Category Archives: Oslo Accords

PA Political Circus: Why Abbas Must Hand the Keys over to the PLO

The painful truth is that the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas has already ceased to exist as a political body that holds much sway or relevance, either to the Palestinian people or to Abbas’ former benefactors, namely the Israeli and the American governments.

So, when the Palestinian Authority Prime Minister, Mohammed Shtayyeh, announced on June 9, that the Palestinian leadership had submitted a ‘counter-proposal’ to the US’ Middle East peace plan, also known as the ‘Deal of the Century’, few seemed to care.

We know little about this ‘counter-proposal’, aside from the fact that it envisages a demilitarized Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders. We also know that the Palestinian leadership is willing to accept land swaps and border adjustments, a provision that has surely been inserted to cater to Israel’s demographic and security needs.

It is almost certain that nothing will come out of Shtayyeh’s counter-proposal and no independent Palestinian state is expected to result from the seemingly historical offer. So, why did Ramallah opt for such a strategy only days before the July 1 deadline, when the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to launch its process of illegal annexation in the occupied West Bank and the Jordan Valley?

The main reason behind Shtayyeh’s announcement is that the Palestinian leadership is often accused by Israel, the US and their allies of supposedly rejecting previous ‘peace’ overtures.

Rightly, the Palestinian Authority rejected the ‘Deal of the Century’, because the latter represents the most jarring violation of international law yet. The ‘Deal’ denies Palestine’s territorial rights in occupied East Jerusalem, dismisses the right of return for Palestinian refugees altogether, and gives carte blanche to the Israeli government to colonize more Palestinian land.

In principle, Netanyahu also rejected the American proposal, though without pronouncing his rejection publicly. Indeed, the Israeli leader has already dismissed any prospects of Palestinian statehood and has decided to move forward with the unilateral annexation of nearly 30% of the West Bank without paying any heed to the fact that even Trump’s unfair ‘peace’ initiative called for mutual dialogue before any annexation takes place.

As soon as Washington’s plan was announced in January, followed by Israel’s insistence that annexation of Palestinian territories was imminent, the Palestinian Authority spun into a strange political mode, far more unpredictable and bizarre than ever before.

One after another, Palestinian Authority officials began making all sorts of contradictory remarks and declarations, notable amongst them Abbas’ decision on May 19 to cancel all agreements signed between Palestinians and Israel.

This was followed by another announcement, on June 8, this time by Hussein Al-Sheikh, a senior Palestinian Authority official and Abbas’ confidante, that if annexation takes place the Authority would cut off civil services to Palestinians so that Israel may assume its legal role as an Occupying Power as per international norms.

A third announcement was made the following day by Shtayyeh himself, who threatened that, if Israel claims sovereignty over parts of the West Bank, the Authority would retaliate by declaring statehood within the pre-1967 borders.

The Palestinian counter-proposal was declared soon after this hotchpotch of announcements, most likely to offset the state of confusion that is marring the Palestinian body politic. It is the Palestinian leadership’s way of appearing pro-active, positive, and stately.

The Palestinian initiative also aims at sending a message to European countries that, despite Abbas’ cancellation of agreements with Israel, the Palestinian Authority is still committed to the political parameters set by the Oslo Accords as early as September 1993.

What Abbas and Shtayyeh are ultimately hoping to achieve is a repeat of an earlier episode that followed the admission of Palestine as a non-state member of the United Nations General Assembly in 2011. Salam Fayyad, who served as the Authority Prime Minister at the time, also waved the card of the unilateral declaration of statehood to force Israel to freeze the construction of illegal Jewish settlements.

Eventually, the Palestinian Authority was co-opted by then-US Secretary of State, John Kerry, to return to another round of useless negotiations with Israel, which won the Authority another ten years, during which time it received generous international funds while selling Palestinians false hope for an imaginary state.

Sadly, this is the current strategy of the Palestinian leadership: a combination of threats, counter-proposals and such, in the hope that Washington and Tel Aviv will agree to return to a by-gone era.

Of course, the Palestinian people, occupied, besieged, and oppressed are the least relevant factor in the Palestinian Authority’s calculations, but this should come as no surprise. The Palestinian leadership has operated for many years without a semblance of democracy, and the Palestinian people neither respect their government nor their so-called President. They have made their feelings known, repeatedly, in many opinion polls in the past.

In the last few months, the Authority has used every trick in the book to demonstrate its relevance and its seriousness in the face of the dual-threat of Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ and Netanyahu’s annexation of Palestinian lands. Yet, the most significant and absolutely pressing step, that of uniting all Palestinians, people and factions, behind a single political body and a single political document, is yet to be taken.

Considering all of this, it is no exaggeration to argue that Abbas’ Authority is gasping its last breath, especially if its traditional European allies fail to extend a desperately needed lifeline. The guarded positions adopted by EU countries have, thus far, signaled that no European country is capable or even willing to fill the gap left open by Washington’s betrayal of the Palestinian Authority and of the ‘peace process’.

Until the Authority hands over the keys to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) so that the more democratically representative Palestinian body can start a process of national reconciliation, Netanyahu will, tragically, remain the only relevant party, determining the fate of Palestine and her people.

The Slow Exodus of Palestinian Christians

• To read this essay on the Americans for Middle East Understanding website, click here

• For a PDF version, click here

It was inevitable that when the coronavirus pandemic reached the occupied Palestinian territories, as it did in early March, it would find its first purchase in Bethlehem, a few miles south-east of Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank.

Staff at the Angel Hotel in Beit Jala, one of Bethlehem’s satellite towns, tested positive after they were exposed to a group of infected Greek tourists. Israel worked hurriedly with the Palestinian Authority – the Palestinians’ permanent government-in-waiting in the occupied territories – to lock down Bethlehem. Israel was fearful that the virus, unlike the city’s Palestinian inhabitants, would be difficult to contain. Contagion might spread quickly to nearby Palestinian communities in the West Bank, then to Jewish settlements built illegally by Israel on Bethlehem’s lands, and finally on into Israel itself.

The Palestinian territories were under a form of lockdown long before the arrival of the coronavirus; however. Israel, the occupying power, has made sure that the entire Palestinian population is as isolated from the world as possible – their voices silenced, their experiences of oppression and brutality at Israel’s hands near-invisible to most of the Israeli public and to outsiders.

But Bethlehem, the reputed site of Jesus’s birth 2,000 years ago, is the one Palestinian area – outside East Jerusalem, which has been illegally annexed by Israel – that has proved hardest for Israel to hermetically seal off. During visits to the Church of the Nativity, tourists can briefly glimpse the reality of Palestinian life under occupation.

Some 15 years ago Israel completed an 26 ft-high concrete wall around Bethlehem. On a typical day – at least, before coronavirus halted tourism to the region – a steady stream of coaches from Jerusalem, bearing thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world, came to a stop at a gap in the concrete that served as a checkpoint. There they would wait for the all-clear from surly Israeli teenage soldiers. Once approved, the coaches would drive to the Nativity Church, their passengers able to view the chaotic graffiti scrawled across the wall’s giant canvas, testifying to the city’s imprisonment and its defiance.

Like the plague-bearing Greeks, visitors to Bethlehem could not avoid mixing, even if perfunctorily, with a few locals, mostly Palestinian Christians. Guides showed them around the main attraction, the Church, while local officials and clergy shepherded them into queues to be led down to a crypt that long ago was supposedly the site of a stable where Jesus was born. But unlike the Greek visitors, most pilgrims did not hang around to see the rest of Bethlehem. They quickly boarded their Israeli coaches back to Jerusalem, where they were likely to sleep in Israeli-owned hotels and spend their money in Israeli-owned restaurants and shops.

For most visitors to the Holy Land, their sole meaningful exposure to the occupation and the region’s native Palestinian population was an hour or two spent in the goldfish-bowl of Bethlehem.

A taste of occupation

In recent years, however, that had started to change. Despite the wall, or at times because of it, more independent-minded groups of pilgrims and lone travelers had begun straying off grid, leaving the Israeli-controlled tourism trail. Rather than making a brief detour, they stayed a few nights in Bethlehem. A handful of small, mostly cheap hotels like the Angel catered to them, as did restaurants and souvenir stores around the church.

In tandem, a new kind of political tourism based in and around Bethlehem had begun offering tours of the wall and sections of the city, highlighting the theft of the city’s land by neighboring Jewish settlements and the violence of Israeli soldiers who can enter Bethlehem at will.

A few years ago, the famous anonymous British graffiti artist Banksy gave a major boost to this new kind of immersive tourism by allying with a Bethlehem tour guide, Wisam Salsa, to open the Walled-Off Hotel. They converted an old building boxed in by the wall, liberally sprinkling it with Banksy’s subversive artworks about the occupation, as well as installing a gallery exhibiting the work of Palestinian artists and a museum detailing the occupation’s history and Israel’s well-tested methods of control and repression.

Admittedly, few visitors managed to get a room in Banksy’s small hotel, but many more came to sit in the lobby and sip a beer, produced by one of a handful of newly emerging breweries run by Christian Palestinians, or add some graffiti to the wall just outside with the help of a neighboring art supplies shop.

Before coronavirus, the Walled-Off offered daily tours of Aida, a refugee camp attached to Bethlehem, whose inhabitants were expelled from some of the more than 500 Palestinian communities Israel erased in 1948 – in the Nakba, or Catastrophe – to create a Jewish state on their homeland. There, visitors not only learned about the mass dispossession of Palestinians, sponsored by the western powers that made Israel’s creation possible, but they heard the camp’s inhabitants tell of regular violent, night-time raids by Israeli soldiers and of the daily struggle for survival when Israel tightly controls and limits essentials like water.

Until the coronavirus did Israel’s work for it, Israeli authorities had noted with growing concern how more tourists and pilgrims were staying in Bethlehem. According to Israeli figures, there are about a million tourist overnights annually in Bethlehem. And that figure was growing as new hotels were built, even if the total was still a tiny fraction of the number of tourists staying in Israel and Israeli-ruled East Jerusalem.

An Achilles’ heel

The new trend disturbed the Israeli authorities. Bethlehem was proving an Achilles’ heel in Israel’s system of absolute control over the Palestinians for two reasons.

First, it brought money into Bethlehem, providing it with a source of income outside Israel’s control. The Israeli authorities have carefully engineered the Palestinian economy to be as dependent on Israel as possible, making it easy for Israel to punish Palestinians and the PA economically for any signs of disobedience or resistance. Aside from its tourism, Bethlehem has been largely stripped of economic autonomy. After waves of land thefts by Israel, the city now has access to only a tenth of its original territory, and has been slowly encircled by settlements. The city’s residents have been cut off from their farmland, water sources and historic landmarks. Jerusalem, once Bethlehem’s economic and cultural hinterland, has become all but unreachable for most residents, hidden on the other side of the wall. And those working outside the tourism sector need a difficult-to-obtain permit from Israel’s military authorities to enter and work in low-paying jobs in construction and agriculture inside Israel, the settlements or occupied Jerusalem.

Israel’s second ground for concern was that foreign visitors staying in Bethlehem were likely to learn first-hand something of the experiences of the local population – more so than those who simply made a brief detour to see the church. A self-serving narrative about Palestinians central to Israeli propaganda – that Israel stands with the west in a Judeo-Christian battle against a supposedly barbaric Muslim enemy – risked being subverted by exposure to the reality of Bethlehem. After all, anyone spending time in the city would soon realize that it includes Palestinian Christians only too ready to challenge Israel’s grand narrative of a clash of civilizations.

From Israel’s point of view, a stay in Bethlehem might also open tourists’ eyes in dangerous ways. They might come to understand that, if anyone was behaving in a barbaric way and provoking an unresolvable, religiously inspired clash, it was not Palestinians – Muslim or Christian – but Israel, which has been brutally ruling over Palestinians for decades.

For both reasons, Israel wished to prevent Bethlehem from becoming a separate, rival hub for tourism. It was impossible to stop pilgrims visiting the Church of the Nativity, but Israel could stop Bethlehem developing its own tourism industry, independent of Israel. The wall has been part of that strategy, but it failed to curb the development of new tourism ventures – and in some cases, as with the Banksy hotel, had actually inspired alternative forms of tourism.

In early 2017 the Israeli authorities finally acted. The daily Haaretz newspaper revealed that the interior ministry had issued a directive to local travel agencies warning them not to allow their pilgrimage groups to stay overnight in Bethlehem, with the implication that the firms risked losing their licenses if they did so. According to Haaretz, the government claimed that “potential terrorists were traveling with groups of tourists”.

Bethlehem is lucky that, unlike other Palestinian communities, it has allies Israel cannot easily ignore. Haaretz’s exposure of the new policy led to a rapid backlash. International churches, especially the Vatican, were worried that it was the thin end of a wedge that might soon leave the City of the Nativity off-limits to its pilgrims. And Israeli travel agencies feared their business would suffer. Pilgrim groups from poorer countries that could not afford Jerusalem’s high prices, especially for accommodation, might stop coming to the Holy Land.

As one agent told Haaretz: “The meaning of a letter like this is the end of incoming tourism from India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and eastern European countries like Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine. All the tourists who visit Israel and sleep in Bethlehem are doing that primarily to reduce costs.” The loss of such tourists not only threatened to deprive Bethlehem of the benefits of tourism but threatened Israel’s much larger tourism sector. Soon afterwards, the Israeli authorities backtracked, saying the directive had been a draft issued in error.

Shrinking population

Bethlehem’s plight – a microcosm of the more general difficulties faced by Palestinians under occupation – offers insights into why the region’s Palestinian Christian population has been shrinking so rapidly and relentlessly.

