The PA, the UN, Egypt and the flotilla: no help for the Palestinians

Two states?

In September of 2011, the Palestinian Authority will approach the United Nations for a resolution recognising Palestine as a new member state. Against the backdrop of what are still hopefully being called the Arab revolutions, much of the world believes that UN recognition will force Israel to follow suit and recognise, and thus leave in peace, a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

The government of Israel often warns that a sovereign Palestine would mean Hamas’ taking power, probably violently, and then using a new state as a launching pad for the destruction of Israel. However, one must doubt that Hamas is so irrational. Its leaders are well aware that they would be blown to dust if they initiated a war with Israel. Their being religious does not change that. Religious governments are not crazy, and are as likely as non-religious ones to make war. Iran, for all the Israeli and US rhetoric attacking it, seems to have no intention of starting wars. Why would a poorly-armed, dishevelled group like Hamas?

However, with a state, a legitimate government would set up legitimate defense forces against Israeli aggression. It would enable Palestine’s acceptance as a member of the UN. It would also mean the possibility of self-reliance for its citizens, instead of depending on foreign aid under the constant threat of land expropriation and housing demolitions. Finally, it could end the Palestinian refugee issue (though not satisfactorily, as many insist on the “right of return” of all refugees to their previous homes and parents’ and grandparents’ homes, which could be anywhere in Israel or the Palestinian territories). Of course, given Israeli government interests in the status quo in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, and its continual proving its ruthlessness in pursuing those interests, all these hopes are mere hopes. After all, asked one West Bank resident, “who cares if we get recognised as a state if the Israelis can still block the roads?”

If Palestinians want a state, international law states that certain conditions must be met. First, it must have a stable population. Check. Second, it must have a government. The Palestinian Authority is not great, but it has the necessary institutions of a government. Check. Third, it must have a defined territory. This issue is contentious, to say the least. It is hard to know exactly where Israel begins and Palestine ends; but the hope is that a Palestinian state would be built on the pre-1967 lines: the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. More recent negotiations (not to mention the settlements) have reduced the size of the West Bank that could belong to Palestine but have partly compensated for the loss of territory with the idea of land swaps between the two states. The solutions are on the table, though the current Israeli government continues to require conditions that make reaching those solutions all but impossible. Fourth, it must have the capacity to enter into relations with other states. That requires recognition by other states. Most of the world’s states now recognise Palestine as sovereign, with the exception of the most powerful ones. But some governments do not recognise Israel as a state either, and some of its territory is considered illegal (the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem were annexed and settled—an unequivocal violation of international law) and yet it is obviously sovereign. But getting and holding a state will not be easy for anyone.

First, the Security Council needs to recommend statehood to the General Assembly, which might not happen. The US government, which can veto any Security Council resolution, has always vetoed resolutions that are not in the Israeli right wing’s self interest, and has done so recently. In doing so, it goes against the international consensus; but the powerful are not constrained by others’ opinions. Despite its posturing for decades, the US government has done little to promote peace and allow the recognition of a Palestinian state. It is possible that the PA can use General Assembly Resolution 377, which can be invoked to bypass the Security Council when it fails to act to maintain international peace and security (its main function), though it may not be valid for the purpose of recognising a new member state. Second, Israel’s diplomats are flying around the world to drum up support for the Netanyahu government’s Bantustan vision for Palestine. The US, of course, supports Israel in this endeavour, as does Germany.

Third, if somehow Palestine is recognised, the US government will not be its friend. The US senate voted unanimously last week that statehood should (a non-binding resolution) be obtained through negotiations and not unilateral declaration. In fact, not only will the US not negotiate with Hamas, whose participation in talks is just as legitimate as that of any other party, the PA opted to approach the UN because there was no peace process to speak of. The resolution consists entirely of conditions directed at the Palestinians (eg. “any Palestinian unity government must publicly and formally forswear
terrorism, accept Israel’s right to exist, and reaffirm previous agreements made with the Government of Israel”, including, presumably the humiliating Oslo Accords), as the US government never puts any pressure on Israel. Susan Rice, White House ambassador to the UN, has also threatened to suspend all aid to the PA if it gains statehood. Though much of that aid goes into the pockets of the corrupt PA, some of it is nonetheless recycled back into the economy. If a sovereign state will lead to rapid growth in the private sector, Palestine has a chance for self-sufficiency. If not, the Palestinians might be worse off than before. Do the Palestinians have any powerful friends?

