Coming only four weeks after the European declaration of sanctions against the Palestinian Authority, Ehud Olmert’s announcement of a new Israeli Government should raise profound questions in any Western country truly interested in a ‘balanced’ approach towards the Middle East.
It appears that the explicitly racist Yisrael Beiteinu party, which advocates creating an Israel cleansed of Palestinians, will now not be a coalition partner, though Olmert remains open to the idea of their entry into government – as apparently does the Labour Party, which has now joined Kadima in the coalition. Former Israeli parliamentarian and peace activist Uri Averny recently commented that Yisrael Beiteinu’s leader, Avigdor Lieberman, “could give lessons to Jean-Marie Le Pen and Joerg Haider”.
Nonetheless, Olmert’s government does contain many politicians responsible for the last five years of terror and impoverishment on the West Bank, who fall foul of the conditions the Quartet (US, EU, UN and Russia) has seen fit to place on the Palestinians. Consider the denunciation of violence. Israel is currently dropping bombs on civilian populations on a daily basis in the supposedly free Gaza Strip. During the week of April 12, the Israeli Army fired more than 950 artillery tank shells and 46 F16 missiles in this densely populated strip of land. Overall 19 Palestinians were killed by the Army, including three children, during that week. Three Palestinians were beaten up by soldiers, including a 6-year-old girl.
On the EU’s other conditions on Hamas – recognition of Israel and abidance by the Oslo Accords and Road Map – Prime Minister Olmert’s new cabinet, much like his old one, falls down rather badly. Olmert himself, in January this year, made clear that “We firmly stand by the historic right of the people of Israel to the entire Land of Israel. Every hill in Samaria and every valley in Judea [the West Bank] is part of our historic homeland.” This is the same, in reverse, of Hamas’ historical claim to the whole of mandate Palestine, which the West believes makes them unsuitable for government. Moreover Olmert doesn’t stop at theory: “Israel will maintain control over the security zones, the Jewish settlement blocs, and those places which have supreme national importance to the Jewish people, first and foremost a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty.” Meanwhile Olmert’s Foreign Secretary, Tzipi Livni, who retains her position in the new government, recently told a legal conference that: “One does not have to be a genius to see that the fence will have implications for the future border.”
In other words, in total violation of international law, the Oslo Accords and the Road Map, Olmert has clearly stated that he will incorporate the largest settlement outposts in the West Bank, including in Jerusalem, into Israel proper, and re-draw the map of Palestine to include an Israeli presence on the eastern side of Palestine in the Jordan valley. Any state which does result from this exercise will be cut into several sections, with no control over its borders, or its international and trade relations or its security – it will have no sovereignty. In no way does this constitute recognition of a Palestinian state.
The majority of Israel’s political establishment, including the governments of Sharon and Olmert, have spent many years preventing the emergence of a two-state solution through expanding settlements, the Separation Wall, a system of racist settler roads, gateways and tunnels which mean two people living separate and unequal lives within the Occupied Territories themselves. Indeed, this was the conclusion of EU diplomats in Jerusalem in a suppressed report leaked before Christmas, as well as a more recent report by UN Human Right Special Rapporteur John Duggard last month. Israeli peace activists such as Jeff Halper from the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions are quite clear that “the two-state solution in now dead”.
So Israel violates all three of the Quartet’s conditions to the Palestinian Authority – yet you search long and hard to find Western politicians voicing public condemnation of these policies. Although the Palestinians are not the perpetrators but the victims of countless violations of international law, it is they who are now suffering a sanctions regime perpetrated by Israel, the US and EU – a regime which is sending the Palestinian economy into freefall. It is they who are now targeted by a Western attempt to destabilise their democratically elected government. On 14 February, the New York Times reported that senior officials in the US State Department were discussing with Israeli officials the best ways to “destabilize the Palestinian government so that newly elected Hamas officials will fail and elections will be called again”. They discussed Israel withholding tax revenues which it owes to the Palestinian Authority, and which provide the Palestinians with a major source of revenue, and conditions being placed on Hamas to ensure that Western aid stopped flowing.
And so it has come to pass. The 152,000 people employed by the PA, running health clinics, hospitals, primary and secondary schools, now face the real prospect of unemployment or non-payment of salaries. The World Bank and United Nations have predicted increases in poverty to around 75% of the population, and the economy is expected to shrink by 27%. In addition, Israel is trying to prevent the Palestinian government from functioning by preventing the free movement of ministers around Palestine and banning their travel to the outside world.
These steps have been condemned by all aid agencies and human rights campaigners working in the region. Oxfam have said that “this is the worst possible time to cut funding”. Amensty International has said it is a dereliction of duty by the international community, and expresses concern that the decision to severe financial aid “could have very serious consequences impacting on the health, education and other economic and social rights of Palestinians”. Indeed the consequences of the present course of action are well known throughout the world after a leak from a cabinet meeting at which government advisor Dov Weisglass joked that the current policies would put the Palestinians on a “starvation diet”.
Yet this seems to mean nothing to the UK or the EU. Campaign Against the Arms Trade recently reported that UK arms sales to Israel have doubled over the last year – to £25m. Since Sharon came to power the UK has sold £70m worth of arms to Israel, including machines guns, tear gas, leg irons, components for surface to surface missiles, tanks and helicopters. As coroner’s courts in the UK decided that journalists and peace campaigners James Miller and Tom Hurndall were murdered by the Israeli Army, barely a word was uttered by the Foreign Office. In contradistinction to the EU’s refusal to consider the suspension of the EU-Israel Association Agreement, to put pressure on Israel for its ongoing human rights abuses, sanctions on Palestine seemed to require little discussion or political will.
Hamas’ dream, one day, of a Palestinian state covering the whole of Israel/Palestine, is no different from the dream of the Prime Minister of Israel that Israel will one day (if not now) cover the same area. The difference is that one party is trying to put its dream into effect by a mixture of violence, breached agreement and serious violation of international law. The other is abiding by a year-long ceasefire and offering to extend it. Yet they don’t even receive equality. One side, the Occupier and the cause of poverty in Palestine, is given weapons, trade agreements and the offer of a blind eye from the West, the other side has sanctions imposed and attempts to destabilise its democracy for daring to stand up to a 40-year Occupation that the international community has done nothing to end despite its international obligations.
Hamas’ election was, amongst other factors, a result of Western hypocrisy and inactivity towards injustice in the Middle East over many decades. Its reactions to that election do not merely prove the point, but threaten devastation to an already desperate, deserted and traumatised society. In the words of Seumas Milne in the Guardian recently, we are playing “a highly dangerous role … in the most inflammatory conflict on the planet”; one that risks a rising spiral of violence and impoverishment which will haunt the planet for many decades to come.
Nick Dearden is senior campaign officer at the radical anti-poverty charity, War on Want. War on Want was founded 50 years ago to support grassroots groups fighting long-term poverty across the Third World.