What’s the point of negotiating for peace when Israel gains without it?

First published by TRT World on 5/9/2018

As America makes one concession after another to Israel, is it any wonder Israel doesn’t seek peace with the Palestinians?

On a recent visit to Lithuania, the birthplace of his grandmother, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that that he sees ‘no urgency’ in advancing US President Donald Trump’s peace plan or what is commonly referred to as the ‘ultimate deal’ or ‘deal of the century’. “It is his business if he wants to promote it,” he added.

Netanyahu’s comments came soon after Trump suggested Israel will “pay a higher price” in the negotiations because of the embassy move and that it was “the Palestinians’ turn next”, adding that the Palestinians will get “something very good” in peace negotiations following his decision to relocate the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Trump made the comments at the end of one of his rallies in West Virginia. He did not indicate what this might be.

Contact between the Palestians and the US have been frozen on the orders of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, following the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the subsequent move of the Embassy from Tel Aviv.

The next announcement from his administration was hardly a confidence-building measure or an incentive for the Palestinians to restart talks with the Americans.

In what the Palestinians saw as “the use of cheap blackmail as a political tool”, the Trump Administration recently decided to cut more than $200 million in bilateral assistance to the Palestinians, following a review of the funding for projects in the West Bank and Gaza, according to US officials.

Commenting further on the matter, PLO Executive Committee member Hana Ashrawi stated that “the Palestinian people and leadership will not be intimidated and will not succumb to coercion. The rights of the Palestinian people are not for sale.”

Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s envoy to the US, said in a statement that the Trump administration “is dismantling decades of US vision and engagement in Palestine.” Zomlot saw the recent move as “another confirmation of abandoning the two-state solution and fully embracing Netanyahu’s anti-peace agenda.”

Zomlot was also referring to Trump’s decision to defund UNRWA, the United Nations Agency which delivers services to the Palestinian refugees and his attempts to find ways to remove the refugee status of the overwhelming majority of the Palestinians still living in exile since 1948 claiming the status should not be inherited.

Aid cuts to the Palestinians continued as the Trump administration announced it was ending its contribution to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), having withheld $45 million back in January. This leaves the Agency with a $417 million deficit, which if not cleared would mean school closures for 500,000 children in its five areas of operation at the end of September.

The collapse of UNRWA would be disastrous for Palestinians but will be welcomed by Netanyahu who has argued that it ‘perpetuates’ the issue of the refugees.

Recently leaked emails confirmed Trump’s senior advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner has tried to convince King Abdullah of Jordan to end the refugee status of 2 million Palestinian residents living in Jordan as the US attempts to significantly reduce the number recognised from the current 5 million to a much smaller number.

In fact, with seemingly unlimited support from Trump and his pro-Israel ‘negotiating team’, Netanyahu is working to gain as many more wins as possible in what he sees as uniquely favourable times.

Netanyahu has already contributed significantly to convincing the US to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal and the imposition of severe sanctions on the Islamic Republic, and is demanding Iran pulls all its troops out of Syria. While he has not as yet succeeded in this, he will keep plugging away and may yet pull this off.

Next on the Israeli prime minister’s agenda is the status of the Syrian Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in 1967 and effectively annexed in 1981. His Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz describes endorsement of Israel’s 51-year-old hold on the Golan as the proposal now ‘topping the agenda’ in bilateral diplomatic talks with the United States.

In a recent visit to Israel, Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton dampened Israeli hopes of imminent recognition claiming “I’ve heard the idea being suggested but there’s no discussion of it, no decision within the US government.”

However, Netanyahu will surely continue to pursue it. With such wins in record time and at zero cost, it is perhaps not surprising that Netanyahu is “in no hurry for peace”.

What about the Palestinians?

The Palestinians are facing the most challenging period in their history since the Nakba. The division between Hamas and Fatah, the 11-year long siege on Gaza, US blind support for Israel and the changing geopolitics in the Middle East puts them in an extremely weak bargaining position.

However, should they see any hope in Trump’s comments in West Virginia that he really has “something very good” to offer them, what could that be?

Interestingly, there have been no leaks about what this may mean for the Palestinians, unlike leaks that preceded announcements of pro-Israel measures such as the embassy move or the attack on UNRWA.