Egypt

Egypt’s revolution held promise not only for Egyptians, but for Palestinians as well. In 2007, at Israel’s behest, Egypt blocked all access to the crossing at the town of Rafah that straddles the Sinai and the Gaza Strip. In post-(or mid-) revolutionary Egypt, under pressure from the people, the transitional government promised it would open the crossing. A legitimate Israeli fear was that the crossing would become the transfer point for masses of weapons, but it was to be screened for such things like a normal national border. But since the Egyptian junta’s announcement, little has changed. Palestinians applying to leave Gaza—some 20,000—are being told to come back in September. Aside from a few hundred travelers (on a good day) and a mere two truckloads of exports a day, mostly only journalists and ambulances can leave the Strip. One official said it might take months for the Egyptian government to send enough personnel to man the border. Perhaps they are walking there. It has also been reported that, despite pledges of independence from the US and Israeli governments, these two have been reportedly pressuring Egypt not to ease restrictions. Disappointing, to say the least.

The flotilla

The Freedom Flotilla of over a dozen ships is headed for Gaza. The purpose of the flotilla is partly to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza but mainly to bring international attention to the terrible plight faced by the Strip’s inhabitants. It is carrying three thousand tons of aid and its members are from dozens of countries. It is easy to understand why so many people feel strongly about Gaza. Gaza is the most crowded area on earth, with 1.5m people crammed into 360km2. Four out of five Gazans rely on humanitarian aid; 40% of Gazans are unemployed; 80% live in poverty.

Given the impossibility of legitimate trade with the outside world, Gazans long ago resorted to transporting goods by tunnels, which are sometimes bombed by Israel (see here and here for two articles on the latest such attack). Middle East Online says that “[p]rior to Israel’s ‘easing’ of the blockade in 2010 [following the first flotilla debacle], an estimated 80 percent of goods in Gaza’s stores were smuggled through the border with Egypt. Now most consumer goods in the markets and corner shops come from Israel.” Gazans are as enterprising and rugged as anyone else. They do not really need humanitarian aid; they need the ability to trade. According to deputy head of the ICRC in Gaza Mathilde De Riedmatten (and everyone else who has been there), the Strip, essentially a large prison camp, continues to experience crises in health care, water and sanitation. Agriculture has suffered, not only because fertilizers are on the long list of items banned under the blockade, but also because the IDF periodically levels the land and uproots trees. Construction materials cannot enter the Strip, and since Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, they have been needed to repair all manner of buildings. God knows what would happen if Israel repeated its indiscriminate slaughter of Gazans from two years ago, with Gazans still unable to leave. But despite implausible claims that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the powerful do not want the flotilla to continue.

Professor Stephen Zunes said in a recent piece on the flotilla that “nothing frightens a militaristic state more than the power of nonviolent action.” Israeli newspapers have printed the foreboding words of many Israeli officials that Hamas is involved in the organisation of the flotilla, that its intent is to smuggle arms, and that its members plan to attack Israeli soldiers, while others have ridiculed such claims. In his inimitably clever way, Christopher Hitchens attempts to take apart the members of the flotilla. He assumes that the humanitarian convoys will bolster Hamas, rather than help the people; and he questions the motives of the organisers by implying they are associated with the regime of Bashar al Assad of Syria and Hezbollah, which seems, I think any reasonable reader can agree, a stretch. Then he mentions al Qaeda, having learned from George Bush that saying two words in the same speech (“Saddam” and “al Qaeda”) forces listeners to associate the two mentally, when of course they have nothing to do with each other. Despite their use of words such as “proof”, there is little reason to take anything these people say seriously.

