Palestinian reconciliation update

There have been positive signals coming out of the Egyptian-mediated reconciliation talks between Fateh and Hamas.
Al-Quds al-Arabi tells us that Hamas leader Khaled Mishaal, who met with Egyptian intel chief Omar Suleiman yesterday, signaled his agreement to the main compromise (on voting rules) being proposed by the Egyptians– and that he expects the reconciliation agreement to be completed “next month.”
Well, who knows? There have been so many false alarms before regarding the imminence of this agreement.
However, this time I think Suleiman and his prez may be more motivated than they ever have before to get this agreement completed. Previously, they were really a big obstacle in getting it completed. And Egypt does sit astride the only border Gaza has that is not 100% controlled by the Israelis– Gaza’s short border with Egypt is only around 99% controlled by Israel, under various agreements pursuant to both the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979 and the Israel-PA ‘Agreement on Movement and Access’ of 2005… So Egypt also sits, in a very real way, astride the Hamas-Fateh nexus which is so central to lifting the siege of Gaza.
It’s not that, at this point, Suleiman and Pres. Mubarak suddenly want to see Hamas succeeding, or anything. But most likely they– like all Washington’s close Arab allies– are really upset by Obama’s slowness and mis-steps on the peace diplomacy and fearful of the regional explosion to which they might lead… So that may well lie behind their greater focus on succeeding in this mediation this time around.
Hamas also, pretty evidently, wants to see the reconciliation effort succeed. The pro-Hamas website PIC reported today Mishaal told a news conference in Cairo yesterday that, “there was a consensus on various issues between the Palestinian factions and the next round of the national dialog would only address some details.”
PIC also reported that a separate press release from Hamas on Monday,

    affirmed that the flexibility demonstrated by its leadership in Cairo did not mean in any way that Hamas gave up its priority represented in the release of all political prisoners from Fatah jails in the West Bank.

That was necessary because the pro-US faction in Fateh recently carried out the arrest/”kidnapping” of a significant Hamas figure from the West Bank called Abdelbasset Al-Haj.
The current Egyptian proposal seems to stipulate a postponement in the holding of PLC elections. Instead of being held in January 2010 as currently scheduled, the new round would be held “sometime in the first half of 2010.” Ma’an has a lot of other details about the Egyptian proposal, here.

MP3 audio: Who Speaks for the Palestinians?

For those who want to hear what I said in my talk on this topic September 24 at the Middle East Institute, you can now listen to it here.
Thanks to MEI President Wendy Chamberlain and vice-pres Kate Seeley for hosting the discussion– and to the other MEI staff members who worked it and then got this up onto their website so quickly.
(Can live-streaming be far behind?)

