Thursday, February 28, 2008

A human chain against the siege

Rami Almeghari writing from the occupied Gaza Strip, Live from Palestine, 28 February 2008

Palestinian schoolchildren in Gaza attend take part in a human chain demonstration calling for an end to the Israeli blocklade, 25 February 2008.

On 25 February, the besieged people of Gaza spoke out against the Israeli-imposed closure of their territory when thousands of Palestinian men, women, schoolchildren and members of parliament formed a human chain on the main roads along the border with Israel.

Participants chanted slogans against the crippling Israeli siege which has been branded by human rights organizations and many Western governments as collective punishment against Gaza's population of 1.5 million.

Mosheera, a schoolteacher, stood with her pupils who were lined up and carrying posters at the Zemo junction close to the Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip.

"We have been besieged by the world, the Arab world, with no one listening to us. Therefore, we decided as one people to come here today in this chain to send out one message to the whole world: enough silence over the Gaza siege, enough silence over the killings of Palestinians, enough the silence over the deaths of patients because of the blockade," Mosheera said with anger.

Early in the week, a popular campaign to end the siege launched a one-week protest, locally and internationally, with many stores in Gaza closing for three hours.

Monday's human chain came during a devastating Israeli blockade which began in June 2007 immediately after the elected Hamas party took control of the coastal territory amidst a power struggle with Mahmoud Abbas' rival Fatah party.

Rami Abdo, organizer of the human chain and the campaign's coordinator, spoke about the grave consequences of the eight-month siege: "Every month, 600 patients apply ... for referral [for treatment] outside Gaza, and according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, 20 to 25 percent of such applications have been rejected [by Israel]."

"This means that Israel has already sentenced ... patients to death, the majority of them children," Abdo said, referring to patients who have already died since the June closure because they were not able to receive necessary treatment. By not issuing travel permits, Abdo added, "Israel has already sentenced to death [an additional] 1,200 patients over the past eight months."

The al-Dameer Center for Human rights, based in Gaza where specialized treatment is often unavailable and the siege has severely impacted medical services, reported that since June 100 patients who were in need of medical care outside of Gaza have died after their applications were denied or delayed.

In addition, the Palestinian Ministry of Economy in Gaza reported that more than 90 percent of Gaza's industrial facilities have been forced to shut down, leaving more than 70,000 local laborers jobless.

UN records indicate that more than 80 percent of Gaza's 1.5 million residents now depend entirely on food assistance currently provided by the UN agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA, as the closures have hastened the collapse of Gaza's already fragile economy.

The human chain ended with a press conference by Hamas parliamentarians just a few hundred meters away from the Erez crossing with Israel in northern Gaza. The Hamas officials conveyed a strongly-worded message of protest against the crippling closure that many contend is a bid to erode popular support for the Islamist party.

"Today, the Palestinian people are sending a message to the world that we are against the siege, against the threats from our enemy who tries to kill us, to kill our spirit. But we are here today to tell the world that we are still alive, we are steadfast and nothing will kill us," Jamila al-Shanti, member of parliament and chairwoman of its women's committee told The Electronic Intifada.

Another human chain participant, a high school student named Samar, stated, "I would like to ask a question to the Arab leaders around us: when will you wake up? Will you wake up after the entire Palestinian people have already died?"

Thursday, February 21, 2008

If Not Now, When?

If Kosovo, Why Not Palestine?


Kosovo has now issued its anticipated unilateral declaration of independence, and the United States and most European Union countries, with which this declaration was coordinated, are rushing to extend diplomatic recognition to this "new country", a course of action which should strike anyone with an attachment to either international law or common sense as breathtakingly reckless.

The potentially destabilizing consequences of this precedent (which the U.S. and the EU insist, bizarrely, should not be viewed as a precedent) have been much discussed with reference to other unhappy portions of other internationally recognized sovereign states with strong separatist movements practicing precarious but effective self-rule, such as Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transniestria, Ngorno-Karabakh, Bosnia's Republika Srpska, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as to discontented minorities elsewhere. One potentially constructive consequence has not yet been discussed.

The American and EU impatience to amputate a portion of a UN member state (universally recognized, even by them, to constitute a portion of that state's sovereign territory), ostensibly because 90% of those living in that portion of the state's territory support separation, contrasts starkly with the unlimited patience of the U.S. and the EU when it comes to ending the 40-year-long belligerent occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (no portion of which any country recognizes as Israel's sovereign territory and as to which Israel has only even asserted sovereignty over a tiny portion, occupied East Jerusalem). Virtually every legal resident of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip seeks freedom -- and has for over 40 years. For doing so, they are punished, sanctioned, besieged, humiliated and, day after endless day, killed by those who claim to stand on the moral high ground.

In American and EU eyes, a Kosovar declaration of independence from Serbian sovereignty should be recognized even if Serbia does not agree. However, their attitude was radically different when Palestine declared independence from Israeli occupation on November 15, 1988. Then the U.S. and the EU countries (which, in their own eyes, constitute the "international community", to the exclusion of most of mankind) were conspicuously absent when over 100 countries recognized the new State of Palestine, and their non-recognition made this declaration of independence purely "symbolic" in their own eyes and, unfortunately, in most Palestinian and other eyes as well.

For the U.S. and the EU, any Palestinian independence, to be recognized and legally effective, must still be directly negotiated, on a wildly unequal bilateral basis, between the occupying power and the occupied people -- and must be agreed to by the occupying power. For the U.S. and the EU, the rights and desires of a long-suffering and brutalized occupied people, as well as international law, are irrelevant.

For the U.S. and the EU, Kosovar Albanians, having enjoyed almost nine years of UN administration and NATO protection, cannot be expected to wait any longer for their freedom, while the Palestinians, having endured over 40 years of Israeli occupation, can wait forever.

With the "Annapolis process" going nowhere, as was clearly the Israeli and American intention from the start, the Kosovo precedent offers the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership, accepted as such by the "international community" because it is perceived as serving Israeli and American interests, a golden opportunity to seize the initiative, to reset the agenda and to restore its tarnished reputation in the eyes of its own people.

If this leadership truly believes, despite all evidence to the contrary, that a decent "two-state solution" is still possible, now is an ideal moment to reaffirm the legal existence (albeit under continuing belligerent occupation) of the State of Palestine, explicitly in the entire 22% of Mandatory Palestine which was not conquered and occupied by the State of Israel until 1967, and to call on all those countries which did not extend diplomatic recognition to the State of Palestine in 1988 -- and particularly the U.S. and the EU states -- to do so now.

The Kosovar Albanian leadership has promised protection for Kosovo's Serb minority, which is now expected to flee in fear. The Palestinian leadership could promise to accord a generous period of time for the Israeli colonists living illegally in the State of Palestine and the Israeli occupation forces to withdraw, as well as to consider an economic union with Israel, open borders and permanent resident status for those illegal colonists willing to live in peace under Palestinian rule.

Of course, to prevent the U.S. and the EU from treating such an initiative as a joke, there would have to be a significant and explicit consequence if they were to do so. The consequence would be the end of the "two-state" illusion. The Palestinian leadership would make clear that if the U.S. and the EU, having just recognized a second Albanian state on the sovereign territory of a UN member state, will not now recognize one Palestinian state on a tiny portion of the occupied Palestinian homeland, it will dissolve the "Palestinian Authority" (which, legally, should have ceased to exist in 1999, at the end of the five-year "interim period" under the Oslo Accords) and the Palestinian people will thereafter seek justice and freedom through democracy -- through the persistent, non-violent pursuit of full rights of citizenship in a single state in all of Israel/Palestine, free of any discrimination based on race and religion and with equal rights for all who live there, as in any true democracy.

Palestinian leaderships have tolerated Western hypocrisy and racism and played the role of gullible fools for far too long. It is time to kick over the table, constructively, and to shock the "international community" into taking notice that the Palestinian people simply will not tolerate unbearable injustice and abuse any longer.

If not now, when?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A state of war and peace

Palestinians mourn over the bodies of eight Palestinians who were killed in an explosion in al-Bureij refugee camp, central Gaza Strip, on 6 February 2008. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)

Hasan Abu Nimah, The Electronic Intifada, 20 February 2008

The car bomb assassination in Damascus of Imad Mughniyeh has created a heightened state of tension in the region. Almost every commentator, no matter what perspective he/she comes from, expects the killing to spark a fresh round of deadly violence; as if the region had room for more.

It is hard to speculate on the outcome of this serious development, but it is very unlikely that it will pass without dire consequences, for Lebanon and the region.

Unfortunately, neither tension nor violence is unusual in our part of the world. Wars, active or dormant, are the norm between Israel and its neighbors. This state of affairs was once described as "no war no peace," but in fact it is an unstable state of "war and peace" at the same time.

Israel is in an active and deadly war against the Palestinians, and at "peace" with them at the same time. Every day, Israeli occupation forces and settlers inflict brutal violence on the Palestinians, killing and kidnapping innocent people, destroying houses and confiscating land for colonization.

Just two days after the assassination in Damascus, another resistance leader from Islamic Jihad was killed by a huge explosion in Gaza along with three of his children, his wife and three of his neighbors. Dozens of other people, including many children, were injured, some very seriously.

As I write, it is not clear if his house, which was entirely demolished, and six neighboring houses also severely damaged, were bombed by an Israeli F-16 from the sky, as initially reported, or by another method. That makes no difference. The carnage is daily and continuing.

By any account, this is a very high human toll in only one incident in a day that may include many others on the Palestinian theatre alone. The Palestinians have retaliated by firing barrages of Qassam rockets on Israeli targets, but because they are "futile," they cause few injuries. No day passes without injuries, deaths and attacks. Israel has denied its involvement in this murder, as it did in the one that had earlier taken place in Damascus.

While this brutal war goes on, cordial (though utterly sterile) negotiations and daily contacts are conducted with Palestinian "leaders" in Ramallah as if they were the best of allies and friends. Not once did the leaders of the Israeli-recognized Palestinian Authority refrain from attending meetings with their Israeli counterparts in protest over Israeli state terrorism against other Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza, or in protest at the continuation of settlement activity and land theft. It is a state of war and peace with the Palestinians at the same time.

In a wider context, Israel has peace treaties with some Arab countries, such as Egypt and Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority if the Oslo accords, or what is left of them, count as one. It has diplomatic relations and other formal ties with Mauritania and some Gulf states, but it remains at war with other Arab countries, such as Syria, whose land Israel has occupied in 1967.

