image of jerusalem 2013

One step forward or two steps backward?
You’ll never silence the voice of the voiceless! - Abahlali baseMjondolo shack dwellers’ movement in South Africa

24 November   |   2009   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

I bring some unsettling news today: the Palestinian cause, and with it the future destiny of Jerusalem, are gradually waning from the Arab volatile psyche and are in the process losing the centrality they have held in the Arab - and broadly Muslim - political imagination since 1948. Only last week, when Palestinians were protesting against settlements as well as intrusions on the esplanade of Al Haram al-Sharif, Egyptians and Algerians - and with them many others in the Arab World - were far more obsessed by a football game at Umm Durman in Sudan! Indeed, the destiny of the football match had galvanised the pride of Egyptians and Algerians in a way that Palestine and the fate of Jerusalem seemingly fail to do anymore.

Mind you, I am being neither insulting nor flippant. The qualification of the Algerian team for the World Cup (1-0) was an important morale booster for many Arabs who are dispossessed of any real present-day achievement in our global world. In fact, this result restored the pride of one country - Algeria - even as it destroyed that of another - Egypt - and provoked many violent incidents and tit-for-tat punitive actions. But have you, the reader, noticed how the attention of the large masses has shifted away from the Palestinian conflict that had inhabited Middle Eastern politics for decades? Whilst ordinary Palestinians in the occupied territories are suffering increasingly more the impunity of an unjust occupation with all its attendant physical, economic and moral consequences, much of the Arab leadership - starting, dare I add, with the Palestinian leaderships both in the West Bank and Gaza - seems to have placed the destiny of this disempowered people on a back-burner. So what we see is classic Arab inertia at a time when the settlement drive continues unabated under Benyamin Netanyahu’s government despite its illegality under International law. Only this week, we learnt that 900 new flats are to be built in the Gilo settlement in East Jerusalem, and that there also are fears concerning the excavations taking place in the periphery of the Haram al-Sharif / Temple Mount which could reportedly undermine the foundations of the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosques. But Arab and Muslim attention seems distracted, and the slogans of solidarity and brotherhood from Arab leaders go hand-in-hand with apathy and inaction. Imagine the twist of irony: planeloads get sent to Sudan to cheer the national football players, and then other planeloads evacuate supporters back to the safety of their own country, whilst the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and southern Gaza remains shut in the face of life-seeking Palestinians.

In this staggering mess that is the bread and butter of many pundits with their op-eds, I would not actually mind being Benyamin Netanyahu - or even his hard-nosed foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, since his defence minister does not register much on my political blip-meter these days - for he not only has his cake but he can eat it too! Not only are most Arabs divided and unfocused, let alone politically pusillanimous and strategically insignificant, Israel has equally succeeded to stare down the Obama Administration with its steadfast refusal to give in to the American demands for a full freeze on settlements. There is such political dyslexia in much of the Arab World that Turkey - an erstwhile arch-foe of Arabs due to bitter memories spanning four centuries of colonisation - has now become the defender of Palestinian rights. Its foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the Henry Kissinger of Turkey, postulated in his latest book Strategic Depth - The International Position of Turkey, the famous neighbourhood policy of ‘zero problem’ by playing quite deftly the dual political game of keeping one foot in the Western / American camp and the other in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Truly remarkable: you need a mediator for Iran? Turkey is there. You seek a resumption of Syrian-Israeli negotiations? Turkey is ready again. You would like to witness reconciliation between the West Bank and Gaza political leaderships? Turkey is ready too. But Turkey is also there in Iraq, in Kurdistan recently, and yet also maintains steadfastly its strategic alliance with Israel.

So I say hurray to Israel and also to Turkey, but cast a critical look at Palestinians and at the Arab World. As for the US and EU, the former is weighed down with a myriad other domestic and international agendas and can ill-afford any high-noon confrontation with Israel, whilst the latter that still bankrolls some Palestinian projects is a disparate collection of politicians with watered-down structures (just consider the real (in)significance of the recent EU ‘elections’ of a new president and foreign minister) that carries little political weight and plays a pale role within a defunct roadmap process headed by an inglorious envoy [Tony Blair] whose vision has become that of an inflated but expired politician in an oversized corporation.

But why are we in such dire straits, and why is there a feeling of failure? Has the global economic recession redrawn all the priorities? Have Afghanistan and Iraq totally stolen the political attention of the world away from Palestine? Valid and expedient reasons, but the fact is that much of the Arab World has surrendered its genuine interest in the Palestinian national rights, and this has been exacerbated by inept Palestinian leaders compounding a lamentable stalemate with a range of wrong choices. If you cannot defend your own case, why should you expect your neighbours to be more proactive than yourself? And why should you wait for Israel to be cooperative if it can achieve its political designs and get away with them?

