Hamas, war and Eurovision are three words not normally heard together. But over the last week, the international song competition, known for its hammy acts and sometimes terrible songs, has hurtled straight into the heart of the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, becoming the last bulwark against a war between Israel forces and fighters in Gaza.
Last weekend, just days before Madonna is due to fly into Tel Aviv and perform, it really did look like we were at the gates of another devastating conflict.
Militants in Gaza had fired nearly 700 rockets and mortars at southern Israel, Israeli jets and tanks had pounded 350 targets in Gaza. In just 36 hours, 25 Palestinians were dead in Gaza, including two pregnant women and two toddlers. Four were dead in Israel, which is just short of the entire Israeli civilian death toll of the seven-week-long war in 2014.
This was at least the fourth cycle of cross-border flare-ups in less than a year, which, for the short time they last, are everything but war in name. The time periods in between the mini-wars are getting shorter, fuses on both sides are shrinking, the solutions are disappearing.
And this time was considerably worrying. The sheer number of projectiles being fired from Gaza and the unusually high Israeli civilian death toll (including a man killed in his car by an anti-tank missile) in the past would have been a red line for the Israelis.
They deployed an armoured and an infantry brigade to the border ready for a ground incursion. They even began targeted killings for the first time in five years, obliterating a Palestinian fighter they said was a top Hamas financier in a strike on his vehicle.
But the prospect of long-range rocket fire from Gaza raining down on thousands of terrified tourists in Tel Aviv was too much.
Out of nowhere, a truce was announced. Had it not been for Eurovision, I believe, war would have broken out.
So what happens in a week’s time, when the show’s over and everyone goes home?
Michael Oren, a former MK and ex-Israeli ambassador to the US, has an idea.
“Hamas must go. Right after our holiday and Eurovision,” he tweeted without a drop of humour.
“Israel must evict Hamas from Gaza. The US should back us militarily and diplomatically and, together with Arab states, commit to Gaza’s renewal. Peace in the region is impossible with Hamas in Gaza. Israel is ready to act.”
His words echo many within Israel I have spoken to. Everyone, from families exhausted by living under a barrage of rockets in the south to chief election rival Benny Gantz, have criticised prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu for losing Israel’s “deterrence” and not being tough enough on Hamas. Many in the south told me they were furious Bibi had put Eurovision before his people.
In Gaza, which is under a crippling 12-year-long Israeli and Egyptian-imposed blockade, the desperation is different. And in many ways deeper. People literally have nothing to lose because the territory is on the brink of total collapse. And I don’t say that lightly.
For Gaza’s militant rulers, the humanitarian crisis is morphing into a potentially existential one for them. This year saw an attempted internal protest in Gaza, dubbed the hunger revolution, against devastating standards of living and poor governing by the authorities. It was snuffed out pretty quickly in a round of arrests and violence.
But this isn’t going away as the dire situation is only going to get worse. In less than a month, unless there are immediate donations, the funding for the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency (Unrwa) will dry up after Washington, Unrwa’s biggest donor, cancelled all its financial support last year.
If that happens, a million people in Gaza will go out without food, Unrwa’s schools, some of the best in the Strip, will close. The agency, which is the second largest employer in Gaza after the Palestinian Authority, will be forced to fire staff. The last time they did that, there were such big protests, the UN lost control of its Gaza compound for three weeks.
Its health services will also be halted. The UN warned last week that it could see 1,700 people shot by Israelis, who need complex surgery provided by the UN, forced to have their limbs amputated.
Their vaccination programme – basically the only line of defence against epidemics because Gaza’s water is so filthy, and it cannot treat its sewage – could also be cancelled. No size of gate can stop disease crossing borders – this could pose a threat to Israel.
Compounding this is the Palestinian Authority’s financial troubles. Due to a fight over tax remittances from Israel (more on that here), the PA is on course for a $1bn budget deficit this year, according to the World Bank.
They have already slashed salaries to those in Gaza causing havoc and could be forced to do the same again.
And all this is happening at the exact time the US is due to deliver on its peace plan: a document the Palestinians have already rejected on the grounds that it will likely be too pro-Israel. (The Palestinians cut all diplomatic ties with the US last year after it recognised the contested city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and slashed funding to Unrwa.)
According to completely unverified leaks in Israeli media, the plan would legitimise pretty much every Israeli settlement in the West Bank (which are illegal under international law) and see the new Palestine, denied a proper army, forced to pay Israel to defend it.
If both sides do not agree, they lose international financial support.
No one knows if these points are really in the peace plan, but indications show the document could end up being a touchpaper for further conflict, rather than a fire extinguisher.
And there simply aren’t enough song contests to stem the tide of violence in the meantime.
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