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.
August 1, 2009 at 11:01 am | More on Middle East and North Africa | Comments Off
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. The Commission’s technical office in Jerusalem commented a few days ago that Israeli settlements were “strangling the Palestinian economy” and forcing the Palestinian Authority to rely on foreign aid – much of which is provided by the European taxpayer. The Israeli government, very predictably, reacted strongly against the EC’s statement and summoned the head of the EU delegation. And now the Commissioner herself has issued a backing-down statement: her spokeswoman told the press that the EC office in Jerusalem had not used “wording that reflects the views of the European Commission or Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner… Of course we are concerned about the negative effect that settlement policy has on the economic life of Palestinians, however the wording chosen in that statement does take it out of context… the reality is much more complex.”
It’s not that complex. The points made by the EC office in Jerusalem have been made many times before by the World Bank (which has issued detailed reports describing the detrimental effect of road closures on the Palestinian economy) and the UN (which has demonstrated the connection between such closures and settlements). Settlements do strangle the Palestinian economy, and their growth has to stop if the two-state solution is to remain viable.
The Commissioner’s intervention is not a big deal, because the EU has not changed its policy on settlements. It is just disappointing: the US administration has overcome domestic obstacles to stick to its line on settlements; but some members of the unwieldy European family have not apparently managed to overcome timidity in the face of Israeli demarches. It is time for the EU, and the EC, to state the facts about settlements and stand firmly behind a policy which they have, in any case, advocated for years.
July 10, 2009 at 7:29 am | More on Middle East and North Africa | Comments Off
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”.
Last summer, while Israel bombed Beirut and southern Lebanon, and Hezbollah’s katyushas rained down on northern Israel, the “world’s diplomatic corps” was debating options for establishing a reinforced peacekeeping operation in Lebanon. Most of us understood very well that disarming Hezbollah would be profoundly difficult: the IDF wasn’t having much success doing it their way. Most of us also understood the inherent weaknesses of UN peace operations, which have to be cobbled together using troops volunteered by UN member states. These troops have not usually been trained together, do not have the same equipment. Many are from developing countries, so the quality of the forces varies considerably. Wouldn’t it be better, asked some members of the “world’s diplomatic corps”, to establish a NATO peace operation to disarm Hezbollah after the war?
Militarily, of course, NATO would have been stronger. Politically, though, a NATO force in south Lebanon is hardly feasible. It would have appeared to many in the region to be a “western” occupation of Lebanon, adding to what is still regarded the US occupation of Iraq, and the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the Golan. NATO troops would have immediately been added to the list of available “western” targets who are currently standing at checkpoints and or manning watchtowers in other parts of the Middle East.
So the world’s diplomatic corps turned again to the UN. Its then Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, invested a great deal of time and energy persuading European member states to donate troops to UNIFIL II, to work alongside those already offered by Malaysia, Indonesia and others with whom Israel was far from comfortable. As a result of these efforts, UNIFIL II is now over 13,000-strong, and includes troops from Belgium, China, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Guatemala, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Republic of Korea, Luxemburg, Malaysia, Nepal, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Tanzania and Turkey: a good mix of Europeans and non-Europeans, Muslims and non-Muslims. UNIFIL II has by no means eliminated the threat to Israel from Hezbollah. It has probably taken some steps in that direction, but its progress will depend on other developments in that highly volatile region.
Whether or not UN peacekeepers are equipped to take on the kind of mandates assigned to them, we don’t currently have many alternatives to sending in blue helmets. We certainly didn’t have many options left in August 2006, as both Israeli and Lebanese governments recognised when they accepted Security Council resolution 1701. Until we do have more peacekeeping alternatives, we’ll keep calling on the UN – so we’d better keep trying to make the Organisation work more effectively.
May 10, 2007 at 4:39 pm | More on Conflict and security, Middle East and North Africa | Comments Off
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.
April 29, 2007 at 7:37 pm | More on Conflict and security, Middle East and North Africa | Comments Off
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.
The Palestinian political situation has undoubtedly been influenced by these US efforts, and those of other members of the international community which have followed a similar course during the past year. The PA government experienced deep isolation and a fiscal crisis of unprecedented seriousness. The Hamas-led PA government is out, and we now have a new National Unity government which includes both Hamas (election winners), independents, and Fatah (who lost last January). So how is Palestinian democracy faring, fifteen months after the free and fair legislative elections that brought Hamas to power?
Palestinians have probably learnt a few important things:
1. Any government that the Palestinians elect cannot deliver (or indeed survive) without international support.
2. What Palestinian politicians say is probably as important, in terms of getting international support, as what they do.
3. While Israeli violence continues, and while there is no sign of political progress, it is very difficult for any Palestinian leader to keep Palestinian violence under control.
