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 US kicks the Israeli-Palestinian peace deal into the long grass

First published by the Middle East Eye on 30/8/2017

Just days after a US delegation visit to Israel and Palestine, Netanyahu declares that Israel will no longer uproot settlements. Any dreams of peace anytime soon are a long way off

 

Say what you want about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but he doesn’t mince his words.

“We are here to stay, forever,” he said earlier this week during an event in the settlement of Barkan, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

“There will be no more uprooting of settlements in the land of Israel. It has been proven that it does not help peace. We’ve uprooted settlements. What did we get? We received missiles. It will not happen anymore.”

Coming just days after the visit of US President Donald Trump’s “peace team” to the region, led by his senior advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the timing of Netanyahu’s comments are highly significant.

The readout from the US team’s meetings with Abbas and Netanyahu was largely devoid of content. However, as brief as it was, it confirmed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ warnings that Trump’s peace process plans – and perhaps his White House overall – are in turmoil.

“I have met with Trump envoys about 20 times since the beginning of his term as president of the United States,” Abbas reportedly told delegates from the Israeli political party Meretz during a recent visit.

“Every time they repeatedly stressed to me how much they believe and are committed to a two-state solution and a halt to construction in the settlements. I have pleaded with them to say the same thing to Netanyahu, but they refrained. They said they would consider it but then they didn’t get back to me,” Abbas said, according to the delegates’ notes.

“I can’t understand how they are conducting themselves with us … Inside [Trump’s] country, there is chaos in the administration.”

The administration may indeed be in chaos, but whether intentionally or out of incompetence, it has kicked the peace process into the long grass and emboldened the Israelis in the process.

A peace plan mystery

Kushner and the rest of the Trump team’s recent visit to the Holy Land was preceded by a whistlestop tour of key Arab countries. It is important to note that no substantive messages emerged about Trump’s proposed peace plan.

The US embassy rstatement from the 23 August meeting between the Americans and Jordan’s King Abdullah II omitted any reference to discussions about the much vaunted two-state solution.

However, quoting a statement from the Royal Court, Jordanian media reported that “talks focused on efforts to push forward the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and relaunch serious and effective negotiations between the two sides based on the two-state solution, which is the only way to end the conflict”.

A subsequent report in Al-Hayat newspaper, attributed to a PA source, said that Trump’s team had indicated that a settlement freeze could not be a precondition for resumed peace talks and that building would continue.

However, a senior White House official told the Times of Israel that Al-Hayat’s report was “nonsense” and said that the comments were never made.

In their meeting with the Palestinians, the visiting delegation reportedly asked for a three to four month grace period to present their ideas. A former Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath also said that the Palestinians told the Americans that its demands are “the end of the occupation, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, as well as the resolution of all permanent status issues, including the right of return for [Palestinian] refugees.”

These demands are the longstanding position of the Palestinians and have not shifted at all.

No room in ‘Netanyahu land’

While the Palestinian position remains consistent, Netanyahu, perhaps feeling emboldened more than ever, continues to harden Israel’s position.

When he promised during the 2015 elections that there would be no Palestinian state under his watch, those seeking to shield Israel from criticism claimed it was just electioneering.

However, this week, Netanyahu went further when he said there would be “no more uprooting of settlements in the land of Israel”. Netanyahu is not talking about two states with land swaps. He is not talking about “keeping the settlement blocks” along the Green Line. He is talking about all settlements. This has nothing to do with electioneering but rather his long-held beliefs.

There is no room in Netanyahu land for a Palestinian state.

In fact, in June, Israel recently laid the foundations for a new settlement. “After decades, I have the honour to be the first prime minister to build a settlement in Judea and Samaria,” Netanyahu said at the time, referring to the occupied West Bank with its biblical name.

Netanyahu sees the land of historic Palestine from the river Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea as Israel. There is no room in “Netanyahu land” for a Palestinian state.

Increasingly emboldened by the lack of pressure from the international community to move seriously towards peace or face sanctions, Netanyahu is moving the debate from the real issue – how to end a 50-year long occupation – to Israel’s security needs.

He told UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on his first visit to the Holy Land this week that Israel’s “most pressing problem” is Hezbollah and Syria, claiming that the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) had smuggled weapons into Lebanon for Hezbollah.

“I will do everything in my capacity to make sure that UNIFIL fully meets its mandate,” Guterres responded, adding that the “idea, intention or will to destroy the state of Israel is something totally unacceptable from my perspective.”