The demographics of Bethlehem offer stark evidence of a Christian exodus from the region. In 1947, the year before Israel’s creation, 85 percent of Bethlehem’s inhabitants were Christian. Today the figure stands at 15 percent. Christians now comprise less than 1.5 percent of the Palestinian population in the West Bank – some 40,000 of a population of nearly 3 million – down from 5 percent in the early 1970s, shortly after Israel occupied the territory in 1967.

In 1945 Bethlehem had nearly 8,000 Christian residents, slightly more than the 7,000 who live there today. Natural growth should mean Bethlehem’s Christian population is many times that size. There are, in fact, many times more Palestinian Christians overseas than there are in historic Palestine. The 7,000 Christians of Beit Jala, next to Bethlehem, are outnumbered by more than 100,000 family members who have moved to the Americas.

Israel ostensibly professes great concern about this decline, but actually it is only too happy to see native Christians depart the region. Their exodus has helped to make Israel’s clash of civilizations narrative sound more plausible, bolstering claims that Israel does indeed serve as a rampart against Muslim-Arab terror and barbarism. Israel has argued that it is helping Christian Palestinians as best it can, protecting them from their hostile Muslim neighbors. In this way, Israel has sought to mask its active role in encouraging the exodus.

The rapid decline in the numbers of these Christians reflects many factors that have been intentionally obscured by Israel. Historically, the most significant is that Palestinian Christians were nearly as badly impacted as Palestinian Muslims by the mass expulsions carried out by Zionist forces in 1948. In total, some 80 percent of all Palestinians living in what became the new state of Israel were expelled from their lands and became refugees – 750,000 from a population of 900,000. Those forced into exile included tens of thousands of Christians, amounting to two-thirds of the Palestinian Christian population of the time.

Palestinian Christians who remained in historic Palestine – either in what had now become Israel or in the territories that from 1967 would fall under Israeli occupation – have naturally shrunk over time in relation to the Muslim population because of the latter’s higher birth rates. Palestine’s Christians mostly lived in cities. Their urban lifestyles and generally higher incomes, as well as their greater exposure to western cultural norms, meant they tended to have smaller families and, as a result, their community’s population growth was lower.

But rather than acknowledge this historical context, Israeli lobbyists seek to exploit and misrepresent the inevitable tensions and resentments caused by the mass displacements of the Nakba, developments that had a significant impact on traditionally Christian communities like Bethlehem. During the events of 1948, as rural Palestinian villages were ethnically cleansed by Zionist forces, the refugees sought shelter either in neighboring states like Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, or in West Bank cities.

Bethlehem found its demographics transformed: an 85 percent Christian majority before the Nakba has been reversed into an 85 percent Muslim majority today. These dramatic social and cultural upheavals – turning the city’s majority population into a minority – were not easy for all Bethlehem’s Christian families to accept. It would be wrong to ignore the way these changes caused friction. And the resentments have sometimes festered because they are incapable of resolution without addressing the source of the problem: Israel’s mass dispossession of Palestinians, and the continuing tacit support for these abuses by the international community.

Given this context, it has been easy for inter-family rivalries and conflicts that are inevitable in a ghettoized, overcrowded community like today’s Bethlehem to be interpreted by some members of the minority group as sectarian, even when they are not. The lack of proper law enforcement in Palestinian areas in which Israel rather than the PA is the ultimate arbiter of what is allowed has left smaller Christian families more vulnerable in conflicts with larger Muslim families. In the competition for diminishing resources, family size has mattered. And whereas globalization has tended to encourage increased identification among Palestinian Christians with the west and its more secular norms, the same processes have entrenched a religious identity among sections of the Muslim population who look to the wider Middle East for their ideas and salvation. Consequently, a cultural gap has widened.

These problems exist but it would be wrong to exaggerate them – as Israel’s loyalists wish to do – or to ignore who is ultimately responsible for these tensions. That is not a mistake most Palestinian Christians make. In a recent survey of Christians who have emigrated, very few pointed to “religious extremism” as the reason for leaving the region – just 3 percent. The overwhelming majority cited reasons relating in some way to Israel’s continuing malevolent role in controlling their lives. A third blamed a “lack of freedom”, a quarter “worsening economic conditions”, and 20 percent “political instability.”

Leaving Palestine

To make sense of the specific problems faced by the Christian community, other historical contexts need to be understood. Palestinian Christians break down into four broad communities. The first is the Eastern Orthodox Churches, dominated by the Greek Orthodox. The second is the Catholic Churches, led by the “Latin” community that looks towards Rome, although they are outnumbered among Palestinians by Greek and Syrian Catholics. The third category is the Oriental Orthodox churches, which include the Copts, Armenian and Syrian Orthodox. And. finally, there are various Protestant Churches, including the Anglicans, Lutherans and Baptists.

Long before Israel’s creation on most of the Palestinians’ homeland, Christians were concentrated in and around Palestine’s urban centers. In Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, large numbers of Christians coalesced around sites associated with Jesus’s life. This tendency was reinforced as Palestine’s cities flourished and expanded from the 18th century onwards under Ottoman rule. The Ottomans encouraged the immigration of Christians to these centers of worship and cultivated a confessional system that made conditions attractive for the foreign Churches.

The result was a relatively privileged urban Christian population that consisted largely of merchants and traders, and benefited from the resources poured in by the international Churches as part of their missionary work, including schools and hospitals. Christians were typically wealthier, better educated and healthier than their Muslim counterparts often living nearby in isolated rural communities as peasant farmers. In addition, Christian families had good connections to the international Churches through local clergy, as well as the staff of Church-run schools and hospitals.

Those differences have proved significant as Palestinian Christians and Muslims alike have struggled under Israeli colonization, whether inside Israel’s internationally recognized borders or in the occupied territories.

Israel’s institutionalized racism towards Palestinians – systematic land thefts, uninhibited state and settler violence, as well as restrictions on movement and the denial of educational and employment opportunities – have put pressure on all Palestinians to leave. But Christians have enjoyed significant advantages in making their escape. They could tap their connections in the Churches to help them settle abroad, chiefly in the Americas and Europe. And that path was made easier for many given that relatives had already established lives overseas following the mass expulsions of 1948. As a result, the emigration of Palestinian Christians is generally reckoned to have been around twice that of Muslims.

Struggling under occupation

Israel’s oft-repeated claim that Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are responsible for the exodus of Christians out of the Holy Land is given the lie simply by examining the situation of Palestinian Christians both inside Israel, where neither Hamas nor the PA operate, and in East Jerusalem, where the influence of both has long been negligible. In each of those areas, Israel has unchallenged control over Palestinians’ lives. Yet we can see the same pattern of Christians fleeing the region.

And the reasons for Gaza’s tiny Palestinian Christian population, today numbering maybe only 1,000, to leave their tiny, massively overcrowded enclave, which has been blockaded for 13 years by Israel, barely needs examining. True, it has been hard for these Christians – 0.0005 percent of Gaza’s population – to feel represented in a territory so dominated by the Islamic social and cultural values embodied by the Hamas government. But there is little evidence they are being persecuted.

On the other hand, there is overwhelming proof that Gaza’s Christians are suffering, along with their Muslim neighbors, from Israel’s continuing violations of their most fundamental rights to freedom, security and dignity.

The picture in the West Bank, meanwhile, needs closer study. As noted, Palestinian Christians have generally enjoyed historic privileges over their Muslim compatriots that derive from their historic connections to the Churches. They have been able to exploit tourism as guides, drivers and guesthouse owners. They enjoy greater access to church-run schools and, as a consequence, improved access to higher education and the professions. They possess more valuable urban land, and many own shops and businesses in the cities. There are both Muslim and Christian lawyers, shopkeepers and business owners, of course, but proportionately more Christians have belonged to the middle classes and professions because of these various advantages.

While Israel’s occupation policies have harshly impacted all Palestinians, some have been hit harder than others. And those who have tended to suffer most live not in the main cities, which are under very partial Palestinian rule, but in rural areas and in the refugee camps. Those in the camps, in places such as Aida, next to Bethlehem, lost their lands and property to Israel and have had to rebuild their lives from scratch since 1948. Those living in isolated farming communities designated by the Oslo accords as “Area C” (a temporary designation that has effectively become permanent) are fully exposed to Israel’s belligerent civil and military control.

The residents of these communities have few opportunities to earn a living and have been most vulnerable to Israeli state and settler violence, as well as land thefts and the severe water restrictions imposed by Israel. In practice, these precarious conditions are endured disproportionately by Muslim Palestinians rather than Christians.

Nonetheless, Israel’s policies have increasingly deprived urban Christian families of the opportunities they had come to expect – the kind of opportunities westerners take for granted. And significantly, unlike many Muslim Palestinians, Christians have continued to enjoy one privilege: an escape route out of the region to countries where they have a chance to live relatively normal lives.

The damage to Christian life has been felt particularly keenly in relation to movement restrictions – one of the ways Israel has established a system of near-absolute control over Palestinian life. Those involved in trade and business, as many Christians are, have struggled to succeed as those restrictions have intensified over the past quarter-century, since the introduction of measures under the Oslo accords. An elaborate system of checkpoints and permits was established to control Palestinians’ freedom to move around the occupied territories and to enter Israel in search of work. Over time the system was enforced by a lengthy steel and concrete “separation barrier” that Israel began building nearly two decades ago.

Taybeh’s beer challenge

Typifying the difficulties of trading under these circumstances is the Taybeh micro-brewery in a West Bank village of the same name, in a remote location north of Ramallah overlooking the Jordan Valley. Taybeh is exceptional: its 1,300 inhabitants comprise the last exclusively Christian community in the occupied territories. The village – its name means both “good” and“delicious” in Arabic – is reputedly on the Biblical site of Ephraim. A small church marks the spot where Jesus reputedly retired with his disciples shortly before heading to Jerusalem, where he would be crucified. Taybeh has its own Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox schools, and a Catholic nursing home.

Nonetheless, Taybeh has long been in demographic meltdown. Today, its population is dwarfed by those of its diaspora: some 12,000 former residents and their descendants live abroad, mostly in the United States, Chile and Guatemala. Daoud and Nadim Khoury, two brothers who were themselves raised in the US, established the Taybeh brewery shortly after their return to the West Bank village under the Oslo accords. The business depended on the experiences and connections they had gained abroad.

For them, developing a sustainable business like the brewery was a way to halt and reverse the gradual demise of their village and the loss of its Christian heritage. They feared that any further decline in numbers would leave Taybeh’s lands and its ancient olive groves vulnerable to takeover by the three Jewish settlements that surround the village. The business was seen as a way to save Taybeh.

Maria Khoury, Daoud’s Greek wife, whom he met at Harvard, says the conditions of village life have continued to deteriorate. Unemployment stands at 60 percent, and Israel shuts off the water four times a week to preserve supplies for the Jewish settlements. The drive to the nearest Palestinian city, Ramallah, takes five times longer than it did 20 years ago – when it took little more than 15 minutes. That was before checkpoints and roadblocks were established on local roads to protect the settlers.

The Khourys have succeeded in their ambition to develop a range of award-winning beers made to the highest purity standards. The family has expanded into making boutique wines, and has built a prestige hotel in the village center, belying Taybeh’s small size. An annual Oktoberfest, modeled on German beer-drinking celebrations, has helped to put the remote village on the map. And a few restaurants have opened as Taybeh has tried to reinvent itself, with limited success, as a weekend-break destination.

But despite all these achievements, their larger ambitions have been foiled. Movement restrictions imposed by Israel’s military authorities have stymied efforts at growing the business. With a domestic market limited by opposition to alcohol consumption among most of the Palestinian population, Taybeh brewery has depended chiefly on exports to Europe, Japan and the US. But the difficulties of navigating Israel’s hostile bureaucracy have sapped the business of money, time and energy, making it hard to compete with foreign breweries.

Daoud told me at one Oktoberfest that the brewery faced Israeli “harassment in the name of security.” He noted that even when the crossing points were open, Israel held up the company’s trucks for many hours while bottles were unloaded and individually inspected with sniffer dogs. Then the bottles had to be reloaded on to Israeli trucks on the other side of the checkpoint. Apart from local spring water, all the beer’s ingredients and the bottles have to be imported from Europe, adding further logistical problems at Israeli ports. The ever-creative Khourys have been forced to circumvent these problems by licensing a plant in Belgium to produce its beers for foreign export. But that has deprived the village of jobs that could have gone to local families.

And while the Khourys struggle to get their products into Israel, Israel has absolute freedom to flood the occupied territories with its own goods. “The policy is clearly meant to harm businesses like ours. Israel freely sells its Maccabee and Goldstar beers in the West Bank,” Daoud told me.

Such experiences are replicated for Palestinian businesses, big and small, across the West Bank.

Precarious lives in Jerusalem

In Jerusalem, the Christian population has been shrinking too, even though the city has been entirely under Israeli control since its eastern neighborhoods were occupied and illegally annexed by Israel in 1967. The Palestinian Authority was briefly allowed a minimal presence in East Jerusalem in the late 1990s, but was effectively banished when the second intifada erupted a few years later, in 2000. A similar fate soon befell Jerusalem’s politicians associated with Hamas. After they won the Jerusalem seats in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, Israel expelled them to the West Bank.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Israel has not been keen to provide official figures for the exodus of Christians from Jerusalem. However, rather than growing, as one would have expected over the past five decades, the numbers have dropped significantly – from 12,000 in 1967 to some 9,000 today, according to Yousef Daher, of the Jerusalem Interchurch Center, located in Jerusalem’s Old City. Of those, he estimated that no more than 2,400 remained in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, where Israel has made life especially difficult.

