Dispatch

Am I My Brother's Keeper?

How the disappearance of three Israeli boys in the West Bank is upending Palestinian politics.

RAMALLAH — If there was ever any question about the Palestinian public's feelings about recent Israeli military operations in the West Bank, those were resolved in the predawn hours of Sunday morning, June 22.

Israeli forces carried out a raid only steps from a Palestinian Authority (PA) police station in the center of Ramallah. Pictures showed Israeli soldiers parked in front of the building, as Palestinian police officers peered helplessly out of windows above them. After the army left, groups of Palestinians turned on the PA police to punish them for their powerlessness in the face of the occupation forces. A crowd stoned the police station and smashed the windows on the cars parked outside.

The PA police were less hesitant to respond to their countrymen: They responded with live fire to drive the crowd away. When morning broke, dumpsters lining the city's main shopping district were still ablaze and large rocks carpeted the streets from the clashes hours before.

The early morning riot in Ramallah was the latest manifestation of the conflict tearing Palestinians apart -- just eight weeks after they were supposed to become united.

The latest Palestinian political tumult began nearly two weeks ago when three Israelis who attended a yeshiva in the sprawling Gush Etzion settlement went missing in the West Bank. Israeli officials blame Hamas, the Islamist movement that is one of Palestine's two main political factions, for the alleged kidnapping. That it came on the heels of the April 23 reconciliation agreement between Hamas and its rival Fatah, a deal that was seven years in the works and was supposed to pave the way for a more effective Palestinian government, was red meat to Israeli critics of the deal who say that Hamas is a terrorist group. The fallout from the disappearances -- and Israel's violent crackdown -- threatens to upend both Palestinian politics and relations with Israel.

In a June 18 speech to Arab dignitaries at the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Saudi Arabia, PA President Mahmoud Abbas accused the assailants behind the alleged kidnapping of a conspiracy. "The truth is that whoever carried out this action wants to destroy us," Abbas said. "That is why we will speak to him differently and take a different position toward him, whoever it is ... because we cannot tolerate such acts."Abbas also said security coordination with the Israelis was "in our interest ... to protect our own people."

A Hamas spokesman condemned Abbas's comments, saying they were "based on the Zionist narrative." But even some in the president's own faction chafe at PA policies.

"The leadership talks about reason and logic, but where is the reason and logic in living under occupation without resisting?" said Mohammed Abu El Nasr, a Fatah youth activist. "There is something wrong with the leadership's conflict management and its focus on peaceful resolution."

If Israeli allegations that Hamas is behind the disappearances are true, then the Islamist party has room to regain some of the clout it lost in the past couple of years by calling for another high-profile prisoner exchange. Moreover, they'll have boxed in the PA and its security forces, which, composed largely of Fatah loyalists, risk looking like collaborators with the occupation. And the conflict between the two groups could spiral into a crisis that plays into the Israeli government's hopes by unraveling the unity agreement.

Since June 12, the Israeli army has killed at least four Palestinians and arrested more than 470 others in an operation dubbed Brother's Keeper. The targeting of Hamas has been especially brutal, and is putting a serious strain on the recent Hamas-Fatah détente. The speaker and 10 members of the now-defunct parliament in which Hamas enjoys a majority have been arrested, as have at least 50 of the 1,027 Palestinians released in 2011 in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured by Hamas in 2006.

The upper echelons of Hamas's West Bank political leadership are currently all incarcerated, including founding member Hassan Yousef. The Gaza Strip, where Hamas dominates political life, has been pounded by Israeli air raids. Even in Israeli prisons, members of the Islamist party are being punished by a slew of tougher living conditions that include a ban on family visits. Hamas has not claimed responsibility for what Israeli authorities allege is a kidnapping, but it has warned that there will be reprisals if the crackdown continues.

The stated goals of Israel's military operation have not only been to find the three missing teens; Hamas's West Bank infrastructure is also the target. "We have a goal," said the Israeli army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, "to find these three boys and bring them home and to damage Hamas as much as possible." Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said that the true test of Abbas's comments in Saudi Arabia will be whether or not he divorces Hamas.

