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How Donald Trump provoked a Palestinian refugee revolt

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.

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
to return.

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 first appeared in the 08 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry

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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist