A disappointing response to the Palestinian tragedy

Instead of joining in the chorus of empty platitudes and appeals, Malta should remain a firm voice for Palestinian civil and political rights within the European Union

A week ago, EU commission president Ursula Van der Leyen tweeted her reaction to the flare up in violence in Palestine/Israel: by condemning “indiscriminate attacks by Hamas on Israel”; and saying that “civilians on all sides must be protected” and that “Violence must end now”.

While one can be bitterly disappointed - but hardly surprised - by the USA’s response to the latest escalation of violence and military aggression in the Middle East, the lameness of the EU’s reaction is arguably more annoying still.

With its constant (ineffectual) appeal for ceasefires, and a return to what is now a sterile peace process, European diplomacy has consistently failed the Palestinian people. It has created a false moral equivalence, which feeds on a narrative where - at most - Israel is only ever condemned for its ‘disproportionate’ response to rocket attacks; when in reality, the latter are only an inevitable consequence of the structural violence perpetrated upon Palestinians on a daily basis; as well as a series of historical injustices that have never been rectified.

The EU’s platitudes ignore a number of historical home truths: namely, that Israel still illegally occupies the West Bank, denying its inhabitants citizenship rights; that refugees from ethnic cleansing in 1948 have not been granted their UN recognised right of return; that Gaza has been turned into a collective prison, where young people have no future; and that Israel’s own Arab population is increasingly on the receiving end of institutional racism, which owes its roots to Israel’s definition as a Jewish homeland, rather than as a multi-ethnic state.

Moreover, Von Der Leyen’s tweet ignores the reality in which the expansion of Israeli settlements – as well as the erection of a wall separating Israel from the West Bank, built upon Palestinian olive gardens - calls into question the viability and desirability of a two-state solution, which ultimately depends on the restoration of 1967 borders.

What has been on offer to Palestinians, since the Oslo agreement, has been a fragmented patchwork of non-contiguous lands which can easily be transformed into collective prisons: of the kind that Gaza has been, since the Israeli withdrawal in 2005.

What has changed this time round, however, is that Israeli citizens of Arab descent have emerged as protagonists of the latest conflict.

During previous Israeli wars, Israeli Palestinians took no side in the hostilities. They remained on the sidelines, and didn’t dare protest in solidarity with their fellow Palestinians under siege.

But after Israeli police restricted access to the Old City during Ramadan prayers, Palestinians – including Israeli Arabs - rose up in mass protest. This brought about a violent reaction from supremacist groups like Lehava, who attacked Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

Palestinians began to protest inside the Al-Aqsa mosque. The brutality of the police response was unprecedented. They invaded the third-holiest shrine in Islam, firing tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets. By then, Hamas entered the fray by lobbing rockets into Israel in solidarity with those fighting for Palestinians’ rights in Jerusalem.

In response, Benjamin Netanyahu began massive air strikes in Gaza, which levelled an entire 12-story high-rise building, and killed over 100 Gazans: among them, several dozen children.

But one new development is also unprecedented; hundreds of Palestinians have risen up in protest within Israel itself.  This represents an existential threat to an apartheid state, which to this day defines itself only on the basis of ethnicity.  Netanyahu’s response was to bring down the rebellion with “an iron fist”. The army sent detachments from the West Bank to patrol the streets. Emergency measures were invoked.   All residents were forced to stay indoors. Though such actions are standard for the Israeli occupation in the West Bank, they are unprecedented within the state of Israel itself.   

Hopefully, this insurrection will lead to changes in the Palestinian movement itself: including the emergence of a new dynamic leadership which is able to bring democratic change in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.  New elections, which could result in the emergence of new unifying leaders like the jailed Marwan Barghouti, could herald Palestine’s ‘Mandela moment’.

In the face of this uprising, Western governments have a stark choice to make: either to exert economic pressure on Israel through sanctions similar to those imposed on the South African regime in the 1980s; or to support the normalisation of injustice, through a peace process involving repressive Arab regimes like Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

It is not surprising that regimes like Al Sisi’s Egypt, which do not care even about the rights of their own people, have turned a blind eye towards the Palestinian struggle.

Instead of joining in the chorus of empty platitudes and appeals, Malta should remain a firm voice for Palestinian civil and political rights within the European Union.