A civil way out of the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire

 
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By Khaled Diab

How do you end the Israeli occupation without ending the occupation? Through a struggle for equal civil rights for Jews and Arabs.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Monday 24 November 2014

How do you annex territory without actually annexing it? How do you acquire the land without the people?

This is the dilemma with which the settler movement and its friends in successive Israeli governments have been grappling for years.

The latest move in this regard was when Israel’s Ministerial Committee voted overwhelmingly in favour of a draft bill to apply Israeli law in the settlements – only two ministers voted against the initiative: Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.

Although many Israeli commentators do not expect this bill to make it into legislation, what this overlooks is that Israeli legislation already applies in the settlements, though some more recent laws have not yet been turned into military regulations. The draft bill simply sets a 45-day deadline for this process.

In addition, though the settlements are formally under the military’s jurisdiction, the settlers themselves are effectively under the jurisdiction of Israel’s civilian courts, vote in Israeli elections, pay taxes to the Israeli treasury, etc. Meanwhile, their Palestinian neighbours who live in what is known as Area C live under martial law and their loves are governed by the army’s Civil Administration.

Despite the fact that a huge proportion of Israeli voters are opposed to annexing the West Bank, those behind the draft bill make no secret that it is part of their blueprint for creeping annexation.

“We came to the Land to apply Israeli sovereignty over it and to establish, within it, a Jewish state in its entire territory, gradually,” explained Knesset member Orit Strock of Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home), the author of the draft bill, in a recent interview.

As part of this gradual process to win over a reluctant Israeli public and create facts on the ground to overcome international objections, Strock and her allies have 10 pieces of draft legislation in their arsenal which they are waiting for the right moment to unleash.

And her ambitions extend beyond Israeli settlements to the main Palestinian population centres of the West Bank. “History is always evolving and we are not giving up these areas, but rather, progressing and ascending one more step,” Strock maintained.

Unsurprisingly, the cabinet vote has stirred up protest and opposition in Palestinian circles. “This creates a political context where these settlements become a part of Israel,” slammed veteran Palestinian politician Nabil Shaath. “They are stealing the land, water, materials, and all natural resources in the West Bank.”

Sadly, however, Palestinian condemnations and protestations are unlikely to change the reality on the ground. In light of this, perhaps the time has arrived for Palestinians and their sympathisers in Israel to try another approach.

Instead of futilely seeking to stop the application of Israeli law in the settlements, Palestinians should demand that civil law is extended to cover them too. This will inevitably be regarded as a setback by Palestinians, who are seeking greater national sovereignty, not less. But the reality is that there is next to no chance that these national aspirations can or will be fulfilled in the foreseeable future. Under such circumstances, priority must shift to human well-being.

So doing would protect Palestinians against the iron fist of military rule, shielding them from arbitrary arrests, evictions and home demolitions. The application of Israeli law would also enable them to move freely within the West Bank, accessing those roads which are currently for Israelis only, and challenge the unfair military permit system which bars them from entering Jerusalem and Israel.

Gazans, who still effectively live under Israeli occupation, could also embark on a similar process. This may sound outlandish, especially to Israelis, but prior to the Oslo accords, Gaza and the West Bank were administered in the same way.  And since the peace process died years ago and even the life-support system to which it was hooked up has now given up the ghost too, it’s time to drop this masquerade and self-deception and abandon Oslo for a civil-rights platform.

In addition, the Palestinians of the West Bank should demand the right to live in the settlements, like some Jerusalemites already do in settlements which allow it, such as Pisgat Ze’ev, despite discrimination and local efforts to block them. Under such circumstances, the Palestinian urban areas, known as Area A, should also be opened up to Israeli Jews to be able to live there.

Such a campaign – which can be conducted on the streets, in the Israeli courts and even in the Knesset – could act as the first step in a full-scale civil rights struggle, which would eventually include full Israeli citizenship for the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. This is bound to cause jitters in Israel, where people will interpret it as the death knell of the Jewish state, while many Palestinians are averse to the idea of becoming Israelis.

However, this should not be the case. To my mind, this is a pragmatic and necessary interim step to prevent disaster turning into catastrophe.  I call this the ‘non-state solution’ – which I outline in my new book, Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land – for a reason: because it is an interim solution that does not pre-suppose the final outcome of future peace efforts, and leaves the possibility open for a two-state or a binational-state model.

However, instead of questions of state and statehood, it focuses, for the time being, on the far more urgent matter of the state of the people. The situation today has become untenable, mainly for Palestinians but also for Israelis.

Palestinians live in marginalisation, fear and under severe and inhumane military restrictions which impinge on their freedom, safety, economic well-being and dignity. As the prospect of political violence grows, Israelis are living in greater insecurity, not to mention the high burden of the occupation, not only on citizens’ economic well-being, but also on the untold thousands of young people forced to police it.

Focusing on inclusive civil rights rather than national aspirations and divisive nationalism, is, for the foreseeable future, in everyone’s best interests.

Once everyone is empowered, enfranchised and equal, then a people’s peace process can commence in which the Israeli and Palestinian publics, long sidelined and ignored as players in efforts to forge a resolution, can all have their say.

Civil rights and a people’s peace process may sound like a pipe dream, and a dangerous one, to critics on both sides of the fence. But I disagree.

One of the great unseen and under-appreciated tragedies of this conflict – and to which I dedicate considerable attention in my book – is just how much in common Palestinians and Israelis actually have, and how the differences within each camp are actually far greater than the divergence between them. This ignored reality can act as a great unifier between the two sides.

The situation is speeding towards a very dark, cold and hostile night. Every effort is needed to change directions towards the sunrise unseen just beyond the horizon.

A new dawn will undoubtedly come, but the question is how long and frightening the night before will be.

____

Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land

By Khaled Diab

Published by Guardian Shorts, October 2014,

On Amazon

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 20 November 2014.

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The missing link: Re-connecting Gaza with the West Bank

 
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By Khaled Diab

Gaza and the West Bank are effectively on different planets. Connecting them must be part of any lasting solution and would make a world of difference.

It is hard to believe today but Gaza was once a magnet for Palestinians from the West Bank, as well as Israelis.

It is hard to believe today but Gaza was once a magnet for Palestinians in Israel and from the West Bank, as well as for Israelis.

Monday 4 August 2014

Although there is a tendency among many Israelis to view Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza as being distinct and separate groups, Palestinians themselves do not share this view and regard themselves as constituting a single nation.

And Israel’s devastating and deadly onslaught in Gaza has resonated with Palestinians everywhere, leading many to declare “We are all Gaza now”.

Many Palestinians – in Israel, Jerusalem, the West Bank and diaspora – have long been great admirers of Gazan steadfastness and glorify its people’s perceived irrepressible resistance and defiance, despite the enormous human cost this involves. “Every time [Gaza] explodes… it scratches the face of the enemy,” wrote the late Mahmoud Darwish, popularly regarded as Palestine’s national poet, back in 1973. “Gaza is the vicious lesson and the radiant example for enemy and friend alike.”

Given that the majority of the tiny strip’s population (1.2 million) are refugees from what is today Israel, a large number of Palestinians in Israel have family in Gaza, making the connection intimate and personal.

“You don’t fully comprehend the pain and anger until your own family is hit,” said one Palestinian I know from al-Tira. Her uncle in Gaza had his house destroyed by an Israeli airstrike. Although they survived, they are now homeless with war raging all around them.

In Jerusalem and the West Bank, fewer people have family ties with Gaza, but they do possess a powerful sense of common nationhood and inter-Palestinian camaraderie, despite the separation imposed on them by Israel.

This is reflected in the almost-daily protests and clashes in solidarity with Gaza, as well as the largest Palestinian demonstration in recent years. In fact, it looks like the long-expected third intifada may have finally arrived and one of its sparks was Gaza.

That said, and despite the restrictions, there are some Gazans who live in the West Bank – to study, work or marry – and West Bankers who live in Gaza, usually for the purpose of marriage.

But the restrictions imposed on such movement are so draconian that they tear families apart. Even though the West Bank is, at its nearest point, just 40km away from Gaza, it might as well be in another galaxy. “Gaza and the West Bank seem like two separate and distant planets, with no way of getting from one to the other,” Maha Hijawi, who was born in the Gaza Strip and now lives with her husband and children in the West Bank, was reported as saying in a recent B’Tselem report.

“I’m raising the children alone, without their father by my side,” complains Maisoun Haj Ali whose husband moved to the West Bank for work in 2008 but has been unable to reunify his family since. “I suffer, because the children talk about him every day, asking when we’ll go and live with him.”

And even celebrity does not help. For instance, the professional footballer Suleiman Obeid, who plays at both club and national level, was permitted to move to the West Bank in 2008 to play for a team there but his family were not allowed to join him. “Wanting to hug your baby and play with him, or when you think about sleeping with your wife or having more kids. These are basic needs that are a given for every person or husband,” observes Obeid.

Obeid has to make do with daily phone calls and the Web to keep in touch with his family. But this too comes at an emotional cost. “Every phone call or contact that we have, I feel pain, I feel heartbroken…Your eyes can see but your hands can’t touch.”

