As I write this article, a temporary ceasefire for four days is in effect between Israel and Hamas after weeks of tortuous negotiations, shepherded by Qatar, the USA and Egypt. Hamas released 24 hostages of various nationalities, but mostly Israelis, comprising men, women, and children. In exchange for this, 39 Palestinians, women, and children have been freed. Both sides promise that more will be freed in the future. Yet the situation remains fluid and fraught, and it is uncertain whether and how long the agreement will survive.
The Israeli assault on Gaza was sparked by a brutal attack by Hamas on Israeli citizens, the killing of 1,200 people, and the kidnapping of about 250 men, women and children. The attack could not have come at a more fortuitous time for Israel’s right-wing, anti-Palestinian prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. He was under prosecution for corruption and huge Israeli crowds were demonstrating against him, and his proposed changes in the laws that would remove any oversight of the Supreme Court of the laws passed by the Knesset.
The Hamas attack brought a welcome relief for Netanyahu. He swore vengeance against Hamas and followed up with brutal attacks, first by air and later by ground forces on Gaza. These attacks reduced a large part of Gaza to a pile of rubble, where hapless children, women, and men wandered around in a daze with nowhere to find shelter from death and destruction. Isabel Debre, the Middle East Correspondent of the Associated Press, reported that “Israel’s military offensive has turned much of northern Gaza into an uninhabitable moonscape. Whole neighbourhoods have been erased. Homes, schools, and hospitals have been blasted by airstrikes and scorched by tank fire. Some buildings are still standing, but most are battered shells.”
It was a scene from a conflict from medieval times, with unburied bodies littering the streets and an unknown number buried under the wreckage of buildings. One of the most egregious war crimes was the pummelling by Israel of Al Shifa Hospital in Northern Gaza, the largest medical facility, where, besides patients, doctors, and nurses, hundreds of frightened ordinary people had sought shelter. Their belief was that attacks on hospitals were prohibited, according to international law. Israel forces were not deterred, and many patients, ordinary civilians, and medical personnel were killed or injured. Since fuel supplies were blocked, the lifesaving machines and incubators for keeping premature babies alive had not been operational for days.
Israel also stopped all supplies of water, food and ordered the population to move to the southern part of Gaza, without specifying where to. However, even in the south, the designated haven, the Israeli air strikes persisted. According to the Hamas Ministry of Health, about fourteen thousand civilians, more than five thousand of them children, have perished thus far. The current Israeli Government includes members who are openly racist and anti-Palestinian. Ishaan Tharoor, the foreign affairs correspondent of the Washington Post, quoted a cabinet member saying, “All of Gaza should be erased from the face of the earth and that all its residents be driven into exile in Egypt.”
There has been worldwide outrage over the death toll of so many civilians, sixty percent of them women and children. The UN General Assembly and the Secretary-General have expressed their unequivocal condemnation. In addition, there have been huge demonstrations in support of the Palestinians around the globe, including in New York City, Washington, London, and Paris, demanding an immediate ceasefire. College campuses have been resonating with the sounds of students demanding a ceasefire. Yet, charges of violations of human rights, rules of the Geneva Convention, and condemnations by national and international leaders did not move Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his cabinet to call a halt to the killings of a defenceless and unarmed population. Only pressure from the families of the hostages in the hands of Hamas forced Israel to compromise.
The reaction across the Arab world has predictably been anger and dismay but it made little impact on the situation. On November 24, the Washington Post published an article from its Middle East correspondent, reporting that people in the Arab world held President Biden and America responsible for the carnage. However, the Arab rulers, many corrupt and autocratic, are not blamed, at least in public. Yet, they are indeed responsible for keeping these countries backward, weak, and technologically ill-prepared. Consequently, today no Arab-Muslim country, except for Turkey, can stand up to Israel militarily, even though they are awash in money. Iran has much potential, but its theocracy, lack of freedom, and its policy of suppression of women’s rights keeps it down.
We also must examine the failure of the Palestinian leadership to deliver any relief to its people for close to a century. Yasser Arafat, an iconic leader who did much to arouse and nurture Palestinian nationalism, failed to seize opportunities when he could have secured a Palestinian state. In 2000 at Camp David, President Clinton, Yasser Arafat, and Ehud Barak, then prime minister of Israel, had reached an agreement that would have delivered some 95% of the West Bank and all of Gaza to a new Palestinian state, a deal that in retrospect looks incredibly good today. Unfortunately, Chairman Arafat walked away at the last minute, declining to sign it.
The Palestinian civil war that enabled Hamas to take control of Gaza is another sad story. In January 2006, Hamas won a large majority of seats in the Palestinian Parliament, defeating its rival Fatah party. In June 2007, Hamas defeated Fatah in a series of bloody clashes and forcibly gained control of the Government of Gaza. President Mahmoud Abbas (now 88 years old) was elected president of the Palestinian National Authorities in 2005, and since then there have been no elections in the West Bank. He is old and generally unpopular. Netanyahu on his part has actively discouraged Gaza and the West Bank from uniting, thus removing any pressure on him to agree to the creation of a united Palestinian state.
The US has provided Israel with billions of dollars in grants and vetoed numerous Security Council resolutions to protect it. However, a welcome change in the political climate of this country has occurred recently. Although President Biden has sided with Netanyahu in the current conflict, a liberal faction in his Democratic Party supports the Palestinian aspirations and slams Israel for its murderous action in Gaza. Demographics have played a significant role. While younger Americans, a mixture of Whites, Blacks, and Asians, support a more balanced policy and justice for Palestinians, the older generation tends to unquestionably support Israel. Meanwhile, four Muslims have been elected to the US Congress and the community has become politically suave and has gained some visibility in the print and electronic media. Consequently, there is some semblance of objectivity in how the news is presented and evaluated.