Turning on its head

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Palestinians dance as they wave green Hamas and their national flags while celebrating the cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas in Gaza City, early Friday, May 21, 2021. Photo: AP/UNB

As Israel commenced its latest campaign of air raids against the helpless yet undaunted population of the Gaza Strip, even amongst longtime supporters of the Palestinian cause, there was no sign of hope or indeed anything really, to suggest that anything would be different about what lay ahead: a mounting humanitarian tragedy, marked by disproportionate suffering for the Palestinians. In the end, a return to the old status quo of occupation and dispossession.

But early Friday, Palestinians rallied by the thousands after a cease-fire took effect in the latest Gaza war, with many viewing it as costly but clear victory for the Islamic militant group Hamas. Israel vowed to respond with a “new level of force” to any further hostilities.

The 11-day war left more than 200 dead — the vast majority Palestinians — and brought widespread devastation to the already impoverished Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. But the rocket barrages that brought life to a standstill in much of Israel were seen by many Palestinians as a bold response to perceived Israeli abuses in Jerusalem, the emotional heart of the conflict.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday warned against any further attacks, saying “if Hamas thinks we will tolerate a drizzle of rockets, it is wrong.” He vowed to respond with “a new level of force” against any aggression anywhere in Israel.

The Israeli leader, who has faced criticism from his hawkish base for ending the offensive prematurely, said Israel had done “daring and new things, and this without being dragged into unnecessary adventures.” He added that Israeli forces had caused “maximum damage to Hamas with a minimum of casualties in Israel.”

Israeli strikes killed more than 200 militants, including 25 senior commanders, and hit more than 100 kilometres (60 miles) of militant tunnels, Netanyahu said.

Thousands took to the streets of Gaza as the cease-fire took hold at 2 a.m. Young men waved Palestinian and Hamas flags, passed out sweets, honked horns and set off fireworks. Spontaneous celebrations also broke out in east Jerusalem and across the occupied West Bank.

An open-air market in Gaza City that was closed throughout the war reopened and shoppers could be seen stocking up on fresh tomatoes, cabbage and watermelons. Workers in orange traffic vests swept up rubble from the surrounding roads.

“Life will return, because this is not the first war, and it will not be the last war,” said shop owner Ashraf Abu Mohammad. “The heart is in pain, there have been disasters, families wiped from the civil registry, and this saddens us. But this is our fate in this land, to remain patient.”

There was little to celebrate in the hard-hit northern town of Beit Hanoun, where residents, many of whom had lost loved ones, surveyed the wreckage of their homes.

“We see such huge destruction here, it’s the first time in history we’ve seen this,” said Azhar Nsair. “The cease-fire is for people who didn’t suffer, who didn’t lose their loved ones, whose homes were not bombed.”

Like the three previous wars between the bitter enemies, the latest round of fighting ended inconclusively. Israel claimed to have inflicted heavy damage on Hamas with hundreds of bruising airstrikes but once again was unable to halt the rockets.

Hamas also claimed victory, despite the horrifying toll the war took on countless Palestinian families who lost loved ones, homes and businesses. It now faces the daunting challenge of rebuilding in a territory already suffering from high unemployment and a coronavirus outbreak.

At least 243 Palestinians were killed, including 66 children and 39 women, with 1,910 people wounded, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not break the numbers down into fighters and civilians. Twelve people in Israel, including a 5-year-old boy and 16-year-old girl, were killed.

In Gaza, rescue workers were still recovering bodies from areas that had been too dangerous to enter. The Red Crescent emergency service said it recovered five bodies in the southern town of Khan Younis on Friday, including the body of a three-year-old child.

The fighting began on May 10, when Hamas militants in Gaza fired long-range rockets toward Jerusalem. The barrage came after days of clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police at the Al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan. Heavy-handed police tactics at the compound, and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers had inflamed tensions. Hamas served repeated warnings to Israel that continued disturbances at Al Aqsa wuld invite rocket fire. Things came to a head after the police raided the mosque, blasting sound bombs inside the compound on one of Islam’s holiest nights.

The competing claims to Jerusalem lie at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have repeatedly triggered bouts of violence in the past.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians attended Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa. A couple thousand joined a celebratory demonstration afterward, waving Palestinian and Hamas flags and cheering Hamas.

The cease-fire was brokered by neighbouring Egypt after the U.S. pressed Israel to wind down the offensive. Netanyahu announced that Israel had accepted the proposal late Thursday, while emphasizing that “the reality on the ground will determine the future of the campaign.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken plans to visit the region in the coming days “to discuss recovery efforts and working together to build better futures for Israelis and Palestinians.” the State Department said.

Hamas and other militant groups fired over 4,000 rockets at Israel throughout the fighting, launching the projectiles from civilian areas at Israeli cities. Dozens of projectiles flew as far north as Tel Aviv, the country’s bustling commercial capital.