For people like Obeid, the current situation must be intolerably painful, not knowing how safe his family is, powerless to fulfil every parent’s natural instinct, to protect his kids from harm and the ugliness of the world.

The situation was not always like this. Although current generations may find it hard to conceive, for the first two decades following Israel’s conquest of Gaza and the West Bank, Palestinians had almost complete freedom of movement. In fact, Gaza was once a prized beach and shopping retreat, not just for Palestinians but also for Israelis. Older Palestinians I meet speak fondly of the times they could just get in their cars or on a bus and go to Gaza.

These times are unlikely to return in any foreseeable future. Nevertheless, I am convinced that any durable and sustainable solution to the recurring confrontations between Israel and Gaza, and the repeated and compounding human tragedies it causes, is not only to lift the inhumane Israeli-Egyptian blockade but also to link Gaza with the West Bank.

The Oslo accords recognises the West Bank and Gaza are a single, integral territorial unit, but this has remained a dead letter. One major sticking point has been how to connect the two territories, since a chunk of Israel lies between them. However, there are numerous workable blueprints for building a “safe passage” which both connects the Palestinians and guarantees Israel’s security from attack.

Even without a comprehensive peace agreement, Gaza and the West Bank must be physically, politically and administratively linked up to enable them to re-integrate their societies and economies. This will not only help end Gaza’s harmful and counterproductive isolation, it would also enable the Palestinians to take a further step towards self-rule and self-determination.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 28 July 2014.

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Occupational hazards in the West Bank

 
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By Khaled Diab

While the world’s attention was turned to Gaza, stealthier military manoeuvres in the West Bank were pushing more Palestinians off their land.

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Bedouin children in the northern West Bank face a precarious future. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

As we turned off the road, there opened up before us a vista of the most exquisite and rugged splendour. Hugged on both sides by majestic mountains, the valley we drove through stretched as far as the eye could see with barely a manmade structure to distort the view, unlike in much of the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories.

A few kilometres in, we finally arrived at our destination, which was about as remote as you could possibly get in the densely populated West Bank: a tiny Bedouin community in Wadi al-Maleh in the northern Jordan Valley. As we pulled up, we were first greeted by dozens of goats, followed by the children, then the adults, mostly women, because the men were out at a funeral.

Behind the idyllic beauty of the scene, there lurked an ugly reality. First, there was the community’s obvious poverty: living in makeshift tents, with no electricity and with water at a premium because it has to be trucked in, not to mention the children who have to walk about 10km each way to the nearest road so that they can go to school, which eats at least a couple of additional hours out of their day, and means they set out at sunrise and often return just before sunset.

But all this pales into insignificance when compared with the imminent threat facing the community – mostly made up of a clan called Turcoman – of being pushed off the land they have lived on and worked since they were displaced during the 1948 war from the coastal areas of what is today northern Israel. Wadi al-Maleh is home to several such threatened communities, some Bedouin and others sedentary farmers, each numbering around 50-100 people.

The Bedouins I met there – whom I had come to train in ways of better communicating their plight – told me that they had received demolition and eviction orders from Israel’s Civil Administration and that a number of tents had been torn down by the army to show that it meant business. One said that they had even been threatened with the confiscation of their economic mainstay, goats, if they did not up sticks. “Where are we going to go and how are we going to survive without our goats?” the community’s matron figure asked in distress.

The ostensible reason for this community’s planned displacement is because the Bedouins live in whatIsrael has declared to be a closed military zone, a designation which applies to about a fifth of the total surface area of the West Bank, affecting some 5,000 residents. The locals reported that the Israeli and American militaries had recently taken part in joint manoeuvres on the other side of a nearby mountain.

Across the Jordan Valley, numerous communities received eviction orders just ahead of the joint exercises. Although the orders do not specify the nature of the training exercises, activists are convinced that the manoeuvres in question are the joint US-Israeli ones. If this is the case, this would make the United States complicit inIsrael’s illegal use of occupied land.

Under international law, Israel has no right to designate any part of the West Bank as a military zone because this, like settlement building, is not permitted on occupied land, despite the inventive efforts of government-appointed Israeli legal experts to argue away the existence of the occupation and frame it as little more than a Palestinian preoccupation.

Wadi al-Maleh may be a remote community, but its situation is far from isolated. All over Area C of the West Bank – which, according to the Oslo accords, is under full Israeli military and civil control – and in East Jerusalem, homes are being demolished, people are being evicted and communities are slowly disappearing, and at an increasing rate.

So far in 2012, over 550 Palestinian-owned homes and other structures were demolished in these areas, displacing more than a thousand people, the UN reports. Similarly, last year, Israel demolished 622 structures, more than 40% than the year before, displacing almost 1,100 people, more than half of whom were children.

Since I moved to Jeusalem last year, I have visited numerous threatened communities, and I always depart with a sense of bewilderment at how people can survive in such circumstances. Many are engaged in years-long legal battles to be allowed to stay where they are, or are haunted by the spectre of losing their homes.

They live with the uncertainty that their children may well not have a school to attend later in the term, while they are often unable to work because of movement restrictions or because they cannot reach their land. Others are largely cut off from the rest of society by the wall, while many face regular harassment from settlers.

While lack of mobility is tough for anyone, it takes a particularly bad toll on the Bedouins, who feel it is their heritage, even their birth right, to roam free, and I have heard numerous complaints from them about how caged in and trapped they feel. On a more practical level, this also affects their livelihood, as they have little land left on which to graze their livestock.

The sense of powerlessness this creates can leave enormous emotional scars. “We feel constant guilt towards our children, and wonder if they ask themselves, ‘Why did you bring us into this world?’” admitted one father in Izbat al-Tabib, a village near Qalqilya, which suffers from most of the problems I outlined above. “We feel powerless to improve the situation of our children or even to protect them. Can you imagine how difficult that is for a father to bear?”

These words shook me hard. Yes, I could imagine how devastating it would feel to raise our three-year-old in such unenviable conditions, but I thanked my lucky stars that all I was being asked to do was to imagine, and not actually to experience, the soul-destroying reality of witnessing my son being denied his childhood.

Youth is also no barrel of laughs, when you have no prospects, no job, nowhere to go, and perhaps even no one your age to hang out with. “At night, I ask myself, ‘What have I done today?” I realise nothing,” confesses Salama, a young Bedouin who lives on the outskirts ofJerusalem. “Sometimes, I just want to do something, so I knock something down and rebuild it.”

On a more political level, Area C is the only contiguous territory in theWest Bank, which is not only home to the majority of Palestinian agricultural land but would also provide the bulk of the space upon which a future Palestinian state would be built.

By building in Area C and in East Jerusalem, Israelis driving the final nail in the coffin of the two-state solution, and with the United Statesnot only providing $3 billion in free military hardware to Israelbut also apparently co-training in the occupied West Bank, Washingtonis supplying the hammer. This is not just a tragedy for Palestinians but problematic for Israelis, as Israel’s own statistics now show that Jews have become a minority between the Mediterranean and the Jordan.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 3 December 2012.

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Israel’s missed opportunities for peace

 
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By Khaled Diab

Israel has squandered so many opportunities for peace that its very identity as a ‘Jewish state’ is in jeopardy.

Monday 29 October 2012

It is 39 years since the 6th October/Yom Kippur war of 1973. After the peace talks in Geneva following the war, Israel’s then foreign minister, Abba Eban, the ever-articulate founding father of Israeli diplomacy, quipped that, “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

While there is indeed truth in Eban’s famous assertion (which I will explore in my next article), the Israeli fixation on this hypothesis, with its implication that there is no Arab “partner for peace”, and that the situation today is somehow inevitable, clearly overlooks the long annals of opportunities missed by…Israel.

Eban seems to have wilfully turned a blind eye to one glaring example of this lack of engagement which occurred on his watch: Israel’s failure to avert that same all-out war in 1973, shattering the prospects for forging a lasting peace that its victory six years earlier had opened up.

Although that 1967 war ‘officially’ lasted just six days, it in reality continued in various forms for a further six years – until the next war of 1973. This period could have been an important window of opportunity, but the Israeli government, drunk on victory and convinced that it could have its cake and eat it, rejected peace plan after peace plan. Had Israel taken action back then to return the Arab territories conquered in 1967 in accordance with UN Resolution 242 and the Rogers Plan, it could have avoided the drift to the current impasse in which hundreds of thousands of settlers live in occupied territory and millions of Palestinians live unhappily and in segregation under Israeli military rule.

Back to 1967. Those who subscribe to the received Israeli narrative will argue that Israel was dragged quivering into a fight for its very survival in June 1967, the state had no territorial designs at the time, and would have ceded the conquered territories had there been a true partner for peace.

There is no doubt that the Israeli public, exposed to a continuous barrage of bombastic radio broadcasts from Cairo promising to “put an end to the entire Zionist existence”, was terrified in the run up to the war – as those on the ground, including the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish, observed. However, the Israeli military establishment, which had been meticulously preparing for just such a confrontation since at least 1956, was confident it could defeat the bellicose Arab paper tiger, whose roar was definitely worse than its bite.

