Stateless in Gaza

Gaza can no longer be left to rot

This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Many years ago — shortly after Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin’s infamous White House handshake, overseen by a beaming Bill Clinton — I stood on the shore of what might have been a spectacular beach in Gaza.

Spectacular because it faced the roaring Mediterranean, but the beach was covered in trash and reeked of open sewage. Electrical supply was random. The fishermen who could have profited from the resources of the sea were hampered by the rules of Israel’s occupation and embargoes that remain in place today.

I looked out to the sea with a Palestinian friend, Ahmed. He had been imprisoned and tortured in an Israeli prison for his activism. At that moment, just after the handshake, I was hopeful that Palestine would see some form of self-determination in my lifetime. The Oslo Peace Accords were far from perfect. But they had ended the first intifada. We talked of where an airport might be built in Gaza; what would happen if there were economic equality between Israel and Palestine.

My friend was less hopeful than I was that day. Being Palestinian meant he understood bitter compromises and a life of crushed promises more than anyone.

A two-state solution will never happen

So much has happened since then. I lost touch with Ahmed, despite returning to Israel/Palestine dozens of times: after the assassination of Rabin by a fanatical right-wing Jewish student in 1995; during the period when Gaza was home to the PLO and Yasser Arafat; after the second intifada kicked off; for Arafat’s death; during the election of Hamas; during more wars, more misery. One day I realised that I was speaking to grown men and women who were the children of those I had interviewed when I started my career, during the first intifada back in the late 1980s. Now they were grown, but there was still no peace. If anything, the plight of the Palestinians was even worse.

For some, the two-state solution proposed by Oslo which saw an independent Palestine alongside the State of Israel, seemed a viable solution. Others saw it as hegemonic — as were the 2000 Camp David Accords. But after May’s brutal Israeli-Hamas fighting, with Israel’s threats to demolish more homes, with hundreds dead, mainly Palestinians — including 67 children — and with Israel’s attacks on journalists, it is clear that a two-state solution will never happen.

Then there were this year’s elections. Naftali Bennett, who is even further to the right than Benjamin Netanyahu, rejects any peace talks. He has said he vehemently opposes a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and wants to annex much of the West Bank. His awkward coalition does have the Ra’am Party — stitched into it, but they have focused on issues such as more resources for Arab communities rather than on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

For Palestinians, two states would mean the status quo that Israel has grown comfortable with: the land grabbing, the humiliation, the subjugation that has become standard practice since 1948, which the Palestinians call the nakbah, or catastrophe, and the Israelis call independence.

Their focus now is not so much on learning to live with Israel, but on ending the occupation. More importantly, international voices, as well as liberal Israelis, academics, journalists and policymakers, are demanding equal rights for Palestinians inside the Green Line but also in Gaza and the West Bank.

Even the United States, long the “unwavering supporter” in the words of President Joe Biden, has taken a step back to examine Palestinian (lack of) human rights.

Policymakers must work on dismantling the system of control

Dr Tareq Baconi, a Senior Analyst from Crisis Group, is one of the growing number of experts and analysts I have spoken to recently who say that without equality, there is no chance for peace. “In its pursuit of the two-state solution, the international community has facilitated the entrenchment of a one-state reality of unequal rights between the river and the sea,” Baconi says. “Not only is it difficult to imagine the notion of geographic partition between Israel and Palestine, but the Israeli political system openly resists any notion of Palestinian sovereignty anywhere across the land, and continues instead to pursue policies of creeping annexation and colonization.”

Instead of focusing on the political framework a resolution might take, Baconi says, policymakers must instead work on dismantling the system of control that the Israeli government uses to subjugate the Palestinian people. “Only once Israel is brought to account for its violations of international law will the makings of a political resolution come into focus.”

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, brought up in Paris by his stepfather, recently said in Jerusalem that the two-state solution is “probably the only way to really assure that going forward, Israel has a future as a secure Jewish and democratic state …”

But that would have to be a state that isn’t ruling over disenfranchised and oppressed Palestinians. “We believe that Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely; to enjoy equal measures of freedom, opportunity, and democracy [and] to be treated with dignity,” Blinken later said. The words “equal measures” are key here — and unique.

This points out that even Biden — who has supported Israel devotedly in the past — and his Vice President, Kamala Harris, who gave a keynote speech several years ago to the influential lobbying group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), must address Palestinian rights: not just those in the West Bank and Gaza but Israel’s Arab citizens as well.

Sarah Leah Whitson, the former director of Human Rights Watch Middle East and currently executive director of DAWN (Democracy for the Arab World Now), an NGO founded by the late journalist Jamal Khashoggi, goes one step further.

Israeli authorities are guilty of apartheid

Whitson argues that the terms “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing” have now entered the mainstream narrative. “What is new and qualitatively different is the vigorous and unapologetic analytic criticism of Israel — and U.S. policy that has provided it with billions in annual, unconditional military support for the past several decades — that has seeped into mainstream discourse,” she wrote recently in The American Progressive.

