Category Archives: Annexation

“People of the Cave”: Palestinians Take Their Fight for Justice to the Mountains 

Palestinians are not going anywhere. This is the gist of seven decades of Palestinian struggle against Zionist colonialism. The proof? The story of Ahmed Amarneh.

Amarneh, a 30-year-old civil engineer from the northern West Bank village of Farasin, lives with his family in a cave. For many years, the Amarneh family has attempted to build a proper home, but their request has been denied by the Israeli military every time.

In many ways, the struggle of the Amarnehs is a microcosm of the collective struggle of Farasin; in fact, of most Palestinians.

Those who are unfortunate enough to be living in areas of the West Bank, designated by the Oslo II Accord of 1995 as Area C, were left in a perpetual limbo.

Area C constitutes nearly 60% of the overall size of the West Bank. It is rich with resources – mostly arable land, water and ample minerals – yet, relatively sparsely populated. It should not be surprising why right-wing Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, wants to annex this region. More land, with fewer Palestinians, has been the guiding principle for Zionist colonialism from the outset.

True, Netanyahu’s annexation plan, at least the de jure element of it, has been postponed. In practice, however, de facto annexation has been taking place for many years, and, lately, it has accelerated. Last June, for example, Israel demolished 30 Palestinian homes in the West Bank, mostly in Area C, rendering over 100 Palestinians homeless.

Additionally, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Israeli army bulldozers destroyed 33 non-residential structures as well. This is “the same number (of homes) demolished throughout the entire first five months of 2020,” OCHA reported.

Unfortunately, Farasin, like numerous other Palestinian villages and communities across Area C, has been singled out for complete destruction. A small population of approximately 200 people has been subjected to Israeli army harassment for years. While Israel is keen on implanting Jewish communities in the heart of the occupied West Bank, it is equally keen on disrupting the natural growth of Palestinian communities, the indigenous people of the land, in Area C.

On July 29, Israeli forces invaded Farasin, terrorizing the residents, and handed over 36 demolition orders, according to the head of the Farasin village council. Namely, this is the onset of ethnic cleansing of the entire population of the village by Israel.

Ahmed Amarneh and his family also received a demolition order, although they do not live in a concrete house, but, rather, in a mountain cave.  “I didn’t make the cave. It has existed since antiquity,” he told reporters. “I don’t understand how they can prevent me from living in a cave. Animals live in caves and are not thrown out. So let them treat me like an animal and let me live in the cave.”

Amarneh’s emotional outburst is not misleading. In a recent report, the Israeli rights group B’tselem, has listed some of Israel’s deceptive methods used to forcefully remove Palestinians from their homes in Area C or to block any development whatsoever within these Palestinian communities.

“Israel has blocked Palestinian development by designating large swathes of land as state land, survey land, firing zones, nature reserves and national parks,” according to B’tselem. Judging by the systematic destruction of the Palestinian environment in the West Bank, Israel is hardly interested in the preservation of animals, either. The ultimate goal is the allocation of “land to settlements and their regional councils,” B’tselem argues.

Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that, for example, as of November 2017, only 16 of the 180 Palestinian communities in Area C have been approved for development. The rest are strictly prohibited.

Between 2016 and 2018, of the 1,485 Palestinian applications for construction and development in these areas, only 21 permits have been approved.

These unrealistic and draconian measures leave Palestinian families with no option but to build without a permit, eventually making them targets for Israeli military bulldozers.

Hundreds of families, like that of Ahmed Amarneh, have opted for alternative solutions. Failing to obtain a permit and wary of the imminent demolition if they build without one, they simply move to mountain caves.

This phenomenon is particularly manifest in the Hebron and Nablus regions.

In the mountainous wasteland located on the outskirts of Nablus, the wreckage of abandoned homes – some demolished, some unfinished – is a testimony of an ongoing war between the Israeli military, on the one hand, and the Palestinian people, on the other. Once they lose the battle and are left with no other option, many Palestinian families take their belongings and head to the caves in search of a home.

Quite often, the fight does not end there, as Palestinian communities, especially in the Hebron hills region, find themselves target to more eviction orders. The war for Palestinian survival rages on.

The case of Ahmed Amarneh, however, is particularly unique, for rarely, if ever, Israel issues a military order to demolish a cave. When the cave is demolished, where else can the Amarneh family go?

This dilemma, symptomatic of the larger Palestinian quandary, reminds one of Mahmoud Darwish’s seminal poem, “The Earth is Closing on Us”:

Where should we go after the last frontiers?
Where should the birds fly after the last sky?
Where should the plants sleep after the last breath of air?

However depressing the reality may be, the metaphor is undeniably powerful, that of savage colonialism that knows no bounds and Palestinian steadfastness (sumoud) that is perennial.

Often buried within the technical details of oppression – Area C, home demolition, ethnic cleansing and so on – is the tenacity of the human spirit, that of the Amarneh family and hundreds of other Palestinian families, who have turned caves into loving homes. It is this unmatched perseverance that makes the quest for justice in Palestine, despite the innumerable odds, possible.

How the Israel-UAE Deal puts the Bogus Peace Industry Back in Business

If there is one conclusion to draw from the agreement this week between Israel and the United Arab Emirates – with Israel temporarily “suspending” its threat to illegally annex parts of the West Bank, in return for “full normalisation” with the Gulf state – it is this: The peace industry is back in business.

But this time, unlike the interminable Oslo Accords signed a quarter of a century ago, there won’t even be the pretence that Palestinians are needed for “Middle East peace” to proceed. This is a process that takes place over their heads, a dialogue from which they are entirely absent.

This peace process is not between Palestinians and Israel, Washington’s client in the region. It is between Israel and oil-rich Arab states loyal to the US. It is a process that allows them to end the pretence that they are enemies of Israel. It means that they can stop feigning support for the Palestinian struggle for a state – even one on the last remnants of Palestinians’ homeland.

This is a peace process that effectively rubber-stamps the occupation and the many dozens of illegal Jewish settlements Israel has built to steal Palestinian land over many decades.

This is a peace process that moves the ostensible goal posts from permanently ending the occupation to simply postponing – for a little longer – Israel’s ambition to permanently annex those Palestinian lands it has already stolen.

In short, this is a peace process in which Arab states, led by the UAE, formally join Israel in waging war on Palestinians.

‘Outside-in’ strategy

In that sense, this is a continuation of the process begun by Jared Kushner, US President Donald Trump’s Middle East adviser and son-in-law, in developing the so-called “deal of the century”.

From the start, Kushner turned to the Gulf – to which he and the rest of the US political and economic elite have long been personally close – and sought to craft what became known as the “outside-in” strategy.

That meant recruiting as many Arab regimes as possible, starting with the oil-rich Gulf states, to sign up to the Trump “peace plan” and use their weight – and money – to strong-arm Palestinians into surrendering to Israeli diktats.

A White House dedicated to the politics of the used-car lot was bound to imagine that economics could be used to bludgeon Palestinians into compliance. That was why Kushner held an economic conference in Bahrain early last summer, even before he had a peace plan to unveil.

Saudis next in line?

Sensing how this was playing out, the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas refused early on to engage with the Trump plan, and soon cut off all ties to Washington. It made no difference. This was a peace plan that did not need the Palestinian people to be involved in the haggling over their future.

