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Have the Palestinians been written off, or did Israel leave Hamas with no option?

In the early hours of Sunday May 16, multiple Israeli attacks destroyed the homes of two senior doctors in Gaza as they slept. Dr Ayman Abu al-Ouf, head of internal medicine at the Shifa hospital, was killed, along with his wife, parents, aunt and three children. Moen al-Aloul, a retired neurologist, died with his wife and their five children. It is not known why the doctors were hit – the Israel army claims to attack only terrorists – but the debris from the attacks made roads around the hospital impassable to ambulances, with rescuers carrying the wounded over the rubble for several hundred metres.

The case of the doctors’ families is a snapshot, but it is all too ordinary. Women and children make up almost half of the Gaza death toll – now more than 200 – with some multigenerational families eradicated. Apart from expressions of concern over the destruction of a block housing the Associated Press news agency and Al Jazeera network, foreign governments have generally restricted their comments to simple calls for a ceasefire.

Women and children make up almost half of the Gaza death toll

This is the fourth time that Israel has rained death and destruction on Gaza since 2008. For some outsiders, this regular sacrifice of blood might seem justified as the price Palestinians must pay for harbouring Hamas, the missile-armed Islamic Resistance Movement. But that view is too simple. If Israeli punitive firepower is so effective, why does it have to be repeated so frequently? Some background can explain why the crisis happened again this time, and why it cannot be allowed to recur.

One of the sparks that led to the conflagration was rising tension in the Sheikh Jarrah area of East Jerusalem where Jewish settlers allied to the Israeli government are trying, with the support of the Israeli courts, to evict eight Palestinian families who have lived there legally since 1956. This is a process of house-by-house ethnic cleansing that been going on since 1972, spearheaded by Jewish extremist groups with the long-term aim of driving the Arabs out of Jerusalem. The settler extremists do not deny their goal of judaising the holy city - ‘In blood and fire we’ll kick out the Arabs’ is one of their chants – which gives the lie to the claim of Israeli officials that the issue is merely a ‘real estate dispute’.

Palestinian feelings were further inflamed when Israeli police tried to control evening outdoor gatherings during Ramadan, supposedly a Covid control measure, but one which did not seem to apply to Jewish religious festivals. The tension culminated in a pitched battle with Israeli police storming the Al Aqsa mosque and injuring hundreds of Palestinian youths with rubber-tipped bullets. Such heavy-handed policing in a sacred place opened the way for Hamas to step up as guardian of the Jerusalem’s Islamic heritage. A volley of its crude Qassam missiles – made of irrigation pipes and fertiliser – towards Israeli towns and cities prompted overwhelming Israeli retaliation. Most of the rockets were stopped by interceptor missiles, at a cost of $40,000 each, but still 12 Israeli residents have died.

This chain of events was entirely expected. One does not have to condone the use of unguided missiles to understand the politics that motivates Hamas. In recent months the Palestinians have been abandoned by all sides – the Arab states turn a blind eye, the international community hardly cares, and the Americans under Donald Trump abandoned their policy of lip service to Palestinian statehood in favour of total support for the right-wing Israeli government. In the absence of any peace process or prospect of a Palestinian state, the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank now looks like a foreign-funded puppet of Israel. Having not held an election for 15 years, President Mahmoud Abbas called off legislative elections planned for this month on the grounds that Israel would not allow the residents of East Jerusalem to vote. Everyone knows the real reason – his party would have lost heavily.

In the absence of any peace process or prospect of a Palestinian state, the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank now looks like a foreign-funded puppet of Israel

This desperate situation the Palestinians find themselves in was summed up in a triumphant article by Jared Kushner, son-in-law of Donald Trump. He wrote in March that the previous administration had fundamentally changed the politics of the Middle East such that ‘we are witnessing the last vestiges of what has been known as the Arab-Israeli conflict’.

It was Kushner who persuaded the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain last year to normalise relations with Israel without a resolution of the fate of the Palestinians, which had previously been the Arab position. According to Kushner, the conflict is now nothing more than ‘a real-estate dispute’ (that phrase again) between Israelis and Palestinians. In a real-estate dispute, things are quite simple – the winner gets to build their project and the loser has to look for a new site elsewhere.