Indeed, I disagree with those who believe that Israel was acting in self-defence. Evidence of this can, for example, be found in how Israel cold-shouldered an Egyptian invitation in 1965 for then Mossad chief Meir Amit to go to Cairo for a clandestine meeting with none other than Abdel-Hakim Amer, Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s vice-president and confidante who unbeknownst to himself stood on the threshold of infamy with his subsequent mishandling of the 1967 war.

Israeli, pointing to the famous “Three No’s” of the Khartoum Summit of 1967, allege that there was no Arab partner for peace at the time. But this reveals a severe misunderstanding of the changes defeat had brought to Arab politics. For instance, Nasser tried to contain Syrian rejectionism in Khartoum, agreed to the principles of Resolution 242 and signed Egypt up to the Rogers Plan shortly before his death. “Go and speak of… a comprehensive solution to the [Palestinian] problem and a comprehensive peace,” Nasser reportedly told King Hussein of Jordan in Khartoum.

Regardless of whether Israel’s conquest was premeditated or accidental, the fact remains that the appetite to hold on to conquered land has been stronger than the urge to exchange it for peace ever since, despite early warnings of the dire consequences of this for the Zionist enterprise from the likes of Uri Avnery and Amos Oz.

The ultimate irony implicit in such warnings against Israeli intransigence, or perhaps inertia, is the possibility, with the direction things are heading, that Israel may ‘succeed’ where the Arabs have failed: destroying the Zionist dream of a Jewish-majority state by its own hand, especially with the recent revelation that there are now more Arabs living under Israeli control than Jews.

Moreover, it was not just the sting of comprehensive defeat that was prodding Nasser to pursue a revisionist course.

Although it was Israel which initiated peace overtures with Egypt soon after the 1952 Free Officers coup, it was Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who was then prime minister, who sustained and nurtured, along with then Israeli Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, the secret channels which eventually led to a blueprint for a peaceful resolution. Nasser had early on showed remarkable restraint in his public pronouncements and admitted in private that eventual peace with Israel was inevitable – but this early willingness to seek out an accommodation fell prey to the pincer movement of Israel’s predatory hawks and Nasser’s disastrous ambition to lead the Arab world by following the loudest and most radical voices on the “Arab street”. Nasser’s clandestine partner for peace, Sharett, was ousted by David Ben-Gurion, also in 1955, who believed this Israeli dove – who, far more than any other Israeli leader, understood his Arab adversaries – was “raising a generation of cowards”.

Ben-Gurion’s fears provide significant insight into a major psychological barrier on the Israeli side. The long history of persecution endured by Jews had not only created a deep and painful trauma, it also helped fuel Israel’s obsession with might and courage as ends in their own right.

But it is not just a question of psychology. Israel’s failure to reach a resolution with the Arabs, particularly the Palestinians, has deep ideological roots. The elephant in the room which classical Zionism has ignored or dealt with myopically is the Palestinian people.

Theodor Herzl himself seemed to expect the local Arabs would embrace the Zionist newcomers with open arms, because they would bring the gifts of science and progress with them. In the egalitarian, multicultural Utopia Herzl imagined in his novel Altneuland (The Old New Land), an Arab character, Reshid Bey, expresses his gratitude that Jewish immigrants have helped modernise Arab villages and boost the value of Arab property.

Despite his early talk of Jewish-Arab class solidarity, Ben-Gurion was more realistic. “A people which fights against the usurpation of its land will not tire so easily,” he admitted to colleagues in the Mapai Political Committee in 1938. This could only be addressed, he believed, through a show of strength that would persuade Arabs to submit to Zionist hegemony.

Like Zionist leaders before and after him, including Herzl, Ben-Gurion was also convinced that the support of the great powers, or a great power, was more important than reaching any kind of agreement or accommodation with the local Palestinian population.

That can help explain Israel’s long refusal to recognise or deal with the PLO, despite Egyptian attempts dating back to the 1970s to persuade Israel to enter into talks and despite the Palestinian National Council (PNC) shifting the focus of its national charter away from armed struggle and towards a phased political solution. In fact, Yitzhak Rabin, who was prime minister at the time, expressed his desire to keep the Palestinian question in “the refrigerator” – and by the time he took it out of the fridge, it was perhaps already too late to thaw it as Israel did not possess the willpower to reverse the too many facts on the ground it had established in the meantime.

Even after having reached peace with Egypt and despite the Camp David accords stipulating that “Egypt, Israel, Jordan and the representatives of the Palestinian people should participate in negotiations on the resolution of the Palestinian problem in all its aspects”, Israel still refused to countenance dealing with Arafat and his comrades.

Even after Yasser Arafat had, during the first intifada, persuaded the PNC to recognise Israel’s legitimacy, at least implicitly, and to accept all relevant UN resolutions dating back to the 1947 UN partition plan, Israel still refused to play ball. “The PNC declaration is an additional attempt at disinformation, a jumble of illusions, meant to mislead world public opinion,” was the Israeli cabinet’s harsh verdict of the historic 1988 declaration. But as the faulty Oslo Accords a few years later clearly demonstrated, the PLO’s willingness to recognise Israel was not an illusion but very real.

Israel is repeating a similar series of errors with its refusal to deal with Hamas and its inhumane blockade on Gaza, which is bound to fuel grievances for long years to come and is clearly against Israel’s own self-interest. Even PA president Mahmoud Abbas, one of the architects of the two-state solution, is seen as beyond the pale in many Israeli circles today.

And so the endless, impossible, rhetorical search for a “suitable” partner for peace continues fruitlessly.

Although Eban’s assertion about missed opportunities is the one that has lodged in the Israeli popular psyche, another of his quotes is a far more apt description of Israel and Zionism’s approach to the Palestinians and wider Arab context: “History teaches us that men and nations only behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.”

Sadly, we do not seem to have reached this vital juncture in history yet.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 22 October 2012.

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Settlers for Palestine

 
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By Khaled Diab

Israeli settlements are one of the greatest obstacles to peace, but could settlers also help build a Palestinian state?

Tuesday 16 October 2012

In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas warned that Israel’s ongoing settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank revealed that the “Israeli government rejects the two-state solution” and that if no action was taken urgently, the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel would become “extremely difficult if not impossible”.

It is not only Palestinians who see Israeli settlements as one of the main obstacles to peace – the international community does too, as do many Israeli peace activists. Personally, I have been convinced for many years now that the race against space to implement the two-state solution has been lost.

Today, more than half a million Israeli settlers live in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In what the Oslo Accords calls Area C – which makes up 60% of the West Bank and would provide the bulk of the land upon which the Palestinian state would be built – there are currently twice as many settlers as Palestinians (300,000 v 150,000), and Israel controls 70% of this territory.

Despite these facts on the ground, there is a small but growing group of religious settlers who believes not only that they are not an impediment to peace, but that they can help build it. This movement is led by the charismatic and influential Rabbi Menachem Froman.

Rabbi Froman cuts an unlikely figure as a peace activist. He is an ideological settler, yet believes in the two-state solution along the pre-1967 Green Line. He is one of the founders of the messianic, religious settler movement, Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), and supports continued Jewish settlement in the West Bank, yet believes in and promotes coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Arabs.

Adding to his maverick credentials, Froman was friends with the late Yasser Arafat and met regularly with Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas. He is also close to Abbas, meets regularly with Binyamin Netanyahu, and negotiated, along with Palestinian journalist Khalid Amayreh, a ceasefire agreement with Hamas, which would have ended the blockade on Gaza, to which the Islamist group agreed but Israel simply ignored.

This renegade rabbi so intrigued me that I visited him, along with an American-Israeli filmmaker making a documentary about this enigmatic figure, in his modest home in Tekoa, an Israeli settlement near Bethlehem.

So, how does Rabbi Froman propose to square the circle between his support for Jewish settlements and Palestinian statehood? Religious Muslims and Jews believe, he says, “that this land is holy… that this land belongs to God. This can be a very strong basis for peace”.

In his view, since it is the land itself that is holy and not the political structure governing it, settlers should be given the choice to become part of a Palestinian state or move to Israel. Froman also believes that the presence of an Arab minority in Israel and a Jewish minority in Palestine would have the additional benefit of promoting tolerance and understanding between the two neighbouring countries.

The Palestinian Authority has, on a number of occasions, floated the possibility that Israeli settlers can be given the option to live under Palestinian sovereignty. However, this option elicits fears. Palestinians worry that the settlers would remain Israeli citizens and hold on to their privileged status, as well as possibly provide Israel with an excuse to carry out military incursions, even invasions, at will on the pretext of looking after the interests of the Jews there.

I asked Rabbi Froman whether, in his vision, the settlers would become Palestinian citizens and live according to Palestinian law, and whether the settlements would become mixed neighbourhoods for all. “Yes, yes, yes,” he responded emphatically. “The keyword here is to be open, to be free.”

