Why Trump’s Middle East peace plan is just a sideshow

Read The Guardian’s Jerusalem correspondent Oliver Holmes

After two years of drum-rolling, Donald Trump’s “ultimate deal” for Israelis and Palestinians is about to enter what its architects claim is the pre-launch phase.

The US president has said the peace plan drawn up by his team – two former personal lawyers and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner – will be ready to unveil by the end of January.

Yet despite the anticipation surrounding Trump’s proposals for resolving one of the world’s most intractable conflicts, a more crucial plan for the region is already being implemented on the ground: an attempt to strengthen Israel’s hand while weakening that of the Palestinians.

One by one, the US has implemented the key demands of Israel’s hardline rightwing lobby, drastically slashing humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, declaring the contested city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, shuttering Palestinian diplomatic offices in Washington, and closing its own consulate that serves the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

For Palestinians – and many Israelis – a peace deal is a sideshow. The bigger issue, which does not depend on peace, is the implementation of Israel’s wishes by the most accommodating US administration in its history.

Trump has repeatedly said the measures are intended to force Palestinian leaders – who reject him outright as a biased mediator – into a peace effort. Trump has also said Israel will have to “pay a price” for peace, although has not specified what that would be.

Palestinian leaders have responded by saying there is no genuine plan for a just solution. “It’s really a lie,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian politician.

“Everybody is working on this fictitious concept. [The US] became partners with Israel and they are implementing Israeli policies. All we see are unilateral measures by the US and by Israel … The reality on the ground is now being engineered.”

A state department official said a “high priority” has been placed on achieving a comprehensive deal, but it would be “difficult”. While they would not comment on details of the plan, which is still being drafted, a few aspects are becoming clearer.

First, unlike previous US-led efforts in which it was up to the Israelis and the Palestinians to decide the details, the Trump version will likely be much more specific and prescriptive. In essence, it will be a series of suggestions that detractors say will be heavily focused on Israeli demands based on the political views of its authors.

For example, Jason Greenblatt, who is leading Trump’s team after his promotion to government from chief legal officer at the Trump Organization, has broken US precedent to say Israeli settlement-building in the occupied West Bank – illegal under international law – is not an obstacle to peace.

The US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer who also worked for Trump’s company, has been even more vocal in his support of Israeli settlement construction, and even the annexation of Palestinian territory.

Second, the US will only go so far in pushing the two sides to accept the deal, meaning the plan is liable to collapse. “The parties will need to decide if they think the plan works for them and will make their lives better,” Greenblatt has said. “The parties are the only ones who can make these compromises.”

Critics say it is increasingly apparent that those drafting the plan might not even be betting on its success to achieve their goals, which are already being enforced on the ground.

Trump’s team will know that from Israel’s perspective there is very little appetite for peace compared with the past. An August poll found only 9% of Israelis wanted their government to prioritise reaching a deal with the Palestinians.

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is acutely aware of public sentiment as an election approaches, has said he does not see “any urgency” on Trump revealing his peace plan. His former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman was even clearer when asked about a peace deal that could result in Palestinian self-rule: “I don’t care about a Palestinian state,” he said. The justice minister, Ayelet Shaked, said she would tell Trump the plan was “a waste of time”.

Read the rest of the article in The Guardian


UN appeals for $350 million to plug gap left by Trump aid cut

DfID boosts UK aid to £65.5 million

Last month the UN and the Palestine Authority issued an appeal for $350 million to plug the gap left by the withdrawal of the United States’ $365 million contribution to UNRWA, the UN agency dealing with Palestinian refugees.

A new assessment of humanitarian needs by the UN found that:

  • 10,000 Palestinians in Area C of the West Bank are at risk of forcible transfer
  • 13,000 homes in Area C have demolition orders not yet carried out
  • 25,000 Palestinians (including 6,250 children) have been injured by Israeli forces or settlers in 2018
  • 26,000 children in Gaza are in need of mental and psychosocial health support
  • 70% of UN schools in Gaza operate two or three shifts a day
  • 96% of water extracted from the Gaza aquifer is unfit for human consumption

According to the UN: “Following a deterioration of the humanitarian situation during 2018, some 2.5 million people have been identified as in need of humanitarian assistance and protection in 2019.

“The long-standing Israeli blockade and the internal Palestinian political divide are expected to continue, alongside demonstrations, clashes and casualties.

“As a result, the health system in Gaza is likely to remain overstretched, clean water and sewage treatment will be insufficient, and unemployment will remain severe.

“In the West Bank a coercive environment, including discriminatory planning policies, access restrictions, settlement expansion and settler violence, will continue, placing Palestinians in vulnerable communities in Area C, East Jerusalem and the Israeli-controlled part of Hebron city at risk of forcible transfer.”

The UN’s Relief & Works Agency UNRWA provides assistance for 5.15 million refugees, education for 526,000 children, health centres for 3.1 million patients and basic food rations for 255,000 refugees living in extreme poverty.

