The decision on April 30 by Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, to ‘postpone’ Palestinian elections, which would have been the first in 15 years, will deepen Palestinian division and could, potentially, signal the collapse of the Fatah Movement, at least in its current form.
Unlike the last Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, the big story this time was not the Fatah-Hamas rivalry. Many rounds of talks in recent months between representatives of Palestine’s two largest political parties had already sorted out much of the details regarding the now-canceled elections, which were scheduled to begin on May 22.
Both Fatah and Hamas have much to gain from the elections; the former relished the opportunity to restore its long-dissipated legitimacy as it has ruled over occupied Palestinians, through its dominance of the Palestinian Authority, with no democratic mandate whatsoever; Hamas, on the other hand, was desperate to break away from its long and painful isolation as exemplified in the Israeli siege on Gaza, which ironically resulted from its victory in the 2006 elections.
It was not Israeli and American pressure, either, that made Abbas betray the collective wishes of a whole nation. This pressure coming from Tel Aviv and Washington was real and widely reported, but must have also been expected. Moreover, Abbas could have easily circumvented them as his election decree, announced last January, was welcomed by Palestinians and praised by much of the international community.
Abbas’ unfortunate but, frankly, expected decision was justified by the 86-year-old leader as one which is compelled by Israel’s refusal to allow Palestinians in Jerusalem from taking part in the elections. Abbas’ explanation, however, is a mere fig leaf aimed at masking his fear of losing power with Israel’s routine obstinacy. But since when do occupied people beg their occupiers to practice their democratic rights? Since when have Palestinians sought permission from Israel to assert any form of political sovereignty in occupied East Jerusalem?
Indeed, the battle for Palestinian rights in Jerusalem takes place on a daily basis in the alleyways of the captive city. Jerusalemites are targeted in every facet of their existence, as Israeli restrictions make it nearly impossible for them to live a normal life, neither in the way they build, work, study and travel nor even marry and worship. So it would be mind-boggling if Abbas was truly sincere that he had, indeed, expected Israeli authorities to allow Palestinians in the occupied city easy access to polling stations and to exercise their political right, while those same authorities labor to erase any semblance of Palestinian political life, even mere physical presence, in Jerusalem.
The truth is Abbas canceled the elections because all credible public opinion polls showed that the May vote would have decimated the ruling clique of his Fatah party, and would have ushered in a whole new political configuration, one in which his Fatah rivals, Marwan Barghouti and Nasser al-Qudwa would have emerged as the new leaders of Fatah. If this scenario were to occur, a whole class of Palestinian millionaires who turned the Palestinian struggle into a lucrative industry, generously financed by ‘donor countries’, risk losing everything, in favor of uncharted political territories, controlled by a Palestinian prisoner, Marwan Barghouti, from his Israeli prison cell.
Worse for Abbas, Barghouti could have potentially become the new Palestinian president, as he was expected to compete in the July presidential elections. Bad for Abbas, but good for Palestinians, as Barghouti’s presidency would have proven crucial for Palestinian national unity and even international solidarity. An imprisoned Palestinian president would have been a PR disaster for Israel. Equally, it would have confronted the low-profile American diplomacy under Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, with an unprecedented challenge: How could Washington continue to preach a ‘peace process’ between Israel and the Palestinians, when the latter’s president languishes in solitary confinement, as he has since 2002?
By effectively canceling the elections, Abbas, his benefactors and supporters were hoping to delay a moment of reckoning within the Fatah Movement – in fact, within the Palestinian body politic as a whole. However, the decision is likely to have far more serious repercussions on Fatah and Palestinian politics than if the elections took place. Why?
Since Abbas’ election decree earlier this year, 36 lists have registered with the Palestinian Central Elections Commission. While Islamist and socialist parties prepared to run with unified lists, Fatah disintegrated. Aside from the official Fatah list, which is close to Abbas, two other non-official lists, ‘Freedom’ and ‘Future’, planned to compete. Various polls showed that the ‘Freedom’ list, led by late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s nephew, Nasser al-Qudwa, and Marwan Barghouti’s wife, Fadwa, headed for an election upset, and were on their way to ousting Abbas and his shrinking, though influential, circle.
Yet, none of this is likely to go away simply because Abbas reneged on his commitment to restoring a semblance of Palestinian democracy. A whole new political class in Palestine is now defining itself through its allegiances to various lists, parties and leaders. The mass of Fatah supporters that were mentally ready to break away from the dominance of Abbas will not relent easily, simply because the aging leader has changed his mind. In fact, throughout Palestine, an unparalleled discussion on democracy, representation and the need to move forward beyond Abbas and his haphazard, self-serving politics is currently taking place and is impossible to contain. For the first time in many years, the conversation is no longer confined to Hamas vs. Fatah, Ramallah vs. Gaza or any other such demoralizing classifications. This is a major step in the right direction.
There is nothing that Abbas can say or do at this point to restore the people’s confidence in his authority. Arguably, he never had their confidence in the first place. By canceling the elections, he has crossed a red line that should have never been crossed, thus placing himself and few others around him as enemies of the Palestinian people, their democratic aspirations and their hope for a better future.
COVID-19 cases in Palestine, especially in Gaza, have reached record highs, largely due to the arrival of a greatly contagious coronavirus variant which was first identified in Britain.
Gaza has always been vulnerable to the deadly pandemic. Under a hermetic Israeli blockade since 2006, the densely populated Gaza Strip lacks basic services like clean water, electricity, or minimally-equipped hospitals. Therefore, long before COVID-19 ravaged many parts of the world, Palestinians in Gaza were dying as a result of easily treatable diseases such as diarrhea, salmonella and typhoid fever.
Needless to say, Gaza’s cancer patients have little fighting chance, as the besieged Strip is left without many life-saving medications. Many Palestinian cancer patients continue to cling to the hope that Israel’s military authorities will allow them access to the better equipped Palestinian West Bank hospitals. Alas, quite often, death arrives before the long-awaited Israeli permit does.
The tragedy in Gaza – in fact, in all of occupied Palestine – is long and painful. Still, it ought not to be classified as another sad occasion that invokes much despair but little action.
In fact, the struggle of the Palestinians is integral to a larger struggle for fundamental human rights that can be witnessed throughout the Middle East which, according to a recent Carnegie Corporation report, is one of the most economically unequal regions in the world.
From war-torn Libya to war-torn Syria, to Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan and many parts of the Arab and Muslim world, the dual tragedy of war and want is a scathing reminder of the price ordinary people pay for frivolous power struggles that yield nothing but more uncertainty and achieve nothing but more hatred.
Once more, the holy month of Ramadan visits the Muslim Ummah while its tragedies are still festering – new conflicts, unfinished wars, an ever-expanding death toll and a never-ending stream of refugees. Sadly, not even Ramadan, a month associated with peace, mercy and unity, is enough to bring about, however fleeting, moments of tranquility, or a respite from hunger and war for numerous Muslim communities around the world.
In Palestine, the Israeli occupation often takes even more sinister turns during this month, as if to intentionally compound the suffering felt by Palestinians. On April 14, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and preacher of Al-Aqsa Mosque called on Arabs and Muslims to intervene so that Israel may cease its harassment of Palestinians at the holy shrines of Al Quds – occupied East Jerusalem.
Aside from the increased attacks by Jewish extremists, who are now storming Al-Aqsa Mosque at a significantly higher rate than ever before, the Israeli occupation authorities have “removed the doors of the Mosque’s minarets, cut the electrical wires of loudspeakers to prevent the Adhan (call to prayer) and seized (Ramadan) iftar meals, in addition to threatening to storm the Mosque on the final days of the holy month of Ramadan,” Sheikh Hussein said in a statement.
Israel fully comprehends the spiritual connection that Palestinians, whether Muslims or Christians, have to their religious symbols. For Muslims, this rapport is further accentuated during the holy month of Ramadan. Severing this connection is equal to breaking the collective spirit of the Palestinian people.
These are only a few examples of a multifaceted and deeply rooted tragedy felt by most Palestinians. Numerous similar stories, though of different political and spatial contexts, are communicated every day throughout the Muslim world. Yet, there is no meaningful discussion of a collective remedy, of a strategy, of a thoughtful answer.
