Rina Amanda Kuusipalo (Finland, AC 08-10)
Following the recent Israeli offensive to Gaza, students and members of staff at Atlantic College crammed themselves into the Old Staff Common Room on Tuesday January 13th, to hear from Israeli and Palestinian students at the college a first-hand account on the events and its wider causes and implications. Three weeks of the Israeli attacks left the Gaza strip with 1,200 Palestinians dead, a third of whom were women and children, and several thousands wounded. On January 18th, Hamas announced a ceasefire following Israel’s call for a truce, and the Israeli army started a partial withdrawal. Nonetheless, with this conflict, this is not the end, nor was it the beginning.
The debate began with the Palestinian side, Shatha and Iyad, stressing the point that the war that has been fought in the region is not an equal one. Refugees since 1948, shoved into one of the most densely populated areas in the world between Israel and Egypt, people in Gaza have been locked up in a strip of land with poor infrastructure and minimal economic possibilities, with almost half of the population unemployed and 80% of them living with less than 2 dollars per day. “How can one expect to live without basic necessities; education, electricity, healthcare?” enquired Iyad. They talked about constant fear, about not being able to know whether you would make it back home from school, about having to fear imprisonment if you stand up to Israel. “Attending a demonstration against the attacks led to my friend being shot”, said another Palestinian at the college following the debate.
The Israeli side, Johnny and Amit, presented a respectfully clear and reasonable view on Israel’s offensive, as it was not an easy task defending the actions of Israel in that company. A movie clip presenting frightened Israelis living near the Gaza border was convincing in portraying that Israelis live in fear as well. It featured dubbed speeches by a few Palestinians which presented Hamas as possessing a thoroughly terrorist ideology and wanting Palestine to replace Israel. However, this is not the official stance of Hamas since they have repeatedly expressed their readiness to negotiate a ceasefire for several decades within the framework of a two-state solution. The end echoed the words “yet Israel continues to strive for peace”. The Palestinian side responded that while some Hamas members express outrageous views, they do not reflect the opinion of the people and all of Hamas. Also, it was said even if those sorts of views were not justified, it is understandable considering that Palestinians have lived for “60 years in virtual imprisonment”, and terrorism, however despicable, is usually the weapon of the weak, seen as the last option.
A news article distributed as evidence by the Israeli side from Fox News, a name which sparked some contained laughter in the audience, said that the French Public Television was “working for the propaganda machine of a terrorist organization” in mistakenly airing footage of an Israeli attack which really occurred in 2005 and not now; an attack which produced similar results, and was thus not at first recognized as an old one. This was what the article called “the Palestinian use of Hollywood techniques”. However, even if it were true that “Hamas is controlling the images coming out for their own morale; they play up civilian casualties to use as propaganda against Israel”, the effort could in any case seem quite unlikely to succeed, since Israel actually restricted media from entering the Gaza strip during the offensive, and almost all reporting was done from Jerusalem and Israeli land.
The infamous Hamas rocket attacks supposedly prompted Israel to launch the military campaign after a six-month ceasefire was broken by their continued firing. The rockets have killed up to 18 people in Israel during the past eight years, destroyed infrastructure, as well as having created psychological distress throughout the country. Apparently, the reason for Hamas not having been able to kill more than that, said Johnny, was because of the existence of shelters, where Israelis have to run when the rockets are to hit. Thus, Israel as a state did have the right for self-defence, in all due respect, but it remained unclear in the end how the killing of hundreds of civilians would realistically help the situation, never to mention lessen Palestinian resentment towards Israel, which was behind the rocket attacks in the first place. The Israeli side did say that a counter-attack was “the last thing we wanted”, but also that “it was impossible not to retaliate, because too many people were under threat”. Additionally, public pressure in Israel made it into “almost a necessity”, bearing in mind that the coming elections in Israel are on February 10th. The question as to who broke the ceasefire remains, of course, crucial. Hamas, on the other hand, claims that it was Israel that broke the ceasefire by the violation of the agreement, as it continued to hold on to the blockade of Gaza and prevented all export industry from the region. Also, Israel raided Gaza on November 4th killing six Palestinians. An interview shown by the Israeli side featured Tzipi Livni, the Israeli Foreign Minister and Vice Prime Minister, saying that the idea behind the offensive was, in fact, to “surprise Hamas”, and to make them “for the first time start to understand that we’re serious”, because Hamas apparently had “the idea that they can do whatever they want” and “that the international community won’t let Israel perform a counter-attack”. She did prove them wrong on the last point, at least.
