Saturday, 29 September 2012

The struggling Palestinian economy

The Palestinian Authority (PA) is facing a severe financial crisis. It is substantially in arrears in paying suppliers, and during 2012 Israel twice transferred advance payments to the PA to allow Authority employees’ salaries to be paid on time. In the past few weeks the PA’s financial difficulties have manifested themselves in strikes and riots across the West Bank, triggered by substantial rises in living costs and taxes while wages remain frozen.

These popular protests were targeted at first at Salam Fayyad, the embattled prime minister, then widened to encompass the PA president, Mahmoud Abbas. Latterly protesters have begun demanding that both resign.

The current Palestinian fiscal crisis has been caused primarily by a shortfall in donor aid. Foreign donors are key to propping up the Palestinian economy, but those pledges are not coming through in their full amounts. However, the PA also failed by a substantial amount to meet its own budgetary estimates which, in any case, projected a financial gap of more than $150 million.

Last week, following a World Bank report warning of a deepening Palestinian fiscal crisis, the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee − international donors to the PA, which of course include Israel − met in New York. Israel informed the committee of steps it had taken to relieve the financial pressure on the PA. These included the advanced transfer of NIS 380 million in taxes – customs revenues collected by Israel on the PA’s behalf – to enable the PA to pay the salaries of civil servants.

The Israeli delegation also announced that an extra 5,000 permits have been granted for West Bank Palestinians to work in Israel, with an additional 2,000 given overnight permits. It is estimated that over 100,000 Palestinians are earning their livelihoods directly from Israel, receiving salaries typically double those in the West Bank, where the average monthly wage has been stuck for a long time at something less than 2000 shekels. Israel also reported that it had approved more than 300 Palestinian development projects in Area C – the part of the West Bank under full Israeli control – and that it was making progress with new master plans for the Area. Development in Area C is regarded as important by the international community for the future economic development of the PA.

Why should Israel continue to bail out a near-collapsing West Bank economy? Because the alternative − a possible victory by Islamist Hamas in its fratricidal struggle for power against Fatah – would be a far worse scenario from Israel’s point of view.

Which also explains Israel’s Foreign Ministry announcement confirming Israel’s intention to become involved in developing the Gaza Marine gas field, expected eventually to generate revenues that could contribute dramatically to Palestinian fiscal sustainability.

In 1999 British Gas was given the go-ahead by the PA to explore for natural gas off the coast of the Gaza strip. Israel was always envisaged as being the purchaser of any natural gas reserves discovered. By 2007 two exploratory wells had been located: Gaza Marine, the main field, some 36 kilometers west of Gaza City, and a second smaller field straddling the boundary between Gaza‘s and Israel’s territorial waters. The reserves in the two wells are estimated at 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

To put this in context, exploration for natural gas in Israel began more than a decade ago. By December 2010 Noble Energy had discovered both the Tamar and the Leviathan gas fields off the coast of Haifa. Tamar is estimated to hold about 8.4 trillion cubic feet of gas; Leviathan, around 17 trillion.

Until Gaza Marine can be exploited, however, the PA’s financial position is dire − and the financial corruption which has dogged the PA since the days of Yasser Arafat, and which has not been eradicated, does not help matters.

Last June a PA court in Ramallah sentenced Mohammed Rashid, a former advisor to Yasser Arafat, and three other former PA officials in absentia after they refused to appear before the court. Rashid, who served for nearly twenty years as Arafat's financial advisor, received a 15 year jail sentence after being found guilty of embezzlement and money laundering. He was also fined $15 million and ordered to give back $34 million which he and others had stolen.

One month later the US House of Representatives’ Council on Foreign Relations held a hearing on corruption within the PA. In a paper placed before the council Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, quotes Fathi Shabaneh, the man charged with rooting out public corruption within the PA, who resigned in 2010:

“In his pre-election platform, President Abbas promised to end financial corruption … unfortunately, Abbas has surrounded himself with many of the thieves and officials who were involved in theft of public funds and who became icons of financial corruption.”

Abrams sees Fatah’s future ability to defeat Hamas as tied to public perceptions of whether Fatah remains a home to corruption. That perception may also explain the falling away of international pledges of financial aid, on which − at least for the present − the PA’s financial viability depends.

