مقابلة: المجلس الوطني الفلسطيني يبدأ أعماله على وقع خلافات

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

Reconciliation or permanent division for Palestinians?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

قطاع غزة… من المستفيد من مخاولة إغتيال رئيس حكومة الوفاق الفلسطينية؟

مشاركتي في برنامج أحداث وأصداء على قناة المغاربية بتاريخ 14 مارس 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.

The Palestinians too should take back control of their destiny

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 12/12/2016

Israeli soldiers in riot gear in East Jerusalem [file photo]

From the Middle East Monitor

2016 will be remembered for a new phrase that came to characterise popular uprisings against “the establishment” in the West. From the UK to the USA, “taking back control” struck a chord with the voters when it was adopted by Donald Trump in America and the leaders of BREXIT in the UK. The now infamous image in the golden lift at Trump Tower of President-elect Trump and UKIP’s Nigel Farage was made possible because voters wanted to take back control and thought they would secure it.

The Palestinians too want to take back control of their destiny but how can they achieve this?

In a year which saw their dreams of liberation, freedom and independence dashed once again, they feel their reliance on others to deliver these aims has simply failed. In reality though, it is their leadership which has failed because it has chosen to rely on others to deliver Palestinian rights, but also because it relies on others to ensure its very existence through funding. The Palestinian Authority has also suffocated attempts by the people to rise up against the occupation either collectively or through individual endeavours. As President Abbas has declared repeatedly, the “security cooperation” with Israel is “sacred”, though he does not admit that it only works one way, protecting Israel and never the Palestinians.

Fatah’s seventh congress

Fatah, the ruling party recently held its congress in Ramallah, the seventh since its establishment in 1959. It included a marathon three-hour speech by its past, present and future (elected by acclimation) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in which he reiterated his strategy for delivering Palestinian rights. In summary its internal strategy included reconciliation with Hamas, holding parliamentary and presidential elections, holding the Palestinian National Council. Its external strategy included continued negotiations with Israel, a “smart intifada”, pursuit of Israel through the ICC and continued “internationalisation” of the conflict through membership of organisations.

Internal matters

The reconciliation with Hamas is essential as a united Palestinian people and leadership can put to bed Israel’s claim that there is no Palestinian partner to negotiate with or that the “moderate” Abbas cannot deliver on any agreements because Hamas runs Gaza. Reconciliation would also allow the Palestinian elections, long overdue, to finally take place. Abbas was firm in his insistence that “there can be no Palestinian state without the Gaza Strip.”

Abbas was not very forthcoming on what he meant by the “smart intifada” or “intifada of brains” though he did ask “the leadership” to be out there resisting peacefully with the people.

External matters

Peace talks have been dormant even since US Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative failed back in 2014 and the subsequent Israeli war on Gaza. Attempts at bringing the two sides together have failed to this day and despite Abbas’ brief meeting with Netanyahu at Shimon Peres’s funeral, the two men have not met. It has not been for lack of trying. Abbas confirmed that although he had accepted an invitation from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to meet Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the latter declined the same invitation.

Attempts by France to bring the two men together and to hold a peace conference have also met with Palestinian acceptance and Israeli rejection. Israel’s spin on the reason for the rejection is that the meeting would follow a French-led peace conference, which it considers an effort to impose a settlement on it. Netanyahu spoke to Hollande and said that “if there is no international conference in Paris, the prime minister will come to meet Abu Mazen [Abbas] for direct talks without preconditions.” Israel further claimed that it will “not take part in an international conference that will not contribute to achieving peace”.

In reality, Israel is watching with satisfaction the transition from the Obama to the Trump administration in the US and expecting to be shielded further from any attempts to make a Palestinian state a reality. Why then should it engage wit Putin, Hollande or any other “broker” when Trump will move the US Embassy to Jerusalem and his team do not see the two-state solution as explicitly part of his administration’s strategy?

Options for the Palestinians

The Palestinian leadership has largely relied on unwavering support for the Palestinian cause from the Arab and Muslim world. It regularly consults both about steps it plans to take to ensure they are on board. They in turn have been steadfast in their support for the Palestinians and condemnation of Israel, particularly in international bodies. The Arab League also adopted the Arab Peace Initiative back in 2002, offering Israel normalisation of relations in return for ending the occupation of Palestinian and other Arab land. US Secretary of State John Kerry pushed the Arab states further to including “land swaps” in the initiative back in 2013. Israel has still not accepted the initiative to this day.

Arab states have also worked closely with the Palestinians in the United Nations, putting down resolutions both to the General Assembly and the Security Council. Their efforts in the Security Council have been scuppered by the US veto or US pressure on members that haVE led to potential resolutions falling by default. This included a resolution for the admission of Palestine as a full member. This pushed the Palestinians to the General Assembly to secure an upgrade in Palestine’s status to “Non-Member Observer state” in 2012, perhaps their most notable success in recent years. This was not only because it again demonstrated the overwhelming support for Palestinian rights, but because it allowed Palestine to join a multitude of international organisations and accords. This included the International Criminal Court (ICC) and UNESCO.

The ICC is still considering whether it can bring cases against Israelis involved in the 2014 war on Gaza and illegal settlements. The wheels of justice move slowly and to date the ICC has not declared whether and when it will bring cases against suspected Israeli war criminals. However, in a recent report, the court significantly confirmed that Israel was still in occupation of Gaza and that Jerusalem was illegally annexed. Israel suspects this indicates a leaning by the ICC towards the Palestinian view.

The ICC is one plank of the Palestinian “internationalisation of the conflict” strategy. Another important body is the UN Human Rights Council, which – due to a lack of US veto – often calls out Israeli actions in contravention of international law. The UNHRC produced an important report on the 2014 Gaza war which accused both Israel and Hamas of possible war crimes.

A further significant plank of internationalisation is seeking protection for Palestinian cultural and religious sites through UNESCO’s membership. This again showed some success when UNESCO adopted a motion condemning Israel’s activities around Muslim sits in Jerusalem and while this eventually watered down under pressure from Israel’s supporting states; it still showed what the Palestinians can achieve through careful diplomacy and through their own efforts.

On the ground a recent refusal by PA security forces to allow Israeli army vehicles to enter Jenin is very much in line with the Oslo accords which included Jenin in “Area A” which handed security in the city to the PA. Again, an example of how Palestinians can take matters into their own hands using existing accords and international law.

As President Trump moves closer to the White House and having declared his support for Israel including a commitment to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, the PA is still banking on a last minute move by the Obama administration. It is sending a delegation to Washington to seek support for or at least an abstention, for a possible UNSC resolution condemning settlements. Despite suspicions that in its last few days the Obama administration may support such a move, I am not hopeful.

This should signal to the Palestinian leadership that relying on the US or other countries that support Israel when it really matters is unlikely to yield results.  They must continue to explore and pursue avenues over which they can exercise some control. It seems that pursuing Israeli violations through international bodies is a sound strategy and the more avenues it can pursue for this the better. Internationalising the conflict is part of the Palestinians “taking back control” of their destiny.