By R. Butt and C. Chandrawala
When you hear or read the words “Palestine” and “Israel”, what comes to mind? For most people, it’s vague ideas of conflict and religious division. For others, they may appear to be fighters in a ring - each taking swings at the other, locked in an unending battle that gets slightly more brutal with each passing ring of the bell. For some, they’re just political buzzwords, and for others, they mean nothing at all.
The current situation was sparked by attempts to expel Palestinian residents from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighbourhood in East Jerusalem. Videos surfaced on social media of Palestinian residents trying to resist and protest Israeli settlers, and soon the hashtag #SaveSheikhJarrah was trending. After pressure, the Israeli Supreme Court postponed the evictions, but violence had already begun. Israeli forces cracked down heavily on protesters, using tear gas, stun grenades and a chemical fluid termed “skunk water”. As protests continued, Israeli forces began live firing on protesters, and then came the bombing of al-Aqsa Mosque. On 7 May, Israeli forces raided the mosque, one of the three holiest sites in Islam, a week before Eid. Al-Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary), the complex in Jerusalem where the mosque is located, is said to be one of the most significant symbols of Palestinian sovereignty. The mosque was raided five times over four days, leaving almost 200 people injured.
As protesters persisted, the force used against them escalated. On Thursday, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) live-tweeted that they are currently attacking the Gaza Strip, along with several other tweets detailing their defence against Hamas, whom they say are the targets of the bombing. There’s something extremely sinister about logging on to Twitter to see a military tweet about the violence they’re committing like it’s your everyday status update. But the casualties of the bombing have been the Palestinian people; so far 126 people have been killed and 600 wounded. The death toll includes 31 children.
The gravity of this should not be understated - Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on Earth, two million people reside there, with half the population under 18.
Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip have already faced a tremendously difficult year of being denied essential medicines and lack of access to clean water and sanitary facilities amidst the pandemic, on top of the ongoing occupation, blockade and displacement. Many Palestinian residents in Gaza have been forced to leave their homes once more. Video footage has emerged on social media of bombings, fires, and building collapses, including media offices and schools.
A Fraught History
Amongst all this violence, the Israeli Foreign Ministry called the events a “real estate dispute between private parties”. Because of course, your local Remax or Sotheby’s office regularly deploys aerial bombs as a negotiation tactic too. What this statement unintentionally does reveal though is the very ideologies behind Israel’s Zionism: disguising colonial violence and occupation as a simple matter of taking land it thinks it deserves at the expense of the people already there. And this has been ongoing for over a hundred years, but the early 20th century contains lots of key moments. In 1917, the Balfour Declaration outlined British support for the Zionist movement and the creation of a Jewish state. Britain captured Palestine from the Ottomans and was granted a “mandate” over Palestine by the League of Nations from 1922 up until 1948 when they surrendered their control and facilitated the creation of the state of Israel. More than 700,000 Palestinians were forced to flee or expelled from their homes in 1948 and between 400 and 600 Palestinian villages were destroyed, known as the Nakba.
It’s worth pointing out that the language used to discuss the history and current struggle is important because “mandate” is just a fancy, politically accepted word stepping around British imperialism. It’s also worth noting that in the Middle East (and much of Africa), many of the nation-states we know today were created artificially for the benefit of the European imperial powers. No seriously, in 1916 Britain and France drew lines on a map to carve out the areas in the Middle East that they wanted to control. One of the West’s ulterior motives for supporting the creation of Israel was to have an ally in the region. The very idea of “nation-states” and the borders that come with it were all conceived out of Western imperialism, and it’s important to acknowledge the knock-on effects of this.
Because whilst many assume that the struggle in Palestine is one of purely religious division, it’s actually one based primarily on colonisation, and the “legality” of Israel’s existence is founded in colonial law. Because once the British washed their hands of Palestine, after catalysing decades worth of conflict, it set in motion the events that cemented Israeli’s domination, using the same colonial apparatus of the British when they colonised a quarter of the entire planet. The Zionist movement sought to occupy more and more territory, exacerbating divisions as Palestinians were violently expelled from their homes by Israeli settlers. Millions of Palestinian’s were forced to become refugees, of which there are now 7.2 million. In 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, entrenching their Apartheid system of discrimination and oppression. This involves checkpoints manned by Israeli soldiers and guards, expanding Israeli settlements, and exacerbating the humanitarian crisis, particularly for refugees. There have been numerous peace attempts throughout the last seventy years, attempting to bring about a “two-state solution”, sharing the land between Israelis and Palestinians.
