Palestine’s unending torment: A stain on the world’s conscience

Oct 17, 2023
Palestinians inspect the ruins of Aklouk Tower destroyed in Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City on October 8, 2023.

Mainstream Western coverage of the recent Hamas foray into Israel and its aftermath has been marked by sensationalism, lack of historical context, and superficial moralising.

The decision of Hamas to attack Israeli towns and villages can be fairly described as ethically indefensible and strategically senseless. Resistance against oppression is a right and a duty. The rage and despair of Palestinians are perfectly understandable emotions. But their legitimate yearning for justice and liberation cannot rest on such wanton killing.

One can only speculate what Gazans think of Hamas’s actions. One thing is clear. Their painful experience of oppression over decades would have told them that Israel’s thirst for revenge would be swift and brutal and that few governments would come to their assistance.

As if on cue, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant announced on 9 October that Israel was at war with “human animals”, and ordered a “complete siege” on Gaza, cutting off supply of electricity and blocking the entry of food and fuel.

In the space of a few days, nearly 3,000 people have been killed in Israel’s indiscriminate bombing campaign of the Gaza Strip. With a ground invasion imminent, some 500,000 people have already fled from their homes.

The Gazan experience of the last 30 years is but one chapter of an ongoing conflict that has its origins more than a century ago in the actions of the dominant colonial power of the day, Britain.

The Balfour Declaration of November 1917 committed the British Government to “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish People”, and to facilitating its achievement.

Control over Palestine was seen as serving strategic imperial interests: retaining Egypt and the Suez Canal within Britain’s sphere of influence, and gaining the support of influential Jewish communities in other countries for Britain’s war aims.

The Palestinian reaction, less than lukewarm from the outset, became increasingly hostile. British policies were widely seen as supportive of Zionist objectives, and likely to lead to the displacement of Palestinians from their land. Between 1920 and 1946 some 376,000 Jewish immigrants arrived in Palestine.

Rising Palestinian resistance was soon met by British repression, including mass arrests, administrative detentions, summary killings and punitive home demolitions – practices that the State of Israel would subsequently adopt as key elements in its repertoire of oppression.

Though estimates vary, the measures taken to quell the three-year Palestinian revolt are widely thought to have taken the lives of 5,000 Palestinians, with another 15,000 injured and 5,600 imprisoned.

By 1939, with 30,000 troops deployed in Palestine, Britain substantially increased the tempo of its collaboration with the Jewish settler community and facilitated the formation of Jewish paramilitary groups that would later form an integral part of the Israeli army.

But British imperial power would soon decline – a trend greatly accelerated by World War II. A new imperial power, the United States, was now ascendant. Against this backdrop, the newly formed United Nations adopted Resolution 181, which called for the Partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states.

Palestinian rejection of the plan was inevitable given that it allotted 56 per cent of Palestine to the Jewish state, though Palestinians owned 94 per cent of historic Palestine and comprised 67 per cent of its population.

The ground was thus laid for the “catastrophe”, which Palestinians know as the “Nakba”. Even before the British Mandate expired in May 1948, Zionist paramilitary groups set out on a campaign to destroy Palestinian towns and villages and further enlarge the area that would comprise the state of Israel.

In the space of two years, an estimated 500 Palestinian villages, towns and cities were destroyed, 15,000 Palestinians were killed, and 750,00 Palestinians were forced to flee. The Zionist movement cold now claim control of 78 per cent of historic Palestine.

The rest is history: constant Israeli use of force by the military and by settlers to quell Palestinian resistance and maintain military occupation; rapidly expanding Israeli settler activity in violation of international law; and laws and practices introduced by the Israeli state that have established two categories of citizenship based on race and religion, simply put, an Apartheid state.

Over time, close to 6 million Palestinian refugees have spread across the Middle East, often in squalid camps. Palestinians now comprise the largest stateless community worldwide.

Set in this context, what many fear is about to happen in Gaza is déjà vu.

Why has the international community tolerated such deviant behaviour, and for so long? How has the state of Israel evaded the forceful international response that might have led it to change course? The simple answer is America’s enduring support. Biden’s fulsome backing of Israel in the present confrontation continues a special relationship that dates back to 1948.

The United States currently provides Israel $3.3 billion annually in foreign military financing and an additional $500 million for cooperative missile defence programs. To this must be added joint military exercises, research, weapons development, and importantly the deployment of a wide array of military assets in the Middle East, including the current despatch of two carrier strike groups to the Eastern Mediterranean.

The Israel-US relationship is also anchored by an annual bilateral trade of close to $50 billion, a string of trade, financial and technological agreements, as well as a wide range of cultural, educational and professional programs.

The special relationship with Israel serves several US objectives. It enables the United States to extend and justify its military presence in a region of high strategic importance; it keeps most Arab states on a leash; and it contains the assertive reach of adversaries, notably Iran, Syria and Hezbollah.

Yet, US support does not fully explain international paralysis when it comes to the Palestinian tragedy. America’s European allies, apart from mild criticism of illegal settlements, have also placed a higher priority on maintaining close economic and military ties with Isarel.

The EU is Israel’s biggest trade partner, accounting for 28.8 per cent of its trade in goods in 2022. Nearly 32 per cent of Israel’s imports came from the EU. Germany, Israel’s largest European trading partner, has seen the relationship between the two countries steadily deepen, especially since the establishment of bilateral intergovernmental consultations.

Among Arab governments, active support for Palestinian demands has been in visible decline. Perhaps the strongest indication of this trend came in 2020 with the decision by four Arab countries, The United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Morocco, and Bahrain, to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. US pressure was no doubt a decisive factor.

Saudi Arabia was expected to follow suit in due course. Though formally wedded to the creation of an independent Palestinian state, the Saudi government severely curtailed its financial support for the Palestinian Authority, and placed restrictions on financial contributions by Saudi charities and individual citizens to the West Bank and the Gaza strip.

Many governments in the Global South, it is true, have been highly critical of Israel’s use of force against Palestinians. They have instigated several UN resolutions condemning Israel’s settlements as devoid of legal validity. In 2020, the UN General Assembly adopted 17 resolutions against Israel, compared with just six for the rest of the world. But such resolutions, notwithstanding their moral weight, are routinely ignored by Israel since they inflict little pain or damage to its interests.

Much the same can be said of the positions adopted by China and Russia. They have both stayed clear of outright condemnation of Israeli use of force in the Occupied Territories, preferring to call for restraint and the cessation of hostilities. The interests at stake are not hard to discover.

Back in 1992, China’s trade with Israel stood at a mere $50 million. By 2022, two-way trade in goods had risen to $17.62 billion. It is worth noting that more than half of Israel’s exports to China consist of electronic components, including microchips. For China, such imports are crucial given US efforts to restrict its access to cutting-edge technology.

Moscow too is engaged in a delicate balancing act. Putin has described the failure to achieve an independent Palestinian state as a “gross injustice”, but has laid the blame squarely at the feet of US diplomacy. He has urged the Israeli government and Hamas not to target civilians and called on them to quickly end the war, but nothing said or done that might adversely affect the bilateral relationship.

The moral of this story is clear enough. Governments, driven largely by narrowly defined state interests, are unlikely at this time to act decisively to bring closure to the Palestinian “catastrophe”.

If we are to see anything comparable to the scale and effectiveness of the global campaign against apartheid in South Africa, the initiative will have to come from civil society. Only a highly engaged, well organised, transnational movement able to apply sustained pressure on governments and multilateral institutions is likely to afford Palestinian resistance the support that could make a difference.

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