Neil Partrick has been interested in the Middle East ever since he gave up unskilled gardening and rolled up in the eastern Mediterranean with a kibbutz address in occupied Syria. Neil worked in Jerusalem in the early 1990s when the Quakers hired him to work for a leftist PLO faction. He later detoured into the UK Parliament, part working on the Arab-Israeli conflict, part on Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT). Four more years in the heart of the machine beckoned, as Neil headed the Middle East studies programme of a Whitehall think-tank. After that he engaged in similar work at an ‘intelligence unit’ attached to The Economist magazine. He repositioned himself in the United Arab Emirates from 2007-9 as a lecturer at a local university. Since then Neil has been a freelance Arabian Peninsula analyst and written most of a book on Saudi Arabian foreign policy. He also blogs about music and fancies himself as both the best leader of the British Labour Party there never was, and as an undiscovered comedian. Neil’s ‘professional’ Middle East website is www.neilpartrick.com and his (more fun) amateur blog is www.deiradiary.blogspot.co.uk
Friday, May 10, 2019
Among Palestinians the US’ ‘Deal of the Century’ and the positioning of the Palestinian Authority are a sideshow when the realities on the ground have all but killed off any prospect of Palestinian statehood, while Israel focuses on the best way to manage its territorial control over the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
According to Ramallah-based political analyst, Sam Bahour [i], the Palestinian leadership is maintaining hope in a political process that was from the outset fundamentally flawed. It was conceived, he argues, on a thoroughly unequal basis: The PLO recognised the legitimacy of Israel and got in exchange recognition of itself as the Palestinians’ political leadership, not of Palestine as a state. The latter was in theory a potential outcome following a planned five year transitional process and permanent status talks that would reference UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 242 and UNSCR 338.
UNSCR 242 was drawn up in the immediate aftermath of the June 1967 War. For all its constructive ambiguity – largely the handiwork of a British foreign secretary bent on the seemingly impossible task of getting both Israel and the Arab states to accept it as the basis for a future peace – it did at least mean that world opinion (excepting Israel) would define all of the West Bank (including east Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip as the (Israeli) Occupied Territories.
At least that was the case until the 1993 Rabin-Arafat agreement on the White House lawn led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA), and the rolling back of the occupation in those territories appeared to begin. In truth though, the signed Declaration of Principles (the first Oslo Agreement [ii]) was a dangerous legal ambiguity, as opposed to the greater, if imperfect, legal clarity of UNSCR242. Under a follow-up agreement signed two years later (‘Oslo 2’), the Palestinians would be given ‘authority’ over part of the West Bank (‘Area A’) in addition to the Gaza Strip. However the question of these territories’ sovereignty, like that of the rest of the West Bank that was to remain partly or wholly under an agreed Israeli authority, would be postponed until the permanent status talks. These would, it was envisaged, determine this and other key issues according to international law.
Bahour argues that the PLO, under the leadership of Yasser Arafat and his then deputy Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen, the current PA president), committed the gross strategic error of making their compromises before reaching the envisaged negotiating table. And then, as he puts it, ‘Trump took away the table’ by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s exclusive capital. Put differently, Dr Yara Hawari [iii], an activist and writer, says ‘Oslo created the PA to end resistance and manage the Palestinians in Area A.’
The British Mandate (1923-48) had incorporated the handiwork of another British foreign secretary engaged in wilful ambiguity, except that in 1917 Arthur Balfour helped to foster the conflict in Palestine and the eventual Israeli state; 50 years later George Brown was trying to get the relevant states (by definition excluding the Palestinians) to agree a basis for a political settlement. Today the source of authority in the Occupied Territories (the term still clung to by the British and other European governments) remains divided in legal terms between Israel and the PA. Under Oslo, PA elections held the prospect of generating popular and political momentum behind the new, localised, Palestinian leadership, and thus for its territorial claims [iv]. In practise today authority over all of the land, as opposed to over its Arab inhabitants, lies with Israel. As an occupying power Israel still has legal authority over the borders of the West Bank, and still maintains the authority of an occupying power over the Gaza Strip’s maritime border and is able to act as such over the Strip’s crossing points with Egypt. Israel has ultimate sanction over who can traverse the Rafah crossing that is ostensibly managed by Egypt and Hamas, while the flow of goods between Egypt and the Gaza Strip is conducted via the Israeli (and Egyptian) controlled Kerem Shalom crossing.
