Tom Mehager writes: Israeli non-profit organizations that strive for a society based on coexistence most often focus on the most pressing issues vis-a-vis Jewish-Arab relations: educating toward democratic values, mutual recognition and teaching the Arabic language; equal allocation of resources and land; integration into the workforce and strengthening economic investment in Arab towns and villages; proper representation in decision-making processes; legitimacy for Arabic in the public sphere; changing state symbols, and more. In this respect, these organizations are making important conversations.
But what those same organizations, which demand equality between Jews and Arabs, do not speak about or deal with is the right of return of Palestinian refugees to their homeland. 1948 is the elephant standing in the center of the room. Many of our Palestinian colleagues in these organizations come from families who were uprooted from their homeland, with much of their nation still living in the diaspora.
I do not want to speak in the name of Palestinians and claim that they want to open up a conversation with us, Jewish Israelis, about the right of return. But I do want to ask why it is that we never raise questions about 1948 when speaking of a life of coexistence or about our vision of equality.
Jews realized and continue to realize their right of return in the wake of several historic events: most of us are here after 2,000 years of exile, as per the Zionist movement’s definition, due to the Law of Return, which allows the Jews of the world to receive Israeli citizenship. Moreover, many young Israelis who are the grandchildren of the victims of World War II have obtained citizenship in their grandparents’ countries of origin in Europe. And let’s not forget that the government of Spain has announced that it will allow the descendants of the victims of the expulsions in the 15th century to apply for Spanish citizenship. Thus, if we believe in true equality between Jews and Arabs, we must support the right of return for Palestinians to their homeland. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: Gaza’s war-battered economy is on the “verge of collapse,” dragged down by soaring unemployment rates that followed last summer’s war with Israel, border restrictions and government dysfunction, the World Bank says in a new report.
Infighting between Gaza’s Islamist Hamas rulers and the Western-backed Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, the report said, is delaying reconstruction of the tiny territory, which suffered widespread damage during the war.
The report, issued late Thursday, said Gaza’s unemployment rate now stood at 44 percent, 11 points higher than before the war — and the world’s highest level. The youth unemployment rate, at 60 percent, is the highest in the Middle East, the report noted.
The report said that 40 percent of Gaza’s nearly 1.8 million Palestinians lived in poverty, even though around 80 percent received some sort of aid. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has cancelled a pilot scheme banning Palestinian workers from Israeli buses in the occupied territories – denounced as tantamount to apartheid – only hours after it was announced.
The plan had been approved by Netanyahu’s defence minister, Moshe Yaalon, but was cancelled amid fierce criticism from Israeli opposition figures, human rights groups and a former minister in Netanyahu’s own party, who said it was a “stain on the face Israel” that would damage its international image.
The move had been enthusiastically welcomed by settler groups and pro-settlement MPs who had long been lobbying for the ban.
The three month pilot scheme – which had been due to come into force on Wednesday – would have imposed strict new controls on thousands of Palestinians with permits to work in Israel, insisting they travel home through certain designated checkpoints and banning them from using Israeli run buses in the occupied West Bank.
The timing of the scheme’s launch – during visits by world football head Sepp Blatter and the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini – had seemed bizarre. Blatter is seeking to defuse moves to have a vote on Israel’s suspension from Fifa for alleged discrimination against Palestinians. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: Lina Halsa certainly made a splash at the student rally for the Islamist Hamas movement here at Birzeit University last month. Wearing a sleeveless top, tight jeans, and with her hair in a ponytail, Ms. Halsa’s attire was revealing even by the standards of this liberal, secular campus. But it was downright scandalous according to Hamas norms.
Yet, Ms. Halsa was the very image of Hamas success on the campus, where the Islamist party beat out the more moderate Fatah faction in student elections. A photograph of her waving the faction’s signature green banner rocketed around social media, followed by a video in which she explained that she voted Hamas in part because her clothing “shows how much they are able to embrace other people.”
