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Only honesty and meaningful peace talks will stop the violence

By Jane Haries, Peace Education Coordinator, WCIA

A predictable cycle of violence:

During the past week the world has watched horrified as violence erupted and escalated in East Jerusalem, then between Israel and Gaza, across the occupied West Bank and in towns and cities in Israel itself.  By 14 May the Health Ministry in Gaza reported that 122 people had been killed there, including 31 children and 20 women, and that 900 had been wounded. At least eight people have been confirmed killed in Israel, including two children and an elderly woman on her way to a shelter.

And yet this violence is not new.  It can be seen as the latest iteration of a 73-year cycle of violence which began with the Nakba (catastrophe) of 1948, when the majority of Palestinian people were dispossessed of their homes, their towns and villages destroyed, and their society torn apart. Palestinians living on the West Bank have been living under occupation for over 53 years and are well aware of the ongoing structural violence and human rights infringements this represents: daily queues and humiliation at checkpoints, roadblocks, house demolitions, restricted access to education and health.  Over 5 million Palestinians live as refugees today and depend on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for the fulfilment of their basic rights.  As reported in a recent report by Human Rights Watch “Israel’s twelve-year closure of Gaza ….. limits access to educational, economic and other opportunities, medical care, clean water and electricity for the nearly 2 million Palestinians who live there. Eighty percent of Gaza’s population depend on humanitarian aid.” The problem is that most of these human rights violations happen under the radar and don’t come to the world’s attention. 

Threats to forcibly remove Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem in favour of Israeli settlers – and actual evictions – are not new either.  As an Ecumenical Accompanier, I attended protests in Sheikh Jarrah alongside Palestinians, international and Israeli peace groups in 2012.  The UN has warned that these threats of eviction may constitute a war crime.  (Israel occupied East Jerusalem in the 1967 war and effectively annexed it in 1980 – an act condemned by the international community).  

A joint protest about the threatened evictions at Sheikh Jarrah, Jerusalem

It can be argued, therefore, that the current violence was predictable.  There were several sparks that brought things to a head.  These include a sense of hopelessness amongst Palestinians, due to the cementing of Israeli control over them during the period of the Trump administration; provocative acts by extreme right-wing Israelis in the Old City leading up to Jerusalem Day; and the excessive use of force by Israeli police and military, in particular the use of tear gas and stun grenades at the site of the Al Aqsa Mosque as Muslims met in worship for the end of Ramadan.

What can we do?

As people concerned for the promotion of peace, equality and human rights, how should we respond to this distressing situation?

Firstly we should condemn the use of violence on both sides.  Both rockets fired indiscriminately from Gaza into Israel and supposedly ‘targeted’ airstrikes from Israel into a heavily populated Gaza strip will only inflame the situation.  Lives of innocent civilians will be lost and, given the superior firepower of the Israeli armed forces, the main casualties will inevitably be civilians in Gaza. 

Secondly, we need to be prepared to speak out boldly against the ongoing root causes of the violence, and to put pressure on the UK and Welsh governments to do something about it.  We should tell the personal stories of those affected by it.  Some of these can be found on the EAPPI blog-site here.

We should call for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, for a halt to the building of illegal Israeli settlements on the West Bank and for a resumption of meaningful peace talks based on a respect for the human rights, equality and dignity of all.  The YWCA of Palestine has already called ‘upon the international community to hold Israel accountable for its continued violations of human rights in accordance with international laws and the relevant international conventions’

Paul Parker, the Recording Clerk of Quakers in Britain concluded a strong statement on the situation by urging faith and political leaders to speak out. “For as long as we remain silent and choose to step back from uncomfortable words and actions,” he said, “we are all complicit in the ongoing violence”.  This has nothing to do with being anti-semitic.  Those who care about human rights, justice and equality should stand out against all state-perpetuated acts of violence, including those of the Israeli government.  This should not extend, however, to the people of that country in general.  We need to be clear that a continuing cycle of violence and retaliation is detrimental to all living in the region – Israelis and Palestinians alike.  The only long-term viable solution is a negotiated peace agreement based on equality, justice and a respect for human rights.  Certainly not easy – but the only solution that can guarantee security, peace and wellbeing for all.

Those concerned about peace, human rights and transparency may also wish to find out more and ask questions about the relationship between the British government and the Israeli military, including ‘open licenses’ for weapons sales to Israel with no ‘end use’ restrictions, joint military exercises and training and cooperation on nuclear weapons. An extremely worrying article on this aspect appeared in Declassified UK on 15 May, 2021.  According to a report by CAAT (Campaign Against the Arms Trade), the UK government has licensed £400 million worth of arms to Israel since 2015.  A review by the government in 2014 found 12 licenses for arms that were likely to have been used in the 2014 bombing of Gaza.

I spent some time in Gaza in April 2016 where we delivered Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops to students in Gaza university.  Two Americans and a Brit, we were warmly welcomed by the students and treated with friendship and courtesy during our stay.  During the workshop, we presented the students with a number of elements that can be helpful for resolving conflict non-violently and asked them to stand beside the one they found most difficult.  The majority of the students went to stand by ‘Expect the best’, expressing their belief that war would return to their region, and that it was therefore very difficult for them to envisage a better future.  I think of those students now.  What can we do to ensure that all young people in the wider area – both in Israel and Palestine – are able to envisage a future without violence?

References:

For more insight into issues that sparked the recent conflict, see: What has caused Jerusalem’s worst violence in years? | Israel | The Guardian

Human Rights Watch, World Report on Israel and Palestine, 2021: World Report 2021: Israel and Palestine | Human Rights Watch (hrw.org)

For real life stories from the West Bank, see EAPPI blogs here: https://blog.eappi.org

How the UK military supports Israel’s combat operations against Palestinians, Declassified UK, 15th May: How the UK military supports Israel’s combat operatio… (dailymaverick.co.za)

Sales and Military Support for Israeli Armed Forces, CAAT, 11th May, 2021: CAAT – CAAT call for UK to end arms sales and military support for Israeli forces following Gaza killings and storming of Al Aqsa Mosque

Joint statement by EAPPI, Amnesty International and 14 other UK charities:
https://www.quaker.org.uk/news-and-events/news/coalition-stands-up-for-rights-of-palestinian-people

Statement by Quakers in Britain:
https://www.quaker.org.uk/news-and-events/news/quakers-call-for-end-to-violence  

Christian Aid response to the situation in Jerusalem and Gaza: Christian Aid responds on Jerusalem and Gaza – Ekklesia

Razor Wire and Olive Branches teaching resource pack: Teaching resources | Quakers in Britain