The Trump plan, unveiled earlier in the year, offered Palestinians the promise of an eventual state on shards of the West Bank, after Israel had been allowed to annex swaths of their territory.

Now, Israel has put this move on temporary hold in return for normalisation with the UAE. Kushner says other states are expected to follow. Bahrain and Oman are likely to be close behind.

The agreement states: “The United States, Israel and the United Arab Emirates are confident that additional diplomatic breakthroughs with other nations are possible, and will work together to achieve this goal.”

The real coup would be Saudi Arabia, which is presumably waiting to see how the deal with the UAE is received. It is hard to imagine, however, that the UAE’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, took this step without first getting the green light from Riyadh.

By contrast, the previous Saudi ruler, King Abdullah, championed a regional peace agreement in 2002 that offered Israel full recognition by the Arab states in return for Israel conceding Palestinian statehood in the occupied territories.

That offer exposed the true colours of Israel and Washington. Israeli leaders ignored the Saudi plan, and, taking their cue from Tel Aviv, US leaders refused to seize the opportunity to advance the bold Saudi offer as the basis for a peace agreement.

Biden jumps on board

Under Trump, things have rapidly worsened for Palestinians. Millions of refugees have been starved of aid; the US embassy has been moved to Jerusalem; Israel’s illegal annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights has been approved; and illegal settlements have continued to expand.

And yet, Israeli intransigence is paying off. The Gulf is ready to offer Israel normalisation not just without any meaningful concessions, but at the same time as the situation for Palestinians deteriorates significantly.

Trump has called the Israeli-UAE pact “a historic peace agreement between our two great friends”. Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, described the UAE’s normalisation with Israel as “a significant step forward for peace in the Middle East”.

But anyone who imagines that this is simply a floundering, implausible last move by a lame-duck president – assuming Trump fails to win the presidential election in November – is likely to be in for a disappointment.

Joe Biden, his Democratic challenger, has also excitedly jumped on board. He described the agreement as “a welcome, brave, and badly needed act of statesmanship”, adding that the alternative – annexation – “would be a body blow to the cause of peace”.

Bitter victory

In one sense, this is a victory, even if a very bitter one, for the Palestinian leadership. They denounced the agreement. Palestinians’ belated refusal to engage with the Trump plan – after long colluding in a US-dictated Oslo peace process that was designed from the outset to negate their right to live in dignity in their homeland – has flushed the real US-Israeli agenda out into the open.

Even with the best interpretation of the Oslo Accords, Palestinians were never going to be allowed the semblance of a sovereign state, even on the remnants of their original homeland.

They were to have no control over their borders, their airspace, the electromagnetic spectrum, or their diplomatic relations with other states. And of course, they were most definitely not going to be allowed an army.

The peace process was always about keeping Israel in control of the entire space, with a segment of Palestinians allowed to live there as a caged, dependent people. They could either willingly agree to their subordination, or face further repression from Israel to crush their spirit.

Now, all of this is no longer being disguised, even if politicians and diplomats in Washington and the Gulf wish to mislead the rest of the world that this should still be called a “peace process”.

Signs that they may get away with this monumental deception were evident in the responses of major European capitals, which welcomed the agreement. Germany called it “an important contribution to peace in the region”, while Boris Johnson in the UK said it was “hugely good news”.

The message sent by Israel, the US and the UAE is that committing war crimes and violating international humanitarian law can pay handsome dividends over the long run.

A shared agenda

The gains in this deal for the UAE and the other Gulf states – assuming, as seems likely, that they follow suit – are simple. The Sunni Gulf has long wanted fuller integration into the US-Israeli security nexus in the Middle East.

The US, Israel and the Gulf states share a deep hostility towards Iran and its Shia coreligionist factions in the region – from Lebanon and Syria to Iraq and Yemen.

Israel opposes these Shia actors because they have proved most ready to resist it, as well as Washington’s imperial designs, centred on control over the region’s oil.

The Gulf, meanwhile, as the birthplace of Sunni Islam and the supposed guardian of its honour, has a separate interest in securing its sectarian hegemony in the region. Gulf states have been developing close, if semi-covert, ties to Israel in recent years while engaging more actively in wars across the region, either through proxies in Syria and Iraq or directly in Yemen.

They have been keen to go public with normalisation so that they can gain greater access to US-Israeli intelligence and improved military technology, which would naturally flow from increased levels of trust.

Imperial agenda

Aside from the bland, positive diplomatic wording, the agreement does not veil this goal: A new “Strategic Agenda for the Middle East” will be developed to “expand diplomatic, trade, and security cooperation”. The US, Israel and the UAE “share a similar outlook regarding the threats and opportunities in the region, as well as a shared commitment to promoting stability”.

Repackaging its role in this entirely self-interested deal, the UAE can also still present itself as the champion of the Palestinian cause and the two-state solution, delaying annexation to another day.

The advantages to the Gulf run deeper still, however. Washington’s imperial agenda inevitably feeds and needs enemies, especially in an oil-rich region such as the Middle East, to justify endless wars and endless profits for its “defence” industries.

The Gulf states want to be on the right side of that military-industrial divide as the US moves into choppier waters ahead, facing oil shortages, a deterioration in the global climate, and the rise of China as a superpower.

Diplomatic coup

Washington’s interests in the deal, and Trump’s, are similarly clear. Pushing ahead with annexation has proved much harder than the Trump administration expected. European and Arab capitals were adamantly opposed to a move that would deprive them of the two-state cover story that, for more than two decades, had allowed them to pretend they were committed to Middle East peace.

And it became ever harder for Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to muster support from the Israeli public for annexation as the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changed priorities.

Months from a presidential election he is predicted to lose, Trump needed a diplomatic coup in the Middle East after promising so much and achieving so little with his much-trumpeted “deal of the century”. Now he has it.

This move will placate his large Christian evangelical electoral base, which is devoted to Israel and supports whatever it wants. Evangelical leaders lost no time in saying they were “elated” by the announcement.

It can also be spun, as his officials began vigorously doing from the outset, as an “historic peace agreement” – equivalent to the deals Israel signed previously with Egypt and Jordan. That can be used on the campaign trail to sell Trump to the wider electorate as one of the great US statesmen.

Sharpening the battle lines

But there are wider benefits for the bipartisan Washington foreign policy elite. They have long wished to cement ties between Israel and the Gulf states, having the US’ two most reliable regional allies publicly cooperating.

As the Gulf states have become more deeply and obviously enmeshed in wars across the Middle East – from Syria to Yemen – an agreement allying them to Israel helps Washington’s improbable narrative that they are really the good guys. It will sharpen the region’s battle lines and, it is hoped, convey greater legitimacy on these theocratic dictatorships.

The US hopes, too, that the agreement with the UAE – and other Gulf states later – will once again provide a plausible cover story as Israel entrenches its occupation, steals more Palestinian land and intensifies its repression of Palestinians.

It will allow Washington to revive its bogus claims of being an “honest broker”, seeking the best for Palestinians, even if their leaders are supposedly too dimwitted to understand what is good for them.

Pitting the Palestinian leadership against the Gulf – as well as other Arab states, such as Jordan and Egypt, that dare not antagonise their oil-rich neighbours – will further isolate Palestinians. They can now be presented more convincingly as entrenched opponents of peace, at best – or, if they resist, as terrorists.

