Driving one recent afternoon along the Israeli side of the Gaza barrier, I came across a small band of Israeli soldiers sitting in the sandy hillocks, as if picnicking in the sun. But closer up I saw they were holding computers, not sandwiches, perhaps connected to automatic snipers at nearby sentry posts. A woman was carrying something large; it turned out to be a drone, which later whirred above, then crashed behind the trees where a tank was loitering.
Reports in the Middle Eastern press have claimed that Hamas is preparing for Israel to launch a new “war” on Gaza. From behind the city walls, however, that didn’t appear to be the case. A few extra Hamas checkpoints had appeared on the beach road but the militants who rule here were playing a waiting game: waiting to see what Donald Trump will propose in his Middle East peace plan – his so-called deal of the century.
In fact, the only missiles set off from Gaza into Israel since the 2014 war have been fired – usually misfired – by smaller factions, angered by Hamas’s ceasefire. Gaza, still recovering from the last assault of 2014, has no strength for another.
The only Palestinian “enemy” to confront the band of Israeli soldiers were a group of skinny Gaza youths, who sauntered down to the gap in the fence, just opposite where the soldiers had been sitting in the sand. The Palestinians had come for their regular Friday “Jerusalem intifada” – a protest against Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. This lacklustre intifada consists of hurling stones at Israeli soldiers, who are set back so far across the buffer zone that their opponents can barely see them.
Such is the holding pattern in Gaza today – at least on the perimeter. Yet deeper inside the strip, behind other walls – the homes of refugees – anger is rising not over Jerusalem but over reports that the new US “peace plan” will remove the right of Palestinian refugees
And those protesting most loudly are not the stone-throwing youths but older people, such as Fatmeh al- Aleish, 83, who grew up in the village of Huj, only two kilometres beyond the Gaza barrier wall. Huj is now the site of a huge farm, built by the former Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon. Fatmeh can see her old land from a hill near her Gaza camp.
“I will never give up my right to return, whatever this Trump says,” she declared, sitting in her home in Huj Street, inside Jabaliya refugee camp. “Who is this man to say I cannot return to my home?”
Israel’s remote occupation, and the barrier wall hiding Gaza, has made it easier for Israel and many in the outside world to forget the most important fact about Gaza: most of those who live here – 1.3 million out of a population of two million – are refugees.
In 1948, during the Arab-Israeli war that led to the creation of Israel, more than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their villages and cities, or fled in terror, and have never been allowed back. Of these refugees, about 200,000 fled to the Gaza area where they have remained ever since, despite repeated UN resolutions asserting their right to return – a right that Israel has always refused. Over 70 years, the number of refugees has swelled to 1.2 million because the descendants of those who fled in 1948 are also defined as refugees.
The first evidence of Trump’s plans to undermine the refugees’ rights came last month when the US reduced by half its aid to the UN Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa), which provides food, primary medical services and education for all Palestinian refugees not only in Gaza but in the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
This move was followed by reports that the US wanted to reduce the number of Palestinians with refugee status, so that descendants of original arrivals could not claim their rights. Combined with claims that Trump’s negotiators will propose shifting the Gaza refugees into the Sinai in Egypt, the Palestinians fear that the US has turned its sights on the right of return itself.
“Just as President Trump has taken Jerusalem off the table so he seems to want to take refugees off the table,” said Matthias Schmale, director of the Unrwa in Gaza.
Meanwhile, for the first time since 1948, there is genuine concern in Gaza about starvation. In the Palestinian camps, Unrwa’s role as a quasi-government – its schools, its medical centres, its white cars on the streets – is the only physical reassurance the refugees have that the world recognises their rights. The attack on Unrwa is therefore seen as an attack on all refugees.
The US cuts have led officials to warn that if the money continues to be blocked, all services in the Gaza Strip – including food distribution – could end within months. The hope is that European or Arab countries will fill the funding gap.
At Unrwa distribution centres, anxious refugees are clamouring for reassurance that their food will not be stopped; at medical centres the sick fear their vital medicines will run out.
In recent weeks, hopes of a political reconciliation between Hamas, which controls Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority, which presides in the West Bank, have collapsed, to the dismay of those who hoped that a unified Palestinian leadership would help bring peace. The Israeli siege, imposed since Hamas took over in 2007, is tightening: electricity is still limited to four hours a day and hospitals and medical centres are closing down due to lack of fuel
Meaningful mass protest has not been seen in Gaza for many years; so disillusioned are the people by the failures of past uprisings, and so disgusted by their own leaders’ internal feuds, that most see no purpose in popular uprising.
Until now, however, they have not gone hungry. Without food, few doubt that refugees will protest in a manner and in numbers never yet seen.
The question is: how will Israel’s snipers on the barrier react? Fatmeh al-Aleish says she has no fear of Israeli soldiers. “If they try to shoot me, I won’t care. I’ll charge the fence and walk back to my home.”
Sarah Helm is the Independent’s former diplomatic editor
This article appears in the 07 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry