The Jerusalem embassy syndrome

 
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By Khaled Diab

The problem is not the new US embassy in Jerusalem. The problem is the reality which surrounds and underpins it.

All Donald Trump had to do was install a new plaque reading “embassy” at the US consulate in Jerusalem, get his daughter, Ivanka, to unveil it and, hey presto, “history”.
Image source: US embassy in Jerusalem’s Facebook page

Friday 18 May 2018

Remember this moment, this is history,” Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu urged the high-flying audience at the inauguration of the US embassy in Jerusalem, while less than 100 km away Israeli snipers were killing dozens of unarmed Palestinian protesters in Gaza and maiming hundreds more. “President Trump, by recognising history, you have made history.”

Netanyahu has set the bar for making history incredibly low. All Donald Trump had to do was install a new plaque reading “embassy” at the US consulate in Arnona, West Jerusalem, get his daughter, Ivanka, to unveil it and, hey presto, “history”.

This is not unlike how Trump operated as an entrepreneur: plonk a sign bearing his name on a skyscraper or casino and, like a conjurer, give the illusion of change without actually changing anything of substance. With Trump, politics and business are all about branding.

The illusion that Trump has made history is aided not just by his cheerleaders but also by his opponents. This is partly because ‘The Donald’ is a dangerously foolish and foolishly dangerous man, but also because he presents a unique opportunity for his predecessors to cover up their own failings by blaming everything on him.

But Trump was not the one who stood idly by and watched as Israel annexed historical Jerusalem and large swathes of the surrounding West Bank and made it their capital. Settlement building in East Jerusalem did not start on Trump’s watch nor did the construction of the wall splitting East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, neither did the demolition of Palestinian homes and the eviction of their tenants. Moreover, the US has officially recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel for nearly a quarter of a century, since the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, so Trump recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is hardly news or new.

This partly explains why the inauguration of the US embassy met with a rather muted response from Palestinian Jerusalemites, not because they are indifferent to their plight but because this minor symbol does not change their situation beyond the symbolic, as a Palestinian colleague from Jerusalem explained. After all, the reality the inauguration represents is one they have been living since 1967 and in accelerated form since the Oslo process began in the 1990s.

Even what has been dubbed as the Great Return March in Gaza to mark seven decades of dispossession, though it was refocused on Jerusalem this week, is only ostensibly and symbolically about the holy city. The demonstrations on Monday, during which Israeli snipers killed at least 58 unarmed Palestinians and wounded hundreds more, were far more about the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the destitution and despair it has created. And it is this massacre of protesters and the incarceration of an entire population which should be the main focus of our outrage.

The mounting death toll in Gaza is causing indignation and anger among Jerusalem’s Palestinians. “It takes unbelievable evilness and a wilful blindness to Palestinian humanity and rights to celebrate the opening of the US embassy in occupied Jerusalem while Israeli troops gun down unarmed people in Gaza,” reflects the prominent Italian-Palestinian journalist and author Rula Jebreal. “East Jerusalem mourns, Palestinian Muslims and Christians mourn their subjugation.”

While the rehousing of the embassy changes nothing of substance, Donald Trump’s presence in the White House and his ending of any pretence that America is a broker, let alone an honest broker, has galvanised Israel’s extremist government and Israeli extremists, who felt somewhat constrained under his predecessor, Barack Obama, despite his lopsided and ineffectual efforts to broker a deal and his staunch support, in words and deeds, for Israel.

Nevertheless, even during these dark and embattled hours, many Palestinian Jerusalemites clasp on to a sense of hope beyond the current despair. “I crave a peace plan where all communities live side by side as equals,” Rula Jebreal dreams.

Such a utopian future of equality is unlikely to come from the leadership, at least none that is currently on the horizon. “Have hope, and faith, not in governments, but in people,” Mahmoud Muna of East Jerusalem’s well-known Educational Bookshop wrote in a public post on Facebook. “Our freedom is not awaiting permission from no one, it is coming and without a knock on the door, it will just come.”

For many years, I have been advocating for a people’s peace achieved through a civil rights struggle for equality because the two-state solution is dead and because America will not bring peace, the Israeli government will not bring peace, and neither Fatah nor Hamas will bring peace. What will bring peace are the peace-lovers in Israel and Palestine joining forces. Only then will peace stand a chance.

