Ramallah – Palestinian Authority de facto capital city – quiet during Eid

As Ramallah prepared for the Eid al-Adha (Muslim holiday), boxes of oranges appeared along the sidewalks and streets outside shops selling fruits and vegetables.  The oranges also ripened on trees planted years ago, here and there in small private yards around individual stone houses in central Ramallah, a colorful contrast to their deep green leaves after the occasional recent winter rains have washed the summers’ dust off the foliage.  There is otherwise an almost total absence of any public floral decoration in Ramallah, at any time of year – and, by contrast with East Jerusalem, relatively very few colored lights hung on the streets or displayed in the windows of indiv idual homes or apartments for the Muslim holiday.

Palestinian TV this week has been showing lengthy footage of the travels of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas continuing his week-long trip through Latin America.  But the top news story was the progress of Muslim pilgrims making the Hajj in Saudi Arabia.  Abbas, in Chile, was still talking about the Goldstone Report, justifying what almost everybody else believes was a catastrophic insensitivity to the impact of what was apparently a casual decision to defer consideration in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva until March 2010 – and then backtracking, in response to the public outcry that Abbas said he bitterly resented, but apparently without fully absorbing or even comprehending.

Even before, Fatah loyalists complained that Abbas was spending two-thirds of his time away from the Palestinian territory, visiting world capitals.  Palestinians at every level are decrying the absence of leadership – and waiting passively either for the deliverance they demand from the occupation, or for the next catastrophe.

What remains, in the President’s absence, are two large new billboards on Irsal Street, imprinted with full-color Presidential photographs – one covering the entire side of a multi-story office building, which shows a smiling Abbas in a dark grey suit walking on a paved garden path with rose bushes lining either side.  Abbas has certainly seen them – they’re impossible to miss, and his convoy passes by several times a day, when the President is in town – but he hasn’t ordered their removal, in contrast to what he did on his birthday last July, after Palestinian security officers were seen in the early morning all over town putting up smaller presidential portraits, then soon afterwards obeying new orders, following the President’s expression of displeasure, to take them down.

UPDATE:  The large poster of Abbas walking down the garden path between the rose bushes has been removed, and replaced with a full-color, four-story high poster for XL, an energy drink…

Two recent rare Presidential visits out of Ramallah, to Jenin and to Hebron, did little to change the public mood.  Palestinian television showed crowds of bussed-in supporters, including large groups of schoolchildren, waving small Palestinian flags and wearing yellow Fatah baseball caps and narrow kuffiyeh-print fabric draped around their necks.  The events were rebroadcast at length on Palestinian Television.

Palestinian security was omnipresent – those closest to the President wear business suits and talk into devices discretely positioned somewhere in their clothing.  Black-uniformed and heavily armed special forces ride in the open backs of black trucks, some manning large automatic weapons mounted on the cabs of the trucks.  Guards in camouflague are posted all along the length of streets that are closed to traffic, with a lot of urgent blowing of horns and orders blared over microphones in advance of the movements of the

Presidential cavalcade, now numbering some 15 vehicles, with an ambulance on the back, and the presidential sedan (which changes) is flanked front and back by two black-windowed black vans bristling with crowns of communications and other antennas on their roofs.  Neighbors complain this causes interference with their satellite TV reception.

The Israeli press has reported – and unnamed Palestinian officials have denied – that (as the Jerusalem Post’s Defense Correspondent Yaakov Katz recently wrote) “whenever PA President Mahmoud Abbas travels outside of Ramallah to another Palestinian city, the IDF, Shin Bet and Civil Administration are all involved to coordinate and ensure his safety”.   An Israeli military official told Katz that “When Abbas travels it is like a military operation … Everyone is involved since the PA forces cannot yet completely ensure his security”.

Meanwhile, a newly-outfitted group of Palestinian security forces, in olive green uniforms with olive green combat helmets, elastic bands around the lower legs of their pants, and big black weapons were posted at major traffic intersections in Ramallah during the Eid (holiday) period.  They bore an eerie resemblance to American troops patrolling in Iraq.

Very close to offices and homes in central areas of the PA’s de facto capital, Israeli settlements sit on a number of nearby hilltops.  The Israeli military’s Beit El “Civil Administration” headquarters, a British Mandate era position, is not more than a kilometer away from President Abbas’ red-tiled villa.  Not far from Abbas’ house in the other direction, is the Israeli residential settlement of Beit El, encroaching on the open ground closer and closer to the Jalazone refugee camp.  Nearly a dozen Palestinian adolescents have been shot over the past year in or just outside the refugee camp – and some died, causing heartbreak for individual families but little public outcry.  Israeli security forces say they suspected these youths of preparing attacks on the settlement.

But, this week, shops nearby the Palestinian Authority ministries were filled with employees of the bureaucracy, crowding the cash registers to pay for quantities of small and cheaply-produced ceramic coffee cups packed in satin-lined presentation boxes, in preparation for the hospitality they are required and want as a matter of pride to extend in response to socially obligatory visits, first from close family members, then on subsequent days from friends and acquaintances, as life goes on during the holidays.

Remains of Alec Collett found in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley

This is an ugly and traumatic story.

Alec Collett, a former colleague accredited as a journalist at UNHQ/NY in the early to mid-1980s, was one of those internationals kidnapped during the long Lebanese civil war.  Alec was taken from a car near Beirut airport in March  1985, while on a temporary assignment for UNRWA in Lebanon.  The car’s driver was also seized, but later released

After the U.S. attack on Libya in the spring of 1986, there were reports that those holding Alec had executed him in retaliation. A video was released, showing his body hanging from the limb of a leafy tree.

But, for unclear reasons, the UN did not want to acknowledge Alec’s execution. The UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, expressed anger but offered no explanation when asked directly by this journalist — at the time, the President of the UN Correspondents Association (UNCA) why the UN was not accepting the reports of Alec’s death.  UNCA issued a statement condemning the reported execution, and asking for a prompt return of the body, to help ease the anguish of Alec’s family.

Though there was no apparent reason to disbelieve the claims about the execution, nothing was entirely sure about Alec’s fate until this week, when British DNA tests reportedly conducted in London confirmed that a body unearthed recently in the Bekaa Valley by a British forensics team was, indeed, that of Alec Collett.

Photo from Daily Mail - Officials inspect the place where the remains of Alec Collett were found

[Months before the execution, as the BBC reported in a profile published on their website, “the United Nations Correspondents’ Association … made him [Alec Collett] their honorary president, a title he has retained ever since”… The BBC report, posted here, is wrong in a couple of respects, including these: (1) the decision to name Alec as “honorary president” of UNCA was taken at the end of 1985, and not in 1986; UNCA is not, as the BBC wrote, an “organisation for journalists based around the world” — it is an organization for journalists accredited to UNHQ in New York. And, this decision, taken at the urging of some colleagues, was not popular with all of the journalists. Some, who had not hesitated to use his captivity for their own political purposes in the UNCA elections held at the end of 1985, were nevertheless opposed to making Alec Collett “honorary president” on the grounds that (as they argued) he had been on a temporary assignment to UNRWA, and not working strictly as a journalist, at the time he was kidnapped …]

The Times of London reported on 19 November that “Seven British police officers and two forensic archaeologists are excavating near the village of Aitta al-Fuqar in the Bekaa Valley. It is the site of a base belonging to Fatah — the Revolutionary Council. The radical and violent Palestinian group was led by Sabri al-Banna, better known as Abu Nidal.  The team found two bodies, one of them an unidentified man who was first found during an earlier attempt to find Mr Collett 11 years ago. It was reinterred by Lebanese authorities. The second body is undergoing DNA tests to discover if it is Mr Collett.  Lebanese troops have sealed off the site to reporters and onlookers”.  This report can be found here

