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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace process 

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

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

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

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

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

Settlements

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

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

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

Relationship between PNA and Hamas

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

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

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

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

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

Price paid by Palestinians in Gaza increases – again

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Empty condemnation of Israeli settlements doesn’t work: We need action

Firs published by the Middle East Eye on 10/11/2016

Instead of finding creative language of condemnation, the international community should declare that settlements are illegal and prohibit trade

_____________________________________________________________

Israel is the only state in the world that believes that it can continue to build settlements only for Jews in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Syrian Golan Heights until such a time that their fate is decided through negotiations. Its most important ally, the United States, currently considers them “illegitimate” and an “obstacle to peace”, though its position has changed over the years.

The United Kingdom frequently “condemns” settlements as it considers them “illegal under international law” adding that new announcements “take us further away from a two-state solution and raises serious questions about the Israeli government’s commitment to achieving the shared vision of Israel living side-by-side a viable, independent, and contiguous Palestine state”.

In the past, the British government has also used terms in reference to settlement building such as “concerned”, “deeply concerned”, “extremely concerned”, “profoundly concerned”, “deplores”, “very disappointed”, “deeply disappointed”, “extremely disappointing and unhelpful”, “provocative actions”, “provocative and deeply counter-productive” and “extremely worrying”.

Israeli settlers start to build a new illegal outpost north of the West Bank Palestinian village of Ain al-Baida in October 2016 (AFP)

In fact, a quick check of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website shows that various officials made seven announcements using a mixture of the above language since June of this year.

The European Union says settlements are “illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible”.

The position of the Canadian government is that the “Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The settlements also constitute a serious obstacle to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace”.

Lowest common denominator

The Australian government’s approach to settlements is more problematic from a Palestinian point of view and is, in fact, out of step with most others.

In 2014, Canberra’s stance on the settlements moved significantly as then Prime Minister Tony Abbott ruled out using the term “occupied” when describing Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem. The attorney general, George Brandis, speaking on behalf of the minister for foreign affairs, Julie Bishop, said it was “unhelpful” to refer to historic events when describing these areas, given the ongoing Middle East peace process.

A Palestinian woman searches through her belongings after her family home in East Jerusalem was demolished by Jerusalem municipality workers near the Israeli settlement of Ramat Shlomo (in the background) in October 2016 (AFP)

He went on to tell a Senate hearing that “the description of East Jerusalem as ‘occupied’ East Jerusalem is a term freighted with pejorative implications which is neither appropriate nor useful”.

“It should not and will not be the practice of the Australian government to describe areas of negotiation in such judgmental language,” he added.

The different kind of language used to express individual governments’ views on Israeli settlements clearly has an impact on statements made by the main international body that attempts to speak with one voice on the issue. The reader may expect this to be the United Nations, but in fact it is the Middle East Quartet which specifically articulates this view and, in doing so, seems to be choosing the language of the lowest common denominator.

Quartet’s feeble words

The Quartet is made up of the UN, the US, the EU and Russia. In its a recent report, the focus of the language used when it came to settlements was not one of calling them “illegal” or “illegitimate”, but to describe their impact on the prospect of the two-state solution. It talked of how settlement construction is one of the trends “undermining hopes for peace”.

It noted that “the continuing policy of settlement construction and expansion, designation of land for exclusive Israeli use, and denial of Palestinian development is steadily eroding the viability of the two-state solution”. It suggested that “this raises legitimate questions about Israel’s long-term intentions, which are compounded by the statements of some Israeli ministers that there should never be a Palestinian state.

In fact, the transfer of greater powers and responsibilities to Palestinian civil authority in Area C contemplated by commitments in prior agreements has effectively been stopped, and in some ways reversed, and should be resumed to advance the two-state solution and prevent a one-state reality from taking hold”.

The report’s only recommendation on this matter was that “Israel should cease the policy of settlement construction and expansion, designating land for exclusive Israeli use, and denying Palestinian development”.

Then serving as Middle East Quartet envoy, Tony Blair visits a UN-run school in Gaza City in 2015 (AFP)

This seems to be an extremely weak recommendation which Israel can simply file, ignore and breathe a sigh of relief that it will not face any action for continuing with its settlement expansion.

Perhaps the most interesting statement on settlements came recently from the US. Reacting to Israel’s announcement that it would build a new settlement, it “strongly condemned the announcement”. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that the new settlement would be “another step towards cementing a reality of perpetual occupation” that would “further call into question Israel’s commitment to achieving a negotiated peace”.

Interestingly, he linked the announcement to America’s decision to gift Israel with a 10-year $38bn military aid package. It was “deeply troubling”, said Toner, that Israel would make its announcement so soon after the conclusion of the aid package.

“I guess, when we’re talking about how good friends treat one another, that is a source of serious concern as well,” he said.

Failed strategy

It seems clear to me that the long established convention of simply issuing statements following each announcement either of an expansion of settlements or the establishment of new ones has failed. Clearly, no amount of creative language to censure settlements has worked.