Whitson’s words, and the actions of numerous American Congressmen and Senators who stood up to condemn Israel’s 11-day bombardment of Gaza, followed publication of a recent and painstakingly detailed report by Human Rights Watch which concluded that Israeli authorities are guilty of crimes of apartheid and persecution.

For Israel, which prides itself on being a democracy in the Middle East, it was a heavy blow to be labelled with a sobriquet used in South Africa during its darkest period of history.

The two-state solution would hold the status quo of a state that imposes Jewish ethno-national supremacy. Instead what Palestinians need, Whitson and others argue, are equal rights on all fronts: voting, political participation, national rights.

But how would this kind of peace look, realistically? What if Gazans were allowed to fully develop their tremendous potential? Gaza has a 98 per cent literacy rate, a population of energetic and highly motivated young people who could become successful entrepreneurs if only Israel’s crippling embargo was lifted.

Getting back to apartheid: if Israel were deemed a pariah state would it actually care? Jared Kushner’s foolish “Abraham Accords” established diplomatic relations with Gulf countries (without consulting the Palestinians), but Israel is increasingly looking to allies further afield — illiberal democracies such as India, Brazil and Chad.

The New York Times even went so far recently as to say that as Israel’s dependence on the US for military and diplomatic support shrinks, so does the US leverage over their actions. It pointed out that Washington DC “is no longer essential to their survival”. Israel produces much of its essential weapons domestically and has made new diplomatic alliances in what the New York Times refers to as “the other friends” policy.

Palestinians will no longer accept subjugation

Meanwhile, Israeli citizens are accustomed to being occupiers. Liberals have been shunted aside; polls in Israel show most citizens have lost interest in any kind of peace process. They see the current situation as tolerable. This is not the second intifada where suicide bombers are killing Israeli citizens. Today the destructive power of the Israeli forces have succeeded in pushing the burden overwhelmingly on to the Gazans. Conflict deaths, once three-to-one Palestinian-to-Israeli, are now closer to 20-to-one.

As for the Palestinians, a fractured relationship between Hamas, who control Gaza (they were elected in 2006 partly out of desperation for change from the misery) and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank contribute to the misery of the population even further. That division is advantageous to the Israelis, who want to see a split rather than Palestinian unity.

But there are distinct changes. If something came from the terrible 11 days of misery that Gazans endured under Israeli bombs, it is a kind of reckoning. The Palestinians (and by that, I do not mean Hamas, as nearly every Palestinian I know does not support them) might have lost the military battle, but they won the hearts and minds campaign.

Writing recently in Al Jazeera, Haidar Eid, a professor from Al-Aqsa University in Gaza said the new unity that Palestinians demonstrated in the wake of the bombing marked the rise of a new consciousness — one that will no longer accept subjugation.

“We have been told to accept Israeli occupation in its ugliest form — the apartheid wall, the colonies, the checkpoints, the segregated roads, the colour-coded number plates, the forced evictions and house demolitions, the ‘security coordination’, the arrests, torture and imprisonment …”

Eid says a new era is beginning where a “paradigm shift from separatism, as represented by the two-state solution — which aims to establish a Palestinian Bantustan and deny the rights of millions to their land — to full Palestinian unity”.

This was more or less echoed by Marwan Muasher, the former Jordanian Foreign Minister and current VP for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace during a panel I recently moderated for CAABU, the Council for Arab-British Understanding.

Even North Korea slammed Israel

The shift has extended to social media. The hashtag #PalestinianLivesMatter was likened to #BlackLivesMatter. Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba plucked a Palestinian flag from a fan and raised it with teammate Amad Diallo on the playing field at the height of the Gaza bombing: a public display for Palestine that would never have happened five years ago. “Pray for Palestine,” he wrote later on his Instagram account. “Let’s keep our world safe and free from violence.” Even North Korea slammed Israel for turning Gaza into a “human slaughterhouse”.

Meanwhile, back in Gaza, the humanitarian situation is even worse than it was on my last trip there, just before Covid. Two million people live on a piece of land 41 by 12 kilometers long: the third most densely populated polity in the world. According to data gathered by the UN after the last hostilities, hundreds of housing and commercial units were destroyed. Hospitals, clinics and one of the only Covid testing centres were damaged, and 400,000 people had no access to regular piped water. Thousands of people were displaced in Gaza — which was already one of the world’s biggest refugee camps.

What we know is that Gaza can no longer be ignored and left to rot. The growing Palestinian population will soon outnumber the Jewish one — and the generations that follow will be marked by deep trauma, anger, helplessness. That alone is a lethal combination. They will not settle for the status quo of occupation that their parents did. If the last round of fighting did nothing else, it made the call and the will to end the occupation even more urgent.

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