It is not surprising that Israel, having usurped the Palestinians’ land and expelled them, views their continued existence and resistance as an “existential threat”. More shocking are some recent Arab attitudes towards the Palestinians.
Following the fall of the Saddam regime in Iraq almost a decade ago, Palestinian refugees in Iraq became the target of anger, incitement and vengeance of demagogues, allegedly on the grounds that the deposed Iraqi president treated them well. Feeling totally exposed to blatant revenge with no state protection, many of them fled for their lives after living in Iraq for decades. A similar fate befell Palestinians in Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion a decade earlier.
Could the same happen in Syria? The Palestinian refugees in Syria, about half-a-million, were the first to be accused of stirring unrest by one senior adviser of President Bashar Assad. There were obvious attempts to draw the Palestinians into the conflict to support the official Syrian narrative that the trouble was not a homegrown uprising, but rather an attack of foreign armed gangs acting as tools of foreign conspirators against Syrian stability and steadfastness. Some opposition groups tried, equally dubiously, to seize on specific incidents to claim that the Palestinian refugee population in Syria has risen up against the regime.
Few seem to understand that Palestinian refugees will have to live with whatever outcome transpires in Syria. As a population with no refuge or protection, Palestinians are safest remaining far outside the conflict.
Along the same lines, what is unfolding in Gaza is equally worrying. Besieged Gaza was the first to be blamed and instantly punished for the attack on a Sinai border police post which left 16 Egyptian soldiers dead late last week. The attack, deplorable and condemnable as it should be, was not the first of its kind, except for the larger number of deaths this time. In addition to the attacks on the soldiers, there have been numerous attacks on the pipeline carrying Egyptian gas to Israel and Jordan.
As a result of the restrictions placed by the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty on Egyptian military presence there, Sinai has been turned into a haven for extremist groups engaged in crime, smuggling and other illicit activities, including human trafficking.
The Egyptian people were rightly enraged by the loss of life and the lack of preparedness to meet the Sinai attack. But instead of demanding sober investigation followed by a strategy to address the issue and to restore state authority on all Sinai, some turned against the people of Gaza, accusing them of incubating terror and perpetrating the crime.
Much of the Egyptian media anger against their own state and their new president was not because the state had neglected the situation for so long, but because President Mohamed Morsi agreed to open the Rafah crossing (albeit briefly), ordered closed for years, again as a result of an Israeli demand. Morsi has been blamed for putting Palestinian interests ahead of Egypt’s.
The Egyptian response to the attack, sending the army back to Sinai to restore order and to put an end to the chaos, was correct. Hopefully that should not be a temporary measure undertaken with Israeli permission for dealing with this particular atrocity. Egyptian security forces should have freedom on all Egyptian land.
What is difficult to comprehend, though, is the punishment of all the population of Gaza for the mere suspicion that some or all the criminals came from Gaza — even though Gaza is tightly closed and Egypt’s Sinai is open on all sides.
Tightening the siege on Gaza by closing the Rafah crossing “permanently” and by destroying the tunnels is harsh, inhuman, irrational and legally wrong. Even if proven that all the criminals crossed from Gaza, only they and those who stood behind them should be punished. Collective punishment is something we associate with Israel’s crimes, not something the new Egypt should do.
The situation in Gaza is abnormal. It has been so since 1948. No serious attempt was ever made to address that oddity. Israel complained all along that Gaza produced commando groups, “fedayeen”, who infiltrated into Israel. Such allegations were used by Israel to justify its wars in 1956 and 1967, and its frequent bloody revenge attacks on civilians.
The narrow Gaza Strip, now with a population of 1.6 million, is among the most densely populated places on earth. Almost 80 per cent of the Gaza inhabitants are refugees who were forced out of other Palestinian towns and villages in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war which ended up with the loss of 78 per cent of Palestine to Zionist invaders.
The tunnels between Gaza and Egypt are only a symptom of the current problem. They exist because of the Israeli-imposed siege, which has literally driven much of Gaza’s commerce underground. At times, the tunnels were a real lifeline.
Everyone was silent about the tunnels out of hypocrisy, intimidation and fear of confronting the illegal siege and demanding its end. That is why the tunnels have been tolerated as an alternative. Now here are the consequences.
Israel’s diktat that Sinai should be left outside the authority of Egyptian security forces freed the large peninsula for armed groups. And Israel’s continued inhuman and illegal siege of Gaza has also created abnormal conditions with unforeseen consequences, such as the rise of extremist groups, arms smuggling and uncontrolled movement of people and goods open to all kinds of abuse.
Both Egypt and Israel have responded by addressing symptoms rather than root causes, therefore aggravating an already explosive situation.
The hundreds of tunnels were not dug because the people favoured them to regular and normal connection routes. They went underground to survive the siege. They will dig more if the destruction of existing tunnels is not immediately matched by providing the people under siege with legal and normal alternatives.
Yet, for all the changes in the region, the desperate situation of the Palestinians seemingly remains immune to positive change.
The author is a columnist for the Jordan Times, where this article originally appeared on Tuesday, August 14