RAMALLAH — At a daycare center for children with disabilities in the al-Am’ari refugee camp in Ramallah, there are five boys being treated at present. A couple of them were playing with Play-Doh when the visitors from Israel entered the room. The rest were drawing.
The equipment at the center is rather limited, and the place itself appears somewhat run-down. It is a refugee camp, after all. Most of the staff members are volunteers. One of them tells us that the Palestinian Authority does not provide any support to the center, as this would lead the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) to stop funding it. However, UNRWA itself has recently undergone budgetary cuts, he says, leading to a drop in funding for such projects in the refugee camps of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
At the al-Am’ari camp, decades have passed, and scarcely anything has changed: The same neglect, the same poverty which grips your throat at every turn. Little children scurrying about playing in the narrow alleyways and dozens of young men loitering idly around the camp, jobless and uneducated. The small streets of al-Am’ari, or in fact of any refugee camp in the West Bank, may yet spawn the next wave of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
While it’s true that the Palestinian public, even here, shows little interest in the most recent crisis in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, that is a testament, more than anything else, to the extent of the hopelessness which has taken hold of everyone. Nobody talks about peace, everyone talks about money.
The problem is that there is no money to be found here. The problem is that the Palestinian Authority neglects the residents of the camps and makes no effort to rehabilitate them, believing that it’s the UN’s job and that, perhaps, it would be better if the problem persisted.
When we visited early this week, no armed fighters could be seen in the streets of al-Am’ari — after all, this is the refugee camp nearest to the PA’s headquarters in Ramallah. But armed fighters can already be found in other camps, such as Qalandiya, just a few kilometers south of here, bordering Jerusalem. Most of them are youths reared on the stories and myths of the Second Intifada.
It’s hard to say if the gunmen are ready for a third. Most of the fighters also know the stories about the tremendous damage caused to the Palestinian public by Operation Defensive Shield — a large-scale IDF incursion into the West Bank to halt suicide bombings between March and May 2002 — and the bad years that followed. But even so, a deadlock in peace talks will hardly lead these young men to think thoughts of coexistence, or of putting an end to the conflict.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas is well aware of all this. He also understands that a violent conflagration, rousing those same youths to start shooting, will inevitably weaken his government dramatically, or even dissolve it entirely. He doesn’t want to go down in the annals of history as the man who not only led the Palestinians to split from Gaza, but also to a Third Intifada, bringing the Palestinian political entity to ruin.
In spite of all this, on Tuesday evening, he chose to walk to the brink and announce that, in light of Israel’s procrastination on releasing prisoners, he had decided to sign applications to join 15 international treaties and bodies. In the meantime, he said, peace talks will continue until April 29.
Why has Abbas taken this risk? Why has he caused a crisis — be it real or mere posturing — in the talks? It may have been a last-ditch effort to milk more concessions out of Jerusalem and Washington before discussing the extension of talks through the end of 2014. Or not. Abbas’s decision, as in the past, may have stemmed mostly from his lack of trust in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Palestinian version of events sheds some light on the decision-making process in Ramallah.
First of all, according to senior Palestinian officials, the explanation for Abbas’s unilateral move is a simple one: Israel didn’t fulfill its commitments and failed to abide by its agreement with the Palestinians, the repercussions of which it knew full well ahead of time and not just in the past few days. To parse that out: As long as Israel releases the 104 prisoners whose identities were decided upon in advance, there will be no Palestinian resort to the UN. If they are not released, UN approaches will proceed.
And Israel did indeed break an agreement. For the Palestinians, Israel’s awakening and understanding that Arab Israelis were going to be released as part of the deal came too late. The names were known in advance, but Netanyahu balked at the public price he would have had to pay. Furthermore, according to Palestinian officials, the events of the last few days illustrate to what extent Israel has tried to thwart the agreement.
In their opinion, the procrastination began last week, when US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Abbas in Amman. There, Abbas was promised that on Wednesday – last Wednesday, March 26 – the Israeli ministers in charge of the prisoner release would convene and the process of freeing them would begin. Similar promises were made to Abbas in a telephone conversation on that same Wednesday, and then again on Thursday, with the Americans promising to the Palestinians each time that the Israeli ministers would convene “tomorrow.”
