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Just another Palestinian year

violence-gazaby Khaled Amayreh

Like in previous years, 2011 was more or less another -normal- year for the Palestinians as Israel which is ruled by a racist coalition of right wing and religious parties continued to narrow Palestinian horizons effectively putting an end to any realistic hopes for establishing a viable and territorially contiguous Palestinian state on the West Bank.

Psychologically, most Palestinians were in a slightly better mood in 2011 due to the outbreak of the Arab Spring, which many Palestinians view as a promising development of strategic proportions and a potentially important asset for the Palestinian cause.

However, this feeling came with a certain realisation that years would pass before Arab revolutions could reach fruition and the new Arab regimes could pay real attention to the Palestinian issue.

In addition to its general banality, 2011 witnessed the continued expansion of Jewish settlements all over the occupied territories. Indeed, not a week passed without the Israeli government unfolding a new plan for seizing additional swathes of Palestinian land for settlement expansion.

According to Israeli sources, more than 2500 settler units were built in various parts of the West Bank in 2011. Additional settlements were either built or expanded in East Jerusalem where the current Israeli government accelerated the "Judaisation process", besieging Arab communities.

Plans for building more than 5000 settler units have been approved by the Israeli government, which demographic experts argue convincingly would make the two-state solution, the very basis of the peace process, unrealistic and impossible to implement.

Israel consistently refused to freeze settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian territories as the US proved unwilling or unable to exert meaningful pressure on the Netanyahu government to freeze its colonialist schemes.

The proximity of the US presidential elections season has even further emboldened Israel, allowing Tel Aviv to dismiss American objections to settlement expansion in the West Bank with greater confidence and audacity. This happened as US presidential hopefuls continued to vie amongst themselves to please and appease Israel. An especially shameless example of this came from Republican candidate Newt Gingrich who told a Jewish audience recently that the Palestinians were an "invented people".

Faced with a highly politicised and vigilant populace at home, the Palestinian Authority (PA) insisted all along on its refusal to resume stalled peace talks until Israel freezes its settlement expansion activity. However, apart from that, the PA could do very little -- if anything -- in terms of forcing Israel to reconsider its policy.

As an alternative, and which reflects well the Palestinian predicament, especially the sense of frustration and indignation with an international community that treats Israel as being above international norms and law, the PA sought UN recognition of a putative Palestinian state.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas delivered a landmark speech at the UN General Assembly on 23 September in which he voiced Palestinian grievances, underscoring Israel's anti-peace measures, including settlement building and ethnic cleansing.

Shortly afterwards, the PA was been able to win full membership at UNESCO, a development that infuriated Israel and the US Congress, both of which moved to impose deep sanctions on the Ramallah regime. Israel decided to freeze the monthly transfer of $100 million in payments of customs and tax revenues to the PA, while the US Congress, which reels under strong Jewish influence, adopted a resolution that would cut aid to the PA if the latter received recognition from the UN without consent from Israel.

True, the PA has been able to enlist the vast majority of the nation states of the world in favour of recognising an independent Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as it capital. However, the practical effect of this success on the ground remains doubtful as Israel and the US continue to insist that peace talks without preconditions remain the only way to secure peace.

Many Palestinians scoffed at this logic, arguing that this is tantamount to a judge telling a rapist and his victim to sort things out amongst themselves. Meanwhile, government backed Jewish settlers stepped up their campaign of terror against the unprotected Palestinian community, especially in villages and hamlets located in the vicinity of Jewish settlements. The settlers often vandalised Arab olive groves, inflicting losses amounting to millions of dollars. The settlers also torched Palestinian grain fields and cars.

However, the most brazen and expressly criminal form of settler terror has been the escalation of terror against mosques, and to a lesser extent churches, in the West Bank. Known as "price-tag attacks," the criminal acts of terror are meant to punish Palestinians for the occasional removal by the Israeli army of isolated settlement outposts in the Palestinian heartland.

The attacks, which have so far targeted more than 20 mosques and six churches, are also intended to provoke Palestinians into attacking settlers in order to give settlers excuses for attacking Palestinians and torching mosques.

Observers in occupied Palestine argue that settler attacks on holy places couldn't have been carried out without a green or at least amber light from the Israeli military establishment. So far, the Israeli army, which deploys forces in every nook and cranny, has failed to apprehend the perpetrators of recent settler attacks. And the terrorists seem to have an unlikely ally in the Israeli justice system, which treats Jews that attack Palestinians with phenomenal leniency.

The last two weeks of 2011 brought good news to the Palestinians who had been waiting impatiently for the consolidation of national reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.

Delegations from the two groups, headed by Mahmoud Abbas and Khaled Meshaal, met in Cairo on 22 December and agreed to cement an erstwhile reconciliation agreement reached several months before. According to the agreement, Hamas will join the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), a key step toward unifying the Palestinian leadership. The two sides also agreed on a host of contentious issues, including holding elections, releasing political prisoners and forming a national unity government.

The PLO is the umbrella group of the independence movement. It includes mainly secular groups. Hamas and the Islamic Jihad (which is also to join the PLO) don't and are unlikely to recognise Israel. Israel doesn't recognise a putative Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. Indeed, the Israeli coalition government includes political parties that don't recognise the existence of the Palestinian people.

Many Palestinians are optimistic about the latest agreement in Cairo. However, many others argue that the real test lies in implementing it on the ground. "Thank God, things are going in the right direction, but the real test is the practical test on the ground, such as releasing the political prisoners, especially in the West Bank," said Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the Hamas-run Gaza-based government.

"We join the PLO with our vision and strategy intact, but we do seek common ground with our brothers," he added.

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