Palestine must push back against loss of traditional allies

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 4/8/2017

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the 29th African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 3 July, 2017 [Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency]

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the 29th African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 3 July, 2017 [Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency]

 

When the PLO asked the United Nations General Assembly for an upgrade in Palestine’s status to “non-member observer state” on 29th November 2012, the motion was passed by a vote of 138 to 9, with 41 abstentions. The vote was met with ecstatic celebrations by the Palestinian delegation and disappointment on the faces of Israeli diplomats. The Israelis knew this could be a game changer, for although they, together with their American ally had scuppered the attempt in the Security Council (UNSC) for full recognition of Palestine as a state, the new status would offer the Palestinians the opportunity to pursue their ‘internationalisation’ strategy.

Having failed to make progress in direct peace negotiations under the auspices of the Americans, the Palestinians used their newly found status to join an array of international organisations and conventions. Palestine had already secured membership of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) the previous year, which resulted in Israel freezing its $2 million annual contribution to it.

On 12th April 2014, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed the relevant documentation to join 15 treaties and conventions including the Four Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 and the First Additional Protocol. Perhaps the most important organisation Palestine was able to join as a result of its upgraded status was the International Criminal Court (ICC), which it formally joined in April 2015. Joining the ICC allows Palestine to bring cases against Israeli officials for alleged crimes, including the 2014 war on Gaza and continued illegal settlement construction.

While Palestine struggles to have resolutions passed in the UN Security Council due to the likelihood that the US will wield its veto to protect Israel, in other forums where the veto does not exist, it has generally secured enough support to pass relevant motions. The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) regularly investigates Israeli human rights abuses and passes resolutions condemning its practices. UNESCO has passed important resolutions regarding Israeli policies in East Jerusalem and the status of Hebron’s old city and Al Aqsa Mosque that have raised severe criticism by Israel and its American backer; they were, however, unable to block these without the weapon of a US veto.

Despite these successes, support for the Palestinians in international forums is under threat from a sustained diplomatic effort by Israel to dissuade states and organisations traditionally hostile to it and supportive of the Palestinians to change course.

A Palestinian statehood resolution at the UNSC in December 2014 seemed to have secured enough votes to force the Obama administration to wield the US veto. That was until Nigeria, which has traditionally supported the Palestinians had a last minute change of heart and abstained; meaning the US did not need to exercise its veto. That was despite France, China and Russia voting in favour of the resolution. Nigeria’s Ambassador echoed the US position stating that the ultimate path to peace lies “in a negotiated solution”. This came after heavy pressure on the Nigerians which included telephone calls to the then Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan by Netanyahu and US Secretary of State John Kerry.

In another first, India’s Narendra Modi made the first state visit to Israel by an Indian Prime Minister last July. Commenting on a visit in which he physically embraced Prime Minister Netanyahu he said that India and Israel shared a “deep and centuries-old” connection. Suffice to note that that connection had not translated into a similar visit by a sitting Indian Prime Minister since Israel’s creation in 1948. Furthermore, it is worth noting that India is now Israel’s biggest arms market worth about $1bn per annum.

Israel’s relations with China have been developing since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992. China has moved from support for the Palestinians and opposition to Israel to support for a nebulous “just and peaceful resolution” to the issue instead.

Football’s governing body, FIFA, which had been due to sanction Israel for allowing teams from the illegal West Bank settlements to participate in Israel’s league, against FIFA’s own rules. The move was kicked this into the long grass following a telephone call from Israel’s Netanyahu to FIFA’s President Gianni Infantino.

In recent months, particularly following US President Trump’s visit to the region, even Arab states that had unreservedly supported the Palestinians have shown signs of change. Netanyahu insists relations with Arab states which have largely been hostile to Israel is shifting. There has even been talk of limited normalisation by some Gulf States to incentivise Israel to halt settlement construction and re-engage in the “peace process” with Palestinians.

An even greater danger for the erosion of Palestinian support lies in Africa. Prime Minister Netanyahu has long been pursuing closer relations and support from the African continent. On a visit to Kenya in 2016, he said “There are 50 countries in Africa”, “Just about all of them,” he continued “could be allies of Israel. They vote at international forums, and I know people don’t believe this, but I think we can change the automatic majorities in the UN and so on if you begin to shift this.”

