By Ramzy Baroud

On 18 November, just days before the fiftieth anniversary of United Nations Resolution 242, the US State Department took its first step towards severing its ties with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

The timing of this decision could not be any more profound.

The first formal contact between the US and the PLO occurred in mid-December, 1988, when US Ambassador to Tunisia, Robert H. Pelletreau Jr., picked up the phone to call the PLO headquarters in Tunis to schedule formal talks.

Palestinian PLO officials were 'elated' by the fact that the US made the first move, as reported by the New York Times.

This assertion, however, is quite misleading. For over a decade prior to that 'first move', PLO's chairman, Yasser Arafat, had to satisfy many US demands in exchange for this low-level political engagement.

The 'talks' in Tunisia were prolonged, before the PLO was ready to make its final concession in secret meetings in Oslo, Norway in 1993.

Eventually, a PLO office was opened in Washington DC. It served little purpose, aside from being an intermittent platform to arrange Washington-sponsored talks between Israeli and PLO officials. For Palestinians living in the US, it was almost invisible until the US announced its decision to possibly shut it down.

The American threat followed a United Nations speech last September by Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Chairman of the PLO. From an Israeli-US perspective, Abbas committed a mortal sin for seeking the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to take Israel to task regarding its human rights violations in Occupied Palestine.

By doing so, Abbas, not only violated a peculiar US law that forbids the PLO from seeking ICC help, but also an unspoken rule that allowed the US to engage the PLO in 1988, where the US served the rule of the political and legal frame of reference for the so-called ‘peace process.’ The UN took a backseat.

But even that unequal relationship proved too much for the US government, which is moving fully and unconditionally into the Israeli camp. The Trump Administration is now working to rewrite the nature of US involvement in the Middle East, and, especially, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Unfortunately, Trump’s team has no concrete strategy and no frame of reference, aiming to change 50-years of US foreign policy – unfair to Palestinians and Arabs – but has no alternative plan of its own.

Almost a year ago, Trump made a promise to Israel to be a more trustworthy ally than President Barack Obama, who gave Israel more money than any other US president in history. Obama, however, had violated a golden rule in the US-Israeli relationship: he did not veto a UN resolution that condemned the illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian territories.

Israel panicked at that unprecedented event, not because it feared that the UN Security Council would enforce its purportedly binding resolution, but because the US had, for once, refused to shield Israel from international censure.

Even before officially taking over the White House, the Trump team attempted to prevent UNSC Resolution 2334 from passing. It failed but, come January, it took over the Israeli-Palestinian file with a vengeance, threatening to cut off funds to Palestinians, blocking their efforts from expanding their international reach, and declaring its full and unconditional support for the rightwing government of Benjamin Netanyahu.

But there was more to Israeli alarm at Resolution 2334 than mere US betrayal. This Resolution - which asserted that Israeli settlements have no legal validity and constitute a flagrant violation of human rights – was partly predicated on, and clarified and added to, previous UNSC Resolution 242.

This means that 50 years of incessant Israeli attempts to absolve itself from any commitment to international law have failed miserably.

For Palestinians, and the larger Arab context, Resolution 242 marked their defeat in the war of 1967. Unsurprisingly, this Resolution has been cited in various agreements between Israel and the PLO, but only to give these agreements a veneer of international legitimacy.

However, the Oslo Accords of 1993 gave Israel the opportunity to use its leverage to bypass international law altogether: signing a peace agreement without ending its military occupation became the goal.

Against this backdrop, it is no wonder that Netanyahu was quite shocked to witness that a recommitment to Resolution 242 last year at the UNSC did not garner US opposition. Actually, the longstanding Resolution gained more substance and vigor.

The June 1967 war was Israel's greatest military victory, and Resolution 242 enshrined a whole new world order in the Middle East, in which the US and Israel reigned supreme. Although it called for withdrawal of Israeli military from Occupied Palestinian and Arab lands, it also paved the way for normalization between Israel and the Arabs. The Camp David Agreement between Egypt and Israel was a direct outcome of that Resolution.

This is why Resolution 2334 has alarmed Israel, for it invalidated all the physical changes that Israel has made in 50 years of illegal occupation of Palestinian lands.

The Resolution called for "two democratic States, Israel and Palestine, liv(ing) side by side in peace within secure and recognized borders".

Unlike Resolution 242, Resolution 2334 has left no room for clever misinterpretation: it references the pre-June 1967 lines in its annulment of the Israeli occupation and all the illegal settlements Israel has constructed since then.

The Resolution even cites the Fourth Geneva Convention, the UN Charter and the International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion of July 2004, which stated that Israel’s barrier in the West Bank was illegal and should be dismantled.

With international law, once more, taking center stage in a conflict which the US has long designated as if its personal business, Abbas was empowered enough to reach out to the ICC, thus raising the ire of Israel and its allies in the White House.

