The PA must rise to the dangers facing the cause or make way for new leadership

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 9/1/2018

Israel’s extremist, settler-led government is on a roll. US President Donald Trump’s Christmas gift of recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his consequent surrogate bullying in the UN General Assembly on behalf of the colonialist entity has sent its leaders into a frenzy of actions that will have far-reaching consequences. Trump has in his Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Hayley, a pro-Israeli figure that David Ben Gurion could only have dreamed of.

Haley stood alone in the UN threatening states that disagreed with the US decision – US President Donald Trump “will be watching the vote carefully” and “requested I report back on those who voted against us …” she told them. In the event the bullying had a limited effect with the General Assembly voting 128 in favour, nine against, with 35 abstentions. Not even the threat to cut US funding to some of the poorest states in the world worked on this occasion.

In her letter to the UN GA members prior to the vote Hayley attempted to play down the significance of Trump’s move arguing he was simply implementing the will of Congress expressed through the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act but that “the president’s announcement does not affect final status negotiations in any way, including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem”, and that “the president also made sure to support the status quo of Jerusalem’s holy sites, and did not advocate changes to arrangements at the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif”, Haley added in her letter.

Thankfully, from a Palestinian standpoint, the threats had little impact.

The reward for those countries which voted with Israel was a reception that Nikki Hayley organised at the UN which could have been held in a broom cupboard considering that the grand total of attendees according to the vote was nine.

On its part, Israel sought to increase its influence on poor countries by establishing a $50 million fund to support development in poorer countries and establish diplomatic backing, according to Israeli media reports. Israel had been trying to increase its influence, particularly in Africa, to garner backing internationally, including at the UN. Her efforts in Africa seemed to be making some headway until a summit organised by Togo was cancelled under threat of boycotts from a number of countries and pressure from others.

For now, Israel will take what it sees as a major breakthrough in its colonial project – America’s recognition of Jerusalem as its capital. It is noteworthy that rather than reiterate his UN ambassador’s stance that the final status of Jerusalem – including boundaries – was still up for negotiations, Trump contradicted her in a tweet claiming: “We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table, but Israel, for that, would have had to pay more.” He did not explain how or what. However, he went on to threaten the PA saying: “But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”

Trump and Hayley’s contempt for the Palestinian leadership and people is now out in the open. Not only are they threatening to cut the PA’s funding, they have now moved to target the most vulnerable Palestinians, those refugees reliant on services from the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, UNRWA. Hayley explicitly threatened to cut funds to UNRWA “unless the Palestinians went back to the negotiating table”.

It is doubtful that the Trump administration really understands the potential impact of the moves they have threatened to make. Much of the funds the US passes to the PA are to ensure its security services continue to suppress Palestinian resistance against Israel’s occupation and it is therefore in Israel’s interest. Curtailing UNRWA’s ability to provide employment and services, particularly in Gaza, is likely to lead to an uprising whose format no one can predict with certainty. An area that has been under siege for 11 years, has suffered from three Israeli wars and that is deprived of electricity and free entry and exit is at boiling point. Again, keeping the situation calm and under control is in Israel’s interest.

As for Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu, he must feel that he can contain this anger as he has now called for UNRWA to be dismantled, arguing it was “an organisation that perpetuates the Palestinian problem”. “It also enshrines the narrative of the so-called ‘right of return’,” he told a weekly cabinet meeting. His solution was that UNRWA “should pass from the world”.

Netanyahu, emboldened by an irrational American president but one who has sided with Israel during the election campaign and since his installation, is calling the shots with seemingly no one is able to stop him. The Knesset recently passed a bill, which amends the Basic Law of 1980 titled “Jerusalem, Capital of Israel”, in a way that would make it more difficult for future governments to return parts of Jerusalem to the Palestinians.

