At the beginning of May 2011, Hamas and Fatah signed a national unity agreement, brokered by the new regime in Egypt. This was supposed to see a new national government of technocrats, a unified security force across Gaza and the West Bank, and fresh elections within one year. In practical terms it seems nothing much has happened since then, with the main public stumbling block being the choice of Prime Minister. Mahmoud Abbas insists his main ally, Salam Fayyad, should continue as head of the interim government, while Hamas wants an independent figure. There is also disagreement over Abbas and the PLO’s determination to present a motion calling for recognition of an independent Palestinian state at the UN in September. On 17 July a leading member of Hamas, Ezzet Al Resheq, declared that Palestinian independence could only come through resistance and that Abbas’s insistence on continuing with the UN strategy was against the interests of national unity. He also condemned Fatah in the West Bank for continuing to arrest supporters of Hamas.
Abbas and Fatah have very little room to manoeuvre; they have been forced by events in the wider region, particularly Egypt, to respond to the growing demands within Palestinian society for a national unity agreement. On the other hand they are being squeezed by Israel and the imperialists to reject any notion of resistance and to agree to yet another round of ‘peace negotiations’ with Israel which will further weaken any basis for a Palestinian state. It seems that Abbas and Fatah see the UN option as the only card in their hands. However, US imperialism has threatened them with financial penalties if they persist in this strategy. At the beginning of July the US House of Representatives voted overwhelming 406-6 for a motion that warned the Palestinians that they risk cuts in US aid ‘if they pursue UN recognition of a future state not defined in direct talks with Israel’. The Palestinian Authority (PA) is completely dependent on foreign aid and is experiencing severe financial difficulties at the moment: Arab states have not given it promised funds, and PA employees are expected to receive only half their monthly pay in July. The Civil Servants Union in the West Bank has given the PA notice that if the situation is not sorted out soon then they could begin strike action. Whichever way Abbas and Fatah turn, they are facing serious difficulties.
Israel and imperialism extend siege of Gaza to Greece
It is just over one year since the Freedom Flotilla to Gaza was murderously attacked by Israeli military forces in international waters killing nine activists. A second Flotilla, Freedom Flotilla 2, was planned to set sail from Greek ports to Gaza at the end of June this year. In the run-up to its departure, Israel issued its organisers with several threats to which US imperialism lent its support. Hillary Clinton was open in her backing of further Israeli violence against the Flotilla, ‘Israelis have the right to defend themselves’ if ships ‘try to provoke action by entering into Israeli waters’. The Greek government, which is following an economic and political path directed by the IMF and is engaged in massive attacks on the living conditions of the working class in Greece, did all in its power to disrupt and block the Flotilla from sailing. Israeli divers have been allowed to operate in Greek docks sabotaging Flotilla ships and Greece has placed massive bureaucratic safety demands on the ships preventing their departure. At the time of writing only one ship, the French boat Dignity, had managed to set sail; on 18 May the Israeli navy seized it illegally in international waters and took it to the Israeli port of Adhdod.
The siege of Gaza continues with Israel continuing to deny the free passage of goods across the border. The Rafah crossing into Egypt, although now open for longer periods, is only normally a crossing for people, not heavy goods, and the flow of people allowed to leave Gaza is still severely restricted. The reality of life for ordinary people in Gaza remains one of grinding poverty. Chris Gunness, the spokesperson for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the major aid agency for Gaza, described the situation to Noam Chomsky as desperate: ‘If there were no humanitarian crisis, if there weren’t a crisis in almost every aspect of life in Gaza, there would be no need for the Flotilla. 95% of all water in Gaza is undrinkable, 40% of all disease is water-borne… 45.2% of the labour force is unemployed, 80% aid dependency, a tripling of the abject poor since the start of the blockade. Let’s get rid of this blockade and there would be no need for a Flotilla.’
The Greek government, in a shameful attempt to excuse its craven behaviour, offered to deliver the humanitarian aid to Gaza instead. Over 60 Palestinian organisations signed an Open Letter rejecting this proposal, as the Flotilla, far from being just a collection of ships delivering aid, is making a political statement and is part of the international movement of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle:
‘The people of Gaza are only in need of humanitarian aid because we are prevented from building our economy. We are not allowed to import raw materials or to export; our fishermen and farmers get shot at when attempting to fish or to harvest their crops. As a result of deliberate Israeli policy, 80% of our people have become food aid dependent, our infrastructure is in shambles, and our children cannot imagine a day when they will know freedom. Your offer to deliver the cargo of the Freedom Flotilla entrenches the notion that humanitarian aid will solve our problems and is a weak attempt to disguise your complicity in Israel’s blockade.
‘We are so sorry not to accept your charity. The organizers and participants of the Freedom Flotilla recognize that our plight is not about humanitarian aid; it is about our human rights. They carry with them something more important than aid; they carry hope, love, solidarity and respect. Your offer to collude with our oppressors to deliver aid to us is strongly REJECTED.’
