For weeks Palestinian leaders have warned they are prepared to sign letters joining the International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute Israel for war crimes. Despite the divide in government between the West Bank and Gaza, there is consensus among all Palestinian groups in favor of the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the criminal court. At the height of Israel’s ground invasion during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza Palestinian legislator Dr. Hanan Ashrawi announced that letters had been drafted.
Yet curiously Palestinian officials have held back on filing the paperwork without explanation. President Mahmoud Abbas has now said the delay in sending the letters to the United Nations (UN) was at the request of American officials who are still attempting to broker a “framework” for negotiations with Israel aimed at creating a Palestinian state.
In a leaked transcript of a conversation between Abbas, and senior Fatah and Hamas officials, mediated by the Emir of Qatar, Abbas said he was pressured not to send the letters by the United States during Secretary of State John Kerry’s bid for parties to return to talks. While the meeting is an illumination on the inner workings of Palestinian political strategy as it’s being hashed, the transcript is also useful if not just for the behind the scenes look at the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation.
The conversation took place on August 21, 2014 in Doha. A copy of the meeting minutes was published in Arabic by the Lebanese outlet Al Akhbar earlier this week.
“We agreed to the United States’s request to not go to the United Nations in return for the release of [Palestinian] prisoners,” Abbas said to the emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. “After the failure of the experience of 20 years of negotiations, Israel and America have not given us anything,” Abbas later complained to Hamas leader Khaled Mashal. The U.S. was “dragging their heels” during the negotiations process.
Moreover, the rendezvous concluded with the Beirut-based head of Hamas’s political bureau Mousa Abu Marzouk confidentially signing the letter for Palestine to join the ICC.
Abbas: Israel has three years to end the occupation
The Palestinian president went on to state that his main political project will be announcing a timeline for Israel to end the occupation and to accept “a Palestinian state on the ’67 borders, and East Jerusalem as its capital.” If Israel fails to do so, Abbas said he will “cease security coordination with Israel,” forcing Netanyahu’s hand to re-instate the occupation as it was before the Oslo Accords and “bear the responsibilities as an occupying power.”
Under international law, occupying states are required to underwrite expenses for public services. Those expenses were transferred to the Palestinian Authority after Oslo. Today Palestinian Authority public salaries cost around $200 million per month and any delay in incoming funds immediately translates to wage freezes and protests across major West Bank cities.
Abbas then told Mashal he conveyed this approach to ending the occupation “within a specified time frame” in early August to the Israeli Minister of Intelligence Yuval Steinitz, who was then instructed to inform Netanyahu directly. Following suit, on Thursday Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat (who was also present during the Doha meeting) did tell American officials in a two-hour meeting with Secretary Kerry that Israel has three years to depart from the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. As well, the PLO revealed a timetable for Israel to militarily withdraw from the Palestinian territories acquired in the June 1967 war.
On Tuesday, Dr. Ashrawi reiterated at the United Nations in New York much of what was communicated in the private discussion in Doha. “We need a clear commitment to the 67 boundaries and to the end of the occupation –the Israeli occupation–within a specified timeframe, not open ended.” Dr. Ashrawi continued that the Palestinian delegation “will be seeking a Security Council resolution on ending the occupation within that specified date. And any solution must be based on international law, cannot violate international law.”
Dr. Ashrawi added, “The American funding is not that essential to Palestinian survival.” Of course American funding was essential to the survival of the Palestinian Authority when John Kerry pledged $4 billion in early 2013, which at the time was speculated as the Palestinian government’s price-tag for returning to negotiations with Israel. Today there are no other balloon sources of funding expected from American officials, and the Palestinian Authority continuously teeters on bankruptcy. Europe also is tightening their belt. Since Oslo they gave the Palestinian Authority roughly $7.3 billion (€ 5.6 billion), and now they are auditing the Palestinian government.
“Quite often joining the international community, having the protection of the law, and so on is much more important than getting some funding from Congress that is conditional,” continued Dr. Ashrawi, signaling that Palestinian officials understand the Oslo era donor commitments from the West will no longer continue as they had in the past. As such, Palestinian commitments that were tied to their donors can duly be tossed.
Palestinian national unity amid ‘Hamas’ kidnapping of three Israelis, and an assassination attempt
The Doha transcript reveals the tenuous threads and triangulations that define Hamas’s and Fatah’s relationship today: eight years after an internal mini-war and the purging of government ministers. Despite misgivings, Abbas and Mashal made commitment to implement a single strategy of pressuring Israel through the UN, and backing popular resistance, which both leaders have suppressed until the latest war in Gaza.
“We are at a crossroads in a single vessel,” said Saeb Erekat to the two leaders. Still the divisions that Abbas and Mashal are in the process of overcoming in forging a national unity government are also personal. Hamas tried to have Abbas killed, and he hasn’t forgotten.
Just before the Hamas delegation walked into the room Abbas told Shiekh Tamim, “In 2006, they [Hamas] set up explosives in the street, they wanted to blow me up.” Then Abbas passed him a computer disk of evidence showing Hamas made attempts on his life years ago. “They also dug a tunnel that reaches under my house in Gaza,” he said.
Abbas reminded Sheikh Tamim of the “open secret” assassination attempts against him because two weeks before, the Israeli Intelligence Minister told him the Israeli army thwarted an attempted coup d’état against the Palestinian president, planned by Hamas. The Israeli official told him they arrested 93 members of Hamas involved in the scheme.
The coup d’état story is murky; Mashal called it an Israeli “novel” that is “a million percent false.” Hamas’ political bureau Mousa Abu Marzouk added, “The fact is that the coup happened against Hamas,” referencing Fatah’s purge of Hamas ministers from the West Bank government. Still Abbas wanted answers. His words reflected a man unmoved by assurances that the Israeli reports were “incorrect.” He asked about weapons that the Israeli army seized. He was shown reports that they were intended “not against Israel, but against us.”
After some protesting Abbas temporarily accepted that Mashal was not trying to oust him, or have him killed. The former foes committed to move beyond their pasts of distrust. “I do not accept that walking into a partnership where there are doubts,” said Mashal, “I do not want to go back to the past with all of its aspects,” agreed Abbas.
One of the issues that is revealed in the transcript is the limitations of Hamas’s leadership to control members in other countries and small groups of supporters outside of Gaza. Mashal is adamant that there was no attempted coup yet he was careful to promise to personally issue an apology on behalf of Hamas if the allegations later prove to be accurate. This lack of absolute knowledge over all activities of all branches of Hamas was equally reflected in a conversation regarding a rogue Hamas official announcing that the group was responsible for kidnapping and killing three Israeli youths in June, setting off a series of events that included the largest Israeli military operation in the West Bank in over a decade and the war in Gaza that killed over 2,000 Palestinians.
Before Mashal walked into the meeting, Abbas said outright, “Hamas kidnapped settlers in order to sabotage and strike at the project of the Palestinian Authority.” Yet when the matter came up with Mashal, the leader of Hamas insisted they were not behind the kidnapping, nor did they have any information regarding the status of the three Israeli youths, nor did they approve of any claim of responsibility. Israeli intelligence, the confession of one of the kidnappers and other reports in the case all point to a low-level group of ideologues in a Hamas-affiliated family as the perpetrators of the abduction, but no connection to the party’s leadership.