Gaza strikes: Israeli impunity grows as Arab states normalise ties

First published by TRT World on 13/11/2018

 

The botched Israeli operation, and airstrikes, in Gaza, comes while a truce is under discussion with Hamas. Is bombing the Palestinians into submission, Benjamin Netanyahu’s idea of a negotiation?

Israel is quite literally playing with fire.

It launched a botched operation 3km into the Gaza strip, whose objectives are still unclear, but which seems to have been an attempted abduction or assassination of a senior member of the Ezzedine Al Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas. The special forces unit used a civilian vehicle, and its members were reportedly disguised in women’s clothes. The alleged target, Nour Baraka was killed, as were six other resistance fighters.

Israeli forces lost one of their commandos, and another was reported injured. Things could have been much worse for Israel if it had not been for the overwhelming firepower it used to rescue its forces out of Gaza.

Hamas and Israel have since exchanged attacks, with Palestinian resistance groups firing tens of projectiles into Israel with reports of tens of injuries, while in return Israel launched rounds of airstrikes, which targeted among others, the homes of Hamas leaders, including Gaza’s speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Ahmad Bahar.

Israel also bombed and destroyed the building that houses the Al Aqsa television station in Gaza City. A 19-year-old Israeli soldier was severely wounded after “an anti-tank missile” hit a bus in southern Israel’s Shaar HaNegev regional council area, Haaretz reported.

Israeli representatives have been laying blame at Hamas’s door for the escalation. However, Israel triggered it, and on this occasion, it is firmly to blame for the death on both sides.

The incident is in keeping with Israel’s reputation for negotiating with one hand and murdering with another. It just cannot be trusted.

It is not clear why Israel chose this moment to escalate matters. It decided to do this while a truce with Hamas was being negotiated through Egypt, which would have brought some relief to the besieged strip.

There was the talk of a sea route from Cyprus to Gaza to be installed to allow relatively free movement of cargo and presumably people in and out of Gaza that the Qataris had been negotiating. The two million besieged Palestinians were enjoying nearly 16 hours of electricity per day for the first time in years.

The Qatari Ambassador Mohammed al Emadi brought suitcases full of cashtotalling around $15 million to pay for the salaries of Hamas workers, who had not been paid in six months. In return, he could be heard asking a senior Hamas representative to “ensure calm.”

This was an explicit reference to scaling back the Great Return March to the Gaza fence, which has continued unabated since March.

Palestinians suffer as the world cosies up to Netanyahu

Further afield, Israel was enjoying quite sensational normalisation with Gulf states, with whom it has no official diplomatic ties.

Relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia have warmed, even leading Netanyahu to stress the importance of Saudi Arabia’s stability, in what analysts saw as clear reference to protecting the Saudi Crown Prince from any accountability for the Jamal Khashoggi urder in the Kingdom’s Istanbul Embassy.

Benjamin Netanyahu was on the front row for the commemoration of centenary of Armistices day in France. US President Trump’s special Adviser, Jason Greenblatt has been briefing pro-Israel supporters about the long rumored ‘ultimate deal’ which he told supporters of Israel in London would be made public as soon as the beginning of December.

Having handed Israeli recognition of Jerusalem as its capital and worked overtime to close UNRWA—both long desired by Netanyahu—it is almost certain the ‘deal’ would provide Israel with more gifts and be impossible for the Palestinians to accept.

Israel was winning the diplomatic and PR war, while the Palestinians were increasingly isolated. This makes it even more bizarre that it would seek to ignite a war on Gaza just as it was making such wins.

The botched attack forced Netanyahu to scupper home from France to decide on the next steps to yet again punish Gaza for the Israelis breaching a ceasefire or understanding of a ceasefire. As he was on his way, it was reported the Israeli military was requiring Tel Aviv airport to change flight routings in fear of rockets from Gaza reaching its main airport.

It seems Israeli leaders are now so certain of complete impunity—not only provided by the West but a normalising Arab world—that it can diplomatically win without any costs while exercising state terror on the Palestinians to perhaps finally beat them into submission.

Israel perhaps hopes this will send them scuttling to Trump to accept any deal both in Ramallah and Gaza.

Having failed to quell the peaceful Great Return March, Israel is back to her old tricks of crying wolf and painting Palestinians as terrorists to justify its violence. The normalising Arab states should take note. Israel cannot be trusted, especially under the current Netanyahu regime.