Every time Israel makes a new announcement, I suspect that countries which feel they must respond only face the dilemma of which exact words to use. I have made this point repeatedly at meetings with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in the UK and the look on the faces of the officials we have met almost confirmed this.

Israel knows that it can ride out any criticism and build. It is certain there will be no real repercussions. In fact, Israeli politicians feel so emboldened that Education Minister Naftali Bennett recently called for Israel to build more settlements in response to any UN criticism.

In September 2015, Israeli soldiers evacuate Palestinian land owners trying to farm on their land near Karmi Tsour, a settlement near Hebron (AFP)

If the UN Security Council adopts a resolution on settlements, Bennett said, Israel would “need to have an appropriate Zionist response, immediate sovereignty over Judea and Samaria, including Maaleh Adumim, Gush Etzion, Ariel, Ofra and Beit El”.

By 2017, the “temporary” occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights will have lasted 50 years. Talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis about ending it and signing a peace deal will have gone on for 24 years. The number of illegal settlers will be pushing towards the one million mark. All efforts to cajole Israel into ending the occupation have failed.

The international community should spend less time searching for acceptable language to indicate their displeasure with Israel and take firm action instead, particularly on settlements. They should be declared illegal and any trade with them should be prohibited. That would be a start in shifting the dynamics of the conflict.

– Kamel Hawwash is a British-Palestinian engineering professor based at the University of Birmingham and a longstanding campaigner for justice, especially for the Palestinian people. He is vice chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and appears regularly in the media as commentator on Middle East issues. He runs a blog at www.kamelhawwash.com. He writes here in a personal capacity.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Palestinian youths wanting to play football in the Maale Adumim settlement in the Israeli occupied West Bank (seen in the background) are blocked by Israeli security forces as they try to enter the settlement in October 2016 (AFP)

Waleed Shaath is the two millionth reason for ending the siege on Gaza

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 31/10/2016

Waleed Shaath, held by his mother, is the two millionth person born in Gaza on 12th October 2016 [Abed Rahim Khatib/Apaimages]

Waleed Shaath, held by his mother, is the two millionth person born in Gaza on 12th October 2016 [Abed Rahim Khatib/Apaimages]

The news that the population of Gaza has reached the 2 million mark was reported widely in the media but has stirred hardly any real action by the international community to ensure that Waleed Shaath — the milestone Palestinian baby — could look forward to a normal life. Waleed was born on 12 October in Rafah; the town in southern Gaza is probably best known internationally for its crossing to neighbouring Egypt. The immediate question that comes to mind is when will Waleed actually be able to travel out of Gaza through this crossing and what sort of a future can he look forward to?

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) publishes a weekly “Protection of civilians” report documenting incidents in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). The report for the period when Waleed was born (4-17 October), makes for reading typical of other reporting periods: two Palestinian deaths, two Israeli deaths and a further 115 Palestinian injuries due to violence by Israeli forces, including 22 children across the OPTs. Israeli forces conducted 178 search and arrest operations and arrested 295 Palestinians in the West Bank; on two occasions, they carried out land-levelling and excavation operations in the vicinity of the perimeter fence with Gaza.

OCHA reports that at least ten incidents involving Israelis opening fire at Palestinian civilians in the Access Restricted Areas (ARA) at land and sea in the Gaza Strip were recorded; while no injuries were reported, two fishermen including a 17-year-old, “were forced to take off their clothes and swim to Israeli naval boats, where they were detained and their boat and fishing nets seized.” A number of rockets were fired towards Israel, causing no injuries, and the Israelis launched air strikes and shelling, which caused no injuries.

The electricity supply in Gaza, which is inadequate at the best of times, deteriorated further during the reporting period with blackouts increasing from 12-16 to 18-20 hours per day on several occasions. OCHA puts this down to “a lack of fuel triggered by recurrent closures during the Jewish holidays, and to the continuing disputes between the Ramallah and Gaza authorities over a tax exemption for the fuel purchased for the plant. This forced the Gaza Power Plant to shut down one of its two operating turbines, affecting the delivery of basic services and undermining vulnerable livelihoods and living conditions.”

Baby Waleed may have been lucky if his parents wanted to travel out of Gaza as the Rafah Crossing was open — exceptionally — for two days (15 and 16 October) in both directions. OCHA reports that 1,368 Palestinians reportedly exited Gaza to Egypt and 1,296 entered. This, remember, is out of a population of 2 million people.

The Palestinians in Gaza are mainly from other parts of historic Palestine; they were forced into exile to make way for the establishment of Israel. Sadly, these refugees have become accustomed to existence under what a friend who returned from Gaza recently called a “medieval siege”, not through choice but reality. Gaza, we are told, will become uninhabitable by 2020. Waleed will be three years old then, and existing in an uninhabitable homeland.

