Year in review 2014: Palestine and Israel travel well-worn, war-torn ground

After a year of violence that scarred them deeply, Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza are facing ever greater restrictions as Netanyahu’s government lurches further and further to the right.
Hidya Atash stands on the top floor of what remains of her home in the Shujayea neighbourhood of Gaza City on August 8. The building was hit two weeks earlier by a warning rocket from Israel, causing the family of 40 to flee. Heidi Levine for The National
Hidya Atash stands on the top floor of what remains of her home in the Shujayea neighbourhood of Gaza City on August 8. The building was hit two weeks earlier by a warning rocket from Israel, causing the family of 40 to flee. Heidi Levine for The National

Few could have predicted the chain of events that followed the breakdown of peace talks between Israel and Palestine early in 2014, a year that will be remembered for kidnappings, horrific murders and a brutal war that left more than 2,100 Palestinians dead.

In recent weeks, the Israeli cabinet has been considering legislation that could strip Arabs living in Israel of their citizenship. A spate of ugly tit-for-tat killings have shocked Jerusalem and Gaza has remained sealed off despite much of its infrastructure having been destroyed during the summer’s 50 day-war.

Meanwhile, anger towards both Israel and the Palestinian Authority is rising in the West Bank, as settlement activity continues unabated and hundreds of Palestinians remain in prison after a series of raids that took place before the Gaza war. Hamas enjoys rising support, with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah movement seen as toothless at best and as collaborators with Israel at worst.

See all our Year in Review coverage

The unity deal between Hamas and Fatah that had heralded so much promise in early 2014 is in tatters, and Fatah officials have begun openly criticising the Islamist party. In Gaza, a series of bombings in November hit Fatah targets, causing Palestinian prime minister Rami Hamdallah to cancel a planned trip to Gaza City.

With Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing cabinet colleagues upping the rhetoric against Abbas, the PA and Hamas and no formal peace talks on the table for the first time in decades, the situation in Israel and Palestine at the end of 2014 is arguably the worst it has been since the second intifada.

“[Israel’s] relationship with the PA is at its lowest ebb since Mahmoud Abbas came to power. There appears very little that can be done to improve the political relationship between the two sides,” says Michael Stephens, deputy director at the Royal United Services Institute.

Abbas has been particularly hamstrung by his inability to end the stand-off with Israel over the Al Aqsa Mosque, access to which was restricted for Palestinians throughout 2014. The families of the two Palestinians who carried out a brutal assault on a West Jerusalem synagogue in November – which left five dead – said that the killers had been motivated by Israeli restrictions at Al Aqsa.

The killings followed similar “lone-wolf” attacks by Palestinians on Jews in Jerusalem and prompted many commentators to speculate about the possibility of a third intifada. But while an outbreak on the scale of the early 2000s appears a long way off, the sporadic and disorganised nature of the violence in Jerusalem at the end of 2014 is no less worrying.

“The developments concerning rights over holy sites in Jerusalem may prove too difficult for the PA to control, leading to a spiral of security issues where Palestinians take the law into their own hands – they can’t be stopped or monitored,” says Stephens.

This religious element of the conflict will likely only serve to bolster Hamas support in both Gaza and the West Bank. During the summer war, pro-Hamas rallies were common throughout the West Bank and even though the Islamist party has little to show for the conflict – securing only a meagre extension to the approved zone for Palestinian fisherman – support remains widespread in Gaza.

As a Palestinian resident of Silwan, which saw riots late this year after Israeli settlers occupied Palestinian homes, told The National during the Gaza war: “We are all Hamas now. Hamas is the Palestinian resistance.”

Israel seemed far more concerned in 2014 with entrenching its settlements in the West Bank and its control over Jerusalem, increasingly depriving Palestinians of their rights in Israel – not to mention the West Bank and Gaza.

Today, roadblocks are in place at the entrances to some neighbourhoods in Jerusalem, and the mass arrests that followed the Shuafat riots continue.

“[Israel has] a weakened political system, which is less able to rein in more extreme elements of its own society, and a general public fearful of Palestinians but increasingly ignorant of the reasons for the tension that has been created,” says Stephens.

“The noise is steadily increasing that life is better elsewhere, and while Israeli society at large appears generally united in its reaction to Palestinian violence, more and more socially mobile Israelis are choosing to leave. The long-term omens do not look good.”

A gradual shift to the right in Israeli society – not only in politics – over the past decade has only intensified with the Gaza war and now the violence in Jerusalem, and there have been increasing boycotts of Arab businesses that are not being opposed, and sometimes even encouraged, by the Israeli government, says Haggai Mattar, an Israeli political commentator.

“The government has been incredibly successful in its goal of instilling despair in Israel … Following the kidnappings, the war and the Jerusalem violence, it looks like even the few who had held that notion are now retreating. Only extremely few people are still active in the fight against occupation and for a just peace, but this is no longer a viewpoint that enjoys any prominence in the media or public opinion,” he says. “Now with the possibility of elections coming, the right is only going to escalate its attacks, mainly on Palestinian citizens, trying to win votes by becoming more and more racist.”

As for Gaza, the summer war left the Strip in its worst shape for a decade, with more than 100,000 people left homeless, and infrastructure – including its only power station – destroyed. Although more than US$10billion (Dh36.7bn) was committed to rebuilding Gaza at an international donors conference in Cairo after the war, Israel and Egypt maintained their blockade of the strip’s borders, making any real reconstruction impossible.

With relations worsening between the PA and Hamas – as well as the PA and Israel – there stood little chance of the Islamist group being brought into the political fold and equally little chance of elections, promised “within six months” in April as part of the unity deal, which would stand a chance of ending Gaza’s isolation.

In Israel, argues Mattar, the public is despondent about the idea of a peaceful resolution in Gaza: “Attention to the Strip is drawn only when rockets are being fired – and then of course it’s only in a negative way and with full support for military action.”

Graphic: A prosperous vision for Gaza

All this left the prospect of peace between Israel and Palestine practically dead in the water as 2014 comes to a close, argues Hugh Lovatt, Israel-Palestine project coordinator at the European Council for Foreign Relations. “The current paradigm of a US-led peace process based on the 1993 Oslo Accords has run its course. Peace-making in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is well and truly stuck.”

In the absence of peace negotiations in the traditional sense, it could be Europe that steps into the opening left by US failures, Lovatt says. The recognition of a Palestinian state by Sweden and Spain is an element of this shift. At the end of last month, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said that France would recognise a Palestinian state if peace talks were not restarted.

“Over the past year the EU has flirted with a more assertive policy towards the conflict, and in particular Israeli settlements,” says Lovatt. “But to do so will require Europe to move beyond its largely symbolic wave of Palestinian state recognition in order to match words with deeds, by bringing its own policies in line with international norms that reject Israel’s occupation while protecting Palestinian rights.”

Orlando Crowcroft is a freelance journalist formerly based in Palestine and Israel.

Published: December 25, 2014 04:00 AM

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