The Palestinians are ready for statehood, according to a report to be presented to major aid donor countries in Brussels this week by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
He will present facts and figures to show how his Palestinian Authority has used hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign assistance over the past two years to create justice, education, energy, health, water, security and housing services.
|Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad pauses during a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah April 14, 2011. Fayyad briefed the media about the outcome of his meeting with representatives from donor countries in Brussels on Wednesday, where he said major organisations had endorsed his efforts to create an independent Palestinian state. REUTERS|
But he underlines that unless Israel's military occupation comes to an end, these accomplishments can only achieve so much.
"Without a change to the status quo, the positive impact of internal reforms to build a strong and healthy economy will be limited in both scope and sustainability," the report says.
Palestinian leaders aim to ask the United Nations General Assembly in September for recognition of statehood on all of the territory Israel occupied in 1967, including Gaza — over which Fayyad and President Mahmoud Abbas have no control.
Israel has warned that such unilateral moves are not a substitute for a Middle East peace treaty that would establish a Palestinian state by mutual consent.
"Palestinians seek to go to an international forum and avoid peace negotiations," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told EU diplomats on Monday. "It pushes peace further back."
But the Palestinian leadership is plowing ahead with clear signs of international encouragement. The number of countries that recognize Palestine as a state has risen this year to 110, more than half the membership of the United Nations.
The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund last week praised the performance of the PA, saying in separate reports that it was well-positioned to run an independent nation.
Fayyad said his government had connected all Palestinian residential areas, including remote ones, to the electricity grid, and paved and fixed 1,400 miles of streets.
While they make up two parts of the same future state in theory, Gaza and the West Bank have never been more divided, politically and geographically.
But the Israeli occupation, says the report, remains the "most significant challenge to economic development in Palestine."
"Restrictions on movement and access, as well as lack of control over borders and natural resources, continue to be real barriers to the growth of the economy."
Palestinians administer their own affairs in islands of land in a West Bank landscape peppered with Jewish settlements. They have no access to some 60 percent of West Bank land.
"Lack of access to natural resources for example, including land and water, severely constrains any sustainable progress throughout the economy," the report says.
Meanwhile, two months since the ouster of longstanding president Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's new transitional government is turning its attention to unpopular Mubarak-era foreign policies — with the ongoing Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip top of the list.
"There are strong indications that Egypt's approach to the Gaza Strip will change as Egyptian foreign policy increasingly comes into line with popular opinion following the January 25 Revolution," Tarek Fahmi, political science professor at Cairo University, told IPS.
In 2006, Israel sealed its border with the Gaza Strip after resistance movement Hamas swept democratically-held Palestinian legislative elections. One year later, after Hamas seized control of the coastal enclave from the U.S.-backed Fatah movement, Egypt closed the Rafah terminal — the only crossing along its 14-kilometer border with Gaza — to human and commercial traffic.
The blockade, now entering its fifth year, has hermetically sealed the territory off from the rest of the world, depriving Gaza's roughly 1.8 million inhabitants of many basic commodities and humanitarian supplies. Following Egypt's recent revolution, the Rafah crossing was opened up to Palestinian students, medical patients and expatriates. However, construction materials — especially cement — remain banned from being taken to Gaza from either Israel or Egypt.
Ever since Israel's devastating three-week-long assault on the territory in 2008-2009, the Gaza Strip has remained in dire need of reconstruction. Along with killing more than 1,400 Palestinians, the assault completely or partially destroyed tens of thousands of homes, the vast majority of which have yet to be rebuilt. Gaza remains subject to frequent Israeli attack: within the past four days alone, 19 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli air strikes and artillery barrages.
A coming war?
After several days of intense violence, during which the 19 Palestinians were killed and one Israeli wounded, a fragile calm has returned to Gaza. But political commentators argue that this could well be a precursor to Israel's next war on the coastal territory.
During the last week the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) launched a series of attacks following a rocket attack from Gaza which hit an Israeli school bus, seriously injuring a 16-year-old pupil.
Palestinians countered that Israel's assassination of three Hamas commanders a week before the latest bloody confrontations was the spark. Israel blamed elements in Gaza that it says were planning the kidnapping of Israelis in the Sinai.
Following Israel's strike, resistance fighters from a variety of factions in Gaza retaliated by launching dozens of rockets and missiles at Israel.
Many of those killed in Gaza were Palestinian resistance fighters but civilians were among the dead and injured. The precise figure of civilian casualties is being disputed by Israeli and Palestinian officials.
Israeli intelligence has argued for a number of years that Israeli soldiers were the targets of potential kidnappings. Every year during the Jewish Passover, Israel's domestic intelligence agency, the Shin Bet, warns Israelis not to travel to the Sinai due to a stated risk of kidnapping. There has been none to date.
This has raised questions about Israel's timing of the killing of the Hamas commanders. Many are asking whether Israel intends to follow up with another brutal military assault along the lines of Operation Cast Lead, the previous war on Gaza at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009, which left over 1,400 Palestinians dead, most of them civilian, including 300 children.
"The goal that we have settled on, of seeking a return to calm, is a grave error because it will allow Hamas to reinforce along the lines of Hizbullah," Israel's outspoken foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israeli Army Radio.
"The objective must be to force Hamas out of power. To return to calm accepts a war of attrition in which Hamas can determine when there is a lull and when the front is heating up," he said.
Lieberman's controversial comments provided a peek into the thinking of the Israeli cabinet which met Tuesday to discuss the flare-up on the country's southern border with Gaza. Military sources were quoted in Israeli media as saying that the truce would be followed by an even wider-scale confrontation.
"Hamas has been busy rebuilding its forces for the past two years, and this can only mean we're facing an all-out clash," a senior IDF officer told Israeli media.
An Israeli cabinet member told the Israeli daily 'Y-Net' that "in any event, it is not in our interest to launch an extensive operation until after Independence Day, so for now we seek to calm things down. However, if the rocket fire is resumed and Israel hit, there's no telling what will happen."
Dr Samir Awad from Birzeit University near Ramallah says that not only will the Israelis attack but the timing and agenda of another full-scale war is reliant purely on Israeli dictates.
"Hamas and the other Palestinian factions are in a weak position. They can threaten Israel all they like but Israel has superior military power. It also controls Gaza's coast, airspace, border-crossings and has the entire strip under lockdown so there is very little Hamas can do in reality," Awad told IPS.
"One of the reasons behind the timing of the assassination of the three Hamas commanders was the prospect of Fatah-Hamas unity talks resulting in some concrete and positive developments as the two sides met recently," added Awad.
"Israel greatly fears a united Palestinian front. Now there is tension and chaos again in Gaza and unity talks are once again on the backburner. Furthermore, Israel has also taken advantage of the confusion and unrest sweeping the Arab world when Hamas is weakened by a disaffected public in Gaza and is struggling to control the smaller factions."