By Dr. Daud Abduallah
Special to PalestineChronicle.com
Any combination of factors can determine the success or failure of political negotiations. The complex nature of the conflict, attitudes of principal players and their lack of freedom to negotiate are common examples. Arab-Palestinian efforts to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Israelis have been virtually stalled for the last seven years. Israel’s never ending list of preconditions has made progress as difficult as extracting water from stone. In the current impasse, the unconditional release of Palestinian prisoners and lifting of the economic sanctions would constitute a major step in the right direction.
When the extremist Apartheid leader P.W. Botha offered Nelson Mandela a conditional release in February 1985 in return for renouncing the armed struggle Mandela spurned the offer. He immediately released a statement that bears a similar message for those who hold the Palestinians in captivity. It read, ‘what freedom am I being offered while the organization of the people remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts.’ [Sparks: 1994)
Two decades on, Israel’s political establishment like the Apartheid leadership of the mid 1980’s has set its own conditions for the release of an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners. They are: (1) the release of the captured Israeli soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit (2) an end to the rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip and (3) an end to the smuggling of weapons into the Strip.
Naturally, the Palestinians also have their basic demands. That Israel must free from a total of over 10,000 prisoners, a minimum of 1,500 as well as all the women, children, parliamentarians and ministers currently held in Israeli jails and detention centers. The mere fact that so many elected parliamentarians can be detained indefinitely without charge can only be regarded as a flagrant assault on the institution of democracy. If this outrage was perpetrated anywhere else the United Nations and its entire membership would be up in arms to protect the symbols of democracy.
By deliberately ignoring Israel’s abuse and denial of medical treatment to Palestinian prisoners the world’s so-called leading democracies have a lot to answer for. Their sickening silence over the plight of the Palestinian captives on the one hand and their righteous demands for the release of Corporal Shalit on the other betrays the inexcusable hypocrisy that has permeated every aspect of policy toward the conflict and rendered peace practically unattainable.
As it stands, Israel’s continued detention of thousands of Palestinians is by itself a statement of intent. That it has no genuine desire or appetite for negotiations. Its steady but conflicting disclosures about the names and numbers of prisoners have created a state of confusion and hindrance of all diplomatic efforts.
Sanctions of Death
The fact that poverty indices in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are at their lowest levels since the occupation began 40 years ago is no doubt a direct consequence of the international sanctions. Although Israel, the Occupying Power, is obliged to provide for the welfare of the Palestinians under International Humanitarian Law it is nonetheless encouraged by the US to withhold over $600 million of Palestinian customs and tax revenue collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.
Meanwhile, personal incomes across the Occupied Territories continue to fall as debt levels rise and essential services grind to a halt. According to a recent study by the British charity Oxfam, 46% of Palestinians now do not have enough food to meet their daily needs. Since the sanctions were imposed in early 2006 the number of people living on less than 50 cents (US) a day has almost doubled. As a result, one million people now depend on incomes paid to 160,000 government employees.
Still on a related level, the sanctions have hastened the decline of health conditions in the territories. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) in its latest study reported last month a 31.1% increase of chronic illnesses among Palestinian families during the last two years. While caesarian births have increased by 17%, infant mortality rates have jumped to 25.3 for every 1,000 births. Only 12% of women received post natal care in the same period.
If given the freedom to trade, invest and full control over their resources Palestinians could still turn this situation around. What they most desperately need at present, however, is an end to the scandalous siege of their economy. They don’t want to depend parasitically on the European Union (EU) as Israel depends on American handouts.
The recent visit by Palestinian Minister of Finance Salam Fayad to the EU was a pitiful demonstration of how much rich countries are prepared to use their economic power to browbeat poor nations into political subservience. While the European ministers lined up to pay tribute to the integrity of the Palestinian minister and their care for the Palestinian people they bluntly refused to lift the sanctions of death. The message to Fayad was stark. Not until the Palestinian Authority (PA) meets our political demands there would be any significant economic assistance.
By adopting the policy of dealing with selected members of the PA the EU like the US hopes to subvert the emerging unity government and force an early election that would see the back of Hamas. Not all in the international community and the Security Council favor this approach though. The decision by Switzerland, Russia and China to establish full diplomatic ties with the new government marks a welcome departure from the status quo. This step must not however stop short at diplomatic niceties. It must also be translated into effective policies that would bring about an end to the sanctions.
Of all the troubling consequences of the international embargo the most shocking is its contribution to the silent exodus of Palestinians. Israel’s political leadership has no intent of repeating the forced ‘transfer’ (expulsions) of 1948. They are, however, prepared to make life so unbearable for the Palestinians that they would on their own accord resort to ‘voluntary transfer.’ This process has regrettably begun. In 2006, 46,000 Palestinian applications were submitted to foreign consulates in the OT for visas to leave. By keeping the sanctions in place the international community has in effect become complicit in a process of quiet ethnic cleansing.
Unfortunately, the worse may yet to come if the Palestinians fail to preserve their national unity. Recent American moves to deliver $60 million worth of arms to President Abbas’ security guard seem especially designed to undo the process of national reconciliation started by the Makka agreement. The similar arming and support of one faction at the expense of the other in Iraq did not only plunge that country into the inferno of civil war. It also gave birth to the largest refugee crisis in the region since the Palestinian Nakba of 1948. Since both the US and EU seem incapable of adopting an even-handed policy toward the conflict, Arab and Muslim countries share a joint responsibility to prevent a similar scenario in Palestine. With 50,000 Iraqis spilling out across the region every month the Middle East can ill afford a similar catastrophe from Palestine.
At present Palestinians are in need of assistance not to become a source of irritation to the Israelis but in order to achieve their freedom. ‘Only free men can negotiate’. Confining the discussions to security and humanitarian issues would not deliver freedom or independence. It is in the best interest of all the parties including the US and the EU to begin a new political dialogue; not for the sake of talking but in order to build a better future for the region. As a demonstration of goodwill and positive statement of intent this process must begin with the release of the Palestinian prisoners and lifting of the sanctions.
-The author is senior researcher at the Palestinian Return Centre, London. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com