Category Archives: Benjamin Netanyahu

How Evangelical Christians Risk Setting the Middle East on Fire

The recent arrival of Africa’s most popular televangelist preacher, TB Joshua, to address thousands of foreign pilgrims in Nazareth produced a mix of consternation and anger in the city of Jesus’s childhood.

There was widespread opposition from Nazareth’s political movements, as well as from community groups and church leaders, who called for a boycott of his two rallies. They were joined by the council of muftis, which described the events as “a red line for faith in religious values”.

Joshua’s gatherings, which included public exorcisms, took place in an open-air amphitheatre on a hill above Nazareth that was originally built for papal masses. The site was used by Pope Benedict in 2009.

The Nigerian pastor, who has millions of followers worldwide and calls himself a prophet, aroused local hostility not only because his brand of Christianity strays far from the more traditional doctrines of Middle Eastern churches. He also represents a trend of foreign Christians, driven by apocalyptic readings of the Bible, interfering ever more explicitly in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories – and in ways that directly aid the policies of Israel’s far-right government.

Much-needed tourism boost

Nazareth is the largest of the Palestinian communities in Israel that survived the Nakba, or catastrophe, of 1948, which forced most of the native population out of the bulk of their homeland and replaced it with a Jewish state. Today, one in five Israeli citizens are Palestinian.

The city and its immediate environs include the highest concentration of Palestinian Christians in the region. But it has long suffered from the hostility of Israeli officials, who have starved Nazareth of resources to prevent it from becoming a political, economic or cultural capital for the Palestinian minority.

The city has almost no land for growth or industrial areas to expand its income base, and Israel has tightly constrained its ability to develop a proper tourism industry. Most pilgrims pass through briefly to visit its Basilica of the Annunciation, the site where the angel Gabriel reputedly told Mary she was carrying Jesus.

Nazareth’s municipal officials leapt at the chance to exploit the publicity, and income, provided by Joshua’s visit. The municipality’s longer-term hope is that, if the city can attract even a small proportion of the more than 60 million Christian evangelicals in the US and millions more in Africa and Europe, it will provide an enormous boost to the city’s economy.

Recent figures show evangelical tourism to Israel has been steadily rising, now accounting for about one in seven of all overseas visitors.

Playing with fire

But as the fallout over Joshua’s visit indicates, Nazareth may be playing with fire by encouraging these types of pilgrims to take a greater interest in the region. Most local Christians understand that Joshua’s teachings are not directed at them – and, in fact, are likely to harm them.

The Nigerian pastor chose Nazareth to spread his gospel, but faced vocal opposition from those who believe he is using the city simply as the backdrop to his bigger mission – one that appears entirely indifferent to the plight of Palestinians, whether those living inside Israel in places such as Nazareth, or those under occupation.

Political factions in Nazareth noted Joshua’s “ties to far-right and settlers circles in Israel”. He is reported to have had meetings about opening operations in the Jordan Valley, the reputed site of Jesus’ baptism but also the agricultural backbone of the West Bank. The area is being targeted by the far-right government of Benjamin Netanyahu for settlement expansion and possible annexation, thereby dooming efforts to create a Palestinian state.

A view of Armageddon

During his visits to Israel, Joshua has also enjoyed access to key government figures such as Yariv Levin, a close ally of Netanyahu’s, who has been in charge of two portfolios viewed as critical by the evangelical community: tourism, and the absorption into Israel of new Jewish immigrants from the US and Europe.

Many in the evangelical community, including Joshua, believe it is their duty to encourage Jews to move from their home countries to the Promised Land to bring forward an end-times supposedly prophesied in the Bible.

This is the Rapture, when Jesus returns to build his kingdom on earth and righteous Christians take their place alongside him. Everyone else, including unrepentant Jews, it is implied, will burn in Hell’s eternal fires.

The cliff above the Jezreel Valley where Joshua and his disciples congregated offers views over Tel Megiddo, the modern name of the biblical site of Armageddon, where many evangelicals believe the end of the world will soon happen.

Speeding up the second coming

These Christians are not simply observers of an unfolding divine plan; they are active participants trying to bring the end-times closer.

In fact, the traumas of the Israel-Palestine conflict – the decades of bloodshed, violent colonisation and expulsions of Palestinians – cannot be understood separately from the interference of Western Christian leaders in the Middle East over the past century. In many ways, they engineered the Israel we know today.

The first Zionists, after all, were not Jews, but Christians. A vigorous Christian Zionist movement – known then as “restorationism” – emerged in the early 19th century, predating and heavily influencing its subsequent Jewish counterpart.

The restorationists’ peculiar reading of the Bible meant that they believed the Messiah’s second coming could be accelerated if God’s chosen people, the Jews, returned to the Promised Land after 2,000 years of a supposed exile.

Charles Taze Russell, a US pastor from Pennsylvania, travelled the world from the 1870s onwards imploring Jews to establish a national home for themselves in what was then Palestine. He even produced a plan for how a Jewish state might be created there.

He did so nearly 20 years before the Jewish Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl published his famous book outlining a Jewish state.

The secular Herzl didn’t much care where such a Jewish state was built. But his later followers – deeply aware of the hold of Christian Zionism in western capitals – focused their attention on Palestine, the biblical Promised Land, in the hope of winning powerful allies in Europe and the US.

Rallying cry for Herzl’s followers

Imperial Britain’s support was especially prized. In 1840, Lord Shaftesbury, who was connected through marriage to Lord Palmerston, a later prime minister, published an advert in the London Times urging the return of Jews to Palestine.

Christian Zionism was an important factor influencing the British government in 1917 to issue the Balfour Declaration – effectively a promissory note from Britain that became the blueprint for creating a Jewish state on the ruins of the native population’s homeland.

Writing of the declaration, Israeli historian Tom Segev has observed: “The men who sired it were Christian and Zionist and, in many cases, anti-Semitic.” That was because Christian Zionism took as its premise that Jews should not integrate into their own countries. Rather, they should serve as instruments of God’s will, moving to the Middle East so that Christians could achieve redemption.

Edwin Montagu was the only British cabinet minister to oppose the Balfour Declaration, and he was also its sole Jewish member. He warned – for good reason – that the document would “prove a rallying ground for anti-Semites in every country in the world”.

‘Struggle until the Rapture’

While Jewish Zionists looked to the imperial powerhouse of Britain for sponsorship a century ago, today, their chief patron is the US. The standard-bearers of Christian Zionism have been enjoying growing influence in Washington since the Six-Day War of 1967.

That process has reached its apotheosis under President Donald Trump. He has surrounded himself with a mix of extreme Jewish and Christian Zionists. His ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, and Middle East envoy, Jason Greenblatt, are fervent Jewish supporters of the illegal settlements. But so too, it seems, are key Christians in the White House, such as Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Before he entered government, Pompeo was clear about his evangelical beliefs. Back in 2015, he told a congregation: “It is a never-ending struggle … until the Rapture. Be part of it. Be in the fight.”

This past March, he backed the idea that Trump might have been sent by God to save Israel from threats such as Iran. “I am confident that the Lord is at work here,” he told the Christian Broadcasting Network.

Pence, meanwhile, has said: “My passion for Israel springs from my Christian faith … It’s really the greatest privilege of my life to serve as vice-president to a president who cares so deeply for our most cherished ally.”

Sleeping giant awakens

Trump’s relocation last year of the US embassy to Jerusalem, pre-empting any negotiated settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict, was designed to pander to his Christian Zionist base. Some 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for him in 2016, and he will need their support again in 2020 if he hopes to be re-elected.

Not surprisingly, the new US embassy in Jerusalem was consecrated by two prominent televangelist pastors, John Hagee and Robert Jeffress, known for their fanatical support for Israel – as well as occasional antisemitic outbursts.

More than a decade ago, Hagee, the founder of Christians United for Israel, told delegates at a conference organised by AIPAC, Israel’s main political lobby in Washington: “The sleeping giant of Christian Zionism has awakened. There are 50 million Christians standing up and applauding the state of Israel.”

The Hagee group’s activities include lobbying in Congress for hardline pro-Israel legislation, such as the recent Taylor Force Act that slashes US funding to the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinians’ government-in-waiting. The group is also active in helping to push through legislation at the state and federal levels, penalising anyone who boycotts Israel.

For US evangelicals, and those elsewhere, Israel is increasingly a key issue. A 2015 poll showed some three-quarters believe that developments in Israel were prophesied in the Bible’s Book of Revelation.

Many expect Trump to complete a chain of events set in motion by British officials a century ago – and more and more of them are getting directly involved, in hopes of speeding along that process.

Closer ties to settlers

Israel’s vision of an “ingathering of the exiles” – encouraging Jews from around the world to move to the region under the Law of Return – fits neatly with Christian Zionism’s beliefs in a divine plan for the Middle East.

The efforts of extremist Jewish settlers to colonise the West Bank, the bulk of any future Palestinian state, also chimes with Christian Zionists’ understanding of the West Bank as the “biblical heartland”, an area Jews must possess before Jesus returns.

