Towards a real and lasting Palestinian unity?

 

The Palestinian Authority and Hamas have reached a deal to form a national unity government that might finally pave the way to end intra-Palestinian divisions and feuds

 

After three days of dialogue held in Moscow under Russia’s auspices, last Tuesday the representatives of the main Palestinian political groups –the Palestinian Authority (PA), Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad- announced the reaching of a deal to form a national unity government.

According to the deal, the various groups involved in it will now join Palestinian institutions, will form a new Palestinian National Council (PNC), and will hold long-awaited elections. The last time in which credible and inclusive elections were held, in fact, was more than ten years ago –in 2006- when Hamas’ victory and the subsequent fractions emerged within the Palestinian front led to the rupture Hamas-Fatah and to the de facto division of Palestine between Gaza, since 2007 under Hamas’ rule, and the West Bank, under the control of Abbas and the PA.

Since then, Palestinian politics has deeply suffered due to this internal division that has weakened the credibility of Palestine as a cohesive and credible actor on the international stage, and has compromised any possibility of reaching a two-state solution. The dialogues held last week, if actually turned into the concrete  measures they promise, could thus be the first step toward the resolution of this decade-old fragmentation and a new beginning for Palestinian politics.

 

Over the past years, attempts were made to bring unity within the Palestinian government. However, no initiative for a long-lasting reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah proved successful and internal divisions have continued to prevail, up to the point that last September the Palestinian High Court decided that municipal elections should be held in the West Bank only and then suspended the entire electoral process.

Despite this, though, efforts at reconciliation have now been retrieved and the explanation is to to be found looking at both the international and the intra-Palestinian level.

 

Over the past months, the ascent of Donald Trump and his pro-Israeli rhetoric; the appointment of Friedman as US Ambassador to Israel; the Amona case; and the continuous construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank have brought once again the Palestinian issue and the two-state solution to the attention of the international community – that over the past years had been mostly focused on other Middle Eastern problems. In the context of this renewed attention given to the Palestinian issue, important episodes were the adoption on part of the UN Security Council of a resolution condemning Israeli settlements, and the international conference on peace in the Middle East held in France and attended by representatives of 70 countries. Though the impact these initiatives will have is likely to be extremely limited, they are nonetheless important steps that reveal the general pro-Palestinian attitude of the international community and the growing isolation of Israel.

It is thus on the background of these developments on the international stage that it is possible to explain Abbas’ decision to take advantage of this mood of general support by reaching a Palestinian political unity. Indeed, only by overcoming internal divisions and by giving to Palestine a unitary government, can Abbas present the Palestinian state as a cohesive, credible, and reliable actor and encourage further the backing of the international community – a goal particularly important in a moment in which Trump’s advent to the White House rises uncertainties and concerns among the Palestinians.

 

To these considerations we should then add the Palestinian internal dimension, so as to give a more comprehensive explanation of the reasons that have led now the various Palestinian groups to renew attempts at unity.

As far as Abbas is concerned, despite his leadership being confirmed last November at the Congress of Fatah, the Palestinian leader has seen his popularity decrease diminish over the years. The achievement of a lasting national unity would thus represent for Abbas and his future political legacy an extremely important success capable of ameliorating his image to the eyes of a Palestinian people tired of divisions and feuds. Moreover, Fatah has been since 2007 in a situation in which its legitimacy as guide of the Palestinians is continuously challenged and questioned by the presence of Hamas’ government in Gaza and by the frictions existing with the other groups of the Palestinian political mosaic. The only solution for Fatah to solve this legitimacy problem is through the calling of and the participation in truly inclusive elections.

On its part, Hamas is experiencing difficulties at governing over Gaza. At this respect, the most recent example is represented by the difficulties that the group is having in providing constant energy to the Gazans and that, last week, ultimately sparked a wave of protests. As these protests have revealed, Hamas’ difficulties at governing risk deteriorating the popular support which the group traditionally enjoys in Gaza and this makes it reasonable for Hamas to pursue a reconciliation with Fatah and to join a national unity government that can ameliorate governability in the Strip and thus save the group’s image and credibility.

