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2009-10-08

Palestinian President Abbas Faces Uproar for Aiding US-Israeli Derailment of UN Report on Gaza Assault

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Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University. He is the author of several books, including Sowing Crisis: American Dominance and the Cold War in the Middle East and The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood.

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Palestinian outrage continues over the Palestinian Authority’s decision to back the postponement of a Human Rights Council vote on the Goldstone investigation into Israel’s assault on Gaza. The move reportedly came after heavy American and Israeli pressure. We speak with Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Security Council has rejected Libya’s request to hold an emergency session on South African Judge Richard Goldstone’s recently released report on Israel’s three-week war on Gaza last winter. Instead, the Council has agreed to advance a regular meeting to address the issues it raises.

The 575-page report by the United Nations fact-finding mission accuses Israel of war crimes and deliberately targeting civilians in Gaza. It also accuses Hamas of indiscriminate rocket fire. The report urges that the UN Security Council refer allegations to the International Criminal Court if either side fails to investigate and prosecute suspects. Some 1,400 Palestinians and thirteen Israelis were killed during the war on Gaza.

Meanwhile, outrage among Palestinians continues to rise over Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to withdraw support for further action in regard to the Goldstone investigation. Last week, Abbas backed the postponement of a vote by the Human Rights Council to send the report to the Security Council for possible action. The decision reportedly came after heavy American and Israeli pressure.

This is Gaza resident Najma Abbas.

    NAJMA ABBAS: [translated] We have rights, and we demand to have them, despite those who disagree. The European countries agreed and were willing to sign on. How is it possible that our own flesh and blood refused?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Bill Van Esveld of Human Rights Watch criticized the Obama administration’s actions regarding the Goldstone report.

    BILL VAN ESVELD: Due to American pressure, strong pressure from Washington, the Palestinians have withdrawn their request that the UN act on the Goldstone report. What the US has effectively done is sent a strong signal that Israel doesn’t need to investigate itself, because that was the recommendation of the Goldstone report.

JUAN GONZALEZ: After six days of protests, a senior Abbas adviser told the Voice of Palestine radio Wednesday that, quote, "What happened is a mistake, but (it) can be repaired."

Well, for more on the report and the Palestinian Authority’s decision, I’m joined now here in the firehouse studio by Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi. He is the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Sowing Crisis: American Dominance and the Cold War in the Middle East and The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

RASHID KHALIDI: Thank you, Juan.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, the reaction over the past week in the Palestinian — in the Occupied Territories, as well as in the Middle East in general? Have you seen anything like this in the past in regard to the Palestinian Authority leadership?

RASHID KHALIDI: I actually haven’t. This is unprecedented. You have a wide range of calls, not only condemning what Mahmoud Abbas, Abu Mazen, did in instructing his representatives in Geneva to call for postponement of consideration of the Goldstone report, but we’re now hearing calls for the President’s resignation. These are not just coming from Hamas or the usual quarters. They seem to be coming from a very broad range of civil society groups, even members of the President’s own political party, Fatah.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of the prospects of that happening — I mean, obviously, in Gaza there have been posters up now —-

RASHID KHALIDI: Right.

JUAN GONZALEZ: —- in the streets in recent days calling Mahmoud Abbas a traitor. But the prospects of any change in leadership, from your perspective?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, I think he’s definitely been weakened by this. There’s no question that Israel and the United States twisted their pliable client, if you want to call him that, much more than they had any reason to, in terms of what the traffic would bear, what his popularity and his legitimacy, which were very, very limited to begin with, would sustain. And the backlash has really been quite ferocious. I can’t remember seeing anything like this. I think he’s wounded. I think he’s quite severely wounded.

Whether it will lead to a change or not, I don’t know. This comes at a time when there are efforts to bring about another reconciliation meeting between Fatah and Hamas, and it’s hard to say how this might play into it. There are a number of Arab countries that seem to be pushing hard in that direction. His being weakened in this circumstance may have an effect on that.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, the report itself was rejected by Israel and was criticized by US officials. But what specifically did it recommend?

