March 15 protests calling for Palestinian unity extend into March 16 at Ramallah's central Manara Square

The anticipated March 15 protests, called by a number of Palestinian youth groups in the West Bank and Gaza, went on for most of the day in Ramallah, and have been extended into March 16.

Some of the organizers were disappointed by the turn-out in Ramallah and various other cities in the West Bank — one said he had 40,000 confirmations on his Facebook page, while 50 of those people turned up.

Others said, ok, there were about 3,000 or so in Ramallah’s Manara Square, and this is respectable (though 7,000 to 10,000 people had been expected).

Photo courtesy of Act4Palestine – Manara Square at the height of the March 15 demonstration.

<photo 3:#Mar15 demonstration AlManarah Sq. #Ramallah #Palestine on Twitpic

This photo is posted here and a full set has been posted on Flikr and can be viewed here:

At some point, Abdallah Abu Rahmeh, a leader of the Bil’in protests against The Wall, showed up in Manara Square, just hours after being released from 16 months in jail at Ofer military prison…

One of the protest organizers said that many people said they objected to protesting for any purpose other than ending the Israeli occupation.

That means, of course, that there are a number of people in the West Bank, and particularly in Ramallah, who don’t mind the lack of unity.

The analyses are many and varied.  And — not only because it is so hard to get around in this place — it is a lot easier to just follow events online.

Ten young men who started a hunger strike in Manara Square two days before the March 15 protests continued their fast on Wednesday (they want political prisoners released in both the West Bank and in Gaza).  About 100 other demonstrators stayed with them overnight, though they were not fasting. Some of them were indignant when Palestinian security forces [actually, it was the Presidential Guard] showed up with falafel sandwiches and coke, saying this was an insult intended to provoke the group of fasters (though those fasting were fewer than ten percent of the total demonstrators). The Palestinian Security Forces were later seen pragmatically eating the rejected falafel sandwiches.

And, four members of the Fatah Central Committee [Azzam al-Ahmad, Abbas Zaki, Jamal Muheisen, and also Tayeb Abdel Rahman] also showed up at night to discuss the situation with the protesters — ultimately agreeing to support the demand for a tent to shelter them during the night. Negotiations were still continuing just before midnight about exactly where this tent could be.

[Other officials reportedly also visited Manara Square on Tuesday night… Nabil Shaath and maybe Jibril Rajoub (?)… ]

The ten hunger strikers had actually spent the two previous nights out in the open air — and it is still cold at this time of year. Palestinian Security forces also reportedly told the hunger strikers that they should leave Manara Square a few hours after midnight, because that was the time that the Israeli Army could come on patrol, and the Palestinian Security told the demonstrators that they, the Palestinians, could not protect them, the Palestinian protesters, from the Israeli patrols).

Earlier in the day, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Commitee met, and issued a statement saying that they “appreciated the efforts of the people in the street who wanted to end to division” — which protesters said they felt was a “weak statement” and “not serious”. (The statement also condemned the murder of five members of an Israeli settler family in Itamar near Nablus.)

Nevertheless, protestors were injured in Ramallah — some reportedly needing medical attention — by Palestinian Security forces in the early evening hours (apparently before the arrival of the four Fatah Central Committee members, who were sent to calm things down).

There were many more injuries and more force used at a much larger March 15 demonstration in Gaza.

The Foreign Press Association in Israel (FPA) issued a statement on March 16 saying that it is “gravely concerned by Hamas’ crackdown on the media during demonstrations in Gaza City on Tuesday. On a day ostensibly devoted to Palestinian unity, police brutally attacked photographers and cameramen, beating them, breaking equipment and confiscating photos and video footage. This is the latest in a string of chilling attacks on reporters in Gaza. We again implore the authorities to respect the basic right of freedom of the press and to let all journalists do their jobs freely and safely”. The FPA statement is posted here.

On March 15, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza issued a public appeal for an emergency meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen).

On March 16, Abbas told the PLO Central Committee that he was ready to travel to Gaza immediately to end the division — between Gaza and the West Bank. (He did not say between Fatah and Hamas… This certainly suggests that there has been no change in his position that what must happen is a restoration of the status quo ante, with the Ramallah-based leadership in overall charge of the Gaza Strip.)

Reports suggested that Abbas — who has not been in Gaza since the June 2007 rout, by Hamas, of Fatah/Palestinian security forces — could travel in the coming two to four days.

After the June 2007 events, Abbas convened a government meeting and declared Hamas an outlaw group.  He said that Hamas had carried out a “military coup”.  And, he then dissolved a three-month old, Saudi-brokered, “National Unity” government and formed a new “Emergency” government in the West Bank, naming Finance Minister Salam Fayyad as the new Prime Minister.  The Ramallah government revealed a group of secret documents and recordings, some of which exposed what was said to be a plot to assassinate Abbas by a huge bomb planted under the street near his house in Gaza City.

Hamas, however, continued to regard Abbas as President, though it regarded the Emergency government as illegitmate, until the five-year term for which Abbas had been elected expired in January 2009 (just after the end of the IDF’s massive Operation Cast Lead against Gaza, and a few days after Barack Obama was sworn into office in Washington).