The Injustice of Neutrality
But ultimately, Israel is a settler colony, and this isn’t a simple two-sided conflict. Israel has consistently pursued its expansionist policies, expropriating land and resources from Palestinians with the aid of other imperialist countries such as the US and the UK. The US provides $3.8 billion in military funding to Israel every year, yet they have been one of the chief architects of attempted “peace deals” throughout various stages of history. Any attempts at a peace deal have historically and presently been to the benefit of the Israeli bourgeoisie, (and the American Photo-op Benefactor of the Day), compelling Palestinians to accept the parameters of their occupation. And whilst we recognise the persecution of Jewish people, who needed refuge especially during and after World War Two, it’s important not to conflate Judaism with Zionism. The co-optation of the Jewish religion and the plight of Jewish people to provide legitimacy for Israel’s actions purposefully heightens divisions and peddles anti-Semitism within the discourse around critiquing Israel. Support for Palestine doesn’t necessarily take away from the Jewish struggle, and we shouldn’t do so through anti-Semitic tropes.
Many Jewish people and organisations advocate for the liberation of Palestinian people because what we’re witnessing right now is ethnic cleansing.
And this is the most important point because it is often assumed that each side has equal footing, equal weaponry, equal resources, and that there has been equal destruction. But that isn’t the case. When international media calls the events we’re seeing right now “clashes” and “conflicts”, it masks the asymmetrical violence of Israel against Palestinians simply trying to defend their homes and their rights to live. The discourse around the Palestinian struggle purposefully avoids using heavy terms that are necessary to describe what we’re witnessing: ethnic cleansing and genocide. When the IDF has killed more than 3000 Palestinian children over the past twenty years, how can we call it anything else? Yet, it is framed as a fair fight between Israeli forces and Palestinian “militants”, obfuscating this reality. We’ve seen echoes of “both-side-isms” and the “need to be neutral” from the ruling classes in the West and in the Middle East, who have vested interests in maintaining Israel’s domination and suppressing Palestinian resistance.
Summarised best by Salem Barahmeh, Executive Director of the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy: “Israel has deliberately and forcibly engineered our geographic, social and political fragmentation as Palestinians since 1948 through segregation, displacement and expulsion - this is why we say the Nakba never ended.” He goes on to add that Nakba is not an event, it is a continuum that touches all. Every neighbourhood in Jerusalem was once a town like Sheikh Jarrah. And now, as the IDF continues its bombardment of the Gaza Strip, Palestinians continue to suffer under a system of oppression that positions their lives as lesser than. And it’s not just about physical, territorial colonisation, the Palestinian struggle extends into the colonisation of academia and education, the erasure of Palestinian culture and heritage. So as Palestinians both at home and abroad share their stories and ask for our support, we should do all that we can to provide it to them. Social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook have been called out for removing posts raising awareness of the events and censoring pro-Palestine media.
But despite this, the push to raise awareness, share resources and provide coverage of the events that are misconstrued by traditional media outlets have persisted. Hundreds of people in various locations across the world are protesting, with communities coming together to demand their government’s end their involvement in the death and destruction. There are many forms of solidarity we can show, whether it be on or off social media, and it’s also important to carry the momentum of the outrage right now into tangible everyday support that aids Palestinian people, activists and movements. Whether that be increasing your own education, engaging with the BDS movement, joining protests more frequently, pressuring your university, company or government to stop its complicity with Israel’s violence. Those with vested interests in the oppression of Palestine are counting on people to stop engaging once the current situation “dies down”. But it will never die down until Palestine is liberated, and the more of us who continue our support, the closer we get to a free Palestine one day.
The Biggest Prison on Earth, A History of the Occupied Territories - Ilan Pappe
Zionist Colonialism in Palestine - Fayez A. Sayegh http://www.freedomarchives.org/Documents/Finder/DOC12_scans/12.zionist.colonialism.palestine.1965.pdf
Medical Aid for Palestinians - https://www.map.org.uk/
Decolonise Palestine - https://decolonizepalestine.com/faq/
Middle East Eye news updates - https://www.middleeasteye.net/live/israel-palestine-sheikh-jarrah-jerusalem-update