Trump is unlikely to recognise East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, include a two-state solution in his plan, pressure Israel to accept any Palestinian refugees, pressure Israel to end settlement construction or to bring an end to the 11-year old siege on Gaza. Netanyahu would not agree to any of these but more importantly, it is difficult to expect Trump’s pro-Israel team to even suggest any of these.

Speculation on this has to be based on how any initiative would address the core issues to be resolved in the conflict. They have generally been acknowledged to be borders, Jerusalem, settlements and the refugees. If Trump believes he has taken Jerusalem off the table, is minimising the issue of the refugees, making no noises about increased settlements construction and not even mentioning a two-state solution, then it is highly unlikely that he can offer the Palestinians anything that they could accept.

The American president, a businessman, is likely to see “something very good” simply in terms of an improved economy or ‘money’, while taking into account ‘facts on the ground’ as Israel presents them to him and its unending security needs.

This could come in the form of economic development in Gaza or the northern Sinai, as leaks indicating Egypt may be called upon to cede some 700 km of the Sinai for an expanded Gaza, where an airport, seaport and possibly an electrical power plant could be based. There is talk about a railway line that links the Gulf States and Jordan with the Mediterranean through Israel and the OPTs, which could have stations in Palestinian territories.

With a weak and divided Palestinian leadership, an American administration which is completely on Israel’s side, Netanyahu is working overtime to secure further gains while Trump is in power and before he is impeached, since almost not a week goes by without some speculation that it might happen.

However, Netanyahu should rest easy in the knowledge that if Trump is impeached, he has in Vice President Pence a more committed and stable ally and supporter of Israeli policies. He will be in no greater hurry to deliver a ‘just peace’ than Trump or Netanyahu. The Palestinians will continue to suffer.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

How the US and Israel are working to transform Gaza into the Palestinian state

First published by the Middle East Eye on 26/7/2018

Trump’s team is focusing on how to force the Palestinians in Gaza – and Hamas – to submit and accept their dictates or face further misery

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The heat is on – again – in Gaza, as Israel tightens its siege and continues to kill and maim at will. If the two million Palestinians in the world’s largest prison camp – Gaza – were seen as humans by the world, the 11-year-long immoral siege on the tiny slither of land would be lifted immediately.

Israel controls all access to the strip by land and sea, while Egypt joins in by regularly closing the Rafah crossing, denying the imprisoned population the right to the free movement in and out of their country that we all enjoy. There is no justification for Egypt’s closure of the Rafah crossing.

Vital means of life

The main commercial access from Israel, the Kerem Shalom crossing, was suddenly closed by Israel on 9 July, denying the strip of the vital means of life, including fuel, which powers the electricity generating station, reducing the supply of electricity to at most six hours a day. The distance fishermen could sail within to catch their fish was also reduced from six to three nautical miles.

Palestinians are forced to buy drinking water at six times the standard rate from private companies because, according to experts, 97 percent of the water is contaminated by sewage and/or salt.

Israel partially opened the crossing through which it “will be possible to transfer gas and fuel into the Gaza Strip, in addition to food and medicine”. However, fish swimming more than three nautical miles off the shore of Gaza remain safe.

Gaza’s residents continue to bury their dead, with over 150 now killed since the start of the peaceful Great Return March four months ago, shot or bombed by Israel at the fence that separates them from their homes, from which they were forcibly transferred in 1948.

Back in 2015, the United Nations

warned that Gaza may become uninhabitable in 2020. That is less than 18 months away but a quick search on the internet reveals no attempt to rehabilitate it or – as I wrote recently – to rescue its children.

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The suffering of Palestinians in Gaza has also been exacerbated by the continuing Palestinian division which shows no sign of ending. Recent months have even seen the Palestinian National Authority imposing sanctions on Gaza in an effort to yield concessions from Hamas.

Price of geopolitical change

The changing geopolitical situation in the Arab world is also piling pressure on the Palestinians to accept what Arab leaders know the Palestinians could not accept as a resolution to their struggle for freedom, justice and equality. A resolution that is being cooked up between Tel Aviv and Washington.

In short, Gaza seems to be under constant attack as US President Trump’s team develop the “ultimate deal” to bring peace to the holy land while laying all the blame for a lack of peace at the door of Hamas and none at Israel’s door.