Netanyahu bailed out

Lastly, Netanyahu, who is in deep trouble at home, hopes this agreement can dig him out of his hole. He is up against a wave of protests that have rallied large sections of Israeli society, including on the right. He faces an unprecedented corruption trial. His handling of the Covid-19 pandemic looks increasingly catastrophic. The Israeli economy is imploding.

In this context, his focus on West Bank annexation alienated much of the Israeli public, and even failed to satisfy sections of the settler community, who want all of the Palestinian territories, not just large parts. A deal with the UAE – and implicitly one with the rest of the Gulf – allows him to climb down from an unpopular annexation plan.

Netanyahu has long declared himself Mr. Security, the protector of Israel’s interests, and the only Israeli leader capable of making dramatic moves on the global stage. Here, he appears to have done both. It has even forced his political opponents to praise his achievement.

Netanyahu has managed to pull all this off while being able to argue that annexation is still “on the table”, placating his supporters among the settlers.

The agreement may yet set the stage for him to win a winter election he is widely reported to be preparing for.

No price to pay

The abandonment of annexation – temporarily or otherwise – will not, of course, interrupt Israel’s continuing capture of ever more Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank, nor its relentless campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Netanyahu has demonstrated to Israelis that he was right. Israel could violate international law, steal land, commit war crimes – and western and Arab states would stomach it all. Israel would have to pay no price for its behaviour.

Haaretz recalled on Friday that, when asked in 2018 whether concessions to Palestinians initiated in the Oslo Accords had gradually led to improvements in relations with the Arab world, Netanyahu responded that it was the “exact opposite”.

By first recruiting the West and Arab regimes to Israel’s side, he said, Israel would “become so strong” that it would force Palestinians to “understand that they have no choice but to compromise with us” – his term for absolute submission.

For Netanyahu, a strategic alliance with the Gulf – at the expense of Palestinians – has always been about more than just grabbing the occupied territories. It is central to his vision of an unreformed, maximalist, ethnic supremacist, Israeli state secure in the Middle East, serving as a regional hegemon alongside US global power.

Now, with this deal, Netanyahu believes he is in sight of the finishing line.

• First published in Middle East Eye

The Likud Conspiracy: Israel in the Throes of a Major Political Crisis

Protests against Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, have raged on for weeks, turning violent sometimes. Israelis are furious at their government’s mediocre response to the coronavirus pandemic, especially as COVID-19 disease is experiencing a massive surge throughout the country.

Netanyahu warned protesters, thousands of whom have been rallying outside his residence in Jerusalem, against “anarchy (and) violence”. Scenes of utter chaos and violent arrests have been a daily occurrence in a country that is already in the throes of a political crisis, largely, if not exclusively, linked to the Prime Minister himself.

Desperate to create any distractions from his many woes at home, Netanyahu has been pushing for a confrontation with the Lebanese resistance group, Hezbollah. But that, too, has failed, as Israeli media has denied earlier claims that a violent confrontation was reported at the Israel/Lebanon border.

Hezbollah insists that it would be the group, not Netanyahu, that will determine the time and place for its response to Israel’s recent killing of Hezbollah’s influential member, Ali Kamel Mohsen.

Mohsen was killed in an Israeli aerial raid targeting the vicinity of the Damascus International Airport, likely another desperate attempt by Netanyahu to deflect attention from his troubled coalition government and his corruption trial to an issue that often unifies most Israelis.

The turmoil in Israel is not just about an obstinate, divisive leader who is manipulating public opinion, the media and the various political groups to remain in power and to avoid legal accountability for his corruption.

The Disunited Coalition 

Israel is suffering a crisis of political legitimacy, one that goes beyond the embattled Netanyahu, and his coalition with the head of the Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) centrist party, Benny Gantz.

The political marriage between Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Kahol Lavan last April was fundamentally odd and unexpected. The announcement that Gantz — who endured three general elections in less than a year to finally oust Netanyahu — was uniting with his archenemy has devastated the anti-Netanyahu political camp, forcing Gantz’s partners, Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon, to abandon him.

But the new coalition government between the right and center became dysfunctional immediately after it was formed. Israel’s political marriage of convenience is likely to end in an ugly divorce.

The war between Netanyahu and his main coalition partner is now manifest in every aspect of Israel’s political life:  in the Knesset (parliament), in media headlines and on the streets.

When the new government assumed its duties after one of the most tumultuous years in Israel’s political history, the mood, at least immediately, was somewhat calm; both Netanyahu and Gantz seemed united in their desire to illegally annex nearly a third of the occupied Palestinian West Bank. Israel’s right wing camp was delighted; the center tagged along.

However, the international response to the annexation scheme forced Netanyahu to rethink his July 1 deadline. Now that annexation has been postponed indefinitely, Netanyahu is being denied a major political card that could have helped him replenish his fading popularity among Israelis, at a time when he desperately needs it.

On July 19, Netanyahu’s corruption trial resumed. Although the Prime Minister did not attend the opening session personally, his image — that of a strong commanding figure — was tarnished, nonetheless.

Gantz, who already agreed to the annexation plan, was too clever to fully associate himself with the risky political endeavor. That task was left to Netanyahu who knew the risks affiliated with a failed political scheme, but with no option except to follow through with it.

Awaiting the right opportunity to pounce on his beleaguered ‘partner’, Gantz found his chance in a report published by the Israeli daily newspaper, Haaretz.

The Budget Conspiracy 

On July 22, Haaretz reported that, “Netanyahu decided to not pass the budget for 2020 and to call a general election to take place on November 18,” to avoid the possibility of being forced to “handing over the keys to Defense Minister and Kahol Lavan Chairman, Benny Gantz” so that he, Netanyahu, may “attend legal proceedings” related to his corruption trial.

According to this claim, Netanyahu only agreed to swap the Prime Minister seat with Gantz come November 2021 just to buy time and to avoid a fourth election that would leave him vulnerable to an electoral defeat and to a corruption trial without a political safety net.

Despite the risk of yet another election, Netanyahu is keen to wrestle the Justice Ministry from Kahol Lavan’s hands, because whoever controls the Justice Ministry controls Netanyahu’s fate in Israeli courts. Leaving Gantz with such a powerful card is neither an option for the Likud nor for Netanyahu.

Hence, the Likud is insisting that the budget agreement can only last for one year, while Kahol Lavan is adamant that it must cover a period of two years. The Likud conspiracy, as revealed in Israeli media, suggests that the Likud Finance Minister, Israel Katz, plans to use the next budget negotiations as the reason to dismantle the right-center coalition and demand another election, thus denying Gantz his chance to serve his term as a prime minister, per the unity government agreement.

Crisis of a Fake Democracy

However, the crisis is larger than the dispute between Netanyahu and Gantz. While Israel has long prided itself on being “the only democracy in the Middle East”, the truth is that Israeli ‘democracy’ was, from the start, fraudulent, in that it catered to Israeli Jews and discriminated against everyone else.

In recent years, however, institutionalized racism and apartheid in Israel were no longer masked by clever political discourses.  Netanyahu, in particular, has led the charge of making Israel the right-wing, chauvinistic, racist haven that it is today.

