Palestinian politics

How 20 tents rocked Israel

14 January 2013

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has done little to capitalise on his recent diplomatic success at the UN. So instead, it was left to a group of 250 ordinary Palestinians to show how the idea of a “state of Palestine” might be given practical meaning. On Friday, they set up a tent encampment that they intended to convert into a new Palestinian village called Bab al-Shams, or Gate of the Sun.

Interview with Awad Abdel Fattah: ‘The PA is still using the discussion about one state as a way to frighten Israelis. The demand for justice and equality should not be used as a scare tactic: in fact, we should be making the argument that one state would be good for Israelis too.’

Israeli officials have expressed alarm at a succession of moves by the interim Egyptian government that they fear signal an impending crisis in relations with Cairo. The widening rift was underscored yesterday when leaders of the rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah signed a reconciliation pact in the Egyptian capital. Egypt’s secret role in brokering the agreement last week caught both Israel and the United States by surprise.

Is the Palestinian Authority finished and, with it, 18 years of the Middle East peace process? That is the question increasingly being asked by Palestinians in the wake of a week of damaging revelations that Palestinian negotiators secretly made major concessions to Israel in talks on Jerusalem, refugees and borders. The question of the PA’s survival, and the future direction of Palestinian politics, has gained added urgency as the wider Middle East is rocked by unrest, from Tunisia to Yemen.

For more than a decade, since the collapse of the Camp David talks in 2000, the mantra of Israeli politics has been the same: “There is no Palestinian partner for peace.” This week, the first of hundreds of leaked confidential Palestinian documents, the so-called Palestine Papers, confirmed the suspicions of a growing number of observers that the rejectionists in the peace process are to be found on the Israeli, not Palestinian, side.

Top Palestinian officials, including President Mahmoud Abbas, are engaged in “very serious” discussions about whether to abandon negotiations with Israel and seek United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state, a senior Palestinian official said yesterday. The official said there was momentum building among senior Palestinian political figures to act on a long-standing threat to bypass the current peace process, which has stalled, and ask the UN Security Council to recognise Palestinian statehood.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, is in the United States this week, but few observers expect an immediate or significant breakthrough in the stalled peace talks with the Palestinian leadership. In public, Mr Netanyahu maintains he is committed to the pledge to work towards the creation of a demilitarised Palestinian state. But so far he has proved either unwilling or unable to renew even a partial freeze on Jewish settlement building in the West Bank.

Israeli human-rights groups and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, have condemned a decision by Israel to expel four Palestinian politicians from East Jerusalem by the end of this week. The Israeli government revoked their residency rights in Jerusalem a few weeks ago, after claiming they were “in breach of trust” for belonging to a “foreign parliament”, a reference to the Palestinian Legislative Council. All four men belong to Hamas and were arrested a few months after taking part in the Palestinian national elections in January 2006.

If a single person deserves the title of serial thorn in the side of the Israeli state, Uri Davis, a professor of critical Israel studies at al Quds University on the outskirts of East Jerusalem, might be the one to claim it. The crowning moment for Dr Davis arrived last weekend when he became the first Israeli Jew to be elected to one of Fatah’s governing bodies, the Revolutionary Council. It is a public relations breakthrough for Fatah.

For four days running, an ambulance has driven 15-year-old Amira Ghirim from Shifa Hospital in Gaza to the Rafah border in the hope that she will be allowed to cross into Egypt and then on to France, where she has been promised emergency surgery. Amira’s left arm and thigh were crushed and her internal organs damaged by falling rubble when a shell hit her home in Gaza City in the final days of Israel’s offensive. The attack killed her father, brother and sister, leaving her an orphan. But, despite her urgent need for surgery, Amira has been turned away at the border each time.

Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai’s much publicized remark last week about Gaza facing a “shoah” — the Hebrew word for the Holocaust — was widely assumed to be unpleasant hyperbole about the army’s plans for an imminent full-scale invasion of the Strip. More significantly, however, his comment offers a disturbing indication of the Israeli army’s longer-term strategy towards the Palestinians in the occupied territories.

The boycott by Israel and the international community of the Palestinian Authority finally blew up in their faces with Hamas’ recent bloody takeover of Gaza. Or so argues Gideon Levy, one of the saner voices still to be found in Israel. But has Levy got it wrong? The faces of Israeli and American politicians, including Ehud Olmert and George Bush, appear soot-free. On the contrary. Over the past fortnight they have been looking and sounding even more smug than usual.