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Palestinian options

As Israel’s annexation plans for the West Bank are due to commence this week, Palestinian experts and diplomats offer opinion on how to respond

Bassem Aly , Tuesday 30 Jun 2020
Palestinian options
Palestinians wave national flags as they attend a rally against Israel’s West Bank annexation plans (photo: AFP)
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The hour of decision has arrived. 1 July is the date by which Israel was due to start the process of annexing new parts of the occupied West Bank. The annexation issue is not breaking news anymore: the world has been expecting it for months by now. Instead, it is the Palestinian reaction to it that is worth discussing. Palestinian experts and diplomats, however, do not share consensus on how to react to it.

For Barakat Al-Farra, former Palestinian ambassador in Cairo and ex-representative at the Arab League, Israel is “unlawfully taking territories from the Palestinian state and disregarding all international resolutions and previous conclusions of the peace process”. Al-Farra said that Israel plans to annex 30 per cent of the West Bank. This means that the Palestinians will now have no hope for establishing a state on the basis of pre-1967 borders, he said.

The veteran diplomat expects that — although the Palestinian leadership and President Mahmoud Abbas remain committed to peaceful and diplomatic means to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue — the revival of Palestinian armed resistance is very likely, although the initial Palestinian reaction to annexation may continue to be peaceful.

“Israel left the Palestinians with no other option. It refuses to be a state with fixed borders, and their expansionist plans are known to the whole world,” stated Al-Farra, hoping for both official and “popular” responses from the Arab world. He added that although Israel’s partners in the coalition government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and leader of the Blue and White Party Benny Gantz agree on annexation “as a principle”, they disagree on how to implement it.

In the past weeks, protests were seen in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank against Israel’s anticipated move. Gaza, meanwhile, was attacked by the Israeli air force after rockets were launched towards Israel. Israel said the rockets came from the coastal enclave. Hamas, which fought against Israel more than once in wars that destroyed much of Gaza and caused severe humanitarian and economic crises for its people, warned that the annexation of the West Bank would be a “declaration of war”.

However, Nadia Naser-Najjab — a scholar of Palestinian studies at the University of Exeter — argues that the cost of violence is much higher than its gains. Naser-Najjab, who previously lived in the West Bank, said that the “militarisation of armed resistance has historically given Israel a pretext to persuade the world that it is fighting against terrorism”. “The Palestinians are much weaker than Israel. It became easier for Sharon and Netanyahu to convince the world the Palestinians want to kill the Israelis, especially that Palestinian armed operations in the past targeted Israeli civilians,” she said.

Naser-Najjab was mainly talking politics. She highlighted the importance of finalising Palestinian reconciliation, democratically building the institutions of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and economically punishing Israel through boycotting its products as the best possible means to counter Israeli pressures.

“Oslo enhanced Israeli territorial plans, just with Palestinian official approval; the settlements continue to be built despite all international resolutions, and the international community never intervened since 1967. So why would it intervene now? We (Palestinians) are not taken seriously by Israel, the Americans and the world because we are divided. Israel, for example, never took Fatah and Hamas security cooperation seriously because it knows we will have divisions at the end,” Naser-Najjab explained, adding that Israel — unlike the Palestinians — does not wait on the money of international donors and “has control over everything”.

“We have the wonderful experience of the first Intifada. It was peaceful and Israel felt then that it cannot do anything to stop it,” said Naser-Najjab.

It can be argued that the highest extent of pressure felt by Israel in recent weeks came through non-violent channels. Officials from Russia, China, the Arab League, the European Union and their member-states severely criticised the annexation plans of Israel. Only the US administration of Donald Trump, through its controversial peace plan, continues to support Israel.

For the first time ever, Yousef Al-Otaiba — the Emirati minister of state and its ambassador to the United States — wrote an op-ed piece for Ynet news, warning Israel that normalising relations with the Arab world is threatened by its annexation moves. “Normal is not annexation. Instead, annexation is a misguided provocation of another order. And continued talk of normalisation would be just mistaken hope for better relations with the Arab states. In the UAE and across much of the Arab world, we would like to believe Israel is an opportunity, not an enemy. We face too many common dangers and see the great potential of warmer ties. Israel’s decision on annexation will be an unmistakable signal of whether it sees it the same way,” Al-Otaiba wrote in the Israeli newspaper.

Zaha Hassan, ex-coordinator and senior legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team during Palestine’s bid for UN membership, believes that unrest is inevitable, especially in light of Israeli escalation.

“There is already unrest taking place — unrest never stopped. Home demolitions, olive trees set ablaze, unarmed Palestinians shot by sniper fire in Gaza; that is unrest, isn’t it?

“The Palestinian Authority will not be playing the role it has played to quell demonstrations and protests against Israel. As Israel continues to push Palestinians out of East Jerusalem and begins to build walls and barriers around Palestinian communities to the east inside the West Bank, there will undoubtedly be mass resistance which will be joined by the already encapsulated Gaza Strip. There is large support for this among Palestinians in the occupied territories,” said Hassan.

“Prior to 1948, 96 per cent of the land within Mandatory Palestine was owned by Palestinians. Today, inside Israel, Palestinians own less than six per cent of the land. That didn’t happen by accident; it happened by Israel passing laws that dispossessed both Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinian refugees who were not allowed to return to their homes and property. Since 1967, Israel’s focus has been on colonising the West Bank. All that will change now is that the US government will be giving its stamp of approval to Israel’s systematic effort to ethnically cleanse historic Palestine of its indigenous population,” said the Carnegie scholar who was a member of the Palestinian delegation to Quartet-backed talks in 2011 and 2012.

Trump’s plan peace recognises Jerusalem as “Israel’s eternal and undivided capital”. It also gives Israel absolute security control over the occupied Palestinian territories and a Palestinian capital in only East Jerusalem’s northern and eastern areas.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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