Jerusalem is historically, symbolically, spiritually and economically important to the Palestinian people, and houses key Muslim and Christian holy sites. It has long been regarded by Palestinians as the only possible capital of their future state. But Israel views the city in much the same terms – as the religious and symbolic heart of its hybrid religious and ethnic national project. It has shown no interest in sharing the city as a capital, instead viewing it in zero-sum terms: whatever benefits Israel requires a loss to the Palestinians.

Gradually Israel’s stranglehold over Jerusalem has become complete. The wall it began building through the city more than 15 years ago has not only separated Palestinians in Jerusalem from Palestinians in the West Bank but has divided the city itself, placing more than 100,000 Palestinians on the wrong side, cutting them off from the city of their birth.

Two years ago, President Donald Trump added a US seal of approval by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US embassy there.

Those Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem still on the “Israeli” side of the wall have found themselves isolated and ever more vulnerable to the abuses inherent in Israel’s system of control. They have suffered planning restrictions that make it almost impossible to build homes legally. Israel demolishes dozens of Palestinian houses every year in the city, leading to ever greater overcrowding. Meanwhile, Israel has seized vast tracts of land in East Jerusalem for its illegal settlements and has helped Jewish settlers take over Palestinian homes.

The city’s security forces act as an occupying power in Palestinian neighborhoods, while city authorities pursue an official policy of “Judaization,” making Jerusalem more Jewish. Israel has accorded the city’s native Palestinian population a “residency” status that treats them as little more than immigrants. Many thousands who have left the city for extended periods to study or work abroad have returned to find their residency permits revoked.

The city’s Christian residents face similar problems to Muslims. But as a very small community, they have also faced specific pressures. Israel’s policy of cutting off Jerusalem from the West Bank, and especially from the nearby cities of Bethlehem and Ramallah, has left the city’s Christians particularly isolated. With many working as merchants and traders, the so-called “separation” policy has hit them hard economically.

Similarly, because the communal marriage pool is small for Christians in Jerusalem, many have been forced – at least, before the wall was erected – to search for a spouse among Christian populations nearby in the West Bank. That now leaves them disproportionately exposed to Israel’s increasingly draconian family unification policies. Typically Jerusalem’s Palestinians are denied the right to live with a West Bank spouse in the city, or to register the children of such marriages as Jerusalem residents. That has forced many to move into the West Bank or abroad as the only way to stay together.

As in Bethlehem, many of Jerusalem’s Christians work in tourism, either as tour guides or as owners of souvenir shops in the Old City’s Christian Quarter. That has proved a particularly precarious way to make a living in recent decades, with tourism collapsing on repeated occasions: during two lengthy intifadas, during Israel’s attacks on Gaza, and now from the coronavirus.

Israel will soon make it even harder for the Old City traders to make a living, when it completes a cable car into East Jerusalem. Currently many tourists enter via Jaffa Gate into the Christian Quarter, where shopkeepers have a chance to sell them goods and souvenirs. But the cable car will “fly in” tourists from a station in West Jerusalem directly to an illegal settlement complex at the City of David in Silwan, just outside the Old City walls. From there, either they will be guided straight into the Jewish Quarter through Dung Gate or they will pass through a network of underground passages lined with settler-owned shops that will take them to the foot of the Western Wall. The aim appears to be not only to make the Old City’s Palestinian population invisible but to deprive them of any chance to profit from tourism.

Land sales by Churches

But the problem runs deeper still for Palestinian Christians – and is felt especially acutely in Jerusalem. Local Christians have found themselves effectively pawns in a three-way international power-play between Israel, the established, land-owning Churches in the region, primarily the Vatican and Greek Orthodox Churches, and the evangelical movements. None of the parties represent their interests.

It is easy for pilgrims to ignore the fact, as they tour the Holy Land, that the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches are not local. They are vast foreign enterprises, based out of the Vatican and Greece, that are as concerned with their commercial viability and diplomatic influence on the global stage as they are with the spiritual needs of any specific flock, including Palestinian Christians. And in recent years that has become increasingly evident to local congregations.

The problems were symbolized two years ago when, for the first time in living memory, the main Churches shuttered the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the presumed site of Jesus’ crucifixion in Jerusalem. Church leaders said their actions were in response to Israel launching a “systematic and unprecedented attack against Christians in the Holy Land.” In that way, they mobilized international sympathy, and Israel quickly backed down. But only in the most tangential sense were the Churches looking out for the interests of local Christians. Their show of force was actually motivated by concern for their business interests.

The then mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, had sought to impose back taxes on the Churches’ substantial land-holdings in Jerusalem, hoping to recoup $180 million. Despite the impression presented by Church leaders, the row was not really about holy sites. Over the centuries, the Churches have become major real-estate enterprises in the Holy Land, benefiting from donations of land and properties in Jerusalem and elsewhere that have been made by Palestinian Christians and overseas pilgrims. The Greek Orthodox Church, for example, is the largest land-owner in the region after the Israeli state.

Historically, the Churches enjoyed a tax exemption derived from the charitable status of their spiritual mission and outreach work with Palestinian communities, including the provision of schools and hospitals. But increasingly the Churches have downgraded their charitable works and diversified into other, more clearly commercial ventures, such as shops, offices and restaurants. Pilgrimage hostels have been redeveloped into well-appointed and profitable hotels. Part of the income has then been siphoned off to the Church authorities in the mother countries rather than reinvested in strengthening local Palestinian communities.

That was why Aleef Sabbagh, a Palestinian member of the Orthodox Central Council, described the Holy Sepulcher protest as a “charade.” The Church had not been closed to protest Israel’s savagery towards Palestinians during either of the two intifadas, or in protest at the exodus of local Christians from the region. The foreign Churches found their voice only when they needed to protect their profits from real-estate and investment deals.

That does not, however, mean that Palestinian Christians have no reason to be concerned about Israel’s efforts to bully the Churches’ into paying more taxes, or that they were indifferent to the brief stand-off at the Sepulcher Church. The Vatican and Orthodox Patriarchate have become increasingly cowed in relation to Israel in recent decades, both as Israel has become ever more assertive of its powers in the region and as western states have shown they will support Israel however badly it treats Palestinians.

Israel has many points of leverage over the international Churches. It can, and has, frozen clerical work visas needed by their thousands of staff in the Holy Land. Israel regularly obstructs planning permits for the Church needed to build or renovate properties. And far-right groups close to Israel’s governing coalition regularly menace clergy in the streets and vandalize Church property, including cemeteries, under cover of dark. Israeli police have rarely caught or punished the perpetrators of such attacks.

Most notable of these attacks was a fire set by arsonists in 2015 that gutted sections of the Church of the Multiplication, the site on the shore of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus is reputed to have fed a large crowd with loaves and fishes. Graffiti in Hebrew scrawled on a church wall read: “Idol-worshippers will have their heads cut off.”

This strategy of weakening and intimidating the international Churches has been particularly glaring in relation to Orthodoxy. Each new Patriarch, the highest Orthodox figure in the region, must be jointly approved by the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Israel. And in the case of the last two Patriarchs, Irineos I and Theophilos III, Israel, unlike the PA and Jordan, has dragged its heels before approving their appointment. Irineos had to wait nearly four years, and Theophilos two and a half. The reason why has gradually become clear to local Christians.

Shortly after each Patriarch has belatedly received approval, evidence has come to light that his advisers have overseen the sale of some of the Churches’ vast landholdings in Israel and the occupied territories. These shadowy deals, usually selling invaluable land for a comparative pittance, have been made to Israeli companies or overseas organizations that it has later emerged acted as a front for Jewish settler groups.

The most infamous case concerns the sale to settlers of two large properties, serving as Palestinian-run hotels, at a highly strategic location by Jaffa Gate, the entrance into the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. These sales appear to be part of the price paid for Irineos to win Israeli approval. Israel has long been keen to Judaize Jaffa Gate because it effectively serves as a bridge between West Jerusalem, in Israel, and the Jewish Quarter, the main settler colony in the occupied Old City. Reporting on the land sales at Jaffa Gate, the Haaretz newspaper revealed tape recordings of a Jerusalem settler leader boasting that his organization, Ateret Cohanim, had a veto over the appointment of each Patriarch. He said Ateret Cohanim would only give its blessing once the Patriarch had sold it land.

The pattern appears to have repeated with Theophilos, who is accused of selling numerous plots of land near Bethlehem, West Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, Nazareth and Caesarea. The Church is reported to have pocketed more than $100 million from the deals. In 2017 some 300 Palestinian Christians filed a criminal complaint to the Palestinian attorney general in Ramallah, accusing the Patriarch of “treason.” The same year, 14 local Orthodox institutions – representing many of the half a million Greek Orthodox Christians in the occupied territories, Israel and Jordan – severed ties with Theophilos and his synod, and demanded his removal.

Palestinian Christians have increasing grounds for concern that the Churches are not looking out for their interests when they make these deals. Historically, lands were donated to the Greek Orthodox Church as an endowment, and the income used for the collective good of the Orthodox community in the Holy Land. But local communities say the money is nowadays siphoned off to the foreign Church authorities.

Further, nearly a quarter of land in East Jerusalem is reported to be Church-owned, including the Mount of Olives, Sheikh Jarrah and large swaths of the Old City. Many Palestinian Christians live in these areas, which are being aggressively targeted by the settler movement. Local Christians have little faith that the Church will not sell these lands in the future, leaving them vulnerable to eviction by settlers.

Atallah Hanna, the only Palestinian serving as a Greek Orthodox archbishop, has been repeatedly punished for speaking out against the Patriarch’s policies. He issued a statement about the land sales at Jaffa Gate: “Those who sell and forfeit our real estate and Orthodox endowments do not represent our Arab Church, its heritage, identity and historical presence in this holy land.”

The effort to financially “squeeze” the Churches by the Jerusalem mayor in 2018 should be seen in this light. If the Churches face big new tax bills, the pressure will increase on them over the longer term either to be more submissive to Israel, for fear of attracting additional taxes, or to sell off yet more land to cover their debts. Either way, Palestinian Christians will suffer.

Obstacle to the end-times

A separate essay could be written about the role of overseas Christian evangelical movements in damaging the situation of Palestinian Christians. Suffice it to point out that most evangelical Christians are largely indifferent to the plight of the region’s local Christian population.

In fact, Zionism, Israel’s state ideology, draws heavily on a Christian Zionism that became popular among British Protestants more than 150 years ago. Today, the heartland of evangelical Zionism is the United States, where tens of millions of believers have adopted a theological worldview, bolstered by prophecies in the Book of Revelation, that wills a Jewish “return” to the Promised Land to bring about an apocalyptic end-times in which Christians — and some Jews who accept Jesus as their savior — will be saved from damnation and rise up to Heaven.

Inevitably, when weighed against a fast-track to salvation, the preservation of Palestinian Christians’ 2,000-year-old heritage matters little to most US Christian Zionists. Local Christians regularly express fears that their holy sites and way of life are under threat from a state that declares itself Jewish and whose central mission is a zero-sum policy of “Judaization”. But for Christian Zionists, Palestinian Christians are simply an obstacle to realizing a far more urgent, divinely ordained goal.

US evangelicals have, therefore, been pumping money into projects that encourage Jews to move to the “Land of Israel,” including in the settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Their leaders are close to the most hawkish politicians in Israel, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The political clout of the evangelical movements in the US, the world’s only superpower and Israel’s chief patron, has never been more evident. The vice-president, Mike Pence, is one of their number, while President Donald Trump depended on evangelical votes to win office. That was why Trump broke with previous administrations and agreed that the US would become the first country in modern times to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, effectively killing any hope for the Palestinians of securing East Jerusalem as their capital.

Given this international atmosphere, the isolation of Palestinian Christians and their leaders is almost complete. They find themselves marginalized within their own Churches, entirely ignored by foreign evangelical movements, and an enemy of Israel. They have therefore tried to break out of that isolation both by forging greater unity among themselves and by setting out a clearer vision to strengthen ties to Christians outside the Holy Land.

One important milestone on that path was the publication of the Kairos Palestine document in December 2009, drawing on a similar document drafted by mainly black theologians in apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. Kairos Palestine, which describes itself as “the Christian Palestinians’ word to the world about what is happening in Palestine,” has been signed by more than 3,000 leading Palestinian Christian figures, including Atallah Hanna, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop for the Sebastiya diocese; Naim Ateek, a senior Anglican priest; Mitri Raheb, a senior Lutheran pastor; and Jamal Khader, a senior figure in the Latin Patriarchate.

The Kairos document calls unequivocally on “all the churches and Christians in the world … to stand against injustice and apartheid” and warns that “any theology, seemingly based on the Bible or on faith or on history, that legitimizes the occupation, is far from Christian teachings”. It asks Christians abroad to “revisit theologies that justify crimes perpetrated against our people and the dispossession of the land”. And further, it supports the wider Palestinian BDS call to boycott, divest and sanction Israel and those who conspire with the oppression of Palestinians. It describes non-violent resistance as a “duty” incumbent on all Palestinians, arguing that such resistance should end only when Israeli abuses end, not before.

Faced with inevitable accusations of antisemitism from Israel partisans in the west, most of the overseas Churches – including importantly, the World Council of Churches – have failed to respond to this Palestinian Christian call. Only the Presbyterian Church in the US has endorsed the document, while the United Church of Christ has praised it. Predictably, Israel lobbyists have tried to undermine the document’s significance by correctly highlighting that the foreign Church leaderships in Palestine, such as the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, have refused to endorse it. But then, these kind of Church leaders have rarely had the interests of their Palestinian congregations foremost in their minds.

