Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Could Hamas beat Fateh to a Palestinian state?

While the government of Israel and Fateh trade barbs over settlement construction, Hamas is sprinting toward creating the first part of the Palestinian state in Gaza. Over the last couple of weeks Hamas and Israel have taken several "unilateral" steps that have not been reported as linked, but which most certainly are. Hamas first announced it had ordered the smaller militant groups such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad and PFLP to cease firing rockets on Israeli towns and had stepped up policing to curb the launching of rockets. It is no coincidence that, despite several border skirmishes Israel has obliged Hamas' tough approach by allowing first clothes and then wood and aluminum into the Gaza Strip for the first time in over three years. Now, Haaretz reports that Hamas has ordered the shuttering of underground smuggling tunnels between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. The tunnels, a desperate lifeline between the 1.5 million Gazans trapped by a joint Egyptian-Israeli siege and the outside world, will be shut only temporarily according to Hamas, as Israel and Egypt investigate a reported threat to kidnap Israelis in the Sinai.

These reports point to the fact that, despite the announced failure of indirect, Egyptian and German-mediated talks to lift the siege of Gaza in exchange for the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, negotiations between Hamas and the Israelis are ongoing. Regardless of whether their teams sit in different rooms and Egyptian diplomats run between them, Hamas and Israel are talking and working to improve the situation for their respective peoples in order to bolster the political ground both the Likud-led government and Hamas stand on. Ending the siege on Gaza, allowing Gazans more freedom to fish and farm, and secretly promising not to incinerate Hamas leaders from the air does not cost Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu any political capital, while allowing him to claim he stopped the rocket fire on Israel's southern communities due to his "tough" (more like opportunistic and pragmatic) approach toward Hamas. It is not certain, but if his dealing with Hamas free Shalit, he knows it would be a major victory over his political rivals and allow him more domestic wiggle room to deal with U.S. President Barack Obama. By (secretly) negotiating with Hamas, Netanyahu can reap all of the rewards without taking any of the risks normally associated with talking with Fateh. Obama will never seek to become involved, if he fails not a soul will blame him for an uptick in violence from Gaza (and he'll get to act tough by ordering more air strikes and ground incursions into Gaza), and he doesn't have to take on the settler block or the far-right members of his coalition.

True Israeli-Palestinian peace would certainly be a huge historic victory for any Israeli leader to affix his name to, but so few Israelis actually believe it will happen in the next few years, that Netanyahu may very well believe there's nothing to lose by not seriously pursuing it. If, however, he can bring quiet to Israel's southern front while holding Obama and Fateh at arms length, it would likely be enough of a victory to keep him in power for a while longer than his first round as Prime Minister.

As for Hamas' motivations to dance with Netanyahu, there are many. The seemingly random, unproductive violence against Israel by rocket fire no longer impresses either Gazans or the larger Palestinian community. Especially while loving in a world without basic building materials, the constituency that Hamas finds itself ruling wants a competent government, the ability to safely move around the Gaza Strip (and perhaps even to the outside world), and the staples of human life (food, water, electricity, and clothing) readily available at a price they can actually afford. Hamas after the Gaza War in December 2008 had begun meandering down the path of corruption and authoritarianism that plagued Fateh for decades and eventually led to its defeat by Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian elections. If Hamas could improve the lives of Palestinian in Gaza (and the movement does not need to contend with undermining influences to its authority like settlement expansion and Israeli checkpoints inside its territory), it could score a major victory against Fateh, proving that it can do more than carry the torch of Palestinian violent resistance. Hamas is taking a play out of Salam Fayyad's book and attempting to rally Palestinians around the movement by providing Gazans with concrete improvements to their daily lives.

Because the occupation of the West Bank is so pervasive and so entrenched in Israeli society, Hamas may be able to overcome the siege and take the first steps of creating a truly Palestinian state. The siege is certainly easier to overcome than an entrenched occupation and expanding settlements. With the PA gaining support in the Obama administration and the Fayyad Plan playing sweet music to Europe's ears, the Israeli government may believe now is the time to undermine Fateh and elevate Hamas in the Palestinian community.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Smart, experienced observers of the Middle East are talking, and AIPAC isn't going to like it.

