Why the Gaza Cease-Fire Won’t Mean Peace
The shooting has stopped, but the grievances that sparked the unrest are far from resolved.
ADAISSEH, Lebanon—A tenuous calm settled over Gaza on Friday, almost a full day into a cease-fire that ended 11 days of violence. The rockets and airstrikes are finished for now but not the grievances that fueled an uprising among Palestinians from Ramallah to Jerusalem, through Haifa, Israel, and into Beirut and Amman. The cease-fire won’t bring Palestinians and Israelis any closer to reconciliation—far from it.
Even as many cheered the end of hostilities, Israeli security forces stormed the al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem, clashing with Palestinians, the very action that provoked Hamas to send rockets into Israel 11 days ago. The eviction of several Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem—the Israeli move that sparked the original unrest—is still looming, with the court decision only postponed until next month.
Just hours before the cease-fire came into effect between Israel and Hamas, thousands of people marched through the streets of Umm al-Fahm, Israel, for the funeral of 17-year-old Mohammed Kiwan. Kiwan died after being shot in the head while he sat in a car with friends during a protest last week, allegedly by undercover Israeli police. Thousands of mourners hoisted Palestinian flags. Before the funeral, Israeli security forces deployed around Umm al-Fahm, making the city not far from Haifa look more like an occupied area of the West Bank.
For Israel’s nearly 2 million Arab citizens, like those in Umm al-Fahm, the grievances of second-class citizenship remain—and are starker than ever. In the past 11 days, Israel’s mixed cities saw unprecedented clashes between Jewish and Palestinian Israelis—riots; mobs; burning businesses; and the deaths of Kiwan, other Palestinians, and Jewish Israelis. Mosques and synagogues were torched, and incitement spread online.
“The same issues that led to the protests and the clashes in East Jerusalem, inside Israel, and Gaza will continue to fester,” said Nimer Sultany, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. “The next round will be a matter of time because you can’t expect the oppressed to stay silent.” He said what’s needed now is international pressure to make Israel comply with international laws and grant equality to Palestinians.
But other Palestinians have given up on decades of failed efforts and the international institutions behind them.
“When I was a kid, I believed in the international community,” said 30-year-old Palestinian refugee Mohy Shehadeh at a protest in Beirut. “I’m finished with these international organizations and the United Nations. For 73 years, they gave us nothing.”
His despair and disillusionment isn’t new but is being voiced louder and stronger by youth from Palestinian refugees camps, on the streets of mixed cities inside Israel, and in the West Bank, where Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, originally elected in 2005 to a four-year term, is still in office. He canceled elections slated for this year, ostensibly because of Israel’s refusal to allow polling in East Jerusalem. It means Palestinians in their 20s have never had the chance to vote for their own leadership.
Shehadeh was just a toddler in 1993 when then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Accords, ushering in the evanescent promise of peace and a Palestinian state. “Oslo gave us nothing as Palestinians,” Shehadeh said. “Thirty years of peace negotiations and where did it get us? It got us more than 250 people dead in Gaza in the last week.”
At Israel’s founding, the country’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, warned about Palestinian refugees. “We must do everything to ensure they never do return,” he said. “The old will die, and the young will forget.”
He was wrong about the young. Almost every day since the conflict started, crowds of mostly young Palestinians gathered on Israel’s border with Lebanon. Some even climbed a 30-foot-high border wall, raising the Palestinian flag and taunting Israeli soldiers on the other side to “shoot, shoot.” They say they want to go “home.”
It’s not the first time. In 2011, on Nakba Day, which commemorates the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians with the creation of Israel, thousands of Palestinians stormed Israel’s border from Lebanon and Syria, some even managing to make it across. Hassan Hijazi, a young Palestinian refugee from Syria, made it 100 miles south to Jaffa, Israel, his grandfather’s home.
During border protests this past week, Ali Saleh, a Palestinian refugee in his 40s, watched on. “Imagine my land is right over here, and I can’t go to it,” he said. From the nearby hilltop, he can see the trees that now cover his grandparents’ village of al-Khalisa, just 1.5 miles on the other side of the border wall. More than seven decades after their expulsion, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon still live without citizenship, most in crowded camps with few employment prospects. Saleh said his plan was to cross the border, but he was stopped by the Lebanese army.
“Maybe the old are dying, but the young are remembering, and they want to fix it,” said Samah Salaime, a Palestinian peace activist with Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam.
The starkest difference in the recent escalation has been the violence inside Israel’s mixed areas, even in cities like Haifa, which is often held up as an example of Jewish-Arab coexistence. Around one-fifth of Israel’s citizens are Palestinians who remained inside Israel’s new borders in 1948. As the cease-fire with Gaza was floated, Israeli politicians speculated violence in Israel’s mixed cities was as big a threat as rockets from Gaza. Israel’s police commissioner blamed the sudden explosion of violence on right-wing Jewish groups that were bussed into mixed areas to fan the flames as Palestinians took to the streets. Senior Israeli politicians, including from within Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s own Likud party, are accusing him of provoking this escalation to save his own political career. One Israeli opinion article called the whole episode a victory for Hamas: “It managed to shift the battlefield from the areas within its rocket range to the entire country, with riots shaking all corners of Israel.”
Salaime said Palestinians always faced discrimination and second-class citizenship in a state that defines itself as Jewish, but then in 2018, Israel passed the nation-state law, further downgrading Palestinians’ status in the country. Salaime said there wasn’t trust before this week, but there was a contract of sorts: “You’re safe. I’m safe.” She said her children’s generation, in their 20s, want more than that.
“They are saying, ‘We want justice. We don’t want something else,’” Salaime said.
For many Palestinians, the outbreak of violence and frustration was seen as a victory for unity rather than for Gaza militants. As the conflict escalated last week, a manifesto circulated online for the “Unity Intifada,” calling for an united uprising of Palestinians from Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem, inside Israel, and the millions of Palestinians in refugee camps and diaspora communities globally. Palestinian celebrities and supporters took to social media in solidarity.
“This Intifada will be a long one,” the manifesto said, “in the streets of Palestine and in streets around the world.”
Correction, May 24, 2021: A previous version did not reflect a source’s preferred spelling and full title.
Rebecca Collard is a broadcast journalist and writer covering the Middle East.