What hope is there for Palestinians?

First published by the Middle East Monitor 

15/7/2016

The situation for Palestinians pursuing freedom, independence and the right of return continues to worsen. The occupation continues unabated, Jerusalem is being Judaised at an alarming rate, the siege on Gaza is as tight as ever and the refugees continue to languish in camps and those in Syria are on the move once again looking for safety and shelter. The Oslo Accords, which were designed to bring peace and independence within five years have not only failed to yield peace but have provided cover for accelerated colonisation of Palestinian lands to the extent that there are now some 650,000 settlers in illegal settlements in the West Bank.

2016 has seen particularly damaging developments.

In the USA, all presidential candidates with the exception of Bernie Sanders swore allegiance to Israel and those that were still in the race made typically nauseating – and in my view irresponsible – speeches, again with the exception of Sanders. The presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump initially indicated he would be “neutral” on Israel-Palestine, but this all changed when he faced the AIPAC audience. He firmly sided with Israel. His Republican opponent Hilary Clinton, a former secretary of State and wife of former President Bill Clinton, confirmed her blind support for Israel and the demonisation of the Palestinians. More recently, the Democratic party refused to include references to the occupation of Palestinian territories in its platform. Not to be outdone, the Republicans removed references to the “occupation” and dropped references to the two-state solution as the way to settle the conflict. This drew criticism even from the pro-Israel Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The Republican platform has effectively handed the future of the Palestinians to Israel leaving it to decide what a solution to the conflict might look like and in the process removing the two-state solution as the “only game in town”.

Internationally, Israel’s new Ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon will chair the Legal Affairs Committee of the General Assembly. A state, which is in breach of numerous United Nations resolutions chairing a committee on international law! Bouyed by this, Israel is even seeking membership of the UN Security Council whose key resolutions on the conflict it continues to defy.

In the UK, a new government has been formed with prominent pro-Israelis among its key ministers. The Prime Minister Theresa May is on record as siding with Israel. The new Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, whose appointment has raised eyebrows, has a dubious but pro-Israel stance, exemplified by his remarks in Israel back in November 2015, which upset his Palestinian hosts so much that they gave him some BDS treatment, boycotting his visit. The Palestinians can be thankful that Michael Gove, a prominent Brexiter and former justice secretary, is not in the new government. He is a man who banned a Palestinian festival and more recently stated that “BDS is worse than Apartheid” smearing the whole campaign as anti-Semitic.

He will surely find a more prominent home in the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI). CFI’s current Chair, former Communities Secretary Eric Pickles is a notorious apologist for Israel. He pressured Southampton University to cancel an academic conference on Israel in 2015 and more recently requested a review of the Department for International Development’s funding of the Occupied Palestinian Territories insinuating that funds make their way to terrorists. His intervention also suggested that funding should be diverted to coexistence projects as a means of supporting the two-state solution, when in fact projects to help reduce racism and increase coexistence within Israel would potentially be more beneficial to all its citizens. The UK bent the rules to shield former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni from questioning about her possible role in war crimes by the British Police on a recent private visit and tried to stop local authorities from implementing their ethical procurement policies when it came to companies that are suspected in complicity in Israel’s illegal occupation.

To cap it all, the UK plans to mark the centenary of the notorious and shameful Balfour Declaration in 2017. This has already angered Palestinians and supporters of justice who see the declaration as having been instrumental in their dispossession, the creation of a colonialist entity on their lands and the creation of the ongoing refugee problem.

The recent row about anti-Semitism in the Labour party has thankfully subsided with the publication of the Chakrabarti report, which dismissed the existence of a major problem within the party and steered clear of redefining anti-Semitism to include criticism of Israel, which Israel and its supporters wish to conflate, However, this row has served to raise the pressure to silence criticism of Israel and to curtail free speech. The UK’s Chief Rabbi played his own role in this, implying that Zionism and anti-Semitism are indivisible and in the process implying that all Palestinians (as they oppose Zionism) as anti-Semites.