A second report by the Times of London, published on 24 November, said that “The UN confirmed yesterday that remains unearthed by British investigators in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley are those of Alec Collett, a British journalist kidnapped in 1985 and killed a year later. A spokesman said that Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary-General, while saddened by the news, ‘hopes the actions taken to find his remains can provide a measure of comfort to his loved ones’. The remains were identified with the help of DNA tests conducted in London by the Metropolitan Police. Collett, who was 64 when he was abducted, was on assignment with the UN reporting on Palestinian refugees in April 1985. He was kidnapped by Fatah Revolutionary Council, a radical Palestinian group headed by Abu Nidal. Collett is survived by his wife, Elaine, who also worked for the UN and lives in New York. Last week’s search was the fourth attempt in 11 years to recover his remains. The hunt had been narrowed to an isolated military base, once run by Abu Nidal militants, between the village of Aitta al-Fukhar and the Syrian border. The camp consists of a handful of derelict single-storey concrete buildings scattered on the slopes of a steep rocky valley. The walls of one abandoned building were daubed with sketches of the huge wooden water wheels in the Syrian city of Hama, and of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, and his father Hafez al-Assad. The camp housed a small detachment of Syrian troops until 2005. One of the buildings was half-buried beneath bulldozed earth and rock for protection against attack, and it was here that Mr Collett spent his last weeks in captivity. The cell block consisted of three small rooms and a simple latrine. The doors and any furniture and fittings inside the cramped building long ago disappeared and today it appears to be a shelter for goats that scramble over the surrounding slopes. Mr Collett’ fate was sealed after US aircraft bombed Tripoli, in Libya on April 15, 1986. In retaliation, eight days later, the Libyan-backed militants took Mr Collett from his bleak cell and hanged him, then shot him in the back of the head — according to a Palestinian eyewitness whose testimony in 2005 provided additional confirmation that the British journalist had been buried on the site. A team from the Metropolitan police counterterrorist department and two forensic archaeologists began excavating a section of the camp on November 14. A digger scraped away the surface layer of stony soil, then investigators worked the ground by hand. Small red flags marked the spot of each dig. The operation was conducted amid tight security, with Lebanese troops keeping reporters and onlookers away, but The Times was able to gain access to the site. ‘We looked for signs of disturbance in the soil and focussed on those areas’, said one of the investigators. Two bodies were discovered. One of them was that of a suspected Palestinian militant whose remains were first uncovered during an earlier search for Mr Collett’s body in 1998, and subsequently re-interred by Lebanese authorities. The second body was that of Mr Collett, the bullet hole in the skull convincing the investigators that they had found their man pending the final result of the DNA tests”. This Times of London report is posted here

While the Times of London report, above, said that “Last week’s search was the fourth attempt in 11 years to recover his remains”, a BBC report here said that the UN “tried three times between 1995 and 2000 to find his body and there have been numerous false alarms”.

Two UN officials were trying to get Alec Collett’s release much earlier — in the months immediately after his abduction, and after the reports of the execution: Perez de Cuellar’s aide Gianni Picco, who got involved in some of the hostage negotiations as part of larger regional efforts, and the Lebanese-Palestinian information official, Samir Sanbar. They operated, apparently, on different tracks. I was also told, at the time, that the high-ranking British UN official Brian Urquhart, was also involved on another separate track. And, UNCA made several quiet attempts, at the time, to contact various personalities in Lebanon to seek their help, without result…

My friend and mentor Promeneur, who did not speak to me for more than a year because of the UNCA election and its results, wrote me this week from London and said: “They did the DNA and yes it’s Alec. Any suggestion how I might contact Elaine? She with the UN still I wonder? Gosh their son will be in his mid-30s … and Alec he would now be 87 I think I got that right, double-gosh … Turns out it was … a retaliatory gesture after Reagan bombed Tripoli (remember how it was timed to run live on the 10 o’clock news) … otherwise they figure he was about to be released. All those years I’d imagined it must have been a Lebanese group, reasoning that Alec’s strong PLO sympathies must have tripped him up. Then I reasoned that he wouldn’t have lasted long without his medication – he had diabetes and other stuff, but no seems they did hang him. A guy doing life in the US has given an eye-witness account. The assignment had been a gift from UNRWA who knew how broke he was – it was going to clear his credit card debts etc.”…

More news: IDF schedules 213 truckloads of basic goods to go to Gaza today

This, Madame Secretary [Hilary Clinton], is positive reinforcement:  when the IDF, exceptionally, schedules over 200 truckloads of what they call “humanitarian aid” — really, the most basic goods — to enter Gaza, it is worth writing about.

This is the third time in the past two weeks that we’ve had such an astonishing development.  It is the third time since 19 September 2007 that over 200 truckloads worth of goods have been permitted to enter Gaza from Israel.  Since the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead last winter, nearly a year ago (27 December – 18 January), anything approaching 100 truckloads a day has been good news.

We previously posted about this (so far publicly unexplained) new development on 16 November here and again on 19 November here. Usually, there is a temporary liberalisation of the draconian sanctions regime when there is strong international pressure from the right quarters. This time, there may also be other (so far unclear) reasons…

However, before the Hamas rout of Fatah/Palestinian Preventive Security Forces in mid-June 2007, the daily average was 400 to 600 truckloads per day…

This is not, however, “humanitarian aid” from Israel — it is, perhaps, partly including aid from international organizations and non-governmental organizations.  But it is also normal consumer goods purchased by the Palestinians themselves (some from the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, and quite a lot purchased by Gaza merchants themselves, through orders corrodinated with the PA in Ramallah.

But it is designed to prevent a “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza — which some have said has been in place for the past two years or more, and what is now being prevented is a “humanitarian catastrophe”.

The important thing here is that the  Israeli Supreme Court  told the IDF, in its final ruling on the matter after a lengthy court battle led by a grouping of Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations — that preventing a “humanitarian crisis” is a requirement for maintaining the policy of sanctions or blockade that the IDF has been authorized by the Israeli government to impose on Gaza… and the IDF has been doing so without any other effective Israeli government oversight.

The 1.5 million inhabitants of Gaza have been basically locked into the Gaza Strip since Israel’s unilateral “disengagement”  that removed some 8,000 Israeli settlers and the Israeli soldiers protecting them, which was completed by September 2005.

The policy of tightened sanctions was imposed by the Israeli Military in October 2007, and has been in effect, by what looks like not much more than whim, since then, including during and after the three-week IDF military offensive last winter.

And, of course, there is another side to this policy of allowing “humanitarian aid” into Gaza: Haaretz reported yesterday that “Israel Air Force planes struck targets in Gaza early Sunday, wounding seven Palestinians, medical workers said, a few hours after Hamas said militant groups in the coastal strip had agreed to halt cross-border rocket fire. An Israel Defense Forces spokesman said the strikes were in response to a rocket attack Saturday by militants in the Hamas-ruled Strip. He said they had targeted two factories in the central and northern Gaza used to make weapons and a smuggling tunnel under the border with Egypt”… This Haaretz article can be read in full here.

For, we should remember that we are talking about 1.5 million people, at least three-quarters of whom are refugees, who are not where they are by choice, and who are locked into one of the most densely populated places on earth…

The Israeli military and the IDF are just lucky that there has not been a full-blown catastrophe so far… the line is fine, and human lives are fragile…

Fatah prisoners in Israeli jails acknowledge Abbas' decision not to contest next elections

Fatah activist Qaddura Fares, chairman of the Palestinian Prisoners Club (a support group), said today in Ramallah that he had received a communication from the Fatah prisoners in Israeli jails in which they acknowledge the recent announcement by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) not to run in the next elections.

Abbas himself made the official announcement, on 24 October (starting the clock on the required three-month time limit), decreeing that presidential and parliamentary elections would take place 24 January. Then, on 5 November, he announced he would not run.

Then, last week, Abbas endorsed the announcement by the Palestinian Election Commission that, with the current situation in Gaza being what it is, it would not be possible to hold elections on the specified date.

[The Associated Press reported today, here, that “The Election Commission said Friday it would meet in December to set a new date”.]

Qaddura Fares said that the prisoners suggested that as long as Abbas is still in office, he should devote at least part of his time to continuing to look for a way out of the current difficulties facing the Palestinian leadership and people.

“We do not elect leaders to serve only in good times, or when things are going well”, Qaddura Fares said. “They must also be leaders in bad times, and when thing are not going so well”.

He said that it was good that the President had finally recognized that years of negotiations with Israel had lead nowhere, but it was now important to help the people know what to do next.

Asked who had put up the two enormous posters of Abbas on Irsal street — where Abu Mazen could not fail to see them at least twice a day when he is in Ramallah, on the way to and from his office in the Presidential Compound, the Muqata’a — Fares at first said that he did not know. Then he indicated that he believed people around Abbas were responsible.

[On Abbas’ birthday last July, witnesses saw uniformed security officers putting up smaller posters of Abu Mazen all over town. They were torn down shortly later, on Abbas’ orders — what has changed now?]

What have we come to, Fares asked, when the Mukhabarat (intelligence service) that is supposed to be protecting the nation, is instead spending hundreds of thousands of shekels on the posters and on busses bringing Palestinians from far corners of the West Bank into the Muqata’a last week to ask Abbas to stay in his job, during the ceremony commemorating the fifth anniversary of Arafat’s death. Fares said he did not attend.

“We used to think we were democratic, a democracy”, Abbas said. “Now, we’re becoming just like all the Arab regimes” — making a cult of the leader.

He added, “We have a saying in Arabic: a man who hates cannot be a leader. A leader must be tolerant”.

