ODVV interview: people of Palestine feel the...
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the world’s longest-running and most divisive conflicts. Rooted in a violent quest for territory, it has affected the Middle East landscape for decades since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, when the Holy Land was divided into three parts. Efforts by consecutive US governments and other international actors to settle the disputes have so far proved ineffective.
The Madrid Peace Conference of 1991, when the Israelis and Palestinians had the opportunity to engage and negotiate directly for the first time after years of confrontation, was a point in time when several sticking points between the two sides, including the actual borders of the two states, the Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, the division of the city of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees were discussed in depth. However, the discussions never produced any viable deal. At the moment, there are more than 650,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, representing a serious challenge to the realization of a two-state solution, which is apparently the most popular answer to the seven-decade-old dilemma.
Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often described by the mainstream media as a conflict between two equal sides with legitimate claims to one piece of land, the fact is that this is a conflict between one of the world’s mightiest and most well-equipped militaries, namely Israel, and an indigenous population of Palestinians that has been displaced and subjugated for more than 70 years.
The US President Donald Trump has come up with the idea of the “deal of the century”, aimed at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and establishing peace in the Middle East. The plan pledges $50 billion in investment over 10 years in the region, including $28 billion for the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The money is believed to be doubling the Palestinian economy, creating some 1 million jobs and lowering the poverty rate in Palestine by 50 percent. Aside from its purported economic benefits for the Palestinians, the deal falls short of addressing the chief concerns the majority of Palestinians share, including the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the siege of the Gaza Strip, the destiny of more than 2 million Palestinian refugees who will be affected by the drastic cuts in US aid to UNRWA, education for the Palestinian children and the Palestinians’ claim to Jerusalem.
Ciaran Tierney is the Irish Current Affairs and Politics Blogger of the Year. A former newspaper journalist, he is based in Galway, Ireland, and covers human rights, travel, culture and justice issues. Ciaran works as an online journalist, blogger, social media manager, and digital storyteller. His writings have appeared on a variety of media organizations including Irish Central, The Electronic Intifada, Broadsheet.ie, The Irish Times, Galway Bay FM, and The Connacht Tribune. Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has arranged an interview with Ciaran Tierney to discuss the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, the “deal of the century” and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. The following is the text of the interview.
Q: Manama, the capital of Bahrain, hosted the two-day “Peace to Prosperity” workshop on June 25 and 26 organized by the United States. The economic aspects of President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” were discussed during the event. The Palestinian parties, however, boycotted the conference. Do you think the Trump administration will be able to successfully deliver this deal, given that different Palestinians factions have not shown any interest in it?
A: It seems crazy to announce a “deal of the century” to the outside world when one of the main parties impacted by it, namely the Palestinian people, in Gaza, the West Bank, and what is now Israel, have had no say in this deal. To be honest, the rights and opinions of Palestinians never seem to have been a factor in any decision taken by the current US government in relation to Israel and Palestine. The decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem in May 2018, for example, was taken in full knowledge that this would anger and distress the stateless people of Palestine and further damage their hopes of ever achieving statehood.
Q: Israel has embarked on efforts to normalize its relations with Arab and Muslim governments. What motivates Israel’s diplomatic endeavors to forge closer ties with Arab states, most notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE? Do they have any incentives to maintain friendly relations with Israel?
A: It seems to have been a policy of the Israeli government to maximize the fear of its own people, that they are surrounded by hostile nations, for many years. Having said that, it of course makes sense for countries to forge alliances with neighbors, especially those who are aligned with the United States of America. Many people in the US and UK, indeed here in Ireland, are outraged that their governments have such friendly ties with countries which have a questionable record in terms of human rights abuses, such as Saudi Arabia. In Britain, for example, people see the hypocrisy of the UK announcing itself as a champion of press freedom while turning a blind eye to the – apparently state-sanctioned – assassination of Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018.
When we talk about the terrible impact which the siege of Gaza has had on its two million residents since 2007, people conveniently forget the terrible role Egypt has played in imprisoning its people. These are “marriages of convenience” between countries whose foreign policy objectives may differ greatly, but they are all allies of the United States in the region. The governments of Egypt and Israel may not want the world to turn its eyes on the extent of their cooperation, but both have colluded to ensure that, according to UN, the Gaza Strip will be “unlivable” by next year.