Whatever calculations Netanyahu and his extremist government made when they sanctioned the attack in Khan Younis, they once again failed to factor in the bravery and resilience of the Palestinian people.

As Israeli tanks amass at the Gaza fence, Israel can be sure that yes it can kill tens, hundreds or thousands with its American supplied weapons, but it will not break the Palestinians.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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Israel’s anti-BDS actions reveal that the boycott might just be working

First published by TRT World on 19/10/2018

Israel fears nothing more than the power of boycotts, it realises that it has the power to penalise Israeli actions while the international community looks on at its lawless actions.

Lara Al Qassem, a Palestinian-American student was detained at Tel Aviv airport on the 2 of October as she went to pursue a master’s degree at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

She was finally released and admitted to Israel just over 16 days later. The Supreme Court upheld her appeal criticising the authorities for their decision which gave “the unavoidable impression” that she was barred for her political opinions.

Lara will now be able to join her Masters course at the Hebrew University.

Her lawyers said in a statement that, “The supreme court’s decision is a victory for free speech, academic freedom, and the rule of law.”

However, Israeli tourism minister Yariv Levin called the court decision “shameful” and said that with their decision, the justices “were continuing to act against Israeli democracy and the clear lawmaking of the Knesset”.

The Israeli authorities had denied her entry despite having an official student visa prior to travelling. The reason given was her role as president of a small local chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Florida, which has engaged in boycotts against Israeli products in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS).

Her entry denial, which subsequently resulted in her detention was ordered by the Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan and Interior Minister Arye Deri.

On the 9 of October, Erdan tweeted that that if Lara “declares in a clear and explicit manner that she erred in the past and she believes today that support for a boycott on Israel and the BDS [movement] is a mistake and illegitimate, and that she regrets having served in the past as head of the branch of a boycott group, we will reconsider our stance regarding her entry into Israel,”

Clearly this was unacceptable to Lara who went on to fight her case in the Israeli courts.

Reactions to the story in Israel have been mixed.

The National Council of Young Israelis supported the Israeli Government’s decision claiming “every country has the ability to regulate who can enter its borders and Israel should be no different in that regard.”

The Hebrew University has been supportive of Lara’s entry and in an unusual step asked to join her appeal to the Jerusalem District Court.

Knesset members from the Meretz party visited Lara and leader Tamar Zandberg tweeted, “just visited Lara Alqasem, 22 year old American student detained in Ben Gurion airport for 6 days now because a right wing website didn’t like her past political activity. Israeli borders should be of a liberal democracy without thought police”.

I myself was denied entry to Israel in April 2017 following the passing of the same law under which Israel has denied entry to Lara.

The law was passed in March last year and gives the authorities power to deny entry to any foreign national engaged in supporting of boycotts either of settlement goods, or Israel, within its internationally recognised boundaries.

In my case, I was separated from wife and son who were allowed entry and I was placed on a flight back to the UK hours after my arrival. A few days later Anwar Makhlouf, another Palestinian and head of the Palestinian Federation of Chile was also denied entry under the same law, this time at the Allenby Bridge crossing from Jordan.

Restricting BDS is backfiring

The BDS call was made in 2005 by over 150 civil society organisations. According to its website, “It works to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.”

Its three key demands are an end of the occupation, an end to the discrimination against non-Jewish citizens of Israel, and the promotion of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return.

Each of these is a moral and legal demand.

Israel’s claim that it is an anti-Semitic movement because it targets ‘the world’s only Jewish state’ is false, because the Palestinians can only target their occupiers, who happen to be Jewish.

They did not choose their occupiers, they chose Palestine.

In addition to entry denial for BDS supporters, in 2011 Israel passed the law for “Prevention of Damage to the State of Israel through Boycott.”

This allows an individual or organisation proposing a boycott to be sued for compensation by any individual or institution claiming that it could be or has been damaged by such a call.

Evidence of actual damage would not be required.

This law was recently used by three Israeli teenagers to sue two New Zealand-based supporters of BDS—one Jewish and one Palestinian—over a cancelled concert by New Zealand singer, Lorde.

A judge at the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ruled that, the two women must pay $12,000 in damages to the teenagers.

While the New Zealand justice minister saw this as a political stunt, the Israeli law office, Shurat HaDin which filed the suit, has said it fully intends to pursue enforcing the court’s ruling, and believes Israel’s legal agreements with New Zealand will allow it to do so.

