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Making Sense of What is happening in Palestine and Israel Right Now

10/27/2023


As peace practitioners and researchers dedicated to fostering peace, we, at Transformative Peace, look at the ongoing violence in Palestine and Israel, not merely as tragic, but as a poignant manifestation of the failure of international diplomacy. It is an outcome that has emerged from a regrettable disregard for the underlying causes of the conflict. The indiscriminate targeting of civilians stands as an indefensible and unjustifiable act that starkly contradicts the principles enshrined in international law. As advocates for peace, it is our responsibility to look at conflict in its wider context. Only by delving into the political context and understanding the root causes can we hope to bring peace and justice. While calls for yet more military action are made, we firmly believe that a lasting peace can only be achieved through diplomatic channels, and thus emphasize the urgent need for an immediate cease fire. By placing our collective effort on fostering dialogue and negotiation, we strive to pave the way for a just and sustainable solution that breaks the cycle of violence and instead, promotes reconciliation.  


Historical and Political Context of the Violence 


It is impossible to explain the current violence without situating it within the context of military occupation. In 1917, with the Balfour Declaration, the British mandate helped set the path towards the creation of Israel. Under the mandate, Jewish immigration was dramatically expanded and facilitated by the British; they created industries, banks, settlements, and institutions that would aid in the later military defeat and dispossession of Arabs. The first major military confrontation occurred in 1948, marking the establishment of the state of Israel and  the partition of Palestine. In the aftermath, both Arab and Jewish forces followed through on their military preparations. The former relied on guerilla attacks, while the latter put into motion a strategy referred to as Plan D. The aims of Plan D were to secure both the areas allocated to the Jewish state under the partition plan and the settlements outside of those areas. A crucial component of Plan D revolved around the capture of Arab villages and cities and the expulsion of the residents. The resulting  ethnic cleansing  was carried out with the intent to remove Arabs from the future state of Israel, in what became known as “the Nakba”. The implementation of this plan set in motion a process of Palestinian dispossession and depopulation that continues to this day, with the refugees denied their right of return.  


Israel became an occupying force over the West Bank in 1967. The legality of this occupation will be explored further below, but the Palestinians have lived under military occupation for over half a century now. The history of this occupation has been one of endemic human and political rights violations. As Amnesty International have written, “since the occupation first began in June 1967, Israel’s ruthless policies of land confiscation, illegal settlement and dispossession, coupled with rampant discrimination, have inflicted immense suffering on Palestinians, depriving them of their basic rights.” Under the context of occupation, Israel has also carried out an illegal settlement project, resulting in persistent dispossession, where entire Palestinian communities have been depopulated and replaced with Israeli settlers.



Israel has also erected a system of apartheid in which the Palestinian population is legally differentiated and segregated from Israel’s Jewish population and denied equal rights. Apartheid in Israel results in Palestinian facing restrictions to political participation, movement, access to essential services, and citizenship. Since the occupation began for instance, over 14,000 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem have had their residency revoked, resulting in their forcible transfer. The predicament of the Palestinians has stagnated over time. Refugees are denied their right to return and the dynamics of settlement and occupation have packed 2 million Gazans into an open air prison where they are denied basic human needs and services by an illegal 16 year blockade.

 

Periodically, this population, nearly half of which are children, endure episodes of intense and indiscriminate violence in the form of raids, air strikes, and larger scale military interventions. Historical events such as the Arab Israeli wars, the occupation of the Palestinian territories, the illegal construction of Israeli settlements, and the failure of diplomatic initiatives have further exacerbated tensions and perpetuated the cycle of violence. It is within this intricate backdrop that this newsletter finds its motivation. Our aim is to redirect our focus towards the underlying root causes, recognizing that it is only by addressing these root causes can we uncover a sustainable pathway to peace and gain a better comprehension of the present violence.  

 

The Current Situation in Palestine and Israel

 

On October 7th Hamas began a surprise attack on Israel from sea, air and ground. An estimated 2,200 rockets rained down on Israeli targets within southern and central Israel, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. At the same time, groups of Hamas infiltrators made their way into Israel, firing on and killing Israeli citizens indiscriminately. In addition, Hamas took 150 Israelis hostages during the surprise attack. In 2011 Israel swapped 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for a single Israeli soldier. Hamas also shot up a music festival of hundreds of partygoers. Israel responded with aerial bombardments, equally indiscriminate, striking residences, mosques, churches, hospitals, and schools. According to the IDF itself, it is not a priority of theirs to discriminate between militants and civilians. According to an IDF spokesperson, “the emphasis is on damage rather than on precision.” All Gazans have been singled out for punishment which is reflected in the scale of the internal displacement, bombardment, and killing. 