Many major faux-pas have together catalysed this abortive situation. It began with the political spat between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza when the latter mounted a putsch against Mahmoud Abbas’ leadership and wrested control of Gaza in 2007. This was hugely wrong in its own right, as it set the overall decline of the Palestinian cause in motion, and was unfortunately aided and abetted by Palestinian politicians in Gaza who were meant to ensure that such a catastrophe did not occur but who fled the Strip instead. However, having said that, every single month since that fateful divorce between those two important factions has entrenched further the divisions between different ideologies. There is an Islamist agenda in Gaza, a more secular one in the West Bank, a West that stoked the fires by supporting one party totally at the expense of the other, and an Israeli war against Gaza that is an indirect manifestation of its broader war against Palestinian nationalism. All have come together to produce a set of irreconcilable dynamics that have rendered the Palestinian cause less relevant today.

But the decline does not stop with the internecine feuds and the Israeli war on Gaza. What really withered the Palestinian diplomatic stamina is its official stance to the Goldstone Report of 15th September. This powerful report was authored by a former South African judge, former prosecutor for the war crimes’ trials for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and one of the most respected international jurists world-wide. Officially titled “Human Rights in Palestine and Other Occupied Arab Territories: Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict,” it used voluminous amounts of information from multiple sources to hold Israel and Hamas accountable to the same standards of law and morality, making it clear that both sides must be assessed and held responsible mutatis mutandis for their actions. It suggested doing so by a series of actions by both sides to credibly investigate their conduct in the conflict. If no such probes took place, it called upon the international community to act through the UN Security Council or the International Criminal Court (ICC).

This report was a political gift for PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his team. Yet, instead of attempting to support a resolution by the United Nations Human Rights Council on allegations that Israel had committed war crimes in its attack on Gaza last year, the Palestinian leadership buckled under intense Israeli and American pressure and deferred consideration of this report. Just imagine what happened here: Palestinians shot themselves in the foot by opting out of a rare opportunity to indict Israeli actions in Gaza as well as Hamas reactions from within Gaza itself. Instead, they manifested a negligent indifference - political, ethical and juridical - that is truly mind-boggling. Coming on the heels of the report by Richard Falk, UN Rapporteur, that Israel had deliberately obstructed the work of humanitarian personnel by leaving the poor without basic medical, food and other services in violation of both international humanitarian law and human rights law, the 575-page Goldstone Report had documented serious violations of international humanitarian law by Israel, with some incidents amounting to war crimes and possible crimes against humanity, including wilful killings, deliberate attacks on civilian objects, wanton destruction of civilian property, indiscriminate attacks, the use of human shields, and collective punishment against Gazan civilian population in the form of a continuing blockade.

However, the Palestinian leadership relented to US pressure not to act on the report with a flimsy pretext that it needed to build up its case and have it re-considered more forcefully in March 2010. In so doing, its credibility was left in tatters and the Palestinian cause suffered another setback. The political irony is that the Palestinians should have forged ahead with a consideration of the report by the UNHRC since the US will have vetoed it down anyway. After all, the Obama Administration rejected the report only days after its release, and the US House of Representatives had also moved to pass a non-binding resolution criticising and rejecting it. But instead of exposing old US double-standards even under a new US Administration, or even exercising pragmatic political thinking in the knowledge that the report will not be implemented anyway, they agreed to do the dirty deal and in the process neutralised further international efforts to criminalise Israeli and Hamas felonies. True, they woke up to the fact that they had committed an egregious error, and tried to put the clock back in a shabby démarche, but it was too late already and the Palestinian street had witnessed another shady political spin.

But on 18th November, Revd Dr Samuel Kobia, General Secretary of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches added his moral weight by urging UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to ensure that the recommendations of this key report are properly followed up. He wanted the UN to press both Israel and Hamas to “unconditionally concede the need for complete and credible investigations into their actions during the war”. He cited ‘growing anxiety’ that there could be a resolution that dilutes the intent and scope of the Goldstone Report, and added that durable peace, reconciliation and healing between Palestinians and Israelis should be based on justice since the need of the hour is an unequivocal affirmation of the highest principles of justice, human rights and humanitarian practices. It seems ironic that the WCC member-churches understood the significance of such a report, whilst the Palestinian leadership misunderstood its impact due to extrinsic pressures.

In my opinion, another nail in the coffin was the Palestinian idea to proclaim a Rhodesia-style UDI - a unilateral declaration of independence - that would ostensibly be supported by the West let alone the Arab League. But not only had Yasser Arafat already made a similar declaration in 1988 to little effect, it was clear that such a move now will have spurred Israel to act unilaterally against it and also blurred EU or US support further. Were there no political advisers, or even Palestinian general delegates in the West, who could have admonished the leadership against Saeb Erekat’s anachronistic public statement?

