In late 2015, I was interviewed on TRT World’s The Newsmakers program from London about Israel/Palestine and the one-state solution. My interview begins at 3:37:
Umm al-Nasr, Gaza Strip: Everybody in Gaza fears another war. After the 2014 conflict, which killed 2250 Palestinians and 70 Israelis, little has changed on the ground for the territory’s 2 million residents.
A local psychiatrist, Khaled Dahlan, recently told me in Gaza that Palestinians had multi-generational trauma, having been dispossessed and attacked for decades. “We have had so many conflicts” in the last 70 years, he said.
The World Health Organisation estimates that at least 20 per cent of the population has severe mental illness.
Daniel Shapiro, the US ambassador to Israel under former US president Barack Obama, recently warned that “the next war in Gaza is coming”.
Israel’s military Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-General Gadi Eisenkot, explained in late March that his country reacts “disproportionately” to rocket fire from the strip. “The reality in Gaza is volatile,” he said.
Eisenkot warned that the Hamas authority in Gaza was “continuing to dig [tunnels] underground and to build their abilities and defensive capabilities”. Israel claims Hamas has new heavy rockets with which to attack Israeli border towns.
Israel’s State Comptroller released a report on the 2014 war that found the Israeli government was uninterested in avoiding a military conflict. “There was no realistic diplomatic alternative concerning the Gaza Strip,” it stated.
Hamas recently elected a new leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, who reportedly opposes reconciliation with Israel. He served 22 years in an Israeli jail before being released in a prisoner swap in 2011. Tensions rose again after the alleged Israeli assassination in late March of a senior Hamas militant in Gaza.
Yet Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in late 2016 that his country would help rebuild Gaza – if Hamas disarmed.
“We will be the first to invest in a port, an airport and industrial areas”, he told a Palestinian newspaper in October. Israel’s Transport Minister Israel Katz proposes building an island near Gaza to service its people – but Israel would control its air, sea and land borders.
Hani Muqbel, head of the Hamas Youth Department, told me in Gaza that his group’s philosophy was different to Islamic State’s or al-Qaeda’s. “They’re destroying the image of Islam,” he said. In contrast, Hamas had built a “national liberation movement”.
He acknowledged the current difficulties in Gaza but blamed the “Israeli occupation, siege and the [rival Fatah-run] Palestinian Authority [in the West Bank]”.
Muqbel said that Hamas did not want another war but that its issue with Israel “wasn’t between Jews and Muslims. It’s not a religious war, it’s about land.”
He demanded that Western powers stop claiming Hamas “wanted to kill Jews because they’re Jews. We do not.”
The Israeli media largely ignores Gaza and Israelis are not legally allowed to visit. Yet former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo recently said that the occupation was the country’s only “existential threat“.
An editorial in the liberal newspaper Haaretz urged the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “immediately consider other ways of halting the deterioration in Gaza – first and foremost by alleviating the wretchedness of life there”.
The Israeli human rights group Gisha recently found that Israel had massively reduced the ability of Gazans to leave in the last months, dropping 40 per cent compared to last year’s average. In February, only 7301 people went through the Erez checkpoint, which connects Gaza to Israel and the occupied West Bank. It was the lowest number since the end of the 2014 war.
Countless Gazans haven’t left for years. Many told me that it was impossible to plan anything major in life, such as marriage or travel, with certainty because applications to leave Gaza were routinely rejected by Israel with no reason given. Often they were ignored entirely.
The effect of the wars and isolation has been dramatic on the domestic lives of men and women. The last years have seen an explosion of Western aid organisations in Gaza working with local NGOs on furthering women’s rights in a male-dominated society. Many women said that these courses gave them awareness of their legal and social rights along with the ability to resist and leave a violent marriage.
The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women recently released a draft resolution that highlighted the status of Palestinian women. It expressed “deep concern” about the “ongoing illegal Israeli occupation and all of its manifestations”, including “incidents of domestic violence and declining health, education and living standards, including the rising incidence of trauma and the decline in psychological well-being”, especially for girls and women in Gaza.
A lawyer with the Gaza-based NGO Aisha Association for Woman and Child Protection, Asma Abulehia, said that she met six to seven women every day who faced domestic abuse or economic uncertainty. However, many women couldn’t leave their houses to seek help, trapped by an abusive husband or family.
“The Israeli occupation is the main reason for these problems,” she told me. “The bad economic situation has worsened social problems, along with ignorance of Islam and unfair laws against women in Gaza.”
Due to the suffocating 10-year blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt, support for Hamas has decreased. Many people long for a return of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority that governs Palestinians in the West Bank, though they aren’t convinced it would make much difference to their daily lives. Many said they wanted to leave and build a life elsewhere.
This month, Human Rights Watch released a new report, Unwilling or Unable, detailing Israeli restrictions on human rights workers entering Gaza to document breaches of human rights and international humanitarian law. It accused Israel of severely curtailing the ability of Israelis, Palestinians and internationals to enter or leave Gaza and dismissed its reasons for doing so.
Human Rights Watch asked the International Criminal Court, currently investigating possible war crimes committed in Palestine including Gaza, to determine the “credibility” of Israeli domestic investigations and its restrictions of human rights workers in and out of Gaza.
In a 2015 report the United Nations voiced fears that Gaza would be uninhabitable by 2020. It stated that the 2014 war had “effectively eliminated what was left of the middle class, sending almost all of the population into destitution and dependence on international humanitarian aid”.
