Category Archives: Palestine

Palestine comes to the fore on Israeli election eve

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With polls set to open within hours in the most competitive election in Israel since prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to the premiership in 2009, both parties aiming to form Israel’s next government made their final cases to voters — and in doing so, provided election eve bombshells.palestineISrel Flag Icon

Netanyahu’s decision to denounce the two-state solution and former justice minister Tzipi Livni’s decision to renounce her claim to the premiership both, in their own ways, brought the Palestinian issue back to the forefront of voters’ minds. That follows a three-month election campaign during which Israeli-Palestinian relations, a matter of existential importance to both voting Israelis  and non-voting Palestinians, figured less prominently than economic concerns, sniping between secular and ultraorthodox politicians, Iran’s nuclear energy program or bilateral relations with the United States. For all the controversy over Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress two weeks ago, the most notable aspect of his address might be that he never once uttered the word ‘Palestine.’

Netanyahu denounces two-state solution

Netanyahu announced, obliquely by way of an interview with NRG, that no Palestinian state would come into existence so long as he remains prime minister, reversing his prior 2009 commitment to a two-state solution, a stand that many Netanyahu observers always believed was less than full-hearted:

“I think that anyone who moves to establish a Palestinian state and evacuate territory gives territory away to radical Islamist attacks against Israel,” Netanyahu said. “The left has buried its head in the sand time and after time and ignores this, but we are realistic and understand”…. During a visit to the East Jerusalem settlement of Har Homa earlier Monday, Netanyahu warned that if he were not elected, “Hamastan B.” would be established in Jerusalem. “If Tzipi [Livni] and Bougie [Isaac Herzog] form a government, Hamastan B will be established here.”

Netanyahu’s strategy is clear. By tying himself to a hard-line stand on Palestinian statehood, he hopes to appeal to a handful of voters on the right — settlers and other conservatives that might otherwise be inclined to support the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (ישראל ביתנו‎, ‘Israel is Our Home’) of foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman or the religious conservative Bayit Yehudi (הבית היהודי, ‘Jewish Home’) of economy minister Naftali Bennett. Though Lieberman and Bennett are both members of Netanyahu’s government, Netanyahu must maximize his right-wing supporters if he hopes to win the largest number of seats in Israel’s unicameral legislature, the Knesset (הַכְּנֶסֶת), thereby strengthening his claim for a third consecutive term as prime minister.

Livni clears way for Herzog to serve full term as PM

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Meanwhile, Livni, Netanyahu’s former justice minister and, only a year ago, the Israeli government’s chief negotiator in the abandoned peace process with the Palestinians, delivered her own shocker today when she gave up her claim to the premiership.  Continue reading Palestine comes to the fore on Israeli election eve

Netanyahu now depends on Palestinian Fatah-Hamas disunity

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Two months ago, the West Bank-based leadership of Fatah (فتح‎) and the Gaza-based leadership of Hamas (حماس‎) really seemed like they were on the verge of forming a coherent unity government, bringing together the two competing factions of Palestinian politics for the first time after nearly a decade of division.palestineISrel Flag Icon

At the time, Israeli an US officials took an overly alarmist view of the new unity government, given the characterization of Hamas as a terrorist organization that continues to target civilians in Israel. Whereas Fatah essentially recognizes the  existence of the state of Israel, Hamas still considers Israel as an illegitimate state. 

Nevertheless, I argued then that a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation was a necessary step toward a long-term Israeli-Palestinian peace and that Israeli and US leaders should welcome any reunification that can bring Gaza’s leadership to the negotiation table. While Ramallah (if not so much of the rest of the West Bank) boomed economically, and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has generally increased Palestinian control over security throughout much of the West Bank, Gaza has been subject to an Israeli embargo for years, crippling the Gazan economy and strangling opportunity and employment for 1.4 million Palestinians. If Gazans are more radical than their West Bank counterparts, Israel’s embargo has given them ample reason. 