It is natural for anyone who cares about this sort of desperate situation facing fellow human beings to ask who is to blame. If you ask the Palestinians, they will tell you without hesitation that it is the occupying power, Israel, as well as its backers, chiefly the United States, who know the situation but choose not to intervene. Israel and its allies blame the de facto ruling power, Hamas, for the rockets that are fired from Gaza occasionally, and for its unwillingness to adhere to three principles set out by the Middle East Quartet (the UN, EU, Russia and the US – a group established in 2002), which are:

  • a Palestinian state must recognise the state of Israel without prejudging what various grievances or claims are appropriate;
  • abide by previous diplomatic agreements; and
  • renounce violence as a means to achieve goals.

It is important to note that Israel has not adopted or accepted the mirror image of these principles; it does not formally recognise the de facto Palestinian state; it does not abide by its agreements signed with the Palestinians, notably Oslo; and it certainly does not renounce violence as a means to achieve its goals.

The lack of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas does not help the situation and despite renewed efforts, which seem to occur on an almost monthly basis, the prospects for reaching an agreement or implementing existing agreements appear bleak. The Quartet’s most recent reportmade specific recommendations for improving the situation which have thus far fallen on deaf ears.

The Gaza siege is a blight on our humanity. The explicit acceptance by Israel, Egypt and the international community of the collective punishment — illegal in international law — of 2 million people to achieve political goals has brought neither permanent security for Israel nor a change of the ruling party in the enclave.

Each reader can put the Gaza blockade into context without much of a leap of the imagination. What would your situation be like if your city, town, village or region if it was under the same kind of siege for a week, a month, a year or — as in Gaza’s case, ten years? My adopted home town is Birmingham; Britain’s second city has a population of 1.1 million and is at the heart of the road and rail networks passing through the Midlands. I could not possibly imagine being prohibited from travelling in or out of the city as and when I want or need to, while also depending on humanitarian aid, enduring daily attacks by those imposing the siege and losing hope day after day that things will get better.

We owe it to Waleed and those born since his arrival to end this unbelievable suffering. With very day that passes yet another generation will grow up hating their occupier not because of incitement by their leaders but due to the reality of their existence and their perception about who bears responsibility for it.

Palestinians do not mourn the passing of war criminal Peres, even if Mahmoud Abbas does

I write on the eve of the burial of a war criminal. Shimon Peres, former Israeli Prime Minister and President died on the 28th of September at the age of 93. I mourn the fact that he never faced justice to answer for his crimes against Palestinian and Lebanese innocent civilians. I also mourn the truly nauseating specter of the leader of the Palestinians, President Mahmoud Abbas joining other world leaders at his funeral, if granted permission to do so. Palestinians met this move with disbelief. His decision shows how out of touch he is with the people he was elected to represent but who have since been denied the opportunity to consider whether he should continue to do so.

.

 

Had Abbas seen peace come to historic Palestine, with Israelis recognizing Palestinians as equal human beings deserving of the realization of freedom and independence, then I might understand. However, that simply is not the situation on the ground and I do not need to describe it to those who follow the conflict as they know that peace is simply not on the horizon due to Israel’s lack of desire for it. It is comfortable with the status quo and in the absence of any sanctions by the International Community, the weakness of the Palestinian leadership which has left the Palestinian people have no credible strategy for ending the conflict.

Almost 69 years since the Nakba and the creation of Israel and 49 years since the occupation of the remainder of historic Palestine, Peres meets his maker knowing he played his part in the theft of Palestine and the destruction of the future of the Palestinian people. Israel’s creation has been a catastrophe for the Palestinians and Peres was one of the architects. Palestinians cannot forgive him for that because they still live with consequences. Over five million live as refugees in surrounding countries; others live under occupation in the West Bank, under siege in Gaza and as second class citizens in Israel.

Make no mistake about it; Peres’s commitment was to Israel and the Zionist dream not to peace. If he was committed to peace there would have been no need for Oslo, simply a implementation of UN resolutions that would have ended the occupation and allowed the refugees to return. Instead, he fathered the settlement project which planted over 600,000 Israelis in colonies for Jews and only Jews.  I will always recall seeing him interviewed and denying that there was an occupation. “Who did we occupy it from?” he asked.

He was one of the most skilled communicators of the Israeli narrative and did his best to justify Israeli crimes, including those he sanctioned including that of Qana in Lebanon. He died never acknowledging his crimes or showing remorse for the Nakba.

peres-qana

For the Palestinian leadership to call him a man of peace is at odds with his legacy and how Palestinians perceive him. His supposed switch from settlement architect to man of peace resulted in the Oslo accords which have been catastrophic for the Palestinians. He, together with Rabin, Abbas and Arafat signed the Oslo Accords at the White House but that was no prelude to peace, it was a deal to allow Israel to colonize and steel. His Nobel Prize was awarded prematurely. We still do not have a peace treaty between Israelis and Palestinians.

Israel has shelved Oslo except when it needs to use it to justify its crimes, particularly in the Oslo designated area C. It regularly withholds Palestinian taxes  as punishment for what it considers Palestinian violence or peaceful diplomatic moves.

I won’t be shedding a tear when Peres laid to rest. The Palestinians have laid tens of their loved ones to rest because of his crimes. If there is a God that he is answerable to then he may finally face justice.