The Independent’s Middle East Correspondent Bel Trew answers your key Israel-Gaza conflict questions

The conflict is now in its second week and The Independent’s Middle East correspondent Bel Trew has been on the ground in both Israel and Palestine

Bel Trew
Middle East Correspondent
Tuesday 18 May 2021 11:25
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Over a week in and the conflict between Israel and Gaza shows no signs of abating, in spite of international efforts to keep the peace.

Lawlessness and violence have taken hold across the West Bank as well as across mixed Arab-Jewish cities in Israel. Meanwhile, there have been clashes between Palestinians, Jewish-Israelis and the security forces.

The Independent’s Middle East Correspondent, Bel Trew, has been on the ground in both Israel and Palestine over the past week covering the ongoing situation.

On Monday Bel held an ‘Ask Me Anything’ event and answered your questions live about the current situation, the history to the conflict and what the future holds for the region. Here is a breakdown of some of the areas covered during the session:

World response to the conflict

Q: Do you think that Biden’s response to the current situation is adequate? What difference could the US make here?

DolphinVacation

A: President Joe Biden has faced backlash internally and abroad for his muted response to the crisis unfolding here, particularly as the death toll is rising. People look to the US, Israel’s closest ally, as not necessarily an interlocutor with Hamas (which it has designated as a terrorist organisation so cannot have direct contact with) but as a powerful actor that could put pressure on Israel to come to the negotiating table.

Many also say the US bears some responsibility - and wields considerable power - given the States provides Israel with billions of dollar of military aid every year.

And so there has been mounting criticising as he and his administration have so far declined to publicly criticise Israel’s part in the fighting or send a top-level envoy to the region.

In my opinion, one of the biggest issues is that neither Biden nor his top officials have been vocal or clear enough about the urgent need for a ceasefire.

In a weak statement on Wednesday Biden said “My expectation and hope is that this will be closing down sooner than later.”

In a readout of a phone call he had with Netanyahu on the 15th the words ceasefire, truce, secession of hostilities, peace were not present at all.

Secretary of State Blinken, said today, that the US would support initiatives to stop the fighting, but added: “Ultimately it is up to the parties to make clear that they want to pursue a cease-fire,” he said.

The US also rejected moves by China, Norway and Tunisia in the Security Council for a strongly worded statement, including a call for the cessation of hostilities.

Biden has faced backlash back home with progressive Democrats like Bernie Sanders and AOC, saying that Biden really only talks about Israel’s right to defend itself despite mounting concerns. I would agree.

Q: If Israel is unwilling to occupy Gaza following the removal of Hamas, can’t Egypt or a member of the Quartet (UN, USA, EU, Russia) step in to help keep the peace so Gaza can rebuild, but not be a threat to Israel?

WorldSimpizen

A: I will start off by saying that according to the UN, Gaza is still occupied by Israel - see this from OCHA:

“ By international consensus, Israel remains the occupying power in Gaza. Although it demolished its settlements and removed its settlements in 2005, Israel has maintained a comprehensive land, air and sea blockade on Gaza for the past 13 years, and it controls virtually everything and everybody that enters or leaves the Strip.”

I assume you asked if Israel can remove Hamas from Gaza?

Ultimately - although Hamas has been fully or partially designated a terrorist organisation by several countries in the world - its political wing was voted into office during the last elections 15 years ago and it was the favourite to win the coming elections that were cancelled. I think it would be tricky (is that the right word?) for Israel to unilaterally remove a party of another population, I’m not even sure what that would look like?

But that aside, the problems Gaza faces are not just because of Hamas’s actions, or indiscriminate rocket f on Israel.

In order for Gaza to properly rebuild and flourish it would need to have sovereignty - control over its borders, its airspace, its natural resources etc, which it doesn’t have right now. Although Israel says a lot of that is because of security concerns due to Hamas, there are similar restrictions in play the occupied West Bank which is run by Fatah.

Impact of the conflict

Q: Have you any thoughts on what the long term impact of these clashes may be on all those concerned plus the International community?

ONEOLOVER

A: The rising death tolls particularly in Gaza, where 61 children are among those killed in the bombardment, will have a lasting devastating impact on the families left behind. Families will also have to contend with the devastating impact on mental health of all those under airstrikes and rocket fire. Gaza in particular suffers from trauma among children and youth.

But also there is an unknown cost of the physical damage from the fighting - which will most gravely impact the tiny 40km long Strip. The UN says over 38,000 Palestinians have been displaced in Gaza by Israeli airstrikes and more than 2,500 people have been made homeless because their houses were destroyed. The question is who will pay to build these new homes and how long will it take? How will enough building material get into the strip?

The UN also said 41 education facilities have been damaged in Gaza - while health officials, said parts of hospitals and clinics have been put out of action because indirect hits.

There has been massive damage to infrastructure like roads but also to electricity lines into Israel impacting the provision of health care and other basic services, including water, hygiene and sanitation.

