Mideast rivals weigh next moves after Gaza violence
RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — The aftershocks of the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem and bloodshed on the Gaza border are shaking up the region, including the relationship between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his former negotiating partners, Israel and the U.S.
Seething over a perceived U.S. betrayal on Jerusalem, Abbas is preparing to pursue a war crimes complaint against Israel at the International Criminal Court that would sharply escalate tensions with Israel.
His domestic Hamas rivals in Gaza have meanwhile seen mixed results after weeks of border protests that failed to break a blockade of the territory but momentarily drew global attention to the long-ignored plight of Gaza.
For decades, the West Bank-based Abbas has pursued a strategy of independence through negotiations, hoping Washington would persuade Israel to cede the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem — lands it captured in 1967 — to a Palestinian state.
He clung to this formula through many setbacks, including Israeli settlement expansion.
Palestinian officials say the three-way relationship was held in place by a series of understandings, particularly after the 2012 U.N. General Assembly recognition of a “state of Palestine” gave Abbas new diplomatic options.
They say Abbas pledged not to trigger an ICC probe of Israel’s settlement enterprise, and at the same time have his security forces continued their cooperation with Israeli troops in the West Bank. The U.S. promised not to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, to keep the PLO office in Washington open and not cut aid to the Palestinians.
Abbas no longer felt bound by these understanding after President Donald Trump in December recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — ignoring Palestinian claims to the Israeli-annexed eastern sector — and this week moved the U.S. Embassy there.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki said Wednesday that he has asked the ICC for an appointment to deliver a “state party referral” of a case against Israel. Such a referral would trigger a preliminary examination which could lead to a full-blown investigation.
It was not immediately clear if an official Palestinian request would speed up the prosecutor’s ongoing preliminary examination, launched in 2015, of potential war crimes in the occupied territories.
Still, an ICC move would sharply escalate tensions between Abbas and Israel.
Abbas isn’t yet ending security coordination, avoiding the move most likely to trigger a crisis with Israel and possibly the collapse of his West Bank-based autonomy government.
Meanwhile, Abbas recalled the Palestinian ambassador from Washington this week, cementing an earlier decision to halt contacts with the administration and casting growing doubt on Trump’s ambitions to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
The Islamic militant group has emerged without tangible achievements from weekly border protests in which more than 100 Palestinians were killed and hundreds wounded by Israeli fire since late March.
Hamas has organized the marches, though turnout has also been driven by widespread despair among 2 million residents confined to a tiny, impoverished coastal territory with 22-hour-a-day power cuts.
There’s no sign of a significant easing of the blockade, which was imposed by Israel and Egypt after the 2007 Hamas takeover of Gaza. Egypt offered only a vague promise to open its passenger crossing with Gaza, the territory’s main gate to the world, when possible. The crossing is closed most of the year, though Egypt opened it for a few days this week to defuse tensions.
Hamas says it will continue calling for weekly protests during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins Thursday, and scheduled another mass march June 5, the anniversary of the 1967 war.
Analyst Ahmed Yousef, a former Hamas official, said Gaza activists will shift all activities to the border area for the foreseeable future to keep up the pressure to lift the blockade.
It’s not clear if they’ll be able to maintain momentum, let alone exceed the current maximum turnout of about 40,000 people. The campaign, billed as the “Great March of Return,” may have raised unrealistic expectations among Gaza residents — a majority of them descendants of refugees uprooted during the Mideast war over Israel’s creation — that they would soon return.
Hamas opted for the marches as the last option for breaking the blockade, after the failure of other tactics — three cross-border wars with Israel and repeated reconciliation attempts with Abbas, whose forces were driven out in the 2007 takeover. Abbas adopted a particularly tough stance in recent weeks, curtailing salary payments to tens of thousands of pre-Hamas era civil servants in hopes that further economic pressure on Gaza would cow Hamas.
The move has backfired in Gaza, where many see Abbas as callous, while Hamas has been credited with challenging an intolerable situation — even if critics argue the group could easily have ended the blockade by agreeing to disarm.
For now, the border protests have drawn momentary international attention to Gaza — though in the past such interest quickly dissipated despite repeated urgent warnings that the territory could soon become uninhabitable.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been riding a string of successes, pushing a series of embarrassing corruption investigations off the public agenda and lifting his approval ratings.
The U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the embassy move are both seen as achievements for Israel. Netanyahu says relations with the U.S. have never been better.
But Netanyahu’s fortunes on the international stage could be changing. On the day of the embassy move, Israeli forces killed 59 Palestinians and wounded hundreds in Gaza, drawing widespread international condemnation, accusations of using disproportionate force and calls for independent investigations.
Israel lost the gains it had made in repairing ties with Turkey, which expelled Israel’s envoy, prompting Israel to respond in kind. Diplomats from leading European countries shunned festivities linked to the embassy opening.
Netanyahu is also taking a risk by aligning himself so closely to Trump, who is unpopular with other Western allies and the overwhelmingly liberal Jewish American community.
Yair Lapid, leader of the opposition Yesh Atid party, said he was concerned that no representatives of the Democratic Party in the U.S. attended the embassy opening.
Lapid told Israel Army Radio that “instead of Republicans and Democrats being united in their support for us as they were for many years, for nearly 70 years, we have become part of the Republican Party.”
Associated Press writers Josef Federman in Jerusalem and Karin Laub in Amman, Jordan contributed reporting.