A very bad year for humanity

By Akiva Eldar, Ha’aretz, 13 November 2007

NEW YORK – When he talks about the situation in the Gaza Strip and relates to Israel’s responsibility, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes does not sound like someone whose name is adorned with the prefix “Sir.” The veteran British diplomat, who has served as head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) since the beginning of the year, makes no effort to smooth out rough spots.

Speaking from his office last Wednesday, high up in the glass building in New York, Holmes maintained that collective punishment, like cutting off electricity, for political reasons, is unacceptable. The isolation of Gaza will cause the civilian population to become extreme and does not concur with the talk of optimism ahead of Annapolis and of the diplomatic progress everyone hopes for in the conference’s wake, he said. He believes it is hard to see how the siege on Gaza contributes to the peace process.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is aware of the difficult situation in the Gaza Strip, and Holmes is convinced that his immediate boss, who will participate in the Annapolis conference as one of the heads of the Middle East Quartet, will not forget to raise the situation in Gaza.

The senior official does not think Israel is doing a favor to humanity by supplying electricity to the Gaza Strip and by allowing, albeit stingily, the supply of essential commodities to the inhabitants under siege. He told Haaretz that despite the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, UN lawyers had determined that from the formal legal perspective, Israel continued to be responsible for the Gaza Strip. He added that therefore, cutting off the electricity to the Strip was contrary to international humanitarian law and could not be accepted by the international community. Holmes says the UN secretary-general had made this clear to Israel in every possible way.

Holmes conscientiously notes that it is taken for granted that Israel has the right to defend its citizens and that the Qassams are a problem that remains to be dealt with. However, he is convinced that the way Israel has been dealing with this problem is not only illegal but also ineffective. He maintains that those who think that causing suffering will make people distance themselves from their rulers are making a big mistake.

Holmes finds it difficult to understand how Israel’s protestations that it has no interest in a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip fit in with the closing of the border to raw materials, including materials that are needed to advance United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) development and construction projects. He says that even if there is no famine in Gaza yet, the damage from the siege is accumulating. Holmes believes it is not going to be easy to rehabilitate the Gaza Strip and restore it to the difficult situation the region was in before the siege, even if there is a breakthrough in Annapolis.

Nor does Egypt get by without a reprimand. Holmes expects Cairo to provide explanations for the closure of the Rafah crossing point to the passage of people and goods. No, he is not saying Hamas are angels, but he does state that it is his job to see to the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip and to prevent an economic crisis from which it will be hard to recover. And yes, he is frustrated, and more than that – he is worried. Every month, the report issued by his office in Jerusalem looks bleaker and the situation keeps deteriorating.

Holmes does not see the light at the end of the tunnel and is planning for “a bad humanitarian year.” OCHA is hoping to raise at least $450 million this year, only for emergency needs. No one is talking about rehabilitation. The international community is prepared to invest in economic development, but before a donor invests, he wants to know that his money is not going to go down the drain, as has happened in the past.

Holmes says that the UN has no tools apart from these reports and other messages that it transmits to Israel. He admits that while the Security Council has more powers, he himself does not believe it will make use of them. Perhaps to pre-empt the expected criticism from Israel and its friend the United States, it is important to Holmes to stress that he and his people have no political agenda. It is true that one can expect more from a democratic country than from failed regimes, but OCHA does not make that sort of reckoning. It tolls the bells in every country that is responsible for a humanitarian crisis – in Darfur, Iraq, Sri Lanka and Chad, too.

‘Satan in Annapolis’

Prof. Rashid Khalidi, 57, the director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University, does not understand why Israel is insisting the Palestinians recognize it as a Jewish state. The Palestinian historian, considered Edward Said’s successor of, says the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has already recognized the Jewish state – in a big way.

Looking back over the bad years that have passed since the Oslo agreements, it is not certain whether Khalidi, a hardliner when it comes to the right of return, is pleased with this recognition. But there is no getting around it: It is a fact that nearly 20 years ago the representative body of the Palestinian people recognized the existence of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. In the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, which was published in Algiers on November 15, 1988, the Palestinian National Council (PNC) declared that it recognizes the principle of the partition of the land into a Jewish state and an Arab state, as embodied in the United Nations General Assembly partition plan (Resolution 181). One month later, in Geneva, Yasser Arafat recognized UN Security Council Resolution 242, which relates to the borders of June 4, 1967.