Ramadan is intended to be a time when Muslims are united on the basis of a wholly different criterion: where political and ideological differences disappear in favor of spiritual unity which is expressed in fasting, prayer, charity and kindness. Unfortunately, what we are witnessing is not Ramadan as it was intended to be, but different manifestations of the holy month, each catering to a different class – a painful but true expression of the disunity and inequality that have afflicted the Muslim Ummah.
There is the Ramadan of boundless wealth, finely catered iftar meals, coupled with endless, cheap entertainment. In this Ramadan, platitudes are often offered about charity and the poor, but little is delivered.
There is also the Ramadan of Palestine, Sudan and Yemen, of the Syrian refugee camps and of little dinghies dotting the Mediterranean, carrying thousands of desperate families, holding little but their hope of a better future beyond some horizon. For them, Ramadan is a stream of prayers that the world, especially their Muslim brethren, may come to their rescue. For them, there is little entertainment because there is no electricity and there are no massive iftar feasts because there is no money.
“Dua” is Arabic for supplication. For the oppressed, dua is the last resort; at times, even a weapon against oppression in all of its forms. This is why we often see bereaved Muslims raising their open palms to the sky whenever tragedy has befallen them. Ramadan is the month where the poor, destitute and oppressed raise their hands to Heaven, beseeching God in various accents and languages to hear their prayers.
They are reassured by such hadiths – sayings of Prophet Mohammed – as this:
The supplications of three persons are never turned away: a fasting person until he breaks his fast, a just ruler and the supplication of the oppressed which is raised by Allah above the clouds, the gates of Heaven are opened for it, and the Lord says: By my might, I will help you in due time.
There has never been a more critical time for the Ummah to work together, to heal its collective wound, to uplift its down-trodden, to care for its poor, to embrace its refugees and to fight for its oppressed. Many Muslim communities around the world are aching and their pain is unbearable. Perhaps this Ramadan can serve as the opportunity for social justice to be finally enacted and for the oppressed to be heard so that their hymn of torment and hope may rise above the clouds.
The Israeli government’s position regarding an impending investigation by the International Criminal Court of alleged war crimes committed in occupied Palestine has been finally declared by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“It will be made clear that Israel is a country with rule of law that knows how to investigate itself,” Netanyahu said in a statement on April 8. Subsequently, Israel “completely rejects” any accusations that it has committed war crimes.
But it won’t be so easy for Tel Aviv this time around. True, Israel is not a party to the Rome Statute, according to which the ICC was established, but it can still be held accountable, because the State of Palestine is a member of the ICC.
Palestine joined the ICC in 2015, and the alleged war crimes, which are under investigation, have taken place on Palestinian soil. This grants the ICC direct jurisdiction, even if war crimes were committed by a non-ICC party. Still, accountability for these war crimes is not guaranteed. So, what are the possible future scenarios?
But first, some context …
On March 22, the Palestinian Ambassador to the United Nations, Riyad Mansour, declared that “the time has come to stop Israel’s blatant impunity”. His remarks were included in a letter sent to the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, and other top officials at the international body.
There is modest – albeit cautious – optimism among Palestinians that Israeli officials could potentially be held accountable for war crimes and other human rights violations in Palestine. The reason behind this optimism is a recent decision by ICC to pursue its investigation of alleged war crimes committed in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Mansour’s letter was written with this context in mind. Other Palestinian officials, such as Foreign Minister, Riyad al-Maliki, are also pushing in this direction. He, too, wants to see an end to Israel’s lack of accountability.
Till Netanyahu’s official position, the Israeli response has been most predictable. On March 20, Israeli authorities decided to revoke Al-Maliki’s special travel permit in order to prevent him from pursuing Palestinian diplomacy that aims at ensuring the continuation of the ICC investigation. Al-Maliki had, in fact, just returned from a trip to The Hague, where the ICC is headquartered.
Furthermore, Israel is openly attempting to intimidate the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah to discontinue its cooperation with the ICC, as can be easily gleaned from the official Israeli discourse. “The Palestinian leadership has to understand there are consequences for their actions,” an Israeli official told The Jerusalem Post on March 21.
Despite years of legal haggling and intense pressure on the ICC’s outgoing Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, to scrap the investigation altogether, the legal proceedings have carried on, unhindered. The pressure was displayed in various forms: direct defamation by Israel, as in accusing the ICC of anti-Semitism; unprecedented American sanctions on ICC officials and constant meddling and intervention, on Israel’s behalf, by member states that are part of the ICC, and who are described as amici curiae.
They did not succeed. On April 30, 2020, Bensouda consulted with the Court’s Pre-trial Chamber regarding whether the ICC had jurisdiction over the matter. Ten months later, the Chamber answered in the affirmative. Subsequently, the Prosecutor decided to formally open the investigation.
On March 9, a spokesman for the Court revealed that, in accordance with Article 18 in the Rome Statute, notification letters were sent by the Prosecutor’s office to ‘all parties concerned’, including the Israeli Government and the Palestinian leadership, notifying them of the war crimes probe and allowing them only one month to seek deferral of the investigation.
Expectedly, Israel remains defiant. However, unlike its obstinacy in response to previous international attempts at investigating war crimes allegations in Palestine, the Israeli response, this time, appears confused and uncertain. On the one hand, Israeli media revealed last July that Netanyahu’s government has prepared a long list of likely Israeli suspects, whose conduct can potentially be investigated by the ICC. Still, the official Israeli response can only be described as dismissive of the matter as being superfluous, insisting that Israel will not, in any way, cooperate with ICC investigators.
Though the Israeli government continues to maintain its official position that the ICC has no jurisdiction over Israel and occupied Palestine, top Israeli officials and diplomats are moving quickly to block what now seems to be an imminent probe. For example, Israeli President, Reuven Rivlin, was on an official visit to Germany where he, on March 18, met with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier, thanking him on behalf of Israel for opposing the ICC’s investigation of Israeli officials.
After lashing out at the Palestinian leadership for attempting to “legalize” the conflict, through an international investigation, Rivlin renewed Israel’s “trust that our European friends will stand by us in the important fight on the misuse of the International Criminal Court against our soldiers and civilians.”
Unlike previous attempts at investigating Israeli war crimes, for example, the Jenin massacre in the West Bank in 2002, and the various investigations of several Israeli wars on Gaza starting in 2008-09, the forthcoming ICC investigation is different. For one, the ICC investigation targets individuals, not states, and can issue arrest warrants, making it legally incumbent on all other ICC members to enforce the Court’s decisions.
Now that all attempts at dissuading the Court from pursuing the matter have failed, the question must be asked: What are the possible future scenarios?
The Next Step
In the case that the investigation carries on as planned, the Prosecutor’s next step would be to identify suspects and alleged perpetrators of war crimes. Dr. Triestino Mariniello, member of the legal team that represents the Gaza victims, told me that once these suspects have been determined, “the Prosecutor will ask the Pre-trial chamber to issue either arrest warrants or subpoena, at least in relation to the crimes already included in the investigation so far.”
These alleged war crimes already include Israel’s illegal Jewish settlements, the Israeli war on Gaza in 2014 and Israel’s targeting of unarmed civilian protesters during Gaza’s Great March of Return, starting in 2018.
Even more ideally, the Court could potentially widen the scope of the investigation, which is a major demand for the representatives of the Palestinian victims.
“We expect more crimes to be included: especially, apartheid as a crime against humanity and crimes against Palestinian prisoners by Israeli authorities, especially torture,” according to Dr. Mariniello.
In essence, this means that, even after the investigation is officially underway, the Palestine legal team can continue its advocacy to expand the scope of the investigation and to cover as much legal ground as possible.
However, judging from previous historic experiences, ideal scenarios in cases where Israel was investigated for war crimes rarely transpired. A less than ideal scenario would be for the scope of the investigation to remain narrow.
In a recent interview with former UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Occupied Palestinian Territories, Professor Richard Falk, he told me that even if the narrow scope remains in effect – thus reducing the chances of all victims seeing justice – the investigation is still a “breakthrough”.
The reason why the investigation may not be broadened has less to do with justice and much to do with politics. “The scope of the investigation is something that is ill-defined, so it is a matter of political discretion,” Professor Falk said.
In other words, “the Court takes a position that needs to be cautious about delimiting its jurisdiction and, therefore, it tries to narrow the scope of what it is prepared to investigate.”
