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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 July 2018

Desperation is palpable among the Palestinians

There is no international body willing to curtail Israeli occupation as major powers largely support it, writes Antony Loewenstein
Palestinians wait on the Israeli side of the Erez terminal to cross to Gaza Strip. Tsafrir Abayov / AP Photo
Palestinians wait on the Israeli side of the Erez terminal to cross to Gaza Strip. Tsafrir Abayov / AP Photo

A group of old women sat outside in plastic chairs on a warm, Gaza day and sang traditional Palestinian songs. It was a happy mood at the Aged Care Foundation, the only community club for the elderly in the entire territory of two million people.

The head of the organisation, Nadia Alhashim, told me that there was a desperate need for her group because of social isolation in Gaza. “Old people are bored at home,” she said, “and we organise entertainment like dabke dancing, trips to the beach and exercise. It puts a smile on their faces.”

Men and women meet separately three times a week to share laughs and advice. Ms Alhashim said that the ­Israeli- and Egyptian-imposed siege on Gaza, now 10 years old, deprived many Gazans of essential medication and care including cancer treatment.

Om Ali Suhayla Abdu Al Qader Abulalreesh, 63, who lives with her mentally ill son in dire conditions, sang joyously to forget her problems and please her friends. It was a brief respite from the desperate, humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

The people of Palestine are often forgotten amid the calamities befalling the Middle East. Although the Israel/Palestine conflict was once a stated priority of successive American administrations, such attention only led to further misery and the entrenchment of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. Palestinian freedom would, probably, come sooner if Washington disengaged from the region entirely.

There are now at least 700,000 Israeli settlers living illegally in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Nobody seriously believes that these people will be forced to leave, so the situation is relatively permanent. What this means for the future of the Jewish state is grim with endless legislation aimed at delegitimising free speech and association. I’ve lost count of the number of leftist Israelis who’ve told me that they’re looking for ways to leave the country, because they are disillusioned with the nation’s direction and have no hope that it will improve.

The Palestinian people, bereft of capable leadership, are dealt an awful hand. Former president Barack Obama, while speaking critically about Israeli colonisation, did nothing concrete to stop it. He granted Israel its biggest aid package in history – $38 billion (Dh140bn) over 10 years. Mr Obama is rightly seen in Palestine as a key enabler of Israeli intransigence. The Trump administration is partly following the Obama playbook. Rhetorically, Washington is showing a more permissive attitude to continuing settlement expansion in the West Bank, which is funded by Jewish Americans and evangelical Christian groups whose contributions are tax deductible. Donald Trump also appointed a hard-line, settlement backer, David Friedman, as his ambassador to Israel. And yet Mr Trump’s team still talks about the dead-on-arrival, two-state solution and curbing settlement activity. It’s no wonder that settler groups are questioning their initial excitement over Mr Trump’s win.

It’s easy to believe that the Israeli-Washington relationship is in fine shape. During the recent conference of Israeli lobby group American-Israel Public Affairs Comittee (Aipac) in Washington, speaker after speaker praised Israel’s thriving democracy and America’s commitment to it. Palestinians were ignored.

Although large protests were held outside the Aipac event, organised by the young Jewish group IfNotNow, with the message, “Jews won't be free until Palestinians are free”, both Democrats and Republicans are overwhelmingly supportive of Israel.

With the Israeli occupation of Palestine now lasting 50 years, this is forcing advocates to consider alternative tactics. A Lebanon-based United Nations agency that recently released a report claiming Israel was practising apartheid is formulating a document that will investigate “the cost of the Israeli occupation” of the Palestinian territories by using examples from apartheid South Africa and slavery in America.

It’s an interesting approach considering there is virtually no discussion in Palestine or Israel itself about how the conflict could be ended. Would there be a formal apology, financial compensation and then a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

Back in Gaza, the mood is dark. Israel refuses to allow out many of the Palestinians who want to leave the besieged Strip, for no discernible reason other than spurious “security concerns”. The Rafah checkpoint, controlled by Egypt, is also largely sealed.

The Israeli media is filled with ominous reports of another inevitable conflict between Israel and Hamas. Neither side would benefit from such a war. During my recent visits to Gaza, I saw the effects of the last battle, in 2014, and the many Palestinians who remain homeless or living in squalid conditions because Israel refused to allow in enough rebuilding materials.

I once thought that the status quo in Israel and Palestine wasn’t sustainable and that occupation couldn’t last for ever. I’ve changed my view. Today there is no international body willing to curtail Israeli behaviour, while Washington and the European Union largely support it. Without serious outside pressure, Palestinians will remain eternally under the Israeli boot.

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author in Jerusalem