Expert Q&A: Palestine — The Year in Review & A Look Ahead to 2016
IPS Senior Fellow Mouin Rabbani took part in a Q&A alongside Diana Buttu, Ramallah-based political analyst and former advisor to Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian negotiators, hosted by the Institute for Middle East Understanding.
Q - How would you characterize the past year in Palestine/Israel?
Diana Buttu - “This past year witnessed a continuation of Israel’s impunity for its denial of Palestinian freedom and rights. In 2014, Israel carried out one of the most brutal attacks on Palestinians in the history of the conflict with its assault on the Gaza Strip. Over a seven-week period, Israel killed more than 2,100 Palestinians in Gaza, most of them civilians, damaged or destroyed over 100,000 homes and businesses and attacked hospitals, schools, and mosques. While Palestinians were assured that the reconstruction of Gaza would come swiftly, a year and a half later little has been accomplished.
“Worse still, Israel continues to act without fear of prosecution or sanction for its numerous violations of international law. Israel has not been held to account for its war crimes in Gaza in 2014 or previously, and continues to build and expand illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. With Netanyahu’s election victory came continued impunity for the actions of violent Israeli settlers, such as the burning of the Dawabsheh family in the Palestinian town of Duma this summer, and the shoot-to-kill policy that the Israeli military and police have been employing against Palestinians. The US continues to show its weakness in the face of an extreme right wing, rejectionist Israeli government, continuing to provide it with unquestioned support and massive military aid.
“Palestinians are now caught between three repressive regimes: Israel’s apartheid regime that seeks to make permanent its subjugation of Palestinians within historic Palestine, an undemocratic Palestinian regime that seeks to suppress Palestinian dissent, and an international system that remains too feeble and/or unwilling to hold Israeli leaders accountable for their actions. Nevertheless, in the midst of this, Palestinians have continued rising up in protest, demanding freedom, equality, and dignity.”
Mouin Rabbani - “Essentially no different than other years since the 1993 Oslo agreement. Israel has proceeded apace with its policies of creeping annexation, the international community continues to lack the political will to challenge this trajectory, and the Palestinians are increasingly fragmented and powerless. The status quo, in other words, is proving very tenable indeed. Two notable developments are the unprecedented levels of official Israeli incitement against the Palestinian community within Israel, and the irreversible collapse of legitimacy of existing Palestinian leadership.”
Q - Do you think the Palestinian struggle for freedom has moved forward or backwards, or remained static in 2015?
DB - “There is nothing static in Palestine. The very nature of life under Israeli military rule is characterized by instability and uncertainty. That said, while the struggle is moving forward with more active and geographically widespread demonstrations than before and the growth of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, Israeli measures to repress these demonstrations are taking on new heights with its shoot-to-kill policy, its use of home demolitions, its increased imprisonment of Palestinian children, and new Supreme Court rulings that sanction the use of fines for those advocating BDS.
“The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, continues to accept Israeli dictates by imprisoning Palestinian activists calling for freedom from Israel’s occupation, while, at the same time, being given legitimacy by the international community despite the fact that Abbas’s electoral term expired six years ago. What is most striking is that the international community, and in particular the United States, continues to support Israeli apartheid and that the Palestinian Authority continues to remain in power despite its failings.”
MR - “In the absence of any significant developments I would opt for 'backwards.' The Palestinian national movement has effectively ceased to exist, and the Palestinian people are today a demographic reality rather than a political force. Until these critical issues are addressed there can be no moving forwards.”
Q - It's impossible to predict the future, of course, but how do you see events unfolding in 2016 in terms of political developments and the situation on the ground? Do you think there will be any significant change in the status quo in the next 12 months? Will 80-year-old Mahmoud Abbas, who has been ruling by decree since his term as Palestinian Authority president expired in 2010, still be in charge a year from now, and will the PA still be in existence and cooperating with Israel?
DB - “It is impossible to predict the future but it is hard to envision Abbas lasting for several years to come given his advanced age and health. His term originally expired in 2009 and Abbas has done little to press for national unity, preferring instead to rule without legitimacy. Abbas has undermined democratic reform in Fatah, in the Palestinian Authority and in the Palestine Liberation Organization, spending his years in office consolidating his power and quashing dissent. Clearly, this is not in the best interests of Palestinians.
“This situation is untenable but change will only come when members of his own political party, Fatah, stand up to challenge him en masse or after he passes away. When this happens, we will see Fatah scramble to choose another ‘leader,’ undemocratically in all likelihood. It may happen in 2016 and it may not.”
MR - “Whether Abbas does or does not remain in power is almost as irrelevant as Abbas has himself become. The more pertinent issue is whether and how Palestinians respond to the absence of credible, legitimate representative leadership, the disintegration of the national movement, and the lack of a coherent national project. This will take time to materialize but I think we are beginning to see the stirrings of Palestinians once again taking the initiative, and to over time either seize control of the existing system or create an alternative one. While one cannot be certain they will succeed, and while the challenges are nothing less than existential, there is nevertheless ample room for confidence that a new generation of Palestinians can and will re-invigorate the Palestinian struggle for self-determination.
“Regarding the Palestinian Authority, its collapse has always been and remains a theoretical possibility but the interests – Palestinian, Israeli, regional and international - vested in its continuation are formidable. Unless and until it renounces or becomes incapable of continued security collaboration with Israel, the PA is likely to survive and be saved from threats such as bankruptcy by its sponsors.
