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TematicheMedio Oriente e Nord AfricaIsraeli-Palestinian Conflict: Interview with Fritz Froehlich, Development and humanitarian...

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Interview with Fritz Froehlich, Development and humanitarian consultant

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To better assess the current war between Israel and the Palestinian movement Hamas the Research Center Geopolitica.info has met Fritz Froehlich, an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with more than twenty years of work in international cooperation. His contribution to the humanitarian cause began in the Middle East, where he worked since 1989 with various international organisations and government agencies, including the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Occupied Territories, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, with a focus on the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

1.         How would you describe the current Palestinian situation and how it has evolved over the last 70 years/since 1948?

Currently, the situation is very complex because the Palestinians also have a problem with their political representation. Moreover, the occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank are divided, not only geographically, but also politically and de facto administratively. This division has existed since the legislative elections in Palestine in 2006. The international community insisted that the Palestinian National Authority again held democratic elections despite the tense political situation, and so it did, and the elections were monitored and confirmed by international observers. 

The result, however, did not please the West, because Hamas won, with more than 47% of the votes and Al Fatah (the main Palestine Liberation Organisation party, ed.) who was governing till then in Gaza and the West Bank came in second place. More than 300,000 new settlers have established themselves in the West Bank since the beginning of the peace process, and more than 120,000 have settled in occupied East Jerusalem since then. Therefore it is difficult to speak or perceive great progress in the peace process with its final status talks. Because, on paper, according to UN Security Council Resolution 242 and 338 the resolution of the conflict was supposed to be based on “Land for Peace”. Since the return of the PLO in 1994 to the Occupied Palestinian Territory it has also lost quite some standing with the Palestinian public, as evidenced also in the last weeks by the demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. There is despair, a people in despair because the peace process over the past 30 years has not brought them peace in actual terms their lives became much more difficult. This is the big difference. If we go back, historically, to the 1970s, we go back to the last big defensive war fought by Israel, the 1973 Yom Kippur War (the fourth Arab-Israeli conflict, ed.) where Israel was surprised by an Arab Coalition force. The problem is that in the years following the Peace Accords between Israel and Egypt, at the conclusion of the Kippur War, there was no progress for the Palestinian people living under Israeli occupation in Gaza West Bank and East Jerusalem. We had to wait for the first Palestinian Intifada in 1987 and the following political initiative by the United States and Europe which in the early 1990s led to the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 and the subsequent negotiations between Israel and the PLO that led to the Oslo Accords in 1993. 

For many of us observing the situation, the peace process began to fade away with the assassination of then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, who was shot by an extreme right-wing Israeli while holding a rally in defence of peace in Tel Aviv. With him, the leader of the Labour Party and a former general who oversaw Israel’s victory in the 1967 6-day war, was lost a leader who understood that in order to make peace, the two-state solution had to be maintained to ensure the security of Israel and its people.

2.         You were in Jerusalem in 1993 when Israeli PM Rabin and PLO President Arafat signed the Oslo Accords; in your opinion, how were they implemented and why, from many points of views, including Israelis and Palestinians, do you think that there are no longer the conditions to implement them?

It started from a multilateral process, launched by the United States with the Madrid Conference, supported by the European Union, a result of long negotiations, but also the product of a change in geopolitics. International attention, particularly after Rabin’s assassination, waned. Perhaps it was a mistake to conduct secret negotiations, parallel to the already officially conducted multilateral process. As many Palestinians and regional forces thought that the bilateral avenue was weaker, there were weaker results and multilateralism would have provided a stronger protection framework for the implementation of agreements. After Rabin’s assassination, it became difficult and slow to resume negotiations and to make progress on major issues, agreements were made on minor issues though initiatives were still supported by both the US and Europe. 

At the end of this decline, the result was the separation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip after the 2006 legislative elections. A long phase of the “peace process” started in 1996 when Benjamin Netanyahu was elected for the first time Prime Minister of Israel narrowly defeating Shimon Peres who ran for Labor. The ensuing period was overshadowed by numerous Palestinian suicide bombings which were carried out by several Palestinian groups e.g. Hamas and also Al Fatah, until the outbreak of the second Intifada in September of 2000. In July 2000 the Camp David Summit failed to produce a final peace agreement and on September 28th 2000 Ariel Sharon, then Likud Leader made a provocative visit with Likud party members to the Muslim holy site of the Al Aqsa compound of the Temple Mount in the old city of Jerusalem. 