Finally, as far as the smaller groups such as PIJ are concerned, to them the formation of a government of national unity as first step towards elections is functional to increase their capacity of influence and expand their basin of supporters beyond their traditional areas.

 

In conclusion, both considerations linked to the international realm and considerations linked to the Palestinian one have contributed to encouraging the main Palestinian actors to renew attempts at reconciliation. It is now to be seen if these attempts will be translated into concrete actions capable of giving to Palestine the cohesion it needs.

Bibi’s great refusal

 

The proposal of dialogue coming from Paris has revealed all the difficulties inherent in an effective revival of the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, with the Israeli front led by an extreme-Right coalition not interested in dialogue and a Palestinian front that claims to be disposed to talk but which is actually too weak to

 

The last attempt made by third parties to encourage a revival of the dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians was made in 2014 by a then hopeful –but soon disillusioned- John Kerry, and collapsed a few months later after the reconciliation agreement reached by Abbas’ Palestinian Authority (PA) and a Hamas that the international community has always resented to regard as legitimate and reliable partner in attempts at dialogue and peace-building.

Two years after the failure of the Obama administration, it was France who proposed over the last months to promote a new Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, but once again hope has soon been replaced by resignation. Last Monday, in fact, during the visit in Israel by France’s envoy Pierre Vemont, Netanyahu voices his neat and irrevocable refusal to take part in any such dialogue as proposed by Paris and the PM’s “no” seems to have curbed the French proposal for good.

 

On the background of a Middle Eastern scenario ever more dispiriting –with Yemen and Syria doomed to an endless civil war, and an Iraq over which the threat of ethnic and religious sectarianism is looming again as the battle for Mosul goes on- Netanyahu’s “no” becomes the last piece of a bleak puzzle and the latest proof of how any prospect of an open, sincere and credible dialogue within the Israeli-Palestinian context is ever more utopic.

 

In particular, Netanyahu’s refusal reveals in an undeniable and worrying way how the Israeli government is dominated by an extreme-right coalition that conceals its extremism behind weak justifications and pretexts. Despite Netanyahu’s government justifying his stance with respect to the French proposal saying it is open only to initiatives coming directly from the Palestinians and only to proposals for a bilateral dialogue, Tel Aviv’s refusal is nothing but a clear closure to any possibility of dialogue. The refusal to convene in Paris, in fact, cannot be seen as an incentive to encourage the Palestinians to direct and bilateral dialogues with Israel (despite this being the Israeli government’s rhetoric) but only as a rejection of any initiative that aspires to promote negotiation and to address the demands of Palestinian nationalism.

 

To counterbalance Netanyahu’s refusal came instead the acceptance of the French proposal on part of Abbas and Erekat, who declared their openness to a multilateral dialogue encouraged by a third party.

Clearly, Abbas’ “yes ” is ot enough to make of the Palestinian front the ideal partner in a dialogue as complex as the one between Tel Aviv and Ramallah.  Indeed, within the Palestinian political picture there continue to exist deep divisions between the PA and Hamas (with a series of minor parties and groups to complicate internal factionalism) and this rises doubts on the Palestinians’ capacity to select for the process of dialogue figures truly capable to represent the whole Palestinian people and all the colours that make up its social and political reality.

 

Paris’ proposal, thus, failed in changing the stalemate in which the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue has been for the past two years, but it has nonetheless contributed to make light on the difficulties that continue to obstruct dialogue and on the subsequent steps that the international community should take. From this point of view, as far as the Israeli front is concerned, USA and EU should use their diplomatic and economic leverage to induce the Israeli Right that is currently ruling the country to moderate its stance and its most controversial policies (above all that of settlements in the occupied territories). On the other hand, as far as the Palestinian front is concerned, it would be necessary to encourage truly inclusive elections, capable of giving to the Palestinian people that undivided and legitimate voice that is essential for dialogue to start.

 

Until this is done, the Israeli “no” will remain an immovable obstacle and the Palestinian “yes” an empty assent.

