Mahmoud Abbas was stunned and enraged when U.S. President Donald Trump decided to recognize Jerusalem (no coordinates specified) as Israel’s capital last December.
It’s a “reality on the ground”, Trump said – no mention of conquest, annexation, a continuing military occupation, and abandoned negotiations.
Trump also declared, in the same December 6th speech he delivered, in front of VP Pence and multiple decorated Christmas trees, that he’d move the US Embassy to Jerusalem – in direct contravention of the UN Security Council’s resolution 478 (August 1980).
A consequential part of Trump’s decision is the opening of an interim US Embassy, in the Arnona area of south Jerusalem on May 14, timed to coincide with Israel’s 70th Independence Day anniversary by the Common Era calendar. That’s also the day before Palestinians mark the Nakba, or catastrophe, of their dispossession in 1947-1949, when some 75% of all Palestinians were forced out of their homes, lands, and villages; most have been barred from returning.
The immediate response to Trump’s Jerusalem declaration were calls for “Day of Rage” demonstrations, to “confront the occupation”, sometimes several times each week, in both the West Bank (where protests are prohibited by military regulations) and in Gaza. These calls were initially backed by all Palestinian factions: Fatah’s deputy leader Mahmoud Al-Aloul was one of the few in the leadership who participated in the first one in Ramallah. The protesters in the West Bank are mostly young, and they go with their friends. The Gaza marchers faced worse conditions.
Three months later, a coalition in Gaza organized a “Great Return March” to take place at Gaza’s perimeterfrom Palestinian “Land Day” on March 30, to Palestinian “Nakba (Catastrophe) Day” on May 15. Though it wasn’t a Hamas initiative, it was impossible to miss the level of organization and the amount of resources that Hamas has contributed.
Approximately 2/3 of the population of Gaza are refugees from 1948. Return has been the priority demand of Hamas since its founding in 1987. A number of the marchers would like to march straight across Israel’s security fence.
The “peaceful masses moving forward” strategy was already tried in the West Bank, though on a smaller scale, and without backing from the leadership in Ramallah, in 2011. The call was simply to enter Jerusalem. There were not many marchers, and they didn’t get past Qalandiya Checkpoint. The real drama happened elsewhere: in the heady days of the Arab Spring, on Nakba Day (May 15) and then on Naksa Day (June 5) in 2011.
In May 2011, Nablus millionaire Munib Al-Masri’s grandson, also named Munib, and then 22, was badly wounded by Israeli fire in Lebanon near the border, and has been permanently paralyzed as a result.
In June 2011, Palestinians from Yarmouk Camp near Damascus, Syria were bussed to the Golan and marched across marked mine-fields.. Refugees and their supporters in Lebanon were also bussed down to the Israeli border, and also tried but were unable to cross. Reports say 10 to 14 Palestinians were killed, mostly in the Golan.
However, Israelis adamantly refuse the idea of any return of Palestinian refugees, and say it would pose an existential threat. Just ahead of the Gaza Return March that began on March 30 (Land Day) in 2018, the Israeli military went on war footing, saying they fear an invasion of tens of thousands of protestors from Gaza. IDF Chief of Staff warned in advance – and deployed – 100 snipers at the Gaza perimeter, who have since taken a high toll, especially in the first four weeks of the Great Return March.
Five Israeli and one Gazan human rights groups have petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to stop the IDF from using snipers and live ammunition to stop the civilian demonstrators in Gaza – the first time this has happened. However, Israel’s Supreme Court prefers to help the Israeli government become better without public confrontation or rebuke. And there has been an apparent change in the IDF’s rules of engagement. On May 4, for the first time in six weeks, no killings were reported, and there were fewer than 200 reported injures, rather than thousands.
Almost 50 Palestinians have been killed at the Gaza perimeter since March 30 and over 8,500 people injured, straining Gaza’s health care resources to the limit. (9 May: Spokesman for the Ministry of Health: 47 Martyrs, including 5 children, and 8536 wounded by IOF gunfire since the start of the return marches on the borders of the Gaza Strip. https://twitter.com/qudsn/status/994268438293041154 ) Some of those injured will be permanently disabled.
