Taking down the PLO
Within weeks of Annapolis, Israel is intensifying its colonial settlement strategy, exploding any prospects of peace talks and driving Abbas and Fayyad into a corner, writes Nicola Nasser*
Linking the aliyah (Jewish immigration) to what Jewish literature describes as Eretz Israel (Greater Israel) -- Israeli colonial settlement of Palestinian land, which the Hebrew state occupied in 1967, while at the same time negating the Palestinian right of return -- is torpedoing whatever prospect is left for a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, undermining the latest US-sponsored Palestinian-Israeli talks in Annapolis and further splintering the only viable Palestinian partner Israel has in any viable peace process, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the North America Reform Movement, in an interview published by The Jerusalem Post, 25 December, hailed Israel's creation as a "miraculous, momentous event", adding: "Every day that goes by with Israel surrounded by a wall of Arab hatred is a miracle." He may have had the aliyah in mind when he noted that "anti-Israel feeling among Jewish Americans" was an "aspect of the problem". On the evening of 26 December new Jewish immigrants from Iran landed in Israel in the framework of a special Jewish Agency covert operation in the wake of falling Jewish immigration into Israel, according to the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption.
Judging by the one-million-strong aliyah of Soviet Jews in the late 20th century, a high percentage of the newcomers this year -- 19,700 -- will end up in Israeli colonial settlements built on confiscated Palestinian land in the West Bank, notably in East Jerusalem where at least 12 per cent of the Soviet aliyah settled. The "absorption" of newcomers in the occupied Palestinian territories is not a result of Israel's inability to accommodate them in Israel proper, but rather Israel's strategy of territorial expansion. Moreover, Israel is capable of absorbing the return of Palestinian refugees it dispossessed and displaced from over 500 towns and villages in 1948. According to refugee expert Salman Abu Sitta, "ninety per cent of the villages are still vacant; seven per cent are partially built-over, and only three per cent are totally built over in Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem."
Nor can Israeli leaders claim ignorance of the consequences for Palestinians of "de-linking" peacemaking from the Palestinian right of return, on the one hand, and their persistent linking of this same peacemaking with their own territorial expansion through a strategy of colonial settlement strategy. Referring to the Palestinian plight, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stated in his Annapolis speech of November 27: "Your people, too, have suffered for many years; and there are some who still suffer. Many Palestinians have been living for decades in camps, disconnected from the environment in which they grew up, wallowing in poverty, in neglect, alienation, bitterness, and a deep, unrelenting sense of humiliation."
Israeli Minister of Absorption Yaacov Edri said recently, "Aliya is the single greatest Zionist enterprise in our 60 years of statehood," but he failed to state the illegality under international law of directing aliyah to occupied Palestinian and Syrian land. More than half a million Jewish settlers now live in more than 170 colonies in the West Bank and the Golan Heights, constituting a major material obstacle to peacemaking along with the 40-year old military occupation.
The declared Annapolis plan of Israel and the Quartet (the US, UN, EU and Russia) to shore up ruling Palestinian "peaceniks" in the West Bank with promises of the creation of a Palestinian state according to the two-state "vision" of US President George W Bush, while at the same time sealing off the Gaza Strip, already dependent on foreign charities, is proving a non-starter, essentially because Israel refuses to act on what it verbally committed itself to in Annapolis, especially commitments to halt settlement building. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority (PA) was pledged $1.8 billion more than it requested at the donors conference in Paris, but donors were only "showing financial generosity because of the absence of political audacity and political courage," according to Afif Safia, representative of the Palestinian people in Washington, DC.
During the 20 days that separated the Annapolis conference on 27 November from the Paris donors' conference on 17 December, Palestinians were optimistic, viewing the two events as complementary en route to Palestinian statehood. Less than a month on, however, Israel is not only "torpedoing" the modest results that emerged from Annapolis, but also threatening to drain the $7.4 billion pledged by donors into the political abyss that siphoned more than $10 billion donated to the PA since 1993.
Simultaneously, Israel has embarked on a two- pronged "real war" on two fronts: a military war on Hamas and the Gaza Strip, and a colonial war on the PLO-led West Bank, officially rejecting a proposal from Hamas to trade a truce ceasefire for lifting the siege Israel has imposed on the Strip. "There is no other way to describe what is happening in the Gaza Strip except as a true war... This war will continue," a statement of the Israeli government said Sunday. Since June this "real war" claimed more than 200 Palestinian lives in Gaza, Olmert boasted last week, excluding 22 more killed by the Israeli Occupation Forces during the Islamic Eid Al-Adha, according to the Palestinian Al-Mizan centre for human rights.