For these reasons, evangelicals are developing ever-closer ties with Israeli Jewish religious extremists, especially in the settlements. Recent initiatives have included online and face-to-face Bible studies programmes run by Orthodox Jews, often settlers, targeted specifically at evangelical Christians. The tutorials are designed to bolster the settlers’ narrative, as well as demonising Muslims and, by extension, Palestinians.

The most popular course offered by Root Source, one such venture, is titled “Islam – Insights and Deceptions”. It uses the Old and New Testaments to make the case that Islam “is extremely dangerous”.

A few months ago, Haaretz, Israel’s leading liberal newspaper, published an investigation into the growing flow of evangelical volunteers and money into the West Bank’s illegal settlements – the chief obstacle to achieving a two-state solution.

One US organisation alone, Hayovel, has brought more than 1,700 Christian volunteers over the past 10 years to help in a settlement close to Nablus, in the heart of the West Bank.

Evangelical money pours in

An increasing number of similar initiatives have been aided by new rules introduced last year by the Israeli government to pay Christian Zionist groups such as Hayovel to advocate abroad for the settlements.

It is much harder to know exactly how much evangelical money is pouring into the settlements, because of a lack of transparency regarding US donations made by churches and charities. But the Haaretz investigation estimates that over the past decade, as much as $65m has flowed in.

Ariel, a settler town sitting in the very centre of the West Bank, received $8m for a sports centre from John Hagee Ministries a decade ago. Another evangelical outfit, J H Israel, has spent $2m there on a national leadership centre.

Other Christian charities that have historically funded projects inside Israel are reported to be increasingly considering assisting the settlements too.

Should a Trump peace plan – touted for publication later this year – back annexation of parts of the West Bank, as is widely expected, it would likely unleash a new and even greater wave of evangelical money into the settlements.

Immune to reason

This is precisely the problem for Palestinians, and the wider Middle East. Christian Zionists are meddling yet again, whether they be government officials, church leaders or their congregations. Evangelical influence is to be found from the US and Brazil to Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia.

Western governments typically have more practical and pressing concerns than realising biblical prophecy to justify divide-and-rule policies in the Middle East. Chiefly, they want control over the region’s oil resources, and can secure it only by projecting military power there to prevent rival nations from gaining a foothold.

But the uncritical support of tens of millions of Christians around the world, whose passion for Israel is immune to reason, makes the job of these governments selling wars and resource grabs all the easier.

Both Israel and the West have benefited from cultivating an image of a plucky Jewish state surrounded by barbaric Arabs and Muslims determined to destroy it. As a result, Israel has enjoyed ever greater integration into a Western power bloc, while Western governments have been offered easy pretexts either to interfere in the region directly or delegate such interference to Israel.

The payoff for Israel has been unstinting support from the US and Europe, as it oppresses and drives the Palestinians off their lands.

With an evangelical base behind him, Trump has no need to offer plausible arguments before he acts. He can move the US embassy to Jerusalem, or approve the annexation of the West Bank, or attack Iran.

Standing against Israel’s enemies

Seen this way, any enemy Israel claims to have – whether the Palestinians or Iran – automatically becomes the sworn enemy of tens of millions of evangelical Christians.

Netanyahu understands the growing importance of this uncritical overseas lobby as his and Israel’s standing drops precipitously among liberal US Jews, appalled by the rightward lurch of successive governments.

In 2017, Netanyahu told a crowd of evangelicals in Washington: “When I say we have no greater friends than Christian supporters of Israel, I know you’ve always stood with us.”

For Palestinians, this is bad news. Most of these evangelicals, such as T B Joshua, are largely indifferent or hostile to the fate of the Palestinians – even Palestinian Christians, such as those in Nazareth.

A recent editorial in Haaretz noted that Netanyahu and his officials were now “endeavoring to make evangelicals – who support Israel’s hawkish rejectionism regarding the Palestinians – the sole foundation of American support for Israel.”

The truth is that these Christian Zionists view the region through a single, exclusive prism: whatever aids the imminent arrival of the Messiah is welcomed. The only issue is how soon God’s “chosen people” will congregate in the Promised Land.

If the Palestinians stand in Israel’s way, these tens of millions of foreign Christians will be quite happy to see the native population driven out once again – as they were in 1948 and 1967.

• Previously published in Middle East Eye

Jerusalem’s Old City: How Palestine’s Past is Being Slowly Erased

Israel has controlled East Jerusalem and the walled Old City since the 1967 war in which it also occupied the adjacent West Bank. It has effectively treated them as annexed territory ever since.

To consolidate its grip on the Old City, Israel has demolished homes and expelled Palestinian residents, empowered Jewish settlers, and imposed sweeping restrictions that make it virtually impossible for most Palestinians to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam.

The final status of the Old City has been the subject of various proposals ever since the United Nations’ 1947 partition plan, which proposed that it should fall under a special international regime, separate from the division of historic Palestine into Arab and Jewish states because of its shared importance to Muslims, Jews and Christians.

The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem, including the Old City, as the capital of a future state, while Israeli leaders have claimed Jerusalem as the state’s “eternal capital” since 1949.

The Old City has huge historic, economic, religious and now national symbolism for both Palestinians and Israelis, particularly because of the Al-Aqsa compound, known as Haram al-Sharif to Muslims and Temple Mount to Jews. This is the most explosive issue in an already incendiary conflict.

Trump endorsement

But US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in May 2018 appeared to pre-empt negotiations determining Jerusalem’s status by implying US recognition of exclusive Israeli sovereignty over the city.

Washington’s endorsement for such a move in any proposed peace plan – including Trump’s infamous “deal of the century” – would not, however, mark the first time it has suggested that the Palestinian claim to the Old City should be brought to the negotiating table.

At talks in 2000 between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, hosted by US President Bill Clinton at his Camp David residence, US mediators proposed dividing sovereignty over the Old City.

According to the US proposal, Israel would take the Jewish and Armenian quarters, with the Palestinians getting the Muslim and Christian quarters.

Israel, however, demanded exclusive sovereignty over East Jerusalem, with the Palestinians having merely administrative authority over the Old City’s Muslim and Christian Quarters.

Seven years later, at Annapolis, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert evaded the sovereignty issue by proposing instead a temporary international trusteeship administered by Israel, a Palestinian state, the US, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

More than half a century of Israeli occupation has left its physical and political mark on the Old City. Along with East Jerusalem, the Old City is ruled over by a Jerusalem municipality run by Israeli officials.

After occupying the Old City in 1967, Israel quickly sought to secure control of the area immediately next to the Western Wall, demolishing dozens of homes in a Moroccan neighbourhood and expelling many hundreds of Palestinian inhabitants to create a large prayer plaza.

The Jewish Quarter was also re-established, though Israel converted many former homes into synagogues and seminaries for religious Jews.

Shrinking Palestinian population

Palestinians have been unnerved by the number of physical changes around Al-Aqsa and the neighbouring Muslim Quarter that appear to be designed to strengthen Israel’s control not only over the Western Wall but the mosque compound too.

This has included extending tunnels under homes in the Muslim Quarter to make more of the Western Wall accessible. Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to open a Western Wall tunnel exit in 1996 led to clashes that killed dozens of Palestinians and 15 Israel soldiers.

Israel has denied the Old City a master plan, making it all but impossible for Palestinians to expand their homes to cope with population growth.

In fact, rather than growing over the past decade, the Palestinian population has shrunk by 2,000, now down to 32,000 residents. Most have left for other areas of Jerualem or the West Bank.

The lack of vacant space in the Muslim and Christian Quarters has prevented Israel from building Jewish settlements there, as it has done elsewhere in East Jerusalem. It has therefore assisted settler organisations in taking over existing Palestinian homes.

There are now about 1,000 Jewish settlers living in the Muslim and Christian Quarters, according to Ir Amim, an Israeli organisation campaigning for equal rights in Jerusalem. These settlers constitute a quarter of the Jews living in the Old City.

Ateret Cohanim, a settler group, has been at the forefront of these incremental takeovers of Palestinian homes, threatening blackmail, using Palestinian collaborators as middlemen to make purchases, and seeking evictions in the Israeli courts.

Currently, 20 Palestinian families in the Old City face evictions, according to Ir Amim.

Settlers have also been taking over properties in the Christian Quarter owned by the Greek Orthodox church, apparently using each new Patriarch’s dependence on Israel’s approval of his appointment as leverage to force through the sales.

‘Death to the Arabs’

Every Jerusalem Day, an Israeli holiday celebrating the capture of Jerusalem in 1967, settlers march in force through the Muslim Quarter, chanting “Death to the Arabs” and intimidating local residents.

A rally by Palestinians inside the Al-Aqsa compound this year was broken up by Israeli security forces who entered the site firing rubber bullets and stun grenades. Settlers were able to march through the site.

Aviv Tartasky, of Ir Amim, notes that the expansion of Jews living in the Muslim and Christian Quarters brings more aggressive and invasive policing operations that make life harder for Palestinians, further pressuring them to leave.

