Interview: Palestinians in Europe hold annual conference

I took part in the Sun will Rise programme for Press Tv which was broadcast on 4/5/2018

The PNC meeting was ‘much ado about nothing’

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

مقابلة: المجلس الوطني الفلسطيني يبدأ أعماله على وقع خلافات

شاركت في برنامج أحداث وأصداء غلى قناة المغاربية بتاريخ ٣٠/٤/٢٠١٨

Report on seminar: UK panel on Mideast peace urges EU to take broker role

Anadolu Agency 24/1/2018

The US cannot continue to be accepted as an “honest broker” for peace, says speaker at panel organized by EuroPal Forum

 

UK panel on Mideast peace urges EU to take broker role

By Ahmet Gurhan Kartal

LONDON

It is time for Europe to lead for peace in the Middle East following the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a London panel heard Tuesday.

The message was conveyed by speakers at the panel “Trump’s Jerusalem Promise: Time for Europe to Lead for Peace in the Middle East” organized by the EuroPal Forum – an independent and non-party political organization based in London working to build networks throughout Europe in support of the promotion and realization of Palestinian rights.

Speaking at the panel via a recorded video message, Julie Ward, a member of the European Parliament from the Labour Party, underlined that since U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the official capital of Israel on Dec. 6, there has been an increase in violent actions by Israel’s occupying forces against the Palestinians.

Ward said Trump’s decision is a “serious provocation for those who have been pursuing a peaceful solution to the Palestinian cause”. She said Trump’s decision to reverse seven decades of foreign policy has dismayed the majority of the world’s leaders, dashing the hopes of peace campaigners from both sides of the conflict.

Stressing that Trump’s decision goes against all peace efforts by all parties and encourages Israel’s continuing violation of human rights, Ward said “it is clear that the U.S. would not be a productive partner” in the peace process.

“We are pushing the EU to take action…in the European parliament,” she added.

Toby Cadman, a barrister and international law specialist, pointed out that the rejection of Trump’s decision by the four other permanent members of the UN Security Council and by a very high number of the member countries at the General Assembly despite threats made by the U.S. administration was “significant”.

Cadman said whether Trump will implement his decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem still remains to be seen, but the U.S. could not continue to be accepted as an “honest broker” for peace when such a decision had been made.

Another speaker, Dr. Ghada Karmi, a Palestinian academic, writer and activist, argued that with the latest decision, the U.S. administration “has made very clear that Israeli and U.S. interests are identical”.

“And therefore, the gloves are off. It is very clear that the U.S. not only isn’t an honest broker, it is not an independent broker, but it is totally identified with Israel,” Karmi said.

Recalling the cuts by the U.S. administration in funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), Karmi said someone else should fill this gap.

“The EU becomes very important with this vacuum of international support for the Palestinians…Why the EU is now relevant is of course because it is very much involved in this business.”

Karmi said the EU has funded both Israelis and Palestinians in various fields and is therefore an ideal body to play the role.

“What is the EU’s position on Palestine and Palestinian people’s future? First, peace can be achieved by two states, by the creation of a Palestinian State and having a two-state solution. Secondly, there has been a concern by the EU from the beginning with the refugee issue.”

Karmi said the two-state solution has been the “bedrock” in EU policy toward the conflict and urged the EU to press on Israel for a possible two-state solution. She said the EU could suspend a visa waiver program in place for Israeli citizens which makes it possible for them to travel freely across Europe.

“That’s a very small action that the EU could start with,” she said.

Regarding Trump’s decision on Jerusalem, Karmi said “we must not think about the U.S. in this context. We have to free ourselves from this kind of thinking.”

Prof. Kamel Hawwash, an academic from Birmingham University and a writer, was among the speakers at the EuroPal Forum’s panel.

Recalling his recent entry rejection by Israeli officials, Hawwash argued that the EU should refuse entry for Israeli settlers.

“The last UN resolution about the settlers [from the occupied Palestinian territories] … distinguished between Israel and the occupied territories.

“The EU can actually escalate the distinction through an action to do with settlement… it must be about imposing some sort of sanction… If I am denied entry as a British citizen to Israel, why is it that Israeli settlers are allowed to come in?”