This  provocation triggered the second Intifada, which also caused further divisions among the Palestinians.

3.         On 7 October 2023, Hamas attacked Israel on its own territory, with dramatic consequences, condemned by public opinion in much of the world. What was the reaction of the Palestinians? How representative is Hamas of the Palestinian people? Could you give us an insight into the social and political scene in Palestine?

The Hamas unprecedented terror attack came as a surprise to everyone, even within Palestine. I think that any details as well as the vicious brutality and the civilian carnage that unfolded must have also been a surprise for the Hamas Political Bureau members. As those members actually do not reside anymore in the Gaza Strip, but are mainly located outside, between Qatar and Turkey. A truly abhorrent militant terror campaign by the Izz el-Deen Al-Qassam Brigades (Hamas Military wing) together with Islamic Jihad fighters present in the occupied Gaza Strip. There is clear evidence that war crimes may have been committed by Hamas but also by Israel in its military responses.The United Nations Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory has been collecting and preserving evidence of war crimes committed by all sides since October 7, 2023. 

The total unpreparedness on the part of Israeli security, which was not ready for what happened will for sure be subject of internal Israeli investigations.

Especially as a high security wall (Israel-Gaza Barrier), fences, Contowers and electronic surveillance equipment was constructed from 2002 through 2021 to draw a fortified borderline between the Gaza Strip and Israel.  Particularly as in 2005 following the Israeli unilateral disengagement from the Gaza strip whereby 21 Israeli settlements were vacated and the Israeli army withdrew to the borderline. The Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip left either voluntarily being offered a financial compensation package in the tune of 200.000 USD or were evacuated by the Israeli Defence Forces under the specific disengagement implementation agreement negotiated by former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.  

The Palestinian people in general, and particularly in Amman and the West Bank, do not support all of Hamas’ agenda, what the people do share is the resistance to the occupation, the courage and determination they cannot see from the Palestinian National Authority or the PLO. The PLO and the Palestinian National Authority (State of Palestine) have worked hard to put forward a pacifist perspective, through various agreements, they have in cooperation with the international community and where necessary with Israel worked on development programs, setting up a public administration, developing a police force along with all components that are needed for statehood. These relationships and the agreements reached with Israel made the Palestinian National Authority (State of Palestine) highly dependent on international aid and the respective political approvals by donor countries. This has limited the independence of the Palestinian National Authority and feeds populistic public perceptions that it is working for a Western agenda and has been made an indirect instrument of the Israeli occupation.

We need to stress that since the so called 1993 Oslo Accords, the international community financed the Occupied Palestinian Territory with 50 billion dollars, but as the international community failed to request from both parties equally the full respect of International Law and International Human Rights Law, the globally highest per capita international aid package did not advance peace.

4.         What was the situation in Israel until the day before the Hamas attack?

Israel, until the day before the Hamas attack on 7 October 2023, was very divided as since April 2019 there were five legislative elections conducted. During 2023 there were mass demonstrations over months in the face of the government’s decision to change the composition of Israel’s Supreme Court in order to armour government action and with the aim of becoming ‘untouchable’. Benyamin Netanyahu is a divisive figure in Israel; his cabinet is characterised by figures with colonialist agendas in the Occupied Territories and nationalist extremists, with political aspirations aimed at the expulsion and elimination of the Palestinian people. This is proven by several publicly made statements by members of the government. In 2018 Israel also adopted the controversial “Nation-State Law” – which says that the right to exercise national self-determination is unique to the jewish people, it established that Hebrew is the official language despite the fact that over 20% of its population speaks Arabic as their mother tongue. Last but not least it established the jewish settlements as a national value to be encouraged, promoted and developed. 

