Over the last two weekends, demonstrators have been gathering at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. Young men wearing the keffiyah chant “Palestine will be free,” while others sing “Free Free Palestine,” holding placards, banners, flags and dummy coffins that demand an end to military aid to Israel, ask for the Gaza war to be over and ask that the leaders of Israel be tried for war crimes against Palestinians. During the first week, there were about 1,000 protesters. This past Sunday, the estimated number of people at the protest exceeded 6,000. As is the standard procedure in the United States, squads of police personnel walked alongside the protesters.
The protests have been peaceful but the demands are made vociferously and with much anguish. The gathering on Sunday made its way down the Market Street and ended at the Civic Centre, one of the seats of power in San Francisco, which adjoins the United Nations Plaza. On the steps of the Civic Centre, young Palestinian women recited poetry in which they talked about trauma, hurt and anxiety. Students and professors made speeches telling people that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one between unequal powers. Some sections supported armed resistance, while others said that both states can coexist peacefully. However, there was broad agreement that not resisting would mean inviting the planned and painfully slow genocide of their people. The protesters were not shy about using the word “apartheid” to describe Israeli policies towards the Palestinians.
In pre- and post-protest discussions with some demonstrators, the sense of trauma was palpable. These are young people who have moved to different countries to escape the conflict. They have forged new lives and careers as students, caregivers, motel operators and technology professionals. The last two weeks have witnessed some of the biggest worldwide mobilisation for Gaza. The Palestinian diaspora in Europe and the United States, supported by people of various countries, have all rallied in favour of Gaza and asked for an end to the current assault on the Strip. The only protest that has turned violent so far occurred in Paris.
The most recent round of violence between Israel and Palestine has been precipitated by a number of factors. The immediate cause was the alleged kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in mid-June. Following the multiple abductions, the Israeli Defence Forces launched Operation Brother’s Keeper, under which over 300 Palestinians were rounded up and questioned. From the beginning, it was unclear who was behind the kidnappings. While Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, accused Hamas, the Palestinian Authority said there was no evidence of Hamas involvement. Hamas also denied that it had kidnapped the youths. The three youths were later found dead in a field near Hebron with conflicting reports suggesting that they had been killed soon after abduction or had been killed recently.
Operation Brother’s Keeper resulted in a massive manhunt for possible suspects with little evidence. Further, revenge attacks on Palestinian youths began to occur with botched kidnapping attempts and the burning of a Palestinian boy by Jewish extremists. Three weeks after the Israeli youth disappeared, Hamas fired 100 rockets into the Israeli territory. On July 8, Israel began responding by firing back in what is now called Operation Protective Edge.
Interestingly, Israel has somewhat agreed that the killings might have been perpetrated not by Hamas but by a Hamas splinter group called the Qawasameh clan that has often gone against the edicts of Hamas leaders. This begs the question: what is this current war really about?
The recent hostilities are not rooted in only the immediate tensions between Israel and Palestine; they are a product of recent changes that have taken place in the region. In June 2014, Hamas and Fatah, two groups politically at odds in Palestine, buried their long-standing differences, sending tremors through Israel which thinks that with the reuniting of these groups, terrorism will get a boost, i.e., Hamas will drag the more moderate Fatah towards extremism. The manner in which Operation Brother’s Keeper was initiated suggests that the main endeavour was not just to find the missing youths but to use the incident as a pretext to take out Hamas targets and their supporters. This would make the Palestinian Unity government seem weak and ineffective in combating Israeli aggression and controlling its own territory.
In Israel, both the Knesset and the government agree that resuming hostilities against the Palestinian territories best safeguards the interests of the Israeli state and people. The Knesset, with a strong presence of the Zionist right, has members who have made strong anti-Palestine pronouncements. Ayelet Shaked, a member of the Knesset representing the Jewish Home Party, stated that the conflict could not end until all Palestinians, including women and children, were “wiped out.” More recently, the Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, Moshe Feiglin, wrote strongly about a ground invasion with the entire capacity of the Israeli Defence Forces and bombing of Gaza with little warning as a ‘solution’ to the Gaza issue. Similarly, Gilad Sharon, son of Ariel Sharon, has suggested that Israel flatten Gaza like Hiroshima.
The Palestinian Unity government has a component of the right, but the presence of Fatah helps temper Hamas. However, peace deals and ceasefires have been a lot harder to negotiate. As it is, Hamas has repeatedly accused Israel of sanctioning settlements even though ceasefire norms were in place. Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority and a Fatah member, is also caught between a rock and a hard place, as he has been asked by Mr. Netanyahu to choose between a deal with Hamas or Israel.
Last July, former U.S. presidential hopeful John Kerry, along with Martin Indyk from the Brookings Institution, tried to restart peace talks between Israel and Palestine. The talks were supposed to take place over 10 months and reach a settlement on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The talks broke down several times. Mr. Netanyahu rejected the Palestinians’ right of return, while Mr. Abbas said they didn’t want a single Israeli settlement on Palestinian land. In January 2014, Israel approved 1,400 settlement homes in a move that sent a negative signal to the Palestinian Authority. This, combined with repeated failures to release Palestinian prisoners in Israel, led to a lack of confidence on the side of the Palestinian Authority.
The United States has taken a measured stance on the issue by blaming both sides for the breakdown of the 2013-2014 talks. Mr. Kerry went on record that a third Intifada was in the offing if the current talks didn’t succeed. The recent round of hostilities suggests that talks are no longer working because both sides display a basic trust deficit.
For Israel, Hamas is more of a threat than the Palestinian Unity government and Israel is uncertain if the Palestinian government can strong-arm Hamas. It is, then, not surprising that personal protection of Israeli territory and Israelis in the settlements has taken priority over trying to build confidence and trust between the two states.
Operation Protective Edge has claimed over 600 Palestinian lives, while the Israeli death count stands at less than 50. Over the last two weeks, images have surfaced of Israeli people roosting atop a hill watching the bombardment of Palestinian targets. Flechette munitions have been used against civilians. Humanitarian groups report a grave crisis in Gaza with hospitals working at full capacity amid rocket attacks.
What is new about the Israel-Gaza conflict is that Israel seems to be losing much popular support internationally, as studies and reports establish that the Israel-Palestine conflict has been a lopsided one for many decades, that the Israeli state has practised segregation and influx control, not unlike the apartheid regime in South Africa, and that its means of fighting and adherence to a real lasting peace with Palestine are part of carefully-crafted doublespeak.
There is no longer any doubt that the Palestinian question needs more international attention and global deliberation. This is a slow genocide of a people who have struggled against occupation since 1948 or 1967, depending on the viewpoint people adhere to. Google images have accurately shown how the Palestinian territory has reduced over the decades. The paradox is stark and unavoidable — for every operation that Israel launches on Gaza and the Palestinian people, the Palestinian resistance becomes stronger and more determined.
( This article was originally published in The Hindu and can be accessed here.)