Iran sanctions and– Jerusalem

As the Obama administration prepares for next Thursday’s important P5+1 meeting with Iran, the prospects for mounting a successful sanctions campaign against Iran are being seriously undermined by the actions of the Israeli government and government-backed Jewish extremists in Jerusalem.
Today, Israeli police battled Muslim worshippers in the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary; also known as the Temple Mount) after the worshipers tried to block the entrance into the Haram of a Jewish group of unclear intentions.
The situation of the 250,000 Palestinian residents of Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem has deteriorated rapidly in recent months, and has for some time been in imminent hazard of exploding.
The latest clash may be a spark that ignites much wider tensions between Israel and Palestinians who have become increasingly frustrated over the complete lack of progress in Obama’s peace effort. One Hamas spokesman responded to the latest incident in Haram by calling on all Arabs and Muslims to “urgently act to save the holy Aqsa Mosque in occupied Jerusalem from repeated Zionist attempts to desecrate and control it.”
But even if today’s crisis is contained, the grave and continuing threats faced by the Jerusalem Palestinians, most of whom are Muslims, anyway threaten to undercut the western nations’ ability to enroll into their anti-Iran effort the many Muslim neighbors of Iran whose cooperation is essential to the success of any stepped-up sanctions.
I was recently given that warning, in just about exactly those words, by a senior diplomat from a strongly pro-US Arab nation.
“It is Iran’s neighbors who will have to implement most of the sanctions,” this envoy said. “We can’t do this if we are still arguing about Jerusalem.”
… Yesterday, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani stated quite clearly he “did not think” sanctions would work. He was also adamant that, “”Iraq will never permit any country to use Iraqi land or sky in any war and any aggression.” (HT: Paul Woodward.)
Iraq has a very lengthy land border with Iran.
And it’s not just Arab countries. Yesterday, too, prime minister Rejep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, another Muslim country that shares a land border with Iran, urged caution about stepping up the sanctions on Iran. He said that sanctions “won’t bring about anything good for the people (of Iran). So I think we have to be careful.”
Turkey is currently a member if the Security Council and is emerging as a powerful actor throughout the whole Middle East.
Now, it is true that neither Talabani nor Erdogan expressly mentioned the situation in Jerusalem as contributing to their wariness regarding the anti-Iran campaign.
But if the western nations and the pro-US governments in the region want to make a convincing case for tightening the screws further on Iran then– as the Arab envoy I talked to said quite clearly– their ability to do so is significantly weakened so long as the Israeli governmental and non-governmental bodies continue their attacks on the Palestinian community and the Palestinian Muslims’ sacred places in Jerusalem… And so long as the US government does nothing to rein in or punish Israel for those actions, which are highly prejudicial to the chances of the two-state peace to which Obama has said he is committed.
Information about the assaults that Jewish-extremist settler groups are making on the fabric and viability of Palestinian life in Jerusalem is readily available.
Haaretz’s Nir Hasson tells us today that the settler group Ateret Cohanim recently announced in a brochure that it has six properties in the Old City to sell to 22 Jewish families, “which would bring the number of Jews living in the Arab quarters of the walled city to 1,000.”
In line with the town-planning models in many Islamic cities, Jerusalem’s walled Old City has for centuries had separate “quarters”– almost literally laid out as four quarters– designated for Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Armenians. Immediately after Israel conquer East Jerusalem in 1967, it evicted all non-Jews from the traditional Jewish quarter of the Old City, replacing them with Jews.
Now, as Hasson makes clear, the next step for the settler extremists– in the Old City as in the newer (though often centuries-old) neighborhoods around it– has been to implant settlers into the heart of very long-established Palestinian Christian and Muslim neighborhoods.
The Israeli organization Ir Amim (“City of the Peoples”) has a lot of information about the situation of East Jerusalem on its website, and on the blog its supporters contribute to Huffington Post.
In one recent post there, Yizhar Be’er noted that the rightwing Jewish group Elad has been undertaking extremely incendiary excavations– under the guise of “archeology”– in extremely sensitive parts of the city including Silwan and the Old City:

    In several places, digs are being run just dozens of meters from the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Handing over the administrative keys to one of the most sensitive and volatile sites in the entire country, and possibly the world, to a political, extremist organization [like Elad] is akin to deciding to hand over the keys of the nuclear base in Dimona to Ahmedinejad and friends.
    … Thousands of Jews identify with the movement to rebuild the Temple. They gather around Succoth in the national convention center and swear to “remove the abomination” (i.e. the holiest Muslim site in Jerusalem and one of the holiest sites of all of Islam) from the premises.

I see that yesterday, Hillary Clinton urged Arab states to “provide political backing for the Palestinians to begin peace talks with Israel even if a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank is not in place.”
She held a meeting in New York yesterday with high-level representatives from the six GCC countries, Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan.
Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman told reporters afterwards, “We don’t want to have the perfect be the enemy of the good… We’re not going to wait for the perfect package before we start negotiations.”
Nobody’s asking for perfection! But people everywhere who yearn for a decent and viable end to the Israel-Palestine conflict do want to see a modicum of fairness and even-handedness in the positions adopted by the US, which still aspires to the role of lead mediator of this tragic conflict.
Clinton reportedly told Reuters that the meeting with the nine Arab state reps had been “positive and productive.”
Maybe she hadn’t been listening to Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, when he said in his address to the General Assembly,

    Unfortunately, no real results or notable signs of progress have been achieved in spite of the commendable endeavors of the United States of America (and) the evident personal desire of President Barack Obama and his team to further the peace process…
    If all of this international concern, all this international consensus and all these international endeavors have so far failed to induce Israel to honor the commitments to which it previously bound itself under the Road Map, how can we be optimistic?