Q: West Bank and the Gaza Strip are gravely suffering from deep economic crises and unemployment. In 2018, the unemployment rate in Gaza reached 52 percent. What is the responsibility of the international community regarding the undesirable situation of these regions? What’s your take on the impacts the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of the Gaza Strip will have on the economic growth in these regions?
A: It is quite clear to even the most casual observer that the people of the Gaza Strip have been subjected to collective punishment since the election victory of Hamas in 2007. Perhaps that result reflected the growing sense of desperation in this tiny strip of land more than any increased radicalization of its people. Irish people who have travelled back from Gaza have noted a significant increase in hopelessness among its people and, indeed, those who have volunteered in East Jerusalem or the West Bank detect a growing sense of helplessness.
Let’s face it, the people of the West Bank and Gaza Strip feel that the international community has abandoned them. I myself have been involved, in a small way, in projects to bring talented Gaza footballers to Ireland for one-week tours. These tours have had to be cancelled in 2018 and 2019, because the Erez checkpoint is permanently closed to them and fewer and fewer Gazans seem to be able to access Egypt via the Rafah border crossing. It is hard to imagine the despair of these boys and their families, knowing that despite their wonderful skills, they are trapped in such a tiny piece of land.
Here in Ireland, Senator Frances Black (Independent) has generated headlines by persuading both houses of the Irish parliament to support a bill, the Occupied Territories Bill, which would outlaw the sale or supply of goods from the illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. This legislation is seen as a role model for others to follow, in the same way that my country, Ireland, led the campaign against Apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s.
Ultimately, the international community, including the United Nations and the European Union, should feel ashamed for allowing the illegal occupation to continue for so long. It is far too easy to make the right noises about respecting the human rights of Palestinians, but then to do nothing and turn a blind eye when their houses are demolished, their children arrested and taken to military courts, or, in Gaza, they are condemned to spend their entire lives under siege.
Q: Palestinians have raised different demands on different occasions as their preconditions for agreement with Israel. These demands include the independence of the Palestinian state, recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state and the right of return for the Palestinian refugees. Do you think the peace plan put forward by the US government can fulfill these expectations? Will Israel ever accede to grant Palestinians such rights?
A: In short, no. I don’t think the US peace plan ever took the human rights of Palestinians, and certainly not the rights of refugees to return “home”, into account. People forget that there are thousands of refugees in Gaza, the Lebanon, or Jordan, where families still have the keys to homes they were forced to flee in 1948. And the current Israeli government would rather that the wider world forgets about their status as refugees for generations.
I actually think that hope has to come from within Israel, because there is such a huge imbalance of power between the Israeli government and armed forces and the ordinary people of Palestine. Israeli groups such as B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence give far more hope than foreign NGOs, for example, as they show that there are people within Israel who are prepared to question the occupation and the terrible toll it is taking, not just on Palestinians but on Israelis, too. I saw a video recently of a 19-year old Israeli woman who is refusing to serve in the military. People like her give me hope, as do groups like Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) in the United States, who speak out about injustice and inequality in the Occupied Territories.
Q: How has the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), which has gained momentum in some countries and is also being debated in the United States, practically affected the policies of Israel with regard to the Palestinian people? Federal laws in 26 US states punish companies boycotting Israel. Do you think such legislature are compatible with the principles of the US constitution on freedom of speech?
A: The BDS movement is clearly making a huge impact, otherwise backers of the Israeli government would not be so keen to condemn it or to attempt to smear its leaders. Here in Ireland, the recent decision of the state broadcaster, RTE, to participate in the Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv created huge controversy – and the debate, petitions, and protests got many people talking about Palestinians and their human rights which might have been unthinkable a few years ago. The airwaves were dominated by calls on the Irish entrant, Sarah McTernan, not to go to Tel Aviv. RTE even took the unprecedented step of telling their staff that they were was no compulsion on them to travel to Israel if they felt it was unethical to do so.
It is important to stress here that the Occupied Territories Bill which is currently making its way through the Irish parliament does not call for full BDS of the state of Israel. It merely calls for the prohibition of goods from the illegal Israeli “settlements” in the occupied West Bank, which are illegal according to international law anyway.
Many Irish people support BDS, because they see this a way for the powerless to challenge the powerful. The word “boycott” originated in the West of Ireland, when poor West of Ireland farmers were unable and unwilling to pay high rents to an absentee British landlord.
Those who support BDS are regularly smeared and Palestinians who do so find it difficult to travel outside Israel and Palestine. That in itself shows that it is a non-violent weapon which is working for some extent for the people of Palestine.