—-

An Italian version of this article first appeared in Corriere della Sera on 16 May 2018.

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The case for non-violence in Israel-Palestine

 
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By Khaled Diab

Although violence is all too often the path of least resistance, Israelis and Palestinians urgently need to navigate a peaceful path out of the quagmire.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Thursday 20 October 2016

Two recent incidents in Gaza demonstrated the stark choices being made by those opposed to the Israeli blockade of the territory: the way of the olive branch or of the bomb.

The first involved a group of 13 courageous international peace activists, all of whom were women, including an Irish Nobel peace laureate, a former South African Olympic athlete and a retired American colonel. They were on board a small yacht with the grand name of the Zaytouna-Olivia flotilla, which sought “to break the blockade and celebrate on the shores of Gaza,” according to Wendy Goldsmith, a Canadian on board. Instead, and as was expected, the Israeli navy intercepted the flotilla while it was still in international waters and forced it to dock in Ashdod.

Meanwhile, a previously unknown Salafist group fired a rocket into Israel, which landed claiming no casualties, in the name of their “oppressed brothers and sisters” living under Israeli occupation. As has become routine in such incidents, Israel struck back hard with its superior firepower, bombing numerous targets in Gaza, also with no casualties.

But neither of these incidents would have occurred had Israel and Hamas reached a fair deal to lift the blockade on Gaza.

For all the efforts of mediators and go-betweens and all the reports of planned or indirect negotiations, there has been little or no perceptible change to the status quo since the ceasefire of 26 August 2014, except for the continually deteriorating humanitarian and economic situation in besieged Gaza. War has cost the Strip at least three times its annual GDP and the Israeli blockade has shrunk the economy to a quarter of the size it would have been.

Even these pitiful efforts to carry out a dialogue have been condemned by the hawks, such as far-right Israeli politicians, including current Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and fringe militant groups in Gaza, who prefer war-war to jaw-jaw. Sadly, the ingredients for an explosive new war are packed into a rapidly decaying toxic status quo; all that is missing is the spark.

At the core of the Gaza quagmire is a fundamental misunderstanding of what war and political violence can achieve in the Israeli-Palestinian context. Whenever violence flares up or war unleashes its ugly devastation, Israeli and Palestinian hawks take wing to persuade large portions of their populations that there is no choice but to take up arms and that, this time, a decisive blow, which never actually materialises, will be dealt to the enemy and victory assured.

This attitude is particularly prevalent when it comes to Gaza. For instance, the 2014 war enjoyed almost universal support in Israel, as did the earlier 2012 conflict.

On the other side of the divide, not only did a majority of Palestinians believe, shortly after the end of the 2014 war, the Hamas rhetoric that it had defeated Israel, 86% supported the resumption of rocket attacks if Israel did not lift its blockade of Gaza.

This jingoistic attitude was not just the statistical quirk of overzealous pollsters but reflected a palpable reality. I was taken aback by the antagonism and hostility expressed by normally sensible and moderate Israeli and Palestinian voices I knew, or the wave of attacks my criticism of the war and my advocacy of non-violence provoked at the time.

And these polls hint at one war aim that is never publicly articulated. Both Hamas and the Israeli government may shoot at each other, but these are only proxy targets for the enemy they seem to hate even more than the other side: the Israeli left and centre, on the one hand, and Fatah and the non-Islamist parties, on the other. There’s nothing like a war to silence Netanyahu’s and Hamas’s critics and boost their popularity – at least for as long as the war lasts.

Beyond the cynical manipulation of fear and hatred for short-term gain, there also exists a fundamental misunderstanding of the other side’s mentality – and of human nature itself. There is a widespread conviction among Israelis and Palestinians that the other side only understands the language of violence and, hence, the only way to get them to prick up their ears is to give them a bloody nose, or worse.

But all this achieves is that it breeds a surfeit of bitterness, hatred and outrage on the other side – and the greater the devastation, the greater the resulting determination to seek vengeance. Peaceful resistance and activism, on the other hand, are far more powerful weapons, as was demonstrated by the flotilla.

While the Salafist rocket unlawfully targeting civilians provoked destructive airstrikes and gave Israel a fig leaf for its militarism and unjust blockade, the flotilla caught the entire world’s eye and made Israel look like a bully. This may help explain why some on the Israeli right seem to fear peaceful activism more than violent extremism.