The exit of the UK from the EU raises uncertainty about the direction the EU will take on Palestine without the UK and indeed the UK’s own direction. This is likely to align it more with the American position, which is moving further away from the even unjust two-state solution that it once championed. There is an argument that the EU may be more robust in its approach to the conflict as the influence of the UK is eliminated. However, judging by the recent report of the Quartet, which the Palestinians found to be “disappointing”, there is no real evidence that this shift will take place. The French Initiative to hold a peace conference stutters along, directionless, having been rejected by Israel. Add to this, Israel’s rejection of the Arab Peace Initiative and hope of any move towards peace by the “international community” is fading fast.

To cap it all, Palestinians cannot rely on their Arab brothers. Israel claims its relations with key Arab states have never been better and the Egyptian foreign minister has just been to Israel on a rare and controversial visit. At a recent conference for Iranian dissidents in Paris, Prince Turkey Al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia described Hamas as a terrorist organisation. Add to this Turkey’s recent normalisation agreement with Israel which dropped its long held demand for an end to the siege on Gaza and the noose around the neck of hope for Palestinians has been tightened like never before.

On the ground in occupied Palestine the situation is grim. Israel continues to control every aspect of Palestinian life. Its forces continue to kill Palestinians at the slightest hint of suspicion that they intend to carry out an attack. They then lay siege on their villages and towns, demolish their homes and round up their relatives. Hebron has recently been under such a siege following allegations of a number of such attacks. The old city of Jerusalem continues to be the target of a policy to replace its residents with Jewish settlers and Al-Aqsa mosque is under threat from takeover by Jewish extremists.

With little hope, the Palestinians can be excused for asking: What are we to do? The pursuit of their freedom and independence through resistance, through both military and peaceful means has not succeeded. They are now feeling abandoned. If the international community expects them to behave like a model occupied people and submit, then it has not learnt the lessons of history. The Algerians resisted until they were free.

Professor Kamel Hawwash is a British Palestinian engineering academic based at the University of Birmingham. He is a commentator on Middle East affairs and is Vice Chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and the British Palestinian Policy Council (BPPC). He writes here in a personal capacity.

MBC TV gives Arab Kids a Voice

Recent years have seen a spate of talent shows on ArabTV, especially on the Saudi channel MBC. The shows gave effectively been franchises of well know western ones such as the Voice and …. Got talent. 

One of the most memorable moments was when Palestinian singer, Mohammed Assaf won Arab Idol in 2014. He managed to join the show by the skin of his teeth,jumping over the fence around the venue in Cairo having been delayed on his way from Gaza. He has become a star since then and most Palestinians point to his achievement as an example of what many could achieve if they were given freedom and independence.

This year I was persuaded to watch the Voice kids. The format will be familiar to readers. Three judges sit in big red chairs and if they like a voice they press a big button to turn and see the singer. If more than one does so, the singer has to choose which famous singer he or she want to join in the latter stages.

  
I was moved to write these words having been stunned watching children as young as seven perform with such panache and skill that stunned the well know judges. Children from as far west as Morocco, as Far East as Bahrain, as far north as Syria and as far south as Egypt brought the house down in 2-minute bursts. 

  
What brought a tear to my eye on more than one occasion were a number that were refugees. One was a Palestinian boy from Lebanon, another an Iraqi refugee from Lebanon and a number of Syrian children.

To watch these amazing children look for the YouTube channel for MBC the Voice kids.

Our war torn Middle East has been cruel to all but particularly to the children. Some have seen loved ones die in front of their eyes, seen their families lose everything and have been without schooling for years.

Thank you MBC for giving some of these kids the chance to show their talents but also to remind the Arab world that things can be different. Given half a chance our children will excel and make great contributions to humanity. 