The only argument they have worth considering is that any feeding of the people of Gaza bolsters the Hamas government. However, that is only true if the blockade of Gaza had any hope of turning the people against Hamas, and so far it has not worked. How could it? History suggests that people punished collectively for supporting a certain group do not turn on the group but on their punishers. It is obvious that the true oppressors are the ones turning the screws on Gaza: Israel, and to a lesser extent the US and Egypt. The stated goal of the siege of Gaza has not and will not work. The inhumanity of punishing 1.5m people for 44.45% of voters’ electing a terrorist group when their alternative was a corrupt, unresponsive, collaborator party also escapes those who insist on maintaining the blockade.

All manner of coercion is taking place to prevent the flotilla from reaching Gaza. The Greek government, in a move that presumably will not make it any more endearing to its people, banned all ships in the freedom flotilla from leaving its ports. When a Canadian ship left Crete, Greek authorities intercepted it and took all 50 people on board into custody. Israel’s government threatened to jail any journalists found covering the flotilla for up to ten years. It dropped the ban not long after, though having changed their minds so quickly, one wonders if they might change them back. There is evidence that Israelis had sabotaged some of the flotilla ships.

However, there is no evidence any of the ships that are attempting to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza have been found to contain weapons or materials that could be used for military purposes. No evidence was found for the claim that the flotilla organisers have links to Hamas or other terrorists. In fact, flotilla organisers have likely done everything they can to assure there is no legitimate cause for Israel to attack any of its members, as it did last year when nine activists died in a confused fracas. Their non-violent resistance seems in line with the thinking that produced the phrase “If you want to beat Mike Tyson, you don’t invite him into the ring, you invite him to the chessboard.”

Though there is no real evidence the flotilla poses any threat to Israel, the US government has stated it is not willing to protect the US citizens on board against an Israeli attack, and that such an attack is well within Israel’s right. The ships will not be passing into Israeli waters but international waters, followed by the coast of Gaza, which is only blockaded by Israel. It seems unlikely any state has the right to attack unarmed people in international waters; either way, it leaves the Palestinians and those who want to help them find justice without a friend or saviour.

How about one state?

Does all this mean the only hope for a Palestinian state for the PA to take matters into its own hands? Much has been made of the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement, with its possibility of integrating Hamas into a new PA. But not only will such a government be rejected by Israel and the US, Palestinians do not seem to hold out much hope for it either. The PA, set up by the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, is seen by many in the West Bank as collaborators: the police of the occupation. The two parties presumably feel the need to work together to obtain statehood, but where would they go from there?

Another question that others have asked is, is a Palestinian state the best way to achieve freedom? Again, if Israel is still in the neighbourhood, still wary to the point of paranoia about any Arab provocation, still hungry for land based on ancient myths of an Eretz (Greater) Israel, an independent Palestine will mean little. One often hears the phrase “facts on the ground”, usually used to imply that settlements have changed Israel’s requirements since 1967, but which obfuscate the issue by making the settlements of the West Bank and East Jerusalem seem irreversible, when the settlements of the Sinai and Gaza were not. In spite of the mess on the ground, it has been said since the beginning of the Arab Spring that Israel will have to make peace sooner rather than later. I do not share this optimism; but since many of the people who do are people who know the issue better than I, let us consider an audacious, less realistic but vastly improved possibility: the one-state solution.

Ali Abunimah, founder of the Electronic Intifada, writes in his book One Country: a Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, “There is no credible ‘peace process’ to provide hope that the misery on the ground is merely a transitionary phase on the way to deliverance, and the one big idea that is supposed to save us—the Palestinian state—lies in tatters.” His thesis is that, if the inhabitants of the Holy Land can just learn to share, they would all be far better off. It is hard to escape his logic. Jews and Palestinians boast roughly equal numbers in Israel and the territories (6m each). They both claim ownership of the land on which they live. The fact that the West Bank and Jerusalem are so important to both Palestinians and Jews alike provides legitimacy to the claim that they should be shared. One state could mean the true right of return that gives all Palestinian refugees a place to live outside the squalid camps so many still inhabit. The two-state solution may in fact be the movement of the old guard. Fatah and Hamas may become (even more) irrelevant as the one-state cause picks up steam among young people in the Palestinian territories.

