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The Mandatory will be responsible for putting into effect the (Balfour) declaration originally made on November 8, 1917, by the British Government, and adopted by the other Allied Powers, in favor of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the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.
As the holy fasting month of Ramadan begins, the coronavirus outbreak in Israel and the Palestinian territories is proving how inevitably intertwined the two populations’ lives are, while also underlining the extreme differentials of power between them.
While 15,000 Israelis have tested positive for Covid-19 so far, the numbers infected in the occupied territories are still measured in the hundreds – though that, in part, reflects the difficulties for Palestinians of getting tested. The Palestinian Authority is desperately short of equipment, including testing kits, to deal with the virus.
Research suggests that most infections of Palestinians have originated in contacts with Israelis. Israel is much further advanced along the contagion curve because of its population’s access to international travel, the country’s greater exposure to tourism and its integration into the global economy.
Israel’s tight restrictions over Palestinians’ freedom of movement – from the complete blockade on Gaza to the walling-in of the West Bank – as well as its colonial-style control of the Palestinian economy have ensured the late arrival of Covid-19 to the occupied territories.
But it has also guaranteed that the Palestinian leaderships – both Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank – will be weakly positioned to cope when contagion kicks in more forcefully.
And just such a major outbreak is all but inevitable in the West Bank. Ramadan may well provide the trigger.
In recent years about 80,000 Palestinians – from a West Bank population of nearly 3 million – have received permits to work either in Israel or in Israeli settlements, with a few tens of thousands more entering “illegally” through missing sections of the wall. For most families, such work is the only hope they have of earning a living.
The Palestinian economy is entirely dependent on Israel. Palestinians cannot leave the West Bank without permission from Israel, which is often hard to get.
Israel imposes costly and lengthy bureaucratic controls on Palestinian exports, making it nigh-impossible for Palestinian firms to compete in the global market-place.
And World Bank studies show that Israel has plundered most of the West Bank’s key resources, making it impossible for Palestinians themselves to exploit those resources. Israel even controls the flow of tourists into Palestinian areas.
But Palestinian workers’ dependence on Israel is now placing them in harm’s way. Although many are likely to catch the virus in Israel while working, Israel is refusing to take responsibility for their welfare.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) is able to do little itself because many of the workers are from Area C, the two-thirds of the West Bank that Israel fully controls under the long-expired Oslo Accords. The PA has no access to these areas.
The Ramadan holiday is likely to severely exacerbate the problem of the virus spreading in the occupied territories.
Last month, as Israel intensified its lockdown to prevent contagion in the run-up to its week-long Passover holiday in the second week of April, Palestinian workers were given a choice. Either they committed to continue working in Israel for several more weeks, often in jobs defined as “essential”, such as food production, or they had to stop work and return to the West Bank until the lockdown ended.
Many chose to keep working and stayed in Israel, while many more worked off-radar, without permits, by sneaking in and out through one of the many gaps in the wall.
This latter group, among the poorest members of Palestinian society, is posing a particular problem for West Bank officials. These workers are at high risk of catching the virus, and can spread it without the PA knowing.
For this reason, groups of Palestinians are reported to be patrolling the missing sections of wall to stop such workers entering Israel. Paradoxically, there are even cases of them trying to patch up breaks in the wall on Israel’s behalf.
The Israeli government has supposedly put in place regulations to keep the Palestinian workers safe: firms must take their temperatures daily, ensure social distancing is maintained on production sites, properly house workers and make sure no more than four sleep to a room.
But the government is leaving it to the firms to comply. There are no inspectors. Media investigations show that the rules are being widely flouted, leading to the rapid spread of the virus among Palestinian workers.
Any who try to leave Israel to avoid catching Covid-19 are being threatened by their employers that their work permits will be revoked, leaving them without work long term.
And now many are heading home to the West Bank to spend Ramadan with their families. Israel has refused to conduct any testing, so a proportion will be bringing – unknown to them – the virus home.
But these workers and their families are not just facing an imminent health crisis that Palestinian medical services are in no shape to withstand. They are also being hit harshly in the pocket by Israel’s lockdown policies.
Palestinians who work in Israel are often the only breadwinner, providing for an extended family that lives close to the poverty line. For the forseable future there will be no income for the tens of thousands of workers who joined the lockdown in the West Bank before Passover, for those who caught the virus in Israel and were forced home, and for those returning for Ramadan.
Israel is also taking no responsibility for their welfare, even though many have worked for years in Israel and have had to pay a substantial proportion of their wages each month into a sick fund run by the Israeli government.
The fund amounts to more than $140 million, and has grown so large because Israel makes it almost impossible for Palestinians to make a claim.
Israeli human rights groups have pressed Israel to release the funds to Palestinians who are not able to work to help them through this health and economic emergency. So far the Israeli government has done nothing.
Trying to fill the void
The Palestinians under Israeli rule in occupied East Jerusalem face their own set of problems.
Despite claiming that all of Jerusalem – including the Palestinian parts of the city – are Israel’s “united capital”, Israeli officials have continued an apartheid-like approach in the city that treats Palestinians, who are classified by Israel simply as “residents”, very differently from Jews, who are Israeli “citizens”.
The numbers of Palestinians who have officially tested positive so far in Jerusalem is still low, at several dozen, but that probably reflects the fact that until recently there were almost no clinics carrying out testing in Palestinian neighbourhoods.
Many Palestinian areas have not been sanitised by cleaning crews, as Jewish areas have been, nor has there been significant enforcement by Israeli police of lockdown measures or mask-wearing regulations – a surprise given that Israeli police are usually very diligent in patrolling Palestinian areas and making arrests.
Israeli authorities have also been slow to put out information in Arabic about the virus and on safety measures – either for 330,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem or for the 1.8 million Palestinians who live inside Israel and have a very degraded form of Israeli citizenship.
Experts say the lack of an awareness-raising campaign in Palestinian areas will likely lead to a rapid rise in cases over Ramadan, if extended families follow traditional practice and spend more time together.
Palestinian officials in Jerusalem have tried to fill the void by disseminating information, organising sanitisation operations and helping to set up a testing clinic. Israel has cracked down on any such activities, including by violently arresting the Palestinian governor of Jerusalem and the PA’s Jerusalem affairs minister.
Instead Palestinian charities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have formed into a “Jerusalem Alliance” to try to pick up the slack left by Israel.
Palestinians in East Jerusalem are likely to be especially vulnerable to disease. Three-quarters live below the poverty line, and less than half are formally connected to the water network. Planning restrictions mean there is widespread overcrowding.
East Jerusalem’s three Palestinian hospitals are also in poor shape, bedevilled by large debts courtesy of Donald Trump, who cut $25 million in financial aid in 2018.
The Israeli health ministry has also failed to provide protective equipment and funds to these hospitals to deal with the coronavirus crisis. They have found an unusual ally in Jerusalem’s mayor, Moshe Leon. He has berated the Israeli government, apparently fearful that West Jerusalem hospitals will be overwhelmed if Palestinians cannot get help from their own hospitals.
More precarious still is the situation of Palestinian neighbourhoods, like Kfar Aqab, that were effectively split off from East Jerusalem after Israel built a wall putting them on the West Bank side. That has made city services difficult to access for some 100,000 Jerusalem residents.
Israel has been progressively abandoning responsibility for these areas – in an effort to raise the Jewish majority in the rest of Jerusalem.
Nonetheless, it has been reluctant to allow the PA to fill the void. The Covid-19 crisis is gradually revealing Israel’s intention towards these “outside” neighbourhoods of Jerusalem. On Thursday, Israel sent in the army to pull down coronavirus information notices that had been put up by the PA.
The Israeli army has no role in Jerusalem, but does operate in the West Bank. The new action suggests Israel is preparing to formally reclassify areas like Kfar Aqab as no longer part of Jerusalem.