Nonetheless, Israel is deeply concerned by the document. Were it to be accepted, it would bring the international Churches onboard with the wider Palestinian BDS movement, which calls for an international boycott of Israel. Israeli leaders deeply fear the precedent set by the international community’s treatment of apartheid South Africa.

Of the three planks of the BDS campaign, the most troubling for Israel are not the boycott or sanctions components, but the threat of divestment – the withdrawal of investments from Israel by Churches, civil society organizations, trade unions and pension funds. Were the Churches to adopt BDS, such actions could quickly gain a moral legitimacy and spread. The Kairos document is therefore viewed as the thin end of a very dangerous wedge.

Atallah Hanna, as the most senior cleric to have signed the document, has found himself particularly in the crosshairs from Israel. In December last year he ended up in hospital in Jordan, treated for “poisoning by chemical substance,” after a tear gas canister was reportedly thrown into the grounds of his church in Jerusalem. In the circumstances, Hanna’s claim that Israel had tried to “assassinate,” or at the very least incapacitate, him resonated with many Palestinians.

Certainly Hanna has found himself repeatedly in trouble with the Israeli authorities for his Palestinian activism. In 2002, during the second intifada, for example, he was seized at his home in the Old City of Jerusalem and charged with “suspicion of relations with terrorist organizations,” a trumped-up allegation relating to the fact that he had spoken in favor of the popular uprising against Israeli occupation.

In a meeting with a foreign delegation last year, Hanna warned that Israel, with the support of the international community, was being allowed to gradually transform Jerusalem: “The Islamic and Christian holy sites and endowments are targeted in order to change our city, hide its identity and marginalize our Arabic and Palestinian existence.”

Unwelcome Israeli citizens

The final community of Palestinian Christians to consider is the largest group, and the one most often overlooked: the 120,000 living in Israel with a degraded form of citizenship. These Palestinians have been exclusively under Israeli rule for more than 70 years. Israel falsely trumpets the claim that its Palestinian minority enjoys exactly the same rights as Jewish citizens. And yet the decline in the number of Palestinian Christians in Israel closely mirrors the situation of those in the occupied territories.

The Palestinian Christian population emerged from the events of 1948 in relatively better shape than their Muslim compatriots inside the territory that was now considered Israel. Aware of western states’ priorities, Israel was more cautious in its approach to the ethnic cleansing of communities with large numbers of Christians. As a result, the 40,000 Christians in Israel at the end of the Nakba comprised 22 per cent of the country’s new Palestinian minority. A few years later members of this minority would gain a very inferior form of Israeli citizenship.

Israel’s early caution in relation to Palestinian Christians was understandable. It feared antagonizing the western, largely Christian states whose backing it desperately needed. That policy was typified in the treatment of Nazareth, which was largely spared the wider policy of expulsions. However, as with Bethlehem, Nazareth’s Christian majority began to be overturned during 1948, as Muslims from neighboring villages that were under attack poured into the city, seeking sanctuary. Today, Nazareth has a 70 per cent Muslim majority.

The proportion of Christians among the Palestinian population in Israel has fallen more generally too – from nearly a quarter in the early 1950s to about 9 percent today. There is a similar number of Druze, a vulnerable religious sect that broke away from Islamic orthodoxy nearly 1,000 years ago. The rest of Israel’s Palestinian population – over 80 per cent – are Sunni Muslim.

The Christian exodus has been driven by similar factors to those cited by Palestinians in the West Bank. Within a self-declared Jewish state, Christians have faced diminished educational and employment opportunities; they must deal with rampant, institutional discrimination; and, after waves of land confiscations to Judaize the areas they live in, they can rarely find housing solutions for the next generation. Israel has encouraged a sense of hopelessness and despair equally among Christians and Muslims.

Problematic for Israel has been the fact that Palestinian Christians have played a pivotal role in developing secular Palestinian nationalism in both the occupied territories and in Israel. For obvious reasons, they have been concerned that Palestinian national identity should not deform into a divisive Islamic identity, mirroring Israel’s own hybrid ethnic and religious nationalism.

Given the difficulties of political activism for Palestinians inside Israel — for decades it could lead to jail or even deportation — many, especially Christians, joined the joint Jewish-Palestinian Communist party, on the assumption that its Jewish cadre would ensure protection. The most prized benefit of membership of the Communist party were scholarships to universities in the former Soviet bloc. Israel’s segregated school system, which included a near-dysfunctional state system for Palestinians, ensured higher education in Israel was mostly off-limits.

The scholarships were a boon to Christians because they enjoyed access to surviving, private Church-run schools in cities like Nazareth, Haifa and Jaffa that offered a better education. But Israel’s hope was that, once outside the region, many would never return — and indeed, this did become an additional factor in the decline of Israel’s Palestinian Christian population.

Onward Christian soldiers

But the advantages enjoyed by Palestinian Christians soon came to be seen by Israel as a liability. The Christians lived mostly in cities. Many had the advantages of access to good schools and higher education. Some had been exposed to the wider world through attending universities abroad. And Christians enjoyed connections to sympathetic communities overseas. Their continuing presence in the Holy Land, as well as their articulation of Palestinian nationalism to outsiders, served to undermine Israel’s claims of a simple Judeo-Christian clash of civilizations with Islam.

It was in this context that in late 2012 Israel secretly revived plans first raised in the aftermath of the Nakba to recruit Christian youth into the Israeli army. The programme focused on Nazareth and its environs, and targeted Christian Scout groups. Neither Muslims nor Christians in Israel are drafted into the army on leaving school, unlike Jewish and Druze youngsters. However, they can volunteer, though in practice only a tiny number do. Figures suggest there are a few dozen Christian families, typically poorer ones, whose sons join the army. But from 2012 onwards, the Netanyahu government worked hard to introduce a draft for Christians, hoping to drive a wedge between Christians and Muslims in Israel.

Netanyahu schemed on several fronts. He aggressively promoted the small number of Christian families with children in the army to suggest that they were representative of the wider community. Meanwhile, he claimed that the overwhelming majority of Christians who publicly opposed his plan did so only because they had been intimidated by their Muslim neighbors.

The Israeli media trumpeted too the fact that Netanyahu had recruited a “religious leader” – Jibril Nadaf, a Greek Orthodox bishop in Nazareth – to support the draft of Christians. In fact, it was widely rumored in Nazareth at the time that Nadaf was being pressured by Israel’s secret police, the Shin Bet, to offer his support. Only much later did the Israeli media report that Nadaf had been investigated for sexual assaults on young men, and that the Shin Bet had hushed up his case.

At around the same time Israel introduced the option of registering a new nationality, “Aramaic”, on Israeli identity cards. Israel has always refused to recognise an “Israeli” nationality because it would risk conferring equal rights on all Israeli citizens, Jews and Palestinians alike. Instead many rights in Israel are accorded to citizens based on their assigned nationalities – with the main categories being “Jewish”, “Arab” and “Druze”. “Jewish” nationals receive extra rights unavailable to Palestinian citizens in immigration, land and housing, and language rights. The new “Aramaic” category was intended to confer on Christians a separate nationality mirroring the Druze one.

The obscure “Aramaic” identity was chosen for two reasons. First, it referred to a time 2,000 years ago when Jews like Jesus spoke Aramaic – now almost a dead language. Aramaic therefore fused Jewish and Christian identities, replicating the claim of “blood ties” Israel had fostered with the Druze community. And second, Aramaic had already been cultivated as an identity by the handful of Palestinian Christian families that volunteered to serve in the army. For them, Aramaic lay at the heart of a pure, proud, supposedly original Christian nationalist identity. They argued that their forefathers’ Aramaic heritage and language had been usurped and corrupted by the arrival of Arab and Islamic identities in the region during the Arab conquests in the seventh century.

For those who promoted it, including the Israeli government, “Aramaic” was not a neutral Christian identity but consciously intended as an anti-Arab, anti-Muslim identity. It was intimately tied to the government’s larger, fanciful agenda of turning the local Christian population into Palestinian Christian Zionists.

In tandem with these developments, Netanyahu’s government also began aggressively squeezing the resources available to Church schools operating in Nazareth and elsewhere. An arrangement that had historically provided partial state funds for private religious schools, primarily to help the Jewish ultra-Orthodox, began to be progressively withdrawn from Church schools. Pupils in the dozen such schools in Nazareth, which serve both Christians and Muslims, staged an unprecedented strike in 2014 as it became harder for the schools to cover costs. The government offered a way out: the schools, it proposed, should come under the umbrella of the state education system. So far the Church schools have managed to resist.

Although the policy has not been implemented yet, there are indications of what Israel ultimately hoped to achieve. The aim, it seems, was to reinvent the Church schools as “Aramaic” schools, limiting the intake to Christians and teaching a curriculum, as with the Druze, that emphasized the “blood ties” between Jews and Christians and prepared pupils for the army draft. The first such school, teaching in Aramaic, has opened in Jish, a village in the central Galilee that is home to some of the main families that volunteer to serve in the Israeli army.

In fact, Israel failed dismally in its efforts to persuade Christians to accept the draft, and appears to have largely abandoned the plan, even after dedicating several years to bringing it to fruition. Israel should have guessed that such a scheme was unlikely to succeed. In a city like Nazareth, too many Christians are professionals – doctors, lawyers, architects and engineers serving their community – and have no interest in gaining the sole advantage of military service the poorer Druze have depended on: lowly jobs after the draft in the security sectors, as prison wardens or security guards.

But that may not have been Israel’s only goal. In line with its long-standing ambitions, Israel also doubtless wanted to intensify sectarian tensions between Christians and Muslims in places where the two communities live in close proximity, especially Nazareth. And for a variety of reasons, sectarian divisions have started to emerge over the past few years. The causes are manifold, but Israel’s efforts to recruit Christians to the army – to divide them from Muslims – undoubtedly exacerbated the problem.

Another significant factor was the gradual demise of the Communist party, especially in Nazareth, after it came to be too closely identified with Christians and was seen as playing a role in maintaining their relative privileges. That led to a backlash in Nazareth that saw Ali Salam, a populist politician who revels in comparisons with Donald Trump, becoming mayor after subtly exploiting these sectarian tensions.

It also did not help that for nearly two decades nihilistic Islamic movements edged ever closer to Israel’s borders – first with al-Qaeda, and later with Islamic State. That has unnerved many Palestinian Christians and Muslims in Israel. In recent years it has provoked a political reaction from some who have begun to wonder whether a militarily strong, western-backed Israel was not the lesser regional evil.

Israel has every interest in reinforcing such developments, exploiting tensions that shore up its clash of civilizations narrative. Paradoxically, it is Israel’s long-term interference in the region and a more recent policy of direct military intervention by the US in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Iran that has created the very conditions in which Islamic extremism has prospered. Between them, Israel and the US have sown despair and generated political voids across the Middle East that groups like Islamic State have filled with their own narrative of a clash of civilizations.

For Israel, recruiting Palestinian Christians to its side of this self-serving clash narrative – even if it is only a few of them – is helpful. If Israel can muddy the waters in the region by finding enough allies among local Christians, it knows it can further dissuade the international Churches from taking any substantive action in addressing the crimes it has perpetrated against Palestinians unhindered for more than seven decades.

Israel’s great fear is that one day the international Churches may assume moral leadership in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ending the traumas set in train by the Nakba.

Judging by the Churches’ record so far, however, Israel appears to have little reason to worry.

Political Ambiguity or a Doomsday Weapon: Why Abbas Abandoned Oslo

This time, we are told, it is different and that President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, is absolutely serious about his decision to absolve his leadership from all previous agreements signed with Israel and the United States.

But this time is not different, and Abbas is not serious.

“The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the state of Palestine are absolved  … of all the agreements and understandings with the American and Israeli governments  … including the security ones,” Abbas declared at an emergency meeting of his leadership held in Ramallah on May 19.

Unsurprisingly, there were no massive demonstrations reported throughout Occupied Palestine in support of Abbas’ latest decision. Aside from a few loyalists in PA-controlled media, it seemed as if the man did not utter a word, let alone cancel all agreements that justified the very existence of his Authority over the course of nearly 30 years.

The demonstrable truth is that Abbas ceased to matter to Palestinians a long time ago. However, for Israel, he mattered greatly, because his Authority has served as an additional security buffer between occupied Palestinians and the occupation army. Thanks to ‘security coordination’, Israel was allowed to fortify its occupation in peace.

Palestinians have long lost faith in Abbas as proved by one public opinion after another. This is not a sudden occurrence, but the accumulation of decades of failure and disappointments. Abbas’ commitment to the Oslo Accords led to absolutely nothing, except for the creation of a massive and utterly corrupt security apparatus that largely exists to ‘coordinate’ the subjugation of Palestinians with their Israeli oppressors.

Since his advent to power in 2005, Abbas and his faithful followers within the Fatah party became obsessed with their enmity, not with Israel and the United States, but with Abbas’ own Palestinian rivals, within Fatah itself – Mohammed Dahlan, etc. – and, to a larger extent, with Hamas in Gaza.

Israel mainly factored in Abbas’ many speeches in Ramallah and at the UN General Assembly in New York; despite all the rhetoric, little or no action ever followed. Concurrently, Israeli soldiers and illegal Jewish settlers carried on with their systematic abuse of Palestinians, unhindered.

Not once did Abbas’ ever-growing security forces (estimated at 80,000 strong) move to block the path of a single Israeli bulldozer demolishing a Palestinian home or uprooting an ancient olive grove in the West Bank. Nor did they prevent the arrest of an anti-Israeli occupation activist. Often, they carried out the arrests themselves.