Froman’s vision chimes with that of some pro-Palestinian Israeli leftists. However, even many of Rabbi Froman’s neighbours – such as the American settler who expressed his disapproval of the Rabbi’s politics to us when we asked him for directions – do not agree with him. Economic settlers are unlikely to want to become Palestinian citizens, though they could more easily be persuaded to move under the right conditions.

Ideological settlers, who generally see the land and Israel’s control over it as vital, do not share Froman’s vision. “I reject the two-state solution,” David Wilder, the spokesperson for the radical settlers in Hebron, told me some months ago. “I want to live in Israel. I came to live in Israel, under Jewish leadership. I didn’t come to live under the rule of anybody else, certainly not an Arab.”

“The question is not the Palestinian attitude,” Rabbi Froman freely acknowledges. “The question is the Israelis: if Israel and Israeli settlers are ready to be part of the Palestinian state.”

But he believes that, once they overcome their fear and distrust, people can be persuaded. “It’s all a matter of confidence,” the rabbi insists, his bright blue eyes glimmering energetically in his ailing frame, as his body gradually succumbs to cancer. And it is building this foundation of trust that the rabbi is dedicating his remaining time to. “I have not got long now,” he reflects sadly.

Rabbi Froman is also a strong believer in the power of religion to help resolve the conflict and build bridges between Israelis and Palestinians. This, you could say, was something of a revelation to me, as I have long viewed religion, though it is often only used as a pretext by fundamentalists, as a major stumbling block on the path to peace – it is what I call the “God veto”.

In fact, Froman believes that one major factor behind the failure of the peace process is that it ignored or did not pay enough attention to the religious dimension. “[Sheikh] Ahmed Yassin used to say to me: ‘I and you, Hakham [Rabbi] Froman, can make peace in five minutes, because both of us are religious.’”

The very idea that an Orthodox rabbi and an Islamist sheikh would engage in dialogue, let alone believe that they can resolve a conflict that has defied everyone else for decades, is likely to confound both Palestinians and Israelis alike.

“Religion is like nuclear energy: you can use it to destroy or to kill. You can also use it for peaceful purposes,” the renegade rabbi observes. “The Dome of the Rock or the Temple Mount can be a reason to quarrel or a reason to make peace.”

Despite his fine words, I left the meeting sceptical that Froman’s vision would, especially in the current climate, attract many takers. However, our encounter did drive home some important lessons: the situation is never black and white, peacemakers can be found in the most unlikely places, and that we must understand the obstacles to peace if we ever hope to remove them.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free on 12 October 2012.

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Mustafa Barghouti: “We are heading towards a Palestinian Spring”

 
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By Khaled Diab

Palestinian reformer Mustafa Barghouti on the demise of the peace process, the death of the two-state option and the dawning of the Palestinian Spring.

Friday 4 May 2012

From beginnings as a medical doctor, Mostafa Barghouti has been a prominent Palestinian reformer, human rights activist and politician for many years. Before entering politics, he founded, and still chairs, the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, which has grown to become one of the largest and most successful medical charities in the West Bank and Gaza. During the first intifada, he also set up a think tank to research health and development issues.

A member of one of the largest West Bank families, in terms of numbers, and one known for its political activism, it was almost inevitable that Mustafa Barghouti would enter politics. One of his earliest forays into politics was when he attended the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 as a member of the Palestinian delegation, though he quickly became disillusioned with the peace process launched with the Oslo Accords. Along with other Palestinian luminaries, he established the Palestinian National Initiative (al-Mubadara al-Wataniyya al-Filistiniyya) in 2002, which has sought to reform the Palestinian political landscape by providing a third viable alternative to the PLO and Hamas. Though he has been dismissed as a ‘no hoper’ and the Mubadra did badly in the previous legislative elections, Barghouti himself became Mahmoud Abbas’s strongest rival for the presidency in 2005 and insists that his movement has matured and now enjoys a significant support base.

Having followed him for some time and seen him perform in debates, I was looking forward to meeting the man. Our encounter took place in his spacious office in Ramallah, at the medical NGO he set up. When introducing myself, I mentioned that I lived in Jerusalem, to which he responded by informing me that he and other West Bankers are not allowed to visit the city. I expressed my bewilderment and disappointment that I, as a foreigner, had more freedom of movement here than Palestinians. I asked him whether he, as a politician, had a permit to visit Jerusalem to which he said he didn’t but that he defied what he considered to be illegal restrictions by taking back routes regularly into the Holy City – and occasionally getting detained for it.

During our interview, he talked about the peace process, the future of the two-state solution, Israeli policies, Palestinian divisions, and the coming dawn of a Palestinian Spring.

Khaled Diab: I’d like to begin with a general question: are you optimistic about the future?

Mustafa Barghouti: I am optimistic when it comes to the future of the Palestinian people – of course. I am optimistic that the system of occupation and racial discrimination will be broken, and we will gain our freedom. But if you mean to ask whether I’m optimistic about what is called the “peace process”, then the answer is no. The peace process is dead.

You were a member of the Palestinian delegation which went to the Madrid peace conference.

And I was amongst the group which included Dr Haidar Abdel-Shafi who vigorously opposed the Oslo agreement.

So you find that the Oslo Accords do not accord with the Madrid principles?

No, the Oslo agreement contravened the Madrid principles in three areas. Firstly, it accepted the notion of a transitional solution. Secondly, it accepted a partial solution. Thirdly, it accepted the resolution of the Palestinian question in isolation from the wider Arab sphere.

The other dangerous aspect of Oslo was that an agreement was signed without the cessation of settlement building. I am with Haidar Abdel-Shafi, who is also one of the co-founders of the Mubadra [Palestinian National Initiative], along with Dr Edward Said. The three of us said that there can be no agreement without a full cessation of settlement activity.

Because the settlements have created realities on the ground?

Settlements have become a weapon for destroying everything, including Oslo itself. And that is what Yossi Beilin is now talking about. But Beilin does not admit that he is also at fault and responsible for the situation, even though he is one of those who allowed the continuation of settlement building to occur.

Do you think it would have worked if, after Madrid, instead of Oslo, an attempt to forge a comprehensive deal was pursued?

With the power of the intifada behind it, yes. There was also an international consensus. I believe that the successes of the intifada were squandered when the Oslo Accords were signed.

And do you think Israel could’ve accepted a comprehensive solution?

Israel was losing a lot at the time. The occupation was costly. And so Israel could’ve compromised. We might well have been living in an independent state by now. It’s also possible that we wouldn’t have been. I don’t know.

However, I believe it was entirely possible. I also think it was wrong for the Palestinian leadership to accept the notion of autonomy instead of full independence. Autonomy was supposed to be transitional and temporary, but the transitional has become permanent.

Why do you think that the exiled PLO leadership in Tunisia accepted this transitional agreement?

Perhaps one of the reasons is the huge international pressure that was exerted on the Palestinian leadership. Another factor was the allure of power. They began to hold on to the fantasy that the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) would enable them to change the reality on the ground. But this has been proven to be a fallacy.

Do you think that the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin affected the peace process, that if Rabin had lived things could have turned out differently?

It’s possible, yes. Look, Rabin’s assassination and the electing of Netanyahu together sent out a clear signal that Israeli society would not go down the road of an independent Palestinian state. And this message should have been read and understood early on. Arafat understood this in 2000 and that is why he refused to submit to the pressures at Camp David and refused to give up the claim to Jerusalem, as was being demanded of him. And this led to the second intifada.

In my personal view, the message was already clear in 1996 and the duty at the time should have been to tell the world that the process is over. I believe that the establishment of the PA played a negative role because now the leadership is preoccupied with the trappings of power rather than the liberation movement. Israel has exploited the Oslo agreement to empty the liberation movement of its content and has transformed the PLO into little more than a cost item in the PA’s expenses.

This has had the effect of weakening Palestinian unity and has created enormous fractures in the Palestinian arena in two areas: between the supporters and opponents of Oslo, and between the internal and external dimensions, weakening the ability of exiled Palestinians to support the national struggle internally.

After the second intifada, the pro-Oslo camp – who built their election platform around the continuation of the Oslo process based on the false conclusion that it had failed due to our own errors and if we correct our ways everything will be fine – have been trying to revive the process since 2005 and to no effect. It is all an illusion planted by the international community and the United States in support of Israel.

The reality is that the Zionist movement has not accepted since its creation and until now the right of Palestinians to establish an independent state. But it is an intelligent movement. It procrastinates and delays to the fullest, accepting certain things temporarily while working towards its ultimate goals. But it has always kept a tight rein on maintaining the strategic initiative.

What do you say to those on the Israeli side who counter that the Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”?

Firstly, these are Israeli lies. For example, they say that in 1947 the partition plan failed because the Palestinians refused to accept it. There are documents that prove that Ben Gurion intended to continue his plan, even if the Palestinians had accepted partition. Even if we assume that what they say is true, why did they not stop at the borders set by the partition? These are lies. Even now, they had the chance to permit the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, who has prevented them from doing so? The Palestinians? On the contrary.

