What happened in Acca? What is happening in Jaffa? What is happening in Gaza? (January 2009)

When one follows the events that have taken place in Israel/Palestine over the past year, the initial impression is one that everything is falling, that violence is winning and that the only direction we are going in is backwards. This is both true for the situation in the West Bank and Gaza, and for the situation inside Israel.

A few months ago violent clashes broke out in the mixed city of Acca (Acre) in the north of Israel between Arabs and Jews. The violence went on for a few days, houses and cars were burned, property was vandalized and numerous individuals were injured. These events took place eight years after the October 2000 events in which 13 Palestinians citizens of Israel were killed by Israeli police.

The riots in Acca proved a harrowing reminder that the same catalysts that prompted the events of October 2000 remain, regrettably, constant elements of political reality. In Jaffa, Ramle and Lud (other mixed cities like Acca), relations between Arabs and Jews continue to sour as similar structural inequalities stand strong and intact. Moreover, the south of Israel continues to be threatened by rockets launched from Gaza, whilst Gaza itself continues shackled by a two year siege, now privy to direct IDF military assaults.

I am not interested in discussing here the question which side has been the more violent or barbaric over the last few months, or who holds the stronger claim to victim hood. I would rather try to shed some light on the deeper, and perhaps more difficult truths that lie behind the upsurge of violence. As long as we are not able to deal with these knotted roots, those that ground one of the longest and most ferocious conflicts in the world, all we will be able to do this time round is to wait for the flames to die down for a period, only to watch them flare up again some time later.

Last week I found myself in a situation which, for me, made the whole problem concrete. Standing in Tel Aviv in a non-violent protest against the military operation in Gaza, in front of us gathered a counter-demonstration, awash with Israeli flags. One of their party spat out his words in contemptuous anger: “This is my country. Get out”.

This small, tidy sentence represents in a clear manner the manifest attitude among the Israeli public. An attitude that sees Israel as a place for the Jews only.

The Israeli state was established on the majority of the Palestinian Mandatory lands, forcing the bulk of the Palestinian people to become refugees and relinquish their property. Whatever the debates surrounding responsibility for the 1948 war and the UN partition plan, it is impossible to argue that thousands of Palestinians were denied the opportunity to return to their lands come the end of the war, losing all they had in the process.

These refugees include 25% of the Palestinian population in Israel, who, despite being declared citizens of Israel, still saw their villages destroyed and lands confiscated. Such refugees make up over 70% of the population in Gaza and only survive today with the continued humanitarian and infra-structural support of the UNRWA. With the acknowledgement then, that the state of Israel was established on the ruins of the Palestinian people and its 'disaster' of 1948, so too must Israel bear the principal responsibility for repairing the current situation. This must be based on a drastic change of attitudes expressed in a statement as the one quoted earlier: from "This is my country" to "This is our country". What is required is an attitude that recognizes the right of both peoples to live in the geographic space of Mandatory Palestine, alongside the repair of the historical injustice to the Palestinian people; an attitude which states clearly that a moral and just solution is the key to security – not national segregation and military might.

As events in Acca unfolded in October, the real reasons for the violence escaped public discourse, which instead chose to focus on the politics of fear and segregation. Everyone talked about a rupture in relations, many chorused about mutual aggressions. There was no discussion of Acca’s unemployment and housing crisis. Any attempt to point out the role of ultra-nationalist Jewish groups, funded by both government and American Jewish donors, whose declared ambition is the Judaization of Acca, was snuffed out. Early denunciations of the racist statements made by Acca’s mayor against the city’s Arab residents were hushed to whispers.

These facts are part of Israel’s reality post-Acca. They are processes which continue to rumble on unabashed here in Jaffa, where Jewish religious-nationalist groups, some fresh from the evacuation of the Gaza settlements, have been simultaneously setting up their plot.

Jaffa is a mixed city in which the Palestinian residents suffer from harsh housing problems, holding their own against government policy which encourages the privatization of real estate, selling public property to private investors (property which was confiscated as part of the Absentee Property Law) instead of investing in housing and allocating lands.

On the one hand, the Jewish religious-nationalist groups are recruiting funds, buying and declaring openly that their purpose is to Judaize Israel’s mixed cities, while rich private investors are making huge profits by taking over public property. On the other hand, hundreds of Palestinian families are under the threat of being evacuated from their homes. A large number of those Palestinian families based in Acca and Jaffa who were expulsed from their homes in 1948, were not allowed to go back and subsequently, never received compensation for their loss. Today, these families are threatened with eviction from the homes in which they were placed, homes that originally belonged to Palestinian refugees now in Jordan or the Occupied Territories.

These are disturbing, destructive and de-stabilizing processes at the very heart of the ongoing conflict, often marginalized in public awareness due to media’s disinterest. Not surprisingly, they have received even less then their usual minimal coverage with Israel’s direct military assault on Gaza in recent weeks.

These are weeks in which we have seen the ‘war’ take over 1,300 lives and five thousand injured. I have no intention of entering any argument about who begun this bout, but rather to look at the deeper reasons. The residents in the West Bank and Gaza have lived under military occupation for over 40 years, and Gazans another two under siege. Here, Israel controls land, air and sea entries and decides how much food, medicine, electricity and gas enters the strip.

The official position in Israel attempts to convince us all that the multiple casualties inflicted in Gaza are in order to defend the people of the south of Israel from the Hamas assaults. That it is largely Israel’s responsibility for creating the world’s biggest prison, in which 1,5 million people live in utterly inhumane conditions, appears to have been overlooked. It was clear that with 80% unemployment and deprived of their basic necessities, the ongoing siege would eventually bring a counter-response. Electing Hamas or Fatah in Gaza will not change the fact that the occupation continues both in the West Bank and in Gaza, and that resistance will not cease until it does. The appalling military operation in Gaza not only continues to bring hundreds of civilian deaths, but will also serve to deepen the hate, both in the Occupied Territories and across the Arab world.

As long as we continue to ignore and disregard the structural injustice in the reality of Israel Palestine, the cycle of violence will continue. Yet again there is a strong understanding that it is imperative to represent an alternative that is based on principles of justice on the one hand, and that break national segregation on the other. It is deeply disconcerting to see that even the Geneva Initiative, which defined itself as a peace project proposal, has adopted the slogan "It is good for the Jews" in its last campaign.

What is needed today is a stubborn bi-national struggle that talks about what "is good for Jews and Palestinians", and one that challenges the accepted attitude that sees the control and the dispossession of the Palestinians as a security necessity for Israel. It is a struggle in which Palestinian and Jewish activists must represent a common front and a common vision. It must be a struggle which recognizes the historical injustices and the need to take responsibility for them. It is a struggle which acknowledges that two peoples have a right to this land and there is a need for them to administrate it together. This is by no means a simple struggle, and its goals may not appear wholly realistic in the near future, but it is a necessary struggle nonetheless.