Since the Netanyahu-Biden fiasco in Jerusalem, a steady stream of smart, experienced individuals have weighed in on settlements, U.S. interests in the Middle East, the lagging peace process, and the history of the conflict, and it almost seems as if many have been emboldened to criticize elements of Israeli policy (such as settlement construction in East Jerusalem and Israeli policies toward the country's Arab minority) that were previously beyond the pale. From the notion that U.S. security and national interests would be positively affected by Israeli-Palestinian peace and an even-handed approach to the conflict (forwarded by General David Petraeus in testimony before Congress) to the wild idea that continued Israeli settlement growth in the Occupied Territories is a real threat to peace and undermines moderate Palestinian leaders - journalists, diplomats, pundits, and scholars have found a relatively accommodating space with which to criticize what many perceive is a lack of serious peacemaking on the Israeli side. Open dialogue, of course, is a great thing, and something I believe will eventually foment a peaceful resolution to this seemingly endless conflict.

When respected military leaders and other government officials make these statements, it sends the pro-settlements, pro-occupation, pro-Israel-at-the-expense-of-peace crowd into a quick, downward spiral of awkward retorts and antiquated arguments. From claims of anti-semitism made against several of the newly emboldened commentators to AIPAC's tacit understanding that they were standing with Benjamin Netanyahu against Barack Obama, this intellectual community is increasingly becoming viewed as diminished, blatantly one-sided, and standing up for Israel to the point that they seem to view not only Palestinian statehood, but Barack Obama and the very notion of peace in the region as enemies of Israel.

Yesterday, I attended an event at the Wilson Center featuring a panel of five former American ambassadors discussing the Obama administration and Arab-Israeli peace. The panel was moderated by former U.S. negotiator Aaron David Miller. The panelists were experienced, engaging, and all well-spoken:

  • Edward Gnehm - Former U.S. Ambassador to Jordan
  • Theodore Kattouf - Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria
  • Dan Kurtzer - Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and Egypt
  • Jacob Walles - Former Consul General in Jerusalem
  • Frank Wisner - Former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt
While the panelists held various view on a variety of issues, there were several ideas that held broad, almost "common sense", consensus. On these issues there was no debate among the panelists and it seemed that they posited the ideas in a way that they were not making a provocative point but summarizing a common sense notion for the slower members of the audience. Here is what I gathered were Ambassador-level common sense notions about Israeli-Palestinian peace:
  • Continued Israeli settlement building (not just expansion but building) is a major obstacle to the peace process and undermines the U.S. role as a mediator in the region.
  • Petraeus was absolutely right: American security interests are threatened by the lack of progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace.
  • The Obama administration has rightfully placed great focus on peacemaking, appointing George Mitchell on his first full day in office and reaching out to the Arab world with his Cairo speech. However, after 15 months the administration has not really laid out a clear U.S. policy on Israeli-Palestinian peace and this is hampering his efforts
  • Picking a fight with Netanyahu over settlements was right, but it should have been placed in a more comprehensive context and backed by clear elements of American policy.
  • There is no "good time" for peace in the Middle East, but it must be pursued relentlessly because the time left for the two-state solution is quickly running out as extremists on both sides gain power.
  • The U.S. should engage a broad coalition of partners for peacemaking, including Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey, while finding a better way to utilize the Middle East Quartet (Russia, the EU, UN, and U.S.)
  • Israeli-Syrian peace is easier to achieve and should not be forgotten about in the quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
  • The Palestinians are weak and divided, both politically and geographically, but in the absence of peace, the Ramallah-based government of Salam Fayyad and Mahmoud Abbas is the best the Palestinians will ever have.
  • The Obama administration needs to take a closer look at the Arab Peace Proposal and perhaps even make it a part of a comprehensive peace policy.
  • The Arab and Israeli "streets" want peace.
  • Iran is gaining influence as long as there is no Arab-Israeli peace. A comprehensive peace policy should be placed in the context of weaning Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah off of Iran and bringing them into a more moderate Arab fold.
I was very surprised at how much of a consensus there was on so many issues, ranging from the Palestinian domestic situation to Obama's policy (or lack thereof) regarding the peace process. This new consensus (which I have a sneaking suspicion has existed for a decade or more, but is just now beginning to see the light of public conversation is frighteningly clear for the AIPAC crowd, as was demonstrated by a disgruntled audience member who, when allowed time for a question, accused Aaron David Miller of constructing a blatantly anti-Israel panel because he did not include an Israeli panelist. The gentleman had no substance or real pointed question about any of the points the panelists had made, but instead simply yelled "bias" to discredit the entire event. Miller, very patiently, his frustration apparent explained that the entire point of the panel was to bring former American ambassadors together to discuss the U.S. role in conflict mediation.

