I recently spent some months living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I was shocked, deeply distressed and angered by what I witnessed on a daily basis. Palestinians living under the Israeli military occupation experience a relentless, dehumanising, brutal and intimidating regime managed by the Israeli Defence Force and supported by hundreds of thousands of illegal settlers.
I lived in a small Palestinian village in the West Bank. In my village alone, four twelve year old boys were arrested and taken away during some of the several night raids we endured. In the dead of night, dozens of heavily armed Israeli soldiers would invade our village. They would fire a particularly noxious tear gas through the narrow streets, causing most of us to be quite sick for days after as it seeped through the windows and doors. Three family houses were demolished and the only school was closed for future demolition. One hundred and fifty olive trees belonging to poor villagers were uprooted with bulldozers one night by the local armed settlers to make way for the expansion of their nearby illegal settlement.
During my travels around the West Bank, frustratingly slow as I had to queue at dozens of Israeli checkpoints, I discovered that so many other villages were suffering the same injustices and indignities on a frequent basis.
It isn’t much better for Palestinians living in Israel as, just before I arrived, the Israeli Knesset passed the “Nation-State” bill, which embeds into Israel’s constitution the denial of equality under the law for Palestinian citizens of Israel (one fifth of the population) who are already subject to more than sixty laws that directly discriminate against them. Only a matter of weeks ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu said that “Israel is a nation-state of the Jewish and them alone”.
I travelled down to the “open prison” of the Gaza Strip as I wanted to visit an old friend of mine who is teaching there. I could not gain entrance. Here, over 1.8 million people live, crammed into a tiny piece of land. For the last eleven years, Gaza has endured an inhumane and crippling siege, with all its air, land and sea communications blockaded. My friend has described to me the devastation wrought by this blockade and numerous military assaults. As a result, bombed schools and hospitals cannot be rebuilt and the population has no regular access to power, water or adequate food. This has basically created a ghetto and the UN has predicted that Gaza will be a human disaster in a matter of only a few years. And now, on my return to Australia, I learn that Israel is carrying out another bombing assault and is poised to escalate this bombardment.
Saturday 30 March 2019 marked one year since the start of the “Great Return March” which has seen thousands of protesters demonstrating every week for the end of the blockade and their fundamental right of return to their homes from which they were expelled in 1948 and 1967. Very recently, a UNHCR Commission of Enquiry adopted a report which accused Israel of committing war crimes against unarmed civilians along the Gaza fence, including medics, disabled people, journalists, women and children. Israeli snipers used internationally illegal “butterfly” bullets which explode on impact, as well as new forms of gas attack. These demonstrators did not pose an imminent threat of death or serious injury to others when they were shot, nor were they directly participating in hostilities. Since the start, over 200 demonstrators have been killed and over 27,000 injured. That is more than during the entire 2014 war on Gaza. Israel is an occupying power under international law and is obliged to protect the people of Gaza and ensure their welfare. This is a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
On top of all this, Israel has further entrenched its system of oppression and continues to rapidly expand illegal settlements in defiance of international law.
Recently, President Trump cut American funds to UNRWA, a matter of huge humanitarian concern. It appears this is part of a wider attempt to redefine the refugee status of millions of displaced Palestinians and erase their fundamental right of return.
A few weeks ago, Netanyahu made a deal with Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), the successor to Meir Kahane’s fascist party, in advance of the upcoming Israeli elections. This party openly calls for the “ethnic cleansing” of Palestine. Also, Netanyahu’s rival in these elections, Benny Gantz, has bragged of sending Gaza back to the “stone age”.
So, in all that I have witnessed, experienced and have been told, it seems to me that Israel, while giving lip service to the notion of a two-state solution, is operating a strategic plan to intensify its serious assault on the collective rights of the Palestinian people.
Now, wrapped up in the peace and security of Canberra, I do wonder, if we had all been forced out of our homes and had lived under a brutal military occupation for the last 50 years, how would we all feel, think and behave?
Mary Kelly is a retired High School teacher who has lived in many parts of the world, including the Middle East. She has, for many years, been a strong and active advocate for the rights of the Palestinian people.