This action has misfired as the two New Zealanders, Justine Sachs and Nadia Abu-Shanab, decided to raise funds, and to date have raised at least $18,000, not to pay the fine they had been ordered to pay but rather to give to the Gaza Mental Health Foundation instead.

In the US a number of anti-BDS laws have been passed that would prohibit companies that boycott Israel from securing public projects while in the UK, the government has attempted to stifle local authority pension funds from divesting from companies complicit in the oppression of Palestinians.

It is difficult to assess whether these have had a real impact in countering the BDS movement. However, there is fear in Israel of a growing ‘silent boycott’ including by artists and academics who simply turn down or do not respond to invitations to participate in activities organised by Israeli institutions or to perform in Israel.

There are calls for the 2019 EUROVISION song contest to be boycotted and it appears that having tried to host it in Jerusalem, Israel is now planning to move the event to a different location.

It seems that Israel’s anti-BDS policies have not succeeded in combatting this growing movement, particularly through legal means.

Israel also continues to send mixed messages about whether BDS poses a real threat. It cannot have it both ways. It is either effective and a threat to its policies, or it is not.

Israeli politicians and Israeli supporters abroad often characterise the BDS movement as ineffective. However, in reality, Israel is investing millions to counter it and has assigned a minister, Gilad Erdan, and changed the law to both ban BDS proponents from entering and to allow those that claim to have been harmed by specific actions to sue those behind the actions.

The growing success of the BDS movement does however come at a price for Palestinians like Lara al Qassem and myself, who are now denied entry to Palestine because Israel controls all entry points to historic Palestine.

This is unless we renounce their principles including speaking out against the Israeli government’s policies and in support of BDS.  It would appear that this is what Lara had to do, or at least, imply.

This is doubly painful because as Palestinians we are denied entry to our homeland, while Jews from any part of the world, and with no real connection to the land, are allowed not only to visit but to settle there.

Our determination to campaign peacefully for justice for Palestinians should not come at such a high price and if international law were just, it would force the occupier to allow us all to enter, to visit and to settle.

We are still unable to exercise our Right of Return, enshrined in international law but we are also discriminated against as we are denied entry while our fellow citizens from the country whose nationality we now hold can enter unimpeded.

Israel could, of course, meet the BDS movement’s demands, which include our right to return.

That would end the reason for BDS and would bring peace to the holy land.

 

What’s the point of negotiating for peace when Israel gains without it?

First published by TRT World on 5/9/2018

As America makes one concession after another to Israel, is it any wonder Israel doesn’t seek peace with the Palestinians?

On a recent visit to Lithuania, the birthplace of his grandmother, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that that he sees ‘no urgency’ in advancing US President Donald Trump’s peace plan or what is commonly referred to as the ‘ultimate deal’ or ‘deal of the century’. “It is his business if he wants to promote it,” he added.

Netanyahu’s comments came soon after Trump suggested Israel will “pay a higher price” in the negotiations because of the embassy move and that it was “the Palestinians’ turn next”, adding that the Palestinians will get “something very good” in peace negotiations following his decision to relocate the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Trump made the comments at the end of one of his rallies in West Virginia. He did not indicate what this might be.

Contact between the Palestians and the US have been frozen on the orders of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, following the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the subsequent move of the Embassy from Tel Aviv.

The next announcement from his administration was hardly a confidence-building measure or an incentive for the Palestinians to restart talks with the Americans.

In what the Palestinians saw as “the use of cheap blackmail as a political tool”, the Trump Administration recently decided to cut more than $200 million in bilateral assistance to the Palestinians, following a review of the funding for projects in the West Bank and Gaza, according to US officials.

Commenting further on the matter, PLO Executive Committee member Hana Ashrawi stated that “the Palestinian people and leadership will not be intimidated and will not succumb to coercion. The rights of the Palestinian people are not for sale.”

Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s envoy to the US, said in a statement that the Trump administration “is dismantling decades of US vision and engagement in Palestine.” Zomlot saw the recent move as “another confirmation of abandoning the two-state solution and fully embracing Netanyahu’s anti-peace agenda.”

Zomlot was also referring to Trump’s decision to defund UNRWA, the United Nations Agency which delivers services to the Palestinian refugees and his attempts to find ways to remove the refugee status of the overwhelming majority of the Palestinians still living in exile since 1948 claiming the status should not be inherited.