Jews migrating to Israel should go via Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon

Jews migrating to Israel should go via Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon

This first appeared on the Middle East Monitor on 1 February 2016

Every year, Israel announces proudly that more Jews have made “aliyah”, the Hebrew term for Jewish migration from the “Diaspora” to the “Land of Israel”. In 2014, 26,500 made the journey, a 10-year high. They do this under the Law of Return, which was introduced in 1950. It is a racist law which gives Jews with no connection to historic Palestine the “right” to move to Israel, to settle and to develop a new life. Non-Jews do not have the same right under the law; Palestinians who were driven out of their homes in 1948 and 1967 (in a process carrying on to this day) do not have the same opportunity to return, even though this is guaranteed by international law. The Palestinian right of return is enshrined in law and is the subject of the much referred to UN General Assembly resolution 194.

The process for making aliyah is made relatively simple. A quick visit to the Jewish Agency website provides a comprehensive guide. The site provides a great deal of information and a consultant is allocated to help applicants to get a visa at their local Israeli consulate and a free one way ticket to Tel Aviv. The site advises applicants to learn Hebrew to make it easier “to make Israeli friends”. It omits to mention that 20 per cent of all Israelis are Palestinians and therefore Arabic would make it easier to make friends too.

Applicants are advised that they may be required to serve in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and that if they are migrating alone they are eligible for special assistance as a “Lone Soldier”. Information on housing, education, health and finding a job is also presented helpfully. There is a special section for 18-35 year olds called “Customised Connections”, outlining “absorption programmes”. The site also points out that upon arrival a cash payment will be made and financial assistance for six months will be deposited in a bank account once the migrant opens one.

What is missing from this guidance to Jewish migrants is any context in relation to the non-Jews who live in Israel, the Palestinians in the occupied territories or the refugees who continue to languish in refugee camps across the Arab world; or, indeed, details of the wider Palestinian Diaspora. While there is some historical information about the Arab/Israeli conflict on the aliyah site, there is no reference to it in the guidance to new immigrants. There is not even a section which describes “Israel today” which could outline the reality on the ground to help potential immigrants make up their minds objectively about the important decision to migrate. Potential immigrants to Israel could be excused for deducing that they are planning to move to a normal country which is only inhabited by Jews and that there are no problems apart from finding a home, schools and a medical centre. The reality is that immigrants will be moving to a state which was created through violence and terror and continues to exist through violence and terror. Reference to serving in the IDF should include a health warning that they are likely to enforce the occupation through oppression and on some occasions to kill members of the indigenous population whose land is being colonised and developed illegally for their benefit.

In recent years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called repeatedly on French Jews in particular to make aliyah. Apart from this being unnecessary interference in another state’s domestic affairs, French Jews who heed his call do so without understanding the background sufficiently and on the false pretence that Israel is a “safer” place for them than their home country, France.

Whether from France or other countries, those considering migration to Israel should be exposed to the impact that the creation of Israel has had on the indigenous population. They should be provided with the opportunity to look Palestinian refugees in the eye, listen to their stories and understand that the state they are moving to continues to ban Palestinians from returning home, in contravention of international law. They should hear how the refugees, their fathers and grandfathers were terrorised into leaving their homes in 1948 and witness the conditions that they live in to this day. Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon would provide a wonderful and informative excursion. Not only will potential migrants meet refugees who have lived in Lebanon since 1948 but their brothers and sisters from Yarmouk and other refugee camps in Syria. Making such a trip is possible as all those who would make it already hold passports — from their home countries — that would admit them to Lebanon.

The situation facing the refugees is described thoroughly in the Palestinian Return Centre’sreport: ‘The “Forgotten People”: Assessing Poverty Among Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon. It describes an ever worsening situation which has resulted in 160,000 refugees being categorised as poor or very poor. The already desperate situation has worsened significantly as first Syrian refugees and then Palestinian refugees from Syria fled their homes in search of a safe environment. It is ironic that Lebanon’s existing refugees have become hosts to Syria’s refugees.

