2023 Yearender: Apartheid in Gaza

Alaa Al-Mashharawi, Thursday 21 Dec 2023

Western support for Israel is fraying as a result of the atrocities it has been carrying out in the Gaza war, opening up new possibilities for the Palestinians, writes Alaa Al-Mashharawi in Gaza

Gaza

 

The Israeli war of genocide against Gaza, now in its third month, has upended the global political and moral balance as the impacts of the war expose the hideous face of the Israeli occupation of Palestine to Western public opinion.

Virtually overnight, the catastrophe that is befalling Palestinian civilians has become the lead story on US and Western news channels, and the Palestinian cause has risen in priority in international forums after a long period of de-prioritisation or indifference.

At last, many basic truths regarding the Palestinian people’s plight have struck home, overcoming decades of Israeli falsehoods, coverups, and denials. As a result, their cause has won unprecedented degrees of public sympathy abroad, while support for Israel has plummeted at both the popular and governmental levels in reaction to the atrocities it is perpetrating in Gaza.

In the face of unprecedented public pressure on behalf of the Palestinian right to life and dignity, officials in the US and Europe have been forced to backtrack on their uncritical support for Israel and to reaffirm their commitment to the pursuit of a just peace based on the two-state solution.

This has infuriated Israel, which has plunged headlong into a Gazan quagmire that is claiming more and more Israeli military casualties and prisoners of war.

Nevertheless, the war continues, and the Palestinian humanitarian crisis worsens. Indiscriminate Israeli bombardments and artillery fire continue to kill or wound hundreds of innocent civilians everyday. The tens of thousands who have been forcibly displaced southwards in the Gaza Strip still find nowhere to be safe from the constant shelling from the air, sea, and land.

Because of the suffocating siege of the Strip cutting off food, water, and fuel, tens of thousands of displaced families face hunger, a lack of shelter, and the spread of disease, while the trickle of humanitarian relief allowed into Gaza makes no dent on the suffering and offers little sustenance for hope.

The UN and international relief and human rights organisations have reiterated dire warnings and urgent appeals, but to no avail.

The Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October, known as the Al-Aqsa Flood Operation, took Israel completely by surprise. Its scale and timing exposed an Israeli intelligence failure and delivered a stunning blow to the prestige of the Israeli military and political establishment.

The operation, as its name suggests, was a response to the Israeli occupation and to Israeli settlers’ repeated violations of the sanctity of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem. However, as Fayez Abu Shamala, a Gazan member of the Palestinian National Council (PNC), told Al-Ahram Weekly, while Hamas may not have stated its political aims, the operation did yield political results.

Saudi Arabia has suspended its normalisation process with Israel. The US/Western-supported Israeli plan to forcibly drive Palestinians into Egypt and Jordan has fallen through. Israel’s Western backers have reaffirmed the need to establish a Palestinian state as a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. They have also dismissed the notion of a direct Israeli reoccupation and administration of Gaza and called for a new Palestinian administration to govern it after the war.

Decrying the ongoing Israeli attacks against civilian housing, schools, mosques, churches, hospitals, refugee camps, ambulances and journalists, and other civilians and civilian installations, Abu Shamala said that “the Israeli aggression against Gaza has exposed the huge level of Western support for Israel, to the degree that they have sent in aircraft carriers to keep the war from expanding in a way that might threaten Israel.”

“However, the grassroots support in the West for the Palestinians has also grown tremendously. Massive demonstrations have been calling for a ceasefire and an end to this war that is deliberately targeting Palestinian women, children, the elderly and other defenceless civilians.”

HAMAS AIMS

The surprise attack by Hamas has ushered in a new phase in the confrontation between the Palestinian resistance factions in Gaza and Israel.

Having refused to join the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in three rounds of fighting against Israel over the past five years, Hamas came under increasing criticism from political adversaries and supporters alike for preferring rule over resistance.

It appeared to have succumbed to Israel’s stratagem of neutralising it, whereas it turns out that Hamas was playing a quiet game of deception for several years as a kind of camouflage for the Al-Aqsa Flood Operation.

When the Al-Qassam Brigades struck, they not only had the element of surprise, but they also were able to demonstrate qualitative advances in the skills and performance of the Al-Qassam fighters, who were able to inflict unprecedented human, moral and economic losses on Israel.

According to Gaza-based researcher and writer Azzam Shaath, Hamas had planned the operation well. It had built up an army of fighters and equipped them with the arms and ammunition to take on Israel on land, in the air, and at sea.

The heads of the Hamas Political Bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, and of the Al-Qassam Brigades, Mohamed Al-Deif, stated the purpose of the Al-Aqsa Operation in their first communique after the fighters’ launched their incursion into the Israeli bases and settlements in the Gaza envelope.

