Israel must keep security control “west of the River Jordan” in any peace deal. He was prime minister during the 2014 Israeli military offensive against Gaza in which over 2,000 Palestinian civilians, including more than 350 children, were killed.

Everyone in the picture of Kushner’s meeting with Netanyahu is a Zionist Jew; not a single American of Palestinian origin or US advisor with even slightly less partisan views, never mind pro-Palestinian. Of course, I do not wish to imply that Jews cannot help deliver a peace deal between the Palestinians and the Israelis — there are many who are active in the peace movement — but it is difficult to see how Zionist Americans, whether Jewish or not, can be even-handed in their endeavours to get the “ultimate deal”.

Anyone looking among Trump’s team for some counterbalance to the pro-Israel views championed by Kushner, Greenblatt or Friedman will be sorely disappointed. Another of the president’s senior appointments is US ambassador to the UN Nikki Hayley; it is hardly surprising that she is a staunch supporter of Israel who has criticised the international body for being “biased” in its criticism of Israel’s illegal activities. She recently promised the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — the main pro-Israel lobby group in Washington — that “the days of Israel bashing [at the UN] are over.”

Hayley went to Israel in between the Trump and Kushner visits, providing Netanyahu with an opportunity to heap praise upon her and her boss. “President Trump and you, I think, have changed the discourse, have drawn new standards, and everybody’s taking up, and that’s great,” Netanyahu gushed. “Again, I felt that the UN would collapse, you know, that whole scaffolding of lies would just collapse. I think you’ve put in that simple word, truth.”

The “truth” is that with a blatantly pro-Israel team in place who believe in Israeli settlements but are not committed even to the concept of two states, the Palestinians cannot rely on the US to act as an honest broker and deliver peace.

It was, therefore, bewildering — though not, perhaps, surprising — to hear one of Mahmoud Abbas’s top advisers express the PA’s anger at a new illegal settlement being built. “[This is] a serious escalation, an attempt to thwart the efforts of the US administration and to frustrate the efforts of US President Donald Trump,” claimed Nabil Abu Rudeineh, as if this would generate some reaction from Washington. It has not and will not. With Kushner et al calling the shots, how could it?

The Palestinian leadership is in a real bind, mostly of its own making. This goes back several years, particularly since Abbas took over and pinned his colours solely to the mast of the “peace process” with Israel bereft of any reference to international law and under US patronage. It is blindingly obvious that America will always side with Israel and if pressure is ever exerted on anyone, it will be on the Palestinians to make yet more concessions.

To add to Palestinian woes, Trump has further succeeded in driving a real wedge between those Arab states that remain intact and the Palestinian cause. At the recent Arab League summit in Amman, Abbas looked isolated and had to work hard simply to ensure that the Arab peace plan was not watered down further to offer Israel more incentive to take it seriously. He then learnt that some Gulf States are considering partial normalisation with Israel in advance of a peace deal, which runs contrary to the Arab initiative.

The Palestinians need to accept that the strategy adopted by the PA has failed to deliver peace or even get the siege of Gaza lifted to alleviate the daily suffering of two million people. If any progress is to be made, the PLO and its institutions must be rebuilt and the Palestinians within and beyond historic Palestine have to be reconnected, working together for the same objective of achieving justice, freedom and equality. The Palestinians must rely on themselves for a change; relying on Trump’s team to deliver justice or anything but capitulation is preposterous.

The UK should put Israel on notice, not the UN Human Rights Council

First published by the Middle East Eye on 28/3/2017

After supporting the UN resolution against Israeli settlements, the UK’s attack against the council is illogical – unless this is all about trade deals

In a surprise move, the UK representative to the United Nations Human Rights Council made a scathing attack against the council at its 34th session late last week, accusing it of “bias against Israel”.

Of particular concern is the council’s Agenda Item Seven which requires that Israel’s human rights record is discussed and scrutinised three times each year.

“The persistence of bias,” the UK representative argued in his statement, “particularly the disproportionate volume of resolutions against Israel, undermines the Council’s credibility as the globally focussed and objective international human rights body we all want and need.”

Making no distinction between attacks on Israeli forces maintaining an illegal occupation and attacks on civilians, he said that the council “must also recognise the continuing terrorism, incitement and violence that Israel faces. According to the Quartet’s report last year, there were 250 terrorist attacks, leading to the deaths of at least 30 Israelis”.

“If things do not change,” the representative concluded, “in the future we will adopt a policy of voting against all resolutions concerning Israel’s conduct in the Occupied Syrian and Palestinian Territories.”

