This month's news was again dominated by the first direct peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians in 20 months and in response to US pressure on both sides. Talks which began early in the month were overshadowed from the outset by the looming expiration of the partial freeze on settlement construction which ended on September 26th. The overwhelming scepticism of observers about the possibility for a positive outcome to talks given the asymmetry in the balance of power in favour of Israel was an echo of the outrage and fierce opposition to talks on the Palestinian street. Voicing strong reservations about negotiations, Kacel De Gucht, the European commissioner for trade came under intense fire from Jewish leaders who accused him of anti-Semitism.
A group of pro-Palestinian peace activists attempted to breach the illegal Israeli naval blockade on Gaza and the UN Human Rights Council released a damning report into Israeli conduct during its fatal assault on the 'Freedom Flotilla' in its earlier attempt to break the same blockade.
Despite talks being dominated and overshadowed from the outset by the looming end to a 10 month partial 'freeze' on construction in illegal Israeli settlements [excluding Jerusalem] and the process being viewed by Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza with cynicism, opposition and indifference, the US set a 12 month deadline for a comprehensive agreement to be achieved to cover all major issues and staking considerable political capital on talks.
The parameters of any deal are already known from previous negotiations and considered grossly unfair by Palestinians; Israel is to be given 78% of Historic Palestine as well as other areas of the West Bank, while Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and there will be no return of refugees.
Despite that negotiations were supposed to have begun without preconditions, Netanyahu has put forward several conditions for any agreement.
The huge amounts of scepticism surrounding these negotiations are based on several factors which include;
Cynicism surrounding Netanyahu's commitment to the creation of viable Palestinian state despite his assertions to the contrary. There is a lack of trust based on the well founded belief that he is taking part in negotiations simply to deflect US pressure and bide time while the viability of the two-state solution comes to an end. This is reflected in his demand that the Palestinian recognise Israel as a 'Jewish state'; they will no doubt refuse such a demand thereby relieving Netanyahu of responsibility for any failures.
A deal cannot be reached due to the asymmetry in power between the sides; Israel cannot be pressured as it has nothing to lose, moreover, the Palestinian leadership is brow beaten, divided, weak and unrepresentative. No Palestinian preconditions have been met and progress can only be made through more Palestinian concessions. This would lead to a failed deal which could set the cause back decades, destroy it altogether or lead to another uprising.
Marginalization of Gaza and its residents who view talks as insane, farcical, unfeasible, unrepresentative, and illegitimate and having no effect on the improvement of conditions on the ground. Their exclusion is seen to tie in with Israel's stated goal of creating two separate political entities as well as maintaining and extending physical separation of the Palestinian people. Many believe it is time for national dialogue and reconciliation but not for negotiating with Israel. Moreover, no deal can be reached without the inclusion of Hamas.
Obama is key to securing a deal and has the power to push one through or impose one if necessary. Indeed many believe a deal can only be achieved if it is imposed by US. However, there is scepticism about the level of his commitment given certain domestic considerations and the need to retain the Jewish vote in the upcoming mid-term elections. Obama's approach has been criticised as undistinguished from that of previous failed approaches in which the US essentially acts as Israel's lawyer.
Viewed as the litmus test of Israel's commitment to a peace agreement, Palestinians threatened to walk out of talks if an extension of the settlement 'freeze' was not extended indefinitely and an explicit moratorium on building in East Jerusalem was not achieved.
Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, called for immediate resumption of construction when the moratorium expired while others proposed a compromise in which building would resume only in the larger colonies that Israel intends to keep in any settlement deal.
Ahead of the second round of talks in Egypt, Netanyahu announced that the partial 'freeze' would not be extended thus jeopardising talks.
Obama urged for an extension many times and made a direct appeal to Israel in a speech to the UN General Assembly in which he also urged UN member states to rally behind the quest for Middle East peace. Despite his efforts, Israel refused to extend freeze which ended on schedule and construction resumed. However, Abbas did not walk out of talks as promised and instead said he would consult with the Arab League before stating the Palestinian position. Hamas called on Abbas to hold to his promise.
Related side deals
Israel sought the release of the American, Jonathan Pollard, jailed for life for spying for Israel as part of a deal in return for concessions including the extension of the 'freeze' for three more months. Netanyahu has tried to link Pollard's release to previous peace deals and it is hoped that his release will help sell concessions to right wing members of his coalition government. It is not known what response was received and Israeli officials have dismissed the prospect of a deal.
Israeli newspapers report that in a letter to Netanyahu, Obama has made a number of 'far reaching promises' to Israel in exchange for a two month extension of the settlement 'freeze'. Incentives are said to include the supply of advanced weaponry, security assurances and to suppress any future Palestinian talk of settlements outside direct negotiations. Netanyahu is said to be refusing US offers.
Manuel Hassassian and Edward Kaufman, in line with others, propose a paradigm shift on the Middle East conflict and argue that a peace agreement between the Israeli and the Palestinians could be the best way to neutralize Iran's perceived nuclear ambitions and threat. The Israelis feel that the neutralization of Iran must proceed before the stage is set for a real peace process. Concluding a regional peace with Israel would minimally allow for the long-term possibility of making the Middle East a nuclear-free zone, Israel included.
