Do Israelis have any idea how bad it is in Gaza?

Haggai Matar writes: “I’m extremely concerned that if you leave Gaza in the state it’s currently in, you’ll have another eruption, and violence, and then we’re back in a further catastrophe, so we’ve got to stop that,” warned Quartet envoy Tony Blair during a visit to the Gaza Strip on Sunday. It was his first trip to the Gaza since the last war, and Blair spent his time meeting with ministers and surveying the progress – or lack thereof – toward rehabilitating the Strip.

The scope of destruction in Gaza remains enormous. According to the UN, over 96,000 homes were either damaged or destroyed by Israeli air strikes. The donor states that have pledged to transfer money have yet to do so, re-building is going nowhere, many are still seeking refuge in UNRWA schools and the winter storms have only increased the damage to the homes and neighborhoods that survived.

The Israeli blockade, which prevents exports, economic development and importing building materials not previously approved by Israel, and which includes firing at fishermen, continues to choke the Strip. Furthermore, the Egyptian government has only tightened the blockade on its end over the past months. Egypt has destroyed all the tunnels into Sinai, keeps the Rafah crossing closed on a regular basis, and has destroyed large parts of Rafah in order to create buffer zone between the city and its Gaza counterpart. And all this after the Egyptian government banned Hamas’ military wing, calling it a “terrorist organization.” [Continue reading…]


Netanyahu’s own coalition wouldn’t pass his test for Hamas

Peter Beinart writes: On the Israeli and American Jewish right, it’s common to hear Mahmoud Abbas dismissed as illegitimate: Both because he remains president of the Palestinian Authority even though his term long ago expired, and because he doesn’t oversee the Gaza Strip, which since 2007 has been under the control of Hamas.

Well, hawks, fret no more. The Palestinians have just formed a unity cabinet designed to lay the groundwork for elections in both the West Bank and Gaza. The effort may fail, but it offers the best chance in years to create what the Jewish right says it wants: A Palestinian leader with the legitimacy to make a deal.

So how are Benjamin Netanyahu and his conservative American allies reacting? Not well. The Israeli government is threatening to end all contact with the Palestinian Authority and some Republicans in Congress are pushing to cut off U.S. aid. The reason: The new government has the blessing of Hamas.

And here’s where things get interesting. For years, Israel has justified its opposition to a government that includes Hamas by citing a statement by the “Quartet”– the United States, European Union, the United Nations and Russia—in 2008. That statement demands that any Palestinian government recognize Israel, adhere to previously signed treaties and renounce violence. But the new Palestinian government gets around that. Although Hamas as a party still doesn’t accept the Quartet conditions, Abbas—who will remain President—insists that the unity government does. His aides point to Lebanon, whose government includes Hezbollah, which like Hamas is designated as a terrorist group by the United States. The U.S. shuns Lebanon’s Hezbollah ministers, but accepts the Lebanese government as a whole. Abbas wants his new government to get the same treatment.

For Bibi, this is unacceptable. His position, which the American Jewish establishment will doubtless endorse, is that it doesn’t matter if Abbas says his government adheres to the Quartet conditions. Any Palestinian government “supported by and dependent on” a political party that violates those conditions must be shunned by the world.

Which raises an intriguing question. Could Bibi’s own government pass the test he’s applying to Abbas’?

Not likely. [Continue reading…]


Gilad Shalit and the end of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process

Tony Karon writes: As momentous as Tuesday’s release of Sergeant Gilad Shalit and 477 Palestinian prisoners (with another 550 to freed within two months) may be, it is unlikely to be a game-changer — or a milestone on the road to peace. Indeed, while the spectacle of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu breaking the ostensible taboo on negotiating with Hamas and heeding many of its demands in order to bring home the captive Israeli soldier may look like a sea-change, it’s more likely to reinforce the stalemate in the wider conflict — and possibly even raise the danger of a new hostilities.

Despite the fervent opposition of some Israelis — from families of terror victims to prominent cabinet members — to freeing men with Israeli blood on their hands, Netanyahu’s decision remains a popular one. A poll conducted by the daily Yediot Ahronot published Monday showed that 79% of Israelis support the deal, reconciling themselves to paying a bitter price for bringing home the soldier captured, at age 19, more than five years ago. Still, it should come as no surprise in the months ahead if an Israeli government forced into what it will see as a humiliating agreement seeks to restore its self-image of resolute toughness by dealing harshly with future challenges. And the fact that Netanyahu’s climb-down on Shalit has been accompanied by the announcement of new settlement construction on occupied land underscores the sense that Israel’s hawkish government has no intention of making the compromises necessary to bring President Mahmoud Abbas back to the table. Abbas, after all, holds no Israeli captives, and may not have much else Netanyahu believes he needs right now.

Indeed, the Shalit agreement has been something of a setback for Abbas. Hamas’ achievement in freeing some of the thousands of Palestinians held in Israeli prison is a more tangible gain, in Palestinian eyes, than the hypothetical statehood amid continued occupation being pursued by Abbas at United Nations. Palestinian society doesn’t regard these men and women as criminals, but rather fighters in the national cause — a peace agreement with the Palestinians would ultimately require the release of all Palestinians who remain in Israeli custody, even if convicted of acts of terrorism.

