It felt surreal to step into a plane at the airport in Tel Aviv after leaving Gaza. The airline smiles and complimentary drinks seemed a world away from the place I had been. In fact, it was a short drive down the coast. Gaza is kept from the world by wire and concrete.
We know what happens there, thanks to Palestinian and foreign reporters, the UN, and various NGOs. But it is hard to get into the skin of the two million Palestinians who live in the narrow, 25-mile stretch of land. Their experience is alien to most people’s. Many of them, particularly the young, have never been allowed to leave.
During the heady days of the peace process in the 1990s, the Palestinians opened an airport in Gaza. Moroccan craftsmen did the tiling and the mosaics. It was elegant, for an airport, and was reduced to rubble during the second intifada.
Egypt controls the southern border, Israel all the rest, and the sea and the air. Together they enforce a blockade that has destroyed Gaza’s economy.
So much has happened in the Middle East since the Arab uprisings began in 2011 that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has been almost forgotten by the outside world. The horrible events in Gaza of 14 May, when 62 died during protests at the border, have been a sharp reminder that the conflict never went away, that its fundamental causes have not changed and that once again it is heating up. The pattern will continue until there is some hope, some prospect of change, some chance for Palestinians to live in peace and freedom alongside Israel.
On the day after the killing, the protest sites along the border wire were full of bad memories and people who were either dazed or angry. Furthest from the fence were families, mainly mothers with children and perhaps a grandmother. Closest to the earth mounds that protected the Israeli positions were teenage boys who every now and then launched stones from catapults. When the boys got too close to the fence the Israeli soldiers lobbed a few tear gas canisters at them. The people further back, including the families, got some gas too. It was delivered by small black drones that buzzed menacingly overhead until their controllers on the other side of the wire released the gas canisters. They arced down to scatter the people, women coughing and spluttering and trying to gather up their children. Frightened horses bolted. (Fuel is expensive and scarce in Gaza, so there’s been a revival of horse and donkey carts.)
I had come into Gaza that morning. Foreign journalists can enter at Erez Crossing with a passport and Israeli press card. After they have been checked, travellers have to follow signs through several steel turnstiles and gates. The disembodied voices of Israeli guards watching on security cameras sometimes crackle out of intercoms to issue commands. Once through the last gate you see a steel door in the high concrete wall. It slides open, again controlled by an Israeli hand elsewhere in the building, and Gaza is on the other side.
The day before, as 62 Palestinians were being killed in Gaza, I was in Jerusalem, watching Ivanka Trump inaugurate the new American embassy. The area around it was sealed off, so all the guests, and the journalists, were brought in on shuttle buses. Most of the guests were Americans, and on my bus they were all from a Jewish Republican organisation. Many were middle-aged, in good shape, and expensively dressed. They looked rich and my guess was that they were generous donors, to Israel, or President Trump, or both. The new embassy is the existing consulate rebadged. It will take a few years to build something more suitable. At welcome desks the guests were given baseball caps embroidered with the words “United States Embassy, Jerusalem”.
The atmosphere was triumphant. Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been spending a lot of time in the last few months denying allegations of corruption that are being investigated by the police. At the embassy he had a broad grin as he chatted to Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner. Ivanka’s father had given him two precious gifts in just a few days: pulling out of the nuclear deal with Iran and keeping his promise to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. By the time Netanyahu was making a speech that thanked President Trump profusely, my phone was pinging with reports of the killing in Gaza. It was the starkest possible reminder of the distance that separates the two sides. At the embassy there was a sense of victory and even deeply misleading talk of peace. In Gaza unarmed demonstrators were being shot dead.
The utter divergence of views about the conflict extends to explanations of the demonstrations in Gaza, and Israel’s response to them. Israel’s line has been consistent. Soldiers were faced with big crowds of demonstrators who had been ordered to try to break through the fence by Hamas, or the Islamic Resistance Movement, which runs Gaza. The US, of course, offered Israel full support. But European allies of Israel were left queasy about the killing. Theresa May was “troubled”. The demonstrators did not have firearms. No Israeli soldiers were wounded. The fence was not breached.
Netanyahu and others spoke of the prospect of demonstrators crossing the fence in almost existential terms, as if the state was in jeopardy. For all their strength, Israelis often feel vulnerable, partly because they have a lot of enemies. But deep down there is anxiety about the unfinished business of the wars of 1948 and 1967, which comes down to the fate of the Palestinians. Israel is extraordinarily successful. But while the Palestinian issue is not settled, there will always be a crack in the country’s foundations.
It is clear that Hamas organised the demonstrations. It is also clear that young men who were connected to Hamas took part in the protests, and some were killed. Their role was not hidden. By tradition bereaved families set up tents outside their homes to receive mourners. The women go inside the house and the men sit together on lines of plastic chairs, where they are offered dates and bitter coffee. I saw two mourning tents bedecked with Hamas posters. I’m sure there were others. At a funeral in a mosque a young man’s body lay wrapped in a Hamas flag. He had been killed by a shot through the eye, presumably by a sniper.
Hamas has been in crisis in Gaza. Blockades enforced by Israel and Egypt have made life for most Gazans desperately hard. Hamas has not been able to improve things. It needed a big event, but not another war, to remind Palestinians of the place of Hamas in the national struggle. From the end of March it organised weeks of mainly non-violent demonstrations at the border. Israeli soldiers steadily killed those who came too close. The protests were to rally the people and to mark the 70th anniversary of the birth of Israel, which Palestinians call the Nakba, the catastrophe. Seventy per cent of Palestinians in Gaza are descendants of at least 700,000 refugees who fled or were forced out of their homes during Israel’s independence war in 1947-48. The Nakba’s annual commemoration was the day after the US embassy opened.
But it is wrong to claim that Hamas ordered thousands to risk their lives at the fence. They had plenty of reasons of their own to protest. Overall unemployment in the Gaza Strip is 44 per cent, more than twice as bad as the West Bank, according to the World Bank. It’s even worse for people between the ages of 15 and 29. More than 60 per cent of them are out of work. They also make up the majority at the protests.
I spoke to two young men on adjoining stretchers with terrible leg wounds at Al-Shifa, the main hospital in Gaza. One said he worked for the interior ministry, which could suggest a Hamas connection. The other said he was unemployed, and denied Hamas sent him out to the wire. He said he did it because Jerusalem should be Palestinian, and he would do it again once his leg had healed. He had a smashed thigh, with a metal framework holding it all together.
After two failed uprisings and more than 20 years of peace talks that have not produced peace or independence, many Palestinians have become deeply cynical about political action and diplomacy. They have no desire to see their children die in a fruitless struggle. But in Gaza people get angry. They are cooped up in what they often call the world’s biggest open prison. There is no sign it will get better. The demonstrations organised by Hamas gave them an outlet. The Egyptians have apparently made some promises to Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, but Gaza needs more than that.
There will be more violence and more wars until Israel and the Palestinians find a way peacefully to share the land. Neither side is going anywhere. Israel uses combat troops and a complex, sprawling military bureaucracy to control the Palestinians. But history shows that military occupations cannot be sustained indefinitely.
Change will not happen under the current leaders. The Palestinians are consumed by their own divisions and President Mahmoud Abbas is an old man who is unable to galvanise his side. He is irritated by the way Hamas has shown it can still appeal to Palestinians. Netanyahu is good at using the language of peace but his actions belie his words. The status quo suits him, and he regards Iran as the clearest danger to Israel. The next generation of leaders might be no better. If so, they will condemn their children to more hatred, insecurity and death.
Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor and the author of “War Stories”. He tweets @BowenBBC
This article appears in the 23 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Age of the strongman