Monday, September 26, 2011

Mahmoud Abbas: the Second Coming

One could be forgiven for thinking de facto President Mahmoud Abbas seemed like the second coming since Jesus of Nazareth not only by the reception he was given at the UN General Assembly when he spoke there on Friday but by the reaction throughout his speech from crowds amassed in West Bank cities.

Abbas’ speech, calling for admission of Palestine as a full member state of the United Nations, was surprising in that it was unusually strongly worded and lacked the usual skirting of core issues regarding the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Characteristically, Abbas’ public addresses to audiences reflect the interests of the Palestine Authority (PA) and not of the Palestinian people, highlighting the importance of negotiations with Israel to achieve any lasting peace agreement as the sole tactic, effectively undermining resistance in all of its forms to the occupying regime.

At the UN, Abbas used terms like “ethnic cleasning”,“al-Nakba”, “apartheid policies” and “racist annexation Wall”. To the short-sighted and the outsider, the speech was indeed befitting of being a historical platform to voice the issue of Palestine. It encapsulated the suffering the Palestinians have endured for 63 years, from the horrors of their ethnic cleansing in 1948 to the unbearable life under the continuous settlement building which aids the apartheid and racist policies that are inherent in every aspect of Palestinians’ lives.

The speech also mentioned Gaza, which is still suffering under siege and from air raids that account for extra-judicial killings. It was a perfect speech, succinctly and without being overly garrulous capturing Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and making Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech sound like the incessant whining of a spoiled kid.

Or was it? The stalwart speech certainly diverted some of the initial skeptical views on the PA’s bid for statehood. For the indifferent, it won their support, and for those opposed it either strengthened their opposition or cracked their resolve. Talk now isn’t about whether the UN bid for statehood is detrimental or beneficial; it has now come to optimistic discussions of what this bid could do for Palestinians.

The argument is now about how the “internationalization” of the Palestine/Israel conflict is a good thing because it is rarely that the world fixes its attention on this small country except when there is bloodshed and misery, and this attention can now be channeled into genuine support for an end to the Israeli occupation.

“A very good speech”

Issa Amro, the director of the Hebron based Youth Against Settlements, was animatedly expressing his approval of Abbas’ speech in between sips of mint tea.

“It was a very good speech,” he told me. “He [Abbas] didn’t leave anything out. He talked about the Nakba, the Naksa, the prisoners, the settlements…it was a speech that was comprehensive of what every Palestinian wanted to hear.”

I asked him about the reaction of the people who had gathered in Hebron’s city center to watch the speech on a large screen. Mainstream media focused their attention primarily on the reaction in Ramallah, where jubilant crowds were celebrating as if they had already been granted statehood.

“The mood was positive. You know, people in Hebron are mostly Hamas supporters, but they were smiling throughout the speech. Thousands of people were present, which is something very rare in Hebron since we barely have large protests or gatherings.”

I pointed out that the proposed statehood bid was based on the 1967 borders, and that partitioning the land wasn’t going to work in the interests of most Palestinians.

Amro looked at me solemnly. “Listen, you think we’re ever going to forget about Haifa and Yafa? Of course not! But first, we have to gather what we have and then work toward regaining the rest.”

A risky approach

Settling for a two-state solution, no matter how temporary, has drastic consequences. Under the title of “State,” Palestine can be attacked by Israel not as an occupied territory (which carries its own legal implications as the Geneva Convention clearly stipulates that the occupier must protect the occupied), but as an equal.

But this is all theoretical of course. The West Bank and Gaza will not be granted statehood as the US president, with re-elections on the horizion, vowed to veto it. In the midst of renewed blind faith in the bid, Palestinians have forgotten or simply ignored the question of the PA’s legitimacy in carrying out such an act.

Legal expert Professor Guy Goodwin clearly pointed out that the PA is a “subsidiary body meaning it cannot break away from the parent body [the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)], assume greater powers, or establish itself independently from the PNC [Palestinian National Council]. It is only competent to carry out powers conferred to it by PNC.”