Israelis would need to abandon their unswerving claims to a purebred Jewish state in all the land of Israel/Palestine, which at the moment seems more distant than ever. Hamas would need to permanently abandon its rhetoric and violence. But if the flotilla achieves its PR goal, if non-violent Palestinian resistance continues to succeed, if the two-state bid fails and if international pressure on Israel increases, one state for Jews and Arabs might be the answer to the question of peace that everyone claims to want.

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Operation Cast Lead, two years on

Two years ago, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) began the indiscriminate slaughter it named Operation Cast Lead. Some 1400 people were killed, thousands more wounded and displaced. Hundreds of sad people marched in Gaza in commemoration.

See here for the reasons Israel attacked Gaza.

Here I write about why the Mavi Marmara (the Gaza flotilla) incident may have been good for Israel, because it distracted the world from Operation Cast Lead and the Goldstone Report.

I wrote here about attempts to try Tzipi Livni as a war criminal, which apparently did not go anywhere.

And here I wrote about how Israel’s culture legitimised Cast Lead (and other violence in Israel’s name).

Gaza is still under blockade, which means little rebuilding gets done. Things had been relatively quiet along the Gaza border for the past two years until recently, when more rockets have been fired from Gaza, Israeli air strikes have followed, and thus tensions are higher. There are fears (or hopes?) that another Cast Lead-like massacre might be “necessary”. Gabi Ashkenazi, IDF Chief of Staff, said Israel “will not accept” more rockets from Gaza, and “holds the Hamas terrorist organisation solely responsible for any terrorist activity emanating from the Gaza Strip”, which means the IDF does not distinguish between rockets fired by Hamas or by any other group.

It is sad that this crime will go unpunished, and that it may even repeat itself.

"Ismail, Abed and Leila don't go to the infant clinic anymore"

Why probe the Gaza flotilla?

The UN has announced it will launch a probe into what happened at the Gaza “Freedom Flotilla” incident. Nine Turks were killed two months ago when Israeli soldiers boarded one of the vessels. We know that. Why are they probing any further?

Perhaps the move is to embarrass Israel. It is the latest in a long series of attacks on Israel by the UN and many Arab states. These attacks have grown so numerous and disproportionate to all the other terrible things that happen in the world that they have become meaningless and counterproductive. The incident may have been a debacle, but what effect will a committee investigation have? Even if it produced a report showing that Israel’s leaders were the most devious people in the world, would they change? Would a new round of voting be held immediately, followed by the election of a flock of doves? More likely, Israelis who are not doves themselves would become self-righteous and more entrenched in their defiance than ever.

Perhaps this probe is intended to benefit Israel. Until a few months ago, people were still talking about Operation Cast Lead and the Goldstone Report. Now, they have been distracted by a shiny object and have bitten the hook. Operation Cast Lead was truly a disaster, bad for Israel’s already tarnished image and a nightmare for the Gazans who lived through it. The Gaza flotilla incident was an accident. As such, the government of Israel is taking up the probe commission idea with gusto, offering its choice of investigator for this “independent” investigation. The probe can thus be seen as a way to show Israel is complying with international commissions and has nothing to hide. Just don’t mention the Gaza war.

Or perhaps the probe is to provide work for bureaucrats. Either way, if the UN wants to do good, why does it not focus on the big things? The 1400 dead in Gaza from Cast Lead only a year and a half ago have gone unapologised for. The blockade of Gaza continues to cripple the economy and freedom of 1.5m people. The occupation and settlement building continue in the West Bank. This was never supposed to be about a few dead Turks who were presumably just provoking Israel with the flotilla in the first place. Israel will be seen as making one concession and pressure on it will abate, while its hardcore opponents will not change their stance whatever happens. The UN is just wasting its time.