Earth to Clinton and Obama: We need to see action to stop the settler-driven destruction of East Jerusalem… and we need to see it now!

Rahm Emanuel’s disturbing view of US role

Key Obama advisor Rahm Emanuel said this about Israeli-Palestinian peace and the US role in securing it, to Charlie Rose on Wednesday night:

    You can’t want this more than they want it. They have a responsibility to their people if they want to make peace and have… a two-state solution that’s based on the principles of past Israeli governments and past American presidents regardless of party have endorsed, as have past Palestinian leaders.
    They have a responsibility. We don’t have — we can’t want this more than they want it.

It’s on p.2 of the transcript there. HT: Akiva Eldar.
In terms of tired, inaccurate, and distinctly counter-productive cliches that get mouthed about Palestinian-Israeli issues, that’s not all, either. Emanuel drags out that ghastly, demeaning, and racist quote Abba Eban coined about “The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
To Charlie Rose’s credit, he does try to push Emanuel a little at a couple of points. But Emanuel generally gives only evasive answers. Here’s an example:

    CHARLIE ROSE: And we have influence with the Israeli government on the settlements question and they’re listening to what we say?
    RAHM EMANUEL: We have a very deep relationship with the government of — not just this government of Israel, but the country of Israel as it relates to its security…
    CHARLIE ROSE: Has the Netanyahu government disappointed you about what it…
    RAHM EMANUEL: No. The president was clear about the issue of the settlements.

Well, if the Prez gives much of a hearing at all to Emanuel on Israeli-Palestinian issues, which I assume he does, then this is really bad news.
Earth to Rahm Emanuel: Yes, the American people can care more about Israeli-Palestinian peace than the parties themselves. And we have a strong and direct interest in this peace process succeeding. Please stop giving a complete veto over our policy to Israel’s Likud government.
Footnote: How come, in a White House that’s usually renowned for its message discipline, Rahm Emanuel even gets to speak publicly about foreign policy issues that are not his direct responsibility?
I am very glad indeed that Emanuel gave Charlie Rose this interview, as it provides us an important window into the kind of advice he is presumably giving the president on a whole range of foreign policy issues. But in international affairs, words publicly uttered words by government officials have major consequences.
These ones certainly should.

Obama’s peacemaking pledge– to the world

Where he said it was as important as what he said.
Today, in his debut appearance as US President at the UN General Assembly, Barack Obama vowed,

    I will… continue to seek a just and lasting peace between Israel, Palestine, and the Arab world. We will continue to work on that issue. Yesterday, I had a constructive meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas. We have made some progress. Palestinians have strengthened their efforts on security. Israelis have facilitated greater freedom of movement for the Palestinians. As a result of these efforts on both sides, the economy in the West Bank has begun to grow. But more progress is needed. We continue to call on Palestinians to end incitement against Israel, and we continue to emphasize that America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. (Applause.)
    The time has come — the time has come to re-launch negotiations without preconditions that address the permanent status issues: security for Israelis and Palestinians, borders, refugees, and Jerusalem. And the goal is clear: Two states living side by side in peace and security — a Jewish state of Israel, with true security for all Israelis; and a viable, independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967, and realizes the potential of the Palestinian people. (Applause.)
    As we pursue this goal, we will also pursue peace between Israel and Lebanon, Israel and Syria, and a broader peace between Israel and its many neighbors. In pursuit of that goal, we will develop regional initiatives with multilateral participation, alongside bilateral negotiations.
    Now, I am not naïve. I know this will be difficult. But all of us — not just the Israelis and the Palestinians, but all of us — must decide whether we are serious about peace, or whether we will only lend it lip service. To break the old patterns, to break the cycle of insecurity and despair, all of us must say publicly what we would acknowledge in private. The United States does Israel no favors when we fail to couple an unwavering commitment to its security with an insistence that Israel respect the legitimate claims and rights of the Palestinians. (Applause.) And — and nations within this body do the Palestinians no favors when they choose vitriolic attacks against Israel over constructive willingness to recognize Israel’s legitimacy and its right to exist in peace and security. (Applause.)
    We must remember that the greatest price of this conflict is not paid by us. It’s not paid by politicians. It’s paid by the Israeli girl in Sderot who closes her eyes in fear that a rocket will take her life in the middle of the night. It’s paid for by the Palestinian boy in Gaza who has no clean water and no country to call his own. These are all God’s children. And after all the politics and all the posturing, this is about the right of every human being to live with dignity and security. That is a lesson embedded in the three great faiths that call one small slice of Earth the Holy Land. And that is why, even though there will be setbacks and false starts and tough days, I will not waver in my pursuit of peace. (Applause.)