But geopolitical events across the Middle East have isolated Hamas  within the Muslim world, especially over the past year. Whereas the Islamic Republic of Iran once funded Hamas, Iranian support dried up for Hamas as they lined up on opposite sides of Syria’s civil war, with Iranian officials strongly supporting Shiite president Bashar al-Assad and with Hamas backing various Sunni-led rebel groups. Moreover, whereas former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi looked sympathetically upon Hamas (technically, Hamas is the Palestinian branch of Morsi’s own Muslim Brotherhood), the Egyptian military that overthrew Morsi last July and Morsi’s newly ‘elected’ successor Abdel Fattah el-Sisi are much less tolerant of Hamas. They have cracked down on the Egyptian border with the Gaza Strip, in essence working with Israel to perpetuate the Gaza embargo.

Fatah came to that unity government from a position of strength and, had it succeeded, Fatah might have had a restraining effect on the far weaker Hamas. Nevertheless, Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu opposed the unity government from the outset, using the occasion to accuse Abbas of being less than serious as a ‘partner for peace.’

Though there’s a strong argument that Netanyahu erred in dismissing the Fatah-Hamas unity government outright two months ago, Netanyahu’s strategy today fundamentally depends on the disunity between Hamas and Fatah. With Israel and Hamas now two weeks into a lethal conflict, and with an Israeli ground offensive extending into its fourth day, the unity government has all but collapsed in the face of the latest military engagement in Gaza. Continue reading Netanyahu now depends on Palestinian Fatah-Hamas disunity

Palestinian unity need not hinder the cause of peace with Israel

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That collective freakout you heard this morning between Jerusalem and Washington? palestineISrel Flag Icon

It was the entirely premature overreaction of both the US and Israeli governments to a one-page agreement between the two competing Palestinian factions that attempts, for the third time since their 2006-07 rupture, to unite Fatah (فتح‎), which currently controls the West Bank, and Hamas (حماس‎), which currently controls the Gaza Strip.

The agreement is hardly definitive, and it follows two failed deals agreed to in high-profile meetings in Cairo and Doha over the past three years. It commits the two factions to an interim unity government within five weeks, with elections to follow within six months. Needless to say, it’s an incredibly preliminary deal, and there are countless opportunities for West Bank leader Mahmoud Abbas and Gaza prime minister Ismail Haniyeh to derail it. 

With a preliminary deadline of April 29 approaching for US-brokered peace talks between the West Bank and Israel, it’s clear that neither the United States nor Israel believe that the potential reconciliation is an incredibly positive sign. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu went so far as to describe the agreement in zero-sum terms:

Israel immediately responded by saying the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, was moving to peace with Hamas instead of peace with Israel. “He has to choose,” said the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. “Does he want peace with Hamas or peace with Israel? You can have one but not the other. I hope he chooses peace, so far he hasn’t done so.”

After the agreement was announced, Israel cancelled a planned session of peace negotiations with the Palestinians. It also launched an air strike on a site in the north of the Gaza Strip, wounding 12 people including children, which underscored the deep mutual suspicion and hostility that persists. Speaking in Ramallah in the West Bank, Abbas said in his view the pact with Hamas did not contradict the peace talks he was pursuing with Israel, adding that an independent state living peacefully alongside Israel remained his goal.

Needless to say, Israel’s freakout won’t facilitate future negotiations. Meanwhile, the US government is already talking about suspending aid to any future unity government that includes Hamas:

The United States would have to reconsider its assistance to the Palestinians if Islamist group Hamas and the Palestinian Liberation Organization form a government together, a senior U.S. administration official said on Thursday….

“Any Palestinian government must unambiguously and explicitly commit to non-violence, recognition of the state of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations between the parties,” the U.S. official said, listing terms Hamas has long rejected. “If a new Palestinian government is formed, we will assess it based on its adherence to the stipulations above, its policies and actions, and will determine any implications for our assistance based on U.S. law,” the official said, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Foreign aid, in part, is responsible for an economic boom in the West Bank, and, particularly, in its unofficial capital of Ramallah. So it’s a step that would cause some significant hardship to Abbas, undermining the most reliable Palestinian partner that the US and Israeli governments currently have. It’s not hard to see Palestinian voters delivering a resounding Hamas victory in a vote later this year if the United States and Israel take such a hard line. 

