After the recent killing of four Israelis by (most likely Hamas-affiliated) Palestinians, Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu “promised” harsh retaliation. In fact Netanyahu’s promise was an announcement after the fact — already the Old City of Jerusalem had been closed to all non-resident Palestinians, and a hundred or more had been wounded by Israeli troops around the West Bank. This article by Adam Keller looks at the political backdrop to these events.
Sometimes, on the battlefield, a soldier takes a hand grenade and pulls out the pin but does not yet toss it.
It is possible. As long as a finger is kept on the spot, the grenade will not explode — but this is a dangerous expedient, which is very inadvisable to continue with for long. If the finger slips, or somebody jogs the soldier's hand and the grenade falls, it can explode at an unexpected place and time and with unpredictable results. And once the pin is pulled from the grenade, it is not so easy to put it back.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) went to the UN Assembly General a much-troubled man. Ten years have passed since he was elected to replace Yasser Arafat, and not much to show.
Since Abbas was elected, he had adhered to a clear and consistent position — Palestinians should avoid armed struggle, which had reached its peak during the second intifada. Acts such as suicide bombings sully the Palestinians’ international reputation and bring upon them destructive and deadly Israeli reprisals. Instead, the Palestinians should take political action, mobilise international public opinion, build up a position in international diplomatic institutions, and simultaneously conduct on the ground a popular struggle mobilising big numbers of people in demonstrations and protests, in which no violent means will be used beyond stone throwing. For ten years he led the Palestinians on the basis of this policy — with practical results on the ground remaining close to nil.
True, on the international diplomatic arena the "State of Palestine" won recognition in a great variety of international forums, culminating in this week’s ceremony of raising the Palestinian flag, among the flag of all the other nations, in front of the UN headquarters in New York.
In principle, the Palestinians posses a far stronger international diplomatic recognition than the Zionist movement had in the aftermath of the Balfour Declaration, which promised no more than "a Jewish National Home" whose precise nature remained unclear.
However, also to the thousands of Palestinians gathered in Ramallah to view the New York flag raising ceremony in huge TV screens it was clear that as of now, it is a virtual state, whose presence in the world of diplomacy sharply contrasts with its absence in reality on the ground. Over his ten years in office, Abu Mazen was unable to change in any significant way the situation in which the Palestinian Authority exercises and extremely limited degree of control over a string of narrow enclaves surrounded by Israeli military forces and ever- expanding settlements. To this should be added the deep divisions among the Palestinians themselves, between Fatah and Hamas, West Bank and Gaza Strip. All attempts to bridge over these divisions and establish a united Palestinian government ended in dismal failure.
Among Palestinians, there is a growing discontent with the status quo, especially against the "security cooperation" between the security services of the Palestinian Authority and those of Israel. Two weeks ago, there was widespread protest following the publication of videos showing Palestinian Police in Bethlehem beating up a Palestinians boy during an attempt to prevent demonstrators from getting to the Israeli Separation Wall surrounding the Tomb of Rachel — to hold a protest there. Increasingly, Palestinians feel that continuation of the status quo serves the Israeli side, the Palestinian Authority providing a force of subcontractors who "manage the occupation" and who facilitate the appearance of "Palestinian self-rule" which reduces criticism of ongoing occupation. One of the most prominent advocates of dismantling the Palestinian Authority and "handing the keys to Israel" is none other than Saeb Erekat, one of Abu Mazen’s closest aides and advisers (who headed the negotiating team with Israel, as long as there were negotiations...) .
As soon as Abbas let it be known that he was planning to "throw a bomb" during his speech at the UN. Immediately, European and American diplomats came rushing to restrain him. But from what was leaked to the media, they did not have much to offer. Reportedly, Secretary of State Kerry promised an emergency aid of 300 Million Dollars, which would keep the Palestinian Authority alive but would in no way change the underlying conditions. And in his own speech at the UN, President Obama did not mention the Palestinians at all — nor did Russian President Putin.
Until the last moment it was unclear what exactly Abbas would say in his speech. The first twenty-five minutes of it he devoted to rhetoric which sounded very similar to what he said on previous years. Railing against the iniquities of the occupation, particularly the offensive of Israeli extremist groups against the Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem, and the killing of an entire Palestinian family in the arson of their home at the village of Duma. This was followed by compliments to the European Parliaments which recognised Palestine in the past year, most especially to the government of Sweden, as well as to Pope Francis who had canonized two Nineteenth Century Palestinian nuns. There was also a quote of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (of whose assassination the twentieth anniversary will soon be marked) who said that if Israel remains in the Occupied Territories it will become an Apartheid state.
An editor at CNN evidently reached the conclusion that he was not going to say anything of practical significance, and that there was therefore no point in continuing to broadcast the entire speech live with a simultaneous translation. This was a mistake — because just after the live broadcast on CNN ended, Mahmoud Abbas at last got to his "bomb" — just in time caught on Al-Jazeera.
