Saturday June 22, 2024

What happens in Gaza won’t stay in Gaza

By Sherry Rehman
October 14, 2023
Palestinians search for victims under rubble after Israeli strikes on Rafah in southern Gaza. — AFP/File
Palestinians search for victims under rubble after Israeli strikes on Rafah in southern Gaza. — AFP/File

Terrorism is condemnable in any shape or manifestation. For this position to be credible, the bombing of civilians by either Hamas or Israel is not acceptable. A crucial difference in form and substance is that the latter is a state, which places different obligations on it. Another obvious difference is that the state of Israel is not only a legacy bomber of civilians, it is also continuing its policy of forced evictions by ordering a million innocent Palestinians out from the northern side of the Gaza strip in a further attempt to balkanize the tattered territory, using reprisals as an excuse to further occupy the area. As food, fuel and water runs out under the Israeli siege of Gaza, UN spokespersons in the area are citing “ severe humanitarian consequences” of this forced evacuation as Israel prepares for a brutal ground invasion.

Oppression is not a new experience for Palestinians. More than half a century of unspeakable, dehumanizing repression in what is widely described as the ‘world’s largest open air prison’ has led to many ‘nakbas’, and forced expulsions of Palestinians from this moth-eaten territory over decades of state-sponsored violence. This expulsion looks like Israel is planning several weeks of slaughter and evacuations, as a ‘final solution’ for the Palestinians, denied statehood and basic rights, with the UN SG saying that the area is now a veritable “hell on earth”. The Israelites’ David has now become Goliath.

Impunity for Israel is not new. While limits to unbridled power have never quite found guardrails strong enough to protect equality, rule of law as defined by global order is based on moral purpose. What is dangerous in this current conflagration in the Middle East is that the foundations of international law are being normalized as fundamentally ‘nasty and brutish’. The counterpoint to this is neither complicated nor new. When rights are not applied as universal, they lose their legitimacy. In this context, what is quoted as casus belli, or a cause for war, is not seen as cause for another. This is a recipe for profound global disorder, where law becomes hostage to the unchecked rules of power. The cases of both Kashmir and Palestine, two of the oldest disputes on the UN docket, are meant to be exceptions, embarrassments to the capacity and will of international order to apply universal norms. Yet when the exceptions risk becoming routine business of how states and systems are re-ordered in the 21st century, then fresh peril is round the corner.

As the crisis intensifies, far more than the region’s strategic stability is at stake. Despite many global players expending both military capital and power to ensure containment, it is already changing both the diplomatic and military heatmap of the world. And with media on smartphones, while military containment of a conflict is possible, containing the story is not. Thanks to knuckle-whitening bravery by Al Jazeera’s reporters positioned at the heart of the carnage, the narrative is not entirely one-sided or ahistorical, with outrage now channelled at more than Hamas for its attack on Israel. With the Israeli military’s brutal oppression rarely seeing condemnation by Western media, the vibe on the Muslim street almost globally is the opposite. While Gaza’s population is not an army, Hamas’ armed assault on Israel is largely being seen by the Muslim world as a response to Israel’s decades of growing and violent occupation of the land where Palestinians once welcomed Jewish settlers fleeing from Nazi atrocities in Europe.

History, in one form, is a longer view of context. Much of the Palestinian question, as it was known, is rooted in the forced ‘solution’ of arbitrary maps drawn in the sand by the Allied powers after World War I. The collapse and truncation of the powerful Ottoman empire culminated in this war with the creation of new successor states, including Ataturk’s modern Turkey, now Turkiye. A League of Nations mandate included provisions for a Jewish national homeland in Palestine which ignored the views of the Palestinians. The indigenous Arab people who called this area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River their home, never accepted the arbitrary ‘partition’ in 1948, and the Arab-Israeli war, which involved five Arab states – Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon – ended in 1949 in even more widespread truncations and Palestinian discontent.

In short, over the years, Israel became a state backed by powerful countries, and Palestine was left to be invaded, occupied and reduced in size over decades of violent occupation by a planned expansion of Jewish ‘settlements’ in what was once the home of millions of indigenous Palestinians. The Six-Day war in 1967, in which Egypt, Syria and Jordan ended up fighting Israeli forces, ended with major land gains for Israel in the Gaza strip, the West Bank and the Sinai Peninsula. The Jews who claimed ancient descent as well to this land where three of the world’s greatest monotheisms originate, no longer wanted to share the land with fellow Arabs, but celebrated their right to return there from Europe while denying today any Palestinian’s right to return.

Many ‘Intifadas’ later, battles of resistance wage on. This is what is going on in Gaza where women, children, and injured Palestinians, are being blockaded by Israel in one of the most brutal and inhuman repressions of modern history. Starving an entire population of rights, humanity and land has been possible for years, but squeezing an entire civilian population of food, water, electricity, and medical aid will have its own long-play in the theatre of conflict surrounding this war. The United Nations, where the powers hold back meaningful intervention in areas such as Occupied Kashmir and Palestine, has also been compelled to condemn the Israeli Defense Forces’ gruesome siege of Gaza as unlawful and inhuman.

What does this new turn of events presage? The now fully Zionist state, led by Prime Minister Netanyahu, has the support of Western capitals, regardless of the disproportionate power used against the fleeing, starving Palestinians. His escalation to a full-scale war while calling Gaza’s people “animals” will only provoke armed groups like Hamas further, and irrespective of possible retaliatory action by non-state actors in the region like Hezbollah, will not end in a triumphal victory for any party. The United States, which is a key player in this equation, has of course many options, but for now, its positioning, both military and political, is unambiguous. The US secretary of state is in the region, shuttling for a diplomatic solution, but will not back down from advancing Israel’s agenda.

The region, however, will not return to its uneasy old ‘normal’ as easily as some suggest. Change in the Middle East, as premised by the Abraham Accords finding space in GCC countries, will have trouble finding widespread roots in this atmosphere of trauma. In the Muslim world, Pakistan has declared its solidarity with the Palestinians, but pivotal in this equation is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s response. So far, they have announced a clear condemnation of all violence, while standing with the Palestinian people in this hour of reckoning, and advocating a two-state solution. According to media reports, the Kingdom has shared its unwillingness to continue the Biden administration’s backing of negotiations for normalising Riyadh’s relations with Tel Aviv.

Meanwhile, the arming of combatants is not going to help. Quite the contrary. A ceasefire is the first order of business, and many old rivals are now working the phones to make that happen, a case in point being Iran and the KSA. While Turkiye and Qatar are also reportedly looking to assist in brokering an end to violence, the Gaza sky is darkening with bombs, blood and sulphur. Unless the Israelis and Palestinians are directly involved, nothing will foster sustainable peace in the Middle East. People without states, without voices shaping their futures, often have the longest memories of dispossession, death and deprivation. Their responses too then become generational acts of desperation that are inimical to regional stability or global safety. This must change for the world to turn its focus on urgent, existential challenges of the 21st century. Ultimately, a just, inclusive peace is the only way forward.

The writer is the former federal minister for climate change and environmental coordination.