Over the years, Israel has made it even harder for Palestinians to access the Old City.

Despite Al-Aqsa’s central place in Islamic worship, almost none of the two million Palestinians from Gaza have been able to reach Jerusalem since the mid-1990s, when the coastal enclave was sealed off by Israel with a fence.

Israel’s wall and checkpoints have separated Palestinians in the West Bank from Jerusalem, leaving most struggling to reach the Old City too.

And while Palestinians within Jerusalem have traditionally accessed the Old City via the northern Damascus Gate, Israel has made the gate less appealing by increasing the presence of armed police there, providing them with a guard tower, and conducting regular security checks on Palestinian youths.

Banned from al-Aqsa

After 1967, Israel and Jordan agreed on a so-called “status quo” for Al-Aqsa: the Waqf, a Jordanian-led Islamic trust, would administer the compound while Israel would be responsible for security outside. In addition, only Muslims would be allowed to pray at the site.

In practice, Israel’s interpretation of that agreement has strengthened its hand by allowing it to control who has access to the compound. Sweeping restrictions mean only older Palestinians, and a few who receive permits, are now allowed to access Al-Aqsa for Friday prayers.

Israel has regularly operated inside the compound too. It shuttered a prayer room, Bab al-Rahmeh, in 2003 after it was renovated by a popular Palestinian religious leader in Israel, Sheikh Raed Salah. Despite holding Israeli citizenship, Salah has been banned from entering the Al-Aqsa compound for more than a decade.

Israel blocked Waqf-led efforts to reopen Bab al-Rahmeh in February, leading to clashes with Israeli security forces and a temporary bar on Waqf leaders entering Al-Aqsa.

In 2015, Israel also banned volunteer male and female civil guards, the Mourabitoun, from the compound after confrontations with Jewish visitors to the site. But Israel had to climb down in 2017 after it installed surveillance cameras and tried to force Palestinian worshippers to pass through metal detectors.

Meanwhile, Israelis have been staking ever stronger claims to control of the compound. In 2000, Ariel Sharon, then opposition leader, marched into the site backed by hundreds of armed guards, triggering the Second Intifada.

And since the ban on the Mourabitoun, Israeli police have failed to enforce rules banning Jews from praying in the compound, according to watchdog groups.

Israeli politicians, including government ministers, have become increasingly sympathetic to settler demands to divide the site to allow for Jewish prayer.

Even more hardline groups wishing to destroy Al-Aqsa and build a new Jewish temple in its place have become more mainstream in Israeli society in recent years.

In the two years from 2016 to 2018, the number of Jews reported entering the compound more than doubled, from 14,000 to 30,000.

Christians squeezed out

Christian residents suffer similar problems to Muslims, including planning restrictions and efforts by settlers to take over properties.

But Christians also face specific pressures. As a very small community, they have been severely isolated by Israel’s policy cutting off Jerusalem from West Bank Christians in Bethlehem and the Ramallah area.

Israel’s denial of the right of Jerusalemites to live with a West Bank spouse in the city, or register their children, has hit the Christian community particularly hard, forcing many to move into the West Bank.

Also, a dramatic downturn in tourism for many years after the eruption of the Second Intifada in 2000 left many Christian families in the Old City in financial trouble because they depend on income from souvenir shops and work as tour guides.

A move last year by Israel to tax Church property in Jerusalem was reversed after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was shuttered in protest.

But it was seen by Christians as a further sign that their community is under assault and that Israel views them as an obstacle to its efforts to “Judaise” the Old City, said Yousef Daher, of the Jerusalem Interchurch Centre, located in the Old City.

Daher noted that rather than growing, as would be expected, Jerusalem’s wider Christian population has declined from 12,000 in 1967 to a total of 9,000 today.

Although there are no official figures, he estimated that no more than 2,400 Christians remained in the Old City. He added that Palestinian Christians find it easier to leave the region because of their connections to overseas churches and the fact that they often have relatives abroad.

Shopping mall and a cable car

Israeli access to the Old City, traditionally via the Jaffa Gate on the western side between the Christian and Armenian quarters, has been facilitated by the new luxury Mamilla shopping mall, which effectively serves as a bridge from West Jerusalem’s city centre.

Israel is now seeking to turn Dung Gate, on the south-eastern side and leading into the Jewish Quarter, into the main entrance. The difficulty is that Dung Gate abuts the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan.

Ir Amim notes that Dung Gate is seen by Israel as an important gateway for the settlers as they intensify their takeover of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, part of efforts to encircle the Al-Aqsa compound.

Israel is therefore building a cable car that will carry visitors from West Jerusalem over Silwan directly to a settler-run compound. From there, visitors will be able to enter above ground through Dung Gate or underground through tunnels running below the Old City walls to surface at the foot of the Western Wall.

Palestinians and Israeli activists are concerned that the purpose is to direct Jewish and foreign visitors away from the Muslim and Christian quarters, both to conceal the Palestinian presence in the Old City and to starve Palestinian shopkeepers of the traditional trade from those passing through Damascus and Jaffa gates.

• First published in Middle East Eye

Annexation: How Israel Already controls More than Half of the West Bank

A state of de facto annexation already exists on the ground in most of the occupied West Bank.

Almost two-thirds of the Palestinian territory, including most of its most fertile and resource-rich land, is under full Israeli control. About 400,000 Jewish settlers living there enjoy the full rights and privileges of Israeli citizens.

At least 60 pieces of legislation were drafted by right-wing members of the Knesset during the last parliament to move Israel from a state of de facto to de jure annexation, according to a database by Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group.

Yesh Din points out that the very fact that some of these bills have passed as laws constitutes a form of annexation: “The Israel Knesset [now] regards itself as the legislative authority in the West Bank and the sovereign there.”

Paradoxically, many of those bills were opposed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, even though they were drafted from within his own ruling coalition.

Netanyahu argued that it would be wrong to pre-empt US President Donald Trump’s peace plan, implying that annexation is high on the agenda.

Leaked details suggest that Washington is now preparing to green-light the formal annexation of at least some of that territory as part of its deal-making, though Netanyahu’s political difficulties and his decision to call another election in September could mean putting details on ice once again.

The Golan precedent

Three recent developments have also brought the idea of Israel annexing parts or all of the West Bank onto the agenda.

In March, US President Donald Trump recognised Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, seized from Syria during the 1967 war and annexed by Israel in 1981 in violation of international law. The US decision suggested a precedent whereby it might similarly approve a move by Israel to annex the West Bank.

In April, in the run-up to Israel’s general election, Netanyahu said he would use the next parliament to “extend sovereignty” to all illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, using a phrase preferred by Israeli politicians to “annexation”.

About 400,000 settlers live in the West Bank in 150 official settlements and another 120 so-called “unauthorised” outposts that have been covertly sponsored by the Israeli state since the 1990s. These settlements have jurisdiction over 42 percent of West Bank territory.

In early June, the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, a stalwart supporter of the settlements and one of the architects of Trump’s supposed “deal of the century”, told the New York Times that he believed Israel was “on the side of God” and said: “Under certain circumstances, I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.”

Support in Israel growing

Support in Israel for annexation is growing, with 42 percent backing one of several variants in a recent poll, as opposed to 34 percent who were behind a two-state solution. Only 28 percent of Israelis explicitly rejected annexation.

Behind the scenes, debates about formally annexing the Palestinian territories have been rife in Israel since it occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza in 1967.

Successive Israeli governments, however, have demurred out of concern both that there would be strong international objections (most UN member states would be opposed to the annexation of territory recognised as illegally occupied in international law) and that Israel would be under pressure to give Palestinians in annexed areas citizenship, including the right to vote, that would undermine its Jewish majority.

Senior government ministers such as Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon were among the early proponents of annexing parts of the West Bank. They drew up maps for a permanent settlement programme that would allow Israel to hold on to swathes of the West Bank, especially the most fertile land and the aquifers.

Through the late 1970s and 1980s, a justice ministry official, Plia Albeck, declared large areas of the West Bank “state land”, allowing the government to treat it as effectively part of Israel and build settlements.

Speeding tickets and police stations

Israel has applied its laws to the settler population and dozens of Israeli police stations located in the West Bank operate as if the territory has been annexed, issuing speeding tickets and enforcing other infractions on Palestinians. Palestinians’ ultimate recourse to adjudication on legal matters is Israel’s Supreme Court.

In 2011, that court decided that Israel was allowed to exploit more than a dozen quarries, one of the Palestinians’ key resources, because the occupation had become “prolonged” – a ruling that treated the West Bank as if it had been de facto annexed.

Since the Olso accords, Israeli leaders have tended to pay lip service to Palestinian statehood, at some distant future point. But in practice, they have encouraged the rapid expansion of the settlements. This policy is sometimes referred to as “creeping annexation”.

A number of variants have been advanced by the Israeli right, ranging from the annexation of all Palestinian territories, including Gaza, to annexation limited to certain areas of the West Bank.

