By Ramzy Baroud
The year 2019 has been a defining one for Palestine and Israel. Despite the usual political stagnation of the Palestinian leadership, two factors contributed to making the year particularly eventful and, looking ahead, consequential too: The unprecedented political power struggle in Israel and the total American retreat from its self-proclaimed role as an “honest peace broker.”
Since his first day in office, US President Donald Trump has made no secret of his desire to fully embrace the right-wing agenda of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Although the process started earlier, 2019 has witnessed the complete collapse of traditional US foreign policy, which was, for nearly three decades, predicated on the principle of a negotiated political solution.
This year delivered the final American assault on Palestinian rights. At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day, the US officially quit UNESCO, accusing the global institution of “anti-Israel bias.” The US government had contributed 22 percent of UNESCO’s budget. Among other things, this action was meant as a warning to the Palestinian leadership and its allies that Washington was ready and willing to use its financial and political prowess to suppress any form of criticism of Israel.
Washington’s threats, however, failed to deliver the desired outcomes. In February, Trump’s top adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, arrived in the Middle East to promote his so-called “deal of the century” — a strategy that revolves around the creation of an alternative political paradigm, replacing the defunct “peace process.”
US punitive measures continued. On March 4, it shut down the US Consulate in Jerusalem, as it had by then set up a fully operational embassy in the city. The act was meant to downgrade the US mission in Palestine, and thus its diplomatic relationship with the Palestinian Authority (PA). A few days later, the US dropped the term “Occupied Territories” from its annual human rights report. This measure was understood, and rightly so, as a prelude to a future US recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over occupied Palestinian land. On Nov. 18, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo duly declared that the illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem are “not, per se, inconsistent with international law.”
Although Washington seemed determined to send a clear message to both Tel Aviv and Ramallah that past policies have been reversed for good, it was still unable to clearly articulate an alternative political agenda. The once-hyped “deal of the century” discourse slowly faded out from the Middle East political scene. Initially, the sidelining of the “deal” took place in anticipation of the outcomes of two general elections in Israel, which were held in April and September. However, with time, it has become clear that Trump’s “plan” had no chance of success.
One sign of trouble in the US “peacemaking” was the resignation of Middle East special envoy Jason Greenblatt on Sept. 5. Greenblatt, who was one of the three main advocates of Washington’s new Middle East policy — the others being Kushner and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman — did much damage before his abrupt exit. Shortly before his return to Washington, Greenblatt declared that illegal Jewish settlements are merely “neighborhoods and cities” and that “people (should) stop pretending” that they “are the reason for the lack of peace.”
US pressure on the Palestinians extended beyond the Occupied Territories to include a crackdown on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). On July 23, the movement was condemned by the House of Representatives, in resolution 1850, despite some stiff resistance. Israel fears that BDS has tarnished its image internationally, especially as the movement took the struggle of Palestinians to numerous international platforms.
Unhindered by even a minimal degree of accountability, the Israeli government has free rein to expand illegal settlements, especially in the Jerusalem area, and to accelerate land confiscation throughout the West Bank.
In January, Israel closed all schools operated in Jerusalem by the UN agency responsible for the welfare of Palestinian refugees, further undermining any Palestinian claim over the city. A week later, the Israeli army expelled the international observation force from the occupied Palestinian city of Al-Khalil (Hebron). In March, Netanyahu was joined by Pompeo on a provocative visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, conveying another message to Palestinians that, in the words of Trump, the city is “off the table.” This act was repeated on April 1, when Netanyahu was joined by newly elected right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. The latter had pledged to follow the American example of relocating its country’s embassy to Jerusalem.
In the meantime, the scope and frequency of Israeli violence against Palestinians increased dramatically in the occupied West Bank and in the besieged Gaza Strip. Israeli army violence in the West Bank was manifested in the raiding of Palestinian villages, the frequent crackdowns on protests and the arrest and killing of activists. Concurrently, armed settlers attacked Palestinian farmers and students, and raided holy sites. Al-Haram Al Sharif, in particular, was a hotspot of clashes between armed Jewish settlers and the Israeli army on the one hand, and unarmed Palestinian worshippers on the other. The shooting in cold blood of Nayfeh Kaabneh at the Qalandiya checkpoint on Sept. 18 — a murder that was caught on video — symbolized the nature of Israeli brutality.