Dan Kurtzer also made several very interesting points concerning the U.S.-Israel relationship and expressed his concern that the current Israeli government had not done its homework on the American President and electorate, pointing out that the American Jewish community, despite the dust-up between the two countries, still fervently supports the president by a margin of 3 to 1 and that opinion polls are showing American frustration with settlements and support for Obama's policy. He reminded the audience that Netanyahu's first Prime Minister gig ended in 1999 when he was unable to effectively understand and deal with President Clinton's policies toward Israel. Ambassador Kurtzer described effectively dealing with the U.S. as the "third rail" of Israeli politics, and insisted that leaders who are unable to play nicely with Washington often lose Israeli domestic support very quickly.

Jacob Walles commended the Fayyad Plan and the Palestinian Authority's new concern for domestic security, curbing corruption, and stimulating economic growth. He described Fayyad's leadership as a "practical approach to improve the lives of Palestinians." Mr. Walles also lauded the Obama administration's attempt to get indirect negotiations off the ground, describing them as the "low-risk option" that could help lead to direct talks.

Finally, Palestinian non-violent resistance (and even the village of Bil'in) received a generous shout-out when more than one of the panelists brought up the issue of the growing Palestinian non-violent movement. Ambassador Kattouf described the Israeli military's decision to clamp down on non-violent protests and their organizers as an attempt to stop this kind of resistance and vigorously defend the moral high ground to international audiences. He compared this clamping down to the Israeli government's deportation of the "Palestinian Gandhi" Mubarak Awad, and explained that non-violence, especially popular non-violent resistance, "makes the government of Israel uncomfortable."

Monday, April 12, 2010

Robert Fisk calls this "Apartheid by Permit"

From Haaretz:

"A new military order aimed at preventing infiltration will come into force this week, enabling the deportation of tens of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank, or their indictment on charges carrying prison terms of up to seven years. When the order comes into effect, tens of thousands of Palestinians will automatically become criminal offenders liable to be severely punished.

According to the provisions, 'a person is presumed to be an infiltrator if he is present in the area without a document or permit which attest to his lawful presence in the area without reasonable justification.' Such documentation, it says, must be 'issued by the commander of IDF forces in the Judea and Samaria area or someone acting on his behalf.'

The order's language is both general and ambiguous, stipulating that the term infiltrator will also be applied to Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, citizens of countries with which Israel has friendly ties (such as the United States) and Israeli citizens, whether Arab or Jewish. All this depends on the judgment of Israel Defense Forces commanders in the field.

The order stipulates that if a commander discovers that an infiltrator has recently entered a given area, he "may order his deportation before 72 hours elapse from the time he is served the written deportation order, provided the infiltrator is deported to the country or area from whence he infiltrated."

The order also allows for criminal proceedings against suspected infiltrators that could produce sentences of up to seven years. Individuals able to prove that they entered the West Bank legally but without permission to remain there will also be tried, on charges carrying a maximum sentence of three years. (According to current Israeli law, illegal residents typically receive one-year sentences.)

The new provision also allow the IDF commander in the area to require that the infiltrator pay for the cost of his own detention, custody and expulsion, up to a total of NIS 7,500.

The IDF Spokesman's Office said in response, 'The amendments to the order on preventing infiltration, signed by GOC Central Command, were issued as part of a series of manifests, orders and appointments in Judea and Samaria, in Hebrew and Arabic as required, and will be posted in the offices of the Civil Administration and military courts' defense attorneys in Judea and Samaria. The IDF is ready to implement the order, which is not intended to apply to Israelis, but to illegal sojourners in Judea and Samaria.'"

