x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Go to Gaza, Mr Mitchell - then break the blockade

Proximity talks between the Palestinians and Israelis will do little to halt the hopeless spiral.

Proximity talks between Palestinians, Israelis and US negotiators will begin next week, but I'm not hopeful, in large measure because the parties have never been further apart and confidence in the US has been diminished. The Israelis have been up to no good: making provocative statements about keeping the Jordan Valley, staking their claim to sites in Hebron and Bethlehem, and tightening the noose around Jerusalem. At the same time, the Palestinian house remains deeply divided, with reconciliation talks between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas stalled, and Hamas's leadership participating in a defiant summit in Damascus with Iran and Hizbollah in attendance.

Meanwhile, tensions are growing in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the West Bank as non-violent resistance to recent provocative acts by the occupation authorities is showing signs of giving way to more confrontations. Worse still, the deplorable conditions in Gaza, owing to the persistence of a suffocating blockade, continue to be ignored, as if what is happening to 40 per cent of the Palestinian people doesn't matter.

On his second day in office, during the State Department ceremony in which the US president named George Mitchell as Special Middle East Peace Envoy, Barack Obama spoke eloquently about the suffering of the people of Gaza and called for an end to the blockade. That message has been repeated by the president and virtually every other major official in his administration, and yet 14 months later the blockade remains in place.

Attention was given to securing a settlement freeze. But that was only partially successful. Then pressure was put on the Palestinians to withdraw their support for the Goldstone Report and to begin negotiations with the Israelis "without preconditions". And that effort too was only partially successful - hence only "indirect" negotiations will occur. All this time, the suffering in Gaza was relegated to the back seat, as if life there were expendable and meeting human needs were of secondary importance and should not be allowed to interfere with the all-important political process. There is unfortunately nothing new here, since this careless disregard for realities on the ground has been the modus operandi of past US administrations.

As we should have learnt from the Oslo period, if the daily life experiences of people are worsening, negotiations will be negatively impacted; throughout the 1990s, settlements in the West Bank doubled in size and a network of Jewish-only roads were being constructed, carving the area into pieces, severely constricting Palestinian mobility. Israel's closure had caused economic stagnation, a doubling of Palestinian unemployment and a severe decline in personal income. I warned US negotiators not to ignore these troubling facts. They, of course, knew better, insisting that the "peace process" came first and these lesser concerns could wait. As we were to discover, they could not. Yet when the second Palestinian Intifada erupted, blame was placed on everything and everyone but the failure to recognise the growing despair and anger resulting from the deteriorating conditions on the ground.

And so because we are at it again, I am not hopeful. Once again, we are ignoring reality. But beware, because reality trumps even the best of intentions. Now don't get me wrong - I am not opposed to starting negotiations. But the US must do more than convene talks (direct or indirect) and then serve as a go-between if the current mess is to bear fruit. What would be helpful is a strong display of US leadership that would send a signal to all the parties - a "game changer" if you will.

Such an action was recently proposed by a courageous and compassionate US congressman, Brian Baird. Having just returned from his third visit to Gaza since the war, Mr Baird was deeply troubled by the debilitating effects of the continuing blockade on the civilian population there. Noting that more than one half of Gaza's population is under 14 years of age, he correctly termed the impact of the blockade an act of "collective punishment". The congressman noted that the Israelis have ignored US entreaties to end the blockade and observed that any further "negotiating with the Israelis for 'permission' to [open Gaza to construction materials and commerce] is a waste of time and an insult to our country."

What Mr Baird proposes is that Mr Mitchell visit Gaza to assess needs and that the US act unilaterally to circumvent the blockade by using "roll on/roll off" ships to supply Palestinians what they need to rebuild their society. It is important to note that this entire effort could be administered by and co-ordinated with the United Nations agencies on the ground in Gaza, ensuring that no political advantage be gained by Hamas as a result.

Such a dramatic gesture would have an enormous and positive impact on many levels. First and foremost, of course, it will bring hope and needed support to the people of Gaza. It will send a powerful message of America's compassion and good will - stronger than mere words ever could. This will resonate throughout the region. It will also let the Israelis know that we mean business and that we will not tolerate being repeatedly stiffed and ignored. And it will help strengthen the position of moderate Palestinian leaders by demonstrating that America is a patron that cares and can deliver.

If handled correctly by US negotiators, such a powerful US gesture of strength and resolve could result in hastening Palestinian unity on internationally accepted terms, help pave the way to an end of the blockade and place peace talks on a firmer footing. Without such a positive game changing event, I fear that even with proximity talks under way, the dynamic in the region is spiralling downwards and may in the end erode the ground from under that process, leading to more violence, repression and a loss of hope in the ability of the Obama administration to deliver much needed change.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American institute