Netanyahu also called upon Gutteres to “end the discrimination against Israel in some branches of your organisation”, an accusation shared by the US administration and frequently raised by US Ambassador to the UN Nicky Hayley who has promised to end it several times.

On Wednesday, two days after his meeting with Netanyahu, Gutteres called for Israel’s blockade against Gaza to end. It seems their meeting may not have gone as well as the Israeli president thought.

Sign of things to come

While it is dangerous to predict the future, I will take this risk today. As Netanyahu and Abbas prepare to address the UN General Assembly in September, we can read the signs from this week to guess what they will say.

Abbas will plead with the UN to bring decades of Palestinian of suffering to an end, halt illegal settlements and help protect the (non-existent) two-state solution. He is likely to be armed with a recent petition signed by thousands of Palestinian pupils calling on Gutteres and all defenders of human rights to intervene to protect them from Israel’s daily violations which Palestinians have endured for 50 years.

Abbas may ask for the UN to recognise the state of Palestine and may also indicate that if the peace process fails, he will be left with no options but to head to the International Criminal Court.

Netanyahu, on the other hand, may focus on the unfair criticism of Israel, on the real issues as he sees them – which amount to Israel’s self-defined and elastic-security needs. He will talk about the threats from Iran in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon, the failure of the UNIFIL to do its job and the need to rearticulate its mandate.

On peace with the Palestinians, he will say that settlements are not an obstacle to peace and argue that neither the unilateral actions by Palestinians, nor the imposition of a solution will bring peace. The real obstacle to peace, he will claim, is the Palestinian refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish state.

He will laud the growing “under the table” relations with key Arab countries which share his concerns about Iran, but he will still portray Israel as the victim, not the Palestinians.

It seems that the ultimate deal President Trump seeks is a long way off and, any peace initiative, when it comes, will be biased in Israel’s favour.

Israel will continue to colonise and the Palestinians will continue to suffer a lack of peace or hope for the current and the next generation, neither of which will bring Israel any security.

– 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 British Palestinian Policy Council (BPPC) and a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC).  He appears regularly in the media as commentator on Middle East issues. He runs a blog at www.kamelhawwash.com and tweets at @kamelhawwashHe 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: US President Donald Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wave after delivering a speech at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem

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.

برنامج وراء الحدث: جمعة الغضب نصرة للأقصى

مشاركتي يوم ٢١/٧/٢٠١٧ ببرنامج وراء الحدث على قناة الغد

https://youtu.be/0v7TbpBmGRE

Al-Aqsa attack: Palestinians all but abandoned

First published by the Middle East Eye on 17/7/2017

With a weak response from Arab and Muslim countries to unprecedented restrictions at the Al-Aqsa mosque, Palestinians are left alone to defend the holy site from Israel’s incursions


The implications of the deadly incident last Friday at Al-Aqsa go way beyond the right to prayer.

Five Israeli citizens were killed during the attack at the Lion’s Gate entrance to the Al-Aqsa compound, Islam’s third holiest site, which is the most sacred site in Judaism and is known as the Temple Mount. 

The three attackers, cousins from the Jabareen family, hail from the Arab Israeli city of Um Al-Fahm, which sits just inside the Green Line, and were on the security forces’ radar as a potential threat.

The two Israeli police officers killed in the incident were from Israel’s minority Druze community. One came from the mostly Druze but also Arab town of Maghar and the other from the Druze village of Hurfeish.

The bodies of the police officers were handed over quickly to the families and were buried on the same day, while Israeli officials are still holding those of the attackers.

The Jabareen family established three mourning tents in Um Al-Fahm which were quickly taken down on the orders of Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. On Monday, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan suggested the attackers homes may be demolished.

The coming days may see a rise in tensions between the Palestinian and Druze communities in Israel following the attack. Druze participation in the Israeli security forces is resented by Palestinian citizens of Israel and by Jerusalem residents who often face them at Al-Aqsa’s entrances. 

Not since 1969

Immediately after the attack, the Israeli authorities cleared the Holy Sanctuary of all who had come to pray, religious leaders and the employees of the Waqf, the body which administers the site, and then closed it. The Friday prayers scheduled to take place were cancelled and the call for prayers were silenced.

That had not happened since an Australian set the mosque on fire in August 1969, two years after Israel occupied East Jerusalem during the Six Day War.