The Palestinian side criticised the Western media for its lack of attention to Palestine apart from when something uncontrollably visible happens, like the latest Israeli bombing of a United Nations school in Gaza. However, they said that atrocities occur constantly, they’re just left unreported. It appears that the situation didn’t get much better after the pullout of Israel in 2005, after four decades of control in the region. The fair and democratic election of Hamas to government in January 2006 made Palestine the only Arab democracy in the Middle East apart from Lebanon. However, Israel was not willing to recognise the Hamas-led government, calling it a terrorist organisation and thus economic sanctions and the drying up of foreign aid followed, as the EU and the US joined the boycott. Ironically, when Fatah and Hamas joined to form a national unity government in 2007, Hamas agreed to negotiate peace with Israel if the terms included a two-state solution. Israel refused, because it reportedly didn’t wish to talk to a government involving Hamas.
The Israeli side did express its pacifism by saying that the “main goal is to stop shooting” – if only their leaders could have heard them. They condemned Hamas of using civilian locations for its headquarters, which has made it harder for the Israeli military to avoid civilians; surely Hamas must have known that Israel might have to bomb the UN school in Palestine if they used it as a base. They also said that there had been an Israeli campaign on December 27th, they day the offensive began, when Israel called Palestinian homes to warn them of what was coming. Certainly it would have been an act of mercy, but just practical question came to mind: where would the Palestinians who have already been trapped as refugees in the Gaza strip for 60 years flee?
The discussion that followed the debate was heated to say the least. Dozens of hands shot up, and the comments and questions that rose from the audience were concerned issues such as the excessive use of crude force by Israel, and the support of supposedly 7 million dollars a day that it receives from the U.S. government. Someone also pointed out that no matter whose side you’re on, one thing you couldn’t deny was that the violence was against international law, and Israel has a strong record of having repeatedly committed war crimes and furthermore possesses weapons of mass destruction, to add on to the sheer imbalance of power between Israel and Palestine. Palestinians are normal people just like the Israelis, but the thing is that Hamas couldn’t do as much harm as the Israeli army due to their simple lack of resources even if they wanted to. Mai, a Palestinian in the audience also suggested rather originally that if Israel really wanted to diminish the power of Hamas in the region, they should go to the homes of each Hamas leader and murder them “one by one”, since Israel already invades Palestinian homes anyway, instead of haphazardly aiming attacks at hundreds of people who aren’t even involved with Hamas. Another student stated that this “show of force” was only in fact only doing Israel harm as well and internationally maybe even moving the opinion towards Hamas, and even strengthening its support, also extensively amongst people who have nothing to do with Arabs and Islam– the complete opposite of what Israel said it was trying to achieve.
In reality, the solution shouldn’t be very controversial, complicated or hard, as it is so often termed, considering that the United Nations resolutions calling for peace between Israel and Palestine are practically identical from year to year, and all stress a two-state solution and a rather detailed account on what should be done. The only problem is the lack of implementation, and although both sides can be blamed for certain things, in the end it rests in one’s own hands to decide where the biggest predicament lies. Even with the end of bloodshed, and the subsequent evaporation of the conflict from world news, for now, what can still be learnt from the recent debate is that we shouldn’t close our eyes just yet.
– United World College Student Magazine –