Even as Israel was pounding Gaza with massive bombs and white phosphorus, Abbas continued barking insults at his Palestinian enemies. He berated Gaza’s armed resistance, yet offered no meaningful alternative to whatever version of ‘resistance’ he championed.

But if Abbas managed to co-exist under these humiliating conditions, why did he decide to cancel the agreements now? To answer this, first, let us look at the political context of Abbas’ decision.

In February 2015, Abbas threatened to sever security ties with Israel as a response to the Israeli decision to withhold millions of dollars of Palestinian tax revenues, which Tel Aviv obtains on behalf of the PA. Similar threats were made in July 2017, this time in response to Israel’s illegal measures around the Muslim holy sites in occupied Jerusalem. And again, in September 2018, when the US unilaterally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. And, yet again, in July 2019, when Israel demolished Palestinian homes in occupied East Jerusalem.

The latest episode, Abbas’s threat to dissolve the PA, was in response to the American announcement of the so-called ‘Deal of the Century’.

These are only the notable threats that registered in media coverage. In reality, Abbas has waged his ‘war’ on Israel in the form of endless threats that were always met with disdain in Israel.

The difference, this time, is because Abbas has never experienced this degree of abandonment and political vulnerability. Discarded by the Americans and disowned by the Israelis, Abbas’ credibility is at an all-time low. More importantly, the Palestinian people have long abandoned any illusion that the path of liberation will go through Abbas’ office in Ramallah.

Overwhelmed by many odds, Abbas decided to conduct what is, most likely, to be his final political act. What happens next matters little, because at this stage the 84-year-old Palestinian leader is left with nothing to lose.

Canceling the Palestinian commitment to the agreements should translate into little on the ground, considering that Israel and the US have already reneged on these agreements.

The Oslo Accords were meant to be relevant up to a point, until 1999, when the final status negotiations were meant to be held as the last step before the establishment of an independent Palestinian State.

Jerusalem, like the rights of Palestinian refugees, was meant to be resolved then, not to be completely “taken off the table”, two decades later. No territorial swap, let alone annexation, was to be permitted without a bilateral agreement between both parties.

Only two components of these agreements survived Israel’s numerous violations: the ‘security coordination’ and the ‘donors’ money’, which kept the PA and its massive – but useless – army in operation.

Now that the US has withheld all funds to Abbas’ Authority, and Israel’s new national unity government has agreed, in principle, to annex much of the West Bank, Abbas is left with nothing.

By canceling all agreements, Abbas and his supporters are hoping that alarm bells sound in Washington and Tel Aviv, especially since the halting of ‘security coordination’ could prove costly to the safety of Israel’s Jewish settlers.

If Abbas was, indeed, serious in his announcement, he would have included in his speech a clear articulation of a new Palestinian political agenda that is predicated on unity – but a true Palestinian strategy was never the PA leader’s ultimate goal.

What Mahmoud Abbas is hoping to achieve, with his latest theatrics, is the establishment of a new political game, one that is based on political ambiguity, so that he is not entirely abandoned by his Western backers, or finally shunned as a collaborator by his own people.

100 Years of Shame: Annexation of Palestine Began in San Remo

One hundred years ago, representatives from a few powerful countries convened at San Remo, a sleepy town on the Italian Riviera. Together, they sealed the fate of the massive territories confiscated from the Ottoman Empire following its defeat in World War I.

It was on April 25, 1920, that the San Remo Conference Resolution was passed by the post-World War I Allied Supreme Council. Western Mandates were established over Palestine, Syria and ‘Mesopotamia’ – Iraq. The latter two were theoretically designated for provisional independence, while Palestine was granted to the Zionist movement to establish a Jewish homeland there.

The Mandatory will be responsible for putting into effect the (Balfour) declaration originally made on November 8, 1917, by the British Government, and adopted by the other Allied Powers, in favor of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” the Resolution read.

The Resolution gave greater international recognition to Britain’s unilateral decision, three years earlier, to grant Palestine to the Zionist Federation for the purpose of establishing a Jewish homeland, in exchange for Zionist support of Britain during the Great War.

And, like Britain’s Balfour Declaration, a cursory mention was made of the unfortunate inhabitants of Palestine, whose historic homeland was being unfairly confiscated and handed over to colonial settlers.

The establishment of that Jewish State, according to San Remo, hinged on some vague ‘understanding’ that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.

The above addition merely served as a poor attempt at appearing politically balanced, while in reality no enforcement mechanism was ever put in place to ensure that the ‘understanding’ was ever respected or implemented.

In fact, one could argue that the West’s long engagement in the question of Israel and Palestine has followed the same San Remo prototype: where the Zionist movement (and eventually Israel) is granted its political objectives based on unenforceable conditions that are never respected or implemented.

Notice how the vast majority of United Nations Resolutions pertaining to Palestinian rights are historically passed by the General Assembly, not by the Security Council, where the US is one of five veto-wielding powers, always ready to strike down any attempt at enforcing international law.

It is this historical dichotomy that led to the current political deadlock.

Palestinian leaderships, one after the other, have miserably failed at changing the stifling paradigm. Decades before the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, countless delegations, comprised of those claiming to represent the Palestinian people, traveled to Europe, appealing to one government or another, pleading the Palestinian case and demanding fairness.

What has changed since then?

On February 20, the Donald Trump administration issued its own version of the Balfour Declaration, termed the ‘Deal of the Century’.

The American decision which, again, flouted international law, paves the way for further Israeli colonial annexations of occupied Palestine. It brazenly threatens Palestinians that, if they do not cooperate, they will be punished severely. In fact, they already have been, when Washington cut all funding to the Palestinian Authority and to international institutions that provide critical aid to the Palestinians.

Like in the San Remo Conference, the Balfour Declaration, and numerous other documents, Israel was asked, ever so politely but without any plans to enforce such demands, to grant Palestinians some symbolic gestures of freedom and independence.

Some may argue, and rightly so, that the ‘Deal of the Century’ and the San Remo Conference Resolution are not identical in the sense that Trump’s decision was a unilateral one, while San Remo was the outcome of political consensus among various countries – Britain, France, Italy, and others.

True, but two important points must be taken into account: firstly, the Balfour Declaration was also a unilateral decision. It took Britain’s allies three years to embrace and validate the illegal decision made by London to grant Palestine to the Zionists. The question now is, how long will it take for Europe to claim the ‘Deal of the Century’ as its own?

Secondly, the spirit of all of these declarations, promises, resolutions, and ‘deals’ is the same, where superpowers decide by virtue of their own massive influence to rearrange the historical rights of nations. In some ways, the colonialism of old has never truly died.

The Palestinian Authority, like previous Palestinian leaderships, is presented with the proverbial carrot and stick. Last March, US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, told Palestinians that if they did not return to the (non-existent) negotiations with Israel, the US would support Israel’s annexation of the West Bank.

For nearly three decades now and, certainly, since the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993, the PA has chosen the carrot. Now that the US has decided to change the rules of the game altogether, Mahmoud Abbas’ Authority is facing its most serious existential threat yet: bowing down to Kushner or insisting on returning to a dead political paradigm that was constructed, then abandoned, by Washington.

The crisis within the Palestinian leadership is met with utter clarity on the part of Israel. The new Israeli coalition government, consisting of previous rivals Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, have tentatively agreed that annexing large parts of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley is just a matter of time. They are merely waiting for the American nod.

They are unlikely to wait for long, as Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, said on April 22 that annexing Palestinian territories is “an Israeli decision.”

Frankly, it matters little. The 21st century Balfour Declaration has already been made; it is only a matter of making it the new uncontested reality.

Perhaps, it is time for the Palestinian leadership to understand that groveling at the feet of those who have inherited the San Remo Resolution, constructing and sustaining colonial Israel, is never and has never been the answer.

Perhaps, it is time for some serious rethink.

The Trump Plan is Just a Cover for Israel’s Final Land Grab

The Trump “Vision for Peace” will never be implemented – and not because the Palestinians reject it. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s enthusiastic public embrace of the plan belies the fact that the Israeli right detest it too.

The headlines are that, with US blessing, Israel’s dream is about to be realised: it will be able to annex its dozens of illegal settlements in the West Bank and the vast agricultural basin of the Jordan Valley. In return, the Palestinians can have a state on 15 per cent of their homeland.

But that is not the real aim of this obviously one-sided “peace” plan. Rather, it is intended as the prelude to something far worse for the Palestinians: the final eradication of the last traces of their political project for national liberation.

US President Donald Trump’s plan is neither a blueprint for peace nor a decree from the heart of the US empire. Rather it is a decoy, an enormous red herring created in Tel Aviv and then marketed by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Trump may think his vision could lead to a “realistic” two-state solution. Even many critics assume it envisions the establishment of a highly circumscribed, enfeebled Palestinian state. But for Israeli leaders it serves another purpose entirely: it provides diplomatic cover while they put the finishing touches to their version of a one-state solution inside Greater Israel.

Netanyhau has crafted a “deal of the century” designed to fail from the outset – and managed it through deeply partisan White House intermediaries like David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, and Kushner. For all of them, its purpose is to provide a fresh alibi for Israel and Washington to continue disappearing the Palestinians more than two decades after the illusions of the earlier Oslo Accords “peace” process can no longer be sustained.

Israeli bad faith

That this is intended as a grand deception should not surprise us. The current plan follows a tried and tested tradition of US-dominated “peacemaking” that has utterly failed to bring peace but has succeeded triumphantly in smothering and erasing historic Palestine, gradually transforming it into Greater Israel.

Trump’s deal is, in fact, the third major framework – after the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan and the Oslo accords initiated in 1993 – supposedly offering territorial partition between Israelis and Palestinians. The lesson of each has been that Israel and the US have returned after each inevitable and intended failure to offer the Palestinians even less of their homeland.

On each occasion, Israel (and before its creation, the Zionist leadership) has signed up to these peacemaking initiatives in bad faith, forcing Palestinians, as the weaker party, to reject them. And each time, that rejection has been weaponised by Israel – used as a pretext to steal more territory.

This plan is no different from the others. It is simply the latest iteration of a pattern of settler-colonial expansion sponsored by Western powers. But this time, if Israel succeeds, there will be nothing left of Palestine even to pretend to negotiate over.

UN partition rejected

The idea of division first took substantive form with the United Nations Partition Plan of late 1947. It proposed creating two states: a Jewish one on 55 percent of Palestine would supposedly serve as compensation for Europe’s recent genocide; and an Arab one, on the remaining 45 percent, would be for the native Palestinian population.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father, knew that the Palestinians were bound to reject a plan premised on their dispossession. That was the very reason he signed on. He hated the limitations imposed by the UN on his emerging Jewish state – he wanted all of Palestine – but was only too aware that Palestinians hated the partition proposal even more than he did. He knew his good faith would never be put to the test.

Under cover of the ensuing, year-long war, Ben-Gurion sent his troops way beyond the partition lines, seizing 78 percent of historic Palestine and transforming the area into a Jewish state. In 1967, his successors would grab the rest, as part of a surprise strike against Egypt and other Arab states. And so, the 53-year-long occupation was born.

Oslo’s separation logic

Just as now with the Trump plan, the Oslo process of the 1990s was not rooted in the idea of establishing a sovereign Palestinian state – only of pretending to offer one. In fact, statehood wasn’t mentioned in the Oslo accords, only implied by a series of intended Israeli withdrawals from the occupied territories over a five-year period that Israel reneged on.

Instead, Oslo was seen by the Israeli side, led then by Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, chiefly in terms of an “economic peace”. The new rallying cry of “separation” was intended to transform fragments of the occupied territories into free-trade zones to exploit a captive Palestinian labour force, and then to normalise relations with the Arab world.

Oslo’s only meaningful legacy – the Palestinian Authority, today led by Mahmoud Abbas – still clings to its primary role: as prison guard overseeing Palestinians’ confinement in ever-shrinking fragments of the occupied territories.

The Trump plan recognises that Oslo is now more an obstacle than a vehicle for further Palestinian dispossession. Israel has absolute control of East Jerusalem, the planned capital of a Palestinian state. The army and settlers have cemented Israeli rule over 62 percent of the West Bank – territory Oslo declared as Area C – that includes its best agricultural land, water sources and mineral wealth. Gaza, isolated from the rest of the occupied territories, is besieged.

The only thing left for Israel to do now is formalise that control and ensure it is irreversible. That requires making permanent the current apartheid system in the West Bank, which enforces one set of laws for Jewish settlers and another for Palestinians.

Palestinian obligations

Trump’s “Vision for Peace” is needed only because Oslo has outlived its usefulness. The Trump plan radically overhauls the Oslo process formula: instead of a supposed sharing of obligations – “land in return for peace” – those obligations are now imposed exclusively on the Palestinian side.

Under Oslo, Israel was supposed to withdraw from the occupied territories as a precondition for achieving Palestinian statehood and an end to hostilities. In reality, Israel did the exact opposite.

Under the Trump plan, Israel gets the land it wants immediately – by annexing its illegal settlements and the Jordan Valley – and it gets more land later, unless Palestinians agree to a long list of impossible preconditions.

Even then, Palestinians would only be entitled to a demilitarised, non-sovereign state on less than 15 percent of historic Palestine, amounting to a patchwork of enclaves connected by a warren of tunnels and bridges, surrounded by armed, fortress-like Israeli communities.

But even this vision of pseudo-Palestinian statehood will never come to fruition – something Netanyahu has made sure of. The Trump plan is a catalogue of the most unacceptable, humiliating concessions that could ever be demanded of the Palestinian people.