Israel's position vis-a-vis the other Arab countries could either be a state of "war and peace" or "no war no peace"; it makes no difference. More broadly, Israel's visibly cordial relations with some willing Palestinians and Arabs are designed to spread the impression that it has resolved its problems with the Palestinians and the Arabs and that the determined resistance to its continued occupation, racism and aggression is unjustifiable "extremism," not the natural reaction to its policies.

In the case of Lebanon, part of the country is not necessarily aligned with Israel, but shares its hostility to Hizballah, which millions of Lebanese see as both a legitimate resistance movement until all the land of Lebanon is freed from occupation and a political party. Playing on these divisions, external powers have tried to forge a de facto alliance between Israel and those they define as "moderates" in the region. This meddling in Lebanon is driving the country further apart and, some fear, a renewed civil war.

The assassination of Mughniyeh could tip the Israeli-Lebanese front into open war, just as it could fuel the tension in Lebanon.

Hizballah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, despite Israeli denial of any involvement, has promised to avenge Mughniyeh's killing vowing "open war." Israel is putting its entire military potential on high alert to "retaliate" to any retaliation. The United States, which normally claims to oppose terrorism, openly celebrated the killing of Mughniyeh, something that might reinforce the impression that it only opposes terrorism directed at itself or its friends. Israel will see this open US support as a green light for further provocations, irrespective of whether it was responsible for killing Mughniyeh or not. That is extremely dangerous, particularly in view of the fact that the assassination violated Syrian sovereignty, regardless of the target's classification.

It is a frightening situation which, one hopes, will not escalate. But in view of the fact that both Hizballah and Israel seem to be desperate for another round in a war that neither side considers finished, this may be the opportunity. Israel is still reeling from its failed attempt to destroy Hizballah in 2006 and the humiliating aftermath that demolished the myth of an all-powerful Israeli army. Israeli strategists do not want that defeat to be the last word and may want to erase its bitter memory either with another war on Lebanon or with a large-scale attack on Gaza to try to remove Hamas.

For its part, Hizballah is unlikely to allow Mughniyeh's murder to go without retaliation. What is unclear is how it will respond. Even if the organization avoids a straightforward repeat of the July 2006 incident, when the abduction of two Israeli soldiers and the killing of others provided Israel with the pretext for its devastating assault on Lebanon's infrastructure and civilian population, there is no guarantee that Israel will not repeat its approach of indiscriminate and massive violence. In confrontations such as these, one can try to play a "safe" game, without being sure that the opponent will abide by the same rules.

The Mughniyeh killing, much like the abduction of two Israeli soldiers in July 2006, will go down in the records of history as the cause of any violence that may rage after, with the implied assumption that it would have been avoided if there had been no killing. That is unfortunately not true. With such a highly charged situation, ignition sparks can happen any time from many sources. It is no more a hidden fact that the 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon was planned long before the abduction of the soldiers.

Construction continuing in West Bank settlements despite PM's pledge

By Amos Harel, Haaretz Correspondent

A new neighborhood comprising 27 trailers is currently under construction at the settlement of Eli, north of Ramallah, even though Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed publicly after the Annapolis conference that any such building would cease.

Even though some of the trailers are being set up on land privately owned by Palestinians, the authorities are taking no action.

Similar unauthorized construction has taken place in the settlement of Maskiot in the northern Jordan Valley. Last December, after the Annapolis conference, Olmert promised to freeze construction in the settlements. But developments in a number of settlements suggest that the settlers are trying to initiate a new wave of construction.

The most notable case is Eli, where work is underway to link the 27 trailers to infrastructure. The construction, which began about a month ago, is expected to be completed in the coming days.

The trailers were put up on site because the Civil Administration imposes severe restrictions on moving complete trailers in the West Bank.

The trailers were placed on land near the Palestinian village of Luban al-Sharqiyah, on the other side of Route 60, connecting Jerusalem and Nablus. They are near the Kinor neighborhood at the Eli settlement.

According to Hagit Ofran, who heads the monitoring of settlement activity for Peace Now, the trailers were set up on privately owned Palestinian land. Ofran bases her claims on comparisons between the trailers' location and data the Civil Administration gave to Peace Now on land ownership in the West Bank.

Security sources also confirmed to Haaretz that at least some of the trailers were placed on privately owned land. For its part, the Yesha Council, which represents settlers in the territories, maintains that the construction has been undertaken on state-controlled land.

Regardless of who owns the land, it is certain that the construction at Eli is being done without authorization. The settlement lacks an approved blueprint for construction and expansion, and if the land is indeed private Palestinian property, there is no way to issue authorization for building.

There is also no evidence that the construction has been carried out with any authorization from the political leadership.

The Civil Administration has not taken any practical steps to prevent the new construction. The defense establishment is investigating the building at Eli and the nearby outposts, because it seems that large portions of the settlement were put up illegally.

Last week, Channel 1 reported that 10 settler families moved in at Maskiot in the Jordan Valley. Maskiot began as a base for Nahal, a military unit, and several years ago included a pre-conscription military academy for national-religious youth.

In December 2006, then-defense minister Amir Peretz approved the decision to build 30 new homes there, where the evacuees from the settlement of Shirat Hayam in Gush Katif could be housed. Peretz revoked his decision after he came under criticism.

Construction was renewed in Maskiot recently, without government approval, and earlier this month the families were brought in to live in the new houses. The Civil Administration issued orders for razing seven homes that were built illegally.

