By George Browning & Sivan Barak
It is difficult to overstate Israel’s accomplishment as it prepares to celebrate the 70th anniversary of its declaration of independence this month.
United Nations resolutions notwithstanding, its hold over the Occupied Territories is stronger than ever. Although foreign statesmen still call for a two-state solution, they do so formalistically, as if trying to sound sincere but not naive. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced in March that Israel would retain control of “the area west of the Jordan” regardless of whether Israel concluded a peace agreement with the Palestinians, he was studiously ignored. Even Israel’s former enemies, shaken by the Arab Spring and a resurgent Iran, have come to realise that they have more in common with the Netanyahu government than they once thought.
On May 14, the United States will crown Israel’s triumph by relocating its embassy to Jerusalem. Previously the international community, understanding that a capital in East Jerusalem is indispensable to Palestinian statehood, has been united in refusing to recognise Israel’s claim to the whole of Jerusalem. Today that consensus is shattered. Guatemala, Paraguay and the Czech Republic have announced that they too will be relocating their embassies and it is likely that other countries will follow suit.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, will be commemorating 70 years of colonisation and displacement. As Jewish settlements expand and link up and Israeli bulldozers return again and again to demolish first houses, then shacks, and finally plastic tents, a new generation of refugees is being created in areas earmarked for Jewish colonisation.
The conclusion of this process is to be found in today’s Gaza Strip. Because of overpopulation, a punitive blockade and the destruction of public infrastructure by the Israeli airforce, roughly half of Gaza’s population suffers from what the UN describes as “food insecurity”, 90 per cent of Gaza’s water is unfit for human consumption, beaches are polluted with untreated sewage and fishermen are shot for sailing too far from the shore. Even within Gaza, as much as half of the arable land lies within a “buffer-zone” wherein Palestinians can be shot on sight.
Clearly, Hamas shares some responsibility for Gaza’s plight. Its policy of firing rockets into Israel has proven disastrously counterproductive. In 2014, in response to the last Hamas barrage, the Israeli military killed 2,251 people throughout Gaza and demolished or partially destroyed more than 20,000 homes.
On March 30, 30,000 Gazans established five protest camps on the edge of the buffer zone demanding a return to their homes in Israel. Wary of Israeli retaliation, they have confined their protest to a non-violent and mostly symbolic March of Return.
Israel’s response has been to try and crush the demonstrations while keeping the death toll below a level that would provoke international condemnation. Although the UN reported last week that 2,017 protesters have been shot with live ammunition, only 47 have been killed. Medics in Gaza report an unusually high number of amputations caused by an “exploding bullet” that pulverises bone, tissue and arteries.
Displays of force against recalcitrant Arabs play well with the Israeli public, whose support for the crackdown is broad and deep. Even so, the reaction of Israeli-American actor Natalie Portman has shocked many Israelis.
In December Portman accepted Israel’s $2 million Genesis Prize. In April she announced that she would not be attending the award ceremony due to “recent events in Israel”. Her change of mind is symptomatic of the disquiet felt by many Jewish liberals, who previously supported Israel while hoping that the Occupation would be resolved through a two-state solution.
Netanyahu believes that Israel is entering into a golden era of peace with its Arab neighbours and unrestrained settlement expansion. In the short term his optimism is probably well placed. But the Gaza protestors are not thinking in the short term.
“I am optimistic because even in their despair, with no reason to hope, people continue to resist,” wrote the American writer Ben Ehrenreich in The Way to the Spring, his account of Palestinian life in the West Bank. “I cannot think of many other reasons to be proud of being human, but that one is enough.”
In spite of 70 years of dispossession and exile, despite the daily humiliation of life under Israeli rule, despite the failures of their own leadership and the enormous power arrayed against them, Palestinians do not regard themselves as a defeated people. So long as this is the case, Israel’s victory will remain at best a partial one.
George Browning is the former Anglican bishop of Canberra and president of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network. Sivan Barak is an executive member of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society.