The PA’s control is restricted as it has “limited legislative and executive competence, territorial jurisdiction and limited personal jurisdiction over Palestinians not present in areas it is allocated accordingly.” The problem of representation, in which the six million Palestinian refugees in the diaspora could lose if the PLO, recognized and toted as the sole legitimate representative body for Palestinians everywhere (the diaspora, the 1967 occupied territories, the Palestinians living in the 1948 areas) wasn’t such a big deal anymore as Mahmoud Abbas graciously received standing ovations.

Abbas “never popular”

Mahmoud Abbas was never popular with the Palestinian people. Even before his presidency and during his tenure as Prime Minister, the late PA chairman Yassir Arafat was open about his suspicions of Abbas, accusing him of “betraying the interests of the Palestinian people.” Arafat’s associates added to the suspicions by pointing the finger at Abbas, saying he conspired with Israel to keep Arafat under siege in Ramallah during 2002.

It’s not just his lack of charisma either. Abbas never bothered to conceal his frank collaboration with Israel. Whether it was acquiring the services of the Israeli Shin Bet security forces to travel around the West Bank, or having previous knoweldge of and supporting Operation Cast Lead, or calling on Hamas to release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit whilst neglecting to mention or at the very least equating Shalit with the eight thousand Palestinian prisoners languishing in Israeli jails.

Nor has Abbas been shy about coordinating security efforts with Israel under the guise of avoiding Palestinian confrontations which could end up in violence but which in reality serve the Israeli settlers’ interests more and simultaneously undermines unarmed popular resistance.

Most importantly there were the leaked Palestine Papers, which exposed the length Abbas and the rest of the unelected PA negotiating team were willing to concede the rights of the Palestinians, specifically the Right of Return, and the lands given away for the same “horrific picture of the settlement campaign” he articulated in his speech.

For all these reasons, the Palestinian street never thought much of Abbas where he paled in comparison with the inflated symbolism of Yassir Arafat. With his “historic speech” Abbas may satisfy himself with the knowledge that he has crept up the ladder of icons, cementing his legacy as the (autocrat) who laid the application for a Palestinian statehood at the UN’s feet.

The negotiations between the PA and Israel did not start last year in September. That was the timeline given in Abbas’ speech. No, the negotiations have been going on for almost two decades, and while it is nothing short of absurd for Israel and the Quartet, specifically the outraged US, to self-righteously lecture on, nay demand a return to negotiations as the only way to reach a peace settlement, they can rest assured that that it is what Abbas had in mind the whole time.

He wants to use the tactic of going to the UN as leverage that would put the ball in his court once he restarts negotiations, something he has promised to do over and over. Nelson Mandela once said that “only free men can negotiate” and these failed talks between the PA and Israel which have come at the expense of Palestinians and the increasing loss of their rights only give the illusion to the outside world that the relationship is between two partners, two equals, not the occupier and the occupied.

Enthusiasm without analysis

The supporters present at the Muqata’a compound in Ramallah today were bused in from the surrounding villages, most of which support Abbas’ Fatah faction, and other parts of the West Bank. They are lacking in knowledge of the implications and consequences of the PA’s UN bid for statehood, and have become desensitized to the situation on the ground which translates into a positive reaction at face value regarding the subject of Palestine receiving international attention.

This much was clear from my interviews with a number of people representing different aspects of society in Ramallah. They all wanted a state on the 1967 lines, “to be accepted as a country like the rest of the countries in the world”. When asked about the refugees from the 1948 areas (the parts of Palestine on which Israel was established in 1948), they reiterated that no state would be meaningful if the Right of Return was not implemented. When I pointed out this contradiction, most were confused.

Issa Amro indicated that the issue now is trusting the PA. Given its history of corruption and collaboration, this seemed a bit naïve. I believe in a one secular state for all, Muslims, Christians, and Jews. That however, is kryptonite to Zionism whose adherents sees the conflict not as a war or religions, as it slyly paints, but rather as battle of demography over geography.

