After completing his Ph.D in the University of Pennsylvania, the former Palestinian foreign minister, Nabil Shaath, lectured in financial economics at the elite Ivy League Wharton School in the US.
Among his students was a brash undergraduate named Donald Trump who did little study, flunked his exams and was expelled from the university. With the help of his very rich father, Trump was readmitted and, despite his poor academic credentials, went on to greater things.
“He was not a good student. He dropped out and his academic standard did not come up to scratch. I was teaching advanced corporate finance and he flunked the courses. The idea of this man as President of the US to me shows the decline of American civilisation”.
Some half a century later, Trump is leading the latest assault on the historic right of the Palestinian people to their own land, including international recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of their independent state.
Last December, President Trump confirmed that he intended to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in a move that deeply angered the Arab world while elating many Israelis who have long had their sights on ultimate control of the holy city, which has been traditionally shared by Muslim, Christian and Jewish religions.
The decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem was authorised by the US Congress some years ago but was put on hold by President Barack Obama, who believed the decision could only hamper efforts to find a lasting peace in the region and, in particular, the achievement of a two-state solution with east Jerusalem as capital of Palestine.
For the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and for Nabil Shaath who acts as foreign relations advisor to him, this divisive action by the Trump administration has confirmed a view they have long held privately: that the US cannot be considered as an honest broker in the search for a just solution to the Middle-East crisis, arguably one of the world’s most egregious human rights scandals.
Over recent weeks, 35 Palestinian people have been killed and over 1500 injured by live rounds fired by Israeli army snipers from behind a fortified security fence erected in Gaza. Each Friday thousands of people from the besieged and almost destroyed Gaza Strip have protested for their “Right to Return” to the lands from which they and their families were expelled during the Nakba or catastrophe when the state of Israel was declared in 1948, and over the decades since.
The policy of the government led by Benjamin Netanyahu and of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) is that the right-to-return protests must be resisted with maximum force, including by the killing of unarmed activists and the maiming of thousands. Already overstretched and under-resourced Gazan hospitals have been unable to cope with the recent slaughter, while their efforts to transfer shooting victims with serious injuries to hospitals in the West Bank have been obstructed by the IDF.
Two young men who each had had a leg amputated after suffering severe bullet wounds lost their other leg after doctors were prevented by Israeli authorities from transferring them from Gaza to better-equipped hospitals for treatment. The reason they were refused access to urgent medical care in Ramallah was because their “medical condition is a function of their participation in the disturbances”, the Israeli authorities confirmed. One of the young men, Yousef Karnez, said that he was a trainee journalist and was holding a camera at the demonstration which he sought to document.
“I got two bullets. One hit my left leg and crushed it and the other hit my right leg, where it gravely injured my shin. Doctors have already amputated my left leg and I am begging; I don’t want to lost my other leg,”, he pleaded in the days after he was shot in early April.
A young journalist, Yaser Murtaja, who was wearing a white ‘Press’ sign on his chest during the same protest on 6t April, was shot dead by IDF snipers and wrongly accused by the Israeli defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, of being a member of Hamas who had been operating a ‘spy drone’ before he was killed. His claims were denied by the International Federation of Journalists who said that Murtaja had worked for both national and international media over recent years including for the BBC and Al Jazeera, and that his company Ain Media had been funded by the US Agency for International Development. His production company had used drones for aerial filming and he was due to start a new job with the Norwegian Refugee Council two days after he was shot.
Nabil Shaath, a Gazan, believes the people of the strip are desperate and the large ‘Right to Return’ protests are a reflection of their appalling living conditions. The electricity in Gaza, where some 2.5 million Palestinians live, is turned off for sixteen hours each day, there is no clean water, and there are severe shortages of food and medical supplies.
Efforts to establish a unity government across the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza which commenced last year have so far been unsuccessful due to the inability of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Fatah (the political organisation led by President Mahmoud Abbas) and Hamas to reach agreement. At the core of their disagreement is the refusal of Hamas, which took political power in Gaza following elections in 2006, to cede control of security to a new government of Palestine.
“We have a presidential system in Palestine and the President is in charge of security and foreign relations,” Shaath explains. “Hamas was elected in Gaza in 2006 by popular vote and we accepted that mandate. However, the PA remains responsible for ensuring that the people of Gaza have sufficient finance to cover the costs of education, health, water and electricity. We have now said to Hamas that we can only continue to pay the bills if they agree to complete discussions for a unity government that will include security”.