Sheik Raed Salah
On Saturday 25 June, Sheikh Raed Salah, the leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel and a participant in the 2010 Flotilla to Gaza, legally entered Britain to address a number of meetings across the country on the situation of Palestinians within Israel and the deteriorating situation of Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Three days later on the night of Tuesday 28 June he was arrested, detained and told he would be deported from the country. Theresa May, Home Secretary, said that Salah shouldn’t have been allowed to enter the country, and that the UK Border Agency had made a mistake allowing him in as ‘the Home Office had excluded him for his anti-Semitic views’. This ‘exclusion’ was news to Salah, his solicitors and the organisation that had invited him to Britain, The Middle East Monitor. The fact is that even in Israel Salah has never been found guilty of making any anti-Semitic comments.
As Palestinian solidarity activists and defenders of democratic rights demonstrated against Salah’s arrest and detention, the Labour Party, voicing its continuing unconditional support for Zionism, once more expressed its racist contempt, not just for the Palestinian people, but for all those, asylum seekers and others, attempting to enter Britain. Labour’s Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, said the government’s rhetoric of being tough on border controls had been ‘exposed as an incompetent sham… The Home Secretary needs to urgently explain why an individual banned from this country was allowed to walk in and instead of being stopped at the border had to be pursued by the police instead’. She clearly did not care that Salah had never been banned and that May had been lying. Salah has now been released on bail after a successful appeal to the High Court against his detention. He will be fighting against the attempt to deport him.
In a significant defeat of Zionist and imperialist plans to keep Hamas isolated, on 3 May the new Egyptian government brokered a national unity agreement between Hamas and Fatah, the principal Palestinian factions. The response from Israel was outrage. Less than two weeks later, on 15 May, Nakba Day, which commemorates the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their land in 1948, Zionist forces showed how they would respond to any ‘Arab Spring’ amongst the Palestinian people. As thousands of Palestinian refugees demonstrated on the Israeli borders with Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli soldiers used live fire to drive them back, killing many and injuring hundreds more. BOB SHEPHERD reports.
The killing began in Jerusalem on 14 May when Israeli forces shot dead a 17-year-old militant of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The PFLP called on people to support the Nakba demonstrations and linked them clearly to the wider events shaking the region: ‘These rallies, and the movement of return, are part of the new horizon opening from the Arab youth movement and the process of democratic and popular transformation sweeping our Arab countries.’ Israel knew there would be an outpouring of anger on Nakba Day. Defence Minister Ehud Barak sealed off the West Bank for 24 hours from midnight on 14 May and deployed 10,000 border police and troops in Jerusalem, the West Bank and in the area of Haifa within Israel itself.
On 15 May hundreds of Palestinians gathered at the Qalandia checkpoint in the West Bank, the main checkpoint built into the Apartheid Wall separating Ramallah from Jerusalem. Israeli troops crossed into the Qalandia refugee camp using tear gas and firing rubber-coated steel bullets in their attempts to break up the demonstration. More than 80 demonstrators were injured with 20 hospitalised, including three paramedics. In Gaza demonstrators gathered by the Beit Hanoun border crossing in the north of the strip. Israel forces opened fire from watchtowers overlooking the area, and used artillery and tear gas to break up the demonstration. Over 100 Palestinians were wounded. According to Human Rights Watch, 70 had gunshot wounds to the lower body. A demonstration near Khan Younis in the south of the strip was also brutally broken up by the Israelis.
However it was in Lebanon and Syria that the unprecedented happened as tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees demonstrated at the Israeli border. In Lebanon, where there are around 270,000 Palestinian refugees, 40-50,000 people travelled to the southern border to protest. Around 2,000 broke through Lebanese army ranks and reached the electrified border fence. A Lebanese journalist, Moe Ali Nayed, quoted in Al Ahram Weekly described the Israeli response: ‘People were chanting and throwing stones and every once in a while the Israelis would shoot just three to five shots…it wasn’t random fire, it seemed to me they were shooting to kill.’ The Israelis killed ten or eleven unarmed Palestinian demonstrators and wounded over a hundred more. A Human Rights Watch report on 20 May corroborated Nayed’s account.
Independent activists had set up a committee with Hamas, Fatah and other Palestinian organisations to organise the demonstration. Hizbullah helped provide transport and facilitate the demonstration but did not mobilise its supporters to attend. One of the organisers said ‘the demonstration has put more focus on the right of return and gave the Palestinians the chance to express themselves directly right on the border…we’re not stopping, things won’t be the same after 15 May’.
In Syria on the Golan Heights thousands of Syrians and Palestinian refugees gathered in the morning of 15 May at a point near the fence where traditionally Syrian families separated by the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights shout greetings to their relatives across the border. On this day though, shouted messages were not enough. Hundreds of young refugees, ignoring the landmines planted along the border, climbed over the fences and reached the occupied Golan village of Majd Al Chams. Once again, the Zionists responded with live fire, murdering four Palestinians.