Professor Falk does not agree with that view but, according to the seasoned international law expert, “it does represent the fact that the ICC, like the UN itself, is subject to immense geopolitical pressure.”
Still, “it’s a breakthrough even to consider the investigation, let alone the indictment and the prosecution of either Israelis or Americans that was put on the agenda of the ICC, which led to a pushback by these governments.”
Israel’s Missed Opportunity
While the two above scenarios are suitable for Palestinians, they are a non-starter as far as the Israeli government is concerned, as indicated in Netanyahu’s recent statement in which he rejected the investigation altogether. According to some pro-Israeli international law experts, Netanyahu’s decision would represent a missed opportunity.
Writing in the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, international law expert Nick Kaufman had advises Israel to cooperate, only for the sake of obtaining a “deferral” from the Court and to use the ensuing delay for political maneuvering.
“It would be unfortunate for Israel to miss the opportunity of deferral which could provide the ideal excuse for reinitiating peace talks with the Palestinians,” he wrote, warning that “if Israel squanders such an opportunity it should come as no surprise if, at a later date, the Court will hint that the government has no one but itself to blame for the export of the judicial process to The Hague.”
There are other scenarios, such as even more intense pressures on the Court as a result of ongoing discussions between Israel and its benefactors, whether in Washington or among the amici curiae at the Court itself.
At the same time, while Palestinians remain cautious about the future of the investigation, hope is slowly rising that, this time around, things may be different and that Israeli war criminals will eventually be held accountable for their crimes. Time will tell.
If imprisoned Palestinian leader, Marwan Barghouti, becomes the President of the Palestinian Authority (PA), the status quo will change substantially. For Israel, as well as for the current PA President, Mahmoud Abbas, such a scenario is more dangerous than another strong Hamas showing in the upcoming Palestinian parliamentary elections.
The long-delayed elections, now scheduled for May 22 and July 31 respectively, will not only represent a watershed moment for the fractured Palestinian body politic, but also for the Fatah Movement which has dominated the PA since its inception in 1994. The once revolutionary Movement has become a shell of its former self under the leadership of Abbas, whose only claim to legitimacy was a poorly contested election in January 2005, following the death of former Fatah leader and PA President, Yasser Arafat.
Though his mandate expired in January 2009, Abbas continued to ‘lead’ Palestinians. Corruption and nepotism increased significantly during his tenure and, not only did he fail to secure an independent Palestinian State, but the Israeli military occupation and illegal settlements have deepened and grown exponentially.
Abbas’ rivals from within the Fatah Movement were sidelined, imprisoned or exiled. A far more popular Fatah leader, Marwan Barghouti, was silenced by Israel as he was thrown into an Israeli prison in April 2002, after a military court found him guilty of involvement in Palestinian resistance operations during the uprising of 2000. This arrangement suited Abbas, for he continued to doubly benefit: from Barghouti’s popularity, on the one hand, and his absence, on the other.
When, in January, Abbas declared that he would hold three successive rounds of elections – legislative elections on May 22, presidential elections on July 31 and Palestinian National Council (PNC) elections on August 31 – he could not have anticipated that his decree, which followed intense Fatah-Hamas talks, could potentially trigger the implosion of his own party.
Fatah-Hamas rivalry has been decades’ long, but intensified in January 2006 when the latter won the legislative elections in the Occupied Territories. Hamas’ victory was partly attributed to Fatah’s own corruption, but internal rivalry also splintered Fatah’s vote.
Although it was Fatah’s structural weaknesses that partly boosted Hamas’ popularity, it was, oddly, the subsequent rivalry with Hamas that kept Fatah somehow limping forward. Indeed, the anti-Hamas sentiment served as a point of unity among the various Fatah branches. With money pouring in from donor countries, Fatah used its largesse to keep dissent at minimum and, when necessary, to punish those who refused to toe the pro-Abbas line. This strategy was successfully put to the test in 2010 when Mohammed Dahlan, Fatah’s ‘strong man’ in Gaza prior to 2006, was dismissed from Fatah’s central committee and banished from the West Bank, as he was banished from Gaza four years earlier.
But that convenient paradigm could not be sustained. Israel is entrenching its military occupation, increasing its illegal settlement activities and is rapidly annexing Palestinian land in the West Bank and Jerusalem. The Gaza siege, though deadly and tragic, has become routine and no longer an international priority. A new Palestinian generation in the Occupied Territories cannot relate to Abbas and his old guard, and is openly dissatisfied with the tribal, regional politics through which the PA, under Abbas, continues to govern occupied and oppressed Palestinians.
Possessing no strategies or answers, Abbas is now left with no more political lifelines and few allies.
With dwindling financial resources and faced by the inescapable fact that 85-year-old Abbas must engineer a transition within the movement to prevent its collapse in case of his death, Fatah was forced to contend with an unpleasant reality: without new elections the PA would lose the little political legitimacy with which it ruled over Palestinians.
Abbas was not worried about another setback, as that of 2006, when Hamas won majority of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC)’s seats. Until recently, most opinion polls indicated that the pro-Abbas Fatah list would lead by a comfortable margin in May, and that Abbas would be re-elected President in July. With his powers intact, Abbas could then expand his legitimacy by allowing Hamas and others into the PLO’s Palestinian National Council – Palestine’s parliament in the Diaspora. Not only would Abbas renew faith in his Authority, but he could also go down in history as the man who united Palestinians.
But things didn’t go as planned and the problem, this time, did not come from Hamas, but from Fatah itself – although Abbas did anticipate internal challenges. However, the removal of Dahlan, the repeated purges of the party’s influential committees and the marginalization of any dissenting Fatah members throughout the years must have infused Abbas with confidence to advance with his plans.
The first challenge emerged on March 11, when Nasser al-Qidwa, a well-respected former diplomat and a nephew of Yasser Arafat, was expelled from the movement’s Central Committee for daring to challenge Abbas’ dominance. On March 4, Qidwa decided to lock horns with Abbas by running in the elections in a separate list.
The second and bigger surprise came on March 31, just one hour before the closing of the Central Election Commission’s registration deadline, when Qidwa’s list was expanded to include supporters of Marwan Barghouti, under the leadership of his wife, Fadwa.
Opinion polls are now suggesting that a Barghouti-Qidwa list, not only would divide the Fatah Movement but would actually win more seats, defeating both the traditional Fatah list and even Hamas. If this happens, Palestinian politics would turn on its head.
Moreover, the fact that Marwan Barghouti’s name was not on the list keeps alive the possibility that the imprisoned Fatah leader could still contest in the presidential elections in July. If that, too, transpires, Barghouti will effortlessly beat and oust Abbas.
The PA President is now in an unenviable position. Canceling the elections would lead to strife, if not violence. Moving forward means the imminent demise of Abbas and his small but powerful clique of Palestinians who benefited greatly from the cozy political arrangement they created for themselves.
As it stands, the key to the future of Fatah is now held by a Palestinian prisoner, Marwan Barghouti, who has been kept by Israel, largely in solitary confinement, since 2002.
On February 4, representatives from the Palestinian Movement, Hamas, visited Moscow to inform the Russian government of the latest development on the unity talks between the Islamic Movement and its Palestinian counterparts, especially Fatah.
This was not the first time that Hamas’s officials traveled to Moscow on similar missions. In fact, Moscow continues to represent an important political breathing space for Hamas, which has been isolated by Israel’s Western benefactors. Involved in this isolation are also several Arab governments which, undoubtedly, have done very little to break the Israeli siege on Gaza.
The Russia-Hamas closeness is already paying dividends. On February 17, shipments of the Russian COVID-19 vaccine, Sputnik V, have made it to Gaza via Israel, a testament to that growing rapport.
While Russia alone cannot affect a complete paradigm shift in the case of Palestine, Hamas feels that a Russian alternative to the blind and conditional American support for Israel is possible, if not urgent.
Recently, we interviewed Dr. Daud Abdullah, the author of ‘Engaging the World: The Making of Hamas’s Foreign Policy’, and Mr. Na’eem Jeenah, Director of the Afro-Middle East Center in Johannesburg, which published Dr. Abdullah’s book.
Abdullah’s volume on Hamas is a must-read, as it offers a unique take on Hamas, liberating the discussion on the Movement from the confines of the reductionist Western media’s perception of Hamas as terrorist – and of the counterclaims, as well. In this book, Hamas is viewed as a political actor, whose armed resistance is only a component in a complex and far-reaching strategy.
