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Under siege and under fire

After 11 days of aggression in Palestine, Israel and Hamas have agreed to a fragile truce

By Hammad Sarfraz |
PUBLISHED May 29, 2021

After eleven days of fighting both sides have agreed to a fragile truce that suspends hostilities between Israel and the Hamas, but only carries limited promise and no hope for lasting peace.

“They’ve reduced Gaza to an open air prison for its residents,” said Dr Wajjeh Abu Zarifa during a patchy interview via WhatsApp from Gaza. Zarifa, who is head of the Palestinian Center for Democratic Dialogue and Political Development said Israel’s recent use of force has razed everything to the ground. “The conflict prevents us from living,” said Zarifa as his voice became inaudible due to the noise of low flying Israeli drones in the area.

An assessment after the heavy bombing that killed more than 250 Palestinians including more than 60 children shows Israel managed to hit several sectors of the limited economy. Farms, factories, schools, hospitals, and homes were bombed indiscriminately during the heavy air assault.

Experts say the recent escalation is a constant reminder that Israel cannot wish away Palestinians, not even through normalisation. The disproportionate bombing, many of them said, has weakened Israel’s position and its moral authority.

“This crisis needs a political solution. Military solutions will not work. The Israelis have made several attempts to solve the problem by force and by power, but it doesn’t help. It only pushes the people on both sides away from peace,” said Zarifa.

The Palestinian expert blamed radical elements of Israeli society, including its beleaguered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who may have gained some political mileage in the aftermath of the recent escalation. There is no doubt in our minds, Zarifa said, that Israel is the aggressor in this equation.

However, he admitted, the disproportionate bombing of Gaza has, for the first time, made the Palestinian cause more than just a conflict between the two sides. “It has placed us back on the map as a human rights issue that needs to be addressed by the world,” he claimed.

With his voice occasionally fading due to the wailing sirens in the background, Zarifa expressed concerns about the reaction by the global leadership, most of whom, he believes, are not capable of criticising Israel due to its overwhelming influence.

As the world gradually wakes up from its long slumber, Zarifa said, Palestinians have suffered for too long to be ignored. Describing the fragile ceasefire as the lull before the next storm, the expert said: “It is simply a temporary halt in attacks against the Palestinian people in Gaza by Israeli airplanes and nothing more than that.”

“It is not a step to any form of lasting peace or negotiations to solve the problems. It is simply going to stop the killings for now. Are the Israelis ready to end the occupation? If not, then the struggle will continue and the conflict will continue,” he cautioned.


Systematic displacement

Since the onset of the occupation in 1967, Israel has systematically permitted and encouraged hundreds of thousands of settlers to claim Palestinian territories. Despite the condemnation from the UN, which has formally denounced this policy as a violation of international law, Israeli leaders continue to encroach Palestinian territories, depriving them of their land and homes.

While the recent episode in this perennial conflict comes after a relatively dormant period, the eruption into a full-blown war happened after an armed squad of Israeli police officers entered the Al Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam. That, Zarifa said, became the turning point in the already deteriorating situation.

Scarred but not shattered, Palestinians are now more adamant that the only solution to the crisis is their freedom from the occupying power, which is Israel. “The solution is to end the occupation. We want to see this occupation to end, and we want Jerusalem as our capital and an independent state. Anything less than that will not solve the problem,” warned Zarifa, who heads a non-profit organisation that has been a vocal advocate for an independent democratic state for Palestinians.

When asked about Israel's self-defense narrative, Zarifa said: “It stands exposed. Who were they defending against when they killed more than 60 unarmed children and 100 women?” he questioned with a quiver in his voice.

Israel, he said, can defend itself by giving Palestinians the peace they deserve. “They have attacked towers and media channels. What were they defending against? the journalists? doctors? or the animals they killed?”

Commenting on the media coverage of the war, he said: “Unfortunately, the event was barely registered in the outside world before Israel attacked the journalists and particularly the offices of two international news organisations.” The Israeli forces, he said, are restricting the entry and access of journalists to prevent the world from learning about the actual suffering of Palestinian people.