The fact that Netanyahu recently became Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, elected repeatedly by Israel’s Jewish citizens, indicates that the Israeli leader is but a reflection of the larger ailments that have afflicted Israeli society as a whole.

Reducing the discussion to Netanyahu’s many failures might be convenient, but the demonstrable truth is that corrupt leaders can only exist in corrupt and unhealthy political systems. Israel is now the perfect example of that truism.

End the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement

On Sunday a demonstration is planned in Montréal against the Canada Israel Free Trade Agreement (CIFTA). Under the banner “Against Israel’s annexation of the Jordan Valley. No to the Canada Israel Free Trade Agreement!”, the march is seeking to politicize CIFTA amidst Israel’s plan to formally annex parts of the West Bank.

The march follows an open letter released last month by over 100 Montréal artists and activists calling for the cancellation of CIFTA.

Signed in 1997, CIFTA was Canada’s fourth free trade agreement and first outside the Western hemisphere (US, NAFTA and Chile). In an implicit recognition of the occupation, the free trade agreement includes the West Bank as a place where Israel’s custom laws are applied. Canada’s trade agreement is based on the areas Israel maintains territorial control over, not on internationally recognized borders. The European Union’s trade agreement with Israel, on the other hand, explicitly excludes products from territory Israel captured in the 1967 war and occupies against international law.

The Liberals “modernized” Canada’s FTA with Israel. International trade minister Jim Carr boasted the new accord “strengthens bilateral ties between Canada and Israel.” Liberal MPs on Parliament’s Standing Committee on International Trade rejected an NDP amendment to the trade accord’s legislation stipulating its implementation “shall be based on respect for human rights and international law.” They also rejected an NDP amendment to the deal that would have required distinct labels on products originating from “Palestinian territory that has been illegally occupied since 1967.”

In July 2019 Palestine Liberation Organization Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi wrote:

The Palestinian leadership calls on the Canadian government to act in accordance with Canadian and international laws and amend, without delay, the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act (Bill C-85), which affords products originating from illegal Israeli settlements tariff free status, in flagrant violation of Canada’s obligations under international law, including the Fourth Geneva Convention, and United Nations Security Council resolutions, including resolution 2334 (2016).

In July 2017 the federal government said its FTA with Israel trumped Canada’s Food and Drugs Act after the Canadian Food Inspection Agency called for accurate labelling of wines produced in the occupied West Bank. After David Kattenburg repeatedly complained about inaccurate labels on two wines sold in Ontario, the CFIA notified the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) that it “would not be acceptable and would be considered misleading” to declare wines produced in the Occupied Palestinian Territories as “products of Israel”. Quoting from longstanding official Canadian policy, CFIA noted that “the government of Canada does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the territories occupied in 1967.” In response to pressure from the Israeli embassy, Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and B’nai Brith, the government announced that it was all a mistake made by a low level CFIA official and that the Canada-Israel FTA governed the labelling of such wine, not CFIA rules. “We did not fully consider the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement,” a terse CFIA statement explained. “These wines adhere to the Agreement and therefore we can confirm that the products in question can be sold as currently labeled.”

In other words, the government publicly proclaimed that the FTA trumps Canada’s consumer protections. But, this was little more than a pretext to avoid a conflict with B’nai B’rith, Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and Israeli officials, according to Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Trade and Investment Research Project director Scott Sinclair. “This trade-related rationale does not stand up to scrutiny,” Sinclair wrote. “The Canadian government, the CFIA and the LCBO are well within their legal and trade treaty rights to insist that products from the occupied territories be clearly labeled as such. There is nothing in the CIFTA that prevents this. The decision to reverse the CFIA’s ruling was political. The whole trade argument is a red herring, simply an excuse to provide cover for the CFIA to backtrack under pressure.”

If the Canadian government does indeed support a rules-based international order as Prime Minister Trudeau has proclaimed then the Canada Israel Free Trade Agreement should be scrapped.

Information on the demonstration “Against Israel’s annexation of the Jordan Valley. No to the Canada Israel Free Trade Agreement!” is available here

Apartheid or One State: Has Jordan Broken a Political Taboo?   

What will it take for the idea of a two-state solution, which was hardly practical to begin with, to be completely abandoned?

Every realistic assessment of the situation on the ground indicates, with palpable clarity, that there can never be a viable Palestinian state in parts of the West Bank and Gaza.

Politically, the idea is also untenable. Those who are still marketing the ‘two-state solution’, less enthusiastically now as compared with the euphoria of twenty years ago, are paralyzed in the face of the Israeli-American onslaught on any attempt at making ‘Palestine’ a tangible reality.

The Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas is still busy compiling more symbolic recognitions of a state that, at best, exists in the dusty files of the United Nations. Arabs and Europeans, too, still speak of a two-state, rhetoric that is never followed with practical steps that may enforce international law and hold Israel accountable to it.

The fate of Palestine seems to be entirely dependent on the aggressive and violent actions of Israel alone — not only through the policies of Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, but all previous Israeli governments.

This trajectory of aggression and violence is likely to continue for as long as Israel is held hostage to the ideology of Zionism which remains committed to territorial, colonial expansion and the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous population.

These two factors — colonialism and ethnic cleansing — can never coexist with the principles of justice and peace. For Zionism to remain relevant, Israel and Palestine must remain in the throes of a protracted, interminable war.

Therefore, it was encouraging to read comments made by Jordanian Prime Minister, Omar Razzaz, in an interview with the British Guardian newspaper on July 21.

“You close the door to the two-state solution, I could very well look at this positively, if we’re clearly opening the door to a one-state democratic solution,” Razzaz said.

Razzaz was referring specifically in the context of Netanyahu’s decision to annex nearly a third of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley. The senior Jordanian official referred to Israel’s annexation policies as the “ushering in (of) a new apartheid state.”

An apartheid state was, practically, ushered in a long time ago. Israel’s so-called Nation-State Law of 2018 merely confirmed an existing reality.

The Law left no doubt regarding Israel’s exclusionist ‘Jewish identity’, formulated at the expense of the Palestinian people, their historic rights in Palestine and the internationally-enshrined Right of Return for Palestinian refugees.

On July 29, the Israeli Knesset (parliament) callously rejected a draft amendment to make the unmistakably racist Nation-State Law slightly less racist. The amendment had called for the inclusion of a clause that guarantees equality for all of Israel’s citizens, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity.

In its current form, Israel represents the very essence of apartheid.

Razzaz knows this, as do many politicians and leaders throughout the Middle East, in Europe and across the world. Unlike his counterparts elsewhere, however, the Jordanian Prime Minister had the courage to imagine a future in Palestine and Israel that is not inundated by empty clichés of ‘solutions’ that were never fair, to begin with.

Razzaz’s positive and upbeat tone of words is notable.

“I challenge anybody from Israel to say yes, let’s end the two-state solution, it’s not viable,” he said. “But let’s work together on a one-state democratic solution. That, I think, we will look at very favorably. But closing one and wishful thinking about the other is just self-deception.”

Other Arab officials, prior to Razzaz, alluded to the one-state possibility, but largely in a negative context. Palestinian Authority officials, in particular, have waved this card before, often threatening Israel that, if illegal settlement expansion was not frozen, for example, Palestinians would have no alternative but to demand a one state.

