West Asia

Holding out

Print edition : September 19, 2014

After an Israeli air strike in Gaza on August 25. Two thousand Palestinians have been killed, and yet it appears as if the resistance inside Gaza has not been subdued. Photo: AHMED ZAKOT/REUTERS

A Palestinian woman mourns the death of four members of her family in Jabalia on August 24. Photo: SUHAIB SALEM/REUTERS

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi (right) in discussion with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the presidential palace in Cairo on August 23. Photo: REUTERS

In an asymmetrical fight, Palestinians have stood firm in resistance even as the international protection they have requested seems too far in the future.

ON July 13, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wrote a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The letter came five days into Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, which had already killed 154 Palestinians. That day, the U.N. Security Council met and urged a return to “calm, and restitution of the November 2012 ceasefire”, the last deadly bombardment of Gaza by Israel (during which between 158 and 177 people, mostly civilians, died, while four Israeli civilians and two soldiers were also killed). The current conflict was already much harsher, and only five days had transpired. Hospitals had already been struck, and on the night of July 12, Israeli forces bombed a centre for the disabled (killing one woman with cerebral palsy). Israel was undaunted. Its military spokesperson Motti Almoz said, “We are going to attack northern Gaza with great force in the next twenty-four hours due to a very large concentration of Hamas efforts in that area.”

Abbas’ letter asked the U.N. to place the State of Palestine “under an international protection system”. The objectives of the “international protection system” were threefold. First, to maintain peace and security against “acts of aggression and breach of peace resulting from Israel’s continued occupation and illegal colonisation”. Second, to promote the rights and well-being of Palestinians within the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip “on the 1967 borders”. Third, to ensure respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Palestinians, all denied by “Israel’s ongoing occupation and acts of aggression”.

The letter was an act of desperation by the Palestinian leadership. The Security Council had been stymied from any effective action by the threat of a veto from the United States. The statement on July 13 was bloodless. U.N. agencies had already thrown their hands in the air, frustrated by the political inaction and overwhelmed by the enormous strain on their resources as more than half of Gaza needed U.N. assistance.

Antony Lake of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) released a statement on July 13 reporting that his staff “on the ground have spoken with families who describe the deep emotional impact that the current violence is having on children—children who are not sleeping or who are having nightmares, children who have stopped eating, and children who are exhibiting harrowing signs of mental distress”. No help seemed forthcoming despite the fact that U.N. institutions in Gaza had been repeatedly struck by Israeli ordnance.

Abbas’ letter entered the U.N. bureaucracy. Three weeks later, both Farhan Haq, deputy spokesperson of the Secretary-General’s office, and Saskia Ramming, spokesperson for the U.N. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, told me the same thing. President Abbas’ letter had been received. The U.N. was studying it “in consultation with the Palestinians, to determine the nature of the request”. Then came the clincher. “Any mandate for a protection body would need to come from the member states.” But, of course, here is the rub of it. Palestine is not technically a member state. In September 2011, it applied for recognition but was told by the Security Council that it was unable “to make a unanimous recommendation” on membership. The U.S. blocked its transit.

The bombing continues. Now about 2,000 Palestinians are dead, and a handful of Israeli civilians (four, including one Thai citizen) have died. Of the Palestinian President’s letter, Wolfgang Grieger of the U.N.’s Department of Political Affairs told me that Secretary-General Ban “takes the request very seriously”. The U.N. and the Palestinians have been going back and forth on this. Grieger notes, “A reply will be forthcoming, but I cannot speculate on the timing.”

Meeting in Cairo

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he would never negotiate with Hamas. This is a ploy. Israel routinely negotiates with Hamas—whether in the previous conflicts, on prisoner exchanges or on routine matters along the fence that divides Israel from the Occupied Palestinian territory of Gaza. Inside Israel, the temperature remains white hot. Politicians across the spectrum call for the annihilation of Palestinians, with no truce. This might be a popular view, but the ground reality suggests it is untenable. Two thousand Palestinians have been killed, and yet it appears as if the resistance inside Gaza has not been subdued. It will continue.

Suffocating a people

Palestinians are not innocent refugees. They are human beings who live under blockade in a very congested territory (two million in Gaza, which is 140 square miles, or 363 sq. km). The general sentiment in Gaza amongst the people, and shared by the U.N., is that the Israeli blockade is suffocating the people. If you suffocate a human being, that person is going to lash out. That is precisely what Palestinians—and not merely Hamas—have been doing. Under various U.N. resolutions, including the resolutions on decolonisation, Palestinians who are under occupation have the right to resist. The character of the resistance has surprised the Israelis. It is precisely what has set President Abbas’ letter aside. U.N. protection seems too far in the future. The resistance fighters, meanwhile, have at least upheld Palestinian dignity —despite enormous social and human loss.

Firstly, Israel’s expectation has been that the West Bank leadership—under President Abbas—would cave in and try to put pressure on their adversaries in Hamas to come to a ceasefire. Over the course of the past year, Saudi Arabia has been on the rampage against the Muslim Brotherhood, which has become something of a client of Qatar. Hamas is the Muslim Brotherhood’s branch in Palestine. One expectation would have been for Saudi Arabia to pressure Abbas to scuttle talk of West Bank-Gaza and Hamas-PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) unity, which had been on the cards earlier this year. But this has simply not happened. The West Bank leadership continues to support the people of Gaza. Its credibility, already in tatters, would not take any more. Abbas arrived in Cairo for the second set of talks on August 22, met with the Saudi client Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, but did not shift from the principal demand of Palestinians—end the blockade of Gaza. Before arriving in Egypt, he went to Qatar, where he met the Emir and the head of Hamas, Khaled Meshal. It was a clear signal of unity.

Secondly, Palestinian fighters on the ground—with less than minimal weaponry and homemade rockets —have pinned down Israeli troops, whose ground occupation had to end in a retreat. The resistance, whose tactical sense this time seems far more sophisticated than in 2012 and 2009, killed more than 60 Israeli soldiers. Accusations that Palestinians are using civilians as human shields seem preposterous given the conditions of warfare. This is an asymmetrical fight, with Palestinians using every page in the manuals of guerilla warfare. It is a worthy question to ask if the Palestinian resistance is an example of levée en masse—a mass uprising, which would give them the right to resist even as civilians. In 1899, the President of the Brussels Conference that gives us our laws of war noted that “acts of heroism on the part of populations rising against the enemy” had to be acknowledged and respected. An occupying army has obligations to protect civilians, but this does not include preventing civilians from exercising their legitimate right to the “demands of patriotism”. Palestinians have fought back, and this time their resilience has surprised the Israeli government.

The meetings in Cairo continue, but they are on mute. On August 19, Reuters’ journalist Samer al-Atrush asked an Egyptian official to describe the discussions. The official replied, “zai el zift.” In other words, “like shit”. The bombing continues. Gaza’s Palestinians report that the nights have been intense. Families of Hamas leaders have been killed, as have one or two Hamas leaders themselves. This has occasioned much more intense resistance. Fifty per cent of the Palestinians of Gaza have moved to the homes of the other 50 per cent, or else taken shelter in U.N. buildings. One woman writes, “I think we are all being terminated right now. I can hear unstoppable ambulances around. The sky is orange and red. We are all choked.” Meanwhile, Arab Idol hero Mohammed Assaf released a song with the chorus line, “Gaza will not be disgraced…..

Gaza is calling, but who will listen.

Gaza calls, ‘With the might of those hands

Throw stones at your enemy,

Lift your head up high.

It is your weapon.’”

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