Political mileage

Interestingly, the most recent crisis erupted as Netanyahu’s government was struggling for its survival and the prime minister for his own political existence. When asked what Israel gained out of the conflict, Zarifa bluntly responded: “Bibi Netanyahu was the only winner in this war.”

Some political pundits associate the survival of Likud party’s leader Netanyahu or Bibi, as he is commonly known, with the timing of the conflict in Gaza. Since the March 23 election, the longest serving Israeli prime minister was unable to form a government and his political future was looking very bleak after he failed for the fourth time in two years to bag enough votes for his coalition of allied right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties. But opposition appeared more fragmented after the massive Israeli airstrikes and mob violence that followed. It simply deepened the fissures between the Zionist and non-Zionist elements of the no-Bibi camp further apart.

“Bibi constantly wants to paint the Palestinians as villains and as an external threat to Israel’s security. That allows him to look like a winner before his hardline domestic audience,” claimed Zarifa, who has observed Netanyahu’s political trajectory very closely.


Set back by normalisation


While the guns may have temporarily silenced, prospects of peace between both sides look weak. In the 45 minutes long interview, the Palestinian expert blamed the United States and even the Arab countries for failing to negotiate peace between the two sides for more than seven decades.

On the newfound bonhomie between Israel, Arab nations, Zarifa said: “Normalisation of ties between Israel and other gulf states should not have happened. It has not helped the Palestinian cause. It shouldn’t have happened before the Palestinians received their rights.” “The Arab states only want to help us with their money and nothing more. We need political help,” added the Palestinian expert. The United States, even under Biden, he said was not advocating for the Palestinian cause.

“The two-state solution is dead due to the Israeli aggression, its forceful settlements, and killings. It is destroyed because the world and -- particularly the United States has given the Israelis the chance and space to move the settlers to the West Bank,” he said.

The United States, he said, is the only party that can force Israel to end the violence. “Afterall, the US is funding the Israelis. The bombs that are dropped on the Palestinians are funded by the US taxpayers,” he said. In his opinion, the US will have to rise above the situation, and not act as a party, for any peace process to move forward. “The United States must act as a willing agent of peace not as a party in this conflict,” he explained.


Unrelenting resolve

Still reeling from the massive attacks, Zarifa said: “There is no weapon in Israel’s arsenal that can break the Palestinian resolve. We are here. And we will succeed in taking our rights.”

“There is no question about how long it will take to achieve peace. We want it to happen soon, but regardless we will continue to struggle,” he cautioned.

Having survived several waves of Israeli aggression, some Palestinians said they felt a sense of déjà vu in the aftermath of the recent conflict. Ahmed Abu Artema, a Palestinian writer, and political activist candidly described the conflict as another attempt by the Israelis to kill their solidarity, erase their national identity, and undermine their cohesion.

“The situation is still difficult, and the Palestinians are still under the oppressive occupation of Israel and victims of its crimes. But nothing changes our resolve or our unity against the oppressor,” said Artema, a refugee from Al Ramla village in what's now called Israel.

In response to each question, the author of the book "Organized Chaos" and numerous articles, sent short voice notes via Whatsapp, a multiplatform messaging app, that still appears to be offering limited service in the area.

Even while much of Gaza has been reduced to mounds of rubble, Artema said the desire for peace and freedom remains strong. “We have more international support than we did. The reaction by the people all over the world has been very powerful.”

Artema had no praise for the leaders around the world, who he said, were still not able to openly denounce Israel’s actions.

“We hope the people will pressurize their governments to support justice and human rights and not the violations of human rights,” said the 36-year-old, who initiated the great march of return. Like Zarifa, the activist, who hails from Rafah, feels the truce between the two sides does not guarantee peace and freedom for the Palestinian people.

“We are under occupation and blockade, and we are fighting for our freedom and dignity. With the ceasefire we only moved the needle from the fast killings to the slow deaths,” he explained.

While skies above Gaza and Israel are silent for the first time in several weeks and many are talking about peace, and the infamous two-state solution, Artema was quick to describe such thoughts as ‘dead on arrival’. “The two-state solution was dead on arrival. It was still born. I was never convinced by this solution. Israel will never accept it at all,” he said

“It’s completely against the Palestinian existence so it will not give any concessions to Palestine. At the same time the two-state solution means that Palestinian refugees will not return to their towns from what’s now called Israel. And this is unacceptable for Palestinians,” he said in a recorded voice note.

