Abbas embargoes Israeli settlements

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas imposes embargo on settlement goods. Thai government alleges red shirt movement is a republican plot. US sets out plans for a one-hour missile strike capacity. Ukraine in tumultuous vote to extend Russian lease of Black Sea base. All this and more in today's briefing.
Andrea Glioti
27 April 2010

The Palestinian Authority has passed a ban forbidding the sale of settlement goods in the West Bank. According to the decree, violators will be prosecuted with punishments ranging from a $14,000 fine to five-years’ detention. The new provision also targets those Palestinians willing to work in the settlements with one to five year prison sentences. It is still not clear whether people currently working for the settlers are included as well in the law, but the Palestinian economics minister, Hassan Abu-Libdeh, guaranteed that they will not be punished. The law does not encompass all Israeli goods, which Palestinians heavily rely on for their subsistence. The Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, promised that its government will continue to finance the National Dignity Fund, instituted to boost the availability of local products in the Palestinian market.

The need to issue a law, a legal adviser of Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas stated, was a result of the paralysis of the body usually charged with promulgating laws, the Palestinian Legislative Council, which has been under Hamas control since its seizure of Gaza in 2007.

The ban is the latest development in a campaign initiated by Fayyad to eliminate settlement products from the Palestinian markets. Fayyad, supported by numerous human rights activists, called on every country to prohibit trade with settlement companies, this being a clear affront to international law. Aside from the various UN resolutions on the issue, the International Court of Justice declared the illegality of the settlements in 2004, though whether it follows that trade with settlement businesses is also illegal is disputed.

The campaign was preceded by similar initiatives in Europe in the last years.  In 2009, the UK’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs requested that British supermarkets label separately those products originated in the Israeli settlements. However, this was confined to a recommendation, and was not legally binding. An EU-wide law, requires the distinction between Israeli and occupied territories’ goods, but human rights activists have complained that companies frequently ignore this requirement.

A spoke-person for the Palestinian National Authority reported that Fayyad’s campaign has seen the confiscation of goods worth more than $1 million. Estimates of the revenue of Israeli settlements are as high as $500 million per year. There are around 300,000 Israeli settlers distributed across more than 120 settlements in the West Bank. Silfan Shalim, the Israeli deputy prime minister, described the decision as a “disgrace”.

The initiative of Fayyad was echoed in Lebanon, where the economy and trade minister, Mohammed Safadi, called on Arab markets to resist the infiltration of Israeli goods. According to Safadi, a coordinated effort by the Arab governments would hamper the Israeli economic expansion in the region.

The openSecurity verdict: Following Israel’s refusal to freeze settlement building, the boycott of settlement products seems a viable option to pressure the Israeli cabinet and draw further attention to the issue. Nethanyahu has attempted to silence criticism of his announcement of 1600 new builds in East Jerusalem, promising a Palestinian state with temporary borders in the West Bank, a clear deviation from the proposed course of negotiations overseen by the Quartet. What is even more detrimental to any rapprochement between the sides is that neither Europe nor the US is willing to lobby for sanctions against Israel. In the vacuum of a decisive external actor, the Palestinian choice needs to be backed by the UN and all states interested in accelerating the peace process. Besides this, it goes without saying that Palestinians are economically dependent on Israel for their subsistence and will be unable to significantly dent the Israeli economy; whether Israel is forced to the negotiation table will depend on the concerted action of the international community.

The boycott of all Israeli goods, not only those produced in the settlements, could supercede economic sanctions, if adopted on a large scale by both state and non-state actors. Some argue that the focus of attention is always on Israel, whereas consumers do not care about products coming from other territorially disputed areas, but such calls for universalist consistency seem to aim at distracting attention from an illegal occupation and the particular unlikelihood to be sanctioned it enjoys. Atrocities committed in other disputed territories cannot de-legitimize the use of boycott on an economy profiting from illegally occupied lands.

Others point out that activists should target the bad-governance of Fatah in the West Bank, which is considered largely responsible for the economic malaise affecting the territories. This is a good point, but does not address the main reason why a boycott is necessary: to impinge on the Israeli economy and force Netanyahu to freeze settlement construction, not to improve Palestinian standards of  life, which is the primary aim of the National Dignity Fund, for example.

Divestment and boycott serve to pressure ‘rogue states’, with such measures playing a significant role in the case of South Africa. Israel, however, continues to enjoy ‘virtual immunity’ from enforcement measures, as Marc Weller, a Cambridge University fellow in international law has argued. When comparing the case of Israel with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, East Timor, occupied Kuwait and Iraq, it alone remains exempt for identical infringements of international law.

Human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, have called on the US government to reduce its financial aid to Israel as long as it acts illegally in the West Bank, but have remained unheard. Instead, even US companies face a restriction, imposed by the anti-boycott laws of the 1970s, which would prevent them from participating in a ‘foreign boycott that the United Stations does not sanction’. In the absence of effective international legal requirements and given the scarce commitment of international actors to enforcement measures, the boycott proposed by the Palestinian Authority could set an example.

Thai government alleges red shirt protest is a republican plot

Further clashes are likely after seven weeks of turmoil in Thailand, which has already seen the deaths of 26 people. The government’s Centre for the Resolution for Emergency Situations warned protesters to evacuate the roads they have blockaded under the threat of a joint police-military raid. These new vows of action come in the aftermath of the operations of the red shirts across various Thai provinces, where they obstructed the departure of the police and military contingents assigned to reinforcement in Bangkok. The supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra also fear a government crackdown on their camp at the Ratchaprasong intersection in Bangkok and forced Bangkok’s elevated railway to shut down briefly last Tuesday.