Netanyahu’s own party, Likud, unanimously endorsed a resolution calling for the annexation of illegal Israeli West Bank settlements. This indicates the direction of travel of Netanyahu’s own party, which is now not that far behind the even more extreme elements of his coalition. Education Secretary Naftali Bennett has been urging annexation of the West Bank for years claiming “the time has come to say Israel is ours”. His fellow Jewish Home colleague and Justice Minister, Ayelet Shaked stated“We’re here for 50 years already, and we will be here for another 5,000 years. Our policy is clear: Settlement in the entire Land of Israel and normalisation of life in Judea and Samaria”.

Israel’s plans to entrench the occupation are being complemented by further oppression of the Palestinians and their supporters under the pretence of democracy. The Israeli Knesset recently approved a first reading of the death penalty bill which would allow the authorities to execute Palestinian prisoners accused of taking part in “operations against Israeli targets”. The claim is that the death penalty would serve as a deterrent. However, it is reasonable to assume that a Palestinian who sets out to carry out ‘an operation’ against heavily armed Israeli soldiers knows full well that s/he is likely to be killed and therefore the deterrence claim is illogical. It is worth noting that the death penalty would not be extended to Israelis accused of violence against Palestinians.

Israel’s claim to be ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ was further eroded when it released a ‘blacklist’ of 20 organisations whose activists would be barred from entering the country and therefore the Occupied Palestinian Territory, essentially for supporting or promoting boycotts or the BDS campaign. It is also ‘investing’ a further $72 million into efforts to combat the movement.

None of the moves in the past month indicate a desire for peace by Israel, but rather a misguided conclusion it has come to that it can now make rapid progress towards completing its colonialist project in the era of Trump. However, from a Palestinian perspective, the situation is as dangerous as it has ever been.

It is extremely worrying for Palestinians that their tired leadership is devoid of any ideas or a strategy for liberation. The ageing Mahmoud Abbas refuses to do the decent thing and retire. He has promised to make “important decisions in 2018”, but his record shows a dearth of such decisions.

The forthcoming meeting of the PLO’s Central Committee in Ramallah should produce a new strategy. However, there are reports that there have been no significant consultations with the various factions and therefore the meeting could end up with Abbas presenting them with a fait accompli, reinventing negotiations as the only way forward but under a different framework not led by the US. That would be disastrous.

What is needed is much more radical. I suggested elements of what a future strategy could include in a recent article in MEMO which has started a debate. The Palestinian people cannot afford to leave their future in the hands of those that have proved their failure. They need to take back control of their liberation movement and fast.

Palestinians should put more focus on their case internationally

First published by the Arab Weekly in 12/11/2017

The PLO should join more international bodies and conventions and use these to pressure Israel back to the negotiating table.

If it is to make progress to­wards realising its people’s legitimate right to self-deter­mination in their homeland, the Palestinian leadership needs to take stock and weigh its options.

The Palestinians should be under no illusion that the so-called deal of the century US President Donald Trump’s advisers are work­ing on will be made in Tel Aviv, not Washington or Ramallah. It will be a deal of the century designed to strengthen Israel’s hold on the land from the river to the sea. It will not be based on respect or adherence to international law and will not deliver an independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, the minimum the Palestin­ians would accept as a resolution to the conflict.

It will certainly not include a return of Palestinian refugees to their homes. This will make a deal impossible to accept. The reper­cussions would be disastrous for the Palestinians as they will once again be blamed for the failure.

It would be disastrous for the Palestinian leadership to wait for the above scenario to materialise. It must set its own agenda and make rapid progress on it.

The Palestinians have no option but to escalate their efforts to inter­nationalise their case and to pursue measures that would bring some form of accountability on Israel through peaceful means. This they can do with a more united leader­ship as the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas evolves. Yes, the road ahead is rocky but promising.

The United States has effectively closed the door on accountability through the UN Security Council, where, if needed, it will always wield the veto. In the UN General Assembly, where the United States does not enjoy the right to veto resolutions, the Palestinians can initiate them and win but they will remain unenforceable. The Palestinians are enjoying greater success in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), where the United States does not hold a veto. Significantly, the council is about to publish a database containing the names of companies complicit in Israel’s occupation. This has raised strong condemnation from both Israel and the United States.