Kerry even told chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat during one of their conversations that the Palestinians would soon “hear the news” that the committee had met. But that didn’t happen. It didn’t convene on Friday or Saturday night, either.
At the beginning of this week, Abbas informed the Americans that he intended to meet with the Palestinian leadership and seek its counsel on how to proceed. And indeed, on Monday evening, senior Fatah and Palestinian Authority officials met in Ramallah to discuss the steps to be taken in the event that Israel did not release the fourth round of prisoners. Everyone present at the meeting spoke in favor of applying to international bodies. Abbas, who was to meet Kerry later that night, asked for a bit of time, to hear what message Kerry would bring from Netanyahu. The Palestinian leadership consented.
But Kerry was running late from his late-night meeting with Netanyahu, and it was decided that instead of heading to Ramallah, he would meet in Jerusalem with Erekat and Palestinian intelligence chief Majed Faraj on Tuesday.
According to sources close to Erekat and Faraj, Kerry told them that the matter was settled, and that the Israeli ministers would convene on Tuesday. In the interim, he asked them to consider the big tripartite deal that would extend talks until the end of the year. The two insisted that the fourth round of prisoners be released before discussing anything else.
On Tuesday, Kerry had to leave for Brussels. And then, when the Palestinian leadership realized that the Israeli committee would not meet, the dramatic televised announcement came from Abbas.
On Wednesday, the word was still that peace negotiations were to continue and that the American team was still involved. And yet Kerry’s complex, three-party deal proposals have been met with a number of obstacles. For one, there is no certainty that convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard will indeed be released by the US. But the bigger issue is that the Palestinians have not accepted Israel’s latest offer. Ramallah wants a full settlement moratorium and a large-scale release of prisoners, among them national symbols — some with blood on their hands — such as Marwan Barghouti and Ahmad Saadat.
Those are terms that Netanyahu isn’t willing to accept.
The omelettes of the casbah
The omelette restaurant in the casbah of Nablus was packed on Thursday, as it is on any other day. The unique restaurant specializes in omelettes, sour hummus and a salad of cucumbers in yogurt and garlic.
On the radio, the Ramallah-based Voice of Palestine station blared loudly, a medley of reporters and analysts attempting – rather unsuccessfully – to explain what was going on around the negotiating table between Israel and the PA, just like their Israeli counterparts.
‘The Israelis can’t go on eating honey while we eat shit. Either we both eat honey, or we both eat shit. You must decide what you would like to eat.’
These days, the casbah is full of attractions for locals and tourists alike. It is so different from those difficult years, 2000 to 2007, when armed militants freely roamed the streets and did as they pleased. These days, there are no armed militants in the casbah, just innumerable photographs of fighters from various organizations who were killed in clashes with Israel during the Second Intifada.
The casbah — the epicenter of Palestinian terrorism in those difficult years — looks today a bit sleepy, not yet ready for the conflict to be rekindled or for a Third Intifada to flare up. But this silence could be broken at any moment.
Jibril Rajoub, a senior Palestinian official who was in London when the Palestinian leadership voted to apply to international bodies, believes that if the negotiations continue to be mired and Israel continues to build in the settlements, the result will be a major conflagration.
Speaking to The Times of Israel from London, Rajoub explained that “the status quo will not continue.”
He added that he was “convinced” that “big changes will take place if the Israeli occupation and settlement construction continue. We won’t raise a white flag.”
Rajoub added that he didn’t trust Netanyahu, who had become a “pathological liar.”
Netanyahu “didn’t uphold agreements and is leading [Israel] towards disaster,” Rajoub said.
“On the one hand, he talks about a Palestinian state, but in the same breath, continues to expand the tumor called the settlements. He is trying to control the conflict instead of solving it. But he – and you – need to understand something,” he said. “We are in a difficult, even very difficult, stage. The Israelis can’t go on eating honey while we eat shit. Either we both eat honey, or we both eat shit. You must decide what you would like to eat.”