Apartheid wins out
Things are only slightly better for the fifth of Israel’s population who belong to its Palestinian minority. These 1.8 million second-class citizens are descended from Palestinians who managed to avoid Israel’s ethnic cleansing operations in 1948, when Israel was established on the Palestinians’ homeland.
Israel has created a strange hybrid apartheid system, in which Jewish citizens live almost entirely separate from Palestinian citizens. The two populations are educated separately, and many areas of the economy are segregated too.
But one area where Palestinian and Jewish citizens are highly integrated – coming into regular contact – is in the health sector.
In fact, Palestinian citizens are over-represented in the medical professions, in large part because it is one of the few significant areas of the economy that is not defined in security terms and is therefore relatively open to the Palestinian minority.
One in five doctors in Israel is a Palestinian citizen, a quarter of nurses are, and a half of all pharmacists.
But despite the strong showing of Palestinian citizens in health services, the Israeli government’s apartheid instincts have won out.
In February Israel established an emergency team to handle the pandemic. It devised a national strategy for testing, quarantines, hospitalisations, awareness-raising and the lockdown policy.
However, not one expert from the Palestinian minority – or from the occupied territories – was included on the committee, leaving it entirely ignorant of the special conditions relevant to Palestinian society, in either Israel or the occupied territories.
The Israeli health ministry also refused to meet with the minority’s own national health committee, established by Palestinian doctors and researchers in Israel to help tackle the virus in the Palestinian community.
These failures explain the long delay in Israel producing any information on the virus in Arabic, and the similar delay in setting up testing stations in Palestinian communities. Limited action came only after concerted protests from Palestinian legislators in the parliament.
After a very low initial rate of infection, Palestinian citizens are now the fastest growing group in Israel testing positive for the virus – and that despite continuing low levels of testing.
Ramadan is expected to exacerbate that upward trend dramatically as families shop for food and eat meals with extended families. Mosques are already closed, and Muslim leaders have told worshippers to pray at home. In a last-minute effort to avert a new epidemic, the Israeli government has banned shops and businesses opening during the hours of darkness, as would normally occur during Ramadan.
As in the West Bank and Jerusalem, Palestinians in Israel are vulnerable. Two-thirds of families live below the poverty line – more than three times the rate of Jewish families. There is massive overcrowding in Palestinian communities, after decades in which Israel has refused new building permits for Palestinians.
And health services are poor or non-existent in many Palestinian communities, especially in dozens of Bedouin villages Israel has refused to recognise. In these communities, Bedouin are also denied water and electricity.
Further, Israel’s main ambulance service, Magen David Adom, rarely operates in Palestinian communities, though its staff alone have training to deal with coronavirus. It is unclear how the private companies serving Palestinian communities will cope if there is a major outbreak.
And as is the case in other Palestinian communities, Palestinian families in Israel are also particularly exposed to the economic consequences of lockdown. Many work as casual labourers, and have lost their work during the past weeks.
The coronavirus outbreak was a test of Israel’s ability to put aside its security and demographic obsessions and deal with the Palestinians not just as fellow human beings but also as allies in a struggle for the health of both peoples. In that test, Israel has failed dismally.
Merely two weeks after Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, declared that the PA will suspend all ‘security coordination’ with Israel, Palestinian security forces in the West Bank killed unarmed teenager, Salah Zakareneh.
Zakareneh is not the first and, sadly, will not be the last Palestinian to be killed by the PA security forces, which in recent years have dramatically increased their oppressive tactics against any form of political dissent in Palestine.
The 17-year-old boy died soon after PA security was dispatched to the village of Qabatiya, south of Jenin, in the northern West Bank to allegedly confront a “military-style demonstration” that was being planned.
The official version of the story claimed that as soon as the PA force arrived in Qabatiya, armed men from the village opened fire while others hurled rocks, prompting PA officers to respond with live bullets and teargas canisters, resulting in the death of Zakareneh and the wounding of others. No PA officers were wounded by gunfire.
There is no denying that anti-PA sentiment has grown exponentially throughout the occupied Palestinian territories in recent months. Abbas’s Authority is rife with corruption and continues to rule over Palestinians, in whatever limited capacity permitted by Israel, with no democratic mandate whatsoever.
Moreover, the PA consists largely of loyalists to Abbas’s Fatah party, which is itself divided between various centers of power.
In 2016, the PA set up a joint body of Palestinian intelligence agencies in Jericho with the sole purpose of cracking down on supporters of Abbas’s arch enemy, Mohammed Dahlan, who is currently in exile.
Since its creation, the new intelligence body, which reports directly to the President, has expanded its mandate and is actively cracking down on any individual, organization or political entity that dares question the policies of Abbas and his party.
Soon after Abbas claimed in a speech before the Arab League in Cairo, on February 1, that the PA will severe all contacts with Israel “including security relations”, a senior PA official informed Israeli media that the cooperation between the PA and Israel is still ongoing.
“Until now, the coordination is ongoing, but relations are extremely tense,” the official told the Times of Israel.
‘Security coordination’ is perhaps the only reason why Israel is allowing the PA to exist despite the fact that Israel, with the support of the United States, has completely reneged on all of its commitments to the Oslo accords and all subsequent agreements.
It is quite surreal that the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, which once promised Palestinians freedom and liberation in an independent, sovereign state, now exists mostly to ensure the very security of the Israeli army and illegal Jewish settlers in occupied Palestine.
The PA and the Israeli occupation now co-exist in some kind of symbiotic relationship. To ensure the continuation of that mutually beneficial relationship, both entities are invested in suppressing any form of resistance, or even mere protest, in the occupied West Bank.
In truth, whether the protesters in Qabatiya were accompanied by gunmen or not would have made little difference. The only form of protest or mass gathering which is currently allowed in the West Bank are those held by Abbas’s own loyalists, chanting his name and chastising his enemies.
Last year, the Arab Organization for Human Rights in the UK accused PA security services of using repressive measures against Palestinian activists and employing psychological and physical torture against its critics; in other words, duplicating Israeli policies in dealing with Palestinians.
Those who are often targeted by the PA’s Preventive Security Service (PSS) and various other intelligence units include students and previously released prisoners.
In its 2020 report on “Israel and Palestine”, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that hundreds of Palestinians have been detained and tortured by PA security forces for the most insignificant ‘offences’.
“The PA held 1,134 people in detention as of April 21 (2019),” according to HRW figures.
The rights groups also reported that “between January 2018 and March 2019, (the PA) detained 1,609 persons for insulting ‘higher authorities’ and creating ‘sectarian strife,’ charges that in effect criminalize peaceful dissent, and 752 for social media posts.”
While many Palestinian prisoners held unlawfully in Israel undergo prolonged hunger strikes demanding their immediate release or better imprisonment conditions, news of Palestinian prisoners on open hunger strikes in PA prisons often go unreported.
Ahmad al-Awartani, 25, was one of thousands of Palestinians to be arrested based on outrageous charges, as the young man was detained under the so-called Cyber Crimes Law. He was arrested by PA police for a single Facebook post in which he criticized the Palestinian Authority.
In April 2018, al-Awartani entered a hunger strike that went almost completely unnoticed by Palestinian, Arab, and international media.
Arbitrary arrests, torture, and violence are regular occurrences in occupied Palestine. While Israel is responsible for the greater share of the violation of Palestinian human rights, the PA is part and parcel of that same Israeli strategy.
While it is true that Abbas’s crackdowns are tailored to serve his personal interests, PA action has ultimately served the interests of Israel which aims at keeping Palestinians divided, and is using PA security forces as an extra-layer of protection for its soldiers and settlers alike.
That in mind, Zakareneh’s death cannot be viewed as a marginal occurrence in the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation and apartheid. Indeed, the Palestinian Authority has made it crystal clear that its violence against dissenting Palestinians is no different than Israeli violence targeting any form of resistance, anywhere in Palestine.
