ODVV interview: Humanitarian situation in Gaza critical as the COVID-19 pandemic evolves
ODVV interview: Humanitarian situation in Gaza...
Although the 45th US President Donald Trump is preparing to step down following an epoch-making presidential contest that made him a one-termer, the reverberations of his recent foreign policy gambit in securing normalization accords between Israel and the governments of United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan are still being felt across the Middle East and North Africa.
There are now many questions that are being asked as to how these deals will transform the power relations and the geopolitical climate of the region. Palestinians are in particular concerned about how Israel’s growing foothold in an evolving MENA will have a bearing on their fortunes and their pursuit of statehood. More than seven decades following the eruption of a conflict that produced nearly 7 million Palestinian refugees scattered across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and elsewhere in the world, the prospects for the meaningful and lasting resolution of this dilemma appear disappointingly gloomy. The UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) has termed the ordeal of the Palestinian refugees “by far the most protracted and largest of all refugee problems in the world today.” The United Nations, European Union and the United States have intermittently assumed arbitrator roles to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and devise remedies acceptable by all parties. The efforts have largely remained splintered and ineffective.
Yaser Alashqar is an adjunct assistant professor in international peace studies at Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. Born in the Gaza Strip, he is an associate academic member of the Center for Palestine Studies in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. His writings on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have appeared on the Middle East Eye, The Conversation and Informed Comment.
Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has conducted an interview with Dr. Alashqar to discuss the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the humanitarian emergency in Gaza, the Abraham Accords and the future scenarios for the crisis. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: Different US administrations have worked in the recent decades to fulfill the role of an intermediary in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Do you believe the Deal of the Century, which Donald Trump unveiled earlier this year with massive publicity, is the recipe for peace that can bring an end to more than seven decades of aggression in the region, while the Palestinian parties have rejected it unanimously?
A: The United States, under Trump in particular, has demonstrated hostility towards the Palestinians and their national aspirations. The Trump administration has cut humanitarian aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, UNRWA, which assists Palestinian refugees, ceased financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority, closed the Palestine Liberation Organization representative office in Washington and officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It also fully embraced right-wing leaders in Israel and supported their unjust policies towards the Palestinians.
These policies have involved land confiscation, territorial expansion through colonial practices, establishing permanent occupation in the Palestinian territories and imposing a suffocating siege on Gaza. Opposition to Palestinian national and political rights, and statehood by extension, has strengthened in Israel’s establishment and society under the current US-Israeli alliance. It is in this overall context that, Trump’s peace plan, called the “Deal of the Century” by Trump and his Middle East business-oriented team, has been revealed and presented. This peace plan has major flaws.
On all core issues, including Jerusalem, Israeli settlements in the West Bank, refugees and Palestinian national independence, the US supports Israeli positions. Jerusalem, for example, will be Israel’s undivided capital, settlements are legitimized on Palestinian land despite their illegal status under international law, and the future Palestinian entity should remain under Israeli exclusive control.
There is also the issue of conditionality. Prior to the establishment of their limited and controlled version of a state, the Palestinians must first reject violence, recognize Israel as exclusively a Jewish state and commit to demilitarization. Israel, on the other hand, is not asked to stop its practices of violence and oppression in the occupied territories.
According to the Deal of the Century, Palestinian acceptance and submission will be rewarded by USD50 billion of future economic investments in the Palestinian territories. The Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem, commented that the US plan facilitates a reality of apartheid and Palestinians will not be entitled to political rights. I think this assessment is accurate and reflects the flawed nature of the deal. It is also important to remember that the United States continues its long-established policy of supporting Israel as a key regional ally and acting as Israel’s lawyer in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and negotiations. Therefore, there is no surprise that the US is not regarded as an honest broker by many Palestinian and international observers.
Q: How can the recent normalization accords between Israel and the governments of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan impact the political and security equations in the Middle East and North Africa? Will the Palestinians’ quest for statehood be debilitated as a result of the deals, or will the Arab countries involved use their leverage over Israel to induce it into moderating its policies?
A: The goals of the recent normalization deals are concerned with the formation of a new regional order that formalizes strategic alliances between key Arab states and Israel, challenging growing Iranian power in the region. A key part in this normalization process is also the promotion of US military and economic interests in the Middle East.
Under the agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel, the US has committed to selling and providing military technologies to the UAE such as advanced drones. As for the Palestinian issue, Israel is benefiting from the official emergence of this new regional order because it isolates the Palestinians further and deprives them of regional backing. It also breaks the historical understanding, which has been supported by the Arab League for decades, that normalization and comprehensive peace between Arab states and Israel is conditional upon reaching a just resolution on the Palestinian issue and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Israeli leaders can see clearly that Israel’s policies of occupation, colonization, blockade of Gaza and preventing Palestinian statehood can progress without any regional pressure or obstacles.
