Wires

Palestinians protest, Israel braces ahead of Trump plan

Nidal al-Mughrabi and Ali Sawafta

GAZA CITY, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Thousands of Palestinians demonstrated against U.S. President Donald Trump's Israeli-Palestinian peace plan on Tuesday hours before its scheduled release at a ceremony in Washington.

Israeli troops meanwhile reinforced positions near a flashpoint site between the Palestinian city of Ramallah and the Jewish settlement of Beit El in the Israel-occupied West Bank.

While Israeli leaders have welcomed Trump's plan, Palestinian leaders have rejected it even before its official release. They say his administration is biased towards Israel.

The Palestinians fear the plan will dash their hopes for an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem - areas Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War - by permitting Israel to annex large chunks of territory.

In Gaza City on Tuesday, protesters stepped on posters of Trump laid out on the ground. They waved Palestinian flags and held aloft posters of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

"Trump is a fool, Palestine is not for sale," an activist shouted through a loudspeaker.

In a refugee camp in the coastal enclave, about 50 people gathered in Martyrs' Square holding posters of Abbas and his predecessor Yasser Arafat, the guerrilla leader who spearheaded the Palestinian cause until his death in 2004.

"We will pay with our blood, souls and sons to redeem Jerusalem. The deal of Trump will never succeed," said Umm Ahmed, who took part in the protest.

An Israeli military spokesman said troops had been sent to reinforce the Jordan Valley - an area which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to partially annex.

Husam Zomlot, head of the Palestinian mission to Britain, told Reuters in London that Trump's peace plan was merely "political theatre".

"It is not a peace deal. It is the 'bantustan-isation' of the people of Palestine and the land of Palestine. We will be turned into bantustans," he said, refering to the nominally independent black enclaves in apartheid-era South Africa.

"Jan. 28, 2020 will mark the official legal stamp of approval of the United States for Israel to implement a full-fledged apartheid system," he said.

Israel vehemently rejects any comparison to the former South African regime.

GOOD DEAL?

Trump will deliver joint remarks with Netanyahu at the White House later on Tuesday to outline his plan, the result of three years work by his senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Netanyanu said on Monday: "The deal of the century is the opportunity of a century, and we're not going to pass it by."

Israeli opposition leader Benny Gantz hailed it as a "significant and historic milestone" and said he would work towards implementing it immediately after a national election he will contest with Netanyahu in March.

Addressing Palestinian fears, Trump said on Monday: "They probably won't want it initially...but I think in the end they will. It's very good for them. In fact it's overly good to them.

But whether the plan will in reality jump-start the long-stalled effort to end the conflict is far from certain.

Palestinian leaders say they were not invited to Washington for Trump's presentation and the plan cannot work without them.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Monday they would not agree to any deal that did secure a viable two-state solution. That formula, the base for many years of frustrated international peace efforts, envisages Israel co-existing with a Palestinian state.

Palestinians have refused to deal with the Trump administration in protest at such pro-Israeli policies as its moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, whose eastern half the Palestinians seek for a future capital.

They denounced a $50 billion economic revival plan the Trump administration set forth last July to boost the Palestinian and neighbouring Arab state economies because the proposal did nothing to address Israeli occupation.

Palestinian and Arab sources who were briefed on the draft fear it seeks to bribe Palestinians into accepting Israeli occupation, in what could be a prelude to Israel annexing about half of the West Bank including most of the Jordan Valley, the strategic and fertile easternmost strip of the territory.

Further obstacles to a peace deal include the expansion of Israeli settlements on occupied land and the rise to power in Gaza of the Islamist movement Hamas, which is formally committed to Israel's destruction and poses a major security threat.

The Trump administration in November reversed decades of U.S. policy when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington no longer regarded the settlements on West Bank land as a breach of international law.

Palestinians and most of the international community view the settlements as illegal, which Israel disputes.

DOUBLE TROUBLE

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said both Trump and Netanyahu were looking to change the subject from their own domestic troubles.

"The problem is it doesn't feel like this is the beginning of an important initiative," Alterman said.

Trump was impeached in the House of Representatives last month and is on trial in the Senate on abuse of power charges.

Netanyahu faces a likely trial on corruption charges. On Tuesday he withdrew his bid for parliamentary immunity from prosecution. Both men deny any wrongdoing.

(Additional reporting by Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem, Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Dan Williams and Steven Holland in Washington; Editing by Angus MacSwan)