According to Captain Tzidki Maman, spokesman for the Civil Administration, "the illegal construction at Eli is known and is being examined. Another part of the construction is being considered by the High Court of Justice."

He says that the Maskiot construction "is under constant monitoring and orders to raze the illegal construction have been issued. The implementation of the orders will be carried out on the basis of broader policy and considerations."

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

London School of Economics student union votes for divestment

Press Release, LSE SU Palestine Society, 19 February 2008

The London School of Economics Students' Union (LSESU) on 14 February voted overwhelmingly to call on its university and the National Union of Students (NUS) to divest from companies that provide military and commercial support for the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, condemning the decades of human rights abuses and systematic oppression that has occurred as a result.

A motion, brought to the weekly Union General Meeting of more than 400 LSE students by the LSESU Palestine Society, resolved to lobby the LSE and NUS to divest from companies that provide military support for the Israeli occupation, facilitate the maintenance of the illegal "annexation" wall or operate on illegally occupied land or within Jewish only settlements. With a six to one margin, the Union voted to support the aim of targeted divestment until companies cease such practices or until Israel ends its discriminatory oppression and colonization of Palestinian communities.

The Union also resolved to affiliate to the international campaign to end the siege on Gaza and engage in education campaigns to publicize more widely the injustices of Israel's discriminatory polices. This includes working with Palestine solidarity organizations such as Jews for Justice for Palestinians, the British Committee for Universities in Palestine, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Zochrot and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition, in a bid to end the legalized racial and religious discrimination in Israel.

This has been the result of much debate on LSE's campus over recent weeks, following an earlier motion which acknowledged growing public comparisons made between Apartheid South Africa and the legalized ethnic segregation that has been imposed for decades by the Israeli state. As such, the original proposed motion was amended to provide consensus across the Union in unequivocally condemning Israel's policy of ethnic segregation, with 339 students voting in favor of divestment compared to just 46 against.

Irene Calis of the LSESU Palestine Society stated: "This is an historic moment in the struggle for justice and peace for all citizens of the Middle East. It is time for us to demand our universities divest and stop funding Palestinian oppression. By putting political and economic pressure on the Israeli state, the student movement can not only show continued solidarity with the Palestinian people, but also expedite the end of the Israeli occupation."

Emilano Huet-Vaughn, who spoke in favor of the motion, added, "The resounding support for divestment after lengthy debate shows growing awareness of Israel's systematic discrimination against the Palestinian people and a disgust with the colonial settler regime in the West Bank, and the brutal siege of the Gaza Strip. As a result many LSE students of all backgrounds have voted to take a stand for justice, equality and human rights for all."

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Severe misrepresentation of Palestine Awareness Week


On Tuesday night, visiting Professor Neve Gordon from Ben-Gurion University of the Political Science Department gave a lecture titled "From Colonization to Separation: Exploring the Structure of Israel's Occupation" on behalf of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality. This event was the second event of Palestine Awareness Week, an attempt by SAFE to educate and engage the campus body regarding issues surrounding Palestine and the Zionist-Palestinian conflict.

Gordon's lecture proposed several different arguments regarding the nature of Israel's current occupation of the sovereign Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip. During his presentation, Professor Gordon explained Israel's fundamental responsibility to the Palestinians under direct Israeli control. Professor Gordon explained that because the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are under total Israeli domination, deemed illegal under international law by UN Resolution 242, Israel has a fundamental and inescapable obligation to the wellbeing of the Palestinians. In addition, Professor Gordon noted the difference and increase in Israeli state violence toward the Palestinians as part of a vicious cycle of bloodshed initiated by Israel's maltreatment of the occupied Palestinians since 1967 and the subsequent Palestinian response in 1987. Specifically, Professor Gordon juxtaposed the amount of Palestinians and Israelis killed between 1987 and 2000 to the number of Palestinians and Israelis killed between 2000 and 2006. Professor Gordon's numbers demonstrated that there was a substantial increase in the loss of Palestinian life; twice as many Palestinians were killed during the second Intifada than in the prior 34 years of occupation. Professor Gordon's statistics also showed that the number Israelis killed increased between these two respective periods.

Daniel Strauss, who covered the event, grossly misrepresented the content and message of Professor Gordon's lecture. First, Strauss both misquoted and misreported Gordon's discussion of the increase in violence by only citing Gordon's presentation of the increase in Israeli deaths in the period between 1987 and 2000 and that of 2000 and 2006. Professor Gordon's purpose in presenting these statistics was to demonstrate the dramatic increase in violence on both sides and that far more Palestinians had died than Israelis. Strauss's reporting made it appear that Gordon was trying to paint the Israelis as the ultimate victims of the increase in violence.

Second, Strauss implied that Palestinian laborers have benefited from Israeli occupation because they are in a better financial position than under traditional landowning. This is out of context, as Gordon explained that the occupier always has a responsibility to the occupied. The occupation has forced Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to be fully dependent on a colonizing power. Because of the occupation, the Palestinians are forced to endure ever-increasing Israeli attacks on every aspect of their lives, locking them into a subhuman and subjugated existence.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

How the EU helps Israel to strangle Gaza

David Morrison, The Electronic Intifada, 14 February 2008

How is Israel able to strangle the Gaza Strip when there is supposed to be an international crossing between Gaza and Egypt not controlled by Israelis?

