Given Gaza’s appalling living conditions, the outburst of violence on the Israeli-Gaza border should come as no surprise. The question is whether its signals a shift in Palestinian tactics, aimed at using Israel’s disproportionate violence to revive jaded regional and international interest in the Palestinian cause.
It’s a sad pointer to the sorry state of our world that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict struggles for airtime. It’s one of the twentieth century’s great unresolved post-colonial issues yet it is drowned out by so much other bad news coming from the Middle East: the false hope of the misleadingly named Arab Spring, epitomised by Egypt’s relapse to dictatorial rule under a president just re-elected with 97 per cent of the vote; the political and humanitarian disaster that is Syria today; the even bigger disaster that is Yemen, where the UN estimates 22.2 million people (more than Syria’s total population) are now in need of humanitarian assistance. All this in the context of the geopolitical elbowing—far too polite a term—between Russia and Iran on one side and the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia (principally) on the other.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict ticks away. At best it’s a geyser, venting occasionally to relieve the pressure. At worst it’s an active volcano, not especially dangerous for those at a distance—who in any case are preoccupied with other troubles—but wreaking death and destruction on those in the immediate vicinity.
In the past 10 days or so, the Israeli military has shot dead about 30 Palestinians and wounded hundreds of others who were demonstrating near the border fence between Israel and Gaza. No Israelis died. This graphic display of one-sided death dealing will build pressure for an eventual explosion. That could come as early as 15 May, when the current protests are set to climax in mass demonstrations. That date, Palestinians mark as the Nakba, the day of catastrophe when they were forced from their homes to make way for the newly declared Israeli state.
Gazans have long grappled with a life collapsing about them. The territory has become a cliché for desperation. It’s an intensely congested open-air prison, hemmed in by Israel on one land border, Egypt under President Sisi on the other, and the Mediterranean cesspit of Gaza’s wastes on the third. It’s an economic nightmare: unemployment currently estimated at around 45 per cent, the supply of electricity and drinkable water erratic at best, basic medicines in short supply and sanitation a major public health hazard. A 2012 UN report concluded that for Gaza to remain liveable would require ‘on-going herculean efforts by Palestinians and partners in such sectors as energy, education, health, water and sanitation’.
Hercules has no intention of going anywhere near Gaza.
That should worry Israel, for Gazans, in their steadily increasing numbers, are going nowhere either. Beside shooting them, the best Israel’s leaders can do is to tar all Gazans with the same brush—that of being Hamas stooges. Israel’s General Staff described the most recent trouble as popular protest latched onto by Hamas. But Defence Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, declared there ‘are no innocent people in Gaza … all the activists trying to challenge us and breach the border are Hamas …’.
One of the ‘activists’ shot dead by an Israeli sniper was a Palestinian journalist, Yaser Murtaja, carrying a video camera and wearing a flak jacket marked clearly with the word ‘press’. Ironically, the media production company co-founded by Murtaja had recently been awarded a modest grant from the US government.
As there’s no shortage of weaponry in Gaza, the one-sided nature of the shooting is striking. The idea of Hamas, or indeed others in Gaza, exercising ‘restraint’ in the face of everyday realities might seem an oxymoron. But it has advantages, optical and practical. It spotlights the imagery of Israel’s disproportionate use of force. And it avoids, or at least restrains, the risk an all-out confrontation which would wreak havoc on all Gazans, Hamas activists or otherwise.
It also puts Palestinians on the front page again, at least for the moment. The New York Times quoted Nathan Thrall, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, as saying that the troubles came ‘at a time when the Palestinians feel totally marginalized from the world agenda and even from the regional agenda’. The demonstration’s main goal, he suggested, was to signal to the Palestinians’ Arab allies and to the US that a price will be paid if the Trump administration attempts ‘to eradicate’ the Palestinian issue.
The same article quoted Omar Shaban, director of the Gaza-based PalThink for Strategic Studies, as saying that Arab leaders, especially in the Gulf, felt they could ignore the Palestinian cause. ‘They thought it’s a stable conflict. But it reminds them, the US, Israel, the Europeans—all of them—that the problem is still there, guys. Things might seem to be stable, but no. It’s boiling.’
Simmering at least. But will anyone take much notice? Compared to Syria and Yemen, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict looks relatively straightforward and predictable. Perhaps that’s the problem. We can’t imagine a world without it, and we’ve given up trying to.
Peter Rodgers is a former Australian Ambassador to Israel who was also an award-winning journalist. He has written two books on the Middle East (Herzl’s Nightmare: one land, two peoples; Arabian Plights – the future Middle East)