In its statement on Saturday welcoming a ceasefire after 11 days of violence between Israel and Gaza militants, the US State Department said that “the United States believes that Israelis and Palestinians both deserve to live safely and securely and to enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity and democracy”.
Few would argue with that statement but reality is far from that. Today is the 75th anniversary of what Palestinians and the Arab world call the Nakba – or “catastrophe” – when, in 1948, Palestinians were driven from their homes en masse.
Many Israelis regard those days as a time when a Jewish homeland was founded after years of oppression, largely in Europe; for Palestinians it was the beginning of decades of displacement and occupation.
Among the most visible of the Nakba’s consequences is the presence of more than 1.5 million Palestinians in 58 official refugee camps. Dependent on aid and grants, generations of Palestinians have been born in exile. Millions more are descendants of those who lost their homes and still seek to return to their ancestral lands. Funding remains a problem for the UN agency that supports many of the refugees still in camps.
In January, the UN Relief and Works Agency warned that it needed $1.6 billion to keep running this year. UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said the financial and political circumstances under which the agency operated had become "incredibly difficult". Only last week, the UN’s food agency said that “grave funding shortages” could lead to cuts in assistance to more than 200,000 Palestinians. By August, it said, the World Food Programme would be forced to “completely suspend” its work in Gaza and the occupied West Bank.
The legacy of displacement can be seen not only in the long-running occupation but in the draining effect it has had on Palestinian society and its economy. Living in camps or under military occupation, generations of Palestinians have seen education, health care and employment affected.
In a report from the World Bank this month, Stefan Emblad, the organisation’s director for West Bank and Gaza, said that despite signs of recovery last year, economic growth “remains sensitive to the escalation of tensions in the Palestinian territories and the ongoing restrictions on mobility, access and trade”. Conditions for the 2.1 million people inside the Gaza Strip are scarcely better.
Tensions on Nakba Day will be high, and understandably so after the latest bloodshed, in which Palestinians suffered disproportionately due to Israel’s strength.
Many Palestinians will also be conscious of the first anniversary of the death of Shireen Abu Akleh, the veteran US-Palestinian journalist who was shot dead while covering an Israeli raid in the West Bank. The Israeli military recently issued an apology for Abu Akleh’s death, although none of its soldiers have yet been held accountable.
In the past seven decades, Israel has grown into a modern economy with an advanced army that enjoys the political and military backing of a global superpower.
If it wants to avoid another 75 years of conflict – in which many Israelis have lost loved ones, too – then its government has the power to take steps that could at least alleviate some of the worst injustices Palestinians face.
Halting settlement construction and expansion in the West Bank – something that undermines the only realistic solution to the conflict – would be a good first step. Moreover, Palestine needs leaders who can come together and work to improve the internal conditions of their people.
Without such measures and commitments, those in power are condemning another generation of Palestinians and Israelis to enmity.