Any objective assessment of causes of the current situation would conclude that it is the lack of a just resolution to the conflict rather than the actions of Hamas or any other faction that causes the instability. Israel continues to illegally occupy the West bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza and people under occupation have every right to resist until this occupation ends.

Efforts to end the conflict through US-sponsored talks have thus far failed to bring the justice and security the Palestinians deserve, 71 years after Israel was created in their homeland and against their will. There are no signs that the current “dream team” put together by Trump to bring peace to historic Palestine will succeed.

They are committed Zionists and firm supporters of Israeli policies, including the settlement enterprise. Jared Kushner is an assistant and senior adviser to Trump. Jason Greenblatt is an assistant to the president and special US representative for international negotiations. David Friedman is US ambassador to Israel. Each of them qualifies for Israeli citizenship.

The Zionist trio wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post which, rather than setting out their vision for peace for the whole of historic Palestine, focused solely on Gaza and was essentially an attack on Hamas for Gaza’s ills, laying no blame at Israel’s door.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem on 14 May 2018 (AFP)

In fact, it is revealing that their article made no mention of any of the ingredients which the international community has largely agreed would lead to peace, including a halt to settlement activity, a two-state solution with Jerusalem as a shared capital and a just resolution to the refugee issue.

The Republic of Gaza?

Clearly, the Nation State Bill, passed into law on 19 July and which claims the land of Israel as the Jewish homeland, giving any Jew from any part of the world a right to move to Israel, has helped focus the Trump team’s work on Gaza.

Working in cahoots with Israel, it seems Trump’s team is leaving issues related to the West Bank to Israel and focusing on how to transform Gaza into the Palestinian state or perhaps more clearly the Republic of Gaza.

Israeli hardliners will never accept the emergence of a state called Palestine but they could live with a label such as Gaza, perhaps expanded with land from the Sinai. While Israel would love to have the land of Gaza back as part of Israel, it would not want to have the two million Palestinians that inhabit it back with it.

The rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which Zionists call Judea and Samaria, is off the table. While Israel will continue to consider ways of emptying these areas – and indeed areas inside the Green Line – of the indigenous Palestinians, that is a longer term headache that it can work to resolve, including by transferring them to Jordan.

In simple terms, if Hamas could be removed or convinced to accept the Trump deal, economic peace would come to Gaza.

The level of naivety demonstrated by the Trump trio should not surprise anyone, as it is a true reflection of the dearth of experience in politics or diplomacy that their CVs reveal.

Their politics come straight off Netanyahu’s desk, where – seemingly – the “ultimate deal” was drafted, just like the US policy on the Iran nuclear deal before it. Their diplomacy appears restricted to how they can convince the Gulf states to pay for the economic peace they think they can deliver.

Supremacist ideology

While the “ultimate deal” has not been released, elements of it have already been implemented: the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the death of any meaningful two-state solution, and the threat to declassify the descendants of Palestinian refugees coupled with the systematic closure of the UN refugee agency.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency is under attack because the Israelis believe it “perpetuates” the conflict. 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.

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Palestinian employee of UNRWA hold a sign during a protest against a US decision to cut aid, in Gaza City on Monday (Reuters)

Downsizing its operations to deal with the resulting deficit UNRWA faces was cited as the reason for the dismissal of hundreds of workers in the agency’s emergency programme. This has led to major protests by UNRWA’s workers and one worker threatening to burn himself.

Gaza’s beleaguered economy can hardly take another hit with UNRWA job losses and a reduction in its programmes, which provide vital sustenance, health and educational services.

As the Freedom Flotilla makes its way gingerly to the Gaza shores to bring basic medical supplies and solidarity with the Palestinian people, Israel and America are working to force the Palestinians and Hamas to submit and accept their dictates or face further misery.

The naive American trio will find that their immoral plans will fail as many before them have. Therefore, if they want a place in history as those who brought peace to historic Palestine, they need to come round to realising that once they see Palestinians as a whole, and those in Gaza in particular, as human beings with equal rights to Jews and others and not as a demographic threat to Zionism, peace is very possible.

For the sake of peace that we all crave, it is not Hamas or Fatah that need to go, but the supremacist ideology of Zionism.

– 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 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: Palestinians prepare to set fire on an Israeli flag and portraits of US President Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a protest at the border fence with Israel, east of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza city, on 13 April, 2018 (AFP)