The determination of Palestinian refugees to reassert their right to return has unnerved the Zionists. Prime Minister Netanyahu declared that ‘these protests prove that the conflict with the Palestinians is not over the 1967 borders but rather over Israel itself’. The demonstrations, particularly in Lebanon and Syria, have been organised not just by the traditional Palestinian organisations but also by independent forces based among the youth who have drawn inspiration from the events in Egypt and across the region. As Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said: ‘Nothing of what you see would have been possible without the Arab revolutions, especially the Egyptian revolution.’
The momentous events in the region are also what lie behind the unity agreement reached by Hamas and Fatah in Cairo. In the last FRFI we reported that in March thousands of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank had come out on the streets calling for national unity against Israeli occupation. Significantly the new government in Egypt broke with former President Mubarak’s slavish support for Zionism and brokered an agreement between Hamas and Fatah which put the latter on the spot. Under the agreement a new government of independent experts and technocrats will be set up to run the West Bank and Gaza until new elections are held within one year. The security forces in the West Bank and Gaza are to be united and Hamas is also reported to have formally agreed to the ceasefire that is in place in the West Bank. In a further sign of independence, Egypt re-opened the Rafah border crossing on 27 May, ending a four-year closure.
How things will progress over the coming period is uncertain. The accord has not yet stopped Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces arresting resistance activists in the West Bank. Khalil Assaf, the representative of the ‘Gathering of the Independent Personalities’ in the West Bank, in a press release on 19 May said the PA security forces haven’t received any orders from the PA leadership to stop political arrests in the West Bank. He said that the PA security apparatus in the West Bank had told him that ‘they were part of a security institution that has no relation with any Palestinian faction and that it hasn’t received any orders from the political level to stop such policy’. As the PA security forces are trained, funded and run by the US in collaboration with Israel such a statement is not surprising.
The mass sentiment for national unity amongst the Palestinian people both within the West Bank and Gaza, and within Israel itself, as well as amongst the millions of refugees, is based on a desire to fight for basic Palestinian rights which include an end to the occupation and the right of return for all Palestinian refugees. Any unity agreement which fails to have this at its core will certainly collapse. The fact that craven, pro-imperialist bourgeois Palestinian collaborators such as Abbas and Fayyad, who lead the PA, are part of the new national unity agreement reflects the pressures on them from the Palestinian people.
The strategy of Fatah and the PA to which Hamas is now committed is to put a motion before the United Nations in September calling for recognition of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. This is likely to get overwhelming support, and with the new-found unity of the Palestinian people together with the democratic struggles taking place in the region, it could create serious political difficulties for US imperialism. Normally, it would veto such a resolution in the UN Security Council. However, President Obama now has to consider how this relates to the new situation especially given continued Israeli intransigence.
Obama revealed some of US imperialism’s current strategic thinking on the Middle East and North Africa during mid-May with a speech on the ‘Arab Spring’, a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and an address to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPEC). He underlined Israel’s importance in defending the interests of US imperialism in the region. On 20 May, after his meeting with Netanyahu at the White House he said:
‘We discussed, first of all, the changes that are sweeping the region and what has been happening in places like Egypt and Syria and how they affect the interests and security of the United States and Israel… We agreed that there is a moment of opportunity that can be seized as a consequence of the Arab Spring, but also acknowledge that there are significant perils as well, and that it’s going to be important for the United States and Israel to consult closely as we see developments unfold.’
In his speech to AIPEC on 22 May Obama declared ‘the bonds between the United States and Israel are unbreakable, and the commitment of the United States to the security of Israel is ironclad… A strong and secure Israel is in the national security interest of United States’. This would require closer military cooperation: ‘Because we understand the challenges Israel faces, I and my administration have made the security of Israel a priority. It’s why we’ve increased cooperation between our militaries to unprecedented levels. It’s why we’re making our most advanced technologies available to our Israeli allies. And its why, despite tough fiscal times, we’ve increased foreign military financing to record levels.’
However, US imperialism faces a major problem: how can it pretend to be the champion of human rights in the region while supporting an intransigent, thuggish and racist Israeli state? Netanyahu’s sharp response to Obama’s ‘Arab Spring’ speech, rejecting any suggestion of a settlement based on the 1967 borders with land swaps to ensure Israeli security, is an indication of the problems US imperialism faces. If the Zionists don’t tone down their racist arrogance then the international campaign to isolate Israel will continue to advance. Obama expressed this concern when he told AIPEC:
‘But the march to isolate Israel internationally, and the impulse of the Palestinians to abandon negotiations, will continue to gain momentum in the absence of a credible peace process and alternative. And for us to have leverage with the Palestinians, to have leverage with the Arab States and with the international community, the basis for negotiations has to hold out the prospect of success.’
Not once did Obama call for an end to settlement construction or for the right of return of refugees, and nor did he condemn Israel’s indiscriminate killing of Palestinian refugees on Nakba Day. His only condemnation was reserved for Hamas’ refusal to recognise Israel. However, the imperialists are worried by events in the region, and this should give us encouragement. When he talked of ‘the march to isolate Israel internationally’, it is a march we need to accelerate with the building of the boycott and disinvestment movement.