This would involve Hamas agreeing to have their members join a united Palestinian police force with the PA and removing its armoury of rockets and weapons from the scene, with Egypt acting as a guarantor, according to Shaath.
“Let us agree on a strategy for liberation on the basis of non-violent means” the former foreign minister asks. It goes without saying that the alternative method of armed resistance employed by Hamas has led to three hugely destructive military assaults by Israeli forces in 2009, 2012 and 2014 which have left thousands of dead and wounded and the devastation of Gaza city and surrounding areas. It does not take much to conclude that it would suit the Israeli government if it could complete the job and wipe out Gaza which provides the only access for Palestinians to the coastline and its offshore resources.
With 40% of the 6.5 million Palestinian population living in Gaza (not including the 6.5 million living in refugee camps in neighbouring Arab countries and around the world) a rapprochement with Hamas is essential in order for fresh elections to take place across the entire occupied territory. Shaath disputes the views expressed by some, younger, critics of the PA who believe that Abbas and his ageing leadership are reluctant to face the people in elections given the poor state of the economy, its high unemployment rate and the unceasing expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
What is certain is that the current Israeli government and many of the country’s citizens are determined to achieve their ultimate goal of a single state of Israel from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean Sea, to paraphrase a slogan used by Palestinians to describe their traditional homeland.
The illegal settlements that encroach into Palestinian lands in the West Bank and Jerusalem are the most evident signs of this ambition, serviced by roads and infrastructure provided by the Israeli government and protected by its soldiers and police. The 800-kilometre wall under construction by the Israeli authorities since 2002 snakes its way through Palestinian homes and farms. Like the checkpoints that so frequently block the roads used by Palestinians to travel from home to work, across the occupied West Bank, they have no security rationale. Firstly, there is no armed struggle emanating from Palestinians in the West Bank or Jerusalem, if you exclude the stone-throwing youths that congregate around Israeli military outposts after prayer on a Friday. The wall and checkpoints bisect the lands of Palestinians, leaving them on both sides of the obstruction. Clearly, they are not built to defend Israel from its Palestinian neighbours and can only be explained as part of the wider expansion of the illegal settlements and a massive land grabbing exercise.
Each day thousands of Palestinian workers spend hours crossing through the checkpoints and the wall to get to work in Jerusalem and the settlements, where they help to build homes or act as domestic servantss in houses constructed illegally on the lands of their own people. Women workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse from both their settler employers and the security forces. The military occupation by Israel of Palestine is all-pervasive and getting worse.
The latest flash point is in the old city of Jeru- salem itself where Israeli security forces have set up around the gates that bring Muslims and Christians to their historic places of worship, including the Al Aqsa mosque and the Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre which hosts the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. Last February, the Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian Christian churches closed the doors of the church after the Israeli authorities threatened to impose penal taxation on their lands. After the threat was temporarily lifted the church was re-opened. Muslims and Christians have long shared responsibility for the care of their places of worship in Jerusalem. Indeed, a Muslim is entrusted with holding the key with which he opens and closes the Church of the Holy Sepulchre each day. (see photo) .
Following a confrontation with armed Palestinians in July, 2017, the Israeli police installed metal detectors and CCTV cameras in the compound of the Al Aqsa mosque, one of the world’s holiest sites for Muslims. This led to widespread protests as Israeli authorities were accused of violating the status quo by imposing unnecessary security measures. Palestinian worshippers staged a sit-in outside the compound wall in protest and clashes with the Israeli military over two weeks left six people dead and thousands injured. After 11 days of protests, Israel relented and removed the intrusive structures. The Palestinian minister with responsibility for Jerusalem Affairs, Adnan Husseini fears that the worst has yet to come.
“The Israelis have a proposal and timetable to take over Christian and Islamic sites in Jerusalem. The occupation is spreading by stealth and they are trying to rid the city and the lands around it step by step. There are now 700,000 illegal settlers on our land and their plan is to reach one million by 2030. There is no peace agenda. You cannot make peace without respect”, Adnan Husseini said.
For Nabil Shaath, the future of |Jerusalem is inextricably linked with the future of the Palestinian people and must feature in a negotiated solution, along with the definition of borders and the right to return. As a leading negotiator of the failed Oslo Accord agreement in 1993, Shaath has watched as Israel ignored and then trampled on the deal, including its key provision that the integrity of west Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem should remain until final agreement was reached. Then there were 135 settlers on the occupied Palestinian lands. Now there are 700,000. Perhaps, if Trump was a better student of history and economics, he may not be on the verge of fuelling one of the worlds most intractable conflicts even further.