Published in the on-line Jerusalem Post, 1 October 2012:

Friday, 21 September 2012

Justice for Palestinians

At around the time the state of Israel came into being, something over half the non-Jewish population of what used to be called “Palestine”, some 750,000 people, left their homes – on good advice or bad. Officially designated “refugees”, they and their families have been shamefully treated ever since.

A highly relevant factor in their unhappy history is that the UN body established to assist them (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – UNRWA) began its work in May 1950, seven months ahead of the establishment of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). As a result, Palestine refugees have been designated and treated quite differently from − and much worse than − all other refugees, the world over, ever since.

For whereas a main function of UNHCR has been to resettle those millions of unfortunate people who have left their homes, willingly or unwillingly, over the years (voluntary repatriation, local integration and resettlement are UNHCR’s three key solutions). a major effect of UNRWA’s humanitarian activities has been not only to maintain millions of people in their refugee status decade after decade, but to expand the numbers as generation has succeeded generation. The number of Palestinians registered by UNRWA as refugees has mushroomed from 750,000 in 1950 to 5 million today, since it was UNRWA that bestowed refugee status upon "descendants of Palestine refugees," regardless of how much time had elapsed. It has been estimated that by 2050 the number of UNRWA’s “Palestine refugees” will reach just short of 15 million.

Refugees who take up citizenship in another country lose their refugee status. As a matter of historic fact, the term “Palestine refugees” was defined by UN Resolution 194 to include Jews who fled from their homes after the 1948 conflict, such as the those who had lived in the Jewish quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. They, together with some 600,000 Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Arab lands, were quickly resettled in Israel, and took up Israeli citizenship, thus officially ceasing to be refugees (which, of course, does not affect their claims for reimbursement of property, businesses, money and possessions seized by the governments of the countries in which they resided).

Not so the unfortunate Arab refugees who made their way to nearby Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, for example, where today some three million of them and their descendants are living as “registered refugees”, (registered, that is, by UNRWA), about half of them still occupying some 58 refugee camps. For, from the moment that the State of Israel came into being, Arab leaders determined to use the Palestine refugees as a pawn in the deadly game of trying to eradicate the Jewish state from the map of the Middle East. To resettle and absorb these people into their new places of residence would remove a formidable bargaining chip from the table, and have the effect of legitimising Israel. For its part, UNRWA went along with this policy, washing its hands of any involvement in “final status” considerations.

The result? Jordan today contains nearly two million Palestine refugees, of whom 338,000 are still living in camps. When Jordan annexed the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1950, it granted Jordanian citizenship to all who were resident in those areas. However, most of the original refugees continued to live in camps in Jordan, relying on UNRWA assistance for sustenance and constituting more than a third of the kingdom's population of 1.5 million. As for Arab Palestinians who moved to Jordan from the West Bank, they were issued yellow ID cards to distinguish them from the those living in Jordan’s "official 10 refugee camps". Since 1988, thousands of those yellow-ID card Palestinians have had their Jordanian citizenship revoked. The official reason? To prevent them losing their status as “Palestine refugees”.

In Lebanon an Amnesty International study has described registered Palestine refugees as living in "appalling social and economic conditions".

Following Lebanon’s civil war in 1990, the 400,000 Palestine refugees living there were systematically deprived of basic human rights. They were barred from 73 job categories including professions such as medicine, law and engineering. They were not allowed to own property, were denied access to the healthcare system and even needed a special permit to leave their refugee camps. Unlike other foreigners in Lebanon, they were denied access to the Lebanese health care system. Refusing to grant them work permits or permission to own land, the Lebanese government said repeatedly that it would not allow Palestine refugees to settle.

A very partial relaxation of these harsh conditions was granted In June 2005, when the government removed some work restrictions for a few Lebanese-born Palestinians, enabling them to apply for work permits and work in the private sector.

As regards Syria, there are nearly half a million Palestinian refugees in that benighted country, and they have become totally embroiled in the civil war. Many have been on the run for nearly a year and a half. While there is no question that Syrian refugees are going through a truly horrific experience, the fate of Palestinian refugees is markedly worse. Palestinians are without the basic rights of passport-holding Syrian citizens – they are stateless and in legal and political limbo. "Stuck", "stranded" and "imprisoned" are some of the terms used to describe the condition of Palestinian refugees, ill-treated and subjugated by their "Arab brethren".