Overall, since Trump’s December 6 announcements about Jerusalem, about 100 Palestinians have been killed by the IDF in both the West Bank and Gaza.
Pres Abbas declared a day of mourning on the day after the March 30 Land Day demonstration at the Gaza periphery — but nothing since, other than a statement in his opening speech to the PNC on April 30 saying that children should be kept away from the perimeter.
Jerusalem expert Daniel Seidemann has warned that “we have never witnessed a geopolitical move as potentially shocking and infuriating to the Palestinian sector as moving the embassy. Such a move will tell the Palestinians: ‘Abandon hope. Political processes – negotiations, diplomacy, and the like – will not only not help you, they will harm you.’ Likewise, it will send them a resounding message: ‘It’s official – East Jerusalem and its holy sites are lost to the Palestinians, to the Arabs, and to Islam’.”
Seidemann notes, however, that “geopolitical issues are not generally what trigger violence in Jerusalem; rather, what triggers violence is threats, real or perceived, to the sanctity of sacred places, and most notably to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif”, link <a href=”http://t-j.org.il/LatestDevelopments/tabid/1370/articleID/878/currentpage/1/Default.aspx“>here</a>
Meanwhile, the Israeli Temple Mount organizations have reportedly put out massive messaging calling – through their media and social networking sites, to their supporters and to the settlers – to go up to the Al-Aqsa Mosque Compound as the Palestinian people are marking the Nakba.. http://www.wafa.ps/ar_page.aspx?id=BrsHQba819586867902aBrsHQb
Other Palestinian media say that calls have gone out for have at least 2,000 Jews to go up to the site on Sunday, May 13 – which, this year, is “Jerusalem Day”.
Trump, however, believes that he’s taken the issue off the table, claiming to have solved this most contentious of issues all by himself – though it’s been internationally agreed since the Madrid Conference in 1991 that Jerusalem is a final status issue that must resolved through Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Abbas waited for six weeks before convening the PLO’s (Palestine Liberation Organization) Central Council in mid-January, where he exploded in anger at Trump: In a televised speech, Abbas responded furiously to Trump’s assertion that the Palestinians had refused negotiations (“What negotiations?”, Abbas asked, in frustration “When did we refuse to negotiate?”). Abbas then cursed (“yikhrab beitak”, may your house fall into ruin). It made headlines all over the world.
Abbas strategy, based on his calculation of the imbalance of power and the few tools at his disposal, has been to wait. Palestinians are the weaker party, so they must wait. Abbas has himself suggests that this is a manifestation of the traditional Palestinian virtue of sumoud (steadfastness). “We are here and we’re staying here”, Abbas had said on a number of occasions.
Abbas has waited for Prime Ministers to resign, for Presidential elections, for new administrations to read-in on issues, for circumstances to change, for public opinion to move. He waited for President Donald Trump to call (the call came in March 2017), waited for an invitation to the White House (he went on May 3), waited for Trump to come to Bethlehem (that was on May 23), to meet Trump at the UN (September 20) when Trump said to Abbas in front of the cameras: “I certainly will devote everything within my heart and within my soul to get that deal made”.
For months Abbas waited patiently (just as Hussam Zomlot, Abbas’ Strategic Advisor and now PLO representative in Washington, was impatient) to see the “Deal of the Century”, being drafted by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner + long-time legal advisor Jason Greenblatt. Zomlot said he was “literally nagging” them, since May, “saying we’re ready, we’re ready, don’t waste another day, not another week, we’ve wasted enough time — what are you waiting for?”
