President and Mrs. Carter and The Carter Center have worked to support a viable two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to promote comprehensive peace in the region for decades. The conflict between the major Palestinian political parties Fatah and Hamas has been a particular focus. Palestinian national unity is critical to the success of a two-state solution and the conflict has fractured Palestinian democratic institutions and fed a spiral of intra-Palestinian human rights abuses in the Occupied Territory.
The Carter Center also is closely monitoring the catastrophic situation in Syria, maintaining contact with all sides to encourage a political solution to the appalling violence, including grave breaches of international humanitarian law. To better inform peace-building efforts, the Center initiated the Syria Conflict Mapping Project, which analyzes the unprecedented volume of citizen-generated information about the conflict.
The Carter Center works both with grassroots activists and with high-level decision makers in its efforts to further conflict resolution, human rights, and democratic development in the Middle East. In 2005, The Carter Center opened a field office in Ramallah, expanding in 2008 to Jerusalem and Gaza. Building on this field presence and the continuous conflict monitoring conducted by Carter Center staff and interns in our Atlanta headquarters, senior Carter Center personnel travel regularly to the Middle East to assess developments firsthand. These visits include meetings with government officials, members of key political parties, diplomats, civil society activists, and political analysts. In particular, Center staff maintains regular contact with leaders of the two largest Palestinian political parties, Fatah and Hamas.
This thorough monitoring allows The Carter Center to be alert to various possible avenues of intervention. In some cases this can include President Carter's personal involvement to push the parties toward a resolution. For example, in April 2008 President Carter urged Hamas to drop its requirement that a truce in Gaza be tied to a truce in the West Bank. Also during this trip, The Carter Center and President Carter urged Hamas to resolve the matter of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was captured in June 2006 and eventually released in October 2011. As a result of President Carter's intervention with Hamas leaders, an exchange of letters was arranged between Shalit and his family. The Carter Center's work on Palestinian reconciliation also contributed indirectly to the Fatah-Hamas agreement reached in May 2011.
In addition to high-level interventions, The Carter Center works with local communities to prevent and mitigate conflict. The Carter Center's Conflict Resolution and Democracy programs, in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme and a Palestinian NGO recently implemented the Initiative on Dialogue, Consensus-Building, and Civic Awareness in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The project focused on issues of electoral reform and consensus-building across the internal Palestinian divide. The Carter Center convened a series of focus group discussions around the West Bank and Gaza designed to highlight the grassroots impacts of the Fatah-Hamas conflict and to elicit recommendations on a system for addressing these disputes. Participants included Muslim and Christian religious leaders, human rights activists, youth leaders, women's activists, and tribal leaders, with traditional responsibility for mediating community-level conflicts. Recommendations from the discussions have been shared with relevant Palestinian decision makers.
The Center also issues periodic press releases to draw international attention to critical issues in the region, including threats to a viable two-state solution and the need for an inclusive approach to the peace process. In addition, The Carter Center communicates with leading human rights organizations to reinforce their efforts through our own public reports and by publicizing the work of Human Rights Defenders in the Middle East and around the world. And, since the Arab Awakening, The Carter Center has observed elections in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya.
Finally, The Carter Center Forum, held periodically in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, provides a venue for guest speakers to share their insights on the daily challenges facing Palestinians, address obstacles impeding the right to Palestinian self-determination, and explore prospects for a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on international law. Speakers and participants are invited to join in these critical discussions.
Hamas, the Gaza Siege, and Palestinian Unity
President Carter and The Carter Center observed Palestinian elections in 1996, 2005, and 2006. Independent observation of the 1996 elections for president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and for the PA Legislative Council helped ensure the legitimacy of the elections. Observation of the 2005 PA presidential elections ensured a smooth transition of power within the PA, following the death of longtime leader Yassir Arafat.
