NONE should be surprised at the statement this month by the president of the Palestinian Authority and chairman of the PLO Mahmoud Abbas pronouncing the peace process with Israel as “clinically dead”.
Last April, former US president Jimmy Carter, in a New York Times article, censured Israel for “establishing more and more settlements in Palestine on confiscated land”. According to him, while the Israeli prime minister and foreign minister “profess their support for a ‘two-state solution’, their actions all aim to create a ‘Greater Israel’, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. Washington has voiced opposition to these steps, but has not made any strong efforts to prevent them”.
In fact President G. W. Bush gave a green signal to settlements, albeit in qualified language in a formal letter on April 14, 2004 to Israel’s then prime minister Ariel Sharon. The number of Israeli settlers has grown from 5,000 in 1981 to about 525,000 now.
Mahmoud Abbas’ exasperation has been welling up in the last few months. In a five-page letter delivered to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on April 17 this year, he warned that “the current status quo cannot continue” and hinted at the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority itself. “As a result of actions taken by successive Israeli governments, the Palestinian National Authority no longer has any authority, and no meaningful jurisdiction in the political, economic, territorial and security spheres. In other words, the Palestinian Authority lost its raison d’être which, if it continues, will make it unable to honour its commitments.” This was a reference to the Oslo Accords of 1993 on which Israel reneged.
Abbas’ position is a purely titular one. Just outside his home in the West Bank, new settlements can be seen. From Ramallah to Jerusalem a mere 20kms away and all across the West Bank, settlements have come up over 59 per cent of the land. Arab East Jerusalem is in Israel’s tight grip. While the talks proceeded Jewish settlements were being built.
Abbas took long to realise that he had been taken for a ride. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to withdraw from Gaza was not a step towards a settlement with Palestine’s leaders but a move to pre-empt it. Gaza makes up only 1.25 per cent of the Palestine Mandate but contains 37 per cent of the Palestinian population. It is now a prison isolated from the world including its neighbours Egypt, Jordan and the West Bank. Its population is denied the freedom of movement essential to any possibility of economic recovery and outside investment.
Dov Weissglas, Sharon’s senior adviser and chief of staff, said in an interview in Haaretz inn 2004 that the disengagement was intended to “preclude the emergence of a Palestinian state of any kind”. He explained that it was “actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians”. Formaldehyde is the liquid in which dead bodies are preserved.
In the elections held on Jan 25, 2006, Hamas won 74 of the 132 seats in the Palestine Legislative Council; Fatah won 45. The US and Israel did their best to nullify the results and create a rift between Mahmoud Abbas who formed the administration in the West Bank and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyerh. Hamas was branded a terrorist body. After a brief period, their national unity government fell apart. Under an agreement signed in Cairo on May 20, 2012 fresh elections would be held to set up a new government of national unity.
It is a fragile unity. Mahmoud Abbas has accused Hamas of refusing to allow registration of new voters in Gaza. “Without elections there will be no reconciliation,” he asserted. He told a delegation of American officials who met him just a day before the May 20 accord was signed that he would not include representatives of Hamas in the interim government he proposed to set up. Meanwhile, he has cracked down on dissenters within his fold.
The internal situation on the Israeli side is as inimical to the prospects of starting the peace process. On May 8, 2012, Netanyahu arrived at a pact on a coalition with his nemesis Shaul Mofaz, leader of the largest opposition party. Kadima which has 28 seats in parliament; Likud has 27. Elections are due a year and a half from now.
It is unlikely that Netanyahu will conduct any serious negotiations before the next elections; as unlikely indeed that President Barack Obama will exert his influence in support of the talks in this election year. The Arab world is polarised. Syria is in an upheaval and Egypt has its problems. The prospects for a settlement are bleak. Meanwhile, Palestinians groan under brutal Israeli repression. More than 35 Israeli laws discriminate against Israeli citizens who happen to be Palestinians. These 1.5 million who are 25 percent of Israel’s citizens are actually second-class citizens. But four million more are not citizens at all.
The scandal that is the judicial system was exposed by the French Scholar Stéphanie Latte Abdallah. She wrote: “In Palestine, prisoners are called prisoners of war (asra) or political prisoners; the Israeli Prison Service (Shabas) calls them ‘security detainees’, a term which does not correspond to legal reality and is defined by the army and the security (Shin Bet) and prison services. The category is reserved for Palestinians, including those with Israeli citizenship. The conditions in which they are held are harsher than those of other prisoners …
“Confessions are essential since 95 per cent of cases do not come to trial: they are settled by lawyers and judges negotiating the sentence once the defendant has confessed. The military justice authorities encourage this to avoid a trial, and those who refuse to confess are given a harsher sentence, after a long drawn out procedure. Most defendants are found guilty.”
Few are the friends Palestinians can rely on to demand justice for them.
The writer is an author and lawyer.