A headline in the Pan-Arab daily Al Hayat trumpeted: “A Blonde Turns Birzeit Green.”
The April 22 election was about far more than clothing, of course. Student elections are seen as an important benchmark of the Palestinian political mood, particularly since there has been no national balloting since Hamas won the legislative contests in 2006, and president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, is starting the 11th year of what was to be a five-year term. The nod to Hamas was broadly interpreted as another indication of just how unpopular President Abbas and his government have become. [Continue reading…]
Matthew Duss writes: Two weeks ago saw the latest blow to the on-again-but-mostly-off-again reconciliation between the two leading Palestinian political factions, Hamas and Fatah. A Fatah delegation from the West Bank entered Gaza for what was planned as a weeklong visit to address the sticky issue of payment to some 40,000 Hamas government employees, which was one of the main drivers of Hamas’ decision to accept a reconciliation agreement in April 2014, largely on Fatah’s terms. Instead, the Fatah delegation stayed only one day, departing after claiming that Hamas had prohibited it from traveling from their beachfront hotel to their offices. Hamas, for its part, responded that the makeup of the delegation had not been appropriately cleared in advance.
A few days later, as Israelis celebrated their Independence Day, the first rocket was fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip in four months. An Israeli tank barrage into Gaza followed shortly after.
It was not the first rocket launched since the August cease-fire that ended Operation Protective Edge, the summer of 2014’s hugely destructive Israeli assault on Gaza that lasted 52 days. Back in February, Hamas lobbed two rockets into the Mediterranean, ostensibly to test their launch system and intimidate Israel. Omar Shaban, a Palestinian analyst who runs the small think tank, PalThink, in Gaza, had a different interpretation. “They’re sending you a message,” he told me. “You should be wise enough to hear it.”
The message is that Gaza is creeping toward another explosion. It’s a depressingly similar pattern. Just like after previous conflicts, Israel’s cease-fire demands have been met. Hamas has prevented rocket fire, while the group’s demand for an end to the blockade that has suffocated Gaza for nearly a decade has not. Last month I visited the coastal strip to view the damage from the summer’s war, assess the state of reconstruction, and explore the possibilities of reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah.
I’d last been to Gaza in February 2012. There have been two wars since then, in addition to a number of smaller incursions and exchanges of fire. In February 2012, much of Gaza City remained in rubble from December 2008-January 2009’s Operation Cast Lead. This time, there was rubble lying atop the rubble.
Shaban pulled up next to a huge pile of broken cinder block and twisted metal. “Here’s the Finance Ministry.”
Despite Hamas’ role in the escalation that led to the war, however, polls have shown that the group retains a significant measure of public support. One poll taken immediately after Operation Protective Edge found, for the first time since 2006, Hamas would best its rival Fatah in both presidential and parliamentary elections. Part of this has to do with Hamas being seen, unlike Fatah, as a party willing to fight the status quo. Part of it has to do with Hamas’ strategic distribution of resources to activists and supporters. But it’s also related to the fact that their civil servants are actually respected for the work that they continue to do in hugely difficult circumstances. [Continue reading…]
Anadolu Agency: Over 3,500 Palestinian children are stranded in Syria’s flashpoint Yarmouk camp for Palestinian refugees, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) has said.
“There are some 3,500 children stranded in the camp, while the sick and the elderly continue to die from lack of medical care,” UNRWA spokesman Sami Mshasha said during a Sunday press conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Mshasha said that some 90 percent of Yarmouk’s 180,000 Palestinian residents have fled the camp – which continues to see violent clashes between Daesh militants and Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis militant group for over a month.
Moreover, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime forces routinely drop barrel bombs on the beleaguered camp, according to the UNRWA.
The New York Times: Very little of Abu Shadi Shenbari’s family home remains in Beit Hanoun, in the northern Gaza Strip. Only a concrete bathroom wall was left standing when Israeli forces flattened the neighborhood near the border with Israel during the war with Hamas last summer.