Certainly, free movement was the promise held out in the comprehensive Agreement on Movement and Access, signed more than two years ago by Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). The first of the six components of this agreement was that there would be a crossing between Gaza and Egypt at Rafah, controlled by the PA and Egypt. At the time, this was hailed as an historic step on the road to a Palestinian state -- for the first time, it was said, Palestinians would have access to the outside world free from Israeli control.

So, how was Israel still able to impose a suffocating blockade on the Strip, home to almost 1.5 million Palestinians, eighty percent of them refugees? After Palestinian forces opened the border wall on 23 January, breaking the siege, many Palestinians blamed Egypt for not doing the same much earlier to relieve the suffering and deprivation that had brought Gaza to within days of running out of food and medicine. But however complicit Egypt may have been it was not alone.

It was primarily through the good offices of the European Union (EU), which had a formal role in managing the Rafah crossing, that Israel always had a veto on the opening of the crossing. In practice, whenever Israel didn't want the crossing open, the EU obligingly kept it shut.

The Rafah crossing was open almost every day from 25 November 2005 to 24 June 2006, though not for 24 hours a day as intended. However, after 24 June 2006, when an Israeli soldier was captured by Palestinians, the EU, at Israel's insistence, prevented it from opening regularly and then kept it closed completely since 9 June 2007, after Hamas took control of Gaza.

Quartet midwife

The so-called Middle East Quartet (the US, the EU, Russia and the UN) was the midwife of the agreement, and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Javier Solana (EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy) were in Jerusalem on 15 November 2005 to launch it.

Rice said that the agreement "is intended to give the Palestinian people freedom to move, to trade, to live ordinary lives." She added that "for the first time since 1967, Palestinians will gain control over entry and exit from their territory. This will be through an international crossing at Rafah."

Solana also hailed the arrangements: "This is the first time that a border is opened and not controlled by the Israelis. ... So as you can imagine, this is a very important step that is the first time that takes place."

One could be forgiven for thinking that the US and the EU had made arrangements for a border crossing between Gaza and Egypt that was "not controlled by the Israelis" and that from then on Gaza couldn't be strangled by Israel.

EU third party

But reality fell far short of Rice and Solana's claims. The agreement did not provide for commercial goods traffic through the Rafah crossing into Gaza, so it did not facilitate trade. And despite the cosmetics, the crossing has always been controlled by the Israelis. Even though Israel has no personnel, military or otherwise, physically present at the crossing, it has been able to close the crossing at will, just as it can close the crossings between Gaza and Israel itself.

This came about because, under the agreement, a third party must have personnel present at the Rafah crossing before it is allowed to open. The third party is the EU -- and the EU has always refused to man the crossing when Israel didn't want the crossing open. In effect, the EU has acted as a proxy for Israel.

The agreement gives EU personnel at the crossing the authority "to ensure that the PA complies with all applicable rules and regulations concerning the Rafah crossing point and the terms of this agreement" and in the event of perceived non-compliance "to order the re-examination and reassessment of any passenger, luggage, vehicle or goods."

For this purpose, the EU established the grandly titled EU Border Assistance Mission for the Rafah Crossing Point, or EUBAM Rafah. This is a force of less than a hundred, mostly policemen, which is based in Ashkelon in Israel.

In addition to the EU monitors, who are physically present at the crossing, Israeli security forces are able to monitor activity at the crossing remotely, via closed circuit TV and other data links, and can make a record of the individuals crossing. The Israeli monitors are based in Israel at the Kerem Shalom crossing with Gaza, where a liaison office (for liaison between Israel and the PA) is located. One of the duties of the EU, as the third party to the agreement, is to "lead" this office:

"A liaison office, led by the third party, will receive real-time video and data feed of the activities at Rafah and will meet regularly to review implementation of this agreement, resolve any disputes arising from this agreement, and perform other tasks specified in this agreement."

Israeli veto

Ridiculous as it may seem, the EU takes the view that the opening of the crossing is a matter that may be disputed by Israeli representatives in the liaison office. And if they don't agree to it opening, the EU doesn't send its monitors to the crossing, as required for its opening under the terms of the agreement. So, Israel has a veto over the opening of the crossing, even though, according to Rice and Solana, it is "not controlled by the Israelis."

But on the EUBAM website, the answer given to the question "Can EUBAM open the crossing point?" is:

"RCP [Rafah Crossing Point] can only be opened by agreement between the Parties. EUBAM cannot itself open the crossing point."

That is as plain as a pikestaff: in the opinion of the EU, the agreement gives Israel a veto on whether the crossing should open. There is nothing in the agreement to warrant such an interpretation -- and it is in flat contradiction to the words of Rice and Solana that the crossing would "not be controlled by Israelis."

What is more, in the opinion of the EU, the agreement gives Israel the right to close the crossing when it is open. According to a press statement on 14 December 2006, after the crossing opened that day, "the Government of Israel had requested that the crossing be closed due to the expected arrival of Prime Minister Haniyeh, who was reportedly carrying a large sum of money." After consultations with Brussels, the EU closed the crossing.

Since the Israeli-built Gaza-Egypt border wall was torn down, Israel, the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, Egypt and the EU have met to try to restore the arrangements under the agreement. Hamas, excluded from these meetings, has stated that it will not allow a return to the situation of de facto Israeli control through the "third party" proxy and has demanded a role in managing the crossing.

