About Elizabeth Sellwood

Elizabeth Sellwood is non-resident fellow at the Center on International Cooperation. She is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has worked for several years in the Middle East region. She was Special Assistant to the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process from 2005-07, and prior to this she worked for the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied Palestinian territory. Between 2001-03 Elizabeth was an adviser to the Foreign Affairs Committee in the UK House of Commons. She also worked for Oxfam in the Balkans in the aftermath of the Kosovo war, and in 1995-99 held research positions at Chatham House and Cambridge University.

Palestinian factions adopt Israeli tactics

Palestinian President Abbas and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority face regular criticism that they are being “more Israeli than the Israelis” in their efforts to control Palestinian terrorism in the West Bank. While leading Israelis and Americans are impressed by the PA’s efforts to oust terrorist cells and arrest suspects in Jenin, Nablus and other West Bank towns, sceptical Palestinians are beginning mockingly to refer to General Dayton, the US military adviser, as the “Palestinian minister of defence”. Members of Abbas’s Fatah party are also reportedly concerned that its leaders’ efforts to quell “resistance” against the Israeli occupation will limit its popularity among ordinary Palestinians. 

Now Hamas, Fatah’s main rival, has begun to adopt an Israeli tactic too: closure. The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reports that 

Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, denied Fatah members permission to travel to the West Bank to take part in an internal Fatah election. The 400-odd Gazans want to to to Bethlehem, where they would be among 1,550 Fatah officials voting to elect the organisation’s leadership. But Hamas has announced that it will not allow them to attend until “the issue of political arrests in the West Bank is resolved” – meaning, until Hamas men are released from Palestinian Authority prisons.

Israel has long used its capacity to deny movement between the West Bank and Gaza as a way to control Palestinian political developments.  The fact that the occupied are beginning to adopt the tactics of the occupiers in their efforts to prevent progress by their domestic political rivals is a sad indication of the dire state of inter-Palestinian politics.

At last – coherent international policy on Israeli settlements?

The Obama administration’s Middle East policy is under construction. Despite Obama’s new tone, it is still too early to see specific policy changes on most of key regional issues.

The one exception to this has been US policy on Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Here, in contrast to their predecessors, the Obama team have taken a firm line against any settlement expansion including “natural growth.” This has created a rift between the US and Israeli governments, which Israeli PM Netanyahu and his allies are finding hard to handle domestically. The US is nonetheless sticking to its line. Hillary Clinton has been clear not only in demanding a freeze, but also in stating that “any informal and oral agreements” between the Bush administration and Israel on settlements “did not become part of the official position of the United States government.”

The new US insistence on a total settlement freeze brings the US into line with longstanding EU and UN positions, so for the first time in years we are seeing solid, unified international policy this issue. In June, the Quartet urged Israel “to freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth; to dismantle outposts erected since March 2001; and to refrain from provocative actions in East Jerusalem, including home demolition and evictions.” The European line on settlements is also being put forward in strong terms by the Swedish Presidency. Earlier this week, a senior Swedish foreign ministry official said that it was “inconceivable” for the international community to legitimize natural growth of the settler population.

So far so good: coherent international policy on an issue that constitutes a serious block to good faith negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and creates facts on the ground that inevitably influence final status discussions.

Then the European Commission steps in. Continue reading

UN not joined up but still being asked to do difficult things

Noah Pollak’s National Review article, posted on Michael Totten’s blog today, reminds me of our internal debates during the Lebanon war last summer (when I was working for the UN) about peacekeeping options for south Lebanon.

Pollak’s article, subtitled “The UN organisation is ineffective as it is unaccountable” is a standard piece of UN-bashing. Pollak argues that unlike the Israeli government, which is being thrashed by the Winograd Commission and its fallout, the UN has “quite remarkably escaped any opprobrium for its own important contribution to the outbreak of war last summer”.