Though Mr. Shenbari had all but abandoned that last panel of erect concrete, in recent days he began building a wood and wire-mesh fort with a flimsy nylon roof to protect the bombed-out bathroom wall, which is now home to a 10-foot-tall depiction of a kitten.
The spray-painted mural was created by the elusive British graffiti artist Banksy, who slipped in and out of Gaza in February, leaving his mark on three slabs of rubble left from Israel’s 50-day fight with Hamas, the Islamic group that controls Gaza.
Gaza residents, largely preoccupied with the slow pace of reconstruction after a cold and wet winter in this impoverished and isolated Palestinian coastal strip, have been waking up to the value of the Banksy artworks that appeared amid the ruins.
Rashid Khalidi writes: As with many other unresolved issues in the modern Middle East, it was Great Britain rather than the United States that initially created the problem of Palestine. But in Palestine, as elsewhere, it has been the lot of the United States, Britain’s successor as undisputed hegemon over the region, to contend with the complications engendered by British policy. And as elsewhere in the Middle East, in the end the United States significantly exacerbated the conflict over Palestine that it inherited from Britain. The outlines of the problem can be simply stated: with the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917, Great Britain threw the weight of the greatest power of the age, one which was at that moment in the process of conquering Palestine, behind the creation of a Jewish state in what was then an overwhelmingly Arab country, against the wishes of its inhabitants. Everything that has followed until this day in that conflict-riven land has flowed inevitably from this basic decision.
Woodrow Wilson was the first American president to support Zionism publicly, and his backing was crucial to the awarding of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine to Britain. This in turn led to the inclusion of the text of the Balfour Declaration in the terms of the Mandate, committing the entire international community of that era to the establishment of a “Jewish national home.” Wilson extended the United States’ support to Zionism in spite of the results of the American King-Crane Commission, which discovered the majority Arab population of Palestine to be overwhelmingly opposed to the establishment of a Jewish national home — which they rightly feared would inexorably develop into an exclusively Jewish state in their homeland and at their expense.
Although the United States withdrew from active involvement in the League of Nations and from many other aspects of international politics soon afterwards, the impact on Palestine of these key post-World War I decisions in which the United States played a crucial role was to be lasting. Under the protection of the British Mandate, and with its invaluable support, and with financing which largely came from contributions raised from American donors, by 1939 the Zionist movement had created the nucleus of a viable, independent Jewish state. This American financing, from private and later governmental sources in the form of economic and military assistance, has been crucial to the success of the Zionist project and the state of Israel from the very beginnings and until the present day. [Continue reading…]
The Daily Beast reports: Bombs and shells from all sides continue to rain down on Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus, as residents say the so-called Islamic States is taking ever-greater control. The jihadist assault that started April 1 has left residents trapped amid the rubble without medical aid or food while street fighting and heavy shelling by ISIS has overwhelmed Palestinian and Free Syrian Army forces trying to protect the camp. And to make matters works, the Syrian regime has been dropping barrel bombs and intensifying its own artillery barrages, raising fears it will invade with ground forces.
“It’s an absolute horror and I’m terrified,” says 27-year-old Tarek over Skype from near ISIS’s front lines. He is a longtime camp resident who became an activist in 2011 with the anti-regime protest movement. A human-rights organization put The Daily Beast in contact with him and he asked to be quoted only by a pseudonym for obvious security reasons.
Tarek worries that a regime ground invasion could trigger wide-scale massacres committed by the troops of President Bashar al Assad along with jihadist reprisal killings. He describes a situation of chaos in a camp — really a densely populated urban neighborhood — that has been increasingly crippled by the regime’s siege and bombardment since Free Syrian Army forces and Palestinian rebels rose up in December 2012.
