Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1374, (21 December 2017 - 3 January 2018)
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1374, (21 December 2017 - 3 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Palestine: Highs and lows

Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was a sour end to a mixed year for the Palestinian cause, writes Mohamed Al-Sharkawi    


Palestine:  Highs and lows
Palestine: Highs and lows

اقرأ باللغة العربية

Since the start of the Arab Spring in 2011 and the rise of the Islamic State group, the Palestinian cause was brushed off the global agenda. But on 6 December it made an immediate comeback when US President Donald Trump announced Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

There were many lows throughout 2017, but also a handful of successes. These include reticent conciliation between Fatah and Hamas under Egyptian auspices, and joining more international organisations, which has been the strategy of Palestinian leadership since April 2014 when the political track ground to a halt. Meanwhile, internal Hamas elections brought to power a pragmatic current that subscribes to political realism — a positive step when viewed alongside Hamas’s new charter.

The lows include continued Israeli intransigence and blatant US bias, which peaked once Trump became president in January 2017. Meanwhile, Israel continued its settlement and Judaicisation policies in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and the Palestinian leadership slapped more sanctions on the Gaza Strip which compounded humanitarian suffering for Gazans already under siege by Israel. Also, inter-Fatah divisions continued after failed attempts to reconcile Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and MP Mohamed Dahlan, a leading Fatah figure dismissed from the group. The quarrel was about who will succeed Abbas, 82, and interference by Israel and regional powers in the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) decision making.

The most notable success in 2017 was the victory of Palestinian resilience when on 27 July Israel overturned security measures at Al-Aqsa Mosque, taken after two Israeli soldiers were killed in the compound. On 14 July, three Palestinian cousins from Om Al-Fahm in the Green Zone (1948 Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship) attacked Israeli soldiers in Al-Aqsa’s courtyard, killing two and injuring a third before being killed. In response, Israel enforced strict security measures including shutting down Al-Aqsa for two days, erecting security gates and surveillance cameras.

Palestinians were enraged; they protested and clashed with Israeli security forces. Worshippers performed prayers near the gates of Al-Aqsa and outside the walls of the old city. Israel held its ground, so Palestinians upped the ante and four of them were killed in clashes with the Israeli army. Another Palestinian attacked the settlement of Halamish in northwest Ramallah, killing three settlers and injuring a fourth from the same family. He was arrested.

On 21 July, Abbas suspended all security and non-security coordination with Israel. “We will not allow the installation of security gates because sovereignty over the mosque is ours,” he declared. “We are the ones who should be monitoring and guarding the gates.”

Under pressure from popular resistance, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu decided to remove the security gates and replace them with surveillance cameras. But this was not acceptable to Palestinians who demanded everything be removed. Eventually, Israel caved and Palestinians rejoiced.

Another victory was on 27 September, when Palestine became a member of INTERPOL. The majority of INTERPOL’s General Assembly voted Palestine into the UN body at its 86th meeting in Beijing, despite objections by the US and Israel. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) tweeted that “more than 75 per cent of [INTERPOL] member states support Palestinian becoming a member.”

Since 2012, Palestine has joined more than 50 international organisations and treaties, according to the Palestinian Foreign Ministry, including the International Criminal Court and UNESCO. In November, the International Association of Prosecutors accepted Palestine’s bid to become a member, and the European Federation of Journalists accepted the membership of the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate. Palestinians also joined the European Energy Charter and the Euro-Mediterranean Youth Programme.

On 9 November, Palestine won the seat of UNESCO’s Rapporteur of the Cultural Committee in Paris, and the committee unanimously voted to protect the cultural heritage of Old Jerusalem. On 30 November, the UN General Assembly voted with an overwhelming majority to disavow Israeli ties to Jerusalem; 151 countries asserted Jerusalem is not linked to Israel, nine abstained and six supported the notion including Israel, the US, Canada, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Nauru.

Another peak in 2017 was in Cairo when Hamas and Fatah signed an agreement on the mechanism of implementing the conciliation deal. On 12 October, the two sides agreed to facilitate procedures to hand over power in the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian government (implemented 10 December) and closing ranks. The pact ended a decade of Palestinian division and the PA took control of all border crossings between Gaza and Israel, and at Rafah with Egypt.

But the agreement is facing challenges, including the suffering of more than one million Palestinians living in poverty-stricken Gaza Strip that has been under a crushing siege by Israel for more than 10 years, high unemployment rates, sporadic power and water services, and difficult economic conditions. Observers hope the deal will not disintegrate as others did in the past, most recently the 2011 Cairo agreement.

Keeping the security situation under control in Gaza remains a controversial issue. Hamas has a military wing of nearly 25,000 fighters and it is unclear if it would be ready to hand over its weapons to the PA. Senior Hamas figures have said handing over weapons is non-negotiable, but Abbas warned: “I will not accept or clone the Hizbullah model in Lebanon.” By agreeing to step away from power in Gaza, Hamas has made a key revision in its position out of concern it could become financially and politically isolated after its key supporter, Qatar, fell out with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt. Analysts add that Hamas leaders recently adopted a more pragmatic approach due to precarious conditions in Gaza.

On 13 February, Hamas elected Yehia Al-Sinwar, released detainee and commander in Al-Qassam Brigades, as the head of the group’s politburo in Gaza. He replaced Ismail Haniyeh, who was elected 6 May as politburo chief after Khaled Mishaal stepped down after 21 years in that office. On 1 May, the group published the “Document of General Principles and Policies” which defined Hamas as a Palestinian liberation movement operating in occupied Palestinian territories. For the first time in its history, it amended its political platform; without directly recognising Israel’s right to exist or laying down arms, it agreed to creating a temporary Palestinian state within the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital.