Palestinian and Israeli analysts I spoke to agreed that the only territorial issue that has a realistic prospect of seeing progress on a mutually-determined basis is the Gaza Strip. The global headlines in recent months of course have been about US recognition of both Jerusalem and the Golan Heights as Israeli, the related so-called ‘Deal of the Century’ (DOTC), and Israel possibly annexing settlement blocs around Jerusalem and throughout the rest of the West Bank whether the PA engages with the DOTC or not. While these developments have effectively snuffed out the dying embers of the Palestinian aspiration to a viable, contiguous state, they are for many Palestinians a direct product of the ‘peace process’, not of what their detractors would see as the Palestinians’ continued rejectionism.
‘Gaza First and Last’ was a caricature of ‘Gaza First’ that pro-Palestinian detractors deployed to describe the idea of a phased transfer of territorial authority when ‘Oslo’ was first mooted. It might be becoming applicable again. The former Israeli diplomat Michael Harari wrote in The Jerusalem Post in late-April [v] about what he saw as the benefits for Israel of a long-term cessation of violence deal between Israel and the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. This he said would need to include much easier facilitation of movement of people and goods across all of Gaza’s borders (potentially including outside of its maritime confines), in order that the Strip become more economically viable for its inhabitants. Part of improving Gazans’ lives should, he wrote, include international support and involvement in such negotiated arrangements, and, if possible, the involvement of the PA. A generous international including Gulf contribution should be an important part of the equation, he said, but a putative deal shouldn’t depend on getting Gulf money, nor on Abu Mazen’s approval.
Some of these ideas and practises have of course been around for a while – Qatar is already a direct, Israeli-facilitated, player in Gaza’s economic affairs and the actual delivery of promised Qatari aid helped a resumption of a ceasefire after cross-border conflict kicked off again in early May. There have also been several failed intra-Palestinian attempts to reunite Gaza with the PA in the West Bank, including in late 2017 a briefly resumed PA authority over Rafah (at Israel’s connivance). An Israeli-Hamas hudna (ceasefire), mediated by Egypt, has been tried regularly and was in its latest incarnation when the violence resumed. While the Israeli-Gazan conflict doesn’t take much to be reignited, the latest round of fighting was sparked when Israel once again shot at Gazans conducting what has become a regular demonstration at the border with Israel, and then Hamas’ Islamist rival Islamic Jihad initiated rocket firing into Israel, prompting Hamas to join in. Hamas apparently felt frustration with a ‘ceasefire’ that hadn’t, at that point at least, delivered the latest promised Qatari aid. Israel took the opportunity of the fighting to eradicate specific Hamas leaders while declaring that this latest round of confrontation, paused by Egyptian and reportedly Qatari mediation, wasn’t over.
