Israel is pushing its luck with the EU

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 20/10/2017

Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu (L) speaks during US President Donald Trump’s (R) visit to Israel on 23 May 2017. [Israeli Government Press Office/Haim Zach/Handout]

When it comes to the various stakeholders in the Israeli Palestinian conflict Israel has guaranteed American support in almost whatever it does. Other stakeholders, including the EU, have consistently criticised Israeli government policy but consistently failed to back it up with any action. That is, possibly, until now.

The Obama administration was castigated by the pro-Israel lobby for its supposed lack of support for Israel despite granting it a 10-year $38 billion military aid package, the likes of which no other state could dream to secure. In fact, over half the aid the US hands to other states goes to Israel.

Obama missed a trick on not making the aid package conditional upon any progress in the talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, or a halt to settlement construction, which the US sees as “illegitimate”. Neither Netanyahu’s brazen snub to Obama when he addressed the US Congress without coordination with the White House, nor the humiliation of American Vice President Biden – who while on a visit to Jerusalem in 2010 was met with an announcement that Israel planned to build 1,600 home for Jewish Israelis in units in the illegal settlement of Ramat Shlomo which is attached to Jerusalem – was enough to trigger such conditioning.

The US is a member of the Middle East Quartet now renamed the ‘Office of the Quartet,’ which brings the EU, Russia and the United Nations together. It describes its mandate as “to help mediate Middle East peace negotiations and to support Palestinian economic development and institution-building in preparation for eventual statehood”. The Quartet’s last key report was published in 2016. The report focussed on violence and incitement, Gaza and Palestinian governance and settlement expansion, land designations, and denial of Palestinian development.

In the area designated C under the Oslo Accords, Israel maintains full control over both security and planning. The denial of Palestinian development is enacted mostly through the denial of permits for building construction. The Quartet noted that “only one permit for Palestinian housing construction in Area C was reportedly approved in 2014, and there do not appear to have been any in 2015. In the five-year period from 2009 to 2013, only 34 building permits were approved for Palestinians in Area C, out of at least 2,000 submissions”.

The report further noted that there were over 11,000 demolition orders pending against Palestinian structures, three quarters of which are on private Palestinian land. The report acknowledged that “as Palestinians are consistently denied permits to build legally, they are left with few options but to build without permits”.

There was a significant increase in the number of Palestinian structures demolished across the West Bank in the first four months of 2016, with some 500 demolitions of Palestinian structures by the Israeli authorities and nearly 800 Palestinians displaced, more than what was carried out throughout the entire year of 2015. Although many of these were not dwellings, the loss of structures such as water wells, solar panels, and animal shelters has impacted the livelihoods of over 2,500 people in the first half of 2016. The trend continued in 2017 and to this day.

Israeli security forces gather around as a Palestinian home is being demolished in Jerusalem on 14 March 2017 [Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency]

Israel makes no distinction between structures it considers to be illegal that are funded by Palestinians and those that are funded by non-Palestinians, those built without planning permission or those agreed upon in bilateral agreements with the Palestinians.

Gaza’s International Airport, which opened in 1998, was destroyed by Israel in 2001. It was built with funding from Japan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Spain, and Germany. To this day the airport remains in ruins and no sanctions were ever taken against Israel by either Germany or Spain.

In January of this year Israeli forces demolished some 15 structures in Khirbet, including homes and the only school in the small hamlet, which is located on the outskirts of the village of Beit Furik in the Jordan Valley in the north-eastern occupied West Bank.

In July the Dutch government lodged a protest with Israel over the confiscation of electricity equipment, which was said to be a hybrid power system of both diesel and solar power. The electrification project in the southern Bethlehem region was donated by the Dutch government and cost about 500,000 euros ($590,806), 350,000 euros ($413,564) of which went to Jubbet Al-Dhib, according to the report in the Israeli daily Haaretz. The Dutch Foreign Ministry requested Israel return the equipment and is “currently assessing what next steps can be taken,” the ministry’s statement to Haaretz said.

In August Israeli troops dismantled a structure built for a nursery for 25 Palestinian children in the village of Jabal Al-Baba near Jerusalem claiming it was built without a permit. This followed the demolition a few days earlier of a small primary school in the southern West Bank and the removal of solar panels used to power another school. This drew criticism from the EU which expressed “strong concern about the recent confiscations of Palestinian school structures undertaken by Israel in Bedouin communities in the occupied West Bank,” adding that “every child has the right to safe access to education and states have an obligation to protect, respect and fulfil this right, by ensuring that schools are inviolable safe spaces for children”.