The United States may decide to leave the UNHRC as an expression of anger at what it sees as obses­sive criticism of Israel as it has done with UNESCO. This may dis­suade other international bodies and conventions from accepting the state of Palestine as a mem­ber, knowing that it will use this primarily to bring accountability on Israel for violations that come under the scope of the organisa­tion in question. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s response should be to join more internation­al bodies and conventions and use these to pressure Israel back to the negotiating table or face greater accountability.

For example, it should work for Israel’s suspension from football’s world governing body, FIFA, for operating football teams in the illegal settlements.

The Palestinian Liberation Organisation should vigorously pursue Israel through the Interna­tional Criminal Court (ICC), which it joined in 2014. A focus on the illegal settlements is the clear­est case to bring. Other countries regard the settlements as illegal as does international law. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Net­anyahu recently promised never to dismantle a settlement and to expand the illegal enterprise.

While the Palestinians and the ICC would come under enormous pressure not to act, surely it is an action the Palestinians must pur­sue with vigour.

The Palestinians should be under no illusion that the conse­quences of escalating this battle would be costly for them. They will need strong support from Arab allies who should insist on Israel agreeing fully to the 2002 Arab peace initiative as a start. The ini­tiative spells out clearly what Israel needs to do for it to reap the huge benefits normalisation of relations with the Arab and Muslim world would bring.

The Palestinians should insist that a return to talks should be based on international law and well-known UN resolutions on the conflict. The Palestinians have op­tions. More of the same is not one of them.

East Jerusalem is occupied but the hearts and minds of the children are not

This column first appeared in the Middle East Eye on 6/10/2016

Jerusalem has a special place in the hearts of people all over the world. I was fortunate to visit it again recently, or rather “return”, as my parents were both born in this great city.

My first sighting of the Dome of the Rock never fails to send a shiver down my spine. There is no other place like it. It is home to holy sites revered by followers of the world’s three great religions Islam, Christianity and Judaism. They are literally within shouting distance of each other.

Politically, Jerusalem is claimed by Israel as its “eternal united capital”, but the Palestinians too claim East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. No state, apart from Israel, considers it to be Israel’s capital and, in the absence of a Palestinian state, Palestinians can only dream of it becoming their capital.

The additional reality is that far from it being united, the city is divided into West Jerusalem, which is predominantly, if not exclusively, inhabited by Jews today after the expulsion of its Palestinian residents by Jewish gangs in 1948, and East Jerusalem with an overwhelmingly Palestinian population but an increasing number of Jewish settlers in illegal settlements which Israel has been building since the capture of East Jerusalem in 1967.

One city, two worlds

The contrast between the two Jerusalems could not be starker. As a friend who recently visited for the first time told me: “I could not believe the difference between west and east. The west in many places had a western, American feel with wide roads, pavements and grass verges, while the east seemed underdeveloped, crowded and chaotic.”

There are many aspects of the occupation of East Jerusalem that are troubling, including the settlements, the wall, house demolitions, house evictions, arbitrary closures, attacks on Al-Aqsa mosque and lack of permits for Palestinians to build and expand. However, the situation for children is particularly disturbing.

A quick drive through east and west reveals almost no playgrounds or parks for Palestinian children in East Jerusalem to use while a visitor would encounter many well-equipped playgrounds and parks in the predominantly Jewish west.

While Palestinian families occasionally make use of facilities in West Jerusalem, they do so reluctantly, fearing discrimination and harassment by their Jewish counterparts. Instead, some choose to make a journey to Ramallah or Jericho for their children’s and their leisure outings. This is sad because it reduces the opportunities for interaction between the two communities, especially the children, before their characterisation of the other is formed through parental or societal influence.

You have to ask what the municipality presiding over both parts of the city is doing to deliver services to the Palestinian taxpayers, who cannot turn to the Palestinian Authority for them because Israel does not allow it to operate in Jerusalem.

Never shall they meet

Opportunities for Jewish and Palestinian children to mix at school are almost non-existent. Jerusalem’s only Arab-Jewish school has faced attacks from Jewish extremists including an arson attack in November 2014, anti-Arab graffiti in June 2015, and even had its listing on Waze, a google-owned app changed to “a threat”.