A few days spent at one of the twelve official UN refugee camps in Lebanon would be extremely informative to those considering aliyah. They can take their pick from Burj El-Barajneh, Ain Al-Hilweh or the infamous Sabra and Shatila, or maybe one of the growing “informal gatherings” of refugees across the country. After hearing the heart-rending stories of expulsion and dispossession, how would they then justify moving to live where the refugees and their families actually came from? If they eventually move to Israel, how will they feel as they drive through a landscape that was changed deliberately to hide the destroyed villages which were once home to the Palestinians they met in Lebanon? How will they feel about serving in an army that exists to oppress other refugees in the West Bank and to attack Gaza regularly, where the population is 80 per cent refugees, in order for Jews to be able to live in comfort in Israel?

As the search for the elusive breakthrough in the conflict continues, those selling the idea of the life-changing experience that aliyah to Israel provides for Jews should also offer them the opportunity to see for themselves the life changing reality that the creation of Israel had and continues to have on an entire people. It has been catastrophic.

Professor Kamel Hawwash is a British Palestinian engineering academic based at the University of Birmingham. He is a commentator on Middle East affairs and is Vice Chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. He writes here in a personal capacity.

From Berlin, on the Palestinians in Europe Conference  

  
I spent the day (25 April, 2015) at the 13th Palestinians in Europe Conference in Berlin, Germany. This was my first experience of this major event. The organisers informed us that over 10,000, mostly Palestinians, had attended the day long event.

  
The conference was jointly organised by the Palestinian Community of Germany and the UK based Palestinian Return Centre (PRC).

The ‘Jewish Community’ in Germany and pro Israel groups had lobbied for the Conference to be banned. Calling themselves ‘Berlin against Hamas’ the group planned to picket the Conference. I must say that I saw no protest and did not hear of a protest. 

Calling the conference a pro-Hamas event is way off the mark. I attended most of it, listened to the speeches and enjoyed the Palestinian culture offered through music, sing and dance by young Palestinian groups from across Europe. 

A more accurate description of the event is a pro Palestinian rights and Right of Return Conference. Since the Palestinians have rights and the refugees have a Right of Return enshrined in Inational Law, the Conference was calling for a moral stand on these and for the International Community to support their attainment.

In my view the ‘Berlin Against Hamas Group’ are an extremist group that is against legal Palestinian rights, and for the continuation of Israel breaking of International Law. They are therefore holding the lowest moral ground possible. 

Their frustration is that the Palestinians are organised, the communities across Europe are connected and that Palestinians just will not go away.

The Conference received a speech by President Erdogan of Turkey, delivered on his behalf, which supported Palestinian rights. He called on countries that do not currently recognise Palestine to do so with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Dr Mustafa Barghouthi, General Secretary of the Palestinian Initiative and a member of the Palestinian Legeslative Council addressed the meeting. He is certainly no extremist. He called for unity and reminded the conference that the Palestinians are still here fighting for their rights and especially for their freedom. “Oslo was dead”, he claimed, “Israel has killed it”. He called for an escalation of the popular, peaceful resistance against the occupation and called on Palestinians in Europe to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. He also called on Palestinians with European passports to visit Palestine, to connect and to support.

  

Parliamentarians from the UK, Ireland, and Germany addressed the conference as did the Justice  Minister of Morocco.

Amongst the audience were Palestinian refugees from Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria. Their plight and that of those that remain was uppermost in the minds of speakers and attendees.  When the speech of the Palestinian Ambassador to Germany was delivered by a representative, he was heckled. This was an expression of anger at the perceived lack of action by the Palestinian Authority to end the suffering of Yarmouk. The speaker delivered the speech and left immediately. 

During the conference news was received of the murder by the Israeli IDF of a Palestinian teenager in Jerusalem and then another in Hebron. Both reminders of the deadly oppression the Palestinians live under  on a daily basis.

Historically, this Conference has been organised by Palestinians not aligned with Fatah or the PA. However, my overall impression was that while this was the case here, it was a very welcoming event for all Palestinians in Europe and indeed from refugee camps all over the world.

It provides, a now annual focus, for Palestinians from different countries in Europe to meet and connect. The sight of troup after troup of young Palestinians, most of whom had never been to Palestine performing the Dabka, brought tears to my eyes. They know their roots and Palestinian culture lives on. They will pass it to their children. The conference primarily reaffirms the Palestinian people’s absolute determination to exercise their Right of Return.