The possibility of violent repression seems increasingly likely, after the current prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, refused to heed the red shirts’ calls for elections within three months, replying last weekend that immediate polls represented a peril in this unstable climate. For their part, the protesters promised a peaceful provocation aimed at defying the imposed state of emergency. Raising fears of inter-factional clashes, the pro-Abhisit yellow shirts threatened to take the initiative if the government did not repress the demonstrators.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej has so far avoided taking a stance on the ongoing turmoil, thus excluding the possibility of mediating between the government and the ‘red shirts’. On Monday the monarch did not even mentioned the political disorder, disappointing those who wished to see him playing a peace-keeping role, as he did during demonstrations in 1972 and 1992.

Having the king not meddled in the confrontation, the Centre for the Resolution of Emergency Situations also revealed a supposed plan by the red shirts to overthrow the monarchy, claiming that the movement’s ambitions are not limited to ousting the current prime minister. This plot is said to involve members of the Union for Democracy against Dictatorship, academics, banned politicians and hosts of community radio programmes. The red shirts have repeatedly affirmed their loyalty to the crown, although criticizing the king’s senior advisors for having a part in the 2006 anti-Takhsin coup.

US calls for investment in one-hour missile system

Barack Obama has promised further investments in the development of high-speed missiles. Specifically, the White House has demanded around $250m from next year’s congressional budget for this purpose. The military programme, known as ‘prompt global strike’, will produce weapons able to strike any location on earth in less than an hour. These new hypersonic missiles could be launched from air, land or sea, reaching 3,600mph at suborbital heights above 350,000ft. Unlike ballistic missiles, the vehicle would not go into space, thus being easier to control. The engineers behind the project intentionally emphasized that the missile could simply follow a straight trajectory to reach the Persian Gulf. This ‘pride’ of the US artillery will be equipped with an incorporated pilotless plane, coordinated by satellite to guarantee an accurate strike. According to the preferences of the Pentagon, warheads could either be designed to hit a single target or scatter ordinance over a wider area.

Prompt global strike has been met with suspicion by Russia and China. In an attempt to reassure such powers, US Vice-President Joe Biden has claimed that ‘conventional weapons with worldwide reach...enable us to reduce the role of nuclear weapons’. The programme was originally promoted by the George W. Bush administration. During meetings held by the Bush cabinet with the Russian leadership, Moscow highlighted the risk entailed by the unknown payload carried by the missiles. Could nuclear warheads be delivered via the missiles, there were fears of a reinvigorated nuclear arms race and an increased likelihood of escalation to nuclear war. Consequently, the defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, revealed that the idea was abandoned by Bush but has now been ‘embraced by the new administration’.

For now, the White House has promised to develop a small quantity of missiles, keeping them separate from nuclear launch sites to avoid any ‘dangerous’ misinterpretation. Among the pledges of the Obama administration is the right for other powers to inspect the PGS prompt glocal strike storage towers to be sure of their non-nuclear payloads. However, Pavel Podvig from Stanford University acutely stressed that early warning satellites and radars cannot differentiate between conventional missiles and nuclear warheads and their deployment could be extremely dangerous in strategic terms. Moreover, the short flight time of these weapons bestows an exaggerated responsibility on national decision-makers. At the core of the risk of a nuclear war, according to Podvig, is the scant mutual trust between Russia and the US; both countries still conduct simulations of nuclear strikes against each other, despite the undeniable improvement in their relationships after the Soviet Union’s collapse. The partnership among the two powers should be therefore strengthened to avoid arousing suspects on programmes such as the prompt global strike.

Even the most optimistic estimates do not expect the warheads, control systems and sensors related to the prompt global strike project to be operative before 2017.

Chaos in the Ukrainian parliament after Russian fleet deal

Scuffles, egg-throwing and smoke bombs characterized the last Ukrainian parliament debate on Tuesday on the extension of the lease of a Russian navy base in the Black Sea. The deal was achieved in exchange for a discount on Russian gas supplies. At the end of the dispute, the chamber approved the extension, although the vote is suspected of being rigged, as only 211 lawmakers, fifteen less than the required majority, registered for the session. A deputy from former Prime Minister Tymoshenko’s bloc, Volodymir Polokhalo, accused the ruling Party of the Regions of having barged into the Our Ukraine sector and used their voting cards under the cover of the smoke bombs. In front of the parliament, opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko called for mass demonstrations for ‘either denunciation of the Black Sea fleet agreement or new parliamentary elections’. The Ukrainian prime minister, Mykola Azarov, warned that the government will use force against violent protests.

Meanwhile, Tymoshenko denounced as false Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s recent remarks on her involvement in the agreement, while she was prime minister. Last Tuesday, President Yanukovych confirmed Putin’s declarations, affirming that he only had to negotiate a lower gas price than the one previously agreed upon by Tymoshenko.

Kiev has now extended by 25 years the lease on the Russian navy base in Sevastopol. Rejecting the opposition’s complaints, Azarov underlined how the agreement would enhance the Ukrainian chances to obtain a loan from the International Monetary Fund.Viktor Yushenko, who failed to secure a second presidential term in the last elections, defined the agreement as a ‘military usurpation’. Outside parliament, one of the protesters, Igor Derevyanko, told Associated Press that the deal was ‘a permanent threat to Ukraine’s territorial integrity because the Black Sea fleet is the outpost of the Russian state in Ukraine’.

Putin was clearly surprised at reactions to the vote, while the Russian Duma ratified the deal by a vote of 410 to none. Putin stressed how the agreement was a bargain for Ukrain, as the gas supplies would cost Russia $40-45bn over ten years. Russian president Medvedev  defended these costs, affirming that ‘it’s not exorbitant because we have a strategic relationship with Ukraine’. This ‘strategic relationship’ was evident during the visit Putin paid to Kiev on Monday, where he talked about widening participation on nuclear power, aircraft construction and shipbuilding.

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