Q: In a recent Middle East Eye article, you argued that the normalization deals involving Israel, UAE, Bahrain and Sudan will not be conducive to peace in the region, but will serve as an incubator for elevated militarization of the MENA region and an arms race. Is it your point that by brokering the agreements, Donald Trump had been pursuing commercial and transactional interests, aimed at expanding the profits of American armament manufacturers?
A: As I discussed in the article, there is strong evidence to suggest that the outcome of these agreements will be the increasing militarization of the Middle East region and further militarization of Middle East politics. The historical record, based on research and data, shows that the US has promoted the militarization of the Middle East for decades and benefited economically, politically and militarily from this ongoing process.
The United States, under Trump, wanted to formalize alliances between Israel and Arab states and create a new regional order, as I explained previously. US officials, including Jared Kushner, have spoken openly about the direct link between the UAE peace agreement with Israel and the purchase of US advanced weapons by the UAE and other Gulf states. This is what I have described in my article as “peace with Israel for armament,” a kind of militarized peace that is not related to the principles of conflict resolution.
Q: You noted in another article on The Conversation that Palestinians should not be conceived as voiceless and powerless, and that the emergence of an unarmed, nonviolent movement in the occupied territories is one of the biggest fears of Israeli leaders. While the United States and European powers maintain their unconditional support of Israel, and as Israel presses on with its policy of annexation, is it realistic to expect a popular, grassroots movement formed by Palestinians can change the course of events and win them their rights?
A: Israeli leaders have often expressed their fear and anxiety about Palestinian mobilization and non-violent grassroots struggles, and they worked to put an end to this possibility by military means and oppression whenever it began to emerge. Take, for example, the 1987 Intifada or uprising. It was a massive popular movement by ordinary Palestinians against Israel’s occupation and oppression in the Palestinian territories, Gaza and the West Bank. People organized themselves through local committees and groups to support resistance against the occupation using non-violent means and that included, for example, the boycott of Israeli courts, the provision of home-based education to children and students, non-cooperation with Israeli tax authorities and other nonviolent activities that aimed at challenging Israeli military rule and seeking Palestinian self-determination.
Israel met this unarmed movement with military force and collective punishment, and with “breaking the bones” policy under Yitzhak Rabin’s leadership. The same military response was given during the Bil'in peaceful struggles, which have sought to challenge the construction of the wall and Israeli settlements in the West Bank village of Bil'in in recent years.
Another important and more recent example is Gaza’s Great of March of Return that began in early 2018. It was mainly organized by community and youth activists who wanted to mobilize and highlight the plight of Palestinian refugees in Gaza under the watch of international media. They spoke of their grievances, suffering and political demands concerning the right of return to their land and ending the Israeli siege on Gaza.
The movement later came to include representations and participation from all social and national elements in Gaza. International human rights organizations, Israeli rights groups and the United Nations, all have confirmed the unarmed nature of the protests and documented the shooting and killing of civilian protestors in the Great March of Return by the Israeli troops. So, this grassroots movement in Gaza has also faced the same historical response of military oppression and collective punishment by Israel as happened in both Bil'in and the 1987 Intifada.
However, it must be acknowledged that the continuation of division between Fatah, the Palestine Liberation Organization and Hamas also plays a negative role and it does not help with the development of a unified non-violent movement that can articulate Palestinian national unity and aspirations in a coherent and strategic manner. Both parties are still deeply divided about governance issues and ways to deal with Israel. Israel has exploited this internal division and continued to deepen the territorial and political fragmentations of the occupied Palestinian territories.
Q: You lived in the Gaza Strip for 22 years. How does the situation there look like today? Is access to water, electricity, education for children, good-paying jobs for the youths and agriculture for the indigenous communities possible under the siege? Can you give us a more vivid picture?
A: The image is bleak as I saw it during my recent visit to Gaza. About two million people have been living in Gaza under a severe Israeli blockade since 2007. They have been subjected to brutal military assaults since 2008, under the Israeli policy of “mowing the lawn,” which created a huge number of victims and caused massive damage to civilian infrastructure in Gaza. Israel’s militarized policy and blockade of Gaza continue under the pretext of undermining the military power of Hamas, the armed political movement that rules Gaza. Travelling out of Gaza through the Rafah crossing with Egypt is restricted. The movement of people between Gaza, the West Bank and Israel continues to be limited to exceptional cases and subject to Israeli permits. These permits are often rejected on security grounds. The shipment of commercial items and the movement of goods in and out of Gaza is difficult and largely inaccessible. As a result, 80 percent of Gaza’s population have become dependent on international and United Nations aid, and 95 percent of the population are also without direct access to clean water. Power supply is limited and households receive five to eight hours of electricity on a daily basis. This has disrupted life in Gaza at multiple levels, including education, health, local economy and public services.