Despite such regular outbreaks of fighting, there are some Palestinians who see the talk of a kind of ‘hudna-plus’, a long term ending of violence helped by international and regional involvement, as opposed to mutually agreed pauses, as having more plausibility and possibly more durability. Dr Khalil Shikaki, head of the Palestinian Centre for Policy & Survey Research [vi], noted the Iran factor in Israel’s desire that the Gaza Strip not be a sustained and increasingly ‘hot’ frontline. The prospect of US military action against Iran (whether involving Israel or not) means that Israel doesn’t want to be dealing with greatly increased armed exchanges with Gaza. Nor, pointed out Shikaki, does Hamas want to be obliged to act as if it were an Iranian proxy, which he argues, it isn’t, even if relations have been restored to at least a semblance of their former strength. This is not forgetting the reluctance of the PA and in particular Abu Mazen to try again to restore his authority in the Gaza Strip. It’s widely understood, including by Israel, that the intra-Palestinian rift isn’t going to be healed any time soon, and of course Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu has previously opposed a Palestinian national unity deal and refused to do anything to facilitate it, on the basis that Hamas ‘terrorists’ would effectively be legitimised. This is precisely why Israelis like Michael Harari, and the domestic Israeli intelligence service Shin Bet, think that even a right-wing government could see a divided Palestine as presenting an opportunity to deal with the greater threat from within Palestine: Hamas. In the process Hamas, it’s envisaged, can control those inside Gaza who may seek to break an agreed cessation of violence. For its part the PA’s Preventive Security apparatus are well established in dealing with the threat to Israel, such as it is, from inside the West Bank.
Mitigating against this scenario is a new Israeli government in which consideration of an Israeli-Gazan initiative, while not impossible for the cynical Netanyahu, is out of bounds for those even further to his right. This is something that a premier under corruption allegations has to be mindful of. The Israeli ‘goodwill’ gesture of allowing Gazan fishing rights to be extended to 15km from the coast had been slashed back to six; itself part of the backdrop to the latest fighting. Following the pause in the fighting, however, this was then extended back again (according to the Palestinian news agency, Ma’an, on May 10, 2019).
None of these manoeuvres are about ending the historical conflict; they are about a long term cessation of violence on one front-line for mutual benefit. Michael Harari argued that Israel knows that there are worse elements, from its point of view, in Gaza. There are militants with whom the admittedly constrained dialogue Israel periodically conducts (usually indirectly) with Hamas would be inconceivable. However, to some informed Palestinians and some external analysts this is just game-playing. For one thing the DOTC supposedly includes a plan for an expanded Gaza Strip (incorporating a slice of northern Sinai) that, as a US academic visiting the West Bank put it to me, would make it one of two Palestinian states; the other being Jordan (a notion which Amman has unsurprisingly rejected very strongly). It may be that there are those around Netanyahu who think that Gaza can (once again) be a repository for Palestinian refugees; this time those from the West Bank who cannot be persuaded/coerced to (once again) transit to Jordanian territory. An Israeli analyst with good government connections privately commented that he couldn’t imagine that Egypt’s President Sisi, however dependent on the US, would ever agree to expand Gaza into Sinai, something that from an Egyptian national security perspective is an almost perverse suggestion.
Yara Hawari argues that the talk about Gaza options, outside of real Palestinian sovereignty over all of the Occupied Territories, ‘could be very dangerous’ for the Palestinian national interest. Whether an Israeli-Hamas deal or something more sinister as per the DOTC, it is about permanently cutting off Palestinian communities from each other, she says. In other words this is what Hawari calls ‘Bantustans’ where the idea is ‘Arab autonomy’ not Palestinian control, with the result, she says, that Palestine is ‘erased’. A Palestinian who works for an East Jerusalem NGO responded to my mentioning of Gaza options with anger. There has been talk of such schemes for years, he said, and ‘[I]t’s all meaningless’. Ultimately Palestinians are under Israeli control – whether they live in Jerusalem, the rest of the West Bank or the Gaza Strip; ideas of improved access to the outside world make little difference to that reality, he argued.
Palestinian self-rule is also a reality, however, albeit over people rather than territory, and only those people residing in the Gaza Strip and in Area A of the West Bank. There is no doubt too that this is hugely resented and that it will always be inadequate to the national aspirations of Palestinians. The Palestinian leadership, Hamas included, are caught in a perpetual management crisis rather than able to plot a realistic path to meaningful statehood. For these reasons the DOTC isn’t even the ‘starting point’ that Trump’s Middle East wunderkind Jared Kushner referred to it as in early May.
