Palestine and the Arab Spring

Plenty of western commentators have asserted that the attention that participants in the Arab Spring have been paying to governance issues in their own countries means that somehow they no longer really care about Palestine. (A few people, most notably As’ad Abou-Khalil, have challenged that assertion. Over the past 22 months As’ad has repeatedly highlighted news items from the Arab Spring countries that clearly indicate a deep concern for Palestine.)
Right now, downtown Cairo is the scene of extremely serious discussions and clashes over Egyptian governance/constitutional issues. The fact that, at such a time, more than 500 Egyptian social activists– including several of the leaders of last year’s revolution– have taken time out to make the lengthy and very dangerous trip to Gaza to express solidarity with its people in the present crisis is very significant.
You can read a good (English-language) account of the group’s visit to Shifa Hospital, here.
Note the important evaluation voiced there by Ragia Omran, a prominent Egyptian women’s rights activist and leader in the anti-Mubarak/anti-SCAF movement last year– and today, and one of organizers of the convoy to Gaza:

    “Thank you Gaza, thank you for finally making the fragmented political public speak in one voice. Thank you for uniting us once again.
    “The pro-Palestine protests and movements in Egypt following the Second Intifada were the building blocks for the January 25 Revolution.”

Indeed they were.
Perhaps all those people in the Obama administration– which is, at this point, just about all of them–who take seriously only the views, interests, and politics of that tiny portion of Middle Easterners who are Jewish Israelis, could come up with more effective and humane policies for the region if they based their analyses instead on these few simple ideas:

  • the idea that ALL the 300 million people of the region are equally human and thus equally deserving of rights;
  • the idea that ALL the region’s countries have complex internal political dynamics that need to be understood; and
  • the idea that you can’t for long maintain a policy in the region that is based only on the (sometimes rather fanatic) preferences of just the 6.5 million Jewish-Israeli residents of Fortress Israel.

‘New’ Egypt and the Camp David accords

Despite many setbacks and roadblocks along the way in Egypt, the political situation there is still one of the most hopeful– and certainly, the most momentous– phenomena in the region. Egypt, remember, really does carry the strategic ballast of the whole Arab world. How things turn out there is central to the politics of the whole Middle East.
The formation of the new government in Cairo still awaits, apparently, the conclusion of the current intense round of negotiations between the Freedom and Justice Party (with its strong current basis of electoral legitimacy, as well as its strong nationwide grassroots organizing capacity) and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (with its weapons, its backing from Washington, and its strong nationwide military/security organizing capacity.)
Meantime, there has been some speculation about whether the new government will respect the 1978 Camp David Accords and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty that flowed from them in 1979. Most of the rationally based evaluations (e.g. here) of the FJP’s behavior conclude that an FJP-led government will not seek to exit the peace treaty (or at least, not any time soon.) However, I think much of this analysis does not go far enough in exploring two other aspects of the subject:

    1. Even though an FJP-led government may continue to abide strictly by the terms of the treaty and the accords, are there some other kinds of pro-Israeli activity that the previous Egyptian government engaged in that an FJP-led government would not, thereby constraining the freedom of action that Israel has felt that it enjoyed for most of the past 34 years?
    2. Are there steps that an FJP-led government might take, fully within the existing context of the Camp David Accords and based on them, that could actually improve the position of Egypt and other parties vis-a-vis Israel?

