The Middle East peace process has been on a life support system for years. The use of words like ‘stalled’ or ‘impasse’ don’t describe the reality – especially after years of failure.
Over the years and on my occasional visits to the region I have met many Palestinians, some Israelis and others who support Palestinian sovereignty and the two state solution, who believe that the peace process is dead.
Saeb Erekat, who is the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation sounded a warning at the beginning of June. He wrote; “With the 50th anniversary of Israel’s military and colonial occupation of Palestine coming to a head, we have reached a critical juncture within the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. For over 20 years, bilateral negotiations between Israel and Palestine failed on account of Israeli intransigence over its refusal to recognize Palestinian national rights and the continuation and expansion of its settlement enterprise.”
The French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault last Friday echoed that; “The possibility of two states, Israeli and Palestinian, living side-by-side, in peace and security, grows more distant by the day…The two-state solution is in serious danger. We are reaching a point of no return where this solution will not be possible.”
He gave his assessment after a specially convened conference by the French government in Paris on the Middle East peace process. It was attended by the representatives of 26 states, as well as the UN Secretary General Ban-ki Moon and representatives of the EU and the Arab League. The purpose of the French initiative is to try and inject some life back into the process through a peace conference to be held toward the end of this year.
It is nine years since the last such conference in Annapolis in the USA. That conference had aimed to ‘revive’ the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and implement the ‘Roadmap for peace’. Since then there have been a number of other efforts, most notably by George Mitchell, who chaired the Good Friday Agreement negotiations, and US Secretary of state John Kerry. They all failed.
Despite widespread diplomatic pessimism, fuelled especially by the intransigence of Israel, the war in Syria has increased the fear of Islamic radicalism and pressure on European governments to become more active. In the five years of civil war in Syria over 300,000 people have died; over five million have been displaced – over a million of these have fled to Europe; thousands have died in coffin ships and rubber dinghies on the Mediterranean; and the region is convulsed by war. The French Foreign Minister told the Paris conference; “Islamic State makes propaganda in the Palestinian territories. This extremely dangerous context has raised awareness of the need for an initiative that creates hope.”
This is the context for last week’s French initiative. Their objective is to organise a peace conference by the end of 2016 as a way of kick-starting new peace negotiations. The participants at the Paris conference agreed to establish working parties to prepare economic and security incentives to aid the peace negotiations.
Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis were invited to Paris, which the French see as laying the groundwork for the peace conference in six months’ time.
For the Palestinians Saeb Erekat described the French initiative as “the flicker of hope Palestine has been waiting for and we are confident that it will provide a clear framework with defined parameters for the resumption of negotiations. The international conference should be viewed as an opportunity to create a negotiating environment in which power is equalized and law and human rights prevail.”
Dave Gold the Director General of Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry rejected the French initiative describing it as “doomed to failure.” In a statement from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office the Israeli government said that it saw no benefit in the French proposals for a peace conference.
The Israelis say they want direct face to face negotiations with the Palestinians. But such negotiations would not be between equals and would place the Palestinians at a huge disadvantage. Saeb Erekat explained: “Today it is essential that we go from the bilateral path between occupier and occupied to a multilateral framework that enables the international community to assume its responsibility to enforce international law in Palestine.”
As the diplomatic niceties and the possibility of a peace conference slowly takes shape life for the Palestinian people of the west Bank and of the Gaza strip continues to deteriorate under a relentless Israeli assault.
This takes many forms. In a policy similar to the land evictions in Ireland in the 19th century the Israeli authorities have been increasingly using forced expulsions and the destruction of Palestinian homes to steal Palestinian land, often for Israeli settlements.
The Jerusalem Centre for Social and Economic Rights has recently reported on more than 14,900 cases where Israeli identity cards were revoked from Palestinians living on the west Bank and especially in East Jerusalem since the occupation commenced. On a previous visit to Jerusalem I visited Palestinian families who were subsequently forcibly evicted from their homes. It is, as one Palestinian described it, a ‘demographic war’.
The United Nations reported that in February they recorded the highest number of home demolitions since the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) began recording in 2009. It reported that, “Israeli forces destroyed, dismantled or confiscated 235 homes and other structures, displacing 331 Palestinians, including 174 children, and affecting another 740 Palestinians."
Further evidence of this tactic of expelling Palestinians from their land; of disrupting the efforts of aid agencies trying to support them, has emerged in a report published at the weekend. Entitled ‘Squandered Aid,’ the report, by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor estimates that at least €65 million of EU aid has been destroyed by Israel.
In its report Euro-Med states: “Damage to European Union-funded projects in Palestine during Israeli attacks and other incursions is nothing new. However, following the union’s move in 2015 to label Israeli settlement products, the number of EU-funded projects demolished or confiscated by Israel increased dramatically. In the first three months of 2016, the number of demolitions per month, of either private property or Internationally/EU– funded projects, increased to 165, from an average of 50 during 2012-2015. The United Nations office for coordination of humanitarian affairs 'OCHA' has documented 120 demolitions against EU-financed buildings in the first three months of 2016.”
Meanwhile the environmental disaster in the Gaza strip worsens. UNWRA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) reported that there is a “severe water and sanitation crisis… Current abstraction of water from the aquifer to meet the overall needs is way beyond the recharge. As groundwater levels subsequently decline, sea water infiltrates from the nearby Mediterranean Sea. Today, over 90 per cent of the water is unfit for human use.”
Only a quarter of waste water, the report says, can be treated and used in green areas and some agriculture. Some 90,000 cubic metres of raw or partly treated sewage is released everyday into the Mediterranean Sea, “creating pollution, public health hazards, and problems for the fishing industry”.
And while all of this is going on Israel builds settlements on Palestinian land in breach of international law. There are over half a million settlers now living illegally on land stolen from Palestinian farmers and workers and communities.
And then add to this the human cost of the violence. The United Nations has reported the killing of 25 Palestinian children in the last three months of 2015. By the end of December 2015 422 Palestinian children were imprisoned by Israel and since October 2015 204 Palestinians and 32 Israelis have been killed – including four Israelis this week in Tel Aviv.
The Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan attended the Paris conference. I raised the issue of Irish recognition of the Palestinian state with the Taoiseach Enda Kenny last week. He waffled a non-committal response. I will raise the matter again. The people of Palestine seek and deserve the same rights and responsibilities of citizens enjoyed in other states. They also deserve our support. It is also important that in a world in which so much else is happening that we do not forget what is happening to the Palestinian people of the west Bank and the Gaza Strip.