article printed in The Australian, 2 January, 2014.
“I’M going to tell God everything.” These were the last words uttered by a dying three-year-old boy in Syria, a statement that epitomises the insanity of the Middle East conflicts and frames the battlelines drawn for political and economic gains draped in ethnic and religious colours.
What started as legitimate aspiration for democracy and liberation ended in failed states and dictatorships through the help of organised zealots with financial backing. A supposed spring has turned into a bleak autumn with an appalling human tragedy, death and destruction.
In the past two to three years, the world has witnessed the demise of political systems that emerged in the post-colonial era in the Middle East. The often-described regimes, sustained through the support from external powers, have reached their use-by date. The US and its willing Western allies, including Australia, have lost their hegemony and influence and their allied regimes have come tumbling down.
The Palestinians have been compromised once again and used as a scapegoat in the battle for control in these countries.
In Syria, the civil war has had a major impact on its estimated 475,000 Palestinian refugees. In 2012, the Palestinians were falsely accused by minister Buthaina Shaaban as being instigators of trouble in Syria, to deflect criticism of the regime. Later, Hamas leader Khalid Mashaal was forced to leave Syria because he refused to back either side of the conflict.
Palestinians who fled the conflict in Syria are placed in separate refugee camps in Jordan. They are estimated to number more than 100,000. For some of them this is the fourth time they have become refugees in their lifetime – a tragic record not equalled by any other people on earth.
Those who opted to stay are facing death and starvation, with reports up to 15 Palestinians have died of starvation since September in the Yarmouk refugee camp. Recently, the Assad regime is implementing a new policy that denies Palestinians who leave Syria the right to return to their homes and families.
The Palestinian Authority is also helpless to support those refugees. It is reported that the Netanyahu government in Israel was ready to allow those refugees to be settled in the West Bank on the condition that they sign away their right of return under international law, a cruel condition that the Palestinians have rejected.
The unrest in Egypt has been detrimental to the Palestinian population of Gaza. The election of the Islamic Brotherhood government headed by Mohammed Morsi did not ease their suffering, and the Rafah crossing remained closed most days.
The military coup that toppled the Morsi government and put him on trial had disastrous consequences for the Palestinians in Gaza. Not only did the new Egyptian regime work to close many of the estimated 1000 tunnels under the Egyptian-Palestinian border but it also turned the anger of the Egyptians opposing the Brotherhood on to Hamas and the Palestinians. Today’s Egyptian media openly and freely blames Hamas for every political and financial problem Egypt has.
In the Gaza Strip, an estimated 1.5 million Palestinians enter their seventh year of siege. The borders are relatively quiet since the 2011 invasion, with the odd exchange of fire. Despite this, six Israelis and 27 Palestinians (five in Gaza) were killed last year.
This week also marks the fifth anniversary of Operation Cast Lead, which resulted in the death of 1400 people and unprecedented destruction. Most buildings and infrastructure have not been rebuilt. Recent storms and the ongoing electricity and fuel shortage caused sewage from a Gaza City wastewater treatment plant to overflow into residential areas, causing a humanitarian and environmental crisis. Several more sewage stations across the Gaza Strip are on the verge of overflowing, which would be disastrous for the entire region.
The UN says about 10,000 Gazans have no access to a water network, while about 60 per cent of the 1.5 million population gets water only intermittently, and 95 per cent of water in the Gaza Strip is not suitable for consumption. The situation is not much better for Palestinian refugees in Iraq, Jordan or Lebanon.
A few of the Palestinian refugees have ended up in Australia as well. Australia’s responsibility under the refugee convention is well understood; however, its obligation as a member of the international community and UN Security Council is much greater.
Australia has the power to play a constructive role in bringing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to a just resolution under the frame of international law. This will help solve the Palestinian refugee problem once and for all and defuse tension in an important trading region for Australia. It will also reduce the burden of the refugees coming to Australia’s shores.
One wonders what was God’s response when hearing the little boy’s story about the cruelty of humans towards each other. Perhaps he would want the good people of the world to bring peace, justice and a fair go to all those who need it most.
We are lucky to live in a country that upholds these values and so we must act, if not out of faith in God, at least out of a belief in humanity.
With the world community declaring this the Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian people, there is no better time for us to become an honest broker for peace and justice.
Bassam Dally is a Palestinian activist and an executive member of Australia Palestine Advocacy Network and Australian Friends of Palestine Association.