The above obviously does not include a vision for two states nor does it provide an enabling environment to promote peace or at least co-existence. Following the attack on 7 October, the Israeli people were united in the idea that they had to respond and defend themselves and their country as a whole as they were under direct attack. Now it appears that there are once again divisions appearing. The relatives of the hostages are criticising the Prime Minister, accusing him of being guilty of the current terrible situation. Also a majority of Israelis believe that Benjamin Netanyahu bears a huge responsibility for what has evolved since 7th of October 2023. They find agreement only in the military response, as long as it works – but over the past 15 years, these responses have become each time more and more powerful, more and more inhumane, and more and more in violation of international law. This time too, we have reached a truly disastrous point, because almost 40% of the homes in the Gaza Strip have been destroyed or damaged by the bombings of the last two weeks, in addition to more than 8,000 Palestinian civilian deaths and nearly 20.000 injured civilians in the occupied Gaza Strip of which 40% are children and 20% are women (at the time of the interview, ed.). In the West Bank over 110 Palestinians were killed and hundreds are injured while over 1500 Palestinians were arrested. On the Israeli side there are nearly 1,500 deaths and over 4,400 civilians were injured. These deep wounds remain and are difficult to heal. It is clear that a military response that is disproportionate will make it even more difficult to move towards a long needed  clear political answer that needs to bring the parties back to the negotiating table. A ceasefire should not only be the pause or the window to bring some humanitarian assistance, it is needed to also take away irrational rage thus move out of the destructive psychology of vengeance.

Globally through the United Nations General Assembly as well as by the Security Council humanitarian and political agreements need to be shaped to address the situation adequately. The way forward needs to be more rational and needs to depart from the theological direction the conflict has adopted during the past two decades – if this persists we will not see peace for the next generations to come.

5.         Hamas started out as a political-religious movement and then acquired a military wing. What is the link between these two components?

It is difficult to say, they are separated geographically and part of their leadership is also in Israeli prisons and in the occupied West Bank. Part of the movement in exile provides money and is able to arrange for the transfer of weapons into the Strip. In Lebanon and in Iran there are also representatives. Hamas was established from a Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, one should not forget this connection. The military and security establishment  connections between Egypt and Israel, strangely enough, has apparently not helped Israel to anticipate this unprecedented and massive attack, despite the alarm bells being rung by the US and Egypt. Moreover, I find it hard not to think that Egypt might have known more, given that it has been responsible for controlling the import of goods  from Egypt into the Gaza Strip through the Rafah border for the past years. We also have to take into account that one of the prime objectives of Al-Sisi, the Egyptian President, is to control the jihadist Islamist groups in Sinai. 

The facts are that there was a massive scale of weapons transfer apparently from Egypt into the Gaza Strip. 

It is always complicated from the outside to identify which branch of Hamas  does what. But we know that since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the ensuing military confrontations Hamas has worked hard to increase its military capacities and this also included military training and on the ground training and involvement in various countries e.g. Syria, Lebanon, Iran,Iraq as they became part of the so called “axis of resistance” of Iranian backed groups in the Middle East according to various intelligence sources. We know that the political leadership of Hamas has restrictions to go to Egypt, there is no good relation between Egypt and Hamas. I think it is difficult to decipher what happened before 7 October, certainly it was an abhorrent shock also for military and intelligence organisations that are internationally cooperating to fight terror.  I am aware like many observers  that the fear in the Palestinian streets has increased in recent times: up to the day of the 7 October attack, there had been 250 Palestinian casualties in 2023, this definitely has led to building up up anger as the Palestinian National Authority (State of Palestine) did very little to stop this according to public perceptions. There has been an increase in Israeli oppression of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. We might speculate that the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War was symbolically planned, not a coincidence. Also the aggressive statements by some members of the Israeli government in recent months about the possibility of accelerating Israeli expansion  into the Occupied West Bank has contributed to trigger the attack.

6.         Why did the Geneva Initiative Accord, the peace proposal to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which envisaged the creation of a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and the recognition of the state of Israel, never materialise?