They described the operation as “a response to the Israeli settlers’ repeated storming of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and the continual Israeli aggressions in the West Bank.”

Hamas thus carried out its earlier threats that it would not tolerate the Israeli violations of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and in the process it linked the cause of Jerusalem to Gaza and to the question of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. The linkage implemented a “unity of the arenas” in the struggle, which was another aim of the boldest resistance operation in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

 “The operation had many hidden motives and aims. Foremost among them was the determination to change the conditions that Israel had imposed on Gaza since its unilateral disengagement in 2005,” Shaath said.

“Israel continued to control life in Gaza from the air, sea, and land, while attempting to evade its legal and administrative responsibilities as an occupying power under international law. The economic and social circumstances in Gaza steadily worsened, especially after Hamas won the legislative elections in 2006 and then seized control over the Strip militarily in 2006-7, at which point Israel imposed a gruelling blockade that has lasted more than 16 years.”

“The increasingly dire conditions in Gaza combined with the Palestinian factional rift hampered whatever chances there were of Hamas developing a successful model of government and administration,” he said.

Another aim of the operation was to put paid to the rationale of “economic peace” under which Israel would purchase security in exchange for a series of interim economic ease-ups and facilities, Shaath said. This has been the policy of successive Israeli governments as an alternative to a genuine comprehensive political settlement with the Palestinians.

Although Hamas did benefit from some of the economic measures, these did not come close to mitigating the strains of mounting unemployment and poverty, for which both Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) are ultimately responsible.

“The Hamas Operation of 7 October catapulted the Palestinian cause to the top of the international political agenda,” political analyst Nidal Khadra told the Weekly.

“It also destroyed the Israeli authorities’ notion of a low-cost occupation of Palestine, and it upset the normalisation projects that envisioned assimilating Israel into the Middle East while bypassing Palestinian rights and demands.”

As the appalling crimes that Israel has perpetrated against civilians in Gaza unfold on the world’s television screens, Israel as a putative “oasis of democracy in the Middle East” has totally lost its credibility, Khadra said.

“It will henceforth be impossible to erase the spectacle of indiscriminate bloodshed and wanton brutality from people’s minds. Israel’s flagrant disregard for the most basic principles of international law and human rights has caused even some Western leaders and UN officials to lose their patience and criticise it in the harshest terms, including by accusing it of perpetrating genocide and other crimes of war and crimes against humanity.”

Hamas first unveiled its concept of the “unity of arenas” in the struggle against the Israeli occupation in 2021 in the “Battle of the Sword of Jerusalem,” which Israel called “Operation Guardian of the Walls.”

During that battle, according to political analyst Riham Awda, the Palestinian resistance demonstrated the principle of unity on all fronts, whether in the Occupied Territories or elsewhere in neighbouring Arab countries where the resistance is present, such as Lebanon and Syria.

Awda said that the “unity of arenas” had created a new equation in the conflict with Israel by dint of the high-level coordination between the Palestinian resistance factions and what has been termed the “axis of Islamic resistance” led by Hizbullah in Lebanon with support from Iran.

Thus, “all the militant Palestinian groups work out of a joint operations room based in Gaza and on a single cohesive front, which is defined, not geographically, but as wherever the Palestinian resistance forces are present.

We saw this in action during the current war when Hizbullah and Hamas-affiliated groups in Lebanon fired rockets from southern Lebanon at targets in northern Israel,” Awda said.

“The concept also played out in the West Bank, where in retaliation for the crimes Israel is committing in Gaza, Palestinians have been rising up against Israeli soldiers and settlers across the West Bank and in Occupied Jerusalem.”

Awda believes that as the war against Gaza continues, West Bank Palestinian youths will escalate their responses, which might include shootings, stabbings, and hit-and-run attacks against settlers and the Israeli soldiers deployed in the West Bank and Occupied Jerusalem to support the settlers.

Tensions may also increase between the young activists and PA security forces. After hundreds of civilians were killed and wounded in the Israeli missile attack against the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza, clashes broke out between dozens of angry protesters and PA security forces in Ramallah.

The demonstrators were furious at the PA forces for turning against their own people instead of taking revenge against Israeli forces for the Palestinian civilian lives lost in Gaza. Both Gaza and the West Bank are careening towards dangerous brinks that threaten an escalation that could ignite other fronts in the region and a major political and security crisis in the Middle East.

They also threaten an even worse humanitarian disaster for the civilians in Gaza.

ISRAEL’S FUTURE

In exposing Israel’s security and defence fragility, the Hamas attack has called into question the future existence of Israel.