Yasser Arafat Square, Ramallah
What then of what remains the heart of the Palestinian-Israeli existential conflict: Jerusalem? While steadfastly holding on, as much as they are able, to their prized residency permits, Palestinians in the city have seemingly little ability, or desire, to connect to the PA. A semblance of connection in the opposite direction exists via those few East Jerusalem NGOs that provide services to West Bankers (with the full cognisance of Israel), but these days there’s little else.
At one time, and unofficially, Orient House was the de facto PLO headquarters in East Jerusalem, but it was only ever recognised by Israel as the headquarters of Faisal Husseini, and of his research centre. This was potent enough as he was a known senior Fatah figure (the dominant PLO faction), and, unsurprisingly, the building was regularly shuttered by Israel before and after Oslo. However its ability to continue to function suggested that the city wasn’t entirely off-limits to Palestinians in political terms. This was also suggested by the, admittedly, limited symbolism of the first Palestinian elections under Oslo, held in 1996, that featured one, just one, polling station in East Jerusalem. The latter’s positive symbolism in Palestinian terms included the fact that its venue was the main East Jerusalem post office, located right opposite the Old City. However this was somewhat offset by the symbolism of also being right next door to an Israeli police station.
All of this is history though. Orient House today is historical artefact, interesting in that it and other such symbols in the centre of East Jerusalem are discreetly and diplomatically signposted in Arabic, English and Hebrew as part of a seemingly, but unofficially, Israeli-sanctioned Palestinian information campaign. Today it houses a UN office. The PA also used to have a discreet presence via plain clothes unofficial Fatah police who made their presence known in the Old City and elsewhere, and to a very limited extent still do [vii].
Are there any concrete, developments, I wondered, that are giving expression to a Palestinian determination to remain present, steadfast (samud) and, where appropriate, to resist peaceably? I met with Adnan Ghaith, an only 30-something Fatah loyalist appointed by President Abbas as the Governor of Jerusalem. Officially the PA’s writ has never run in any part of what Israel considers the territorial confines of Jerusalem to be. Ghaith operates under the convenient conception that the Governorate is what Jordan once defined it to be, thereby enabling it to be argued that, by the Governor and the PA’s Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs having an office in Ar-Ram, to the north of Israel’s security wall that seals off Jerusalem from the West Bank, they are actually based in Jerusalem. Of course Ar-Ram isn’t the only Palestinian town that is perceptibly part of Jerusalem but that sits on the wrong side of the wall. Kufr Aqab, for example, was actually part of Israel’s expanded municipality of Jerusalem that was established after 1967 to incorporate a greater eastern expanse for a self-styled Israeli capital, and such is their inhabitants’ desire to keep the cherished Jerusalem residency card that they pay the Arnona (municipal tax) in exchange for zero municipal services.
Adnan Ghaith, photographed at our meeting
Settlements were built and in recent years they have greatly expanded within (and without) these municipal lines. Ar-Ram isn’t in Israeli municipal Jerusalem and, while it is part of its vaguer Greater Jerusalem conception, it is part of Area C where the PA has no Israeli-recognised civil authority but Israel has a PA-recognised security role. So, interestingly, the Governor of Jerusalem and the PA have offices in an Israeli area historically defined as Jerusalem in governorate terms. But so what? Ghaith cannot go there. He is one of the few Palestinians that Israel bars from leaving East Jerusalem to go east of its security barrier (wall); the problem is usually in the other direction, when West Bankers want to enter East Jerusalem. A PA toe-hold in a Jerusalem Governorate that no longer exists cannot even be accessed by its nominal Governor. Ghaith though didn’t betray any cognisance of the almost surreal absurdity of his situation. At great length he breathlessly expounded on the history of the conflict since the first Oslo deal, urging the international community to enforce almost moribund agreements and stressing, in response to my question about samud, that he has President Abbas’ backing to support East Jerusalemite Palestinians in the peaceful assertion of steadfastness and resistance on their land. This means him using PA money to fund lawyers to try to get permits to build new properties and to resist Israeli demolitions of Palestinian houses or to hire engineers to rebuild them when they are. He noted how extensive the Israeli settler effort is in a number of Palestinian villages in central Jerusalem, including in his own, Silwan.