Israel failed to exclude Dublin’s mayor for his endorsement of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions though they did exclude one third of the delegates to the Ramallah conference ‘Foreign Minister Simon Coveney has said that the Government can only fulfil the commitment contained in the Programme for Government to recognise the Palestinian State, in the context of a negotiated solution’
As the toll of Palestinian dead and wounded in Gaza continued to mount, delegates from all over the world, including religious, political and trade union representatives including the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Micheál MacDonncha converged on Ramallah to attend a three-day conference on the future of Jerusalem on 11 April. I was invited to attend as a representative of SIPTU while a former senior Irish diplomat in Palestine and a professor from UCD also attended.
Less than 24 hours before the Dublin mayor was due to land in Tel Aviv airport Dublin City Council had voted to support the campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel which many in the various solidarity campaigns in support of the Palestinian people believe could prove as effective as the boycott of South African goods was in the struggle against apartheid in the 1970s and 1980s. The Council also voted for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to Ireland in response to the killing of unarmed protestors in Gaza over recent weeks.
When word reached the Israeli authorities of the vote and of the Mayor’s imminent arrival at Tel Aviv airport they decided to prevent him from attending the conference due to his endorsement of the BDS motion. They told local media that he would be sent back to Ireland on arrival. In their haste, however, the Israeli Strategic Affairs ministry sent the wrong name to the airport security office with the result that MacDonncha reached Ramallah before the authorities realised he had passed through their airport unimpeded. It emerged that the first name of the person they were waiting to deport was wrongly named Ard Mhéara (the Irish for Lord Mayor).
“Rumours of my refusal are untrue. I’m in the hotel in Ramallah preparing for the conference”, MacDonncha said when he was contacted about the Israeli statement that he had been prevented from attending the conference.
The embarrassment for Israeli security, which prides itself on its all-powerful technological and intelligence prowess, provided much humorous fodder for Palestinian and international commentators, including across social media. It also resulted in greater international attention on the conference and its deliberations than would otherwise have been expected.
Not so widely reported was the denial of access, mainly at the Jordanian border, of almost fifty people, or one third of the delegates, to the Ramallah conference.
The security failure also contributed to an out-burst from Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, concerning a former Grand Mufti of Palestine, Haj Amin al-Husseini, whose image was used on conference material and who had controversially met with Adolf Hitler in 1941. The Irish ambassador to Israel, Alison Kelly, was summoned to the Israeli foreign ministry over the Mayor’s attendance at the conference and the Dublin City Council motions. She defended the right of the Lord Mayor of Dublin to express his views and criticised the attempted refusal to allow him to visit Palestine.
The row reached absurd proportions when several leading Jewish historians criticised Netanyahu for distorting history by claiming that al-Husseini had first planted the notion of the extermination of the Jews in Europe in the mind of Hitler. They pointed out that the widespread murder of Jewish people had begun long before the Grand Mufti had met Hitler. It was Hitler, they said, who had proposed the ‘Final Solution’ which culminated in the Holocaust.
In his address to the closing session of the conference, Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas said that the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel meant that it could not be considered any longer as a neutral or honest broker of any peace process in the Middle East, if it ever had been one in the first place. He called for an international conference comprising countries with a genuine interest in securing a two-state solution based on the pre- 1967 borders and with East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. At the rate of expansion of the Israeli military occupation such a peace effort cannot come too soon.
The government of Palestine has pressed the Irish and other governments across the EU to recognise the right of the Palestinians to their own state, with Jerusalem as its capital. Although the Oireachtas endorsed this position in 2014, there has been no formal recognition by the Irish Government although the commitment is contained in the Programme for Government agreed between Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance two years ago. Foreign Minister Simon Coveney has said that the Government can only fulfil this commitment in the context of a negotiated solution. However, as is evident from both the Israeli and US positions, neither wants a negotiated solution with the Palestinians. The EU has made it clear that it does not object to any individual member state recognising an independent State of Palestine. If the main opposition parties insisted on a Dáil motion to this effect, it could shift the dynamics in the conflict and force negotiations for a just solution to the historic tragedy and injustice which is the daily experience of the Palestinian people.