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How the West Chose War in Gaza
How the West Chose War in Gaza
The Trump plan threatens the status quo at al-Haram al-Sharif
The Trump plan threatens the status quo at al-Haram al-Sharif

How the West Chose War in Gaza

Originally published in The New York Times

As Hamas fires rockets at Israeli cities and Israel follows up its extensive airstrikes with a ground operation in the Gaza Strip, the most immediate cause of this latest war has been ignored: Israel and much of the international community placed a prohibitive set of obstacles in the way of the Palestinian “national consensus” government that was formed in early June.

That government was created largely because of Hamas’s desperation and isolation. The group’s alliance with Syria and Iran was in shambles. Its affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt became a liability after a July 2013 coup replaced an ally, President Mohamed Morsi, with a bitter adversary, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Hamas’s coffers dried up as General Sisi closed the tunnels that had brought to Gaza the goods and tax revenues on which it depended.

Seeing a region swept by popular protests against leaders who couldn’t provide for their citizens’ basic needs, Hamas opted to give up official control of Gaza rather than risk being overthrown. Despite having won the last elections, in 2006, Hamas decided to transfer formal authority to the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. That decision led to a reconciliation agreement between Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organization, on terms set almost entirely by the P.L.O. chairman and Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel immediately sought to undermine the reconciliation agreement by preventing Hamas leaders and Gaza residents from obtaining the two most essential benefits of the deal: the payment of salaries to 43,000 civil servants who worked for the Hamas government and continue to administer Gaza under the new one, and the easing of the suffocating border closures imposed by Israel and Egypt that bar most Gazans’ passage to the outside world.

Yet, in many ways, the reconciliation government could have served Israel’s interests. It offered Hamas’s political adversaries a foothold in Gaza; it was formed without a single Hamas member; it retained the same Ramallah-based prime minister, deputy prime ministers, finance minister and foreign minister; and, most important, it pledged to comply with the three conditions for Western aid long demanded by America and its European allies: nonviolence, adherence to past agreements and recognition of Israel.

Israel strongly opposed American recognition of the new government, however, and sought to isolate it internationally, seeing any small step toward Palestinian unity as a threat. Israel’s security establishment objects to the strengthening of West Bank-Gaza ties, lest Hamas raise its head in the West Bank. And Israelis who oppose a two-state solution understand that a unified Palestinian leadership is a prerequisite for any lasting peace.

Still, despite its opposition to the reconciliation agreement, Israel continued to transfer the tax revenues it collects on the Palestinian Authority’s behalf, and to work closely with the new government, especially on security cooperation.

But the key issues of paying Gaza’s civil servants and opening the border with Egypt were left to fester. The new government’s ostensible supporters, especially the United States and Europe, could have pushed Egypt to ease border restrictions, thereby demonstrating to Gazans that Hamas rule had been the cause of their isolation and impoverishment. But they did not.

Instead, after Hamas transferred authority to a government of pro-Western technocrats, life in Gaza became worse.

Qatar had offered to pay Gaza’s 43,000 civil servants, and America and Europe could have helped facilitate that. But Washington warned that American law prohibited any entity delivering payment to even one of those employees — many thousands of whom are not members of Hamas but all of whom are considered by American law to have received material support from a terrorist organization.

When a United Nations envoy offered to resolve this crisis by delivering the salaries through the United Nations, so as to exclude all parties from legal liability, the Obama administration did not assist. Instead, it stood by as Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, called for the envoy’s expulsion on the grounds that he was “trying to funnel money” to Hamas.

Hamas is now seeking through violence what it couldn’t obtain through a peaceful handover of responsibilities. Israel is pursuing a return to the status quo ante, when Gaza had electricity for barely eight hours a day, water was undrinkable, sewage was dumped in the sea, fuel shortages caused sanitation plants to shut down and waste sometimes floated in the streets. Patients needing medical care couldn’t reach Egyptian hospitals, and Gazans paid $3,000 bribes for a chance to exit when Egypt chose to open the border crossing.

For many Gazans, and not just Hamas supporters, it’s worth risking more bombardment and now the ground incursion, for a chance to change that unacceptable status quo. A cease-fire that fails to resolve the salary crisis and open Gaza’s border with Egypt will not last. It is unsustainable for Gaza to remain cut off from the world and administered by employees working without pay. A more generous cease-fire, though politically difficult for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would be more durable.

The current escalation in Gaza is a direct result of the choice by Israel and the West to obstruct the implementation of the April 2014 Palestinian reconciliation agreement. The road out of the crisis is a reversal of that policy.

The Trump plan threatens the status quo at al-Haram al-Sharif

Originally published in Al Jazeera

The plan could pave the way for an Israeli takeover of the holy site in Jerusalem.

Apart from its many other faults and its overall one-sidedness, and despite its authors' claims to the contrary, the US plan for Israel-Palestine, unveiled at the end of January, proposes perilous changes to the historical status quo at Jerusalem's Holy Esplanade.

