People in the news
No change in “national constants”
by Omar Karmi
THE END of the 40-day mourning period for the late President Yasser Arafat was marked by ceremonies across Gaza and the West Bank on December 21, even as Israeli troops prepared their second major incursion in a week into Khan Yunis and British PM Tony Blair came to town.
In a ceremony in Ramallah marking the end of the 40-day mourning period, head of the PLO and frontrunner in the PA presidential election, Mahmoud Abbas, vowed to continue with the “national constants” of the late president.
“We are committed,” Abbas told a crowd of local and foreign dignitaries, “to establish our independent state with Al Quds Al Sharif as its capital and to find a just solution to the refugee problem, which is the core of the Palestinian cause, in accordance with UN Resolution 194.”
That message was repeated several times by other speakers on this day, including the interim president Rawhi Fatouh, Prime Minister Ahmed Qrei’ and the PLO’s UN representative Nasser Qidwa. Also speaking were Mufti of Jerusalem Sheikh Ikrama Sabri, who urged the Palestinian leadership not to ignore the Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem, and Roman Catholic Patriarch Michel Sabah, who delivered his speech on behalf of the Christian churches and lamented what he said would be a “sad Christmas in the Holy Land.”
Expanding on his message later on December 21 in his annual Christmas speech, Sabah focused on the situation in Bethlehem, which he described as a “large prison.”
“The wall,” he continued, “will not protect Israel and will not constitute secure borders… the wall will increase hatred and ignorance of the other.” He praised the temporary Palestinian leadership for the prevailing calm, and urged Israel to end its incursions into Palestinian areas.
That message didn’t seem to have much effect. Early on December 22, the Israeli army poured back into Khan Yunis only three days after a major incursion in the same place had left 11 dead and 55 injured. According to residents, Israeli army bulldozers have already demolished a number of houses near the Jewish settlement of Neve Dekalim, and so far one Palestinian, identified as Mohammad Al Majali, 22, has been killed.
The Israeli army says the operation is in response to mortar fire on the Israeli settlements in the Strip, settlements that are due to be evacuated if Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon goes ahead with his unilateral “disengagement plan.” On December 20 he received support for this plan when the Israeli Labor party agreed, after protracted negotiations, to enter into a coalition government with Sharon’s Likud party. The coalition is widely seen as necessary to shore up parliamentary support for the Gaza withdrawal, which is meeting fierce resistance from Jewish settler groups.
On December 19, the Yesha Council, which represents settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, urged its supporters to engage in “nonviolent civil disobedience” in an effort to foil the evacuation of settlements from Gaza. The public should “violate the transfer law en masse and be ready to pay the price of mass imprisonment,” declared council chairman Pinhas Wallerstein. The call has prompted senior Israeli security officials to worry whether they can indeed go through with the evacuations. On December 20, Israeli Police Inspector General Moshe Karadi warned of the ramifications if public opposition should prevent the evacuation of Gush Katif.
“It doesn't matter what any of us think about the disengagement plan or the evacuation. That’s not the point. The fact that a state or government makes a decision and then it cannot implement it is dangerous to our very existence in the state of Israel and to any democratic country.”
But settlers are not the only ones opposed to the plan. World Bank president James Wolfensohn on December 20 warned that simply pulling out of Gaza is “insufficient” if it does not also offer hope of a better future to Palestinians. Wolfensohn is especially concerned that any Israeli pullback that does not also allow for an economy to develop, with all that that entails in terms of the movement of goods and people, will be self-defeating, and he also opposes the Israeli tendency to disengage economically.
“You know young Palestinians are just like young Israelis,” Wolfensohn told the Israeli daily Haaretz. “They want an opportunity, they want a future and most of them want peace. So what you need to do is create an atmosphere in Gaza and the West Bank where they can look forward to peace.”
The Palestinian leadership is also opposed to Sharon’s plan because it does not come in the context of any agreement with the PA or in a broader context of peace negotiations. Nevertheless, at a press conference in Amman on December 20, as he returned from his whistle stop tour of Gulf Arab countries, Abbas told reporters that if it happens, “we have to accept the withdrawal regardless of its form. When [Israelis] move out of a Palestinian house or land, it is our duty to tell them ‘goodbye.’” He reiterated that the Gaza withdrawal should come as part of the roadmap, but said in any case, “we will assume responsibility” for the land vacated.
Abbas is due to meet Blair later on December 22, after the latter arrived from a surprise visit to Baghdad on December 21. Blair is first to meet Sharon. Britain is believed to be pushing for a peace conference to be held after the presidential elections, but Sharon has already voiced his opposition to the idea of Israel participating. Indeed, at his speech at the Herzliya Conference on December 16, traditionally a place for major Israeli policy statements, Sharon reiterated that he had already received the blessing of the US administration for retaining the major settlement blocs on the West Bank and an undertaking that there will be no Palestinian right of return. Having already received from the US what he has sought, he appears happy the way things are going, Blair or no Blair.
-Published December 22, 2004©Palestine Report