So are there no rejectionists on the Palestinian side to the establishment of two states?

No, the vast majority are with the two-state solution. Even Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

But Hamas and Islamic Jihad were opposed to it at first.

Yes, but today, they support it. Who has prevented the establishment of an independent state? Israel.

You were among the biggest supporters of the two-state solution. In light of the current situation, do you still have faith in it?

Look, I believe in the freedom of the Palestinian people, and its right to independence and self-determination, and its right to end its subservience to Israel, either in the framework of two states or a single state.

But what I witness around me is that the Israelis have destroyed the two-state solution. Right now, we are in a grey area where it is difficult to determine empirically whether the two-state solution has actually died or is about to. Have we crossed the red line or are we about to cross it? In either case, it is clear that Israel, with the density of its settlement activity and its policies and the inability of the United States to exert pressure, is preparing to kill off the two-state option.

Under these circumstances, I say that the Palestinian people are not without options. One option is a single, fully democratic state in which every citizen has full and equal rights. However, for the time being, we must not allow differences of opinion over the one- or two-state solution to divide us once again.

Our slogan must be the freedom of the Palestinian people, whether in two states or one. When we reach the moment of truth, then we can decide. We cannot allow this to become another cause of internal division in the Palestinian ranks. Secondly, when we shift from one option to another, the decision must be a collective and unified one. Thirdly, we must not allow Israel to forfeit, this time, its responsibility for destroying the two-state option.

If Palestinians, Israelis and the international community wish to salvage the two-state solution, what needs to be done?

Firstly, pressure needs to be exerted to change the Netanyahu government. Military and economic aid to Israel must be stopped. Israel must pay a price for its occupation. There must be a clear resolve on the cessation of settlement activity and the removal of settlements. And there must be a clear reference to the 1967 borders. I do not accept the idea of land swaps and see it as a trap for the Palestinians. First, there’ll be talk of swaps, then of larger swaps. The settlements are illegitimate and so they must be removed – just as they were removed from Gaza.

The remove of the settlers or the settlements too?

It’s up to them whether they take the infrastructure or leave it behind, but the colonisation must end.

What do you think of the idea that if some of the Israeli settlers wished to stay on the land…?

If they are there in a legitimate fashion…

As Palestinian citizens?

If the place where they are living is not stolen from the Palestinians, then they are welcome to acquire Palestinian citizenship. But they cannot stay with us as Israeli citizens, like ‘Joha’s nail’.

So, you’re saying they should either become Palestinians or return to Israel?

Yes. They cannot stay here as Israeli citizens.

If Palestinians choose to go down the road of the single state, what strategy should they pursue?

The peaceful popular resistance that we are currently employing, the struggle for our rights.

Your civil rights?

Not just our civil rights. All our rights. Citizenship rights. Our national rights too. This has to be recognised. If we are to have a single state, this state must recognise the Arabic language and the Palestinian people. This is fundamental.

Popular resistance is a successful formula because it works both in the case of two states or one. In my opinion, the strategic choice before us is made up of four elements: the escalation of popular resistance, the BDS campaign, revamping all domestic Palestinian economic policies to focus them on reinforcing the people’s steadfastness instead of drowning them in debts, taxes and consumerism, rejecting the distinction between Areas A, B and C, and fourthly, national unity. We must end our divisions and form a unified leadership pursuing a unified strategy.

Do you think, in practical terms, with all the cracks in the Palestinian ranks, they can agree on a unified position?

Our destiny depends on it. Perhaps the deepening level of division has reached an untenable level. This could prove to be an opportunity to change the status quo, but the continuation of the current divisions will weaken us all and weaken our national cause. It will also cause enormous losses in popularity both for Fatah and Hamas.

Until you reach this fork in the road where you must choose between the two options, what should be the demands of the popular resistance movement?

Security co-ordination with Israel must end. The PA’s security role must be terminated. The PA cannot play a security role at a time when Israel mistreats us.

Before we started recording, you told me that the number of demonstrators on Land Day was greater than expected. Is this a sign that popular resistance can truly be stepped up and become a new intifada or revolution as has occurred in other countries?

I believe that we are heading towards a Palestinian Spring and it is inevitable that there will be another intifada.

Do you think the next intifada will be like the first one, peaceful, or…

Peaceful. I’m sure of it.

Do you think it will happen in the near future or…

It’s hard to say. But what we are seeing is a gradual escalation, as we expected. This phase of popular resistance began 10 years ago.

There are those who say that the Palestinians have already tried to mount their revolution during the first intifada, and its failure led to a sort of disillusionment.

No, the first intifada was a success. It was the political leadership which failed to consolidate the gains of the intifada.

Do you think the “Palestinian Spring”, as you called it, will have a clear leadership or will it be largely leaderless like the other Arab uprisings?

Ideally, there should be a unified leadership. But life goes on even in a vacuum. If the politicians fail to forge a unified leadership, then the intifada will create its own grassroots leadership.

You were a co-founder of the Mubadra and you took part in the previous presidential elections, where you came second to Mahmoud Abbas. Do you intend to enter the forthcoming presidential race?

Firstly, there are no elections. And when elections are called, we need to know elections for what, for the presidency of a country or the presidency of a Bantustan. If it is to lead a Bantustan, then I have no interest or desire – I don’t even accept the principle. If it is for the presidency of a country, then we can debate it closer to the time.

The danger is that the Palestinian Authority is without authority. It has no real existence. That is why we insist that, if elections are to take place, they must include the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem without exception. It should also include the Palestinian diaspora. The elections need to be both for the PLO and the PA simultaneously. We must never accept that the PA becomes the government of a Bantustan.

You personally scored well in the presidential elections in 2005, but the Mubadra only gained three seats, if I recall correctly. Is this a true reflection of the Mubadra’s power?

No, at the time, the Mubadra was still a new movement, so when we entered the legislative elections, we had not yet built a strong and effective organisational presence. Today, the situation is different. This is reflected in the results of the university elections, where the Mubadra has collected between 13 and 20% of the votes. These are decent gains.

Life has proven that the Mubadra is a necessary movement. Many new movements have been established but the only movement that has endured and survived and proven its capabilities, and has become the third power in the Palestinian arena, is the Mubadra. This is proof that this movement possesses a manifesto that is vital and needed. It is also the most youthful movement, and has a great future ahead of it.

What distinguishes the Mubadra are four things. Firstly, the popular resistance it has called for since its inception, and now everyone has adopted this strategy. It also stands out for its stance on domestic democracy, and that is why we do not participate in any government except a national unity one. It is also distinguished by its constructive role in unifying Palestinian ranks. We were the mediators in the most important agreements, namely the national unity government and the most recent Cairo accord, with the help of our Egyptian brothers, of course. Fourthly, the Mubadra upholds the principle of social justice. In addition to its vision for the liberation of the Palestinian people, the Mubadra also possesses an equitable social vision which takes into account the interests of the poor and the needs of Palestinian society. In addition, we are against party fanaticism and factionalism. Despite the hostility we sometimes face, we insist on remaining a unifying influence.

So, in your view, the Mubadra truly represents a third way in Palestinian politics?

Yes, and its ability to play a unifying and mediating role is linked to the fact that it is fully independent of both Fatah and Hamas.

You are in favour of peaceful resistance but there are others who criticise non-violent resistance and say that it has no future.

I am in favour of resistance as a principle. And the Palestinian people have the right to resist in every form. But it must comply with international and humanitarian law. We are not against other forms of resistance but we say that, in light of the current situation, the best, most appropriate and most effective means is Palestinian popular resistance. The evidence of this is that all the Palestinian political forces have adopted this strategy without exception.

I read in the papers that elections in May or June are impractical, and it would even be tough to organise elections in 2012.

True. I now believe that elections will be impossible as long as Gaza and the West Bank are divided. How can you have credible elections in the presence of this division? How can there be credible elections in the absence of the freedom to engage in political activities?

But in the absence of elections, there is also a democratic deficit?

That is exactly what I have said. We have regressed a lot, whereas we were once at the forefront of the Arab world. In 2005 and 2006, the Palestinian people were in the lead. I was the only Arab who ran against the president of the established order and did not go to jail, unlike Ayman Nour in Egypt and others. Unfortunately, the refusal to recognise the Palestinian unity government and the results of the elections divided Palestinian ranks.

So, the international community played a major role in this?

Israel and the international community were the main culprits behind the loss of democracy. That is why we insist on national unity, not for the sake of unity in itself. We are in favour of political pluralism and the right of Palestinians to choose but we cannot regain democracy without a transitional phase of reconciliation and national unity.

 

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Palestine@UN: Too few cooks spoil the peace

 
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By Maryam Darwich

The asymmetry in power between Israelis and Palestinians and the exclusion of key players mean that the quest for UN recognition of an independent Palestine is like the icing on an uncooked cake.

Thursday 8 September 2011

September 1993 marked what many at the time described as a revolutionary breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. It was the month that saw the sealing of the Declaration of Principles – commonly known as the Oslo Accords – between the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), represented by Yasser Arafat, and the Israeli state.