In both cases, I think the answer is a clear yes. In other words, the real question is not whether the new Egyptian government will keep or break the treaty, but rather what other steps might it take, without breaking the treaty, to improve the ability of Egypt and other Arabs (primarily, the Palestinians) to protect themselves from Israel’s continued encroachments on Arab lands, dignity, and freedom of decision?
Regarding #1 above, let us consider first the whole complex of active connivance with Israel and the United States that the Mubarak government engaged in, with regard to the Palestinians. The list of activities is far too long to present fully. But just in recent years we have seen active Egyptian connivance with the plot to overthrow the PA ‘government’ that was duly elected in 2006; active Egyptian connivance in the campaign to maintain an illegal blockade on Gaza and starve the 1.6 million Palestinians of Gaza into submission; active Egyptian connivance in the internationally waged campaign to allow Israel “all the time it needed” to physically batter and kill the Palestinians of Gaza into submission in 2008-2009; active connivance in all the campaigns to protect Israel from being held to account for its actions against the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Gaza, Lebanon, or Golan… etc, etc.
None of those actions were “required” under the terms of either the Camp David Accords or the peace treaty. They were actions that Mubarak and his henchman Omar Sulaiman took of their own volition, solely at the behest of the Israelis and Americans, and that the SCAF has kind of kept in place through inertia… The new government of Egypt is very likely to reconsider some of these policies.
Plus, if there were to be another sizeable Israeli assault against Palestinians in Gaza or the West Bank, would the government of the new Egypt collude with that plan in the way Mubarak/Sulaiman did in 2008? No. The freedom of action that the Israeli militarists enjoyed under Mubarak/Sulaiman has already been considerably reduced. Appropriate, in a way, to note that Sulaiman died recently: that marked the end of an era for him and for all his long-time friends.
It is when we get on to question #2 above, though, that things become even more interesting. For example, did you know that in one of the documents concluded at Camp David in 1978, Israel and Egypt agreed on:

    the construction of a highway between the Sinai and Jordan near Eilat with guaranteed free and peaceful passage by Egypt and Jordan…

(You can find the exact citation if you go that link.)
Interesting! Such a highway should be even more feasible today, now that Israel has a peace treaty with Jordan, which it did not have in 1978. This highway would allow for a stream of commercial and other non-military ground traffic (“guaranteed free and peaceful passage”) to pass between Egypt and Jordan; and therefore, potentially between North Africa and the whole of the Arab East– without Israel being to impede it or to charge duties or taxes!
Palestinians could use this highway to transit freely between Gaza and the West Bank… Oh yes, you might say, but the Palestinians were supposed to gain a large degree of freedom of movement between Gaza and the West Bank in the Agreement on Movement and Access, that was agreed among Israel, PA President Abbas, and Egypt back in 2005; and that never happened either…
Well, with a new government in Egypt, Cairo could now actively pursue both these important movement/access agreements…
There are several provisions of the main Camp David accord that also bound the government of Israel to take positive actions towards a “just, comprehensive, and durable, comprehensive, and durable settlement of the Middle East conflict through the conclusion of peace treaties based on Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 in all their parts…”
On the Palestinian front, the government of Israel and the other parties at Camp David agreed that a “self-governing authority” would be constituted in the West Bank and Gaza, and that,

    3. When the self-governing authority (administrative council) in the West Bank and Gaza is established and inaugurated, the transitional period of five years will begin. As soon as possible, but not later than the third year after the beginning of the transitional period, negotiations will take place to determine the final status of the West Bank and Gaza and its relationship with its neighbors and to conclude a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan by the end of the transitional period. These negotiations will be conducted among Egypt, Israel, Jordan and the elected representatives of the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza… The negotiations shall be based on all the provisions and principles of UN Security Council Resolution 242. The negotiations will resolve, among other matters, the location of the boundaries and the nature of the security arrangements. The solution from the negotiations must also recognize the legitimate right of the Palestinian peoples and their just requirements.

Again, it is much easier to envision this final-status negotiation happening– and succeeding–now than back in 1978. Today, we actually have:

    1. Egypt actually talking to both the Palestinian leadership and the government of Jordan, which it wasn’t in 1978;
    2. Jordan in a peace agreement with Israel already; and
    3. An “interim” self-governing authority, like the one envisaged at Camp David, already in place in the West Bank and Gaza and with a track record of 18 years behind it. (Some interim, huh?)