UNRWA is funded by a voluntary levy of UN members. The agency runs 59 refugees camps, 143 health centres and over 700 schools for 4.3 million refugees in five countries. It provides emergency rations for 400,000 refugees in Syria and nearly a million in Gaza.

After President Trump’s withdrawal of funds, Alistair Burt announced that the UK was increasing its contribution by £7 million to £60.5 million and added a further £5 million on December 17th to provide emergency food including rice, sugar and chickpeas to 62,000 Palestinian refugees in Gaza who are at risk of going hungry. (See link to DfID press release below.)

The minister has however resisted calls from Labour shadow minister Fabian Hamilton and LibDem MP Layla Moran for an emergency conference of donor nations to discuss strategies for dealing with the shortfall caused by President Trump’s announcement.

Pressure has been growing on the minister to take an initiative – in the absence of the Americans – to ensure that the world does not allow another humanitarian disaster to follow on from the starvation in Yemen.

World Bank studies have shown that Palestinian refugees would soon outgrow the need for aid if the blockade of Gaza and the occupation of the West Bank were lifted. What they need is not aid but action.  However in the absence of action, the danger of large-scale starvation is growing.

Palestinians fear a Trump-led conspiracy to phase out UN refugee camps

A leading resident of a refugee camp in the West Bank city of Nablus put it very succinctly.  There was a conspiracy, he said, to run down the UN agency responsible for the welfare of Palestinian refugees.

President Trump has already announced he is ending the $365 million US contribution to the UN Relief and Works Agency and USAID budget of $200 million for Palestine.

Middle East minister Alistair Burt responded with a £7 million increase in the UK contribution, but, as Labour’s shadow Middle East minister Fabian Hamilton pointed out, that would still leave UNRWA with a shortfall of $380 million this year. It was “a drop in the ocean”.

The chairman of the residents’ committee of the Al Askar camp, Husni Odeh, told a group from Sheffield last week that the UN agency was already being forced to run down vital services for the most marginalised refugees suffering from high levels of poverty and unemployment.

Class sizes in United Nations schools have been increased to 50 or even 55. UN health centres often have just one doctor to see 50-60 patients – and they have no medicines to give them.

When inevitably some refugees see no point in going to a doctor that has no medicine, or move their children out of overcrowded UN schools, they claim the Palestinians “don’t want our services” in order to justify still further cuts in UNRWA’s budget.

“The UN are closing health centres and they are shrinking their services gradually so that people don’t stop them,” he said.

President Trump has also floated the idea of downgrading Palestinian refugees so that the next generation will no longer have refugee status.  But there is an essential difference between Palestinian refugees and refuges from natural disasters or wars.

The latter will eventually return to an empty home or at least a plot of land where they can rebuild their lives.  But Palestinian refugees have no home to go to.  Even in their own country they are refugees.  Their villages have been demolished. Their homes are occupied by strangers.

The aid that western countries provide for Palestinian refugees is essentially conscience money to atone for the fact that they are not prepared to pressure the Israeli government into the action they know is needed.

UNRWA provides assistance for 5.15 million refugees, education for 515,000 children, health centres for 3.1 million patients and basic food rations for 255,000 refugees living in extreme poverty.

President Trump is openly trying to starve Palestinians to the negotiating table to accept a deal has not yet been published, but which will undoubtedly involve a complete humiliation and the loss of yet more land in addition to the 78% of historic Palestine they have already given up their claim to.

Trump boasted that: “I stopped massive amounts of money that we were paying to the Palestinians. I’d say, you’ll get money, but we’re not paying you until we make a deal. If we don’t make a deal, we’re not paying.”

Labour has called for an international emergency conference so that other countries can pledge support to close the funding gap caused by the withdrawal of the US contribution.  They will have a choice between increased aid to avert a humanitarian crisis – or action to put effective international pressure on Israel to lift the blockade and the occupation.

New critique of IHRA code

A new critique of the IHRA code of conduct, now incorporated into the Labour Party’s disciplinary code, has been published by European Jews for a Just Peace, a federation of 11 European Jewish peace including the UK’s Jews for Justice for Palestinians.

It argues that the assurance in the introduction to the code that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic” is impossibly ambiguous.

“Does it mean that anyone criticising Israel can be regarded as antisemitic unless he or she has also criticized other countries in the same way? Even worse, does it mean that the person can be regarded as antisemitic unless he or she criticises other countries in the same way at the same time? Either way, it would discourage people from exercising their right to criticise Israel.

“What does ‘similar’ mean in this context? What other countries have been belligerently occupying another people’s land, illegally settling it and taking its natural resources, creating an apartheid-like system of unequal rights, and using violent and sometimes lethal means to repress resistance, for 50+ years?

“The sentence also creates an internal contradiction in the document. It contradicts the immediately preceding sentence in the preamble and the last bullet point in “contemporary examples of antisemitism”. If Jews are not collectively responsible for the actions of Israel (as surely they are not), then how can it be antisemitic to single out Israel, whether the criticism is well or ill founded ?