 

 

[Picture rights: Atef Safadi/Reuters]

Palestine’s lost elections

 

The Palestinian Authority’s decision to postpone the municipal elections in Palestine reveals how deep the fracture between Hamas and Fatah is and warns about its dangerousness for the future developments of Palestinian politics

 

Until 1987, talking of Palestinian politics essentially meant talking of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization), of Fatah (the prevailing party within the PLO), and of Yasser Arafat (founder of Fatah and leader of the Palestinian cause). In 1987, though, the sparks of the continuous fights with Israel ignited the First Intifada and the Palestinian political theatre was made more complex by the appearance of a new actor – Hamas.

Founded in Gaza as local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas opposes to the nationalist and secular ideology of Fatah a nationalist and Islamist one; it reacts to Fatah’s claimed abandonment of political violence in 1988 with a Charter that praises armed struggle as sole means for the liberation of Palestine; and it competes with Fatah for the support of the Palestinian people.

Remained in a somewhat marginal position until Arafat’s death in 2004, in 2006 Hamas takes part in the Palestinian legislative elections and obtains a victory that changes in a crucial way the Palestinian political environment and the balances of power within it. Indeed, Fatah’s hegemony is for the first time seriously put into question and the Hamas-Fatah competition becomes so deep that it leads to war and, in June 2007, to an executive duplicity whereby Gaza goes under the control of Hamas while the West Bank remains under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Since that moment on, talking of Palestinian politics means essentially talking of the contraposition between Fatah and Hamas and of the challenges that it poses to the socio-political dynamics of Palestine.

 

 

The irreconcilability of the two groups emerged clearly in 2012, with Hamas’ decision to boycott the local elections by refusing to taking part into them, and again in 2014 with the failure of the attempts aimed at creating a unitary government.

On the background of these dispiriting precedents, a new gleam of hope with respect to the possibility of healing the division seemed to emerge with the prospect of the municipal elections that should have taken place in 416 cities of Gaza and the West Bank on October 8 and to which both Hamas and Fatah should have participated.

However, once again, what was a hope remained such and what was a division deemed by many as irresolvable was confirmed as such. On October 8, in fact, the Palestinian High Court decreed that the elections would take place in the West Bank only, accusing Hamas of attempting to boycott the electoral process by using Gaza’s local courts to cancel nine members of Fatah from the lists.

Unsurprisingly, the ruling of the High Court was met with harsh accusations of partiality on part of Hamas, that refused to consider the ruling legitimate and underlined how its nature was political rather than judicial. Indeed, the ruling of the High Court seems to stem from the fear of Fatah about experiencing again a defeat such as that of 2006; from the PA’s convenience to postpone the elections in a moment in which its popularity is extremely low; and from Abbas’ worry that the elections (seen in the West Bank as a referendum on his person) might lead to his definitive political defeat.

New complexities emerged then on October 4, when the PA replied to the High Court’s decision declaring that there would be no elections without the participation of Gaza, but that –to make such participation possible- Hamas should “neutralize” its position. For the moment, being Hamas and Fatah incapable of finding an agreement that could restart the electoral process, the elections have been postponed for four months.

 

The ruling of the High Court came thus to disappoint the Palestinians’ hope in a future national unity, since it revealed the merely rhetoric value of Hamas’ and Fatah’s declarations in support of reconciliation and confirmed instead the permanence of an intra-Palestinian division which is territorial, demographic, and political.

The consequence of this division is that the two parties –each busy trying to affirm its superiority over the other- are actually weakening the Palestinian political front and the feasibility of the Palestinians’ aspiration to a nation state. Indeed, incapable of healing their divergences and of confronting each other in a legitimate and democratic electoral process, Fatah and Hamas are depriving their people of the right to express their voice through the vote and are obstructing the elaboration of a Palestinian political position which is representative of the popular will, cohesive, coherent, legitimate, and credible.

In front of the current situation, two paths are thus possible. In the best possible scenario (that though the latest events make now look somewhat utopic) the hope is that Hamas and Fatah succeed in addressing the problems that have led to the current stalemate; in retrieving the electoral process by participating both into it; and in cancelling that dangerous separation between Hamas-Gaza and Fatah-West Bank that is endangering the realization of the Palestinian cause. Conversely, if this is not done and Hamas and Fatah maintain their irreconcilability, the current division would transform into a real fracture, with the social and political system of Palestine torn between Gaza and the West Bank and the prospect of a state unity ever more faltering and ever farther.

