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2012: The year in review

Jan. 2, 2013 11:04 P.M. (Updated: Jan. 10, 2013 11:31 A.M.)
In a year when the Middle East struggled to adapt to a new political landscape, 2012 brought little reprieve for Palestinians. A newly-elected president in Egypt, continuing civil war in Syria, and the Iranian-Israeli standoff moved world attention away from the long-elusive pursuit of an independent Palestine.

But Palestine also had its taste of war, of high-stakes diplomacy, financial crisis, and mass popular protest, in what proved to be a turbulent year.


Palestinian and Israeli officials held their first direct negotiations since late 2010. Responding to a push to revive peace talks by the international Quartet, representatives sat down in the Jordanian capital five times in the run up to a January deadline for proposals on territory and security. Ultimately, nothing came of the talks. Palestinian officials said they were given incomplete proposals by Israel that undermined international law and the two-state solution. Israel said it had fulfilled its obligations to the Quartet.


Fatah leader President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas chief-in-exile Khalid Mashaal gave some momentum to a nine-month old reconciliation deal between their parties, by agreeing to form a unity cabinet headed by Abbas at talks in Doha. The temporary joint government was meant to oversee preparations for fresh elections, but the proposal for Abbas' premiership caused uproar in Hamas ranks. Other political leaders also expressed concern that a dual role for the president would breach the separation of powers, but the high court ruled that the Doha agreement did not fall under its jurisdiction. Amid the wrangling, both parties said the other had requested a delay in putting together the cabinet, and by May Abbas declared the unity process "frozen".


The United Nations Human Rights Council launched an international investigation into Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories after the 47-member forum adopted the initiative in a vote of 36 states in favor, with one against, the United States. Ten abstained, including European Union members Italy and Spain. Israel responded to the decision by severing all contacts with the UN Human Rights Council, saying that it would not allow the UN fact-finding team to enter the West Bank or Israel.


Over 2,000 Palestinian prisoners launched an open-ended hunger strike on April 17 to demand better conditions in Israeli jails. Prisoner demands included an end to solitary confinement, bans on family visits for prisoners from Gaza, night raids, and an end to the Israeli practice of detention without trial for Palestinians. Thousands of people participated in near daily demonstrations in the occupied West Bank and in the Gaza Strip to support the non-violent protest movement, which ended in May after a deal was struck between Palestinian prisoners representatives and Israeli prison authorities.

Hana Shalabi and Khader Adnan had provided inspiration for the non-violent protest movement, having both undergone extensive hunger strikes before reaching agreements with Israeli authorities. Adnan was released in late April after a 66-day hunger strike while Shalabi ended a 43-day hunger strike in late March after reaching a deal with Israeli authorities that she would be deported to the Gaza Strip for three years.


The governor of Jenin, Qaddura Musa, died of a heart attack brought on by a shooting attack on his home. Palestinian Authority forces launched a large scale security crackdown in the Jenin district following the attack, questioning a number of PA security officers on suspicion of involvement in criminal activity and confiscating illegal weapons. Dozens were held in Palestinian jails in the initial arrest sweep, which was later extended to other areas of the West Bank, and human rights groups expressed concern over the treatment of detainees. Two other shooting attacks in Jenin in 2012, on a Palestinian lawmaker who survived, and a security chief who was killed, highlighted the PA's struggle to regain control of the impoverished area and smash local networks that challenge its power.


UNESCO voted in favor of declaring Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity and the nearby pilgrimage route as World Heritage sites. Thirteen members of the 21-nation World Heritage Committee voted in favor of the Palestinian application, securing exactly the needed number of votes. Two countries abstained and six voted against the bid. Israel and the United States blasted the UN cultural agency after the vote, echoing similar condemnations in 2011 when Palestine was admitted as a full member of UNESCO.


Palestinians took to the streets of Ramallah to protest a planned visit by Israeli politician Shaul Mofaz, and were violently pushed back by Palestinian Authority security forces. The next day, protesters gathered again, this time to denounce police brutality, and were beaten by uniformed and plainclothes security officers. Human rights groups and some Palestinian officials spoke out against the violence, and a third demonstration passed without interference from security officers. A government-ordered investigation into the crackdowns recommended that the police chief of Ramallah and other police officials should be questioned by prosecutors. A separate probe by human rights groups found that while the police chief and his deputy had participated in the crackdown, they were acting on orders from advisers in President Abbas' office.


