Interview: Palestinians in Europe hold annual conference

I took part in the Sun will Rise programme for Press Tv which was broadcast on 4/5/2018

The PNC meeting was ‘much ado about nothing’

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 7/5/2018

 
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (2nd L) makes a speech during the 23rd session of the Palestinian National Council in Ramallah, West Bank on 30 April 2018 [Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency]
After a 22-year lull, the highest Palestinian legislative authority of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the Palestinian National Council (PNC), finally met in Ramallah for its 23rd session. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas faced severe criticism for holding the meeting in Ramallah, which remains under occupation, thus excluding many members and figures who would not be allowed into the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) by Israel, or who faced arrest and even assassination if they attempted to enter.
The PNC consists of 765 members, including 198 independents, 132 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), 49 representing Fatah, 98 representing other factions and a whole multitude of members representing different Palestinian organisations.

 

The meeting was held in the smart Ahmad Shukeiri Hall in Ramallah, named after the first chairman of the PLO; it was filled to the rafters when Abbas was in attendance over four long days. The front row, reserved for the leadership, looked as familiar as ever; it lacked any significant representation of women, non-Fatah faction representatives or young blood. The 23rd session of the PNC was named the “Jerusalem and protecting legitimacy round” in reference to the dangers Jerusalem faces and the need to renew the legitimacy of a number of the PLO institutions.

The meeting was boycotted by three major Palestinian factions — Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) — and a number of independent figures, including well-known members like Dr Salman Abu Sitta, Abdel Bari Atwan and Dr Anis Kassem.

Dr Salman Abu Sitta at Middle East Monitor's 'Jerusalem: Legalising the Occupation' conference in London, UK on March 3, 2018 [Jehan Alfarra/Middle East Monitor]

Dr Salman Abu Sitta at Middle East Monitor’s ‘Jerusalem: Legalising the Occupation’ conference in London, UK on March 3, 2018 [Jehan Alfarra/Middle East Monitor]

The meeting kicked off on 30 April with chaotic scenes as attendance was established by every name of the hundreds of existing members being read out and recorded as present or absent; various lists of replacements were placed in front of the ageing Chairman of the PNC, Saleem Al-Zanoun, adding to the confusion. The session concluded with a proclamation that the meeting was quorate, made to rapturous applause.

What followed was another rambling speech by Abbas lasting for 1 hour 48 minutes. Listening to it, I struggled to identify anything significant to take away with me, which was astonishing given the gravity of the situation the Palestinians face. Nor was there anything to distinguish it from his last speech to another PLO institution, the Palestinian Central Council (PCC) in January. While supposed to be reading his speech, Abbas went off script regularly, which is not a good idea when every word is scrutinised by friend and foe alike, especially when it comes to his attempts to present his version of history to an international audience. His explanation of the reason for the Holocaust drew almost universal condemnation, including some from the Israeli Prime Minister, Britain’s Foreign Secretary and the editorial board of the New York Times. While a more accurate translation of what he said gives context to his remarks, he should really have learnt by now that venturing into this area provides an open goal for accusations of anti-Semitism and those want to quote him out of context.

Attendees listened to speech after speech from leaders, members and guests representing various organisations and over 30 friendly states. The general message was one of support for the Palestinian cause, rejection of Trump’s US Embassy move and an emphasis on the importance of holding the PNC meeting. However, it was the many conversations, sometimes heated, taking place behind the scenes about possible names for membership of the PNC, PLO Executive Committee and the PCC that drove the real business of the meeting.

The closing session took place in the late hours of day four, concluding with a shorter speech by Abbas and the emerging decisions of the PNC. Abbas was “re-elected” by proclamation as President of Palestine and Chairman of the Executive Committee of the PLO. The PNC Chairman reminded the meeting how decisions are reached in the PNC, by standing up and applauding. There is no ballot. This drew heavy criticism from Nabil Amer, a former PLO Ambassador to Egypt, who had wanted to stand for the Executive Committee. He was initially told not to speak by Abbas but was eventually allowed to say a few words by the PNC Chairman. He simply reiterated his intention to struggle for decisions to be taken through a ballot and called on the PNC to hold Legislative Council and Presidential elections without delay.

Amer’s remarks were only heard after the PNC agreed to Abbas’s list of members of the Executive Committee, which he claimed had been agreed with “nationalistic factions”. Fifteen names were presented, including seven former members and eight new people. Those familiar to followers of Palestinian politics were Mahmoud Abbas, Saeb Erekat and Hanan Ashrawi. Abbas explained that the Committee had kept three seats vacant to allow the PFLP, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which boycotted the meeting, to join the PNC. In the case of Hamas, he conditioned this on the movement agreeing to abide by existing agreements. “We don’t want to see them out of our national unity and we don’t like exclusion,” he claimed.