As Moscow continues to cement its presence in the region by offering itself as a political partner and, compared with the US, a more balanced mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, Hamas sees the developing Russian role as a rare opportunity to break away from the US-Israel imposed isolation.
“Russia was a member of the Quartet that was set up in 2003 but, of course, as a member of the (United Nations) Security Council, it has always had an ability to inform the discourse on Palestine,” Abdullah said, adding that in light of “the gradual demise of American influence, Russia realized that there was an emerging vacuum in the region, particularly after the (Arab) uprisings.”
“With regard to Hamas and Russia the relationship took off after the (Palestinian) elections in 2006 but it was not Hamas’s initiative, it was (Russian President Vladimir) Putin who, in a press conference in Madrid after the election, said that he would be willing to host Hamas’s leadership in Moscow. Because Russia is looking for a place in the region.”
Hamas’s willingness to engage with the Russians has more than one reason, chief among them is the fact that Moscow, unlike the US, refused to abide by Israel’s portrayal of the Movement. “The fundamental difference between Russia and America and China … is that the Russians and the Chinese do not recognize Hamas as a ‘terrorist organization’; they have never done so, unlike the Americans, and so it made it easy for them to engage openly with Hamas,” Abdullah said.
On Hamas’s ‘Strategic Balance’
In his book, Abdullah writes about the 1993 Oslo Accords, which represented a watershed moment, not only for Hamas but also for the entire Palestinian liberation struggle. The shift towards a US-led ‘peace process’ compelled Hamas to maintain a delicate balance “between strategic objectives and tactical flexibility.”
Hamas sees foreign relations as an integral and important part of its political ideology and liberation strategy. Soon after the Movement emerged, foreign policies were developed to help its leaders and members navigate this tension between idealism and realism. This pragmatism is evident in the fact that Hamas was able to establish relations with the regimes of Muammar Gaddhafi in Libya and Bashar al-Assad in Syria, both of whom were fiercely opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood.
In our interview, Abdullah elaborated:
From the very beginning, Hamas adopted certain principles in respect to its international relations and, later on, in the formation of a foreign policy. Among these, there is a question of maintaining its independence of decision-making; non-alignment in conflicting blocks, avoidance of interference in the affairs of other states.
Mr. Jeenah, an accomplished writer himself, also spoke of the “delicate balance.”
“It is a delicate balance, and a difficult one to maintain because, at this stage, when movements are regarded and regard themselves as liberation movements, they need to have higher moral and ethical standards than, for example, governments,” Jeenah said. “For some reason, we expect that governments have to make difficult choices but, with liberation movements, we don’t, because they are all about idealism and creating an ideal society, etc.”
Jeenah uses the South Africa anti-apartheid struggle which, in many ways, is comparable to the Palestinian quest for freedom, to illustrate his point:
When the liberation movement in South Africa was exiled, they took a similar kind of position. While some of them might have had a particular allegiance to the Soviet Union or to China, some of them also had strong operations in European countries, which they regarded as part of the bigger empire. Nevertheless, they had the freedom to operate there. Some of them operated in other African countries where there were dictatorships and they got protection from those states.
Hamas and the Question of National Unity
In his book, which promises to be an essential read on the subject, Abdullah lists six principles that guide Hamas’s political agenda. One of these guiding principles is the “search for common ground.”
In addressing the question of Palestinian factionalism, we contended that, while Fatah has failed at creating a common, nominally democratic platform for Palestinians to interact politically, Hamas cannot be entirely blameless. If that is, indeed, the case, can one then make the assertion that Hamas has succeeded in its search for the elusive common ground?
Let me begin with what happened after the elections in 2006. Although Hamas won convincingly and they could have formed a government, they decided to opt for a government of national unity. They offered to (Palestinian Authority President) Mahmoud Abbas and to (his party) Fatah to come into a government of national unity. They didn’t want to govern by themselves. And that, to me, is emblematic of their vision, their commitment to national unity.
But the question of national unity, however coveted and urgently required, is not just controlled by Palestinians.
The PLO is the one that signed the Oslo Accords,” Abdullah said, “and I think this is one of Hamas’s weaknesses: as much as it wants national unity and a reform of the PLO, the fact of the matter is Israel and the West will not allow Hamas to enter into the PLO easily, because this would be the end of Oslo.
On Elections under Military Occupation
On January 15, Abbas announced an official decree to hold Palestinian elections, first presidential, then legislative, then elections within the PLO’s Palestine National Council (PNC), which has historically served as a Palestinian parliament in exile. The first phase of these elections is scheduled for May 22.
But will this solve the endemic problem of Palestinian political representation? Moreover, is this the proper historical evolution of national liberation movements – democracy under military occupation, followed by liberation, instead of the other way around?
Jeenah spoke of this dichotomy:
On the one hand, elections are an opportunity for Palestinians to express their choices. On the other hand, what is the election really? We are not talking about a democratic election for the State, but for a Bantustan authority, at greater restraints than the South African authority.
Moreover, the Israeli “occupying power will not make the mistake it did the last time. It will not allow such freedom (because of which) Hamas (had) won the elections. I don’t think Israel is going to allow it now.”
Yet there is a silver lining in this unpromising scenario. According to Jeenah, “I think the only difference this election could make is allowing some kind of reconciliation between Gaza and the West Bank.”
Hamas, the ICC and War Crimes
Then, there is the urgent question of the anticipated war crime investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Yet, when the ICC agreed to consider allegations of war crimes in Palestine, chances are not only alleged Israeli war criminals are expected to be investigated, but the probe could potentially consider the questioning of Palestinians, as well. Should not this concern Hamas in the least?
In the Israeli wars on Gaza in 2008, 2012 and 2014, Hamas, along with other armed groups had no other option but to “defend the civilian population,” Abdullah said, pointing out that the “overriding concept” is that the Movement “believes in the principle of international law.”
If Hamas “can restore the rights of the Palestinian people through legal channels, then it will be much easier for the Movement, rather than having to opt for the armed struggle,” Abdullah asserted.
Undoubtedly, it is crucial to understand Hamas, not only as part of the Palestine-related academic discourse, but in the everyday political discourse concerning Palestine; in fact, the entire region. Abdullah’s book is itself critical to this understanding.
Jeenah argued that Abdullah’s book is not necessarily an “introductory text to the Hamas Movement. It has a particular focus, which is the development of Hamas’s foreign policy. The importance of that, in general, is firstly that there isn’t a text that deals specifically with Hamas’s foreign policy. What this book does is present Hamas as a real political actor.”
The evolution of Hamas’s political discourse and behavior since its inception, according to Jeenah, is a “fascinating” one.
Many agree. Commenting on the book, leading Israeli historian, Professor Ilan Pappé, wrote,
This book challenges successfully the common misrepresentation of Hamas in the West. It is a must-read for anyone engaged with the Palestine issue and interested in an honest introduction to this important Palestinian Movement.
• (Dr. Daud Abdullah’s book, Engaging the World: The Making of Hamas’s Foreign Policy, is available here.)
In the occupied West Bank, the settlers are the lords of the land and used to getting their own way. They assume that this is just another group of Palestinians to be terrorized away so that the illegal Jewish settlement they live in, one of many dozens, can further expand its jurisdiction on to Palestinian land.
For the settlers, this is all in day’s improvised ethnic cleansing.
Not as it appears
But they are in for a surprise. The scene is not exactly as it appears and things don’t go to plan.
Some distance from their homes, Palestinians would usually pack up in a hurry at the first sight of menacing armed settlers. But these Palestinians stand their ground and argue back in fluent Hebrew.
When the settlers cite the Bible as their title deeds to the land, and start grabbing the family’s things to evict the group, the grandmother shouts indignantly: “We are Israelis just like you and we’re allowed to be here.”
She is partly right. They are indeed Israelis. The family are from Nazareth, the largest and most privileged Palestinian community inside Israel. They belong to a minority formally known as “Israel’s Arabs”. But the grandmother’s claim that her family is “just like you” is an error – or more likely a bluff.
A settler corrects her: “You’re not Israelis, you’re Arabs, we did you a favor when we let you stay.”