On the 18th anniversary of the failed accords, analysis has focused on the role of the potentially significant United Nations recognition of an independent Palestinian state. The real question, for those interested in conflict resolution, is not whether the UN recognises Palestine but to what extent have things changed since Oslo? Have the ‘spoilers’ of the peace process learnt from the lessons of Oslo? Has the environment in anyway changed to create a context that is more conducive to resolving the conflict?

Essentially, has the situation really changed to allow for the current diplomatic initiative to transcend legal rhetoric and elite jubilance and deliver significant change for those living, day in and day out, this conflict?

Looking at peace processes broadly, especially seemingly successful ones, such as the Northern Ireland case, the essential elements for success are inclusiveness, accountability and an environment that limits spoiler success. Spoilers are actors who attempt to derail the peace process for their own interests.

So did the Oslo recipe include these vital ingredients?

Oslo could in no way be described as inclusive. An elected Israeli government representative could be described as representative of the Israeli people but on the other side of the negotiating table sat Arafat and his clique. Despite it being described as a negotiation with the PLO, the umbrella group representing Palestinian factions, the reality was far from the case. 

The Palestinian side was Arafat-centric and, despite claims that the PLO was a representative of the Palestinians, the context in which they came to the negotiating table was one of a bedraggled, increasingly irrelevant group of people who not only physically but mentally were moving away from those whose cause they were representing.

The condition in which the PLO went into negotiation has been described as one of desperate need. Booted out of Lebanon, pushed into Yemen and Tunisia, lacking significant Arab state support following the PLO’s backing of Saddam Hussein during the 1990 Gulf war, not to mention the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of its major funders, all contributed to the organisation feeling very alone and isolated.

In addition, within the occupied territories, groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, later to become some of the key external spoilers to the conflict, had begun to gain ground. Islamic Jihad formed as a radical splinter group of the Muslim Brotherhood and, alongside Hamas, played a role in igniting the first intifada. Yet, the two groups were excluded from the Israeli-Palestinian talks.

 This dismissive attitude towards militant groups was a hindrance to the peace process. And it is this continued ostracisation of important, even if controversial and questionable, groups that limits any future chance of effective conflict resolution. That said, the recent Fatah-Hamas unity deal in Cairo, although labelled as a setback for peace by the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, certainly forces an important, even if undesired, extra actor to any future negotiating table.

By comparison, the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland ensured inclusiveness from the outset through the participation – later democratic – of extremely opposing groups and potentially militant movements who were offered a non-violent platform to express their grievances and work towards democratic mobilisation of the masses.

Oslo, on the other hand, not only closed opportunities for participation in the early days but also failed to open up the spectrum for participation gradually. By centring the Palestinian side of the negotiations on an individual and his tightly knit group, it left no room for others to get involved. In addition, the responsibility and title the Oslo process bestowed on the PLO representatives encouraged them to close off the political system to other players. This has not only led to the rise of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, but also the clear creation of an authoritarian regime, in the guise of the Palestinian Authority, led by Fatah.

As the late Edward Said once put it: “After years of being the victims of Arab and Israeli repression, Palestinians have finally earned the right of a repressive system of their own.”

Israel’s insistence on only negotiating with one party has closed the system off to the development of a more representative group of Palestinian negotiators. To this day, negotiations do not take place with those that the Palestinians feel represent them but rather the group, or more commonly the individual, that Israel and the United States deem should represent them. With such a chasm between the masses and the elite, the perfect gap is created for spoilers to do what they do best: spoil the process.

Essentially, a successful attempt at resolution of this conflict would see the Palestinians experiencing improvement in their daily lives and Israelis feeling more secure in their own homes. Unfortunately, Oslo set the tone for an environment of very little positive change, which gave the spoilers on both sides the perfect opportunity to wreak havoc with very little accountability.

The extremely violent, uncompromising, fervent settler communities of the occupied territories are never going to be satisfied with any compromise with the Palestinians on the issue of the land that they feel is rightfully theirs. An example of the actions of their most extreme fringe was the attack carried out by Baruch Goldstein, a resident of the Hebron settlement, who walked into the Ibrahimi mosque and shot 29 Palestinians as they prayed. The reaction from the Israeli state was to increase the number of IDF troops on the ground and impose a curfew on Palestinians to protect the settler community.

This incident continues to reverberate in the minds of Palestinians to this day. Hebron itself has come to be remembered as one of the biggest tragedies of the Oslo agreement. “For the sake of the 500 Jewish settlers, everyday life for the 35,000 Palestinians, who resided in the same area, became a living nightmare”, according to Ghada Karmi(???), and continues to be so.

What became clear after Oslo is that “the Israelis with all their military power cannot extinguish Palestinian aspirations and the Palestinians with all their anger […] will not force the Israelis to submit,” Dennis Ross, Bill Clinton’s special Middle East coordinator, once noted.

What was needed to contribute to a more peaceful coexistence was an understanding of leadership constraints. It is the case that both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership today fail to understand key traits of leadership, especially since they feel their position to be extremely vulnerable. Leaders make decisions, which sometimes anger or disappoint their constituency, and so they sometimes must pay the price with their own career. But no leaders on either side show that level of daring.

The desire for many Palestinian political actors to act as the symbol of Palestine makes the political elite lack a clear strategy, something which is desperately needed. Israeli leaders also lack a clear vision for peace, while the current leadership has a clear anti-peace agenda.

Binyamin Netanyahu, during the Oslo years and now, “showed hatred and bitter animosity towards the Palestinians”, according to the British-Israeli historian Avi Shlaim. This meant, in the words of Ron Pundak of the Peres Centre for Peace, that Netanyahu “sabotaged the peace process relentlessly and made every effort to de-legitimise his Palestinian partners”. The re-election of a leader with such a track record indicates that few lessons have been learnt.

Finally, whilst the Israeli-Palestinian conflict certainly fits the bill of being an intractable conflict, it is not one based on an equal stalemate. The reality of the asymmetrical nature of the conflict makes any negotiations, in themselves, a paradox, as the actors are unlikely to feel the harm of the conflict equally.

Asymmetry is evident in the nature of the relationship between the two sides: the relationship of the occupied to the occupier based on a history of power and military successes for Israel in the face of one loss after the other in the eyes of the Palestinians.

In such an environment, “when a peace process is being conducted between two utterly unequal parties in the context of a deeply asymmetric power relationship, the role of the third party becomes critical”, argues Sumantra Bose of the London School of Economics. Essentially the issue of asymmetry can only been resolved if a neutral third party is present, one that would balance the negotiating table.

The involvement of the United States in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been largely unsuccessful and Washington has taken no steps to change the conflict into some mutually beneficial arrangement. Whilst the United States appeared to act as a neutral party in brokering peace in Northern Ireland, it has traditionally been biased towards the Israelis.

The perception among Palestinians and their supporters is that the US just provides Israel with a cover for its violations on the ground. Washington’s approach is perhaps unsurprising, given that Israel is the largest beneficiary of American military aid, a strategic Middle Eastern ally and the protégé of the influential pro-Israel lobby. This leads to Palestinian resentment to brew against the foundations and the hypocrisy of the entire process.

So whilst reactions have been positive rhetorically, it is understandable why many in Palestinian society are sceptical about what positive changes a UN vote would actually bring.

In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not only are common external spoilers a threat, but those heralding peace and compromise have had a destructive impact. There is little intent from the Israeli government to follow through with promises and no one to hold it to account. Moreover, the blatant asymmetry between the Palestinians and Israelis is exacerbated by a biased broker and a self-interested approach to conflict resolution that, unfortunately, lead to any confidence-building efforts to become mutually destructive.

Combined, these factors make any potential UN recognition just the icing on an uncooked cake.

This article is part of a special Chronikler report on the Palestinian quest to seek United Nations recognition.

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Palestine@UN: a Palestinian Masada?

 
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By Sohair Mohidin

Are Palestinian plans to go to the United Nations a case of passing the political hot potato, reinventing the Oslo process or a hopeless last stand?

Tuesday 6 September 2011

The Palestinian initiative has succeeded in one thing so far: it has stirred up controversy and grabbed the world’s attention despite the intensive media coverage of the ongoing Arab revolutions in Libya, Syria and Yemen. An intensive battle is now taking place in the media because Palestinian plans to seek UN recognition are of political and symbolic value more than anything else – which is fitting since the Palestinian Authority has no capacity to influence reality under occupation anymore. 

Palestinian officials seem to have no real strategy behind this call except the vague hope of reviving or reinventing the Oslo process, as illustrated by a document prepared by the former chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, which expressed the hope that this move would facilitate future dialouge with Washington. 

However, on the ground, UN recognition will not free Palestine from the occupation and will not restore or honour the historical rights of Palestinians. Nevertheless, with the situation in deadlock, the Palestinians are not left with much other choice but to pass the hot potato of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the international community in another form. 