“There are of course many other countries that abuse the human rights of their own citizens, and they are regularly criticised. However, no one is required to choose between concerning himself with all cases of abuse or none. That would be a limitation on freedom of speech.

“We believe adoption would also have severe consequences for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The more widely it is adopted, the greater will be its effect in repressing criticism of Israel, and the more will right-wing Israeli governments be emboldened to continue acting as if they are above the law.”

Board of Deputies launched censure motion over ‘spectacular own goal’

The two members of the British Board of Deputies who accused their vice-chair of anti-semitism were themselves the target of a censure motion from the Board’s leadership for what was called a “spectacular own goal”.
Jacob Lyons and Martin Rankoff collected signatures for a motion of no confidence in Dr Sheila Gewolb after she issued a press release criticising Israel’s Nation State Law.

The press release was issued by Dr Gewolb in July in the name of the Board and it criticised the new law – which says that only Jewish Israelis have a right to self-determination and downgrades the status of the Arabic language – as “regressive”.

The two members accused her of “applying double standards to Israel” – one of the examples of antisemitism given in the IHRA code that the Board of Deputies persuaded the Labour Party to adopt in its disciplinary code.

This was the example – “applying double standards – that the Board itself used to accuse the National Union of Students of antisemitism for voting to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign.

The Board used the same example to accuse academics of antisemitism when they wrote to the Guardian to support an academic boycott in 2015.

The potential for embarrassment was recognised by the Board when they issued a vote of censure against the two members for “bringing the Board into disrepute” at the same time as urging their members not to sign their vote of censure against Dr Gewolb.

At a meeting of the Board in October President of the Board Marie van der Zyl issued an edict to members that they had to “welcome a huge diversity of opinion” and “learn to disagree with tolerance and respect”.

Liberal Democrat MP tables Bill for the recognition of Palestine

Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West, has tabled a private member’s bill to recognise the State of Palestine – though it stands little chance of being debated and even less of being passed.moran

The draft law was presented under the Commons Standing Order 57 which goes to the back of the queue of private members’ Bills and cannot normally be debated until all the others have been voted on. That is unlikely to happen.

The Bill has cross-party support from Labour, SNP, Plaid and Green MPs as well as Liberal Democrats and its sponsor,  Layla Moran is the first British MP of Palestinian descent.

The House of Commons voted in favour of the recognition of Palestine by 274 votes to 12 in a backbench business debate in October 2014, but despite the overwhelming majority David Cameron refused to give it Government support.

The UK has been committed to recognising a state of Palestine “in principle” since 2012 when the Foreign Secretary William Hague said Palestine was “fit for statehood” and promised recognition – but “at a time of the Government’s choosing”.

Foreign Office minister have stated dozens of times in the Commons that they are still committed to recognition – but are waiting for the time when it will do most to help the peace process.

Middle East minister Alistair Burt seemed to fall short of repeating this pledge in his answer in the Commons, when he said: “The recognition of Palestine remains a matter for the United Kingdom’s judgment in the best interests of peace and the peace process, and we hold to that.”

Over 130 of the United Nations’ 193 states already recognise Palestine and most of the countries still refusing recognition are in western Europe.  The UN itself recognises Palestine as a state though not a member, its application to join having been refused as the result of a Security Council veto from the United States.

British JCB diggers seen at Khan al Ahmar

British-made JCB diggers were seen at the village of Khan al Ahmar, which has been threatened with imminent demilition for the last four months to make way for the expansion of an illegal Israel settlement.

The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has warned Israeli army generals that they could face charges if the demolition goes ahead as “extensive destruction of property without military necessity and population transfers in occupied territory” are crimes in international law.

Labour MP Paula Sherriff raised this with Middle East minister Alistair Burt in September and he confirmed in his reply that demolition would almost certainly be “contrary to international humanitarian law”.

“I assure you that the British Government is committed to encouraging and fostering respect for human rights among UK businesses,” he told her. Companies must “take account of” international human rights law.

JCB diggers have since disappeared from Khan al Ahmar to be replaced by Volvo, Caterpillar and Chinese-built Liu Gongs, but it was not clear whether  this was the result of action by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or the company, based in Rocester, Staffs.

The demolition was due in July but has been delayed – possibly as a result of international protests from the UK and other European countries but even more probably as a result of the warning from the International Criminal Court.

However during a private meeting with MPs of his party on November 18 Netanyahu said that Khan al Ahmar would be evicted “very soon – I shall not tell you when. We are preparing for it.”

The demolition of Khan al Ahmar will lead not only to the eviction of 193 Bedouin, including 86 children, and their school which serves five surrounding villages, but will also open the way for settlement building in the planning area E1 which stretches from Jerusalem to Jericho, cutting the northern West Bank off from the southern West Bank.