People shelter in a large concrete pipe during a rocket attack on the southern Israeli village of Nitzan. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: Without a two-state solution, Israel is set on a course of war

So fragile is the “peace” between Israel and the Palestinians that it takes the smallest spark to light the fuse of war.

Israel is a highly militarised country in a state of perpetual preparedness for war. To the north, south, east and west, it sees only mortal enemies, real or imagined, in a region in flames. Yet until very recently the mood inside the country was one of relative calm. The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had emboldened the Likud-led government and considerably weakened Hamas in Gaza. Israel has been largely unaffected by the civil war in Syria, with its 160,000 dead (there are suggestions that the actual figure could be twice that) and the exodus of millions of refugees to Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. The border between Syria and Israel has been closed since the seizure and occupation of the Golan Heights during the 1967 war. Recently there have been sporadic attacks by jihadist groups on Israel from inside Syria but nothing that has unduly alarmed the Israel Defence Forces.

The construction of the security wall that separates Israel from the West Bank – a tragic symbol of the conflict between two peoples destined to claim ownership of the same land – ended the largely Hamas-directed suicide attacks that traumatised Israelis during the second intifada. Most of the pressure and urgency for peace talks with the Palestinians seemed to be coming from not inside but outside Israel – from the US secretary of state, John Kerry, who was ultimately defeated in his courageous attempt to bring the two sides together.

Yet so fragile is the “peace” between Israel and the Palestinians that it takes the smallest spark to light the fuse of war. Against this backdrop, the kidnapping and subsequent murder of three Israeli Jewish teenagers whose bodies were found not far from the town of Halhul, near Hebron in the occupied West Bank, were always going to have dire consequences.

Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, specialises in overreaction: in response to the senseless murder of the three youths and the resumption of missile attacks on southern Israel from inside Gaza, he launched a new offensive against Hamas, the ludicrously titled “Operation Protective Edge”, and, as we went to press, was mobilising for another possible land invasion of the blighted strip. Attacking Gaza might halt rocket attacks in the short run but will do nothing in the long term except revive Hamas’s faltering reputation as the focus of Palestinian resistance. Meanwhile, the Palestinian leadership is in disarray.

Both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, claim to support a two-state solution but is this now mere rhetoric? Indeed, so polarised is Israeli politics that Mr Netanyahu has emerged as something of a pragmatist when compared to belligerent right-wingers in his coalition such as Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Jewish Home party. Mr Bennett is himself a settler and a territorial maximalist who does not recognise the Palestinian claim to statehood. His influence grows.

Mr Kerry deserved credit for his attempts to revive the peace process but he is the latest in a long line of powerful politicians who have failed. No diplomatic and political initiatives can compensate for how the participants are not properly engaged, partly because they know they do not have the support of their constituencies.

Where to go from here? It is certainly time for a new generation of politicians, though there are few obvious candidates. And it is time for more imaginative thinking – time to consider constitutional and political arrangements that acknowledge the new facts on the ground. At least the settlers have been honest about the consequences of their actions: they know that expanding settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has led to the demise of the ideal of two separate nations, something that, as believers in the ideology of Greater Israel, they never supported.

However, the anxiety for liberal Israelis is that a putative single, binational state would, in time, cease to be a Jewish-majority state. The Palestinians have strategic depth. They know they have the support of much of the Muslim world and that, in the absence of any progress towards a two-state solution, time is on their side. Already Israeli Arabs, who account for nearly a fifth of the population, are engaged in a struggle for civil rights.

Mr Netanyahu has spoken of the “demographic threat” to Israel. The threat is real enough but, with each passing year, the government he leads is set not on a course of peace but on one of war.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

How the refugee crisis became invisible

Since the failed coup in Turkey, there are on average 200 refugees a day arriving in Greece. But the world's media has gone home.

The image was familiar for the volunteers in Lesvos that still man the beaches where refugees arrive by boat from Turkey. It’s been many months since boats carried 256 people in a single day across the narrow passage of sea. The refugee crisis seems to be giving way to much larger geopolitical issues to the east of the Greek coastline. Those refugees stuck here might soon be joined by the thousands that remain in Turkey as the situation in Syria deteriorates. There is no solution is on the horizon for the bloodshed.