But Netanyahu or US secretary of state John Kerry couldn’t have seriously believed that a truly lasting Palestinian-Israeli peace deal could exclude Gaza, which is home to 1.4 million Palestinians; the West Bank is home to 2.4 million. It’s farcical to believe that Abbas or anyone could deliver any true stability for Israel or Palestine while Gaza remains a 1.4 million-strong refugee camp, notwithstanding the West Bank’s position.   Continue reading Palestinian unity need not hinder the cause of peace with Israel

Photo essay: It’s clear that Ramallah is booming, but is it sustainable?

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RAMALLAH — Among the highlights of my week in Israel and the West Bank were a couple of days spent in Ramallah, the de facto capital of the West Bank, if not the entire area controlled by the Palestinian Authority.palestine

Instead of pushing through a crowd of tourists and a throng of horrible souvenir shops in Bethlehem or touring a 1960s-era church in Nazareth, you’d be better served to spend a day and night walking through this most incredible of cities, which now has the vibrant feel that I once imagined East Jerusalem must have had prior to the Six Days War in 1967, during which Israel took military control of east Jerusalem and all of the West Bank (plus the Golan Heights and Egypt’s Sinai peninsula), and prior to the construction in the last decade of a security wall that’s made it relatively more difficult to get from the Israeli side of the wall to the Palestinian side.

While I wouldn’t say that East Jerusalem is moribund, it’s clear that it lacks the kind of energy that’s obvious from five minutes on the streets of Ramallah, which resembles something like a miniature Hamra Street in Beirut (without the Syrian Social Nationalist Party thugs hanging around).  The heart of modern Ramallah, al-Manara Square, is actually a five-pronged circle flanked by everything from falafel stands to the ‘Stars and Bucks Café,’ and it’s capped by a monument featuring four stone lions (pictured above).

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Ramallah, which translates to ‘God’s mountain’ in Arabic, is a relatively new city, founded in the 16th century and populated as a predominantly Christian city for much of its history.  Even today, Ramallah has only around 40,000 inhabitants, but when taken together with al-Bireh, once a separate city, the entire metropolitan area is home to around 65,000 Palestinians. Continue reading Photo essay: It’s clear that Ramallah is booming, but is it sustainable?

Israeli security wall adds 2000s-era difficulty to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks

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RAMALLAH — I’ve been in Israel and/or Palestine for all of less than 48 hours, but I’ve had a chance to see Jerusalem from both the Jewish side and the Palestinian side.  ISrel Flag Iconpalestine

One of the more difficult security issues over the 2000s, which sprung out of the violence of the Second Intifada between 2000 and 2005 is the construction of a wall between Israel proper, on the one side, and the Palestinian West Bank, on the other.

There are many reasons for the controversy, which remains a delicate issue for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks these days, to the extent that a glimmer of hope earlier this year, due largely to the efforts of Israeli justice minister Tzipi Livni and US secretary of state John Kerry, still exists.  That’s a doubtful proposition given that the US response to Syrian chemical weapons and its new deal with Iran over nuclear energy have both incensed Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  It’s especially doubtful, too, because hardline nationalist Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman has now returned following the reversal of his conviction earlier this month.

The first is among Israeli settlers themselves in the West Bank, who will find themselves especially isolated from the rest of Israel when the wall is completed.  That means that many traditionally hard-line, pro-settler types on the right of Israeli politics opposed the security border from its inception.

The second is that the wall isn’t exactly accurate — it tracks the 1949/1967 Green Line between Israel and the Palestinian Territories only very loosely.  Take a guess as to which side the Israel-built wall errs.  Up to 10% of the West Bank will be within the ‘Israeli’ side of the wall when it’s completed, largely on the basis of land seized from Palestinians in areas that lie on the Palestinian side of the Green Line.

That complicates life inordinately for Palestinians.

Here’s the wall from the Israeli side en route to Bethlehem:

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Here’s the same wall from the Palestinian side (also shown above):