A long way to go, but hope remains

Accepting the millions of refugees back into Palestine on a human rights approach would mean that the Israeli Jews would become a minority, and fuel the hysterical hasbara notion of “driving the Jews into the sea.” Yet we have a long way to go. The only Israelis who are not morally horrified by a one state solution where Palestinians are treated as equals and where none of this Jewish superiority based on Messianic revelations exists are the anarchists, those completely against the system.

Still, hope remains. The whole UN statehood drama could provide an opening for the Boycott, Divesment, and Sanctions movement to grow even more and become more popular, as it seeks to end Israel’s impunity and hold it accountable for all of its atrocities committed against the Palestinians ever since the months leading up to Israel’s independence.

It is a grassroots movement, similar to the one in Apartheid South Africa, and along with supporting the unarmed popular resistance, the steps for achieving peace, justice and equality in the country become even closer.

As published on Electronic Intifada

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Blue Chair

Palestinian song "Blue Chair" mocks PA’s UN statehood bid

A group of Palestinian youth activists who were sick of the western media protraying the Palestinians as a collective entity regarding the Palestinian Authority’s UN bid have produced a satirical video and song titled “Blue Chair”. In its simple sing-song lyrics, the video highlights sarcastically the fact that supporters of statehood have become obsessed with “magical” chairs rather than basic human rights. The lyrics, translated from Arabic, are below.

In one of the many Palestinian Authority (PA) campaigns to draw up support for UN membership, a mock Palestine UN chair was sent to travel around the world before reaching its final destination, naturally the United Nations building in New York. In the increasingly contested discourse about the PA’s bid for recognition of statehood, the symbolism the chair held won over many people as it carried with it the romanticized connotations of the world finally recognizing a Palestinian state.

Unfortunately, the same supporters fail to realize that this is basically just a PR stunt designed by the PA (who have forgotten the little scandal called the Palestine Papers and have vowed to resume negotiations with Israel) as the US will make good on its promise and veto such a request. Additionally, “statehood” is but a nonsensical diversion, drawing the attention of many to belittle the Palestinian cause — either knowingly or not — to a mere question: “Should Palestine be granted the right to statehood or not?”

A state on the 1967 borders is fruitless in that it cancels out the refugees’ right of return and impossible in that the land in the West Bank is not contiguous by virtue of the hundreds of illegal Israeli settlements and outposts. Furthermore, there are no specific “Arab only” roads or means that connect the West Bank to Gaza, which remains under siege. What is most sickening is the fact that the campaign carries the slogan “Palestine 194” signifying Palestine as the 194th member of the United Nations, while simultaneously abusing the number that holds so much significance for refugees as it is UN resolution 194 passed in 1948 that guarantees the Right of Return.

Compounded by the fact that the PA carries no legitimacy over the majority of the Palestinian people, in the diaspora and from within, the bid for statehood is nonrepresentative and fails to address the occupation directly, the crux of the whole conflict.

Translated lyrics:

The blue chair

This is the story of a magical blue chair… A blue chair that will
travel, soar and fly!
It comes in dark blue…and in white, Palestine, is drawn (2X)

This chair…is not just any chair (2X)
This chair is an extraordinary and magical kind!

This blue chair…can rise high
This blue chair…can achieve
It can a bring us a state
This chair is one magical blue chair!

This is the story of a magical blue chair…a blue chair that will
travel, soar and fly
It comes in dark blue…and in white, Palestine, is drawn
This Chair…is not just any Chair (2X)
This chair is an extraordinary and magical kind!

This blue chair… a chair for our refugees
This blue chair…will give us our “Right of Return”
This chair…will give us back Jerusalem and Palestine

This is the story of a magical blue chair…a blue chair that will
travel, soar and fly
It comes in dark blue…and in white, Palestine, is drawn
This Chair…is not just any Chair (2X)
This chair…is of an extraordinary kind

We’ve got our blue chair…with its own number too
An enemy to the settlements it serves

We are the Palestinians…with our magically dangerous blue chair
We are people…not like any other people
We are people… who have fallen in love with chairs!