What Razzaz is saying is quite different, if not radical, as Jordan, which signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1994, has remained the most visible Arab advocate for the two-state solution for many years. Razzaz’s words bring that ‘self-deception’ to an end.

Of course, political necessity will compel Jordan, and others, to continue to pay lip service to a political ‘solution’ that will, unlikely, ever materialize. Israelis and Palestinians are now conjoined in such a way that physical separation between Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews is impossible. Additionally, speaking of a two-state solution while Israel is cementing a one apartheid state reality is a waste of precious time that should be used to foster equality, accountability and a just peace.

Ordinary Palestinians, too are beginning to realize the futility of the two-state paradigm. According to a February poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 61% of all Palestinians no longer believe that ‘a two-state solution’ is viable. The same poll suggests that 37% support the idea of a single state solution. Judging by previous poll numbers, it seems that, before long, the majority of Palestinians will embrace the latter as the most rational and achievable objective.

It will take time because the establishment of an independent Palestinian state has been the only rallying cry by the Palestinian leadership for nearly three decades.

However, even prior to the 1960s, the Palestinian national movement adopted a political strategy that was predicated on the establishment of a one democratic state for Christians, Muslims and Jews. Alas, political expediency impelled late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to shift tactics, settling for a Palestinian state that would, in theory, be incrementally established in disconnected parts of the occupied territories – Gaza, Jericho, Area A, B, and so on.

Even the latter idea, which was most unfair to Palestinians, was still rejected by Israel, and Netanyahu’s latest annexation scheme is proving to be the final nail of the two-state coffin.

Since the two-state solution is no longer workable, Palestine and Israel are now left with one of two options: a protracted, racist and violent apartheid or coexistence in a modern, democratic, and secular state, for all of its people.

The democratic and sustainable choice should be obvious, even to politicians.

Can the Anti-Netanyahu Protests grow into a Larger Movement?

Israel is roiling with angry street protests that local observers have warned could erupt into open civil strife – a development Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be encouraging.

For weeks, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have been the scene of large, noisy demonstrations outside the official residences of Mr Netanyahu and his public security minister, Amir Ohana.

On Saturday night around 13,000 marched through Jerusalem shouting “Anyone but Bibi”, Netanyahu’s nickname. Their calls were echoed by tens of thousands more at locations across the country.

Turnout has been steadily growing, despite attacks on demonstrators from both the police and Netanyahu’s loyalists. The first protests abroad by Israeli expats have also been reported.

The protests, in defiance of physical distancing rules, are unprecedented by Israeli standards. They have bridged the gaping political divide between a small constituency of anti-occupation activists – disparagingly called “leftists” in Israel – and the much larger Israeli Jewish public that identifies politically as on the centre and the right.

For the first time, a section of Netanyahu’s natural supporters is out on the streets against him.

In contrast to earlier protests, such as a large social justice movement that occupied the streets in 2011 to oppose rising living costs, these demonstrations have not entirely eschewed political issues.

The target of the anger and frustration is decidedly personal at this stage – focused on the figure of Netanyahu, who is now Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Protesters have renamed him Israel’s “crime minister”.

But also fuelling the protests is a larger mood of disenchantment as doubts grow about the state’s competence to deal with multiple crises unfolding in Israel. The virus has caused untold social and economic misery for many, with as much as one fifth of the labour force out of work. Netanyahu’s supporters in the lower middle-classes have been hit hardest.

Now well into a second wave, Israel has a per capita rate of infection that outstrips even the US. The shadow of a renewed lockdown amid government mishandling of the virus has undermined Netanyahu’s claim to be “Mr Security”.

There are concerns too about police brutality – starkly highlighted by the killing in May of an autistic Palestinian, Eyad Hallaq, in Jerusalem.

Police crackdowns on the protests, using riot squads, undercover agents, mounted police and water cannon, have underlined not just Netanyahu’s growing authoritarianism. There is a sense too that the police may be ready to use violence on dissenting Israelis that was once reserved for Palestinians.

After manipulating his right-wing rival, the former military general Benny Gantz, into joining him in a unity government in April, Netanyahu has effectively crushed any meaningful political opposition.

The agreement shattered Gantz’s Blue and White party, with many of his legislators refusing to enter the government, and has widely discredited the ex-general.

Netanyahu is reportedly preparing for a winter election – the fourth in two years – both to cash in on his opponents’ disarray and to avoid honouring a rotation agreement in which Gantz is due to replace him late next year.

According to the Israeli media, Netanyahu may find a pretext for forcing new elections by further delaying approval of the national budget, despite Israel facing its worst financial crisis in decades.

And, of course, overshadowing all this is the matter of the corruption charges against Netanyahu. Not only is he the first sitting prime minister in Israel to stand trial, but he has been using his role and the pandemic to his advantage, including by delaying court hearings.

In a time of profound crisis and uncertainty, many Israelis are wondering which policies are being pursued for the national good and which for Netanyahu’s personal benefit.

The government’s months-long focus on the annexation of swaths of Palestinian territory in the West Bank has looked like pandering to his settler constituency, creating a dangerous distraction from dealing with the pandemic.

Similarly, a one-off handout this week to every Israeli – over the strenuous objections of finance officials – looks suspiciously like an electoral bribe. As a result, Netanyahu is facing a rapid decline in support. A recent survey shows trust in him has fallen by half – from 57 per cent in March and April, when the Covid-19 pandemic began, to 29 per cent today.

Many Israelis increasingly see Netanyahu less as a father figure and more as a parasite draining resources from the body politic. Capturing the popular mood is a new art work called the “Last Supper” that was covertly installed in central Tel Aviv. It shows Netanyahu alone, gorging on a vast banquet by stuffing his hand into an enormous cake decorated with the Israeli flag.

In another move designed to highlight Netanyahu’s corrupt politics, better-off Israelis have been publicly organising to donate this week’s state handout to those in need.

Netanyahu’s repeated incitement against the protesters – disparaging them as “leftists” and “anarchists”, and suggesting they are spreading disease – appears to have backfired. It has only rallied more people to the street.

But the incitement and Netanyahu’s claims that he is the true victim – and that in the current climate he faces assassination – have been interpreted as a call to arms by some on the right. Last week five protesters were injured when his loyalists used clubs and broken bottles on them, with police appearing to turn a blind eye. Further attacks were reported at the weekend. Protest organisers said they had begun arranging defence units to protect demonstrators.

Ohana, the public security minister, has called for a ban on the protests and urged a heavy hand from the police. He has delayed appointing a new police chief – a move seen as incentivising local commanders to crack down on the protests to win favour. Large numbers of protesters have been forcefully arrested, with reports that police have questioned some on their political views.

Observers have wondered whether the protests can transcend party political tribalism and develop into a grassroots movement demanding real change. That might widen their appeal to even more disadvantaged groups, not least the one fifth of Israel’s citizens who belong to its Palestinian minority.

But it would also require more of the protesters to start drawing a direct connection between Netanyahu’s personal abuses of office and the wider, systemic corruption of Israeli politics, with the occupation its beating heart.

That may yet prove a tall order, especially when Israel faces no significant external pressure for change, either from the US or from Europe.