"The Israelis tried to prevent [the unity government] from the beginning," said Ghassan Al Khatib, the vice president of Birzeit University. "And now they are taking advantage of this incident to abort this national unity by all means."

The limits of Palestinian unity came into stark view on June 20 when PA forces violently dispersed a Hamas-organized demonstration in Hebron supporting Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike, beating both protestors and journalists. The PA's heavy-handed methods even prompted local media outlets to boycott all government events for three days.

In April, it seemed Palestinians were finally on the verge of putting a historical end to seven long years of infighting, which left the Gaza Strip and West Bank not only geographically but also politically isolated from each other. The unveiling of an independent government composed of technocrats and led by current Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah was supposed to usher in parliamentary and presidential elections within six months. But no sooner had the ministers been sworn-in than the three Israelis went missing and the military operation ensued.

Israel's crackdown on Hamas -- and the PA's cooperation in it -- casts doubts on Fatah's initial claims of dedication to the reconciliation agreement with its old Islamist foe. The coordination efforts are condemned unanimously by Hamas members and supporters, who have gone as far as to call them a "disgrace" and "a crime punishable by law," under the Cairo Agreement, the initial reconciliation pact signed by the two parties in 2012.

At the leadership level, Abbas's confidantes have defended the PA's course of action thus far. Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki told Reuters last Friday that there would be no Third Intifada on Abbas' watch. Those at the party's second tier, meanwhile, are lashing out against Israel's military incursions in the West Bank without criticizing their party's leadership. But at the grassroots -- the party's Revolutionary Council, lower-level members, and local activists -- dissatisfaction is growing.

"These are the people who are not really happy with the political leadership's statements, and who felt that the concessions are very high and have weakened the credibility of the Fatah movement in the eyes of the public," said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, who heads the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, an independent East Jerusalem-based institute.

The Palestinian public longs for a coherent political strategy, something lacking from their leadership's agenda for some time. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the international representative body of the Palestinians, announced in November 2012 it would take its liberation struggle to international forums upon their ascendance to a non-member observer seat at the U.N.'s General Assembly. But since then, they have been largely reluctant to join other international organizations apart from the largely symbolic signing of a slew of treaties and conventions on April 1. Most importantly, Abbas has refused to make good on his threat that Israelis fear the most: approaching the International Criminal Court to ask the prosecutor to investigate Israel for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

"The leadership does not care about the average man's reaction," Abdul Hadi said. "From day one, Abbas said, 'This is my policy. I was elected to end the Intifada. I will not allow another one.' Some people say this shakes his credibility in the eyes of the public. He does not pay attention to that. He's not Arafat, he's not a leader; he is a representative for a mission."

After nine months of failed peace talks with Israel, with expanding settlements in the West Bank, and now a large-scale closure and assault, a security relationship with Israel is becoming increasingly unpopular. But for the PA, maintaining security cooperation with Israel is essential. Without it, EU and U.S. aid money and political support would end, recalling not-so-distant memories of the PA's previous ill-fated attempt at unity governance in 2006-2007. Following a boycott by international donors due to Hamas's presence in the government, the PA was left unable to pay salaries. Since one-third of all Palestinians in the West Bank are employed by the PA, many were subjected to extreme economic hardship.

But this time around things are different, with the actors making sure to not violate any of their Western donors' stipulations with their unaffiliated caretaker government. Even the United States expressed a willingness to test the new unity government, encouraging restraint and continued security coordination last week with State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki stating that the United States was "encouraged by President Abbas's strong statement to the Arab and Islamic foreign ministers today in Saudi Arabia."

"The fundamentals of Abbas's position are correct," said Al Khatib, himself a former government spokesman. "This kidnapping does not serve our national interests. "What [the president] is saying, is we should try to prevent a return to violence and I think he speaks for the silent majority of the Palestinian people."