But has Israel pushed its luck too far with the EU?

Despite Israel’s destruction of facilities funded by the EU, history shows it has protested to Israel but has not taken action. However, this could be about to change.

Reports have emerged that eight EU countries, led by Belgium, have drafted a letter to be delivered to senior Foreign Ministry officials demanding compensation amounting to €30,000 ($35,456) for confiscating and demolishing structures and infrastructure built by them in Area C of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli control. This follows Israel’s refusal to return the confiscated equipment as demanded by the eight countries which are members of the ‘West Bank Protection Consortium,’ a body through which they coordinate humanitarian assistance to Area C.

The letter stresses that “the demolition and seizure of humanitarian equipment, including school infrastructure, and the interference in the transfer of humanitarian assistance contravenes Israel’s obligations under international law and causes suffering to the Palestinian residents”.

However, Israel claims that European activity in Area C is not humanitarian assistance but “illegal development that is being done without coordinating with Israel and with the aim of strengthening the Palestinians’ hold on Area C”. This claim was previously made in 2015 by Benjamin Netanyahu who ordered the demolition of some 400 Palestinian structures built in the West Bank with European funding.

While the international community has often talked the talk about Israeli crimes, this is a rare example of action that could at least make Israel think twice before acting. While this is a small step by eight EU countries it could mark a significant and necessary change in policy from condemnation of Israeli policies to tangible action. EU citizens should be outraged that contributions from their taxes to alleviate Palestinian suffering and build peace, are being wasted by Israel while goods from illegals settlements continue to make their way to EU supermarket shelves.

If the EU is serious about peace and its support for a two-state solution then it can use existing instruments to exercise its influence. This includes suspending the EU-Israel Association Agreement for Israel’s failure to adhere to a clause which states that “relations between the parties, as well as all the provisions of the agreement itself, shall be based on respect for human rights and democratic principles”.

Israel’s clear failure to respect Palestinian human rights should finally trigger a suspension of this agreement.

The next generation of Israeli leaders could complete Israel’s isolation

This was first published on the Middle East Monitor on Saturday, 19 March 2016

File photo of Benjamin Netanyahu and his colleagues greeting supporters after their electoral win last yearPhoto from the Middle East Monitor

The nature of Israeli politics tells us that elections could be called fairly quickly. Should that happen in the next couple of years it is of course feasible that current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could stand and win a further term. However, if he chooses retirement, then who might replace him is important both to domestic Israeli issues but crucially to the conflict with the Palestinians. Their record to date and their stated positions on a number of issues will tell us about their possible approach to resolving the conflict with the Palestinians.

The ongoing shift to the right both in Israeli society and Israeli politics suggests that a left wing coalition led by say the Labour party or the ‘centrist’ Kadima party is unlikely to win and have any chance of forming a government in the near future. However, before dismissing potential leaders from the left, an examination of the current party leaders’ positions offers no hope of a genuine attempt to achieve peace with the Palestinians.

Take the leader of Labour, Yitzhak Herzog. As leader of the Zionist Union bloc, he was touted as a potential game changer at the last Israeli elections in 2015. He claimed that if elected he would “try to reignite” the peace process with the Palestinians. However, in reality he was only looking at seeking “confidence building measures” which would have simply prolonged the occupation. There was no vision.

In recent weeks Herzog has demonstrated his true colours in relation to how he would really deal with the Palestinians. There was clear acknowledgement that the two-state solution was “impossible to realise under current conditions” and that rather than reaching out to the Palestinians and changing the dynamics of the conflict, his plan is to separate from them. “I wish to separate from as many Palestinians as possible, as quickly as possible,” said Herzog, speaking at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

“They over there and we over here; we’ll erect a big wall between us. That is the kind of co-existence that’s possible now. You exist there and we exist here.” Remember, this “plan” is from the leader of the left in Israel. What hope then from the right?

Within the Likud party, Gideon Saar who was a minister under Netanyahu and then took a break from politics has criticised him for not taking hard enough action against the Palestinians. In 2012 he claimed that the establishment of a Palestinian state was “never part of Likud’s platform”.

Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, a former brigadier general in the Israeli army has been described as “Trump in high heels”. She has called for Arab Knesset members who pray at Al-Aqsa to be jailed. She believes that any “concessions on Jerusalem or the status of Palestinian refugees should require an absolute majority in the Knesset. Regev also called for the family of the Beersheba “terrorist” to be expelled to Gaza.

Another of the crop of possible future Likud leaders, Tzipi Hotovely, is the de facto foreign minister who holds some of the most extreme views amongst the potential leaders. Shortly after her appointment she proclaimed: “We need to return to the basic truth of our rights to this country. This land is ours. All of it is ours. We did not come here to apologise for that.”

To complete the crop of possible future leaders from Likud is Netanyahu’s number two, Gilad Erdan, minister of public security, strategic affairs and public diplomacy with the specific brief to fight the growing BDS movement.

The lack of possible moderate future leaders extends beyond Likud. Take former Likud member now Finance Minister and head of Kulanu Moshe Kahlon. He claims that he sees no possibility of reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians as he does not see a Palestinian partner with whom to negotiate and asserts that Jerusalem will remain united.

The views of Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party and Israel’s minister of education, provide no hope for peace with the Palestinians if he was ever to lead Israel. He famously said: “I’ve killed many Arabs in my life, and there’s no problem with that.” Bennett recently banned a novel on Jewish-Arab romance from schools in Israel for “threatening Jewish identity”.

As for the Palestinians, he believes that parents don’t keep children from terrorism because “the Palestinian Authority pays them”. Regarding the peace process, he said “the time has come to say Israel is ours” and “to go from strategic defence to a process of initiating the implementation of Israeli sovereignty over the territories under Israeli control in Judea and Samaria.” Thus he supports annexing the West Bank and is firmly against a two-state solution.

It is rather ironic that the Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked holds some of the most extreme views amongst the next generation of potential leaders. In 2014, the notorious Palestinian hater said: “They are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads. Now this also includes the mothers of the martyrs, who send them to hell with flowers and kisses. They should follow their sons, nothing would be more just. They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there.” She was recently heavily criticised for attempting to introduce a “transparency bill” designed to curb the activities of NGOs partly funded by foreign governments in what was seen as an attempt to silence criticism of Israel.

For those looking beyond Prime Minister Netanyahu to the new crop of potential Israeli leaders that could bring peace to historic Palestine, I have some bad news. Israel’s move to the right and to further denial of Palestinian rights appears to be permanent and the mirage of a final settlement based on a two-state solution is just that, a mirage as none of the potential leaders has come out in favour. They are for continued occupation, dispossession and oppression until the Palestinians submit. The Palestinians have shown no indication that they will anytime soon as evidenced by the continuing intifada. The status quo is therefore likely to continue and with it Israelis will see their country’s isolation accelerate. The next Israeli elections will not offer them a choice between moderate and extremist candidates, only a choice between extremist and more extremist. That is a bad situation for them but also as importantly, for Palestinians and anyone that wants to see peace in the Holy Land.

Professor Kamel Hawwash is a British Palestinian engineering academic based at the University of Birmingham. He is a commentator on Middle East affairs and is Vice Chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. He blogs at www.kamelhawwash.com. He writes here in a personal capacity.

Hanan al-Hroub is a shining beacon for Palestine

The Middle East Eye published my latest article on 16/3/2016

Hanan al-Hroub is a shining beacon for Palestine

Hanan al-Hroub was handed the second annual global teacher prize at a star-studded ceremony in Dubai on 13 March. Announcing the name of the prize winner, Pope Francis said “Part of education is to teach children how to play.” He congratulated al-Hroub for winning the prize “due to the importance she gave to the role of play in a child’s education”.

Accepting her award, al-Hroub said: “I am proud to be a Palestinian female teacher standing on this stage. I accept this as a win for all teachers in general and Palestinian teachers in particular.” The pride that she brought to a whole nation still fighting for its legitimate rights could be felt not only back in the occupied territories but in the Palestinian refugee camps and the rest of the diaspora.

The announcement was greeted with loud cheers and the waving of Palestinian flags in the hall but also with joyous celebrations among Palestinians the world over.

The last time this unity in celebration among Palestinians everywhere was seen on this scale was when the now famous Palestinians singer Mohammed Assaf won Arab Idol back in 2013. Assaf and al-Hroub share not only being winners but also originating from Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza and the West Bank respectively. Both grew up under Israel’s military occupation and witnessed its violence first hand.