Originally posted on Electronic Intifada

Friday, September 9, 2011

Settlers Write Racist Graffiti on BZU Walls

On Friday morning around 2am, settlers made their way to up to Birzeit University and spray-painted racist slogans on the walls just outside the West Gate.

Below are the translated phrases under each picture, taken from the university's own Facebook page.

Jews: Let us win


Ramat-migron, Revenge, Jewish underground

Wait for the revenge, murder.

Ramat migron, revenge is king, price tag, [a nasty word about the prophet Muhammad pbuh]

The miscreants also left their marks in the town of Birzeit, as they attacked and vandalized the main mosque with racist graffiti.

The university's website has condemned this "cowardly criminal" act. Students have questioned the presence of the university guards, but the guards reassured everyone that the culprits did not manage to get inside the campus itself, adding that the property remained untouched.

Having just got off the phone with one of the guards, it remains to be seen whether the culprits can be identified as settlers or not. The dean of the university has issued a gag order on the incident for the time being, meaning that all faculty members and employees within the university are not allowed to share any information they might have to avoid wild rumors from circulating. Whoever they are, they got into a single car and left the premises at around 2:30 am.

This act of vandalism has all the markings of a settler attack. It is is the latest in a series of upped settler antics anticipating the PA's nonsensical UN bid for statehood, after settlers torched a mosque in the village of Qusra near Nablus and attacked a faculty member of Bethlehem University with rocks while he was driving. A student from the same university was also attacked, and after escaping her car through the passenger door to appeal to the Israeli soldiers nearby for help, she was told to return back to her car. Today, settlers in Hebron attacked a family's tent and set it on fire, with the father still inside.

Israeli-American journalist Joseph Dana noted correctly, in light of a recent settler attack on the IOF's military base (which incidentally also had the words 'price tag' sprayed) that these transgressors are "one of the most dangerous and volatile elements on the ground" and that in order for the state of Israel to be taken seriously by the international community, it must curb its "rogue settlers." Yet the Israeli army only seeks to further fan the flames by training and equipping settlers with heavy duty weaponry in order to prepare them for any Palestinian protests that might turn 'violent', dubbing the move Operation Summer Seeds. It is no secret that settlers largely behave with impunity and have the assured protection of the Israeli Occupation Forces. Settlers are usually armed and harass neighboring villages, more often than not lands they've expropriated from the Palestinians, by setting olive groves and fields on fire or by physically assailing the villagers.

Not a word of condemnation either from Israel or its sycophantic brother the PA has been issued regarding these recent settler attacks. One thing is for certain though: these attacks will only increase throughout the month and with no accountability on the settlers' side, a simple 'heads-up' for the Palestinians simply won't do.

All settlements in the West Bank are illegal.
There are over 280,000 settlers in the West Bank (not counting East Jerusalem).
There are more than 180,000 settlers in East Jerusalem.
In total, that makes almost half a million settlers, a mammoth obstacle for any sustainable peace.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Crossing Borders

My latest blog post for Electronic Intifada

I stared at the dull curtain in front of me. Moments later, a female Israeli security guard pulled the curtain back and entered the cubicle, drawing it to a close again. She had on plastic gloves and began patting me down, tapping my knees to stand more widely. She slipped her fingers through the top of the inside of my jeans, lest I should have anthrax rolled up in plastic baggies Velcroed there. She told me to take my shirt off. I stared at her, bewildered. She snapped her fingers impatiently. I slowly pulled off my sweater. Being winter, and despising heavy jackets, back then I was a firm believer in layers. I had another long-sleeved shirt on beneath.

“Ishlakhi bot.”

“I’m not taking my shoes off.” And it’s ishlahi you frosty robot, I silently added.

Her eyes bore into mine. “You’ll stay here forever if you don’t.”

I kicked off my Chucks, cursing Theodor Herzl and his ruinous ideology.

“Ishlakhi hijab.”


She folded her arms and resumed her cold staring game with me.