Asked about media reports about a massive prisoner release as part of an exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, Qaddura Fares said, “I don’t know that it will happen by next Friday (27th February). But it will happen by the end of the year”. He said that the negotiations had made good progress, after the Israelis had tried everything else, without success — including last winter’s military operation against Gaza, attempts to capture Hamas leaders to use as hostages to leverage an exchange, attempts to improve their intelligence about where Shalit is being held and more.

Asked about reports that the U.S. had put big pressure on Israel to agree on the exchange deal, Qaddura Fares said he had not heard any such thing.

Separately, AP reported that “Hamas announced Saturday evening that it has reached an agreement with other militant groups in Gaza to stop firing rockets at southern Israeli towns to prevent retaliatory attacks”. Other reports indicated that the agreement in Gaza specified that rockets would only be fired in response to Israeli military attacks. AP noted that “Hamas has mostly refrained from firing rockets since January when Israel ended a three week offensive in Gaza aimed at stopping almost daily militant attacks. Other Gaza militant groups have since continued with rocket attacks, but on a much smaller scale than before … Hamas interior minister Fathi Hamad told reporters Saturday evening that all militant factions had now agreed to a cease fire. He said the agreement was designed to prevent Israeli retaliation attacks and provide stability for Gaza residents. The cease fire would make it easier for Gaza residents to rebuild infrastructure destroyed in last winter’s fighting, he said. A rocket launched from Gaza exploded in southern Israel Saturday morning causing no injuries”. This AP report can be read in full here.

More big news: Israel permitted 251 truckloads of goods to enter Gaza today

As the sense of crisis continues here, the Israeli military announced today that 251 truckloads of goods have been permitted to enter Gaza today.

This is a great increase over the daily average in recent months, but it is still a far cry from the 400-600 truckloads daily that entered Gaza before the Israeli blockade.

Is this because of the big Muslim holiday coming up in a week’s time? Is it due to increased international pressure, or to deflect attention from these pressures? Could it be a down-payment for the reported imminent deal to release (by next Friday, 27 November) of IDF Corporal Gilad Shalit, captured in a cross-border raid in late June 2006 and believed to have been held in Gaza since then?

Other possibilities:could it be because of an Israeli concern that a “humanitarian crisis”, which Israel’s Supreme Court has said the country’s military must not allow to happen, may be looming? Or, could it be that anpther Israeli military operation is being planned?

Stay tuned …

Europeans + Americans react to Palestinian plan for UNSC recognition of Palestinian State

Palestinian negotiator Sa’eb Erekat said on Sunday that “We are now facing a moment of truth”.

He told journalists in Ramallah (according to a press release issued by the PLO’s Negotiations Affairs Department that he heads) that “the move to issue a Security Council resolution recognizing the Palestinian state on the borders of June 4th, 1967 has begun”.

Reaction has continued to roll in.

Israeli ministers have threatened to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank if the Palestinians make such a move.

Israeli statements mix references to a “unilateral” Palestinian declaration of a state on 1967 borders with what is clearly being planned as a multilateral move to bring the matter to the UN Security Council, and ask for recognition of such a state as well as full UN membership. Sa’eb Erekat said that this strategy has been approved by Arab states.

Erekat also said on Sunday that “the Palestinian leadership calls on the international community to support this move” and he “called on European countries to back the Palestinian decision by expressing their commitment to international law to end the Israeli occupation and save the two-state solution”.

The Voice of America’s Lisa Bryant reported today that “Speaking to reporters in Brussels, Foreign Minister Carl Bildt of Sweden, which holds the rotating European Union presidency, said the time is not right for recognizing a Palestinian state.
‘I do not think we are there yet’, he said. ‘I would hope that we would be in a position to recognize a Palestinian state, but there has to be one first. So I think that is somewhat premature. We have said previously if you go back to what the European Union has said that we would be in a position to recognize a Palestinian state, but the conditions are not there as of yet’. Bildt said the European Union is discussing other steps to increase support for Palestinian aspirations … [However] at a press conference later in the day, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana offered strong backing for an eventual Palestinian state. ‘I do not think it is too early to have a Palestinian state. We would [have liked] to have a
Palestinian state years back’, Solana said. ‘The point is … you know the negotiations have failed so far. [But a Palestinian state] is something the European Union has been defending for years back’.” This VOA report can be viewed in full http://www.voanews.com/english/2009-11-17-voa22.cfm

Solana kicked off this whole process, last July, in a speech he gave in London saying “We have to act now. The key question is: how can we get a political solution? The parameters are well known: the Clinton Parameters, Taba and even the Geneva Initiative. A state is not only a set of well functioning institutions providing security and services to its citizens. The Palestinian Authority is working hard in that direction. President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad have to be praised even if much remains to be done. A state is essentially a geographical space over which a legitimate government has control over population and natural resources. So we must first define the space. This means borders. And if we insist so forcefully on the need to freeze Israeli settlements, it is precisely because their continuing expansion is an obstacle to the design of this physical space. Settlements not only cast doubts on the viability of any Palestinian State. They add, in their day-to-day lives, to the frustration of the Palestinian people. Let me give you some figures. In 1993, when the Oslo agreement was reached, there were 75.000 settlers in the West Bank. In 2008, there were 290.000 of them. In 2008, the Israeli population inside the Green Line grew 1,6%. The number of settlers increased by 4,9%. In addition, the situation in Gaza is unacceptable. Changing the realities there is a pre-requisite for re-uniting the land and the people that will form the future Palestinian state. Whether we like it or not, Hamas will have to be part of the solution. I want to thank Egypt for their work on that. Defining the borders would solve the issue of territory, control over water resources and a good part of the equation for Jerusalem. And it will help tackle the question of settlements. Because it will establish on which side each various population centres will be. The point of departure are the 1967 borders. Territorial exchanges can be negotiated between the parties, on the basis of the 1967 line. The various territorial offers fluctuate between 6 and 2%. It should not be impossible to find a figure. The parties can negotiate within this margin, not outside. Nobody rejects the 1967 borders as a basis for negotiation. The Arab League accepts them. The EU has said the same. The United States have also made clear its attachment to them. I have spelt out the broad coalition which is behind this effort. There will be no solution without an active Arab contribution. The Arab Peace Initiative is key. Maybe it has to be made more operative. Its binary character – all or nothing – has to be nuanced. But having the Arab countries reacting in a positive way, with concrete actions, to every step will contribute immensely to success. The next ingredient for success is a real mediation. The parameters are defined. The mediator has to set the timetable too. If the parties are not able to stick to it, then a solution backed by the International community should will be put on the table. After a fixed deadline, a UN Security Council resolution should proclaim the adoption of the two-state solution. This should include all the parameters of borders, refugees, Jerusalem and security arrangements. It would accept the Palestinian state as a full member of the UN, and set a calendar for implementation. It would mandate the resolution of other remaining territorial disputes and legitimise the end of claims. International monitoring will then be crucial. As will be guarantees and contributions offered by the international parties regarding security, economic aid and refugees. We all will have to make deposits to that end. Arab states would immediately establish full diplomatic relations with Israel. I strongly believe the time has come to, finally, bring this conflict to an end. The international consensus is there. But time is of the essence. The second half of this year is crucial if we want to offer a real choice to the Palestinian people when they vote in January 2010. Something radically different from a choice between violence and desperation. … Never before had we have such a common line. We cannot afford wasting this opportunity. It is time to act”. The full text of Solana’s statement in July can be found here.

Carl Bildt had plenty of time, if he disagreed, to react before today. Why did he wait until now?

Ma’an News Agency later reported that in a news conference in Egypt, Palestinian President Abbas confirmed the Palestinian initiative “in accordance with the recent Arab Peace Initiative committee’s support”. According to the Ma’an account, “Abbas confirmed the Palestinian Authority’s commitment to appealing to the UN Security Council for a
resolution recognizing a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, with Arab support. The PA completely rejects former Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz’s plan to establish a state on temporary borders, Abbas said” Ma’an added that Abbas “further criticized Hamas’ approval of the temporary borders plan”. This Ma’an report is posted
here. Without the full text of the transcript, it is impossible to know what, exactly Abbas actually said about Hamas’ position on this proposal. What has otherwise been reported is that Hamas is sceptical, and has said something like why stop at the 1967 borders — and why not go for all of [the former British Mandate of] Palestine.

Also in Cairo, as Ma’an reported, Sa’eb Erekat maintained that “ ‘This is the right time’ to seek Security Council recognition of a Palestinian state … in response to comments made by EU officials calling the move ‘premature’.” Ma’an said that “Erekat responded almost immediately through an interview with Agence France Presse (AFP) from Cairo … Erekat argued that the EU recognized the State of Kosovo before other official channels supported its claim for independence. Sweden is not alone in determining EU policy, Erekat then quipped, noting other EU countries support
the Palestinian decision and adding that as of yet, the EU does not have a common foreign policy”. This Ma’an report can be read in full here.