A precious moment has been squandered, as Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, had the chance to right a historical wrong, by reinstating Palestinian national priorities at the United Nations Security Council on February 11, through a political discourse that is completely independent from Washington and its allies.
For a long time, Abbas has been a hostage to the very language that designated him and his Authority as ‘moderates’ in the eyes of Israel and the West. Despite the Palestinian leader’s outward rejection of the US ‘Deal of the Century’ – which practically renders Palestinian national aspirations null and void – Abbas is keen to maintain his ‘moderate’ credentials for as long as possible.
Certainly, Abbas has given many speeches at the UN in the past and, every single time, he has failed to impress Palestinians. This time, however, things were meant to be different. Not only did Washington disown Abbas and the PA, it also scrapped its own political discourse on peace and the two-state solution altogether. More, the Trump administration has now officially given its blessing to Israel to annex nearly a third of the West Bank, taking Jerusalem ‘off the table’ and discarding the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
Instead of directly meeting with leaders of the various Palestinian political parties and taking tangible steps to reactivate dormant but central political institutions such as the Palestinian National Council (PNC) and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Abbas preferred to meet with former Israeli right-wing Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, in New York, and to carry on regurgitating his commitment to a by-gone era.
In his UN speech, Abbas said nothing new which, in this instance, is worse than not saying anything at all.
“This is the outcome of the project that has been introduced to us,” Abbas said, while holding a map of what a Palestinian state would look like under Donald Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’. “And this is the state that they are giving to us,” Abbas added, referring to that future state as a ‘Swiss cheese’, meaning a state fragmented by Jewish settlements, bypass-roads and Israeli military zones.
Even the term ‘Swiss cheese’, which was reported in some media as if a new phrase in this ever-redundant discourse, is actually an old coinage that has been referenced repeatedly by the Palestinian leadership itself, starting with the onset of the so-called peace process, a quarter of a century ago.
Abbas labored to appear exceptionally resolute as he emphasized certain words, like when he equated the Israeli occupation with the system of apartheid. His delivery, however, appeared unconvincing, lacking and, at times, pointless.
Abbas spoke of his great ‘surprise’ when Washington declared Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital, subsequently relocating its embassy to the occupied city, as if the writing was not already on the wall and that, in fact, the embassy move was one of Trump’s main pledges to Israel even before his inauguration in January 2017.
“And then they cut off financial aid that was given to us,” Abbas said in a lamenting voice with reference to the US decision to withhold its aid to the PA in August 2018. “$840 million are held from us,” he said. “I don’t know who is giving Trump such horrid advice. Trump is not like this. Trump that I know is not like this,” Abbas exclaimed in a strange interjection as if to send a message to the Trump administration that the PA still has faith in the US President’s judgement.
“I would like to remind everyone that we have participated in the Madrid peace conference, and the Washington negotiations and the Oslo agreement and the Annapolis summit on the basis of international law,” Abbas recounted, signaling that he remains committed to the very political agenda that reaped the Palestinian people no political rewards whatsoever.
Abbas then went on to paint an imagined reality, where his Authority is supposedly building the “national institutions of a law-abiding, modern and democratic state that is constructed on the basis of international values; one that is predicated on transparency, accountability and fighting corruption.”
“Yes,” Abbas emphasized, as he looked at his audience with theatrical seriousness, “We are one of the most important countries (in the world) that is fighting corruption.” The PA leader, then, called on the Security Council to send a commission to investigate allegations of corruption within the PA, a bewildering and unnecessary invitation, considering that it is the Palestinian leadership that should be making demands on the international community to help enforce international law and end the Israeli occupation.
It went on like this, where Abbas vacillated between reading pre-written remarks that introduce no new ideas or strategies and unnecessary rants that reflect the PA’s political bankruptcy and Abbas’ own lack of imagination.
The PA President, of course, made sure to offer his habitual condemnation of Palestinian ‘terrorism’ by promising that Palestinians would not “resort to violence and terrorism regardless of the act of aggression against us.” He assured his audience that his Authority believes in “peace and fighting violence.” Without elaborating, Abbas declared his intention of continuing on the path of “popular and peaceful resistance,” which, in fact, does not exist in any shape or form.
This time around, Abbas’ speech at the UN was particularly inappropriate. Indeed, it was a failure in every possible way. The least, the Palestinian leader could have done is to articulate a powerful and collective Palestinian political discourse. Instead, his statement was merely a sad homage to his own legacy, one that is riddled with disappointments and ineptitude.
Expectedly, Abbas returned to Ramallah to greet his cheering supporters once more, who are always ready and waiting to raise posters of the ageing leader, as if his UN speech had succeeded in fundamentally shifting international political momentum in favor of Palestinians.
It has to be said that the real danger in the ‘Deal of the Century’ is not the actual stipulations of that sinister plan, but the fact that the Palestinian leadership is likely to find a way to co-exist with it, at the expense of the oppressed Palestinian people, as long as donors’ money continues to flow and as long as Abbas continues to call himself a president.
Maybe something good will come out of the Trump plan, after all. By pushing the Middle East peace process to its logical conclusion, Donald Trump has made crystal clear something that was supposed to have been obscured: that no US administration has ever really seen peace as the objective of its “peacemaking”.
The current White House is no exception – it has just been far more incompetent at concealing its joint strategy with the Israelis. But that is what happens when a glorified used-car salesman, Donald Trump, and his sidekick son-in-law, the schoolboy-cum-businessman Jared Kushner, try selling us the “deal of the century”. Neither, it seems, has the political or diplomatic guile normally associated with those who rise to high office in Washington.
During an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria this week, Kushner dismally failed to cloak the fact that his “peace” plan was designed with one goal only: to screw the Palestinians over.
The real aim is so transparent that even Zakaria couldn’t stop himself from pointing it out. In CNN’s words, he noted that “no Arab country currently satisfies the requirements Palestinians are being expected to meet in the next four years – including ensuring freedom of press, free and fair elections, respect for human rights for its citizens, and an independent judiciary.”
Trump’s senior adviser suddenly found himself confronted with the kind of deadly, unassailable logic usually overlooked in CNN coverage. Zakaria observed:
Isn’t this just a way of telling the Palestinians you’re never actually going to get a state because … if no Arab countries today [are] in a position that you are demanding of the Palestinians before they can be made a state, effectively, it’s a killer amendment?
Indeed it is.
In fact, the “Peace to Prosperity” document unveiled last week by the White House is no more than a list of impossible preconditions the Palestinians must meet to be allowed to sit down with the Israelis at the negotiating table. If they don’t do so within four years, and quickly reach a deal, the very last slivers of their historic homeland – the parts not already seized by Israel – can be grabbed too, with US blessing.
Admittedly, all Middle East peace plans in living memory have foisted these kinds of prejudicial conditions on the Palestinians. But this time many of the preconditions are so patently preposterous – contradictory even – that the usually pliable corporate press corps are embarrassed to be seen ignoring the glaring inconsistencies.
The CNN exchange was so revealing in part because Kushner was triggered by Zakaria’s observation that the Palestinians had to become a model democracy – a kind of idealised Switzerland, while still under belligerent Israeli occupation – before they could be considered responsible enough for statehood.
How was that plausible, Zakaria hinted, when Saudi Arabia, despite its appalling human rights abuses, nonetheless remains a close strategic US ally, and Saudi leaders continue to be intimates of the Trump business empire? No one in Washington is seriously contemplating removing US recognition of Saudi Arabia because it is a head-chopping, women-hating, journalist-killing religious fundamentalist state.
But Zakaria could have made an even more telling point – was he not answerable to CNN executives. There are also hardly any western states that would pass the democratic, human rights-respecting threshold set by the Trump plan for the Palestinians.