  

David Ben Gorion is alleged to have said of Palestinian refugees “the old will die and the young will forget’. That the old would die was inevitable but the 13th Palestinians in Europe Conference shows unequivocally, that the young have not forgotten. He will be turning in his grave.

Update 26/4/2015

The Jerusalem Post reports that the ‘Berlin Against Hamas’ Group held a protest outside the venue. In it there is a reference to BDS being a pro Hamas movement. This is a complete lie. The BDS call came from over one hundred civil society organisations in Palestine. Support for it is support for Palestinuan rights and sgainst Israeli occupation and oppression.

From Bouazizi to Alkasasba, the Arab Uprising from Spring to Nightmare

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Mohammed Bouazizi

Four years after Mohammed Bouazizi set fire to himself, triggering the Arab Spring, Islamic State set fire to Jordanian pilot Muath Alkasasba confirming that it had turned into the Arab nightmare.

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Jordanian pilot Muath Alkasasba
Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, took his own life on 17 December 2010 in in protest at confiscation of his wares and humiliation by municipal workers in Sidi Bouzid. The ensuing revolution brought down the then Tunisian President Ben Ali giving great hope to the Arab world that citizens could effect change and overthrow decades-long rule by dictators.

This was quickly followed by the removal of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Muammar Gaddafi of Lybia, and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen. It also triggered what was seen as a revolution in Syria.

It seemed the democracy the West had been prescribing for the Middle East was on its way. Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was elected President of Egypt and TV cameras brought us images of debates in parliaments and elections that appeared to be fair and free.

Wind forward to 2015 and apart from Tunisia, the Arab Spring states are in turmoil. Libya is a complete basket case that is out of control. Yemen has just witnessed a coup. Egypt has still to heal after Morsi was deposed and Cairo witnessed horrific scenes in the lead up to the election of Sisi. The Sinai is witnessing terrible violence and has seen almost unprecedented cooperation between Egypt and Israel to eradicate extremism.

Iraq has lost swathes of territory to the new kid on the block, Islamic State and Syria’s regime is fighting a multitude of military groups, including the notorious Islamic State. Lebanon teeters on the brink and Palestine remains under military occupation by Israel.

But why is this happening? Why did the Arab Spring turn into the Arab nightmare? Are Arabs simply incapable of developing functioning democracies? Are Arab lives so cheap that the past four years have seen a few hundred thousand Arabs lose their lives?

The situation is of course very complicated and it is not feasible for one short blog to untangle it but I have some thoughts on this.

Democracy

I believe that Arabs who have endured non-democratic rule for decades and leaders that have suppressed the development of individuals and free thought need time to shed away fear from ‘the state’ and to develop infrastructure for free thought, free expression and acceptance of differing view points. We lack the patience to listen, to argue our point of view, to build support for it and then to win in a fair and open environment. We also allow individualism to trump collectivism. We invest so much and expect so much from a leader that sets him (normally) up for failure as he could never meet our expectations. We need to develop belief in roles rather than individuals.

Critics will say that the above generalisation is too crude and some may say it borders on racism. That is certainly not my intention but in this free space I feel able to express my views honestly.

Extremism

I was born and brought up in Saudi Arabia. The curriculum up to and including secondary school included five separate subjects under the religious education part. This accounted for a third of the curriculum. I learnt to recite parts of the Quran from memory and learnt about the dos and don’ts. Jihad was explained as part of the curriculum including the various types. I was brought up in Riyadh, Najd, the heart of Wahbism. I have to say that I do not re ally at any point being introduced to what is now considered radical teaching. At no point was I or my friends encouraged to adopt a completely strict interpretation of Islamabad nad I am not aware that any of my fir ends form school every developed any such leanings.

Most of the friends I have kept in touch with have gone on to achieve a high level of education and have led normal ‘extremism-free’ lives.