This is is a good start.
It is still not enough. He needs to pledge himself not just to the pursuit of peace, but to its securing. He probably needs to move beyond the mouthing of inaccurate and formulaic “parallelisms”: equating Israel’s settlement-building with alleged Palestinian “incitement”; or the US’s previous neglect of Palestinian claims with the alleged “vitriol” of verbal attacks launched by the UNGA against Israel; etc.
Most of all, he needs to act. We need to see him throwing the whole weight of US national policy behind this vigorously pursued search for attainment of the final-status peace.
But at least, yesterday’s comments after the three-way with Netanyahu and Abbas and today’s even more significant UNGA speech are, as I said, a good start.

Obama: Peace in US interest

Finally, he said it!
Just as I and some others have been urging him to do for some time now, today Pres. Obama said this about getting a final Israeli-Palestinian peace:

    It’s not just critical for the Israelis and the Palestinians; it’s critical for the world. It is in the interests of the United States. And we are going to work as hard as necessary to accomplish our goals.

Here’s why this is important. Under both Clinton and George W. Bush, the (Dennis Ross-inspired) mantra from the White House was always “We can’t want peace more than the parties themselves!”
That gave a complete veto to whichever of the two parties wanted to block or delay the peacemaking. Which in practice was nearly always the Israelis, as they continued their drive to steal the land from under the Palestinians’ feet and implant their own settlers on it (with generous continuing subsidies from the US taxpayer, no less.)
So now, finally Obama is saying not just– as he has said for so long– “We think this is in Israel’s interest” but also “It is in our interest, as Americans!”
Which means that next time the Israeli government tries to stall and say, “Oh, we can’t do this”, or Oh, we can’t move forward because we’re concerned about that”, Obama and his people can say, “We hear your concerns. But sorry, buster, we’re pursuing our own compelling interests in this peacemaking too, and this is how we need it to proceed!”
Shocking? Not really. I mean, haven’t you heard just a few times the Israelis telling us they’re going to pursue their own interests in the peacemaking?
Now, it is true that Obama only slid that line about peace being in the US’s own interests in at the end of the remarks he made today after the “three-way” with Netanyahu and Abbas, rather than putting them more prominently at the beginning.
And it’s true that for Abbas to agree to the three-way– and even more so, to agree to send his negotiators to start the negotiations in Washington next as Obama asked him to do– marks a significant concession on his longheld previous position, given that Israel’s land-grabbing policies in East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank continue apace.
But still, as I have written a number of times, it is crucial for the final peace negotiations to get started– and even more crucial for them to get speedily and successfully finished.
And if that is to happen, then the US President needs to not only declare but also single-mindedly pursue the US’s own interest in seeing them concluded in a timely and sustainable fashion.
So today’s declaration was a good (though long overdue) start in that process.