But is it about passing the hot potato again to its cook or is it about exposing, before the mirror of global public opinion, the naked ineffectiveness of the international community, especially the US administration, to broker a just peace deal? Is the Palestinian initiative a symptom of impotence or is designed to question impotence? 

It could simply be a way for Palestinians to reject the “siege” Israel has been inflicting on them through a series of measures aimed at aborting the peace process and making the world believe that Israel has no “partner for peace”. This siege in all it forms – whether through hindering negotiations, increased settlement activities, the “apartheid” separation wall, or the daily humiliation the Palestinian people are subjected to by the Israeli occupation – could be likened to a “new Masada” in which Palestinians are pushed into a suicidal last stand in September, in their only remaining “fortress”, the United Nations. 

But why is going to the United Nations suicidal? Because so far there’s no clear vision of what kind of state or lack of awaits the Palestinians the day after. There are also questions about the legitimacy of this state. “Who, though, is the state, and what are the democratic links between those who will represent the state at the UN and the people of Palestine? An abstract entity – a state – is proposed, but where are the people?” is the alarming question posed by Guy Goodwin-Gill, a professor of public international law at Oxford University, in an interview with al-Jazeera.

 So why go there? Perhaps it is an attempt to win the media battle.

In February 2010, the images of young Palestinians disguised as characters from the film Avatar during a protest against the separation wall in Bilin caught the attention of the international media and spread virally via the social media platforms. In the world of modern mass communication, the image speaks, provokes and can act as a mobilisation multiplier, as is being demonstrated by the ongoing Arab revolutions.

The current “tent protests”, which have brought together Israelis of almost all political stripes, have effectively acted as another way to force the “siege” on the Palestinians and contribute to their state of despair. Not only do Palestinians lack a peace partner in most Israeli governments of the past 18 years, but they were also disappointed to realise that the Israeli civil society protesting against the socio-economic policies of their state – which Dan Senor glorified in his book The Start-Up Nation – managed to exclude their rights, especially in the early days of the movement.

Why did the largest social movement in Israel’s history succeed in ignoring Palestinian rights including those of Palestinian-Israelis? It also failed to include the least criticism of Israel’s occupation policy, and even announced clearly from the beginning that there was no room for politics in these demonstrations.

However, one political party, the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, which represents a large number of leftist Palestinian-Israelis and Israeli-Jews, took the wise step of joining the movement when they realised the risk of being excluded. Tents were pitched in some Arab villages and cities, such as Nazareth and Haifa, where Arabs and Jews came together to campaign for equal rights, justice and peace for all. This was the first time that Arabs were included in the mobilisation.

Perhaps successive Israeli governments succeeded in dehumanising the Palestinians in the Israeli collective mind. Nevertheless, there are voices of dissent, such as Akiva Orr who considers the tent demonstrations are only the beginning of the end of young Israelis being “political fodder”, as he put it in a recent commentary he made on J14. “Give them time and many will become anti-Zionist. One cannot be weaned in a week from what one embraced uncritically for many years at home, in nursery and school.”

But can the Palestinians afford this “time” for Israelis to wake up? Can Palestinians continue to afford the impotence of the international community while they continue to live under siege and in deadlock?

Whether or not Palestinian can afford the time, they do possess an abundant supply of hope. As late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish put it in his poem, State of Siege, Palestinians are affected by an incurable “disease called hope”:

We do what prisoners do
We do what the jobless do
We sow hope

Nevertheless, Israelis, together with the international community, should realise that, under these circumstances of change in Israel and the energising regional context of Arab revolutions, the Palestinians can no longer afford to sit idly by and watch their boat of hope sink, day after day, in the maelstrom of the status quo.

This article is part of a special Chronikler report on the Palestinian quest to seek United Nations recognition.

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Enemies like us

 
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By Khaled Diab

Had the threat from far-right extremists been taken more seriously, could the Norway tragedy have been averted?

Monday 1 August 2011

The gruesome and horrifying attacks on 22 July 2011 in downtown Oslo and on the island of Utøya, which claimed at least 76 lives, including numerous children and minors, has caused Norway to lose its innocence, according to Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbø. 

“I came from a country where fear of others had not found a foothold. A country you could leave for three months… and come home to read the newspapers and discover that the only thing new was the crossword puzzle,” he wrote in The Guardian.

“The Norwegian self-image before 22 July 2011 was that of a virgin – nature untouched by human hands, a nation unsullied by the ills of society,” Utøya added. “And yet there is no road back to the way it was before.”

An attack like this is tragic for any country, but in the peaceful and peaceable backwater of Norway, a small country with grand ambitions of spreading peace around the world – such as by hosting the secret talks which led to the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords or by launching the process which led to the Convention on Cluster Munitions – it is perhaps doubly sad.

On 22 July 2011, months shy of a decade after the 11 September attacks in the United States, another virginity of sorts was lost: the increasingly popular and mainstream idea that the greatest threats facing the West are posed by Islamist jihadists and Muslim minorities in Europe and the United States.

In fact, in the early hours following the attacks, speculation by ‘talking head’ experts focused on the presumption that the atrocities had been committed by Islamist extremists, despite the absence of any evidence to support this.

And, even worse, once the identity of the perpetrator was known – Anders Behring Breivik, a far-right extremist and Christian fundamentalist – the semantic shift in the coverage was palpable. Generally gone were the words ‘terror’ or ‘terrorist’ and, instead, we read and heard ‘gunman’, ‘extremist, or ‘attacker’ – even in the normally even-handed Guardian – despite the fact that he is being charged with “destabilising or destroying basic functions of society” and “creating serious fear in the population”, i.e. acts of terrorism.

At a certain level, such speculation is part of human nature because people need to know why, and it is far easier to apportion blame on the ‘other’ than to think the unthinkable or at least the unsavoury, that one of our own did this to us.

But even if it is human nature, such knee-jerkism is not humane, especially because it could have dire consequences for an already-vilified and distrusted minority, i.e. Muslims. This is doubly so when considering that even non-specialists could see gaping holes in the early theories of the security experts.

The main question that dogged my wife and I was “Why Norway?” The only reason we could think of as to why Islamist extremists would target Oslo is that it is a ‘soft target’. This could perhaps explain the bombs which went off in the government quarter, but why attack a Labour Party youth camp? And with bombings being the choice method used by Islamists when attacking Western targets, why did a gunman go around picking off individuals one after the other?

Well, even we had internalised the security narrative sufficiently to doubt our doubts, and decide it may have been Jihadists after all, despite our suspicions. Then, reports began to spread that witnesses were saying that the attacker was blond. As the details emerged, the initial outrage turned to shock and surprise – since when did white Europeans engage in terrorism and kill their own, many were asking?

This can’t be terrorism, these must be the actions of a mad “lone wolf”, some were insisting. But Breivik himself claims that he is not alone and is part of a Europe-wide anti-Islam network with two cells in Norway.

Although the attacks in Norway have taken the world by surprise, the signs that something like this might happen have been there for many years for those who were willing to take off their Islamist blinkers and look objectively at the wider picture.

Last year, on the fifth anniversary of the 7 July terror attacks in London, when debate again focused on “homegrown extremism”, but of the Islamist ilk, not the European far-right, I wrote, in an opinion piece for The Guardian in the UK, that neo-Nazism and other far-right ideologies in Europe probably constitute a greater threat than Islamic extremism.

I argued that, while the threat posed by a small number of violent Islamist extremists is very real and the danger of Islamic fundamentalism should not be downplayed or understated, the risk posed by the European far-right was greater because it is an indigenous ideology that can cruise under the radar while society is distracted with the spectre of external threats.

“Neo-Nazis have yet to pull off any attack as spectacular as those in Madrid or London. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to or don’t plan to,” I cautioned. Moreover, they “are responsible for a regular and growing stream of violence against Muslims, Jews, blacks and other minorities across Europe”.

A lot of readers, inspired by the assurances of ‘security experts’, at the time dismissed my thesis, with some even accusing me of “agenda-pushing” and “fear-mongering”, with claims that “the far right are simply not a menace”.  Likewise, my theory, which I expounded three years earlier, that the United States and some parts of Europe were in the throes of a nascent “Christian jihad” was also met with a fair amount of ridicule.

So, the conventional wisdom remained the guiding principle, and Western security services continued their quest to protect us from the Islamist threat, with Europol reporting a 50% increase in the arrests of suspected Islamic extremists in 2010. Meanwhile, Anders Behring Breivik, was working for several years to blow this conventional wisdom out of the water: apparently undetected, he plotted this attack, tried to purchase weapons, engaged in hate-filled online debate and wrote a 1,500-page far-right manifesto entitled ‘2083 – a European Declaration of Independence’.

In its 2010 report, Europol did not take very seriously the risk posed by right-wing extremism, judging that the “threat from right-wing extremism appears to be on the wane and the numbers of right-wing extremist criminal offences are relatively low”. However, it noted that “the professionalism in their propaganda and organisation shows that right-wing extremist groups have the will to enlarge and spread their ideology”.