How Oslo gave Israel control

The main framework for the Israeli debate about annexation is the Oslo process which temporarily carved up the occupied West Bank into Areas A, B and C as a prelude, it was assumed, to eventually transferring sovereignty to the Palestinian Authority.

Area C, 62 per cent of the West Bank, is under full Israeli control and where the settlements are located. It is also where most of the water, agricultural and mineral resources are to be found.

Area B, 20 percent, is under Israeli security control and Palestinian civil control. And Area A – mainly Palestinian built-up areas on 18 percent of the West Bank – is nominally under full Palestinian control.

The option favoured by most of Netanyahu’s Likud party involves the annexation of areas populated with settlers, or about 40 percent of the West Bank mostly located in Area C.

This option would keep West Bank Palestinians outside the annexed areas and make it easier to avoid conferring any residency or citizenship rights on them. The Palestinian Authority would be given “limited autonomy” – a kind of glorified municipal role – over the remaining fragments of the West Bank.

To the right of Likud, opinions range from annexing all of Area C to annexing the entire West Bank and Gaza, and the creation of Palestinian “Bantustans” modelled on South Africa’s racist apartheid system. Some propose a “salami” method, with Israel gradually slicing off more of the West Bank.

The Israeli centre-left fears formal annexation not only violates international law but will damage Israel’s image abroad by encouraging comparisons with apartheid-era South Africa. In the absence of a Palestinian state, a minority of Jews might soon be ruling over a majority of Palestinians.

The centre-left is also concerned about the costs of annexation. Commanders for Israel’s Security, a group of retired security officials, argue that annexation will lead to the inevitable collapse of the Palestinian Authority.

As a result, they believe Israel would incur annual costs of between $2.3bn and $14.5bn, depending on the extent of the West Bank area annexed. There would also be a loss of $2.5bn in foreign investments. Palestinian uprisings could cost Israel’s economy as much as $21bn.

Right-wing economists like Amatzia Samkai of the Caucus for Eretz Israel say Israel will benefit economically. If Area C is annexed, only a small number of Palestinians will be entitled to Israeli welfare payments, he says. Such costs, he adds, can be more than offset by an expanded labour force and a drop in real-estate prices after West Bank land is freed up for house building by Israelis.

Knesset ‘sovereign’ in West Bank already

Of the 60 pieces of draft annexation legislation brought before the Knesset, eight have passed into law.

The main laws that have been passed include:

  • annulling a special council overseeing higher education in West Bank settlements and transferring its powers to the main Israel Council for Higher Education.
  • approving retroactively the theft of private Palestinian land used to build settlements. The previous official position was that settlements should be built only on land Israel had declared state land because it was not owned by Palestinians.
  • extending benefits available in Israel – from tax exemptions and egg production quotas to renewable energy investments – to West Bank settlements.
  • unifying the criminal register used by police in Israel and the West Bank.
  • transferring powers to adjudicate matters involving the West Bank to lower courts in Israel.
  • prohibiting businesses from refusing to supply services to West Bank settlements.

In addition, Yesh Din notes, Israel has recently shifted its diplomatic position and legal arguments to the courts in relation to the West Bank.

It has rejected the West Bank’s status as being under occupation, asserted Israel’s authority to operate there and eroded the obligation to protect the rights and property of the Palestinian population.

Another significant piece of legislation Netanyahu is known to favour – chiefly for personal reasons because it could be used to protect him from corruption indictments – is an Override Law.

The measure is being aggressively promoted by settler groups because it would strip Israel’s Supreme Court of judicial review powers to block legislation annexing the West Bank.

Palestinian support?

On the Palestinian side, a tiny number, mostly business leaders, have backed annexation of the West Bank. They have been cultivated by the Trump administration as a potential alternative leadership to the Palestinian Authority. Most Palestinians consider them traitors or collaborators.

Hebron businessman Ashraf Jabari, for example, has entered into a partnership with settler counterparts in the “Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce”, using the settlers’ Biblical name for the West Bank.

The chamber promotes joint ventures such as shopping centres along West Bank main roads, tourism initiatives and infrastructure projects.

Jabari and others have consciously sought to package annexation on Israeli terms as similar to the one-state agenda of a growing section of the Palestinian population, especially those supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS).

“We have to think about this area as one entity, not two entities and two realities,” he told journalists recently.

Certainly, there are Palestinians who consider annexation and Israel’s direct re-occupation of the West Bank, unmediated by the PA, as a necessary condition for Palestinians launching a civil rights or anti-apartheid struggle to realise a genuine one-state solution.

• First published in Middle East Eye

For Israel, Annexation of the West Bank is a Long-established Goal

When Israeli prime ministers are in trouble, facing difficult elections or a corruption scandal, the temptation has typically been for them to unleash a military operation to bolster their standing. In recent years, Gaza has served as a favourite punching bag.

Benjamin Netanyahu is confronting both difficulties at once: a second round of elections in September that he may struggle to win; and an attorney general who is widely expected to indict him on corruption charges shortly afterwards.

Mr Netanyahu is in an unusually tight spot, even by the standards of an often chaotic and fractious Israeli political system. After a decade in power, his electoral magic may be deserting him. There are already rumblings of discontent among his allies on the far right.

Given his desperate straits, some observers fear that he may need to pull a new kind of rabbit out of the hat.

In the past two elections, Mr Netanyahu rode to success after issuing dramatic last-minute statements. In 2015, he agitated against the fifth of Israel’s citizens who are Palestinian asserting their democratic rights, warning that they were “coming out in droves to vote”.

Back in April, he declared his intention to annex large chunks of the occupied West Bank, in violation of international law, during the next parliament.

Amos Harel, a veteran military analyst with Haaretz newspaper, observed last week that Mr Netanyahu may decide words are no longer enough to win. Action is needed, possibly in the form of an announcement on the eve of September’s ballot that as much as two-thirds of the West Bank is to be annexed.

Washington does not look like it will stand in his way.

Shortly before April’s election, the Trump administration offered Mr Netanyahu a campaign fillip by recognising Israel’s illegal annexation of the Golan Heights, territory Israel seized from Syria in 1967.

This month David Friedman, US ambassador to Israel and one of the chief architects of Donald Trump’s long-delayed “deal of the century” peace plan, appeared to offer a similar, early election boost.

In interviews, he claimed Israel was “on the side of God” – unlike, or so it was implied, the Palestinians. He further argued that Israel had the “right to retain” much of the West Bank.

Both statements suggest that the Trump administration will not object to any Israeli moves towards annexation, especially if it ensures their favoured candidate returns to power.

Whatever Mr Friedman suggests, it is not God who has intervened on Israel’s behalf. The hands that have carefully cleared a path over many decades to the West Bank’s annexation are all too human.

Israeli officials have been preparing for this moment for more than half a century, since the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza were seized back in 1967.

That point is underscored by an innovative interactive map of the occupied territories. This valuable new resource is a joint project of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem and Forensic Architecture, a London-based team that uses new technology to visualise and map political violence and environmental destruction.

Titled Conquer and Divide, it reveals in detail how Israel has “torn apart Palestinian space, divided the Palestinian population into dozens of disconnected enclaves and unravelled its social, cultural and economic fabric”.

The map proves beyond doubt that Israel’s colonisation of the West Bank was never accidental, defensive or reluctant. It was coldly calculated and intricately planned, with one goal in mind – and the moment to realise that goal is fast approaching.

Annexation is not a right-wing project that has hijacked the benign intentions of Israel’s founding generation. Annexation was on the cards from the occupation’s very beginnings in 1967, when the so-called centre-left – now presented as a peace-loving alternative to Mr Netanyahu – ran the government.

The map shows how Israeli military planners created a complex web of pretexts to seize Palestinian land: closed military zones today cover a third of the West Bank; firing ranges impact 38 Palestinian communities; nature reserves are located on 6 per cent of the territory; nearly a quarter has been declared Israeli “state” land; some 250 settlements have been established; dozens of permanent checkpoints severely limit movement; and hundreds of kilometres of walls and fences have been completed.

These interlocking land seizures seamlessly carved up the territory, establishing the walls of dozens of tightly contained prisons for Palestinians in their own homeland.

Two Nasa satellite images of the region separated by 30 years – from 1987 and 2017 – reveal how Israel’s settlements and transport infrastructure have gradually scarred the West Bank’s landscape, clearing away natural vegetation and replacing it with concrete.

The land grabs were not simply about acquisition of territory. They were a weapon, along with increasingly draconian movement restrictions, to force the native Palestinian population to submit, to recognise its defeat, to give up hope.

In the immediate wake of the West Bank’s occupation, defence minister Moshe Dayan, Israel’s hero of the hour and one of the architects of the settlement project, observed that Palestinians should be made “to live like dogs, and whoever wants to can leave – and we shall see where this process leads”.