As for the hundreds of Palestinian refugees who have fled Syria to Jordan, they have been crammed into a poorly equipped facility known as Cyber City, about 90 kilometres north of the capital, Amman. Human Rights Watch and other organizations have condemned the mistreatment of refugees in Cyber City, reporting forced deportations back to Syria, and the prisoner-like status of those who have remained in Jordan.

All in all, the “Palestine refugee” story is one of heartless exploitation of Arabs by Arabs – the callous manipulation of powerless victims for political ends, without any regard to their welfare or human rights. This inhumanity must be brought out into the open, the UNRWA farce of “refugee status” unto the third and fourth generation must be ended, and steps must be taken to allow people and their families who may have lived in a country for up to fifty years, to settle and become full citizens.

Published in shortened form in the on-line Jerusalem Post magazine, 27 September 2012:

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas and Fatah: a house divided

Al-Qaeda is at daggers drawn with Hezbollah. As Zvi Bar’el, Ha’aretz columnist, puts it, a new ally has joined Israel in the struggle against Hezbollah.

Al-Qaeda is a Sunni organisation. Taking over as commander of the Syrian branch earlier this year, Majd al-Majd controls some 6,000 militants who entered Syria from Iraq and Turkey to support the Sunni-led rebellion against the Assad regime.

Hezbollah, on the other hand, is essentially Shi’ite, and has been sending militants to Syria to support government forces. Majd al-Majd is flaming mad. In a recent broadcast he said: “sending your sons from Lebanon so that they fight on the side of the criminal régime in Syria, kill our sons and frighten our wives, is considered support for the oppressor against the oppressed, and fully participating in a crime… Hezbollah’s existence is a threat to Lebanon’s security.”

Once launched on his condemnation of Hezbollah, Majd al-Majd let fly with all barrels. The assassination of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri in February 2005 had led to immediate suspicion of the involvement of the Syrian government assisted by their allies, Hezbollah. A special tribunal on Lebanon was established by the United Nations in 2006 to investigate the murder, and over the following years a series of leaks indicated that the evidence was pointing to certain individual Hezbollah leaders as being directly involved. In August 2010, in response to notification that the UN tribunal would soon indict some Hezbollah members, Hasan Nasrallah, Hezbollah secretary-general, counter-accused Israel of having fomented the assassination.

Now Majd al-Majd, exemplifying the old saying: “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, flung an uncharacteristic bucket of whitewash over Israel – and ensured that some covered the United States as well: “The claim of the Shiite leaders that Israel and the United States are responsible for the murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri and for sparking the rebellion in Syria are baseless. The ones behind the murder were the leaders of Hezbollah…”

But this internecine struggle, if we may regard it as such, is not confined to an Al-Qaeda−Hezbollah spat. Majd al-Majd’s organisation in Syria is competing with another jihadist group headed by a Jordanian salafi, Muhammad Al-Shalabi, also known as “Abu Sayyaf”. Abu Sayyaf says he is controlling hundreds of fighters who have flocked to his standard from all over the Arab world, including “fighters from Al-Qaeda”, and has taken to claiming responsibility for a number of military actions in Syria for which Majd al-Majd also lays claim. In consequence a power struggle is now taking place between the two organisations, to muddy still further the already murky waters of the Syrian civil war.

This latest example of fraternal relations between Islamist terrorist militants only serves to remind us of another long-running feud in that fierce and bloody world − the unresolved, and possibly unresolvable, struggle between Hamas and Fatah.

This conflict, also sometimes referred to as the Palestinian Civil War or the Conflict of Brothers, is called “Wakseh” among Palestinians, meaning humiliation, ruin, and collapse as a result of self-inflicted damage.

In September 2005, as Israel completed its evacuation of the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Authority was planning elections. The hope was that Palestinians, not only in Gaza, but in the West Bank and in east Jerusalem, would be able to vote and then govern themselves, and a significant step would have been taken towards achieving the two-state solution.

The elections, held indeed on 25 January 2006, were for the Palestinian Legislative Council, the legislature of the Palestinian National Authority. The Islamist organisation, Hamas, won 74 seats; the ruling Fatah 45. Without an overall majority, President Mahmoud Abbas accordingly formed a national unity government led by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas.