“The streets are abandoned and filled with rubble as people hide in their homes,” Tarek says. Many residents have run out of food and water. There are desperate scenes as some of those come out to scour the area under sniper fire and shelling and look for wells. [Continue reading…]
Ismail Khalidi writes: As you enter through its main gate under a pair of fluttering Palestinian flags, the Cisterna municipal stadium looks like any run-down soccer field in the West Bank or the Jordan Valley. The parking lot is unpaved and the cars entering for the afternoon game send up yellow clouds of dust. The stadium itself is simple and small, an outdated concrete bowl that officially holds 12,000 people (though, according to statistics, rarely more than a few thousand), most of whom sit on concrete bleachers that encircle the pitch. The concentric rows of stone bleachers even seem to conjure the ancient terraced slopes of Palestine, where for millennia farmers have sculpted the hillsides to cultivate olive trees and other sturdy crops in the dry Mediterranean climate. Here and there sprigs of grass inch through cracks in the dilapidated concrete and stone as a couple hundred of us settle in to brave two hours of scorching heat for the afternoon match.
The team that calls Cisterna home takes the field in uniforms adorned with the Palestinian flag (and its colors of red, black, green and white) and a prominent gold map of historic Palestine emblazoned across the front of their jerseys. The players, for their part, look like your average Palestinians, as do the fans, some of whom are already taunting the opposing team’s players with witty asides and double entendres before the opening whistle. Cigarette smoke, a given at any Palestinian gathering, lingers over certain sections as vendors walk back and forth hawking Palestine-themed paraphernalia. Meanwhile, a group of five young kids plays soccer along the aisles, using an empty plastic bottle as their ball. At half-time Arabic music blares through a tinny PA system. Taking it all in, one could perhaps take comfort in the fact that, despite the hardships of living under military occupation, it’s apparently still possible for Palestinians to find a modicum of normality, if only for 90 minutes of soccer.
But Cisterna municipal stadium is not in Nablus, Gaza, Jericho or Jerusalem, but in Santiago de Chile, roughly 8,000 miles away from Palestine/Israel. And the home team, Club Deportivo Palestino, is in the Chilean premiere league. The opposing team on this day, Huachipato, hails from the Southern Coastal city of Talcahuano. [Continue reading…]
Ramzy Baroud writes: Members of my family in Syria’s Yarmouk went missing many months ago. We have no idea who is dead and who is alive. Unlike my other uncle and his children in Libya, who fled the NATO war and turned up alive but hiding in some desert a few months later, my uncle’s family in Syria disappeared completely as if ingested by a black hole, to a whole different dimension.
I chose the “black hole” analogy, as opposed to the one used by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon – “the deepest circle of hell” – which he recently uttered in reference to the plight of Palestinians in Yarmouk following the advances made by the notorious Islamic State (IS) militias in early April. If there is any justice in the hereafter, no Palestinian refugee – even those who failed to pray five times a day or go to church every Sunday – deserves to be in any “circle of hell”, deep or shallow. The suffering they have endured in this world since the founding of Israel atop their towns and villages in Palestine some 66 years ago is enough to redeem their collective sins, past and present.
For now, however, justice remains elusive. The refugees of Yarmouk – whose population once exceeded 250,000, dwindling throughout the Syrian civil war to 18,000 – is a microcosm of the story of a whole nation, whose perpetual pain shames us all, none excluded.
Palestinian refugees (some displaced several times) who escaped the Syrian war to Lebanon, Jordan or are displaced within Syria itself, are experiencing the cruel reality under the harsh and inhospitable terrains of war and Arab regimes. Many of those who remained in Yarmouk were torn to shreds by the barrel bombs of the Syrian army, or victimised – and now beheaded – by the malicious, violent groupings that control the camp, including the al-Nusra Front, and as of late, IS. [Continue reading…]
Channel 4 News: An activist inside Yarmouk camp in Damascus tells Channel 4 News that Islamic State militants have largely withdrawn from the centre of the camp and handed control to other jihadis.
They are still fighting Aknaf Beit al Maqdis, a local militia allied to Hamas, on the outskirts of Yarmouk.
“Today there are no more IS militants inside Yarmouk,” said “Mustafa Ahmed”, who uses a pseudonym to disguise his identity. “Most of the militants are at the frontline between IS and the Aknaf brigades in the south eastern part near the hospital.”
