Israel has done nothing to deserve normalisation with the Arab world

First published by the Middle East Eye on 12/11/2018

Growing normalisation has left Palestinians struggling to understand what happened to the Arab world’s support for the Palestinian cause

 

Our Arab brothers – as none of our leaders are women – have stabbed us in the front and the back, abandoning us politically while embracing Israel.

Israeli flags could soon be flying in the skies of some Gulf states, while they pressure the Palestinian leadership into accepting a “peace” deal that is unacceptable.

I say this as a Palestinian who has watched sickening images of a beaming Benjamin Netanyahu – the leader of an oppressive apartheid state, with bucketloads of Palestinian and other Arab blood on his hands – being welcomed with open arms, together with his wife, by the ailing sultan of Oman.

Enshrining apartheid

Setting aside his leadership of the settlement enterprise, repeated wars on Gaza and the killing of hundreds of peaceful Palestinian protesters at the Gaza fence, Netanyahu recently dismissed the five-decade occupation of the Palestinian territories as “nonsense”. He also fast-tracked Israel’s nation-state law, enshrining apartheid into Israel’s basic law.

Netanyahu’s surprise trip to Oman was closely followed with a visit to the sultanate by Israeli Transport and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz. At the International Road Transport Union meeting in Muscat, he outlined Israel’s plan for a railway that would link the Gulf states via Jordan with the Mediterranean through the port of Haifa. This is the same extremist minister who called for the “targeted killings” of leaders of the peaceful boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement in 2016.

Haifa is just 130 kilometres south of Beirut. A united Arab world, working for its people, should be making Beirut the Mediterranean destination of the train line, bringing Syria into the project and bypassing Israel. It could use the achievement of a just peace between Israel and the Palestinians and the return of the Golan Heights to Syria as the precondition for linking to an Israeli port.

As if welcoming two Israeli ministers to Oman was not enough, Israel scored a normalisation hat-trick with the bizarre visit of Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev to the United Arab Emirates, where she laughed and joked with her hosts in the Sheikh Zayed mosque in Abu Dhabi. This is the same extremist minister who labelled African asylum seekers as “a cancer in our society”.

Israeli flag raised in Abu Dhabi

Regev was in the UAE to see the Israeli Judo team compete in the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam. A gold medal for Israel’s Sagi Muki saw the Israeli flag raised and the national anthem, Hatikva, played for his win. Back in Jerusalem and Hebron, Israel sought to silence the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, because it disturbs the illegal settlers’ sleep.

Qatar recently hosted the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships and allowed an Israeli team not only to participate, but also to display Israeli national emblems. Qatar was one of the first Arab countries to open an official Israeli trade mission in 1996, and its news channel, Al Jazeera, was the first Arab TV station to host Israelis, citing its mission to allow both sides of the story to be told.

Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev visits the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi in October (Reuters)

Meanwhile, Israeli Communications Minister Ayoub Kara said in February that he had met with Prince Mubarak Al Khalifa of Bahrain in Tel Aviv while he was visiting Israel. Kara said they met “to strengthen the relationship between our two countries”, boasting of the encounter as a sign of growing relations between Israel and Bahrain. In July, Bahrain hosted Israeli diplomats attending a UNESCO conference.

There have also been examples of Saudi officials visiting Israel or openly engaging with Israeli officials in other countries, including Prince Turki Bin Faisal and retired General Anwar Eshki. There were rumours the Saudi crown prince himself had visited Tel Aviv, though Saudi Arabia denied this. Saudi Arabia has also allowed Air India to fly through its airspace en route to Tel Aviv, in what may be a prelude to opening Saudi Arabia’s skies to Israeli carrier El Al.

Growing ‘Iranophobia’

This is normalisation on steroids, checked only by a small number of countries. In the Gulf, only Kuwait continues to oppose any warming of ties with Israel, while Tunisia and Algeria stand out in North Africa. Israel has formal ties and peace deals only with Egypt and Jordan, which have endured various stresses and strains but brought neither country the same benefits Israel has gained, particularly in terms of security and quiet on its borders.

With this growing normalisation, we Palestinians are entitled to ask why. What has Israel done to deserve this? What happened to the steadfast Arab and Muslim support for the Palestinian cause? What about the slogan that Palestine is not just a Palestinian issue, but an Arab and Muslim issue? Whatever happened to the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002?

There is no doubt that on the Arab street’s support for Palestinian rights is still strong. It is at the regime level where the once-clandestine ties with Israel are now out in the open. Israel has successfully frightened the Gulf states in particular into a form of “Iranophobia”, sending them running for protection to the US, which has in turn convinced them that Israel is not an enemy but an ally.