• First published in The National

List of Israeli Targets Leaked: Tel Aviv Fears the Worst in ICC Investigation of War Crimes

When International Court of Justice (ICC) Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, confirmed last December that the Court has ample evidence to pursue a war crimes investigation in occupied Palestine, the Israeli government responded with the usual rhetoric, accusing the international community of bias and insisting on Israel’s ‘right to defend itself.’

Beneath the platitudes and typical Israeli discourse, the Israeli government knew too well that an ICC investigation into war crimes in Palestine could be quite costly. An investigation, in itself, represents an indictment of sorts. If Israeli individuals were to be indicted for war crimes, that is a different story, as it becomes a legal obligation of ICC members to apprehend the criminals and hand them over to the Court.

Israel remained publicly composed, even after Bensouda, last April, elaborated on her December decision with a 60-page legal report, titled: “Situation in the State of Palestine: Prosecution Response to the Observations of Amici Curiae, Legal Representatives of Victims, and States.”

In the report, the ICC addressed many of the questions, doubts and reports submitted or raised in the four months that followed her earlier decision. Countries such as Germany and Austria, among others, had used their position as amici curiae — ‘friends of the court’ — to question the ICC jurisdiction and the status of Palestine as a country.

Bensouda insisted that “the Prosecutor is satisfied that there is a reasonable basis to initiate an investigation into the situation in Palestine under article 53(1) of the Rome Statute, and that the scope of the Court’s territorial jurisdiction comprises the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza (“Occupied Palestinian Territory”).”

However, Bensouda did not provide definitive timelines to the investigation; instead, she requested that the ICC’S Pre-Trial Chamber “confirm the scope of the Court’s territorial jurisdiction in Palestine,” an additional step that is hardly required since the State of Palestine, a signatory of the Rome Statute, is the one that actually referred the case directly to the Prosecutor’s office.

The April report, in particular, was the wake-up call for Tel Aviv. Between the initial decision in December till the release of the latter report, Israel lobbied on many fronts, enlisting the help of ICC members and recruiting its greatest benefactor, Washington – which is not an ICC member – to bully the Court so it may reverse its decision.

On May 15, US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, warned the ICC against pursuing the investigation, targeting Bensouda, in particular, for her decision to hold war criminals in Palestine accountable.

The US slapped unprecedented sanctions against the ICC on June 11, with President Donald Trump issuing an ‘executive order’ that authorizes the freezing of assets and a travel ban against ICC officials and their families. The order also allows for the punishing of other individuals or entities that assist the ICC in its investigation.

Washington’s decision to carry out punitive measures against the very Court that was established for the sole purpose of holding war criminals accountable is both outrageous and abhorrent. It also exposes Washington’s hypocrisy — the country that claims to defend human rights is attempting to prevent legal accountability by those who have violated human rights.

Upon its failure to halt the ICC legal procedures regarding its investigation of war crimes, Israel began to prepare for the worst. On July 15, Israeli daily newspaper, Haaretz, reported about a ‘secret list’ that was drawn up by the Israeli government. The list includes “between 200 and 300 officials”, ranging from politicians to military and intelligence officials, who are subject to arrest abroad, should the ICC officially open the war crimes investigation.

Names begin at the top of the Israeli political pyramid, among them Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his current coalition partner, Benny Gantz.

The sheer number of Israeli officials on the list is indicative of the scope of the ICC’s investigation, and somehow is a self-indictment, as the names include former Israeli Defense Ministers — Moshe Ya’alon, Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett; current and former army chiefs of staffs — Aviv Kochavi, Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot and current and former heads of internal intelligence, the Shin Bet — Nadav Argaman and Yoram Cohen.

Respected international human rights organizations have already, repeatedly, accused all these individuals of serious human rights abuses during Israel’s lethal wars on the besieged Gaza Strip, starting with the so-called ‘Operation Cast Lead’ in 2008-9.

But the list is far more extensive, as it covers “people in much more junior positions, including lower-ranking military officers and, perhaps, even officials involved in issuing various types of permits to settlements and settlement outposts.”

Israel, thus, fully appreciates the fact that the international community still insists that the construction of illegal colonies in occupied Palestine, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and the transfer of Israeli citizens to occupied land are all inadmissible under international law and tantamount to war crimes. Netanyahu must be disappointed to learn that all of Washington’s concessions to Israel under Trump’s presidency have failed to alter the position of the international community and the applicability of international law in any way.

Furthermore, it would not be an exaggeration to argue that Tel Aviv’s postponement of its plan to illegally annex nearly a third of the West Bank is directly linked to the ICC’s investigation, for the annexation would have completely thwarted Israel’s friends’ efforts aimed at preventing the investigation from ever taking place.

While the whole world, especially Palestinians, Arabs and their allies, still anxiously await the final decision by the Pre-Trial Chamber, Israel will continue its overt and covert campaign to intimidate the ICC and any other entity that aims to expose Israeli war crimes and to try Israeli war criminals.

Washington, too, will continue to strive to ensure Netanyahu, Gantz, and the “200 to 300” other Israeli officials never see their day in court.

However, the fact that a “secret list” exists is an indication that Tel Aviv understands that this era is different and that international law, which has failed Palestinians for over 70 years, may for once deliver, however small, a measure of justice.

“Feeding a Bedouin”: Roy Oz and Israel’s Outrageous Racism 

On July 11, a video footage which showed a popular Israeli TV celebrity demeaning Palestinian children from the Bedouin community in the Naqab area, went viral on social media.

“Let’s feed a Bedouin. Don’t you want to feed a Bedouin?” Israeli Children TV host, Roy Oz, repeatedly asks his children, who were seated in the back seat of his car. Outside the vehicle, two Palestinian children were filmed as they stood waiting eagerly for the cookies promised to them by the Israeli driver.

Palestinian Bedouins are treated like “monkeys”, said Atia al-Asem, head of the Regional Council of Palestinian Villages in the Naqab, after viewing the disturbing footage.

Arab Member of the Israeli Parliament (Knesset), Ahmad Tibi, described Oz’s behavior as the “lowest of human behavior, racist and despicable brutishness.”

In truth, Oz’s actions were merely consistent with the very racist reality that governs Israeli society — its laws, political institutions, media apparatus, its economic sector and popular perceptions.

In particular, the thousands of Palestinians who are still living in the Naqab desert have been subjected to a relentless Israeli campaign of dehumanization, racism, and ethnic cleansing.

Racism and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian Bedouin communities go hand in hand.  Oz’s video cannot be viewed separately from the Israeli government’s plans to corral Palestinians in the Naqab into isolated and impoverished communities in order to make space for Jewish-only housing developments.

For this sinister scenario to succeed, the Palestinian Bedouins need to be dehumanized by the Israeli political and media establishments. Oz’s racist video is a mere expression of this outrageous reality.

However, the issue exceeds that of the devastation and racism underway in the Naqab, into all aspects of Israeli lives.

In July 2018, Israel approved a “basic law”, dubbed the “Jewish nation-state law” that gave ascendency to everything Jewish and denigrated all else. It was a desperate, and ultimately failed, attempt at reconciling between the “Jewishness” of the state with universal democratic ideals.

“The Land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established,” the new law said, celebrating the country as “the nation state of the Jewish People, in which it realizes its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination.”