“What this means for the situation on the ground during the next 12 months is much less clear and difficult to predict. In the absence of an end to the Palestinian schism, it seems unlikely we are going to see anything approaching mass mobilization in the occupied territories. Similarly, Palestinian exile communities, such as that in Syria, can expect to be once again abandoned and left to their fate by their purported leaders. The Palestinian community in Israel seems alone in possessing the requisite organization and dynamism to take the initiative and confront the growing challenges to its presence.
“One should also keep in mind that a renewed Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip, or perhaps a wider military campaign initiated by the Israeli government, is also a distinct possibility.”
Q - Do you think tensions will continue to be high around the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount in occupied East Jerusalem, where messianic Jewish extremists have been making growing provocations, and do you think the recent upsurge in violence and protests will continue, or will they peter out?
DB - “Tensions will undoubtedly remain high because the immediate cause of the tension – namely the Israeli government’s support for right-wing extremists who seek to destroy the Noble Sanctuary and replace it with a Jewish temple – will continue. The Netanyahu government has been encouraging these dangerous messianic fanatics, who risk igniting a major religious conflagration, funding their activities and allowing them to indoctrinate Israeli schoolchildren into the so-called Temple Mount movement, with senior government officials aggressively campaigning for a change in the status quo in the Noble Sanctuary.
“At the same time, Israel continues to suffocate Palestinians in the occupied territories with its oppressive, discriminatory military regime, and routinely bars them from praying at their holy sites in Jerusalem. Israel also continues to encourage settlers to take over Palestinian homes in occupied East Jerusalem, particularly in the Old City and adjacent neighborhoods like Silwan, expand its illegal settlements, revoke the residency rights of Palestinians, thereby expelling them from the city, and closing Palestinian cultural and political institutions and demolishing Palestinian homes.
“As for the recent protests, a lot depends on whether Palestinians get international support for them. With Israel and the PA repressing such demonstrations, they cannot be sustained for a long period of time without international support and without Israel being held to account for its actions.”
MR - “There is little reason to expect tensions to decrease given the nature of Israel’s government, the increasingly extremist profile of Israeli society, and growing tolerance for – one could say gradual mainstreaming of – Israel’s equivalent of ISIS.
“That said, under current conditions that I’ve described above, the development of these protests and attacks into an organized Palestinian movement that can be characterized as a sustained mass rebellion seems extremely unlikely.”
Q - Almost three years ago, Secretary of State John Kerry warned that the two-state solution would be unattainable within 18-24 months if something significant didn't change on the ground, and senior Obama administration officials recently said that the President doesn't plan to try to restart negotiations again before the end of his term. Given that the current Israeli government is categorically opposed to Palestinian statehood, and that the next US president is unlikely to expend political capital pressuring Israel into allowing the creation of a Palestinian state during his or her first term, do you think we'll see more of a shift in 2016 towards a one-state paradigm with equal rights for all, given that the two-state solution appears to be all but dead?
DB - “It is already one state. But it is an apartheid state, not a state where everyone enjoys equality under the law, or even the most basic of political rights in the case of Palestinians in the occupied territories. The international community is more than two decades behind in its political stance. The PLO was advocating a two-state solution back in 1974 but the international community, at least the US and Europe, did not sign onto this until the 1990s. Similarly, the reality of the situation on the ground, for two decades now, has demonstrated the futility of the two-state solution. Yet the international community continues to cling to it, as well as a failed US-sponsored bilateral negotiations process, despite ample evidence that they will never work. And while, according to polls, only about a third of Palestinians living in the occupied territories support a one-state solution, this is without a single Palestinian political party advocating this position.
“The problem, however, lies in the fact that Abbas and the leadership of the PLO continue to pursue failed policies aimed at a two-state solution, without any serious consideration of other options. Without a leadership that represents the interests of all Palestinian constituents – whether living under Israeli military rule, as citizens in Israel, or in the diaspora – that begins to advocate an alternative, the international community will continue to pursue the fiction of a two-state solution.”
MR - “Israel opposes Palestinian self-determination in any form, whether a one- or two-state framework. In practice it even rejects Palestinian self-government under Israeli rule. The United States pays lip service to a two-state settlement in a form few if any Palestinians would be prepared to accept, and in practice adopts policies that enable, protect, and encourage Israel’s creeping annexation of the occupied territories.
“Personally I don’t accept the premise that the occupation is permanent and irreversible because American and Israeli politicians say it is. If the Oslo experience holds only one lesson for Palestinians, it is that any political program premised on Israeli consent and American support is pre-determined to fail.
“When Palestinians have reconstructed their national movement and are in a position to mobilize the resources at their disposal, they will need to decide whether to pursue a strategy to force the implementation of the international consensus that calls for a two-state settlement and just resolution of the refugee question, or seek to overturn it by pursuing a one-state paradigm.
“My own view is that terminating the occupation is a pre-condition for any outcome; that a two-state settlement can be achieved through mass mobilization and political struggle, and can potentially transform the Israeli-Palestinian relationship in ways that make possible a subsequent peaceful transition to a one-state paradigm; and that a strategy that seeks to proceed directly to a one-state solution can only be achieved by Israel’s unconditional surrender in the face of overwhelming military force.”