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26 May 2021

Letter from Gaza: The war that cannot be won

Further conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is inevitable – and futile.  

By Jeremy Bowen

A boy of nine called Mohammed al-Masri sat quietly next to his father, listening and, as far as I could tell, absorbing every word. His father, Youssef al-Masri, was talking about the moment on the first day of the war that a strike hit their small farming community in northern Gaza, only around 800 metres from the boundary wire with Israel. Mohammed was the middle son. His little brother, Marwan, was seven. Ibrahim was 11. Both were killed, along with three of Mohammed’s cousins, two friends and a 21-year-old neighbour.

In the village they blamed Israel. Mohammed’s father, who is a policeman, said Israel had committed a heinous crime. He talked about replaying in his head constantly the memory of picking up his sons’ bodies, which were ripped open by shrapnel and high explosives. Israel insists he is blaming the wrong side. The Israeli military spokesman told me he could not be 100 per cent forensically certain, as it was a chaotic time, but their best assessment was that the deaths were caused by an Islamic Jihad missile falling short of its target in Israel. It was supposed to kill Israelis. Instead, it had killed Palestinians. Israeli forces, he said, were not active in the area at the time of the strike.

Like every Palestinian I have ever met, Youssef al-Masri believes Israel tells lies to cover up the brutal requirements of its project to strengthen its state at the expense of their hopes. He did not try to shield Mohammed from the details of his brothers’ deaths. He had seen them being killed.

I asked Youssef about his wife, who, in this traditional society, I was not able to visit. She was coping, he said, sitting with the women of the family and the neighbourhood in their home away from the eyes of strangers. Sometimes in Britain we find it easier to stay away, telling ourselves it is better not to intrude into other people’s grief. It is the other way around in Gaza, and across the Middle East. The bereaved have constant, unannounced visits. Men sit on lines of chairs outside the family home, surrounded by photos of the dead, talking all day and into the evening with visitors who are served tiny cups of bitter coffee and sweet dates. The women gather in private. No one is left alone to grieve.

The pain and pity of war were captured in a phone video taken moments after the strike on 10 May. Youssef bent backwards and roared to God when he picked up Marwan’s broken body. His grief and the eight deaths are agonising to watch. But when I met him he was remarkably composed.

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“I will face my future with boldness and with full force,” he told me. “I will get babies. Instead of Marwan and Ibrahim, I will get another Marwan, Ibrahim and Khalil, Mohammed and Mahmoud.” His dead boys were martyrs for Jerusalem. If necessary the children yet to be born could be too.

[see also: A new and dangerous form of violence has broken out in Israel]

***

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Eleven days of conflict between Hamas and Israel – in which more than 250 people were killed, most of them in Gaza – ended on 21 May with a ceasefire. So far it has held, with both sides claiming victory. I listened to Youssef and looked at Mohammed and wondered about the colossal impact that the death of his brothers in the latest war would have on his life. He watched and listened and hardly blinked. During the second Palestinian intifada, from 2000 to 2005, I used to sit in the garden of Dr Eyad el-Sarraj, a Palestinian psychiatrist who pioneered the treatment of trauma in young people in Gaza, to discuss the pain the conflict was causing. We were still able to share a few beers. He was a straight-talking, courageous man who was detained several times for daring to criticise Yasser Arafat, the former leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Back then Dr Sarraj, who died in 2013 of cancer, told me about the mindset of Gaza’s youth – children who are now adults. He said that “24 per cent of our children up to the age of 12 think that the best thing in life when you are 18 is to die as a martyr. There is a second life out of the misery of this life of deprivation, of hardship, of humiliation, of checkpoints, being arrested, having your home destroyed, having your field uprooted and so on. There must be another life. And God has given us the promise that if you die for God, if you die for the nation, you only begin to live. People want to cling to that hope, and some are ready to take the test by challenging death through killing and killing themselves.”

I hope Mohammed al-Masri has a different future, and I do for all the children I saw enveloped by the deaths of parents and siblings, and the loss of everything certain in their lives. Most men and women in Gaza are struggling to provide a decent life for their own children. A few of the boys Dr Sarraj talked about 20 years ago now carry guns. In a candid moment Ehud Barak, one of Israel’s most illustrious soldiers and a former prime minister, once said, “If I were a Palestinian of the right age, I would join, at some point, one of the terrorist groups.”

Decades of discord: UN forces patrol in the Gaza Strip along the border between Israel and Egypt in 1958. Credit: RENE BURRI/MAGNUM PHOTOS

After the latest truce was announced, I went to the funeral of Islamic jihadis who were killed in a tunnel bombed by the Israelis. Their bodies were dug out after the ceasefire started. The Palestinian flags wrapped around them did not stop the smell of decomposition wafting across the football ground where the funeral prayers were held. What struck me most was not the ranks of masked and armed young men. Instead it was the support they had from several thousand men who lined up in the stands and on the pitch to pray.

Gaza is a unique and terrible human experiment. Palestinians who live there often say it is the world’s biggest open-air prison. Plenty of people in the rich world, myself included, have had withdrawal symptoms from missing foreign holidays since the beginning of the pandemic. Imagine never being able to leave Gaza, along with two million others, stuck on a narrow stretch of coast around 25 miles long, no more than seven miles wide, and in places much narrower. In recent days I have been working with a Palestinian colleague in Gaza who is 41 years old and a father of three children. He has never travelled out of Gaza. Ever. He’s hoping for parole but so far it has been a life sentence.

