Gaza’s children deserve to be rescued like the boys in Thailand

First published by the Middle East Eye 12/7/1018

Palestinian children see the efforts put into the rescue of the Thai boys and wonder why nobody cares as much about them

The whole world rejoiced when 12 boys trapped in a cave in Thailand were rescued alongside their football coach. Divers from around the world risked their lives to help the children, a truly remarkable and selfless act. One died in the process.

The darkness, uncertainty, hunger and hopelessness that the children must have experienced reminded me of the predicament of Palestinian children in Gaza – trapped through no fault of their own. Their only crime is being born Palestinian under occupation by a state that sees them as an irritant, a demographic threat and collateral damage if they die at the hands of Israeli forces, as some did in the Great March of Return.

A whole generation born under siege, they have not seen the villages from where most of their families hail. They hear of Jerusalem, al-Aqsa, Haifa, Yaffa, Jericho, Nablus and Hebron, but they have not seen them, even though these places are just a short distance away.

Israel as a violent entity

These children march with their families to the fence with Israel, demanding to return to their villages. Instead, they are met with the brutality of the occupier, as dozens are killed and thousands injured. They see posters of the martyred, including 21-year-old medic Razan al-Najjar, and ask why they were shot dead.

The answer, always, is because this is what Israel does. Their experience with Israel shows it as a violent entity, not the democracy that its spokespeople try to spin.

The daily lives of children in Gaza are miserable, as they have little access to electricity or clean water, but plenty of exposure to Israeli bombs and that unmistakable sound of Israel’s terror drones, which occupy Gaza’s sky.

They see what the world looks like on TV, but quickly realise that at the current rate, they have no chance of ever experiencing it for themselves. They aspire to go to university, but quickly realise that the pride they will one day feel at graduating will be followed by great disappointment as they struggle to find employment.

Their Thai counterparts eventually saw freedom, but the children of Gaza and their families cannot see their own freedom coming any time soon.

Immovable Hamas

Gaza is a prison with two land crossings: one to Israel and the other to Egypt, both almost continuously sealed. More than a decade of an immoral siege has not brought a capitulation by Hamas or an uprising against it by those it rules.

Hamas in Gaza is a fact on the ground that is immovable. The siege only hurts the people, inciting Gaza’s children to hate Israel for the death and the destruction it has heaped on their tiny sliver of land, the most densely populated in the world.

Boys from the Palestinian Bakr family, who survived an Israeli attack in 2014 war, walk on the beach in Gaza (AFP)

These children have grown up amid divisions between Fatah and Hamas. They hear of imminent reconciliation between the two factions, but see their president impose sanctions on them. They hear that Gaza will be uninhabitable by 2020 – but they will tell you to come and see it today, look them in the eye, and say it is still habitable now.

They see the efforts put in to rescue the Thai boys and wonder why nobody cares as much about them. They hear that US President Donald Trump has a plan to help them and that his most senior advisers are on the case, but conversations in the besieged enclave fill them not with hope, but with fear that their leaders are being pressured to abandon their struggle and surrender if they want a better daily life under permanent occupation.

After claiming to have taken Jerusalem “off the table” by recognising it as Israel’s capital and moving the US embassy there, Trump’s team has been consulting further in the region on the administration’s plan to deliver “peace” to the holy land. But the US action has failed to create a climate for peace, as evidenced by the ongoing Great March of Return and Palestinians’ decision to sever contact with the Americans.

The mirage of the ‘ultimate deal’

Despite the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to discuss the deal, the Americans appear to be moving to implement the second stage of the yet-unpublished plan – that of bringing economic relief to Gaza, funded by some of the Gulf states. If the Trump team believes that Palestinians in Gaza are simply looking for some economic relief, then they are as naive now as when they began their sordid endeavours.

Gaza’s children are even more confused after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently opted to tighten the noose around them by closing the “commercial crossing” at Kerem Shalom as punishment for the continuing rudimentary kites and balloons launched from Gaza, which have damaged crops on the Israeli side of the fence. Israel has attacked those launching what they bizarrely call “terror kites”.

If the heavy sacrifices made by Gaza’s Palestinians since the Great March of Return began on 30 March are not sufficient evidence that “economic peace” is a mirage, then the US, Israel and their new Arab allies have underestimated Palestinians’ resilience and their insistence on attaining their rights. As far as the Palestinians are concerned, the Americans will not be able to use Gaza to prop up their heavily damaged “ultimate deal”.

The Trump administration should take inspiration from the rescue of the Thai boys, planned meticulously to end their predicament, not to serve an ideological goal of helping Israel to entrench its control over the whole of historic Palestine. They should act to end the suffering of the two million Palestinians in Gaza, without preconditions, and give its children some hope for an end to their imprisonment – just as the brave divers did for the Thai boys in the cave.

