Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 February 2005
Issue No. 728
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Throwing the ball to the Americans

Mahmoud Abbas won an important battle in Jerusalem this week. There will be others, writes Graham Usher

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas looks on during his visit to Russia (left) while Palestinians participate in a Hamas rally in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip. The militant Islamist group won an overwhelming victory in local elections, a result widely regarded as a setback for the Palestinian leader's own Fatah Party

On 1 February Israel's attorney- general, Manachem Mazuz, announced that he was overturning an Israeli cabinet decision taken secretly last July that applied the legal status of "Absentee Property" to East Jerusalem properties owned by Palestinians living in the West Bank.

Had that law been enacted it could have meant the expropriation of 50 per cent of all Palestinian properties in occupied East Jerusalem, says Daniel Seidemen, an Israeli lawyer representing the Palestinian owners. "We're not talking about targeted killings here. We're talking about carpet bombing."

And the fact that the decision has now been rescinded may be read as a victory for the strategy of the new Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. He has long argued that the surest way to neutralise Ariel Sharon and the government he leads is not by arms or even stones but by negotiations, diplomacy and international law. But the decision also augurs his greatest challenge, as he readies for his first summit meeting with an Israeli prime minister whose primary goal remains to trade the withdrawal from Gaza for Israel's ongoing conquest of Jerusalem.

The cabinet decision came to light when some 200 Palestinian families in Bethlehem discovered that they had been severed from their ancestral lands in Jerusalem by the construction of the West Bank separation wall. They were "absentees", identical in status to those tens of thousands of Palestinians who lost their lands, properties and livelihoods to Israel in the aftermath of the 1948-49 war. It was the first time Israel had invoked the absentee law for Palestinian properties in East Jerusalem, save for an attempt by Ariel Sharon when he was construction and agricultural minister in the late 1980s.

This "legalised robbery" (in the opinion of former Israeli justice minister, Yossi Beilin) was taken up by the Palestinian leadership in their meetings last week with the senior US diplomat, William Burns. ("We raised three issues with him," said an aide to Abbas. "Jerusalem, Jerusalem and Jerusalem").

The message appears to have got through. By 31 January, the Israeli media was reporting that the US was asking Israel to "re-examine" the East Jerusalem land seizure. There were also worried statements by Foreign Ministry officials that the decision had been "frozen". The final nail was Mazuz's clarification that, contrary to reports from the prime minister's office, not only had he not been present when the cabinet decision was taken but, had he been, he would have opposed it. He was clear with his reasons.

The decision was in violation of both Israeli and international law, Mazuz said on 1 February. But, he added, it "could have had grave diplomatic repercussions for the separation fence, which has drawn strong criticism from the International Court of Justice in The Hague. This is an issue where clearly Israel's interest would be to avoid opening new fronts with the world and in international law."

But the battle for Jerusalem is hardly over. In July Israel plans a new regimen where Palestinians in East Jerusalem will require permits to visit their relatives, homes and businesses in Ramallah -- a further move aimed at "extricating Jerusalem from the West Bank", says Hanan Ashrawi, a law-maker from East Jerusalem who lives in Ramallah.

There is also an un-rescinded Israeli decision to destroy 85 homes -- housing hundreds of Palestinians -- in the small village of Sur Bahar in south Jerusalem because they lie within a 500-metre radius of the wall. "The Israelis say they need security for the security barrier. It's nonsense. It is actually about ethnic cleansing. It is about kicking me out of my own village," says Hassan Abu Asli, head of the Land Defence Committee in the village.

How will Abbas address these issues as well as other strategic matters like Israel's ongoing construction of the settlements and the wall?

"He will do what he is obliged to do under the roadmap to avoid giving any pretext to the Israelis. He will then throw the ball to Israel and let the Americans deal with it," says the aide. "He will ask the Americans how Israel's wall and settlement policies in Jerusalem square with George Bush's vision of a viable, contiguous and independent Palestinian state. He will demand to go directly to the final status negotiations, since this is the only way to stop them."

Such an approach seemed to work with the Absentee Property decision. But should it fail with the demolitions in Sur Bahar, the pass system in Ramallah and the ongoing territorial conquests of the wall in Jerusalem and the southern West Bank then what was whispered in East Jerusalem last week may become a louder voice in the future. "It's not Gaza for the roadmap," said one Palestinian. "It's Gaza for Jerusalem."

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