Last month exhibited every negative aspect pertaining to the Israel-Palestine conflict: Division, hatred and violence.
December began with the prospect of widespread conflict as Hamas accepted responsibility for attacks on Israeli settlers in the West Bank, in which several were injured. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also raised the possibility of war with Lebanon when a Hezbollah tunnel going from south Lebanon into Israeli territory was discovered.
At month-end, Israeli forces killed one more Palestinian at the border with Gaza as 5,000 demonstrated for the 40th consecutive Friday as part of the “Great March of Return,” calling for the return of refugees and the lifting of the 12-year-old blockade of the strip that has reduced many of its 2 million residents to destitution.
December also saw a surge in settlement activity, as plans for nearly 6,000 new homes were being pursued, with half of them being processed at the end of the month.
Amid these developments, Netanyahu called for early elections, putting an end to talk of war with Hamas and Hezbollah. He is seeking a renewal of his mandate to combat charges of bribery being finalized by the attorney general, while the far right and the left are setting up coalitions to oppose him.
Political divisions in Israel are reflected in Palestinian ranks as well. At the center is the Fatah-Hamas rivalry that goes back to 2007 and has split the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and Gaza between the two groups. This is a vicious, no-holds-barred contest, with Israel seeking to take advantage at every opportunity.
Thus, Hamas has escalated attacks in the West Bank, going up from 64 in August to 114 in November. Its aim is not only to hinder settlement-building activity, but also to discredit the Fatah-led Palestine Authority headed by Mahmoud Abbas as a feeble bystander in the face of the expanding settlements.
The only prospects 2019 holds for them is continued strife with the occupying forces and deep, suicidal divisions within their own ranks.
The aged and infirm Abbas struck back at Hamas by announcing that the Palestine Legislative Council (PLC), the Palestinian parliament, had been dissolved by an order of the Constitutional Court, though no details were provided about the deliberations of the court or the date of its order.
Abbas’ intention is to ensure that, in the event of his passing, the speaker of the PLC, Hamas’ Aziz Dweik, does not take over as acting president, as is provided for in the Basic Law.
While early polls indicate that Netanyahu could enjoy a resounding victory at the elections in April, his opponents are anxious to deny him a fifth term. Reports suggest he rushed to announce elections when he learned that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s case was nearly ready and that he could soon commence criminal proceedings.
Netanyahu hopes that Mandelblit will delay these proceedings until after the elections, when, flush with victory, he can reject the case as a political conspiracy. Recent reports, however, indicate that Mandelblit could begin his case in February. Israeli commentator Ben Caspit has written that the elections will likely be “violent, coarse and full of fake news, slander and invectives.”
Netanyahu’s far-right opponents are already pushing an aggressive agenda, particularly regarding settlements. One party is insisting on the annexation of Area C in the West Bank, which has more than 400,000 settlers and a similar number of Palestinians, leaving the future of the latter in considerable jeopardy.
For most of his current term, Netanyahu has worked hard at discrediting the two-state proposal, legalizing settlement construction activity and formalizing and expanding the “outposts,” which will in time evolve into settlements. Now, with the far right having put annexation on the electoral table, the prospects of a two-state solution seem ever more remote.
However, Netanyahu is now facing a challenge from an unexpected quarter: Donald Trump’s “deal of the century,” which is the US president’s peace plan to permanently settle the Palestine issue.
Though details of the plan have not yet been announced, given the total support Trump has extended to Israel and his personal closeness with Netanyahu, it has long been assumed that it will meet Israel’s maximalist demands. These will include denying the Palestinians a sovereign and viable state and reducing Palestinian enclaves into non-contiguous “Bantustans” surrounded by Israeli settlements.
But one aspect of the plan is a matter of concern for Netanyahu. He understands that it provides for a three-way partition of Jerusalem: The west for Israel, the east as the capital of the Palestinian state, and a third area, the Holy Basin, which would be under international control. Netanyahu is desperate that the plan not be announced before the elections, fearing that it will become a major part of electoral debates. He is concerned that rejection would alienate him from his staunch US ally, while acceptance could lead sections of the electorate to back his far-right opponents.
None of this augurs well for the Palestinians. The only prospects 2019 holds for them is continued strife with the occupying forces and deep, suicidal divisions within their own ranks.
• Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian diplomat who holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.