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What happened in Manara Square on 15 March was, in a way, a battle of political posters and signs, and slogans.

In th late morning, a group of men described as Fatah supporters ran into Manara Square and ripped up the signs, calling for unity, that some of the demonstrators had hung or were carrying.

In the days prior to the demonstration, one protester said, “huge billboards signed by fake and unknown youth groups” went up around Ramallah and elsewhere in the West Bank. [It has often been noted, on previous occasions, that President Mahmoud Abbas’ younger surviving son, Tarek Abbas, is a Director of the Sky Advertising Agency which has the capability not only to print but also to post such huge billboard signs.]

Security forces reportedly hung posters around Manara showing the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (and the late Hamas leader Ahmad Yassin). Supporters of the March 15 demonstration took down at least one of these posters and hung their own — and were then warned by Palestinian security that they had “crossed all red lines”. (They were also told that they were being warned as a kind of a friendly favor, so they could correct their mistakes…)

One of the later posters hung by the demonstrators called for elections to the approximately 600-member Palestine National Council (PNC), the main congress of the overall PLO representing all Palestinians around the world. This was apparently particularly objectionable to the Palestinian Security forces.

[There have never been real elections to the PNC, due to “conditions”. Would the Jordanians allow the Palestinians in Jordan to vote in such elections? Would the Syrians? Would the Lebanese? What about the Egyptians, Saudis, and the United Arab Emirates? So, the political factions each have an allocated number of seats which they fill through their own internal selection process which sometimes might include elections. Then the unions — students, writers, engineers, women — would choose their own representatives the same way. Christians also had an allocated number of seats. And, finally, an allocation of seats for the Palestinians who were Israeli citizens or even residents (of East Jerusalem) would always be symbolically left empty…]

Though PLO official Nabil Shaath had said before the March 15 Demonstration that the Palestinian Security Services would not attack the demonstrators, but would only protect them, those involved in organizing the demonstration say they will not be surprised if there are more forceful confrontations today.

Part of the tactic is to maintain a central focus of the protests in Manara Square (as the Egyptian protests focussed on Cairo’s Tahrir Square).

Some — but only some — of the strategizers think that if there is suppression by Palestinian Security forces, it will not necessarily be a bad thing, because what galvanized and gave real momentum to the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square was the police repression, and the hiring of government employees and of unemployed men to act as thugs (baltagiya in the Egyptian dialect, baltajiya in the Palestinian dialect).

The number of deaths in the Egyptian protests has still not been finalized (Egyptian government officials have reportedly indicated it could be as high as 1,500.  It would be difficult to imagine the consequences if such a scenario played out in Ramallah, and in any case the leadership is clearly trying hard to maintain a strategy of co-optation rather than confrontation.

However, it’s clear that there’s still a long way to go in the education of those charged with carrying out this strategy on the ground level (who the protesters are now consistently calling “thugs”)…

In the meantime, the Israeli security services and army are conducting intense investigations into the murder of five members of an Israeli family living in the settlement of Itamar in the northern West Bank, and some of the main Israeli military checkpoints into and out of Ramallah have been shut down completely at various unpredictable points in recent days.

Yes, there was a decision

The AP has just reported that Hamas leader in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahar, has just reportedly accused the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat of encouraging Hamas attacks in Israel after the failure of the Camp David negotiations in late July 2000.

Zahar is considered one of the “hard line” Hamas leaders, and certainly bitter [he has reasons to be — not the least because of a direct Israeli Air Force hit that killed one of his sons and injured his wife, and also of the death of another son in an IDF land incursion into Gaza in January 2008].

Arafat was invited to Camp David, along with Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak, by former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Somebody at that time had the idea — it seems that this came from Barak advisors, and was supported by the U.S. — to just spring a full proposal on Arafat, and see how he reacted. The idea, it seems, was to make it easier for Arafat to accept a peace agreement. It didn’t work. There were two major problems for Arafat: the Israeli proposals for how to share the Old City of Jerusalem, and the Israeli proposals concerning the disposition of the Palestinian refugee question. He walked away, without giving any definite reply (signifying he wanted to keep his discussion, and his options, open).

Continue reading Yes, there was a decision

INVESTIGATION: Yezid Sayegh on the Hamas economy in Gaza

Later today, the Israeli Foreign Ministry is expected to publish a new list — of items forbidden to enter Gaza. This is the revamp of Israel’s sanctions policy that was announced in the wake of the 31 May Israeli attack on the Freedom Flotilla attempting to “break the siege on Gaza” by sea, which resulted in the deaths of 8 Turkish men and one American student.

But why is this list being announced by the Israeli Foreign Ministry?

Probably to emphasize, first of all, that Israel and Gaza are two different entities. Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, Israel has insisted since its unilateral withdrawal, in September 2005, of 8,000 Israeli settlers and the troops protecting them, that it is no longer occupying Gaza.

Since September 2007, following an Israeli Government decision to declare Gaza an “enemy entity” or “hostile territory”, the Israeli siege on Gaza has been administered by the Israeli Ministry of Defense — and in particular, its COGAT [Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories] department — without any other government supervision or oversight, than a warning by the Israeli Supreme Court, in response to a lawsuit brought by a group of Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups [with GISHA in the lead] not to allow a “humanitarian crisis” to develop.