If Gaza is to be immune from strangulation by Israel in future, then the Israeli veto over the opening of the Rafah crossing will have to be ended. In addition, the crossing must cater for commercial traffic into Gaza, which is not provided for under the present agreement.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Jerusalem off the radar

Ben White, The Electronic Intifada, 13 February 2008

Recently, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was reported to have suggested that the question of Jerusalem would be "left to last" in negotiations with the Palestinians. This was apparently on account of the issue being "too sensitive and complex," as well as fears that talks on Jerusalem would cause the departure of religious right-wingers from Olmert's ruling coalition.

Domestic political considerations will certainly have played a part in the prime minister's thinking, but there is another possible motivation for leaving this "final status issue" for further down the road. In recent weeks, and indeed, going back to the December announcement of the expansion of West Bank settlement Har Homa, the Israeli government's approach to Jerusalem has been at best contradictory, and at worst, deeply cynical.

During January there was a rash of reports -- barely covered in the Western media -- about Jewish construction in occupied East Jerusalem. On 23 January, it was reported Agence France-Presse that 30 percent (almost 2,500 housing units) of newly-authorized construction in Jerusalem municipality was slated for areas in occupied or illegally annexed East Jerusalem. Just last week, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that plans were advanced for 200 Jewish homes in a "strategic location" in East Jerusalem requiring "Palestinian buildings" to "be demolished to make room."

Another example is the new housing units in Maaleh Hazeitim, a project initially funded by the patron of ultra-nationalist Ateret Cohanim group, Irwin Moskowitz, and backed by Jerusalem mayor at the time, Ehud Olmert. Those behind the increasing construction, Haaretz reports, intend Maaleh Hazeitim to be an obstacle to creating Palestinian territorial continuity "between the West Bank to the east, and the Temple Mount."

There is more, such as the private developments of Nof Zion and the City of David housing project, the former specifically targeted at Jewish-Americans. While not official government initiatives, Israeli architect Efrat Cohen-Bar, from the planning rights non-governmental organization Bimkom, pointed out that "all small settlements of Jews in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods make it impossible to divide."

Olmert's office, meanwhile, continues to send confusing messages about official policy towards the settlements. One week, there is a much-heralded freeze on settlement expansion in the West Bank -- but excluding East Jerusalem. The next week, it is a total ban, including construction in existing settlements. Then to make all of that seem academic, brand new buildings spring up in occupied East Jerusalem.

It is actually a misnomer to describe Jerusalem as being any more or less complicated than the other elements of a future agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. International law already caters to the broad territorial questions about dividing the city, and there are numerous, highly practical, solutions available for the delicate matter of sovereignty over the Old City's holy places.

In reality, what makes it so difficult to find a solution is the cross-party consensus in the Israeli political establishment that Jerusalem is the "eternal, undivided" capital of the Jewish state. From the Knesset's 1980 declaration to then Prime Minister Ehud Barak's party election manifesto in 2000 and public declarations by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, there is complete unity around this compromise-defying policy.

Such a position can never be accepted by the Palestinians, who, for their part, are simply demanding that international law be heeded, that Israel's post-1967 annexation and occupation should not be recognized, and that East Jerusalem becomes the sovereign capital of their independent state. Yet as any map of Jerusalem shows, successive Israeli governments of the last forty years have deliberately used settlement construction in order to encircle the unilaterally-expanded municipality and render equitable partition impossible.

Reports that Olmert is feeling the heat from the ultra-Orthodox members of his coalition may be read by some as yet another example of the deleterious effects of religious extremism. In fact, persisting in the fiction not only that Jerusalem is "eternal and undivided," but that peace can be built on such a position, is part of the Israeli mainstream. Thus it might well be the case that leaving Jerusalem "to last" is actually an intentional move, freeing up Israel to create yet more "facts on the ground" in the meantime.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Israel's "next logical step"

Israeli border police take position during a protest against the Israeli wall in the West Bank village of al-Khader, 8 February 2008. (Luay Sababa/MaanImages)

Ali Abunimah, The Electronic Intifada, 11 February 2008

"The next logical step" for the Israeli government "will have to be a decision whether to target the top political leadership" of Hamas. So said an Israeli official quoted in The Jerusalem Post. Tzahi Hanegbi, a senior member of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Kadima party and chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, echoed the call, arguing that "There's no difference between those who wear a suicide suit and a diplomat's suit." Following a cabinet meeting on 10 February, Israel's Interior Minister Shimon Sheetrit specifically called for the execution of Ismail Haniyeh, the democratically-elected Hamas prime minister, and added that for good measure "We must take a neighborhood in Gaza and wipe it off the map."

Last September, Yossi Alpher, the co-founder of the European Union-funded publication Bitterlemons, wrote an article advocating "decapitating the Hamas leadership, both military and 'civilian.'" Alpher, a former special adviser to Israel's defense minister Ehud Barak when the latter was prime minister, worried that Israel would "pay a price in terms of international condemnation," for "targeting legally elected Hamas officials who won a fair election," but that overall it would be well worth it.

Executing democratically-elected leaders may require more chutzpah than even Israel has shown, but the possibility and its disastrous consequences have to be taken seriously given Israel's track record. Israel executed Hamas' elderly, quadriplegic and wheelchair-bound co-founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, in 2004, followed shortly afterwards by the execution his successor as the movement's leader, Dr. Abdel Aziz Rantisi.