Israel, meanwhile, carried out hundreds of airstrikes targeting what it said was Hamas’ military infrastructure, including a vast tunnel network.

The United States, Israel’s closest and most important ally, initially backed what it said was Israel’s right to self-defence against indiscriminate rocket fire. But as the fighting dragged on and the death toll mounted, the Americans increasingly pressured Israel to stop the offensive.

Biden welcomed the cease-fire. He said the U.S. was committed to helping Israel replenish its supply of interceptor missiles and to working with the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority — not Hamas — to provide humanitarian aid to Gaza.

Netanyahu faced heavy criticism from members of his hawkish, nationalist base. Gideon Saar, a former ally who now leads a small party opposed to the prime minister, called the cease-fire “embarrassing.” Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the far-right Jewish Power party, tweeted that the cease-fire was “a grave surrender to terrorism and the dictates of Hamas.”

In a potentially damaging development for the Israeli leader, the Palestinian militants claimed Netanyahu had agreed to halt further Israeli actions at the Al Aqsa Mosque and to call off the planned evictions of Palestinians in the nearby Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.

An Egyptian official said only that tensions in Jerusalem “will be addressed.” He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing behind-the-scenes negotiations and provided no details.

Some 58,000 Palestinians sought shelter in crowded United Nations schools at a time of a coronavirus outbreak. Thousands returned to their homes as the truce took hold.

Since the fighting began, Gaza’s infrastructure, already weakened by a 14-year blockade, has rapidly deteriorated, and airstrikes have damaged schools and health centres.

Medical supplies, water and fuel for electricity are running low in the territory, on which Israel and Egypt imposed the blockade after Hamas seized power from the Palestinian Authority in 2007. Since then, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has governed autonomous areas of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and has limited influence in Gaza.

Biden credited the Egyptian government with playing a crucial role in brokering the cease-fire and said he and top White House aides were intensely involved in an “hour by hour” effort to stop the bloodletting.

“I believe the Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely and enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity and democracy,” Biden said. “My administration will continue our quiet, relentless diplomacy toward that.”

On Tuesday, while in Michigan to visit a Ford facility, Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib confronted Biden on the Detroit airport tarmac and called on him to speak out forcefully against the Israeli strikes. Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York introduced resolutions to block the sale of $735 million in military weaponry to Israel that’s already been approved by the Biden administration.

As the outside calls for Biden to speak more forcefully grew, Biden and top aides privately made the case to Israeli officials that time wasn’t on their side in the court of public opinion.

Biden and Netanyahu have known each other for more than 30 years and have frequently butted heads. Their conversations through the crisis were far from scripted and they probed each other on how they were gaming the path forward, according to the official familiar with the leaders’ conversations.

Hamas had sought to portray their rocket barrages as a defence of Jerusalem. Israeli officials made the case to the White House that Hamas’ message lost resonance as mob violence against Arabs in mixed Israeli cities, including Lod, was tamped down.

The outbreaks of sectarian violence as Israel’s Arab citizens – 20 percent of the population – threw their weight behind protesting the injustice faced by their brethren, and they did it in unprecedented numbers, in cities throughout Israel.

The Squad makes its mark

As it turns out, even as a number of things turned against the Palestinians to make their situation look more hopeless than ever after four years of the Trump administration during which they were consistently dehumanised and demoralised by a crude and transactional U.S. leader, other factors that do have an impact on the issue moved in the opposite direction.

Some of the most important changes have come from within Israeli society. And extend all the way across to elected members of Congress in the United States.

In an almost unprecedented development, as the fighting continued mainly in Gaza, with rocketfire into Israel going the other way, multiple members of the U.S. Congress took to the floor of the House of Representatives – the progressive cohort known collectively as The Squad – to condemn Israeli occupation, while at the same time pleading the case for Palestinians living under occupation. These were historic addresses – Palestinian-American Rashida Tlaib could barely hold back what must have been the first tears ever shed on the floor of the US Congress for the suffering of Palestinians.

Squad members  also went viral with a simple yet crushing tweet that gave the lie to the traditional US bipartisan talking point that Israel being a democracy is what makes them America’s closest friend in the Middle East: ”Apartheid states are not democracies.”

The reference here was to a landmark report by Israel’s leading human rights organisation, B’Tselem, that reached this unprecedented conclusion in a position paper released in January. It was followed in April by Human Rights Watch, which operates with an international, in fact global mandate. Even during the latest offensive by the IDF, B’Tselem has again led the way by calling out war crimes committed by Israel in Gaza during the bombing campaign.

B’Tselem’s brilliant and brave executive director, Hagai El Ad, explained both these positions at length during an appearance on Democracy Now with the renowned American activist and journalist, Amy Goodman.