Above, Silwan, a Palestinian village in central Jerusalem
What was clear from Mr Ghaith’s sometimes ambiguous responses and his public preference for extended history lessons over discussing the constraints that he is under [viii], was that as Governor there is little he can do, publicly at least, than work through the Israeli legal system and then hire builders when that effort fails (as it often does). Ghaith argued that the Israeli attempts to bring the curriculum in East Jerusalem schools wholly under the Israeli system is part of its effort to erase the Palestinian identity in the city, noting too, pressure to push the Palestinian Open University outside of municipal Jerusalem to Eissawiyya, which is located behind the wall. It isn’t clear what he can do about these developments though, other than perhaps try to mount a legal challenge in the latter case. Ghaith has been accused by Israel of working at a more subterranean level than these publicly professed goals, however, by putting pressure on Palestinians planning to sell land to Israelis in Jerusalem and specifically of helping to abduct a Palestinian-American to the West Bank for this alleged offence [ix]. Separately, a Palestinian whose family have had their Jerusalem property contested in an Israeli court by another Palestinian believed to be in league with Israeli settlers, told me that the Governor had helped them to find legal help.
Above, the wall (separation barrier) separating East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank
In describing to me the ‘social and economic measures’ to resist the occupation in East Jerusalem, Ghaith didn’t mention resistance to the Jerusalem Light Railway (JLR), something that other Palestinians have actively campaigned against as part of the international BDS movement. The existing single JLR line connects west Jerusalem with settlements on the Palestinian side of the city, and its expansion would further extend the settlements’ public transport connections. JLR almost literally ties the divided city together in a service being used by some Palestinians. This is a rarer sight on Israel’s Jerusalem bus service in part due to a Palestinian bus service still linking East Jerusalem to the rest of the West Bank. Hawari acknowledged the success of BDS and its local Palestinian supporters in encouraging French company TransDev (half-owned by Veolia) to pull out of the JLR. (It’s also been reported more recently that a French state-owned company Systra has pulled out of two of the planned additional lines). However she emphasised that ‘BDS doesn’t work with the approval of the Palestinian Authority,’ and so Ghaith cannot back it in any practical way.
The fact that a Palestinian president should in effect be opposed to BDS is testament to the constraints under which the PA has to operate and the specific inhibitions of Abu Mazen. A man in his early eighties, mindful of his legacy, and who has made his career in the PLO on the basis of peaceful reconciliation and negotiated compromise is not, says Sam Bahour, going to abandon his MO to gamble on what many Palestinians would in fact prefer: that he at least end security cooperation with Israel until a number of substantive improvements. In the short term these would be the full return of customs duty monies owed the PA i.e. without a deduction for the amount paid to martyrs’ families. In protest at the latter Abu Mazen isn’t accepting Israeli tax transfers. ‘He is refusing to take his own money,’ say Bahour and other Palestinians, incredulously. Khalil Shikaki argues that the PA president is once again playing a game of chicken with Israel, and he isn’t very good at it.
Resistance isn’t Abbas’ style, especially of a more militant kind. Shikaki notes that Abu Mazen fell out with leading Fatah activist Marwan Barghouti because the latter used violence, at Arafat’s connivance, in the second Intifada, and became the PLO leader’s effective deputy in the process, rendering Abbas irrelevant. The PLO isn’t dead, notes Hawari, and has some residual legitimacy unlike the PA that has effectively subsumed it. While the PLO Central Committee decided on October 2018 to end security cooperation, this has been studiously ignored by Abbas.