Impossible preconditions

It offers them a state that would be unlike any state ever envisaged. Not only would it have no army, but it would have to permanently accommodate a foreign army, the Israeli one. Palestine would have no control over its borders, and therefore its foreign relations and trade. It would be deprived of key resources, such as its offshore waters, which include large deposits of natural gas; its airspace; and its electromagnetic spectrum.

It would be deprived of its most fertile land, its quarries, its water sources, and access to the Dead Sea and its related mineral and cosmetics industries. As a result, the Palestinian economy would continue to be entirely aid dependent. Proposed industrial zones in the Negev, accessible only through Israeli territory, could be closed off by Israel at a whim.

East Jerusalem, including its holy sites and tourism industry, would be sealed off from the Palestinian state, which would have its capital instead outside the city, in Abu Dis. That village would be renamed Al-Quds, the Holy, although the deception would satisfy outsiders only, not Palestinians.

Intentionally lacking specifics for the time being, the Trump vision suggests Israel and Jordan would eventually share sovereignty over Jerusalem’s most important holy site, Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

The US appears ready to let Israel forcibly divide the site so that Jewish extremists, who want to blow up the mosque and replace it with a temple, can pray there – in a repetition of what happened earlier to the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron.

No legal redress

There would be no Palestinian right of return. Abbas would need to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, retrospectively sanctioning Palestinians’ dispossession and colonisation.

The Trump plan demands that the PA strip the families of political prisoners and martyrs killed by the Israeli army – the Palestinian equivalents of Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko – of their welfare payments.

In an interview with CNN this week, Kushner made clear quite how intentionally contradictory his demands of Palestinians are. Before it can be recognised as a state, the Palestinian Authority is expected to enforce the disarmament of the Palestinian factions, including its militant rival Hamas.

But it will have to do so while behaving like some kind of idealised Switzerland, according to Kushner, who insists that it uphold the most stringent democratic standards and absolute respect for human rights.

He indicated that the PA would fail such tests. It was, he said, a “police state” and “not exactly a thriving democracy”.

The Trump plan’s proposed democratic Palestine, it should be noted, would not be eligible to partake of international justice. Should Israel commit atrocities against Palestinians, the PA would have to forgo any appeals to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, which adjudicates on war crimes.

And in a final proof of its determination to ensure Palestinians reject the deal, the Trump administration has dusted off a forcible transfer plan long promoted by the former far-right defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman. Israel could then redraw the borders to strip potentially hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living in Israel of their citizenship. Such a move would constitute a war crime.

Nightmare scenario

The Trump plan’s secret weapon is hidden in the “four-year clause”, as Kushner’s CNN interview makes explicit. He said: “If they [the PA] don’t think that they can uphold these standards, then I don’t think we can get Israel to take the risk to recognise them as a state, to allow them to take control of themselves, because the only thing more dangerous than what we have now is a failed state.”

Israel and the US know that not only will Abbas or his successor never consent to the White House’s nightmare scenario, but that they could never meet these preconditions even if they wished to. But if the Palestinians don’t concede everything demanded of them within four years, Israel will be free to start grabbing and annexing yet more Palestinian land.

And worse still, Israel, the US and Europe will seek to blame Palestinians for choosing apartheid over statehood. Apologists will say once again that the Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”.

In other words, if Palestinians refuse to disappear themselves in line with the Trump vision, it will be assumed that they consent to Israel’s permanent apartheid rule. Palestinians will have forfeited their right to any kind of state on their historic homeland, ever.

That is the real Trump vision, designed in Israel and soon to be rolled out in Palestine.

• First published in Middle East Eye

Trump’s “Deal of the Century” Will Not Bring Peace: That was the Plan for the US and Israel

Much of Donald Trump’s long-trailed “deal of the century” came as no surprise. Over the past 18 months, Israeli officials had leaked many of its details.

The so-called Vision for Peace unveiled on Tuesday simply confirmed that the US government has publicly adopted the long-running consensus in Israel: that it is entitled to keep permanently the swaths of territory it seized illegally over the past half-century that deny the Palestinians any hope of a state.

The White House has discarded the traditional US pose as an “honest broker” between Israel and the Palestinians. Palestinian leaders were not invited to the ceremony, and would not have come had they been. This was a deal designed in Tel Aviv more than in Washington – and its point was to ensure there would be no Palestinian partner.

Importantly for Israel, it will get Washington’s permission to annex all of its illegal settlements, now littered across the West Bank, as well as the vast agricultural basin of the Jordan Valley. Israel will continue to have military control over the entire West Bank.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced his intention to bring just such an annexation plan before his cabinet as soon as possible. It will doubtless provide the central plank in his efforts to win a hotly contested general election due on March 2.

The Trump deal also approves Israel’s existing annexation of East Jerusalem. The Palestinians will be expected to pretend that a West Bank village outside the city is their capital of “Al Quds”. There are incendiary indications that Israel will be allowed to forcibly divide the Al Aqsa mosque compound to create a prayer space for extremist Jews, as has occurred in Hebron.

Further, the Trump administration appears to be considering giving a green light to the Israeli Right’s long-held hopes of redrawing the current borders in such a way as to transfer potentially hundreds of thousands of Palestinians currently living in Israel as citizens into the West Bank. That would almost certainly amount to a war crime.

The plan envisages no right of return, and it seems the Arab world will be expected to foot the bill for compensating millions of Palestinian refugees.

A US map handed out on Tuesday showed Palestinian enclaves connected by a warren of bridges and tunnels, including one between the West Bank and Gaza. The only leavening accorded to the Palestinians are US pledges to strengthen their economy. Given the Palestinians’ parlous finances after decades of resource theft by Israel, that is not much of a promise.

All of this has been dressed up as a “realistic two-state solution”, offering the Palestinians nearly 70 per cent of the occupied territories – which in turn comprise 22 per cent of their original homeland. Put another way, the Palestinians are being required to accept a state on 15 per cent of historic Palestine after Israel has seized all the best agricultural land and the water sources.

Like all one-time deals, this patchwork “state” – lacking an army, and where Israel controls its security, borders, coastal waters and airspace – has an expiry date. It needs to be accepted within four years. Otherwise, Israel will have a free hand to start plundering yet more Palestinian territory. But the truth is that neither Israel nor the US expects or wants the Palestinians to play ball.

That is why the plan includes – as well as annexation of the settlements – a host of unrealisable preconditions before what remains of Palestine can be recognised: the Palestinian factions must disarm, with Hamas dismantled; the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas must strip the families of political prisoners of their stipends; and the Palestinian territories must be reinvented as the Middle East’s Switzerland, a flourishing democracy and open society, all while under Israel’s boot.

Instead, the Trump plan kills the charade that the 26-year-old Oslo process aimed for anything other than Palestinian capitulation. It fully aligns the US with Israeli efforts – pursued by all its main political parties over many decades – to lay the groundwork for permanent apartheid in the occupied territories.

Trump invited both Netanyahu, Israel’s caretaker prime minister, and his chief political rival, former general Benny Gantz, for the launch. Both were keen to express their unbridled support.

Between them, they represent four-fifths of Israel’s parliament. The chief battleground in the March election will be which one can claim to be better placed to implement the plan and thereby deal a death blow to Palestinian dreams of statehood.

On the Israeli right, there were voices of dissent. Settler groups described the plan as “far from perfect” – a view almost certainly shared privately by Netanyahu. Israel’s extreme Right objects to any talk of Palestinian statehood, however illusory.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition will happily seize the goodies offered by the Trump administration. Meanwhile the plan’s inevitable rejection by the Palestinian leadership will serve down the road as justification for Israel to grab yet more land.

There are other, more immediate bonuses from the “deal of the century”.

By allowing Israel to keep its ill-gotten gains from its 1967 conquest of Palestinian territories, Washington has officially endorsed one of the modern era’s great colonial aggressions. The US administration has thereby declared open war on the already feeble constraints imposed by international law.

Trump benefits personally, too. This will provide a distraction from his impeachment hearings as well as offering a potent bribe to his Israel-obsessed evangelical base and major funders such as US casino magnate Sheldon Adelson in the run-up to a presidential election.

And the US president is coming to the aid of a useful political ally. Netanyahu hopes this boost from the White House will propel his ultra-nationalist coalition into power in March, and cow the Israeli courts as they weigh criminal charges against him.

How he plans to extract personal gains from the Trump plan were evident on Tuesday. He scolded Israel’s attorney-general over the filing of the corruption indictments, claiming a “historic moment” for the state of Israel was being endangered.

Meanwhile, Abbas greeted the plan with “a thousand nos”. Trump has left him completely exposed. Either the PA abandons its security contractor role on behalf of Israel and dissolves itself, or it carries on as before but now explicitly deprived of the illusion that statehood is being pursued.

Abbas will try to cling on, hoping that Trump is ousted in this year’s election and a new US administration reverts to the pretense of advancing the long-expired Oslo peace process. But if Trump wins, the PA’s difficulties will rapidly mount.

No one, least of all the Trump administration, believes that this plan will lead to peace. A more realistic concern is how quickly it will pave the way to greater bloodshed.

• First published in The National

The Israeli Right has Reason to Believe the Stars are Finally Aligned for Annexation

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs all the help he can muster before voters head to the ballot box on March 2 – for the third time in a year. Once again, it seems as though US President Donald Trump intends to ride to his rescue.

Despite Trump’s best efforts, Israel’s two elections last year ended in stalemate. Each time, Netanyahu’s Likud party and its religious, pro-settler coalition partners tied with the secular, yet hawkish right led by Blue and White leader Benny Gantz.

The pressure on Netanyahu to win this time has intensified. His opponents in the Israeli parliament advanced plans last week to set up a committee to weigh whether or not he should be immune from prosecution in three corruption cases.

If he is denied immunity, as seems likely, the path will be clear for a trial that might make it impossible for him to head the next government whatever the election outcome.

This was the background to intimations from the Trump administration last week that it may finally publish its long-anticipated peace plan.

The White House reportedly delayed the plan’s release over the course of last year as it waited for Netanyahu to secure a majority government to put it into effect.

Leaks suggest the document will bolster Israel’s maximalist demands, scuppering any hopes of establishing a viable Palestinian state. The Palestinian leadership severed ties with Washington a while back in protest.

More than any of his recent predecessors, Trump has shown a repeated willingness to meddle in Israeli elections to the benefit of Netanyahu.

Shortly before last April’s vote, Trump declared that the US would formally recognise Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights from Syria. The seizure of the 1,800 sq km territory in 1967 remains illegal under international law. And days before the most recent ballot in September, Trump publicly alluded to the possibility of a US-Israeli defence pact.

Now US officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have hinted that the US peace plan could be published in the run-up to the March election.

Israeli officials have been saying much the same to local media since an unexpected visit this month by Avi Berkowitz, Trump’s new aide overseeing the peace plan.

This prompted Gantz, the prime minister’s main challenger, to condemn any such move as “blatant interference” in the election.

In fact, until recently, Netanyahu had been reluctant for the so-called “deal of the century” to be published because it would be unlikely to satisfy the settlers’ most extreme demands. He had feared that disappointment might drive some Likud voters further to the right, towards smaller, even more hardline parties.

But Netanyahu is now in such precarious political and legal straits that he appears ready to gamble. Publication of the peace plan could attract some more uncompromising Blue and White voters to his side. They may prefer a seasoned player like Netanyahu to manage White House expectations, rather than a politically inexperienced former army general like Gantz.

Further, the settler parties that could steal votes from Likud as a result of a Trump “peace” initiative are the lynchpin of the coalition Netanyahu needs to maintain his grip on power. His own party may not gain more seats but overall his far-right bloc could prosper, ultimately securing Netanyahu the election and immunity from prosecution.

The key issue on which Netanyahu and Trump appear to agree is on annexing the bulk of the West Bank – territories categorised in the Oslo accords as Area C, the backbone of any future Palestinian state.

Before the September election, Netanyahu announced plans to annex the Jordan Valley, the West Bank’s vast agricultural basin – presumably with Trump’s blessing.

Pompeo offered his apparent backing in November by claiming that Israeli settlements in the West Bank were not necessarily “inconsistent with international law”.

With that as a cue, Netanyahu’s government convened a panel this month to draft an official proposal to annex the Jordan Valley.

Naftali Bennett, the defence minister and a settler leader, revealed last week that Israel was creating seven new “nature reserves” on Palestinian land. Another 12 existing Israeli-seized sites are to be expanded.

Israel would annex Area C “within a short time”, Bennett added.

On Saturday, he also ordered the army to bar from the West Bank prominent Israeli left-wing activists who demonstrate alongside Palestinians against land thefts by the settlers and the army. He equated these non-violent protesters with extremist settler groups that have assaulted Palestinians and torched their olive groves and homes.

Referring to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, the Palestinian foreign ministry warned that establishment of the nature reserves would “speed up [Bennett’s] appearance before the ICC as a war criminal.”

Nonetheless, the settler right is growing ever bolder on the annexation issue – as evidenced by Israel’s increasingly fraught ties with neighbouring Jordan.

King Abullah II recently declared relations with Israel at an “all-time low”. Meanwhile, Ephraim Halevy, a former head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, blamed Israel for showing “contempt towards Jordan” and creating a crisis that jeopardised the two countries’ 1994 peace treaty, a legacy of the Oslo peace process.

If Israel annexes large swaths of the West Bank, stymying Palestinian statehood, that could unleash waves of unrest among the kingdom’s majority population – Palestinians made refugees by Israel during the 1948 and 1967 wars.