But sharing power with the Fatah nationalists did not suit Hamas. In four days in mid-June 2007 their ‘Executive Force’ seized control of the entire Gaza Strip in a bloody coup d'état, sweeping away key security services and the national militia. President Abbas responded by dissolving the national unity government and forming an emergency government led by former Finance Minister Salam Fayyad, based in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Forlorn efforts at reconciliation between the two power blocs within the Palestinian body politic began as early as 2008 – forlorn, because all such efforts are attempts at reconciling the irreconcilable. Insofar as Mahmoud Abbas has embraced the concept of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has consistently engaged with Israel – even if to no obvious effect, as yet – and went so far in September 2010 as to sit down at the same table with Israel’s prime minister and talk peace, the PA has placed itself beyond the pale in Hamas’s eyes. For Hamas remains what it has always been – an extreme Islamist and terrorist organization committed to the destruction of Israel.

Hamas, which includes in its official charter the notorious antisemitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, has never endorsed the two-state solution, since to do so would be to recognise Israel. For the same reason Hamas opposed Abbas’s attempt, in September 2011, at gaining United Nations’ recognition of Palestine within the old 1967 borders. Recognising Palestine within the 1967 borders would, by extension, mean recognising Israel outside them. Nor has it accepted the three minimal requirements for official recognition demanded of it by the Middle East Quartet, representing the US, the UN, Russia and the EU. These are recognizing Israel’s right to exist, abandoning terrorism, and accepting previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements – all of which are accepted by the PA.

Nevertheless, in February 2012 these irreconcilable differences appeared to have been overcome. After several rounds of discussion, PA President Mahmoud Abbas, and the leader-in-exile of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, formally signed the Doha Declaration. which called for the formation of a national consensus Palestinian government whose main mission would be to prepare for presidential and parliamentary elections and rebuild the Gaza Strip. Abbas was appointed interim prime minister of the new joint Hamas-Fatah unity government.

The reaction of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was instant. “You can’t have it both ways,” he said, addressing Mahmoud Abbas. “It’s either a pact with Hamas, or it’s peace with Israel.” Of course he was quite correct, and in little more than three months the Doha declaration was revealed as a slap-dash papering over of cracks, and incapable of providing a lasting accommodation.

Abbas and his spokesmen insisted that at Doha Hamas agreed to honour all previous agreements signed between the Palestinians and Israel, and to accept that being part of a united Palestinian government means recognising Israel. But Hamas officials themselves repeatedly denied this − Gazan Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, and Mahmoud al-Zahar, criticised the agreement from the start. By swearing in a new Palestinian government in the West Bank on 16 May, Mahmoud Abbas and the PA have acknowledged the validity of Netanyahu’s options – engage with Hamas or engage with Israel – and openly declared their choice. It is to continue their struggle against Hamas.

But now the internal struggle has turned against the Palestinian Authority (PA) itself. With the rising cost of living in the West Bank as the catalyst, riots were reported this week in Hebron, with dozens of police officers and protesters injured in clashes with several thousand protesters. There have also been protests in Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarem and Jericho, with roads blocked by burning tyres and rubbish bins. Strikes by taxi and bus drivers have paralysed the West Bank's public transport system. More than 24,000 union members are estimated to have undertaken strike action.

When the main target of the demonstrators was initially the prime minister Salam Fayyad, and there were widespread calls for him to resign, the protests were welcomed by PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, as the “Palestinian spring.” More recently, however, protesters have also begun calling for Abbas to go, and attacking corruption within the PA. Palestinian security forces, who kept a low profile during the first days of demonstrations, are now using teargas and stun grenades in an attempt to disperse demonstrators.

Not a happy state of affairs as far as the Palestinian camp in general, or the Islamist entity in particular, are concerned. For some, comfort from the situation can be found – perhaps inappropriately − in the New Testament. For was it not Matthew who reported the aphorism: “If a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand”?

Monday, 10 September 2012

America and Israel – the ties that bind

The two main contenders for the US presidency are falling over themselves declaring their support for Israel. Already passing into the historical annals is the “oops!” omission from the 2012 Democratic Convention platform of the mention of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and of any reference to God at all. Following an intervention by President Obama, to say nothing of’ the whoops of joy at the lapse from Mitt Romney and other Republicans, the Democrats hurriedly corrected both omissions.

The incident should cause no raised eyebrows outside the United States, for to most of the world the ties between Israel and the States seem inexplicably strong. On March 4, for example, at the AIPAC conference , President Obama declared: “America's commitment to Israel's security is unshakeable. Our friendship with Israel is enduring.”