Some international organizations believe that a this threshold has already been passed, several years ago.

And, there are continuous reports that this Israeli policy toward Gaza is not completely unappreciated by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, who also want to subdue if not topple Hamas and restore their control in the Gaza Strip. This commonality of interests supports the Israeli “siege”.

But, to the extent that a humanitarian crisis has not — yet — become a humanitarian disaster, resulting in a huge number of deaths among the 1.5 million people trapped by the siege in the Gaza Strip, is due, some argue, to the organization and coping strategies developed by Hamas.

It is worth noting that since the Israeli naval assault on the Freedom Flotilla, COGAT as reportedly been too busy to accept many scheduled deliveries of goods into Gaza, according to some reports in Ramallah — COGAT has been preoccupied with searching and inspecting the cargo of the Freedom Flotilla. Israel promised to deliver what was not forbidden to Gaza — and the entry of this material is only taking place now. This concerns a reported 70 truckloads worth of items, including electric wheelchairs.

COGAT in the past week has managed a steady increase in the number of truckloads it is allowing to pass through to Gaza per day — it is now hovering around, or even surpassing 150 truckloads per day [this should be compared, however, to the pre-2007 levels of between 400 and 600 truckloads a day, for 1.4 million people].

Yezid Sayegh, Professor of Middle East Studies in the Department of Wars Studies at King’s College London who is currently on leave to Brandeis University [his bio also says he is a former adviser and negotiator in the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks with Israel – but doesn’t say which ones] wrote an analysis of “Hamas Rule in Gaza -Three Years On”, published in March 2010, that says:

“Gaza has developed a unique economy based on a combination of three main inputs: smuggling (through the tunnels dug under the border with Egypt at Rafah); monthly subventions worth $65 million from the Fayyad government to pay its employees and operate Gaza’s power plant; and the services and salaries provided by international NGOs and, especially, UNRWA.

“These inputs relieve the Hanieh government of a considerable burden, much as a considerably greater scale of foreign aid relieves the Fayyad government. At $540 million, the Hanieh government’s declared budget for 2010 is a fraction of the $2.78 billion budget of its West Bank counterpart; but with only 32,000 employees to the latter’s 145,000, its costs are far lower. Even so, the Hanieh government is believed to collect no more than $5 million a month in local revenue, or even less, if its own informal figures are to be believed. It has avoided taxing the tunnel trade in civilian goods entering from Egypt, with the result that commodity prices have dropped since the start of 2010. The bulk of government income derives instead from foreign sources: contributions from the Muslim Brotherhood International (Hamas’s mother organization), collections from zakat committees, and a portion of the assistance believed to reach the Hamas leadership in Damascus from Iran”…

Continue reading INVESTIGATION: Yezid Sayegh on the Hamas economy in Gaza

Indefinite postponement for Palestinian West Bank local + muncipal elections

Palestinian local and municipal elections set for 17 July in the Israeli-occupied West Bank were suddenly and abruptly postponed indefinitely on Thursday 11 June.

In the absence of an official explanation, there were many others. The most credible was that Fatah learned, through polls, that it would not win, even though Hamas had said it would boycott the balloting, which would have been held only in the West Bank.

The earlier calculation was that these elections would bring a clear victory for Fatah and secular leftist forces in the West Bank, which would bring a new Hamas-free local government across the Israeli-occupied territory — paving the way for a new era.

But, many Palestinians scorned this tactic as unfair and undemocratic.

In February, shortly after the local elections (which have now been postponed) had been scheduled for 17 July, the Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) said it “absolutely rejects holding elections in local council, or any other elections, whose results are known in advance. Under the current situation, the results of such elections and the identities of winning political parties are known even before holding such elections”.

PCHR spelled out the problem with unusual frankness in its February statement: “the Palestinian Government in Gaza is not expected to accept holding local elections in Gaza based on a decision taken by the Government in Ramallah. Subsequently, the decision taken by the Cabinet in Ramallah, if implemented, will be effectively applied to local councils in the West Bank only, and no elections will be held at the same time in the Gaza Strip; a fact which the Government in Ramallah realizes. It is impossible to hold transparent and impartial elections that reflect the electorate’s will without providing appropriate conditions and freeing public liberties, which means stopping human rights violations, including stopping political arrests; respecting the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the right to freedom of association; and ensuring free political activities for all political parties and factions. These conditions are not available now in the Palestinian arena under the ongoing political division, which has caused unprecedented deterioration in the human rights situation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip”.

But, in the meantime, there were more complications.

Continue reading Indefinite postponement for Palestinian West Bank local + muncipal elections

Egypt opens Rafah crossing into Gaza

The announcement was made from Egypt as the Arab League met to discuss yesterday’s Israeli attack at sea on the Freedom Flotilla: the crossing into Gaza via Rafah would now be opened.

Egypt, with significant American material and technical assistance, has been building a steel wall that extends many meters underground, to prevent smuggling from the non-stop tunnels that extend the length of the Egyptian-Gazan border.