 

 

[Picture rights:Mohamad Torokman/Reuters]

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The two dangerous faces of Bibi’s politics

The increase in the number of demolitions of Palestinian houses and the increase in the number of Israeli settlements reveal a dangerous politics embraced by Tel Aviv that the international community should try to counter

 

 

A recent report published by OCHA (the UN agency that deals with the coordination of humanitarian affairs) on the conditions of the Palestinian population in the Palestinian Occupied Territories shed light on some worrying data that deserve attention and require an immediate political response.

According to the data released by the report, in fact, since the beginning of 2016 there has been an increase in the number of demolitions of Palestinian houses perpetrated by the Israeli State. In particular, OCHA reports 684 building as having been demolished since January 2016 – a figure which implies an increase by 25% with respect to the previous year.

 

These demolitions –though harmful for the Palestinian population as a whole- interest in particular East Jerusalem and Area C (a territory corresponding to 60% of the West Bank that according to the Oslo Agreements of 1993 is under Israeli administration), which since the Six-Day War of 1967 have been one of the most delicate issues in the territorial disputes between Israel and Palestine.

The reported demolitions -that mostly involve private houses but also public buildings such as schools and health centres- are justified by Israel either as punitive measures carried out against families whose members have attempted the security of the Israeli state or on the basis of questionably legal pretexts, chief among them the claim that the demolished houses had been built without the required permits.

 

Regarding this last point, however, it is necessary to underline the difficulties encountered by Palestinians when they wish to build houses and need to submit the requests of the relevant permits to Tel Aviv: according to OCHA’s data, in fact, between 2010 and 2014 Palestinian citizens submitted 2,020 requests of which Israel only approved 33. Moreover, according to the agency WAFA, a Palestinian family may be forced to wait up to 12 years and pay up to 70,000 $ in order to obtain the necessary permits.

In front of such state of things, thus, it is not surprising that most Palestinian families proceed with the construction of their houses without waiting for the compulsory but unobtainable permits.

 

The rise in the demolition of Palestinian houses, then, is accompanied by another policy in worrying ascent: the construction of Israeli settlements in those same areas (especially around Hebron and Nablus) where the Palestinian houses have been demolished and where Palestinians are prevented from building.

According to OCHA, today 600,00 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – a number which has more than doubled since the Oslo Agreement and which is in continuous rise: as reported by the watchdog Peace Now, in fact, only last Tuesday the Israeli government approved the construction of 285 new settlements in the West Bank.

 

The reasons for this double-faced Israeli action (now on the rise with the government in the hands of politicians such as Netanyahu, Liberman and Bennett) are of political nature and find their roots in the political calculations of the current establishment.

 

As far as East Jerusalem is concerned, the growing demolition of Palestinian houses is part of the broader politics embraced by the current government and aimed at removing Palestinians from the city by forcing them to build somewhere else, and cancelling any physical, historical and socio-cultural link between the Palestinian population and Jerusalem in order to make of the city an undisputed Jewish urban centre.

As far as the West Bank is concerned, the coordinated policies of demolition and settlement clearly aim to grab as much land as possible and increase the number of Israeli-Jewish inhabitants.

 

By so doing, the same prospect of having in future a Palestinian state is put into question and the legitimacy of the Palestinian national vindications is badly weakened. If the Palestinian population has no land nor houses in East Jerusalem and in the Area C of the West Bank, in fact, how can it justify in the eyes of the international community its quest for a national state comprising the whole of the West Bank and having East Jerusalem as its capital?

Moreover, by so doing, the credibility of the Palestinian leadership (both before the international community and before the Palestinians themselves) is questioned – and this is an aspect of the story in which Israel is particularly interested. Indeed, the more the Palestinian leadership has a faltering credibility and a disputable internal legitimacy, the more it will struggle to elaborate a clear political line and coherent demands, thus making Bibi’s game.

