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For nearly seven decades, the Israeli-Palestinian crisis has taken center stage in the Middle East as one of the world’s most enduring hostilities, claiming thousands of innocent civilians on both sides and decimating countless households whilst proving to be a bedrock for the rise of terror groups that continue to plague both the region and the international community as a whole. Whilst there have been a few attempts to defuse tensions between both sides, such as the Madrid Conference in 1991, the Oslo Accords in 1993 and the recent 2013-2014 peace talks negotiations hosted by the United States Secretary of State John Kerry, every single one of those attempts have proven to be futile in hindsight.
The two-state solution, once considered the most plausible remedy to resolve the impasse between Israel and Palestine, has also lost traction in recent years. With no substantive peace talks for over a decade, the recent precipitous rekindling of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the ensuing horrors, is a shameful reminder of the international community’s almost criminal neglect of the crisis between Israel and Palestine for decades. The events of the past week have rendered the prospect of a lasting peace settlement more distant than ever before, with the reopening of a deep, long-festering wound adding an unwanted new chapter to the troubled history of both sides littered with hatred and bloodshed.
To further understand the magnitude of this everlasting conflict, let’s go back in time to where it all began. In 1917, the now-defunct League of Nations produced a mandate for Britain to administer the territories of Palestine and Transjordan following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War 1. This became the backbone in which the Balfour Declaration was later made, which was essentially a public statement by the British government regarding its support and intention in creating “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, which at the time only had a small Jewish population and an Arab majority.
Naturally, with this stance amounting to one being expelled from one’s own home by their neighbour despite being the house’s legitimate owner, this sparked dissonance among the Palestinians who were residing in the region. Thus, the hordes of Jewish people that began gradually emigrating there from all parts of the world grew exponentially between the 1920s and 1940s, especially those who were of Western European origin as they were actively fleeing from Nazi Germany’s genocide of the Jewish people, also known as the Holocaust.
On 29 November 1947, with the British being increasingly incapable of maintaining order in the volatile region, the United Nations proposed that Mandatory Palestine (as it was then known) be split into the creation of an independent Arab state and an independent Jewish state, with the holy site of Jerusalem becoming an international city governed by the UN to avoid ethnic and religious conflicts. This proposal was met by an immediate sweep of violence in the streets of Palestine, which gradually escalated into a civil war between the Jewish community and the Palestinians. Eventually, with the Israeli Declaration of Independence being proclaimed on 14 May 1948 and effectively establishing the State of Israel, the furious neighbouring Arab states of Egypt, Trans-Jordan, Iraq and Syria launched an invasion of Israel, thereby enlarging the existing civil war conflict into the First Arab-Israeli War.
After nearly 10 months of bloody fighting, Israel emerged victorious in the war and effectively annexed 60% of land that was originally allotted to the Arab state, displacing roughly 750,000 Palestinians from their homes. This incident is commonly referred to by Palestinians as “the Catastrophe—Al Nakba.” Israel’s stronghold in the Middle East was further strengthened with subsequent events such as the Suez Crisis and the Six-Day War where Israel emerged victorious in almost every major conflict due to their superior military power and disorganisation within the ranks of the Arab nations.
So, what’s the spark this time around that escalated into yet another round of intense fighting between the Israelis and the Palestinians?
On 6 May 2021, the Supreme Court of Israel was anticipated to deliver a verdict that would evict six Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem. This prompted strong protests from disgruntled Palestinians, who cited the attempted evictions as “ethnic cleansing” on the basis that “international humanitarian law prohibits the confiscation of private property” and that the aforementioned evictions would constitute war crimes committed by Israel.
The next day, as Palestinian Muslims were performing evening prayers at the Al-Aqsa mosque during the month of Ramadan, Israeli police stormed the holy site using tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse Palestinian worshippers, leaving hundreds of Palestinians injured. This drew the ire of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, who has controlled the Gaza strip since 2007, and became the catalyst for the entire crisis to commence. Hamas sent an ultimatum to Israel to withdraw their military forces from the Al-Aqsa mosque compound and Sheikh Jarrah, threatening consequences if Israel failed to do so. With Israel electing to ignore Hamas’ ultimatum, on 10 May, both Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad fired rockets into Jerusalem as its target for the first time in years. This was swiftly countered as Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted those incoming rockets, blowing up roughly 80-90% of all rockets fired by Hamas in midair.
In response, Israel launched several airstrikes on Gaza on the same day, killing 2 children. Over the next few days, both sides intensified their attacks on one another, with Palestinians constantly bearing the greater brunt of Israeli’s powerful airstrikes. On 11 May, the 13-story residential al-Johara tower in Gaza was the subject of a targeted airstrike by Israeli forces which swiftly collapsed. Israel justified this attack by stating that the al-Johara tower was a ‘legitimate target’ as it was housing senior Hamas officials and military forces. This became the first of many high-rise buildings being subjected to targeted airstrikes by Israel, with even the international press not spared from Israel’s crosshairs, as housing offices of television news channel broadcasters such as Al-Jazeera and the Associated Press were razed to the ground in an instant.
On the ground, especially in mixed Jewish-Arab towns, tensions flared, riots ensued, and demonstrations turned violent in a flash, prompting local authorities to declare state of emergencies in several cities and hundreds of Arab and Jewish rioters were arrested. Violence was not restricted to mere exchanges between Israel and Palestine; Syria and Lebanon also fired a few rockets into Israeli territory, which prompted a response from the Israeli army in the form of artillery fire. As the days went by, the violence that ensued in the region began to deteriorate. According to the Israel Defense Forces, since 10 to 13 May, Hamas fired a total of 1,369 rockets into Israeli territory, whilst Israel launched a massive bombardment of Hamas’ tunnel railwork, killing dozens of Hamas officials and assassinating 20 Hamas commanders.