Meanwhile, at the State Department in Washington, D.C., spokesman Ian Kelly had this exchange with journalists:
QUESTION: On the peace process, Israel has approved today the construction of 900 new housing units in East Jerusalem. How do you view this approval at this specific time?
MR. KELLY: Well, I think, Michel, you’ve heard us say many times that we believe that neither party
should engage in any kind of actions that could unilaterally preempt or appear to preempt negotiations. And I think that we find the Jerusalem Planning Committee’s decision to move forward on the approval of the – approval process for the expansion of Gilo in Jerusalem as dismaying. This is at a time when we’re working to re-launch negotiations, and we believe that these actions make it more difficult for our efforts to succeed. So we object to this, and we object to other Israeli practices in Jerusalem related to housing, including the continuing pattern of evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes. And – just to repeat what we’ve said all along, our position on Jerusalem is clear. We believe that the – that Jerusalem is a permanent status issue that must be resolved through negotiations between the two parties.
QUESTION: Can you tell us, did this come up in Ambassador Mitchell’s meetings in London yesterday? Apparently, we were told that he met an advisor to Netanyahu, asked them to not permit these new buildings, and then that request was flatly turned down.
MR. KELLY: Yeah. Andy, I just don’t want to get into the substance of these negotiations. They’re
sensitive. I think you’ve seen the Israeli – some Israeli press reports that did report that this was raised in the meetings. This is – I mean, these kinds of unilateral actions are exactly the kind of actions that we think that both sides should refrain from at a time when we’re trying to start the negotiations again. But I don’t want to get into the substance of the discussions yesterday in London.
QUESTION: Would you steer us away from not believing the Israeli press reports?
MR. KELLY: I just don’t want to get into the substance. I’m not going to steer you one way or the
other on it.
QUESTION: Where’s Senator Mitchell today?
QUESTION: How long is the U.S. going to continue to tolerate Israel’s violation of international law? I mean, soon it’s not even going to be possible – there’s not going to be any land left for the Palestinians to establish an independent state.
MR. KELLY: Well, again, this is a – we understand the Israeli point of view about Jerusalem. But we
think that all sides right now, at this time when we’re expending such intense efforts to try and get the two sides to sit down, that we should refrain from these actions, like this decision to move forward on an approval process for more housing units in East Jerusalem.
QUESTION: But should U.S. inaction, or in response to Israel’s actions, then be interpreted as some sort of about-face in policy – the President turning his back on the promises he’s made to the Palestinians?
MR. KELLY: You’re – okay, you’re using language that I wouldn’t use. I mean, again, our focus is to get these negotiations started. We’re calling on both parties to refrain from actions, from – and from rhetoric that would impede this process. It’s a challenging time, and we just need to focus on what’s important here, and that’s —
QUESTION: Well, what actions (inaudible) the Palestinians taken recently that would impede progress?
MR. KELLY: Well, as I say, we would discourage all unilateral actions, and I think —
QUESTION: Fair enough. But the Palestinians —
MR. KELLY: We talked yesterday —
QUESTION: — don’t appear to be taking any unilateral actions. It seems to be (inaudible).
MR. KELLY: Well, we did talk yesterday about the – and I want to make sure I get my language right
here – about the – discouraging any kind of unilateral appeal for United Nations Security Council recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That would fall in that category of unilateral actions.
QUESTION: Okay. So the Palestinian call for this, which was rejected by both the EU and yourself
yesterday, you’re putting that on the same level as them building – as the Israelis building —
MR. KELLY: No, I’m not saying that. You just said that, Matt. I’m not saying that. I’m just saying that —
QUESTION: Well, you’re saying you’re calling on both sides to stop doing these things.
MR. KELLY: We are.
QUESTION: Yeah. But the rhetoric from the —
MR. KELLY: I’m not saying they’re equivalent.
QUESTION: — Palestinians is not actually constructed in a —
MR. KELLY: I’m not saying they’re equivalent. I’m just saying that we – they – we have to treat these
things as sensitive issues.
QUESTION: You said a little bit earlier that we understand the Israeli point of view on Jerusalem. Can you explain what you mean by that?
MR. KELLY: Well, you have to ask – I’m not going to stand up here and characterize the Israeli point
of view on —
QUESTION: No. I’m just asking you, if you understand the Israeli point of view on Jerusalem, why are
you saying that this is not a good thing?
MR. KELLY: I’m not saying we support the Israeli point of view. We understand it.
QUESTION: Right. And then, last one on this, you characterized this decision by the planning commission as dismaying.
QUESTION: You can’t come up with anything stronger than ‘dismaying’? I mean, this flies in the face of everything you’ve been talking about for months and months and months.
MR. KELLY: It’s dismaying.
QUESTION: Yeah, you can’t offer a condemnation of it or anything like that? (Laughter.) I mean, who is in charge of the language here.
MR. KELLY: I have said what I have said, Mr. Lee.
QUESTION: Would you say, though, that your own envoy has – does he have any leverage at this point, given the fact that the Israelis not only refuse, but blatantly have ignored his wishes on this?
MR. KELLY: Well, let’s take a step back and let’s also recognize that both sides agree on the goal, and that goal is a comprehensive peace. That goal is two states living side by side in peace and security and cooperation. So that is why we continue to be committed to this. That is why Special Envoy Mitchell meets with both sides at every opportunity, and why we are continuing to expend such efforts on this. So let’s remember that, that we do share a common goal.
QUESTION: Well, where’s Senator Mitchell today?
MR. KELLY: I believe Senator Mitchell is on his way back today.
QUESTION: Could you give us just a brief synopsis of the progress that Senator Mitchell has made in
his months on the job?
MR. KELLY: Well, I think we have – we’ve gotten —
QUESTION: Yeah, maybe if the —
MR. KELLY: — both sides to agree on this goal. We have gotten both sides —
QUESTION: Ian, they agreed on the goal years ago. I mean, that’s not —
MR. KELLY: Well, I think that we – this government —
QUESTION: You mean you got the Israel Government to say, yes, we’re willing to accept a Palestinian
state? You got Netanyahu to say that, and that’s his big accomplishment?
MR. KELLY: That is an accomplishment.
QUESTION: But previous Israeli administration – previous Israeli governments had agreed to that already.
MR. KELLY: Okay, all right.
QUESTION: So in other words, the bottom line is that, in the list of accomplishments that Mitchell has
come up with or established since he started, is zero.
MR. KELLY: I wouldn’t say zero.
QUESTION: Well, then what would you say it is?
MR. KELLY: Well, I would say that we’ve gotten both sides to commit to this goal. They have – we have – we’ve had a intensive round or rounds of negotiations, the President brought the two leaders together in New York. Look —
QUESTION: But wait, hold on. You haven’t had any intense —
MR. KELLY: Obviously —
QUESTION: There haven’t been any negotiations.
MR. KELLY: Obviously, we’re not even in the red zone yet, okay.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. KELLY: I mean, we’re not – but it’s – we are less than a year into this Administration, and I think we’ve accomplished more over the last year than the previous administration did in eight years.
QUESTION: Well, I – really, because the previous administration actually had them sitting down talking
to each other. You guys can’t even get that far.
MR. KELLY: All right.
QUESTION: I’ll drop it.
MR. KELLY: Give us a chance. Thank you, Matt.
Yeah, in the back.
QUESTION: It seems Senator Mitchell is focusing in his meetings on the Israeli side. Is he – does he have any plans to talk with the Palestinians, or there is no need now for that?
MR. KELLY: Well, he, as I say, he had meetings yesterday with the Israelis. He’s coming back to the
U.S. now. He always stands ready to talk to both sides. There are no plans at this moment to meet with the Palestinian side”…

The Palestinian leadership can’t back down now, not after their flip-flop over the Goldstone report, and not after the elections proclamation and cancellation … though Sa’eb Erekat said that he never said this proposal to go to the UNSC would be made immediately.

217 "humanitarian" truckloads of goods to be passed into Gaza today

This is news. For months, the Israeli Ministry of Defense’s “Coordinator of [Israeli] Government Activities in the Territories” or COGAT, has been putting Gazans on a very strict “diet”. Only when a high-level American delegation was in town, or maybe Tony Blair, were there even 100 to a max of 112 or so truckloads worth of goods allowed into Gaza on a daily basis. Most days, the number was 66, 71, 88, or maybe 90 or so. Today, it is 217 truckloads worth of goods and materials! What is going on? Is it just in preparation for the big Eid coming up on the 27-28 of November?