RASHID KHALIDI: It simply recommended that both the Palestinian Authority and Israel investigate the allegations that the Goldstone committee looked at: allegations of war crimes, allegations, in some cases, of crimes against humanity, by Israel, primarily, but also by Hamas. So it simply called for these two sides to investigate and then for the Human Rights Council in Geneva to refer the results of that, if needed, to the Security Council.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now the Palestinian Authority — at least in the last day or so, a couple of spokespeople have said that “this was a mistake, we’re reconsidering it.” But what do you expect will happen at the Security Council now?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, I don’t expect very much to happen in the Security Council, frankly. It’s now been postponed to a regular meeting of the Security Council, which was scheduled to discuss the Middle East and which has, I guess, been moved up ’til next week — to next week, so it will be brought before the council presumably next week. I don’t see the United States changing its position of 360-degree support for Israel.

The problem here is that they are losing their ally in Ramallah, and they’re acceding to having it even considered yesterday by the council. And considering moving up the meeting, I think, is a recognition of the fact that they’ve already done themselves some harm in Washington.

The interesting things are happening in Palestine now, I think. I think that the idea that a Palestinian leader would prevent an international body from even considering a report, which condemns both Hamas, but primarily Israel, is horrific to most Palestinians and most people in the Arab world. The satellite TV stations are focusing on this to a very high degree, and the outrage is really quite palpable, and from one end of the spectrum to the other.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, this all comes as the US envoy George Mitchell is preparing for — will be arriving in the Middle East again —-

RASHID KHALIDI: Yet again.

JUAN GONZALEZ: —- yet again —-

RASHID KHALIDI: Yet again.

JUAN GONZALEZ: —- to attempt another round of negotiations for a peace settlement. Your sense of how this will affect the ability of the Palestinian Authority to have any leverage in those discussions?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, the Israelis have delivered yet another slap in the face to Senator Mitchell and to the Obama administration. This has been their habit for decades. Every time an American envoy comes, a new settlement is opened or some outrageous statement is made.

The Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has basically said, “There’s not going to be a deal. There won’t be peace with the Palestinians. We just have to manage this conflict,” and something along those lines, in effect saying there’s no point.

So I think that you have an Israeli government that seems to be hardening its position, and in particular with the actions that the government is taking in Jerusalem, where there’s a very high level of tension over subterranean excavations by the Israeli Antiquities Authority, which is increasingly being infiltrated by extremist settler groups, where there have been home demolitions and expulsions of people from their homes and expansion of new settlements. The Israelis are, in effect, staking a very tough position out, ahead of any talks that Mitchell might be able to start.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And how do you expect Mitchell to function in light of the fact that the — at least Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have made it clear —-

RASHID KHALIDI: Right.

JUAN GONZALEZ: —- precondition of real negotiations is a halt to the settlement expansions?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, they’ve announced a number of measures involving new tenders for housing and settlements, new building in Jerusalem, which the Netanyahu government says is excluded from any ban even if there were to be one, such that the question now will be, who is going to back down? Will Mahmoud Abbas, who’s, as I think everybody agrees, been significantly weakened by his own mistakes in this Goldstone matter — is he going to be able to back down further on this issue and say, “Sure, we’ll talk with you about dividing the pie, while you continue to eat it up”? He’s in a much, much, much more difficult position. Will the Obama administration continue to back down in the face of Israeli intransigence? I don’t know.

JUAN GONZALEZ: There have also been some reports in the Arab press of some — pointing to a possible corruption situation with Mahmoud Abbas’s son and a cell phone company that —

RASHID KHALIDI: Yeah.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you talk about that?

RASHID KHALIDI: Sure. One element of the blackmail, which reportedly has been exercised by the Israelis on the Palestinian Authority in order to persuade them not to go forward with consideration of the Goldstone report in Geneva, was a denial of the granting of a license to a second Palestinian cell phone company in the Occupied Territories.

The situation now is that there’s one Palestinian company, not allowed to build cell phone towers in over 60 percent of the West Bank, and a [inaudible], four or five, I think, or six Israeli companies, which build, all over the West Bank, cell phone towers. And so, you basically can’t get decent reception. What the Palestinian Authority had been asking for was to have the right to build in occupied Palestine another set of cell phone towers, so that, A, there could be competition, and B, there could be better coverage.

Now, the corruption angle has to do with the apparent fact that Mahmoud Abbas’s son is involved with that second company. The bigger issue, of course, is the Israelis denying this extension of cell bandwidth and denial of permission to build, and thereby strangling the Palestinian economy. Cell phones are really crucial, given the fragmentation of territory caused by the way the occupation functions in the West Bank.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Rashid Khalidi, professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University, I want to thank you for being with us.

RASHID KHALIDI: Thanks, Juan.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And we’ll be continuing to cover this story in the future.

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