[see also: Israel-Gaza ceasefire: the 2021 conflict explained]

Anyone who visits expecting undiluted misery might be surprised when they see the strength of the human spirit in the Gaza Strip. Its people are, in my experience, mostly warm and open. Western countries have given them a lot to complain about but that does not translate into personal hostility. On the first evening after the ceasefire came into force, I found the streets of Rimal, the best-off part of Gaza City, were crowded. Less than 24 hours earlier they were empty and frightening. During the Israeli bombing, many were killed at home. But out in the open, without even the flimsy protection of four walls, the odds were even worse.

After the fighting stopped, people re-emerged. Shops reopened. At the most popular falafel restaurant, the arms of the man who shapes the little chickpea balls were a blur as he tried to keep up with demand. Children bounced on trampolines in play areas of open-air cafés as their parents sat out drinking tea and smoking shisha. A sense of relief filled the air. So did the sound of Israeli drones, endlessly circling and watching.

***

The Gaza Strip was open for years after Israel captured it from Egypt in the 1967 Middle East war. Palestinian and Israeli businesses did deals. Israelis did not have to be too adventurous to visit Gaza’s fish restaurants. But the conflict was always pulsing away. Jewish settlers were allocated some of Gaza’s best land. Palestinians who had been driven out of their homes, or run from the war that brought Israel independence in 1948, were crammed into refugee camps.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians could make money working in Israel. I spoke to men who found jobs on farms in Israel that their families used to own. It made them bitter, but there was, they said, some consolation in tending to lost land to which they felt deeply connected.

In the end, the pressure of the occupation was too much for men and women who wanted independence and freedom. Anger grew, and overflowed after an Israeli army truck crashed into a civilian car in Gaza’s biggest refugee camp on 9 December 1987, killing four Palestinians. Something snapped. Protests started that spread to the rest of the occupied territories in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. It was called the “intifada”, the uprising, and it rumbled until the peace process started in the early 1990s.

Gaza was seen by Israel as a nest of dangerous radical nationalism. From 1991 Palestinians needed exit permits. To start with the system was fairly rudimentary. On my first visit the same year, I was able to drive in with an Israeli TV news crew in a car with an Israeli number plate. Our documents were given a cursory once-over by a bored soldier in a wooden shed. Thirty years on, Gaza has been encased in a complex of walls and electronic fences. Getting a permit to travel out if you are a Palestinian is a tortuous process and many people don’t even bother to try. The wooden shed is now a building that could be a small airline terminal. Getting in, if you have the right permissions, is fairly straightforward. Leaving to enter Israel requires some of the most thorough security checks in the world. Security procedures are immaterial to most of Gaza’s residents, since they can never leave. My 41-year-old colleague was ten when the first exit permits were introduced.

A new level of difficulty was imposed after 2006, when Hamas surprised most pundits by winning the elections. Palestinians were fed up with the corruption and incompetence that was ingrained in Fatah – the faction that Arafat and a few friends founded in the 1950s to fight Israel for Palestinian independence – and wanted a new start. For the Western countries that believed in the idea of creating some kind of Palestinian state alongside Israel it was the wrong result. Hamas is classified as a terrorist organisation by many powers. It sent suicide bombers into Israel to try to destroy the peace process in the 1990s and then to kill Jews during the second intifada after 2000. In the State Department in Washington, DC, a very senior official sat back in his chair, in his large and airy office, and told me it was simple. The elections would have to be reversed.

In 2007 Hamas heard that Fatah was plotting to move against it in Gaza, and struck hard – hundreds of Palestinians were killed in the resulting violence. After Hamas took control of Gaza, Israel imposed a blockade. For years Fatah leaders choked with rage when asked about their humiliation at the hands of their Palestinian brothers. In 2005 Ariel Sharon, then the Israeli prime minister, pulled Israeli settlers and soldiers out of Gaza, but retained control of the airspace, territorial waters and all but the narrow border into Egypt – which was almost as hard for Palestinians to cross as Israel’s.

Hamas, for all the killing it had perpetrated, had a popular mandate when it won the 2006 election. One reason why Palestine’s president Mahmoud Abbas, a member of Fatah, cancelled planned elections in May 2021 was that Hamas might have won again. Hamas – able to tell Palestinians that it fought for Jerusalem – would have an even better chance now. I have met most of the senior political leaders of Hamas since the 1990s. Some of them are dead, assassinated by Israel. They ran an organisation that is ruthless, often brutal and always unaccountable. But they are not ranting fanatics. Some kind of engagement to find a permanent truce might, at the very least, have been worth a try. Instead, Israel and its Western allies pursued a policy of isolation. This was a mistake. It deepened the crisis. Four wars between Israel and Hamas, as well as what Israel calls the battles between the wars, show the bankruptcy of what has passed for a strategy.

As I write this, my phone has just pinged the news that the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has arrived at an airport near Tel Aviv to try, he says, to strengthen the ceasefire. Palestinians are getting more support in the US Democratic Party, but Israel will always come first for President Biden.

Without question, Israelis suffered too during the recent 11-day war. I was in Ashkelon, in the south, as it suffered repeated red alerts as missiles that had not been stopped by the Iron Dome system came in. It is frightening when the sirens sound and a phone app blinks a message that you have seconds to take cover. But the two experiences, in Gaza and Israel, were not the same. Asymmetric warfare between the strong and the weak guarantees that. It also means that Israel, for all its power, cannot beat enemies who count survival as victory. New thinking, and action, is long overdue. Without it the next war is inevitable. 

[see also: Israel-Palestine: is it time for the world to consider a one-state approach?]

This article appears in the 26 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new Toryism