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In search of a viable solution to long and vexing conflict in Palestine

The recent run against the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza has appropriately served to focus attention once again on the terrible plight of the Palestinian people. Hopefully it will add momentum to the search for a viable solution to a long and vexing conflict.

Israel defends the legitimacy of the blockade in existential terms, i.e. as something necessary for the very survival of the Jewish state. The Israelis argue that Iran and other countries are seeking to arm a terrorist group (Hamas) bent on the destruction of their state.

Israel has also sought to demonise the blockade runners as terrorist sympathisers and supporters of international jihadi groups intent on violence. A motley collection of clubs and knives was displayed as proof of violent intention.

By contrast, Israel claimed that the soldiers that boarded the Turkish ship, Mavi Marmara, were armed only with paintball guns.

It is hard to believe that Israeli troops would go into action anywhere armed only with paintball guns. In any case, paintball guns don’t kill; so how does one account for the 9 people who died during the incident, many with multiple gunshot wounds to the head and chest?

The international community has rightly demanded an impartial inquiry into the deadly boarding of the Gaza-bound flotilla but the real issue goes well beyond that.

To be sure, Iran’s actions, particularly its clandestine development of nuclear weapons, are undoubtedly of great concern. Its visceral anti-Semitism is also wrong and completely unhelpful as is its offer to dispatch Revolutionary Guard units to escort the next flotilla. It might play well to the gallery but will do nothing to help the cause of the Palestinian people.

There is also no denying that Hamas has repeatedly resorted to terror in its fight for Palestinian statehood. Under its aegis, dozens of suicide bombers have been sent across the border into civilian areas with devastating results. Hamas has also fired hundreds of crude rockets into Israel.

For the Palestinian people, however, Hamas has increasingly come to represent their last hope of regaining their dignity and freedom. It is tragic, of course, that it has come to this but it is what happens when oppressed people lose faith in other alternatives.

Israel has repeatedly emphasised that it is willing to work with the Palestinians if they forsake armed struggle. This is not, however, evident in the West Bank where President Mahmoud Abbas has been struggling unsuccessfully for years to negotiate with Israel. Palestinians in the West Bank are also only marginally better off than their brothers in Gaza. What reason have they to believe that Israel is serious about a negotiated settlement?

It is clear that the blockade and other measures taken by Israel go well beyond an arms embargo. They are designed, in fact, to break the will of the Palestinian people and force them to accept a settlement on Israel’s terms.

From what we already know of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s position, the terms are harsh and uncompromising. It is not surprising that the majority of Palestinians continue to reject it.

As a direct consequence of the Israeli stranglehold, the people of Gaza are slowly dying. Malnutrition has reached alarming levels, especially among children. Gaza’s economy is in shambles and well over half the population is unemployed. Infrastructure has been so degraded by Israeli strikes that it is almost non-existent. Hospitals are bereft of basic supplies and equipment. It is life at its worst.

Gaza has become a vast and festering gulag, the result of collective punishment imposed upon an entire population.

Though Israel insists it is the victim, the war itself is a hugely disproportionate one – for every Israeli that was killed between 2005 and 2008, approximately 14 Palestinians died. One Israeli soldier is being held by Palestinians while more than 7300 Palestinians are being held by Israel. Zero Israeli homes have been demolished by Palestinians while more than 24,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished by Israel.

Regrettably, some Arab states themselves have been complicit in the blockade of Gaza. The blockade would not be nearly as effective, for example, if Egypt refused to cooperate with Israel. It is good that Egypt has now reopened the Rafah border crossing, the only point on Gaza’s borders not controlled by Israel; it should never have been closed to normal commerce and other humanitarian traffic in the first place.

Fortunately, there is now a growing awareness, even among those who support Israel, that what Israel is doing in Palestine is morally wrong and ultimately counterproductive.

Margaret Atwood, the award winning author, wrote after a recent visit to Israel about how she sensed a dark shadow over Israel – the shadow, she said, was not the Palestinians but what Israel was doing to the Palestinians.

Israel is no longer the victim; it has become the victimizer. And that is making many Israelis very uncomfortable.

If Israel truly expects the Palestinians to eschew violence, it must be prepared to make the hard choices to show that non-violent alternatives are viable and workable. A good beginning would be to end the current stranglehold on Gaza. Impoverishing and humiliating people into submission can never be a viable pathway to peace.