In accordance with the above assertions, the new definition grants the “Jewish people”, everywhere, the right to “exercise  … the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel.”

The millions of Palestinian Arabs — Muslims, Christians and Druze — who share that same piece of land, though not as equals, have no place in Israel’s undemocratic definition of itself. Needless to say, the nearly 7 million Palestinian refugees were also excluded from claiming any rights in “the State of Israel”, including their internationally-enshrined Right of Return.

The Israeli Nation-State Law, however, must not be seen as the event that ushered in institutionalized racism in this country. Israel was founded on the racist principle that it belonged to the “Jewish people” only, and no one else, not even the Palestinian Arab natives of the land.

However, the law is significant in the sense that it represents the final blow to the hope that Israel will eventually come to terms with its past, and embrace the humanistic principles of equality, justice and democracy.

That hope — really an illusion — was dashed, and irrevocably so, as there is little resistance within Israel itself by any significant political force that is capable of confronting and defeating the racist, chauvinistic and ultra-nationalist trends that have always dominated the country.

According to an election survey published in January 2019, those who identified as “leftists” have dwindled  significantly, as they now represent only 12 percent of all Israelis – a number that includes Arab communities, where the left has historically had a strong presence.

This realization might be one of the reasons that made some optimists imagine that the supposed next best thing — Israel’s centrist Blue and White Party coalition under Benny Gantz — was still able to, at least, slow down the advancement of right-wing and religious parties.

These hopes persisted over the course of a tumultuous political year that witnessed three major elections in a row, despite the fact that many of Gantz’s stances were equally — if not even more — hawkish than those of right-wing Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Unsurprisingly, on April 20, Gantz joined Netanyahu to form a coalition government that is arguably the most militaristic in the country’s modern history, as both camps are keen on a new military confrontation with Gaza and a massive annexation scheme of nearly 30 percent of the occupied West Bank.

Armed with constitutional racism, Israeli leaders can now justify, at least to themselves and their constituencies, any action that may be deemed abhorrent, illegal or racist by the rest of the world.

This is the very reality that allows racist ‘celebrities’, such as Roy Oz, to go on safari-like adventures with his well-fed children in their air-conditioned top model vehicles to hand cookies to malnourished and poor Palestinian Bedouin children in the Naqab.

For Israel, Oz is the epitome of the ultimate victory of the “Jewish people” — as defined by Israel’s racist Nation-State Law — over the alienated, corralled and victimized Palestinians.

But racism in Israel is not only the work of political institutions as a direct outcome of the disparities created by Israel’s military superiority and expansive colonial enterprises. It has long passed all of that into many other aspects of Israeli society, and can be felt in other sectors of law, economy, the health care system and education; especially education.

Aside from the “racist ideology” taught in Israeli public schools, which denies the historical roots of Palestinians in their own land, and often demeans the Palestinian natives in ways that violate the minimal standards of modern education — let alone human rights — the very set-up of the educational system is a testimony to Israel’s deeply entrenched racism.

Schools dedicated to Palestinian Arab children in Israel are “a world apart in quality from the public schools serving Israel’s majority Jewish population,” according to one Human Rights Watch report.

“Often overcrowded and understaffed, poorly built, badly maintained, or simply unavailable, schools for Palestinian Arab children offer fewer facilities and educational opportunities than are offered other Israeli children.”

Racism accompanies the average Jewish citizen of Israel from the hospital where he is born, to the iniquitous school system, to the discriminatory business sector, to the utterly racist fans at the soccer field, to the unruly, murderous army and beyond. And every step of the way, Palestinians are belittled, dehumanized, exploited, subjugated, confined, imprisoned and, in many instances, killed.

With that being the everyday reality in Israel and Palestine, should we really be surprised that a morally bankrupt fool like Roy Oz mistreated Bedouin children, offering them candy as if zoo animals?

The truth is, Oz is the actual face of Israel — privileged, entitled, racist and delusional. And the same way Israeli media — which gives the likes of Oz his celebrity status — should be shunned and boycotted, Israel should also be sanctioned and boycotted. Because, without international pressure, Israel will never, on its own, confront its demons of military occupation, apartheid and deep-rooted racism.

Why Palestinian-Israeli Prisoners Exchange Deal Could Happen Soon   

For the first time since the Israeli war on Gaza in 2014, the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is signaling its willingness to engage in negotiations regarding the release of the bodies of two Israeli soldiers believed to be held by resistance groups in Gaza. But will another prisoner exchange similar to that of October 2011 follow anytime soon?

On July 9, Palestinian and Israeli media reported on an Israeli government communication sent to the Palestinian group, Hamas, through an intermediary. It included an Israeli offer to swap the bodies of Palestinians held in Israel in exchange for the bodies of the two soldiers, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin.

Alternatively, Israel is offering the release of some Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli prisons, so long as they have “no blood on their hands”,  an Israeli reference to Palestinian prisoners who have not taken part in direct attacks that may have led to the killing of Israeli occupation soldiers or armed illegal Jewish settlers.

Hamas and others quickly dismissed the Israeli proposal as a non-starter for a serious negotiation. The Palestinian group had already indicated that it will not negotiate any prisoner exchange deal with Israel until the latter releases scores of Palestinian prisoners who were re-arrested in the months and years following the 2011 exchange.

What was then termed by Israel as the ‘Gilad Shalit deal’, saw the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for securing the release of an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who was captured by Palestinian fighters near the Gaza-Israel fence in 2006.

However, even while Palestinians were still celebrating the return of hundreds of their loved ones, Israel began re-arresting many of the newly-released prisoners under various pretenses, rendering the entire exercise futile.

Moreover, Israel began quickly replenishing its prisons with new arrivals, from various Palestinian factions, genders, and age groups.

In the 2011 exchange, Israel also refused to release senior Palestinian political figures from Fatah, Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Islamic Jihad and other groups. This decision had derailed negotiations for months, and was understood as Israel’s way of wanting to hold on to many prominent Palestinian figures as bargaining chips for future negotiations.

These figures include Fatah’s most popular leader, Marwan Barghouti, PFLP leader Ahmad Sa’adat, among others.

In 2014, Israel also re-arrested Nael Barghouti, from his home in Kobar, near Ramallah, making him the longest-held Palestinian prisoner in Israeli prisons. Barghouti is a particularly important bargaining chip for Israel.

It must be said that the reason that Israel is quite generous in these prisoner exchanges is not due, as some claim, to the notion that Israel values the lives of its citizens to the extent that it is willing to exchange them with a disproportionately large number of Palestinians.

If that logic was correct, why does Israel then transfer its own citizens, including children, to dangerous and highly-militarized illegal West Bank Jewish settlements?

If Israel truly values the lives of its citizens, it would have, long ago, dismantled the illegal settlements and tried, in earnest, to reach a just peace agreement with the Palestinian leadership.

Instead, Israeli leaders, who often trigger wars for their own political benefits, as Netanyahu has done repeatedly in the past, use prisoner exchanges also as a means to garner positive political capital and favorable media coverage.

Netanyahu, whose image has been significantly tarnished due to his ongoing corruption investigation and trial, is laboring to distract from his own personal woes by diverting attention elsewhere. Now that his illegal annexation of West Bank land scheme has been postponed, he is in desperate need of another battle that would present him as some kind of hero in the eyes of Israelis, especially his right-wing constituency.

