Thursday 19 September 2019

'Great hatred, little room' - no end in sight to the agony in Gaza

Israeli soldiers rest on bales of hay in a field overlooking the Gaza Strip as they man the border. Photo: Reuters
Israeli soldiers rest on bales of hay in a field overlooking the Gaza Strip as they man the border. Photo: Reuters

Analysis: MaryFitzgerald

The headline in liberal-leaning Israeli newspaper 'Haaretz' was succinct: "Jerusalem Celebrates, Tel Aviv Parties and Gaza Bleeds - a Surreal 24 Hours."

It captured the events of a single day in three locations whose physical proximity to each other brings to mind the lines Yeats once wrote of Ireland: "Great hatred, little room."

Surreal was a fitting word choice. Around the same time Israeli forces were mowing down scores of Palestinian protesters who had amassed along the barrier that helps seal Gaza off to a pitiful existence, Israeli TV was broadcasting footage of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a ceremony to open the US embassy in Jerusalem, declaring it a "great day for peace".

Hours later, with the death toll in Gaza climbing towards 60, thousands lined the streets in Tel Aviv to welcome Netta Barzilai, who won the Eurovision song contest for Israel at the weekend.

Of course not everyone in Jerusalem was celebrating - as 'Haaretz' put it - the controversial transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv, a Trump decision that upends years of American policy: the Palestinians who live there and see the storied city as the capital of their future state have been protesting the move for several weeks.

But the tens of thousands who assembled along the Gaza-Israel border on Monday were there not so much to protest the embassy - though that contributed to the mood - but to participate in the latest in six weeks of demonstrations known as the "Great Return March" with the ostensible aim of reclaiming the lands their ancestors were displaced from when Israel was created in 1948.

Referred to as the Nakba - Arabic for catastrophe - those events of 70 years ago occupy a particular place in the imagination of Muslim and Christian Palestinians, with many in Gaza, the West Bank and the Palestinian diaspora across the world still possessing the keys to homes their forebears lost.

The protesters - mostly unarmed men, women and children - were met with live ammunition, tear gas and, according to some reports, artillery shells. One journalist, Sharif Abdel Kouddous, told PBS radio in the US: "You can see just a couple of hundred yards away, Israeli soldiers - on mounds of sand, sometimes in jeeps. And they are picking people off. Snipers are literally picking people off.

"I've seen people who weren't even close to the fence being shot. Most of the people are being shot in the lower extremities, in their legs. I saw one person shot in the throat."

The number of dead reached 60 overnight after a months-old baby died from tear gas her parents said she inhaled at a protest camp. More than 2,200 Palestinians were reported wounded. It was the bloodiest day for Palestinians since the Gaza conflict of 2014.

An Israeli army spokesman said one of its soldiers had been slightly wounded by shrapnel and also admitted their side had not taken any "sustained direct fire".

Ireland is one among a number of countries to deplore the killings and demand an independent investigation led by the UN.

What should also be asked this week after so many deaths is why Gaza continues to fester, a victim of both an almost decade-old air, sea and land blockade by Israel (complemented by Egypt) and intra-Palestinian rivalries between Fatah, which administers the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2007.

Only a tiny handful of the two million people who call the tiny strip of just over 360-square kilometres home can leave. Gaza is one of the most densely populated places in the world, its people living among infrastructure wrecked by years of Israeli air strikes and neglect.

Sanitation challenges - raw sewage is dumped into the Mediterranean - have rendered much of its water supply undrinkable, according to the UN.

Electricity is erratic and there are shortages of medicine and other essentials. Gaza has a young population which also suffers one of the highest unemployment rates - 44pc - in the world. "In place like this, hope is impossible," one young Gazan told me some years ago; several of his friends had drifted into more militant circles.

Gaza has witnessed war between Israel and Hamas along with other armed groups three times since 2007, with the last - in summer 2014 - grinding on for more than 50 days. More than 2,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed. Some 100,000 were displaced within the tiny territory.

Easing the blockade may bring some comfort, but Gaza's plight will continue as long as a lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains elusive.

With Trump finding in Netanyahu something of a kindred spirit - with belligerent personalities to match - there is little hope of that any time soon.

Irish Independent

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