Almost 300 people arrived that Thursday last week, a number not seen since a deal between the EU and Turkey was reached this spring to curtail the flow of refugees heading for Europe. Following the failed coup attempt in Turkey last month, however, something has changed. 3,300 people have arrived on the islands of the eastern Aegean since, according to the official data released by the Greek state, averaging around 200 a day. Reports on the ground suggest that the traffickers operating in the area are expecting a new wave of refugees leaving Turkey soon, a card for Tayip Erdogan to play in his bid for visa-free entry to Europe for Turkish citizens.

Since the deal – and unlike last year, which saw more than a million people passing through Greece and heading up the Balkan corridor towards Germany and the prosperous north – the crisis has taken a new shape, and it’s now largely invisible. Lesvos, the island formerly seen as the frontline of the refugee crisis, is unseen, abandoned by the media and the tourists that used to be its main source of income.

The refugees unlucky enough to be stuck in Greece after the borders to Macedonia closed are distributed in camps across the country. The camps established at the points of arrival, known as “hotspots”, are overcrowded to breaking point, with violence often erupting between refugees, locals and the police. Instances of violence against unaccompanied minors by police were even recorded in the Moria camp in June.

Now, for the close to 60.000 people who in limbo while their asylum applications are processed, it’s a waiting game that looks more like prison than anything else. Meanwhile, deportations back to Τurkey have effectively stopped because of the political insecurity and terrorist attacks there, despite the fact it is still deemed a “safe third country”.

Forty-nine camps have been set up across Greece, but the government has announced that more are on their way. Local business owners in Crete have already protested the news of a camp for 2,000 refugees established on the island. After what happened in Lesvos the tourism industry – arguably the country’s most important, contributing close to 10 per cent of the GDP – is nervous.

Inside the camps, reports of overcrowding, poor hygiene, illness, violence, trafficking and drugs are on the rise. Even in Greece, Yazidis are not safe in the camps, and special arrangements have had to be made for them. The Greek and Albanian mafias have infiltrated camps on the mainland, especially around Thessaloniki, and are pushing hard drugs, which have become a solution for some of the refugees stuck there. Around the downtown area of Victoria in Athens, reports by the BBC and Refugees Deeply have found underage boys prostituting themselves in the nearby parks for 5 euros.

Here is the real problem: while the numbers arriving are nowhere near those of last year, the infrastructure available to take them in is now so strained that every new arrival counts. The margin for the most vulnerable between safety and harm, has narrowed to nothing. The Katsikas camp, near my hometown in north-western Greece, paints a grim picture. Set up hastily on the site of an old military airport, it is almost entirely unsuitable to host the simple military tents the refugees are expected to live in. The ground turns to mud every time it rains, and it rains often. There are scorpions and snakes wandering the camp.

Living conditions are so horrible that according to the camp’s director, Filippas Filios, 200 people recently walked out and abandoned it, preferring to try their luck crossing the Albanian or Macedonian borders on foot. From the 1,020 people that were transported here between March and April, just 520 remain. Another space is being prepared to take those remaining before September – an abandoned orphanage. Unlike most of Greece, the weather here is rainy and cold. If preparations stall and they are caught outside, these people are unlikely to remain in the camp under such conditions. Traffickers who have been active in the area for decades, are banking on just that.

The EU, via Angela Merkel saying that “we must agree on similar deals with other countries, such as in North Africa, in order to get better control over the Mediterranean sea refugee routes”, is hinting at a similar deal to that with Turkey to try and deal with the flow from Libya. With the current arrangement looking shaky, and those living with the consequences being ignored or even blamed for their predicament, we are on perilous ground. There is hardly anything more that Greece can do.

What’s worse is that in the last few months – under pressure from the EU – the Greek government has been dismantling the solidarity networks that alleviated much of the weight of the crisis last year. But they too, where they still hold, are creaking under the weight of the situation. The conditions in some of these informal camps resemble those in the official camps. The more these people are trapped in either situation, the more likely they are to become victims again, be it of trafficking, drugs or violence. For now, the pro-refugee sentiment still holds in Greece, but the illusionary structure of a “dealt with” crisis might come crashing down sooner than most realise.

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.