The PNC was also asked to approve membership of the smaller PCC, which was to take on the terms of reference of the PNC due to the difficulties it faces in meeting annually, as it should. Presenting the names, the newly-installed Executive Committee member Azzam Al-Ahmad, known for his role in negotiating reconciliation with Hamas, stressed the great efforts made to ensure the widest possible geographic and factional representation on the PCC.

Earlier, 35 PNC members urged Abbas to end the sanctions he had imposed on the Gaza Strip since May 2017 to force Hamas, which has controlled the coastal enclave since 2007, to hand over power to the Palestinian Authority. Abbas skated around the subject but confirmed that the April salaries for those on the PA payroll in Gaza would be paid immediately and that the lack of payment had been due to a “technical hitch” and was not intended to punish the besieged workers.

In his closing remarks, Abbas took a swipe at those who boycotted the meeting held under occupation. “When we said [that we will] meet in this beautiful Ahmad Shukeiri Hall we are in our country, in our homeland not under the pikes of the occupier,” he insisted. “Yes, there is an occupation, but we can say what we want here. I am not prepared to go and seek a place to meet in an Arab country or any other when I can meet on my land.”

The closing statement of the 23rd PNC meeting is long but uninspiring. It reiterates the decisions of the PCC held in January, which remain un-actioned, including suspending recognition of Israel until it recognises Palestine and the end of security cooperation with the occupying power.

Much will now be written about the PNC meeting, its legitimacy, operation and decisions. Those who questioned its legitimacy will not change their stance, but what can they do to oppose them? The significant Palestinian factions which boycotted the gathering are unlikely to suddenly accept the invitation to re-join a body that they consider illegitimate. Healing the pain of the division has been taken off the table. Fatah and the small number of individuals around the Palestinian President will continue to operate without wide consultation and take crucial decisions on issues facing the Palestinian people. There is no accountability for the actions of the Palestinian leadership including, the Palestinian National Authority. Has it delivered any meaningful improvement to the lives of Palestinians or moved them closer to achieving their legitimate rights? Can refugees in Jordan, Lebanon or Syria see an end to their exile? Are the Palestinians in the diaspora represented in the PLO’s institutions in the proportion that they should be, or are they simply a number to call upon when the scale of the suffering of the Palestinians since the Nakba needs to be highlighted? Sadly, the reality is that there is no new emerging strategy to meet the aspirations of the Palestinians or to oppose the Trump juggernaut as it implements Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s diktats on “peace” through what is touted as the “deal of the century”.

The 23rd meeting of the PNC has come and gone and will in my view be remembered as one of the least significant events in Palestinian history; it was definitely “much ado about nothing”. However, Abbas pleased the meeting by announcing that Palestinian child prisoner Ahed Tamimi, convicted for slapping an Israeli soldier, will be made an honorary member of the Council. We might have to wait a little longer, but perhaps a President Ahed Tamimi or a member of her generation will one day take up the baton and lead the Palestinians to justice, freedom and equality.

 

UNRWA, the US Embassy move and the Israeli occupation

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 24/4/2018

Gazan's gather outside the UN offices in Gaza to protest US cuts to UNRWA's funding, on January 28, 2018 [Mohammad Asad / Middle East Monitor]

Gazan’s gather outside the UN offices in Gaza to protest US cuts to UNRWA’s funding, on January 28, 2018 [Mohammad Asad / Middle East Monitor]

This will be remembered as the year when the United States of America broke with the international consensus by moving its Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thus recognising the Holy City as the capital of Israel. The deliberate timing of the move to coincide with next month’s 70th anniversary of Israel’s creation in historic Palestine —the Nakba (Catastrophe) — has angered Palestinians whose faith in the US as an honest broker in the peace process has always been low but is now non-existent.

Palestinian anger has been fuelled further by the Trump administration’s removal of references to Palestinian land captured by Israel in 1967 as “occupied” from its latest annual human rights report. “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2017” broke with previous policy by changing the section on the human rights situation in Israel and Palestine from “Israel and the Occupied Territories” to “Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza”. At a stroke, the US State Department has removed reference to the occupation of any land taken by force by Israel in 1967, including the Syrian Golan Heights.

US threats of aid cuts - Cartoon [Arabi21News]

It is rather ironic that the report still claims: “Our foreign policy reflects who we are and promotes freedom as a matter of principle and interest. We seek to lead other nations by example in promoting just and effective governance based on the rule of law and respect for human rights. The United States will continue to support those around the world struggling for human dignity and liberty.”

Such a change runs counter to international law. Washington’s alleged commitment “to support those around the world struggling for human dignity and liberty” can certainly not be seen as applying to the Palestinian people.