Perhaps it came too late, because Ariel Sharon, then Prime Minister, already had other problems. The Geneva Initiative agreement was secretly prepared for 2-3 years between various Palestinian and Israeli negotiators, including some of the previous negotiators of the Oslo Accords, such as the then PLO Executive Committee Secretary General Yasser Abd Rabbo, who had Yasser Arafat’s placet to continue negotiations on this specific second track initiative. The results were very good as there was a kind of blue print at hand on many issues and there was backing by a large part of the security establishment. Ariel Sharon did not accept the decisions that had been rigorously proposed along the know parameters from 2 peoples two states as he saw this as a Labor Party attack while the Israeli Labor Party especially Ehud Barak was apparently angry as the document proved him wrong with his involvement in the last negotiations held in Taba and Camp David.

Perhaps the mistake was made by not launching a significant political communication campaign to explain in depth to the Israeli and Palestinian public what is contained in the 50-pages agreement before releasing the overall document. Let’s face it, hardly anyone in the public read this document in detail, only a few did. Probably all those who criticised it did so because it did not answer the two main questions. As Jerusalem and refugees are such contested terrain, it would have been appropriate to state publicly that they still need to be negotiated and finalised by both sides in the conflict.

The first issue concerned Jerusalem as capital for both Palestinians and Israelis, perhaps the most divisive topic from many perspectives  for a section of Israeli and Palestinian politics.  

Second issue, Palestinian refugees. What do we do with these over 5 million registered refugees? How can their rights be satisfied – these are individual rights thus there was always a question of representation. 

There was no reference to a compensation or reparation choice for all the losses Palestinian refugees had and for the suffering they endured from 1948 until that day. Later, in 2009, there was the last version of the Agreement as additional papers and discussions, referred to the 2 issues but I would say it was politically too late. Things had moved on without progress and the international community also began to lose hope and interest.

Both Israel and the International community, not taking into account sociological aspects of a conflict, continued to believe they can either control or manage the conflict which remains an illusion. What is needed is a political solution – best one that is negotiated between the parties concerned.

7.         From Biden to Xi Jin Ping, from the European Union to Putin, everyone argues that the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is 2 peoples 2 states. What do you think are the realistically viable options?

If we talk about 2 states, I think we should go back to the 1960s in Algeria: do people believe that one cannot leave an occupied territory? In Algeria more than a million French people had to leave. We are talking about a long and terrible history of occupation, colonialism that lasted for more than 130 years.

Perhaps what has happened lately, in the last 20 years, after the 1990s, is the product of a theocratic phase in Israels but also the Palestinian politics and beyond in the Middle East region. This makes it  even much more difficult to find solutions to the conflict. I believe it is still possible, if very creative or drastic decisions are taken. This means putting in place a sustainable plan, implemented over many years so that the settlers can leave the West Bank. A similar approach on a much smaller scale with lease agreements was concluded between Israel and Jordan in the Jordan valley. We could imagine connecting Gaza and the West Bank, by means of a toll road or a tunnel and there are enough international examples and practices on how to guarantee security for such solutions. One could also further develop the hypothesis of a confederation between the two states to share resources in a balanced manner. One Democratic state could also be considered. It is important that many progressive ideas for solutions are at least once again discussed and thought through as this would open new avenues as opposed to petrified dogmatic approaches where we continuously are dealing with “red tape”.

Demographically, the Palestinians, between Israel, the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, are already having a slight majority. Demographically, the population of the Gaza Strip doubles every 15 years: this would mean that in 30 years, the Palestinians by today’s statistical parameters would represent 70% of the population of the entire territory.

This could mean that a Confederation model with fair shares of resources for each population group might need to be discussed in much more depth and breadth.

Europe seems to ignore several issues and is politically divided – fact is that during the past decade  due to the war in Syria and the social-economic political context in Lebanon nearly 400.000 Palestine refugees left Syria and Lebanon towards Europe where they are so-called second tier refugees. Should the EU not better handle the political challenges in its own neighbourhood countries it might just face more influx of refugees, might face more security and economic challenges.

8.             Many international analysts do not simply explain the timing of the Hamas attack on Israel and the return to open conflict without situating it in the context of ongoing regional developments (cf. expansion of the Abrahamic Accords). Do you think Iran played an instrumental role in the Hamas attack precisely in view of the acceleration of normalisation between Israel and the Arab world, also supported by the United States?