However, Hawwash also urged Palestinians to look at their own means to activate a peace process first and then start searching for support as well.

One of the organizers, Zaher Birai, told Anadolu Agency that he hoped the panel would “send a clear message that it is unacceptable… to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital”.

Birai said British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s statement yesterday “was worrying” despite the previous messages of support for Palestinians from the British government.

“Clearly, with Jerusalem now having been recognized by the U.S. as the capital of Israel, one would expect some symmetrical movement in the other direction to get things moving,” Boris Johnson said during a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Johnson on Tuesday was accused of putting a two-state solution at fresh risk after suggesting Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital is a “moment of opportunity” for peace.

Trump’s controversial decision has sparked a wave of condemnation and protests across the world.

The full 193-member UN General Assembly met for a rare emergency special session regarding the decision, and 128 members voted in favor of a resolution which affirmed that the issue of Jerusalem is a final-status issue that must be resolved through direct negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis in accordance with the relevant Security Council resolutions. Nine countries voted against and 35 others abstained in the vote held on Dec. 21 last year.

Interview: Palestine recalls ambassador to US

I was interviewed by Press TV about the recall of the Palestinian Ambassador to the US, Dr Husam Zomlot, to Ramallah for ‘consultations’ on 1/1/2018

What options does Abbas have after that General Assembly vote?

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 27/12/2017

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas makes a speech during extraordinary meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul, Turkey on 13 December 2017 [Onur Çoban/Anadolu Agency]

 

As the dust settles on a significant week at the UN, in which America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was rejected roundly by the international community, the Palestinians have made a commitment not to engage with the US in any future peace talks. Where, though, can the Palestinian President turn to next? What options does Mahmoud Abbas have?

A divided, and in some cases apathetic, Arab world has been experiencing political turmoil since the confrontation emerged this year between the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Egypt on one hand, and Qatar on the other. As young pretenders to their respective countries’ thrones experiment with war and politics, the US and Israel can take a back seat in the hope that Arab states will weaken each other without any interference on their part.

Palestine is no longer a priority for some Arab countries, except where they can exert pressure on the weak leadership in Ramallah to please Washington and, in turn, the Israelis. Like turkeys voting for Christmas, they believe that they will be protected from Iran if they can deliver the complete submission of the Palestinians to Israel’s wishes.

The EU, which rejected Trump’s decision on Jerusalem, saw some of its own members abstain in the vote in the UN General Assembly. The Russians and Chinese, important members of the Security Council, also have limited, if any, influence on Israel or the Palestinians when compared with the Americans. The Palestinian President’s options for an alternative “honest broker” that Israel will accept are thus non-existent.

It has taken Mahmoud Abbas over two decades to admit that the US is so biased in favour of Israel that it cannot play an even-handed role in the search for a just peace. Why it has taken him so long to realise this so obvious fact is a mystery. Successive US administrations have taken their lead from Israel on this issue. It was always the case that any “offer” to the Palestinians would be put to the Israelis first, and that only after they had applied their “security” test to it and given the green light would it be put to the Palestinians.

This formed the core of an exchange of letters between former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and George W Bush in 2004. “In light of new realities on the ground,” wrote the then US President, “including already existing major Israeli population centres, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” He added that, “The United States reiterates its steadfast commitment to Israel’s security, including secure, defensible borders, and to preserve and strengthen Israel’s capability to deter and defend itself, by itself, against any threat or possible combination of threats.”

While Bush referred in his letter to UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 as forming the basis for negotiations, the Israelis worked hard to ensure that the talks which followed were not referenced to any such international decisions.

The Palestinians fell into this trap by failing to insist on international law and Security Council Resolutions as the basis for any talks. This included the last “serious” attempt to bring peace by Barack Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013, which not only failed to bring peace but was also immediately followed by the 2014 Israeli war on Gaza. Kerry persuaded the Palestinians to return to talks lacking in any reference to international law.

Before leaving office, Kerry laid much of the blame for the failure of the talks he had initiated on the Israelis after, of course, reminding everyone of Obama’s “deep commitment to Israel and its security”. His explanation for the Obama administration’s abstention on UN Security Council Resolution 2334 concerning the illegality of Israel’s settlements — instead of the usual veto of anything critical of Israel — was that the vote was about “preserving” the two-state solution. “That’s what we were standing up for: Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, living side by side in peace and security with its neighbours.”

