Without fanfare, Palestinian arch-rivals Fatah and Hamas announced last week that they intended to set aside years of power struggles to begin in earnest the process of forming a unity government.
Palestinian officials said a disastrous international arena had underlined to both factions the pressing need to end divisions between the West Bank and Gaza. The statement was issued as a peace summit in Paris fizzled out ineffectually and Donald Trump prepared to enter the White House. Unity – if it finally comes – will reflect not a shared vision nor strategy, but a reluctant admission of the dire conditions facing Palestinian struggle over the next four years.
The warning signs for Hamas intensified this month, as winter deepened, with mass protests in Gaza over electricity shortages. Donations from Turkey and Qatar, combined with a crackdown from local security services, bought a little quiet. But the enclave is simmering and in desperate need of relief from the decade-long throttling of Israel’s siege.
Over in the West Bank, Mahmoud Abbas is faring little better. He has invested his credibility in diplomacy. But the signs suggest that a Trump administration will not tolerate Palestinian moves at international forums such as the United Nations.
Mr Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has declared his support for Israel’s illegal settlements. And the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, another donor to settler causes, is to be Middle East envoy. During the inauguration ceremony on Friday, Mr Trump enthused improbably about Mr Kushner: “If you can’t produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can.” All this has occurred against a drum beat of intent to move the United States embassy to occupied Jerusalem, threatening to inflame Muslim and Arab opinion.
The one tangible hope for Palestinians, a French-hosted peace summit, proved a damp squib. Foreign ministers were chiefly concerned about not starting off on the wrong foot with the incoming Trump administration. Britain exemplified this approach, blocking European Union efforts to adopt the summit’s tepid conclusions. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu shrugged off the summit as the “last gasp of the past before the future sets in”.
Israel has lost no time in preparing for the future, one in which peace talks and a two-state solution look obsolete. The new order is being crafted at Amona, a small settlement the courts have ruled is in violation of Israel’s own laws because it is built on privately owned Palestinian land. All settlements are illegal according to international law.
Faced with this impediment, the Israeli government is furiously devising new military regulations that would empower the settlers to seize more West Bank land from Palestinians and end legal oversight.
Separately, ministers are rallying behind legislation to annex Ma’ale Adumim, a large settlement east of Jerusalem in a strategically vital location in the West Bank. If approved, this would be Israel’s first formal annexation of territory since the Golan 35 years ago.
Ma’ale Adumim’s municipal borders include an area known as E1 that Israel has been quietly trying to settle for years. Until now, the US and Europe have vehemently opposed any development there, warning that it would strike a double blow against prospects for peace. It would complete East Jerusalem’s encirclement with settlements and effectively split the West Bank in two.
Exploiting the change of mood in Washington, however, Naftali Bennett, the education minister and leader of the settlers’ Jewish Home party, has pushed annexation of Ma’ale Adumim to the top of Israel’s agenda, as a prelude to seizing other parts of the West Bank.
So futile does the case for Palestinian statehood seem in Israel that even prominent liberals, such as the writer A B Yeshoshua, have come out in hesitant support of annexation. Mr Yehoshua has argued for annexing so-called Area C – some two-thirds of the West Bank – on supposedly “humanitarian” grounds. A change of status, he says, would entitle its 150,000 Palestinian residents to more rights than they have now, without threatening Israel’s Jewish majority.
The annexation trend was underscored by a little-noticed law passed last week by the Israeli parliament. For the first time, the rulings of Israel’s military courts against Palestinians will be admissible in Israel’s civilian courts. Ostensibly the measure is designed to assist settlers who wish to sue Palestinians for damages in Israeli courts by allowing them to rely on the verdicts of West Bank military courts.
Aside from issues of justice – military courts operate on low levels of evidence, accept secret information from the army, and have high conviction rates – the new law blurs the existing separation between the legal systems of Israel and the West Bank. It is further evidence of a creeping process of incorporating the West Bank into Israel.
Those few “relics” who object are being purged. Israel’s deputy attorney general, Dana Zilber, was this month stripped of her authority over law enforcement in the West Bank after attempts to rein in the settlers. The readying of the infrastructure of annexation will only accelerate under the blind eye of a Trump administration. Palestinians will need more than grudging unity to withstand the birth of the new order.
Jonathan Cook is an independent journalist in Nazareth