Blocks on progress in Palestine

George Joffe

During a year of tumultuous change throughout the Middle East, the situation in Palestine seems virtually unchanged – the West Bank is still essentially under Israeli occupation, and the Gaza Strip remains unoccupied but subject to a hermetic Israeli blockade. In addition, the Quartet-sponsored peace process – of Russia, the USA, the EU and the UN – is dead in the water. 

Despite a formal reconciliation, Hamas and Fatah have not been able to agree on a unified Palestinian Authority, although there is a promise to hold new elections in 2012. Meanwhile, Mahmoud Abbas’s application to the UN for the recognition of Palestinian statehood, despite its endorsement by most members of the international community, has been greeted with hostility or indifference by major world powers. 

Palestine’s economic situation is dire – either throttled by the blockade or undermined by Israeli constraints on exports. And there is no evidence that things might improve soon, for outside powers merely want to revive a defunct peace process while Israel is unwilling to make concessions of the kind that Palestinians seek. Meanwhile, the changes resulting from the upheavals in neighbouring states have so far brought little satisfaction to Palestinians, as any potential benefits have been stifled by American hostility, European timidity and Israeli intransigence. 

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, having described the Arab Spring as “an Islamic, anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli undemocratic wave”, has refused to consider any concession to the Palestinians that might speed a return to the negotiating table. 

Quite apart from the chronic problem of an inoperable peace process, the main issue dominating Palestinian politics is the ongoing split between Fatah and Hamas, itself the result of a failed coup in Gaza in 2007, instrumentalised by Fatah’s now-disgraced Gaza security chief, Muhammad Dahlan, and the Bush White House. The outcome has been two antagonistic administrations in the West Bank and Gaza, one of them – the Palestinian Authority – no longer being legally in office, even if it still articulates administrative authority. 

Israel has maintained links with Mahmoud Abbas’s administration in the West Bank but has rejected all direct contact with Hamas in Gaza, as have the members of the Quartet. 

Even in the West Bank, all attempts at reviving face-to-face peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians have failed, despite improved Palestinian security forces and the economic successes of the technocratic government of Salam Fayyad, prime minister under President Abbas. Israel remains unwilling to accept that the expansion of settlements in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem represents a massive obstacle to peace that Mahmoud Abbas cannot overlook. 

Abbas is in a weakened political position. His formal authority as president has long expired. The degree to which his administration has been prepared to concede to Israeli demands has been embarrassingly revealed by Al Jazeera as part of the Wikileaks saga, making further progress difficult. The situation has been worsened by bungling US attempts to force Netanyahu’s hand into stopping settlement activity, although this has now been abandoned ahead of the 2012 US presidential election. 

The result, bolstered by popular pressure generated by Palestinian envy of the Arab Spring successes, has been two new initiatives by Abbas’s administration, both of which, at least in the short term, have worsened the prospects for peace.

The first has been the realisation that, without reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, no peace agreement will ever work. As a result, at the end of April, the two movements and the administrations attached to them announced that they sought reconciliation. It was to prove a long and painful process, however, as both sides were required to overcome their mutual antipathies. The Egyptian crisis hampered Egypt’s efforts to push the reconciliation process forward, just as the Syrian crisis compelled Hamas’s external wing to seek a new patron. On the other hand, Hamas’s success in mid-October in negotiating the release of 1,027 prisoners in Israel in return for Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier it had held since 2006, forced a change: Egypt brought Abbas and the Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to Cairo in November to announce that elections would take place in Palestine early in 2012. 

Tensions between the two still remain. Hamas wants the Fayyad government to go, but Abbas, mindful of irritation in Europe and the United States, refuses to concede to this, so there can be no unified government. Hamas also complains that Fatah is still harassing its militants in the West Bank. But the formal reconciliation agreement remains in force, despite Israeli anger. 

The second initiative has been the Palestinian attempt for formal recognition at the UN, despite the threats of an American veto and Israeli reprisal. The initiative, on 23 September, was put into cold storage by the Security Council, which would have to approve the request. Israel lost no time in responding with a massive extension of new settlements in East Jerusalem and by withholding customs revenue it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority and which represents half of all the revenues it receives. It was only at the start of December that arrears of $100 million were finally handed over. In addition, a General Assembly decision at the end of October to admit Palestine to UNESCO occasioned an American cancellation of its contributions to the organisation – one fifth of its total revenues – and a Congressional threat to withhold funding for Palestine. 

Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority has been hampered by its relationship with Hamas and by Israeli intransigence in the face of mounting popular empowerment throughout the Arab world. And Hamas, too, has had its problems, not least its longstanding presence in Damascus. As the crisis in Syria has worsened, its external leadership has sought a new home, now likely to be in Cairo despite onerous Egyptian demands. This has given Egypt a renewed and key role in Palestinian affairs, alongside its opening of the border with the Gaza Strip in March and its mediation of the Shalit prisoner exchange in October. 

The beginning of the reconciliation process calls into question the wisdom and viability of the continued blockade on the Gaza Strip, despite sporadic Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli ripostes. But until the Israeli government moderates its rejectionist stance, the USA abandons its partiality and European nations rediscover their own normative values, little will change. The Palestinians, alone, have no lever with which to move the world. 

About the author:

George Joffé is a Research Fellow at the Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge


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