The 14-hectare (35-acre) compound, known to Jews as Temple Mount and to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif, is Judaism's holiest site and Islam's third-most sacred after Mecca and Medina. The contested site, which is home to both the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, is currently supervised by Jordan's Islamic Waqf according to an unwritten Ottoman-era arrangement. Per the arrangement, Muslims are allowed to pray at the site, while non-Muslims are only allowed entry as tourists. 

The Trump plan calls for three major changes that would undo the centuries-old arrangement completely.

In its plan, titled Peace to Prosperity, the Trump administration pays lip service to this arrangement, saying "the status quo at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif should continue uninterrupted". Despite this, however, it calls for three major changes that would, in practice, undo the centuries-old arrangement completely: transferring the site to Israeli sovereignty, rescinding Jordan's custodianship over it, and ending the ban on non-Muslim prayer.

The plan aims to end Muslim control over the site, merely promising to guarantee Muslim worshippers' free access to it. It also seemingly attempts to do away with Jordan's custodianship of the compound, making no mention of it, a move that flies in the face of Israel's commitment in the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty to "give high priority to the Jordanian historic role in these shrines". The plan instead describes Israel as a custodian of Jerusalem's holy sites.

The plan calls for freedom of worship at the Holy Esplanade, saying: "[p]eople of every faith should be permitted to pray on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, in a manner that is fully respectful to their religion, taking into account the times of each religion's prayers and holidays, as well as other religious factors". This seemingly benign notion - that there ought to be freedom of worship at the site - masks an attempt to make a major alteration to the historical status quo.

Regardless of what the notion means in practice - separate Jewish and Muslim devotions or side-by-side prayer - the mere possibility of separate prayer times triggers visceral Palestinian fears that Al-Aqsa Mosque will one day undergo a forced partitioning akin to the one imposed on Hebron's Ibrahimi Mosque by Israeli authorities in 1994.

The Trump plan is unlikely to ever serve as the basis for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, let alone a comprehensive peace deal. The Palestine Liberation Organisation and Hamas refused to engage with it long before its announcement. Some Arab states made somewhat supportive statements about it right after its publication but these were soon overtaken by a chorus of disapproval from around the world. The Arab League and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation also rejected the plan in early February. 

The plan can still cause considerable damage.

The plan, however, can still cause considerable damage. Israelis could invoke it as setting forth new default parameters for how the site will be governed in the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian deal.

Following the Muslim world's rejection of the plan's attempt to alter the status quo at the Holy Esplanade, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman sought to clarify Washington's stance on the issue. "The status quo, in the manner that it is observed today, will continue absent an agreement to the contrary," he said at a media briefing. "So there's nothing in the […] plan that would impose any alteration of the status quo that's not subject to agreement of all the parties". 

In theory, Friedman's remarks provide some clarification, suggesting Washington will insist that any change allowing for non-Muslim prayer should occur only as part of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. In practice, however, his comments leave room for ambiguity as "the status quo, in the manner that it is observed today" - in both Jordanian and Palestinian eyes - is already an eroded version of the historical arrangement. 

Over the years, Israel has increasingly allowed Jewish prayer and imposed greater limitations on the Waqf's independence. Growing numbers of religious Jews have visited the site, many of whom are part of Temple movements - activist groups seeking to promote Jewish worship at and Israeli control over the holy site with the ultimate aim of erecting a Third Temple.

They make up a small minority of Israeli Jews, but Israel's police has given them significant leeway, tolerating low-profile prayer as well as discreet study of religious texts and conduct of rites of passage, while blocking open and loud prayer.

With Waqf support, Palestinians have regained access over three sections of the compound turning them into prayer halls. This happened most recently at a building near Bab al-Rahma which was shut down by Israeli authorities in 2003.

In light of all this, it is clear that there are major differences between committing to the ever-changing status quo today and the historical arrangement.

Tellingly, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who is responsible for the police policies at the holy site, seems to publicly encourage ongoing Jewish prayer at the site, in contravention of the prayer ban.

Moreover, Temple activists have already been invoking the plan's language to argue for doing away with the non-Muslim prayer ban. The Students for the Temple Mount, for example, launched a media campaign within two days of the plan's release, titled "The Time Has Come: Sovereignty and Freedom of Worship at the Temple Mount for Jews Now!", quoting the Trump plan's statement in support of Jewish prayer. 

There are many reasons to reject the plan, including its departure from international norms, its blatant bias, and its treatment of Palestinians in Israel as second-class citizens.

There are many reasons to reject the plan, including its departure from international norms, its blatant bias, and its treatment of Palestinians in Israel as second-class citizens. But the positions it espouses on Jerusalem's Holy Esplanade present a particular danger.

By calling into question the status quo and legitimising exclusivist Israeli positions, it risks making any future resolution ever more elusive. It empowers forces working to shatter the ban on non-Muslim worship on the site and increases the possibility of another episode of religiously motivated violence in Jerusalem.

The US is assertively seeking backing for its plan, including from Arab states. Should President Trump be re-elected in November, his administration may well embark on a more sustained effort to do so. Those hoping for a peaceful and sustainable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not just withhold their support for it serving as the basis for negotiations, but actively oppose it.