x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

'Palestine Papers' put both sides in a poor light

Leaked minutes of confidential meetings between Palestinians, Israelis and foreign officials published by Al Jazeera TV and the Guardian newspaper in the UK have mostly embarrassed the Palestinian leaders, but current and former Israeli officials have not been spared.

TEL AVIV // The so-called "Palestine Papers" that have been exposed this week by the Al Jazeera television channel appear increasingly to cast both Palestinian and Israeli peace negotiators in an unfavourable light.

The revelations, part of some 1,600 internal documents on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that have been released in instalments by the Qatar-based channel this week, have been lambasted as fakes by Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the western-backed Palestinian Authority in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Mr Abbas has good reason to attempt to dismiss them. Some documents have suggested that the Palestinian Authority, dominated by his secular Fatah movement, has aided Israel's siege of the Gaza Strip, ruled by the rival Hamas Islamist group, and has kept a cosy relationship with Israel's security services.

While the memos, detailing minutes of confidential meetings between Palestinians, Israelis and foreign officials, have mostly embarrassed the Palestinian leaders, current and former Israeli officials have also not been spared.

Indeed, the documents have indicated that the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has catered to the interests of Jewish settlers in a bid to stay in power, secretly pledged to the US in 2009 to halt construction in a contestable area between Jerusalem and the large West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim. This promise was made despite Mr Netanyahu stating during his election campaign that building on the site would continue. Yesterday, the premier's office denied the report, saying he "did not make any commitment on the matter."

They have also shown that Israel's former foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, who portrays herself as a centrist, had offered to transfer some areas within Israel that are inhabited by Israel's Arab citizens to a future Palestinian state. Such a plan has previously been promoted in public mainly by Ms Livni's controversial successor, the ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman.

Mr Abbas and other Palestinian leaders have engaged in damage control, fearing a further plunge in popularity after years of ineffective peace negotiations, amid the uncovering of the documents that have shown they were willing to make major concessions on sensitive issues such as Jerusalem or the fate of Palestinian refugees while being offered little by Israel in return.

But memos from the past two days showing the tight security co-operation with Israel has put Mr Abbas and his internal circle of advisers in hot water.

One transcript from a meeting in 2008 quoted a Palestinian security chief asking a senior Israeli military official for more tear gas canisters to help put down demonstrations in the West Bank. Another document from a meeting in Tel Aviv in 2005 shows an exchange between Israeli and Palestinian officials on a plan to kill the Gaza militant Hassan al Madhoun. "Why don't you kill him?" Shaul Mofaz, the then-Israeli defence minister, asked Nasser Youssef, the Palestinian interior minister at the time. "We gave instructions to Rasheed and will see," Mr Youssef replied, referring to a senior Palestinian security official in Gaza.

The memos also suggested a close co-operation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on attempts to defeat Hamas, which Israel regards as a terrorist organisation.

In one document from a meeting in February 2008, Ahmed Qurei, the former Palestinian Authority prime minister asked Ms Livni, then Israeli foreign minister, for Israel to retake the narrow strip of land that separates Gaza from Egypt, known as the Philadelphi Corridor, in a bid to weaken Hamas.

The 14.5-kilometre corridor has been controlled by Hamas ever since the group routed Fatah forces from Gaza in 2007, and allows Gazans to circumvent the Israeli blockade by smuggling in goods through a network of tunnels. "You have reoccupied the West Bank and you can occupy the crossing if you want," Mr Qurei told Ms Livni, referring to Israel's reoccupation in 2002 of parts of the West Bank during the second Palestinian Intifada.

Al Jazeera reported that Palestinian leaders in the West Bank made no secret of their animosity towards Hamas and indicated they aimed to reach a peace agreement with Israel partly to crush Hamas and survive politically after the possible establishment of an independent state. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, was quoted as telling the Belgian foreign minister in 2007: "I can't stand Hamas or their social programmes." In a meeting in 2008 with a top European Union official, he said that "reaching an agreement [with Israel] is a matter of survival for us. It's the way to defeat Hamas."

The revelations also suggested that the US was aware that some of the Palestinian security forces that it was training in the West Bank were involved in torturing detainees. US Lt Gen Keith Dayton, who until recently supervised the training of the Palestinian forces, told Mr Erekat in a meeting in 2009 that he was concerned about the Palestinian intelligence service "torturing people," according to one document. His statement appeared to contradict the past denial by Western officials, including those from Gen Dayton's office, about involvement in training forces accused of employing torture tactics.