To be fair to Adnan Ghaith, given his tenuous position as would-be Governor of Jerusalem, if he started talking publicly in favour of BDS he would be detained even more times by the Israeli authorities than he is already. Ghaith was jailed prior to being appointed Governor in August 2018, and has been detained six or seven times since. However his translator commented that as Adnan has served time in an Israeli jail, short-term police detentions don’t bother him. As governor Ghaith has been detained for alleged ‘incitement’ against Israelis and for alleged fraud and forgery [x]. Dr Mahdi Abdul Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs [xi], said that Ghaith’s appointment reflected Fatah’s desire to focus on the concerns of young Palestinian Jerusalemites. For other Palestinians, the powerlessness of any Palestinian ‘governor’ of Jerusalem makes Ghaith’s relative youth and activism irrelevant.
Khalil Shikaki argues that behind the wall, in the rest of the West Bank, there is a very real prospect that a third Intifada will break out in the next five years, and says that he expects there to be some signs of it by the end of 2019. His reasoning is that PCPRS polling shows that around 60% of Palestinians think the PA is acting as a collaborator with Israel in its security cooperation. As Shikaki argued, this can mean that if settlers enter Area A and attack Palestinians, the Palestinian security service cannot do anything about it.
In fact the PA’s Preventive Security exchanges information with the Israeli security services. This feeds the low opinion that Palestinians have of the PA and its senior leaders. This, and the fact that a security operative will typically earn less than 2,000 Israeli shekels (about $560) a month, and that they live among the people and could have an extended family member who has been martyred, means that the PA’s continued enforcement of the occupation could become untenable. Add to this a possible collapse on the Gazan side, no dialogue with the US or Israel (and possible Israeli territorial annexation in the West Bank), then the making of revolt could be there. Abdul-Hadi responds dismissively, saying that this talk is always being repeated; the merest hint of revolt on the West Bank, he says, and Abu Mazen will snuff it out. For her part Hawari cannot envisage an uprising of any kind under Abbas. Shikaki’s argument though is that there is the possibility of a revolt within the PA’s security forces, within Fatah. This, he explains, would not be a coordinated, organised, intifada like previously. However, assuming that growing disaffection from within means that the PA security apparatus in the West Bank weakens fundamentally, there could be those within Fatah who would take up arms. In this situation Hamas in Gaza would rearm and reorganise as solely an armed resistance movement, not as a provincial government.
Yara Hawari says that a revolt from within the PA/Fatah structure on the West Bank is ‘definitely’ a possibility, but one much more likely after Abu Mazen dies. He is likely, she says, to be followed a younger leader who would be ‘tougher, more cynical,’ and this and his possible lack of cache might spark revolt. Who is in the frame, I wondered. It’s not clear who it would be, Hawari says, but argues that it will possibly be ‘some shady character,’ cooked up ‘by the US and Israel.’ Under such a new leader, she says, ‘security will tighten’ because ‘the political elite comes from the security elite.’ I noted that Abbas’ former ally and security chief Mohammed Dahlan retains a following on the West Bank as well as within Gaza, his former home and initial security responsibility, even though he is in exile in Abu Dhabi. Hawari commented that, while it shouldn’t be overstated, he has a following in the refugee camps where money can buy support. Names mooted elsewhere are Mahmoud Al-Aloul, a Fatah activist of the first Intifada elected to the Legislative Council at the last election (2006); Jibril Rajoub, former West Bank Preventive Security chief; and Nasser Al-Qudwa, a former PA foreign minister and one-time PLO representative at the UN. Aloul is in his early 70s; Rajoub and Al-Qudwa are in their mid-60s. At around 58, Dahlan is comparatively young.
Shikaki argues that Dahlan could be part of a future attempt to bring the Gaza Strip back into the PA fold as he remains a plausible actor in both Gaza and on the West Bank. Marwan Barghouti is in jail serving several life sentences, which these days is presumably where Israel is very happy to leave him, considering his residual cache with Palestinians on the West Bank. In any case, releasing him at any point this side of decrepitude would neuter him politically as it would suggest he was Israel’s man. Palestine doesn’t have an equivalent to Mandela whose release by his enemies confirmed that their power was ending and a new regime was taking over.