Aside from the bodies of the two soldiers, two Israelis, Avram Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who had allegedly crossed the fence into Gaza by mistake, are also held in the Strip. Future TV footage of two coffins, draped by Israeli flags, along with two other Israelis being set free, would certainly prove to be a huge boost for the embattled Israeli leader.

Palestinian groups in Gaza understand this well. They also know that an opportunity of this nature might not present itself again for years. Therefore, they are keen to ensure a future prisoner exchange satisfies three major points: first, the release of all re-arrested prisoners since 2011; second, the release of as many Palestinians as possible out of the over 5,000 currently held in Israeli prisons; and, finally, the release of top Palestinian prisoners representing the various PLO and Islamic factions.

The latter point, in particular, is quite significant, because the traditional rivals, Hamas and Fatah, have been actively pursuing a politically united front in the face of the imminent Israeli annexation of nearly 30% of the West Bank. The release of top Fatah leaders, such as Marwan Barghouti, for example, shall have immense positive impact on Palestinian public mood, especially among Fatah supporters, boosting the unity talks like never before.

Israel, of course, will do its utmost to prevent Palestinians from unifying their political ranks but, considering the fact that Palestinians are holding four Israelis in Gaza, the cards are not entirely in Netanyahu’s hands.

This is not to suggest that Palestinian groups are not feeling the pressure as well. The families of thousands of imprisoned Palestinians are desperate for some good news regarding their loved ones, especially as health conditions among prisoners are deteriorating due to the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

On July 9, Saadi al-Gharably died at Kaplan Medical Center, due to what Palestinian prisoners advocacy groups describe as ‘medical neglect’. Later, prisoner Kamal Abu Wa’ar, a cancer patient from the Jenin area, tested positive for the COVID-19 disease.

Various signs indicate that a prisoner exchange between Israel and Palestinian groups is drawing near. The question is, will Netanyahu unleash his winning political card now, or will he wait till later, when he needs it most?

An Israeli Charity Group is uprooting Palestinians not planting Trees

The Jewish National Fund, established more than 100 years ago, is perhaps the most venerable of the international Zionist organisations. Its recent honorary patrons have included prime ministers, and it advises UN forums on forestry and conservation issues.

It is also recognised as a charity in dozens of western states. Generations of Jewish families, and others, have contributed to its fundraising programmes, learning as children to drop saved pennies into its trademark blue boxes to help plant a tree.

And yet its work over many decades has been driven by one main goal: to evict Palestinians from their homeland.

The JNF is a thriving relic of Europe’s colonial past, even if today it wears the garb of an environmental charity. As recent events show, ethnic cleansing is still what it excels at.

The organisation’s mission began before the state of Israel was even born. Under British protection, the JNF bought up tracts of fertile land in what was then historic Palestine. It typically used force to dispossess Palestinian sharecroppers whose families had worked the land for centuries.

But the JNF’s expulsion activities did not end in 1948, when Israel was established through a bloody war on the ruins of the Palestinians’ homeland – an event Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe.

Israel hurriedly demolished more than 500 cleansed Palestinian villages, and the JNF was entrusted with the job of preventing some 750,000 refugees from returning. It did so by planting forests over both the ruined homes, making it impossible to rebuild them, and village lands to stop them being farmed.

These plantations were how the JNF earned its international reputation. Its forestry operations were lauded for stopping soil erosion, reclaiming land and now tackling the climate crisis.

But even this expertise was undeserved. Environmentalists say the dark canopies of trees it has planted in arid regions such as the Negev, in Israel’s south, absorb heat unlike the unforested, light-coloured soil. Short of water, the slow-growing trees capture little carbon. Native species of brush and animals, meanwhile, have been harmed.

These pine forests – the JNF has planted some 250 million trees – have also turned into a major fire hazard. Most years hundreds of fires break out after summer droughts exacerbated by climate change.

Early on, the vulnerability of the JNF’s saplings was used as a pretext to outlaw the herding of native black goats. Recently the goats, which clear undergrowth, had to be reintroduced to prevent the fires. But the goats’ slaughter had already served its purpose, forcing Bedouin Palestinians to abandon their pastoral way of life.

Despite surviving the Nakba, thousands of Bedouin in the Negev were covertly expelled to Egypt or the West Bank in Israel’s early years.

It would be wrong, however, to imagine that the JNF’s troubling role in these evictions was of only historical interest. The charity, Israel’s largest private land owner, is actively expelling Palestinians to this day.

In recent weeks, solidarity activists have been desperately trying to prevent the eviction of a Palestinian family, the Sumarins, from their home in occupied East Jerusalem to make way for Jewish settlers.

Last month the Sumarins lost a 30-year legal battle waged by the JNF, which secretly sold their home in the late 1980s by the Israeli state.

The family’s property was seized under a draconian 1950 law declaring Palestinian refugees of the Nakba “absent” so that they could not reclaim their land inside the new state of Israel.

The courts have decreed that the law can be applied in occupied Jerusalem too, in violation of international law. In the Sumarins’ case, it appears not to matter that the family was never actually “absent”. The JNF is permitted to evict the 18 family members next month. To add insult to injury, they will have to pay damages to the JNF.

A former US board member, Seth Morrison, resigned in protest in 2011 at the JNF’s role in such evictions, accusing it of working with extreme settler groups. Last year the JNF ousted a family in similar circumstances near Bethlehem. Days later settlers moved on to the land.

Ir Amim, an Israeli human rights group focusing on Jerusalem, warned that these cases create a dangerous legal precedent if Israel carries out its promise to annex West Bank territory. It could rapidly expand the number of Palestinians classified as “absentees”.

But the JNF never lost its love of the humble tree as the most effective – and veiled – tool of ethnic cleansing. And it is once again using forests as a weapon against the fifth of Israel’s population who are Palestinian, survivors of the Nakba.

Earlier this year it unveiled its “Relocation Israel 2040” project. The plan is intended to “bring about an in-depth demographic change of an entire country” – what was once sinisterly called “Judaisation”. The aim is to attract 1.5 million Jews to Israel, especially to the Negev, over the next 20 years.

As in Israel’s first years, forests will be vital to success. The JNF is preparing to plant trees on an area of 40 sq km belonging to Bedouin communities that survived earlier expulsions. Under the cover of environmentalism, many thousands of Bedouin could be deemed “trespassers”.

The Bedouin have been in legal dispute with the Israeli state for decades over ownership of their lands. This month in an interview with the Jerusalem Post newspaper, Daniel Atar, the JNF’s global head, urged Jews once again to drop money into its boxes. He warned that Jews could be dissuaded from coming to the Negev by its reputation for “agricultural crimes” – coded reference to Bedouin who have tried to hold on to their pastoral way of life.

Trees promise both to turn the semi-arid region greener and to clear “unsightly” Bedouin off their ancestral lands. Using the JNF’s original colonial language of “making the desert bloom”, Mr Atar said his organisation would make “the wilderness flourish”.

The Bedouin understand the fate likely to befall them. In a protest last month they carried banners: “No expulsions, no displacement.”

After all, Palestinians have suffered forced displacement at the JNF’s hands for more than a century, while watching it win plaudits from around the world for its work in improving the “environment”.

• First published in The National