Paradoxically, although this cyclical violence almost invariably fails, its credibility remains undiminished. This is because every shot fired at the enemy eliminates the doves at home who are either shot down in the crossfire or morph into hawks. Bloodshed also strengthens the hands of extremists and fragments the political landscape, until violence becomes the path of least resistance, rather than last resort.

However, if Israelis and Palestinians are to consider abandoning the way of the sword and pursue the way of the word, this moral murkiness and relativism needs to be abandoned by the people who should constitute society’s living conscience.

Just as the ingredients for devastating, outright war are there awaiting yet another spark, the components for navigating a relatively non-violent path out of the impasse are also in place.

Despite the impulse of closing ranks during times of war, a minority of Israeli and Palestinian activists and individual citizens opposed both Israel and Hamas during the Gaza war. Enduring allegations of being sellouts and traitors, not to mention threats to their person, some went as far as to make their criticism public in a number of small anti-war protests.

In addition, movements like Combatants for Peace (which was the subject of a moving documentary), which brings together Israeli and Palestinian refuseniks, reject violence perpetuated by both sides and believe not only that the occupation must be resisted peacefully but that it must be actively opposed by Israelis of conscience as much as it is by Palestinians.

And despite the risks involved and the increasingly shrill opposition to co-operation and co-resistance, Palestinians and Israelis of conscience continue to stand shoulder to shoulder against the occupation in myriad ways, from collaborations to improve daily life to the weekly joint protests in villages like Bil’in.

I regularly pass and, on occasion have joined, the small group of joint protesters in Sheikh Jarrah who come together every Friday, come rain or heatwave, violence or quiet, to oppose in silence the settlement enterprise in East Jerusalem.

So long as these courageous, determined voices remain, no matter how relatively few, hope will continue to flicker. However, I, like so many disillusioned observers, fear that its weak heat may be extinguished, with the worst-case scenario being a multi-fronted Syria-like conflict, involving not just war between Israelis and Palestinians, but also violent civil conflict within each society, as growing polarisation and animosity tears them apart.

Nevertheless, I still hold out hope. As war and violence continue to prove their ineffectiveness, the ranks of those seeking a peaceful alternative path to peace will likely swell over the coming years.  Their power will be unwittingly amplified by the crumbling of the ossified occupation. Although it may appear solid and durable today, the reality of the occupation is more that of a wall of cards than an impenetrable fortress.

As has occurred so many times in the past, once enough people decide, together, to act as a popular opposition, it will be enough to bring the edifice crashing down. This will clear the way for a future founded on, rather than undermining, the potential of two gifted and diverse peoples.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article which first appeared in Haaretz on 6 October 2016.

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Podcast: Palestine’s poster girls

 
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By Khaled Diab

 The changing depiction of women in Palestinian political art reflects the shifting perceptions of their role and position in society.

Photo: ©Nidaa Badwan

Photo: ©Nidaa Badwan

Tuesday 26 January 2016

The word ‘hermit’ usually evokes images of men with overgrown beards living in a cave, up a hill or battling spiritual demons in the desert.

But in hermetically sealed, overcrowded and ultraconservative Gaza, the allure of ascetic isolation stretches to the young and artistic woman. In a territory, where the ruins outnumber the intact buildings, where many families live 10 to a room or out in the open, being able to withdraw within, into your own private shell, can feel like a luxury.

“An artist without sufficient liberty is not able to practise her art,” Nidaa Badwan tells me. “My room was the only place in Gaza where I could practise my art.”

Living under the twin confinements of the Israeli blockade and bombings, as well as Islamist rule, which saw Hamas’s morality police arrest Badwan for an outdoor performance she once gave, the young artist, 28, decided on the path of self-imposed isolation.

Hidden away inside her creative solitary confinement cell, measuring barely 10 square metres, Badwan creates art. She takes selfies that resemble classical portraits, in their rich compositions of colour and texture.

“I focused on the expressions of the body and it’s language,” Badwan explains. “I tried to create homogeneous communication and dialogue between me, my ideas, my body movement, and all of the elements and colours of the photography.”

