Jeddah, Asharq Al-Awsat— With Palestinian–Israeli relations already at a low point following the collapse of US-led peace talks earlier this year, and with a newfound unity between the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and Hamas still in its fragile early stages, the June 12 abduction of three Israeli teenagers could potentially cause disaster for Palestine.
The Palestinian Authority has since been treading a fine line, cooperating with the Israeli search for the teenagers while also having to appease a Palestinian population dissatisfied with the Authority’s cooperation with what many say is a full-on Israeli assault on Palestinian territory, as well as having to balance its recently restored relations with Hamas, which Israel has accused of being behind the kidnappings.
Here, Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki spoke of the Palestinians’ position on the security crisis surrounding the teenagers’ disappearance, as well as the latest workings of the new Fatah—Hamas unity government and the possibility of renewed peace talks with Israel in the future.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Has there been coordination between the Israeli and Palestinian security forces in the West Bank in the search for the three missing Israeli settlers?
Riyad Al-Maliki: Palestinian and Israeli security forces have had an ongoing relationship and have always cooperated, regardless of the case of the missing settlers. From the outset, we decided that security coordination with Israel would be in the best interests of Palestine, because it helps us maintain security within Palestine while also preventing Israeli intervention in security matters on our land.
With regard to the disappearance of the three Israelis, the whole world has seen how the Israeli government is trying to take advantage of this situation in order to undermine Palestinian achievements—particularly the unity accord [between Hamas and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority]. We will not allow Israel to exploit this issue in order to achieve political and security-related goals within Palestine. We don’t want this operation to drag on, because if it does Israel will be able to undercut us.
The faster this issue is resolved, the quicker we will be able to pull the rug from under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s feet . . . The Israeli justification for violent action towards Palestinians is that Palestinians love blood, murder and kidnapping. They believe we must be dealt with in the same way, with the same violence. But Israel is just trying to find an excuse to continue killing Palestinians, confiscating their land, building more settlements, deploying troops, destroying homes, and sending Palestinians to prison.
The issue of the missing settlers is a historic opportunity for Netanyahu, and he is using it to get out of his own political impasse; he was the only one who stood against the unity government, and now he’s using the kidnapping issue to point fingers at the reconciliation move and to pretend that negotiations have failed completely. Israel’s actions and attitude towards the reconciliation had resulted in its isolation on the international stage, and now it is exploiting the abduction to come out of this isolation. It has shifted from its position of defense and claims it has been attacked, reaffirming that Israel is in fact the victim of Palestinian aggression and barbarism. At any rate, we’re working hard to find the missing settlers.
Q: Do you agree with Israel’s claims that Hamas was behind the kidnapping?
No. The Israelis themselves have no evidence that Hamas was behind the abduction. In the absence of any evidence pointing to Hamas, there are three possible scenarios . . . The kidnapping could be a childish game that Israel is playing to seek attention. It could also be part of a game through which the Israelis are attempting to rebrand themselves as victims, rather than aggressors. Or the settlers could truly be kidnapped.
But the question remains: Who did the kidnapping in the first place? The abductors could be Jewish criminals or Palestinian criminals. It is possible that Jews carried out the kidnapping for their own purposes, or that Palestinians belonging to a certain faction did it for their interests as well.
We do not want to predict events, especially given that Hamas has not yet issued a statement confirming or denying their involvement in the kidnapping. For these reasons, we announced our full readiness to search for the three missing men so that the issue wouldn’t be exploited.
Q: Do you think that the search process will evolve into full-scale military operations within the Gaza Strip?
The Israelis are conducting a military intervention as we speak. They are invading all areas in the West Bank and Area A, including Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus and the villages surrounding these cities. Despite the fact that movement between these cities is already difficult, they have completely shut down any transport or movement of Palestinian civilians. There are hundreds of vehicles stuck between the Israeli checkpoints.