Breaking with the EU

Despite the UK’s dissent, the 47-member council comfortably passed five resolutions on Israeli human rights abuses:

  • Ensuring accountability and justice for all violations of international law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem,
  • Right of the Palestinian people to self-determination
  • Human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem
  • Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan
  • Human rights in the occupied Syrian Golan

The UK only supported the resolutions on Palestinian rights to self-determination and the human rights situation in the occupied territory, voting against the resolution on the occupied Syrian Golan and abstaining on the other two.

The UK’s argument for voting against the Golan resolution was that “Syria’s regime butchers and murders its people on a daily basis. But it is not Syria that is a permanent standing item on the Council’s agenda; it is Israel.”

Even while voting against the resolution, the UK confirmed that it had not changed its position on the illegality of Israel’s occupation of this Syrian territory. However, in voting against the resolution, the UK broke from the EU, which may be a sign of things to come as it exits the union.

The UK’s stance seemed to be in tune with the Israeli and the US positions. After the resolutions passed, Israeli Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon said the UNHRC “has become the most notorious branch of the BDS [the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement] movement. The body’s resolution on Syria, he said, was “ridiculous”.

Acting US spokesperson Mark Toner said the US “strongly and unequivocally” opposed the council’s Agenda Item Seven, the one which permanently tables a discussion of Israel’s human rights abuses against Palestinians three times each year.

The US stance can be explained by the change of administration from President Obama’s to that of President Trump.

‘Stay strong Israel’

Following his election, Trump claimed that Israel was being treated “very, very unfairly”. He accused Obama of handling Israel with “total disdain and disrespect” after the US abstained from the vote on UN Security Council resolution 2334 which condemned Israeli settlement building. Trump then tweeted “Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!”

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has been enacting Trump’s promise. Last month, she blocked the appointment of former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to a high profile position at the UN and, more recently, pressured the UN secretary general to pull a report labelling Israeli policies as apartheid.

She further threatened to boycott the Human Rights Council altogether. And in her appearance at the recent AIPAC conference, in a reference to resolution 2334, she promised, “The days of Israel-bashing at the United Nations are over.”

While the US abstained on 2334, the UK voted for the resolution before it passed in December. Instead of halting construction, Israel has since announced approval for the constructions of thousands of new settlement units.

So it is at best illogical for the UK to abstain at the UNHRC on a resolutions condemning Israel’s settlement activities and, at worst, an abdication of its responsibility as a signatory to the 4th Geneva Convention that sets rule for the administration of occupied territory.

The UK’s threat to vote against all future resolutions concerning Israel’s conduct in the occupied Syrian and Palestinian territories implies that it might also vote against a resolution reaffirming the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. That would be a shocking development which would further damage the UK’s image as an upholder of human rights.

If not occupation, what is it?

It is interesting to note that the UK is willing to change its policy to protect Israel when it perceives it to be treated unfairly, but not to bring it to account for its violations of international law.

If passing resolutions, democratically put and democratically passed, against Israeli oppressive and illegal practices is unfair, what does the UK consider Israel’s 50-year occupation to be?

What does it consider illegal settlements, land theft, legalising illegal settlements, prisoners, the siege of Gaza and the refusal to allow Palestinian refugees to return to be?

Every day, Palestinians wake up to the reality of a foreign occupation that is far from temporary, one which impacts every aspect of their lives. That is grossly unfair.

In the UK’s own statement at the council, its representative stated clearly that, “Respect for justice, the rule of law, and international law are the cornerstones of international peace and security”.

The representative should have taken note of the findings of the report which UN ESCWA commissioned, released earlier this month, which found Israel guilty of apartheid.

While that report was taken down following pressure from the US and Israel through the UN General Secretary, it was quickly followed by another damning report of Israeli policies in which Michael Lynk, the UN special rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories, charged Israel with “the subjugation of humanity” in Palestine and intensifying a crackdown on human rights campaigners.

Either the UK doesn’t get it or it is prepared to turn a blind eye to Israeli policies as it looks beyond Brexit and towards strengthening trade ties, including those with the US and Israel.

In the new brave world, it seems trade will always trump human rights and the upholding of international law. The UK is talking the talk on Israeli aggression through empty condemnation, but walking the walk to protect it.

In the centenary year of the Balfour Declaration, the UK is once again betraying the Palestinians while celebrating its role in creating Israel, an apartheid state.

It should be putting Israel on notice, not the UN Human Rights Council. 

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.