Masked gunmen attacked an Egyptian border post with Israel and killed 16 border guards stationed there, prompting an unprecedented Egyptian military operation against armed groups in the Sinai peninsula. Israel said militants in Gaza were linked to the attack on Egyptian soil, a claim vigorously denied by the Hamas government who denounced the attack. Egypt briefly closed its border with the Gaza Strip and destroyed many of the tunnels under the border used to bring in goods, avoiding Israel’s blockade. Hamas tightened its own border security and rounded up Salafi militants in the coastal strip in the attack’s aftermath.


Unions held mass strikes in cities across the West Bank as protesters rallied against unemployment and the rising cost of living. The protest movement, which paralyzed transport and business in the West Bank, was sparked by a five percent hike in the price of fuel which would filter higher costs through to many staple products. The demonstrations increasingly focused on Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who had also held the post of finance minister, urging his resignation. President Abbas, as well as many senior Fatah figures, voiced sympathy with the protesters, calling the movement the start of the "Palestinian Spring." Fayyad later announced a package of economic measures, including a cut in fuel prices, but protesters and some politicians said they did not go far enough. The West Bank government's financial crisis continued to deepen throughout 2012.


The Emir of Qatar made a historic visit to the Gaza Strip, the first head of state to enter Gaza since 1999. Gaza’s Hamas rulers said the visit by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani had broken the Israeli siege, and Palestinians lined the street to welcome the ruler. Qatar called the visit a humanitarian gesture, to inaugurate reconstruction projects the country is funding to a sum of $400 million. While there was some concern the visit, viewed as a political coup for Hamas, would undermine the West Bank government, the Emir used a speech in Gaza to call for Hamas and Fatah to finally put their differences behind them. "Surely you realize that your division is the source of greater harm to your cause and the cause of all Arabs," he told crowds in Gaza.


Israel assassinated Hamas military commander Ahmad al-Jaabari in the Gaza Strip, breaking a truce mediated 48 hours earlier by Egypt after violence flared on the border. The targeted killing sparked an eight-day war, as Israeli jets, tanks and warships pounded the coastal strip, leaving over 170 Palestinians dead, over half of them civilians. Missiles fired by Gaza’s military factions reached Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and six Israelis, four of them civilians, were killed by rocket fire. Despite the heavy toll, the war was seen as boosting Hamas, as the ceasefire deal eased Israeli border restrictions on the coastal strip and a month later party chief Khaled Mashaal ended his exile in a celebratory visit to Gaza.

The UN General Assembly overwhelmingly approved a resolution to upgrade Palestine to a "non-member state" at the United Nations, implicitly recognizing a Palestinian state. There were 138 votes in favor, nine against and 41 abstentions. Addressing the assembly in New York ahead of the vote, President Mahmoud Abbas said the UN bid was the last chance to save the two-state solution. Opposed by Israel and the US, the vote brought fresh sanctions on the Palestinian Authority, with Israel seizing Palestinian tax revenues and launching a mass settlement construction drive, drawing world condemnation.


The escalating violence in Syria took a heavy toll on the Palestinian refugee population, with Damascus’ Yarmouk camp all but emptying of residents when Syrian army jets bombarded the area. An attack on a mosque in Yarmouk, killing 25, prompted the Palestinian Authority to issue its strongest condemnation yet of the Syrian regime. The Free Syrian Army took control of the camp, where Palestinians and Syrians alike had been sheltering as the fighting encroached on the Syrian capital. Thousands fled to neighboring countries or looked for shelter in Damascus. A Palestinian faction supporting President Bashar Assad, the PFLP-GC, was blamed by West Bank officials for involving Palestinians in the civil war. Rebels have also armed sympathetic Palestinians. As people around the world prepared for the new year, UN refugee support facilities were still closed in Yarmouk, and facilities to house those fleeing the violence were full to capacity.

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