Israel has stated very clearly that they will make every Palestinian living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories suffer until the missing Israelis are found. It has certainly remained true to its word, through the additional deployment of thousands of Israelis. Those on reserve have been called on [to carry out] house demolitions and fire rockets on homes, which has resulted in the death of a Palestinian and injured children in Hebron. This is all a result of the Israelis unleashing hell on the Palestinians.
Q: If we could move on to the reconciliation deal: What point has the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas reached? Now that Rami Hamdallah has been named head of the unity government, what will the next steps be?
The reconciliation process is still ongoing. So far, we have progressed within the framework of the reconciliation agreement signed on April 23, 2014, to form a government of national unity. The international community has accepted the government, with the exception of Israel. Israel’s position does not concern us, given that many countries, including the United States and several European nations, have welcomed us. The government will meet every Tuesday to discuss issues related to the reconciliation, and for now it is dealing with many outstanding issues, including that of the Gaza Strip.
The primary responsibility of this government is reconstruction. It must deal with the basic needs of the Gaza Strip, lift the blockade and work on issues related to laborers and employees. These issues must be addressed in order to stabilize the situation and enable practical steps to be taken in order to help the Palestinians, especially in Gaza. They should feel the impact and consequences [of the reconciliation] on the ground.
Q: With the reconciliation, there have been big questions about who will pay the salaries of Hamas employees in the Gaza Strip. Will you be compensating them, despite the shortfalls in the budget?
Neither the Palestinian government nor Fatah agreed to pay the salaries of employees within the Hamas movement under the auspices of the agreement. The Palestinian government has remained committed to paying the salaries of its employees in the Gaza Strip since the 2007 coup. The idea that the salary crisis must be solved immediately by the unity government—an idea that surfaced the first day the government was put in place—reflects some unfriendly intentions. Despite all of this, we hope everyone can deal with this issue in a positive way, and even now there is an ongoing debate about this topic.
For our part, we believe that after signing the agreement, the Hamas government was dissolved. This means that the framework, ministers and staff of this government are no longer in place. How do we pay the salaries of employees who are no longer employed? How do we pay for the prime minister and other ministers when they no longer exist? This issue should also be addressed with the other topics that the unity agreement will attempt to amend, such as the security situation in the Gaza Strip. This issue, along with others, will take a great deal of time to solve and thus will be dealt with later. Even if we try to solve this issue now, there are many others that will require the same attention and immediacy of resolution. We would not be able to pay these salaries, given our financial situation. We’ve discussed this issue with many countries, especially those that have always sponsored the Hamas government in Gaza, such as Qatar. They have shown willingness to continue to pay their salaries until we find a solution to the topic as a whole. They have asked to push the money through the government, and discussions are currently taking place in order to carefully regulate this influx of finances.
Q: Have you agreed to take control over the Rafah crossing from Hamas?
This is an important issue. If we say that the unity government is the only government that represents the Palestinian people and the only government that works on Palestinian territory, then this government should have authority and control over all areas of the Palestinian territories, including the Rafah crossing. It is illogical to have a certain faction control the main crossings, such as the Rafah crossing that separates Palestine and Egypt. Such a crossing should be under the sovereignty of the state of Palestine, represented in the government.
For this reason, and through an agreement with the Egyptian government, the Rafah crossing must always remain open. This would demonstrate very clearly that this crossing is under the control of the Palestinian government set up by President Mahmoud Abbas as a result of an agreement signed on April 23 between Fatah, Hamas and other factions.
Q: Is coordination taking place with Egypt regarding the Rafah crossing?
There is a Palestinian delegation currently in Cairo to conduct discussions with our brothers in Egypt to ensure that the Rafah crossing will be opened permanently in order to move people to and from the Gaza Strip.
Q: Elections are meant to be held within six months of the announcement of the consensus government. Is there any news on when they will happen? Are preparations under way?