First, any government that the Palestinians elect cannot deliver (or indeed survive) without international support: As soon as it formed a government in February 2006, Hamas was immediately faced with what Palestinians describe as a “seige”. OECD donors cut off their direct budget support and the Government of Israel ceased transfer of the VAT and cuctoms revenues that it collects on behalf of the PA. PA monthly tax revenues plummeted to less than a fifth of those collected during the previous year. The Hamas-led PA was unable to pay employees’ salaries, or support other ongoing costs such as maintenance of infrastructure or purchase of medicines. Lifting the international “seige” was one of the major incentived behind formation of the National Unity government. However, most donors have still not resumed funding to the PA because the new government contains Hamas elements and does not explicitly meet the Quartet’s so-called “conditions”. Furthermore, Israel is facing little international pressure to hand over the VAT and customs revenues, although it is legally obliged to do so. The PA therefore continues to face a fiscal crisis which, according to the World Bank, “threatens its very existence”.
Second, what Palestinian politicians say is probably as important, in terms of getting international support, as what they do: One of the major problems the international community, led by the US, has with Hamas is its refusal to state that it renounces violence as a means to resist occupation. Hamas does agree to ceasefires, and also advocates a sustained hudna (or period of calm) with Israel. It also appears to abide by these ceasefires when they have been agreed, though some claim that it just subcontracts other groups to carry out attacks during these periods. By contrast, President Abbas consistently and admirably denounces the use of violence. At the same time, the Fatah-affiliated al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades have continued to plan attacks against Israeli civilian targets throughout the past year, some of which have been successful. The actual behaviour of al Aqsa Brigades appears to have no impact on the international community’s willingness to support Fatah, including through the provision of training and equipment to Fatah-affiliated security forces.
Third, while Israeli violence continues, and while there is no sign of political progress, it is very difficult for Palestinian leaders to keep Palestinian violence under control: On the weekend before the Palestinians “broke” the most recent ceasefire by firing rockets from Gaza into Israel, Israeli forces killed nine Palestinians including a 17 year old girl, a 15 year old girl and a policeman who was on his roof and not engaged in any fighting. The IDF killed the brother of the deputy Prime Minister during a raid in Jenin yesterdy evening. These are all pretty normal events here: during 2006, 678 Palestinians, on average 57 each month, were killed in conflict related incidents. Of those killed, 127 were children. Under these circumstances it is very hard for “peace loving” President Abbas to continue to shake hands Prime Minister Olmert after their umpteenth outcomeless meeting, while maintaining his popularity among Palestinians.
Palestinians voted with great enthusiasm in January 2006, but now almost 30 percent say that they would not participate in elections if they were to be held now. People here, and throughout the region, believe that the Palestinians are still being punished for their democratic choice.
Condoleezza Rice commented in her interview last week that Hamas has not lived up to the “responsibilities that come with governing” by failing to renounce violence, so it has been unable to deliver. “So there’s a consequence to being in power and being unable to deliver”. Polls show that Hamas’ popularity has fallen slightly, so perhaps the US strategy has worked to some extent. It is hard to imagine that Palestinians see the democratic equation of delivery and popularity in quite such straightforward terms as those used by Rice, though. It is also hard to see how the experience of the past year would reinforce their faith in democratic systems as ways of promoting peaceful political change.
April 27, 2007 at 8:57 am | More on Middle East and North Africa | Comments Off
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.
The head of Shin Bet, Yuval Diskin, told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last year that the quantity of weapons and explosives smuggled into the Gaza Strip through tunnels from the Sinai since September 2005 is larger than the total amount imported since the Six Day War. Currently, he said, “anybody who wants to smuggle something through the Philadelphi route [the Egypt-Gaza border] can apparently do so”. After three to five years of this kind of weapons transfer, Diskin warned, Israel would face a threat similar to that which it faced from south Lebanon.
Weapons are not the only commodity being smuggled into Gaza through tunnels. Because the formal crossing points into and out of Gaza are almost always closed, people living in the Strip cannot export their produce (tomatoes, strawberries, flowers and so on) or import goods (like computers, for example) through them. As a consequence, everything – cigarettes, guns, televisions, women, explosives – is brought in underground. While the formal economy of Gaza has ground almost to a halt, the smuggling business is extremely lucrative: it probably costs around $10,000 to rent a tunnel for an hour. It will always be very difficult to keep the tunnels closed when there is no cheaper way to import and export goods. And while the tunnels remain open, what goes into Gaza is out of anyone’s control.
To stabilise Gaza, for the benefit of Israelis and Palestinians, a more reliable way must be found to sustain the formal economy of Gaza by regulating imports and exports. Fortunately Condoleezza Rice has already done this: in November 2005, she personally negotiated the Agreement on Movement and Access between the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. This Agreement was designed to meet both Palestinian economic needs and Israeli security concerns. The AMA was never implemented, however, partly because the Israeli side appears to be trying to use its effective control over all the Gaza crossings to “squeeze” the Palestinian population to cease rocket attacks and release the captured Israeli soldier Shalit.
It is not in Israel’s interests to leave the Gaza economy in the control of those who allow weapons to be smuggled into the Strip, along with everything else. Dahlia Itzik’s “advice” would seem a little more realistic, and a little less patronising, if Israel were doing more to implement the AMA.
April 24, 2007 at 11:07 am | More on Middle East and North Africa | Comments Off