Q: Before coming to power in 2017, President Donald Trump had pledged to secure an ultimate agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. For this purpose, he picked his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, who has no experience in diplomacy and Middle East affairs. Kushner was in charge of running the Manama event. Do you think the United States is currently capable of functioning as an effective and independent intermediary in establishing peace between Israel and Palestine or is it better that another government or international organization such as the European Union takes charge of it?
A: Given the amount of military aid it gives to Israel, the United States has never been “an independent intermediary” in establishing peace between Israel and the Palestinian people. Let’s face it, the expansion of settlements in the occupied territories would have ceased long ago if it was opposed or blocked by the United States or the European Union. Because of the huge expansion of settlements under recent right-wing Israeli governments, it’s almost impossible to envisage any kind of functioning Palestinian state emerging in the near future. Critics of the European Union would argue that it is hardly blameless in terms of turning a blind eye to the suffering of the Palestinian people, either, and our own Irish government is claiming that the EU will not allow them to implement the proposed ban on illegal settlement goods which has won approval in both houses of the Irish parliament this year. If the EU is not prepared to implement international law, what hope is there for the people of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem in the short- to medium-term?
Q: What will be the elements of an all-encompassing solution or agreement that settles the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians and removes the specter of this seven-decade-old conflict from the Middle East?
A: Last year I read a book called “The Battle for Justice in Palestine” by Ali Abunimah, editor of Electronic Intifada, which argues that the “two-state solution” has long since died. Given the extent of settlement-building over recent decades, who could really argue with that? He makes the radical suggestion that the way forward is through the creation of one state which would have equal rights for everyone regardless of ethnicity or religion.
It is hard not to get depressed about the toll the conflict has taken on the people of Israel and Palestine, who generally live in fear of each other – stoked up by politicians, when most ordinary people just want peaceful lives. Because of our own history of being colonized, Irish people identify with the Palestinian people and the terrible toll it has taken on them to have to live in exile, or refugee camps, for decades, with no right of return to the villages which were once their homes.
Palestinians need hope and the international community needs to recognize that. The United Nations needs to start implementing international law and to ensure that war crimes are not carried out with impunity. In Northern Ireland, we had three decades of conflict and despair. It is amazing how much life has improved across the island of Ireland since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, when the two sides recognized the legitimacy of the other’s claims. Such hope, such a resolution, may seem far off for the people of Israel and Palestine, but people cannot continue living in constant conflict and subjugation of human rights.
If people continue to be allowed to build land on “settlements” which were seized violently and illegally, what hope is there for a just and lasting peace? The UN has completely failed the people of Palestine and can be justifiably accused of hypocrisy when it tackles human rights abuses in other parts of the world. A just and lasting peace will have to take the human rights of both Palestinians and Israelis into account, but until now the US only seems to have viewed the conflict from the perspective of the Israelis and its hand-picked Palestinian leaders have not been strong enough to stand up for self-determination and equal rights. If it is a given that the hundreds of thousands of “illegal” settlements are not going to be removed from the West Bank, then it is a given that there will never be two states and one state with equal rights for all is the only way forward in terms of peace, justice, and prosperity.
Q: In December 2017, the US President Donald Trump announced the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Trump’s announcement was repudiated by a majority of world leaders. How do you think this decision will affect the balance of power between the Israelis and the Palestinians?
A: It was quite clear at the time that this decision only inflamed tensions and further angered ordinary Palestinians who already believed that the US had no interest in their human rights or any prospects of a viable Palestinian state, which would have Jerusalem as its capital. Why should Palestinians recognize Israel’s “right to exist as a Jewish state” when that would mean subjugating their own rights, wiping out any prospect of returning to the villages they were forced to flee, and ensure that the 20% of Israelis who are indigenous Palestinians would not have equal rights in their own land?
By totally trampling on Palestinian rights, again, President Trump has shown how far the current situation is from the land of justice, equality, inclusivity, and decolonization which would bring peace and prosperity to Israel and Palestine. By moving the embassy to Jerusalem, President Trump showed that the US is not on the right side of history and cares little about justice for those who have been treated as second class citizens for seven decades.
The move may have emboldened the current right-wing government in Israel, but it only served to show how out of touch the US is with the international community and the widespread support there is for the people of Palestine, who have suffered so much for so long, despite never having instigated the conflict which began with the colonization of their land.
By: Kourosh Ziabari