Kacel De Gucht, the European commissioner for trade and a former Belgian foreign minister sparked controversy after voicing strong reservations over the outcome of the direct peace negotiations citing the strength of the Jewish lobby on Capitol Hill. During an interview for a radio program, he also asserted that most Jews, lay and religious, held the belief that Jews are right and it is difficult to counter such a belief with rational argument or to have a rational discussion about what is actually happening in the Middle East even with moderate Jews. Jewish leaders were irate at the comments labelling them outrageous anti-Semitism and incitement against Jews and Israel in Europe. De Guch later apologised clarifying that his remarks had been interpreted in a sense that he had not intended and that there was no place for anti-Semitism in today's world.
In a report released by the UN Human Rights Council into the fatal Israeli attack on the Gaza bound 'Freedom Flotilla' in May which sought to break the blockade of Gaza, a panel of international human rights experts concluded that Israel's response was disproportionate and displayed an unnecessary level of brutality and violence which could not be justified or condoned on any grounds. There were grave violations of international and human rights law during and after the attack as well as clear evidence of wilful actions prosecutable under the terms of Article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The Israeli government was criticised for non-co-operation with the inquiry and hope was expressed that swift action be taken to help victims and that those who experienced losses be compensated adequately and promptly. Israel has dismissed findings as "politicised and extremist".
An Israeli soldier who stole equipment from the Mavi Marmari; the lead ship in the Freedom Flotilla has been charged with looting.
Renewed attempts to breach illegal Israeli naval blockade on Gaza
Another attempt was made this month to breach the illegal Israeli naval blockade on Gaza. Activists from Israel, Germany, the US and Britain set sail on from Cyprus flying the British flag as a symbolic statement. Organisers, which include the British group Jews for Justice for Palestinians which is supported by Labour leader Ed Miliband's mother, Marion Kozak, said that while they did not support Hamas, they wanted to convey that civilians in Gaza should not be punished and to show that not all Jews supported Israeli policies against Palestinians. The boat was forcibly diverted to the Israeli port of Ashdod. Israel's authorities have said that its cargo of medical equipment and children's books among other things would be conveyed to Gaza.
Party conference season in the UK
The main British political parties held their respective party conferences at the end of September through to early October. Palestine and the Middle East were discussed at all three conferences, albeit with varying degrees of prominence. The Liberal Democrats party leader and current Deputy Prime Minister of the coalition government, Nick Clegg, was arguably the least impressive of the leaders. The natural panache, which before the elections gave rise to 'Cleggmania' now seems a relic from the distant past. Clegg, who once proudly stood tall as the champion of civil liberties and human rights, snubbed his party's Friends of Palestine in favour of the Friends of Israel to show, according to some, his shift of position on the Middle East. The Labour party conference in contrast had four Palestine-themed events, which were all well attended, very often with keen attendees having to stand. More importantly, the newly-elected Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband made a welcomed appearance at the annual Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East reception where he pledged to fight for the Palestinian peoples' rights and said he would uphold his promise to visit Gaza. The Conservative party conference had one or two Middle Eastern themed fringe meetings, with the peace process being mentioned in passing in keynote speeches by Foreign Secretary William Hague and Prime Minister David Cameron; Hague also made a surprise appearance at the Friends of Israel reception where he reiterated his commitment to Israel and revealed that the Universal Jurisdiction laws would be changed to prevent international leaders from being prosecuted.
And in other news…
Britain, the US and the World
- At this year's al-Quds Day rally held in Tehran annually to show solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, urged Palestinians to continue armed resistance against Israel and labelled the US led direct peace talks "stillborn and doomed". He derided the Palestinian negotiating team as illegitimate and accused them of selling Palestinian land.
- This month saw the 28th anniversary of the 1982 massacre at the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut. For nearly three days, Israeli forces allowed their allies in the rightwing Lebanese Christian Phalange militia to enter the camps and massacre more than 1,000 Palestinian refugees and Lebanese citizens.
- Campaigners against Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, American Friends of Peace Now (APN), have launched a web and iPhone app called 'facts on the ground' that uses powerful mapping technologies which allows access to comprehensive, real-time information about Israeli settlements and to learn what is happening on the ground in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
- Nathan Kirsh, the South African billionaire and shareholder in Minerva; a property group which controls some of London's most prestigious buildings, attempted a takeover of the company this month. Kirsh is the director and main shareholder in Magal – the primary supplier of materials for the illegal Apartheid Wall in the West Bank. As a target of the BDS campaign in the US, it is feared that any takeover of Minerva could bring similar action against the UK Company.
- Following in the example of Ilana Hammerman, an Israeli Journalist whose account of a day trip to Tel Aviv with West Bank Palestinians prompted a criminal investigation against her, groups of other Israeli women have been inspired to make the same trip and challenge Israeli and laws that govern the movement of Palestinians as well as the fears Israelis have about travelling into the WB. Palestinians need permits and the penalty for not having one can be imprisonment while it is illegal for Israelis to 'smuggle' Palestinians across the 'Green Line' without a permit.
- 32 year old father of five, Samer Sirhan, was shot dead and another Palestinian man critically injured by an Israeli security guard in the Palestinian East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan. The area has been experiencing increasing and frequent tensions as the number of Jewish settlers moving into the area steadily increases coupled with plans to demolish Palestinian homes in the area to build a tourist park. Demonstrators were dispersed with tear gas and rubber bullets.
- Tasyir Hayb, the Israeli soldier convicted and jailed for shooting and killing the 22 year old British activist, Tom Hurndall, in the head as he helped Palestinian children to cross the street was freed this month. Hayb served only 6 of his 8 year sentence for manslaughter, violating orders, obstruction of justice and false testimony. Hurndall's mother has said that the British government should hold Israel accountable.