The next step in Netanyahu’s pursuit of this change is the forthcoming ‘Africa-Israel Summit’ which has been called for 23- 24 October in Lome, Togo. The Summit’s website sells it as a “framework that will permit the leaders of the trade, security and diplomatic sectors of Africa and Israel to meet, network and collaborate”. It quotes Netanyahu saying Israel is coming back to Africa, and Africa is coming back to Israel”. The last time the Israeli and Togo leaders were due to meet was at the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Summit in Monrovia, Liberia back in June. However, the meeting was cancelled following a scuffle between the two leaders’ body guards.

Netanyahu’s attendance at the annual conference was to try and garner support for Israel at the UN and other forums and to “dissolve this majority, this giant bloc of 54 African countries that is the basis of the automatic majority against Israel in the UN and international bodies”. The conference saw Togo’s President Faure Gnassingbe named the new chairperson of ECOWAS in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia.

Although the Africa-Israel Summit is still on schedule, pressure to cancel it appears to be growing. Morocco and the Palestinian Authority have reportedly been pressuring the Togolese President to cancel the summit and African countries to boycott it. This pressure must grow rapidly to avoid Israel reaping the fruits of its efforts in Africa, the continent which experienced apartheid in South Africa and which until relatively recently saw its fall. How can Africa, in particular, entertain Israeli apartheid?

The Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu has labelled Israeli policies as Apartheid for over a decade. “I have witnessed the systemic humiliation of Palestinian men, women and children by members of the Israeli security forces,” he said in a statement in 2014. “Their humiliation is familiar to all black South Africans who were corralled and harassed and insulted and assaulted by the security forces of the apartheid government.”

The Palestinians may have assumed that Africa would resist Netanyahu’s charm offensive. However, increasingly it seems economic considerations trump human rights. The PLO has representative offices in 20 African countries. Apart from the North African Arab countries and other member states of the Arab League, Palestine has in South Africa and the African National Congress in particular strong supporters of the Palestinian cause. South Africa has been considering downgrading its embassy in Tel Aviv in protest at the lack of progress towards peace and Israel’s policies against the Palestinians. The Palestinian leadership must use every ally to push back against Israel’s diplomatic offensive in Africa or face further erosion of support where it matters for the just Palestinian cause.

Israel is sleepwalking towards tyranny not practising democracy

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 28/7/2017

Israeli forces injure Palestinians with tear gas as they gather to enter the Al-Aqsa Mosque following the removal of Israeli security measures in Jerusalem on 27 July 2017 [Mahmoud İbrahem/Anadolu Agency]

Israeli forces injure Palestinians with tear gas as they gather to enter the Al-Aqsa Mosque following the removal of Israeli security measures in Jerusalem on 27 July 2017 [Mahmoud İbrahem/Anadolu Agency]

Let me start by acknowledging that democracy is in short supply in the Middle East. However, only one state claims to be a democratic state. In fact, Israel claims to be “the only democracy in the Middle East,” with the “most moral army in the world”.

Increasingly, extremist Israeli governments with no respect for international law, international humanitarian law or international norms have been using the pretence of democracy to entrench Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine and to place the state’s Jewish identity above democracy. The Nation State Bill, making its way through the Knesset, seeks to do just that, despite claims a future draft would tone this down.

All is not well with democracy in Israel. Every so often former, senior Israeli politicians or retired security personnel warn that Israel is edging towards apartheid and even more recently towards tyranny.

Former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak have warned that Israel’s policies are leading towards naked apartheid; Barak said as recently as last month that Israel was on a “slippery slope towards apartheid”.

Former Israeli officials were blind to the impact of their policies while in office. After all, the settlement project saw a major expansion during Barak’s reign. How is it that he could not see the devastating effect of this on the prospects for peace? It is also true that when it comes to settlements, current Prime Minister Netanyahu needs no excuse to expand the enterprise but still uses this as punishment for perceived Palestinian indiscretions such as joining world bodies or conventions.