Zomlot said in a presentation at the Middle East Institute (MEI) in January that he’d lost count of the many meetings he’d had with Trump’s team, Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt (but Abbas said in September it was “more than 20 times” https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-president-abbas-palestinian-authority-bilateral-meeting/ ). But they were blindsided when Trump announced his Jerusalem decisions. Zomlot said he felt “backstabbed”, and angrily added that “President Trump reneged not only on the long-held US and international policy but also reneged on his own promises”.
Zomlot said he’d been pressing for a Trump indication of support for previous U.S. policy. The two-state solution – which Zomlot says was not a Palestinian demand but is instead “a Palestinian concession” – was unanimously endorsed (US voted ‘yes’) in UN Security Council resolution 1515 of 2003 (https://www.un.org/press/en/2003/sc7924.doc.htm), honoring President G.W. Bush’s earlier “vision” of creation of a Palestinian State. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/10/04/AR2005100401410.html
But, Zomlot recounted, Trump avoided doing so. Zomlot, citing Trump: “I did not endorse the two-state solution because I do not want to impose, I do not want to dictate, I do not want to influence, I do not want to tell the two sides what to do”. Then, Zomlot said at MEI, as if addressing Trump: “You come all of a sudden and you decide to take the heart of the two state solution out, the core of all issues, the mother of all issues – Jerusalem”.
Months later, Abbas convened the Palestine National Council (PNC) –“the supreme authority of the Palestinian people in all their places of residence” (https://www.palestinepnc.org/en/) – to deal with the challenge in Jerusalem, and also, significantly to “protect Palestinian legitimacy”, under challenge on many fronts.
This PNC 23rd Session was held in the tightly-guarded and secured presidential compound in Ramallah, the Muqata’a, from April 30 to May 4 – convened as a matter of urgency, after several postponements in recent years. The last full PNC session was in Gaza in 1996.
There was a strong but ultimately unsuccessful campaign of opposition to this PNC session, a sign of growing frustration with the worsening of all conditions in the West Bank and a dramatic desperation in Gaza.
Ohio-born American-Palestinian businessman Sam Bahour, who isn’t a member of the PNC, but who is a civil-society advocate for Palestinian development and Palestinian rights, said he was disappointed: “First, its location and the insistence by Chairman Abbas that we are free political subjects while under Israeli military occupation. He knows better and so does every Palestinian. Secondly, the membership continued to be defined and revised in a nontransparent and unrepresentative fashion. Thirdly, the session’s substance was weak at best, regurgitating the same worn out long diatribes. Lastly, the composition and median age of the elected PLO Executive Committee leaves much to be desired for a people whose national liberation movement is being seriously challenged”.
The PNC (established in Gaza in 1948) sets policy for the PLO (established at a meeting of the PNC in Jerusalem in 1964). The PNC also elects (by a show of hands, in open meetings; it’s always been that way) the PLO’s two ruling organs/bodies – the 18-member Executive Committee, and the 100-member Central Council.
The PLO was recognized by the UN General Assembly in 1974 as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”, and admitted as an observer organization in the UN General Assembly. It was the PLO which established, under the Oslo Accords and with Israel’s assent, the Palestinian Authority, in 1994, ostensibly as an interim authority.
Past PNC Sessions have adopted some key decisions. Under iconic leader Yasser Arafat: there was a deciion to establish a state on any inch of liberated Palestine, with its permanent capital in Jerusalem/Al-Quds (in its 12th Session, held in Cairo in 1974). In Algiers in 1988, the 19th PNC Session approved the Declaration of the Independent State of Palestine with Jerusalem/Al-Quds as its capital.
Uri Davis, a PNC delegate who was born to Jewish parents in Jerusalem in 1943 under the British Mandate for Palestine, is a long-time member of Fatah and married to Miyasa Abu Ali, another long-time member of Fatah. Davis firmly believes that Ramallah was the best place to hold the PNC Session, because “There are a number of UN resolutions that demand Israeli withdrawal from this land…Imagine the PLO was still stuck in Tunisia and Trump would make his awful statements about Jerusalem, would the PLO voice have any significant weight?”
As President Abbas said, “it is our homeland”.