This US administration is chipping away shamelessly at the legitimate rights of the Palestinians, which they have demanded for 70 years. Trump claims to have taken Jerusalem off the table, that there is no occupation and that the settlements are no longer referred to as “illegal”. This leaves just one more issue to take off the table, the Palestinian refugees’ right of return.

In December 1948, the UN General Assembly passed resolution 194 in which it resolved that Palestinian “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.”

OPINION: The Middle East Quartet still includes the US, so can it still play a role in the peace process?

There are now 5.5 million Palestinian refugees clinging to this right; the Great March of Return has seen tens of thousands of them marching peacefully to the border area in Gaza to reaffirm it. While they wait for that right to be implemented, they continue to be supported by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The agency was established in 1949 to carry out direct relief and works programmes for “Palestine refugees in the Near East”. UNRWA began its operations on 1 May 1950 and its services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, microfinance and emergency assistance, including in times of armed conflict. They are delivered in the main countries where the Palestinian refugees continue to live: the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. In Gaza, UNRWA provides services to refugees who make up 80 per cent of the population.

UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from UN Member States. It also receives some core funding from the regular budget of the United Nations, which is used mostly for international staffing costs.

READ: UNRWA gets cash injection after US cuts

The agency is facing a funding crisis, exacerbated by the US decision to cut its contribution. In January, the State Department announced that it was withholding $65m out of its $125m interim aid package earmarked for UNRWA stating that “additional US donations would be contingent on major changes” by the agency.

When asked what major changes the US Administration asked of UNRWA to continue its funding, the official spokesman was unable to point to specific requirements. Speaking at a meeting in the British parliament organised by the Palestinian Return Centre, Chris Gunness expressed the agency’s surprise at the defunding given that last November US officials had praised UNRWA’s high impact, accountability and flexibility.

The PRC meeting looked at Britain’s relationship with UNRWA. Gunness praised the government’s ongoing financial support but then set out the problems that the agency is facing, which he described as an “unprecedented financial and existential crisis.” He told the meeting that the Trump administration is actually “defunding UNRWA to the tune of $305 million” having only paid $60m in January when $360m was expected. Despite having already started to procure food and non-food items in the expectation of receiving the full amount from the US, UNRWA was told by the State Department that no more would be forthcoming.

US embassy might be moved to Jerusalem – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Gunness described the scale of UNRWA’s work in numbers: it educates 525,000 children, for example, 270,000 of whom are in Gaza. Its health projects offer 9 million patient consultations a year. It employs 33,000 people, including 22,000 teachers and education staff, the overwhelming majority of whom are refugees themselves; this gives a huge boost to the economy in Palestinian refugee camps. It also supports small-scale projects through micro finance. “UNRWA is not a light bulb you can turn on or off,” insisted Gunness. “You cannot just offer a third of an education to half a million children.”

UNRWA’s resources have been stretched by the crisis in Syria, the spokesman pointed out. Additional needs have been generated by the 150,000 Palestinian refugees who were among more than half a million living in Syria to flee to neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan.

Gunness warned that even after the recent Rome conference which sought to raise $466 million for UNRWA, only $110m was raised, including $50m from Qatar alone. Although Saudi Arabia subsequently pledged another $50 million, the agency only has sufficient funds to see it through to July of this year.

The real problem, he said, is the lack of a political solution; this is a conversation that the donor community “is not prepared to have. They seem to believe dialogue about reform somehow replaces it, but it does not. Their focus continues to be on how efficient UNRWA is in delivering its services and the rising costs.” The costs are rising, he added, because there has been 70 years of unaddressed dispossession and 50 years of occupation. “That is what drives the bill up. There are more and more refugees because there is an unresolved political plight and the children of refugees have become refugees.” This “protracted refugee situation” also applies to UNHCR.

When asked what would happen to the refugees if UNRWA collapsed, Gunness said, “Palestinian refugees are human beings with rights.” Those rights do not disappear if UNRWA is not around. “Their options will remain as integration wherever they are, third country repatriation or repatriation, which means going home.” He confirmed that the preferred remedy for dealing with refugees by UNHCR is the right of return in that it produces the most stable outcome.

READ: 100 days since Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem, the facts

Speaking at the same meeting, Oxford-based Palestinian academic Karma Nabulsi warned that the US defunding of UNRWA is designed to “dismantle it”. Professor Nabulsi argued that UNRWA was created by the UN following the “dismantlement of our country and destruction of our society” under its watch. “It was,” she reminded the audience, “initially meant to exist for 6 months to a year but with the passing of time, it had become ‘stabilised’.”