Even so, there is a shortage of cooking gas, we are informed by Ma’an News Agency — so if foodstuffs are getting in, many people won’t have any way of cooking anything. Maybe today’s supplies are canned goods …

[As to this designation of the goods as “humanitarian” — well, it has to be made clear that these are not gifts donated by either the State or people of Israel. They might include donations by international organizations, or aid agencies, but for the most part they are goods ordered by the Palestinians (from Gaza, through Ramallah, to Israel) and paid for by the Palestinians themselves (by Gaza and/or by Ramallah). These are not Israeli humanitarian donations. The use of the word “humanitarian” refers to the Israeli Military’s way of implementing the Israeli Supreme Court decision that the tightened military-administered sanctions ordered by the Israeli government in September 2007 must not cause a “humanitarian crisis”. These goods, which are NOT donated by Israel, are the means by which a “humanitarian crisis” is being staved off — sometimes, by not much more than a hair. Some international officials have said, at various points, that a “humanitarian crisis” already exits. (The tunnels that Palestinian entrepreneurs have developed at the Egyptian border at Rafah, and in which over 100 young Palestinian workers have lost their lives, have played a possibly even bigger role in preventing a true humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.)]

Other interesting news today: the Jerusalem Post’s well-connected military correspondent Yaakov Katz reports an IDF official scoffing at the idea of UN membership for a Palestinian State, endorsed by the UN Security Council (as the Europeans have encouraged some PA officials to imagine — and it might well work). Katz writes: ” ‘The Palestinian Water Authority wouldn’t last a day on its own’, an IDF source said. ‘We allocated them a piece of land on the coast to build a desalination plant and they have decided not to build it’.”

On the coast? Exactly where, and on what coast? He must mean in Gaza… So who would have refused to build it, and why? He must mean the PA in Ramallah. And if they refused, it must be because Hamas is in control in Gaza…

UPDATE: Yaakov Katz kindly responded to an email request by referring me to an article he published in the JPost on 4 August this year, in which he wrote that Lt.-Col. Amnon Cohen, head of the civil administration’s infrastructures department, told The Jerusalem Post … in an interview earlier this week [that] Israel recently allocated a piece of beach land next to Hadera for the Palestinians to use to build a water desalination plant, which, if operated, would provide over 100 million cubic meters of water annually. ‘The land was allocated over a year ago and the Palestinians have yet to move forward with the project’, he said. This JPost report can be read in full here.

Katz also writes, in his piece published today, about “security cooperation”, which, he reports, “has significantly increased over the past two years, since Hamas violently took control of the Gaza Strip. Next month, the fifth Palestinian battalion trained by US Lt.-Gen. Keith Dayton in Jordan will return to the West Bank for deployment. Another one will then depart for four months of training in Jordan. Despite the deployment of these forces – which IDF officers openly admit are doing a good job cracking down on Hamas infrastructure in the West Bank – whenever PA President Mahmoud Abbas travels outside of Ramallah to another Palestinian city, the IDF, Shin Bet and Civil Administration are all involved to coordinate and ensure his safety. ‘When Abbas travels it is like a military operation’, one officer explained. ‘Everyone is involved since the PA forces cannot yet completely ensure his security’.” Well, that’s for sure. And this is not only when Abu Mazen is outside Ramallah, but also when he is inside the PA’s current capital city. And, it was previously reported that the same type of “military operation” is mounted whenever the Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad moves around, as well…

Katz then gives an interesting insight into what is happening in the corridors “of the IDF’s Central Command and Planning Division”, in reaction to the flurry of reports in recent days about possible moves to have the UN Security Council endorse a Palestinian state (which he refers to as a “unilateral” declaration, actually another separate alternative): “The understanding in the defense establishment is that with all the hype surrounding the possibility that the Palestinians will unilaterally declare a state, it is more likely a ploy aimed at getting Israel to be serious about negotiations on the two-state solution. The idea is to get other countries to put pressure on Israel to start making real concessions – such as a freeze on settlement construction – so the talks can begin. While this may be true, the corridors of the IDF’s Central Command and Planning Division were buzzing with talk about the potential fallout, both diplomatically and militarily. If the Palestinians declare statehood, then Israel will likely come under major international pressure to take action to show it recognizes the new state. The government will then go knocking on the IDF’s door. Ultimately though, Israeli moves will be dictated by political decisions. Israel cannot order the IDF to completely pull back from the West Bank while settlers still live there. It can, on the other hand, lift more roadblocks and even allow the Palestinians in the interim to ‘have’ their new state in Area A parts of the West Bank which are already, for the most part, under Palestinian control”. This interesting article by Yaakov Katz in the Jerusalem Post can be read in full here.

An editorial in the JPost today reveals another interesting detail about the supposedly-secret “historic” and “unprecedented” offers that the Palestinians have received from Israel (but failed to accept, or even to respond to) in the past decade: “Successive Israeli governments have offered to recognize a Palestinian state in the West Bank and in Gaza. But Abbas rejected Ehud Olmert’s offer of 93 percent of the West Bank, plus additional lands from Israel proper to make up the difference, all of Gaza, and a free passage scheme between the Strip and West Bank. Under Olmert’s proposal, Israel would retain its strategic settlement blocs – but all other settlements and outposts on the ‘Palestine’ side of the border would be uprooted. Ehud Barak made slightly less generous offers to Yasser Arafat at Camp David in July 2000 and at Taba in January 2001. Barak, like Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in his June 2009 Bar-Ilan address, asked that Palestine be demilitarized”… This JPost editorial accuses the Palestinians of trying “to lobby the UN Security Council to, in effect, junk Resolution 242 – the edifice upon which the entire peacemaking process is constructed – and give its imprimatur to a new Palestinian declaration of independence claiming 100 percent of the West Bank and Gaza (though the Strip is under Hamas suzerainty) plus all of east Jerusalem including the Jewish holy sites”. It can be read in full here.

What, exactly, are the “strategic settlement blocs”???

On Salam Fayyad, an interesting item (though not new), the Jewish Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) has done its SECOND study of his transition plan for developing the institutions of a Palestinian state by the year 2011, by former Foreign Ministry legal adviser Alan Baker, which is posted here. In it, Baker reports (though we knew it already) that “Interestingly enough, one of the elements of the Palestinian leadership that does not appear in the [Oslo Accords] Interim Agreement is the Office of the Prime Minister, i.e., Salam Fayyad’s own function, which was not foreseen. See article III of the Interim Agreement which deals with the structure of the Palestinian Council, and article V which refers in subparagraph 4 (b) and (c) to the appointment of members of the Executive Authority and others, but makes no mention of a “prime minister” as such. The post was created with Israeli concurrence in March 2003 immediately prior to the publication of the Roadmap, when Abbas was appointed prime minister under the presidency of Yasser Arafat. Neither he nor his successors as prime minister have ever been elected to this post …”. Baker also writes that “The Roadmap goes on to lay down, as part of its first phase, a program for ‘Palestinian Institution Building’ which includes a specific reference to the newly-created office of ‘Interim Prime Minister’.”

This suggests what we already knew — that, in fact, the office of Palestinian Prime Minister (first occupied by Mahmoud Abbas, then later by Salam Fayyad) was actually created by the Quartet (more specifically, by the Quartet’s leading member, the U.S.) rather than by the Oslo “bilateral” negotiations directly between the two parties themselves. But, as Baker significantly notes, “The post was created with Israeli concurrence”…

(We’ll write more on the Baker (and JCPA) analysis of the Fayyad plan in a future posting.)

And, the JPost reported today that “IDF soldiers arrested seven Palestinians in West Bank operations overnight Sunday.
The detainees were transferred for interrogation”. This news is posted here.

BTW, I was wrong yesterday to write that the JPost and Ma’an News Agency are the only two media sources reporting this stuff — Ma’an has stopped, and is not even bothering anymore…

The Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and lives – continued – 21 years after the Proclamation of a State of Palestine

Today is the 21st anniversary of the Proclamation, by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at a meeting on 15 November 1988 of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s National Council (PNC) in Algiers, of the still-unrealized State of Palestine.

Still, today is marked as Palestinian Independence Day, here in Ramallah and the rest of the West Bank, and in Gaza as well — and also in East Jerusalem (though there, where I also live, it will have to be surreptitiously, because the Israeli Ministry of the Interior, and the Israeli national and Border Police, are mobilized against any manifestation, however far-removed, of the “authority” of the Palestinian Authority…)

And today, we are informed by YNet, the Israeli English-language website of the country’s most popular Hebrew-language daily paper, Yediot Ahronot, that “Palestinian plans to possibly unilaterally declare a state continue to yield reactions in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to reject the increasingly strengthening Palestinian imitative during his speech at the Saban Forum in Jerusalem on Sunday“. YNet added that Netanyahu “will warn the Palestinians against moving forward with the initiative, emphasizing Israel’s objection, and will stress that the solution for the establishment of a Palestinian state can be found in negotiations with Israel. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned in a speech at the Saban Forum on Saturday that a withdrawal to the 1967 borders will not end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. ‘A return to 1967 borders and the establishment of a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria will not end the conflict, but rather, shift it into Israel’s borders’, he said, adding that such circumstances would prompt Arab-Israeli demands for autonomy in the Galilee and the Negev”. This YNet report can be viewed in full here

Yasser Arafat himself was strongly warned against “unilaterally” declaring a state, as he had “threatened” to do, in 1999 and in 2000 (after the end of the five-year “transition” period of Palestinian autonomy that was agreed in the Oslo Accords, and just before the start of the Second Palestinian Intifada that was sparked by a militarized visit of Israel’s Ariel Sharon to the mosque plateau known to Palestinians as the Haram ash-Sharif, the third-holiest site in Islam, which Jews believe is the site of the Second and possibly also the First Jewish Temple, the central focus of the most sacred site in Judaism.)

