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‘No choice but to hope’: The personal stories behind a painful year in the Israel-Palestine conflict

Mounting anger with leaders is the common cry I heard across the political divide throughout 2018

Bel Trew
Monday 24 December 2018 11:32 GMT
Israeli army search and destroy Hezbollah tunnels leading to Lebanon

A video of intense rocket fire over Israel popped up on Rami’s mobile, as the Palestinian peace activist sat in Gaza in the dark waiting for the next airstrike.

The video was sent on WhatsApp by an Israeli friend who lived just a few kilometres away on the other side of the Israel-Gaza border fence but who, because of walls and blockades, he had never met in person.

It was November, during the worst flare up of cross-border fire since the 2014 war, sparked in part by a botched Israeli intelligence raid in South Gaza. Rami, a peace activist, sent back a video of Israeli airstrikes pounding his neighbourhood and asked, “Are you ok?”

For the entirety of the exchange of fire this network of unlikely friends exchanged messages of solidarity, fed up with the violence that broiled above their heads.

In the aftermath, the friendship group plotted initiatives to bring civilians in Gaza and Israel together, believing the leadership on all sides, and the international community, had truly failed them.

Out of the violence SalamTalk was born – an app allowing Palestinians and Israelis to meet virtually and chat. For much of the Palestinian youth, corralled into the Strip, it is the first and only connection to the other side. Israel has imposed a crippling blockade on Gaza since the 2007 violent takeover of the Strip by Hamas, a militant group.

“The majority of Gazans think that Israelis are settlers, snipers, soldiers – the majority of the Israelis think that Gazans are Hamas, killers who dream of murdering Jews, simply because neither side meet they only live through the lens of propaganda,” Rami tells me.

“I’m just recording videos and showing through Skype meetings that we are normal and peaceful.”

He calls his Israeli friend, writer and teacher Adele Raemer, 64, who has lived for years under Palestinian rocket fire, but still remembers the days before Gaza was closed off when a Palestinian woman taught in her school.

“The problem with what is happening in Gaza today is that most of the population are young, they have never met an Israeli face to face unless it’s an Israeli wearing a uniform,” she explains from her kibbutz in Nirim, just over a mile from border with Gaza.

She talks about her frustration with the Israeli government, which she believes has not maximised the three and half years of relative peace to build something permanent.

So she has started a separate initiative to get Israeli children to donate musical instruments to Gazans to build an important bridge.

“I think connection is very, very important. We are neighbours,” she says.

The desperate drive for civilians to take matters into their hands is not a coincidence.

The one common cry I heard throughout 2018, from Palestinians and Israelis alike across the political divide, is mounting anger with their leadership.

People here believe that their leaders are increasingly speaking in propaganda best suited for their political survival, not for true peace.

Even by Israeli-Palestinian standards, 2018 was a tough year that nearly saw the eruption of a fourth war in Gaza and, some speculated, the start of a Third Intifada in the West Bank.

That was complicated at the close of the year by the spectre of a conflict between Israel and Lebanon, after the discovery of multiple cross-border tunnels built by Hezbollah, as well as fears about the intentions of Iranian forces in Syria. Tensions were only heightened when Donald Trump declared he was pulling his troops out of the battle-ravaged Syria, leaving Israel even more vulnerable to rocket fire on its northern front.

In the middle of that, Benjamin Netanyahu, who rules with a knife-edge parliamentary majority, barely salvaged his government from collapse over inaction in Gaza and batted off headlines about his possible indictment for corruption. At the close of the year he also faced an increasingly boisterous Israeli protest movement, who have borrowed the moniker of the Yellow Vest uprisings to rally against soaring living costs.

In Southern Israel, citizens fed up of being under barrages of Palestinian rocket fire told me they felt Netanyahu was weak. “The tail is wagging the dog,” one woman explained. “Everyone is disappointed in him.”

Meanwhile in the Palestinian territories hopes of a two-state solution with Israel were increasingly disintegrating into a three-state one. This year a bitter rivalry between Fatah, the West Bank party that dominates the Palestinian Authority (PA), and Hamas in Gaza, passed the point of no return.

The most dangerous manifestation of that appeared at the close of the year. Several Palestinian shooting attacks in the occupied West Bank left five Israelis dead, including two Israeli civilians, two soldiers, and a prematurely born baby. Hamas, which has grassroots support in the West Bank, claimed at least two of the shooters as their own fighters, stirring a dangerous pot.

The PA’s security forces were forced to stand by as Israeli security forces rolled into central Ramallah, the Palestinian business and administration capital, conducting raids just metres away from the Palestinian presidential compound.

“People are angry and humiliated,” one Palestinian protester told me during a clash with Israeli soldiers near Ramallah.

“The Israelis came right into our cities, in broad day light. Our security forces stood by. We can’t accept that.”

Meanwhile in Gaza, citizens I spoke to railed against Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. In a bid to force Hamas to relinquish control of Gaza he slashed salaries to PA employees last year and effectively strangled electricity to Gaza, leaving households with just four hours of power a day. This was keenly felt: half of Gaza’s 2.2 million population lives under the poverty line with 70 per cent youth unemployment, the highest rate in the world.

Quietly, there were also grumblings against Hamas, who encouraged citizens to march on the border fences with Israel for 10 months of protests and riots demanding the end of the crippling blockade and a right to return to ancestral lands they fled or were forced from. Over 200 Palestinians were killed by Israeli soldiers, who defended their use of force saying protesters were rioters who had flown balloons laced with explosives into Israel and attacked the fences endangering lives.

But the anger also spilled over onto international actors. The fate of the year was anchored in President Trump’s December 2017 decision to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognising the disputed city as Israel’s capital. Several countries followed suit: Australia is the next country pitted to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

It parted with decades of careful US policy and destroyed the US’s legitimacy as chief mediator in the eyes of the Palestinians, who cut diplomatic ties. It also sparked the Gaza border protests, which repeatedly snowballed into cross-border exchanges of fire that looked very like war.

The promise of Trump’s so-called “deal of the century” peace proposal was delayed again into 2019.

But the US may well be too distracted by its withdrawal from Syria and the repercussions from that which will surely calibrate Israel’s policy next year, as its northern border heats up.

Stuck in the middle of the maelstrom, civilians continue to battle for a peace on their own terms.

“I have no choice but to have hope – my granddaughters are here,” Adele tells me.

“This is my home and it is their home. It might have to get worse before it gets better.”

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