Eight days later, Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney announced: “In a Romney administration, the world will know that the bond between Israel and America is unbreakable."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been equally unequivocal two years earlier, at the very start of the Obama presidency,: "We have a close, unshakeable bond between the United States and Israel,” she said,

This “enduring friendship,“ this "close unshakeable, unbreakable bond", however normal and natural it may seem within the USA itself, is a great puzzle to many people in the UK, Europe and beyond. Anti-American political views, which are endemic in many Western countries, are often exacerbated by this solid US support for Israel, which they find perplexing, if not inexplicable.

The "reds under the beds" theorists, of whom there are many, of course ascribe it to the result of some malign Zionist conspiracy, whose aim is to achieve heaven-knows-what sinister ends – all on a par with the notorious, and long-discredited, forgery "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion", incorporated in the charter of Hamas and still quoted as a sort of gospel by extremist Islamist spokesmen.

Others more prosaically nominate the "enormously powerful Jewish lobby at the heart of the Washington machine," referring to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). AIPAC is indeed powerful, and has proved very successful during both Democratic and Republican administrations in achieving its main objective: to ensure that American support for Israel remains strong.

But why should American policy-makers allow US policy to be shaped by such lobbying?

The current international dynamic suggests a whole host of reasons, including Israel's strategic position in the heart of the Middle East. Israel's western values and democratic traditions provide a strong and reliable base from which to counter Iran’s nuclear ambitions and other extreme Islamist activity in the region – notably from Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, to name but two. Current American perceptions see potential threats not only to US interests, but actually to homeland security, from these sources and their international connections.

Considerations such as these have developed over the years, but they are essentially peripheral to a more fundamental rationale for that “enduring friendship” and "close and unshakeable bond" between the USA and Israel that is such a mystery to many. I am referring not to the so-called "Israel lobby", but to the Jewish connection to the body politic of the USA.

Visit the Jewish museum in Philadelphia (or the National Museum of American Jewish History, to give it its full title), and you find in an early display cabinet a letter of greetings to the leader of the Hebrew Congregation of Philadelphia signed by George Washington. A little further down sits a letter from Abraham Lincoln to the head of his Jewish community, thanking him for his loyal address. The fact is that the history of the United States is quite unlike that of any other western country, and that Jews were part and parcel of the foundation of the nation. The US is a nation of immigrants, and the Jews were there from the start.

In fact, the connection runs even deeper, for most of the early immigrants left their native shores in order to escape religious persecution. The national identity of the United States is embedded in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and belief in God is at the heart of the Declaration of Independence. The Bible is a cornerstone of the American national structure. Early fundamentalists, no less than those of today, would base their support of the Zionist dream on the Old Testament, its account of the release of the Jews from slavery and their journey, under God's guidance, to the "promised land, flowing with milk and honey".

The Jewish population of most nation states is minute. France has the largest in Europe, and there Jews represent some 0.8 % of the total population. In the UK there are something less than 300,000 Jews out of a total population of some 61 million – that is less than 0.5 %. But while Jews in European countries are counted in their thousands, in the States they number millions. Estimates vary but, according to some, more Jews live in the United States than in Israel. So Jewish opinion counts in the States, and both major political parties court it. Jews notoriously disagree among themselves on almost everything, and they spread their political favours accordingly. Nevertheless, a majority would certainly be in support of Israel's continued secure existence, no matter how opposed they might be to the policies of any individual Israeli government.

So the world had best acknowledge that, for better or worse, the USA has two self-imposed international obligations, regardless of who occupies the White House: its special relationship with the UK, and its enduring friendship and close, unshakeable bond with Israel.

A shorter version of this article appears in the on-line Jerusalem Post of September 13, 2012:

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Justice delayed is justice denied

A redress long overdue

Word is that the Israeli government is about to launch an initiative designed to bring the world’s attention to the long-neglected issue of Jewish refugees from Arab lands.

Knesset legislation passed in 2010 already obliges any government conducting peace negotiations with the Palestinians to include compensation for these Jewish refugees in any deal. Unfortunately there has been no opportunity to bring the issue forward in that context, since the whole peace process has been on ice since the failure of the face-to-face talks of September 2010. Now a new effort is being initiated, and not before time.