In Israeli public discourse, “Israel’s Arabs” – or “Israeli Arabs” as the term is usually transcribed into English to make it seem less offensive – have been stripped of their real identity to sever their connection to the larger Palestinian people.
Nonetheless, they are descended from exactly the same Palestinian population that today lives either under occupation in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, or as refugees exiled from their homeland by Israel’s mass ethnic cleansing campaign in 1948, known by Palestinians as the Nakba, or Catastrophe.
“Israel’s Arabs” are marked out from other Palestinians only by an historical anomaly: a small number managed to avoid the ethnic cleansing operations of 1948 and remained on their land in what was about to become Israel.
Eventually, and very reluctantly under international pressure, Israel conferred a very degraded citizenship on these “Arabs”. Today, after decades of higher birth rates than Israeli Jews, “Israel’s Arabs” are a fifth of the population.
Israel proudly tells the world that its “Arab” citizens enjoy entirely equal rights with Jewish citizens. The truth is far uglier, as prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu inadvertently conceded when he used Instagram to correct an Israeli TV host who had suggested that Israel was a western-style democracy. “Israel is not a state of all its citizens. According to the nation-state law we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people — and not anyone else,” he wrote.
Some 70 laws explicitly offer differentiated rights depending on whether an Israeli citizen is Jewish or “Arab”.
“Israel’s Arabs” are almost entirely segregated from Israeli Jews in where they can live, where they go to school, and in many cases where they are allowed to work. The citizenship status of Jews and “Arabs” derives from separate laws. These “Arabs” are barred from living in most of Israel’s territory, and planning rules have been systematically skewed to their disadvantage.
In short, most “Israeli Arabs” live in segregated, poor, land-hungry, overcrowded and under-resourced communities.
But by historical accident they have an Israeli citizenship that confers on them – unlike Palestinians under occupation – the right to vote in Israeli elections and basic legal rights protected by Israel’s civilian courts, not its military courts.
“Israel’s Arabs” are also typically dealt with either by the ordinary Israeli police or by a paramilitary force known as the Border Police that operates in both Israel and the occupied territories. The border being policed is the segregated one between Jews and non-Jews.
But dealing with the Border Police is often preferable to being policed by the Israeli army, as is usually the case for Palestinians in the occupied territories.
No price to pay
As the settlers who disrupt the woodland picnic fail to get their way, they look confused and unsure. One says to the family: “You are not Israeli, you are Arabs. We did you a favor by letting you remain [in Israel]. Go back to Nazareth.” But what exactly are their rights in a situation like this?
If these were straightforward “Palestinians”, the settlers could throw rocks at them or shoot over their heads. Should the Palestinians refuse to flee, they could be beaten or the settlers could even consider shooting one in the leg – or worse – to make sure the rest got the message: “We are kings and you are unwelcome serfs”.
There is unlikely to be a price to pay for harming Palestinians under occupation, apart from maybe a story in Haaretz from Amira Hass, the only Israeli reporter living in the West Bank.
But the settlers can always say they had been attacked by Palestinians and were defending themselves. No real questions would be asked. If a video surfaced on YouTube showing otherwise, Israeli officials would act as press officers, claiming the footage was edited to mislead viewers – just another example of Pallywood. And anyone sharing the video could be discounted as an antisemite.
This is a game whose rules the settlers – and the Israeli army and government behind them – know only too well, rules designed to work exclusively for their benefit.
But in the case of “Israeli Arabs” picnicking in the West Bank, the rules have not been properly defined. Can settlers beat with impunity these uppity natives with Israeli citizenship? Can they point their guns at them? If they do, what happens? Might there be an investigation? And if so, who will lead it – the army or the police?
Might these “Arabs” have relatives back in privileged Nazareth who are lawyers versed in the intricacies of the Israeli legal system? There are even some “Arab” judges in the court system. How might such a judge rule in a case like this?
The settlers’ uncertainty is justified. Which apartheid rules apply in the occupied territories when dealing with “Israel’s Arabs”: the occupation version of apartheid or the Israeli democracy version of apartheid? It is a grey area.
Unsure of powers
No longer confident that their powers are limitless, at least in a situation like this one, the settlers decide to delegate. They call the army. After all, soldiers of the Jewish state are there to protect other Jews, even when those Jews are armed, they are living illegally on Palestinian land and they are attacking defenseless Palestinians.
The army will know what to do.
The soldiers are soon there, but they look a little unsure too. They are more used to standing “guard” as settlers attack and terrorize Palestinians, only interfering if it looks like the settlers might be in need of help.
These picnickers aren’t Jewish, so the soldiers are under no duty to protect them. But at the same they are Israeli citizens so the soldiers cannot afford to be filmed pointing their guns at them or watching impassively as the settlers beat them up.
Gentle ethnic cleansing
There is no rule book for this situation, so the soldiers improvise. With the wisdom of Solomon, they cut the baby in half. A soldier concedes that they are indeed in a public space but warns the “Arabs” that, unlike the settlers, they are “not allowed here”. He adds: “I don’t want to use too much force.”
The soldiers prefer that the threat remains implicit. The family will have to leave immediately and cede this land to the masters, the Jews. The “Israeli Arabs” are evicted in an orderly fashion.
What we see, caught on the camera of Lubna Abed el-Hadi, is what might be termed gentle ethnic cleansing.
This short video confirms the lie of the oft-repeated claim of Israeli leaders that “Israel’s Arabs” have equal rights with Israeli Jews. In truth, Jews always have superior rights, whether it is inside “democratic” Israel or in the occupied territories.
Layers of apartheid
The original apartheid state – the one in South Africa – offers a template that can help us to decode this video. As with Israel, there were layers to South African apartheid, although those layers were much less effective than Israel’s at veiling the segregation system.
South Africa had its “Whites” – the masters – and its “Blacks” – the serfs. But it also had a group trapped between them, one that was harder to classify, called the “Coloreds”. In a system that craved clear racial categorizations, the Coloreds were a nuisance – a reminder of times before apartheid when segregation was not so strict and inter-racial relationships possible.
The Coloreds were really Blacks in the sense that they had none of the privileges of the Whites. But they also enjoyed a few exemptions from the worse racist policies faced by the Blacks, such as the requirement to carry passes to move around.
A New York Timesarticle in 1985, in South Africa’s final apartheid years, concluded: “Despite the law that seeks to lock them into a simple group definition, South Africa’s mixed-race people defy such labeling and the ambiguity of their status is acute.”
The comparison is not precise. “Israel’s Arabs” are not the descendants of mixed relationships between Jews and Palestinians. They are as native as other Palestinians, their histories indistinguishable until 1948. Like other Palestinians, “Israeli Arabs” have a relatively unified language and culture that was not true of the Coloreds in South Africa.
But their inferior legal status and ambiguous social position within the dominant apartheid system is similar to that of the Coloreds.
After the fall of South Africa’s apartheid, and in an era of 24-hour rolling news, Israel has eased the most blatant forms of discrimination faced by its “Arabs”. It has been careful to avoid the worst excesses of South Africa’s version of apartheid inside Israel. There are no separate entrances to rest rooms or shops for Israel’s “Coloreds”.
But the core segregation continues. “Israeli Arabs” are expected to live in their own 120 or so segregated neighborhoods, Israel’s version of the notorious Group Areas Act. They are banned not only from accessing the Jewish-only settlements of the West Bank, but from living in all of the territory inside Israel bar the 3% reserved for non-Jews.
As happened in 1966 at District Six, a Colored community near Cape Town, “Israel’s Arabs” can be forced off their lands at the drop of the hat – as is currently happening at Umm al-Hiran in the Negev – if the state deems that the land is needed more by the masters than the serfs.
The New York Times article notes that apartheid South Africa’s policy towards its Coloreds and Blacks was governed by a “security” approach that treated them as an enemy. Just such an official policy towards “Israel’s Arabs” was highlighted nearly 20 years ago by a state commission of inquiry.
Another observation by the Times will echo with “Israeli Arabs”: “Most black townships, for instance, have few entrances and are thus easily sealed.” Similarly, “Arab” communities in Israel typically have one or two ways in or out – a legacy of the military government that in Israel’s first two decades tightly controlled all “Arab” movement.
In recent months those memories were revived in Nazareth, for example, when the police again blockaded the city’s entrances during periods of lockdown.