Photo: ©Nidaa Badwan

Photo: ©Nidaa Badwan

The results are eye-catching. One photo, or portrait, shows Nidaa in tight black leggings doing a faux ballet move in a dimly lit studio. The same leggings feature in another image of her sitting on an improvised swing made out of an old tyre suspended between two ladders, looking defiantly, even regally, to one side, while she buttons up her shirt. Another image portrays her looking into a pocket mirror while applying rouge to her blood-red lips. Some images are of the artist-at-work variety, while others show Badwan’s dreams of different professions she’d like to do.

These and other portraits featured in Badwan’s first exhibition in 2015, ‘100 Days of Solitude, which met with critical acclaim. Nidaa explained to me that, in her work, she introduces a different, alternative image of Palestinian and Gazan women but that she wasn’t out explicitly to challenge stereotypes. “I simply expressed myself through my art,” she stresses.

Nevertheless, this private self-expression is subversive. Outside the four walls of Badwan’s studio a very different reality exists.  Strict rules dictate what a “good” Palestinian woman should look like and how they should be represented. “Society does not see women, imagine what they think,” observes Nidaa.

hijab2This was driven home to me during an encounter with a group of young female and male writers in Gaza city. Our conversation shifted to how the hijab is often misrepresented in the West as solely a tool of female subjugation. One of the young men in the group provocatively asked me my personal attitude towards the headscarf. Even my diplomatic answer, that I did not approve of it but that I respect women who don it voluntarily, elicited a storm of outrage, among the women more than the men.

Although many women who wear the hijab out of conviction see at as empowering, this is not how the Islamist patriarchy regard it. I was reminded of this sitting at the front of the distinctive green-and-white buses which serve the Palestinian neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem. I was unsettled by faceless twin sisters who stood side by side on the glass panel behind the driver and stared at me eyelessly.

These poster girls for the hijab advise our “Muslim sisters” on how to wear the Islamic headdress and clothes “correctly” in order to be “decent believers”. Not only does this poster, likely produced by a committee of conservative men, presume to tell women what they should wear, it depicts them as minions without faces. Though the faceless caricature is probably supposed to illustrate piety and modesty, its underlying message is that women should be invisible, neither heard nor seen, except discreetly and demurely.

But this has not always been the case. Despite the Islamist preference for feminine coyness, defiant women have long been a staple of Palestinian political art, especially on the left.

The poster girl of that muscular defiance has to be Leila Khaled, the first woman ever to hijack an aircraft, in 1969, which was heading from Rome to Athens. One iconic image captures her staring dreamily, while holding an AK-47 and wearing a ring made of a bullet and a grenade pin.

Khaled was a member of the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which like much of the Palestinian secular left, saw the empowerment of women as a crucial prerequisite for national salvation and justice.

For a time, in the 1960s and 1970s, when Palestinians finally took their cause into their own hands, there was a sense, in the minds of the revolutionaries, that the sky was the limit for Palestinian women.

Nothing reflects that better than the political iconography of the time. Women were depicted as powerful warriors at the forefront of the Palestinian cause.  The graphical ground shifted.

PFLP woman rifle

Source: http://www.palestineposterproject.org/

Interestingly, a PFLP poster from 1968, designed by revolutionary novelist Ghassan Kanafani, features only a woman carrying a rifle, with no man in sight. A year later, another poster depicts only a horse with a woman alongside it firing a bazooka.

The subliminal message of this period seems to be that the men failed to liberate the Palestinians, so now it was the women’s turn. This was almost explicitly spelt out in a poster from 1970 which, in calling for “revolution until victory”, only featured a single woman with a rifle in different poses.

As the Palestinians shifted away from armed struggle and towards non-violent resistance, the prominence of women only grew, despite the slowly rising tide of political Islam. Posters produced during the first intifada often featured figures who were androgynous, and a few were dedicated solely to women, such as one which informs us of how Palestinian women were on the frontlines of the intifada.

“It is going to be very difficult to send these women back to the kitchen or to relegate them to the class of second-rate citizens,” Hanan Ashrawi, the prominent activist, academic and politician who made her name during that uprising.

Despite the massive gains by Islamists and conservatives, the subversive, female-centric art of the late 1960s and 1970s is making a comeback – as if to say to them, “Look, your misogyny and religiosity has also failed to liberate us.”

A new poster, produced during the current upheavals, features a drawing of a woman with her hair and face covered up. But this is not for religious reasons, as reflected in the Palestinian kefeya doing the covering. It is to conceal her identity, for she is an intifadista, as conveyed by the slingshot, Molotov cocktail, knife, rocks and rose in her satchel.

