January 13, 2012
Tension Rises on Many Fronts Amidst Continued Jordan Meetings
Talks between Israeli and Palestinian representatives on outstanding issues are continuing with the help of the Quartet and Jordan, but without much expectation of immediate or significant progress.
On January 9 Israel’s envoy Yitzhak Molko and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat met again in Amman. According to the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat, the Palestinians gave Israel a response to the 21 “principles” for an agreement Israel gave them last week. The documents are said to address final status issues including Jerusalem, refugees, borders, security and water. The Palestinians said that Israel’s principles were too vague to be useful.
The Palestinians denied Molko’s request that the talks be considered actual negotiations, saying that Israel must first halt all settlement activity. The Palestinians seem willing to continue talks at least until January 26, when they believe Quartet’s deadline for submitting proposals elapses.
The pressure is on Israel to keep the Palestinians talking. According to a source that spoke to Ha’aretz, Jordan, the United States and Quartet envoy Tony Blair told the Palestinians that Israel would take confidence-building measures if they continue talking. However, it is not certain that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has actually committed to doing so. Another Israeli source says, “The aim is to lock the Palestinians in the talks and give them a few sweets in return. Netanyahu and his advisers are willing to take these steps, but only if it is clear that the Palestinians will stick with the talks and won't go to the UN.” Some things the Israelis may offer are releasing Palestinian prisoners and expanding the Palestinian Authority’s control of the West Bank.
The parties agreed to meet again next week in Jordan.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu discussed the peace talk in a phone conversation, a sign the administration remains involved in efforts to get the Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate. The White House reported the premier discussed recent developments with the American president, saying the two leaders “reviewed the recent meetings between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Amman and the President reaffirmed his commitment to the goal of a comprehensive and lasting peace in the region.”
This week it was impossible to ignore tensions between Iran and Israel. With more sanctions and a European oil embargo being discussed recently, pressure increased Sunday when a spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization announced that a nuclear enrichment plant would be operational in the near future. While Iran insists the intent of its nuclear program’s goal is to generate power, most countries are concerned about its potential for creating a nuclear weapon.
The situation escalated on Wednesday when an Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated in Tehran. This was the fourth attack of its kind reported in the last two years. As it had done previously, Iran blamed the United States and Israel for the attack. The U.S. issued a strong condemnation and denied responsibility. Israel’s denial of involvement was less clear. The day before, Benny Gantz, Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff had warned Iran of “unnatural” events.
Israel is understandably worried and has made it clear it wants to stop Iran from developing a nuclear capability. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta took a more cautious approach and said on Face the Nation, “Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they're trying to develop a nuclear capability. And that's what concerns us…and our red line to Iran is to not develop a nuclear weapon. That's a red line for us.”
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad spoke against Iran’s ambitions in an interview with the Jewish Chronicle. He told the paper, “We are greatly harmed by President Ahmadinejad projecting himself as a spokesman for the Palestinians. He seeks the destruction of Israel. We do not. We are deeply troubled by Iran's interventions and we suffer from them.”
While there are no signs the pressure on Iran will end any time soon, MJ Rosenberg, senior policy fellow at Media Matters, is among the many who believe that the sanctions, embargos and assassinations will make Iran more defiant and determined to have a nuclear weapon. He writes, “Such clear acts of aggression can only convince the mullahs that they need to develop a nuclear deterrent.”
There were several disturbing reports recently detailing the extent of the settlement construction activity in 2011. Peace Now’s report, “Torpedoing the Two State Solution”, found that there were 11 new settlements created last year by legalizing outposts. Additionally, there was a“20% rise in construction starts in the settlements – at least 1,850 building starts for housing units, 35% of them (650 units) in isolated settlements east of the planned route of the Separation Barrier.” In East Jerusalem, settlement plans were at their highest in a decade. Peace Now warned that increased settlement activity could prevent the chance for an agreement.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs came out with a fact sheet called “The Humanitarian Impact of Israeli Settlement Policies.” It explains that Israeli settlements impede the lives of Palestinians because they are not allowed on 43 percent of the West Bank. Additionally, 60 percent of structures that were demolished for not having permits were located in areas allocated to settlements.