The incoming Trump administration disassociated itself from Resolution 2334, with the president-elect himself promising that “things will be different” when he entered the White House. He has certainly been true to his word. While asking Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements”, Trump moved away from the US position on two-states: “So I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like.”

Trump’s pro-Israel advisers have spent months meeting with the two sides to the conflict. While promising to put a deal on the table soon, this came to a halt when Trump announced on 7 December his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and intention to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv.

Following the US veto of a Security Council resolution rejecting its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and then a large majority voting to pass the same resolution in the General Assembly, Abbas announced last week that he is severing his ties with the US when it comes to the peace process. The Palestinians, he declared, will not “accept any plan from the US” due to America’s “biased” support of Israel and its settlement policy. He also said that the US plan — Trump’s much-vaunted “deal of the century” — “is not going to be based on the two-state solution on the 1967 border, nor is it going to be based on international law or UN resolutions.”

In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to state that, “Abbas declared he was abandoning the peace process and did not care which proposal the United States brings to the table.” Putting a spin on it that is incomprehensible to the rest of the world, Netanyahu told his weekly cabinet meeting, “I think that once again, something clear and simple emerges: The Palestinians are the ones who do not want to solve the conflict.” He will do or say anything to distract us from the glaringly obvious reality that it is Netanyahu’s far-right government that is fully to blame for the lack of peace.

As for Mahmoud Abbas, he has to choose between acknowledging his failure over 23 years to advance the cause of the Palestinians, or going back to the drawing board, assessing the strengths of the Palestinian people and looking for ways to raise the cost to Israel of its military occupation of Palestine. The higher the cost, the quicker that Israel will address the Palestinians’ grievances as they seek to attain their rights.

The Palestinian Authority President’s starting point should be to develop a liberation strategy that excludes reliance on non-Palestinians for its delivery, whilst making it supportable by others, both governments and citizens alike.

The elements of such a strategy should include the following:

  • The development of options for raising the cost to Israel of the occupation.
  • A declaration that the Oslo Accords are null and void. Israel has done this in all but name.
  • To demand UN Security Council protection for the Palestinian people.
  • To end the PA’s security coordination with the occupation, as it is both immoral and a free service to Israel that brings no benefits whatsoever to the Palestinian people.
  • To ask the UN to set up a coordination mechanism for necessary interaction with Israel on humanitarian matters.
  • To ask the Arab League to withdraw the Arab Peace Initiative immediately.
  • To restate that the Palestinian refugees’ legitimate right of return is non-negotiable.
  • To demand that any future negotiations with Israel are based on equal rights for all who live between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea, and acknowledge that this is the only way to achieve real peace.
  • To call on the UN Secretary-General to adopt the ESCWA report — “Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid” — that he has withdrawn.
  • To launch cases at the International Criminal Court against Israel and Israeli officials immediately, starting with the illegal settlement issue.
  • To offer unqualified support for the entirely peaceful Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and call for its escalation.
  • The immediate lifting of all sanctions imposed by the PA in Ramallah on the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
  • The implementation of the reconciliation agreement with Hamas.
  • An escalation of the peaceful and popular resistance movement in Palestine.
  • The launch of a reformed and inclusive Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
  • A serious engagement with Palestinians in the diaspora and a move towards elections to the Palestinian National Council.

Many of the points listed above should have been guiding principles in the past, but were overlooked in the PA’s pursuit of a pointless “negotiations first and last” policy which has failed by any measure.

Such a strategy will come with a price. It will bring isolation to the Palestinians and will have an impact on them in ways that will make their lives even more difficult. However, the alternative is that they continue to be oppressed with no end in sight if the current policies remain in place. The Palestinians have shown on numerous occasions that they are prepared to pay the necessary price for liberation but they must be told how this will be achieved by a leadership that they have had the chance to elect.

Any objective assessment will conclude that the current leadership is incapable of delivering what the Palestinians deserve and to which they aspire. It must therefore stand aside and allow the younger, talented generation of Palestinians come to the fore and lead their people. The New Year cannot be allowed to bring more of the same at the hands of Abbas and his team. He has other options; he must exercise them.