The document stated that Hamas’s battle is against Israeli occupation and Zionist plot, not Jews or the Jewish faith. It asserted its commitment to armed resistance as a strategic choice, but deleted the call for “destroying” Israel and declared disengagement with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. This was a move to improve relations with Gulf countries, Egypt, and Western countries that categorise Hamas as “terrorist”.

A major defeat for the Palestinian cause in 2017 was Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and intent to relocate the US embassy there, which sent shockwaves among Palestinians, Arabs and the world. Abbas described the decision as an end to the US’s decades-old role as sponsor of the peace process. “We reject the US’s position on Jerusalem; the US is no longer qualified to be a sponsor of the peace process,” he said in a statement.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Malki told a news conference at the Palestinian Embassy in Cairo on the sidelines of an Arab League meeting to discuss Trump’s decision, that his country wants to hold an Arab summit on the issue, and that they are not withdrawing from the peace process but looking for an alternative framework to the US. The status of Jerusalem is a key obstacle in reaching peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

Another defeat was the failure of the Paris Peace Conference. The conference began 15 January amid Israeli objections and Palestinian support, and was attended by 70 countries and organisations, as well as the Quartet (the US, EU, Russia and UN), the Arab League and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. It was the first conference of this calibre since peace talks were suspended in 2014, but results were negligible after nine months of discussions under US and European auspices because Israel refused to halt settlements, accept 1967 borders as the basis for negotiations, and release veteran Palestinian detainees.

Paris came after a ministerial meeting on the peace process in the French capital on 3 June 2016, and in the wake of the Security Council adopting Resolution 2334 at the end of 2016 condemning Israeli settlements. Analysts believe Paris failed because it was a symbolic gathering that could not reach any major decisions because neither the Palestinians nor Israel attended. Israel had described it as “useless”. Abbas refuses to talk as long as Israel continues settlement building in the West Bank.

Paris also came at the time of a power switch in Washington. Trump wants to reach a regional resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that is compatible with US interests in the region, and proposes an alternative approach to that of his predecessor Obama based on diplomatic progress that would lead to regional cooperation.

The Monitor Website quoted a senior official in the Israeli Foreign Ministry saying that Netanyahu is not interested in a two-state solution but is willing to accept a Palestinian state with limited sovereignty on the condition that the West Bank remains under complete Israeli security control. The source added: “The US administration is preparing to present a negotiations agenda, including regional input from Saudi Arabia specifically, as well as regional coordination to combat radical terrorism.” They added that Netanyahu is interested in regional cooperation against Iran and is willing to compromise marginally on the Palestinian cause to continue strengthening ties with Trump.

The US administration is expected to announce its regional plan in the coming weeks, and will lead coordination and consultation efforts with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the PA and Israel. Within this general framework, negotiations are also expected to take place between Palestinians and Israelis to achieve regional peace.

Some of the broad topics at hand reveal that “the plan requires an end to settlement building by Israel and end of incitement to violence by Palestinians. It also includes strict measures to combat terrorism, guaranteeing Israel’s security in the long run, and rejecting the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees.” It will also focus on economic investments to benefit Palestinians, regional cooperation in the war on terror, normalising relations between Arabs and Israel based on the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002.

Israel did not wait until Trump announced his “deal of the century” and pre-empted it with statements by Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely who specified the conditions for what would be acceptable for Israel in any deal. These include Israeli sovereignty in the region between the Mediterranean and River Jordan; refusing to dismantle any settlements in the West Bank; maintaining Jerusalem as a unified city and eternal capital of Israel; and not allowing the return of Palestinian refugees.

Netanyahu’s government quickly continued to annex land in the West Bank to expand settlements. The leaders of the ruling right-wing coalition competed over who supports settlements more. On 12 September, members of Israel’s far right National Union coalition gathered to discuss a plan by hardline Knesset Member Bezalel Smotrich to expel Palestinians. In a brief video message to the group, Netanyahu said: “We are building on the land and settling in the hills, valleys, Galilee, Negev, Judea and Samaria [West Bank] because this land is our land, and we have the right to live there. Israel is here; we live and die for it.” Smotrich proposed a plan to expel Palestinians in the occupied territories, dissolve the PA and encourage Palestinians to emigrate outside historic Palestine.

“Israel’s Decisive Plan” proposes three options for Palestinians. First, Palestinians must relinquish their right to democracy and national aspirations to be allowed to live in a Jewish state. Second, transferring anyone who rejects this option. Third, to live under the gun of Israeli security forces.

On 31 March, the Israeli cabinet agreed to build new settlements for residents of Amona settlement where 200-300 settlers were evacuated in February 2016. The new settlement will be built in Shilo Valley near Nablus in the West Bank, and will be the first time to construct a complete settlement in the West Bank in 20 years.

In recent years, Israel announced the construction of thousands of units in existing settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem, a move usually condemned by the international community which views settlements as illegal. According to Palestinian statistics, the number of settlers in the occupied West Bank multiplied sevenfold since Oslo was signed, and settlement building on occupied land has multiplied more during peace than during times of war.

The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics reported there are 144 agricultural, industrial and artisan settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, with 563,000 residents, 200,000 of whom are in East Jerusalem.

The worst blow to the Palestinian national project in 2017 was the decision by the Palestinian consensus government on 4 July to impose sanctions against the Gaza Strip, including early retirement for 6,145 civil servants. Also, slashing by 30-55 per cent the salaries of PA employees, decreasing energy by 50 megawatts, blocking medical transfers and halting bank transfers except salaries.

The PA’s condition to lifting the sanctions was for Hamas to end divisions, dissolve the parallel government called the Administrative Committee, hand over power to the consensus government and prepare for general elections. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights described these decisions as “collective punishment for two million Palestinians”.

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