 

From what said thus far, it emerges how the main consequence of Israel’s politics is the weakening of any realistic prospect of a two-state solution. Indeed, with the constant demolition of Palestinian houses, the expulsion of their inhabitants from ever wider areas, and the construction in their place of Israeli settlements where Tel Aviv incentivizes as many Jewish Israelis as possible to settle, the possibility of having a Palestinian state comprising the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the whole of the West Bank becomes ever more difficult to be demographically justified.

In other words, the more Israel drives the Palestinians away the more the two-state solution itself is pushed away.

 

Among the other consequences of Israel’s politics, we should then consider the embittering of the political-diplomatic relations between Israel and a Palestinian Authority that finds it (reasonably) difficult to see in the Jewish state a partner sincerely committed to a bilateral solution; and the weakening within the Palestinian political realm of the more moderate factions to the advantage of the more radical fringes opposed to any negotiation and compromise.

 

The data released by OCHA shed thus light on a worrying reality, behind which it is possible to see what is Israel’s de facto policy of annexation.

Nevertheless, these data have received little attention: the international community, and in particular actors close to Israel such as the USA and the EU, are in fact focused on other and more pressing issues in the Middle East –namely, the war in Syria, the deterioration of the security scenario in Lybia, and the threat of the jihadist terrorism embodied by the so-called Islamic State.

Yet, Washington and Brussels, when approaching the Middle Eastern political reality, should remember that what happens in Israel-Palestine has inevitable consequences on the balances of the whole region and therefore deserves constant attention. Acknowledging this, the USA and the EU should exploit the diplomatic influence and the economic and commercial leverages they have with respect to Israel, so as to prevent dangerous dynamics that might not only exasperate the confrontation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority but also come to involve in a spiral of insecurity other actors (state and non-state alike) that are active in the region.

 

[In the picture, Ariel, one of Israel’s settlements in the West bank]

The land of Palestine and its ghosts

Behind the most recent wave of violence, the same old obstacles are at play. The last chapter of a tragedy began in Palestine decades ago and still too far from any hope of solution.

Of all the magical places our world is abundant of, I think few can compete with the land of Palestine.
From the warm waters of the Mediterranean to the salty waters of the Dead Sea, from the torrid air in Masada to the fresh breeze on Mount Scopus, from the liveliness of Tel Aviv to the millennial history of Jerusalem, it is impossible not to get lost in its beauty.
Yet, few places in the world are less at peace.

For a land whose past has been made of wars, blood and hate, October 2015 will be another month remembered for its violence, for the death that brought with it and for the hopes of coexistence (if there still are) it broke.
In one single month, 54 Palestinians and 10 Israelis lost their life. The latest victims of a wave of daily violence triggered by the crisis erupted last month when Israelis entered the Al-Aqsa mosque for what their forces defined (quite vaguely) “security reasons” and Palestinians denounced it as Israel’s renewed attempt to change a status quo as old as that painful 1967 war.
It is indeed since that crucial armed conflict, that the holy site has been managed by Wafq – an Islamic foundation backed by Jordan – and that Israel has accepted that the site is open to prayer for Muslims only, and to visits only for Jews – whose prayer site is the Western Wall.
A status quo, though, too fragile for a place so relevant for the religious and historic identity of both peoples.
Third holiest site for the Muslims who believe it is from there that Mohammad ascended to Heaven, and first holy site for the Jews who believe their Biblical Temple was there, it has always – and inevitably – been a core issue at the heart of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. One of the most delicate ones actually, in which politics and religion confuse with each other and seem to leave no hope for solution.
An ever-open question that last month came once again on the surface to take the lives of too many.

It is indeed to address this latest wave of conflict and death that last week – after a series of meetings – the United States, Jordan, PA and Israel agreed on some steps to be taken to increase security at the holy site, that – under the proposal of King Abdullah II – will now be under 24-hour video surveillance.
Israel, moreover, reiterated that it recognizes “the importance of the Temple Mount to peoples of all three monotheistic faiths … and reaffirms its commitment to upholding unchanged the status quo of the Temple Mount, in word and in practice.”
However, if the aim of such proposal is to de-escalate violence, it will hardly be successful.
The issue of al-Aqsa, in fact, goes well beyond enforcing surveillance to preserve a decades-long status quo. It is expression of a much deeper tragedy – that of two peoples who are too apart to share so much.
A tragedy that both sides have learnt to deal with only by exacerbating it.