The death toll, as of October 27th, has seen 1,400 Israelis killed and a further 2,900 injured. The Gaza health ministry recently released a list of 6,747 names killed by Israeli strikes, all with names, ages, sex, and official identification numbers. Among the dead, 2,704 are children. The death toll will certainly increase as Israel has rejected calls for a ceasefire and plans an imminent ground invasion, having called up over 300,000 reservists. Concerns over re-occupation have been raised as questions remain over just how deep and extensive the invasion will be. Concerns over ethnic cleansing and humanitarian catastrophe have also been raised as Israel has ordered over one million Palestinians in Gaza, (nearly all of whom are a refugee from one of 200 villages depopulated in 1948 by Israeli forces) to evacuate south towards the Sinai and leave through the Rafah crossing. Alarmingly, Israel has also notified Palestinians that failing to evacuate would result in the Israeli military treating them as “partners” to a terrorist organization. This current situation shares important similarities with how Arab villages were depopulated in 1948. 


Palestinians are finding it impossible to escape the violence. Lt. Col. Richard Hecht of the Israeli Defense Forces advised Gazans to leave through Egypt’s Rafah crossing, only to bomb the crossing. Simultaneously Israel threatened to bomb trucks crossing the border carrying relief, with the Sinai for Human Rights organization and Israeli Channel 12 confirming that trucks were turning back following these threats. The Israeli military later clarified that the border was closed. Following strong western pressure, the gates at Rafah opened over the weekend, letting in a “trickle” of aid to Gaza. Palestinians and foreign nationals still however await the possibility to escape Israeli bombardment, which is complicated by persistent Israeli bombings. As one Norwegian national put it:  

“They tell us to go south, then they bomb south. They tell us to go to hospitals, then they bomb hospitals. They tell us to go to shelters, then they bomb shelters,” Ghabayen said of the Israeli army, his voice rising with emotion. “We are not Hamas, we are innocent civilians who don’t even live here.” 


Many Palestinians, including foreign nationals have tried and failed to cross through the crossing, with either Israeli bombs, Egyptian closures, and bureaucratic red tape halting their movement. Egypt has refused to open their doors to refugees out of fear of aiding Israel’s forced displacement of Palestinians and of a potential refugee crisis within their borders. Amidst the chaos, a UN commission of Inquiry has been investigating war crimes committed by both sides in the fighting. Among the currently reported war crimes are:

 

  • Massacres of civilians perpetrated by Hamas

  • The imposition of a complete siege by Israel, constituting collective punishment

  • Hostage taking

  • Extra-judicial killings

  • Indiscriminate Israeli air strikes on civilian infrastructure

  • The Al-Ahli hospital bombing and others

The hospital bombing in particular has led to a stream of online misinformation, while investigators have found discrepancies in the story told by Israeli authorities, who argued the bombing was the result of a rocket misfire from Palestinian militants. These discrepancies included doctored audio. The commission's unequivocal condemnation of war crimes perpetrated by both sides is complimented by a much needed reminder, namely that, the only path towards ending violence and achieving sustainable peace is by  ending the illegal occupation of Palestinian territory and recognising the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.” International inaction on recurring war crimes and lack of diplomacy is a matter of great concern and one that reflects a pattern of double standards where it appears that some victims matter more than others. The current International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor appears to view accountability for war crimes in Palestine and Israel as improbable. This however, did not stop the prosecutor from issuing an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is equally unlikely to be held accountable for war crimes in Ukraine. It is the view of Transformative Peace that war crimes in Palestine and Israel should be just as much a priority as those committed in Ukraine. In these instances, even symbolic gestures are important.




While this attack is unique in the typical dynamic between the two sides, it should not disguise the fact that these repeated outbreaks in violence represent a pattern that has no military solution. In fact, this pattern is entrenched by the tendency to exclusively resort to a military solution to what is, at its core, a political conflict. The recurrence of violence such as this, also reflects a pattern in media attention, with Palestinians largely suffering the indignities and violence of apartheid and occupation in relative international silence and tolerance, compared to the attention and outrage garnered when the violence extends into Israel.  


