Occupied Territories

The US and Israel have relied on the endless theatrics of the two-decade peace process as a distraction from the main developments on the ground. UN special rapporteur Richard Falk noted that Israel has cynically exploited the peace process to expand its settlement programme. The innocuous term “settlements” conceals their true role: as Israel’s primary vehicle for ethnic cleansing.

Reports that Washington was offering to free Israel’s most notorious spy, Jonathan Pollard, as part of an unorthodox prisoner exchange has provoked feverish excitement in Israel. The move appeared to be the sweetener in a last-ditch effort by US President Barack Obama’s administration to prevent the demise of current peace talks

For the first time Israel’s Supreme Court is set to consider evidence that senior Israeli political and military officials committed war crimes in relation to major military operations in Gaza and Lebanon. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Minister Tzipi Livni, the current justice minister, are among the high-level figures accused of breaking the laws.

President Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, want their much-delayed “framework agreement” to provide the pretext for spinning out the talks for another year. The last thing the US president needs is for the negotiations to collapse, after Kerry has repeatedly stressed that finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is imperative.

A new report “Trigger-happy”, by Amnesty International identifies a pattern of behaviour by Israeli soldiers of shooting live ammunition at unarmed Palestinians, sometimes as they are fleeing. Over the past three years, dozens of Palestinians have been shot dead in the West Bank and hundreds seriously wounded. Thousands more have sustained injuries from rubber-coated bullets and tear gas.

Israelis rarely hear facts about the abuses faced by Palestinians under occupation, either from their politicians or the media. Israelis have grown content to live in a large bubble of denial. Netanyahu and his ministers are making every effort to reinforce that bubble, just as they have tried to shield Israelis from the fact that they live in the Middle East, not Europe, by building walls on every side – both physical and bureaucratic – to exclude Palestinians, Arab neighbours, foreign workers and asylum seekers.

Although Israel is suspected of recruiting tens of thousands of Palestinians as collaborators since its creation in 1948, the practice has rarely attracted more than superficial attention. Palestinians are ashamed that cooperation with the Israeli security services is widespread, while Israel is loath to draw attention to its systematic violations of international law. But the issue of collaboration is finally emerging from the shadows.

Under pressure on various fronts, Netanyahu hastily convened his senior ministers to devise a strategy to counter the boycott trend. Proposals include a $28 million media campaign, legal action against boycotting institutions, and intensified surveillance of overseas activists by the Mossad. The delegitimisation of Israel is truly under way, but the party doing most of the damage is the Israeli leadership itself.

Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s defence minister, launched an unprecedented and personal attack on US Secretary of State John Kerry last week, calling him “obsessive and messianic”. Furious US officials denounced the comments as “offensive”. And yet what might have been expected – a fulsome, even grovelling apology – failed to materialise, only a limp statement of regret.

Israel and the United States now appear to regard the Palestinian refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish state as the key obstacle to a peace agreement. Suddenly it has become the cornerstone of Israeli diplomacy. But this demand made its debut only in 2007 – 14 years after the Oslo accords originally laid down the path that was supposed to lead to Palestinian statehood. So what is at stake for both sides on the recognition issue?

It is easy to forget, with eulogies casting him as the unexpected “peace-maker”, that for most of his long military and political career Ariel Sharon was known simply as The Bulldozer. He explicitly refused to accept that the 1948 war that established Israel was over. In practice, his philosophy of creating change through bold action meant taking as much as land from the Palestinians as possible – an approach one Israeli analyst termed ‘politicide’.

A sense of urgency looms because Washington is supposed to unveil next month its so-called “framework proposal” for the creation of a Palestinian state, in a last desperate effort to break the logjam in negotiations. For this reason, the outlines of the US vision of an agreement are coming into focus. And, as many feared, the picture looks bleak for the Palestinians.

For Palestinians in Gaza the anxiety-inducing soundtrack to their lives is the constant buzz of the remotely piloted aircraft – better known as “drones” – that hover in the skies above. Confined by Israel to one of the most densely populated areas in the world, Gazans are subject to near continual surveillance and intermittent death raining down from the sky. They call the drone’s noise “zenana” – an Arabic word referring to a wife’s relentless nagging that describes the drone’s oppressive noise and their feelings about it.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu made what was presumably intended to sound like a historic peace gesture towards the Palestinians last week. He invited Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, to Jerusalem to address the Israeli parliament, echoing Menachem Begin’s invitation to Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, in 1977. In reality, Netanyahu’s offer was as hollow as his previous utterances about Palestinian statehood.

Israel is again at the centre of moves to challenge key agencies at the United Nations, as it lobbies to prevent the Palestinian leadership from gaining more of a foothold in global forums. Israel ended a 20-month boycott of the UN Human Rights Council last month, but did so only after securing promises of reforms that human rights groups say will further weaken international efforts to hold Israel accountable for its illegal occupation.

Israel alone had the means, track record, stated intention and motive to kill Yasser Arafat. Without Israel’s fingerprints on the murder weapon, it may be impossible to secure a conviction in a court of law, but there is evidence enough to convict Israel in the court of world opinion.

Zionism was a reaction to the extreme ethnic nationalisms that dominated – and nearly destroyed – Europe last century. It is therefore hardly surprising that it mirrors their faults. In exporting to the Middle East this kind of nationalism, Zionism was always bound to play a negative role in the region

Israeli investors had reason to celebrate last month with the news that Israel may soon be joining the club of oil-producing states. Only one cloud looms on the horizon. It is unclear how much of this new-found oil wealth actually belongs to Israel. The Meged 5 oil field extends over a very large area, possibly 250 sq km, with much of the reserves believed to lie under Palestinian territory in the West Bank. PA officials refer to it as part of Israel’s “theft of Palestinian national resources”.

At Israel’s insistence, the peace talks have been entirely shielded from public view. Privacy, Israel argued, would ease the pressure on the two parties and give them greater room to be forthcoming and creative. The reality, however, is that the lack of scrutiny has allowed Israel to drag its feet. Secrecy, Israel hopes, will give it the cover it expects to need when – as seems certain – the talks end inconclusively, or the Palestinians storm out.

The focus of last week’s World Bank report is on the nearly two-thirds of the West Bank, known as Area C, exclusively under Israeli control and in which Israel has implanted more than 200 settlements to grab Palestinian land and resources. The report reflects mounting frustration in European capitals and elsewhere at Israeli intransigence and seeming US impotence. Europeans, in particular, are exasperated at their continuing role effectively subsidising through aid an Israeli occupation with no end in sight.