Although Israel has concentrated Palestinians in 165 disconnected areas across the West Bank, its actions effectively won the international community’s seal of approval in 1995. The Oslo accords cemented Israel’s absolute control over 62 per cent of the West Bank, containing the Palestinians’ key agricultural land and water sources, which was classified as Area C.

Occupations are intended to be temporary – and the Oslo accords promised the same. Gradually, the Palestinians would be allowed to take back more of their territory to build a state. But Israel made sure both the occupation and the land thefts sanctioned by Oslo continued.

The new map reveals more than just the methods Israel used to commandeer the West Bank. Decades of land seizures highlight a trajectory, plotting a course that indicates the project is still not complete.

If Mr. Netanyahu partially annexes the West Bank – Area C – it will be simply another stage in Israel’s tireless efforts to immiserate the Palestinian population and bully them into leaving. This is a war of attrition – what Israelis have long understood as “creeping annexation”, carried out by stealth to avoid a backlash from the international community.

Ultimately, Israel wants the Palestinians gone entirely, squeezed out into neighbouring Arab states, such as Egypt and Jordan. That next chapter is likely to begin in earnest if Mr Trump ever gets the chance to unveil his “deal of the century”.

• First published in The National

Kushner as a Colonial Administrator

In a TV interview on June 2, on the news docuseries “Axios” on the HBO channel, Jared Kushner opened up regarding many issues, in which his ‘Deal of the Century’ was a prime focus.

The major revelation made by Kushner, President Donald Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, was least surprising. Kushner believes that Palestinians are not capable of governing themselves.

Not surprising, because Kushner thinks he is capable of arranging the future of the Palestinian people without the inclusion of the Palestinian leadership. He has been pushing his so-called ‘Deal of the Century’ relentlessly, while including in his various meets and conferences countries such as Poland, Brazil and Croatia, but not Palestine.

Indeed, this is what transpired at the Warsaw conference on ‘peace and security’ in the Middle East. The same charade, also led by Kushner, is expected to be rebooted in Bahrain on June 25.

Much has been said about the subtle racism in Kushner’s words, reeking with the stench of old colonial discourses where the natives were seen as lesser, incapable of rational thinking beings who needed the civilized ‘whites’ of the western hemisphere to help them cope with their backwardness and inherent incompetence.

Kushner, whose credentials are merely based on his familial connections to Trump and family friendship with Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is now poised to be the colonial administrator of old, making and enforcing the law while the hapless natives have no other option but to either accommodate or receive their due punishment.

This is not an exaggeration. In fact, according to leaked information concerning Kushner’s ‘Deal of the Century,’ and published in the Israeli daily newspaper, Israel Hayom, if Palestinian groups refuse to accept the US-Israeli diktats, “the US will cancel all financial support to the Palestinians and ensure that no country transfers funds to them.”

In the HBO interview, Kushner offered the Palestinians a lifeline. They could be considered capable of governing themselves should they manage to achieve the following: “a fair judicial system … freedom of the press, freedom of expression, tolerance for all religions.”

The fact that Palestine is an occupied country, subject in every possible way to Israel’s military law, and that Israel has never been held accountable for its 52-year occupation seems to be of no relevance whatsoever, as far as Kushner is concerned.

On the contrary, the subtext in all of what Kushner has said in the interview is that Israel is the antithesis to the unquestionable Palestinian failure. Unlike Palestine, Israel needs to do little to demonstrate its ability to be a worthy peace partner.

While the term ‘US bias towards Israel’ is as old as the state of Israel itself, what is hardly discussed are the specifics of that bias, the decidedly condescending, patronizing and, often, racist view that US political classes have of Palestinians – and all Arabs and Muslims, for that matter; and the utter infatuation with Israel, which is often cited as a model for democracy, judicial transparency and successful ‘anti-terror’ tactics.

According to Kushner a ‘fair judicial system’ is a conditio sine qua non to determine a country’s ability to govern itself. But is the Israeli judicial system “fair” and “democratic”?

Israel does not have a single judicial system, but two. This duality has, in fact, defined Israeli courts from the very inception of Israel in 1948. This de facto apartheid system openly differentiates between Jews and Arabs, a fact that is true in both civil and criminal law.

“Criminal law is applied separately and unequally in the West Bank, based on nationality alone (Israeli versus Palestinian), inventively weaving its way around the contours of international law in order to preserve and develop its ‘(illegal Jewish) settlement enterprise’,” Israeli scholar, Emily Omer-Man, explained in her essay ‘Separate and Unequal’.

In practice, Palestinians and Israelis who commit the exact same crime will be judged according to two different systems, with two different procedures: “The settler will be processed according to the Israeli Penal Code (while) the Palestinian will be processed according to military order.”

This unfairness is constituent of a massively unjust judicial apparatus that has defined the Israeli legal system from the onset. Take the measure of administrative detention as an example. Palestinians can be held without trial and without any stated legal justification. Tens of thousands of Palestinians have been subjected to this undemocratic ‘law’ and hundreds of them are currently held in Israeli jails.

It is ironic that Kushner raised the issue of freedom of the press, in particular, as Israel is being derided for its dismal record in that regard. Israel has reportedly committed 811 violations against Palestinian journalists since the start of the ‘March of Return’ in Gaza in March 2018. Two journalists – Yaser Murtaja and Ahmed Abu Hussein – were killed and 155 were wounded by Israeli snipers.

Like the imbalanced Israeli judicial system, targeting the press is also a part of a protracted pattern. According to a press release issued by the Palestinian Journalists Union last May, Israel has killed 102 Palestinian journalists since 1972.

The fact that Palestinian intellectuals, poets and activists have been imprisoned for Facebook and other social media posts should tell us volumes about the limits of Israel’s freedom of press and expression.

It is also worth mentioning that in June 2018, the Israeli Knesset voted for a bill that prohibits the filming of Israeli soldiers as a way to mask their crimes and shelter them from any future legal accountability.

As for freedom of religion, despite its many shortcomings, the Palestinian Authority hardly discriminates against religious minorities. The same cannot be said about Israel.

Although discrimination against non-Jews in Israel has been the raison d’être of the very idea of Israel, the Nation-State Law of July 2018 further cemented the superiority of the Jews and inferior status of everyone else.

According to the new Basic Law, Israel is “the national home of the Jewish people” only and “the right to exercise national self-determination is unique to the Jewish people.”

Palestinians do not need to be lectured on how to meet Israeli and American expectations, nor should they ever aspire to imitate the undemocratic Israeli model. What they urgently need, instead, is international solidarity to help them win the fight against Israeli occupation, racism and apartheid.

Facing the Facts: Israel Cannot Escape ICC Jurisdiction

The Chief Military Advocate General of the Israeli army, Sharon Afek, and the US Department of Defense General Counsel, Paul Ney, shared a platform at the ‘International Conference on the Law of Armed Conflict’, which took place in Herzliya, Israel between May 28-30.

Their panel witnessed some of the most misconstrued interpretations of international law ever recorded. It was as if Afek and Ney were literally making up their own law on warfare and armed conflict, with no regard to what international law actually stipulates.

Unsurprisingly, both Afek and Ney agreed on many things, including that Israel and the US are blameless in all of their military conflicts, and that they will always be united against any attempt to hold them accountable for war crimes by the International Court of Justice (ICC).

Their tirade against the ICC mirrors that of their own leaders. While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s anti-ICC position is familiar, last April, US President Donald Trump virulently expressed his contempt for the global organization and everything it represents.

“Any attempt to target American, Israeli, or allied personnel for prosecution will be met with a swift and vigorous response,” Trump said in a writing on April 12.

While Trump’s (and Netanyahu’s) divisive language is nothing new, Afek and Ney were entrusted with the difficult task of using legal language to explain their countries’ aversion for international law.

Prior to the Herzliya Conference, Afek addressed the Israel Bar Association convention in Eilat on May 26. Here, too, he made some ludicrous claims as he absolved, in advance, Israeli soldiers who kill Palestinians.

“A soldier who is in a life-threatening situation and acts to defend himself (or) others (he) is responsible for, is receiving and will continue receiving full back-up from the Israeli army,” he said.

The above assertion appears far more sinister once we remember Afek’s views on what constitutes a “life-threatening situation”, as he had articulated in Herzliya a few days later.

“Thousands of Gaza’s residents (try) to breach the border fence,” he said, with reference to the non-violent March of Return at the fence separating besieged Gaza from Israel.

The Gaza protesters “are led by a terrorist organization that deliberately uses civilians to carry out attacks,” Afek said.

Afek sees unarmed protests in Gaza as a form of terrorism, thus concurring with an earlier statement made by then-Israeli Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, on April 8, 2018, when he declared that “there are no innocents in Gaza.”

Israel’s shoot-to-kill policy, however, is not confined to the Gaza Strip but is also implemented with the same degree of violent enthusiasm in the West Bank.

‘No attacker, male or female, should make it out of any attack alive,’ Lieberman said in 2015. His orders were followed implicitly, as hundreds of Palestinians were killed in the West Bank and Jerusalem for allegedly trying to attack Israeli occupation soldiers or armed illegal Jewish settlers.

