Strengthening Hamas

When Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert acceded to the ultimatum from his coalition partner Shas not to negotiate the fate of Jerusalem lest he lose the religious party’s support, he confirmed Palestinian fears that Israel is not ready for serious negotiations.

Since the resumption of political contacts between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Olmert, and particularly during preparations for the Annapolis conference last November, Palestinians reached the conclusion that the Israeli government was interested in a process but was not ready for substantial negotiations, particularly on Jerusalem, refugees and settlements.

On the refugee issue, Israel has made it clear time and again that there will be no negotiations. On settlements, the Israeli government has been unwilling to even freeze settlement expansions or dismantle outposts let alone dismantle settlements in general or even negotiate such a possibility. The final nail in the coffin for good faith negotiations was this stark position on Jerusalem.

This is alarming for the Palestinian side. The only practical outcome of the Annapolis conference was a reiteration of the need to implement the first phase of the road map. Part of the Israel’s obligations under that first phase are Jerusalem-related issues. East Jerusalem is considered a part of occupied Palestinian territory. The expansion of settlements that the roadmap expects to see frozen includes those in East Jerusalem. In addition, the roadmap calls upon Israel to reopen certain Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem, among them the Arab Studies Center and Orient House, that were closed a few years ago in accordance with Israeli policies to suppress Palestinian activities in East Jerusalem, including non-political activities such as health and socio-economic development.

On the ground, meanwhile, illegal Israeli measures to change the reality in East Jerusalem in contradiction with international law, especially on the demographic level, are gathering pace. There are growing concerns about the social and economic situation of Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem. The rate of dropouts from Israeli government schools has reached 40 percent (compared to one to two percent in the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories where education is run by the PA) and the disparity in income and educational levels is creating a large Palestinian underclass. Both international and local NGOs are warning of a dramatic increase in drug use and violence among Jerusalem’s Palestinian youth, a by-product of this disenfranchisement.

The social and economic deterioration is a direct result of the oppressive and discriminative policies of the Israeli occupation authorities in East Jerusalem, and the situation of Palestinians there is reminiscent of that suffered by Palestinians inside Israel since 1948 as a result of similar policies. These policies have left Palestinian communities in Israel suffering from high levels of unemployment and poverty in addition to social problems including low levels of education.

On a wider political level, the Israeli insistence on shunning final status issues, particularly that of Jerusalem, while continuing to create facts on the ground is not only jeopardizing Palestinian objectives and thus delaying a workable solution, it is also influencing the domestic Palestinian political situation by weakening the argument of the peace camp and reinforcing the arguments of those opposed to negotiations. The resumption of American peace efforts that resulted in the Annapolis process and the visit of US President George W. Bush to the region offered some hope for the Palestinian public that translated into an increase in support for the peace camp led by Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

This support, however, is already being undermined, even reversed, by the lack of any tangible progress in talks to stop the continuing consolidation of the Israeli occupation in Jerusalem and elsewhere. Combined with the ability of Hamas to break the siege on Gaza, as perceived by the Palestinian public, this has had a significant effect in shifting the balance of power between the two rival political camps in Palestine in favor of Hamas and the rest of the groups opposed to the peace process.