Expecting more of the same for Palestinians

First published by the Arab Weekly on 25/12/2016

London – Palestinian Christians and Palestinian Muslims are looking back with deep concern at a year in which they saw their struggle for freedom and independence bat­tered.

The Palestinians end the year with no sign of reconciliation be­tween the main political factions Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, which governs the West Bank. Gaza’s siege continues unabated, Jewish settlements are expanding and Israeli settler in­cursions into Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque grow in number and fre­quency.

Fatah’s seventh congress includ­ed a marathon 3-hour speech by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that simply confirmed com­mitment to the established direc­tion of travel. Abbas was re-elected party chairman and he, in turn, re­affirmed his commitment to nego­tiations with Israel for the ultimate goal of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with minor land swaps and with East Jerusalem as its capital and a fair resolution of the refugee problem.

The Palestinians find their cause, which once took centre stage, com­peting with Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen for international attention. Israel has benefited from the di­version of attention away from its continued illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories and its daily oppressive practices.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu repeatedly reminds his allies that Israel faces major threats in a tough neighbourhood. He claims that this is the wrong time for Israel to concede territory to the Palestinians, which may al­low either Hamas or the Islamic State (ISIS) to establish a foothold in the West Bank, threatening Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion International Airport.

The status quo is that Israel effec­tively controls the whole of historic Palestine, further colonises Pales­tinian land, judaises Jerusalem and blockades Gaza. The Palestinian Authority provides it with security cooperation that Abbas considers sacred. Israel is therefore comfort­able, despite occasional uprisings.

Add to that a deal with the out­going US administration to deliver $38 billion in military aid over the next ten years and a promise to protect it from any criticism or im­position of a peace deal at the UN Security Council and 2016 can be considered to have been an excel­lent year for the 68-year old state.

However, that is not the end of the good news for Israel. The 2016 Republican Party platform for the first time rejected the description of Israel as “an occupier”, omitted any mention of a two-state solu­tion and conflated settlements with Israel itself.

During the campaign, US Presi­dent-elect Donald Trump first de­clared his intention to be “neutral” on the Palestinians and Israel so as to broker a deal but he changed his tune when he spoke at the con­ference of the main Israel lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He not only de­clared his unwavering support for Israel but promised to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusa­lem, a position his advisers reiter­ated after his election.

If implemented, this would break long-standing US policy and is guaranteed to generate unprec­edented anger among Palestinians and their supporters around the world.

US President Barack Obama has, it seems, given up on any last-minute moves to reignite the peace process or to impose some pres­sure on Israel through the Secu­rity Council. However, he remains committed to the two-state solu­tion, despite some senior Israeli of­ficials’ calls for it to be abandoned.

Speaking at the Saban Forum, an annual gathering of senior Israeli and US policymakers, US Secretary of State John Kerry concluded that “more than 50% of the ministers in the current Israeli government have publicly stated they are op­posed to a Palestinian state and that there will be no Palestinian state”.

He said Israeli settlement con­struction is a deliberate obstacle to peace and warned that such expansion was undermining any hope of a two-state solution. Kerry was speaking as the Knesset was about to move forward on a bill that would legalise illegal settle­ment outposts in the West Bank, despite the world being united in considering all settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem il­legal.

Efforts by France to have a peace conference before the end of the year also failed. French President François Hollande could not even convince Netanyahu to attend a pre-Christmas meeting with Abbas in Paris. Netanyahu would only ac­cept such an invitation if France gave up on its peace initiative, ren­dering the meeting useless.

Perhaps the real reason for Netanyahu declining the French invitation is that on January 20th Trump moves into the White House. Why engage with France or anyone else when Trump and his administration are making the right noises as far as Israel is concerned?

Trump’s election has further em­boldened Israeli leaders including Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who declared “Trump’s victory is an opportunity for Israel to immediately retract the notion of a Palestinian state in the centre of the country, which would hurt our security and just cause”. This conclusion by Bennett is a reflec­tion of Israeli thinking at the high­est level.

While many have been argu­ing for some time that Israel has been making a two-state solution impossible through changing the situation on the ground, it is now being declared dead by its main backer, the United States.

It is therefore likely that as the centenary of Balfour Declaration is marked in 2017, together with the 50th anniversary of the Israeli oc­cupation, we will be no nearer to a resolution to the conflict. With this the Palestinian leadership is likely to turn to international institu­tions, including the International Criminal Court, to pursue actions against Israel to at the very least remind the international commu­nity of the need to find a solution.

As for ordinary citizens around the world, it seems that support­ing the Palestinians through the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) is the main form of effective solidarity they can exercise to help the Palestinians reach their legitimate goals of free­dom, equality and independence.