Last Wednesday night Syrian government aircraft dropped barrel bombs on the Palestine Hospital, the only functioning healthcare facility in Yarmouk, after IS militants started to use it as a base.
Bel Trew reports: The fighters in Gaza are preparing for a new war every day. It could come at any time: In the past few weeks, Israeli planes and drones have been increasingly circling the 26-square-mile coastal enclave. The Israel Defense Forces have repositioned troops at the eastern borders, an area almost entirely flattened during last summer’s 51-day war.
“The war could start any minute,” says Abu Mujahid. “There is a lot of kinetic movement, so all the fighting groups evacuated the bases, we’ve postponed training sessions, and many of the men have moved underground.”
“There are people right now under your feet,” his wiry second-in-command, Abu Saif, 28, adds with a toothless grin.
Gaza today is a powder keg waiting to explode. The key aspects of the cease-fire agreement that ended the war last summer remain unfulfilled — both Israel and Hamas feel that only more violence can force their enemy to assent to their demands. Meanwhile, the reconstruction of Gaza has stagnated due to Israeli restrictions on letting material into the territory, as well as the rivalry between Hamas and Fatah, sapping Gaza residents’ hope for a better future and leading them to believe that there is no alternative but armed struggle. [Continue reading…]
Al Jazeera: Just a quarter of the $3.5bn in aid pledged to rebuild Gaza in the wake of last summer’s devastating war has been delivered, according to a new report.
The report from the Association of International Development Agencies, released on Monday, found that only 26.8 percent ($945m) of the money pledged by donors at the Cairo conference six months ago has been released, and reconstruction and recovery have barely started in the besieged coastal enclave.
“The promising speeches at the donor conference have turned into empty words,” said Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam, which was among the report’s signatories.
“There has been little rebuilding, no permanent ceasefire agreement and no plan to end the blockade. The international community is walking with eyes wide open into the next avoidable conflict, by upholding the status quo they themselves said must change.”
Mehdi Hasan writes: Palestinian refugees are being starved, bombed and gunned down like animals. “If you want to feed your children, you need to take your funeral shroud with you,” one told Israeli news website Ynet. “There are snipers on every street, you are not safe anywhere.” This isn’t happening, however, in southern Lebanon, or even Gaza. And these particular Palestinians aren’t being killed or maimed by Israeli bombs and bullets. This is Yarmouk, a refugee camp on the edge of Damascus, just a few miles from the palace of Bashar al-Assad. Since 1 April, the camp has been overrun by Islamic State militants, who have begun a reign of terror: detentions, shootings, beheadings and the rest. Hundreds of refugees are believed to have been killed in what Ban Ki-moon has called the “deepest circle of hell”.
But this isn’t just about the depravity of Isis. The Palestinians of Yarmouk have been bombarded and besieged by Assad’s security forces since 2012. Water and electricity were cut off long ago, and of the 160,000 Palestinian refugees who once lived in the camp only 18,000 now remain. The Syrian regime has, according to Amnesty International, been “committing war crimes by using starvation of civilians as a weapon”, forcing residents to “resort to eating cats and dogs”. Even as the throat-slitters took control, Assad’s pilots were continuing to drop barrel bombs on the refugees. “The sky of Yarmouk has barrel bombs instead of stars,” said Abdallah al-Khateeb, a political activist living inside the camp.
It is difficult to disagree with the verdict of the Palestinian League for Human Rights that the Palestinians of Syria are “the most untold story in the Syrian conflict”. There are 12 official Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, housing more than half a million people. Ninety per cent, estimates the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa), are in continuous need of humanitarian aid. In Yarmouk, throughout 2014, residents were forced to live on around 400 calories of food aid a day – fewer than a fifth of the UN’s recommended daily amount of 2,100 calories for civilians in war zones – because UNRWA aid workers had only limited access to the camp. Today, they have zero access.“To know what it is like in Yarmouk,” one of the camp’s residents is quoted as saying on the UNRWA website, “turn off your electricity, water, heating, eat once a day, live in the dark.” [Continue reading…]
Newsweek reports: The Assad regime has offered to arm Palestinians within the embattled Yarmouk refugee camp with weapons to beat back ISIS from the outskirts of the Syrian capital, Damascus, according to Palestinian officials.