Here are a few bare facts of the day from the English-language publication in Israel, the Jerusalem Post, (generally considered more right-wing than the English-language version of the Israeli paper, Haaretz). [The JPost and the Ma’an News Agency in Bethlehem are the only two media covering such news as this] —

(1) This report is talking about the Israeli-occupied West Bank:
Nov 15, 2009 8:09
IDF troops detain 4 Palestinian fugitives in West Bank ops
“IDF troops detained four Palestinian fugitives Saturday overnight near Ramallah and Bethlehem. The military said all detainees were transferred to security forces for interrogation”. This JPost report can be read in full here.
These reports appear several times a week, sometimes daily. The Palestinians (men, usually) who are seized, often from their beds, are variously described as “suspects”, “fugitives”, “wanted”, and so on. No one ever really bothers to ask what happens to these people. Most often, they are eventually, if not immediately, taken out of the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) to jails inside Israel, which is a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. (Today it was reported that the Arab League has decided to request an advisory opinion from the UN’s International Court of Justice in The Hague about Palestinian and Arab (yes, there are others, from Lebanon, Syria, and other countries, some of whom are explicitly being held in exchange for release of information about missing Israelis) prisoners in Israeli jails

(2) This report is talking about the State of Israel:
Nov 15, 2009 9:48 | Updated Nov 15, 2009 9:52
Border Police arrest 252 illegals over weekend
“Border Police arrested 252 illegal aliens over the weekend. The Palestinian illegals were working in Israel without permits. Three people were arrested for employing the illegals and thirteen on suspicion of transporting them”. This JPost report can be read in full here.
These reports appear once every couple of months. Often, the figures are larger — 1000 or 1,500 “illegal aliens” from the West Bank, who are working in Israel, often with the complicity of Israeli employers who can, among other things, pay them a lower wage with fewer benefits…

Then, let’s take a step back and try to understand what is going on here.

Suad Amiry, a Syrian-born Palestinian architect who came to Ramallah to teach at Bir Zeit in the 1980s and who now heads the Ramallah-based organization Riwaq, dedicated to preserving Palestinian architecture, has written a new book entitled Murad, Murad, about the life of Palestinian West Bankers who — despite The Wall and Israeli bureaucratic and military restructions — continue to try to work in Israel. (Her earlier book, Sharon and my Mother-in-Law, chronicled life under house confinement during the forceful military Israeli re-occupation of Ramallah in 2002). Suad Amiry said in an interview published in the Summer issue (number 38) of the Jerusalem Quarterly that: “We who are professionals in Ramallah are able to make a living away from Israel. It’s difficult to understanding the complexity of Murad and other workers’ relation to Israel. Murad went to Israel when he was 13. All his growing up happened there. He is oppressed, beaten, and lately has been put in prison – but in a strange way, Israel is also his home. In this contradictory relation, he is more like the Palestinians inside Israel”. The Jerusalem Quarterly interview reports that “Suad tells a story of lives that are largely invisible – invisible to her before her journey, and invisible to much of the Palestinian public, as well as to the world. She notes that when the Palestinian Authority didn’t pay salaries [to its employees, over half of whom work for the security services] for several months, it was the talk of the town. But Murad told her: ‘Why the big fuss? When we are thrown into prison, no one helps us’. In the year 2000, there were about 100,000 West Bankers workers in Israel, with many more family members dependent on their work. While numbers fluctuate today, it is no exaggeration to say that the lives and rights of a substantial proportion of the population are rarely acknowledged … Suad Amiry’s new book, Murad, Murad, scheduled for publication in Italian in the summer of 2009, is the story of her eighteen-hour journey in 2007 with Murad, an ‘illegal’ Palestinian worker and his friends, as they attempt to cross the ‘border’ into Israel and find work. Starting off at midnight from the village of Mazra el Noubani, in the Ramallah-area, a group of workers, accompanied by Suad in male disguise and Mohammed, Murad’s brother who is a colleague of Suad, set off in a rackety bus on a journey that resembled a maze, as they struggle to avoid army patrols, skirt the Wall, walk through ditches, orchards and tunnels to reach the ‘other side’ and work in Israel … Murad, who has worked in Israel since he was thirteen and is utterly determined to continue to work there, despite the enormous odds against him”. This is published in the Summer issue of Jerusalem Quarterly, and posted on the internet here.

Another article in the same issue of the Jerusalem Quarterly is an excerpt of remarks made earlier this year by leading Palestinian academic and writer, who has also participated in multilateral negotiations under the Madrid Process, Salim Tamari, in a discussion at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which were summarized in the Summer 2009 issue (no. 38) of the Jerusalem Quarterly, which he edits, for the Institute for Jerusalem Studies, which he heads. The Institute for Jerusalem Studies (a branch of the Institute for Palestinian Studies) was formerly located in Jerusalem, but was forced by Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement to re-locate to Ramallah. Salim Tamari is commenting, here, on an analysis also presented at MIT in a discussion last February at the Department for Urban Planning, by Israeli academic Eyal Weizman:
An Architectural Laboratory of the Extreme? Reflections on Weizman’s Hollow Land by Salim Tamari
“Eyal Weizman’s Hollow Land is the first systematic study of Israel’s regime of spatial control, combining the insights of political geography, architecture, semiotics, theories of counterinsurgency, and an appreciation for the shifting ideological tenants of Zionism and the history of settler regimes. It combines a majestic sweep of broad conceptual paradigms about population control, with a meticulous examination of the detailed mechanisms of such control and the thinking among military strategists who plan it, as well as their willing and unwilling accomplices among them. Those are the social scientists, contractors, and service providers who cater to their vision, and who often provide humanitarian services to mitigate the dire human costs and the disastrous results of these strategies. One of the most rewarding features of this study is the manner in which it posits architectural knowledge and affiliated disciplines in social science, engineering and politics as partners, willing or sometimes unconscious, in the process of colonial conquest. The study provokes a number of issues that are only partly examined, and in need of elaboration. Here are some of them, listed briefly as questions:

The Process of ‘Distanciation’. One of the most significant achievements of the Oslo Agreement from an Israeli governmental perspective (as pointed out in The Hollow Land) is the creation of a spatial geography of fragmentation in which the de-linking of the Palestinian and Israeli population has enhanced the legitimacy of occupation. This happened through withdrawal to the periphery of urban areas and handing over the administrative control and welfare of 80 percent of the Palestinians, in areas A and B, to the Palestinian Authority. In effect it created conditions for population control from a distance, either through surveillance and checkpoints, or through administrative autonomy by a non-sovereign Palestinian regime.

But the process is not complete. Rural areas in region C, the settlements, and the greater Jerusalem area (outside the municipal borders), remained zones of direct military control. Arab Jerusalem also continued to be ruled directly, but was separated both from other Palestinian communities and from Palestinian leadership. To a large extent the process removed the physicality of the confrontation and therefore made the tactics of civil insurrection and strategy of disobedience (which defined the first uprising) virtually impossible. No alternative resistance strategy since then evolved partly due to the absence of physical encounters, but also due to the absence of a leadership.

One area where I differ with Weizman is over the issue of the illusion of sovereignty, which he illustrated through the semiotics of the one-way mirror: the example from the pre-intifada period was the presence and power of Israeli officials at the King Hussein/Allenby bridge who used a one-way mirror to monitor (and approve or disapprove ) Palestinian passage. I do not believe that there was an “illusion of sovereignty” here, and it did not need the conditions of dusk to unravel the real power behind the mirror. What existed rather is rather a consensual delusion in which Palestinians (as in La Vita è Bella) shared in the self-deception in order to make life more tolerable knowing that they could not resolve the issue of sovereignty, given the existing power relationship between them and the Israelis.

Normalization of Occupation?

One consequence of removing the physical military presence in the major urban areas has been to create a sense of normalcy. Weizman refers to the normalization of the ‘absurd’ system of population control through filtering checkpoints. The system creates a mechanism of routinization of arbitrary military control that is internalized by the subject population, leading to protocols of acceptance through negotiating its loopholes (permits, exceptions, smuggling). But this system of normalization of oppression has built-in weaknesses that undermine its own sense of normalcy.