The agreement was that elections would take place within a period not exceeding six months from the time that the government was formed, and the time in which the government was formed must form the beginning of the six-month countdown. We hope to be able to conduct presidential and legislative elections before the completion of the allotted time, as this is a basic responsibility, alongside our obligation to build and reconstruct the Gaza Strip and provide services.
Q: What has happened regarding the peace talks sponsored by the United States between Palestinians and Israelis that has seen a two-month stalemate?
The talks are off for now, and they were supposed to end on April 29. The Israeli government was also supposed to release the fourth group of Palestinian prisoners before March 29, but they have stalled in this responsibility. And when we reviewed the matter with the US administration, which sponsored this agreement, we did not arrive at a solution. This came after Israel’s clear announcement that they were done negotiating with Palestinians, and this froze negotiations before they eventually ended.
Israel has refused to release the fourth group of Palestinian prisoners, and we signed international agreements [the accession treaties to a number of international organizations] because of this. Despite this fact, John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, has announced a waiting period to ascertain how we can return to the negotiating process after allowing him this opportunity. He wants to draw lessons from the information available in order to return to negotiations.
Q: Is it possible that negotiations will be resumed? Is the US pushing for their resumption?
At this time we do not know if we will return to the issue soon, whether the matter will require time, or whether the US is waiting for a stable centrism within Congress. All that we do know is that Kerry will be in Europe in the coming weeks and he hopes to meet with Palestinian officials.
Overall, negotiations have been suspended, and we are waiting for America’s move. The Palestinian leadership has said that it is prepared to extend the nine-month negotiating period on two conditions: first, that Israel’s previous commitments be implemented, including the release of the fourth group of 30 Palestinian prisoners. Second, we want to draw lessons from the past and ask that Israel present a map identifying their proposed borders before the start of the negotiating process, so that we can negotiate [with those borders as a starting point]. If we succeed in negotiating those borders within the specified period of time, we can begin to talk about the rest of the issues.
Israel until now has not accepted Palestinian offers, and thus the crisis remains. Israel has brought negotiations to a standstill and bears full responsibility for it. We have expressed openly that we have made the required preparations in accordance with our vision and await a move from the US.
Q: What happened with those international treaties? Does Palestine intend to continue pursuing membership?
This option is still available. We agreed with the US to postpone our accession to international conventions and treaties in exchange for the release of 103 Palestinian prisoners. We delayed joining these agreements until the prisoners were released, and Israel has released the first three groups of prisoners but has refused to release the fourth. After this, we began acceding to and signing international conventions and treaties. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, formed a national commission under the leadership of the Foreign Minister to carry out all work necessary for Palestine to join these institutions, and we have begun working on the issue. At the same time, and within our authority as a committee, we may submit proposals to the president regarding timing and the benefits of joining international institutions. It will be decided upon by the Palestinian leadership when they feel the time is right to join, and we have not written this option off. We have joined 25 conventions and treaties, and we will join as many as possible. We are just waiting for the right time to do so.
Q: Can you tell us how you are assisting Palestinian refugees living in Damascus’s Yarmouk camp?
There are 600,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria. A portion of them live in camps, while the rest live in other locations. They are now part of the conflict taking place in Syria in addition to the dispersal of the Syrian people across the world. The situation has turned into one of internal displacement in Syria.
What happened in the Yarmouk refugee camp is historically significant, as the camp is inhabited both by Palestinians and Syrians. Armed elements associated with Al-Qaeda entered the camp and clashed with the Syrian Army, which resulted in many deaths and injuries. We have communicated with the Syrian regime in order to ease the blockade on the camp and ensure access to humanitarian aid as well as to remove the sick and the elderly.
Whenever we attempt to carry out humanitarian operations like this one, armed elements intervene to thwart our efforts, and we certainly cannot talk with them. Our conversations took place with the Syrian opposition to accomplish what can be accomplished, and we have consistently been available to provide assistance, funds and humanitarian aid.