To many observers the label of apartheid is already justified. Anyone who has visited the occupied Palestinian town of Hebron can testify that they saw apartheid, felt it and smelt it.

In April former Shin Bet chiefs Ami Ayalon and Carmi Gillon warned that the country’s political system had sunk in the process of “incremental tyranny”. They were speaking ahead of a public meeting at a Jerusalem gallery that was threatened with closure after hosting a meeting organised by the military whistleblowing group Breaking the Silence, one of the main targets of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Ayalon explained that “incremental tyranny [is a process] which means you live in a democracy and suddenly you understand it is not a democracy anymore,” adding that “this is what we are seeing in Israel. The tragedy of this process is that you only know it when it is too late”.

Attacks on human rights organisations within Israel are nothing new. Breaking the Silence,B’TselemAl-Haq, Peace Now and Yesh Din have all been demonised and individuals issued with death threats. MK David Bitan called for the citizenship of B’Tselem Director Hagai El-Ad to be revoked simply because he criticised Israel’s occupation to the United Nations Security Council.

In 2017 Israel passed a law compelling NGOs to reveal their foreign funding which would allow the government to lobby those states that fund these critical NGOs. This scrutiny does not to extend to those that support and fund illegal settlements.

Israel’s targeting of the media is constant and is hardly a sign of democracy. It regularly raids offices of Palestinian radio and TV stations and confiscates equipment. The 2017 World Press Freedom Index placed Israel 91st out of 180 countries, way behind many Western-style democracies that it claims to emulate including Germany (16), France (39), UK (40) and the US (43). Palestine was ranked 135th.

During assaults on Gaza, Israel deliberately attacked buildings housing media channels, which caused damage and casualties. Israel’s most recent attack on the media came during the recent coverage of protests and Israeli army violence at Al-Aqsa. The Israeli Prime Minister threatened to close Al Jazeera’s offices accusing its journalists of “inciting violence,” a claim the Qatari owned network strongly rejects.

In recent months Israel has escalated its war on freedom of speech both at home and abroad, particularly in relation to proponents of the BDS movement. While it generally claims the movement is ineffective, it has appointed Gilad Erdan as minister for strategic affairs to combat individuals and organisations that pursue this tactic for pressuring Israel.

At the 2016 Yediot Achronot conference which attacked BDS, Israel’s transport minister Yisrael Katz called for the “civil targeted killing” of BDS leaders like Omar Barghouti. Thankfully, Barghouti is still alive but he was banned from travelling abroad for a period of time and was recently arrested on allegations of tax evasion, which he denied.

Israel has also turned its attention to critics abroad. In March 2017 the Knesset passed a law that would empower the immigration authorities to deny proponents of the BDS movement abroad entry to Israel. Commenting on the new law Erdan said “the rules of the game have changed,” and that organisations seeking to harm Israel’s “national security” through boycotts would be denied entry to the country.

A few days after the law was passed Chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), Hugh Lanning, was denied entry to Israel. A few days later I was travelling with my wife and son to visit family in East Jerusalem when I was also denied entry. This was particularly ironic given it is the year Britain plans to celebrate the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.

The first question I was asked during my interrogation was whether I had heard of the new BDS law. I believed that I was denied entry because of my role in PSC where I am a member of the executive committee, and our promotion of BDS. I did wonder at the time whether the law would be applied equally to Jews holding foreign passports and residing abroad who supported BDS or a more limited boycott of the illegal settlements.

When campaign director for Code Pink, Ariel Gold, made it into Israel recently I noted that a Jewish supporter of Palestinian rights and of BDS had been allowed in. However, she was ‘outed’ in the press and accused of “tricking” her way into the country, which she denied. She is now worried about being denied entry in the future.

At least Gold made it to Tel Aviv. On the 23 July Jewish Rabbi Alissa Wise and two other faith leaders were not allowed to board a flight to Tel Aviv by Lufthansa on the orders of Israel. Wise is from Jewish Voice for Peace. It’s important to remember that Israel has a Law of Return for Jews but denies the right of return to Palestinians.

Israel’s borders extend as far as it wants them to and in Alissa’s case they extended all the way to Washington and will be coming to an airport near you if critics of Israel decide to visit. Israel has developed criterion for entry denial and will demand that airlines deny boarding to individuals in their country of departure.

