Ditching the status quo in Palestine

Palestinians have protested a planned meeting between President Mahmoud Abbas and an Israeli party head.

A member of the Palestinian security forces scuffles with a journalist in Ramallah
After protests, Mahmoud Abbas postponed a controversial meeting with Kadima Party leader Shaul Mofaz [Reuters]

It has been a bad week at the office for the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership. Last weekend, protests on successive days against the proposed meeting between President Mahmoud Abbas and Kadima Party head Shaul Mofaz were met with violent attacks by PA forces.

The harassment and baton swings (including the targeting of the media) provoked yet another demonstration on Tuesday, where there were chants against Oslo, the PA, and the repression of dissent. Groups like Amnesty International have also spoken out.

By coincidence, two other stories were reported at the same time: first, the detention of around 200 people in recent weeks by the PA, particularly in the northern West Bank; and second, the request by Israel on behalf of Salam Fayyad for an IMF loan to help prevent a PA financial collapse.

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This is shaping up to be a time of clarity, and the issues go much deeper than heavy-handed EU-trained police. It is a moment to acknowledge that three cornerstones of the status quo – the official peace process, the PA structure, and the two-state framework – are not just flawed or in trouble, but are thwarting the realisation of Palestinian rights by their very nature.

With negotiations long since suspended, it is commonplace for politicians to talk of the peace process as being in dire straits. But it is time for a more damning verdict on the Quartet-led negotiations than is typically offered in the mainstream.

Imagine a country that has occupied substantial territory outside its borders for decades, while creating colonies of its own population in defiance of international law. Imagine if that same country had nuclear weapons, had illegally annexed the territory of another sovereign state, and routinely committed acts denounced by the UN, Amnesty and other human rights groups as war crimes, gross abuses of human rights and breaches of prohibitions on discrimination.

This is Israel, yet instead of sanctions or uproar, there are “negotiations” between the colonising occupier and the colonised – supervised by international powers like the US and EU who provide Israel with varying degrees of military, trade, and diplomatic support.

Simply put, the “peace process” is used as a substitute for international law, rather than as a means to secure its implementation. Thus accountability for war crimes in Gaza is seen as a threat to the peace process, while for the Palestinians to go to the UN (putting aside that initiative’s flaws) is critiqued as a substitute for face-to-face, US/Quartet-mediated talks.

This diplomatic game has been going on for 20 years, during which time Israel’s apartheid regime has developed and expanded. As Akiva Eldar put it in Ha’aretz, “the ‘peace process’ has served as a cover for the settlement process”, with the West Bank settler population having “risen from 110,000 to 320,000” and “60 per cent of the area [Area C]… de facto annexed”.

Yet during two decades of continued colonisation, Israel has been able to maintain the illusion of “talks” with the “other side” – and that is where the second obstacle to Palestinian rights comes in: the Palestinian Authority itself.

As was clear to some even at the time, the establishment of the PA enabled Israel to delegate numerous responsibilities of an occupier to an “autonomous” entity that Israel always intended, in the words of Rabin, to be “less than a state”. Years on, there are now layers of vested interests in the maintenance of the status quo, from the “VIP” economic-political elite, to those dependent on a PA (read Western-funded) salary.

To insist on ‘two states for two peoples’ is to be complicit with those who seek to frustrate Palestinians from achieving all of their rights.

Articles on growing public dissent towards the PA have highlighted another of its key roles – that of security sub-contractor for the Israeli military and intelligence apparatus. While Amira Hass wrote recently of “the transformation of the PA into the subcontractor of the IDF, the Civil Administration and Shin Bet security service”, this is in fact what it was always meant to be.

“We give them the names and they arrest them,” said an Israeli officer quoted in piece in The Economist this last week – and there’s no shortage of evidence. According to the Israeli military, in 2009, there were 1,297 PA-IDF “coordinated operations”. In January 2010, a Wikileaks cable notes that “Fayyad and his senior security officials were clear on the need for increased PA-GOI security coordination”. In another cable, the PA’s Minister of Interior told US officials how “publicity about Israeli-Palestinian security coordination threatens the sustainability of the PA’s security campaign”, and thus it was “essential” to keep it “out of the public eye”.

As well as the official peace process and the PA, the decolonisation of Palestine is blocked by a third core element of the status quo: the two-state solution framework. After Sharon, Bush and Blair, it is clear that the only “Palestinian state” that will be allowed to emerge is a stunted reservation, the final confirmation of the permanency of ethno-religious Jewish privilege in the majority of Palestine/Israel. No rights for the refugees. Second-class citizenship inside the ethnocracy. The best those inside the wall can hope for is a work permit for the “industrial zone” that will mark the pinnacle of Jewish-Palestinian “co-existence”.

Why has a trip to Salam Fayyad’s office – stopping by Rawabi – become a must-do item on the itinerary of Israel lobby group tours? Why do the Israeli government and the state’s apologists in the West constantly urge a return to “negotiations”? As signs abound that we are in a transition time, to insist on “two states for two peoples” is to be complicit with those who seek to frustrate Palestinians from achieving all of their rights.

These three cornerstones – “negotiations”, the PA, and the two-state solution – can no longer be allowed to limit the imagination; they need to go. The obvious next questions are how does that happen, and what comes next? Mapping a way forward (if you excuse the pun) is tricky, but there are signs that things are on the move: different sorts of examples include the PNC voter registration drive, youth movements, the BDS campaign, and efforts to conceptualise a refugees’ return.

Rather than using the question of “if not this, then what?” as a way of denying or dismissing the inevitable, a clearheaded assessment of what is preventing Palestinians obtaining their rights can be the foundation for thinking beyond the limitations set by Oslo and the world of the Ramallah “Green Zone”.