It could also provoke a mass exodus of West Bank Palestinians into Jordan. Senior Jordanian officials recently told a former Israeli journalist, Ori Nir, that they viewed annexation as an “existential threat” to their country.

In November the Jordanian military conducted a drill against an invasion on its western flank – from Israel’s direction – that included the mock blowing up of bridges over the River Jordan.

The Israeli right would be only too delighted to see Abdullah in trouble. It has long harboured a dream of engineering the destruction of Hashemite rule as a way to transform Jordan, instead of the occupied territories, into the locus of a Palestinian state.

According to Israeli analysts, the right perceives itself as at a historic crossroads.

It can annex most of the West Bank and impose an unmistakeable apartheid rule over a restless, rebellious Palestinian population. Or it can realise its Greater Israel ambitions by helping to topple the Hashemite kingdom and encourage the West Bank’s Palestinians to disperse into Jordan.

All Israeli right-wingers need is a nod of approval from the White House. With Netanyahu desperate to pull a rabbit out of his hat, and with an obliging patron installed in Washington, there is reason enough for them to believe that the stars may finally be aligned.

Sealed Off and Forgotten: What You Should Know about Israel’s ‘Firing Zones’ in the West Bank

A seemingly ordinary news story, published in the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, on January 7, shed light on a long-forgotten, yet crucial, subject: Israel’s so-called “firing zones” in the West Bank.

“Israel has impounded the only vehicle available to a medical team that provides assistance to 1,500 Palestinians living inside an Israeli military firing zone in the West Bank,” according to Haaretz.

The Palestinian community that was denied its only access to medical services is Masafer Yatta, a tiny Palestinian village located in the South Hebron hills.

Masafer Yatta, which exists in complete and utter isolation from the rest of the occupied West Bank, is located in ‘Area C’, which constitutes the larger territorial chunk, about 60%, of the West Bank. This means that the village, along with many Palestinian towns, villages and small, isolated communities, is under total Israeli military control.

Do not let the confusing logic of the Oslo Accords fool you; all Palestinians, in all parts of the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and the besieged Gaza Strip, are under Israeli military control as well.

Unfortunately for Masafer Yatta, and those living in ‘Area C’, however, the degree of control is so suffocating that every aspect of Palestinian life – freedom of movement, education, access to clean water, and so on – is controlled by a complex system of Israeli military ordinances that have no regard whatsoever for the well-being of the beleaguered communities.

It is no surprise, then, that Masafer Yatta’s only vehicle, a desperate attempt at fashioning a mobile clinic, was confiscated in the past as well, and was only retrieved after the impoverished residents were forced to pay a fine to Israeli soldiers.

There is no military logic in the world that could rationally justify the barring of medical access to an isolated community, especially when an Occupying Power like Israel is legally obligated under the Fourth Geneva Convention to ensure medical access to civilians living in an Occupied Territory.

It is only natural that Masafer Yatta, like all Palestinians in ‘Area C’ and the larger West Bank, feel neglected – and outright betrayed – by the international community as well as their own quisling leadership.

But there is more that makes Masafer Yatta even more unique, qualifying it for the unfortunate designation of being a Bantustan within a Bantustan, as it subsists in a far more complex system of control, compared to the one imposed on black South Africa during the Apartheid regime era.

Soon after Israel occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, it devised a long-term stratagem aimed at the permanent control of the newly-occupied territories. While it designated some areas for the future relocation of its own citizens – who now make up the extremist illegal Jewish settler population in the West Bank – it also set aside large swathes of the Occupied Territories as security and buffer zones.

What is far less known is that, throughout the 1970s, the Israeli military declared roughly 18% of the West Bank as “firing zones”.

These “firing zones” were supposedly meant as training grounds for the Israeli occupation army soldiers – although Palestinians trapped in these regions often report that little or no military training takes place within “firing zones”.

According to the Office for the UN Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Palestine, there are around 5,000 Palestinians, divided among 38 communities that still live, under most dire circumstances, within the so-called “firing zones”.

The 1967 occupation led to a massive wave of ethnic cleansing that saw the forced removal of approximately 300,000 Palestinians from the newly-conquered territory. Many of the vulnerable communities that were ethnically cleansed included Palestinian Bedouins, who continue to pay the price for Israel’s colonial designs in the Jordan Valley, the South Hebron Hills and other parts of occupied Palestine.

This vulnerability is compounded by the fact that the Palestinian Authority (PA) acts with little regards to Palestinians living in ‘Area C’, who are left to withstand and resist Israeli pressures alone, often resorting to Israel’s own unfair judicial system, to win back some of their basic rights.

The Oslo Accords, signed in 1993 between the Palestinian leadership and the Israeli government, divided the West Bank into three regions: ‘Area A’, theoretically under autonomous Palestinian control and consisting of 17.7% of the overall size of the West Bank; ‘Area B’, 21%, and under shared Israeli-PA control and ‘Area C’, the remainder of the West Bank, and under total Israeli control.

This arrangement was meant to be temporary, set to conclude in 1999 once the “final status negotiations” were concluded and a comprehensive peace accord was signed. Instead, it became the status quo ante.

As unfortunate as the Palestinians living in ‘Area C’ are, those living in the “firing zone” within ‘Area C’ are enduring the most hardship. According to the United Nations, their hardship includes “the confiscation of property, settler violence, harassment by soldiers, access and movement restrictions and/or water scarcity.”

Expectedly, many illegal Jewish settlements sprang up in these “firing zones” over the years, a clear indication that these areas have no military purpose whatsoever, but were meant to provide an Israeli legal justification to confiscate nearly a fifth of the West Bank for future colonial expansion.

Throughout the years, Israel ethnically cleansed all remaining Palestinians in these “firing zones”, leaving behind merely 5,000, who are likely to suffer the same fate should the Israeli occupation continue on the same violent trajectory.

This makes the story of Masafer Yatta a microcosm of the tragic and larger story of all Palestinians. It is also a reflection of the sinister nature of Israeli colonialism and military occupation, where occupied Palestinians lose their land, their water, their freedom of movement and eventually, even the most basic medical care.

These harsh “conditions contribute to a coercive environment that creates pressure on Palestinian communities to leave these areas,” according to the United Nations. In other words, ethnic cleansing, which has been Israel’s strategic goal all along.

How Britain dresses up Crimes in Israel as “Charitable Acts”

When is a war crime not a war crime? When, according to British officials, that war crime has been given a makeover as a “charitable act”.

The British state is being asked to account for its financial and moral support for a UK organisation accused of complicity in the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homeland. So far, it appears determined to evade answering those questions.

The target of the campaign is the Jewish National Fund UK (JNF UK), which describes itself as “Britain’s oldest Israel charity”. Noting its role in “building Israel for over a century”, the organisation boasts: “Every penny raised by JNF UK is sent to a project in Israel.”

In fact, donations to JNF UK were used to buy some of the 250 million trees planted across Israel since 1948, the year when 750,000 Palestinians were forced out at gunpoint from their homes by the new Israeli army. Those expulsions were an event Palestinians call their Nakba, or “catastrophe”.

Afterwards, the Israeli army laid waste to many hundreds of Palestinian villages, turning them into rubble. Forests planted over the villages were then promoted as efforts to “make the desert bloom”.

Subsidised by taxpayers

In fact, the trees were intended primarily to block Palestinian refugees from ever being able to return to their villages and rebuild their homes. As a result, millions of Palestinians today languish in refugee camps across the Middle East, evicted from their homeland with the help of the forests.

JNF UK raised the funds for a parent organisation in Israel, the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF), which enforced the expulsions by using the donations to plant the forests. The Israeli state’s ethnic cleansing of the native Palestinian population was effectively disguised as a form of environmentalism.

Britain and other Western states appear to have accepted that barely concealed deception. They have long treated their local JNF fundraising arms as charities. JNF UK received charitable status in 1939, nearly a decade before Israel was created as a Jewish state on the ruins of Palestinians’ homeland.

The forests are still managed with money raised through tax-deductible donations in Britain and elsewhere. Since 1990, donations to JNF UK have been eligible for Gift Aid, meaning that the British government tops up donations by adding its own 25 percent contribution.

In effect, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian villages has been subsidised by the British public.

Backing from MPs

Britain’s continuing sanction of these crimes – and others – is being belatedly given scrutiny by human rights activists in Britain.

A campaign launched in 2010 called Stop the JNF – backed by various Palestinian solidarity organisations – has aimed to shame British officials into ending JNF UK’s charitable status.

The campaign gained parliamentary support a year later, when 68 MPs signed an early-day motion condemning the JNF’s activities and calling for its charitable status to be revoked. The motion was sponsored by Jeremy Corbyn, then a backbencher but now leader of the Labour Party, and attracted cross-party support, though no Conservative MPs backed it.

Nonetheless, the campaign has faced institutional resistance every step of the way. Over the past six years, appeals to the Charity Commission, a department of the British government, to intervene and remove JNF UK from its list of registered charities have been repeatedly rebuffed.

Rather than seeking explanations from JNF UK, British officials have largely ignored the evidence they have been presented with.

Trees ‘a weapon of war’

The campaign has highlighted one specific and egregious example of the JNF UK’s work. The organisation raised donations to create a large recreation area west of Jerusalem called British Park, which includes forests, over three Palestinian villages that were destroyed by the Israeli army after 1948. A sign at the entrance reads: “Gift of the Jewish National Fund in Great Britain.”

Many of those who donated to the project, often British Jews encouraged to drop pennies into the JNF’s iconic fundraising “blue boxes”, had no idea how their money was being used.

The Stop the JNF campaign included testimony from Kholoud al-Ajarma, whose family was expelled from the village of Ajjur during the Nakba. Today, the family lives in the overcrowded Aida refugee camp, next to Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.

KKL-JNF planted trees at British Park on land to which Ajarma’s family, and many others, still have the title deeds. In doing so, the group violated the protected status of such lands in international law.

In her submission, Ajarma wrote: “It was British pounds that helped destroy my village. The Jewish National Fund is not merely planting trees. These trees have been used as a weapon of war, a weapon of colonisation.”

Israeli scholar Uri Davis has observed that the establishment of British Park “ought to be classified as an act, and as a policy, of complicity with war crimes”.

4,000 protest letters

The Charity Commission’s barrister, Iain Steele, conceded in a submission that it was possible the JNF had violated the Ajarma family’s rights by creating British Park on their land.

Nonetheless, the Charity Commission has on two occasions refused to consider revoking JNF UK’s charitable status. Rather than addressing the merits of Stop the JNF’s arguments, the Charity Commission has evasively claimed that the campaigners, even the Ajarma family, are not affected by whether the JNF is registered as a charity.

In June, a commission official even wrote to the campaign with an astounding defence that appears to strip the term “charitable” of all meaning. He wrote: “In simple terms the test for charitable status is a test of what an organisation was set up to do, not what it does in practice.”

The commission’s apparent reasoning is that, so long as the JNF includes fine-sounding words in its mission statement, what it does in practice as a “charity” does not matter.

In April, Stop the JNF appealed the commission’s decision not to revoke JNF UK’s charitable status to the First-tier Tribunal. The judge, however, told them that neither Ajarma nor the campaign itself had a legal right to be heard. He concluded instead that only the attorney-general could overrule the Charity Commission’s decision. In October, the attorney-general rejected the campaigners’ claims without investigating them.

In an attempt to revive the case, Stop the JNF has submitted more than 4,000 letters of protest to the attorney-general, calling on him to reassess the organisation’s continuing charitable status.

A parallel call was made to the advocate-general of Scotland, which has a separate legal system.

‘Intense political controversy’

The JNF did not respond to questions sent by Middle East Eye about its role in planting the forests, its charitable status and other criticisms of its involvement with Israel.

The establishment’s apparent unwillingness to confront JNF UK’s historical record is perhaps not surprising. The JNF was one of the key organisations that helped to realise a British government promise made in the 1917 Balfour Declaration to help create a “Jewish home” in what was then Palestine.

Two years later, Lord Balfour declared that the colonisation of Palestine by Zionist Jews from Europe was “of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 [Palestinian] Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land”. Little, it seems, has changed in official British attitudes since.

Steele, the Charity Commission’s barrister, successfully urged the First-tier Tribunal not to get involved, arguing that it would be “drawn into matters of intense political controversy, for no obvious benefit to anyone”.

Surely, Ajarma and many millions more Palestinians would strenuously dispute that assessment. They would have much to gain should Britain finally demonstrate a willingness to confront its continuing role in aiding and comforting groups such as the JNF, accused of complicity in crimes against international law in historic Palestine.

As Stop the JNF organisers wrote in their own letter to the attorney-general: “These people [Palestinian refugees such as the Ajarma family] are not defined by the JNF as recipients of their charity, but they have human and legal rights which the actions of this charity unacceptably violate.”

Reminiscent of dark regimes

The campaign has not only focused on JNF UK’s historic role in dispossessing Palestinians. It points out that the JNF is still actively contributing to Israel’s own grossly discriminatory and racist policies – another reason it should be barred from being considered a charity.

JNF UK’s accounts from 2016 show that it has funded the OR Movement, an Israeli organisation that assists in the development of Jewish-only communities in Israel and the occupied territories.

One such Jewish community, Hiran, is being established on the ruins of homes that belonged to Bedouin families. They were recently forced out of their village of Umm al-Hiran – a move the legal rights group Adalah has described as “reminiscent of the darkest of regimes such as apartheid-era South Africa”.

On its website, JNF-KKL congratulates “Friends of JNF UK” for supporting the establishment of nearby Hiran Forest. The JNF claims the forest will “help mitigate climate change” – once again disguising ethnic cleansing of Palestinians as a form of environmentalism.