When asked about President Biden’s role, he too, instantly shot it down with sharp criticism of the US president’s unequivocal support for Israel. “We don’t have any hope from the Biden administration. They declared clearly that they support Israel and that means they support the apartheid regime, racism, colonization, occupation, and discrimination.” He urged the political leadership in Washington to support the rights of the Palestinians and humanity.

While much of Gaza looks like dystopia, Artema still sees a future without Israeli oppression for Palestinians. To a question about the possibility of living in a free and independent state, he said: “The future of Palestine is a free nation. A Palestine without Zionists, without racial discrimination, without colonisation, without fences and border, without occupation. Most people would say it is a dream, but we believe deeply in our right for an independent state.”

History, the Palestinian activist said, tells us that all the people who struggle for their freedom get their freedom and dignity. “We can see a Palestine that is free of Zionist occupation, oppression, and discrimination,” he said.

In an emotional message to the Israeli leadership, Artema urged them to consider peace as the only option. “Israel can commit more massacres against us, and suppress us, but they will never feel safe or peaceful while they are building their state and existence on the suffering of other people,” he said.


Nothing has changed

More than a quarter of a century after he left his front row seat to the world’s most complicated conflict, Bob Rowley, who spent four crucial years of his long career as the Chicago Tribune’s correspondent in the Middle East, said nothing has changed in the troubled region. “The story of Israel and Palestine is the same as I left it a quarter century ago.”

“If you talk to the Israelis, it goes back to King David 3,000 years ago and if you talk to the Palestinians, it goes back to the time of their living as Muslims in the holy land. They are still at war over this blood-soaked patch of land we call the holy land,” explained Rowley, who has reported extensively from the region. “The fighting stops for now and hopefully the ceasefire holds but none of the underlying causes have been addressed or solved virtually in 25 years,” he added.

Rowley, who at one point was a nominee for the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for a report that focused on the Palestinian refugees, bluntly said: “No meaningful political progress has been made in years – since Oslo Accords.”

“My overwhelming feeling is heartbreak and frustration. I have friends on both sides of the conflict, Israelis, and Palestinians,” said Rowley as he reminisced about his time shuttling between Jerusalem and Cairo as the Middle East correspondent.

The former Chicago Tribune journalist, who concluded his three-decade long career as the paper’s national editor, described the loss of life on both sides as heartbreaking, but disproportionately worst on the Palestinian side. “The disproportionate nature of this fight has been noticed by the world and reported by the media more this time than ever before,” he said.

“The whole cause of this immediate of outbreak of fighting was an attempt by rightwing settlers and others to evict Palestinian Muslims and Christians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem,” explained Rowley during the hour-long interview. Netanyahu, the former correspondent said, had done nothing, but encouraged the encroachment throughout his term.

Referring to a phrase coined by Aristotle, ‘nature abhors a vacuum’, he said: “In the Middle East if you don’t progress, that vacuum will always be filled by violence sooner or later.” The ceasefire, he said, meant both sides returned to the status quo ante. “That means it will hold only until another event.”

“Hamas has drawn a line in the sand. If you keep evicting Palestinians from their homes, you keep raiding the Temple Mount and we will fire rockets again. And Israel has said if you do, we will go back in. And Israel, it appears, is sending police up to the Temple Mount,” he explained.

Rowley, who has recently penned a critical article on the situation said: “For the first time a conflict between Israel and Palestine has translated into a threat to the social cohesion within Israel’s own boundaries. The war has brought Arab-Israelis and Jews face-to-face at home in Israel.”

The events, Rowley said, teased the potential for a multifront conflict along Israel’s boundaries and inside its backyard. “For the first time, Muslims and Jews inside Israel were firebombing each other’s homes and attacking each other.”

Recalling his coverage of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, who was assassinated at a crucial point in the peace process with the Palestinians, Rowley said: “No progress has been made on the underline four or five issues that the Oslo Accords placed on the table -- the final status negotiations as they were called.”