“There’s nothing underneath my hijab, just my hair!” Which, thanks to whatever pollutants your government puts in the water allocated to Palestinians, is reducing it to a couple of strands. I pictured myself with only two strands on my head, like Homer Simpson, and giggled. Sighing, I unwrapped my hijab, thinking of this absolute unnecessary situation, and glared at the security agent. In less than half a second, she was out of the cubicle, taking my sweater, shoes, and whatever hidden security threats they so masterfully concealed. I wrapped my hijab back on without a mirror, quite a feat considering that every angle and crease had to be equal and smooth. After ten minutes of staring at my socks and picturing the day the state of Israel gets slapped with karma, the security agent came back in, handed me my stuff and vanished for a coffee break.

Gaza has the Rafah crossing, and the West Bank has the jisir. Our gateways to the indifferent world beyond. Two years ago the Israelis discovered that my father has a Gaza ID which meant that he cannot come back to the West Bank. For now he’s staying in Amman, and whenever we can, my family in Ramallah crosses borders (the Allenby bridge on the Israeli side, the King Hussein bridge on the Jordanian one) so we can indulge in a couple of weeks of family normalcy. Needless to say, I’ve crossed the border way too many times for my liking.

Back in the days when my family were united and living in Ramallah on visas, we would cross the Allenby Bridge as foreigners, taking a whole different route—straight from our house to the Israeli side of the crossing. Everything operated faster and smoother. The buses were immaculate and air-conditioned.

The brown Palestinian version is a lot longer and entails a good deal of patience, something I am not equipped with. The taxi can take you on two courses: Around Qalandiya checkpoint and a relatively level ride, or the mu’arrajat way, a perilous back roads journey along extremely narrow twisting roads just before you reach Jericho. Your survival depends on the driver’s skills and calmness. Had I been the one driving I would have shot the car Thelma-Louise style over the valley of caves and mountains, the setting of the world’s lowest point. Maybe that’s why I still don’t have my license…

Once you reach Jericho, you arrive at the Palestinian side of the border crossing. This merely serves as a prelude to the Israeli side, since they are the ones who actually control the border. If there are a lot of people, you wait in the resting/lounge room which has some of the filthiest seats I’ve ever seen. Most of the products behind the snack stall are Israeli. Two large framed posters of Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, each striking a similar pose, smile deprecatingly at the travelers. The Palestinian officials behind the counter stamp your passport and you’re traveling without a matriarch, strike up a conversation. You get on the bus and wait for it to fill. It won’t move even if there’s only one seat empty. The bus then rumbles on to Jericho’s border, and waits for express permission from the Israeli side for the electric gate to open. Depending on the Israelis’ mood, it’s either a few minute wait or a couple of hours of twiddling your thumbs.

Once the gate finally opens, the bus is allowed to progress a few hundred meters before being stopped again. This time, the passengers get off the bus and line up pell-mell under a corrugated tin roof to pass through a security detector. It’s completely unnecessary, but it’s all done for the sake of Israel’s own well-being. The passengers board a different bus and providing that there aren’t any glitches, arrive at the Israeli side. Outside the building, you must pass through yet another security detector in the presence of an armed soldier wearing the coolest shades. Just inside the doorway, you must pass through yet again through another sensitive security detector, with purses, hand bags, shoes etc going through the x-ray machine. Once, the security officials opened a plastic black bag and found toy guns in there. They laughed gleefully to themselves, “Islakh! Islakh!” i.e. islah, weapons in Arabic. Afterwards, you line up in front of six counters, and wait until they return your stamped passport.

Time to get on the bus that will take you to the Jordanian side. Sometimes, the bus is not there and you have to wait. And wait some more. Once aboard, you finally cross the bridge over a spit of water that used to be the Jordan River. You get dropped off where the luggage is, and have to find your own bag, pay the fare, and get on another bus. Usually after that it’s smooth sailing. The Jordanians take the white form which you must fill out on the last bus ride, the green visiting card special to Palestinians, and your passport. Quick stamps here and there, and off you go, temporarily relieved from the many pictures of King Abdullah II’s face in various traditional and western clothes.