The Rafah crossing actually functioned only briefly. Israel unilaterally “disengaged” from Gaza in September 2005. Condoleezza Rice negotiated overnight on her birthday, 15 November 2005, to get Israel’s agreement on the modalities of getting goods and people into and out of the Gaza Strip.

The deal involved (1) real-time but remote control Israeli surveillance via video hookup from Kerem Shalom of (2) European Union monitors (based in the Israeli beachy-front city of Ashkelon) supervising (3) Palestinian Authority personnel processing all persons entering and exiting the Gaza Strip via Rafah.

Then, in January 2006, Hamas won a surprise victory in Palestinian Legislative Council elections — and the rest is actually not history, but still on-going.

Fatah was furious, and refused to join in a coalition government. The subsequent Hamas-led government was boycotted by Israel and the Quartet and the entire donor community. Palestinian Authority personnel, including security forces, could not be paid their salaries for over a year. Then, a short-lived Saudi-negotiated reconciliation produced a “National Unity” government that took office in March 2007. It was disbanded by the Palestinian Authority’s elected President Mahmoud Abbas in mid-June 2007, after a violent and dramatic Hamas rout of Fatah/Palestinian Preventive Security forces in the Gaza strip. Since then, Hamas runs the “de facto” governing administration in Gaza, while President Abbas, based in Ramallah, presides in the West Bank.

Israel has progressively tightened its squeeze on Gaza. At the same time, there are big problems between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas that have only exacerbated the squeeze.

And, Egyptian-brokered reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas have languished (at the moment, they appear to be taking place only Fatah and West Bank members of Hamas).

The opening of the crossings in and out of Gaza — including Rafah — is the carrot and the stick of this piece of political theater.

In January 2008, after tightened Israeli sanctions restricted fuel to the point that Gaza’s only power plant was forced to shut down, leaving Gaza City and more than half a million persons completely without electricity, Gazans (with the active assistance of Hamas) pulled down an Egyptian-built above-ground wall. Popular sympathy for their plight caused the Egyptian government to open the Rafah crossing, and Gazans streamed into Egypt to go shopping for a few days, before returning to their families and homes in the Gaza Strip. Then, after considerable Israeli pressure, the Rafah crossing was closed. Since then, it is only open intermittently, on short notice, and according to no regular schedule.

Today, as part of a wave of reaction to the Israeli raid at sea of the Freedom Flotilla headed to Gaza, the Rafah crossing was declared open again.

How long will it stay open this time?

The Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry al-Youm today reported that the opening of Rafah crossing is only temporary: “The governor of northern Sinai, Murad Muwafi, says President Hosni Mubarak ordered the opening of the border crossing to Gaza in the town of Rafah for several days. Muwafi says the opening of the crossing — which Egypt sealed after Gaza was taken over by Hamas militants in 2007 — is an effort to ‘alleviate the suffering of our Palestinian brothers after the Israeli attack’ on the flotilla. This was posted
here.

After a reported ten hours of deliberations on Monday to Tuesday, at Turkey’s request, the UN Security Council agreed on a statement which said, among other things, that “The Security Council deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries resulting from the use of force during the Israeli military operation in international waters against the convoy sailing to Gaza. The Council, in this context, condemns those acts which resulted in the loss of at least 10 civilians and many wounded, and expresses its condolences to their families. The Security Council requests the immediate release of the ships as well as the civilians held by Israel. The council urges Israel to permit full consular access, to allow the countries concerned to retrieve their deceased and wounded immediately, and to ensure the delivery of humanitarian assistance from the convoy to its destination … The Security Council stresses that the situation in Gaza is not sustainable. The Council re-emphasises the importance of the full implementation of Resolutions 1850 and 1860 [n.b., both of these UN Security Council resolutions say that the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authorurity is the legitimate power in Gaza]. In that context, it reiterates its grave concern at the humanitarian situation in Gaza and stresses the need for sustained and regular flow of goods and people to Gaza as well as unimpeded provision and distribution of humanitarian assistance throughout Gaza…” Turkey is currently a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Turkey is also a long-standing member of NATO, and at a meeting in Brussels today the 28 nations in the organization called Tuesday for a “prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation”, and “Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen demanded the immediate release of the detained civilians and ships held by Israel”. The Jerusalem Post reported this news, but noted that Turkey “did not demand that the alliance take collective action against Israel, said a diplomat who attended the talks”. The JPost report is posted here.