However the only leadership I heard about in Palestine (outside of Gaza) that appeared to have any plausibility was that being offered by the Waqf in Jerusalem, and that, by definition, doesn’t mean much outside of the city. The Islamic authority is funded and approved by Jordan under arrangements that remained in place after 1967. Hashemite custodianship of the Islamic holy places in Jerusalem was and remains recognised by Israel (and the international community) in its 1994 peace deal with Jordan. ‘Leadership’ is a misnomer here, said Hawari, whether among Palestinians or, as I had suggested was, however mildly, coming from Jordan via the Waqf and in terms of King Abdullah’s coherent and firm stand against the DOTC – for the sake of Palestine and Jordan. However Abdul-Hadi, a member of a new, expanded, 18-member Waqf Council, stressed that it was the Waqf Council that had communicated to both Jordan and Israel the anger of the Palestinian street in Jerusalem over the presence of security cameras at an entrance to the Haram Al-Sharif (known by Israel as Temple Mount) in the Old City and against the Israel-enforced closure of a building next to the long shut Golden Gate (Bab Al-Rahma/’Gate of Mercy’). Popular Palestinian pressure led to the building being opened by the Waqf as a masalha (prayer hall) in March 2019.
The council is all Palestinian, he stresses, with the exception of the head of the Shariah courts in Jerusalem who is a Jordanian-Palestinian. Other Palestinians acknowledge the importance of the Jordanian-approved Waqf Council and of the Hashemite role on the Haram Al-Shareef generally. Time seems to have changed the Palestinian perspective on Jordan since the 1990s when Jordan and the PA had rival muftis, both with offices on the Haram. However some younger Palestinians are scathing about the Waqf in any way representing political leadership, which of course, by definition, it cannot. The Waqf can only take up the issue of Palestinian access to and rights on the Islamic sites of Jerusalem. In the very city that remains crucial to any plausible Palestinian state, anything else, as Adnan Ghaith knows, is more or less impossible.
Despair is making some middle class Palestinian Jerusalemites think more seriously of voting in the next Israeli municipality elections after only one Palestinian candidate, widely perceived as a collaborator, ended up contesting the last baladiya (municipality) election in the city. A Palestinian professional told me that ‘[T]he PA cannot operate here and isn’t wanted here either as it’s corrupt and functions like neighbouring Arab states, while Israel takes our money and wants to take our houses.’ Our only option,’ she argues, ‘is to take part in baladiya elections,’ and yes, she says, eventually to take part in Knesset elections ‘to make our voice, as Jerusalemites, heard.’ It’s obviously understood by those of this opinion that it will necessitate becoming Israeli citizens in order that Jerusalemite Palestinians can stand for election to the baladiya (or vote in or contest Knesset elections). Yara Hawari, who holds Israeli citizenship as she originates from the Galilee, counsels any Palestinian from East Jerusalem to seek Israeli citizenship, arguing that it can offer a possible legal redress from those being coerced into abandoning their homes in the city. However, as those 1948 Palestinians who have worked within the Israeli political system know, she argues, you will have no influence in the Knesset (just as you wouldn’t in the Jerusalem baladiya). I wondered if this was true in all circumstances, thinking of the last Rabin Government that in effect had what detractors called an ‘Arab majority’ due to the tight arithmetic of the Knesset. This after all was when the Israeli Government ended state subsidies to settlers. But no contemporary Israeli government could survive politically on the basis of so-called Arab votes in the Knesset.
Aside from the controversy that such a perceptible abandonment of Palestinian national aspirations represents, there is also the not insignificant problem that these days Israel doesn’t want the propaganda advantage of East Jerusalemites seeking to be citizens of the State of Israel. Just as certain parts of the old Jerusalem Governorate and even the Israeli municipality lie behind the wall, so those living in the city’s central heartlands such as Beit Hanina, Sheikh Jarrah, or very evidently Silwan (the very places identified at the Camp David and Taba talks, and subsequently by Bill Clinton and, separately, Israeli PM Ehud Olmert, as prospective areas of Palestinian sovereignty in any final status deal) are not wanted either. So why would Israel give these Palestinian residents citizenship?