But no such painful moment of reckoning is in the offing, of course, because neither side harbors any hope of negotiating an end to the conflict any time soon. The recent speeches at the United Nations by President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu underscored the vast gulf between the two sides, and only the most Pollyanna-ish of Western diplomats expect anything significant to come from the current effort by the U.S. and its “Quartet” allies to restart direct talks as an alternative to Abbas’ U.N. effort. Abbas has made clear that even if he agrees to meet Israeli leaders, he won’t drop the U.N. bid — which, after all, is what forced the Obama Administration to address the issue with greater urgency.

Michael Warschawski at the Alternative Information Center, writes: For the thousands of Palestinian families who will soon meet their loved ones I’m happy, and for the Shalit family I’m also happy. However, beyond happiness over the release, there exists no symmetry: The Palestinian political prisoners, women and men, who will be freed are all freedom fighters who fulfilled their political and moral duty in the struggle against the Israeli colonial occupation. Gilad Shalit, on the other hand, was a soldier, and a soldier in Israel’s colonial occupation army which violates international law on a daily basis and regularly commits war crimes. As was done by hundreds of Israelis before him, Shalit should have refused to take part in this war, which he did not do.

Those in Israel dubbed the “kidnappers” of Gilad Shalit actually took a prisoner of war and according to all testimonies at our disposal, he was treated as such. The Palestinian political prisoners, on the other hand, do not even dare dream of receiving treatment similar to that received by Shalit.

Just as an injured soldier is not left on the battlefield, the state is obligated to do everything in its power to return its prisoners of war, whatever the price may be. There is no “particularly special Jewish humanism” here, as related by the Israeli media, which is nourished by the office of Benjamin Netanyahu, but a regular and accepted act in a situation of war. What is not usual, and is in fact scandalous, is the intentional foot-dragging which characterized the governments responsible for the Shalit file. The agreement reached with the assistance of the German negotiator and the Egyptian and Turkish governments was closed already three years ago, but the Israeli government chose to ignore it and fantasise about a commando operation, which undoubtedly would have resulted in the death of the soldier.

It is easy to assume that if a child of Netanyhu or Lieberman was in captivity, the government would have moved must faster and accepted the agreement placed on its table. No! The government did not demonstrate any “Jewish humanism” but actually a true lack of humanity. Only the quiet determination of the Shalit family and their public support moved this immoral and heartless government.


Palestinian officials tell Tony Blair to quit


Why the U.N. must abolish the ‘Quartet’

Ali Abunimah writes:

Quartet envoy Tony Blair has been the target of stinging criticism of late from officials close to Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. There have even been murmurs that Abbas’ officials may formally request Blair’s removal.

While Blair’s Quartet role, which he took up the day he left office as UK prime minister in 2007, has undoubtedly been harmful to the Palestinian people and to any semblance of international law, it would not be enough to call for Blair to go.

It is the Quartet itself – an ad hoc committee of US, EU and Russian officials, and the UN Secretary General, that monopolises the so-called “peace process” – that has destroyed what little credibility the United Nations has left on the question of Palestine.

It functions as a front that launders Israeli and American demands as UN and “international” positions, sidelining international law and countless resolutions declaring myriad Israeli actions to be grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions.

To begin to restore UN credibility, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon should end UN membership, funding and support for the Quartet. If he doesn’t, UN member states should demand that he do so.


Tony Blair’s nexus of Middle East conflicts of interest

“It’s easy enough to see what Tony Blair has got out of the Middle East peace process: introductions to Arab rulers; a nice address in Jerusalem; a continued presence on the world stage. What’s more difficult to see is what the Middle East peace process has got out of Tony Blair.”

The Associated Press reports:

Since stepping down as Britain’s prime minister, Tony Blair has built up a formidable work portfolio: He’s an international peacemaker, a consultant for investment bank JP Morgan, a pricey public speaker and a philanthropist.

He’s so many things to so many people that it’s starting to cause him trouble — with human rights groups, the Palestinian Authority, and even current British Prime Minister David Cameron, who described Blair’s deals with Moammar Gadhafi’s regime as “dodgy deals in the desert.”

Rights workers who have tried to track his activities find it’s sometimes unclear which job he is doing — or who is paying him to do it. Crucially, when he’s in the Arab world as the Middle East Quartet’s peace envoy some of the very parties he’s meant to be negotiating with aren’t sure whose interests he’s representing.

“The problem is a lack of transparency over how Tony Blair has organized his business affairs,” said Robert Palmer, a campaigner at pressure group Global Witness. “If former leaders are appearing on a public stage, it’s important that they do all they can to make sure they are seen to be open and clear over what they are doing.”

Blair’s effectiveness and impartiality in the Middle East are under attack from the Palestinian Authority, which accuses him of acting “like an Israeli diplomat” after he refused to support their decision to sidestep negotiations and to ask the Security Council for admission to the United Nations as a state. At the same time, the collapse of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in Libya has led to the discovery of documents that show that Blair maintained ties to the Libyan leader even after he left office.