Davis added, with approval and pride: “President Mahmoud Abbas, Abu Mazen, is the only Arab leader to my knowledge in the Middle East who actually said ‘No’ to Trump”.
“Hamas refused membership in the PLO and in the Palestine National Council on a number of bases, or better say pretenses, one of which is its rejection of the Oslo Accords”, according to Davis. “I first learnt of it when it was published, and I had serious reservations…for the simple reason that it distinguished between an interim state of negotiations (or interim status) and the permanent status”.
“The PLO is the representative of the Palestinian people, there’s no question about it”, Davis said. “Any body, corporate body, that seeks to modify or reject or nullify or reiterate the Oslo Accords has to do it from within the structure of the representative body. Don’t just condemn the Oslo Accords from the outside. If you’re serious about it, do it through the by-law + regulations of the PNC”.
Hamas – which had been negotiating its possible entry into the PLO since 2005, if not earlier (it wanted a larger representation in the PNC than Fatah was willing to give) – may have missed a good chance, if it ever actually wanted to join the PLO. All 132 members of the PLC received identical invitations to participate in the PNC session, a PNC official told this reporter, including the 74 elected Hamas MPs (though some of them are in Israeli jails). But none showed up, including any of the few who live in the West Bank.
(One Hamas official who accepted Abbas’ invitation to attend the 7th Fatah General Conference, also held in the Ramallah Muqata’a, in late 2016, was treated as a guest-of-honor.)
Unexpectedly, there was sustained criticism during the PNC Session of sanctions Abbas imposed against Gaza a year ago – which include non-payment of salaries to employees in Gaza.
Abbas ordered electricity cuts last April, in order to coerce Hamas to return the control of government institutions in Gaza following the June 2007 “split”. The Abbas sanctions follow ten years of worsening electricity crises, exacerbated by devastated infrastructure only partially repaired after three major Israeli military operations, and with tens of thousands of people in Gaza living in still-unrepaired homes or apartments.
Dr. Mustafa Barghouti is a medical doctor, a politician, and a member of the PNC. “In the conference”, Dr Barghouti said, “everybody, including myself, emphasized the necessity to remove and cancel all punitive acts against Gaza, including cutting the salaries, or reducing the salaries, of PA (Palestinian Authority) employees”.
Dr Barghouti got his start in politics by running against Mahmoud Abbas in the special January 2005 elections to replace the late Yasser Arafat as President of the Palestinian Authority; Barghouti got 19% of the vote. Barghouti then stood in the January 2006 PLC election and won a seat. But, Dr. Barghouti said, this PNC Session was the first for his political party, Mubadara (Palestinian National Initiative) – which he says is the youngest Palestinian movement. Barghouti said the agreement to allow Mubadara join the PLO was made in March 2015, “ten years after we applied – it took ten years”. How did it happen? “Oh, I made a speech”, Dr. Barghouti said. “I said, to the (PLO) Central Council ‘We’re celebrating the tenth anniversary of our application, so you have to say either yes, or no’. I told them, ‘if you are worried about us because we differ with you politically, how will you be able to absorb Hamas and (Islamic) Jihad in the future?’ And, I said, ‘if you think we’re too young, what would you say to the real young people who are waiting without being represented in most leadership structures?’…We also talked to the different groups, to Mr. Abbas and others – and eventually, we finally got in, after ten years”.
Hamas kicked Fatah-led Palestinian Preventive Security forces out of the Gaza Strip in June 2007 after a few weeks of shockingly cruel clashes, amid reports of U.S.-backed Fatah plots against Hamas. Even before, Israel had sealed shut its land crossings to Gaza; after 2007, the IDF were allowed to implement a plan of progressively tightened sanctions that intended to reduce imports to Gaza by 15% each month, to the bare minimum needed to sustain life (at one point, only 13 categories of commodities were allowed in); Egypt allowed supplies to pass through Hamas tunnels for years, but after overthrowing elected Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s President Sisi still keeps the Rafah crossing largely closed. Three IDF full-scale military operations have been carried out on Gaza between December 2008 and August 2014. and the codification of an Israeli maritime blockade to stop the arrival of “Freedom Flotillas”.