So was Breivik’s apparent ability to cruise below the radar an understandable oversight or a monumental security failure?

On the one hand, the presumption of innocence until proven guilty is an important pillar of the legal system and, according to Janne Kristiansen, chief of the Norwegian Police Security Service, Breivik was careful in the run-up to the attack and “deliberately desisted from violent exhortations on the net [and] has more or less been a moderate”.

On the other hand, Islamists who believe in creating a global Islamic caliphate, for instance, are routinely monitored by European security services, and numerous arrests of conservative Muslims have been made over the years on the slightest suspicion of possible violent intent. In Breivik’s case, he managed to research and write a lengthy manifesto containing many worrying passages, including his belief that his actions will help to spark a civil war in Europe that will ultimately lead to the expulsion of “cultural Marxists” and Muslims.

Moreover, even if his initial preparations were careful, Breivik’s megalomania seems to have got the better of him in the final countdown to the attack, which could have afforded security services the chance to apprehend him before he caused real destruction.

Six hours before the fateful and bloody killings, Breivik posted a YouTube video in which he urged fellow ultra-conservatives to “embrace martyrdom”. A text accompanying the video detailed his plans for the attack, while his blood-chilling manifesto was released an hour and a half beforehand – yet no action seems to have been taken to apprehend him. 

Why? Perhaps in a country that has never been rocked by a major terrorist attack, Norway’s security services were wholly unprepared for such an eventuality, at least, one originating with a native Norwegian – after all, what possible reason could a Norwegian have to commit violetn terrorism in such a prosperous and egalitarian society.

 At another level, perhaps Norwegian and European security services, like society at large, have so internalised the false yet popular notion that, although the majority of Muslims are not terrorists, the majority of terrorists are Muslims. I wonder if, in future, we will learn that Breivik’s name was flagged by some low-ranking analyst but his or her superiors failed to take the warning seriously.

Breivik provides an object lesson to Europeans and Americans alike that they ignore the extremists within their own ranks at their peril. There are also important lessons to be drawn from the West’s security-obsessed handling of Islamic extremism when it comes to the far-right. Far-right extremism cannot solely be viewed through the prism of security, but we need to strike at the ideological and socioeconomic factors that fuel it.

To do so, we need to build greater awareness and better understanding of the socioeconomic and cultural factors feeding this phenomenon. Just like their Islamist counterparts, many people who are drawn to far-right ideologies feel disempowered and marginalised, and believe that the way to overcome this is to turn back the clock to an idyllic ‘pure’ past.

And, as unemployment figures rise and government spending falls on the back of the recession, this sense of exclusion and frustration will grow – and minorities will continue to fill the role of convenient scapegoat for the economic ills visited upon us by the banking crisis and neo-liberal economics.

“The economic recession has led to political and social tensions and, in a number of member states, has fuelled the conditions for terrorism and extremism,” concludes Europol.

Mainstream society is, in certain ways, complicit in the emergence of this troubling current. The increasingly mainstream vilification and demonisation of the West’s Muslim minority and Islam in general – based on fear, insecurity, ignorance and political expediency, as well as the worry that extremist groups will succeed in their bid to ‘Islamise’ Europe – since the 11 September terror attacks a decade ago has created fertile ground for the far-right to lay down deeper roots.

We should not deal with far-right extremism and its violent manifestations with the same level of sensationalism and mass hysteria we reserve for extremist Islam – we need to be vigilant, not vigilante about it.

This article is part of a special Chronikler series on far-right extremism.

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Race against space

 
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By Khaled Diab

Both time and space are  running out for the two-state solution. If Israelis wish to preserve the Jewish identity of their state, they need to act now to create a Palestinian state.

Monday 25 July 2011

Local children squeeze into the one-roomed school for the village's summer camp. ©Photo: Khaled Diab

Perched on a scenic hilltop named ‘Mont de Joie’ (‘Mountain of Joy’) by the Crusaders for its commanding view of the Jerusalem they were about to conquer, Nabi Samwil’s 250 or so Palestinian inhabitants have little to feel joyous about. They are cut off, by Israeli settlements and the separation wall, from the rest of the West Bank, while the West Bank IDs they carry deprive them of access to Jerusalem, even though Israel considers their village to be within the municipal boundaries of the city. 

“We’ve become like a tiny island,” describes Mohammed Barakat, a local lawyer, who lives with three branches of his family, i.e. 13 people, in a small house of about 120m2. “If a child needs a doctor, you have to embark on a very long journey to get to other nearby villages or Ramallah.”

 As he speaks, Barakat, who was crippled in a car crash in Amman, is sitting on his bed working on his computer, one of the few connections he has with the outside world. In addition to being a key advocate of the villagers’ rights, Barakat runs an NGO appropriately called, given the confinement of his village, Disabled without Borders.

One practical problem associated with their imposed isolation is getting relatives and friends from other parts of the West Bank into the village. Mohammed’s brother, Rebhi, who is a member of the village council, is somewhat anxious about a local wedding that is due to take place later in the week.

“The Israeli civilian administration insists on knowing the names of everyone who is coming,” he complains. “But you can never know who exactly is coming because each person you invite usually brings along their family and friends.”

The villagers’ woes don’t end there. Owing to draconian Israeli building restrictions, the bride and groom, like many other young people, are forced to abandon the village in search of housing elsewhere. Villagers report that only two houses have been built since Israel took over control in 1967, while numerous homes were demolished near the mosque and the tomb that is believed by some, despite the absence of archaeological or biblical evidence, to house the prophet Samuel. 

One of the sad consequences of this inability to build which I witnessed is that some two dozen children have to squeeze into the village’s tiny one-room school, which will soon lack a properly functioning toilet because the one they built has a demolition order on it. 

Isolated as Nabi Samwil is, it is not an isolated case – demolitions and displacements are a daily fact of life. This is clearly illustrated in a new report by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) which is due out on 21 July. Entitled Forced Out, the sobering document focuses on displaced communities in Area C, more than three-fifths of the West Bank over which Israel retains full civil and security control under the Oslo Accords. 

It documents how local communities – faced with restrictions on their movement, a freeze on building and settler violence and intimidation – are facing severe housing shortages, with many moving to Areas A and B as a result. Among the hardest hit are farming and Bedouin communities in the Jordan Valley, some of whom have even resorted to building concrete structures inside their tents to conceal them from the army. 

“While the intent behind the various policies applied by Israel to Area C is unclear, their effect is to make it impossible for many Palestinian communities to develop,” says UN Humanitarian Coordinator Maxwell Gaylard who expresses “concerns about demographic shifts and changes to the ethnic make-up of Area C”. 

Although Israel’s intentions are indeed unclear, the fact that a sharp increase in demolitions and evictions has taken place this year seems to suggest a bid to “create realities on the ground” before the Palestinian leadership gets a chance to go to the UN to seek recognition for an independent Palestine. OCHA’s records show that over 1,100 Palestinians have been forcibly displaced so far in 2011 in Area C and East Jerusalem. 

Area C, which has experienced a massive upsurge in settlement building since the signing of the Oslo Accords, is currently home to twice as many Israeli settlers as Palestinians (300,000 as opposed to 150,000). Nevertheless, it possesses the majority of Palestinian agricultural and grazing land and is the only contiguous territory in the West Bank, which was foreseen to provide, under the ‘land for peace’ formula, the bulk of the space upon which a future Palestinian state would be established. 

However, with 70% of Area C currently set aside for settlements or the IDF, there is little room left for the two-state solution. This might partly explain why the Palestinian leadership, caught as it is in a race against space, has desperately resorted to the UN path, despite its slim chances of success. 

But it is not just Palestinians who should be worried about the changing reality of Area C and East Jerusalem, ordinary Israelis should be, too. If current policies remain unchecked, most of the Palestinian population will soon be living in a series of disconnected islands that will be impossible to join up into a coherent territory, leading to a de facto single Israeli-Palestinian state. 

Once they realise that their dream of an independent state is dead, Palestinians are likely to start focusing their attention on demanding equal civil rights and Israeli citizenship. This will leave Israel with a dilemma: either live up to its democratic credentials and grant Palestinians full rights and dilute the country’s prized Jewish identity, or continue an unsustainable and increasingly oppressive occupation, with all the disenfranchisement it involves, to hold on to this Jewishness. 

I am personally in favour of a single binational state made up of two non-geographical Israeli and Palestinian community governments which oversee the affairs of their peoples, and a joint federal government which manages common issues, such as trade, defence and foreign policy. 

Although a growing minority of Israelis supports this vision, most favour a state with a clearly Jewish identity which, by implication, makes them supporters of an independent Palestine on the pre-1967 borders. However, the current government, which holds the land to be holier than its people, is unlikely to take any meaningful steps to achieve the two-state vision. 

This leaves it up to ordinary Israelis to bring pressure to bear on the government to act now or risk forever holding back peace. Last Friday, some 4,500 protesters, mostly Israelis, marched through East Jerusalem to voice their support for an independent Palestine. The time has come for hundreds of thousands more to join them.

This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on Friday 21 July 2011.

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