IPS piece on Obama-Netanyahu tussle over priorities

With all the fast-moving developments of the past couple of weeks, I felt it was time to draw out the main theme behind them…. I tried to do that in my IPS piece today. It’s here— also archived here.
As I thought about it and read it, I came to the conclusion there’s good news and bad news… as reflected in the concluding two paras of the piece:

    Washington cannot get its way in international bodies as easily now as it has for most of the past 20 years. So the probability of it being able to assemble a tough coalition against Iran is anyway receding. [That’s the good news.]
    But that fact does not bring serious U.S. efforts in the peace process any closer. Indeed, by making a strong anti-Iran coalition look unachievable under any circumstances, it may even lessen the motivation of some in Washington to push hard on Israeli-Palestinian peace diplomacy. [That’s the bad news.]

Of course, as Washington’s general ability to wield power in the world community continues to recede, its ability to single-handedly defend Israel from having to be accountable to anyone else, including the whole rest of the world community, will also recede. The next five years should be interesting ones.

Gaza police and noncombatant immunity

Phil Weiss, who’s read more of the Goldstone report than I have at this point, zeroes in on the paragraphs Goldstone and Co wrote about the IDF’s killings of police officers and cadets in Gaza.
He writes,

    The mission reports that 99 policemen and 9 civilians were killed in the first minutes of the slaughter. Overall, 240 policemen were killed during the war– a sixth of the Gaza casualties. Police were “deliberately” targeted. And on what basis? Well, Israel regards the police institutionally– or in large part individually– as part of the Gazan military.
    The mission analyzed the history of the Gaza police since the Hamas takeover in 2007. While policemen were recruited from Hamas followers, Goldstone found that the police are a “civilian law-enforcement agency” and that the police targets of Dec. 27 were none of them taking part in hostilities and had not lost their “civilian immunity.” Yes “individual” policemen were surely members of armed groups and can be considered combatants. But the Israeli attacks failed to strike an acceptable balance, between anticipated military advantage of destruction and civilian damage. The great majority of these policemen were civilians. So the mission concludes,This was a violation of international humanitarian law.

Now, Phil makes some very important points in that post. But he– and we– should note that a “civilian” is not the same as a “noncombatant”.
A noncombatant is a person whom, under international humanitarian law, it is forbidden to target, and who is therefore “protected” by IHL.
This includes civilians but it also includes members of a military formation who are not currently fighting. Hence the specificity of the term “noncombatant.”
This class of persons includes all civilians. It also includes members of military formations who are “hors de combat” because of injuries– along with members of military formations who are not “on duty” in the military at the time.
It would include, for example, even senior officers in the IDF or any other military (or of Hamas’s military formations) who are off duty– sleeping in their homes, or whatever. And it includes the many members of Israel’s reserve forces who, during the Gaza war or at any other time, might have been sleeping at home and going about their normal family and professional lives.
Many members of the police force in a place like Sderot may, for example, have also been reserve officers in the IDF. But at any time that they are not actually engaged in combat as part of the IDF– or, I think, in military training, which is a preparation for combat– they are considered noncombatants, and therefore have all the IHL protections of noncombatants.
Thus, for a Gazan, simply being a member of an armed group does not make a person into a “combatant”, that is, a legitimate target of Israeli fire. Unless he is currently engaged in combat, which the cadets at a police academy graduation ceremony evidently weren’t.
That’s the great thing about international humanitarian law: it applies to everyone in the same way.
… Anyway, that’s my only quibble with what is otherwise a really excellent post by Phil.

Goldstone Commission reports on Gaza-war war-crimes

The Goldstone Commission, appointed in April by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate all violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law that were committed during last winter’s Gaza war, has now presented its findings to the Council.
Regarding actions undertaken by the armed forces of the State of Israel, the report states,