Even if the PLO’s office is permanently shut down, the decision should not just be seen as punishing Palestinians for seeking ICC support but, ultimately, as the culmination of disastrous US diplomacy, for which the Trump Administration has no clear alternative.

- Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His forthcoming book is ‘The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story’ (Pluto Press, London). Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, University of California Santa Barbara. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

The 29 March decision by the administration of US president Donald Trump declaring Somalia an ‘area of active hostility’ will likely ensure an escalation of this already-brutal conflict, with possibly dire consequences for Somalis and the East African region. The declaration, consistent with Trump’s intensification of US military operations in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, and his expressed determination to work with dictatorial regimes in Syria and Egypt, will result in more civilian deaths, engendering further anger over US actions in the region. Somali rebel group al-Shabab will likely point to US actions as an exemple of the Somali government’s willingness to allow international powers influence over Somali politics, and its complicity in civilian casualties, thus hoping to increase support for the movement.

Although US operations in Somalia have been ongoing since 2001, and despite the fact that the USA actively assisted Ethiopian troops in 2006, previous US administrations regarded al-Shabab as a domestic militant group that did not pose a direct military threat to the USA. The Trump decision alters this posture, decreasing the checks and balances required before airstrikes and combat operations in Somalia, and increasing the number of possible targets. Oversight for operations now resides with the Pentagon and operational commanders, and targets no longer require to pose a direct threat to the USA for operations to be executed. Consequently, the already-dubious conditions concerning collateral damage and civilian deaths have also been reduced. Already in 2016, the Obama administration relaxed the 2013 presidential guidance policy on targets in Somalia, allowing US forces to provide support to the AU-UN AMISOM forces, whose mandate included offensive targeting of Shabab combatants. Further, the USA despatched between 200 and 300 special forces to the country and currently operates a temporary base at Mogadishu airport.

While cognisant of threats posed by non-state actors, previously US administrations were reticent to expand operations beyond areas of direct combat. Although the US Congress is, constitutionally, the only US institution vested with the authority to declare war, the 1973 congressional War Powers Resolution altered this power, allowing the president to initiate an active war, but stipulating that authorisation for the use of military force (AUMF) needed to be sought from Congress within ninety days. Obama and Trump have relied on AUMF resolutions from 2001 and 2002 regarding Afghanistan and Iraq to pursue groups such as al-Shabab and the Islamic State group (IS). This despite the fact that these groups came into being only years after the AUMF and, in the cases of al-Shabab (Somalia) and Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP; Yemen), operate in a different geographical area from Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the heart of Trump’s intensified focus on Somalia are two key factors. First, confronting Islamist militancy is a key cog of his declared foreign policy and was one of few constants throughout his presidential campaign. Thus, he has increased troop deployments to Syria, expanded operations in Yemen and Somalia, and expressed a willingness to cooperate with US opponents such as Bashar al-Asad. Unlike Obama, Trump is willing to relax US laws on combat and human rights compliance; in January, an airstrike in Yemen’s Bayda region resulted in the deaths of thirty civilians, and realised ‘no actionable intelligence’ on AQAP.

In addition, many observers have cautioned against the resurgence of al-Shabab. In recent months the group has regained many towns in southern and central Somalia, including, briefly, the port city of Merca in February 2016, and intensified insurgent operations on AMISOM troops. AMISOM has become battle fatigued, and troop contributors have either pulled out forces (in the case of Ethiopia) or publicly announced their intentions to do so (in the cases of Burundi, Uganda, Djibouti and Kenya); and the Somali National Army has been unable to enhance its operational capacity. Obama and Trump both see an intensified response as a means of combating al-Shabab and assisting AMISOM. Notably, AMISOM has somewhat degraded al-Shabab’s capabilities, and although the group is resurgent, its real strength is being exaggerated.

The US intensification is unlikely to provide a lasting solution, and will give al-Shabab a popularly-acceptable reason for its opposition to the regime. Already the group adeptly instrumentalises its transcendence of clan politics to act as a mediator and increase its appeal. Moreover, many in central and southern Somalia see the group as providing services, and as being less corrupt and beholden to regional and international interests when compared to the regime. Further, the February appointment of Mohamed Abdullahi ‘Farmajo’ Mohamed as the country’s new president, on a nationalist platform, is an indication of how many Somalis, especially from parts of the tribal and clan elite, view outside influence in the country’s politics.

Farmajo’s victory provides a new opportunity to revitalise Somalia’s political institutions. His stance against corruption and previous steps when he was prime minister in 2011 augur well in this regard. More importantly, he will need to undertake a process of nation building and local reconciliation; the process of individual amnesty for previous al-Shabab operatives needs to be expanded. International powers will do well to support this process, especially since AMISOM is beginning to draw down its troops because of funding and domestic factors in contributing countries. With al-Shabab gaining territory in southern and central Somalia, and with ten years of only limited success from the deployment of AMISOM forces, a more local political solution needs to be formulated to counter al-Shabab’s continued endurance.

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