By: Callum Maclean
Citing it as a “huge breakthrough”, on the 12th of August Donald Trump announced the US-brokered “historic peace agreement” between Israel and the UAE, intended to normalise ties between the two countries. Framed as an alternative to Israeli PM Netanyahu’s annexation plan, it came as a surprise to many and set in motion a flurry of discussion.
For some commentators, the move was welcomed, seen as a positive development towards peace for the troubled region. For others, it was self-interest on the part of three national leaders. For Trump and Netanyahu, it scored a much-needed political win in light of domestic unrest. And for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, an opportunity to up his stake in the region’s power struggle by securing both strong allies and access to military and security technology. With other Arab states now following suit, most recently Bahrain, what does this mean for the Palestinians?
Fanning the flames
For Palestinians, the move is another provocation in a string of recent affronts from the Netanyahu and Trump administrations. In 2017, US recognition of Israel’s territorial rights over Jerusalem essentially removed it from the negotiation table. A similar move in 2019 recognising the Golan Heights, set a dangerous precedent for unlawful territorial acquisition. More recently, with Netanyahu struggling to secure his premiership in the 2019 Israeli legislative election, he announced the intended annexation of large swathes of the Jordan Valley. As an area which was to be gradually transferred to Palestinian jurisdiction as part of the Oslo Peace Accords, the announcement was met with resentment from the Palestinians.
Although the annexation has been “temporarily halted” as part of the peace deal, Palestinians are left reeling from what Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has described as a “stab in the back” of the Palestinian people, who consider most Arab states to be natural allies. A sentiment consolidated under the ‘Arab Peace Initiative’ of 2002, whose terms state that normalisation with Israel by Arab states can only take place following a just solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Abbas also accused the UAE of reducing the conflict to the annexation issue alone while ignoring the legitimate rights and interests of the Palestinian people.
Running out of options?
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a long history, which has seen sporadic violence between the two sides since at least 1948 (with some localised violence predating this). As, what conflict scholars would call, a “protracted conflict”, the conflict ‘issues’, or causes, are multiple, deep-seated and extremely complex. This peace deal ignores all of them. In fact, it almost ignores the Palestinians altogether and erases them from the narrative of instability in the Middle East.
For the Palestinians, this erasure from the conflict narrative brings them further away from their goals and the legitimate means to seek them. At the same time, de facto annexation continues in the form of settlement building; and in the midst of this ‘historic peace deal’ airstrikes continue in Gaza, home demolitions continue in Jerusalem, and in the West Bank, there have been clashes between protestors and the Israel Defense Forces. Having tried civil (and sometimes uncivil) disobedience, numerous peace initiatives, and seeking legal redress through international mechanisms, Palestinians are left with very few options. And as with most nations, they will look to their leadership for the protection of their rights, interests and security.
With authority divided between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Fatah in the West Bank, and with an ever-increasing number of Palestinians growing frustrated with both, leadership is a complicated affair in Palestine. However, in a rare moment of unity and agreement, both factions (along with a number of fringe political parties) jointly condemned the peace deal. For Hamas in Gaza, the likely outcome of these recent developments is a short-term escalation in the sporadic, but ongoing, violence that characterises its border relationship with Israel. Israel is likely to respond in kind. Not much will change. In the West Bank, where widespread violence has not been witnessed since the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, the outlook is more uncertain.
As the leader of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the recognised leader of the de jure state of Palestine, all eyes are on Abbas. For many Palestinians, PA officials are seen as elitist, self-serving and largely disconnected from the populace. In times of crisis, Abbas makes bold statements (e.g. declaring pre-existing peace agreements with Israel null and void in response to annexation plans), but beyond words, there is little action. However, in recent weeks the unprecedented meeting between Palestine’s various factions has led to very vocal commitments toward a national reconciliation process, whose aim, according to Abbas, is to “confront all the dangers and conspiracies that are aimed at eliminating our national cause”. If the parties come closer, it remains to be seen whether Fatah can restrain Hamas’ more extreme tendencies, or whether Hamas will pull the usually sedate Fatah party towards more violent tactics. Comments from senior Fatah official Jibril Rajoub that “all types of resistance” are possible points at the potential for the latter.
Chances of violence
Of course, the reconciliation rhetoric may turn out to be nothing more than an oratory act. Or the process may suffer from being unable to overcome the very issues that caused the fracture in the first place. This may be irrelevant either way. When conducting a conflict analysis, causes of violence are typically divided between structural issues and proximate ones, or triggers. The structural issues, such as inequality or social exclusion, are rarely sufficient for violence to break out, requiring a ‘trigger’ moment to bring those tensions to the surface. A recent example of this is the killing of George Floyd in the US, which brought to the surface many years of black subjugation and generated a wave of protests worldwide. For a population feeling disillusioned, dejected and facing the daily realities of life under occupation, all that is missing is a trigger moment. And, as can be seen from Netanyahu’s recent provocative decision to publicly open the school year from an illegal West Bank settlement, there is no shortage of these.