Desirable or undesirable
Very belatedly it has finally dawned on Jewish human rights groups in Israel that the country’s apartheid system can no more be separated between a “democratic” Israel and a non-democratic occupied territories than South Africa’s could be between its white areas and the so-called black homelands, the Bantustans.
One group, B’Tselem, concluded last month that Israeli apartheid is indivisible, just as South Africa’s was. Its executive director, Hagai El-Ad, observed: “There is not a single square inch in the territory Israel controls where a Palestinian and a Jew are equal. The only first-class people here are Jewish citizens such as myself.”
The division, El-Ad noted, was not primarily between Israelis – Jews and “Arabs” – and Palestinians but between the segregated treatment of people under Israeli rule as either “desirable or undesirable”.
Those picnicking “Arabs” are the undesirables just as much as are the Palestinians living close by in Ramallah. Which is why the settlers were determined to move them off the land, and why the soldiers were only too happy to assist.
Israel upholds a system of Jewish supremacy over the land, and it matters not one jot whether those challenging its apartheid rule are Palestinian subjects without rights or “Arab” citizens supposedly with full rights.
Arab normalization with Israel is expected to have serious consequences that go well beyond the limited and self-serving agendas of a few Arab countries. Thanks to the Arab normalizers, the doors are now flung wide open for new political actors to extend or cement ties with Israel at the expense of Palestine, without fearing any consequences to their actions.
African countries, especially those who worked diligently to integrate Israel into the continent’s mainstream body politic, are now seizing on the perfect opportunity to bring all African countries on board, including those who have historically and genuinely stood on the side of Palestinians.
‘Empower Africa’, an Israeli firm that is constantly seeking financial opportunities throughout the African continent, was one out of many who jumped on the opportunity to exploit Arab normalization with Israel. The goal is about maximizing their profits while promoting Arab normalization as if an economic opportunity for struggling African economies. In December, ‘Empower Africa ’hosted its first event in Dubai under the title “UAE and Israel Uniting with Africa”. In its press release, celebrating what is meant to be a momentous occasion, the Israeli company said that its guests included representatives from UAE, Israel, Bahrain, Nigeria, Rwanda, Egypt, among others.
Such events are meant to translate normalization with Israel into economic opportunities that will entangle, aside from Arab countries, African, Asian and other traditional supporters of Palestine, worldwide. The central message that the advocates of normalization with Israel are now sending to the rest of the world is that closer ties with Tel Aviv will guarantee many benefits, not only direct American support, but innumerable economic benefits as well.
Those who promote solidarity with Palestine worldwide, based on moral maxims, are correct to argue that solidarity and intersectionality are crucial in the fight against injustice everywhere. However, realpolitik is rarely shaped by moral visions. This is the truth that Palestinians now have to contend with, as they watch their own Arab and Muslim brothers move, one after the other, to the Israeli camp.
Unfortunately, it was the Palestinian leadership itself that strengthened the normalization argument many years ago, especially in the early 1990s, when it first agreed to negotiate unconditionally with Israel, under the auspices of the US and not exclusively the United Nations. The Palestinian/Arab engagement with Israel in the Madrid Talks in 1991 provided the impetus for Washington to reverse a 1975 UN Resolution that equated Zionism with racism.
Ironically, it was the African Union that, in fact, first championed UN Resolution 3379, soon after it passed its own Resolution 77 (XII), earlier that year in the Kampala Assembly of Heads of State and Governments, where it condemned Zionism as a racist, colonial ideology.
Those days are long gone and, sadly, it was the Middle East and Africa that altered their views of Israel, without compelling the latter to abandon its racist political doctrine. On the contrary, racism and apartheid in Israel are now even more integrated within the country’s official institutions than ever before. Moreover, Israel’s military occupation and siege of the West Bank and Gaza seem to accelerate at the same momentum as that of Arab and African normalization with Israel.
The now defunct Oslo Accords of 1993 served as a major pretense for many countries around the world, especially in the global South, to draw nearer to Israel. “If the Palestinians themselves have normalized with Israel, why shouldn’t we?” was the knee-jerk retort by politicians in various countries, in response to the advocates of the Palestinian boycott movement. This immoral and politically selective logic has been reinforced since the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco joined the camp of Arab normalizers in recent months.
While arguments that are predicated on moral values and shared history are, still, very much valid, making a case against normalization cannot rest entirely on ethical reasoning or sentimentalities. True, the shared anti-colonial past of Africa and the Arab world, especially that of Palestine, is uncontested. Still, some African countries did not side with the Arabs in their conflict with colonial Israel based on entirely moral and ideological arguments. Indeed, the Israel-Africa story has also been shaped by outright economic and business interests.
Africa’s significance for Israel has acquired various meanings throughout the years. Soon after Israel was established upon the ruins of historic Palestine, diplomatic ties between the newly-founded Israel and African countries became essential for Tel Aviv to break away from its geopolitical isolation in the region. That, in addition to the strategic importance of the Bab Al-Mandab Strait – separating Africa from the Arabian Peninsula and offering Israel breathing space through the Red Sea – gave Africa additional geostrategic significance.
In fact, on the eve of the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, 33 African countries had full diplomatic ties with Israel. Immediately following the war and in the run-up to the war of 1973, African countries abandoned Israel in large numbers, signaling the rise of an unprecedented Arab-African unity, which continued unhindered until the 1990s. It was then that Israel began, once more, promoting itself as a unique ally to Africa.
In recent years, Israel has accelerated its plans to exploit Africa’s many political and economic opportunities, especially as the continent is now an open ground for renewed global attention. The United States, the European Union, China, Russia and others are jockeying to win a piece of Africa’s massive wealth of material and human resources. Israel, too, as a regional power, is now part of this renewed ‘scramble for Africa’.
A statement by Israel’s right-wing Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in 2016 that “Israel is coming back to Africa, and Africa is returning to Israel,” should not be dismissed as another political hyperbole by the Israeli leader. One could even argue that Israel’s burgeoning political and economic ties with Africa are Netanyahu’s greatest achievements in recent years. More, diplomatic rapprochements with Muslim-majority African countries, such as Mali and Chad, have served as the backdoor entrance to African Arab Muslim countries, such as Sudan and Morocco.
There is more to Israel’s keen interest in Africa than mere business, of course. Since the US’ superpower status in the Middle East is being challenged by other global actors, namely Russia and China, Israel is actively trying to diversify its options, so it is not exclusively reliant on a single benefactor.
Now that Arab and Muslim countries are normalizing, whether openly or discreetly, with Israel, some African governments feel liberated from their previous commitment to Palestine, as they are no longer forced to choose between their Arab allies and Israel.
Solidarity with Palestine, in all traditional platforms, certainly stands to lose as a result of these seismic changes. Even the UN General Assembly is no longer a safe space for Palestinian solidarity. For example, in the UN General Assembly Resolution titled “Peaceful settlement of the question of Palestine”, which was adopted on December 3, 2019, by 147 countries, 13 countries abstained from the vote. Unprecedentedly, several African countries including Cameroon, Rwanda, South Sudan and Malawi also abstained from the vote. The trend worsened a year later, on December 2, 2020, when more African countries abstained from voting on a similar resolution, with Cameroon, Madagascar, Malawi, Rwanda, and even South Africa refusing to acknowledge what should have been a straightforward recognition of Palestinian rights.
Based on this disturbing trajectory, more such African countries are expected to either adopt a ‘neutral’ position on Palestine and Israel or, depending on the nature of their interests or the combined US-Israeli pressures, could potentially take Israel’s side in the future.
The Palestinian dichotomy rests on the fact that African solidarity with Palestine has historically been placed within the larger political framework of mutual African-Arab solidarity. Yet, with official Arab solidarity with Palestine now weakening, Palestinians are forced to think outside this traditional framework, so that they may build direct solidarity with African nations as Palestinians, without necessarily merging their national aspirations with the larger Arab body politic.
While such a task is daunting, it is also promising, as Palestinians now have the opportunity to build bridges of support and mutual solidarity in Africa through direct contacts, where they serve as their own ambassadors. Obviously, Palestine has much to gain, but also much to offer Africa. Palestinian doctors, engineers, civil defense and frontline workers, educationists, intellectuals and artists are some of the most recognized and accomplished in the Middle East; in fact, in the world. Palestine must utilize its people’s tremendous energies and expertise in winning Africa back, not as a bargaining chip, but as a true and genuine attempt at reinvigorating existing solidarity between the Palestinians and the peoples of Africa.
