News From the Israeli and Palestinian Front: April 19th
A biweekly feature of news and opinion pieces from the Israeli and Palestinian press.
1.) Last Friday, Israel’s Housing and Construction Ministry announced its decision to build 48 new houses in the West Bank settlement of Ariel and 52 houses in the settlement of Elkana. Israel has defended the decision by noting that they will merely be a part of the existing settlement blocs and do not represent a land grab. The Palestinians aren’t buying it, however: “These plans and resolutions…really undermine the peace process,” said Saeb Erekat, Fatah’s lead negotiator. Peace Now, an Israeli organization, said that “the government is destroying the chances of reaching a settlement with the Palestinians and is turning Annapolis into an irrelevant joke.”
2.) An Israeli veterans group called “Breaking the Silence” has released a graphic report detailing the experiences of several dozen IDF soldiers serving in Hebron. Their testimonials include numerous accounts of abuse and torture. The Independent writes:
[One former solider described] the incidents in which Palestinian vehicles are stopped for no good reason, the windows smashed and the occupants beaten up for talking back – for saying, for example, they are on the way to hospital; the theft of tobacco from a Palestinian shopkeeper who is then beaten “to a pulp” when he complains; the throwing of stun grenades through the windows of mosques as people prayed. And worse.
The young man left the army only at the end of last year, and his decision to speak is part of a concerted effort to expose the moral price paid by young Israeli conscripts in what is probably the most problematic posting there is in the occupied territories. Not least because Hebron is the only Palestinian city whose centre is directly controlled by the military, 24/7, to protect the notably hardline Jewish settlers there. He says firmly that he now regrets what repeatedly took place during his tour of duty.
“Breaking the Silence” says that, by releasing this report, their goal is “to encourage a public debate about the moral price paid by Israeli society as a whole due to the harsh reality faced by young soldiers forced to take control of a civilian population.”
3.) It is often said in the Western press that Hamas is immutably opposed to a two-state solution and that it seeks the complete destruction of the Jewish state. While such a goal is indeed mentioned in the group’s 1988 charter, Hamas has also suggested in recent years that they would be willing to renounce violence and live in peace alongside Israel in exchange for a viable Palestinian state. Both Khaled Meshaal, the exiled Hamas leader, and Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of the Gaza-based Hamas government, have made a number of statements to this effect. Interestingly, as Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg notes, the offer for a long-term ceasefire (and de facto recognition) was again made earlier this month:
What would happen if Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal gave an interview and nearly no one in the West listened? Well then, it would be possible for the Israeli government and the Bush administration to continue with dead-end policies for dealing with the Islamic movement that rules Gaza, without anyone asking questions about failed strategic assumptions. Meshaal is the Damascus-based head of Hamas’ political bureau, its main leadership body. While his precise relationship with the head of the Hamas government in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, is unclear, Meshaal is normally described as Hamas’ leader.
Last week he gave an interview to Al-Ayyam, a pro-Fatah Palestinian daily. In it, he stressed that he’s still committed to the Palestinian unity agreements of 2006, the basis for last year’s short-lived Hamas-Fatah power-sharing deal in the Palestinian Authority. He reiterated that he would accept a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 boundaries — that is, alongside Israel, not in place of it — though without any commitment to recognize Israel formally. Put differently, Meshaal was saying that his organization is willing to accept the reality of Israel, even if it is not happy about doing so. He’s ready for Hamas to rejoin a unity government with Fatah — reuniting Gaza and the West Bank — and to be a silent partner while Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas of Fatah negotiates peace. He has not become a dove, but he is sidling his way toward being a pragmatic hawk.
4.) During Passover, the Olmert administration has decided to close off the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians from the two territories will not be allowed to travel into Israel.
5.) On her last visit to Israel, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was successful in getting the Olmert government to agree to remove 50 roadblocks in the West Bank. Given that the current number of roadblocks stands at around 580, such an agreement was only a modest victory. But, as former Israeli negotiator Daniel Levy reports, even these limited changes are not being fully carried out.
The IDF stated that it has removed 61 obstacles. It provided a list of those 61 to OCHA [the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] with the relevant GPS coordinates (the IDF knows that without the OCHA kosher certificate this will not be taken seriously, and yes, the IDF works with the UN). OCHA took the list and GPS coordinates and did what it does best—checked the reality on the ground.
OCHA gave an update briefing to some diplomats and others last week (partially reported in Haaretz)—it was off the record, but here are the findings: Of the 61 obstacles on the list, 44 had indeed been removed. Six were still in place and OCHA found no proof of the prior existence of the final 11 obstacles supposedly done away with. 44—not bad…except this—only 5 of those 44 were part of OCHA’s previous 580 count. How so? Well the other 39 were not considered to have been real obstacles of any relevance or significance to Palestinian movement in the first place—in fields or areas inaccessible to Palestinians or of no real affect.
6.) Former Israeli national security adviser Giora Eiland argues in Ynet News that peace with the Palestinians is virtually impossible at this time. He cites four reasons for this: “the most an Israeli government can offer to the Palestinians and still survive politically is much less than the minimum that any Palestinian government can accept and survive politically;” neither side trusts the other party’s desire or ability to implement a deal; Hamas is “strong enough to torpedo any diplomatic agreement;” and there is no chance that the small, fractured Palestinian state would ever be viewed as a viable homeland. Eiland concludes that “what is clear is that continued negotiations that cannot bring about any positive result are a waste of time at best and could lead to a third Intifada at worst.”