Assaf almost missed the opportunity to audition for the Arab Idol programme due to the siege on Gaza. Following his win, Assaf was named a goodwill ambassador for peace by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). Palestinian President Mahmood Abbas also named him ambassador of culture and arts.

Al-Hroub’s work which led to her global award demonstrates that despite the extremely difficult conditions under which Palestinians grow up, there is a determination to excel in their lines of work and to seek non-violent means to contribute to the development of their society. Al-Hroub’s approach to dealing with children that have either experienced violence themselves or witnessed it first hand – as her own children had – is detailed in her book We Play to Learn.

It is reported that the trigger for her work was her children’s experience of a shooting incident. The work led to her developing interventions to help children cope with their experiences and to say “no to violence”. Al-Hroub believes in “developing trusting, respectful, honest and affectionate relationships with her students and emphasises the importance of literacy. She encourages her students to work together, pays close attention to individual needs and rewards positive behaviour.”

Her biography confirms that her approach has “led to a decline in violent behaviour in schools where this is usually a frequent occurrence; she has inspired her colleagues to review the way they teach, their classroom management strategies and the sanctions they use.”

The struggle for normality

It was rather timely that the announcement of al-Hroub’s award was made as the strike by Palestinian teachers came to an end. Both brought joy to the beleaguered Palestinian people battling to live anything like a normal life free from Israeli violence, restrictions on movement, ever expanding settlements and settler violence.

Teachers and children wake up in the morning with the uncertainty and the insecurity of not knowing whether this is to be a normal day, whether they will be able to make it to school and in some cases whether their school will be there when they get to it.

The recent example of the demolition of the Abu-Nawwar Primary School in occupied Jerusalem is but one example of the trauma Israeli policies inflict on children. Other examples include the daily terror that children face from illegal settlers on the school walk in parts of Hebron, which necessitate accompaniment by international volunteers. The IDF has also been known to fire gas canisters in the direction of children on their way to school and into schools. A recent report accused Israeli soldiers tossing astun grenade into another school in the West Bank.

In Gaza, children have seen friends die next to them in school under fire from Israeli soldiers and during the major wars on the strip, including that in 2014, witnessed deaths of relatives, loved ones and friends. However, despite this and the regular “study by candle light” due to the lack of electricity and abject poverty as a result of the siege, the resilience of the children and their teachers is admirable.

They continue to pursue the highest levels of education both at home and, when permitted, abroad and continue to excel. In 2013 14-year-old Palestine refugee Areej El Madhoun, a student at UNRWA’s school in Jabalia camp, received the first prize in in the Intelligent Mental-Arithmetic Competition, held in Malaysia every two years.

It was rather ironic that in the audience that saw al-Hroub receive her award in Dubai was the former Middle East Envoy and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a man known for coining the phrase “Education, education, education” to indicate that this would be a key priority for his government. It is rather sad that his tenure as envoy saw the situation for Palestinians, especially children, worsen rather than improve.

The situation is particularly desperate in the areas designated “C” under the Oslo Accords which Israel administers and effectively bars any development of schools to cater for the children, including building any additional class rooms or facilities without planning permission which is almost always refused.

The 13th of March was about a Palestinian teacher excelling and being recognised for so doing on the international stage. The Palestinians see this as a major achievement for her and for them and all celebrated this in style. One can look forward to the day when Palestine is free, allowing the Palestinians to bring their talents to helping others and to tackling the world’s challenges. They will undoubtedly win many more awards.

Kamel Hawwash is a British/Palestinian engineering professor based at the University of Birmingham and a long-standing 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.

 

Palestinians don’t attack Israeli soldiers in pursuit of ‘economic peace’

The Middle East Eye published this on 2/3/2016

Palestinians don’t attack Israeli soldiers in pursuit of ‘economic peace’

Following France’s stuttering attempt to restart the peace process, US Secretary of State John Kerry met Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman. This could lead to a meeting between Israel and the PA possibly in July, bringing together Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Abbas is not against the idea.

However, Israel’s response was much more lukewarm. Deadly attacks by individual Palestinians, mostly on Israeli occupation forces, continue while the overall situation remains tense and could suddenly explode. Realising this, Israel decided to pacify Palestinians through the release of some tax revenues it has been withholding, some easing of travel restrictions, the reinstatement of a few VIP passes and by issuing some more work permits for Palestinians to enter Israel. This was communicated to the Palestinians at a meeting between the Israeli and PA finance ministers.

