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08 August 2008

       
 

Is it all lost?


 
 

By: Gershon Baskin

 

 

A Palestinian friend who is a senior official in the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah spoke with me this morning.  Usually optimistic and positive, this morning she said to me “We lost it all; it is just a matter of time before the West Bank turns into Gaza”.  That is the overall mood and sense of reality held by most Palestinians today. Over the past month I have participated in international conferences with senior Palestinian leaders at the European Parliament, in a regional meeting in Athens, in several Israeli-Palestinian Track II meetings held in Israel – all of the Palestinian participants, officials and non-officials voiced expressions of pessimism and despair.  The same message can be heard on the grass-roots as well throughout the West Bank and even East Jerusalem.

There is no known progress in the peace process.  Despite ongoing negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, since President Bush’s Annapolis summit in November 2007, no noticeable change can be felt or seen in Palestine. In fact, there is a growing sense that the Israeli occupation is becoming harsher and that the hopes and promises of President Bush and Tony Blair for stability, prosperity and peace have once again blown away with the shifting sands of the Middle East.

Israel’s settlements continues to expand instead of removing unauthorized outposts and freezing all settlement growth, as Prime Minister Olmert promised to President Bush. The Government of Israel continues to issue new tenders for building.  There is a total disconnect between the infrastructure of 250,000 settlers in the West Bank (not including East Jerusalem) and the 2.5 million Palestinians who live there. Expanding Jewish settlements occupy the hilltops of the West Bank with modern “Jewish only” roads leading to them, while Palestinians are limited to controlling only 40% of the area with no ability to expand and develop without prior Israeli approval which is almost always denied.

After the fall of Gaza to Hamas in June 2007 there was great hope under the moderate leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas that a new reality would emerge in the West Bank that would demonstrate to the Palestinian people that diplomacy and moderation would succeed where violence failed. Gaza was placed under economic siege while the new Palestinian West Bank government under Prime Minister Fayyad, the darling of the West, began decisively taking control of the streets and returning law and order in place of the chaos left after years of intifada. The Abbas-Fayyad government has systematically implemented all of the Palestinian obligations under the US-led Road Map, while the Government of Israel has not implemented even the smallest of its obligations. Despite continued World Bank warnings, the West Bank continues to suffer from closure and economic strangulation. The ongoing negotiations with Israel seem to be producing no positive outcome.

The chaos of the dysfunctional Israeli political system strengthens the sense in Palestine that no Israeli government has the ability to make concessions in negotiations necessary to reach agreement with the Palestinians. Even in East Jerusalem, which is under complete Israeli rule and control, there is a political vacuum being filled by Hamas in the absence of any other Palestinian governing address. Israel was supposed to reopen Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem closed during the rule of Ariel Sharon.  Even the non-political East Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce has not been allowed by Israel to re-open.  In the days of the Oslo Peace Process until the outbreak of the second intifada in the end of 2000, the Orient House functioned as a Palestinian governing institution providing Palestinians in East Jerusalem with an address. The Orient House managed the work of the unofficial presence of the Palestinian Authority Preventive Security forces which dealt effectively with internal disputes, as well as Palestinian security threats against Israel. In the past two years Hamas activists have filled the void, functioning with an almost free hand in distributing social, health and educational services to a population which is virtually ignored by the Israeli government and Israel’s Jerusalem Municipality. Hamas, using the Mosques throughout the city, has consolidated control and right under Israel’s un-watching eyes is now emerging as the real center of authority in East Jerusalem.

While Israel and the Palestinian Authority have taken dramatic steps to arrest and confine the power of Hamas throughout the West Bank, the sense on the streets is that it is only a matter of time before Hamas will succeed to take full control. The Government of Abbas-Fayyad has almost nothing substantial to present to their public. No progress in negotiations, no release of prisoners, no real economic growth, and no easing of movement and access. Instead of gaining strength because of the deployment of US-trained Palestinian security forces in West Bank cities, Palestinian forces are delegitimized by the “Cinderella” rule imposed by Israel whereby Palestinian forces must disappear from the streets from midnight until 6:00 a.m. while Israeli forces have a free hand to enter and arrest anyone they want. There are Israeli experts, and some Palestinians concur with them, that the main thing preventing a Hamas takeover of the West Bank today is the continued Israeli army presence there.  At the same time, this is one of the main reasons why the Hamas continues to gain in strength.

It may not be too late to change the course of events, but radical changes in policies by Israel are required. Is there a leader in Israel that is capable of taking the risks now to make those changes?  Probably not, but if there is, what needs to be done is quite clear: freeze all settlement building, including in Jerusalem, remove checkpoints and road blocks, free prisoners to President Abbas, strengthen the security coordination and cooperation without Israeli incursions, invite the US to mediate and present bridging proposals in the stalled negotiations and begin to transfer additional land and authority to the Palestinian government. If not, it is only a matter of time before the West Bank will turn into another Gaza.


* Gershon Baskin is the Co-CEO of IPCRI, the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (www.ipcri.org) Gershon@ipcri.org

 

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