The current crisis, she insisted, is more extreme than those previously, “because it goes at the heart of who we are as a people and that we are a people.” UNRWA, she said, “is the only institution that recognises our inalienable rights and our status as refugees and the obligation of the UN to uphold those and protect us. Its demise would be like you have wiped us off the face of the earth.”

She contrasted the reaction to Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem with the UNRWA funding cut. There was pushback by the international community, including the UN Security Council and the General Assembly, against the embassy move. “The attack on UNRWA, however, has happened very quietly. Not many people understand it or see how important it is.”

Nabulsi reminded the audience that the US Embassy move, the siege on Gaza and other Israeli policies are classic settler-colonialism, which the Palestinians have experienced for a century. “Colonialism displaces the people and sets up a new country instead. It is a process not an event.”

Nevertheless, Professor Nabulsi finished by sharing a reason for optimism. “Because it is an ongoing event, we have a chance to stop it,” she pointed out. “It is not over.”

Palestine- Israel two-state solution is off the rails

First published by the Arab Weekly on 15/4/2018

Whatever the real motives, the outcome would be an entrenchment of Israel’s presence in the West Bank.

Another brick in the wall. A 2016 file picture shows Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara during an inauguration ceremony of Hahemek rail line. (AP)

Early in his administration, US President Donald Trump stated that he would support whatever the parties agreed to in relation to a one-state or two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was a major departure for the United States, which had consistently stated that the two-state solution was the only way to achieve peace. Former Secretary of State John Kerry had argued in December 2016 that if Israel’s choice was “one state, Israel can either be Jewish or Democratic. It cannot be both.”

During the 2015 election campaign, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu promised there would be “no Palestinian state under his watch.” His coalition partners agree either implicitly or explicitly that the two-state solution is not on the table, particularly following Trump’s election and the formation of a US negotiating team that is wholly pro-Israeli, both in tone and in action.

The Trump administration is still working on the “ultimate deal” that it claims will be difficult for both Palestinians and Israelis to accept. The undertones to the Palestinians are that this will be for “implementation, not negotiation.”

The United States angered Palestinians by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and cutting funds to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, the agency tasked with delivering services to Palestinian refugees.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas severed ties with the US team, arguing the United States cannot be an honest peace broker having made these two critical decisions. However, his efforts to convince other countries or the European Union to take a lead and his call for an international peace conference to take place in mid-2018 have not borne fruit.

The Great March of Return has seen tens of thousands of Palestinians camp and demonstrate on the Gaza border with Israel calling for implementation of their right of return, which the Israelis met with violence, killing tens of protesters and injuring thousands.

Israel refuses to allow the refugees to return, 70 years since UN Resolution 194 giving them this right was adopted. The Gaza march has highlighted the Palestinian refugee problem to the US team, making it clear that, unless the issue is resolved, there will be no peace, whether in one or two states.

The Palestinian leadership clings to the two-state solution despite the ever-increasing number of settlements and settlers in the West Bank. Israel is making it impossible to achieve. It is expanding settlements and key members of Netanyahu’s coalition, such as Education Minister Naftali Bennett, have called for annexing the West Bank.

In any case, Israel has been acting as if it has sovereignty over the whole of historic Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Its latest project demonstrates this clearly. Reports claim that it is starting construction of a railway that would cross into occupied territory in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The three-phase project would see the railway established on 200 hectares of land. Palestinian agricultural land, trees and water sources would be destroyed in the process. The plan includes building 11 West Bank railways with a length of 475km and 30 stations, some of which would be in illegal settlements.

The Palestine Liberation Organisation condemned the Israeli government for the project.

It is likely that the plan would encourage further settlement construction, as housing in illegal colonies is generally cheaper than it is in Israeli towns and cities. This, together with fast railway connections, would lead to more Israelis residing in illegal settlements. Their opportunities for interaction with the Palestinians would be further limited because it is not clear how Israeli security concerns would be addressed to allow Palestinians to use the railway.

Going further, Reuters reported that Israeli Transport Minister Yisrael Katz recently proposed linking Israel’s freight network with Jordan and Saudi Arabia, a project he presented to Trump Middle East Envoy Jason Greenblatt. He claimed this could benefit the Palestinians “If the Palestinians connect to a railway system, the entire area will get a significant economic boost,” he said.

Whatever the real motives, the outcome would be an entrenchment of Israel’s presence in the West Bank and an erosion of the last possibilities for a Palestinian state.

Israel claims it does not want to see one state emerge as a long-term solution to the conflict. However, these projects are a clear indication that it is creating a one-state reality that can either mean equal rights for all in one state or an apartheid state in which Jewish Israelis dominate Palestinians. It is derailing the two-state solution.

My speech at the protest in support of the Great Return March in Whitehall, London

The protest took place on 7/4/2018

 

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