Think of Britain’s flouting last year of a ruling by the International Court of Justice in The Hague that the Chagos Islanders must be allowed to return home decades after the UK expelled them so the US could build a military base on their land. Or the Windrush scandal, when it was revealed that a UK government “hostile environment” policy was used to illegally deport British citizens to the Caribbean because of the colour of their skin.
Or what about the US evading due process by holding prisoners offshore at Guantanamo? Or its use of torture against Iraqi prisoners, or its reliance on extraordinary rendition, or its extrajudicial assassinations using drones overseas, including against its own citizens?
Or for that matter, its jailing and extortionate fining of whistleblower Chelsea Manning, despite the Obama administration granting her clemency. US officials want to force her to testify against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange for his role in publishing leaks of US war crimes committed in Iraq, including the shocking Collateral Murder video.
And while we’re talking about Assange and about Iraq…
Would the records of either the US or UK stand up to scrutiny if they were subjected to the same standards now required of the Palestinian leadership.
But let’s fast forward to the heart of the matter. Angered by Zakaria’s impertinence at mildly questioning the logic of the Trump plan, Kushner let rip.
He called the Palestinian Authority a “police state” and one that is “not exactly a thriving democracy”. It would be impossible, he added, for Israel to make peace with the Palestinians until the Palestinians, not Israel’s occupying army, changed its ways. It was time for the Palestinians to prioritise human rights and democracy, while at the same time submitting completely to Israel’s belligerent, half-century occupation that violates their rights and undermines any claims Israel might have to being a democracy.
If they [the Palestinians] don’t think that they can uphold these standards, then I don’t think we can get Israel to take the risk to recognize 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.
Let’s take a moment to unpack that short statement to examine its many conceptual confusions.
First, there’s the very obvious point that “police states” and dictatorships are not “failed states”. Not by a long shot. In fact, police states and dictatorships are usually the very opposite of failed states. Iraq was an extremely able state under Saddam Hussein, in terms both of its ability to provide welfare and educational services and of its ruthless, brutal efficiency in crushing dissent.
Iraq only became a failed state when the US illegally invaded and executed Saddam, leaving a local leadership vacuum that sucked in an array of competing actors who quickly made Iraq ungovernable.
Oppressive by design
Second, as should hardly need pointing out, the PA can’t be a police state when it isn’t even a state. After all, that’s where the Palestinians are trying to get to, and Israel and the US are blocking the way. It is obviously something else. What that “something else” is brings us to the third point.
Kushner is right that the PA is increasingly authoritarian and uses its security forces in oppressive ways – because that’s exactly what it was set up to do by Israel and the US.
Palestinians had assumed that the Oslo accords of the mid-1990s would lead to the creation of a sovereign state at the completion of that five-year peace process. But that never happened. Denied statehood ever since, the PA now amounts to nothing more than a security contractor for the Israelis. Its unspoken job is to make the Palestinian people submit to their permanent occupation by Israel.
The self-defeating deal contained in Oslo’s “land for peace” formula was this: the PA would build Israeli trust by crushing all resistance to the occupation, and in return Israel would agree to hand over more territory and security powers to the PA.
Bound by its legal obligations, the PA had two possible paths ahead of it: either it would become a state under Israeli licence, or it would serve as a Vichy-like regime suppressing Palestinian aspirations for national liberation. Once the US and Israel made clear they would deny the Palestinians statehood at every turn, the PA’s fate was sealed.
Put another way, the point of Oslo from the point of view of the US and Israel was to make the PA an efficient, permanent police state-in-waiting, and one that lacked the tools to threaten Israel.
And that’s exactly what was engineered. Israel refused to let the Palestinians have a proper army in case, bidding to gain statehood, that army turned its firepower on Israel. Instead a US army general, Keith Dayton, was appointed to oversee the training of the Palestinian police forces – to help the PA better repress those Palestinians who tried to exercise their right in international law to resist Israel’s belligerent occupation.
Presumably, it is a sign of that US programme’s success that Kushner can now describe the PA as a police state.
In his CNN interview, Kushner inadvertently highlighted the Catch-22 created for the Palestinians. The Trump “peace” process penalises the Palestinian leadership for their very success in achieving the targets laid out for them in the Oslo “peace” process.
Resist Israel’s efforts to deprive the Palestinians of statehood and the PA is classified as a terrorist entity and denied statehood. Submit to Israel’s dictates and oppress the Palestinian people to prevent them demanding statehood and the PA is classified as a police state and denied statehood. Either way, statehood is unattainable. Heads I win, tails you lose.
Kushner’s use of the term “failed state” is revealing too, in a Freudian slip kind of way. Israel doesn’t just want to steal some Palestinian land before it creates a small, impotent Palestinian state. Ultimately, what Israel envisions for the Palestinians is no statehood at all, not even of the compromised, collaborationist kind currently embodied by the PA.
An unabashed partisan
Kushner, however, has done us a favour inadvertently. He has given away the nature of the US bait-and-switch game towards the Palestinians. Unlike Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk and Aaron David Miller – previous American Jewish diplomats overseeing US “peace efforts” – Kushner is not pretending to be an “honest broker”. He is transparently, unabashedly partisan.
In an earlier CNN interview, one last week with Christiane Amanpour, Kushner showed just how personal is his antipathy towards the Palestinians and their efforts to achieve even the most minimal kind of statehood in a tiny fraction of their historic homeland.
He sounded more like a jilted lover, or an irate spouse forced into couples therapy, than a diplomat in charge of a complex and incendiary peace process. He struggled to contain his bitterness as he extemporised a well-worn but demonstrably false Israeli talking-point that the Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”.
He told Amanpour: “They’re going to screw up another opportunity, like they’ve screwed up every other opportunity that they’ve ever had in their existence.”
The reality is that Kushner, like the real author of the Trump plan, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would prefer that the Palestinians had never existed. He would rather this endless peace charade could be discarded, freeing him to get on with enriching himself with his Saudi pals.
And if the Trump plan can be made to work, he and Netanyahu might finally get their way.
The release on November 6 of two Jordanian nationals, Heba al-Labadi and Abdul Rahman Mi’ri from Israeli prisons was a bittersweet moment. The pair were finally reunited with their families after harrowing experiences in Israel. Sadly, thousands of Palestinian prisoners are still denied their freedom, still subjected to all sorts of hardships at the hands of their Israeli jailers.
Despite the jubilant return of the two prisoners, celebrated in Jordan, Palestine and throughout the Arab world, several compelling questions remain unanswered: why were they held in the first place? Why were they released and what can their experience teach Palestinians under Israeli occupation?
Throughout the whole ordeal, Israel failed to produce any evidence to indict Labadi and Mi’ri for any wrongdoing. In fact, it was this lack of evidence that made Israel hold the two Jordanian nationals in Administrative Detention, without any judicial process whatsoever.
Oddly, days before the release of the two Jordanians, an official Israeli government statement praised the special relationship between Amman and Tel Aviv, describing it as “a cornerstone of stability in the Middle East”.
The reality is that the relationship between the two countries has hit rock bottom in recent years, especially following US President Donald Trump’s advent to the White House and the subsequent, systematic dismantling of the “peace process” by Trump and the Israeli government.
Not only did Washington and Tel Aviv demolish the region’s political status quo, one in which Jordan featured as a key player, top US diplomats also tried to barter with King Abdullah II so that Jordan would settle millions of Palestinian refugees in the country in exchange for large sums of money.
Jordan vehemently rejected US offers and attempts at isolating the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah.
On October 21, 2018, Jordan went even further by rejecting an Israeli offer to renew a 25-year lease on two enclaves in the Jordan Valley, Al-Baqura and Al-Ghamar. The government’s decision was a response to protests by Jordanians and elected parliamentarians, who insist on Jordan’s complete sovereignty over all of its territories.