Unlike democratic political systems everywhere, in Israel the occupation soldier becomes the interpreter and enforcer of the law.

Putting this policy into practice in Gaza is even more horrendous as unarmed protesters are often being killed by Israeli snipers from long distances. Even journalists and medics have not been spared the same tragic fate as the hundreds of civilians who were killed since the start of the protests in March 2018.

Last February, the United Nations Independent Commission of Inquiry on Gaza’s protests concluded that “it has reasonable grounds to believe that during the Great March of Return, Israeli soldiers committed violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Some of those violations may constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity, and must be immediately investigated by Israel.”

In his attack on the ICC at the Herzliya Conference, Afek contended that “Israel is a law-abiding country, with an independent and strong judicial system, and there is no reason for its actions to be scrutinized by the ICC.”

The Israeli General goes on to reprimand the ICC by urging it to focus on “dealing with the main issues for which it was founded.”

Has Afek even read the Rome Statute? The first Article states that the ICC has the “power to exercise its jurisdiction over persons for the most serious crimes of international concern, as referred to in this Statute.”

Article 5 elaborates the nature of these serious crimes, which include: “(a) The crime of genocide; (b) Crimes against humanity; (c) War crimes; (d) The crime of aggression.”

Israel has been accused of at least two of these crimes – war crimes and crimes against humanity – repeatedly, including in the February report by the United Nations Independent Commission of Inquiry.

Afek may argue that none of this is relevant to Israel, for the latter is not “a party to the Rome Statute,” therefore, does not fall within ICC’s legal jurisdiction.

Wrong again.

Article 12 of the Rome Statute allows for ICC’s jurisdiction in two cases; first, if the State in which the alleged crime has occurred is itself a party of the Statute and, second, if the State where the crime has occurred agrees to submit itself to the jurisdiction of the court.

While it is true that Israel is not a signatory of the Rome Statute, Palestine has, since 2015, agreed to submit itself to the ICC’s jurisdiction.

Moreover, in April 2015, the State of Palestine formally became a member of the ICC, thus giving the court jurisdiction to investigate crimes committed in the Occupied Territories since June 13, 2014. These crimes include human rights violations carried out during the Israeli war on Gaza in July-August of the same year.

Afek’s skewed understanding of international law went unchallenged at the Herzliya Conference, as he was flanked by equally misguided interpreters of international law.

However, nothing proclaimed by Israel’s top military prosecutor or his government will alter the facts. Israeli war crimes must not go unpunished; Israel’s judicial system is untrustworthy and the ICC has the legal right and moral duty to carry out the will of the international community and hold to account those responsible for war crimes anywhere, including Israel.

Facing the Facts: Israel Cannot Escape ICC Jurisdiction

The Chief Military Advocate General of the Israeli army, Sharon Afek, and the US Department of Defense General Counsel, Paul Ney, shared a platform at the ‘International Conference on the Law of Armed Conflict’, which took place in Herzliya, Israel between May 28-30.

Their panel witnessed some of the most misconstrued interpretations of international law ever recorded. It was as if Afek and Ney were literally making up their own law on warfare and armed conflict, with no regard to what international law actually stipulates.

Unsurprisingly, both Afek and Ney agreed on many things, including that Israel and the US are blameless in all of their military conflicts, and that they will always be united against any attempt to hold them accountable for war crimes by the International Court of Justice (ICC).

Their tirade against the ICC mirrors that of their own leaders. While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s anti-ICC position is familiar, last April, US President Donald Trump virulently expressed his contempt for the global organization and everything it represents.

“Any attempt to target American, Israeli, or allied personnel for prosecution will be met with a swift and vigorous response,” Trump said in a writing on April 12.

While Trump’s (and Netanyahu’s) divisive language is nothing new, Afek and Ney were entrusted with the difficult task of using legal language to explain their countries’ aversion for international law.

Prior to the Herzliya Conference, Afek addressed the Israel Bar Association convention in Eilat on May 26. Here, too, he made some ludicrous claims as he absolved, in advance, Israeli soldiers who kill Palestinians.

“A soldier who is in a life-threatening situation and acts to defend himself (or) others (he) is responsible for, is receiving and will continue receiving full back-up from the Israeli army,” he said.

The above assertion appears far more sinister once we remember Afek’s views on what constitutes a “life-threatening situation”, as he had articulated in Herzliya a few days later.

“Thousands of Gaza’s residents (try) to breach the border fence,” he said, with reference to the non-violent March of Return at the fence separating besieged Gaza from Israel.

The Gaza protesters “are led by a terrorist organization that deliberately uses civilians to carry out attacks,” Afek said.

Afek sees unarmed protests in Gaza as a form of terrorism, thus concurring with an earlier statement made by then-Israeli Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, on April 8, 2018, when he declared that “there are no innocents in Gaza.”

Israel’s shoot-to-kill policy, however, is not confined to the Gaza Strip but is also implemented with the same degree of violent enthusiasm in the West Bank.

‘No attacker, male or female, should make it out of any attack alive,’ Lieberman said in 2015. His orders were followed implicitly, as hundreds of Palestinians were killed in the West Bank and Jerusalem for allegedly trying to attack Israeli occupation soldiers or armed illegal Jewish settlers.

Unlike democratic political systems everywhere, in Israel the occupation soldier becomes the interpreter and enforcer of the law.

Putting this policy into practice in Gaza is even more horrendous as unarmed protesters are often being killed by Israeli snipers from long distances. Even journalists and medics have not been spared the same tragic fate as the hundreds of civilians who were killed since the start of the protests in March 2018.

Last February, the United Nations Independent Commission of Inquiry on Gaza’s protests concluded that “it has reasonable grounds to believe that during the Great March of Return, Israeli soldiers committed violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Some of those violations may constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity, and must be immediately investigated by Israel.”

In his attack on the ICC at the Herzliya Conference, Afek contended that “Israel is a law-abiding country, with an independent and strong judicial system, and there is no reason for its actions to be scrutinized by the ICC.”

The Israeli General goes on to reprimand the ICC by urging it to focus on “dealing with the main issues for which it was founded.”

Has Afek even read the Rome Statute? The first Article states that the ICC has the “power to exercise its jurisdiction over persons for the most serious crimes of international concern, as referred to in this Statute.”

Article 5 elaborates the nature of these serious crimes, which include: “(a) The crime of genocide; (b) Crimes against humanity; (c) War crimes; (d) The crime of aggression.”

Israel has been accused of at least two of these crimes – war crimes and crimes against humanity – repeatedly, including in the February report by the United Nations Independent Commission of Inquiry.

Afek may argue that none of this is relevant to Israel, for the latter is not “a party to the Rome Statute,” therefore, does not fall within ICC’s legal jurisdiction.

Wrong again.

Article 12 of the Rome Statute allows for ICC’s jurisdiction in two cases; first, if the State in which the alleged crime has occurred is itself a party of the Statute and, second, if the State where the crime has occurred agrees to submit itself to the jurisdiction of the court.

While it is true that Israel is not a signatory of the Rome Statute, Palestine has, since 2015, agreed to submit itself to the ICC’s jurisdiction.

Moreover, in April 2015, the State of Palestine formally became a member of the ICC, thus giving the court jurisdiction to investigate crimes committed in the Occupied Territories since June 13, 2014. These crimes include human rights violations carried out during the Israeli war on Gaza in July-August of the same year.

Afek’s skewed understanding of international law went unchallenged at the Herzliya Conference, as he was flanked by equally misguided interpreters of international law.

However, nothing proclaimed by Israel’s top military prosecutor or his government will alter the facts. Israeli war crimes must not go unpunished; Israel’s judicial system is untrustworthy and the ICC has the legal right and moral duty to carry out the will of the international community and hold to account those responsible for war crimes anywhere, including Israel.

A Second Israeli Election proves Netanyahu’s Grip on Power is Slipping

In a sign of how politically vulnerable he has rapidly become, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu plunged Israel into new elections last week – less than two months after his far-right bloc appeared to win at the ballot box.

Netanyahu was forced to dissolve the 120-member parliament to block his chief rival, Benny Gantz, from getting a chance to assemble an alternative governing coalition.

Gantz, a former army general who heads the Blue and White party, won 35 seats, the same number as Netanyahu’s Likud party, in the April election, but had fewer potential allies to form a majority. So in September, Israelis will cast their votes afresh.

The ostensible reason for the parliament’s dissolution is a stand-off between Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, his former defence minister. They clashed over Lieberman’s insistence that ultra-orthodox Jews be drafted into the army.

But Lieberman, it seems, chose to turn a relatively marginal issue into a full-blown crisis as a way to unseat the prime minister.

To win a far-right majority, Netanyahu needed not only Lieberman’s small Yisrael Beiteinu party but also the ultra-Orthodox parties, which vehemently oppose conscription.

Netanyahu grew so desperate that at the last moment he tried – unsuccessfully – to woo Avi Gabbay, leader of the centrist Labour party. Labour was crushed in April, receiving just six seats, its lowest-ever result.