Israel is trying to lure in Africa’s elites through business deals which, judging by previous experiences, could become a burden on African economies. Palestine, on the other hand, can offer Africa genuine friendship and camaraderie through many areas of meaningful cooperation which, in the long run, can turn existing historical and cultural affinities into deeper, more practical solidarity.
Israel’s decision to exclude Palestinians from its COVID-19 vaccination campaign may have surprised many. Even by Israel’s poor humanitarian standards, denying Palestinians access to life-saving medication seems extremely callous.
Amnesty International, among many organizations, condemned the Israeli government’s decision to bar Palestinians from receiving the vaccine. The rights group described the Israeli action as evidence of the “institutionalized discrimination that defines the Israeli government’s policy towards Palestinians.”
The Palestinian Authority was not expecting Israel to supply Palestinian hospitals with millions of vaccines as it hopes to receive two million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in February. Instead, the request made by PA official, Hussein al-Sheikh, Coordinator of Palestinian affairs with Israel, was a meager 10,000 doses to help protect Palestinian frontline workers. Still, the Israeli Health Ministry rejected the request.
According to the Palestinian news agency WAFA, 1,629 Palestinians died and a total of 160,043 were infected with the deadly COVID-19 disease as of January 4. While such dismal numbers can also be found in many parts of the world, the Palestinian coronavirus crisis is compounded by the fact that Palestinians live under an Israeli military occupation, a state of apartheid and, as in the case of Gaza, an unrelenting siege.
Worse still, starting early last year, the Israeli military conducted several operations in various parts of the occupied territories to crack down on Palestinian initiatives to provide free COVID-19 testing. According to the Palestinian rights group, Al Haq, as early as March 2020, several field clinics were shut down and medical equipment confiscated in the Palestinian town of Khirbet Ibziq in the Jordan Valley, in the occupied West Bank. This pattern was repeated in East Jerusalem, Hebron and elsewhere in the following months.
There is no legal or moral justification for Israel’s action. The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 asserts that an Occupying Power has the “duty of ensuring and maintaining … the medical and hospital establishments and services” with “particular reference” on taking the “preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics.”
Even the Oslo Accords, despite their failure to address many crucial topics pertaining to the freedom of the Palestinian people, oblige both sides “to cooperate in combating epidemics and to assist each other in times of emergency,” the New York Times reported.
Not all Israeli officials deny that Israel is legally compelled to provide Palestinians with the help required to contain the rapid spread of the pandemic. This admission, however, comes with conditions. Former Israeli Ambassador, Alan Baker, told NYT that, while international law does “place an obligation on Israel” to help in the provision of vaccines to Palestinians, Palestinians must first release several Israeli soldiers who were captured in Gaza during and after the 2014 war.
The irony in Baker’s logic is that Israel holds over 5,000 Palestinian prisoners, including women and children, hundreds of whom are imprisoned without trial or due process.
The captured Israelis are held in Gaza as a bargaining chip, to be exchanged for the easing of Israel’s hermetic blockade on the densely populated Strip. One of the Palestinians’ main demands for the release of the soldiers is that Israel allows for the transfer of medical equipment and life-saving medication to the two million people of the Gaza Strip. International and Palestinian human rights groups have long reported on many unnecessary deaths among Palestinians in Gaza because Israel deliberately prevents Gazan hospitals from acquiring cancer medications.
Long before the onset of the coronavirus, Israel has weaponized medicine, and Gaza’s dilapidated health sector is a standing testimony to this injustice.
Perhaps, the overcrowded Israeli prisons remain the glaring testimony of Israel’s mishandling of the COVID-19 outbreak. Despite repeated calls by the United Nations and, particularly, the World Health Organization, that states should take immediate measures to help ease the crisis in their prison systems, Israel has done little for Palestinian prisoners. Al Haq reported that Israel “has taken no adequate measures to improve provision of healthcare and hygiene for Palestinian prisoners” in line with the WHO “guidance for preventing COVID-19 outbreak in prisons.” The consequences were dire, as the spread of COVID among Palestinian prisoners continues to claim new victims at a much higher ratio compared with Israeli prisoners.
Israel’s intentional hampering of Palestinian efforts to fight COVID is consistent with a trajectory of racism, where colonized Palestinians are exploited for their land, water and cheap labor, while never factoring as a priority on Israel’s checklist, even during the time of a deadly pandemic. Israel is an Occupying Power that refuses to acknowledge or respect any of its basic obligations as an Occupying Power under international law.
The Israeli attempt at manipulating Palestinian suffering as a result of the pandemic should also challenge our view of the fundamental relationship between Israel and the Palestinians. Frequently we speak of Israel’s apartheid in Palestine, often illustrating that assertion referring to giant walls, fences and military checkpoints that cage in Palestinian communities and segregate them from one another.
This, however, is merely the physical manifestation of Israeli colonialism and apartheid. In Israel, apartheid runs much deeper as it reaches almost every facet of society where Israeli Jews, including settlers, are treated as superior, while Palestinian Arabs, whether Christian or Muslims, are denied their most basic rights, including those guaranteed under international law.
While Israel’s behavior is not entirely surprising, it being consistent with the sordid reality of military occupation and institutional racism, it is also self-defeating. Despite the obvious imbalance in the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians, they are in constant contact, not as equals but as occupier and occupied. Since the coronavirus does not respect Israel’s matrix of control in Palestine, it will travel across all of the physical divides that Israel has created to ensure permanent oppression of Palestinians. Hence, there can be no containing of COVID-19 in Israel if it continues to spread among Palestinians.
Long after the deadly pandemic is contained, the tragedy of occupied Palestine will, sadly, continue unhindered, until the day that Israel is forced to end its military occupation of Palestine and the Palestinians.
2020 will go down in history as the year that terminated the American-sponsored ‘peace process’. While 2021 will not reverse the monumental change in the US attitude and objectives in Palestine, Israel and the Middle East, the new year presents Palestinians with the opportunity to think outside the American box.
The previous year began with an unmistakable American push to translate its new political discourse with decisive action. On January 28, the so-called ‘Deal of the Century’ was declared as an actual political doctrine. A new political lexicon began to quickly take hold. The ‘peace process’, which has dominated the American language for several decades, seemed a distant memory. Because the Palestinian Authority has, for decades, molded its own strategy to accommodate American demands and expectations, the shift in Washington left the PA with very few options.
On February 1, PA President, Mahmoud Abbas, declared the severing of all diplomatic ties with Israel and the US, followed by an announcement in May that the Palestinian leadership was canceling all agreements between itself and Israel, including the end of all security ties. While the Palestinian decision may have served the purpose of temporarily quelling Palestinians’ anger, it served no practical purpose, and it was short-lived, anyway.
On November 17, the PA resumed all security and civil ties with Israel, thwarting the renewed unity talks between rival groups Hamas and Fatah. The talks had begun in July and, unlike previous meetings, the two main Pa lestinian factions seemed united around a set of political ideas, lead amongst them their rejection of the US ‘Deal of the Century’ and Israel’s plans to annex large parts of the occupied territories.
In the final analysis, the PA, which hardly enjoyed much respect among Palestinians, has lost whatever trust it still commanded among its rivals. Abbas seemed to be using unity talks as a pressure tool to caution Washington and Tel Aviv that he still possessed some political cards.
However, while the Palestinian leadership has, in the past, succeeded in playing the waiting game which guaranteed the flow of money since its inception in 1994, that strategy is now coming to a halt. US priorities in the Middle East have obviously changed, and even the PA’s European allies hardly see Abbas and his Authority as a priority. A weakened European Union, due to the unceremonious departure of Britain and the devastating economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, has pushed Palestine to the bottom of Western agendas.
If 2021 is to bring about any positive change in the trajectory of the Palestinian struggle for freedom, new strategies would have to replace the old ones.
Instead, thinking should shift completely into a whole new political landscape:
First, Palestinian unity must be redefined so it is not confined to a mere political arrangement between rivals Hamas and Fatah, each motivated by its own agenda and self-preservation. Unity should be expounded to include a national dialogue among all Palestinians, so that the Palestinian people, at home, or in ‘shataat’ (diaspora), should be part of forming a new Palestinian – not factional – vision.