This particular issue goes back years. Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1994. An additional annex in the treaty allowed Israel to lease part of the Jordan Valley for 25 years. A quarter of a century later, the Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty failed to achieve any degree of meaningful normalization between both countries, especially as neighboring Palestine remains under Israeli occupation. The stumbling block of that coveted normalization was – and remains – the Jordanian people, who strongly rejected a renewed Israeli lease over Jordanian territories.
Israeli negotiators must have been surprised by Jordan’s refusal to accommodate Israeli interests. With the US removing itself, at least publicly, from the brewing conflict, Israel resorted to its typical bullying by holding two Jordanians hostage, hoping to force the government to reconsider its decision regarding the Jordan Valley.
The Israeli strategy backfired. The arrest of Labadi – who started a hunger strike that lasted for over 40 days – and Mi’ri, a cancer survivor, was a major PR disaster for Israel. Not only did the tactic fail to deliver any results, it further galvanized the Jordanian people and government regarding the decision to reclaim Al-Baqura and al-Ghamar.
Labadi and Mi’ri were released on November 6. The following day, the Jordanian government informed Israel that its farmers will be banned from entering Al-Baqura area. This way, Jordan retrieved its citizens and its territories within the course of 24 hours.
Three main reasons allowed Jordan to prevail in its confrontation with Israel. First, the steadfastness of the prisoners themselves; second, the unity and mobilization of the Jordanian street, civil society organizations and elected legislators; and third, the Jordanian government responding positively to the unified voice of the street.
This compels the question: what is the Palestinian strategy regarding the nearly 5,000 Palestinian prisoners held unlawfully in Israel?
While the prisoners themselves continue to serve as a model of unity and courage, the other factors fundamental to any meaningful strategy aimed at releasing all Palestinian prisoners remain absent.
Although factionalism continues to undermine the Palestinian fight for freedom, prisoners are fighting the same common enemy. The famed “National Conciliation Document”, composed by the unified leadership of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails in 2006, is considered the most articulate vision for Palestinian unity and liberation.
For ordinary Palestinians, the prisoners remain an emotive subject, but political disunity is making it nearly impossible for the energies of the Palestinian street to be harnessed in a politically meaningful way. Despite much lip service paid to freeing the prisoners, efforts aimed at achieving this goal are hopelessly splintered and agonizingly factionalized.
As for the Palestinian leadership, the strategy championed by Palestinian Authority leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is more focused on propping up Abbas’ own image than alleviating the suffering of the prisoners and their families. Brazenly, Abbas exploits the emotional aspect of the prisoners’ tragedy to gain political capital, while punishing the families of Palestinian prisoners in order to pursue his own self-serving political agenda.
“Even if I had only one penny, I would’ve given it to the families of the martyrs, prisoners and heroes,” Abbas said in a theatrical way during his United Nations General Assembly speech last September.
Abbas, of course, has more than one penny. In fact, he has withheld badly needed funds from the families of the “martyrs, prisoners and heroes.” On April 2018, Abbas cut the salaries of government employees in Gaza, along with the money received by the families of Gaza prisoners held inside Israeli jails.
Heba al-Labadi and Abdul Rahman Mi’ri were released because of their own resolve, coupled with strong solidarity exhibited by ordinary Jordanians. These two factors allowed the Jordanian government to publicly challenge Israel, leading to the unconditional release of the two Jordanian prisoners.
Meanwhile, thousands of Palestinian prisoners, including 500 administrative detainees continue to languish in Israeli prisons. Without united and sustained popular, non-factional mobilization, along with the full backing of the Palestinian leadership, the prisoners are likely to carry on with their fight, alone and unaided.
Those who are still hoping that the new American agenda on Palestine and Israel is temporary, or reversible, should abandon this false hope. Washington’s complete adoption of Israel’s messianic, extremist policies regarding Occupied Palestine has been a long time in the making. And it is here to stay.
Despite the unmistakable clarity in the American political discourse regarding Palestine, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is still trapped in a 25-year long, ineffectual political paradigm. Unable to move past their disproportionate reliance on American validation, and lacking any real strategic vision of their own, PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his men are operating within a clichés-centered trajectory of a ‘negotiated peace’ – a discourse that was, itself, invented and championed by Washington and its allies.
Newly-appointed (not elected) Palestinian Prime Minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, conveyed this very sentiment in his June 24 interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “If you look at the literature, if you look at the statements, our President has been working by the book,” he said.
What book was Shtayyeh referring to? Certainly not the book of international and humanitarian law, which has devised a clear path aimed at achieving Palestinian freedom, rights and territorial sovereignty.
It is, rather, a book that is written by Washington, from which brazen pro-Israel agenda has preceded the Donald Trump administration by decades.
This is, in fact, the core ailment of Palestinian politics, as practiced by the PA. Throughout the years, the PA has received hundreds of millions in American funds, in exchange for sidelining the UN in favor of a complete American hegemony over the so-called ‘peace process’. Abbas’ recent attempts at reviving the role of the UN and its affiliated institutions is a belated attempt at correcting a historical mistake.
What will it take for Shtayyeh, and his boss in Ramallah, to abandon the American option and, instead, to develop a rounded strategy that is founded on national unity, democratic representation and international solidarity? Much precious time has been lost subscribing to the one-sided American book, which has no room for a Palestinian discourse of national liberation, unconditional freedom and basic human rights.
While Trump’s advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was referring to Palestinians as “hysterical and erratic,” following the two-day Bahrain economic conference (June 25-26), US Middle East ‘peace envoy’, Jason Greenblatt, was challenging the very terminology used by the entire international community regarding the illegal Israeli Jewish colonies in Occupied Palestine.
“People (should) stop pretending (that) settlements, or what I prefer to call ‘neighborhoods and cities,’ are the reason for the lack of peace,” the American envoy told participants at the ‘Israel Hayom Forum for US-Israeli Relations’.”
For the record, the widely-circulated right wing Israeli newspaper, ‘Israel Hayom’ which sponsored the conference, is financed by pro-Israel American casino mogul, Sheldon Adelson. The latter is known to be the primary advocate behind Trump’s misguided policies in Palestine, including Washington’s recognition of Occupied Palestinian East Jerusalem as part of Israel’s capital.
Greenblatt is but one of several unabashedly pro-Israel American politicians, who have taken the already biased US foreign policy to a whole new low. This clique also includes former US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, and Washington’s Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman.
In an interview, also with ‘Israel Hayom’ on June 11, Haley tried to assure Israelis that “Israel should not be worried,” about having to make any political concessions in exchange for Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital or of Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan Heights.
“Through the Middle East plan (so-called ‘Deal of the Century’), one of the main goals that Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt focused on was to not hurt the national security interests of Israel,” Haley said. “They understand the importance of security; they understand the importance of keeping Israel safe.”
While Haley’s, Kushner’s and Greenblatt’s statements can be viewed as part of the ever-skewed, pro-Israel language emanating from Washington, one must not be too hasty. The fact is, Washington has now fully embraced the Zionist Israeli discourse without the slightest attempt at playing the role of the impartial arbitrator.
It is as if Haley et al are now members of the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu’s right wing Likud party.
But no one represents this blatant American realignment into the Israeli camp better than Ambassador Friedman, who has, in an interview with the New York Times, on June 8, backed any future Israeli annexation of parts of the Occupied West Bank.
A few weeks later, in a disturbing and highly symbolic gesture, the American Ambassador carried a sledgehammer and broke open a tunnel that snakes underneath the East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan. The tunnel, part of Israel’s expansionistic policy in Occupied Jerusalem, has already damaged the foundation of over 80 Palestinian homes.
The determined and gratified look on Friedman’s face spoke volumes about the ‘hysterical, erratic’ and extremist US foreign policy under Trump.
So what hope is left for the PA in Ramallah, now that Washington has taken all the political, financial and every other practical step to sideline Palestinians, to marginalize their rights and push them into submission? And what good will appealing to American sensibilities through CNN and any other platform do, considering that Washington’s strategy is deeply entrenched and irrevocable?