At the end of this month, Israel will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the November 29, 1947 UN resolution. No doubt Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will observe the tradition of meeting with Israel’s major newspaper editors. They will have an opportunity to ask him whether he supports Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s demand that the PLO recognize Israel as a Jewish state, although the organization has already recognized the resolution to the effect that, “Independent Arab and Jewish States and the Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem, set forth in Part III of this Plan, shall come into existence in Palestine two months after the evacuation of the armed forces of the mandatory Power has been completed, but in any case not later than 1 October 1948.”

It is worth asking the prime minister why Israel needs to call on Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to introduce into the agreement a provision, which Menachem Begin did not demand of Anwar Sadat in the peace treaty with Egypt and which Yitzhak Rabin did not demand of King Hussein of Jordan. It is also possible to remind Olmert that when Barak was prime minister, he did not ask the late Syrian president Hafez Assad to recognize the Jewish identity of Israel, 20 percent of whose inhabitants are Arab.

A few months before Arafat passed away, I asked him about the reasons for his refusal to declare that he recognizes Israel as a Jewish state. “I know a number of Jews in Israel who say that Israel should be a state of all its citizens,” he replied, “and I don’t understand why you are dragging me into your internal debate on who is a Jew. I am not asking you to define Palestine and I don’t want to define you. Each side has to have the right to its own self-definition.”

The Palestinian leader kept in close touch with the leaders of the Arab minority in Israel, headed by MK Ahmad Tibi, who was his special advisor on Israeli matters. The recognition of Resolution 181 in the matter of the establishment of a Jewish state and the acceptance of the state of Israel in the 1967 borders brought about a rift in the PLO and led the “rejectionist organizations” to walk out.

Like Arafat, Abbas fears that another declaration recognizing the supremacy of the Jews in the State of Israel will turn the Arabs of Israel against him. He will have his hands full dealing with the future intifada cooked up by Khalidi and his colleagues in the Palestinian diaspora. This particular uprising will break out once it emerges Abbas has agreed that Israel will decide who, if anyone, will be entitled to return to the Jewish state.

Amos Gilad, Barak’s envoy to the negotiations with the Palestinians, has no doubt reported to the defense minister that the Palestinians are showing that they are partners to compromise formulations in the matter of the right of return. The recognition of a Jewish state constitutes an option to prove that the inventors of the “no partner” approach were right; and this is the last stop before Annapolis. Incidentally, the main headline on the Hamas Internet site is “Satan in Annapolis.”

Negating media

Last Tuesday, the large events hall in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood thundered with applause. The Search for Common Ground organization presented a special award there to Combatants for Peace, Israeli and Palestinian fighters who are trying to persuade public opinion in Israel, the territories and the world of the uselessness of violence. The award, like the organization’s unique activity during the past two years, has been granted only a modest place in the Israeli media, if at all.

A new study conducted by Dr. Tamir Shefer of the political media program in the Hebrew University’s political science and communications departments, together with Shira Dvir and Gittit Poran, shows that the Combatants for Peace are not alone. The study, which analyzed 3,000 relevant news items from the front pages of the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth and from Haaretz, which dealt with the security situation in Israel and the peace process in 1995 and 2003, has found that the coverage focuses on dangers and difficulties and not on cooperation and opportunities. On average, only about 2 percent of the items about relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority were positive, as compared to about 36 percent that had a negative tone (in the remaining items there was a mix of positive and negative information, or they were neutral).

The information about public opinion concerning a peace agreement with the Palestinians was based on the Peace Index, published by Tel Aviv University’s Steinmetz Center. The researchers found that the combination of the high rate of negative coverage and the stronger influence of the negative information (1.5 times that of the positive coverage) influences public opinion negatively.

The positive coverage of the process contributed on average less than one-third of 1 percent monthly to the public’s faith in the chances of the process.

The significance of this is that the monthly contribution of the negative coverage is 25 times that of the positive coverage. To balance out the negative coverage, it would be necessary for 55 percent of the news items each month to have a positive tone.

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