The Palestinians, always the losers, wonder where they will be forced to go. The wholesale dispossession of 1948 is being repeated in the form of salami-slicing in East Jerusalem and on a larger scale in the Israeli government’s desire to annex what is known as ‘Area C ‘– 60 per cent of the occupied West Bank. Existing restrictions make life all-but unliveable for the 300,000 Palestinians who live there, while the number of Jewish settlers has risen to more than 320,000.

As for the rest of the West Bank, all that remains of the dream of a state is some towns and villages under Palestinian self-rule. The settlers and their far-right allies dream of expelling these residents across the river to what is now the Kingdom of Jordan, perhaps with incentives provided by their new friends in Saudi Arabia.

The last piece in this dispiriting scenario is the fate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel has been unable to make up its mind in a series of indecisive elections whether it wants him to stay on as prime minister. Before this current crisis it seemed that he was on the way out, to face bribery, fraud and breach of trust in office. But with the nation united against the threat of Hamas rockets, his fortunes seem to be rising.

This demonstrates on aspect of the conflict that needs to be highlighted: since the Balfour Declaration of 1917 the story of Israel/Palestine has had two sides and it wil continue to do so. After suppressing the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, the Israelis built a wall to close off Palestinian populated areas in the occupied West Bank and locked up Gaza behind barbed wire and naval patrols. They lived quietly behind these defences - until Hamas responded by developing missiles.

As they are unguided, they can legitimately be seen as a weapon designed to terrorise the population. But it is legitimate too to argue that it was a mistake to exclude Hamas from any peace talks and to annul the Palestinian election of 2007 because Hamas won a majority. The effect of these decisions has been to preserve a neutered Palestinian national movement in the West Bank which is despised by all, while handing the banner of resistance to Hamas.

Many Palestinians have no interest in the Islamic agenda of Hamas and recognise that its declared goal of expelling the Jews from Palestine is never going to happen. But it did show some flexibility in 2017, suggesting it would accept a Palestinian state on land outside Israel’s pre-1967 borders – an idea instantly dismissed by Netanyahu. The current crisis will end with a catastrophic military defeat for Hamas in Gaza – it could never be otherwise given the disparity between the two sides. But it may produce a political victory.

A sign of that came on Tuesday (May 18) when a general strike in support of the people of Gaza, for the first time in living memory, was followed by Palestinian citizens of Israel, residents of East Jerusalem and those living under occupation. As the diverse categories of Palestinians inside and outside the state of Israel found a new sense of unity, Israeli towns with mixed populations of Jews and Arabs erupted into what some mayors have called ‘civil war’. One-fifth of the population of the state are Arab-Israelis – many of whom now prefer to identify as ‘Palestinian citizens of Israel’. Reports from Jaffa speak of mobs of settlers and far-right activists assaulting Israeli Arabs with the connivance or active involvement of the police.

This is damaging of the international image of Israel, which has presented itself as a constitutional democracy. With no peace process and no state on offer for the Palestinians, B’Tselem, the leading Israeli human rights organisation, is now using the term ‘apartheid’ to describe the governance both inside Israel and in the occupied territories.

B’Tselem, the leading Israeli human rights organisation, is now using the term ‘apartheid’ to describe the governance both inside Israel and in the occupied territories

A similar change in vocabulary is seen on social media where young people use ‘ethnic cleansing’ in place of ‘real estate dispute’ and ‘colonisation’ rather than ‘settlement’. Words do not kill, of course. But they indicate that as the memory of Israel as a refuge for victims of the Holocaust fades, Israel’s claim to democracy is not a given.

Kushner can write the Palestinians off with the stroke of his pen, but whatever the power of Israel’s army, economy, tech industry and PR machine, the under-dog will always be there. Unless Israel has something to offer the Palestinians beyond high explosive, they cannot continue to control a subject population and call themselves democratic – with or without Netanyahu.

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