This is not to suggest that the current escalation of violence is not particularly newsworthy or alarming, but as an al-Jazeera columnist noted concerning the bombing of the Jenin refugee camp earlier in July of this year, western Media organizations employed heavily sanitized language to describe what UN experts documented as a war crime. This reflects the tendency of much of the western Media and political elite to frame violence differently depending on the perpetrator, with words like “brutal” and “evil” reserved for Palestinian “attacks” or “terror” and words like “retaliation” and “response” reserved for Israeli “operations” and “strikes”. This kind of bias was exemplified by the President of the European Union, who personified western Bias in justifying Israel’s indiscriminate bombings and their siege on Gaza, cutting off food, fuel, and water, just a year after describing these very acts as “pure terror” and “war crimes” when Russia carried them out in Ukraine. Such a media environment has the capacity to contribute to the normalization of occupation and the dehumanization of Palestinians, further facilitating the systems of violence that are at the root of the current violence.  


Failed Political Solutions and the Endless Loop of Conflict and Bloodshed 


This is yet another episode in a cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, a cycle only entrenched and facilitated by approaches to the conflict that de-center political frameworks in favor of an overwhelmingly militarized approach to the conflict. As former US president Jimmy Carter stated: “Peace will come to Israel and the Middle East only when the Israeli government is willing to comply with international law” while the United States risks inflaming anti-American sentiment “by unofficially condoning or abetting the Israeli confiscation and colonization of Palestinian territories.” Exclusive commitment to a military approach brings us nothing but repeated episodes of violence that leaves innocent people on both sides suffering. 

 

Unfortunately, there has been a severe lack of comprehensive and sustained attempts to address the root causes of the conflict on the part of the international community. In many cases, members of the international community, in fact, have actively sought to prevent action on these root causes. For example, the British parliament has progressed legislation to ban public bodies from supporting the BDS movement. Boycotts and sanctions, by exerting pressure on states enforcing systems of structural violence and their supporters, are potentially useful measures that the international community could use (and previously have used) to address root causes in violent conflict. Boycotts and sanctions helped end apartheid in South Africa, but the very measures used to exert pressure on South Africa to end the structural violence at the root of that country’s conflict are currently being attacked and undermined. Instead of focusing on these root causes, political, diplomatic, and media attention seems to be focused overwhelmingly on escalatory violence at the expense of pathways to transform the conflict. This forms part of our intent here, to advocate for political solutions that address the root causes. 

 

Beyond Surface Solutions: Addressing Root Causes for Sustainable Peace

 

In the pursuit of lasting and meaningful peace, it is paramount that we embrace an approach firmly grounded in human rights and international law. Merely fixating on cyclical outbursts of violence falls short in our endeavor to achieve a political solution that honors and safeguards human rights and dignity for all. In this regard, we must address the entrenched and systemic Israeli violence, manifested through military occupation and apartheid practices.  With respect to the most recent escalation of violence in Palestine and Israel, this means we cannot lose focus of its root causes, the conflict's structural and cultural dimensions. If we want to see a sustainable end to this violence, that is built upon human rights, justice, and equality, we must also focus on the structural and cultural violence at the heart of the conflict through a framework centered around human rights and international law.  Ignoring systemic violations of human rights and international law is what leads to recurring tragic episodes of violence, such as what we see now. It is only when we seek peace through the dismantling of the structural violence of occupation and the cultural violence of bigotry, including Islamophobia, anti-semitism, and anti-Arab racism, that sustainable peace can have a chance to take root. 


These forms of structural violence help explain the current situation in Palestine and Israel. For instance, in an act of collective punishment, Israel has placed Gaza under “complete siege” in response to the Hamas surprise attack, cutting off access to water, food, fuel, electricity, and medicinal supplies. Collective punishment is illegal under international law, and as UN secretary General Antonio Guterres said Hamas's attacks "cannot justify collective punishment" of the Palestinian people. This comes amidst UNICEF warnings over “time running out” for Gaza’s children as fuel shortage will result in the complete unavailability of clean drinking water. Humanitarian disaster is not just a product of war however. Structural violence against Palestinians is a constant feature of daily life, with millions having long been denied their basic human needs by their occupiers. The long-standing blockade of Gaza has left the population, 40% of which are under the age of 14, unable to meet their basic needs, with 78% of piped water unsuitable for human consumption and 65% of the population food insecure. Nearly all of the water in Gaza requires desalinization or purification, which requires electricity. The Israeli decision to cut off all of these supplies, intensifying an already suffocating blockade, will only serve to exacerbate an already disastrous human rights situation.  