A report by the European Heads of Mission in Jerusalem and Ramallah also concludes that Israel’s policies in the West Bank endanger a two-state solution. Currently Area C, which is under total Israeli military control, covers about 60 percent of the West Bank and includes some of the most fertile and resource rich land. The number of Jewish settlers are more than twice the Palestinian population in Area C . The EU report warns, "If current trends are not stopped and reversed, the establishment of a viable Palestinian state within pre-1967 borders seem more remote than ever.” The report also encourages the EU to be more vocal when raising objections to, “involuntary population movements, displacements, evictions and internal migration.”
On Wednesday, settlers vandalized a mosque and attempted to burn vehicles in a "price tag" attack. Residents of the village of Deir Istiya saw settlers fleeing after throwing flammable material on three vehicles and then discovered settlers had also painted “price tag” and “Gal Arye Yosef” (an outpost Israeli forces recently demolished) on a wall of the mosque.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered security forces to find those behind the attacks, describing them as “criminals.”
The Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land issued a statement in the name of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the Islamic Waqf and Religious Affairs Ministry of the Palestinian Authority, and the Local Churches of the Holy Land condemning the attack. The statement said, “The Council calls upon people from all faiths – Christians, Jews and Muslims – to respect all holy places and sites for all three religions, and strongly discourages extremists’ behavior that exploits or involves religion in a political/territorial dispute.”
U.S. State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland condemned the attacks on Wednesday night saying, “Hateful, dangerous, and provocative actions such as these are never justified… We again call for calm on the part of all parties and urge them to avoid any actions that could lead to an escalation of violence.”
Reflecting the sensitivity of the demographic balance in Israel, its supreme court ruled in a 6-5 vote this week to uphold a 2003 law that Israel can deny citizenship to Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza who marry Israelis. This means Arab citizens of Israel could be forced to emigrate to the West Bank or Gaza to live with their spouse. Arab-Israelis make up 20 percent of Israel’s population; since the 1967 cease-fire line divided many families and villages, marriage between the groups is common.
More than 100,000 Palestinians have obtained Israeli citizenship through marriage. Many Israelis believe this constitutes a security threat. One judge that voted to uphold the 2003 law wrote, "Human rights do not prescribe national suicide.”
In recent months there have been increasing tensions between the Israeli mainstream and the ultra-Orthodox communities, regarding women’s rights. CMEP reported in the December 9 bulletin that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised concerns about restrictions on women in public spaces. Days before, there was a column in the Washington Post by Ruth Marcus that outlined various examples of how women’s rights have come under siege in Israel, including women having to ride in the back of busses that serve ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and female soldiers who have been banned from singing at Israeli Defense Force events due to ultra-Orthodox complaints.
In a case that gained worldwide attention last month, the ultra-Orthodox Haredim harassed an 8-year-old girl as she was walking down a Beit Shemesh street on her way to school because she was dressed “immodestly.” Thousands came to protest the treatment of women in the neighborhood, and Israeli President Shimon Peres even encouraged people to attend. Prime Minister Netanyahu told his cabinet, “The Israeli police are taking, and will take, action to arrest and stop those who spit, harass or raise a hand. This has no place in a free and democratic state.”
On January 6, 250 Israeli women and girls from across the religious spectrum converged on the main square for a joyful flash mob, dancing to demonstrate solidarity.
Over the weekend of January 8 four senior Fatah members alleged that Hamas authorities prevented them from entering Gaza for a meeting on implementing the reconciliation agreement. Hamas denies this and says they refused to wait to get their documents checked.
There are several road bumps delaying reconciliation and causing tensions between Hamas and Fatah. Fatah says there are internal divisions between exiled Hamas chief Khaled Meshal in Damascus and Hamas leadership inside the Gaza Strip.
Amin Maqbul, Fatah’s secretary general of Fatah’s revolutionary council said, “We know that there are forces of Hamas in Gaza who want neither reconciliation nor to give up their empire, their money or their influence.”
Formed in 1984, Churches for Middle East Peace is a coalition of 24 national Church denominations and organizations, including Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions. It works to encourage U.S. government policies that actively promote a just, lasting and comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ensuring security, human rights and religious freedom for all people of the region.