US President Donald Trump has been quite brutal in reminding them how vulnerable they are – not only to an Iranian threat, but to any threat. He recently told King Salman of Saudi Arabia: “You might not be there for two weeks without us. You have to pay for your military.”

Former Saudi King Abdullah offered Israel the Arab “peace initiative” in 2002, while Yasser Arafat was under siege in Ramallah. It offered Israel a normalisation of relations with the Arab world if peace was achieved between Israel and Palestine. Israel never accepted this plan, and the Arabs have now bypassed it, without even an Arab League summit to bury it.

Changing course

In return, Israel has offered nothing, except for a shared fear of the Iranian threat and increasing supplies of security software and military hardware. It continues to threaten the sanctity of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem and Hebron and to deny Palestinians their legitimate rights. It has no plans to accept a just peace with Palestinians or to return the illegally occupied Golan Heights to Syria.

If the normalising Arabs think that Israel would send its jets to protect their thrones in the unlikely event of an Iranian attack, then they are deluded, or at best, badly advised. It will sit back and enjoy seeing their respective countries destroyed, as it did watching the powerful Syria and Iraq reduced to rubble. I do not want to see that happen.

The situation is recoverable. They can change course and reinstate a united Arab front in support of Palestine and against apartheid Israel. They need look no further for inspiration than Paraguay, which had initially announced it would follow the US in moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, only to reverse that decision.

That did, of course, come after a change in Paraguay’s leadership.

– 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 a regular columnist and appears regularly in the media as a commentator on Middle East issues. He runs a blog at www.kamelhawwash.com and tweets at @kamelhawwash. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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

Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets Sultan Qaboos in Oman in October (Handout)

With no meaningful international plan, Khan Al-Ahmar needs a popular uprising to save it

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 11/10/2018

Israeli occupation forces storm the Bedouin village of Khan Al-Ahmar in the West Bank on 14 September 2018 [Ä°ssam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency]

Israeli occupation forces storm the Bedouin village of Khan Al-Ahmar in the West Bank on 14 September 2018 [İssam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency]

The Palestinian Bedouin residents of Khan Al-Ahmar wake up every morning relieved that the Israeli occupation’s bulldozers did not arrive overnight to destroy their homes and their children’s school. They remain fearful, though, that it is only a matter of time before their village is destroyed and they are expelled from the land they have lived on for over 40 years. One can only imagine the horror that the residents, especially the children, experience because of this psychological terrorism to which Israel is subjecting them.

UNICEF expressed its alarm recently that that “the school in Khan Al Ahmar in the State of Palestine could be destroyed in the coming days or even hours.” The UN body added that, “The 167 children from that town and neighbouring village who are learning, dreaming and playing there have a right to access safe education wherever their communities and families are living, just like all the other children in the world.” UNICEF asked the Israeli authorities for “the interests of children [to] be a primary consideration in their decision making.”

Any assumption that Israel cares about the education or welfare of Palestinian children is simply not supported by the evidence of its daily conduct. Children are routinely abducted in the night, bundled into Israeli army vehicles, interrogated without parents or legal advisers present, tried before military courts in a language most don’t understand, and imprisoned for long periods. Furthermore, Israeli snipers have no compunction about pointing their rifles at children at the Gaza fence and killing them. In August, Defence for Children International reported that Israel had killed 37 Palestinian children since the start of 2018. The number continues to rise; the latest victim was 12-year-old Faris Al-Sirsawi.

Read: Israel settlers flood Khan Al-Ahmar with waste water

The village of Nabi Saleh found its way onto the international stage, becoming a must-visit part of the itinerary of not only international human rights activists but also Western politicians, not least because the Tamimis — young Ahed Tamimi in particular — rose to prominence there with their resistance to the Israeli occupation. That resistance culminated with the now famous slap of an Israeli soldier by Ahed, for which she paid with 8 months in jail.

Khan Al-Ahmar has captured the imagination of the international community not only because its demolition is simply the wrong thing to do on a humanitarian level, but also because of its actual location, which Western politicians understand could finally lay to rest any remaining prospect of a two-state solution. The argument is that if the village is destroyed and Israel proceeds to expand the illegal settlements in the “E1 corridor”, Jerusalem will be cut off from its West Bank hinterland completely and the contiguity needed for a Palestinian state would be lost.