These resource scarcity and consumption dynamics help highlight the connection between settler colonialism in Palestine and structural violence. For instance, while Palestinians often lack the water to sustain livestock, grow trees, or even wash their clothes, neighboring illegal settlements look like oases as Israeli authorities divert Palestinian water supplies to the settlements. In some areas of Palestine, water consumption is only 26 liters a day, which is far below the World Health Organization’s minimum standard of 50-100 liters. Such a low rate of water consumption in an area, formally constitutes it as a disaster zone. 2023 trends suggest this is only getting worse, as Israeli authorities have knocked down nearly the same number of Palestinian water installations in the first half of this year as they had throughout the entire of 2022. Direct settler violence is also increasing, with a UN report documenting three violent settler events a day and over 1,100 Palestinians being displaced by settler violence since 2022, and three Palestinian communities being entirely emptied in that time.



* Graphic taken from: “ Increase in Settler Violence, Displacement – Remarks by OCHA Spokesperson Jens Laerke.”

 

The role of structural violence in the conflict is clear. Palestinian violence, as with all political violence, does not occur within a vacuum. It is driven by structural factors. Violence perpetrated by Palestinian militants occurs within the context of apartheid and a modern settler-colonial regime. These systems of oppression were thoroughly documented in Amnesty International’s report on Israeli apartheid. Attempts to explain and resolve this conflict cannot ignore this context. Sustainable peace can only be achieved through a peace process that seriously addresses these structural factors and root causes, including continuing dispossession, occupation, and state-sanctioned inequality. This approach to the conflict is not about sides, it is consistent with the well-established mainstream of conflict transformation that expresses the importance of justice in sustainable and effective peacebuilding. Situating Hamas violence perpetrated against civilians within the context of apartheid should be seen as an attempt to highlight root causes and pathways to solutions and not a justification of indefensible attacks on civilians. For meaningful and lasting peace, approaches to violent conflict like this need to be rooted in principles of peace, justice, and respect for human rights. 

 

A Framework for Accountability: The Need to Enforce International Law  


A human rights based  approach is also the only approach consistent with international law in this case. There are three main treaties which criminalize systems of apartheid, these being:  


  • the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD); 

  • the Rome Statute of the ICC (Rome Statute); and

  • the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid (Apartheid Convention) 

Additionally the Geneva Convention, as unanimously adjudged by the International Court of Justice, applies to Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise.  Article 49.6 of the convention states that: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” The illegality of Israeli settlements was also acknowledged by the Israeli government's international law advisors, who in what is known as the Meron Memorandum. clearly expressed the illegality of Israeli settlements. As the memo stated: “civilian settlement in the administered territories  contravenes explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention.” They acknowledged that settlement, regardless of objectives, was categorically prohibited by international law. In 1968, the U.S. embassy in Israel also made clear that Israeli settlements, alongside violating international law, would also “seriously complicate the peace process.”

 

As an occupying force, Israel also has obligations to the occupied population, including assurances that the occupied population has access to essential supplies and services. Consequently, Israel’s 16-year long blockade of Gaza constitutes an additional layer of illegality by depriving Palestinians of their basic needs, including their freedom of movement. 

 

Upholding Human Rights and Escaping Cycles of Violence 


Centering human rights and international law is critical  because doing so is a necessary step  to addressing the root causes that have provided the fertile ground for conflict. While an exclusive focus on Hamas violence and military responses lends itself to the kind of protracted conflict we currently observe, a focus on human rights, international law, and political solutions help cultivate pathways to escape cycles of violence, rather than merely achieving moments of quiet. This is the kind of work we attempt to complete at Transformative Peace and we urge the international community to seek the same kind of change in Palestine and Israel.  


It is our hope that accountability is sought for crimes committed against both Israelis and Palestinians in this most recent episode of violence. Equally important is that we center our attention on what is actually driving the violence rather than reacting to the violence in such a way that continues to mask and perpetuate the real issues at the heart of this decades long conflict. Fundamentally, this means a commitment to ending the systems of structural violence that have indiscriminately and comprehensively oppressed, dispossessed, and brutalized the Palestinian people for around three-quarters of a century. We, as peace practitioners, alongside members of civil society, the international community, and the general public, must assure that the conversation around this violence seeks real movement towards an outcome of dignity and human rights for all. This is an outcome that requires a human rights based framework that conforms to international law. It is also an outcome that is first and foremost incompatible with the current status-quo of apartheid, military occupation, and illegal settlements. In the short term however, hostilities and the anticipation of a ground invasion is creating a catastrophic humanitarian situation. It is of utmost importance that a cease-fire is agreed to and violence de-escalated. The need for humanitarian assistance is also critical, making an end to Israel’s siege a necessity. 


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