And, one of Israel’s most respected authors, David Grossman, wrote today “How insecure, confused and panicky a country must be, to act as Israel acted! With a combination of excessive military force, and a fatal failure to anticipate the intensity of the reaction of those aboard the ship, it killed and wounded civilians, and did so – as if it were a band of pirates – outside its territorial waters. This assessment does not imply agreement with the motives, overt or hidden, and often malicious, of some participants in the Gaza flotilla. Not all its people are peace-loving humanitarians, and the declarations of some of them regarding the destruction of the state of Israel are criminal. But these facts are simply not relevant at the moment: such opinions do not deserve the death penalty. Israel’s actions are but the natural continuation of the shameful, ongoing closure of Gaza, which in turn is the perpetuation of the heavy-handed and condescending approach of the Israeli government, which is prepared to embitter the lives of a million and a half innocent people in the Gaza Strip, in order to obtain the release of one imprisoned soldier, precious and beloved though he may be; and this closure is the all-too-natural consequence of a clumsy and calcified policy, which again and again resorts by default to the use of massive and exaggerated force, at every decisive juncture, where wisdom and sensitivity and creative thinking are called for instead … The closure of Gaza has failed. It has failed for four years now. What this means is that it is not merely immoral, but also impractical, and indeed worsens the entire situation, as we are reminded at this very hour, and also harms the vital interests of Israel. The crimes of the leaders of Hamas, who have held the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit captive for four years without once allowing the Red Cross to visit him, and who fired thousands of rockets from the Gaza Strip at Israeli towns and villages, are acts that must be firmly dealt with, utilising the various legal means available to a sovereign state. The ongoing siege of a civilian population is not one of them. I would like to believe that the shock of Monday’s frantic actions will lead to a re-evaluation of the whole idea of the closure, at last freeing the Palestinians from their suffering, and cleansing Israel of its moral stain. But our experience in this tragic region teaches that the opposite will occur: the mechanisms of violent response, the cycles of vengeance and hatred, Monday began a new round, whose magnitude cannot yet be foreseen. Above all, this insane operation shows how far Israel has declined. There is no need to overstate this claim. Anyone with eyes to see understands and feels it”. This comment was posted here.

Amnesty: Journalists get hit by all sides in Israel + Palestine

The director of Amnesty International’s program for the Middle East and North Africa, Malcolm Smart, has issued (on 12 March) a statement expressing concern about the “continuing curbs on media freedom and harassment of journalists working in Gaza and the West Bank”

The statement notes that “Amnesty International has called on the Palestinian and Israeli authorities to release all journalists who are being detained for carrying out their legitimate professional activities, amid continuing harassment of media workers in the region”.

Continue reading Amnesty: Journalists get hit by all sides in Israel + Palestine

Palestinians: "It's only four months…"

Palestinian officials are saying that they were under too much pressure from the Europeans and the Arabs to resist any longer accepting an American proposal to undertake “indirect” or “proximity” talks with Israel after more than a year of no negotiations. “It’s only for four months”, Palestinian officials say, apologetically, with a shrug of the shoulders. “Then we’ll know whether Israel is serious or not…”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) took the proposal to a meeting of Arab League Foreign Ministers last week, which on Wednesday gave him the go-ahead, the green light, the fig leaf he felt he needed.

Reports vary: the Arab League Foreign Ministers reportedly said the UN Security Council would be engaged straight away if there are no concrete results after four months. There are other reports that the U.S. has made, or will be asked to make, a pledge that it will not exercise its veto power in the UN Security Council to protect Israel from the consequences of a failure in the negotiations. There are reports that a definition of borders will — or will not be — the first item of business.

But, the Palestinian leadership’s previous position that it will not engage in talks as long as Israel does not halt its settlement activities throughout the West Bank (including East Jerusalem).

Despite the Arab League Foreign Ministers endorsement of Abbas’ proposition to participate in renewed negotiations, Ma’an News Agency reported, the Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit — who was “present” during the Arab League Foreign Ministers meeting in Cairo on Wednesday — said a day later that “he believed Palestinians should not enter into direct talks with Israel in light of the current controversy over heritage sites. Speaking from Cairo after a meeting of the Follow-up Committee for the Arab Peace Initiative, Abul Gheit said delegates shared his sentiments, a stark contrast to the announcement of the Arab Foreign Ministers meeting, which gave its blessing for talks to continue. ‘The committee will not remain silent over all what is going on … The Arab Follow up Committee will not make any concessions and will not support direct negotiations unless Israel changes its positions’, he said.” It is difficult to reconcile these statements. The Ma’an report is posted here.

Many Palestinians — individually and as members of political movements ranging from Hamas to Fatah, as well as the various smaller “factions” of the Palestinian left — are scornful of the decision to re-engage in talks.

Yet, the resumption of talks appears almost inevitable — unless something extremely dramatic happens. There are very persistent rumors — it is a daily topic of conversation — about an impending “third intifada”. Haaretz correspondent Amira Hass, who lives in Ramallah, wrote Friday that “Judging from articles written by both Israelis and Palestinians, the next intifada is already in the air. They are predicting it is on the way and the most punctilious know it will be ‘popular’. Bil’in and Na’alin [n.b. where there have been regular Friday demonstrations against The Wall which are almost always dispersed with bursts of tear gas] are perceived as its models. Some Palestinians are guessing it will first erupt in Jerusalem”.