The village has become a battleground between the international community and the Israeli authorities, who are now armed with a decision by the Supreme Court that the village can be demolished and could proceed with their plans at any moment. The Israelis argue that the villagers built their homes without permits. The residents point out that Israel refuses to grant permits to Palestinians to build on their own, illegally-occupied land, while colonies continue to be built for Jews within sight of their village. Only Israel regards the land on which the Bedouins live as “state land” rather than illegally-occupied territory, as the whole of the international community sees it. If the land is indeed state land, then it can only belong to the state of Palestine.

A number of politicians have “expressed concern” at the demolition plan, with some being moved to warn Israel that forced transfer of an occupied people could “amount to a war crime”. One of the most vocal has been Britain’s Minster for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, who has visited the village on a number of occasions. While warning Israel that it could be committing a “war crime”, Burt has not made the demolition and forced transfer of the local population a red line that, if crossed by Israel, would bring forth consequences for Britain’s relations with the Zionist state.

There were hopes that, during her recent visit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel would not only raise the issue of the village with her host Benjamin Netanyahu but would also go further. Reports initially suggested that Merkel would cancel her visit if the village was demolished before her arrival. However, once there, her reported response to the issue was typically weak of Western politicians. “This is an Israeli decision,” she said at a morning event at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, during which the University of Haifa conferred upon her an honorary doctorate. You’re wrong, Frau Merkel, it is not an Israeli decision. It is a failure of the international community to act to stop Israeli crimes that will lead to the village’s demolition.

The predicament of the community of Khan Al-Ahmar can be traced back to the Oslo Accords, signed in 1993. The 25th anniversary of the Accords was marked with a key conference organised recently by Middle East Monitor. Oslo failed to deal with the core issues that must be resolved if peace is to be achieved between Palestinians and Israelis. One of these is the issue of settlements and the illegal occupation. The lack of reference to international law in the Accords is a fundamental flaw therein. However, it is the lack of political will by the international community to pressure Israel to fulfil its undertakings under the agreement which continues to give Israel free rein to do whatever it wants.

Read: Imminent demolition of Khan Al-Ahmar ‘heartless’ and a ‘war crime’ says Amnesty

Israel will no doubt demolish Khan Al-Ahmar at a time of its choosing. The international community will express concern, disappointment and possibly condemnation of this. The EU might even ask Israel to compensate it for funds donated towards small projects in the village. However, no meaningful action will be taken against the state. At the end of the day, Israel will just move on to carry out another illegal act as it seeks to complete the Zionist occupation of the whole of historic Palestine, from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea.

With no meaningful plan by the international community in place to protect the village, the only action that will end the uncertainty for the residents of Khan Al-Ahmar will be a popular uprising that sees thousands of Palestinians march there, determined to protect it for as many days or months as it will take either for Israel to abandon its plans or for the international community to realise that this tiny village will not only be a symbol of peaceful resistance, but will also raise the cost of the occupation for Israel to a point where it begins to come to its senses. That could see the Great March of Return protests at the Gaza fence, now in their eighth month, finally arrive in the West Bank. If Trump and his Zionist advisers can disrupt the status quo in favour of Israel, the Palestinian people can disrupt it in favour of their cause.

Israel’s demolition of Al-Khan Al-Ahmar - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Trump’s Administration will fail to break the Palestinians

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 11/9/2018

Trump and Netanyahu are now brothers in arms in racism against the Palestinians

US President Donald Trump (L) is welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) in Tel Aviv on May 22, 2017 [Daniel Bar On/Anadolu Agency]

US President Donald Trump (L) is welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) in Tel Aviv on 22 May 2017 [Daniel Bar On/Anadolu Agency]

The Palestinian people and their cause are facing an existential threat in their homeland. Anyone who thinks that this an exaggeration should remember how many times since US President Donald Trump took office that the phrase “I can’t believe what he has just done” was used. People said that when he appointed his anti-Palestinian “dream peace team” made up of his son-in-law Jared Kushner, former company lawyer Jason Greenblatt and former bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman. All three are ardent supporters of Zionism, Israel and the settlement enterprise. Unbelievably he recently added war monger and Palestinian-hater John Bolton as National Security Adviser.

They said that it was unbelievable that Trump broke with every previous American president since Bill Clinton by recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December last year. He followed this by moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in record time. His daughter and son-in-law inaugurated it on the 70st anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba as over 60 Palestinians were murdered at the Gaza fence marching peacefully to return to the homes they were expelled from in 1948. Trump had the audacity to claim that his move would bring peace closer because it would take Jerusalem “off the table”.