Another Palestinian professional says that focusing on these kind of considerations is fundamentally misguided, whatever the possible and limited ‘benefits’ of becoming ‘Israeli’. Abbas, he argues, should have responded to Trump by saying, in effect, ‘OK, that’s it. I dissolve the whole of the PA, and now, recognising that in practise I live under the jurisdiction of one state running from the Mediterranean to the River Jordan, that has (US-recognised) Jerusalem as its capital, I demand my rights within this state.’ The one state formula isn’t that popular on the ground though, argues Shikaki, noting a two party system that unites Fatah and Hamas in seeking one state on the 1967 lines (although Hamas would officially see that as a long-term hudna, not a permanent arrangement with Israel). Fatah won the totemic barometer of the Bir Zeit University student elections by only 59 votes when I was visiting the campus in mid-April, tying with Hamas in the resultant number of seats (only 10% of the total number fell to other parties). That night gunshots were heard in Ramallah in a pointless celebratory excess encouraged by a leader who’s in office but whose party isn’t even in control in its apparent heartland.
I asked Mahdi Abdul-Hadi what hope there is if Jerusalemites have few options to resist being de facto Israelis, while the rest of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are constrained by their leaderships’ vested interest in self-rule. Abdul-Hadi is an older generation Palestinian seeking to defend his people’s rights to freely access all the holy sites in Jerusalem. He responded that it is the youth of Jerusalem who are key. They are not factionally-aligned, he said, and they are very pragmatic. They will take Israeli citizenship if they can get it; they reject violence, but they will not give up demanding their rights and aspiring to statehood, including East Jerusalem, he said. Despite 52 years of occupation, said Abdul-Hadi, ‘We are not surrendering.’
[i] Sam Bahour has a business information consultancy in Ramallah called AIM (Applied Information Management) and writes political analysis at www.epalestine.com
[ii] The beginning of the so-called Oslo process was cooked up in secret by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in the Norwegian capital, and began with ‘Oslo 1’ (the Declaration of Principles), was followed by the 1994 accord that transferred the Gaza Strip (except the Israel settlements) and Jericho to the PA, and then the 1995 Interim Agreement (aka ‘Oslo 2’).
[iii] Dr Yara Hawari is the Palestine Policy Fellow at Al-Shabaka (an online ‘Palestinian Policy Network’)
[iv] As argued by many, but not all, Palestinian commentators I spoke to in 1994. See ‘Democracy Under Limited Autonomy – The Declaration of Principles and Political Prospects in the West Bank and Gaza Strip ’ by Neil Partrick (Panorama, Jerusalem, 1994). Accessible via this link
[v] Harari, Michael, Jerusalem Post, April 21, ‘Israel should advance an international initiative to support Gaza’
[vi] The Palestinian Centre for Policy & Survey Research (PCPSR) regularly polls the opinions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. It is based in Ramallah.
[vii] See for example The Times of Israel https://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-arrests-32-east-jerusalem-residents-for-serving-in-pa-security-forces/
[viii] His latest arrest was in mid-April 2019, a week before we met https://www.timesofisrael.com/palestinian-governor-of-jerusalem-rearrested-by-israeli-police/
[x] The Times of Israel reported that on one occasion he was arrested for alleged incitement, while Al-Araby Al-Jadeed (English edition) noted Ghaith’s arrest in Jerusalem in February 2019 and clearly linked that to the arrest in the city of a ‘senior PA official’ for ‘suspicions of fraud and forgery’ (itself seemingly related to the clandestine campaign being waged against Palestinians in Jerusalem selling land to Israelis).
[xi] PASSIA (the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs) is based in East Jerusalem and works on inter-faith issues and intra-religious dialogue in Jerusalem as well as on other issues key to Palestine and to the historic and contemporary struggle with Israel.