"Continuation of the status quo is completely unacceptable because it means surrender to the logic of the brute force being inflicted by the Israeli Government (...). The transitional Oslo Agreement stipulated that the agreements would be implemented within five years, ending in 1999 with full independence for the State of Palestine and the termination of the Israeli occupation. But Israel stopped the process of withdrawing its forces. (...) We will not remain the only ones committed to the implementation of these agreements, while Israel continuously violates them. We therefore declare that we cannot continue to be bound by these agreements. (...) I must reiterate: the current situation is unsustainable. Our people need genuine hope and need to see credible efforts for ending this conflict, ending their misery and achieving their rights. The State of Palestine, based on the 4th of June 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, is a State under occupation, as was the case for many countries during World War II. Our State is recognised by 137 countries around the world and the right of our people to self-determination, freedom and independence is recognised globally as being inalienable and unquestionable. Either the Palestinian National Authority will be the conduit of the Palestinian people from occupation to independence - or Israel, the occupying Power, must bear all of its responsibilities."
In principle, here are — but no date set for implementation — all of the measures discussed and debated in recent months, from the cessation of security cooperation with Israel up to a complete dissolution of the Palestinian Authority, handing over the keys to Israel and demanding that it fill its obligations as the Occupying Power. Options with a very volatile potential. What would tens of thousands of armed members of the Palestinian Security Forces do when no longer required to prevent their own people from acting against Israel? What if the Palestinian security forces are completely disbanded, their members dispersing, holding on to their weapons but getting no salaries? And what would happen to the Palestinian health services and schools without a Palestinian Authority to manage them and pay the doctors and teachers’ salaries? Would Israel, as the Occupying Power, assume this financial and administrative burden — as was the situation until the Oslo Accords? And if Israel will not, who will?
A lot of questions, a lot of troubling scenarios. There is no doubt that in any situation of chaos, the first to suffer would be the Palestinians themselves.
But, sometimes, the willingness to suffer is a way to accomplish. That is what hunger strikers do — cause harm to themselves in order to get attention to their grievance. As it happens, just this week the famous hunger striker Mohamed Alan won his prolonged struggle, with the State of Israel agreeing to release him from Administrative Detention — along with two others of his fellow hunger strikers as well. But to achieve this, Alan had to skirt very close to suffering irreversible brain damage.
On a larger scale, chaos in the West Bank may force the Americans and the Russians, currently focusing on solving the crisis in Syria, to pay similar attention to the Palestinian crisis.
It is clear that the Palestinian President really does not want such scenarios to be actually enacted. He still hopes that to have placed the threat on the international agenda would be enough; that diplomats and politicians would mobilize and devote to the Palestinian problem more than lip service; that the Palestinian National Authority would indeed become the conduit of the Palestinian people from occupation to independence — and that the bomb would not have to be actually set off. But the decision might not remain in his hands.
One day after Abu Mazen's speech at the UN, some armed Palestinians went in a car on a road used by Israeli settlers in the Nablus area. They passed a car in which a couple of young settlers were travelling with their four children, and opened fire. The couple, Naama and Eitam Henkin, were killed on the spot. Their children, who were in the back seat, were not injured. And today the situation heats up with acts of random revenge by settlers, and violent demonstrations by right-wing extremists, and the arrival of large military reinforcements, and Palestinian villages being surrounded and subjected to extensive searches. Fiery declarations were made to a crowd of thousands at the funeral of the couple ("The war on terror demands determination, an iron fist and a lot of endurance. We are fighting a bloodthirsty and ruthless enemy, we will chase after them, we will not rest until we lay hands on the murderers and those who sent them" said the Defence Minister).
The settlers and their representatives in the Netanyahu government — and there are many of these - are trying to change the status quo - in their direction. They demand "a disproportionate punishment " of the Palestinians, the blocking of Palestinian traffic from the roads, and above all settlement construction - extensive new construction in existing settlements plus the creation of a new settlement at the very spot where the couple was killed. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home Party, declared that in his view "Israel has no interest in the continued existence of the Palestinian Authority".
In the meantime, the conflagration continues in Jerusalem, where once again the entry of Muslim worshipers to the Al-Aqsa Mosque was restricted, and those who were denied entry clashed with police in the nearby streets. Also in Issawya, one of the perennial "hot spots" of East Jerusalem, a large crowd confronted the police. "A young man who tried to throw a Molotov cocktail was shot by police officers below the waist. His fellows spirited him away. The police are now conducting searches to find and apprehend him" was the on the spot report of the evening TV news, which then went on to the extensive clashes in Hebron. The commentator spoke of "typical intifada images" — stone throwing, exploding tear gas canisters and burning tires.
As of now, the Palestinian security services did not yet get any instructions for a change of policy. They continue to maintain security cooperation with Israel. The finger is still on the grenade.