Today, in the midst of a Palestinian near-meltdown, the people are owed a degree of honesty, humility, consensus-building and clarity from all their leaders, and the present faces across the whole political spectrum fall short of fulfilling many of those attributes. Meanwhile, Israel busies itself erecting a fortress-like settlement in Jabal Abu Ghneim / Har Homa on the outskirts of Bethlehem, and establishing Jewish neighbourhoods in the heart of Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan, Ras al-Amud and Abu Dis. Parallel to this, and as Uri Avnery indicated in one of his recent articles, Israel is also trying to fill up the E1 area between Jerusalem and the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim in order to encircle the Arab quarters and cut them off from the West Bank. By enlarging Jerusalem to the East up to the approaches of Jericho, Israel aims to cut the West Bank into two, with the northern part (Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarem) sawn off from the southern part (Bethlehem, Hebron).

I recall the Israeli hard-line foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, once stating that “anyone who says that within the next few years an agreement can be reached ending the conflict simply does not understand the situation and spreads delusions.” Yet, within the orbit of this conflict, nothing has riled Palestinians or frustrated their irenic intentions more than the continued flow of illegal Israeli settlers into East Jerusalem and the West Bank as they gobble up the geography of an already shrunken future Palestinian statelet under a package of pretexts - from religious zealotry to political expansionism. Indeed, this has become more of a red flag at the moment than even the future of Jerusalem or the return of refugees since they too are dependent upon geography to house demography. After all, both Oslo (1993) and the Road Map (2003) called for settlements to stop, but the number of settlers has instead risen steadily to over 450,000 today. That is also why, at 250 miles long, the wall-style barrier (projected to stretch over 400 miles once complete) is already much longer than the pre-1967 border or Green Line. And at a time when the West celebrated the 20th anniversary of bringing down the Berlin Wall, this ugly structure snaking across the West Bank places major settlements on the Israeli side, effectively annexing a further 12% of Palestinian land. How could anybody claim that Palestinians stand a chance of reversing this trend when any good faith necessary for achieving a resolution of the conflict remains absent from most regional or international key players?

Am I being a tad too pessimistic, or bluntly too realistic? I think perhaps the latter, and so I would suggest that the peace train has passed us by for now and we have to wait for a new generation with fresh impetus toward peace. In order to catch up with the train, we should learn not only to cast blame on our enemies who checkmate us, or on our allies who pursue their own vested interests, but we should also try to focus on our own weaknesses and redundancies. Perhaps in order to salvage Palestine, we should first salvage Palestinians - essentially their leaderships - so that the approach to this conflict is one that does not allow a spherical football to arrest the attention of a region whilst the future of a whole people is at stake.

Fatah today is a 50-year-old middle-aged movement, and it started its introspection, re-building as much as re-legitimising - almost its re-definition - in August 2009 with the General Conference in Bethlehem. Yet, it still has to define further its political purpose and national project let alone its organic relationship with the PA and with Hamas. To this end, it will have to agree upon the political space that will be shared between those two movements - and more importantly, how? After all, Hamas has to draw back from the precipice too and not allow its positive power to become a negative force that destroys the very cause that its leadership constantly tells us it defends - presumably for the sake of all Palestinians, be they Christian or Muslim, in the West Bank, Jerusalem or Gaza. Otherwise, it will turn into a movement that is antithetical to Palestine.

But meanwhile, what is the alternative? Are we coming closer to embracing popular resistance and armed struggle (al-moukawama al wataniyya) as the only option still available to Palestinians? I do not think that this is the right option either, since it has shown its moral failing, political limitations and military shortcomings during the two past Intifadas - and most certainly during the second one. Instead, I would suggest that the world community - including Palestinian leaders in Gaza and the West Bank - sit down and re-read the National Conciliation Document of the Prisoners that came out on 28 June 2006 from an agreement negotiated in jail between representatives of the two leading Palestinian factions. Therein lies one answer for a format of national consensus at this critical juncture of the conflict. In fact, what could be more appropriate than a refresher course on the contents of this document at the very time that an exchange of Palestinian-Israeli prisoners could well take place very soon and end up re-positioning the likes of Marwan Barghouti on the political landscape? But even breathing life into a three-year-old document is not enough either: looking at the history of other liberation movements, I realise that Palestinians continue to see-saw between violence and passivity, and they should perhaps also consider embracing a little more robustly and systematically the culture of non-violent resistance to an Israeli political leadership - not necessarily representative of its entire people - that encroaches further upon Palestinian rights, freedoms and lands.

I believe that the future hopes of Palestinians appear grim unless they shift gears and edge forward in a more cohesive way. But will their leaders, as well as much of the Arab World or the West, allow them to pursue their aspirations? Or will they simply remain faithful to the process of taking one step forward and two steps backward - and in the process losing out every time? When will the voice of the voiceless no longer remain muffled but become audible and challenging?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2009   |   24 November


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