In Gaza, the siege and violence have continued. The Great March of Return, a collective form of popular resistance, carried on unabated. Every Friday, thousands of Palestinians gathered at the fence separating the besieged Strip from Israel, demanding an end to 13 years of isolation and economic blockade. In 2019, the toll of protesters killed at the border since the marches began in March 2018 crossed the 300 mark. Thousands more have been wounded.
The bombing of Gaza by the Israeli military, which took place on many occasions, was often justified by Tel Aviv as a response to rockets fired by Palestinian militants. The two most notable conflagrations took place on May 5 and Nov. 12. In the first assault, Israel killed more than 24 Palestinians, while four Israelis were also reportedly killed. The second attack resulted in the killing of 34 Palestinians, including eight from the same Abu Malhous family. No Israelis were killed.
There was a clear link between the Israeli violence in Gaza and the general elections, with an embattled Netanyahu trying to convince his right-wing constituency of his ability to crack down on Palestinians and protect Israeli towns in the southern part of the country.
Netanyahu’s often racist rhetoric and violent policies, however, failed to garner him the necessary votes to form a government, neither in the April 9 vote nor the subsequent Sept. 17 poll. On both occasions, the Israeli prime minister attempted to cobble together a right-wing coalition that would give him a majority in the Knesset. His first attempt was crushed by the ultra-nationalist leader and head of Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman. The latter vote weakened Netanyahu’s political standing, as his centrist opponent and head of the Blue and White alliance, Benny Gantz, gained the upper hand.
While the US and Israel seemed clear in their objectives, the Palestinian leadership sank further in its political stagnation. All talk of unity among Palestinian groups Fatah, Hamas and others faltered, especially as PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, who championed the cause of dialogue, resigned from his position in January. He was replaced by Mohammed Shtayyeh, a loyalist of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Shtayyeh’s appointment, along with several other steps taken by Abbas to consolidate his grip on power, made it clear to the Palestinian people that the issue of unity is no longer a priority for the aging president. In September, Abbas called for general elections to be held in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem, inviting all Palestinian factions, including Hamas, to participate. Hamas swiftly agreed to take part, but not without questioning Abbas’ motives.
There were occasions, however, when Palestinians, regardless of their ideology or politics, seemed united, especially whenever Israel cracked down on Palestinian prisoners. In January, the Israeli police brutally attacked Palestinian prisoners in the Ofer Prison and elsewhere. In response, thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza rose in protest and in solidarity with the nearly 5,000 prisoners held by Israel.
Throughout the year, several Palestinian prisoners died while in detention, mostly due to medical negligence. They included Faris Baroud, who died on Feb. 6 after spending 27 years in Israeli prisons, and Bassam Al-Sayyeh, who died on Sept. 8. Palestinian MP Khalida Jarrar was released from her 20-month administrative detention — imprisonment without trial — in February, only to be rearrested eight months later.
Another occasion of unity among Palestinians was the collective outrage felt following the murder of Israa Ghrayeb, a young woman who was allegedly killed by members of her own family. The mass protests forced the PA to amend laws that granted leniency in cases of so-called “honor killing.”
In some ways, 2019 proved a game-changer in Palestine and Israel. It was the year when the Israeli government managed to achieve total and unconditional US support, while the Palestinian leadership was left largely isolated and incapable of formulating an alternative agenda. However, while Israel persists in its prolonged political crisis and as the international community is still unable or, perhaps, unwilling to play a more fundamental role in ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine, 2020 promises to be equally tumultuous and challenging.
If the 2019 trends continue, the struggle among Israel’s political elites is likely to deepen the country’s instability. But it could also pave the way for the long-marginalized Arab minority and their representatives to play a more substantial role in at least shifting the political discourse in that country from a racially centered one to a more inclusive, and indeed democratic, system. While this may appear to be wishful thinking, considering the deeply rooted racism in Israel, one can only hope that the destructive nature of Israel’s right-wing politics could also bring about the need for a major rethink. Time will tell.