On the Israeli side, in fact, what makes it difficult to expect any serious and long-term distension is Netanyahu’s political rhetoric and action, that doesn’t leave room to any compromise.
To deal with the current crisis, Netanyahu’s security cabinet opted for a series of steps that – if anything – will just have the effect of increasing resentment among Palestinians.
These include the order to reinforce the police; the authorization to enforce “closures” in some areas of East Jerusalem; the order to complete the fence raised in the West Bank; the decision to proceed with the confiscation of the property of Palestinian attackers and the demolition of their houses, as well as the revoke of residence rights.
The same old strategies that reveal a deep incapacity – or unwillingness – to give a honest and responsible lecture of the situation. The same old strategies that will bring Palestinians and Israelis even further apart, that will increase suspicion, fear and hostility among Israelis and that will feed Palestinians’ rancor towards a State that treats them as second-class citizens. As if it wasn’t enough, then, such measures will also weaken the moderateness of many Palestinians, strengthen the influence of those who see in attacks the only way to assert their rights, and increase the distorted perception – shared by not few young Palestinians whose life has been a continuous struggle for existence – that there is heroism in dying hitting Israel.
A reality that, after all, even Herzog reckoned when saying that terror is – at least partially I feel to add – the result of the frustration and hopelessness felt by Palestinians in front of Netanyahu’s policies, and when opposing to Netanyahu’s strategy of “managing the conflict” his preference for a “large and dramatic diplomatic action”.
For someone who states to be seeking security like Netanyahu is, responding to attacks with repression instead of offering the Palestinians living in Israel the opportunity of a lawful and continuous political expression that could reduce their reasons for resorting to violence is a debatable choice.
If to these measures, then, we add the aggressive and blind rhetoric of Netanyahu’s speeches, the situation could hardly be more gloom.
At a press conference held last Thursday, indeed, he couldn’t have chosen better words to alienate the Palestinians, when he referred to them as “terrorists” and “extremists” who have since the beginning obstructed the Zionist enterprise and who will be eventually rebuffed and defeated. Same dangerous and counter-productive rhetoric of the speech delivered at the Zionist Congress, when he referred to the ideology lying behind Palestinians’ attacks as a “medieval” one.
Nothing worse than delegitimizing the opponent’s ideology to close the door to dialogue.

Obstacles though, do no end here. On the Palestinian side, the main problem is represented by the lack of a unifying leader able to represent the Palestinian people in its unity.
Not only is the rivalry between Hamas and PA a perennial constant of Palestinian politics, but also Abbas has proved his failure to bring Palestinians together under a same clear, defined and cohesive political project. Incapable of giving his people a political path to follow, incapable of adopting at the eyes of Israel and its leaders a firm and coherent stance, Abbas is simply the wrong person in the wrong position at the wrong time.
What Palestinians need, in fact, is a political leader able and willing to give representation to all Palestinians: those in Gaza, those in Israel, those in the West Bank. A political leader able to draw a program of bilateral and international dialogue, able to adopt a determinate but peaceful project aimed at giving Palestinians that undeniable right of self-determination that they deserve as much as any other people do.
Only through such a political figure it would be possible for Palestinians to have a credible alternative to attacks that illusively appear to many as the only way out of oppression and discrimination, but that are actually a door that leads to self-destruction.
A crucial change is therefore needed in Palestinian policy at the leadership level. Clearly, not something that can be realized in a night, but not even something that can’t be realized at all.

That said, if implementing a system of video-surveillance in the Al-Aqsa compound has a chance to help to maintain the status quo and to prevent one of the holiest places in the world from becoming a cause of conflict and death, then it is clearly a news to be welcomed.
However, we should not forget that the al-Aqsa crisis was only a small part of a broader one. Which means that until the Israeli government adopts a more moderate stance and gives to Palestinians the possibility to make their voice heard through a legitimate channel of political expression, and until the Palestinians get united under a leader able to replace the logic of attacks with that of dialogue, that unique land that Palestine is will hardly get rid of its ghosts.