Much can be said about Palestinian failure to change course when it became repeatedly clear since the signing of the Oslo Accord in 1993, that Washington has no interest in pressuring Israel to end illegal settlement construction and to respect international law. Worse, while Washington paid lip service to ‘peace’, it supported the Israeli war machine, military occupation and settlement construction with billions of dollars.
While it is good that the PA is finally waking up to the fact that subscribing to Washington’s foreign policy book is a historic mistake, mere awareness is simply not enough.
It is time for the Palestinians to write their own book, one that is guided by the concept of national liberation, not endless negotiations; one that is predicated on unity, not mortifying factionalism; one that appeals to the whole global community, not to American handouts.
Israel has controlled East Jerusalem and the walled Old City since the 1967 war in which it also occupied the adjacent West Bank. It has effectively treated them as annexed territory ever since.
To consolidate its grip on the Old City, Israel has demolished homes and expelled Palestinian residents, empowered Jewish settlers, and imposed sweeping restrictions that make it virtually impossible for most Palestinians to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam.
The final status of the Old City has been the subject of various proposals ever since the United Nations’ 1947 partition plan, which proposed that it should fall under a special international regime, separate from the division of historic Palestine into Arab and Jewish states because of its shared importance to Muslims, Jews and Christians.
The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem, including the Old City, as the capital of a future state, while Israeli leaders have claimed Jerusalem as the state’s “eternal capital” since 1949.
The Old City has huge historic, economic, religious and now national symbolism for both Palestinians and Israelis, particularly because of the Al-Aqsa compound, known as Haram al-Sharif to Muslims and Temple Mount to Jews. This is the most explosive issue in an already incendiary conflict.
But US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in May 2018 appeared to pre-empt negotiations determining Jerusalem’s status by implying US recognition of exclusive Israeli sovereignty over the city.
Washington’s endorsement for such a move in any proposed peace plan – including Trump’s infamous “deal of the century” – would not, however, mark the first time it has suggested that the Palestinian claim to the Old City should be brought to the negotiating table.
At talks in 2000 between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, hosted by US President Bill Clinton at his Camp David residence, US mediators proposed dividing sovereignty over the Old City.
According to the US proposal, Israel would take the Jewish and Armenian quarters, with the Palestinians getting the Muslim and Christian quarters.
Israel, however, demanded exclusive sovereignty over East Jerusalem, with the Palestinians having merely administrative authority over the Old City’s Muslim and Christian Quarters.
Seven years later, at Annapolis, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert evaded the sovereignty issue by proposing instead a temporary international trusteeship administered by Israel, a Palestinian state, the US, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
More than half a century of Israeli occupation has left its physical and political mark on the Old City. Along with East Jerusalem, the Old City is ruled over by a Jerusalem municipality run by Israeli officials.
After occupying the Old City in 1967, Israel quickly sought to secure control of the area immediately next to the Western Wall, demolishing dozens of homes in a Moroccan neighbourhood and expelling many hundreds of Palestinian inhabitants to create a large prayer plaza.
The Jewish Quarter was also re-established, though Israel converted many former homes into synagogues and seminaries for religious Jews.
Shrinking Palestinian population
Palestinians have been unnerved by the number of physical changes around Al-Aqsa and the neighbouring Muslim Quarter that appear to be designed to strengthen Israel’s control not only over the Western Wall but the mosque compound too.
This has included extending tunnels under homes in the Muslim Quarter to make more of the Western Wall accessible. Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to open a Western Wall tunnel exit in 1996 led to clashes that killed dozens of Palestinians and 15 Israel soldiers.
Israel has denied the Old City a master plan, making it all but impossible for Palestinians to expand their homes to cope with population growth.
In fact, rather than growing over the past decade, the Palestinian population has shrunk by 2,000, now down to 32,000 residents. Most have left for other areas of Jerualem or the West Bank.
The lack of vacant space in the Muslim and Christian Quarters has prevented Israel from building Jewish settlements there, as it has done elsewhere in East Jerusalem. It has therefore assisted settler organisations in taking over existing Palestinian homes.
There are now about 1,000 Jewish settlers living in the Muslim and Christian Quarters, according to Ir Amim, an Israeli organisation campaigning for equal rights in Jerusalem. These settlers constitute a quarter of the Jews living in the Old City.
Ateret Cohanim, a settler group, has been at the forefront of these incremental takeovers of Palestinian homes, threatening blackmail, using Palestinian collaborators as middlemen to make purchases, and seeking evictions in the Israeli courts.
Currently, 20 Palestinian families in the Old City face evictions, according to Ir Amim.
Every Jerusalem Day, an Israeli holiday celebrating the capture of Jerusalem in 1967, settlers march in force through the Muslim Quarter, chanting “Death to the Arabs” and intimidating local residents.
A rally by Palestinians inside the Al-Aqsa compound this year was broken up by Israeli security forces who entered the site firing rubber bullets and stun grenades. Settlers were able to march through the site.
Aviv Tartasky, of Ir Amim, notes that the expansion of Jews living in the Muslim and Christian Quarters brings more aggressive and invasive policing operations that make life harder for Palestinians, further pressuring them to leave.
Over the years, Israel has made it even harder for Palestinians to access the Old City.
Despite Al-Aqsa’s central place in Islamic worship, almost none of the two million Palestinians from Gaza have been able to reach Jerusalem since the mid-1990s, when the coastal enclave was sealed off by Israel with a fence.
Israel’s wall and checkpoints have separated Palestinians in the West Bank from Jerusalem, leaving most struggling to reach the Old City too.
And while Palestinians within Jerusalem have traditionally accessed the Old City via the northern Damascus Gate, Israel has made the gate less appealing by increasing the presence of armed police there, providing them with a guard tower, and conducting regular security checks on Palestinian youths.
Banned from al-Aqsa
After 1967, Israel and Jordan agreed on a so-called “status quo” for Al-Aqsa: the Waqf, a Jordanian-led Islamic trust, would administer the compound while Israel would be responsible for security outside. In addition, only Muslims would be allowed to pray at the site.
In practice, Israel’s interpretation of that agreement has strengthened its hand by allowing it to control who has access to the compound. Sweeping restrictions mean only older Palestinians, and a few who receive permits, are now allowed to access Al-Aqsa for Friday prayers.
Israel has regularly operated inside the compound too. It shuttered a prayer room, Bab al-Rahmeh, in 2003 after it was renovated by a popular Palestinian religious leader in Israel, Sheikh Raed Salah. Despite holding Israeli citizenship, Salah has been banned from entering the Al-Aqsa compound for more than a decade.
Israel blocked Waqf-led efforts to reopen Bab al-Rahmeh in February, leading to clashes with Israeli security forces and a temporary bar on Waqf leaders entering Al-Aqsa.
In 2015, Israel also banned volunteer male and female civil guards, the Mourabitoun, from the compound after confrontations with Jewish visitors to the site. But Israel had to climb down in 2017 after it installed surveillance cameras and tried to force Palestinian worshippers to pass through metal detectors.
Meanwhile, Israelis have been staking ever stronger claims to control of the compound. In 2000, Ariel Sharon, then opposition leader, marched into the site backed by hundreds of armed guards, triggering the Second Intifada.
And since the ban on the Mourabitoun, Israeli police have failed to enforce rules banning Jews from praying in the compound, according to watchdog groups.
Israeli politicians, including government ministers, have become increasingly sympathetic to settler demands to divide the site to allow for Jewish prayer.
Even more hardline groups wishing to destroy Al-Aqsa and build a new Jewish temple in its place have become more mainstream in Israeli society in recent years.
In the two years from 2016 to 2018, the number of Jews reported entering the compound more than doubled, from 14,000 to 30,000.
Christians squeezed out
Christian residents suffer similar problems to Muslims, including planning restrictions and efforts by settlers to take over properties.