Available figures from Gaza and international organizations indicate that the rate of unemployment among the youths in Gaza has surpassed 70 percent. As I witnessed, the majority of Gaza’s young population have a desire to emigrate from the strip because of the worsening living conditions under siege. Many middle-class university graduates, with reasonable resources and good education, have managed to leave and reached either Turkey or Europe. They are searching for better opportunities away from division, conflict, siege and occupation. Others, in smaller numbers, have been radicalized and developed extremist views based on Salafist ideologies. Gaza has turned into a state of physical imprisonment and human despair.
In the age of COVID-19 and as the pandemic evolves, Gaza’s situation is more critical. Hundreds of COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in this tiny and besieged territory. Gaza’s healthcare system is, in effect, exhausted by long years of suffocating blockade, continuing occupation and military assaults. Available evidence indicates that public hospitals have only 78 intensive care beds and 72 percent of those beds are being used, leaving 22 intensive care beds available for a population of nearly two million people. In practice, Gaza suffers from a severe shortage of much-needed resources to respond to the growing challenges of COVID-19.
Examples of these lacking resources are testing and personal protective equipment, infection prevention supplies, ventilators, isolation facilities, hospital beds and medical staff trained in intensive care. Access to external support and referral of critical cases outside of Gaza is either limited or non-existent. However, Gaza should not be understood as a humanitarian crisis; humanitarian challenges are real there, but Gaza needs political solutions and freedom. It remains a key component of the broader Palestinian national question.
Q: Do you expect the United Nations to be able to build on its resources and effectively contribute to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Have the numerous UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council resolutions censuring Israel over the past decades played a role in improving the livelihoods of Palestinians?
A: The UN resolutions from the late 1940s have emphasized two key concepts: First, the legitimacy of Palestinian rights and, secondly, the need for a just resolution to the Palestinian question that should address Palestinian self-determination and refugee rights. In recent years, the United Nations recognition of Palestinian statehood in 2012 has represented a positive step and development. It upgraded Palestine’s international status and highlighted the need for international justice. It also continues to provide Palestine with access to international organizations and treaties.
As a result of the UN recognition, Palestinians have also been able to submit direct applications to the International Criminal Court and the international Court of Justice to demand justice and investigate Israel’s illegal actions in the Palestinian territories. In the last two years, the State of Palestine challenged the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem at the ICJ and cited the illegality of this decision based on international law and breaches to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of April 1961. The case is still without a conclusion. All of these efforts in the framework of international law have been made possible through Palestine’s membership at the UN and recognition of its statehood.
One must also be realistic and recognize that the UN and statehood recognition have limitations. For example, Palestinians have no control or sovereignty over the territory and borders of their claimed state in Gaza and the West Bank. Israel is still the occupying power and it controls the Palestinian territories. The occupation itself has not come to an end on the ground after the UN recognition and previous resolutions. In addition, the international system of power and politics under the US leadership shows little respect for the role of UN resolutions, ICJ and ICC and international law when it comes to the issue of Palestine.
The UN lacks the political will and the power to enforce its own resolutions regarding the Palestinian issue. The European Union also speaks about the importance of international law and human rights but it is unable to challenge the Israeli policies because of either the US dominance and power, or the guilt of the past in relation to Jewish history in Europe. This does not justify the state of political inaction towards the issue of Palestine at the UN and EU level but it helps to understand it.
Q: Is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and the academic and cultural boycott of Israel by independent scholars and entities going to be conducive to tangible change on the ground in favor of peace in the Middle East and the transformation of Israel’s policies dealing with the Palestinian people?
A: The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement emerged in response to a call from Palestinian grassroots organizations and groups in 2005. They recognized the political failure of the international community to bring about justice and peace in Palestine so, based on the South African experience, there was a strong desire to call on global civil society and academic institutions to take action and engage in the BDS movement. The movement is based on three key principles: equality for all Palestinians, ending of Israeli occupation, and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their confiscated land. The US and Israel characterize the BDS as a form of delegitimization of Israel and as a strategic threat, while local and international supporters emphasize its nonviolent nature and the connection between the three demands I described and international law. In the Western academic community, some academics perceive BDS as a barrier to dialogue and engagement, while others see it as an essential bridge to a genuine dialogue within the framework of human rights and international law.
The global movement has led major companies to withdraw investments from Israel and halt economic dealings with the Israeli occupation project. It has also generated heated debates across universities, trade unions and parliaments around the world about the Palestinian issue and the forms of complicity in human rights violations in the occupied territories. It’s still, however, early to make a conclusive judgment about its clear contribution to political action and impact in the Israeli-Palestinian case. They are still many formidable challenges as said previously: the continuation of occupation, Israeli and US power, Palestinian and regional divisions, the UN and EU’s weakness and lack of political will, and differences internally and externally on how to effectively achieve political change, peace and justice in Palestine.
By: Kourosh Ziabari