At the same time Israel unofficially refuses to make peace with the PLO. Israel's colonial war in the West Bank is much more detrimental to the Annapolis process and prospects of creating a Palestinian state because it focuses on strategically destroying the territorial contiguity of this prospective state and severing it from its capital, Jerusalem. Israel announced an aggressive three-pronged drive to expand its colonial settlements in and around East Jerusalem, including creating the brand new colony of Atarot, with 35,000 Jewish only houses, on the Palestinian land of Qalandia.
Meanwhile, the construction of a bridge and other "tourist" facilities continues at Bab Almagharbeh near Al-Buraq Wall, the "Western wall" of Islam's third holiest site, Al-Aqsa Mosque, despite archaeological and Islamic outcry. This Israeli colonial drive is sure to break already fragile peace talks. Final status negotiations can only proceed, said chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei and Secretary-General of the PLO Executive Committee Yasser Abed Rabbo, when Palestinians get a "clear-cut answer" on Israel's readiness to immediately halt all settlement activity in "all Palestinian lands, without exception".
According to Israeli Minister for Jerusalem Affairs Rafi Eitan, the colonies to be expanded in Israel's latest settlement drive are "an integral, organic part of Jerusalem", and that "no promise was ever given to anyone that we wouldn't continue to build" in them, because they are "within the municipal borders of Jerusalem".
Israel's colonial drive and the impotence of the Quartet to stop it are discrediting the PLO leadership, not only in the eyes of its people but also in the eyes of its coalition member factions. The Popular and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP and DFLP respectively) demanded in official statements last week that President Abbas sever all contact with Israel in protest against its military escalation and settlement expansion. The fronts represent the third strongest electoral and political power after Hamas and Fatah.
By calling for a halt to all contacts, both fronts are in fact adopting a key Hamas demand, reinforcing the Islamic movement against the Abbas-led PLO. Indeed, the PFLP decided to attend a 10-faction Hamas-led Palestinian "national conference" that was scheduled to coincide with the Annapolis conference in the Syrian capital, Damascus; Syria's participation in Annapolis had led to postponing the conference. Fatah's 40-year old monopoly of decision-making and finances in the PLO and later the PA has kept coalition member factions under control. But the deadlocked peace process with Israel and corruption of the PA has all but exhausted the credibility of the national liberation movement.
More detrimental yet to the Abbas-led PLO's unity is simmering opposition now surfacing among the rank and file of Fatah to negotiations as well as to the government of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Negotiator Qaddora Faris of Fatah announced Monday he will not take part in future negotiations. Meanwhile, former minister of information and Fatah Central Committee member Nabil Amre, in an article published 11 November by the Ramallah-based Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, questioned whether the Fayyad government is an "established ally or an illusonary alternative" to Fatah, accusing the former of attacking Fatah, squeezing Fatah employees out of key ministries or refusing to employ them.
Although Fatah's complaints seem so far partisan, they are politically important because they unite opposition within the mainstream of the movement, which backs President Abbas's policies, with opposition of other wings inside and outside the occupied territories that contest Abbas's peace strategy and strongly oppose Fayyad's US-backed government. Sensing a real threat, Abbas has reportedly intervened to curb further Fatah disquiet.
Fayyad's government would surely confront an impasse were it to face a united Fatah and Hamas opposition, especially with regard to economic policy. Fayyad is on record saying that his government is bent on two "politically sensitive" economic measures: decreasing the public sector payroll, which so far has left around 40,000 people unemployed, including a large number of security personnel, and lifting subsidies on electricity and fuel -- a measure yet to be implemented. Both measures are preconditions to soliciting more foreign donor money.
These measures are a sure recipe for antagonising the Fatah rank and file. However, the major threat to Fayyad's government remains Israel's military occupation. The World Bank warned Thursday that even if donor countries meet all of the PA's demands for financial aid, the Palestinian economy will continue to deteriorate, and Palestinians get poorer, if Israel does not lift its siege on Gaza and its restrictions on free movement in the West Bank.
All indications confirm that Israeli policies of settlement expansion, siege and blockade will endure. Thus Fayyad can promise his people only more of the same as opposition to his government and the PLO deepens by the day, dispelling whatever illusions of peace remain left over from Annapolis.
* The writer is a veteran Arab journalist based in Bir Zeit in occupied Palestine.