But Christians also face specific pressures. As a very small community, they have been severely isolated by Israel’s policy cutting off Jerusalem from West Bank Christians in Bethlehem and the Ramallah area.
Israel’s denial of the right of Jerusalemites to live with a West Bank spouse in the city, or register their children, has hit the Christian community particularly hard, forcing many to move into the West Bank.
Also, a dramatic downturn in tourism for many years after the eruption of the Second Intifada in 2000 left many Christian families in the Old City in financial trouble because they depend on income from souvenir shops and work as tour guides.
A move last year by Israel to tax Church property in Jerusalem was reversed after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was shuttered in protest.
But it was seen by Christians as a further sign that their community is under assault and that Israel views them as an obstacle to its efforts to “Judaise” the Old City, said Yousef Daher, of the Jerusalem Interchurch Centre, located in the Old City.
Daher noted that rather than growing, as would be expected, Jerusalem’s wider Christian population has declined from 12,000 in 1967 to a total of 9,000 today.
Although there are no official figures, he estimated that no more than 2,400 Christians remained in the Old City. He added that Palestinian Christians find it easier to leave the region because of their connections to overseas churches and the fact that they often have relatives abroad.
Shopping mall and a cable car
Israeli access to the Old City, traditionally via the Jaffa Gate on the western side between the Christian and Armenian quarters, has been facilitated by the new luxury Mamilla shopping mall, which effectively serves as a bridge from West Jerusalem’s city centre.
Israel is now seeking to turn Dung Gate, on the south-eastern side and leading into the Jewish Quarter, into the main entrance. The difficulty is that Dung Gate abuts the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan.
Ir Amim notes that Dung Gate is seen by Israel as an important gateway for the settlers as they intensify their takeover of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, part of efforts to encircle the Al-Aqsa compound.
Israel is therefore building a cable car that will carry visitors from West Jerusalem over Silwan directly to a settler-run compound. From there, visitors will be able to enter above ground through Dung Gate or underground through tunnels running below the Old City walls to surface at the foot of the Western Wall.
Palestinians and Israeli activists are concerned that the purpose is to direct Jewish and foreign visitors away from the Muslim and Christian quarters, both to conceal the Palestinian presence in the Old City and to starve Palestinian shopkeepers of the traditional trade from those passing through Damascus and Jaffa gates.
A state of de facto annexation already exists on the ground in most of the occupied West Bank.
Almost two-thirds of the Palestinian territory, including most of its most fertile and resource-rich land, is under full Israeli control. About 400,000 Jewish settlers living there enjoy the full rights and privileges of Israeli citizens.
At least 60 pieces of legislation were drafted by right-wing members of the Knesset during the last parliament to move Israel from a state of de facto to de jure annexation, according to a database by Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group.
Yesh Din points out that the very fact that some of these bills have passed as laws constitutes a form of annexation: “The Israel Knesset [now] regards itself as the legislative authority in the West Bank and the sovereign there.”
Paradoxically, many of those bills were opposed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, even though they were drafted from within his own ruling coalition.
Netanyahu argued that it would be wrong to pre-empt US President Donald Trump’s peace plan, implying that annexation is high on the agenda.
Leaked details suggest that Washington is now preparing to green-light the formal annexation of at least some of that territory as part of its deal-making, though Netanyahu’s political difficulties and his decision to call another election in September could mean putting details on ice once again.
The Golan precedent
Three recent developments have also brought the idea of Israel annexing parts or all of the West Bank onto the agenda.
In March, US President Donald Trump recognised Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, seized from Syria during the 1967 war and annexed by Israel in 1981 in violation of international law. The US decision suggested a precedent whereby it might similarly approve a move by Israel to annex the West Bank.
In April, in the run-up to Israel’s general election, Netanyahu said he would use the next parliament to “extend sovereignty” to all illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, using a phrase preferred by Israeli politicians to “annexation”.
About 400,000 settlers live in the West Bank in 150 official settlements and another 120 so-called “unauthorised” outposts that have been covertly sponsored by the Israeli state since the 1990s. These settlements have jurisdiction over 42 percent of West Bank territory.
In early June, the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, a stalwart supporter of the settlements and one of the architects of Trump’s supposed “deal of the century”, told the New York Times that he believed Israel was “on the side of God” and said: “Under certain circumstances, I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.”
Support in Israel growing
Support in Israel for annexation is growing, with 42 percent backing one of several variants in a recent poll, as opposed to 34 percent who were behind a two-state solution. Only 28 percent of Israelis explicitly rejected annexation.
Behind the scenes, debates about formally annexing the Palestinian territories have been rife in Israel since it occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza in 1967.
Successive Israeli governments, however, have demurred out of concern both that there would be strong international objections (most UN member states would be opposed to the annexation of territory recognised as illegally occupied in international law) and that Israel would be under pressure to give Palestinians in annexed areas citizenship, including the right to vote, that would undermine its Jewish majority.
Senior government ministers such as Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon were among the early proponents of annexing parts of the West Bank. They drew up maps for a permanent settlement programme that would allow Israel to hold on to swathes of the West Bank, especially the most fertile land and the aquifers.
Through the late 1970s and 1980s, a justice ministry official, Plia Albeck, declared large areas of the West Bank “state land”, allowing the government to treat it as effectively part of Israel and build settlements.
Speeding tickets and police stations
Israel has applied its laws to the settler population and dozens of Israeli police stations located in the West Bank operate as if the territory has been annexed, issuing speeding tickets and enforcing other infractions on Palestinians. Palestinians’ ultimate recourse to adjudication on legal matters is Israel’s Supreme Court.
In 2011, that court decided that Israel was allowed to exploit more than a dozen quarries, one of the Palestinians’ key resources, because the occupation had become “prolonged” – a ruling that treated the West Bank as if it had been de facto annexed.
Since the Olso accords, Israeli leaders have tended to pay lip service to Palestinian statehood, at some distant future point. But in practice, they have encouraged the rapid expansion of the settlements. This policy is sometimes referred to as “creeping annexation”.
A number of variants have been advanced by the Israeli right, ranging from the annexation of all Palestinian territories, including Gaza, to annexation limited to certain areas of the West Bank.
How Oslo gave Israel control
The main framework for the Israeli debate about annexation is the Oslo process which temporarily carved up the occupied West Bank into Areas A, B and C as a prelude, it was assumed, to eventually transferring sovereignty to the Palestinian Authority.
Area C, 62 per cent of the West Bank, is under full Israeli control and where the settlements are located. It is also where most of the water, agricultural and mineral resources are to be found.
Area B, 20 percent, is under Israeli security control and Palestinian civil control. And Area A – mainly Palestinian built-up areas on 18 percent of the West Bank – is nominally under full Palestinian control.
The option favoured by most of Netanyahu’s Likud party involves the annexation of areas populated with settlers, or about 40 percent of the West Bank mostly located in Area C.
This option would keep West Bank Palestinians outside the annexed areas and make it easier to avoid conferring any residency or citizenship rights on them. The Palestinian Authority would be given “limited autonomy” – a kind of glorified municipal role – over the remaining fragments of the West Bank.
To the right of Likud, opinions range from annexing all of Area C to annexing the entire West Bank and Gaza, and the creation of Palestinian “Bantustans” modelled on South Africa’s racist apartheid system. Some propose a “salami” method, with Israel gradually slicing off more of the West Bank.
The Israeli centre-left fears formal annexation not only violates international law but will damage Israel’s image abroad by encouraging comparisons with apartheid-era South Africa. In the absence of a Palestinian state, a minority of Jews might soon be ruling over a majority of Palestinians.
The centre-left is also concerned about the costs of annexation. Commanders for Israel’s Security, a group of retired security officials, argue that annexation will lead to the inevitable collapse of the Palestinian Authority.