Aside from the United States, Israel is the only country where the murder of foreign leaders is openly debated as a policy option.

Israeli official propaganda presents all its recent actions as defensive and necessary to stop the rockets fired by Palestinian fighters in Gaza. But if Israel's goal was to achieve calm and a cessation of violence, the first logical step would not be to contemplate new atrocities, but to respond positively to Hamas' repeated ceasefire proposals.

When it was elected in January 2006, Hamas had observed a unilateral ceasefire for more than a year. After the election, Hamas' leaders offered a long-term total truce, tentatively following the political path of other militant groups including the Irish Republican Army (IRA), whose 1994 ceasefire paved the way for the peace agreement in Northern Ireland. (In December, US President George W. Bush received Martin McGuinness, former second in command of the IRA, and now Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, at the White House.)

Last December, Haaretz reported that Hamas had secured the agreement of all factions to end rocket fire on Israel, provided Israel reciprocated. Hamas was also engaged in indirect negotiations for the release of Palestinian political prisoners in exchange for an Israeli prisoner of war held in Gaza.

Olmert rejected the December ceasefire offer. "The State of Israel," he said, "has no interest in negotiating with entities that do not recognize the Quartet demands." In other words there could be no ceasefire until Hamas unilaterally accepted all of Israel's demands before negotiations could even begin.

The problem was not that Israeli officials did not believe Hamas could deliver. Barak was reported to be in favor of considering a hudna -- a renewed truce, and a "senior Israeli security official" told Haaretz that "There's no doubt that Hamas is capable of forcing a let-up on Islamic Jihad and the other small factions in the Strip ... It won't be a 100 percent decrease, but even 98 percent would be a big change." ("Olmert rejects Hamas cease-fire offer," Haaretz, 25 December 2007).

If even Israel believed that Hamas could reliably enforce a truce, why does it refuse to accept one? Why has it refused to engage with Hamas, as American and British policy-makers did with the IRA?

For Israel the potential that Hamas could turn to politics presents a threat, not an opportunity. Israel has no interest in facing Palestinian leaders who are at once committed to basic Palestinian rights, capable of delivering, and enjoy popular legitimacy and support.

So instead of engaging with Hamas, the US and Israel announced a complete boycott which was intended to turn the Palestinian population against the movement.

At the same time, the peace process show relaunched in Annapolis last November, followed by the international donors meeting in Paris where pledges of cash were showered on the Palestinian Authority to elevate the unelected, Israeli-backed Ramallah "government" of Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad in the eyes of Palestinians. With this renewed patronage and prestige, Abbas and company were to be pushed to sign a deal giving up Palestinian refugee rights and agreeing to a Palestinian Bantustan under permanent Israeli domination.

Of course much more than Hamas stands in the way of the fulfillment of this Israeli fantasy. The Palestinian people would unite against such a deal. But Hamas is the most visible and well-organized obstacle.

Rather than breaking under pressure, Hamas has made some impressive tactical gains, even as Gaza's agony increases. Even the dubious opinion polls that come out of EU-funded non-governmental organizations showed Hamas enjoying an upsurge of support after the breach of the Gaza-Egypt border. But with Israel and its backers steadfast in refusing to grant Hamas a political role, not even in operating the border crossings, the movement has no way to translate these tactical victories into strategic gains. Except for one: in the arena of world public opinion.

Israel and Egypt, the two countries most responsible for the blockade of Gaza, were deeply embarrassed by the popular surge that temporarily broke the siege. No recent event has done as much to bring attention to the plight of Palestinians and expose Israel's crimes to international scrutiny. But one such action is not enough; already, Israel and Egypt with support from the quisling regime in Ramallah, the EU and the US are trying to reimpose the blockade. (In a repulsive echo of Yitzhak Rabin's infamous order to Israeli soldiers during the first Intifada to break the bones of Palestinians, Egypt's foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit promised to do the same to Palestinians if they continued to enter Egypt.)

Some Hamas leaders appear to understand the necessity and indeed the risks of mass, nonviolent resistance. "The next time there is a crisis in the Gaza Strip, Israel will have to face half a million Palestinians who will march toward Erez [crossing with Israel]," said Ahmed Yousef, a senior advisor to Ismail Haniyeh. "This is not an imaginary scenario and many Palestinians would be prepared to sacrifice their lives." Properly planned, repeated mass actions of this kind could galvanize public opinion in Arab and European countries and even North America forcing some governments to abandon the pro-Israel consensus.

But here is where the great danger lies: with its escalation in Gaza and refusal to accept a ceasefire, Israel may be trying to provoke more rocket attacks and force Hamas into abandoning its political strategy altogether to provide the needed pretext to "decapitate" the organization. Unfortunately, there are signs that Hamas is jumping into the trap.

Some Hamas political leaders appeared to have been taken by surprise when the movement's military wing took credit for a suicide attack inside Israel for the first time since 2004. The attack in the Israeli town of Dimona on 6 February killed an elderly woman as well as the bomber. As a consequence of Israel's and the "international community's" rejection of all of Hamas' political initiatives, those within the organization advocating a resumption of full-scale armed struggle may be gaining the upper hand.

If they make such a tragic miscalculation, Israeli leaders may breathe a sigh of relief. After all, Israel is much more comfortable with rockets falling on Sderot, than it would be with hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians marching on the checkpoints in Gaza or the West Bank.