Thriving Jewish communities existed in the Middle East and North Africa a thousand years before the rise of Islam. In 1945, there were approaching a million Jews living in the various Arab states. But as the UN General Assembly moved towards acceptance of the recommendation to partition British-ruled mandated Palestine, increasingly hostile measures were being taken by the Arab nations against their Jewish communities. Following adoption of the Partition Plan by the UN, Arab governments started confiscating Jewish property. Simultaneously riots and massacres broke out against Jewish communities throughout the Arab world. Jewish-owned stores and synagogues were looted and burned, hundreds of Jews were killed, thousands were imprisoned.

As Israel declared its independence in May 1948, the Arab League Political Committee drafted a series of recommendations for all Arab and Muslim countries on how to take action against the Jews in their countries. Among other recommendations, the citizenship of Jews was to be revoked, and they were henceforth to be considered citizens only of the newly established Jewish state. Their assets were to be confiscated, their bank accounts frozen, and property worth millions of dollars nationalized. Severe restrictions were to be imposed on their employment, and many lost their means of livelihood. Between 1948 and 1951, about 850,000 Jews were expelled from Arab lands, and approximately 600,000 sought refuge in Israel. There has never been any offer of compensation from the Arab governments which expropriated their possessions.

The current estimate is that there are something less than 8,000 Jews left in the ten Arab countries which were originally home to nearly a million.

More to the point, perhaps, it was estimated in a report issued last April by Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon that today close to half of Israel's Jewish citizens, including their descendents, came from Arab countries. Many of these families once owned property, businesses, possessions and financial assets in their countries of origin which were simply abandoned.

Dealing with how the parallel Palestinian and Jewish refugee problems should be treated in any future peace negotiations, this government report makes a series of recommendations which have not so far received a great deal of public attention. Three would be particularly central in any negotiations leading to a possible solution of the Arab-Israel dispute.

The first of these proposes an agreement, to be concluded between Arab countries and the international community, to provide compensation for both Palestinian and Jewish refugees. To achieve this, an international fund should be created, based on President Clinton's suggestion from the 2000 Camp David agreement and Congress Resolution 185 of 2008, which was initiated by the advocacy organisation “Justice for Jews from Arab Countries”. This fund will also deal with the issue of Jewish property still in the hands of Arab and Muslim countries.

The second major suggestion is that most Palestinian refugees should be rehabilitated in their place of residence, just as the Jewish refugees were rehabilitated in theirs - Israel. However, the insistence of some Palestinian refugees to be given a right of return would be resolved by their immigration into the future Palestinian state that will be established through a peace agreement. The State of Israel would not accept the principle of a Palestinian "right of return" into Israel; it would accept the concept of compensation, to be provided through an authorized third party.

Finally, it was proposed that the Foreign Ministry, led by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, lead a promotional campaign on the issue of Jewish refugees. This is the campaign that has just been announced, and in a sense has already started to bite, for it has evoked an immediate response from Palestine Legislative Council (PLC) member Hanan Ashrawi. In an article published in a number of Arab outlets, she asserts that Jews who migrated from Arab lands to Israel, “which is supposed to be their homeland,” are not refugees. Their claim. she writes is “a form of deception and delusion”.

Her argument is disingenuous on a number of counts. Jews who migrate to Israel willingly are one thing; Jews persecuted to the point of fleeing for their lives is quite another. Moreover a “national homeland” is not equivalent to an individual’s home. If someone born in a particular country, with family roots there perhaps going back generations − in short, a national of that country − has his property and goods confiscated, his home destroyed and his family threatened. and he flees to some other country, he falls fairly and squarely within the definition of “refugee”. Whether the person in question happens to be a Jew, and whether the country he flees to happens to be Israel, is totally irrelevant.

For the international definition of a refugee is a person who ‘‘owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality,membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country’’. This definition, Congress Resolution 185 states, “clearly applies to Jews who fled the persecution of Arab regimes,” and indeed on January 29, 1957, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), determined that Jews fleeing from Arab countries were refugees that fell within the mandate of the UNHCR. Moreover, United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 of November 22, 1967, calls for a ‘‘just settlement of the refugee problem’’ without distinction between Palestinian and Jewish refugees.

In short, people − whoever they are − who are unwillingly uprooted from their homes are entitled to the status “refugee”.