Iran provides some assistance to the Gaza Strip, in Lebanon and beyond  support to Hamas is provided in different ways e.g. training, logistics,finance, and arms. This involvement is not only limited to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also extends to other countries and also includes other groups such as Hezbollah. Regarding the recent Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7, I assume we can say with some certainty that the decision was also a political decision to disturb, reverse  or stop the acceleration of the normalisation of relations between Israel and the Arab world. Particularly with the expansion of the Abrahamic Accords through the entry of Saudi Arabia this summer into the agreements. One needs to position in this circle also the recent Chinese efforts to position itself in the region most prominent the mediation efforts for Saudi Arabia and Iran. In my opinion, Iran’s involvement in the conflict at the moment is nearly improbable as there are several indications that it has no interest for the time being. 

Hezbollah has for the time been involved in a tit for tat exchange on the southern border of Lebanon with some involvement of Palestinian Hamas members that are present in the Palestinian Refugee camps in Lebanon. It is essential to keep in mind that Iran is currently in the grip of a significant internal crisis, as is Egypt from both economic and security perspectives. Given the unstable regional context, entering the conflict would only further worsen these countries’ internal crises. However considering Iran’s more holistic political approach in the region I assume that they have interest in this conflict as the expansion of the Abrahamic Accords represents an unacceptable and dangerous scenario for them, as it marks a rapprochement of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries toward Israel, as well as creating closer ties with the United States.

9.      In terms of international actors, Egypt, the quintessential mediator, seems to face the resurgence of this conflict with a new weakness and credibility to reaffirm. What is Cairo’s regional clout? Does Al-Sisi still have what it takes to foster dialogue between the two sides?

Egypt for decades played an important role as a mediator in the conflict but as early as 2013, after Al-Sisi’s coup, it showed an imbalance toward Israel, moving closer and closer to Tel Aviv. The two countries actively cooperate in controlling the Gaza Strip, the Rafah border, and countering Islamists from Hamas, Islamic jihadists and the Muslim Brotherhood. Currently, Al-Sisi is facing internal problems due to a significant economic and security crisis in his country. Important to note is that Cairo hosts the headquarters of the League of Arab States, giving Egypt a prominent role in regional diplomacy. In this context, Al-Sisi is committed to reaffirming his international credibility, also in view of the upcoming elections at the end of this year, from which he wishes to gain a third term. His position as a mediator in the conflict offers him an opportunity to present himself as a reliable partner vis-à-vis the United States. It should not be forgotten that Egypt receives military assistance and armaments from the U.S., like Jordan, thus also acting also as a buffer for  Israel’s security in the region.

10.   Hezbollah is ideologically close to Hamas but at the same time their leader Nasrallah does not want to go down in history as “the destroyer of Lebanon” by plunging his country, already in a dramatic socio-economic situation, into a full-scale war. Can Lebanon become a new actor in the crisis? Can the war between Israel and Hamas expand to a new front?

On the 30th October 2023 (at the time of the interview), Hezbollah and Hamas coordinated certain issues but as said earlier Iran does not look for being dragged into a larger conflict.

It appears Iran has adopted a public communication that is more radical while it appears to have advised the groups they support in the Middle East not to escalate recall that Hezbollah does not act autonomously in the region; its army is equipped and trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guardians and obeys Tehran’s strategic choices. Moreover, there is significant disapproval from the Lebanese population about these military operations. In recent months, the Lebanese had the feeling that Hezbollah wanted above all to gain space in the national debate and the party had given the green light to an agreement with Israel on maritime borders.

Lebanon is still deeply scarred by the 2006 war and, seventeen years later, is in a tragic socio economic situation coupled with deep political divisions on sectarian ground. The country is experiencing an unprecedented crisis where many observers believe that we already see elements of a failed state. In addition, the country hosts a huge number of refugees, both Palestinians and Syrians, adding further pressure to its unstable internal situation.

As the Israeli war on Gaza continues we need to observe the various developments closely to understand what will come next.  

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