The implications for critics of Israel and organisations that promote BDS are clearly significant in term of accessing the country to show solidarity with Palestinians. However, they are unlikely to be perturbed about campaigning for the rights of Palestinians and promoting BDS, unless Israel’s lobby in key countries succeeds in wrongly criminalising BDS as the US is currently attempting to do.

In reaction to recent events around Al-Aqsa, Minister of Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi – a key Netanyahu ally – threatened Palestinians with a “third Nakba”. The reference here is to the Arabic term for catastrophe or the mass expulsions of Palestinians from their homeland in 1948 and then 1967. How democratic is that?

It seems to me that Israel has found it difficult to reconcile its role of delivering the Zionist project and acting as a democracy. It has to deal with non-Jews that it wishes had all been ethnically cleansed in 1948. Their sheer existence is a demographic threat and as we saw recently in Jerusalem, if they had all gone the ‘third Temple’ would have been built by now in place of Al-Aqsa Mosque in a state only for Jews.

Israel claims to be Jewish and democratic but the reality is that it is a settler, colonialist and apartheid state with a stockpile of nuclear weapons to boot.  It seems that if democracy does not deliver its colonialist aims then – as some of its own senior citizens fear – it will head towards tyranny. I acknowledge that Israel is not there yet but the direction of travel worries me as a Palestinian and should worry Israelis who want to make peace with their neighbours.

Those that support Israel in the West should also worry. Will they heed the fears of former Shin Bet chiefs Ami Ayalon and Carmi Gillon, or will they only know it when it is too late.

Richard Falk: People must shame UN for quashing ‘apartheid Israel’ report

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 20/3/2017

Professor Richard Falk, former UN special rapporteur for Palestine, was hosted in London by the Middle East Monitor yesterday as part of his book launch tour. He introduced his book “Palestine’s Horizon Toward a Just Peace” eloquently to a packed hall. He had earlier been met with a barrage of hate by a Zionist mob at the London School of Economics. Thankfully, this particular session was not interrupted by the yobs.

However, the real interest of the audience seemed to be in a more recent publication which he co-authored with Virginia Tilley for the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA). The report entitled “Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid” was launched on 15 March concluded that

“Israel is guilty of policies and practices that constitute the crime of apartheid as legally defined in instruments of international law.”

Rather than prompting a debate in the UN and the Security Council, its publication and conclusion was met with outrage by Israel and its ally the United States. Pressure was exerted on the recently appointed United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres to quash the report. This he did by directing ESCWA to withdraw the report because it did not have his approval. The demand was rejected. ESCWA’s Executive Secretary, Dr Rima Khalaf, eventually resigned from her role and the report was taken down form ESCWA’s website. A spokesman for the UN Chief confirmed “that Guterres had ordered that the report to be taken down but sought to make clear that the request was ‘not about content’ but about ‘process’.”

Israel’s Foreign Ministry spokesman likened the report to Der Sturmer – a Nazi propaganda publication that was strongly anti-Semitic. Both US and Israel envoys to the UN welcomed the secretary-general’s action with Danny Dannon claiming “anti-Israel activists do not belong in the UN. It is time to put an end to the practice in which UN officials use their position to advance their anti-Israel agenda. Her removal from the UN is long overdue.”

Palestinians who had initially welcomed the report condemned Guterres’ actions. Palestine Liberation Organisation executive committee member Dr Hanan Ashrawi said in a statement:

“Instead of succumbing to political blackmail or allowing itself to be censured or intimidated by external parties, the UN should condemn the acts described in the report and hold Israel responsible.”

She explained, according to WAFA, that the report constitutes

“a step in the right direction and highlights the true reality on the ground, which is one of apartheid, ethnic cleansing and military occupation.”

She called on Guterres to do what is right, reinstate the ESCWA report and “undertake serious and concrete measures to hold Israel accountable for its persistent violations of international law and human rights.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced he would be bestowing Palestine’s Medal of the Highest Honour in recognition of Khalaf’s “courage and support” for Palestinians.