This phenomena of extremism is a recent development. I believe that it originated in the fight to eject the Soviets from Afghanistan and that management of those that took part from various Arab countries upon their return failed. This also coincided with greater Western interference in the region which was seen as simply an attempt to exert control on sources of energy rather than to help with the de elopement of societies.

The double standards were also there for all to see. The Iraqi occupation of Kuwait was not allowed to stand and lots of feet on the ground were deployed to end it, but the longstanding Israeli military occupation of Palestine was not only tolerated but supported. In fact the Palestinians legitimate residence to it was labeled terrorism and the occupier’s right to self defence was supported without question.

Islamic State

Alqaeda, the original Islamist ideology (save perhaps for the Muslim Brotherhood) has created lots of off shoots but there is little doubt now that the most organised and most violent is Islamic State. Palestinain journalist Abdul Bari Atwan estimates that its fighters now number 70,000. They come from several countries, continents and backgrounds, drawn to a cause which non of us can understand. I wonder if they really know what the cause is?

It is truly astonishing that this group has grown so quickly and has taken on the army of Iraq and won. But most shocking of its short life have been the assassinations of western and then Japanese civilians. This has been done without mercy and their horrible deaths have been professionally stage managed for maximum impact.

It is of grave concern that there appears to be no real plan either by neighbouring countries or indeed the coalition to eradicate them as a force, even if their torrid ideology won’t be so easily defeated. Perhaps the lead Jordan is now taking to avenge the horrific murder of its pilot will bring some greater urgency to end IS’s growth before the rest of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

It seems the state that is currently safest from this evil is ironically Israel, the one state that normally unites the Arab street in wanting it. To be pressurised toned it’s illegal occupation of Palestine.

The Arab Spring has been unkind to Palestinians. Palestinian refugees in Syria have once again been dispossessed and displaced and many have faced starvation and siege in refugee camps. The degradation in the capability of of Arab armies in Iraq and Syria has removed the military deterrent to Israel, such as it existed. The changing political scene in Egypt has also hurt Palestinians, with Gaza scene as a problem and Hamas as terrorist organisation.

Looking ahead then, the nightmare continues and can only end in my view with some exceptional leadership both religious and political.

The Arab Spring which morphed into the Arab Nightmare needs to move quickly to an Arab awakening.

As the Arabic saying goes

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We have a saying in Arabic which translates ‘he attacked me then cried and complained before me.’ ضربني وبكى، سبقني واشتكى.

This nicely captures the audacity of Israel, which today complained to the UN Security Council about Hizbullah’s attack on Israeli troops in the illegally occupied, Lebanese Shib’a farms. When complaining, it’s arrogant Ambassador Prosor, conveniently forgot to mention that this was in retaliation for Israel’s attack on a convoy in Qunaitera, Syria which killed both Hizbullah fighters and an Iranian General on the 18th of January.

Israel responded to Huzbullah’s attack, which it admitted killed two soldiers, with shelling of South Lebanon which killed a Spanish soldier serving in the UNIFIL forces.

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Spanish UNIFIL Soldier killed by Israel in shelling of Lebanon named as Cpl. Francisco Javier Soria Toledo

It is almost certain that the Security Council will condemn Hizbullah for an act of ‘terror’, when in fact it targeted the occupying army of Lebanese land. This is a classic case both of double standards and of the abuse of the term terror. Israel wants the world to accept its definition of terror. This is all encompassing or in other words any resistance whether military, political or economic. In fact whatever Israel calls ‘terror’, the world should accept as terror, without question.

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Funeral of fallen Hizbullah fighter

It is of course unfortunate that any human being is killed or injured in conflicts but for as long as Israel occupies other people’s land, they are entitled to resist. This is a right enshrined in International Law and if Israel does not like it then it must end the occupation.

It seems Israel cannot live without conflict. It does nothing that will bring it acceptance by its neighbours but everything that will raise their hatred towards it.

Another Arabic saying ‘an eye for an eye’ was Hizbullah’s characterisation of today’s attack. العين بالعين.