The two-state solution, he cautioned, is in more danger than it was 25 years ago. “There are more than 500,000 settlers in the West Bank, way more than there were when I was there. Settlements chew the land and makes it very difficult to create a second state,” he explained.

The land, he said, has mostly been gobbled up. “A quarter of the land promised in the agreements has been left for the Palestinians.”

During the interview, Rowley also took a potshot at the Trump administration. “You must give Trump the credit for opening the relationship between Israel and some Arab states, but I fault him for not doing anything for the Palestinian concerns or to deal with their side of the final status issues in a meaningful way,” said Rowley.

“He took the Israeli side on every issue. He moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, which had always been in Tel Aviv as a statement. That’s fine for Israel and Trump but it's death and destruction for the prospects of peace because the US is no longer an honest broker between the two sides.”

Washington, he said, has a unique position in this conflict. “It has enormous influence over Israel through its military aid and other support,” said Rowley, who has also served as a White House correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, dominant voice of the Midwest.

“The US being in lockstep with Israel, gives Washington the responsibility to try more deliberately to solve the issues and ensure there is democracy, equality, and security for both Jews and Muslims.”

When asked about the possibility of peace, Rowley responded: “Unless there is relief or hope there will be no motivation for the Palestinians to make peace.” Cautious in expressing optimism, Rowley added: “Nothing has changed on the ground so the resentment will build up. There will be more right-wing pressure in Israel to increase the settlements. There will be more pressure in Palestine to stand up for their rights.”

However, the latest episode of the conflict between the two sides and the disproportionate use of force by Israel has resulted in more support for the Palestinians – particularly in the new breed of US politicians, who appear to be wielding more influence in the American political system.

“The progressives in the democratic party are focusing on the death, destruction, and disproportionate attacks against Palestinians. Yes, you must understand Israel’s right to defend itself. But Israel has hurt its moral authority with the disproportionate size of these attacks. You’re hearing more politicians demanding more attention to Palestinian issues which has languished for decades.”

On President Biden’s response, he said, the US leader is under pressure to go beyond the unequivocal support for Israel and show support for the Palestinians. “And he is just beginning to speak those words in his statements.”

Israel, through its actions, Rowley said, is losing public support for its narrative and moral authority every passing day. He urged the US president, UN, and the EU to employ more behind the scenes diplomacy and to convince both sides to return to the negotiating table.

The only good that came out of the conflict, he said, was that there is a renewed awareness of the Palestinian cause, and support for their cause is growing. “American Jews and American politicians appear to be more open to calling out Israel for its violations.”

On Israel’s right to self-defense, he said: “Several quarters are already talking about the asymmetric difference between a fierce militant group firing 4,000 rockets vs the strongest military power in the middle east firing bombs, heavy artillery, and targeting buildings often in civilian areas in a very disproportionate way. There are experts in the US and the west who are calling for investigations of war crimes against both sides.”

“With no possible end in sight, such episodes of violence will continue to boil over and continue to put both sides at risk,” Rowley said towards the end of the interview.


International observation

Support for Israel’s narrative seems to be waning in the aftermath of the recent conflict. In a scathing assessment of the situation, Dr. Ashok Swain, an Indian-born academic and professor of peace and conflict research at the Uppsala University said: “How can anyone justify the killing of more than 60 children, the bombing of dozens of schools, libraries, and hospitals, destruction of water plants and the water supply system?”

“The self-defense claim is credible as long as the use of force is proportionate to the threats posed,” he added.

Dr Swain, who has been a vocal critic of Israel’s policies on Twitter, also took a direct potshot at the Israeli prime minister. “No one, but Benjamin Netanyahu benefited the most from this crisis. His entire political career was in danger, and the corruption cases against him would have landed him behind bars. But the crisis has provided him a political lifeline,” said Dr. Swain by email from Uppsala where he is based. Describing the global response as ‘muted’ he said: “Criticism of Israel is often interpreted as anti-Semitic.

However, the global response to the crisis, which he said, very quickly turned into a catastrophe for the Palestinians, has changed significantly over the years. “The global opinion, including that of the Biden administration, is less favorable of Israel than it used to be.”