While the two populations are largely segregated, the level of poverty in the city affects both communities with some 50 percent of Jerusalem’s 850,000 residents living below the poverty line including 82 percent of the population in East Jerusalem.

The impact of Israel’s “security needs” on Palestinian children is profound. Every year, hundreds are arrested and interrogated. Between January and the end of August, 560 children alone were detained by Israel. Many are taken during the night or in the early hours of the morning. They are reportedly often deprived of the presence of a parent or lawyer and sometimes are made to sign confessions written in Hebrew under duress.

In the absence of reasonable provision of leisure facilities and under a brutal daily occupation you would think that children can find some comfort, enjoyment and security in their East Jerusalem schools.

Well, on the face of it, this should be possible. However, in reality there is no happy story to tell. Israel, through its occupation, is on a mission to attract the hearts and minds of Palestinian children, to love it, adore it and accept it as the ruling entity over them, without question.

During my visit, I witnessed the start of the new school year. Families were busy buying books, stationary and the status symbol school bag for their children. The bag tends to be in the style of the current craze. This year, it seemed anything depicting images from Disney’s Frozen was a must have.

One of my young relatives was upset not because she had not bought a Frozen bag and book covers, but because her cousin was also planning to buy the same. “Why can’t she buy Mini Mouse?” she asked. Children will be children. She, like most if not all Palestinian children, was oblivious to the battle for her identity and belonging that is being waged by Israel on Jerusalem’s youngest residents.

Chronic shortage of space

East Jerusalem’s schools suffer from a basic lack of infrastructure and resources.

A report published in August by the nonprofit organisation Ir Amim found that the number of East Jerusalem’s Palestinian children studying in the “informal education system” – schools which are publicly recognised, but only partially funded and operated by third parties – has surpassed those studying in both the formal education system, which are fully publicly funded and operated, and those who study in private schools.

Ir Amim reported that the shortage of classrooms in East Jerusalem had grown to 2,672 units, stating that “authorities have perpetuated the classroom shortage by not allocating sufficient land to build more classrooms in East Jerusalem”.

The report also worryingly noted that 36 percent of students drop out of school in East Jerusalem. Anecdotally, the number of boys that drop out is higher than girls. As men are often the main breadwinner in families here, this raises a serious question about what the boys go on to do with their time, considering their low skill levels and the lack of opportunities for employment, and its overall impact on the society.

As a result of parent perception of the inadequacy of public schools, many are forced to turn to private education. This is extremely costly, particularly when one considers the economic situation in East Jerusalem characterised by low wages and high taxes.

Hearts and minds

The other worrying feature of the current situation is Israel’s attempt to influence children’s understanding of their identity and how they should view it. It has been trying to do this through the imposition of the Israeli curriculum as opposed to the PA curriculum in East Jerusalem schools. Israel has been trying to do this for years but, having faced severe resistance from parents and the schools themselves, it is now linking the release of investment in schools to the adoption of the curriculum.

People I talked to during my recent visit referred to this as “educational blackmail”. Several told me they felt that Israel “was brainwashing our children to forget their Palestinian identity while at the same time becoming admirers of their occupier,” as one put it.

The Israeli curriculum refers to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and encourages children to celebrate what Israel has done since capturing it or, as they refer to it, as its “unification”. This is only one example of how Israel attempts to impose its own narrative on impressionable young children in early school years.

My recent experience though tells me that Israel cannot win the battle for the hearts of the children who are Palestinian, feel Palestinian and will grow up as Palestinian. Israel may feel that imposing its own narrative through blackmail may change minds, but it will fail. Palestinian schools may adopt the Israeli curriculum in order to secure funds, but Israel should realise that the industrious and proud Palestinians will ensure their children think Palestinian too.

East Jerusalem may be under occupation, but the hearts and minds of the children are not.

– 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 Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and appears regularly in the media as commentator on Middle East issues. He runs a blog at www.kamelhawwash.com. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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