Palestinians, Israelis Unite Over Swine Flu [April 26 May 2]
May 02, 2009

As the world panics over the outbreak of swine flu, Palestinians and Israelis have finally found something to unite over. On May 1, representatives from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Egypt met at the World Health Organization office in Jerusalem to formulate a plan for a possible outbreak of the virus. While the Palestinians and Jordan have so far not reported any cases of the illness in their territories, there have been cases reported in Israel. The parties agreed to coordinate and exchange information in order to contain the flu in the region.

Also on May 1, the Palestinian agriculture ministry announced it was ready to confront any cases of swine flu in the Palestinian territories and would coordinate with all institutions including Israeli, to counter the threat. Furthermore, the ministry said specialists were monitoring the two pig farms in the West Bank, located in Beit Sahour and Beit Jala for any signs of the H1N1 infection. He said the farms are currently under quarantine.

The swine flu, however, is the only point of agreement between the two. This week, Israel continued to issue demolition orders to east Jerusalem residents at an unprecedented rate, even eliciting criticism from the UN. On April 30, OCHA, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs issued a report calling on Israel to freeze its demolition of Palestinian homes.

The report outlined the serious obstacles Palestinians face in obtaining construction licenses from Israeli authorities in Jerusalem. It said only 13 percent of east Jerusalem is zoned for Palestinian construction, while Jewish settlements occupy 35 percent of east Jerusalem, which is in violation of international law.

According to OCHA, some 60,000 Palestinian residents of east Jerusalem are at risk of having their homes demolished. According to Ir Amim, an Israeli rights organization in Jerusalem, only 125 construction licenses were issued in 2008 to Palestinians while 85 homes were demolished in that same year.

This year, the situation is only worsening. On April 29, Israeli authorities issued a demolition order for a two-floor addition to an Armenian church in the Old City. The structure is 150-years old and is built on land owned by the Belgium monarchy.

On April 28, the Israeli municipality announced it would demolish 50 homes in the Bustan neighborhood of Silwan this summer. A total of 88 homes are slated for demolition in this east Jerusalem quarter.

On April 27 a demolition order was delivered to the home of Qassem Magrhibi from Jabal Al Mukkaber. Maghribi was shot and killed by Israeli police in April, 2008 when he allegedly ran over a group of Israelis near New Gate, injuring 19. The three-storey house currently shelters 21 people.

On April 26, 30 new demolition orders were delivered to Palestinian families in east Jerusalem neighborhoods, all on the pretext of lacking proper licensing.

The demolitions are part and parcel of a larger Israeli plan, which includes the expansion of Jewish settlements. On April 27, Israeli authorities announced their intention to build a new settlement in the east Jerusalem area of Al Sawahra. Over 60 new housing units will be built. According to the Israeli municipality, the construction is merely an "extension" of the Jewish Talpiot neighborhood and is completely legal.

A day earlier, a plan was announced to expand the monstrous Maaleh Adumim settlement in east Jerusalem through confiscating an additional 11,500 dunams of land. According to the plan, 6,000 new housing units will be built to house 25,000 Jewish settlers and ultimately connect the Kedar and Maaleh Adumim settlements.

The situation in the Gaza Strip continues to be unsettling. Israel said two rockets were launched from the Strip on May 2 and landed in an open area of the Negev Desert. Earlier in the week, Israeli planes bombed underground tunnels in Rafah, which Israel says are used for smuggling. No casualties were reported.

However, on April 30 during a visit to Gaza, UN peace envoy Robert Serry said the blockade on the Gaza Strip was "unprecedented" and the hardship endured by the people "unacceptable."

"Priority must be to ensure calm in and around Gaza and urgently improve humanitarian conditions... a major escalation of violence would have grave consequences for the protection of civilians in Israel and Gaza," Serry said. The peace envoy also said it was critical that reconstruction efforts begin immediately in the Strip.

On the internal front, Palestinian factions broke off their talks in Cairo with a promise to resume them on May 16. This fourth round of talks did not yield any groundbreaking agreements between Hamas and Fateh but according to some negotiators, progress was made. Still, major differences remain on the mechanism for elections and the formation of the new government.

On that note, US President Barack Obama called on Congress on April 27 to make a slight change in a law that would allow financial assistance to the Palestinians even if Hamas-affiliated members were part of a national government. While this caused discomfort with some pro-Israeli congressmen, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both stressed that this would only be possible if the government agreed to the three Quartet conditions: a renunciation of violence, commitment to past agreements and recognition of Israel.

Which brings us to our next point of contention between Palestinians and Israel. President Mahmoud Abbas vehemently rejected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state in order for peace negotiations to continue. On April 27, Abbas said he would not accept the demand, saying it is not the Palestinians' "business" what Israel wants to call itself. Instead, the president called for a halt to settlement construction, peace negotiations on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative and a solution that would end in two states.

Also on April 27, EU commissioner for external relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner ruffled Israeli feathers when she criticized the new Israeli government's refusal to endorse a Palestinian state, adding that an upgrade in Israeli-EU relations would depend on Israel's commitment to the "two-state solution." In response, Israel warned the EU that if it did not "tone down" its criticism of Israel, it would cut them out of the peace process.

Finally, Israel celebrated its 61st independence day on April 29. On the same day, thousands of Palestinians inside Israel protested in the village of Kafreen under the slogan of "Their independence is our Nakba". The protesters held up banners with the names of the villages, destroyed in the 1948 war and Palestinian flags, demanding that they are allowed to return to their original homes.