Waleed Shaath is the two millionth reason for ending the siege on Gaza

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 31/10/2016

Waleed Shaath, held by his mother, is the two millionth person born in Gaza on 12th October 2016 [Abed Rahim Khatib/Apaimages]

Waleed Shaath, held by his mother, is the two millionth person born in Gaza on 12th October 2016 [Abed Rahim Khatib/Apaimages]

The news that the population of Gaza has reached the 2 million mark was reported widely in the media but has stirred hardly any real action by the international community to ensure that Waleed Shaath — the milestone Palestinian baby — could look forward to a normal life. Waleed was born on 12 October in Rafah; the town in southern Gaza is probably best known internationally for its crossing to neighbouring Egypt. The immediate question that comes to mind is when will Waleed actually be able to travel out of Gaza through this crossing and what sort of a future can he look forward to?

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) publishes a weekly “Protection of civilians” report documenting incidents in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). The report for the period when Waleed was born (4-17 October), makes for reading typical of other reporting periods: two Palestinian deaths, two Israeli deaths and a further 115 Palestinian injuries due to violence by Israeli forces, including 22 children across the OPTs. Israeli forces conducted 178 search and arrest operations and arrested 295 Palestinians in the West Bank; on two occasions, they carried out land-levelling and excavation operations in the vicinity of the perimeter fence with Gaza.

OCHA reports that at least ten incidents involving Israelis opening fire at Palestinian civilians in the Access Restricted Areas (ARA) at land and sea in the Gaza Strip were recorded; while no injuries were reported, two fishermen including a 17-year-old, “were forced to take off their clothes and swim to Israeli naval boats, where they were detained and their boat and fishing nets seized.” A number of rockets were fired towards Israel, causing no injuries, and the Israelis launched air strikes and shelling, which caused no injuries.

The electricity supply in Gaza, which is inadequate at the best of times, deteriorated further during the reporting period with blackouts increasing from 12-16 to 18-20 hours per day on several occasions. OCHA puts this down to “a lack of fuel triggered by recurrent closures during the Jewish holidays, and to the continuing disputes between the Ramallah and Gaza authorities over a tax exemption for the fuel purchased for the plant. This forced the Gaza Power Plant to shut down one of its two operating turbines, affecting the delivery of basic services and undermining vulnerable livelihoods and living conditions.”

Baby Waleed may have been lucky if his parents wanted to travel out of Gaza as the Rafah Crossing was open — exceptionally — for two days (15 and 16 October) in both directions. OCHA reports that 1,368 Palestinians reportedly exited Gaza to Egypt and 1,296 entered. This, remember, is out of a population of 2 million people.

The Palestinians in Gaza are mainly from other parts of historic Palestine; they were forced into exile to make way for the establishment of Israel. Sadly, these refugees have become accustomed to existence under what a friend who returned from Gaza recently called a “medieval siege”, not through choice but reality. Gaza, we are told, will become uninhabitable by 2020. Waleed will be three years old then, and existing in an uninhabitable homeland.

It is natural for anyone who cares about this sort of desperate situation facing fellow human beings to ask who is to blame. If you ask the Palestinians, they will tell you without hesitation that it is the occupying power, Israel, as well as its backers, chiefly the United States, who know the situation but choose not to intervene. Israel and its allies blame the de facto ruling power, Hamas, for the rockets that are fired from Gaza occasionally, and for its unwillingness to adhere to three principles set out by the Middle East Quartet (the UN, EU, Russia and the US – a group established in 2002), which are:

  • a Palestinian state must recognise the state of Israel without prejudging what various grievances or claims are appropriate;
  • abide by previous diplomatic agreements; and
  • renounce violence as a means to achieve goals.

It is important to note that Israel has not adopted or accepted the mirror image of these principles; it does not formally recognise the de facto Palestinian state; it does not abide by its agreements signed with the Palestinians, notably Oslo; and it certainly does not renounce violence as a means to achieve its goals.

The lack of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas does not help the situation and despite renewed efforts, which seem to occur on an almost monthly basis, the prospects for reaching an agreement or implementing existing agreements appear bleak. The Quartet’s most recent reportmade specific recommendations for improving the situation which have thus far fallen on deaf ears.

The Gaza siege is a blight on our humanity. The explicit acceptance by Israel, Egypt and the international community of the collective punishment — illegal in international law — of 2 million people to achieve political goals has brought neither permanent security for Israel nor a change of the ruling party in the enclave.

Each reader can put the Gaza blockade into context without much of a leap of the imagination. What would your situation be like if your city, town, village or region if it was under the same kind of siege for a week, a month, a year or — as in Gaza’s case, ten years? My adopted home town is Birmingham; Britain’s second city has a population of 1.1 million and is at the heart of the road and rail networks passing through the Midlands. I could not possibly imagine being prohibited from travelling in or out of the city as and when I want or need to, while also depending on humanitarian aid, enduring daily attacks by those imposing the siege and losing hope day after day that things will get better.

We owe it to Waleed and those born since his arrival to end this unbelievable suffering. With very day that passes yet another generation will grow up hating their occupier not because of incitement by their leaders but due to the reality of their existence and their perception about who bears responsibility for it.