To get a clear perspective on the continuing violence between Israelis and Palestinians, we talked to Yousef Munayyer, who is the executive director of the Palestine Center in Washington.
We heard that it’s not quite clear who started the violence, though everybody can see that it’s being escalated. What’s going from the Palestinian perspective, in terms of the-back-and-forth this week?
Look, first of all, there’re two questions here. It’s not only who started the most recent round of violence, but when there isn’t upsurge in violence that we’re seeing now, what’s happening at that point? All of this, whether you have escalations or lows, happens in context of occupation and siege, which, I think, most people forget after they properly contextualized the violence that’s happening. That’s a very important point. 80% of people that live in Gaza are refugees or are not allowed to return to their homes simply because of their own religion for the state of Israel. 80% of people who live there are relying on a daily basis on handouts from aid organizations. 50% of people that live there are children. This is a largely civilian population which if being subjected to the bombardment of American artillery, tank fire, drawn missiles – all of this is being engaged in a tiny strip of territory which is being occupied, colonized and besieged for decades continuously. That happens constantly, whether you have this escalation in violence or not. This most recent episode started when Israeli tanks breached the border with Gaza to do what they called “routine maintenance” at which time they were encountered by Palestinian militants. And during the cause of that action that managed to kill Palestinian boy, which then triggered a response. This happened several days ago and now we’re at the point where it has escalated severely after the assassination of a leader in the Hamas movement yesterday. And so I think the two important points are –first, yes, sequence does matter and who started does matter, but second, also remember that this violence doesn’t occur in a vacuum, it happens in context of occupation and siege.
If there is such a huge disparity, in terms of fire power between the Palestinians have and the Israelis have, why then keep shooting rockets into Israel, if a rocket attack is going to be responded with an F16? It seems like if you know that your enemy has clearly superior power, you should stop and think of other ways of getting what you want?
I don’t think that in the long term the stratagem employed by rockets is particularly effective. I think, however, we have also seen that when it comes to the Israelis, in the way they handle their relations with the Palestinians and the Palestinian Party Fatah has only resulted in the continuing colonization of Palestinian territory through settlement expansion. And so the example was made very clear, in terms of relationship that Israel has with that Palestinian Party that the peaceful rout only leads to the continuing colonization of Palestinian territory and more losses on the Palestinian side. However, regarding the problems that come with the use of the use of force, Hamas has been able to demonstrate through the use of force the ability to have very small, but also significant gain, when it comes it its negotiations with the Israeli, including very significant prisoner exchanges, withdrawal from territory and so on and so forth. Overall, Palestinians used to have a different strategy for national liberation, but, at the same time, to be in the situation that they’re in and they ask to do nothing about it and simply accept the situation that they’re in – I don’t think that’s fair, either. But that’s the situation that they find themselves in and in such asymmetric situation when you have really international opinion by the U.S. and the U.N. Security Council on the regular basis, it’s unfair to ask Palestinians to just sit there and accept the situation without doing anything.
Is it fair, though, to ask the Palestinians to recognize Israel’s right to exist? Israel says Hamas clearly indicates that they don’t even think Israel should be here? How to negotiate with someone who doesn’t even think you should be here?
Question is not about the right of Israel to exist. First of all, we need to differentiate the rights of state and the rights of people. Rights of people transcend the rights of state and are, in fact, paramount. When it comes to the rights of state, it’s not a question of Israel’s right to exist. It exists as what? Does it get to exist as a colonizer and an occupier and the state that practices segregation? I think people are very well within their rights to object to that! Question is now about whether Israel has a place – or Jews have a place – in the Middle East. History is showing that Jews, Christians, Muslims have lived together for centuries, the question is under what sort of system, under what sort of government. And the Israeli state, as it exists, in a way it exists, in a way it relates to Palestinians both in the territory it occupies and in the refugee camps that it denies the right to return to – is a state that is going to be objected to buy those people in that region. It’s a broader problem that’s not as simple as “does Israel have a place there?” or “does is have a right to exist?” I would say – and I think many fair-minded people would say so – the answer is “no”.
Thinking about the violence this week, thinking about the ways of coming back from this escalation, what ways do you see out? What ways do you see each side figuring out to stop the-back-and-forth?
Look, there’s absolutely no military solution to this problem. And I think the Israelis attempted to solve the problem that they have with Gaza in 2008-2009. They went in there with overwhelming military force, they killed 1400 people, the vast majority of whom were civilians, they decimated Gaza, they destroyed their infrastructure, they killed many people in the Hamas leadership – and guess what? – Those people continue to have the capacity to fire rockets and create these problems to the Israeli. There’s no military solution to this. The only time it has been success in mitigating rocket fire has been through diplomacy negotiated by third party. And when this has been the case, the militants have largely stuck to those agreements. Only in the cases where extrajudicial nations stepped in, have rockets been fired by other groups in recent years. When you look at the numbers – the vast majority of rockets have been provoked by the Israeli assassination. We’ve seen that 30% of all the rockets that have been fired in this year happen in the last few days. And these military actions are merely provocations and Israeli citizens, by the way, should be demanding from their government a different answer to this problem! And many of them have been asking for.