They said it was unbelievable when Trump initially cut and recently ended the US contribution to UNRWA, the UN agency which has delivered vital services to the most vulnerable Palestinians, the refugees. Rather than exert pressure on Israel to allow them to peacefully return to their homes, Trump parroted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim that the agency “perpetuates” the refugee problem by passing this status from one generation to another. Facing severe financial difficulties as a result of this immoral US move, the agency’s schools which reopened recently for the new academic year warned that they may have to close at the end of September unless the $217 million deficit is plugged by others. Palestine was recently reported to have one of the lowest illiteracy rates in the world.

Read: Trump cuts aid to Palestinian hospitals in occupied Jerusalem

Jared Kushner was reported to have tried to pressure King Abdullah of Jordan to remove the status of some two million Palestinian refugees residing in his Kingdom, which the King refused to do.

They said it was unbelievable when the US cut funding to the Palestinian Authority by $200 million but kept funding for the security services, which secure |Israel, not the Palestinians. What was even more unbelievable was the American administration’s decision to cut its $25 million of funding for the treatment of cancer in Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem. This sickening decision hits the most vulnerable with immediate effect.

It should be unbelievable that the neither the US nor the EU have condemned Israel’s racist and Apartheid confirming Nation-state Law. However, we all remember which side the US and EU took when blacks in South Africa were fighting for their freedom and the end of Apartheid there.

Perhaps less unbelievable was the decision to close the PLO Office in Washington. This has been on the cards for some time, but presumably Sheldon Addison and AIPAC could not bear seeing the Palestinian flag lying in Washington. However, what is unbelievable is that Congress still considers the PLO a terrorist organisation, despite the White House rolling out the red carpet for first Yasser Arafat and then Mahmoud Abbas on a number of occasions and despite the famous signing of the Oslo Accords and the famous Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawns in 1993. Trump himself met Abbas in Bethlehem on his first visit as president to the region last year. The reason given for the closure was the PA’s refusal to return to meaningless negotiations and to dare to refer Israel to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

It was therefore not unbelievable, though it should be, to watch John Bolton rubbish and threaten the ICC with sanctions in his recent speech. He directly threatened judges if they actually do their work and bring to justice not just American citizens but Israelis suspected of war crimes. He warned: “If the court comes after us, Israel, or other US allies, we will not sit quietly,” adding: “We will ban its judges and prosecutors from entering the United States. We will sanction their funds in the US financial system, and we will prosecute them in the US criminal system. We will do the same for any company or state that assists an ICC investigation of Americans.”

Read: The debate on UNRWA takes focus away from the realities of Palestinian refugees

Working in cahoots with US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Bolton clearly does not consider the West Bank or East Jerusalem as occupied. In his speech he referred to the construction of illegal Israel settlements as simply “Israeli construction of housing projects on the West Bank”, which he castigated the ICC for even considering prosecuting Israeli leaders for sanctioning and funding. Unbelievable too was Israeli high court proclamation that settlers acted “in good faith” when they built illegally on Palestinian land.

With Jerusalem “off the table”, settlements just construction projects, no right of return for Palestinian refugees, no recourse for Palestinians to the ICC and UN Security Council paralysed by an Israeli veto (yes) and an administration that is content with supporting Israel both politically and to the tune of $3 billion per year, the Palestinian cause faces an existential threat.

However, not only is the cause facing an existential threat, the Palestinians themselves are facing an existential threat. Israel’s Nation State Law gave only Jews the right to self-determination within whatever borders Israel claims for itself but not to Palestinians. It further recognised Jewish only settlements as a “national value”. If only Jews have a right to self-determination in Israel then they could decide they do not want any Palestinians in the area Israel rules.

A racist Israeli state is now supported by an American administration that is racist against the Palestinian people. It sees them as having no rights whatsoever, apart from any crumbs that Netanyahu and his extremist government will give them but only if that does not impact Israel’s security, whatever that means.

#UNRWA

Having failed to “encourage” Palestinians to leave of their own accord through 70 years of oppression, it may be the right moment for Israel to put all Palestinians on busses to Jordan and “Greater Gaza”, which has been talked about as part of Trump’s “ultimate deal”. Is that beyond belief? Just think who would act to stop it if it tried? It certainly won’t be America, the EU or the Arab states. It also won’t be the UK as this will be a further fulfilment of the Balfour Declaration, whose centenary it celebrated last year.

The only thing that will stop it, which Trump has not built in as a factor in his immoral “ultimate deal” is the resilience of the Palestinian people, all 13 million of them. He should have realised this on the day the embassy was moved when over 60 Palestinians were killed in Gaza. That has not stopped them going to the fence again and again and again as they have done since 30 March. The Palestinians will outlast Trump’s administration. However long it takes they will stay and fight for their very existence in their homeland and those in the diaspora will not give up on their right to return. After all they are the people of the land not Israeli settler colonialists whose resilience will waiver and whose hold on the land is only maintained through the barrel of a gun.