Two features of this system are its unpredictability and irrationalism. It is supposed to create mechanisms of control in order to prevent penetration, circumvention and deceit. But in overdoing its objective of population control it leads to immense resentment and conditions of rebellion. A relevant question here is why does the system resort to extreme humiliation of the population when such humiliation defeats its function of security control?

The question of agency in Weizman’s analysis is also problematic. The system of control chartered by the author produces an occupation regime that is all pervasive. Does the cunning adaptation of the subject Palestinian population to this regime through subversion of building regulation and getting around the blockade, constitute resistance to the regime, or a normalization of oppression?

The System is over-designed. Weizman skillfully draws an architectural system of control that is omnipotent and omnipresent. The regime of population control through the technology of monitoring and surveillance; of countless filtering systems; of segmented road systems; of counter-insurgency through predicting every possible contingency of the enemy and pre-empting it, is ultimately overdesigned. It ostensibly operates through open and closed spaces, underground and in the air, and through the bureaucratic regime of permits and civil administration. By investing so much conceptual capital in detailing its omnipotence Weizman produces a paradigm that is hermetically sealed and has the force of nature. There seems to be no escape from it.

Even on the intellectual plane, in this paradigm the military commanders have captured the terrain, utilizing critical theory, Foucault, Deleuze (and Marx, in the case of the Village Leagues) to (successfully) engineer a counter-revolutionary reality. The weakness of this paradigm is that it overdetermines the omnipotence of the hegemonic power by attributing to it exaggerated capacities of control both at logistic and intellectual levels. It leaves unexamined its own contradictions; its misadventures; its control by politicians who have myopic ideological visions, whose thirst for land grabbing will make them choke on excessive expansion of limited economic capacities; and who seem to behave as if they are independent from the world around them. But after all, as Weizman points out in “Demographic Architecture,” it is indeed remarkable that Israel’s planning policies in Jerusalem have not succeeded in transferring the requisite number of Palestinians outside of the city; even the most powerful do not operate in a laboratory where they control all the elements”. These comments, and more, can be viewed in full on the Jerusalem Quarterly website,

NOTE: The Two-State Solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has, since the Second Palestinian Intifada, become the central credo of Israel and American diplomacy, and thus also of “international” efforts (backed by the European Union and the United Nations). However, there is still no Palestinian state. After returning to power in February general elections, the current Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu resisted for months agreeing to this Two-State formula, and only did so in a speech months later at Bar Ilan University, in which Netanyahu posed several major limiting conditions. Opposition leader (and former Israeli Defense Minister) Shaul Mofaz has just proposed Israeli support for a Palestinian State on 50-60 percent of the West Bank (excluding existing Israeli settlements, which would remain under Israeli sovereignty). As the climate has deteriorated, with intense Palestinian disappointment in the position of Barak Obama’s Administration, Palestinian negotiator Sa’eb Erekat has “threatened” that the Palestinian Authority is ready to jettison its commitment to the Two-State Solution, and to mobilize behind a theoretical “One-State solution” — by which is generally meant Palestinians and Israelis living together with full and equal rights, as if they had the choice… But this option it is not on the table. The only alternative to the Two-State solution now appears to be a continuation of more of the same, with continued direct Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem — now officially ruled by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, with limited autonomy given to the present Palestinian Authority and its security forces, and also of Gaza (where Hamas may or may not be allowed to continue its present “de facto” rule if it becomes a “responsible address” that Israel can count on to limit attacks against Israel. It is not terribly surprising that the powerful Israeli military leadership opposes ending the occupation — they feel more comfortable being in control, and they would like a 25, 50, or 100-year period to continue the current status quo, with checkpoints and all (perhaps even inside Israel, certainly also in the Golan Heights), to see if the Palestinians have peaceful intentions, these Israeli miltary officials say, after which they might begin to consider talking about territory. The impression is given that they would not mind if all of Israel, or even all of the world, became like the West Bank… But this current status quo is, simply, unsustainable. What will happen next is unclear…

Politics as usual in Ramallah this weekend

The Jerusalem Post has a story today informing us that a report presented to members of the Israeli Knesset last Wednesday, and “compiled by the MACRO Center for Political Economics as part of its Position Papers on Social, Economic and Political Issues distributed to MKs and ministers on a biweekly basis to give them an overview of the major issues on the Knesset agenda”, has determined that “Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s chances of being reelected are slim, and the likelihood the Palestinian Authority will be able to hold successful presidential elections in January is as low as ever“. The report added that “there is little legitimacy Abbas could expect to garner from the political contest. Last Thursday, Abbas indicated he wouldn’t run in the January elections, blaming the lack of diplomatic progress between the PA and Israel as the reason”… [However, contrary to what this article stated, the Palestinian Central Election Commission is not Hamas-run…] This JPost article can be read in full here.

At the PLO’s Palestine National Council (PNC) meeting in Ramallah today (held not in the Muqata’a, but this time in the more neutral venue of the Palestinian Red CRescent Society headquarters), Yasser Abed Rabbo, Secretary of the PLO Executive Committee, “announced that the PLO’s Central Committee would meet in December, when it would take ‘all means necessary’ to protect the institutions of the PA and presidency, and would ‘refuse any blackmail deals proposed by Hamas’,” according to a report published by Ma’an News Agency. According to Ma’an, the purpose of the PNC meeting was to commemorate “the fifth anniversary of the death of late President Yasser Arafat and the Declaration of Independence [that] rhe PNC passed … during its 19th session in Algeria on 15 November 1988”. Ma’an made no mention of any decision by the PNC on the issue of Palestinian President Abbas’ decision not to run in the next elections — or of Abbas’ subsequent decision to endorse the Palestinian Central Election Commission’s decision that it would be impossible, in the current conditions, to hold the elections that Abbas declared should be held on 24 January. [The PNC has more than 650 members world-wide, but there appeared to be something like 100 present at this session in Ramallah today.] This Ma’an report is posted here.

Hamas said earlier this week that it would prohibit commemorating the 1988 Proclamation of the State of Palestine, then reversed its decision today.

A report in Haaretz today says that a U.S. official told the London-based Saudi-owned “Pan-Arab” newspaper that the U.S. will not press for negotiations “before all sides are ready.” The same Haaretz report added that “Palestinian officials had said in talks with U.S. diplomats earlier this week in Ramallah that nothing short of an Israeli commitment to a complete settlement freeze would bring Abbas to reconsider his recently made threats of resignation”. This report can be viewed here.

Meanwhile, an annual event hosted by one of the weathiest Israeli-American businessmen, Haim Saban, has gotten underway, and, according to a report in the Jerusalem Post, “Unique to this year’s event, the delegates will travel to Ramallah on November 15 and meet with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayad“. According to this report, “Slated to attend are former US president Bill Clinton, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and Senators Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham – the highest-level US delegation ever to attend the conference”. This report can be read in full here.

Yesterday, the JPost reported that JPOST “Construction projects are continuing to move forward throughout parts of the capital annexed after the Six Day War, The Jerusalem Post has learned, despite remarks made this week by Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Attias that not a single construction project had been authorized in the West Bank or east Jerusalem since Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu took office at the end of March. The construction work continues as Israel, the US and the Palestinians argue about all building beyond the pre-1967 Green Line, with the Palestinians demanding a full freeze as a precondition for resuming peace talks, the US urging a freeze but not as a precondition, and Israel expressing a readiness to weigh a freeze in the future … Haim Erlich, the coordinator for policy development at Ir Amim, an NGO which wants Jerusalem ‘equitably shared’ by Israelis and Palestinians, this week produced a list of more than 20 new projects in east Jerusalem that were currently being considered for approval by the municipality … ‘There were times when the Jerusalem municipality was not authorizing any building in east Jerusalem’, Erlich said. ‘And now they’re authorizing a number of projects. It shows that it is up to them, and they are making the decisions. Maybe the Housing and Construction Ministry isn’t directly involved, but construction projects are certainly going ahead’ … While the bulk of the ongoing housing projects are being built on privately-owned land and not officially subject to the Housing and Construction Ministry’s authorization, at least one of them – a three-pronged construction project for more than 750 housing units in the northeast Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev – has moved forward during Netanyahu’s term in office … Erlich added that the municipality’s district planning committee, through which all applications for building authorization must pass, was connected to the government. ‘Every project must go through the district planning committee, which is made up of government representatives’, Erlich told the Post on Wednesday”. This JPost report is published here.