The next logical step is for all Palestinian leaders still loyal to their people's cause to work together to mobilize the population, not to gain factional advantage, but to expose Israeli apartheid to a sustained and irresistible surge of people power.

Monday, February 11, 2008

"Where are you from?"

Rima Merriman writing from Jenin, occupied West Bank, Live from Palestine, 12 February 2008

I live in an apartment building adjoining the Arab American University - Jenin (AAUJ) on a hill surrounded by farmland and quiet villages. As I write, the wind outside my leaky windows has been howling for hours, adding to the desolation of the campus. The protracted semester, beset by student and faculty unrest, has finally ended. It is time to take stock and to plan ahead for the following semester.

When the weather is good, the view from the roof of my apartment building is breathtaking. There isn't a single Israeli settlement in sight to mar the gently rolling hills and the Palestinian villages nestled among them. (As with any part of the West Bank, though, one doesn't have to go far to come up against illegal Israeli settlements and the illegal wall). Here and there, one can see the start of development -- the first ragged impression of a road slicing through a field, hills being divided into "lots," a stone building coming up much too close to the dilapidated main road blocking the poverty behind it.

The scene is far different from the densely wooded college town in the Midwestern United States where I raised my family, where the ragged road of displacement took this particular Palestinian. When my husband and I bought a piece of land there in the '80s, I stood at the highest point on top of a tree stump and tried hard to see the horizon through the surrounding pines. "I must see the horizon," I told my husband. Around me now, there is nothing but horizon.

For Palestinian expatriate nationals like me who have managed to find their way back to Palestine in order to contribute in some fashion, what's on the horizon is far from clear. Our foothold is tenuous; we are here on sufferance by the Israelis who control the borders and the areas between towns and villages and let us in carefully or not at all. Sometimes, even Palestinians fortunate enough (or unfortunate enough as the case may be) to possess Palestinian IDs wonder why we are here when we didn't have to be, suspecting ulterior motives of some sort.

Through Israeli noblesse oblige, we are here on B2 visitor visas stamped with "not permitted to work." Locally, we are sometimes made to feel like visitors from outer space. Even among people amongst whom any conversation initiated by "Where are you from?," if long enough, will uncover very few degrees of separation, bonds have slackened. Individual energies are, by necessity, focused on survival in the difficult present, and Palestinian collective "memory" is becoming increasingly fragmented.

The farther away geographically one's origins are from a certain community or clan, the more frayed the bond. And there is nothing in the world farther away from the West Bank and Gaza than the Palestinian villages and towns taken over or destroyed by Israel since 1948. "Where are you from?" students and faculty ask me continually. "Lifta," I answer, only to be confronted by blank stares here in the north of the West Bank. (Lifta, a Palestinian village only a few kilometers west of Jerusalem, is about to be turned into a luxury residential community for Jews, even as many of its original Palestinian inhabitants, especially the ones who live in annexed East Jerusalem now, are trying in vain to regain access to their homes and lands.)

"Where are you from?" asks the Israeli soldier at the checkpoint as he quizzically examines my American passport. I answer that, as he can clearly see from my passport, I am American. "No, but where are you from?" he asks again. "What do you mean?" I counter, to the discomfort of the driver of the van and my fellow passengers, who are holding their breaths now, wondering what illegality I am likely to fall under. "Do you mean where in America?" He gives up and satisfies himself by studying my tourist visa again. Should I have explained to this young person hailing from Russia or Ethiopia about Lifta?

In the small Midwestern college town in which I studied, worked and lived for decades in the United States, there weren't many other Palestinians. Although I have American and Jordanian citizenships and, more importantly, I have American children, I never could think of myself as anything but Palestinian. I know only too well what it means to be a Palestinian. I am still sorting out what it means to be Jordanian or American. "Where are you from?" other Americans ask me. The answer is much too complicated.

Teaching at AAUJ, I feel a pressing need, especially when I am discouraged, to ask myself what I am doing here. A recent World Bank report describes the quality of education in the Middle East and North Africa as not having kept up with economic challenges. It calls for reforms in order "to redirect educational approaches across all stages and all forms, to educate students on how to think and not what to think," as a World Bank senior vice president puts it. In my experience, though, resistance to change, to new ideas, is everywhere I turn, especially if the impetus for change is being pushed by someone who must be asked, "Where are you from?" Nevertheless, the need in Palestine for qualified and dedicated individuals trained outside the Middle East is high.

There is a joke circulating on the Internet, a tongue-in-cheek audio telephone call between a Palestinian father somewhere from the West Bank speaking in the fellahi (peasant) dialect and a son, who is apparently settled in England, married to "Barbara" and announcing the birth of a grandchild, whom he has called "Mike" rather than "Shafiq," after the grandfather. The conversation is one-sided. Shafiq gives his son news about various mishaps that have befallen the family from divorce of a sister and abandonment of children, to maiming by Israeli gunfire, to illness, to severe economic need, all the time assuring his son that the family in Palestine is perfectly fine and that he need not worry about them. The conversation ends with the father thanking the son for having contributed $100 to an NGO.

For Palestinians in the Diaspora, the joke is far too close to home to be funny. We can and must do better. To rephrase part of a speech by John F. Kennedy, we need to stop asking what Palestine can do for us, and ask, instead, what we can do for Palestine.

Events of Palestine Awareness Week