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Institutionalised Disregard for Palestinian Life

 9 July 2014

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One either rejects the killing of non-combatants on principle or takes a more tribal approach to such matters. In the case of Israel and the Palestinians, the global outpouring of grief and condemnation over the killing of three Israeli youths in the occupied West Bank is the moral equivalent of Rolf Harris denouncing Jimmy Savile.

Over the past 14 years, Israel has killed Palestinian children at a rate of more than two a week. There seems to be no Israeli child in harm’s way that Barack Obama will not compare to his own daughters, but their Palestinian counterparts are brushed aside with mantras about Israel’s right to self-defence. The institutionalised disregard for Palestinian life in the West helps explain not only why Palestinians resort to violence, but also Israel’s latest assault on the Gaza Strip.

The current round of escalation is generally dated from the moment three Israeli youths went missing on 12 June. Two Palestinian boys were shot dead in Ramallah on 15 May, but that – like any number of incidents in the intervening month when Israel exercised its right to colonise and dispossess – is considered insignificant.

Binyamin Netanyahu immediately blamed Hamas for the three Israeli teenagers’ disappearance. The White House almost as quickly confirmed Hamas’s guilt, which has since been treated as established fact by the media. Yet the culprits remain at large and their institutional affiliation unclear. For its part Hamas, which like other Palestinian organisations never hesitates to claim responsibility for its actions and is prone to exaggerate its activities, has this time denied involvment.

What we do know is that a distress call made by one of the Israeli youths on 12 June included the sound of gunfire, which led the Israeli security establishment to conclude they had been killed. Netanyahu suppressed the information, and used the pretext of a hostage rescue operation to launch an organised military rampage throughout the West Bank. His demagoguery, even by his standards, plumbed new depths of vulgarity. To blame the subsequent burning alive of a 16-year-old Palestinian on a few errant Israeli fanatics (after attempts to portray it as the murder of a gay boy by his own family had failed) is to pretend such barbarism exists independently of the colonial and political contexts that produce it.

If it was known that there were no hostages to be rescued, what was Israel trying to achieve? A key objective was reversing the tentative steps taken by Fatah and Hamas towards national reconciliation. Israel prefers a divided Palestinian polity partially ruled by militant Islamists to a unified one led by the pliant Mahmoud Abbas, who remains committed to negotiations and publicly proclaims security collaboration with Israel to be ‘sacred’. Concerned that a reconciliation at a time of growing Palestinian unrest could lead to another uprising, Israel sought to pre-empt it. In doing so, it rearrested a number of Palestinians released in the 2011 prisoner exchange with Hamas. In the context of the latest collapse of American-sponsored diplomacy, and a growing global consensus that Israel, its appetite for Palestinian land and failure to fulfil its commitments regarding prisoner releases were to blame, Netanyahu leapt at the chance to change the narrative from colonialism and its consequences to terrorism.

Israel’s actions have produced major unrest in the West Bank and among the Palestinian community in Israel, as well as a new confrontation with the Gaza Strip. It’s all still a long way from a third intifada, however, primarily because the organisational infrastructure that produced and sustained the first two is degraded, no longer exists, or is controlled by leaders who prefer the perks and privileges of office to struggle and sacrifice.

Hamas, too, would rather avoid a large-scale confrontation with Israel. But, in contrast to recent months, it is now meeting violence with violence rather than enforcing calm. It has less to lose than at any point since it took power in Gaza in 2007. Its main objectives in the recent reconciliation agreement – payment of salaries for its civil servants, reopening the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian border, reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, and enhanced regional and international legitimacy – have failed to materialise. The new Palestinian Authority government formed with its endorsement acts as if Gaza does not exist, and continues to co-operate with Israel against Hamas in the West Bank. The unremitting hostility of Egypt’s new rulers to Gaza and Hamas means there isn’t a credible mediator, unless Turkey or Qatar steps into the breach.

Taken together, these developments could make for a confrontation between Israel and Hamas longer and more intense than either party bargained for.