Israeli war crimes in Gaza

Hagai El Ad: I feel almost embarrassed to try and quote the relevant aspects of international law that are meant to protect civilians at times of war. To talk about distinction and proportionality, the two key principles of international law, they seem to crumble in the face of Israeli strategies of the way the Israeli army is using military force in the Gaza Strip again and again and again and again and again. This is not new. We’ve seen this before, with horrific consequences. We’ve seen war crimes in previous military assaults on Gaza. And, in fact, the impunity of the previous times in which war crimes were committed is what has paved the way for the continuation of more such crimes being committed.

So, for instance, if one thinks for a second about attacks on wiping out residential towers, apartment buildings, in apartment towers in the Gaza Strip, where, in a second, dozens of families lose their homes, how can that be a military target? How is that consistent with the principle of distinction? And the Israeli army then explains that there’s been — there’s a Hamas office in that building. Well, if that is the case — and not always, if ever, they provide convincing evidence that that is indeed the case, but let’s assume for a second that it is — how is that attack proportional, right?

And the numbers add up — numbers in terms of fatalities, some 200 already, many of them children; numbers in terms of injuries; numbers in terms of destruction; numbers in terms of people that have to flee from one part of the Gaza Strip to another part of the Gaza Strip — we’re talking about tens of thousands of people. But what we’ve seen in previous assaults is that sometimes people that have fled from one part of the Strip to another have been killed by an Israeli strike at the place that they fled to, because nowhere in the Gaza Strip is really safe from Israeli shelling, right? So, like, that is the context of what we’re seeing, what has unfolded in the past, and what is continuing to unfold in front of our eyes.

‘This is Apartheid’

B’Tselem was founded back in 1989. We’ve been analyzing human rights violations in the Occupied Territories since then, for more than three decades by now. And throughout this period, we’ve only looked at human rights violations in the Occupied Territories, in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and in the Gaza Strip.

We came to the conclusion that to continue to analyze the situation separately, as if there are two distinct regimes — a democracy inside the Green Line and a temporary occupation attached to it but somehow separate from it in the Occupied Territories on the other side of the Green Line — that that worldview of democracy plus occupation has become untethered from reality. And it’s incumbent on us to be factual and to wake up to reality.

If one desires to continue to hold on to that big lie, then you need to ignore a lot of things. You need to ignore the passage of time, that Israeli control over the entire territory has been going on for more than 50 years. You need to ignore the fact that there are more than 600,000 Israeli Jewish settlers living on the other side of the Green Line in the occupied West Bank, as if they’re living inside Israel proper. You need to ignore the fact that part of the occupied territory has been formally annexed — I’m talking about East Jerusalem — with the rest of it being de facto annexed. You need to set aside a lot of facts in order to continue to hold on to that bankrupt worldview.

But the key thing is that to hold on to that, you need to ignore the key aspect, which is there is one organizing principle that is applied by the Israeli regime between the river and the sea, and that principle is the supremacy and domination of one group of people — Jews — over another group of people — Palestinians — with all this happening in a situation of demographic parity. There are 14 million people that live between the river and the sea. About half of them are Jews. About half of them are Palestinians. But the system, the regime is structured so that that demographic parity will not translate into parity in political power or in access to the resources of this land or to protection or rights.

Now, one of the most important aspects of this reality has been Israel’s ability to fragment this space for Palestinians, while keeping it intact for Jews. Right? So, if you’re a Jewish individual, like myself, no matter where you live between the river and the sea, whether it’s inside Israel proper or in the Occupied Territories, the state will — within one of the more than 200 illegal settlements that Israel has reestablished in the last half-century-plus, then the state will do everything in its power to provide you with the same set of rights, privileges and protections. Right? So, that’s the treatment for Jewish Israelis. But, for Palestinians, it makes a very big difference if you live as a second-class citizen inside the Green Line or as a permanent resident in occupied and illegally annexed East Jerusalem or in the rest of the West Bank as a Palestinian subject or one of the 2 million Palestinians that are living in that large open-air prison that is the Gaza Strip. So, there are different categories of Palestinians, from Israel’s perspective, and in each and every one of those, there is a different subset of rights, always less rights, always a degree of oppression. But nowhere between the river and the sea, there is a single square inch in which a Jewish person and a Palestinian are equal. It is always structured in this way that’s domination and supremacy for the Jewish half of the population.

And it’s incumbent on us to connect the dots. So let me try and do that. Look at Israel’s bombings of Gaza. Do these strike you as proportional? Look at Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Does it strike you as temporary? Look at Israel’s drive to cleanse East Jerusalem neighborhoods from Palestinians. Does that strike you as legal? Look at Israel’s oppression of Palestinian citizens as second-class. Does that strike you as equal treatment under the law? It’s not proportional. It’s not temporary. It’s not legal. It’s not equal. And it’s not complicated. Believe your eyes. Follow your conscience. The reason that it looks like apartheid is simply because it is apartheid.

  • Hamas
  • Gaza
  • ‘This is Apartheid’
  • Israeli war crimes in Gaza
  • The Squad makes its mark
  • Turning on its head
  • Israel and Hamas
  • Palestinian

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