Netanyahu’s panic was fully justified. He is due to face a hearing in October, when it is widely expected he will be indicted on multiple corruption charges.

With parliament’s dissolution, he no longer has time to pass two pieces of legislation that could have absolved him of charges before the October deadline. First, he needed an immunity law exempting him from trial, and then a so-called “override law” to prevent Israel’s supreme court from using its powers of judicial review to rule the immunity law unconstitutional.

Gabbay objected to Netanyahu insisting on support for the immunity law as the price for Labour’s inclusion in the coalition.

Ayman Odeh, leader of the biggest party representing Israel’s Palestinian minority, one-fifth of the population, mocked Netanyahu’s frantic bargaining.

He provoked much mirth from other legislators by joking that Netanyahu had offered an “end to the occupation” and a promise to “recognise the historic wrongs of the Nakba”, the Palestinians’ dispossession by Israel in 1948, in return for Palestinian parties supporting the immunity law.

Lieberman also humiliated Netanyahu, albeit without the humour. He understood that the prime minister was in no position to haggle.

The gain for Lieberman is that by proposing a bill to draft ultra-orthodox Jews into the army, he appealed to secular Jews. That, he hopes, will win him new supporters in the September election, setting him up again to be kingmaker.

Netanyahu will not be able to count on Lieberman’s support and that in turn puts pressure on Likud to drop its leader.

But there is another, less obvious, way that Lieberman can strengthen his own hand.

The battle lines in the new election, like the last, are between the far-right parties, led Netanyahu, and the centre-right parties, led by Gantz.

Lieberman can now hedge his bets. The far-right has become more overtly religious, with the rise of ideological settlers to prominence and rapid growth of the ultra-orthodox electorate.

Lieberman’s appeal, meanwhile, has been restricted to a declining constituency of disgruntled immigrants from the former Soviet Union, whose politics is ultra-nationalist but implacably secular.

And this gives him reason to want to influence Gantz’s Blue and White party, which is largely secular too.

In recent weeks, a political “resistance” movement has emerged in Israel against Netanyahu, echoing the one against Donald Trump in the US. With Gantz as its figurehead, it has mobilised over the threat Netanyahu poses to Israel’s system of checks and balances.

The chief concern has been the far-right’s intensifying assault on the supreme court, the last relatively liberal institution. The override law, which would neuter the court, has epitomised, for the centre-right, the intensifying erosion of even the most superficial of democratic norms.

Tens of thousands of Israelis attended a protest last month against Netanyahu and his legal manoeuvres.

But Odeh, the most prominent of the Palestinian minority’s leaders, was not invited – not until Gantz had a last-minute change of heart.

Without the Palestinian parties’ 10 or more seats in the parliament behind him, Gantz currently has little hope of tipping the balance in his favour against Netanyahu at the forthcoming election.

Lieberman, a settler, has a special loathing for Palestinian legislators. He has even called for them to be executed. One option is for him to lure Gantz away from Odeh, promising that his Yisrael Beinteinu party can serve up the the keys to the castle after September’s election.

What does all this jostling mean for the Palestinians?

If he can win again, Netanyahu will doubtless scheme to avert a trial and hope to carry on as before.

If he is felled, a successor from his Likud party is unlikely to prove either more moderate or more amenable to Palestinian ambitions for statehood. Likud has lurched significantly to the far-right over the past decade.

But Gantz, the only plausible alternative, is no peacenik either. He oversaw the terrible destruction of Gaza in 2014, supports keeping most of the settlements in place and seems unlikely to pay more than lip service to a peace process.

Should he find himself reliant on Lieberman to build a government, Gantz will have to emphasise the more right-wing elements of his party’s already hawkish programme.

Faced with the current political turmoil, however, the Trump administration might prefer to abandon efforts to press ahead with its “deal of the century” peace plan – at least beyond an initial investment conference scheduled for late June.

That is a reprieve of kinds. All indications were that the plan would prove catastrophically bad for the Palestinians and might have included annexing parts of the West Bank.

But even if that specific threat is lifted, the next Israeli government – whether led by Netanyahu, his successor or Gantz – is not likely to depart from Israel’s long-term consensus, one that the Trump plan was simply set to accelerate.

The settlements will continue their relentless expansion and more Palestinian land will be stolen, eroding any prospect of a viable state for Palestinians emerging.

• First published in the National

Resurrecting the PLO is Palestine’s Best Response to the “Deal of the Century”

Palestinian groups, Fatah, Hamas and others should not confine themselves to simply rejecting the Trump Administration’s so-called ‘Deal of the Century’. Instead, they should use their resistance to the new American-Israeli plot as an opportunity to unify their ranks.

Leaked details of the ‘Deal of the Century’ confirm Palestinians’ worst fears: the ‘Deal’ is but a complete American acquiescence to the right-wing mentality that has ruled Israel for over a decade.

According to the Israeli daily newspaper, Israel Hayom, a demilitarized state, ‘New Palestine’ will be established on territorial fragments of the West Bank, as all illegal Jewish settlements would permanently become part of Israel. If Palestinians refuse to accept Washington’s diktats, according to the report, they will be punished through financial and political isolation.

This is certainly not an American peace overture, but an egregious act of bullying. However, it is hardly a deviation from previous rounds of ‘peace-making,’ where Washington always took Israel’s side, blamed Palestinians and failed to hold Israel to account. Washington has never refrained from supporting Israeli wars against Palestinians or even conditioned its ever-generous aid packages on the dismantling of the illegal Jewish settlements.

The only difference between the US ‘peace process’ of the past and today’s ‘Deal of the Century’ is in the style and tactics as opposed to the substance and details.

Undoubtedly, the ‘Deal’, championed by Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, will fail. Not only will it not deliver peace – this is not the intention – but it is most likely to be rejected by Israel. The formation of Israel’s new government under Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership is centered round far-right and religious parties. It is no longer politically correct in the new Israeli lexicon to even discuss the possibility of a Palestinian state, let alone agree to one.

Netanyahu, however, is likely to wait for Palestinians to reject the deal, as they certainly should. Then, with the help of pro-Israel mainstream western media, a new discourse will evolve, blaming Palestinians for missing yet another opportunity for peace, while absolving Israel from any wrongdoing. This pattern is familiar, highlighted most starkly in Bill Clinton’s Camp David II in 2000 and George W. Bush’s Road Map for Peace in 2003.

In 2000, the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, rejected then Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak’s ‘generous offer’, an entirely manufactured political hoax that, to this day, defines official and academic understanding of what had transpired in the secret talks then.

All Palestinians must reject the ‘Deal of the Century’, or any deal that is born out of a political discourse which is not centered on Palestinian rights as enshrined in international law, a political frame of reference that is agreed upon by every country in the world, save the US and Israel. Decades of fraudulent American ‘peace making’ prove that Washington will never fulfil its self-designated title as an ‘honest peacemaker.’

However, rejection per se, while going back to business as usual, is inadequate. While the Palestinian people are united behind the need to resist the Israeli Occupation, challenge Israeli apartheid and employ international pressure until Israel finally relents, Palestinian factions are driven by other selfish priorities. Each faction seems to rotate within the political sphere of foreign influence, whether Arab or international.

For example, Fatah, which is credited for ‘igniting the spark of the Palestinian revolution’ in 1965, has been largely consumed with the trappings of false power while dominating the Palestinian Authority, which itself operates within the space allocated to it by the Israeli military occupation in the West Bank.

Hamas, which began as an organic movement in Palestine, is forced to play regional politics in its desperation for any political validation in order to escape the suffocating siege of Gaza.

Whenever both parties verge on forming a united leadership in the hope of resurrecting the largely defunct Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), their benefactors manipulate the money and politics, thus resuming disunity and discord.

The ‘Deal of the Century’, however, offers both groups an opportunity, as they are united in rejecting the deal and equally perceive any Palestinian engagement with it as an act of treason.

More importantly, the steps taken by Washington to isolate the PA through denying Palestinians urgently needed funds, revoking the PLO’s diplomatic status in Washington and shunning the PA as a political ally  provide the opportunity to open the necessary political dialogue that could finally accomplish a serious Fatah-Hamas reconciliation.

Israel, too, by withholding tax money collected on behalf of the PA, has lost its last pressure card against Mahmoud Abbas and his government in Ramallah.

At this point, there is little else that the US and Israel could do to exert more pressure on the Palestinians.

But this political space available for Palestinians to create a new political reality will be brief. The moment the ‘Deal of the Century’ is discarded as another failed American scheme to force a Palestinian surrender, the political cards, regionally and internationally, will be mixed again, beyond the ability of Palestinian factions to control their outcome.

Therefore, it is critical that Palestinian groups at home and in the diaspora push for Palestinian dialogue, not simply for the sake of forming a unity government in Ramallah, but to revitalize the PLO as a truly representative and democratic body that includes all Palestinian political currents and communities.

