Eleven days in May: 6. A relative calm
On 20th May 2021 a ceasefire was agreed between Hamas and Israel, marking the end of an 11-day war that cost hundreds of lives. We spoke to three Palestinians and three Israelis about the brief and bloody conflict to see why it arose, how the fighting unfolded and what happened next
20th May 2021 (Taken from: #43)
This is the sixth interview in a six-part series. See the other interviews here.
On 20th May, a ceasefire was agreed between Hamas and Israel. According to the UN, 260 Palestinians had been killed in Gaza, 129 of whom were civilians, including 66 children. In contrast, groups in Gaza had fired 4,360 unguided rockets towards Israel, killing 12 civilians, including two children and one soldier. While thousands of cars and buildings suffered light damage in Israel, and several synagogues and schools were burned down in communal rioting, the UN estimates that 459 buildings were destroyed or heavily damaged in Gaza, including six hospitals, 11 clinics and 53 schools.
Dr Yara Hawari
Senior analyst at Al-Shabaka
It’s been a long and difficult few months for Dr Yara Hawari. The Gaza war ended on 20th May, having taken many lives, but a new set of crises presented themselves in the relative calm, if not quite peace, that followed. Online activist Nizar Banat, whose popular social media posts detailed rampant corruption in the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, was arrested and beaten to death, allegedly by Palestinian security forces. Protests followed in cities across the West Bank; these were violently suppressed. In one reported instance plainclothes police officers targeted journalists and women, assaulting them and threatening rape. “The protests are against the PA and against the killing, the political assassination of a civil society figure,” says Hawari, an analyst at Al-Shabaka, a Palestinian think tank based in Ramallah. “It has been quite an exhausting summer with various different spurts of protests.”
The string of protests highlighted the growing authoritarianism of the PA, which has also ordered the arrest of political opponents and social media users who have criticised it. The banners at the protests calling for a new leader also showed just how unpopular president Mahmoud Abbas has become. The 85-year-old has been in power since 2005 and elections haven’t been held since 2006. Elections were again postponed in April, nominally over the issue of voting rights for Palestinians in East Jerusalem, but few believe that to be the true reason. Hamas would have likely made gains even before the May war made the PA look inept and peripheral by comparison. “I don’t think that it’s coincidental,” says Hawari. “I think those things [the PA’s absence in the recent Gaza-Israel war and the crackdown on dissent in the West Bank] are absolutely linked. The PA was completely absent from the mobilisations that took place. So there was a need for them to reassert their dominance and control, and there was a perfect opportunity to do so with the assassination of Nizar Banat, and then the subsequent repression of the protests that were calling for justice and accountability for the killing.”
In some ways Hawari believes May’s war has done little to change the facts on the ground for Palestinians. “Sheikh Jarrah [residents] still have imminent displacement hanging over their heads,” she says, although in August the Israeli supreme court offered a compromise deal that might allow the families to stay long term. “Various neighbourhoods in Jerusalem are also facing demolitions as we speak. Gaza is still subjected to the occasional bombardment. It’s still under siege. Palestinians are still under military occupation.” But the emergence of Sheikh Jarrah as a political issue, magnified by the social media posts of activists such as Muna el Kurd, has found a wider resonance with Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line, the boundary drawn between Israel and its Arab neighbours after the 1948 war, which became Israel’s de facto border until 1967.
Muna el Kurd and her brother were arrested by Israeli police in June, ostensibly on charges that they attended a riot (they claim the arrests were an attempt to stop their social media posts). An international outcry saw them released. “I think there was the realisation that what was happening in Sheikh Jarrah was happening across Palestine,” says Hawari. “Palestinians, wherever they were, could see their own struggle, their own personal family experiences. There was a unification around Sheikh Jarrah which eventually became a catalyst for mobilisation and collective resistance.”
This sense of unification is significant because for years Israeli policy has been to attempt to deal with different issues relating to Palestinians – access to Al Aqsa, access to Gaza, movement restrictions in the West Bank, among others – in isolation, in an effort to prevent a unified Palestinian front. Sheikh Jarrah, Hawari believes, cut through that approach and resonated with “Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship” in ‘mixed cities’ just as much as it did with Palestinians living in occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank or Gaza. “We still feel that something very significant happened this year, like we crossed a certain line of fear that we can’t go back on. We feel a sense of unity that can’t easily be destroyed,” Hawari says. “That all of these different fragments of people are Palestinian and identify with being Palestinian, and share a very similar struggle even if it might have different characteristics in different communities.”
Whether that overt solidarity will persist remains to be seen. Israel has a new government and in Naftali Bennett a new prime minister in coalition with a party from the Palestinian community in Israel (‘Israeli Arab’ is a term Hawari objects to; she believes it denies Palestinians their identity). More investment has been promised to poorer Arab areas in Israel to prevent the type of violence seen in May. Hawari is sceptical such efforts will succeed, as long as the contentious 2018 ‘nation-state law’ persists. “The Israeli regime remains the Israeli regime – it doesn’t really matter who is prime minister,” she says. “Unfortunately I think that it is two sides of the same coin. I think that structurally it has to change. You can’t just put a new face on the same structure.”
There is little to cheer in Palestinian politics either. Both the PA and Hamas, Hawari says, are institutionally corrupt, out of touch and increasingly authoritarian. She points to other grassroots forms of democracy, in trade unions and feminist movements, as examples to follow. But the reawakening of a Palestinian identity across Israel and Palestine is one of the few positives she can take from the past months. “I think there are promising signs,” she says. “I don’t know if optimistic is the right word, because I think we have a long struggle ahead of us, but I think there are definitely signs of hope.”
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