So the new government in Egypt might quite justifiably say something like, “Enough already with the delay! Lets get straight into that final-status peace agreement with a goal of achieving it within the 2- to 3-year period agreed to at Camp David. No more futzing around! Israel has already wasted 38 years since Camp David. And by the way none of the settlements built in the areas occupied in 1967 have any basis for legality in any international law.”
Basing its actions on international law and existing international agreements could be a formula that would be both internally and globally very astute for the new Egypt… And a game-changer for that whole “peace process” that became ossified, dysfunctional, and deeply harmful to human rights and international law sometime shortly after the Madrid peace conference of 1991, if not before.

The vulnerability of Palestinian refugees, revisited

I’m looking forward to seeing my old friend– and now Just World Books’s latest author– Jonathan Randal, who’ll be flying in to DC from Paris on Saturday. We’ve arranged for a bunch of public and less-public events for him next week, in both DC and New York. You can find the schedule for the public events here.
Please do share that with all your friends.
When I was a cub reporter in Beirut back in the 1970s, Randal was one of my mentors. By then, he was already the Washington Post’s senior foreign correspondent. He and a bunch of other senior journos came in to Beirut to cover the civil war that started there in 1975, many of them coming in almost directly from Vietnam.
He and a bunch of other journos and I worked hard to understand what was going on during the often complex and fast-moving events of the civil war. We all had our share of ducking snipers’ bullets, dealing with the facts of our own fears and mortality, and losing friends and colleagues during the war. We also had to cover plenty of the war’s atrocities. The worst one I had to cover was the Phalangist militia’s siege and final storming of the Palestinian refugee camp at Tel al-Zaatar. Phalangist militia boss Bashir Gemayyel, who led the assault on the camp, even organized a press tour of the fall camp the day after it had fallen. It was a truly sickening and very difficult trip. The Phalangist-led caravan of western journos’ cars wound its way up the hill into the remains of the camp amidst a stream of pickups and other small vehicles driven by Phalangist supporters, each of whom had a small paper that they waved to get in, which was a “license to loot”– loot, that is, the pathetic amount of personal belongings the refugees had been able to amss in their shelters there but had now been forced to leave behind.
And as those cars and pickups ground their way up the hill, they were driving right over some of bodies of refugees– mostly, women and children– who had been killed as they tried to flee the days before. And those bodies were pancaked so thin by the traffic it took me a seeing a few before I figured what they were.
Oh, and before he took the journos into the camp, Gemayyel held a little press conference in Phalangist headquarters, at which he assured us– I have my news report of this still to hand– that “I am proud of what you’re going to see inside the camp.”
… I could give ore details of what I saw (and smelled, and heard, and felt under my feet) inside the camp, but I guess you get my drift.
That was in 1976. We all reported what the Phalangists did after the fall of Tel al-Zaatar. Six years later, in 1982, I was in U.S. (but Jon Randal was still in Beirut.) In June that year the Israelis launched a large-scale assault on Lebanon, with some help from their Phalangist allies… Then, in mid-September that year, after the PLO fighters had all left the country as per an agreement brokered by Pres. Reagan’s personal envoy Phil Habib, the IDF advanced into West Beirut (quite in violation of the Habib agreement)… and then they brought Phalangist fighters in, in trucks, to “take control” of the completely undefended Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra and Shatila. The Phalangists committed their worst atrocities ever during 48 hours of killing in the camps…
There was still a fairly active peace movement in Israel in those days. As news of the Sabra and Shatila massacres emerged, the peaceniks took to the streets. They– and the mounting international diplomatic pressure on Israel– were enough to force the IDF to pull the Phalangists out of the camps and slink away. Some months later, Israel held a public inquiry into the massacres, called the Kahan Commission. Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, who was the main architect of both the war and the Sabra and Shatila actions, told the commission that he “never expected the Phalangists would behave so badly in the camps.”
What a liar.
(The commission censured him and said he should never be allowed to hold high office in Israel again. We know how that went, right?)
… Jon Randal wrote about Tel al-Zaatar, and Sabra and Shatila in a book he published on the Phalangists in 1983. I am really proud that this year, on the 30th anniversary of Sabra and Shatila, my company is publishing a new edition of the book, along with a new Preface.
This is the book that Jon will be discussing during his events in Washington DC and New York next week. Come if you can!