Aid cuts to the Palestinians continued as the Trump administration announced it was ending its contribution to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), having withheld $45 million back in January. This leaves the Agency with a $417 million deficit, which if not cleared would mean school closures for 500,000 children in its five areas of operation at the end of September.

The collapse of UNRWA would be disastrous for Palestinians but will be welcomed by Netanyahu who has argued that it ‘perpetuates’ the issue of the refugees.

Recently leaked emails confirmed Trump’s senior advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner has tried to convince King Abdullah of Jordan to end the refugee status of 2 million Palestinian residents living in Jordan as the US attempts to significantly reduce the number recognised from the current 5 million to a much smaller number.

In fact, with seemingly unlimited support from Trump and his pro-Israel ‘negotiating team’, Netanyahu is working to gain as many more wins as possible in what he sees as uniquely favourable times.

Netanyahu has already contributed significantly to convincing the US to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal and the imposition of severe sanctions on the Islamic Republic, and is demanding Iran pulls all its troops out of Syria. While he has not as yet succeeded in this, he will keep plugging away and may yet pull this off.

Next on the Israeli prime minister’s agenda is the status of the Syrian Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in 1967 and effectively annexed in 1981. His Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz describes endorsement of Israel’s 51-year-old hold on the Golan as the proposal now ‘topping the agenda’ in bilateral diplomatic talks with the United States.

In a recent visit to Israel, Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton dampened Israeli hopes of imminent recognition claiming “I’ve heard the idea being suggested but there’s no discussion of it, no decision within the US government.”

However, Netanyahu will surely continue to pursue it. With such wins in record time and at zero cost, it is perhaps not surprising that Netanyahu is “in no hurry for peace”.

What about the Palestinians?

The Palestinians are facing the most challenging period in their history since the Nakba. The division between Hamas and Fatah, the 11-year long siege on Gaza, US blind support for Israel and the changing geopolitics in the Middle East puts them in an extremely weak bargaining position.

However, should they see any hope in Trump’s comments in West Virginia that he really has “something very good” to offer them, what could that be?

Interestingly, there have been no leaks about what this may mean for the Palestinians, unlike leaks that preceded announcements of pro-Israel measures such as the embassy move or the attack on UNRWA.

Trump is unlikely to recognise East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, include a two-state solution in his plan, pressure Israel to accept any Palestinian refugees, pressure Israel to end settlement construction or to bring an end to the 11-year old siege on Gaza. Netanyahu would not agree to any of these but more importantly, it is difficult to expect Trump’s pro-Israel team to even suggest any of these.

Speculation on this has to be based on how any initiative would address the core issues to be resolved in the conflict. They have generally been acknowledged to be borders, Jerusalem, settlements and the refugees. If Trump believes he has taken Jerusalem off the table, is minimising the issue of the refugees, making no noises about increased settlements construction and not even mentioning a two-state solution, then it is highly unlikely that he can offer the Palestinians anything that they could accept.

The American president, a businessman, is likely to see “something very good” simply in terms of an improved economy or ‘money’, while taking into account ‘facts on the ground’ as Israel presents them to him and its unending security needs.

This could come in the form of economic development in Gaza or the northern Sinai, as leaks indicating Egypt may be called upon to cede some 700 km of the Sinai for an expanded Gaza, where an airport, seaport and possibly an electrical power plant could be based. There is talk about a railway line that links the Gulf States and Jordan with the Mediterranean through Israel and the OPTs, which could have stations in Palestinian territories.

With a weak and divided Palestinian leadership, an American administration which is completely on Israel’s side, Netanyahu is working overtime to secure further gains while Trump is in power and before he is impeached, since almost not a week goes by without some speculation that it might happen.

However, Netanyahu should rest easy in the knowledge that if Trump is impeached, he has in Vice President Pence a more committed and stable ally and supporter of Israeli policies. He will be in no greater hurry to deliver a ‘just peace’ than Trump or Netanyahu. The Palestinians will continue to suffer.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

Is Mahmoud Abbas’ peace plan achievable?

First published by TRT World on 5/6/2018

The US has effectively removed any facade of its status as ‘mediator’ between Palestinians and Israelis. Will it be possible for any peace process to move forward in the face of US and Israeli belligerence?