On the way back, a lot of waiting is done on the Jordanian side. The fly-infested lounge full of people isn’t so bad compared to the hours and hours of waiting on the bus for Israel to give us the go-ahead to cross over to its side. Once I waited for seven hours. Seven hours on a bus with absolutely nothing to do except envisioning the amount of pain I would have liked to wreaked upon the incompetent Palestinian parent behind me, whose five little monkeys were continuously kicking the back of my seat over and over again. Just before we cross the little bridge, we must once again get out and go through a security detector while an Israeli soldier walks up and down the aisle on the bus to check for anything remotely suspicious. Sometimes they have a dog with them. When you reach the Israeli side, you get your bags from the bus compartments and push your way to the front, where your luggage and passport will be taken from you. Once your passport is given back, you stand in land at another counter and get a sticker with four Hebrew letters on the back of your passport. Most people have the first Hebrew letter circled. Once I got the third letter circled, which I found out was code for “Random Person Search”, which is how I came to be staring at the dull curtain.

It’s not fun crossing the border. I feel like I age ten years every time which makes me nearly as old as Jesus. One of my worst memories was crossing the bridge last August in Ramadan on the hottest day of the year, complete with a broken down air conditioning system and people drenched in putrid sweat. It’s a bitter combination of being subjected to the immense failure of this generation’s Palestinian parenting and having to deal directly with the occupier, in a way that makes you feel like they’re doing you a huge favor by rendering their service to you and allowing you to pass through.

I treat the Israeli officials there like how I was once treated when I visited Yafa. I completely ignore them, answer monosyllabically, and think of them as invisible robots. Even when the Ethiopian Israeli there welcomes me with a cheery “Assalamu aleikoo!” I continue on my way forward without a second glance. It grated me that time when two middle-aged Palestinian women were genuinely laughing heartily with a security agent. The only time I had to actually talk to them is when my British passport was renewed. I already had my West Bank ID out by that time so of course the passport was useless in that I couldn’t get a visa, but I didn’t want them to stamp it thus officially declaring me to be allowed only in the Occupied Territories.

“Do you have another passport?”

I wondered why they bothered to ask, since the fact that I did was clearly in block letters blinking on their computer screens.

Stamp stamp stamp. There goes my chance of seeing Akka again. You never know with the soldiers at Qalandiya checkpoint, which ones scrutinize your foreign passport for the Israeli approved visa, or the ones who jovially try to guess the nationality of the passport before waving you through.

“Do you have another passport?” The second time I was asked that on a different occasion, I lied and said it was in my suitcase where they were in fact in my purse. Unfortunately for me, the Israeli official was a meanie.

“Give them to me,” she ordered.

“They’re in the other bag, let me pass and I’ll bring them to you.”


My brother angrily stepped forward. “We don’t have them on us, you don’t need them anyway.”

The Israeli official stood up and brought her face close to the glass separating us.

“You stand back!” she barked. She called her supervisor, security agent, another official—God knows who, and they began conversing in Hebrew shooting us dark looks.

I pulled the passports from my bag and threw them under the glass. I wanted to go home and take a long hot shower and sleep. I wasn’t in the mood for petty confrontations. She accepted them with a knowing look, and after stamping them threw them back at me. It was cemented, multiple emblems decreeing our imprisonment in the riddled West Bank. My mother is smarter; she always tells them not to stamp her British passport in case she wants to visit a country that won’t accept Israeli markings.

“You know, like Syria for example.”

“Or Iran,” I muttered.

It shouldn’t be called the Israeli/Jordanian crossing. It should be called the Israeli crossing, period. They have all the control over who gets in and out, and coordinate with the Jordanian side accordingly. They have the power to shut down the crossing whenever they want purely based on a whim, as I discovered last summer after a failed attempt to get back to Ramallah. As with the rest of the checkpoints scattered throughout the Occupied Territories, humiliation is a requirement at the border crossing, with the Israelis never missing the chance to remind Palestinians just who exactly controls every aspect of their lives.