The Haaretz Editorial Board calls this order, "a step too far": 

"This would be a grave and dangerous move, unprecedented during the Israeli occupation. For years, Israel has used a heavy hand against the Palestinian population registry, trampling basic human rights such as the freedom to move one's residence within the occupied territories. Many Palestinians' lives have thus been made very difficult because they have been cut off from their previous places of residence without being able to return or legally register their new addresses. The right of all Palestinians to choose where to live in the West Bank or Gaza marks a very low threshold for defining their human rights."

The BBC, Guardian, and even the New York Times have picked up the story, focusing on a group of 10 Israeli human rights groups that have spoken out vehemently against the order.

The orders … are worded so broadly such as theoretically allowing the military to empty the West Bank of almost all its Palestinian inhabitants," said the 10 rights groups, which include Ha-Moked, B'Tselem, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and Rabbis for Human Rights. Until now the vast majority of Palestinians in the West Bank have not been required to hold a permit just to be present in their homes, the groups say.
"The military will be able to prosecute and deport any Palestinian defined as an infiltrator in stark contradiction to the Geneva conventions," they said. The law broadens the definition of an "infiltrator" and could allow Israel to transfer some Palestinians from the West Bank to Gaza, or to deport foreign passport holders married to West Bank Palestinians, or to deport Israelis or foreigners living in the West Bank. The groups said tens of thousands of Palestinians were in those categories.

Israel effectively controls the Palestinian population register and since 2000, apart from once in 2007, the Israeli authorities have frozen applications for renewal of visitor permits for foreign nationals, or applications to grant permanent status in the occupied territories. As a result, many Palestinians live in the West Bank without formal status and are now vulnerable under the new orders. The human rights groups wrote to the Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, today asking him to delay or revoke the orders, which they said were "unlawful and allow extreme and arbitrary injury to a vast number of people".

The order, of course, makes no mention of the 500,000 "illegal sojourners" (more commonly known at Israeli settlers) that have "infiltrated" the West Bank.

And that, my friends, is apartheid by permit.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

About those Palestinian Christians: Responses

Some responses I received in regard to my previous post on the general lack of American Christian awareness or concern for Palestine's Christian community:

"This is not an issue, specifically speaking to this post, of land and you state. This is an issue of incompetent leadership when it comes to religious freedom on BOTH sides of the conflict."

"Your post is a very fair critique of what seems to be the 'default' American Christian view on Israel (in much the same way that the Republican party, frustratingly, is a default 'Christian' position). It does seem like many Christians (and to be fair, many Americans) don't take the time to think carefully about this issue."

"I think there is a growing concern for Palestinian Christians among Christian college students and Christians in academia, but unfortunately I don't know how widespread among Christians in general that sentiment will become."

Again, I want to make clear that I am not advocating that American Christian congregations or organizations completely drop their support for Israel and instead adopt a more "pro-Palestinian" slant. However, I have always found it strange that when Christian groups talk about Israel and the Holy Land (and I am of the persuasion that the vast majority of them never actually do), they generally are very supportive of Israel's position regarding settlements, East Jerusalem, and security. In the same way, I believe American Christians do not have a real solid understanding of Palestine's Christian communities or the way the policies some Christian Zionist organizations advocate hurt Palestinian Christians, both in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. I'm not calling for American Christians to abandon Israel, but I would like to see them gain a greater understanding of the Palestinian Christian narrative. As the conflict endures, Christians (in Israel, the U.S., and Palestine) suffer. A greater sense of this could cause American Christian groups to become more active in advocating for a peaceful solution to the conflict, and perhaps more moderate views on Jerusalem. There are many Christian groups that actively work in the Holy Land doing just that, but I think American Christians are a community in the U.S. that secular peace activists often overlook, instead of engaging them to advocate for peace.

I think it would be a great idea to take the Holy Land Christian narrative on a traveling tour of American churches to bring them into the "pro-peace" rather than "pro-Palestinian/Israel" folds.