The camp, where the Syrian and Palestinian population has shrunk from 150,000 to approximately 16,000 during the four-year-long Syrian civil war, was last week overrun by ISIS who took “large part” of the encampment, amid clashes with a Palestinian militia loyal to Hamas, Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis.
The Syrian deputy foreign minister, Faisal Meqdad, met with a Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) delegation in the capital on Tuesday to extend the offer of assistance to the Palestinians fighting the radical Islamists.
Al Jazeera reports: the head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees planned to undertake an “urgent mission” to Damascus on Saturday amid concerns over the humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk, most of which has been captured by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL].
Pierre Krahenbuhl, who heads the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA, will discuss the situation in Yarmouk and meet with displaced refugees.
The visit is “prompted by UNRWA’s deepening concerns for the safety and protection of some 18,000 Palestinian and Syrian civilians, including 3,500 children” who remain in the Yarmouk camp, the agency said in a statement.
“Yarmouk remains under the control of armed groups, and civilian lives continue to be threatened by the effects of the armed conflict in the area,” it said.
On April 1, ISIL launched an assault on the Palestinian armed group Bait al-Maqdis, which is one of numerous factions that share control of the district.
After the government claimed that ISIL took over most of the camp – which has been denied by local activists – regime forces stepped up their shelling of the district, further worsening the area’s humanitarian crisis.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, reported on Thursday that since April 4, government helicopters have dropped 36 barrel bombs, which are highly indiscrimate and destructive explosives, on Yarmouk.
Qusai Zakarya writes: After Bashar al-Assad’s regime spent nearly two years massacring Palestinians in Yarmouk camp, after regime bombardments destroyed nearly 70 percent of the camp, after thousands were arrested and tortured to death, and after civilians were forced to resort to scavenging through trash and weeds to ward off starvation — after all this, the world is finally paying attention to the situation in this long-suffering southern Damascus neighborhood. And all they want to talk about is the Islamic State.
I think this is a disgrace. But since this is what the world wants to hear, I will tell them. You cannot understand the Islamic State’s assault on the camp or what it means unless you also consider how Bashar al-Assad, as a gift to the Palestinian people, turned a thriving neighborhood of hundreds of thousands of people into a desperate population of 18,000 waiting to die.
We cannot stop what happened in Yarmouk from repeating itself elsewhere unless we save the 600,000 besieged civilians whom Assad is starving to death.
Let me go back to the beginning, when the siege of Yarmouk began in late 2012. I was there at the time because, as a Syrian-Palestinian, I had many family members living in the camp. My brothers had pleaded with me for hours to join them on a trip to the camp, because they wanted me to move into my aunt’s house there. Yarmouk at the time seemed much safer than my nearby hometown of Moadamiya, a Damascus suburb southwest of the capital, where I was an opposition activist.
We arrived at the camp on the evening of Dec. 15, 2012, at a time when the Free Syrian Army and its Palestinian supporters were making rapid gains. As usual, Assad was responding by shelling innocent civilians at random. The shelling kept us up for much of the night, but eventually I drifted off to sleep. I woke up to the sound of a huge explosion close by.
It was the first attack on Yarmouk camp by a fighter jet. The regime’s target: Abdul-Qader Mosque, a place of worship that was packed with displaced people. Watching from my window, I saw scenes of panic and chaos, shrapnel and body parts lying everywhere. Tanks then moved in to surround the camp. When an announcement came ordering us to leave in three hours or not at all, we left. On our way out, we passed dozens of tanks and thousands of troops ready to march. The siege on Yarmouk had begun. [Continue reading…]