Funding the Israeli army

JNF UK’s annual accounts in 2015 also revealed that it contributed money to the Israeli army under the title “Tzuk Eitan 9 Gaza war effort” – a reference to Israel’s attack on Gaza in late 2014, whose death toll included some 550 Palestinian children.

A United Nations commission of inquiry found evidence that Israel had committed war crimes by indiscriminately targeting civilians – a conclusion confirmed by the testimonies of Israeli soldiers to Breaking the Silence, an Israeli whistle-blowing group.

Equally troubling, an investigation last month by Haaretz reported that, under Israeli government pressure, the KKL-JNF has been secretly directing vast sums of money into buying and developing land in the occupied West Bank to aid Jewish settlers, again in violation of international law.

The funds were allegedly channeled to Himnuta Jerusalem, effectively the JNF’s subsidiary in the occupied territories, disguised as funds for projects in Jerusalem.

Veteran Israeli journalist Raviv Drucker observed that KKL-JNF was rapidly converting itself into a banking fund for the settlers. He added that its “coffers are bursting with billions of shekels [and] the settlers’ appetite for land is at a peak”.

Given the lack of transparency in KKL-JNF’s accounts, it is difficult to know precisely where the funds have come from. But as more than $70m has been spent by KKL-JNF over the past two years in the occupied West Bank, according to Haaretz, the funds likely include money raised by JNF UK.

In any case, research by Stop the JNF suggests JNF UK has no objections to making “charitable” donations to settlements in the West Bank. Its accounts record contributions to Sansana, a community of religious settlers close to Hebron.

Settlements are considered a war crime under the Fourth Geneva Convention.

No ‘duty’ towards equality

As the JNF UK states on its website, every penny raised in Britain is “sent to a project in Israel” – much of it via the JNF in Israel.

KKL-JNF is a major landowner in Israel. Under a special arrangement with the Israeli government, it owns 13 percent of Israel’s territory – often lands seized from Palestinian refugees. The arrangement includes a provision from 1961 that the primary aim of the JNF in Israel is to acquire property “for the purpose of settling Jews on such lands and properties”.

In 2004, KKL-JNF explained its role. It was “not a public body that works for the benefit of all citizens of the state. The loyalty of the JNF is given to the Jewish people and only to them is the JNF obligated. The JNF, as the owner of the JNF land, does not have a duty to practice equality towards all citizens of the state.”

In marketing and allocating lands only to Jews, the legal group Adalah has noted, the JNF in Israel intentionally rides roughshod over the rights of a fifth of the country’s population who are Palestinian by heritage.

In other words, the JNF is integral to an Israeli system that enforces an apartheid-style regime that prevents Israel’s Palestinian minority from accessing and benefiting from a substantial part of Israel’s territory.

Violating British law

This institutionalised discrimination has been made even more explicit since Israel last year passed the Nation-State Law, which declares: “The State views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value, and shall act to encourage and promote its establishment and strengthening.”

As the Stop the JNF campaign notes, British charities should abide by legal responsibilities enshrined in UK legislation, such as the 2010 Equality Act, which makes it illegal to discriminate based on “colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin”.

The JNF UK is clearly failing to abide by this core legal principle. It is operating in a foreign state where it has helped, over many decades, to fund activities that grossly violate both British law and international law. The evidence compiled by Stop the JNF indicates that JNF UK has itself been complicit in aiding the commission of war crimes, both in Israel and the occupied territories.

It has also given financial and moral succour to its parent organisation, which has crafted a system of apartheid that confers superior land rights on Jews over Israel’s Palestinian minority.

British taxpayers should not be subsidising institutionalised discrimination and crimes abroad – even more so when they are being dressed up as “charitable acts”.

• A version of this article first appeared in Middle East Eye

Occupied Palestine: From BDS To ODS

We spent the last week in Occupied Palestinian Territory, commonly referred to as Israel, where we traveled around the country to visit communities in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Bethlehem, the West Bank, the Nagab, and more.

We call Israel Occupied Palestine because it is not just the West Bank and Gaza that are occupied, but all of historic Palestine, the entire Palestinian nation. Palestinian people do not have equal rights and their communities are constantly encroached upon by settlers pushing them into small, crowded areas. The mistreatment of Palestinians happens right before the eyes of the Israeli Jews. If they do not see it, it is either because they do not want to see it or because they are encouraged not to see it. Just as Jim Crow racism was evident to all in the southern states of the US, apartheid in Palestine is obvious.

This visit deepened our support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement because we saw modern apartheid, Jim Crow-segregation laws, ongoing land theft, and ethnic cleansing. For example, we were in Jerusalem when a squadron of fighter jets flew over our heads to bomb the open-air prison of Gaza killing more than 30 people. The Israeli people, media and politicians applauded that, displaying a sickness that runs deep in this colonized land founded on theft, terrorism, and violence.

To end the colonization, there is great hope of developing a movement for the creation of One Democratic State (ODS). This is being organized by a large group of Palestinians and Jews as the formation of two separate states is impossible. ODS envisions a universally equal and democratic nation where minority communities are protected and every person can vote. ODS is the first step to the decolonization and healing of Palestine.

Aida Refugee Camp (Photo by Margaret Flowers)

Correcting The Record

Palestinians are disenfranchised:  Occupied Palestine is called a liberal democracy. In reality, while Palestinians are the majority, most of them can’t vote. Out of a total population of twelve million people, five million Jews can vote and five million Palestinians can’t. The remaining two million Palestinians who live in “The 48,” the land between the West Bank and Gaza, can vote but often boycott elections in protest. The dominant parties all support anti-Palestinian policies.

Sign entering Area A, Israeli Citizens Forbidden.

Palestine has hyper-segregation: Palestine can only be described as a modern apartheid state with updated Jim Crow laws. We drove on Jewish-only roads where the color of a person’s license plate determines if they can use the road. There are military checkpoints along these roads. Palestinians are often forced to take long detours to get around the segregated roads and walls. Many Jews never meet a Palestinian because their lives are so segregated.

Under the 1993 Oslo Accords, Occupied Palestine was divided into Areas A, B and C. We visited Bethlehem, classified as Area A, where a sign upon entry warns it is against the law for Israeli-citizens to enter. In Area A, the Palestinian Authority (PA) serves as police and can arrest Israeli-Jews and turn them over to Israeli-police. In Area B, both the PA and Israeli-police have power. And, in Area C, the majority of the country, only the Israeli-police have authority.

Land Theft Against Palestinians Continues: People are often told that no one lived here before 1948 when the occupation of the area by Jewish settlers began. This massive land theft continues today. Although the German Holocaust is used to justify this, the Zionist project began well before then.

Jaffa, above, as depicted by Gutman, and, below, as the crowded Arab city that actually existed (Photo by Margaret Flowers)

This false picture is depicted by the well-known Zionist artist Nahum Gutman. His famous painting of the major Arab city of Jaffa showed only sand dunes and a few buildings where hundreds of houses stood. Today Sir Charles Clore Park covers the remains of this section of the city. Similar tactics have hidden thousands of Palestinian villages that existed before “The Nakba” in 1948.

Jaffa was an important Arab port city with a population of 90,000 before 1948 that served as an entry point into Jerusalem and beyond. The first Jewish neighborhoods were built there in the late 19th Century. Tel Aviv, the first Jewish-governed city, began in the early 20th century as a suburb of Jaffa. More than ninety-five percent of the population of Jaffa was expelled by Zionist militias in 1948 and beyond. The remaining residents were confined to an area under guard and forced to operate the port. Between 1947 and 1949, the Nakba terrorized Palestinians and forced 800,000 to flee their homes. The Absentee Property Law was used to seize the homes of those who fled.

Zionist settlers continue encroaching on land in Palestinian neighborhoods. In the historic walled city of Old Jerusalem, they come up from underground tunnels to seize homes in the Palestinian quadrant and put them under armed guards. In Palestinian East Jerusalem, Zionists continue to confiscate houses and land, pushing Palestinians to the other side of the segregation wall where they are crowded into areas without city services. Similar forced urbanization and crowding is occurring throughout Palestine. Gaza is perhaps the most severe example of this. Over the last 50 years, the Israeli government has transferred between 600,000 and 750,000 settlers to the West Bank and East Jerusalem in at least 160 settlements and outposts.

In the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Gaza, this land annexation has made a two-state solution physically impossible. The combination of hundreds of thousands of settlers, Jewish-only roads plus the Expansion (or Annexation) Wall that divides Palestinian communities, and more than 200 checkpoints have severely restricted movement for Palestinians and seized 78% of their country.

A banner hanging in Mea Shearim, a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem.

Judaism is not Zionism: In the 1880s, Palestinian Jews amounted to three percent of the total population. They were apolitical and did not aspire to build a Jewish state. We met with Rabbi Meir Hirsch in the Mea Sharim neighborhood of Jerusalem. This tightly-knit ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood has signs posted on the walls that say: ‘A Jew Not a Zionist,’ ‘Zionism is Dying’ and ‘Arabs are Good.’

Hirsch’s family came to Palestine 150 years ago from Russia. His people came to better worship God, not to take land from Palestinians. Hirsch told us about Jacob Israël de Haan, a Dutch Jew who worked to prevent the 1917 Balfour Declaration and almost succeeded. The Balfour Declaration, issued by the British government, announced support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. De Haan was assassinated in Jerusalem by the Jewish paramilitary organization Haganah for his anti-Zionist political activities. His murder led to the Neturei Karta movement, which resists Zionism to this day.

Hirsch views Zionism as contradictory to the Jewish religion. His community believes the Torah does not allow Jewish sovereignty of any kind over the Holy Land and those who want to live there must have the approval of the native Palestinian people. Hirsch says that ultra-Orthodox Jews “want to see the end of the Zionist tragedy and the restoration of peace to the Middle East.”  His views counter those who claim criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic as, he says, “Judaism and Zionism are as foreign to each other as day and night, good and evil.”

Graffiti made by the graffiti artist Banksy is seen on Israel’s Separation Wall in Abu Dis on August 6, 2005. (Photo by Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)

One Democratic State

There is a positive path to resolving the conflict between Jews and Palestinians. The path comes from the movement for One Democratic State, which envisions a genuinely just and workable political agreement developed by Palestinians and Jews together.

There has been a marked decline in support for a two-state solution. A poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research from September 11-14, 2019 found only 42% of Palestinians now support the two-state solution. When President Netanyahu entered office a decade ago, that figure was 70%. Similarly, fewer than half of the Jews now support a two-state solution. Further, 63% of Palestinians believe a two-state solution is no longer practical or feasible due to the expansion of the settlements and 83% support the local and international boycott (BDS) movement against Israel.

We met separately with two leaders of this campaign, Awad Abdelfattah, a founder of the Arab Balad Party, and Ilan Pappe, an Israeli historian. Along with many others in the ODS campaign, they seek a multicultural and constitutional democracy in which all people enjoy a common citizenship, a common parliament, and equal civil rights, with constitutional protection granted to national, ethnic and religious views. ODS means equal rights for Palestinians and protection of the rights of Jews.

Their vision includes making the Palestinian ‘right of return’ a reality. Palestinian homes and communities were demolished years ago. According to the Palestinian geographer Salman Abu-Sitta, 85% of Palestinian lands taken in 1948 are still available for resettlement. While more than 530 villages, towns, and urban areas were systematically demolished, their agricultural lands still exist. Other lands lie under public parks and forests. Refugees could actually return, if not to their former homes, at least to the parts of the country where they originated. Palestinian planners could design modern communities for refugees and their descendants in the areas they left with new communities and economic infrastructure that is integrated with other segments of the society. Land redistribution, financial compensation, and equal access to education, training and the economy would enable refugees, like other Palestinians, to achieve economic parity with Jews within a fairly short time.

For Jews, their security will increase by providing constitutional protection of their collective rights. While structures of privilege and domination would be dismantled, the “collective rights” of groups to maintain their community in the framework of a multi-cultural democracy (e.g., communities of ethnic Russians, African asylum-seekers, foreign workers, anti-Zionist ultra-orthodox Jews, and others) give Jews the collective security they need.

ODS views the establishment of a just and working state as requiring: decolonization, restoration, and reconciliation. Decolonization includes ending economic, cultural, political, and legal domination. This means building an egalitarian, inclusive and sustainable society that restores the rights, properties (actual or through compensation), identities and social position of those expelled, excluded and oppressed. This is followed by reconciliation to confront the still-open wounds of the Nakba and the Occupation, and the suffering they have caused.

While the view may sound Utopian to some, in fact, it is the practical path out of the current disaster of Occupied Palestine. Palestine is already one nation. The issue is whether it will be a democratic state with equal rights for all citizens that dismantles the apartheid system or whether it will remain an undemocratic and unequal settler-colonial nation.

We titled this article “BDS to ODS” because while this solution must come from the Palestinian people, along with Jews, people in the United States and throughout the world who support peace and justice have an important role to play through the growing BDS campaign to pressure Israel into accepting ODS. This struggle will be won through solidarity between popular movements inside and outside Occupied Palestine.

We encourage you to visit Occupied Palestine to see and learn for yourself. If you visit Jerusalem, be sure to take the tour offered by Grassroots Jerusalem. They also offer a guide to Palestinian places to stay, shop and eat. Zochrot is an organization that also offers tours and resources about the Nakba. If you are interested in direct service, you can volunteer to assist with the olive harvest or volunteer in places such as the Aida Refugee Camp. They need all sorts of volunteers, especially those who can provide instruction to children in music and arts. Visit Volunteer Palestine to see the many opportunities available.