Western support for Israel at the governmental level and among political parties and movements, including opposition movements that are traditionally sympathetic to the Palestinians, is based on Israel’s right to exist and to security.

This has always meant that the Western focus has been on the most effective means to guarantee these Israeli rights, in which regard Western views have been divided between unmitigated support for Israeli military/security solutions and advocacy of a peace settlement that provides for a Palestinian state in a framework that ensures Israel’s perpetual security first and foremost.

In this latter framework, it is important to examine the discourse of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), which has recognised Israel’s right to exist and its security needs, as well as, more recently, the Hamas discourse and documents, which have advocated long-term truces and even support for the two-state solution.

Nidal Khadra draws attention to how the Israeli war on Gaza has exposed the vast gap between how the Arabs view the Palestinian question and how the West reads it.

In Western eyes, Ukraine has suffered an unacceptable Russian occupation and thus has the right to resist. But the same standard has not applied to Palestine and the Palestinian cause, which Western officialdom has seen as just another Middle Eastern headache. Now, however, Western opinion is beginning to shift.

“The Palestinians have an excellent opportunity to set the Palestinian cause on course to a just solution, starting by reunifying the Palestinian government in the West Bank and Gaza and formulating a unified vision. What is important is to move from a reactive to a proactive footing to ensure that Palestinian sacrifices are not for nothing,” Khadra said.

“They have the advantage of the fact that Israel’s sole accomplishment is the gratuitous murder of civilians, exposing the hideous face behind the veneer of Western-style sophistication whose boast of being the sole democracy in the region has crumbled.”

When the war ends, which will happen sooner or later, who will rule Gaza? As the Palestinian writer and politician Nabil Amr has observed, this question had arisen periodically before the current war, with every confrontation between Israel and Hamas.

Amr notes that since the war began the PA has rightly declared on several occasions that it will not return to Gaza on Israeli tanks. Egypt refuses to shoulder the responsibilities of the Israeli occupying power, whether on its own or in partnership with another Arab partner, although it has promised to offer support and assistance.

If the intra-Palestinian schism had been resolved and elections had been held in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem in which Hamas and all the other factions took part, the question would probably not have arisen, Amr writes.

But that was not the case, and now it arises again, and he says that “there is no logical justification for proposing a detailed scenario to answer this question, as long as the war is raging, and as long as the coming chapters herald the expansion of the area of destruction in Gaza and the West Bank, not to mention the possibilities of the outbreak of a regional war that no one can definitively assert whether it will occur or not.”

 “In this situation, the conclusions of which are still ambiguous, the Palestinians and their Arab allies, led by Egypt, which has a historical, geographical, and strategic connection to Gaza, should have a conclusive and unequivocal answer. This answer, which must be based on a Palestinian and national will, begins with ending the division [of the Palestinians] as an inevitable condition.”

“There is nothing that prevents the continuation of efforts in this direction, even during the war. When this goal is achieved, those who have reservations about the PLO will go back on their doubts, while everyone will join its frameworks and institutions. Its National Council will be inclusive of all sects, including those who oppose its programmes and policies.”

Amr said that the PLO, despite having been scorned by its people and allowed to fuse into the PA and lose its distinct advantages, is still in the eyes of the world the highest and most widely recognised embodiment of Palestinian legitimacy. This should not be forsaken under any circumstances. The continued disintegration of the national frame-of-reference and the fraying of its legitimacy would be very dangerous, as it not only begs the question as to who will rule Gaza but also the question as to who will rule the Palestinian Territories as a whole.

He concludes that after the war there must be an overriding certainty that there must be no room for liquidating the Palestinian cause.

For Amr, this end is achievable. World opinion is now almost fully convinced that Israel’s continued battles in the region serve no rational end and that the US/Western indulgence of Israel will only produce more wars against Gaza and the West Bank amidst growing alarm that these will spark a wider and massively destructive regional war.

Therefore, he writes, in the period following the war the Palestinians must reorder their house and bring about national unity and an all-embracing political vision. There must be a political system built on the foundations of electoral processes from the presidential and parliamentary levels down to the local council and sectoral levels.

“This is not impossible to achieve,” Amr said. “Working towards this end is the essential path to keeping the Palestinian people, their cause, and their rights front and centre in regional and international calculations.”

“Although the time has come to rue our neglect of Palestinian institutions, it is not too late to rectify the sins of the past.”

The Palestinian story will not end with the war on Gaza and the West Bank, but rather with a solution that satisfies the needs and aspirations of the Palestinian people. “That solution cannot rest on the current status quo,” Amr concluded.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 21 December, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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