Palestinians unite and move toward Statehood

"We gave the occupation a great opportunity to expand the settlements because of this division. Today we turn this page and open a new page."

Hamas member Moussa Abu Marzouk, after negotiating a unity pact with Fatah on April 27, 2011.

With President Obama embroiled in various wars, facing anti-government Republicans in Congress, and, not incidentally, embarked on a re-election campaign, achieving Middle East peace has disappeared from his agenda. The Palestinians had no choice but to go it alone, and they have accordingly begun laying the groundwork for an independent Palestinian state.

Recognizing that Palestinian unity is essential to statehood, Fatah and Hamas ended their four-year estrangement and on May 4 signed an agreement in Cairo to form an interim government composed of neutral technical experts, with parliamentary and presidential elections to be held next year. More than a dozen other factions, including those more militant than Hamas, also signed on to the deal.

The reconciliation agreement was a welcome achievement, but a fragile one. According to Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, all of the signers agreed to honor an unofficial truce with Israel, but there were reports from the West Bank that the commanders of the Palestinian security forces that cooperate closely with Israel had rejected the agreement and were continuing to arrest Hamas members in the West Bank.

Instead of welcoming the pact as the first step toward achieving a peace settlement that all Palestinians can accept, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu denounced it as "a great victory for terrorism," and the Obama administration threatened to end its contributions to the Palestinian Authority. A spokeman for the president’s National Security Council echoed the Israelis’ charge that "Hamas is a terrorist organization that targets civilians."

Israel refused to turn over to the Palestinian Authority more than $89 million in taxes and other fees it collects for the Palestinians, an act of blackmail in clear violation of its legal obligations. Netanyahu justified the decision to freeze money that makes up a large portion of the Palestinian Authority’s budget by saying, "The Palestinian Authority must choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas." Netanyahu’s warning might have carried more weight had he not done everything possible in the past five years to avoid serious peace talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is pledged to nonviolence.

Instead the Netanyahu government has speeded up illegal settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and insisted that Israel retain East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley, meanwhile legalizing the scores of unauthorized outposts in the West Bank put up since 1996 by right-wing settlers. Several members of the current cabinet favor Israel’s annexation of the entire West Bank.

The Obama administration’s veto last February of an otherwise unanimous resolution by the U.N. Security Council condemning Israeli settlements as violating international law finally convinced the Palestinians they would get no help from Washington. Accordingly, Fayyad announced in early April that his government had established a capital fund of more than $28 million, and was "in the home stretch of state building." The next step will be to propose recognition of the new state by the U.N. General Assembly in September. Dozens of countries already have gone on record as favoring the proposal, including America’s European allies.

Obama’s retreat from the issue is undoubtedly what recently prompted Britain, France, and Germany to propose an agreement that would encompass the principles of two states for two peoples "based on 1967 borders with equivalent land swaps; security arrangements that protect Israel while respecting Palestinian sovereignty by ending the occupation; a fair, realistic and agreed solution for refugees; and Jerusalem as the capital of both states."

When the three countries suggested that the text be read at an upcoming meeting of Quartet members Russia, the U.N., the European Union and the U.S., the Obama administration turned down the idea. "It isn’t the right time," an official said. Germany, Britain and France are now urging the U.N. to draw up a plan for a final settlement rather than wait for the U.S.

Recent studies by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the U.N. have found the Palestinian Authority to be fully capable of running an independent state. The U.N. report endorsed the Authority’s oversight of education, health, social protection, infrastructure and water; and the IMF and World Bank credited the Authority with establishing structural reforms and careful budgeting that led to a 9 percent growth in the economy.

All three groups stressed, however, that the current growth rate could not be sustained unless Israel eased its political, physical and economic restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel has full control of 60 percent of the West Bank, and the system of Jewish-only roads and numerous checkpoints give it virtual control over the entire territory. In Gaza, the one commercial crossing to and from Israel is open only sporadically, and the entry of construction materials strictly limited.

Despite the government’s opposition, Palestinian statehood has significant support within Israel. In early April, on the same spot where Israel declared its independence in 1948, several dozen prominent individuals from the fields of security and business issued a statement called the Israeli Peace Initiative that contained a detailed plan for a two-state solution. They were followed two weeks later by more than 60 artists, scientists and scholars who also declared their support for Palestinian independence.

The latter group deliberately chose the week of Passover to make their announcement. "This is a holiday of freedom and independence," said Yaron Ezrahi, a professor of political theory at Hebrew University. "We don’t want to pass over the Palestinian people." Their statement endorsed a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders and asserted that an end to Israel’s occupation "will liberate the two peoples and open the way to lasting peace."

Turkish President Abdullah Gul added an eloquent voice to supporters of a Palestinian state in an April 24 op-ed for The New York Times titled "The Revolution’s Missing Piece." Gul called on Israeli leaders to take a strategic approach to the Middle East peace process and give serious consideration to the Arab League’s 2002 peace proposal calling for Israel’s return to its 1967 borders in exchange for peace and diplomatic recognition by its Arab neighbors. In light of the protests taking place across the Middle East, he warned, "Israel cannot afford to be perceived as an apartheid island surrounded by an Arab sea of anger and hostility."

Gul offered Turkey’s wholehearted assistance in facilitating constructive negotiations, and commented that "the United States has a long-overdue responsibility to side with international law and fairness when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process." Like many pro-Israel peace activists, Gul pointed out that "securing a lasting peace in the Middle East is the greatest favor Washington can do for Israel."

Ideology vs. Reason

Such hardheaded reasoning is certain to be dismissed by an Israeli government whose policies are based on primitive ideology and territorial expansion. Israel’s President Shimon Peres traveled to New York on April 7 to warn U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon against imposing a Palestinian state on Israel, saying it was unwise at a time of widespread unrest in the Middle East. The changes taking place in the region in fact suggest the contrary: that Israel’s rejection of an independent Palestinian state will only deepen its isolation from its neighbors.

