Intifada Part Three?
New settlements being built under Abbas's nose are a time-bomb, warns Khaled Amayreh
A visibly cordial meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in West Jerusalem last week had all the trappings of a good beginning. The smiles were broad, the atmosphere cheerful, an aura of optimism was hovering over them. The meeting, which took place at Olmert's official residence on 27 December, was meant to launch the final-status talks between the two sides, in the hope that they would lead to a final resolution of the decades-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
In addition to re-launching the revived talks, which many critics already term doomed and futile given Israel's insolence and intransigence, the PA leadership had hoped to use the meeting to get Olmert to cancel recently-announced plans to build thousands of fresh settler units all over the West Bank, particularly in Israeli-occupied Arab East Jerusalem.
Olmert and Abbas did agree to re-launch the peace talks and to refrain from taking any steps that would be prejudicial to the final-status issues. However, on the central subject of settlement expansion, which is a central final-status issue, Olmert made it clear to Abbas that he couldn't and wouldn't halt the construction since such a step would mean the collapse of his coalition government. Interestingly, this is the same pretext and the same rationale that successive Israeli prime ministers have always cited whenever they were pressed, even by the US, to stop or freeze settlement expansion.
Olmert didn't tell Abbas outright that Israel would fly in the face of the Annapolis spirit and go ahead with building new settler units all over the West Bank. Instead, he resorted to prevarication and stratagems. He told Abbas that Israel wouldn't create new settlements in the West Bank, but made no mention of plans to expand existing settlements by building thousands of apartments on newly- confiscated private Arab land in the vicinity of these settlements. The extent of Olmert's deception and mendacity was revealed soon after his photo-op with Abbas.
This week, the Israeli media revealed that the Israeli government decided recently to issue two construction tenders in East Jerusalem, including the building of 440 settler units in the Arab suburbs of Sur Baher and Jabal Al-Mukaber. This is in addition to the 307 settler units Israel is planning to build in the settlement of Har Homa, or Jabal Abu Ghneim, adjacent to the Christian Palestinian town of Beit Sahur, in the Bethlehem region.
The new campaign of settlement expansion in and around occupied East Jerusalem, which Israel doesn't consider part of the West Bank, coincides with the building of thousands of apartments throughout the West Bank.
The latest meeting between Abbas and Olmert was dismissed even by pro-Fatah pundits as a fiasco, with Hani Al-Masri, a prominent columnist, accusing the PA leadership of effectively dropping East Jerusalem from the negotiations. "If beefing up Jewish settlement activities in Jerusalem, the future capital of the Palestinian state everyone is talking about, isn't prejudicial to the final status settlement, then what issues are they talking about," asked Masri.
Constantly rebuffed by an insolent and contemptuous Israeli refusal to freeze settlement expansion, a frustrated and effectively helpless Palestinian leadership appealed to the Bush administration, especially to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to pressure Israel to stop. Rice appealed to Olmert to be mindful of the consequences of unchecked settlement expansion on the peace process.
Olmert assured Rice that no new settlements were being planned, that he was powerless to stop natural growth, and that the settlers were after all Israeli citizens and were entitled to have a roof over their heads.
In one instance, the Israeli government actually added injury to insult when Israeli soldiers shot and killed a personal bodyguard of chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei southwest of Ramallah. The cold-blooded killing occurred only a few hours after the meeting in West Jerusalem, which Qurei also attended.
Having to repeat the same platitudes every day and mouthing words about the illegality of Jewish settlements, Palestinian officials are finding themselves facing an unenviable situation. On the one hand, they realise, although they wouldn't say so openly, that talks with Israel are doomed to failure, even if these talks go on for 100 to come. They also realise that neither the Bush administration nor any other subsequent American administration have either the will or the inclination to pressure Israel to end the occupation that started in 1967.
On the other hand, the PA is aware that the influx of billions of dollars pledged by the donor countries during the Donor Conference in Paris in mid-December hinges to no small extent on the continuation of at least a semblance of peace-making efforts irrespective of whether these efforts produce results.
However, this mode of thinking is problematic to say the least since it doesn't take into account the shifting mood and growing indignation of the Palestinians.
This week, the Israeli army significantly stepped up its unprovoked murder of Palestinian civilians, just for the sake of it, as one human rights operator put it. At the Beit Hanun border crossing at the northern edge of the Gaza Strip, Israeli soldiers suffering from boredom opened fire on Palestinian pilgrims returning from Mecca, killing a woman and injuring five other people, one seriously.
The Israeli army issued four different accounts of the haphazard murder of the woman, whose children and grandchildren were awaiting her just a few hundred metres away. First, the Israeli army spokesman said he had no knowledge of the incident. Then five hours later, a different spokesperson claimed that it was likely the woman was hit by Palestinian fire. A third narrative alleged that the woman was killed in an exchange of fire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian security personnel stationed in northern Gaza. Finally, the Israeli army issued a fourth narrative, saying that soldiers at the Erez border-crossing felt threatened and had to open fire.
Of course, the woman was not hit by Palestinian fire, there was no exchange of fire between Israeli and Palestinian soldiers in the vicinity, and the soldiers manning the Erez crossing didn't feel threatened by the presence of exhausted pilgrims who had been subjected to meticulous frisking and searches, fraught, as usual, with every conceivable form of humiliation.
A similar incident occurred last week near Ramallah when trigger-happy Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian, a father of two small children, who was hiking with his brother and a friend outside their home. The soldiers claimed the three unarmed Palestinians were acting suspiciously.
The frozen rage accumulating as a result of the murderous Israeli onslaught, coupled with the Israeli policy of deception, as evident from continuing settlement expansion, is deepening in the hearts of Palestinians. "I think most people are convinced that Israel is deceiving the Palestinian leadership and that it is not sincere about reaching peace with the Palestinians. To put it in a nutshell, the policy of murdering Palestinians and expanding settlements is not compatible with a genuine desire for peace," said Ziad Abu Zayad, himself a former Palestinian negotiator.
Writing in the East Jerusalem-based Al-Quds, Abu Zayad accused Israel of playing tricks for the purpose of building more settlements, stealing more Arab land and misleading the international public opinion. It is the same movie, the same deception, the same lies. Abu Zayad urged the Palestinian leadership of Abbas to immediately declare the futility of talks with Israel if the Jewish state refuses to stop all settlement expansion activities in the West Bank.
There is another element which doesn't augur well for Abbas and his western-backed Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. The Fatah movement is now in turmoil over the provocative policies of the Ramallah government and is trying to convey an unmistakable message to Fayyad, stating that either you be at our beck and call, or resign. This week, a small Fatah military wing, the Aqsa Martyr Brigades, now nearly completely dissolved by the Fayyad government, warned that it would assassinate Fayyad if he continued to deny Fatah a preferential treatment.
Fayyad recently alienated many in Fatah when he reportedly stopped paying salaries to thousands of Fatah cadres who had been on the PA payroll since the mid-1990s. Fayyad also infuriated many Palestinians recently when he publicly offered condolences to the families of two off-duty Israeli soldiers killed by Palestinian guerrillas in Hebron in the southern West Bank. Israel killed many hundreds of Palestinians in 2008, including dozens of children.
According to some Palestinians observers, the most expected scenario in case the peace process collapses, which most Palestinians see as a foregone conclusion, will be a new Intifada, this time against both Israel and the PA government itself.