Right now Gaza is limping through with 4 hours of power a day. Outside of Gaza, is the violence that has rocked Israel’s mixed Arab-Jewish cities, Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.

The regions has not felt so on edge and violently divided for years - the levels of hatred and distrust on all sides have reached peak levels.

Even if the rockets and the airstrikes cease, the secondary conflict, which was only stoked by the fighting between Israel and Gaza, will simmer on.

The future looks pretty bleak.

Q: Hi Bel, do you think that this violence will increase the popularity of Netanyahu with Israelis? Is part of the motivation to hold on to power?

Anise01

A: The short answer is I think it’s too early to tell. Netanyahu was in trouble before this erupted. Israel had staggered through its 4th inconclusive election in under two years. Under a week before the Gaza- Israel conflict erupted Netanyahu, missed a deadline to form a coalition government, and the task was handed to his rival centrist Yair Lapid.

Campaigning under the shadow of corruption trials has impacted Netanyahu’s popularity: he has failed over the last 4 elections to win a knife edge 61 seat majority of the 120 seat parliament. Although, in my opinion he still remains the most popular figure for PM compared to others he doesn’t have the support of enough of the country. All the elections have been seen as a referendum on “Bibi” and time and time again, the answer is the country is split.

Many have speculated this conflict with Gaza and the internal strife between Palestinian citizens of Israel and Jewish-Israelis, plays to Netanyahu’s favour, as chaos makes it harder for Lapid to try to form a government. As multiple cities were on fire Naftali Bennett - right wing politician dubbed the kingmaker - called Lapid to say he wouldn’t be joining the anti-Bibi “change” coalition and went back to Netanyahu. Netanyahu still doesn’t have enough seats to push him over, but it certainly makes Lapid’s chances much more bleak. A 5th round of elections is on the horizon. That said speaking to Israelis this week - across the political spectrum - most are horrified at the wave of unrest and violence both inside Israel - and with Gaza - and are furious with Netanyahu who is still PM for not diffusing the situation (or in the case of the far right cracking down hard enough).

It’s early days how this will level out but it might backfire against him.

Movement between Gaza and Israel

Q: Does Israel really stop family members from Gaza and West Bank from reuniting? If so, is this a human rights violation?

DakB

A: There are tight restrictions on movement between Gaza, a blockaded enclave home to nearly 2 million Palestinians, and occupied East Jerusalem & West Bank, where millions of Palestinians also live and is geographically separated by Israel.

In order for people to move between the two territories they have to apply for permissions from the Israeli authorities, which rights groups say are rarely issued. To quote Israeli NGO Gisha “Israel controls Gaza residents” freedom of movement through dozens of procedures and protocols, violating their rights to family life, health, religious worship and more.”

The Israeli authorities say the restrictions are necessary to ensure the security of its citizens and many Israelis would agree with that. But getting those permits are very hard, and are rarely permitted in for the specific instances like – work, medical care and family visits. (There are stories of patients unable to get live-saving treatment because they can’t leave Gaza).

According to Geisha, today - out of millions of Palestinians - only a few thousand people are able to travel between Gaza and the West Bank each month. They said over the last year in the pandemic, movement through the Gaza crossing was down to just 6% of what it was in the beginning of 2020.

Rights groups conclude the discrimination effected by the permit system is a violation of international human rights law. Israel denies this.

HRW in a recent report went as far as saying the “sweeping restrictions on movement” was one of the elements of the crime of apartheid they concluded that Israel is committing. (Israel also vehemently denies this). Just to add - the crossing between Gaza and Egypt is regularly closed or restricted as well, and was last year during the pandemic.

Reporting on the conflict

Q: Much of the public’s perception of the issue is determined by media reporting and the language used - a euphemistic rendering which neutralises criticism of Israel. Please comment.

7 Turns

A: I am not entirely sure what you mean but I will say there is probably no conflict in the world where words and syntax are more closely scrutinised than the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.

In fact, even in the above sentence, many groups would slam me for calling it the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and not using the word “struggle”.

Even grammar is explosive - the media is regularly (often correctly) criticised for constantly using the passive tense, over the active when it comes to who killed who, or who was killed by who.

As a reporter I spend a good chunk of my day agonising over terminology and language I use and updating my internal style guide.

We have regular discussions over phrases like Arab Israeli over Palestinian citizen of Israel, or the accuracy of words like “clashes” when one side may be a heavily armed with the weight of power and the other not.

In short I think the media often gets it wrong and we can be part of the process of erasing the reality on the ground. For example most news outlets will not write occupied East Jerusalem or occupied West Bank or occupied Gaza probably because it comes across as unwieldily or partisan even though according to UN those are the correct terms.

The Israelis regularly question why news outlets don’t automatically and consistently describe Hamas as terrorist organisation given it has been designated so by several countries including the US.

I think the media can fall over ourselves trying to be “objective” and “balanced” when in many instances it isn’t an equal fight and so sitting on the fence, actually does the opposite of what we are trying to do.

It’s a learning process and I hope we all get better at it.

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