As for those Jews whose refugee status has been ignored for decades, at last their case is to be given a public hearing. Next Monday, September 10, an all-day international conference is to be held in Jerusalem on the topic: “Justice for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries.”

Justice delayed is justice denied. The time is more than ripe for a determined effort to secure general recognition of the rights of these Jewish refugees, and for a redress of the wrongs they have suffered for so long.

Monday, 3 September 2012

NAM Summit - A Bad Day at Black Rock

Politics is an endlessly fascinating pursuit. The unexpected seems always to be lurking around the next corner ready to spring out at you, as confident predictions fail to materialise and expectations are so often dashed.

For example. the summit conference of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) held last week in Tehran, could reasonably have been expected to be a major propaganda coup for Iran and its Islamist leadership. The chairmanship of the movement for the next three years was to pass from Egypt to Iran, and this would surely provide President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with a golden opportunity to address the world from a prestigious soapbox, with the authority of the 120 nations represented by NAM to back him up.

The promotional possibilities for Iran of the unique occasion seemed even more enhanced when the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon, decided to attend the summit, ignoring the pleas of the United States and Israel to boycott the event. After all, the chairman-to-be, Ahmadinejad, stood in flagrant breach of UN resolutions concerning Iran’s nuclear development, and his country was subject to stringent sanctions in consequence. Why should the Secretary General provide a cloak of respectability for him to hide under?

Iran’s leadership must also have been rubbing their hands at the thought of Egypt’s newly-elected President Mohamed Morsy, a long-time member of the Muslim Brotherhood, visiting Tehran. Morsy's visit would be the first by an Egyptian president since the two countries broke off diplomatic relations in 1979, following Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. Although Morsy’s spokesman emphasized ahead of time that he would spend only four hours on Iranian soil, including getting stuck in traffic, Iran's leaders relished the opportunity to demonstrate solidarity with the Arab Spring.

In the event, Iran’s two expected promotional triumphs turned to dust and ashes before their very eyes.

The assault was led by Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, who publicly denounced his hosts for their persistent threats to destroy Israel and their denial of the Holocaust. And he called on the ayatollahs to co-operate fully with the UN over its nuclear program, which most Western intelligence agencies believe is aimed at producing nuclear weapons.

“I urge all NAM members to work within the principles of the UN Charter to resolve disputes peacefully,” he said. “We must prevent conflict between all UN member states. And from this platform – as I have repeatedly stated around the world − I strongly reject threats by any member state to destroy another, or outrageous attempts to deny historical facts, such as the Holocaust. Claiming that another UN Member State, Israel, does not have the right to exist, or describing it in racist terms, is not only utterly wrong, but undermines the very principles we have all pledged to uphold.”

Ban couldn’t have spoken more clearly, and Ahmadinejad’s nose was very publicly put out of joint.

If the Iranian leadership hoped to recoup the situation by parading the new Egyptian President, Mohamed Morsy, before the world as supporting Iran’s international standing as hosts of the NAM summit, those hopes too were soon dashed. For when President Morsy addressed the summit − and much, no doubt, to the dismay of his hosts − he strongly supported the Syrian opposition against Iran's ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"Our solidarity with the struggle of the Syrian people against an oppressive regime that has lost legitimacy,” he said, “is an ethical duty as it is a political and strategic necessity."

The words were scarcely out of his mouth, when Syria’s delegation staged a mass walk-out.

Sitting directly beside Ahmadinejad, Morsy said: "I am here to announce our full and just support for a free, independent Syria that supports a transition into a democratic system and that respects the will of the Syrian people for freedom and equality at the same time, preventing Syria from going into civil war or going into sectarian divisions."

It perhaps goes without saying that Iranian state media did not report the anti-Syria parts of Morsy's speech or the walk out by the Syrian delegation. Iran had pinned high hopes on Morsy's visit - the first by an Egyptian head of state in more than 30 years. The two countries have had no formal diplomatic ties since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, because of Egypt's peace treaty with Israel. Once Morsy, known as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, became president, Tehran had not only hoped to resume full diplomatic relations, but also to attract Cairo as an ally to keep the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad in power. Morsy’s speech at the NAM summit put paid to all such hopes.

So, all in all, a bad day at black rock, as far as the expectations of Iran’s leaders from the NAM summit were concerned. The event left egg on their faces, which it will take some time and effort to remove.