The rigorous report, authored by two highly respected academic experts said it had established on the “basis of scholarly inquiry and overwhelming evidence, that Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid.” But also stated that “only a ruling by an international tribunal in that sense would make such an assessment truly authoritative.”

Speaking in London, Falk suggested the key addition the report makes to the discussion about the impact of Israeli policies on Palestinians is that it looks at the impact on a people as a whole. The report said the “strategic fragmentation of the Palestinian people” was the main method through which Israel imposes apartheid, with Palestinians divided into four groups oppressed through “distinct laws, policies and practices”. It identified the four sets of Palestinians as: Palestinian citizens of Israel; Palestinians in East Jerusalem; Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; and Palestinians living as refugees or in exile.

This somewhat contradicts Guterres’ claim that due process was not followed. In reality though, the secretary-general must have been expecting the knocks on the door and the endless phone calls from US and Israeli representatives and decided he had ultimate say about what report is produced in the UN’s name regardless of its rigour and scholarly review. It is no secret to say that the new Trump Administration signalled – even before taking office – that what it judged to be unfair treatment of Israel by UN bodies would end, regardless of Israel’s flagrant breaches of countless UN Security Council resolutions and international humanitarian law.

When asked how to make the report more effective within the UN system following its removal, Falk said the best strategy would be “to raise the visibility of this issue at this time and shame the UN into taking seriously its own study”.

“I am confident enough that if the study is examined by intellectual sources around the world, they will, even if they don’t agree with its conclusions they will regard it as a serious objective undertaking.”

Falk went on to reveal that after submitting the report, ESCWA anonymously sent it for evaluation to three of the most distinguished international jurists around the world and that “each of them acting separately submitted very positive reports”. Only one submitted suggested changes which the authors duly made.

Reflecting on the way the UN had dealt with the ESCWA report, Falk likened its treatment to what happened to the Goldstone report on Israel’s 2008/9 war on Gaza which Goldstone later regretted. Falk assured his audience “I am not Goldstone fortunately” referring to the request that he and Tilley repudiate their own report, which he confirmed “was of course a little bit unrealistic”.

When asked what advice he has for the Palestinian Authority and President Abbas, Falk recognised the difficult position the Palestinian leadership is in admitting they are “between a rock and a hard place”. He acknowledged that “it is easy to criticise them but hard to be them”. However, he suggested the Palestinian leadership has an opportunity here “to take this path of emphasising the moral and legal high ground, which they have started to do.” He suggested this would be building on the 2012 upgrade in Palestine’s UN status to a non- member observer state which he described as a “ghost state”, and initiating proceedings in the International Criminal Court (ICC) in relation to the 2014 attack on Gaza and the illegal settlements. He acknowledged that the ICC itself is under tremendous political pressure and it is not clear “whether anything tangible would emerge out of this”.

Falk suggested that “[for the Palestinians] taking this report seriously would be another way of advancing their campaign to say international law is on our side. Israel’s administration of the Palestinian people is an international crime and generates the collective responsibility of international society.”

The challenge for them, he argued, would be “either you refute the finding of apartheid or you act upon it. If you act upon it you have a responsibility to do whatever is possible to end the commission of that crime or be complicit in its effects.”

It is now up to supporters of justice to shame the UN and for the Palestinian leadership to seize the opportunity the report presents to garner further support for their cause but more importantly action against Apartheid Israel.

No dates with Apartheid this Ramadan please

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The holy month of Ramadan starts this weekend. Muslims all over the World will be breaking their fast with a glass of water and an odd number of dates, following in the steps of Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him.

The search will be on for the best dates and Israel will be busy marketing dates from the illegal colonies in the West Bank. Dates grown on stolen Palestinian land, watered with stolen Palestinian water, within touching distance of Palestinian villages deprived of water.

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Israel is systematically strangling the Jordan Vally where most if the Medjool dates are grown and has vowed not to leave this fettle area in any future peace deal. It claims that it needs it for security but that is simply a lie.

The Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions aims to place pressure on Israel until it meets three conditions:

1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall
2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

Let us make sure Apartheid Israel dies not profit from its illegal occupation. Play your part this Ramadan. Buy Palestinian dates and boycott Israeli dates.