Hass also wrote that “the supreme challenge facing the initiators of the next uprising – if it indeed erupts – is to prevent its descent into a so-called armed struggle, which inevitably will expropriate the street and the struggle from the public. The militarization of the second intifada led to grave disasters – personal, collective and geo-political. Off the record, many admit this but a number of factors are still preventing frank, public debate. For years the theory of armed struggle, until liberation and independence are achieved, has been held sacred. Many people feel ill at ease to criticize the militarization publicly, as though they would thereby dishonor the dead, the wounded, the prisoners and their families … The truth is that the suicide attacks on civilians gave Israel a golden opportunity to implement plans, which had always existed, to confiscate more and more Palestinian lands, using the excuse of ‘security’. The use of weapons did not stop the colonialist expansion of the Jewish settlements. On the contrary. And the use of weapons only accelerated a process Israel began in 1991: disconnecting the Gaza Strip from the West Bank … many of the young men played with weapons in order to obtain social and economic status in the movement and the PA. When Fatah people dare today to renounce the sanctity of the armed struggle, their collective reputation as corrupt automatically detracts from peoples’ faith in their arguments, even if those arguments are logical. Another challenge facing the initiators of the popular uprising, if it indeed erupts in the near future, is actually a challenge that Israeli society must face. Will it once again adopt the deceptive narrative of the IDF and the politicians (‘the Palestinians attacked us’, ‘terror’) and allow them, as in the two previous intifadas, to suppress the uprising using disproportionate and deadly means? These are the deadly means that, in the Palestinians’ eyes, make Israeli rule look like a series of bloody acts from 1948 to this day”. Amira Hass’ article can be read in full here.

Meanwhile — and unless the much-discussed third intifada, or something equally dramatic, happens — one Palestinian woman in the news business commented that there is now an attitude of “do what you have to do”; on the other hand, she said, “people don’t give a damn any more”.

The Fatah Central Committee (all wearing grey business suits with dress shirts + ties) met in the Muqata’a Presidential Headquarters in Ramallah on Saturday to discuss the impending U.S.-mediated talks . After the meeting, road traffic was held up for nearly ten minutes by Presidential security guards wearing olive green camouflague jumpsuits and burgundy red berets — holding big black automatic weapons with their fingers on the triggers — before an 11-car convoy (including two black vans each bristling with a crown of antennas that Palestinians say can temporarily disrupt local communications) escorting a black sedan carrying President Abbas careened around the corner as he travelled from the Muqata’a to his heavily-guarded home in small villa in northern Ramallah on Saturday afternoon.

The Executive Committee of the overall Palestine Liberation Organization (P.L.O. — which groups Fatah and the Palestinian “factions” other than Hamas) will meet to discuss the proposal on Sunday.

U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell arrived back in the region on Saturday night, and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is due to arrive on Sunday.

Haaretz’s veteran correspondent Akiva Eldar reported on Friday that “The United States government has committed to playing a role in indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and promised that if the talks were to fail, the U.S. will assign blame and take action, according to a document sent by the U.S. to the Palestinian Authority, which Haaretz obtained on Friday. The U.S. government sent the document to the Palestinians responding to their inquires regarding the U.S. initiative to launch indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians. ‘We expect both parties to act seriously and in good faith. If one side, in our judgment, is not living up to our expectations, we will make our concerns clear and we will act accordingly to overcome that obstacle’, it was written. This commitment by the U.S. was a determining factor in the Palestinians’ and the Arab League’s decision to agree to the U.S. proposal on indirect talks. The document also reveals that U.S. involvement will include ‘sharing messages between the parties and offering our own ideas and bridging proposals’. The U.S. also emphasized that their main concern is establishing a Palestinian state. ‘Our core remains a viable, independent and sovereign Palestinian State with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967’, the document read. Regarding the settlements, the U.S. noted its continued commitment to the road map, which dictates that Israel must freeze all construction in the settlements, and dismantle all outposts erected since March 2001″. This Akiva Eldar report can be view in full here.

But, the Jerusalem Post reported that “The indirect ‘proximity talks’ between Israel and the Palestinians likely to begin next week will not pick up where the discussions between then-prime minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas broke off in late 2008, The Jerusalem Post has learned. This issue has been a key sticking point for months, with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu rejecting the Palestinian demand that the talks begin from the point where they ended with Olmert. Olmert offered the Palestinians nearly 94 percent of the West Bank, a land swap to compensate for most of the rest, an arrangement on Jerusalem, and the return of a small number of refugees into Israel as a ‘humanitarian gesture’ … The Post has also learned that the proximity talks will not immediately focus primarily on borders, another Palestinian demand, with Israel saying there can be no credible discussion of borders without first knowing what security arrangements will be in place”. This JPost report is published here.

Meanwhile, a Palestinian family of six from the West Bank village of Silwad was killed when their car crashed into an Israeli military Hummer on Friday near Bir Zeit, north of Ramallah, and their funerals took place on Saturday. The Jerusalem Post reported here, that “Apparently, the Palestinian car had a flat tire, causing it to divert from its course”. It is not clear what interaction there had been between the forces in the Hummer and the Palestinian family car, but the Jerusalem Post said Israeli police were investigating. But, very upset local Palestinian witnesses said on the Palestinian Television nightly news Friday saying that it was clear that Israel did not want peace.

Also on Friday, a fourteen-year-old Palestinian boy remained in critical condition after being shot in the head by Israeli Defense Forces using rubber bullets at a demonstration in Nabi Salah area near Ramallah.

Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Haram ash-Sharif mosque esplanade [which Israelis call the Temple Mount, because it is believed that the Second and possibly also the First Jewish Temple were situated somewhere on that site] in the Old City of East Jerusalem ended very badly after a sermon critical of the Israeli government decision a week earlier to name the Ibrahimi (Abraham) Mosque in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem as “heritage” sites. Israeli Border Police stormed the mosque esplanade after, they said, Muslim worshippers began throwing rocks that hit Jewish worshippers standing at the Western Wall Plaza just below Al-Aqsa Mosque. Israeli forces used tear gas and stun grenades were used on the mosque esplanade and in various nearby areas of East Jerusalem as disturbances spread. Though the Israeli police have denied that rubber bullets were used, the Jerusalem Post reported that “Ron Krumer, a spokesman for Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center, confirmed an Arab woman was wounded in the head by a rubber bullet [n.b. – it is not clear where in East Jerusalem this woman was when injured] and hospitalized in serious condition”. The Jerusalem Post also reported that “Having restored calm by use of stun grenades, and following helpful intervention by other Muslim worshipers to defuse the clash, police eventually withdrew in coordination with the Waqf to allow older worshipers to leave the Temple Mount. Eight of the injured policemen were hospitalized in light condition. Five suspects were arrested during the riots”. The Qalandia “border crossing”/checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah was tense, but open, late on Friday afternoon. There were no Palestinian traffic police visible as Israeli soldiers were sitting in khaki-colored hummers surrounded by a number of large rocks that had clearly been thrown at them not long earlier. Two soldiers were outside the vehicles, escorting a young teenager they were bringing back under detention. Between 50 to 100 meters further inside, a group of at least 60 even younger boys were on both sides of the street, watching intently to see what the Israeli forces were doing. Some of these younger boys were sitting on a low concrete divider in the middle of the road, and there were large rocks placed on the divider next to them. Adults were going about their business as if nothing special was going on.

Earlier in the week, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barakat announced a radical new proposal to develop municipal planning — for the first time time since the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem in June 1967 — for various neighborhoods of East Jerusalem that would mean some Palestinian (and some Israeli) housing would be legalized, while other Palestinian housing would be demolished. The new proposal was presented as an attempt to offer some nominal equality between the two communities, but there was a great lack of clarity about how it would work out in actual practice. Immediately after the proposal was announced, Prime Minister Netanyahu asked the Jerusalem mayor to carry out further consultations with the local communities before proceeding.

Twenty-four hours later, renewed disturbances were reported in northern East Jerusalem areas of Shuafat refugee camp and Al-Isawiya, and reports linked these clashes to the post-Friday prayer events.

The UN Security Council on Friday “called for restraint by all sides and an early return to the negotiating table, while voicing their concern at the current ‘tense’ situation in the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem”, according to a report by the UN News Centre [the UN uses British English spelling]. The report added that the current UNSC President for the month of March, Ambassador Emmanuel Issoze-Ngondet of Gabon, told journalists after closed-door Council deliberations that the 15 members ‘urged all sides to show restraint and avoid provocative acts’, and ‘stressed that peaceful dialogue was the only way forward and looked forward to an early resumption of negotiations’.” And, the report added, “The situation in the Middle East was also among the issues discussed yesterday during a meeting between Mr. Issoze-Ngondet, in his capacity as Council President, and General Assembly President Ali Treki [of Libya]”. This UN News Centre story is posted here.

Haaretz later reported that “The permanent Palestinian observer to the United Nations, Riyad Mansour, welcomed the council statement, adding that the U.S. decision not to block it ‘is a signal that the United States wants this effort to succeed’ and Israel to restrain itself. A U.S. official, however, told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the American delegation had not agreed with the statement and said it was adopted due to what the official described as ‘procedural confusion’.”  This Haaretz report is posted here.

In a regular monthly briefing to the UN Security Council on 18 February, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, B. Lynn Pascoe (of the U.S.) said: “We call for the resumption of talks on final status issues, implementation of Road Map commitments, continued efforts to improve economic and security conditions, and a different and more positive approach to Gaza.” Pascoe was speaking on behalf of UN Secretary-General BAN Ki-Moon — and his statements usually represent an important organizational statement that is pre-negotiated with major powers, and certainly, in this case, with the Quartet of Middle East negotiators who include the UN, the U.S., Russia, and the European Union. According to a UN summary of his statement, Pascoe told the UNSC that “Israel had indicated its readiness to accept indirect talks proposed by George Mitchell, Special Envoy of the United States to the Middle East, while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had been engaged in intensive consultations and had sought clarifications. ‘The Secretary-General hopes that President Abbas will move forward on the basis of that practical proposal so that serious talks can begin … He notes Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu’s stated commitment to a two-State solution, although confusion as to the Government’s intentions arises from statements by various Government officials’.” The UN statement said that Pascoe had urged “Israel to extend its current 10?month freeze on the building of settlements in the West Bank to a comprehensive freeze there and in East Jerusalem”. Pascoe stated that “The status of Jerusalem is to be determined through negotiations, and we believe that a way must be found through negotiations for Jerusalem to emerge as the capital of two States”. He noted, however, “that, since his last briefing on 27 January, the Israeli authorities had identified violations of restraint orders in at least 29 settlements, while the Defence Ministry had stated that it was issuing demolition and stop-work orders against violators”. On the other hand, Pascoe said, “The fact that Israel had not evicted Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem or demolished those homes was a ‘positive development which we hope will continue’, and he called for “the reopening of Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem, in accordance with Road Map obligations”. This is a point that European Union leaders have recently emphasized.