One final thing: I would like to see Jerusalem's Old City turned over to an international agency (like the UN) and allow that organization to administer the city's affairs. I have always found it odd that more American Christians are not very vocal about their support for such a settlement.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Don't forget about those Palestinian Christians

Updated below

One thing that has always surprised me about Evangelical Christian support for Zionism and Israel's occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank is that Christian Zionists seem to have absolutely no regard for their Christian Palestinian brothers both in the West Bank and inside Israel. Israel loves to frame the struggle as one between Western Judeo-Christian civilization and extremist Islam, but this completely ignores the large minorities of Palestinian Christians, especially in the West Bank. I'm not telling Christians who to back, but I still find it strange that you very rarely find Christian groups criticizing Israel for the way the country has blatantly stolen land from and built walls dividing the predominantly Christian city of Bethlehem. It's as if the American Christian community turns it head rather than see what is right in front of them: Israel's occupation of Palestine hurts both Muslims and their Christian brothers. I in no way want to be like the neo-cons that scream and cry about how American Jews should always vote Republican because the GOP is stronger on just letting Israel have what it wants to take, but I would like to see more visibility from mainstream media outlets on the plight of Palestinian Christians. That would really help correctly characterize the conflict as about more than just religion - it's about land and nationalism.

Anyway, I just think it would be nice if American Christian groups that totally support Israel's settlement enterprise and occupation were better educated on how those policies affect Palestine's Christian communities. Bassim Khoury at Foreign Policy is trying to do just that.


As if on cue, IPS just published an article entitled: "Palestinian Christians Barred From Jerusalem for Easter." 

Friday, April 2, 2010

Will the real Mr. Palestine please stand up?

I know I was rather critical of Salam Fayyad back when Tom Friedman was coining the term "Fayyadism" (my criticism of Friedman remains undiminished), but I have to admit, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is a statesman. He, of course, does not possess an unblemished record, but his August 2009 plan to create a Palestinian state in 24 months (just as Obama's term winds down) is looking like a serious winner. The Quartet (EU, US, Russia, and the UN) have signed on in support and the Prime Minister's plan was comprehensive, unyielding in its criticism of the shortcomings of Palestinian Authority institutions, and much needed. He laid out explicitly what each ministry was expected to do to achieve the goals outlined in the plan. While I still acknowledge he and Mustafa Barghouti (the man I previously named Mr. Palestine) have never shown that they have vast electoral support, the Fayyad Plan, complete with its rigid deadline and attempt to get buy-in from major world powers, has the potential to actually provide the political pressure needed to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Last I remember, Israeli ministers were huffing and puffing and declaring the Fayyad Plan was a "unilateral move" meant to upend peace prospects. Those ministers, of course, are the same ones that have been huffing and puffing and screaming for limitless Jewish settlement expansion in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Haaretz sat down with Mr. Fayyad, who provides us with some great soundbites:

"The time for this baby to be born will come and we estimate it will come around 2011. That is our vision, and a reflection of our will to exercise our right to live in freedom and dignity in the country we are born, alongside the State of Israel in complete harmony,"

"[We and the Israelis] have universally shared values; peace will be made between equals, not between masters and slaves." 

"No one should be expected to stand for injustice, not least the Palestinians, who have endured long decades of occupation. Is it not what Gandhi stood for, what Martin Luther King stood for?"

"The settlers have a tremendous pull on the Israeli government. It's pure self-righteousness: the exclusion of the possibility that someone out there might have a slightly different opinion - in an indignant way and often times in a violent way."

"Related to the Zionist ethos, fine, Israel is a biblical country, there are lots of hilltops, lots of vacant space, why don't they use that, and let us get on with it?" 

On Israeli construction in East Jerusalem:
"At some point somebody has to stand up and assume responsibility for what's going on. Isn't that what is expected of us Palestinians? We need to lift each other up, not drag each other down. You need a full understanding of where the other side is coming from. I maintain that we have that, we understand that these are completely different, diametrically opposed narratives. I don't expect, ever, for our narrative to be accepted by Israel, but likewise, for Netanyahu to say that the Israeli historical narrative is basis for a just settlement, is expecting too much."

The man is nothing if not well-spoken, but he's got substance as well, and lots of it.