Israeli forces guard a road leading to the main entrance of Al-Aqsa on Monday. Streets and shops were empty as Palestinians protested the new security measures (MEE)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas phoned Netanyahu and “expressed his strong condemnation over the fatal Jerusalem shootout and the Israeli closure of the holy Islamic site of al-Aqsa mosque,” according to the Palestinian press agency WAFA.

Abbas stated his “rejection of any violent incidents from any side, especially in places of worship” and called on Netanyahu to “end the closure imposed on the holy site, warning of the consequences of such measures”. 

Netanyahu assured Abbas that the “status quo” would not change at the compound, calling for all sides to stay calm. Palestinians did not appreciate Abbas’ condemnation and his standing is likely to reduce further, making him an ever weaker partner for peace.

How we got to here

The “status quo” which was established after Israel occupied East Jerusalem, including the Old City, was that the Jordanian Waqf would administer the Holy Sanctuary, Muslims had a right to pray while non-Muslims, including Jews, could visit the site but not pray or perform other religious rituals there.

Jordan’s special role in Jerusalem was acknowledged in the 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan which stated that Israel “respects the special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in Muslim Holy shrines in Jerusalem”.

But the treaty stops short of giving Jordan any legal, political or religious authority over Islamic holy shrines in Jerusalem.

Israel has repeatedly pushed the limits of the “status quo”, particularly through larger and more frequent visits by Jewish settlers, religious leaders and politicians to the sites which Palestinians and the Waqf see as incursions, because they are not coordinated with the Waqf. This has caused repeated tensions between Israel and Jordan, leading to concerns among Palestinians that Israel is working to impose its sovereignty over the site.

In 2003, fearing that Israel was changing the status quo in Jerusalem, Abbas signed an agreement with Jordan’s King Abdullah which solidified Jordan’s custodianship of Muslim and Christian places in the holy city.

A statement from the Jordanian palace said: “In this historic agreement, Abbas reiterated that the king is the custodian of holy sites in Jerusalem and that he has the right to exert all legal efforts to preserve them, especially Al-Aqsa mosque.”

The agreement also emphasised “the historical principles agreed by Jordan and Palestine to exert joint efforts to protect the city and holy sites from Israeli Judaisation attempts.”

Lukewarm regional reaction

While Jordan recalled its ambassador in 2014 in protest of Israeli practices at the site, its reaction to last Friday’s incident and the closure of the mosque has been rather low key.

King Abdullah condemned the attack in a telephone conversation with Netanyahu, but slammed Israel’s two-day closure of the mosque and demanded it be reopened.

On Saturday evening, before he left for his state visit to France, Netanyahu said: “I instructed that metal detectors be placed at the entrance gates to the Temple Mount. We will also install security cameras on poles outside the Temple Mount but which give almost complete control over what goes on there.

“I decided that as of Sunday in the framework of our policy of maintaining the status quo, we will gradually open the Temple Mount, but with increased security measures.”

Netanyahu’s statement, in itself, is contradictory because the measures he detailed are not part of the status quo. However, there has been no further reaction from Jordan, which is of concern to Palestinians who had expected stronger action from the king.

However, Palestinians are also dismayed at what they see as a broader, low key reaction to the closure of the mosque from the Arab and Muslim world with the exception of Qatar whose minister of foreign affairs said the closure was “a severe violation of holy Islamic sites and a provocation to millions of Muslims around the world”.

The Arab League called for Al-Aqsa to be opened immediately and for any change in the status quo to be stopped. Egypt and Turkey put out rather mild statements. Turkey expressed its regret over the incident, insisted the site must stay open and Israel’s closure immediately cancelled.

Concern for the third holiest site to Muslims usually triggers demonstrations in many Arab and Muslim countries in which protestors chant, “We would sacrifice our lives and our blood for you Al-Aqsa”. That chant was heard in Jerusalem and Jordan, but nowhere else.

In fact, the overall response from the Arab and Muslim world ranks amongst the weakest ever recorded. This may be an outcome of the changing political landscape in the Middle East, which was brought about by US President Donald Trump’s recent visit to the region and the focus during that visit on terror. 

After Riyadh

While Palestinians will argue that for a people under a 50-year illegal occupation, attacks against “the occupation forces” are legitimate forms of resistance and therefore not terror, the prevailing climate following the Riyadh conference is less supportive.