Pascoe also told the UNSC that Israel’s ongoing closure of crossing points into Gaza is “counterproductive”, and “causing unacceptable hardship for the civilian population, more than half of whom are children”.  A UN press release describing his statement is posted here.

There has been recent high-level mention (by American as well as French officials) about the possibility of finally taking up a long-standing Russian proposal to hold a conference to push for progress in Israeli-Palestinian and/or Israeli-Arab negotiations — and news reports have suggested that such a conference may be convened in Moscow on or around March 19th.

That is, if nothing dramatic happens in the meantime…

Despite stalemate, Palestinian Local and Municipal Elections to be held in West Bank in July

Palestinian Presidential and Legislative Council Elections are on hold — but local and municipal elections will be held in the West Bank on 17 July, it was announced today.

It must be because the elections for the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate (PJS) went so well this past Friday and Saturday…

(Apparently, one reason may be that there are no journalists with an open affiliation with Hamas who are members of the PJS, though there may be a few silent sympathizers … A good number of the journalists who are members of the PJS are affiliated with the other Palestinian “factions”, and there are also independents. In any case, the main reason that the elections went ahead, according to one journalist, was the intense desire for a change. A secondary reason, he said, was the interest and excitement created by the fact that new posts of responsibility would become available.)

The decision to declare the local and municipal elections was made by the Palestinian cabinet of ministers working with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is in Japan).

The Associated Press reported this evening that “Abbas’ rivals in Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, signaled they will not participate in the July 17 election, virtually guaranteeing that Fatah will reclaim key cities where Hamas won in the last round of local elections five years ago. But a Hamas boycott would also likely exclude Gaza from the voting and diminish the potential of the election to compare the present strengths of the bitter rivals … Fatah took a drubbing from Hamas in parliamentary elections in 2006, largely because voters wanted to punish Fatah for years of corruption, arrogance and mismanagement. The Abbas government decided Monday that elections will be held in dozens of West Bank communities with more than 5,000 residents. The voting will take place in stages, with the first towns voting July 17, said Palestinian Cabinet Minister Mohammed Ishtayeh. ‘It will be open to any person who wants to participate, including (those from) Hamas’, Ishtayeh said. However, Hamas signaled it would not field candidates because of a crackdown on the movement in the West Bank. Since the Gaza takeover, Abbas’ security forces have arrested hundreds of Hamas activists, closed Hamas charities and sent home Hamas mayors”… This AP story can be read in full here.

The AP story added that “voting patterns in local elections differ from those in general elections. Clan interests often supersede faction loyalty”.

Palestinian journalists head toward controversial union elections today

UPDATE: By 10 pm in Jerusalem on Saturday evening, it was clear that the 63 candidates of the “Unity” list had won the controversial elections in the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, and will form a new governing “Council”.

According to one journalist involved, there were 510 journalists who participated in the voting today in El-Bireh/Ramallah (out of some 700 who had showed up on Friday and were eligible to vote), and 360 votes had been recorded so far for the “Unity” list, while counting continued.  He said it may take another couple of days for everything to be finished.

The new Council, composed of the 63 members of the “Unity” list, will now elect from among themselves a 21-member “Executive Office” to manage day-to-day affairs. This 21-member “Executive Office” will soon vote to elect the first new head of the PJS in almost two decades.

UPDATE TWO: On Sunday, the head of the elections committee, Riyad al-Hassan, announced that  there were, in the final analyis, 446 valid ballots, and the “Unity” list won with 312 of those valid votes. The terms of office for the new officials, he said, would be three years — unless it becomes possible to hold balloting in Gaza, at which point new elections will be held.

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Earlier: It was a bit of a confusing mess.

The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate (or Union) has not had a General Assembly, or an election, for nearly 20 years. (Precisely, it seems, the stagnation has lasted for 16 years.)

For at least 16 years, the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate has been headed by one Naim Toubassi [alternate spellings in English possible, including Tubassi, Tobassi, Toubasi, Tubasi, and so on]. (Some complain that he has never been a journalist, but was only previously involved in newspaper distribution.)

No one has seen the membership rolls, which have swollen to just over 1,000 enrolled persons. (Some estimates are that only half of this number are really journalists.)

No one has seen a financial report. (Dues for membership in the PJS are 1,000 N.I.S. – Israeli shekels – per year: for purposes of comparison, this is the same cost as dues for membership in the Foreign Press Association, based in Tel Aviv, most of whose members work for major international media organizations.)

For over a year, there has been an effort by some journalists to open the windows and let in some fresh air.

Continue reading Palestinian journalists head toward controversial union elections today

"We didn't know he was a journalist" + "There was no security concern" — so why detention pending deporation?

This story gets better and better [do I have to say, “irony alert“?].

“There was no security concern”, an Israeli official said about the detention since Tuesday in difficult and uncertain conditions of an American journalist who is awaiting a deportation hearing on Sunday — and the deportation that was carried out already of his girlfriend.

So, these actions must be a form of disciplinary measure…

Continue reading "We didn't know he was a journalist" + "There was no security concern" — so why detention pending deporation?