Palestinians Commemorate Nakba and End to Hunger Strike, Demolitions Continue
This week emotions were high among Palestinians as they celebrated a moral victory and commemorated a significant loss.
On Monday, May 15, representatives from the Palestinian Prisoner Society reached an agreement with Israeli authorities to end a hunger strike taken up by 1,600 Palestinian prisoners, including two who refused food for 77 days. There are varying reports on what the deal entails. The Washington Post reports that officials on both sides confirmed that Israel would start allowing family visits from Gaza and end solitary confinement. BBC News’ information partially contradicts that version after reporters talked to an unidentified Israeli official who denied that Israel agreed to stop holding prisoners alone outside the general population.
Most news outlets concur that Israeli authorities and representatives for the prisoners came to a compromise on administrative detention, the primary cause for most of the hunger strikes. The Washington Post reports that officials confirm that Israel will decide to either bring charges against the more than 300 administrative detainees or stop renewing their 6-month detention terms and release them.
By gaining some concessions from Israeli authorities, the hunger strikes demonstrated that nonviolent protest backed by organized popular Palestinian support is an effective tool to protest the occupation. With some estimates showing that since 1967, Israelis have incarcerated 40 percent of the Palestinian male population at some point, improving the conditions for prisoners is a cause that unites Palestinians across the political spectrum.
The day after the hunger strike ended, Palestinians came together to commemorate 64years of displacement and dispossession since 1948. The Arab-Israeli War displaced 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and livelihoods. UNRWA, the organization responsible for providing aid to Palestinian refugees estimates that due to population growth there are now 5 million. Palestinians call the May 15, 1948 the Nakba, Arabic for catastrophe. Palestinians held demonstrations in the region and around the world to bring attention to their plight and demand the right to return.
The events were subdued compared to last year when protesters stormed the Israeli border from Syria and the Israeli military opened fire leaving 14 people dead. However, there were still confrontations between protesters in the West Bank and the Israeli military. Palestinian Red Crescent estimates that rubber bullets injured 30 people and dozens more suffered from tear gas inhalation.
In Israel, students at Tel Aviv University held an event to recognize the occasion. Since last year the Knesset passed a law giving the finance minister the authority to reduce the budget of any institutions receiving state funds if they hold events for Nakba Day. The University agreed to allow the gathering but made the student group pay for the security guards. The event caused Knesset members to get into a heated confrontation and the education minister called the president of the university asking him to reconsider allowing the event to take place. The university did not oblige and the event went on as planned.
This week the Palestinian Authority cabinet experienced a shakeup when Prime Minister Salam Fayyad replaced nearly half of the ministers working under him. The move signifies Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are not any closer to implementing the reconciliation agreement signed in February. Under the agreement, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was supposed to head a government of technocrats for several months to prepare for elections in Gaza and the West Bank but the sides are unable to overcome key differences. Hamas leaders do not want to give up any power and Abbas fears that a government with Hamas members in it will scare away Western donors and further dim the prospects for negotiations.
Hamas was not pleased with the cabinet reshuffle because it violates the Doha agreement. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum says the move “reflects an insistence on misconduct and maintenance of illegitimacy and disagreement." Next week Hamas and Fatah leaders will meet in Cairo to discuss ways to implement the reconciliation agreement in a way that satisfies both parties.
Last week, Israel’s Civil Administration issued a demolition order against a Palestinian elementary school in Area C (61% of West Bank territory that is under Israeli control), saying it is in a live-fire zone declared in 1999. After the declaration, the Israeli Supreme Court issued an injunction allowing residents to stay until the court reaches a final ruling. The case remains in limbo due to multiple delays by the state to file a response. Residents of the area are eager to fight the order since the children do not have access to any other school. Settlement expert Dror Etkes told Ha’aretz that three settlement outposts recently popped up in the designated live-fire area and said “but as far as I know, there are no restrictions on their movement…” The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories says the state will present a response to the court in the coming days.
A report compiled by local and international NGOs working in the West Bank with the help of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs shows that nothing is safe from demolition orders, not even European funded projects. According to the aid groups, Israel destroyed 62 humanitarian projects including homes, water cisterns and farm buildings funded by several European countries in 2011. 97 percent of the 620 total demolitions occurred in Area C where every structure requires a permit from the Israeli authorities. Willow Heske, spokeswoman for UK’s Oxfam says, "In our experience trying to work within the permit regime, it can sometimes take up to two years... just to get a denial…We see that settlers are getting zoning and building permission in these areas with no trouble, this is obviously discriminatory and is in contradiction of international law.”
With another 110 projects under the threat of demolition, aid groups are urging European governments to take a stand and tell Israel it must end demolitions in Area C.
The surprise agreement that brought Kadima into Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition is in its second week and most of the questions raised after the announcement regarding settlements, mandatory service for ultra-Orthodox students, Iran and the peace process do not have answers yet. However, the rift inside Kadima is growing. Haaretz reports that Kadima members of the Knesset (MKs) who are loyal to former party leader Tzipi Livni are eager to make a split if the right opportunity presents itself.
Livni fueled speculation that she intends to form a new party when she resigned from her Knesset seat on May 1 after new chairman Shaul Mofaz ousted her as leader in a primary. With Kadima members waiting for the chance to split, the new Netanyahu coalition could provide an auspicious opportunity for Livni to reenergize the Israeli left.
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.