With Palestinians being basically mauled by Israeli forces at an alarming rate on a daily basis since the crisis officially began on 7 May 2021, communities around the world began to protest as Israel’s actions drew widespread international condemnation. The United Nations’ secretary general, António Guterres expressed deep concern that Israel and Palestine were heading for an “uncontainable security and humanitarian crisis.” Initial diplomatic efforts were made by China, Norway and Tunisia as the aforestated nations requested a public United Nations Security Council meeting to resolve the conflict, which was objected by the United States. Further efforts by Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations to mediate truce talks between Israel and Palestinians were fruitless.
On 13 May, Hamas made a ceasefire proposal to Israel but was swiftly rebuked. On that same day, the President of the United States, Joe Biden, held a telephone call with the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and allegedly told his Israeli counterpart that “Israel has a right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying into your territory.”
China, Norway and Tunisia consequently drafted a proposed statement which condemned the violence in Gaza and urged all parties, especially Israel, to utilise restraint. This statement received the backing of 14 other members in the United Nations but was ultimately blocked by the United States which utilised its veto power. At the time, there seemed to be no end in sight to the violence as the savagery of the Palestinians continued to escalate with each passing day.
On 20 May, a ceasefire deal was successfully brokered by Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations and came into effect at 2:00 AM the next day, ending military operations which lasted for 11 days in which both sides claimed victory. The deadly conflict has left 256 Palestinians, including 66 children dead, whilst 13 Israelis were killed; a disproportionate amount of casualties mostly borne by the Palestinians given Israel’s superior resources. An estimated 72,000 Palestinians have been displaced as a result of the military bombardments.
In addition, Gaza’s infrastructure was largely shattered in the aftermath of the conflict, as shown in the infographic above provided by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHR). Furthermore, UNOCHR states that approximately 2,000 Palestinians were injured during the hostilities, which includes more than 600 children and 400 women, with a significant proportion of these injuries being severe, which may result in long-term disabilities.
Healthcare facilities in the Gaza Strip and West Bank were on the verge of total collapse as a result of the conflict. Israel blew up the only functioning COVID-19 laboratory in the Gaza Strip, rendering further tests for the pandemic impossible. Besides, the sole COVID-19 vaccination centre in northern Gaza sustained severe damage over the course of the conflict, rendering it totally inoperable.
Whilst most Palestinians in Palestine and around the world rightfully celebrated the news of a ceasefire by seeing it as a sign of relief, some see it as a temporary respite instead of a precursor to a potentially permanent peace agreement. After all, Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and West Bank will return to a ‘status quo’ of Israeli occupation, persecution, and subjugation. In fact, one could argue that there was little to celebrate by Palestinians, most of whom lost loved ones and had their homes absolutely wrecked. The situation in the Middle East had merely returned to what it was before the entire confrontation; the glaring disparity in power between Palestine and Israel remain widely evident, and a sense of déjà vu still remains deeply rooted within the hearts of most Palestinians, who remain guarded and aware that another round of bloodshed could very well be just around the corner.
Israeli’s power over Palestine is not limited to simply military affairs; it extends to all facets of life, with Palestinians being constantly kept in check through a brutal show of force, which is unfortunately sustained by international support through countries like the United States and Germany to this day. This is clearly evident through a weapons sale by the United States to Israel just last month in the midst of the conflict totalling $735 million, which hasn’t even taken into account the yearly financial support Israel receives totalling a whopping $3.8 billion annually from the United States as a result of a bilateral agreement between both nations during President Barack Obama’s administration in 2016. A vast majority of the aforementioned financial aid was for military matters and eventually circulates back into the US’ arms industry, fuelling a vicious cycle in which Israel’s military might will constantly be a tool available for the Israeli government to continuously suppress and silence the demoralised Palestinian population.
Whilst Israel has portrayed itself as a small state of 9 million people that has acted in self-defense in the face of aggression, it is simply impossible for the global community to ignore the Israeli’s governmental actions in denying Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homeland, with acts such as evicting Palestinian families from their homes in which they have lived for generations. With Israel possessing one of the world’s strongest militaries, constantly being aided and abetted by major international powers, there is little choice or option for Palestinians attempting to seek reprieve other than to appeal to people of conscience around the world and hope that one day—maybe just one day—they will be free of such brutality.
We have all seen this cycle of violence between Israel and Palestine for about seven decades now. After the cessation of recent hostilities, perhaps we, as a global community, have grown accustomed to such violence and may avert our eyes on this issue once the words ‘Palestine’, ‘Israel’, ‘conflict’ and ‘casualties’ no longer dominate the newspaper headlines. However, lest we forget that Palestinians do not have that option, at least right now. Without a proper and concrete political solution, such confrontations will continue to be a vicious cycle with the threat of bloodshed constantly looming over both Palestine and Israel.
As a shop owner in Gaza put it aptly: “The ceasefire is for people who didn’t suffer, who didn’t lose their loved ones, whose homes were not bombed.” As long as this status quo remains, millions of Palestinians will continue to be oppressed and we will be talking about countless such conflicts for decades to come. By then, the only guarantee would be the death of countless innocent civilians and immeasurable destruction, and the sowing of further division between Israel and Palestine. The ceasefire must not be a signal, as in the past, for the world’s attention to turn away. It must be the catalyst of which a renewed, determined international diplomatic drive begins for a viable solution where freedom and justice are no longer a distant dream for the Palestinian people.
By: Chris Phang