This provoked a backlash from conservatives, who posted hundreds of misogynistic comments on social media bizarrely and surreally protesting the tight clothes used in the image, and demanding that fathers and brothers should keep their womenfolk away from protests and clashes.

But Hanan Ashrawi’s political heirs, a new generation of young and determined women, are refusing to be cowed, and are determined to take on both the occupation and the patriarchy. Nidaa Badwan is doing it by carving out her own private-public artistic protest space. Other women are claiming and reclaiming public spaces.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This report was first broadcast on the BBC World Service’s The Cultural Frontline on  January 2016.

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Israel and Egypt’s insane alliance against Gaza

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite Egypt’s mediating role, it is no impartial broker on Gaza. It shares Israel’s view that Hamas can be crushed and suffocated into submission.

Photo: UNRWA

Photo: UNRWA

Sunday 10 August 2014

Egypt-Israel-Gaza is possibly one of the most bizarre and perhaps twisted love-hate triangles of recent times. Washington’s credentials as an honest broker have rightly been questioned over the years, and Egypt was traditionally seen as a welcome counterbalance to US bias, but can Cairo today be seen as a pro-Palestinian or even impartial broker?

Not really. For the past year or so, ever since Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi became the de facto leader and then president of Egypt, his regime has been an enthusiastic accomplice in the Israeli-led blockade against Gaza, completely sealing off the Rafah crossing and destroying hundreds of tunnels into the Sinai which provided the Gazan economy with some respite from the siege.

Taking a page out of Israel’s handbook, Egyptian officials leaked plans to Reuters earlier this year that Egypt intends to topple Hamas by, among other things, fomenting dissent in Gaza and backing Fatah.

On top of that, military-aligned television presenters and hosts have been ratcheting up the rhetoric and disinformation against Hamas in Gaza. Despite the continued presence of critical voices, including normally pro-regime anchors, this anti-Hamas propaganda reached fever pitch when hostilities began in early July.

Tawfik Okasha, the military junta’s leading TV cheerleader, praised Israel’s military campaign in Gaza and mocked Gazans on his show. “Gazans are not men,” he taunted live on air. “If they were men, they would revolt against Hamas.”

“Bless you, Netanyahu, and may God give us more like you who will rid us of Hamas, the root of corruption, treason and collaboration with the Brotherhood,” tweeted Azza Sami, a journalist with the semi-official Al Ahram newspaper.

Egypt’s stance has, unsurprisingly, met with much praise in Israel. However, this Egyptian-Israeli love affair has set alarm bells ringing even among normally staunch supporters of Israel. For instance, the conservative, generally pro-Israel Wall Street Journal ran a long feature on this “unlikely alliance” which laid much of the blame for the escalation to open warfare on the excessive “squeezing” of Hamas.

For their part, Palestinians have generally reacted with bewilderment and anger that a country they regarded as an ally has left Gaza to burn, regardless of what they think about Hamas. Many Palestinian I encounter ask me, with a tone of severe disappointment and betrayal in their voices, what Egypt’s game is and why it is allowing fellow Arabs to die in this way.

Some Palestinians and Arab sympathisers have gone so far as to see the hidden hand of conspiracy theories at work, and are convinced that al-Sisi and his regime are US and Zionist agents.

Despite the fact that the al-Sisi regime, under worldwide attack for its lack of democratic legitimacy and widespread human rights abuses, wants Washington on side, this is certainly not the case.

Egypt’s punitive approach towards Hamas is actually not all that new, though it has become far more severe. The Mubarak regime also distrusted and disliked Hamas and played its part in maintaining the Israeli blockade. Even Morsi, the Muslim Brother, did little to alleviate Gaza’s suffering, though he eased the blockade slightly.

The Egyptian president’s strident hostility towards Hamas actually stems from al-Sisi’s hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement he has persecuted since toppling his Brotherhood predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, following massive protests. The Egyptian regime has falsely alleged that Hamas was guilty of stealing Egyptian resources during Morsi’s 12-month term in office and is behind an insurgency in the Sinai.