Pollak recalls that since 1978, when UNIFIL was established, “a concatenation of nearly identical UNIFIL-related resolutions has been issued by the Security Council, always with one thing in common: Events on the ground are never permitted to affect UNIFIL’s mandate. Through a combination of diplomatic foolishness and bureaucratic inertia, UNIFIL has remained impervious to any evaluation of its actual utility in bringing peace and security to southern Lebanon.” Pollak recounts a “long history of terrorist provocation in southern Lebanon”, from the PLO to Hezbollah, throughout which “the world’s diplomatic corps has maintained the self-congratulatory fantasy that more extensions of UNIFIL’s mandate will help the region”. Continue reading

A bit more on van Creveld’s lessons

People involved with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – particularly Brits – tend to get a bit anxious when one compares it with Northern Ireland. Having read Alex’s post on van Creveld’s lessons from Northern Ireland (especially points four, five and six), however, I can’t ignore comments made today by the Israel Defence Forces Chief of Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi. Ashkenazi said that if Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel continue, Israel will have to “take action”, and that a major ground operation in the Gaza Strip would be necessary to halt rocket fire.

This is all quite familiar. Last summer, Israel conducted a major ground and air offensive on Gaza following the abduction by Palestinian militants of an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. The operation, which lasted several months, was intended to secure the release of Shalit and end Palestinian rocket attacks. Using jets and helicopter gunships, the IDF bombed the Gaza power station, roads, bridges, ministries and other infrastructure. Israeli artillery units fired thousands of shells across Gaza’s borders. The navy shelled Gaza from the sea. Hundreds of Palestinians were killed, including many children.

Today, Palestinian militants continue to fire rockets, and Shalit is still being held in Gaza. Obviously the Government of Israel cannot tolerate continued rocket firing into Israel. But in light of recent experience and van Creveld’s lessons, it seems unlikely that another IDF ground operation will really help.

Palestinian democracy

Condoleezza Rice, in an interview with the Financial Times this week, was invited to reflect on the dilemmas of promoting democracy in the Middle East. Would the Bush administration continue to push for democratic elections, Rice was asked, even though it was now having to deal with elected militias in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine? Rice was unequivocal: every time, she said, she would choose “elections and democracy, even if it brings to power people that we don’t like.” She has been consistent on this point: in September 2005, Rice was asked about Hamas’s participation in the forthcoming Palestinian elections. She argued then that while “you cannot have an armed option within the democratic process”, it was also important to recognise that the Palestinian political process was “in transition”: “we have to give the Palestinians some room for the evolution of their political process”.

Since Hamas won, the US has taken a number of measures to influence the Palestinian political situation and to change the government’s policies. The US and its partners in the Quartet issued a statement that in the Quartet’s view, “all members of a future Palestinian government must be committed to non-violence, recogition of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations, including the Road Map.” US officials immediately ceased contact with all Palestinian government officials, and terminated funding to all PA government-administered projects. The US Treasury imposed restrictions on private banks dealing with the PA. At the same time, funding and support to the office of President Mahmoud Abbas, to the security services that report to him, and to his Fatah party, continued or increased. Continue reading

Schools not bombs?

Yesterday, in Jerusalem, the acting President of Israel Dalia Itzik offered some advice to Israel’s enemies on the 59th anniversary of Israel’s independence: “Our advice to you is replace your Katyushas and Qassams with computers and loving education, the smile of a boy that has a future, and neighbourliness”.

On the same day, in Gaza, Hamas’s militant wing fired a volley of shells and mortars against Israeli targets in the Negev. No Israeli was hurt. The attack was significant, however, because this is the first time that a Hamas-affiliated group has fired rockets since an informal ceasefire was agreed between President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert in November. The ceasefire must hold if political negotiations are to resume; it is now, at the very least, under heavy strain. Later in the evening, a twelve year old boy was killed in crossfire between rival clans in Gaza.

Most Palestinians would love to be able to provide their child with a computer and a “loving education”, not to mention “the smile of a boy who has a future”. Most Israelis, too, would like to see Gaza develop in a more sustainable and peaceful direction – either because they are disturbed by the constant violence that affects Palestinians like the twelve year old who died yesterday, or because they realise that the chaos inside Gaza represents an increasing threat to Israel.

Continue reading