The issue of terror, though no clear definition has emerged of what it is, is at the heart of the unprecedented standoff between Qatar and four other Arab states including Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

While the Palestinians are angered by Israel’s interference in their right to unimpeded access to Al-Aqsa, which Israel may gradually reinstate, albeit under stricter security arrangements, the situation will not return to what it was prior to the attack unless Jordan acts decisively.

With an the Arab world which favours Israel and America’s normalisation-led approach to regional peace, Jordan may feel it lacks the support of its Arab brothers to secure a return to the status quo.

The conclusion for the Palestinian people, especially the residents of Jerusalem, is that they have been abandoned.

Not only have they lost the backing of their Arab and Muslim brothers and sisters in their pursuit of liberation, independence and freedom, the defence of Al-Aqsa, cherished by 1.6 billion Muslims all over the world, has been left to the 300,000 Palestinian residents of Jerusalem who face a most brutal and merciless occupier.

Israeli ministers will be exchanging high fives for making the most of an opportunity to take over the revered site, but history shows that humiliating Palestinians and leaving them with little hope will lead to more violence.
Photo: Israeli border guards detain a Palestinian youth during a demonstration outside the Lions Gate, a main entrance to Al-Aqsa mosque compound, due to newly-implemented security measures by Israeli authorities which include metal detectors and cameras, in Jerusalem’s Old City on 17 July 2017 (AFP)

Interview: ‘Netanyahu wanted to send a message to Iran to end its hostility towards Israel’

Interview published by Muslim Press on 18/12/2016

In an interview with Muslim Press, British Palestinian academic and writer on Middle East Affairs Kamel Hawwash said, “Netanyahu wanted to send a message to Iran to end its hostility to Israel hinting that any attack would be costly and that Israel is a ‘tiger not a rabbit’.”

Read the full text of the interview:

Muslim Press: Benjamin Netanyahu became the first incumbent Israeli prime minister to visit Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. What’s the significance of these visits for Israel?

Kamel Hawwash: Israel has been concerned about its increasing isolation around the world as activists develop the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign to pressure it to end its criminal and illegal practices. Although its relations with most Western governments remain strong, ordinary people are lobbying their governments to in turn pressure it to operate in accordance with International Law rather than above it. The BDS movement is strong in Europe and worried about losing trade with the EU, Israel has decided to develop new markets both in Africa and Central Asia in particular, hence Netanyahu’s visit to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. However, it is also a move by Netanyahu to send a message to Arab and Muslim countries that it is possible to be supportive of the Palestinians but to normalize ties with it. This is something all but Jordan and Egypt have resisted and have instated joined efforts to bring the Arab peace plan into effect, something Israel rejects. More specifically, Netanyahu wanted to send a message to Iran to end its hostility to Israel hinting that any attack would be costly and that Israel is a ‘tiger not a rabbit’.

MP: Do you think he is trying to forge closer ties to the region?

Kamel Hawwash: Yes, this is a deliberate policy to expand Israel’s trade links in case the BDS movement succeeds in further isolating Israel particularly targeting goods form its illegal settlements.

MP: Could his efforts end the regime’s isolation?

Kamel Hawwash: Israel feels emboldened by President-elect Trump’s win and believes that he will support its policies including illegal settlement building and will in turn pressure other countries to change their relationships with Israel thus reducing its isolation. However, its continued colonization and oppression of the Palestinians will ensure its existing isolation will continue until it comes to its senses.

MP: With a few exceptions – Egypt, Jordan and central Asia republics – Muslim nations neither have diplomatic relations nor any other official encounters with Israel. Do you think those countries that develop ties with Israel are betraying the Palestinian cause.

Kamel Hawwash: Israel claims that it has good ‘developing relations’ with some countries in the Arab world, particularly as it plays on their fears from what some see as Iran’s interface in the Arab countries, particularly Syria, Iraq and Yemen. These developing relations do not seem to be flourishing particularly since the nuclear agreement was signed with Iran, reducing the fears of many of these countries. There is no doubt that the current turmoil in the Arab world has placed issues like Syria in the spotlight, relegating the Palestinian cause somewhat to a lower prominence. Palestinians though continue to rely on political and financial support from the Arab world and therefore have to act carefully taking the region’s status into account. It is probably in Gaza where the Palestinians would go furthest in expressing their frustration with the Arab world but that is due to the siege they have been under for almost 10 years which the Arabs have failed to end.