As a result, they believe Israel would incur annual costs of between $2.3bn and $14.5bn, depending on the extent of the West Bank area annexed. There would also be a loss of $2.5bn in foreign investments. Palestinian uprisings could cost Israel’s economy as much as $21bn.
Right-wing economists like Amatzia Samkai of the Caucus for Eretz Israel say Israel will benefit economically. If Area C is annexed, only a small number of Palestinians will be entitled to Israeli welfare payments, he says. Such costs, he adds, can be more than offset by an expanded labour force and a drop in real-estate prices after West Bank land is freed up for house building by Israelis.
Knesset ‘sovereign’ in West Bank already
Of the 60 pieces of draft annexation legislation brought before the Knesset, eight have passed into law.
The main laws that have been passed include:
annulling a special council overseeing higher education in West Bank settlements and transferring its powers to the main Israel Council for Higher Education.
approving retroactively the theft of private Palestinian land used to build settlements. The previous official position was that settlements should be built only on land Israel had declared state land because it was not owned by Palestinians.
extending benefits available in Israel – from tax exemptions and egg production quotas to renewable energy investments – to West Bank settlements.
unifying the criminal register used by police in Israel and the West Bank.
transferring powers to adjudicate matters involving the West Bank to lower courts in Israel.
prohibiting businesses from refusing to supply services to West Bank settlements.
In addition, Yesh Din notes, Israel has recently shifted its diplomatic position and legal arguments to the courts in relation to the West Bank.
It has rejected the West Bank’s status as being under occupation, asserted Israel’s authority to operate there and eroded the obligation to protect the rights and property of the Palestinian population.
Another significant piece of legislation Netanyahu is known to favour – chiefly for personal reasons because it could be used to protect him from corruption indictments – is an Override Law.
The measure is being aggressively promoted by settler groups because it would strip Israel’s Supreme Court of judicial review powers to block legislation annexing the West Bank.
On the Palestinian side, a tiny number, mostly business leaders, have backed annexation of the West Bank. They have been cultivated by the Trump administration as a potential alternative leadership to the Palestinian Authority. Most Palestinians consider them traitors or collaborators.
Hebron businessman Ashraf Jabari, for example, has entered into a partnership with settler counterparts in the “Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce”, using the settlers’ Biblical name for the West Bank.
The chamber promotes joint ventures such as shopping centres along West Bank main roads, tourism initiatives and infrastructure projects.
Jabari and others have consciously sought to package annexation on Israeli terms as similar to the one-state agenda of a growing section of the Palestinian population, especially those supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS).
“We have to think about this area as one entity, not two entities and two realities,” he told journalists recently.
Certainly, there are Palestinians who consider annexation and Israel’s direct re-occupation of the West Bank, unmediated by the PA, as a necessary condition for Palestinians launching a civil rights or anti-apartheid struggle to realise a genuine one-state solution.
Palestinian groups, Fatah, Hamas and others should not confine themselves to simply rejecting the Trump Administration’s so-called ‘Deal of the Century’. Instead, they should use their resistance to the new American-Israeli plot as an opportunity to unify their ranks.
Leaked details of the ‘Deal of the Century’ confirm Palestinians’ worst fears: the ‘Deal’ is but a complete American acquiescence to the right-wing mentality that has ruled Israel for over a decade.
According to the Israeli daily newspaper, Israel Hayom, a demilitarized state, ‘New Palestine’ will be established on territorial fragments of the West Bank, as all illegal Jewish settlements would permanently become part of Israel. If Palestinians refuse to accept Washington’s diktats, according to the report, they will be punished through financial and political isolation.
This is certainly not an American peace overture, but an egregious act of bullying. However, it is hardly a deviation from previous rounds of ‘peace-making,’ where Washington always took Israel’s side, blamed Palestinians and failed to hold Israel to account. Washington has never refrained from supporting Israeli wars against Palestinians or even conditioned its ever-generous aid packages on the dismantling of the illegal Jewish settlements.
The only difference between the US ‘peace process’ of the past and today’s ‘Deal of the Century’ is in the style and tactics as opposed to the substance and details.
Undoubtedly, the ‘Deal’, championed by Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, will fail. Not only will it not deliver peace – this is not the intention – but it is most likely to be rejected by Israel. The formation of Israel’s new government under Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership is centered round far-right and religious parties. It is no longer politically correct in the new Israeli lexicon to even discuss the possibility of a Palestinian state, let alone agree to one.
Netanyahu, however, is likely to wait for Palestinians to reject the deal, as they certainly should. Then, with the help of pro-Israel mainstream western media, a new discourse will evolve, blaming Palestinians for missing yet another opportunity for peace, while absolving Israel from any wrongdoing. This pattern is familiar, highlighted most starkly in Bill Clinton’s Camp David II in 2000 and George W. Bush’s Road Map for Peace in 2003.
In 2000, the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, rejected then Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak’s ‘generous offer’, an entirely manufactured political hoax that, to this day, defines official and academic understanding of what had transpired in the secret talks then.
All Palestinians must reject the ‘Deal of the Century’, or any deal that is born out of a political discourse which is not centered on Palestinian rights as enshrined in international law, a political frame of reference that is agreed upon by every country in the world, save the US and Israel. Decades of fraudulent American ‘peace making’ prove that Washington will never fulfil its self-designated title as an ‘honest peacemaker.’
However, rejection per se, while going back to business as usual, is inadequate. While the Palestinian people are united behind the need to resist the Israeli Occupation, challenge Israeli apartheid and employ international pressure until Israel finally relents, Palestinian factions are driven by other selfish priorities. Each faction seems to rotate within the political sphere of foreign influence, whether Arab or international.
For example, Fatah, which is credited for ‘igniting the spark of the Palestinian revolution’ in 1965, has been largely consumed with the trappings of false power while dominating the Palestinian Authority, which itself operates within the space allocated to it by the Israeli military occupation in the West Bank.
Hamas, which began as an organic movement in Palestine, is forced to play regional politics in its desperation for any political validation in order to escape the suffocating siege of Gaza.
Whenever both parties verge on forming a united leadership in the hope of resurrecting the largely defunct Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), their benefactors manipulate the money and politics, thus resuming disunity and discord.
The ‘Deal of the Century’, however, offers both groups an opportunity, as they are united in rejecting the deal and equally perceive any Palestinian engagement with it as an act of treason.
More importantly, the steps taken by Washington to isolate the PA through denying Palestinians urgently needed funds, revoking the PLO’s diplomatic status in Washington and shunning the PA as a political ally provide the opportunity to open the necessary political dialogue that could finally accomplish a serious Fatah-Hamas reconciliation.
Israel, too, by withholding tax money collected on behalf of the PA, has lost its last pressure card against Mahmoud Abbas and his government in Ramallah.
At this point, there is little else that the US and Israel could do to exert more pressure on the Palestinians.
But this political space available for Palestinians to create a new political reality will be brief. The moment the ‘Deal of the Century’ is discarded as another failed American scheme to force a Palestinian surrender, the political cards, regionally and internationally, will be mixed again, beyond the ability of Palestinian factions to control their outcome.
Therefore, it is critical that Palestinian groups at home and in the diaspora push for Palestinian dialogue, not simply for the sake of forming a unity government in Ramallah, but to revitalize the PLO as a truly representative and democratic body that includes all Palestinian political currents and communities.
It is only through the resurrection of the PLO that Palestinians could finally return to their original mission of devising a national liberation strategy that is not manipulated by money and not subjected to regional politicking.
If history is any indication, the ‘Deal of the Century’ is another sinister American attempt to manage the situation in Palestine in order to assert political dominance in the region. This ‘Deal’ is essential for American reputation, especially among its disgruntled regional allies who feel abandoned by the progressive American military and political retreat from the region.
This latest charade does not have to be at the expense of Palestinians, and Palestinian groups should recognize and grasp this unique opportunity. The ‘Deal of the Century’ will fail, but efforts to achieve Palestinian unity could finally succeed.