How the US is sidelining Palestinian refugees

First published by the Middle East Eye on 18/8/2018

Dual approach involves starving UNRWA of funding and trying to strip Palestinians of their refugee status

There are indications that a truce between Hamas and Israel is close to being concluded, bypassing the Palestinian Authority.

The main commercial access point to Gaza, Kerem Shalom crossing, has been reopened after a period of closure amid recent heightened tensions. But whatever short-term relief this provides for Palestinians in Gaza will not address Palestinians’ long-term demands.

The US continues to work on a “peace plan” to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, without the input of Palestinians. Elements have already been implemented, including the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the defunding of services for Palestinian refugees via the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

Concealing the occupation

The US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has also been arguing that there is no illegal occupation. He wrote to the State Department last December, asking it to drop the terms “occupation” and “Israeli-occupied territories”.

He suggested using the term “West Bank,” which he described as “more neutral”. Friedman is a major donor to the the illegal settlement of Beit El and serves as president of the American Friends of Beit El Yeshiva, the US fundraising arm of a number of institutions in the illegal settlement. He is also known to be against the two-state solution.

It was noticeable that the State Department’s 2017 human rights report replaced references to the “occupied territories” with “Israel,” “Golan Heights,” “West Bank” or “Gaza”.

Friedman does not recognise Palestinian refugees’ right of return, enshrined in  UN Resolution 194. His personal view is that “the goal ought to be to enable them to acclimate and to enter society in wherever they landed”.

Friedman prefers the UNHCR definition, which does not refer to the descendants of refugees, to the UNRWA definition, which states that “the descendants of Palestine refugee males, including adopted children, are also eligible for registration”.

UNRWA began operations in 1950 in response to the needs of about 750,000 Palestinian refugees; today, more than five million are eligible for its services.

‘Existential crisis’

The US appears to have turned its focus to “disappearing” Palestinian refugees from the issues to be resolved. But how can the Americans do this, while still appearing to offer a “deal of the century”?

What is emerging is a dual approach, which involves both starving UNRWA of needed funds and removing the issue of refugees altogether. Both are demands of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has argued that UNRWA perpetuates the refugee issue.

The US has gone along with this by slashing $300m in funding to the agency. In a radio interview last month, spokesperson Sami Mushasha said UNRWA was facing an “existential crisis“. An effort to raise additional funds, including conferences in Rome and New York, has still left the agency with a deficit of more than $200m, although concerns that Palestinian schools would not open in September have been allayed.

Palestinian refugees and Bedouins receive medical checkups and aid from UNRWA in the occupied West Bank on 9 August 2018 (AFP)

According to Mushasha, the emergency budget for Gaza and the West Bank had almost “disappeared overnight” because of the US cuts. Only life-saving food provisions to Palestinian refugees in Gaza would be funded. UNRWA, which employs 13,000 staff in the occupied Palestinian territories, has cut 113 positions in Gaza and 154 in the West Bank. In the ensuing protests, one Gaza man tried to set himself on fire.

But UNRWA has survived, which could be why the US special envoy for the Middle East, Jared Kushner, has been looking for ways to strip refugees of their status. In internal emails to senior US administration officials, Kushner said: “It is important to have an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA. This [agency] perpetuates a status quo, is corrupt, inefficient and doesn’t help peace.”

Right of return

According to an article in Foreign Policy, Palestinian officials revealed that Kushner pressed Jordan in June “to strip its more than two million registered Palestinians of their refugee status so that UNRWA would no longer need to operate there”.

Ali Huweidi, the general manager of a Lebanon-based refugee rights organisation, told MEE that Jordan’s Palestinian refugees make up more than 40 percent of the refugees in UNRWA’s five areas of operation. If the agency were to cease providing these services, he said, Palestinian refugees would be transferred to UNHCR, which “would then seek to resettle Palestinian refugees in third countries. Once they are granted citizenship, their status as refugees falls.”

Both Jordan and Lebanon have rejected moves to transfer the provision of services for Palestinian refugees from UNRWA to host governments. Huweidi noted that Jordan views the agency as “an important strategic partner”. Lebanese officials have also indicated that the state could not take on UNRWA’s role, particularly in the areas of education and health.

The Palestinian refugees I met on a recent trip to Lebanon all told me that they would not accept anything short of a return to their homes, a sentiment echoed by those participating in Gaza’s Great March of Return. Only then will peace come to the holy land.

Debate on British Palestinians’ letter to the Guardian on their right to freedom of speech

I joined a debate on RT UK on this letter in the Guardian which I signed on 1/8/2018