Hamas won a majority of seats in the 2006 Palestinian Authority Legislative Council election. In its preliminary statement, the Carter Center's observation mission found that the elections were conducted in line with international standards, though the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza continued to impose constraints on many of the Palestinians' fundamental freedoms, including the right to assembly, movement, and speech.
Subsequently, Israel and the West boycotted the Hamas-led government because of Hamas' designation as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union. Hamas has been responsible for numerous attacks against Israeli civilians, attacks which President Carter has condemned in meetings with Hamas officials. In the wake of the election, clashes between Fatah and Hamas escalated until June 2007, when Hamas took military control of the Gaza Strip, routing Fatah-backed security forces. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas immediately announced a new emergency government in the West Bank that excluded Hamas. The international community responded by channeling funds and support to the West Bank government and hardening its no-contact policy towards Hamas-controlled Gaza, while Israel instituted a draconian closure of the Gaza Strip, dramatically decreasing the flow of goods into the territory and prohibiting exports of any kind. This was accompanied by increasing rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza, which targeted Israeli communities. While intended as means to bolster the more politically moderate Fatah, the response of the international community has undermined prospects for reaching a two-state solution and for strengthening democracy in Palestine. Hamas enjoys significant segments of support among Palestinians, and thus any effort to promote peace and democratic institutions will only be sustainable if Hamas is included.
With President Carter urging Hamas to accept a ceasefire limited to Gaza (as opposed to covering both the West Bank and Gaza), Hamas and Israel—under Egyptian auspices—agreed to a six-month ceasefire in June 2008. Though the exact terms are disputed, the basic agreement was that Hamas would cease attacks against Israel if Israel would stop attacks against Gaza and open the borders of the Gaza Strip to normal commerce. The Carter Center's analysis (PDF) has demonstrated that, while this led to a 97 percent reduction in attacks against Israel and Israeli attacks against Gaza, the amount of goods coming into Gaza was only 27 percent of normal levels.
Carter Center efforts to extend this ceasefire before it was due to expire in December 2008 were unsuccessful. After a three-week period that saw a renewed rocket and mortar attack on Israel from Gaza, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead on Dec. 27, 2008. The three-week conflict resulted in the deaths of 1,440 Palestinians and 14 Israelis, left thousands injured, and caused widespread destruction in Gaza.
Since Cast Lead, construction materials and other goods smuggled into Gaza through tunnels under the Egyptian border, together with very modest increases in imports through Israeli-controlled crossings, eventually enabled Palestinians to repair some of the physical damage from the war. However, of the nearly 3,500 homes destroyed, less than 500 have been rebuilt. Moreover, smuggling alone will never be sufficient to allow real and sustainable economic development in Gaza. Legitimate commerce must be facilitated to maintain economic linkages between the West Bank and Gaza and to ensure that Gaza can export freely to the outside world.
Finally, in addition to ending Gaza's physical and economic isolation, the conflict between Hamas and Fatah, and the rift between the West Bank and Gaza, must be addressed. The Palestinian factions have negotiated a series of reconciliation agreements, many under Egyptian auspices, since 2006. Most recently, an accord signed in Cairo in May 2012 lays out a roadmap that is designed to form a new unified government for the West Bank and Gaza and to oversee elections, tentatively slated for December 2012. The Carter Center continues to monitor these developments closely, supporting the parties wherever possible.
The Carter Center believes that a principal obstacle to a viable two-state solution is the continued presence and expansion of Israeli settlements and outposts in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. A seemingly permanent infrastructure has emerged in the West Bank, characterized by a grid of settler-only roads, roadblocks, checkpoints, and the separation wall. Almost 40 percent of the West Bank has been absorbed by Israeli settlements and related infrastructure and other areas closed to Palestinians. The West Bank is home to some 500,000 to 700,000 Israeli settlers living among 2.4 million Palestinians. The settlement grid cuts off Palestinian communities from each other and has had a devastating impact on the social and economic life of Palestinians in the West Bank.
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