    The Mission found that, in the lead up to the Israeli military assault on Gaza, Israel imposed a blockade amounting to collective punishment and carried out a systematic policy of progressive isolation and deprivation of the Gaza Strip. During the Israeli military operation, code-named “Operation Cast Lead,” houses, factories, wells, schools, hospitals, police stations and other public buildings were destroyed. Families are still
    living amid the rubble of their former homes long after the attacks ended, as reconstruction has been impossible due to the continuing blockade. More than 1,400 people were killed during the military operation.
    Significant trauma, both immediate and long-term, has been suffered by the population of Gaza. The Report notes signs of profound depression, insomnia and effects such as bed-wetting among children. The effects on children who witnessed killings and violence, who had thought they were facing death, and who lost family members would be long lasting, the Mission found, noting in its Report that some 30 per cent of children screened at UNRWA schools suffered mental health problems.
    The report concludes that the Israeli military operation was directed at the people of Gaza as a whole, in furtherance of an overall and continuing policy aimed at punishing the Gaza population, and in a deliberate policy of disproportionate force aimed at the civilian population. The destruction of food supply installations, water sanitation systems, concrete factories and residential houses was the result of a deliberate and systematic policy which has made the daily process of living, and dignified living, more difficult for the civilian population.
    The Report states that Israeli acts that deprive Palestinians in the Gaza Strip of their means of subsistence, employment, housing and water, that deny their freedom of movement and their right to leave and enter their own country, that limit their rights to access a court of law and an effective remedy, could lead a competent court to find that the crime of persecution, a crime against humanity, has been committed.
    The report underlines that in most of the incidents investigated by it, and described in the report, loss of life and destruction caused by Israeli forces during the military operation was a result of disrespect for the fundamental principle of “distinction” in international humanitarian law that requires military forces to distinguish between military targets and civilians and civilian objects at all times. The report states that “Taking into account the ability to plan, the means to execute plans with the most developed technology available, and statements by the Israeli military that almost no errors occurred, the Mission finds that the incidents and patterns of events considered in the report are the result of deliberate planning and policy decisions.”

Regarding actions undertaken by Palestinian armed groups, the Commission found,

    [T]he repeated acts of firing rockets and mortars into Southern Israel by Palestinian armed groups “constitute war crimes and may amount to crimes against humanity,” by failing to distinguish between military targets and the civilian population. “The launching of rockets and mortars which cannot be aimed with sufficient precisions at military targets breaches the fundamental principle of distinction,” the report says. “Where there is no intended military target and the rockets and mortars are launched into civilian areas, they constitute a deliberate attack against the civilian population.”
    The Mission concludes that the rocket and mortars attacks “have caused terror in the affected communities of southern Israel,” as well as “loss of life and physical and mental injury to civilians and damage to private houses, religious buildings and property, thereby eroding the economic and cultural life of the affected communities and severely affecting the economic and social rights of the population.”

Three Israeli noncombatants and ten Israeli soldiers were killed during the war. Of the Palestinians killed, more than 1,000 were noncombatants, including more than 300 children.
Here are the Commission’s conclusion and recommendations (reformatted by me for clarity):

    The prolonged situation of impunity has created a justice crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territory that warrants action, the Report says. The Mission found the Government of Israel had not carried out any credible investigations into alleged violations.
    * It recommended that the UN Security Council require Israel to report to it, within six months, on investigations and prosecutions it should carry out with regard to the violations identified in its Report.
    * The Mission further recommends that the Security Council set up a body of independent experts to report to it on the progress of the Israeli investigations and prosecutions.
    * If the experts’ reports do not indicate within six months that good faith, independent proceedings are taking place, the Security Council should refer the situation in Gaza to the ICC Prosecutor.
    * The Mission recommends that the same independent expert body also report to the Security Council on proceedings undertaken by the relevant Gaza authorities with regard to crimes committed by the Palestinian side.
    * As in the case of Israel, if within six months there are no good faith independent proceedings conforming to international standards in place, the Council should refer the situation to the ICC Prosecutor.

What a fascinating road-map towards accountability.
Longtime JWN readers will know that I have long reflected and written about how the demands of peacemaking and the demands of seeking full accountability for past acts can best be reconciled. This is a very important case-study in this field.
Meantime, of course, if Pres. Obama is serious about his support for the human-rights agenda and for building a new, more constructive relationship with the UN, then he needs t get behind this process of holding both parties acountable.
Including, he should immediately signal to both Israel and Hamas that he will condition all future US aid to both of them on their compliance with these recommendations.