The JPost also reported yesterday that “IDF troops used ammunition equivalent to live bullets against protesters at Ni’ilin on Friday, a site where a weekly protest by Palestinians and left-wing activists from Israel and abroad are held against the West Bank security barrier. The military ordinarily only uses protest-dispersal means such as tear gas canisters and a recently introduced ‘skunk bomb’ which is harmless but exudes a pungent stench. One Border Police officer was lightly hurt in Friday’s clash when he was hit by a rock. He was given preliminary treatment at the scene and later taken to a hospital. A rioter [sic] at Friday’s protest said the military fired ‘tutu bullets’, small metal pellets similar to those fired by BB guns but of a larger caliber (0.22 inches vs. the BB gun pellets’ 0.177 inches). The man said ‘tutu bullets’ have not been used against protesters since May. According to a press statement issued by left-wing NGO Betselem on July 9th, IDF Judge Advocate General Brig.-Gen. Avihai Mandelblit said in response to a query from the organization that ‘tutu bullets’ are not considered a protest-dispersal means. Mandelblit told Betselem back in July that the rules for using ‘tutu bullets’ are “‘estrictive, and parallel to the rules of engagement when using live ammunition’ … The IDF confirmed that 0.22 inch pellets were used on Friday. ‘The use of such ammunition is done against protesters where the use of violence has been ascertained, according to the restrictive protocol followed in incidents such as this’, a statement from the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said”. This JPost report can be viewed here.

Today, Ma’an News AGency reported that “At least six demonstrators were arrested in the northern West Bank after they breached a section of Israel’s wall on Saturday, Palestinian and Israeli sources said. The protesters said they intended to march to lands that were left isolated behind the wall in Deir Al-Ghusun, northeast of Tulkarem, and managed to break open one of the barrier’s gates before Israeli soldiers invaded the village. One demonstrator was lightly injured after being struck with a rubber-coated bullet in the leg, onlookers said. ‘Today’s demonstration was the opening salvo for a public campaign by the Deir Al-Ghusun municipality and the affected farmers’, said Anarchists Against the Wall, an Israeli group, in a statement. ‘As the demonstration was coming to an end, a large group of soldiers surprised a group of the protesters by closing in on them from the direction of the village, and arrested 18 of the village’s youth’ … The wall in the area of the village cuts deep into West Bank land, leaving about 2,500 dunams (620 acres) of the village’s land on its west side, affecting 120 land owners, including dozens who have never received permits to tend to their farmland … Palestinian demonstrators breached the wall near Ramallah on Monday. Last Friday, protesters in the village of Ni’lin also managed to tear down a section”. The IDF reported that six persons “were detained for damaging the barrier” northeast of Tulkarem. This Ma’an report can be read in full here.

Abu Mazen's manoeuvers

If the Palestinians like setting records for publication in the Guiness Book of World Records, they could add to their list — the world’s biggest knafeh (a sweet dessert made from shredded wheat stuffed with cheese, soaked in a sugary syrup, and garnished with chopped pistachios) in Nablus; the world’s longest or “largest” embroidered dress in Hebron, etc. — by entering the number of times that Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) has resigned or threatened to resign from various responsibilities and posts.

[Here is one tally, probably incomplete: “historical fact: Abbas threatened to resign twice in 2008, once in 2007, 4 times in 2006, twice in 2005, … . For that matter, the man had to be cajoled into running for president in the 1st place” – from a comment posted this morning by “Howard” on Helena Cobban’s new work blog, called “Fair Policy, Fair Discussion”, for the Council for the National Interest here.]

He also resigned, in October 2003, about six months after being appointed, by the late Yasser Arafat (and at donor insistence,), as the first Palestinian Authority Prime Minister.  At the time, as CNN reported, he complained about ” ‘Israel’s unwillingness to implement its road map commitments and to undertake any constructive measures” … [And] He also said the United States and the international community ‘did not exert sufficient influence on Israel to implement its commitments in the road map to push the peace process forward or to end its military escalation … lack of support for the government’s policies; harsh and dangerous domestic incitement against the government and the obstruction of its functions, and unjustified accusations that the government and the prime minister had the motive of either having control over everything or nothing’.”  The CNN report is posted  here.

Yet, in his letter of resignation to Yasser Arafat on 6 September 2003, Abu Mazen seemed to blame above all Yasser Arafat himself, and wrote  that “it seems … there was a deliberate and preconceived determination to undermine this government using all manner of legitimate and illegitimate means, including violence, false accusations and slurs … [But] you preferred to keep it [this government] going and use it as a decoy to draw away hatred … insulting it became an end in itself … Since you are apparently convinced that I am the Karzai of Palestine [!], that I have betrayed the trust placed in me, and that I was undeserving of the responsibility I was entrusted with, then I gladly return the responsibility to you to deal with as you see fit”… from the JOURNAL OF PALESTINE STUDIES, Vol. XXXIII –  No. 2,  Issue 130, Winter 2004.

In what appeared to be a rambling speech to the Palestine Legislative Council the same day, Abu Mazen blamed most of all Farouk Kaddoumi … yes, the same Farouk Kaddoumi that told journalists in Amman this past summer, just before the Fatah General Conference in Bethlehem, that Abbas (and Mohammad Dahlan) was aware in advance of plans to murder Yasser Arafat, and did not object.   After Abbas consolidated his hold on the Fatah movement, he subsequently ejected.

[Abbas’ resignation speech to the Palestinian Legislative Council was published in the same issue of the JOURNAL OF PALESTINE STUDIES, pages 165-172 – but cannot be obtained online without payment.  It is, however, pubished online for free by the Jewish Virtual Library, here, and it is worth re-reading. An excerpt is posted on our new page, here.]

Six years on, in the karmic rapid cycling of Palestinian politics, not much has changed — despite a lot of turmoil and an almost unbearable amount of human suffering …

In the latest situation (after the global denunciation — yes, even from governments friendly to the Palestinians, as well as from Palestinians inside and outside the occupied territory), he finally (after weeks and months of rumors and speculation) issued a Presidential decree on 24 October ordered Palestinian elections (presidential and parliamentary together) in the required three-month time limit, on 24 January.

This photo (taken on 24 October as Mahmoud Abbas ordered the 24 January elections), was published today on Yahoo news:

Fadi Arouri photo for Reuters - posted on Yahoo news

This, it was said, was to somehow shake up and focus the attention of Hamas, who have been dithering about signing yet another this-is-it Egyptian-brokered reconciliation agreement (Hamas + Fatah first, factions later) which even the American administration is now openly trying to edit.

Just over a week later (last Thursday), Abu Mazen announced in a speech at the Muqata’a Palestinian presidential headquarters in Ramallah that he would not run in those elections.

Nice tie! – this photo (taken on 5 November  as Mahmoud Abbas says he will not run in the 24 January elections), was also published today on Yahoo news:

Ammar Awad photo for Reuters - Abu Mazen at Muqata'a saying he will not run in elections - on the Yahoo news slideshow

Then followed a week of desultory and Fatah-organized “popular demonstrations”, and declarations from the now-Ramallah-based Palestinian bodies (Fatah Central Committee, Palestine Liberation Organization or PLO Central Council, etc.) saying that Abu Mazen is the only popular candidate, and he must run.

Then, on Thursday (yesterday), The Palestinian Central Elections Commitee announced that it was recommending postponement of the elections (in part because it is doubtful they could reasonably be held in Gaza, and in part because Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu said they could not be held in East Jerusalem, either) — and Abu Mazen agreed.  This means that he will stay on, of course, as President, “caretaker” or otherwise, in addition to his roles as head of the largest Palestinian political party, Fatah, and as head of the overall Palestinian representation, the PLO.

This is not easy to understand … is there a plan here? Is it Machiavellian, or is it complete disorganization?

The NYTimes said today that “The announcement removed some of the immediate uncertainty surrounding the future of the current president, Mahmoud Abbas, who said recently that he would not run for a second term … Speaking on Wednesday at a rally marking the anniversary of the death of his predecessor, Yasir Arafat, Mr. Abbas said he did not want to talk about his future. Instead he focused on the challenges in the struggle to establish an independent Palestinian state, and he called for reconciliation with Hamas. Several Palestinian officials, including Ghassan Khatib, a longtime analyst and the director of the Palestinian government media center, have said in recent days that Mr. Abbas is unlikely to resign ahead of elections because it would effectively hand power to Hamas, at least temporarily. According to the Palestinian Basic Law, if a president resigns or is incapacitated, the speaker of the parliament assumes the presidency for a maximum of 60 days while new elections are arranged. The position of speaker is currently held by a senior Hamas figure, Aziz Dweik. Mr. Dweik, who lives in the West Bank, was released from an Israeli prison in June after serving most of a three-year sentence for belonging to an illegal organization. Mr. Khatib said the delay in the election would allow time for a possible reconciliation between the Fatah movement and Hamas”. This NYTimes article can be read in full here.