The Palestinians are at a crossroad, as they commemorate the 51 anniversary of the Naksa (day of the setback) when Israel captured the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Gaza, the Syrian Golan Heights and the Sinai desert – prospects for a peace treaty with Israel that would bring any form of justice appear further today than ever.

The intransigence of an extremist settler-led Israeli government has been strengthened by a US Administration that not only has Israel’s back, but is prepared to be isolated at the United Nations if it means protecting its ally.

If confirmation of this was needed, then the recent theatre at the UN Security Council should be sufficient.

The US vetoed a resolution that sought to bring protection for the Palestinian people from Israeli violence—in which at least 118 have been killed since March—mostly at the hands of Israeli snipers positioned high above the fence between Gaza and Israel, using lethal explosive bullets. If the bullets did not kill, the injuries they caused were devastating, resulting in many amputations.

Yes, the Security Council, which is mandated to ensure security, let the Palestinian people down at the behest of US UN envoy Nikki Haley’s raised hand. America’s isolation was compounded when Haley failed to secure a single vote for her resolution condemning Hamas for a volley of 70 rockets, which left the Gaza strip a few days earlier in response to Israel’s killings and frequent air raids on Gaza.

The US secured exactly one vote: that of the US itself.

The US had been isolated earlier in 2018 after US President Donald Trump decided to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and in record time moved the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to the holy city, absent of any peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Nikki Haley again had to raise her hand to veto a resolution rejecting its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. However, the US lost heavily when the same text was put to the UN General Assembly, where it has no veto. Haley resorted to threats to those that “disrespected” the US and indicated there would be consequences for doing so.

The Palestinian response to the US Embassy move, its subsequent defunding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), and threats to close the Palestinian mission in Washington DC was to suspend all contact with the US administration.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has since refused to meet any American officials, specifically Jason Greenblatt and US Ambassador David Friedman. He even recently shunned a delegation of Democrats on a visit to the region.

The Americans claim to be close to releasing “the ultimate peace deal”, which will apparently be presented for implementation after the holy month of Ramadan. With Trump declaring he has taken Jerusalem “off the table”; no prospects for the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes; no plans to dismantle or evacuate any of the illegal settlements in East Jerusalem or the West Bank; it is likely to be a very thin document, which no Palestinian leader could sell to his people, whose sacrifices before and since Israel’s creation have been immeasurable.

There have also been major geopolitical changes in the region that weaken the Palestinian position. The threat of Iran has sent a number of Gulf States to seek US protection, which in turn has been used as leverage to cajole them into developing clandestine relationships with Israel and in some cases those relationships are out in the open. They even responded to Trump’s call to control the anger that his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital ignited, leaving Haley purring that the sky did not fall in after the announcement.

In the face of such monumental challenges, Abbas has developed his own peace plan, which he put to the UN Security Council and more recently to the Palestinian National Council. It is based on a “multilateral international mechanism”.

The plan would be based on the two-state solution, with East Jerusalem as Palestine’s capital. In addition, it includes an international peace conference by mid-2018 that would recognise Palestine as a state; the implementation of the Arab Peace Initiative; and the refraining of all parties from taking any unilateral actions during the negotiation process.

In essence, this plan is dead in the water unless the US approves it because it would have to eventually be put to a vote in the UN Security Council. It’s a safe bet to assume the Haley hand would be raised to veto.

In any case, there is no evidence that either the EU, Russia or China are willing or capable of holding a peace conference in mid 2018 as Abbas asks. We are already there and there is not a whisper of a possibility of this taking place.

It is therefore likely that the situation will revert to the status quo—which Israel can live with—but which the Palestinians have been unable to change.

Two options the Palestinians can pursue to raise the cost of the occupation to Israel are to continue to pursue criminal charges against Israelis in the International Criminal Court, and to escalate the popular non-violent resistance, which caught Israel off-guard and struggled to deal with except through violence. The third strand is to adopt and escalate the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as the Palestine National Council agreed at its recent meeting in Ramallah.

These are actions Palestinians can take themselves and with the help of supporters around the world, rather than relying on Arab or western governments to support them.

It is only once the cost of the occupation has risen to a level which troubles Israel that it will negotiate seriously for a just peace.

In his current mindset Abbas is unlikely to effectively develop an alternative strategy, along these lines. However, the 84 year old has health issues and may abruptly exit the political scene. That might just  open the way for a new approach that delivers freedom, justice and equality for the Palestinian people.