Opinionista Jonathan Whittall 22 September 2015

Morbid milestones: The never-ending cycle of violence against Palestinians

While the 2014 Israeli war on Gaza, and its one year ‘anniversary’, led to a momentary peak in outrage about the situation in Gaza, it quickly subsided and Palestinians were left to deal with the devastation of the latest cycle of violence as well as the ongoing economic and social violence inflicted by Israel with the backing of a number of western and regional governments.

Concerns about Gaza register when Israel bombs the strip, the West Bank is put on the agenda when US President Barack Obama raises concerns about illegal Israeli settlements – which would be more appropriately called settler colonies – and the suffering of Palestinian refugees in the region makes the news for a few days only when Islamic State enters Yarmouk Camp in Damascus.

The momentary peaks of media interest mask the continuum of violence facing Palestinians, whose presence are often only viewed from the perspective of the political and physical enclaves into which they have been divided.

However, to understand the magnitude of the crisis facing Palestinians, it is necessary to look past the morbid milestones that disconnect and fragment Palestinian suffering. More than ever, understanding the whole picture requires an acknowledgement of the continuum of violence since 1948 that has dispossessed, displaced and disenfranchised Palestinians.

Three sinister records stand out: Israel’s occupation of Palestine is the longest-running military occupation in modern history; Israel is the last remaining state using the combination of settler colonial and segregation tactics – of which the architect of such a system in South Africa, Hendrick Verwoerd, said in 1961: “Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state” – and finally Palestinians still constitute the largest refugee population in the world according to the United Nations figure of 4,232,510 registered Palestinian refugees.

It is these collective factors that make up the conditions that require an ongoing humanitarian response to the plight of Palestinians.

In a press release issued on 8 July 2015 by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the organisation reveals how its waiting rooms are full of patients still suffering from injuries sustained during the 2014 military campaign on Gaza.

There are also a growing number of patients – mainly children – who have suffered severe burn injuries from home heating and cooking accidents as a result of being forced to live in makeshift or damaged homes.

The vast majority of the 12,000 houses that were damaged or destroyed during last year’s war have not been rebuilt because Israel restricts the amount of building materials entering the Gaza strip.

The July 2014 Israeli military campaign on besieged Gaza, which was justified by Israel on the grounds of responding to rocket fire, killed more than 2,200 and wounded 11,000 people. The rocket fire that Israel was allegedly responding to killed five people. Hospitals and schools were demolished.

On 16 June, another ‘anniversary’ for Palestinians did not make headlines. Gaza has been under a land, air, and sea blockade – sustained by both Israel and Egypt – for a total of eight years.

In this time four large-scale military offensives were launched by Israel on the population of Gaza who are trapped in what is essentially one large open-air prison.

The Palestinian population in the occupied West Bank doesn’t have it any easier. It is in the West Bank that Palestinians are subjected to the daily reality of checkpoints, land-grabs, military incursions, arrests, harassment, segregated transport systems, and other forms of daily humiliation. Palestinians today can only inhabit less than 40% of the West Bank. And yet, nothing changes.

However, the plight of Palestinians cannot only be understood in terms of the population living in Gaza and the West Bank, but also needs to take into account those Palestinians living in the broader region.

Further north, in Lebanon, Palestinians inhabit 12 refugee camps in abominable conditions. Unable to return to their homeland and restricted from fully settling in Lebanon – due to the inability to work or own property and other restrictive measures – Palestinians endure a forced, perpetual limbo.

MSF provides medical care in two of these camps, which includes a maternal health clinic in Shatila camp, and will soon start working in a third camp.

In recent years, the conditions in Shatila have deteriorated drastically. Thousands of Palestinians from Syria have fled the war seeking refuge in the Palestinian camps in Lebanon. Syrian refugees not of Palestinian descent have also moved into the camps where rent is often cheaper.

Prior to the current Syria crisis, the one-kilometre-square Shatila camp in southern Beirut had a population of 12,000 people. Since the war began in Syria, the population has more than doubled in size to an estimated total population of between 25,000 and 30,000 people.

One man planning to attempt a journey to Europe by boat recently told an MSF team in Shatila that he would rather drown in the sea than remain in the camp.

Last month, MSF clearly denounced the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the “normalisation of Palestinian suffering”. However, what is it that enables the normalisation of suffering? Ignoring Palestinian suffering, or showing indifference to the effects of Israeli occupation, amounts to support to the occupying force.

However, responding to the endless cycle of violence against Palestinians with humanitarian aid alone is clearly insufficient. It is for this reason that the language of ‘normalisation’ is more appropriately used in the region by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to refer to relations with Israel that do not put at their centre the resistance to and exposure of the Israeli occupation and all forms of discrimination and oppression against the Palestinian people.

For Palestinian refugees in the region and those trapped in the West Bank and Gaza, ‘normalisation’ has deadly consequences as it ignores the continuum of violence and the system of oppression and discrimination that necessitates humanitarian action.

For patients to be able to access the best quality healthcare and to move freely and seek refuge, the segregation and occupation policies of Israel in place since 1948 must end. For the children who have suffered from burn injuries due to the lack of building material to rebuild homes, the eight-year-long blockade on Gaza must be lifted immediately.

For the mental health needs of the patients we have been treating for the past 20 years to be adequately addressed, there must be an end to the settler colonies and settler violence.

For the unacceptable living conditions in Shatila and other Palestinian camps in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza to be addressed, the right of Palestinians to return to their homes must be implemented.

And yet the enablers of violence against Palestinians offer nothing but empty rhetoric and endless occupation. DM

Jonathan Whittall is head of humanitarian analysis at MSF, based in Beirut.


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