Friday, September 22, 2017

What next for the Middle East?

24 years ago this month, on September 13th 1993, the Oslo Accord was signed on the lawn of the White House in the presence of Yasser Arafat for the PLO, Yitzhak Rabin for Israel and US President Bill Clinton. It was another stage in a process of secret and public negotiations that had begun under the aegis of the Norwegians. The accord provided for the creation of a limited form of self-government for the Palestinian people and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank by April 1994 and a final agreement by February 1999.
President Clinton proclaimed: "The peace of the brave is within our reach. Throughout the Middle East there is a great yearning for the quiet miracle of a normal life.”
Almost a quarter of a century later and the hoped for miracle of a normal life seems as far away as ever, certainly for the Palestinian people. Thousands have died in the low intensity violence that has marked much of the intervening years, occasionally broken by deadly and intense Israeli assaults on the Gaza Strip.
At the same time the issue of illegal settlements has become a huge concern. In 1978 it was estimated that there were seven and a half thousand Israelis living in the west Bank. By 1997 that number had grown to 150,000. Today that figure is closer to half a million. An estimated 170,000 of them live outside of the settlements.
Last month, at an event to mark the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the west Bank Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that he would not evacuate Israeli settlements in the west Bank; “We are here to stay, forever … we will deepen our roots, build, strengthen and settle …” This week the Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman  described the occupied territories as “the State of Israel’s true defensive wall.”
I have visited the region three times in the last eleven years. During those visits I met Israeli and Palestinian representatives and witnessed for myself the tragedy and the trauma of the Palestinian people living under a permanent state of siege in the Gaza Strip. In the west Bank I spoke to Palestinian people of all ages who are desperately trying to survive in the hostile environment created by an oppressive military occupation. Their lands and water have been stolen and the monstrous separation wall cuts them off from friends and family.
In truth the peace process that was so full of hope 24 years ago seems like just a distant memory. There is no real engagement by the international community – so essential for breaking the deadlock. There is a longstanding unwillingness by the great and the good to take a stand against the countless Israeli breaches of International Law and of United Nations resolutions - even when Israeli forces deliberately destroy community, agricultural, educational or economic projects established as a result of funding from the EU and individual European states. It is estimated that over seventy million euro worth of such projects have been destroyed.
Last month Israeli forces sealed off the Jubbetal-Dib area and dismantled six prefabricated school buildings that had been largely funded by the European Union. The 80 children were due to start school the following day. Tear gas and stun grenades were used to keep residents away. This was not an isolated incident. In 2016, according to the United Nations, one thousand and sixty five Palestinian homes were demolished by Israel. So far this year 330 Palestinian structures have been destroyed. The response of the European Union and of the international community to this aggression has been muted. It is little wonder that among Palestinians there is little room for optimism.

This week the possibility of progress was given a boost with the news that Hamas has said that it is ready to open a dialogue with the Palestinian government of President Mahmoud Abbas without preconditions. Hamas also announced that it has dissolved the Gaza Administrative Committee, by which it has run the Gaza area and that it will agree to a general election. This is potentially a critical initiative by Hamas. Both it and Fatah have been at loggerheads for decades. At the weekend a senior Fatah official Mahmoud Aloul described this as a “positive sign” and acknowledged that Fatah “are ready to implement reconciliation.”

A few days later it was confirmed that a Fatah delegation, in Cairo for talks with the Egyptian government, met with Hamas. This initiative opens up new possibilities at a time when the economic, energy and environmental crisis for the two million residents of the Gaza Strip has significantly worsened. It needs to be grasped and encouraged, especially by the international community.

However, with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu pledging no withdrawal of Israeli settlements in contravention of international law, and the international community looking away and prioritising other concerns over the Palestinian/Israeli issue; it is little wonder that many are depressed about the prospects of meaningful progress toward the two state solution.

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