Menha Bakhoum, speaking for the new Egyptian Foreign Office, has made it clear that the Israelis can no longer count on Egypt as a compliant ally. Calling Egypt’s enforcement of the blockade on Gaza "shameful," she said the new government will open the Rafah gate "completely," and allow the free flow of goods and people. Egypt has recognized Hamas and is in the process of normalizing relations with Iran. A recent poll showed that 54 percent of Egyptians favor annulling the 1979 peace agreement with Israel.

Israel’s current leaders are firmly opposed to Palestinian independence under any circumstances. The bi-monthly report of the Foundation for Middle East Peace cites a recent interview in the magazine Besheva with Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon in which Ya’alon says, "Our intention is to leave the situation as it is: autonomous management of civil affairs. If they want to call it a state let them call it that. If they want to call it an empire, by all means. We intend to keep what exists now." (Italics added.)

The government’s rejection of a just solution to the conflict is reflected in its crackdown on Palestinian peace activists who favor nonviolence. Scores have been convicted of "incitement," and their prison terms renewed perodically. One of the most prominent advocates of nonviolence, Bassam Tamiri, recently had his sentence extended indefinitely.

Peres’ second purpose in meeting with Ban Ki-moon in April was to urge the U.N. to revoke the Goldstone report, issued by the U.N. Human Rights Council, on war crimes committed by Israel and Hamas during Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2008-09. In doing so Peres knew he could count on the full support of the Obama administration. WikiLeaks has revealed that U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice had assured Israel’s far right-wing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman that the U.S. was doing its best to "blunt the effects" of the report and prevent a further investigation by the Security Council. Rice also warned the International Criminal Court against opening a criminal investigation of Israel’s actions during that offensive.

Attempts to repudiate the 500-page report were given new life on April 1, when its chief author, Justice Richard Goldstone, published an op-ed article in The Washington Post saying he was mistaken in claiming that Israel had deliberately targeted Gaza civilians. Goldstone, an observant Jew and a Zionist, had been subject to brutal verbal attacks for his role in preparing the report, including proposals that he be barred from his grandson’s bar mitzvah ceremony in Israel.

Goldstone’s statement in the Post was neither a recantation or a repudiation of the report, but this did not stop Israel’s supporters, including many in Congress, from using it as an excuse to call the whole report a set of lies. Far less attention was given to the disavowal of Goldstone’s afterthoughts by the three other members of the investigating panel. In a statement published in The Guardian, they wrote that they, too, had been subjected to pressure, but unlike Goldstone they had not yielded.

Had they done so, the group said, "we would be doing a serious injustice to the hundreds of innocent civilians killed during the Gaza conflict, the thousands injured, and the hundreds of thousands whose lives continue to be deeply affected by the conflict and the blockade." In response to Goldstone’s claim that Israel had undertaken 400 investigations of alleged abuse of civilians, his colleagues pointed out that only 3 cases were prosecuted, and only 2 resulted in punishment. In both cases the Israeli military court imposed only minor penalties.

Absent from the clamor around Goldstone’s statement was a realistic definition of the word "deliberate" as it applied to Israel’s actions. Israel’s five-year blockade of Gaza could have no other purpose than to punish civilians. The same is true of Israel’s use of 1,000-pound bombs and weapons containing white phosphorus in one of the most densely populated places on earth. Finally, Goldstone did not explain why, if not to destroy a civilian society, the Israelis demolished public buildings, schools, hospitals, sewage and water systems, thousands of homes, and a major food storage warehouse. The lopsided casualty figures that showed 1,400 Gazans and 13 Israelis killed during Operation Cast Lead suggests Israel’s motive was not self-defense.

The punishment of Gaza civilians did not begin with Israel’s attack, of course, nor has it yet ended. After the Israeli army closed one of the two gates on the border, even the small amount of food, medicine, and other supplies allowed into Gaza was reduced. Israeli soldiers have continued to shoot Gaza residents who come within several hundred meters of the border. Despite these incidents, Hamas observed its two-year-long cease-fire with Israel until late March, when Israeli planes attacked a training center and killed two Hamas members.

Hamas responded by launching rockets into Israel, one of which hit a school bus and fatally injured a 16-year-old schoolboy. That incident triggered a series of Israeli air and ground attacks that in one week killed 19 Gazans and wounded at least 45, besides again damaging Gaza’s electrical system. Repairing the electrical system will be additionally difficult because of Israel’s recent imprisonment of Dirar Abu Sisi, the engineer in charge of Gaza’s main power plant (see May/June 2011 Washington Report, p. 18). The fact that Sisi was crucial to the functioning of Gaza’s infrastructure suggests that the Israelis were more intent on punishing Gazans than with protecting their citizens from rockets.

Israel has made every effort to eliminate Hamas, but the Palestinian Authority alone cannot negotiate peace. As Norwegian diplomat Jonas Gahr Store writes in the April 7 issue of theNew York Review of Books, Hamas is a social, political, religious and military reality that governs 1.5 million Palestinians–”and was elected by Palestinians in the West Bank as well as Gaza–”and has considerable support. "It will not simply go away as a result of Western isolation," Store asserts.

Hamas leaders repeatedly have expressed a willingness to endorse a peace agreement with Israel that is approved by a majority of Palestinians. If the reconciliation agreement fails to lead to productive negotiations, Islamic groups that reject coexistence with Israel are certain to replace Hamas. The result will be a continuing cycle of violence, with civilians on both side the victims, and Israel free to pursue its unlimited and illegal expansion.