A reconciliation was announced in June 2014, during which Hamas ministers resigned their posts to allow ministers newly-sworn-in by Abbas to take control. Abbas made it clear at the time that he required complete surrender, and soon complained that a Hamas “shadow government” (some 26 or 27 deputy ministers, he said) was still in place.
There’s another fundamental difficulty: Abbas has insisted that Hamas must put not only its security forces but also its entire military arsenal under Ramallah’s control.
Now, there’s also a tenacious Palestinian financial dispute about who, exactly, should pay the government employees in Gaza their arrears, and going forward. Unresolved, despite June 2014 declarations that a committee had been formed to start work right away to deal with the evident problem of merging two administrations, little to nothing was done. So, there’s the matter now of deciding who the government employees are who should be paid: those hired by Hamas in Gaza since the 2007 split, to keep the work of government functioning? Or, those loyal to Ramallah – some tens of thousands ordered by Ramallah to stay home and not work for Hamas after the 2007 split, but who received their salaries for the following decade? No vetting has taken place to determine who among them are most qualified and should be retained, who should be removed, and who should be retired. And after unrest followed a few heavy-handed decisions ordering mass retirements, the directives were rescinded, or suspended, it’s not clear. The issue of financial transfers under sanctions placed on Hamas has been only temporarily resolved.
Meanwhile, Donors have lost patience and cut their subsidies to Palestinian institutions in Ramallah, causing looming financial problems.
Mamoun Abu Shahla, Palestinian Minister of Labor since the formation of the June 2014 Government of National Consensus, is from Gaza, but spends part of his time in Gaza and part in Ramallah. He’s now on the PLO Central Council. He spoke about Hamas maintaining a “hidden government” Asked about the sanctions on Gaza, at a conference the day before the opening of the PNC Session, he replied: “If you want to rule Gaza, take all the responsibilities, or give it to me: this is the decision of Mr. Abbas, and the government here in total. I am not going to be the cash machine. If you want me to rule Gaza, give me all the power, and I shall be responsible for everything. If not, go, continue, keep everything in your hands, do whatever you like, pay all the dues for Gaza. But you cannot imagine that every day and night you are shouting against me, and asking me at the end to pay for the life of your government. So that’s it. It is a political story”.
At the end, Abbas made a surprise announcement in his closing speech to the PNC Session, saying that the salaries for Gaza employees and beneficiaries will be paid “tomorrow”. There had been an unspecified “technical problem”, Abbas said. But, he was not terribly sympathetic to his compatriots in Gaza: “We are not an oil-rich state”, he said, and salaries have also been cut in the West Bank on multiple occasions –“Remember 2006?” Abbas was referring to the sanctions placed on everybody in the occupied Palestinian territory by Israel and the entire donor community after Hamas won the majority of seats in the 2006 PLC elections.
Dr. Barghouti was wary about the Abbas announcement of payment: “The political decisions that were made (in the PNC) were what we wanted, (but) the test is in the implementation…We have to wait and see the results…We have to see if it’s happened or not, because when the general communique came out, that resolution was not in the communique”, although he said many people in the Council “emphasized very much this issue and the need to remove it…Because we think it’s punitive, it’s illegal, and it contradicts the law, it shouldn’t happen. It’s inhuman…I hope this issue will be resolved”.
The Palestinian Finance Ministry reportedly announced on Sunday that 50% of the normal salaries had been deposited to accounts in Gaza, and added that if there were any further instructions, they’d be announced + fulfilled. https://twitter.com/48nnews/status/993059717680369664
This situation is still not clear. (Some reports say that ATM machines in Gaza distributed 80% of one month’s salary on May 3, the same day salaries were paid in the West Bank, when two months’ salaries were due in Gaza). .