Second, a new vision should be developed and articulated to replace useless clichés, dogmas and wishful thinking. A two-state solution is simply unattainable, not because Israel and the US have done their utmost to bury it, but because, even if implemented, it will not satisfy the minimal expectations of Palestinian rights.
In a two-state scenario, Palestinians would remain geographically and politically fragmented, and no realistic and just implementation of the right of return can possibly be carried out. A ‘One Democratic State’ in Palestine and Israel cannot possibly address all the injustices of the past, but it is the most meaningful threshold aimed at imagining a possible, and certainly better, future for all.
Third, the obsessive reliance on Washington as the only party capable of mediating between Israel and Palestine must end. Not only did the US demonstrate its untrustworthiness through its generous and relentless military and political support to Israel, it has positioned itself as a major obstacle in the path of Palestinian freedom and liberation.
It behooves the Palestinian leadership to understand that the balances of global power are fundamentally changing and that the US and Israel are no longer the only hegemons in the Middle East region. It is time for Palestinians to diversify their options, strengthen their ties with rising Asian powers and reach out to South American and African countries to reverse the total political and economic dependency on the US and its allies.
Fourth, although popular resistance in Palestine has constantly expressed itself in numerous forms, it is yet to be harnessed as a sustainable platform of resistance that can be translated into political capital.
2020 began with the suspension of Gaza’s Great March of Return, which brought tens of thousands of Palestinians together in a historic show of unity. However, Palestinians in the occupied West Bank are desperately trying to navigate two overlapping matrices of control: the Israeli occupation and the PA. This has proven detrimental, as it marginalizes the Palestinian people from playing a fundamental role in shaping their own struggle. Popular resistance must serve as the backbone of any authentic Palestinian vision for liberation.
Fifth, for the new Palestinian political discourse to matter internationally, it has to be backed by a global solidarity movement that rallies behind a unified Palestinian vision, while advocating Palestinian rights at city, state and national levels. The decisive US-Israeli attack on the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS) is a testament to the success of this tactic in changing the narrative on Palestine and Israel.
Yet, while there is already a strong foundation of Palestinian solidarity around the world, this movement should not be focused only on academic hubs and intellectual circles, but work its way to reach ordinary people, globally.
2020 may have been a devastating year for Palestine, but a closer look would allow us to see it as an opportunity for a whole new Palestinian political discourse.
It is convenient to surmise that Israel’s current political crisis is consistent with the country’s unfailing trajectory of short-lived governments and fractious ruling coalitions. While this view is somewhat defensible, it is also hasty.
Israel is currently at the cusp of a fourth general election in less than two years. Even by Israel’s political standards, this phenomenon is unprecedented, not only in terms of the frequency of how often Israelis vote, but also of the constant shifting in possible coalitions and seemingly strange alliances.
It seems that the only constant in the process of forming coalitions following each election is that Arab parties must not, under any circumstances, be allowed into a future government. Decision-making in Israel has historically been reserved for the country’s Jewish elites. This is unlikely to change anytime soon.
Even when the Arab parties’ coalition, the Joint List, imposed itself as a possible kingmaker following the September 2019 elections, the centrist Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) list refused to join forces with Arab politicians to oust Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Kahol Lavan’s leader, Benny Gantz, preferred to go back to the polls on March 2 and eventually join forces with his arch-enemy, Netanyahu, than make a single concession to the Joint List.
Gantz’s decision did not only expose how racism occupies a central role in Israeli politics, but also illustrated Gantz’s own foolishness. In rejecting the Joint List, he committed an act akin to political suicide. On the very day, March 26, that he joined a Netanyahu-led coalition, his own Blue and White alliance collapsed, with Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid and Moshe Ya’alon of Telem breaking away immediately from the once-dominant coalition.
Worse, Gantz lost not just the respect of his own political constituency, but of the Israeli public as well. According to an opinion poll released by Israel’s Channel 12 News on December 15, if elections were to be held on that day, Gantz’s Blue and White would receive only 6 seats out of 120 seats available in the Israeli Knesset. Gantz’s former coalition partner, Yesh Atid, according to the same poll, would obtain an impressive 14 seats.
While Netanyahu’s Likud Party will remain on top with 27 seats, Gideon Sa’ar’s “New Hope – Unity for Israel,” would come a close second with 21 seats. Sa’ar’s is a brand new party, which represents the first major split from the Likud since the late Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, formed the offshoot Kadima party in 2005.
Netanyahu and Sa’ar have a long history of bad blood between them, and although anything is possible in the formation of Israel’s political alliances, a future right-wing coalition that brings them both together is a dim possibility. If Sa’ar has learned anything from Gantz’s act of political self-mutilation, it is that any coalition with Netanyahu is a grave and costly mistake.
Ideological differences between Netanyahu and Sa’ar are quite minimal. In fact, both are fighting to obtain the vote of essentially the same constituency – although Sa’ar is hoping to extend his appeal to the disgruntled and betrayed Blue and White voters, who are eager to see someone – anyone – oust Netanyahu.
Never in the history of Israel, spanning seven decades, had a single individual served as the focal point of the country’s many political currents. While beloved by some, Netanyahu is much loathed by many, to the extent that entire parties or whole coalitions are formed simply to remove him from politics. That in mind, the majority of Israelis agree that the man is corrupt, as he has been indicted in three separate criminal cases.
However, if this is the case, how is a politically controversial and corrupt leader able to remain at the helm of Israeli politics for over 14 years? The typical answer often alludes to the man’s unmatched skills of manipulation and backdoor shady dealings. In the words of Yossi Verter, writing in the daily Haaretz, Netanyahu is “a first-class master swindler”.
This analysis alone, however, is not enough to explain Netanyahu’s durability as the longest-serving Israeli Prime Minister. There is an alternative reading, however, one that is predicated on the fact that Israel has been, for quite some time, navigating uncharted political territories without a specific destination in mind.
Prior to the inception of Israel on the ruins of historic Palestine in 1948, Israel’s Jewish political elites clashed quite often over the best way to colonize Palestine, how to deal with the British Mandate over the country, among other weighty subjects. These differences, however, largely faded away in 1948, when the newly-founded country unified under the banner of Mapai – the predecessor to Israel’s current Labor party – which dominated Israeli politics for decades.
Mapai’s dominance received a major boost after the Israeli occupation of the remainder of Palestine in 1967. The building and expansion of more Jewish colonies in the newly-acquired territories breathed life into the mission of Israel’s founding fathers. It was as if Zionism, the founding ideology of Israel, was rediscovered once more.
It was not until 1977 that the erstwhile negligible Israeli right formed a government for the first time in the country’s history. That date also ushered in a new age of political instability, which worsened with time. Still, Israeli politicians remained largely committed to three main causes in this specific order: the Zionist ideology, the party and the politicians’ own interests.
The assassination of the Labor Party leader, Yitzhak Rabin, at the hands of a right-wing Israeli zealot in 1995, was a bloody manifestation of the new era of unprecedented fragmentation that followed. A decade later, when Sharon declared the ‘Disengagement from Gaza’ plan of 2005, he further upset a barely functioning political balance, leading to the formation of Kadima, which threatened to erase the Likud from the political map.
Throughout these turbulent times, Netanyahu was always present, playing the same divisive role, as usual. He led the incitement against Rabin and, later, challenged Sharon over the leadership of the Likud. On the other hand, he was also responsible for resurrecting the Likud and he kept it alive notwithstanding its many ideological, political and leadership crises. The latter fact explains Likud’s loyalty to Netanyahu, despite his corruption, nepotism and dirty politics. They feel that, without Netanyahu’s leadership, the Likud could easily follow the same path of irrelevance or total demise as was the case with the Labor and Kadima parties, respectively.
With none of Israel’s founding fathers alive or relevant in the political arena, it is hard to imagine what course Israel’s future politics will follow. Certainly, the love affair with the settlement enterprise, ‘security’ and war is likely to carry on unhindered, as they are the bread and butter of Israeli politics. Yet, without a clear ideology, especially when combined with the lack of a written Constitution, Israeli politics will remain hostage to the whims of politicians and their personal interests, if not that of Netanyahu, then of someone else.