This may partly be out of genuine conviction but is also certainly a political ruse to keep popular anti-Brotherhood sentiment and hostility high to justify al-Sisi’s self-declared “war on terrorism”, to manufacture consent, like in Israel, by creating a frightening common enemy, and to crush opposition.

Where once Arab leaders sometimes used Israel as an excuse to silence dissent and delay reform, al-Sisi has come up with a troublingly innovative new formula: blame the Palestinians. And a surprisingly large, if dwindling, number of Egyptians are swallowing the rhetoric.

With all this hostility in the air, Egypt has decided effectively to fight a proxy war against Hamas, by sitting on the sidelines and letting Israel bloody its hands in Gaza, with the trapped civilian population paying a deadly and heavy price, in the hope that its Islamist adversary will collapse.

However, Israeli-Egyptian calculations that Hamas can be brought down or tamed through violence are enormous miscalculations. Although Hamas’s resorting to rocket attacks after some two years of respecting a ceasefire were disastrous and stupid, and walked straight into the trap set by extremist forces in Israel, the Israeli-Egyptian pincer movement over the past year had so cornered the movement that it is now fighting an existential battle in which it has nothing left to lose and, as it sees it, everything to gain.

In addition, even if Hamas falls, there is no guarantee that Fatah will take over, and even if it did, many Gazans will view it as a traitor and collaborator. There is also a strong chance that more radical groups will take over control of the Strip.

With Egypt as mediator and Israel as protagonist on the same misguided line regarding the need to contain, and preferably, topple Hamas, I am sceptical that the current talks in Cairo will lead to a lasting and durable solution, since for that to happen, requires the lifting of the blockade and the reconnecting of Gaza to the West Bank.

The sad, ironic tragedy is that Hamas could have been “contained” without a single shot being fired now, or in 2012, 2008/9 and 2006. Yes, I find Hamas’s extremist ideology and its past of suicide bombings abhorrent, and, like Israel’s militarism, its swift recourse to violence despite its proven futility has been extremely costly. However, ever since coming to power, Hamas, burdened with the responsibility of governing under siege, has displayed far more pragmatism than Israel.

Hamas not only dropped its calls for the destruction of Israel from its election manifesto, the party has consistently indicated its willingness to accept a two-state solution along the pre-1967 borders. Before the latest conflict, Hamas even went so far as to cede political control to the PA and a government of technocrats in the desperate hope that this would lead to the lifting of the siege.

Despite all these clear overtures, Israel’s extremist, jingoistic government, desperate not to give up the territory in the West Bank conquered in 1967 and blinded by ideological hatred towards Hamas (which Israel once misguidedly supported as a counterbalance against the PLO), has refused to play ball and find a way to coexist.

If Israel and Egypt fail to find a way to live non-violently with Hamas, history will continue to repeat itself, each time more tragically than the preceding time. And Gaza will become not only the graveyard of innocent civilians but also the burial ground for the prospects for peace for generations to come.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 8 August 2014.

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Principle and pragmatism demand end to Gaza blockade

 
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By Khaled Diab

Both humanity and self-interest should compel Israel to end its inhumane siege of Gaza.

Thursday 21 June 2012

Last Thursday marked the fifth anniversary of Israel’s imposition of a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. Although the land, sea and air blockade has not made Israelis any safer or enhanced Israel’s security, it has had a clear humanitarian and economic impact on Gazans.

Take Khaleel Zaanin, 45, a once-thriving Palestinian farmer who has been reduced to subsistence farming because most of his land (37 out of almost 45 acres) falls within the buffer zone, or access restricted area, which Gazans are not allowed to enter.

“I had a great business in citrus, my life was very good. I used to employ 30 workers and export to Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank,” recalls Zaanin, who is one of a number of Gazans profiled by a coalition of international development agencies. “Now, I work by myself, just planting vegetables for local sale.”

Zaanin’s situation is hardly unique. In fact, an estimated 35% of Gaza’s already limited arable land and most of its fishing waters lie within the buffer zone. In addition, the Israeli blockade, through severe restrictions on imports and exports, has triggered the almost complete collapse of Gaza’s industrial sector.

One study estimates that the blockade costs Gaza’s 1.6 million residents, over half of whom are children, nearly $2 billion a year. This has created a dependence on aid where little existed before. A decade ago, only one in ten Gazans required assistance from UNRWA, the UN agency tasked with caring for Palestinian refugees. Today, some three-quarters are dependent on aid for their survival.

