Thursday 13 May 2021

The roots of Palestinian anger

Why have Palestinians erupted into violence yet again?

Let us count the ways:

Because Palestinian families in the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, which has been under Israeli occupation for more than 50 years, are facing forcible eviction to make way for Jewish settlers.

Because Israeli security forces prevented Palestinian worshippers from gathering at the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem to mark the final days of the holy month of Ramadan.

Because during the coronavirus pandemic, they have seen Israel praised around the world for its stunning vaccine successes, while they waited in vain.

Because the Trump administration moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, a city whose status is still to be resolved, and helped to negotiate so-called peace accords, over the heads of the Palestinians, between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.  

In other words, because they feel forgotten and ignored. For more than half a century, they have lived under military occupation and the world has moved on. Even their own leaders treat them with contempt: elections scheduled for later this month have now been ‘suspended indefinitely’. They would have been the first such elections for fifteen years; President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah group were widely expected to be defeated if the polls had gone ahead.

As for Hamas, the Iranian-backed Islamist group which has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007, the rising tensions could not have come at a more opportune moment. President Abbas is now 85 years old and widely regarded as presiding over a grotesquely ineffective and corrupt Palestinian administration, and Hamas’s sponsors in Tehran are keen to flex their muscles during difficult negotiations over reinstating the nuclear non-proliferation deal that was ripped up by President Trump.

Hamas’s heartless cynicism matches that of the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It knows that the only way it can capture the world’s attention is by unleashing barrages of largely ineffective rockets into Israel in the full knowledge that it will provoke a fearsome Israeli military response and TV images of Gaza under bombardment yet again.

For decades, the official Israeli mindset regarding Palestinian resistance to its military occupation has been that of a heavyweight boxer raining punches against an opponent already on the ropes. It is convinced that when the punishment becomes too much to bear, the opponent will surrender.

It didn’t work for the French in Algeria or the Americans in Vietnam. The Russians in Chechnya and the Chinese in Tibet and Xinjiang have tried the same tactic; perhaps it has worked better for them.

Many Israelis, probably most Israelis, have been happy to live with the status quo. They can go about their daily lives untroubled by the festering sore that is the unresolved conflict with their neighbours. Now, after years of a steady slide to the extreme right in the Israeli parliament, gangs of Jewish lynch mobs are reported to be on the rampage against Arab targets, smashing shop windows and pulling drivers from their cars. (Twenty per cent of Israeli citizens are Arabs.)

It is as ugly as it has ever been.

I have been following the Israel-Palestinian conflict for more than 35 years, ever since I was based in Jerusalem as Middle East correspondent for The Observer in the mid-1980s. I used to live less than a five-minute drive away from Sheikh Jarrah and returned frequently during the 1990s and 2000s to report for the BBC.

In October 2000, at the start of what became known as the Second Intifada, I was in Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab city, when 13 Arab Israeli civilians were shot dead by Israeli police. I wrote a piece at the time in which I reported that what worried me most then was ‘what seems to be a total loss of confidence on both sides in the idea that problems can be solved by negotiation.’

Since then, things have got much, much worse. We can argue for ever over who fired the first shot or the first rocket, and who retaliated for what. It will do no good, and Palestinians and Israelis – far more of the former than the latter – will continue to die.

Many years ago, a senior Israeli peace negotiator – in the days when such people still existed – told me that the conflict would not end until both sides had tired of killing each other’s children.

I would put it another way: the conflict will not end until Israelis accept that they cannot continue to oppress Palestinians indefinitely.