The Dome of the Rock and the old city are seen from the Mount of Olives through barbed wire in Jerusalem on January 13, 2018. NurPhoto/SIPA USA/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The Trump Administration in the United States has rocked the Middle-East with two devastating policy announcements in recent months that have created fear and instability for the five million Palestinians living in the region.
In December, President Trump announced a plan to move the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thereby reversing a longstanding US commitment to have the status of the contested Holy City agreed as part of a negotiated Middle-East settlement.
By recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Trump seemingly dashed Palestinian aspirations for recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
Trump regarded this move as "a long overdue step to advance the peace process", but this view was overwhelmingly rejected by the United Nations General Assembly when it voted 128-9 in favour of a resolution condemning Washington’s policy shift.
The size of the majority opposing the US was all the more commendable for the bullying that preceded the vote which included a threat from US diplomat Nikki Haley that she would be ‘taking names’ of countries that supported the motion with a view to cutting their aid from the US.
UNRWA budget cuts
More evidence of Trump’s political chauvinism in the Middle-East came in January with his administration’s announcement that it was to withhold $65m (£45.8) of a $125m aid package to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN Mission created in 1948 to provide for the welfare of Palestinian refugees.
In one of his legendary bad-tempered tweets, President Trump said "we pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect."
Indeed, in 2017 the US contributed $355m to UNRWA, around half of its operating budget but contrast this with US aid to Israel which was $3.1 billion in 2017 – more than any other nation – in the context of an overall 28 per cent ($50 billion) cut to the US aid budget last year.
Trump’s slashing of aid to UNRWA is highly dangerous
Trump’s slashing of aid to UNRWA is highly dangerous given the parlous humanitarian conditions in which Palestinians are living, particularly in the Gaza Strip, with the International Committee of the Red Cross warning that ‘without immediate intervention, a public health and environment crisis is looming’.
Chris Gunness, a spokesman for UNWRA, has asked "Is it in American and Israel security interests to have the collapse of a functioning service provider in Jerusalem?"
UNRWA services in Gaza go beyond food aid to include the provision of 267 schools, 21 primary healthcare facilities, 48 women’s programme centres and 33 community rehabilitation centres. There are also just under 100,000 recipients of ‘social safety net’ services directed at families living in ‘abject poverty’ who are ‘unable to meet their most basic food needs’.
In the West Bank, UNRWA is supporting more than 800,000 refugees by operating 98 schools, 43 healthcare facilities and 19 women’s centres.
If these frontline services are removed, it will not only create unbearable levels of distress to Palestinians, but create social upheaval and fertile ground for the spread of extremism in a region already combatting the hateful ideology of Islamic State.
What peace process?
The 25 years since the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords have seen: a rapid escalation of settlement construction in the West Bank; the separation of the West Bank and Gaza; the construction of a Separation Barrier deemed illegal by the International Court of justice; the illegal transfer of 600,000-750,000 colonists into the West Bank; and the imposition of an eleven year siege on the Gaza Strip which has resulted in 80 per cent of its 2 million people becoming dependent on international aid.
Throughout this period, every US administration went through the motions of international diplomacy in the Middle-East and pursued a ‘peace process’ no matter how remote the prospect for resolution.
All of this ended with Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. With this taken off the negotiations table, any Palestinian leader entering a talks process on this basis would be recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Trump has dropped any pretence that a peace process was on Washington’s agenda
At a stroke, therefore, Trump has dropped any pretence that a peace process was on Washington’s agenda and, at the same time, disposed entirely of any suggestion that the United States was somehow an ‘honest broker’ trying to bang heads together toward an agreed settlement.
How could it be so when the US "signed a $38 billion military aid pact with Israel" in 2016, on President Obama’s watch, in what was the "single largest pledge of bilateral military assistance in US history?"
Or, when the Foreign Policy Journal revealed that 30 members of Congress were speakers at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual policy conference in March 2016. Twenty-five of these politicians received contributions in 2016 from pro-Israel Public Affairs Committees (PACs) averaging $36,000 per recipient and, in return, AIPAC gained "a public expression of high level support for Israel."
In expressing concern at the influence of lobbyists in using finance to "secure access or buy support", Foreign Policy Journal argues that "For the sake of our democracy, the flow of interest group money that is buying off our elected lawmakers must be stopped."
The murky merging of private capital with American government policy surfaced again last month when the New York Times revealed that a family real estate company connected to Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser on the Middle-East, received an investment of $30 million from Menora Mivtachim, one of the largest financial institutions in Israel.
The New York Times argues that the deal "illustrates how the Kushner Companies’ extensive financial ties to Israel continue to deepen, even with his prominent diplomatic role in the Middle East." It then, without a hint of irony, appends that "The arrangement could undermine the ability of the United States to be seen as an independent broker in the region." That role, it ever truly existed, has been eviscerated in the diplomatic ructions that have followed Trump’s recent policy announcements.
In the absence of any meaningful external political pressure on Israel to enter negotiations with Palestine either from Washington or the European Union - which appears to lack any co-ordinated initiative of its own - Israel seems intent on pursuing a ‘status quo’ policy of changing facts on the ground and keeping political concessions at arm’s length.
Israel knows that accelerating settlement construction in the West Bank and transferring colonists on to Palestinian land prevents the realisation of a contiguous Palestinian state. While the US and EU agree that settlements are an impediment to peace – even Trump sees "Israeli settlements getting in the way of negotiations" – neither polity seems intent on pressuring Israel to cease construction.
This political vacuum needs to be filled by global civil society in supporting the BDS movement.
This political vacuum needs to be filled by global civil society in supporting the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement. BDS is a non-violent movement for "freedom, justice and equality" which "works to end international support for Israel's oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law."
Supported by academics, trade unions, churches and grassroots movements across the world, BDS is building global support for peace and justice in Palestine.
In recognising parallels between apartheid South Africa and the unjust treatment of Palestinians by Israel, Archbishop Desmond Tutu has joined the call for support of BDS suggesting that:
“Those who continue to do business with Israel, who contribute to a sense of normalcy in Israeli society, are doing the people of Israel and Palestine a disservice. They are contributing to the perpetuation of a profoundly unjust status quo.”
BDS has enjoyed significant success in persuading transnational corporations, Orange and Veolia, to divest from Israel and this has been underpinned by boycotts organised by local councils, pension funds, church groups, trade unions and academics across the world.
A Ministry for Strategic Affairs has been created by Israel to ‘push back’ the BDS Movement and allocated a war chest of $72 million which reflects the seriousness with which Israel regards the growth of BDS.
At a time when we appear to have reached the lowest ebb of political commitment and agency toward a settlement in the Middle-East, support for BDS provides an opportunity for civil society groups to show their solidarity with Palestine.