It is only through the resurrection of the PLO that Palestinians could finally return to their original mission of devising a national liberation strategy that is not manipulated by money and not subjected to regional politicking.

If history is any indication, the ‘Deal of the Century’ is another sinister American attempt to manage the situation in Palestine in order to assert political dominance in the region. This ‘Deal’ is essential for American reputation, especially among its disgruntled regional allies who feel abandoned by the progressive American military and political retreat from the region.

This latest charade does not have to be at the expense of Palestinians, and Palestinian groups should recognize and grasp this unique opportunity. The ‘Deal of the Century’ will fail, but efforts to achieve Palestinian unity could finally succeed.

Jerusalem Cable Car Project Passes Over Objections from Many Quarters

East Jerusalem has received new impetus from the rise of the Israeli far right and Washington’s decision to move its embassy to the city. But if completed, critics say, the long-running proposal would contribute to erasing the visibility of Palestinians in the city they hope to make their capital.

Planning for the $55 million tourism project continues despite unifying archaeologists, architects, Palestinians, and a tiny community of Jews against it – in a sign of Israel’s ever-growing confidence in making unilateral moves in occupied parts of Jerusalem.

Critics say the cable car will help hide the local Palestinian population from the roughly 3 million tourists who visit Jerusalem each year, turning the city into a “Disneyland” focused on promoting Israeli interests.

“The advantage for Israel is that visitors can be prevented from having any dealings with Palestinians,” said Aviv Tartasky, a researcher with Ir Amim, an Israeli organisation that campaigns for equal rights in Jerusalem.

“The local population will be largely erased from the experience of visiting Jerusalem. Tourists will pass over Palestinian residents, via the cable car, and then pass under them via tunnels.”

Israel’s Ministry of Tourism dismissed the criticism. In a statement to The National, the ministry said the cable car project was “a significant milestone in the promotion of Jerusalem and the strengthening of its status as a world tourism capital”.

Settler-run tours

The cable car, the largest project of its type undertaken by Israel, could be completed as early as in two years, its destination the slopes in occupied East Jerusalem just below the Old City, next to Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Some 72 cabins have the capacity to ferry up to 3,000 visitors an hour above mainly Palestinian homes.

Tourists will be channelled from the cable car into a visitor centre run by Jewish settlers in the heart of the crowded Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan. They will be led by settler-approved guides underground, through tunnels under Palestinian homes to the foot of the Western Wall.

Blueprints show that visitors will be able to shop in the tunnels, bypassing local Palestinian traders in the Old City market who have long depended on tourism. Israeli officials accelerated the project by bypassing routine planning procedures, even though urban planning specialists warn that it will damage the Jerusalem skyline and archaeological sites revealing the origins of modern civilisation.

Equally important, critics say, the Benjamin Netanyahu government and settler groups view the cable car as helping block any possibility of a Palestinian state emerging with East Jerusalem as its capital. They have been emboldened by President Donald Trump’s 2017 decision to transfer the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“It should set off alarm bells that a huge state project like this is being intertwined with a private settler organisation, physically forcing visitors to go through its visitor centre, channelling them into its attractions and activities,” Mr Tartasky said.

He said the cable car was one of the ways Israel was connecting disparate settler compounds in the Palestinian neighbourhoods of occupied Jerusalem.

“It will physically strengthen these settler areas, and mean their organisations have an even greater influence on Israeli authorities.”

Encircling Al-Aqsa

The project has been forcefully promoted by the Israeli tourism ministry, headed by Yariv Levin, an ally of Mr Netanyahu, and Jerusalem’s mayor, Moshe Lion. Tenders will be issued as soon as the National Planning Council approves the project, which is expected to be a formality.

In violation of international law, Israel has treated East Jerusalem as annexed territory since it occupied the city in 1967. More than 200,000 Jewish settlers have moved there over subsequent decades

Hanna Swaid, a Palestinian planning specialist and former member of the Israeli parliament, said the cable car was illegal because international law allows major changes in occupied territory only out of military necessity or for the benefit of the population under occupation.

“Even in its own planning justifications, the Israeli authorities are clear the cable car is designed only for the benefit of tourists, Israeli developers and the settler groups overseeing it, not the local Palestinian population. In fact, it will serve to actively harm Palestinians in Jerusalem,” Mr Swaid said.

“It will parachute tourists to Jewish sites like the Western Wall, and marginalise Muslim and Christian sites,” he added.

Palestinians are concerned that the cable car will serve to tighten Israel’s control over access to the Al Aqsa mosque compound, the highly sensitive holy site in the Old City. For decades Israeli authorities have moved to weaken the control of Islamic religious authorities, the Waqf, on Al Aqsa, contributing to repeated clashes at the site.

Jews believe the mosque is built over the ruins of a major Jewish temple. The Western Wall, which supports the mosque compound, was originally a retaining wall of the long-lost temple.

“The cable car looks suspiciously like another means for encircling Al Aqsa, for laying siege to it,” Mr Swaid said.

Tunnels under Palestinians

According to official plans, dozens of cabins will run hourly along a 1.5-kilometre route from West Jerusalem, inside Israel’s recognised borders, to the occupied Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan, just outside the Old City walls and in the shadow of Al Aqsa.

Tourists will disembark in Silwan into a large visitor centre, the Kedem compound, to be run by a settler organisation called Elad that has close ties with the Israeli government.

The Kedem centre is the latest venture in the City of David complex, an archaeological site that the settlers of Elad have been using for more than two decades as a base to seize control of the Palestinian neighbourhood.

Visitors will be taken on tours to explore Jerusalem, moving through ancient sewage tunnels that run under Palestinian homes and reach to walls of Al Aqsa.

Additional plans will eventually see the cable car alight at other sites in East Jerusalem. Among them are the Mount of Olives, which includes an ancient Jewish cemetery; the Church of Gethsemane, at the reputed site where Judas betrayed Jesus; and the Pool of Siloam, a bathing area referred to in the Old and New Testaments.

Yonatan Mizrahi, the director of Emek Shaveh, a group of Israeli archaeologists opposed to the misuse of archaeology and tourism by Israel, said: “The purpose is to offer tourists a one-dimensional narrative about Jerusalem and its history. They should see all layers of the city’s rich history. Instead they will hear only the parts that relate to Jewish history.”

Mr Mizrahi has been among those leading the criticism of the project. “No other historic city in the world has built a cable car – and for very good reason,” he said.

Jerusalem ‘not Disneyland’

In March about 30 international architects – some of whom have worked on projects in Jerusalem – wrote to Mr Netanyahu urging him not to pursue what they called short-term interests.

“The project is being promoted by powerful interest groups who put tourism and political agendas above responsibility for safeguarding Jerusalem’s cultural treasures,” the letter said.

The letter followed a statement by 70 Israeli archaeologists, architects and public figures against the cable car in November, when the project was speeded up. They said: “Jerusalem is not Disneyland, and its landscape and heritage are not for sale.”

A French firm, Safege, which worked on the initial feasibility study, pulled out in 2015, reportedly under pressure from the French government over concerns that the project violated international law.

In an apparent bid to ensure the project would go through, the previous Netanyahu government changed planning laws to remove the cable car from local and regional oversight. It also ensured the public could not submit objections.

Instead the scheme is being treated as a “national infrastructure” project, similar to a new railway line or gas pipeline. The National Planning Council offered a curtailed period for organisations to lodge reservations that ended on March 31.

Mr Swaid, who is the director of the Arab Centre for Alternative Planning, drew up a list of reservations on behalf of the Supreme Religious Council of Muslims in Israel.

Other critical comments were submitted by lawyers for the Silwan neighbourhood, the archaeologists of Emek Shaveh, the planning group Bimkom, a Palestinian merchant association in the Old City, and a tour guides group.

The Karaites, a small Jewish sect whose ancient cemetery lies in the path of the cable car, in the Biblical Hinnom Valley, said the project showed “contemptuous disregard for the dignity of the deceased and the Karaite community in general”.

Benjamin Kedar, a former chairman of the Israel Antiquities Authority, lodged a protest too.

Loss of all privacy

One of the Silwan homes in the path of the cable car belongs to the Karameh family. The cabins may pass only four metres above the flat roof where toddlers play and the family of 20 hang their washing. Support columns for the cable car may end up being driven into the family’s garden, one of the few green spots in Silwan.

“Nowhere in Israel do cable cars travel over houses, let alone a few metres above,” said Mr Mizrahi. “It seems clear why in this case. Because the houses belong to Palestinians.”

Samer Karameh, a 24-year-old lorry driver, said everyone in Silwan was opposed to the cable car, as it would be helping settler groups like Elad trying to take over their neighbourhood. But he was shocked to learn that it would pass so close to his house.

“We’ll lose all privacy. We won’t be able to open the windows without being seen by thousands of strangers. And it can’t be safe to have these cars travelling just over the heads of our children,” Mr Karameh said.

“We know we won’t be the beneficiaries,” he added. “The authorities won’t give us a permit to build anything here, so all the business will go to the settlers.”

• A version of this article first appeared in The National