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Mideast peace

May 23, 2011

Israel calls the new Palestinian unity government a threat to Israeli security, but Palestinians look at it as an opportunity to finally get statehood. Palestinian officials plan on asking the UN for a vote in September.

There are hundreds of Israeli soldiers in Hebron to watch out for the 500 Jewish settlers who have settlements in the Palestinian territory
Israeli soldiers in Hebron, West BankImage: DW

In September, the Palestinian government plans to ask the United Nations to recognize a Palestinian state according to the 1967 boundaries, which includes all of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It is also expected that a majority of UN countries will accept the deal if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn't come up with a viable peace plan first.

"We plan to tell friendly countries the following: a vote at the UN does not change anything on the ground, so what's the use?" Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, told Deutsche Welle.

"Our diplomatic efforts today are trying to convince those countries, who have always been involved in the peace efforts in this region, to convince the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table."

Negotiating with the Palestinian government, however, is an option that isn't on the table at the moment. The region's two main political parties recently entered into a unity agreement and Netanyahu remains staunch in his refusal to negotiate with Hamas, the Palestinian political faction that rules Gaza.

"Those who wish to obliterate us are no partners for peace," Netanyahu told members of the Knesset earlier this week, shortly after the Israeli military killed 12 people during a Palestinian protest.

The great divide

Hamas and Fatah have historically been at war with each other, keeping the Palestinian populace separate and statehood almost impossible to achieve. The tension grew when Hamas won a majority of Palestinian parliament seats in the 2006 democratic election. Since then, Israel has imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip, cutting off funding and restricting the movement of the 1.6 million people who live there.

Though Israeli officials call the unity agreement between Hamas and Fatah a threat to security, Palmor doubts its legitimacy.

"The unity that everybody wants to see happen among Palestinians has yet to materialize on the ground," he said. "Hamas is ruling Gaza exclusively and doesn't give any sign that it is willing to share its power over Gaza with the Palestinian government, with the PA."

But Palestinians who have been waiting for peace and statehood are pinning their hopes on this new alliance. Human rights organizations who work with civilians and officials on both sides of the conflict said the party unity is a response to civilian demand.

"The Israeli public is only aware of one side and they don't even know what is going on," Ehud Uziel, with the Israeli-based Association for Civil Rights, told Deutsche Welle. "They don't know that two months before you had tens of thousands of demonstrations in Gaza and Ramallah for reunifying the Palestinian authorities. Because of this pressure, Fatah and Hamas went and did the agreement."

Palestinian response

Netting over the marketplace in Hebron to protect the shops from rocks thrown down by settlers.
Marketplace in HebronImage: DW

An eery tension shadows the streets of Hebron - one of the few cities in the West Bank where signs of military occupation are impossible to miss. With checkpoints to get into the Mosque where Abraham, the father of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, is believed to be buried and areas of the city completely shut down during what should be a bustling workday, the division between the Palestinians and the Jewish settlers is as clear as the Israeli soldiers standing on the rooftops holding machine guns.

Dating back to 3,000 B.C, the city has significant historical and religious importance. But for Abu Hasan, the director of Alternative Tours, the resting place of Adam and Eve is merely a side note in his description of the ancient town.

"There are 27 Jewish settlements here in our area with 500 settlers," he told Deutsche Welle, pointing to newly constructed buildings sporting Israeli flags. "And, there are more than that many Israeli soldiers here, in full view, to protect them."

Hasan would never call himself a tour guide, but rather a peace-loving Palestinian who is fighting for statehood. Politically active since he was 13 years old, Hasan now conducts tours of the West Bank for visitors from around the world, hoping to give them insight into the Palestinian side of the conflict.

Instead of talking about the famous memorials at the Mosque of Abraham, Hasan shows visitors where Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein opened fire in 1994, killing 29 Muslims before being killed himself. Rather than just bringing visitors to local businesses for shopping, Hasan introduces them to Palestinian fathers who have lost sons in the conflict.