The service sector has been affected just as badly as manufacturing, with perhaps the only people turning a handsome profit being those who run the smuggling networks. Small businesses have been hit hard, with many going under and even the most resourceful entrepreneurs struggling to stay afloat.

Consider Hind Amal, a divorcee and mother of four, who runs a beauty supply store as part of her grand plan to “move forward” and “be a provider and role model for my children”. Her business was such a roaring success after she first set it up in 2006 that she was able to pay back the loan she had taken out to set it up and turn a profit.

However, the blockade meant that she was unable to import the cosmetics her business sold and her customers could no longer afford them. With necessity driving this mother to invention, Amal started producing her own homemade cosmetics in a bid to keep her head above water and provide for her family.

Though the Israeli public tends to associate Gaza with dangerous men in beards and blood-curdling fanaticism, the vast majority of the Strip’s residents are very ordinary people living under the extraordinary circumstances of almost complete isolation from the outside world.

In fact, the hopes, fears and aspirations of the average Gazan are so mundanely human that it would be difficult for Israelis not to be able to relate to them. “My dream is for the Gaza airport to open again, to have open borders so we can travel,” admits Alaa al-Najjar (23), and not because he wishes to go on holiday or see the world, but “to get treatment for my brother whom I love very much”.

Like for Israelis, family is foremost in the minds of Palestinians in Gaza. “My dream was to give [my five children] a good and decent life. But I couldn’t do any of that,” says Jamal al-Za’aneen (60) who regrets that he was unable to help his children get married and find homes for themselves.

On the back of the blockade and following the pummelling Gaza received during what Israel calls Operation Cast Lead, the Strip is suffering a severe housing crisis. International organisations estimate that Gaza needs at least 71,000 additional housing units, mainly to accommodate natural population growth, but also to rebuild homes destroyed during Israeli military operations. For example, one recent survey found that 15,000 people who lost their homes during Operation Cast Lead remain displaced.

And it is this very tragic human impact of the blockade that should appeal to the common humanity that stretches across even enemy lines and awaken Israelis from their lethargy towards the crimes being committed in their name in Gaza.

Since Israel imposed its blockade, there has been a heated debate over whether or not it is illegal. Questions of legality aside, the real question should be whether or not it is just. As someone who opposes collective punishment, including the blanket Arab cultural boycott of Israel, I believe the blockade is unethical and immoral.

Of course, there will be those who will immediately raise objections and say that the embargo is only in place to protect Israel’s security. Though Israeli concerns over the safety of communities bordering Gaza are valid, how exactly does banning tinned fruit while permitting tinned meat and tuna protect Israel? Is the mighty IDF worried that Palestinian militants, short on rockets, will start firing expired peach chunks across the border?

There are those who argue that the blockade is in place to contain or even destroy Hamas. If that is the intention, then the plan has dramatically backfired. Tightening the screws on Gaza led from a situation in which Hamas won 44.45% of the votes and had to share power with Fatah to one in which it became the only show in town in Gaza. This is partly because, as Israelis well know from personal experience, a people which feels that it is unfairly under attack tends to close ranks and band together.

Additionally, economic destitution and despair usually lead to greater radicalisation and extremism, not the opposite. It is in Israel’s interest to live next door to Palestinians who are materially comfortable and in contact with the outside world.

Moreover, Israel has imposed severe restrictions on Gazans since at least 1991, when it began its permanent closure policy in the Strip, yet what effect have these had? Far more productive, as even a growing number of Israelis are now arguing, would be to engage with Hamas and empower the pragmatists within the movement who are willing to accept a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 borders.

Israelis pride themselves on their sense of morality, which they believe the world unfairly ignores. Well, it is time for them to display this sense of Jewish integrity and demand en masse that their government lift the blockade. It’s the only principled thing to do – and it is in Israel’s own self-interest to boot.

In a short story by an Israeli boy from Sderot, he imagined accidentally flying his remote-controlled plane over Gaza where he inadvertently bombed – or, more accurately, bon-bonned – the Palestinians with his payload of sweets, which led to such joy that everyone dropped their weapons, and peace reigned.

Though this may appear “naïve” to seasoned and cynical adults, this boy had the right idea: the key to this conflict lies in human kindness not inhumane hostility.

This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 20 June 2012.

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