But not everyone agrees.

Last Friday, the mood was somber in Qalandiya refugee camp, outside Ramallah, as families reeled from an overnight military raid that left three young men critically wounded. Inside, homes were filled with smashed furniture and clothes were strewn across the floor after Israeli soldiers ransacked the area the previous night.

Nasim Mteir, a 28-year-old resident of the camp, said the army searched his parents' and brother's houses during the raid. "They tore up the place," he said. "Since Israel seems to be in charge anyway, why don't we let it resume its responsibilities in the territories? Those who want liberation should not be concerned with political seats."

THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

'We Are Left With Nothing, Again'

First ethnic violence, now flooding. Can Kosovar Serbs catch a break?

BELGRADE, Serbia — As Bozidarka Vuckovic sat on a donated mattress on the sticky floor of a Belgrade shelter, she found herself displaced for the second time in 15 years. Around her were rows of mattresses identical to hers, strewn across the floor, covered with dozing families and plastic bags of salvaged belongings. The velour sweat suit she wore was frayed at the edges and deep, dark circles framed her eyes. Occasional sobs shook her rail-thin shoulders as she rocked her three-year-old son Darko in a bid to soothe him. Since the floods, all the boy wanted to do was sleep. But often he woke up screaming, dreamed he was drowning.

Two weeks earlier, during the catastrophic flooding that swept through the Balkans, Vuckovic had watched as the rising waters submerged her house in Obrenovac, about 18 miles southwest of Belgrade. Vuckovic, a Kosovar Serb, had come to the town in 1999, seeking refuge from the ethnic violence that gripped Kosovo at the time. Now, the life she had built there, with her two children and their father, was swept away in the worst floods to hit Serbia in more than a century. Vuckovic had ended up in a crowded makeshift shelter yet again.

"I have survived a lot. I survived Kosovo, I survived the bombings, and now I survived the floods," said Vuckovic, 36, with eyes fixed on a cell phone video of her flooded one-storey home, only the red tiles on the roof visible above the muddy water. "But I don't think I can survive any more. We are left with nothing, again. There are no windows, no doors, no walls. It feels like we keep losing everything, again and again."

In mid-May the amount of rain that the Balkans usually sees in three months came down in just three days, triggering the floods. As many as three million people across the region were affected and at least 74 died. In Serbia, Obrenovac was hit the hardest as the swollen Kolubara River burst its banks and submerged the area. The municipality's 70,000 residents were evacuated, many after waiting days to be rescued by boats. Others, like Vuckovic and her family, were trapped in the town and had to be flown to safety with choppers.

The floods completely destroyed 92 houses and rendered 161 residential buildings uninhabitable, according to Serbia's Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic. Since then, the waters have receded and the international media has moved on to other crises, but those who lost everything are still reeling from the blow.

Many of those hit hardest by the floods are, like Vuckovic, Kosovo refugees thrown into displacement for the second time in a decade and a half. As a UN resolution ended decades of persecution of Albanian Kosovars by Serbian forces in 1999, extremists seeking revenge retaliated with riots, kidnappings, and brutal attacks aimed at ethnic Serbs and Roma. As a result, an estimated 210,000 fled Kosovo and sought refuge in Serbia to escape the violence. 

But Serbia, still struggling to cope with the half a million refugees who poured into the country from Croatia and Bosnia in the mid-90's, had little to offer the new wave of displaced. Many were crammed into makeshift temporary shelters in schools, living with poor sanitation and little humanitarian aid. When the state began to return the shelters to their original uses, some refugees were left with no choice but to sleep in city parks.

"In Serbia, the refugees have been long neglected by the state," said Florian Bieber, a professor and the director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz in Austria. "They were kind of an unwelcome reminder that the wars were lost."

The refugee population has been fragile since they arrived in Serbia. According to UNHCR data, 242 "extremely vulnerable" refugees from Kosovo had settled in Obrenovac prior to the floods, but the agency says the number is much higher when unregistered refugees are taken into account.