"You hear often about Hebron. You read about it," he said. "But if you don't come and see it with your own eyes, it is hard to understand what is happening here."

Abu Hasan giving a tour of Hebron, a volatile region of the West Bank.
Abu Hasan, Director of Alternative ToursImage: DW

Hebron is home to about 165,000 Palestinians and 500 Jewish settlers. In the areas where the settlers live, as well as 30,000 of the Palestinians, movement is restricted, with numerous military checkpoints and armed soldiers. The main thoroughfare in the city is shut down for security reasons, causing dozens of businesses to close. And, there are frequent conflicts between the Palestinians and the settlers.

"There are nets over the shopping streets," said Hasan, pointing to netting holding beer bottles and rocks. "The settlers throw rocks and bottles down here on the Palestinian shops and people walking."

The year of change?

But, Hasan is hoping that 2011 is the year of the change - that, at least, is what he is calling it. With the protests sweeping across the Middle East and Mubarak ousted from Egypt, Hasan hopes the Arab world will play a greater role in helping secure a Palestinian state.

"It will be establishing a new uprising," he said. "It will not only be a Palestinian uprising, it will be an uprising of the whole Arab world."

Like most Palestinians, Hasan also has renewed hope now that Hamas and Fatah are working together. Politically-minded, he is well-versed in the violent history between the two factions, but says a unity agreement is the only chance Palestinians have to gain strength and influence.

"This is what we needed for a long time. For us, it is very good," he said. "All the time the Israelis say the Palestinians are divided, this is always their excuse that they have. Now, they don't have it."

Despite the violence and deaths that erupted on the anniversary of Israel's founding day, which Palestinians call Nakba - the day of the catastrophe - hope for the future is pervasive among the Palestinians who live in the West Bank.

Nawal Slemiah, founder of Women in Hebron, a cooperative that sells handmade rugs, pillow covers and other creations made by more than 150 Palestinian women, said she is more optimistic than she has ever been.

"We have to fight the occupation with peace, not with violence," she told Deutsche Welle.

Violence erupted on the anniversary of Israel's foundingImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The Road to Statehood

Addressing the Knesset on Herzl Day, the day that honors the father of modern Zionism Theodore Herzl, Netanyahu outlined his seven demands for a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Included in those stipulations is Jerusalem remaining the capital of Israel and the state maintaining its settlement blocs, which are in Palestinian territory - a condition human rights activists say will ensure continued conflict.

"People don't think about what is going on with the settlements and how they deprive Palestinians of human rights and how they create two systems of laws," said Uziel. "You have the settlers under the Israeli laws and the Palestinians under the military law. This segregation creates a situation that the structure of it is actually violating the most basic human rights there is."

If the gulf between the two sides' positions remains unbridgeable, it could lead to the United Nations making the ultimate decision, as it did in 1947, when it voted in favor of establishing an Israeli state. However, Israeli authorities say if Palestinians are counting on real-life results from a United Nations vote, they will end up disappointed.

"If they want to live a good life here at home, who do they need to accommodate?" said Palmor. "A far away friend from a far away country or next door neighbor? And we are their next door neighbor. They may not like us, tough luck. We are here. We don't like them, maybe. But we are neighbors."

Members of Fatah, however, argue that they have tried to negotiate with Israel for years and while a peace plan between the two nations is still the optimal solution, a decision from the international community may be the only viable one.

Whether a UN resolution actually changes reality on the ground isn't the most important point for Palestinians waiting for September. Abu Hasan said with international approval, the world will view Palestine as a legitimate state, even if Israel does not.

"We have to do something about it and not let the Israelis do what they are doing," he said. "They keep eating the land until nothing is left for us. So, at the same time they are expecting us to be very quiet. No. It's my land and I am struggling for my land and to have my freedom."

Author: Jenny Hoff, Jerusalem, Hebron/West Bank
Editor: Rob Mudge