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It is an honour for me to be here at the Sydney Institute to discuss the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
We Palestinians have become a tragically divided society, especially since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in June 2007. Many countries, mainly Arab countries, have tried to bring unity or reconciliation between the largest two political factions, Fatah and Hamas, but so far, all efforts have failed.
We Palestinians still deserve a state through a two-state solution, but it now looks as if the Palestinians are demanding a three-state solution for two peoples. Hamas is fighting for its own Islamic Emirate in the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, including President Mahmoud Abbas, is fighting for its own empire in the West Bank. The Israelis and the Palestinian people are upset about the status quo, but the Palestinian leaders seem satisfied.
I do not believe that Fatah or Hamas really want reconciliation or unity. Disunity keeps Palestinian society weak in the face of any future peace talks or peace initiatives. If Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu met Abbas tomorrow, the first question from Netanyahu would be, “Whom are you representing Mr. President? The Gaza Strip? The West Bank? The Palestinian diaspora?” In my opinion, Abbas right now represents only his two sons and his wife.
Palestinians do not support Abbas’ fight at the UN or at the International Criminal Court. If you ask ordinary Palestinians, “What are the three priorities you are seeking?” they would say, “a job to survive, an education system, and a health system for my children”. Nobody mentions the settlements, the security fence, or even the Palestinian State.
Most Palestinians are seeking dignity rather than identity. I have no problem with my identity, wherever I go, I say I am a Palestinian, and people understand that. But if I say I come from Abu Dhabi, people ask, “Is it far away from Turkey? Is that where the President is killing his people? Is it in Asia or in Africa?” Nobody knows where Abu Dhabi is, but everybody knows what it means to be Palestinian. So I do not have a problem with my identity. I have a problem with dignity.
Palestinians are anxious about their future. In my opinion, dignity can come only via economic prosperity. The international community should put aside political issues and peace negotiations. Ordinary Palestinians are fed up with that. It is time to start focussing much more on economic prosperity in the drive towards peace.
Economic prosperity can pave the way towards a lasting resolution for Israelis and Palestinians. Economic prosperity should not involve only Israelis and Palestinians. I would love to see Jordanians, Egyptians, and Saudis involved. They should all be involved in joint projects with the Palestinians and the Israelis. This could help us Palestinians reach a resolution with Israel within a few years.
The Hamas stranglehold on Gaza
Ordinary people in Gaza have had Hamas impose three wars on them. Last August, in the middle of the war, I was not surprised to hear that a Palestinian wrote that Hamas was using its own people as human shields. I did not wait for Amnesty International or the UN to say it. From my conversations with people in Gaza, I knew this.
In the first week of the war, the Israeli army sent messages to the Palestinians living in Beit Lahia, in the north of Gaza, warning them to evacuate their houses. The Israelis had discovered that Hamas had built tunnels under these houses. The tunnels could not be destroyed without destroying the houses. As the people began to evacuate their houses, Hamas pushed the people back to their houses, calling them Israeli traitors. Being concerned about their lives and the lives of their family members made them traitors in the eyes of Hamas! This action by Hamas was the main reason for the high number of Palestinian lives lost in Beit Lahia.
I know exactly the atmosphere that Hamas imposed on the people of Gaza. Hamas, like other terrorists, sacrifices its own people; Hamas does not care. Unfortunately, there are countries supporting Hamas. These countries do not care about the population of Gaza; they only listen to Hamas and its propaganda.
In last summer’s war, we lost around 2,000 people, and 35,000 houses were demolished. People are still waiting for their homes to be rebuilt, but for Hamas, the priority is not homes but terror tunnels and military capability. Most countries around the world use their missiles to protect their people. In Gaza, Hamas uses its people to protect its missiles.
Gazans even miss Jewish settlements because they were a source of income. There is also the poisonous relationship between Hamas and the Egyptian regime. In Gaza, the worry is the blockade imposed by Egypt not the Israelis. The Israelis are still feeding Gaza. In the past few months, tens of millions of tonnes of cement and tens of millions of tonnes of steel have entered Gaza from Israel. When people in Gaza are asked why they have not started to rebuild homes, they reply that the cement and steel is on the black market, and of course Hamas is running the black market.
The Palestinian leadership is the problem
For ordinary Palestinians, the UN, Arab leaders, and the Palestinian Authority offer no solutions. When I talk with people in Gaza and ask them what they waiting for, they answer, “for God’s help.” The youngest of the Palestinian leadership is around 75 years old. They are stuck in the past. Abbas belongs in the 1950’s, the 1960’s, the 1970’s. What about the future of my children and grand-children?
Both the international community and the Palestinians know that the Palestinian leadership is corrupt. Abbas is the Robert Mugabe of the Middle East. This is my fight right now. The Palestinians do not want an exit from the occupation. What they want is to get rid of their own leadership.
When I say to my fellow Palestinians, imagine that tomorrow morning you woke up and the IDF had left the West Bank, what would happen? People say, “Oh, my God, we would starve.” No one wants that.
Palestinians feel that they are alone. Nobody supports them. There is no benefit for Palestinians in a boycott of Israel. There are 92,000 Palestinian workers in the West Bank who carry Israeli work permits. Every day, in the early morning, they cross the checkpoints, going to work inside Israel. So when I see the 92,000 Palestinian workers entering Israel every day, it is clear why there is no Palestinian boycott of Israel. In the markets of Palestinian towns, the thousands of boxes and cartons of vegetables and fruits come from Israel.
Palestinian people want to survive. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS movement) benefits from the suffering of the Palestinians. Who authorised the BDS movement to speak on my behalf? I want to know. These people are trying to kill our economy.
How can we pave the way for economic prosperity amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict? In Canberra, I met with some parliamentarians and an influential Foreign Affairs person. I asked the official from Foreign Affairs how much the Australian government was donating to the PA. He said it was $65 million, so I asked if the Australian government tried to find out where the money was used. By giving money to corrupt people, they are not helping the real people.
We need a change in international involvement, and we need a change away from Fatah and Hamas. Only after that can the situation of the Palestinians improve.
Bassem Eid is a human rights activist, political analyst and commentator on Internal Palestinian politics.