Through intensive integration programs and concerted international efforts, their situation seemed to be slowly improving in recent years. In the last decade, the Serbian government has invested roughly $76 million into integrating and housing those displaced by the Balkan conflicts of the 1990's. The country is also set to spend another $450 million building housing for refugees over the next three years through the Regional Housing Programme, a multi-donor project involving partners like the European Union, the U.S, and UNHCR. With the help of such programs, most of those who fled from Kosovo to Obrenovac had secured some form of housing and stability. But many have been thrown back into uncertainty by the floods.

"In the last 15 years, they tried to get themselves in a better position, get some kind of jobs, become citizens of Serbia," said Sladjana Dimic, a spokesperson for Red Cross Serbia. "Now they once again have to start from the very beginning. It's the story of many, many people in Obrenovac." 

But a month after the floods, few strides have been made getting refugees resettled. About 1,500 people still remain in the 24 temporary shelters across Belgrade. Another 17,000 are being housed by relatives and friends, according to the Red Cross. Last week, authorities began moving the displaced to yet another facility, a set of former army barracks in Obrenovac, where 460 adults and 71 children now live in cramped conditions.

"The idea is to remove them from Belgrade to Obrenovac," said Dimic. "But there is no capacity in Obrenovac to accommodate them and they don't have any possibility to go back to their homes because, for many of them, there is nothing left."

For most of those now living in shelters, the cost of rebuilding what they lost is impossibly high. Many barely scrape by with their monthly earnings, yet now will have to cope with losses totaling between $9,500 and $16,000. But recovery is likely to be an even bigger feat for those experiencing displacement for the second time. More than 40 percent of Kosovo refugees in Serbia live on $120 to $230 per month, according to a 2011 report by the UNHCR. A third are also unemployed, compared to an average rate of 19 percent among the general Serbian population. The displaced are also more likely to suffer from long-term unemployment: 69 percent have been out of work for over a year. 

"In a certain way, the floods compounded what was an already precarious situation in Serbia," said Bieber, who has worked extensively on minority issues in Serbia and Bosnia. "The refugees were already at the margins of society...Many are without income and the floods have made it very difficult for them to re-attain the little that they had. The floods just gave them another push downward."

Although the Serbian government has not offered special help to refugees, it has promised extensive assistance to those affected by the floods. As of June 6, $33.41 million  in aid had been transferred to the accounts of the Serbian government for flood relief, according to figures released by the Ministry of Finance. Crews also began visiting affected communities and evaluating the damage in early June, but it's still unclear when and how the aid will be distributed.

But many of those familiar with displacement remain skeptical that the money will trickle down to them at all. Branislava Nedeljkovic, a Romani who also fled Kosovo in 1999, is afraid they will be forgotten once the panic around the floods dies down. With no income, she has no way to rebuild her Obrenovac home, which was completely destroyed by the floods.

"They just make big promises, but they don't care what happens to us," said Nedeljkovic, 58, from the makeshift shelter in Belgrade's Pionir Arena two weeks after the floods. "Our house is broken to pieces, the whole thing collapsed. We have nowhere to go. We have to rebuild our lives again and how do you rebuild when you have no money?" 

The concerns of those like Nedeljkovic aren't unrealistic. According to Bieber, refugees may, in fact, get passed up for government assistance because they often lack proper documentation of what they have lost.

"A lot of the housing that refugees built was informal, illegal or not properly documented," he said. "There are usually no insurance policies, no proper records, which makes it difficult for the state to act. I would share the concern of those affected by the floods that they may not get much help."

Vuckovic, too, worries how she will recover once again. Her family doesn't have an income and she said they cannot afford to repair the damage to their home. With two small children, Vuckovic is afraid to end up on the street.

"We have nowhere to go and that scares me," she says. "I'm not scared for me because I have been through worse. But I am scared for my children."

Additional reporting by Milica Vukelic.

ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images