This weekend the United Nations Middle East peace envoy asked: “How does the killing of a child in #Gaza today help #peace? It doesn’t! It fuels anger and breeds more killing.” Nickolay Mladenov was right to be outraged. He tweeted after a Palestinian teenager was shot in the head apparently by Israeli army snipers while peacefully protesting near a border fence. The Israeli government at first dismissed calls for an investigation, only to concede to one after the international community called on the military to “stop killing children”. The soldiers’ use of live ammunition against unarmed demonstrators is an affront; but it is in line with the brutal attitudes towards Palestinians that have become normalised by Israeli politicians. The snatching of life from a few dozen people and the maiming of 1,700 more over the past four weeks are an indication of what Israel thinks is a fair price to pay to keep Gaza in check. A journalist has been shot dead and ambulances fired upon. This awful pummelling of a besieged population is not solely, as the Israeli military claim, to protect a border fence. It is to cow people into submission. The signs are that it will not.
These protests were envisaged as a grassroots nonviolent campaign to remind the world that Palestinians whose families were driven into exile during the establishment of Israel consider their right to return inviolable. The idea spun out of a viral Facebook post by Ahmad Abu Artema, a 33-year-old journalist, who wondered what would happen if thousands of people in Gaza, the majority of whom are refugees and their descendants, attempted to cross the frontier peacefully to reach their ancestral homes. These may be idealistic thoughts, but they are not ignoble ones. Who would not prefer Mr Artema’s suggestion that Palestinians and Israelis could live side by side as equal citizens to the violent passions and hatred that pass between these two peoples today? In preferring to dream rather than accepting today’s nightmare, Mr Artema shares a belief with Israel’s president in a better future.
Mr Artema’s ideas have been, unlikely as it sounds, adopted – Israel would say hijacked – by Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls Gaza. The jury is still out as to how long Hamas’s patronage will allow the protests to remain peaceful. The weekly marches build up to a peak on 15 May, when Palestinians mark the Nakba, the catastrophe, which is how they view the foundation of Israel. After a decade of economic blockade by Israel as well as Egypt and three mini-wars, Gaza is on the brink of catastrophe. It is now a giant prison for its 1.8 million people. By 2020, the UN says Gaza will become uninhabitable. The strip is a pressure cooker waiting to explode.
Unfortunately Israel’s hardline government sees gains where others see losses. Its scandal-plagued prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has already got Donald Trump to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital despite its being under international jurisdiction and to cut US funding to the UN relief agency for Palestinian refugees. Mr Netanyahu is now targeting the Palestinian right of return. Such behaviour steels Palestinians with the morale needed for a long struggle. These issues were meant to be resolved through talks. Instead Mr Netanyahu has seized the opportunity presented by Mr Trump’s absurd vanity about securing the “ultimate deal” to press home his advantage. The gains will be ephemeral.
The subjugation of Palestinians erodes Israel’s standing internationally and damages its democracy at home. Its politics are polluted by anti-Arab bigotry. As Israel grows richer, Palestinian destitution becomes more troubling. Its dilemma grows more acute as the number of Palestinians in the Holy Land approaches that of Jews. Israel cannot hold on to all of the land between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean, keep its Jewish identity and remain a democracy. It is in Israel’s interest to accept that Palestinians need a state as much as Israelis do. Otherwise, the choices are a single entity in which Jews could eventually be a minority; a form of apartheid; or perpetual occupation. Hollywood stars like Natalie Portman have understood the dangerous turn Israel is taking. It would be a good idea if the nation’s leaders did too.,