In security terms, Dr Swain said, Israel gained very little out of the conflict that lasted for 11 days. “Israel has become more insecure than before as the reach of Hamas-fired rockets has increased, and the famed ‘Iron Dome’ is not as effective as it was thought to be.” According to the Israeli military, the state-of-the-art defense system, which was designed to intercept rockets mid-air before they can kill Israeli civilians, was only 90% effective. As a result, 12 Israeli citizens were killed during the intense attack from Hamas.

Terming it temporary, the Sweden-based expert said: “Despite the ceasefire, the conflict has become more volatile, and the peace process is nowhere in sight.” “Hence, another flare-up is just a matter of time,” cautioned Dr. Swain.


War crimes

Joining the growing chorus of voices that have been asking for an independent investigation into Israel’s action,

CJ Werleman, a US-based journalist, and activist urged the United Nations to open an investigation into Israeli war crimes.

The host of the CJ Werleman show urged international media to be more balanced in their view of both parties. “Time and time again, the international news media proves that it's either unwilling or incapable of reporting on the Israel-Palestinian conflict without portraying both parties as equally powerful belligerents, while ignoring the asymmetrical power imbalance between the occupier - Israel, and the occupied - the Palestinians.”

The crux of the international news media's problematic coverage of the conflict, the correspondent for Byline Times said, is that it reports on it only when Palestinians resist, leaving audiences to believe the latest hostilities started with Hamas rockets. “In reality Israel's violence against the Palestinian people occurs 24 hours per day, 365 days per year, whereby they are caged, expelled, displaced, bombed and shot,” said Werleman by email.

Aiming his guns at the Israeli government, Werleman said: “There will never be peace until Israel ends its illegal occupation and blockade of the Palestinian Territories or establishes one state in which both Arab and Jewish citizens enjoy equal democratic rights under protection of the constitution and law.”

Tearing into Israel's claim to self-defense, he said: “It has no basis in international law.” “No occupying force has a right to defend itself. Only a right to be attacked "by whatever means necessary,” he added, referring to the UN Resolution 37/43.


View from Jerusalem

Inside Israel there is very little support for the Palestinian cause – primarily because the government of Bibi Netanyahu has successfully managed to brand the Palestinians as enemies of the state. The right-wing leader, according to Orly Noy, an Israeli journalist and activist, has successfully created this fear of the Palestinians.

Speaking from Jerusalem via Whatsapp, Noy, who is the editor of the Local Call, a Hebrew-language news site advancing citizen journalism said: “If you speak with the Israelis, they will tell you they are genuinely afraid of the situation. This sense of victimhood and fear is being fed to the Israeli people on a regular basis.”

If you listen to Bibi on Iran, Noy said, he referred to the country as the new Germany of the 1930s. “It is a very sinister move to keep Israeli public frightened and to control the Israeli public opinion. The Israeli public is unanimously supporting the most horrifying war crimes committed by the military because of the manipulative narrative injected into their veins for 70 years,” said Noy, who is a regular contributor to the Middle East Eye, a London-based online news outlet covering events in the Middle East and North Africa.


In Noy’s assessment most Israelis want peace. But the definition of peace, she said, is very different from what the Palestinians would accept, expect, or even want.

“When majority of Jewish people in Israel say they want peace, they mean they want a peaceful environment where they have full supremacy and control of land, and the Palestinians accept it quietly,” Noy said from Jerusalem where she is based. “They want dominance and control without paying any price. They want a peaceful life without justice and equality for the other side,” the activist explained.

On the changing global public opinion, Noy said: “Israel can convince its citizens that we are the victims. But the global opinion on the streets is overwhelmingly in the favor of the Palestinians.” In the US alone, she pointed out, that large Jewish communities have started questioning Israel’s actions. “These are all important developments that can be a game changer.”

When asked about the US efforts to broker peace, Noy said: “The Biden administration must include the Middle East in its policies.” The Jerusalem-based journalist urged Washington to stop the preferential treatment it extends to Israel.

“I expect President Biden to stop the special treatment of Israel and hold it accountable to the same liberal values he implements in other aspects of his policies. The only place that is excluded from those sets of values is Israel and there is no reason to exclude it,” she said during the interview. Israel, Noy concluded, should be held accountable when it violates global norms of human rights – particularly in Palestine.