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As Gaza Burns Again, How Peace Has Gone Missing From Process of Israel-Palestine Engagement

Smoke and flames rise after Israeli air strikes last week in Gaza. (Reuters)

Smoke and flames rise after Israeli air strikes last week in Gaza. (Reuters)

As fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian militias continues into its second week, a look at why peace remains elusive in the region.

The latest flare-up in tensions between Israel and its Palestinian residents has now entered its second week. As soldiers and belligerent militias fight it out on the streets under a rain of rockets, it may be pertinent to ask why the Israel-Palestine conflict remains one of the most intractable issues of international diplomacy and a grave humanitarian crisis

Cold Numbers

3,700 Rockets fired by Palestinian militias at Israel since May 10. Israel has responded by deploying its Iron Dome air defence system and launching airstrikes against Palestinian targets.

72,000 Palestinians displaced in Gaza Strip.

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217 Palestinians killed in Israeli air strikes in Gaza, including 63 children, since May 10. Israel has confirmed 12 deaths in Palestinian rocket attacks.

Flashpoints, New And Old

Full-blown fighting broke out in the run-up to Eid in the wake of clashes in east Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound, one of Islam’s holiest sites. Planned expulsion of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah, an east Jerusalem neighbourhood also didn’t help matters as protesters across Palestinian territories faced off against Israeli forces.

But the troubles between the two sides has much deeper roots in a territory where peace is always a lull before a storm and ceasefires are an uneasy break in the bloodshed. Such is the distrust and intensity of disagreement, it can arguably be said that two sides do not see eye to eye even on the question of when the hostilities as they stand now had actually begun. While the Palestinians take 1948, the year when a state of Israel was carved out of Arab territories under the control of a British mandate, as the starting point, Israel prefers to see the matter as having strictly to do with its annexation of territories from its neighbours Egypt, Jordan and Syria in the Six-Day War in 1967.

Since then, the people in the territory known as Palestine — recognised as a country by 138 UN members but whose entire territory is under Israeli control for all practical purposes — have vied to wrest back control of those lands from the Jewish settlers for whom Israel represented a home in the aftermath of the unspeakable horrors suffered by their community in World War II.

Map of Israel and Palestine-controlled territories. Source: Wikimedia

Though many twists and turns in the conflict have led to an understanding, at least since 2003, that a two-state solution can effectively end the hostilities, precious little progress has been made in that direction and efforts at engagement, even when brokered by foreign countries, have failed to yield a lasting peace.

Oh, Jerusalem

Of all the issues that beset Israeli-Palestinian ties, none is more emotionally charged or difficult to manage than the question of Jerusalem. A city dotted with sites holy to the three major religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, it has remained the prime bone of contention between the two parties.

While Israel regards Jerusalem as its “eternal and undivided capital”, according to The Economist, Palestinians consider the eastern part of the city — which has a largely Palestinian population — as their capital, although they have no effective control and use the West Bank town of Ramallah as their de facto capital.

Rocket attacks and retaliatory fire during the ongoing fighting in Gaza. AP

No Time For Healing

Fraught as they are, there have been several attempts at mending the ties over the decades. As is evident in the latest round of violence, those efforts have mostly come to nought and, if anything, the crisis seems to just have become more aggravated.

Among the first overtures in the peace process was a deal agreed in 1978 between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Known as the Camp David accords, the truce mediated by US President Jimmy Carter saw peace proposals mooted that were, however, never effected.

This was followed by the clashes and violence of the first Intifada years that stretched from 1987 to 1993 by some accounts. Intifada means “uprising" and represented a Palestinian reaction against what was seen as forcible Israeli occupation going back to the 1967 war. In November 1988, in the Algerian capital of Algiers, Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) chairman Yasser Arafat announced the establishment of the State of Palestine.

Locals engaged in rescue operation following Israeli strikes in Gaza. AP

The end of this period was marked by the historic Oslo Accords in 1993 that led to the formation of Palestinian National Authority, which was mandated to govern parts of West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and some other territories but not Jerusalem. The PLO was also recognised by Israel and the US as a negotiating partner. But the Oslo Accord, too, left the question of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the status of Jerusalem open ended, which is to say, fell short of making a concrete impact.

Very soon a second Intifada would erupt, in 2000, and last five years. As the peace process slowly got caught in a spiral of collapse, Palestinian militant group Hamas won elections in Gaza in 2006, leading to tensions with the moderate Fatah party that administered the West Bank.

For all practical purposes, the last time the two parties were directly engaged in peace talks was in 2014 after Israel expressed its displeasure over Hamas’s growing imprint in Palestinian affairs and halted negotiations saying that it “will not negotiate with a Palestinian government backed by Hamas, a terrorist organisation that calls for Israel’s destruction".

Meanwhile, US, the biggest sponsor of the peace process, came to be regarded with growing distrust by Palestine after the Donald Trump dispensation recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, effectively refusing to acknowledge Palestinian claim to the city.

Thorn In The Body Politic

Experts are agreed that the current pass to which the tensions have come increasingly represents a turning away from the peace process for both sides. While recent elections in Israel, of which there have been four back to back, have not seen the peace process figure as an issue. In fact, reports suggest that the biggest parties have openly spoken about annexing more territories in West Bank in disregard of the two-state solution that forms the agreed upon roadmap to peace. In fact, The Economist talks about “non-solutionism” being the preferred approach with Benjamin Netanyahu at the helm.

But if Israel can be accused of wavering in its commitment to the peace process, it may point to Palestine as providing justification for its actions. Israel has consistently refused to engage in peace talks with the militant Hamas even as Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian National Authority and the man Israel is willing to engage with, is seen as no longer holding the political clout to be able to effect the terms of whatever understanding, if any, is reached between the two sides.

Palestinians for their part claim Israel offers too little in exchange for concessions sought. Moreover, rights groups complain that Israel has a poor human rights record when it comes to its Palestinian residents. Amnesty International, citing Adalah-The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, says that the country maintains over 65 laws that discriminate against Palestinians. Palestinians, who make up over 20% of the population of Israel, received only 1.7% of the state budget for local councils.

Which Way Forward?

Experts are of the view that a return to the talks table is the only means to a solution, but ground realities pose a hurdle. The US has repeatedly blocked a joint statement calling for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas at the UN Security Council with Democratic President Joe Biden refusing to support official condemnation of what Israel claims is its response to provocation by Hamas. India reiterated its commitment to the “two-state solution” and said it supports a “just Palestinian cause”.

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first published:May 20, 2021, 09:43 IST