However, the real driving force behind these measures is an attempt to shore up the Palestinian Authority which a number of Israeli politicians fear is near collapse.

Israeli Minister of Immigrant Absorption and Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Ze’ev Elkin spelt this out in a speech he recently gave at Bar-Ilan University: “The question is not if the PA collapses but when it is going to collapse,” Elkin said. “It can happen in a month or two or a year or two tops.” He was concerned about the Israeli government’s lack of concern about this, saying, “I’m not sure that the government has passed the diagnostic stage and realised the dramatic change we are facing.” He was further concerned that Abbas’ “control on the ground is diminishing”.

A major fear the Israelis have about the collapse of the PA is the end of the security cooperation Israel has enjoyed. This has reduced both its financial and physical (personnel) burden substantially. Abbas himself is committed to this cooperation calling it “sacred”. However, both the Israelis and the PA know full well that the current “rising” has been characterised by attacks that are not coordinated in any way and that are not linked to any particular faction. They are acts by individuals who for reasons only known to them decide to carry out these attacks.

The recent “sweeteners” offered by Israel are unlikely to bring an end to what Palestinians claim to be an intifada which has lasted five months and has seen over 180 mostly young people lose their lives to Israeli fire. Neither these nor any talk of “economic peace” come anywhere near convincing the Palestinians that attaining their legitimate rights is around the corner.

Israel again either fails to grasp the reasons behind this intifada or knows full well what they are but chooses to deal with it in an illogical and brutal way, thinking this will end it. Take Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s claim at a recent Israeli cabinet meeting that Palestinians are not preventing their children from committing stabbing attacks because “they know parents of slain assailants receive a grant and a stipend from the Palestinian Authority”.

This claim that Palestinian parents prefer their sons and daughters executed at checkpoints in order for them to receive a monthly salary is preposterous. However, this is a man who is fine with killing Palestinians. He recently called for the murder of “anti-occupation fighters” adding that “We have to bury Palestinian anti-occupation fighters in secret cemeteries and knock down all the homes in their native villages”.

Neither denial of Palestinian rights nor brutal violence has delivered security to Israelis but neither have economic sweeteners. If Israel does not understand the motives of attackers then it should carefully read Muhannad Halabi’s posts on his Facebook account before he attacked four Israelis on 3 October 2015 and was executed on the spot. He asked “How long will this humiliation and shame last, for how long? Do we stay silent? Do we stay humiliated? Is there room for peaceful methods? In law, yes there is room in the law. You have the full right to defend yourself by any means against someone wielding a weapon in your face. The resistance is within the limits of the law and is legitimate.”

As I see it he was saying “the third intifada has started. What is happening to Al Aqsa is what is happening to all our sacred places and what is happening to the women of Al Aqsa is what is happening to our mothers and sisters. I do not think that a people can accept humiliation. The people will rise and they are rising.”

It is that continuing, daily sense of humiliation by Israel, and its leaders’ lack of acceptance that the Palestinians have any rights that needs to be fundamentally addressed. It is the continuing occupation, imprisonment, home demolitions, land grab, refusal to allow the refugees to return, the expansion of settlements, and settler violence amongst other violations of their rights that drives some Palestinians to violence.

In addition, it is the lack of any real success that peaceful resistance initiatives have delivered. The weekly protests against the separation wall in Bil’in and other locations are met with brutal force and have not succeeded in reversing land confiscations for the wall or for expansion of the illegal settlements.

Even on the international stage moves such as those taken in the US, France and the UK to “criminalise” the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement are seen as proof that even this peaceful tactic is closed to them and their supporters.

The Palestinians are not rising for economic gain or, ultimately, for an economic peace but for freedom and independence. When Palestinians set out to attack Israeli soldiers, knowing it will almost certainly result in death and the demolition of their family’s home, they do not do this to help secure a few more work permits for Palestinians or a martyr’s stipend for their family. They do it out of desperation and a belief, rightly or wrongly, that their collective acts will hurt Israel sufficiently that it will finally address their grievances.

The fact that Israel refuses to understand this and to continue to deny Palestinians their rights is a characteristic of its colonialist endeavour. However, for the international community to also fail to grasp this makes any attempt at restarting talks for economic peace simply futile. Former Quartet Middle East envoy Tony Blair tried this for the whole of his tenure and failed.

– Kamel Hawwash is a British/Palestinian engineering professor based at the University of Birmingham and a long-standing 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.