“Hamas doesn’t care for the people,” Abulehia said. “They deny violence against women and drug abuse [of the opioid Tramadol] even exists.”
Abulehia said violence against women was worsening, though there were no reliable government figures. The Safe House, funded by the Hamas government and run by women in a secure location, is the Gaza Strip’s only women’s shelter, where up to 50 people can sleep overnight. The average stay is three months.
Many women I met at the Aisha office faced troubling options. Nineteen-year-old Noura al-Reefy married her husband three years ago and wanted a divorce. Her father-in-law sexually harassed her and her husband did nothing.
“He wanted to see my husband and me have sex in front of him and me naked without my hijab,” she told me. During multiple visits to Gaza, I’d never heard such graphic accounts of abuse from a woman.
Reefy had attempted suicide twice. She hadn’t finished high school but planned to complete her education after divorce. She was forced to marry her cousin “but it was a bad idea from the start. I wish it was easier for women to get divorced here..”
Buthaina Sobh, head of the Wefaq Society for Women and Child Care, told me in conservative Rafah, in the south of the territory, that sexual harassment at work, at home and on the streets was commonplace.
“In our society,” she said, “women can’t demand sexual pleasure, they’re considered a slut. Only men can. However, intellectual women now recognise that women have sexual desires and can ask for it privately.”
Sobh said the constant Israeli attacks made Palestinians “used to suffering”. She was pessimistic that women’s lives could change substantively until the siege was lifted.
Training facilities for women are still rare but slowly growing. In the conservative, Bedouin area of Umm al-Nasr in the strip’s north, I visited a multi-storey centre where women learnt tailoring and toymaking for local consumption. A showroom displayed the work for sale. Carpentry classes for women were initially resisted by traditionalist men in the village, but now the teaching of skills in a territory with one of the highest unemployment rates in the world – at least 43 per cent – is being welcomed. The Hamas authority backs the centre and wants similar facilities established throughout the strip.
The centre also runs English courses and exercise classes. Working for the Italian NGO Vento Di Terra, project manager Sara Alafifi said that before the 2014 war many people thought that exercise for women was a waste of time but now healthy bodies were seen as a sensible way to manage stress.
There are alternatives. A group of Israeli and Palestinian economists recently released two studies with the World Bank that outlined a blueprint for economic development in the West Bank, Jordan Valley and Gaza. At the launch in Jerusalem, former Israeli ambassador to South Africa Ilan Baruch was blunt.
“There has been a deliberate Israeli policy to create deficiency,” he said. “The international community has to get involved – not as a donor, but to exert pressure.”
The constant threat of war against Gaza makes normality impossible. Hypertension, deep anxiety, increasing domestic violence and insomnia are ubiquitous amongst the population.
With hawkish Israeli commentators demanding another war with Hamas, and advocating the assassination of its leaders within days of any conflict commencing, prospects will only improve if the international community can put concerted effort into finding a new direction.
Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based independent journalist and author.
My article in The National newspaper in the UAE:
A group of old women sat outside in plastic chairs on a warm, Gaza day and sang traditional Palestinian songs. It was a happy mood at the Aged Care Foundation, the only community club for the elderly in the entire territory of two million people.
The head of the organisation, Nadia Alhashim, told me that there was a desperate need for her group because of social isolation in Gaza. “Old people are bored at home,” she said, “and we organise entertainment like dabke dancing, trips to the beach and exercise. It puts a smile on their faces.”
Men and women meet separately three times a week to share laughs and advice. Ms Alhashim said that the Israeli- and Egyptian-imposed siege on Gaza, now 10 years old, deprived many Gazans of essential medication and care including cancer treatment.
Om Ali Suhayla Abdu Al Qader Abulalreesh, 63, who lives with her mentally ill son in dire conditions, sang joyously to forget her problems and please her friends. It was a brief respite from the desperate, humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
The people of Palestine are often forgotten amid the calamities befalling the Middle East. Although the Israel/Palestine conflict was once a stated priority of successive American administrations, such attention only led to further misery and the entrenchment of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. Palestinian freedom would, probably, come sooner if Washington disengaged from the region entirely.
There are now at least 700,000 Israeli settlers living illegally in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Nobody seriously believes that these people will be forced to leave, so the situation is relatively permanent. What this means for the future of the Jewish state is grim with endless legislation aimed at delegitimising free speech and association. I’ve lost count of the number of leftist Israelis who’ve told me that they’re looking for ways to leave the country, because they are disillusioned with the nation’s direction and have no hope that it will improve.
The Palestinian people, bereft of capable leadership, are dealt an awful hand. Former president Barack Obama, while speaking critically about Israeli colonisation, did nothing concrete to stop it. He granted Israel its biggest aid package in history – $38 billion (Dh140bn) over 10 years. Mr Obama is rightly seen in Palestine as a key enabler of Israeli intransigence. The Trump administration is partly following the Obama playbook. Rhetorically, Washington is showing a more permissive attitude to continuing settlement expansion in the West Bank, which is funded by Jewish Americans and evangelical Christian groups whose contributions are tax deductible. Donald Trump also appointed a hard-line, settlement backer, David Friedman, as his ambassador to Israel. And yet Mr Trump’s team still talks about the dead-on-arrival, two-state solution and curbing settlement activity. It’s no wonder that settler groups are questioning their initial excitement over Mr Trump’s win.
It’s easy to believe that the Israeli-Washington relationship is in fine shape. During the recent conference of Israeli lobby group American-Israel Public Affairs Comittee (Aipac) in Washington, speaker after speaker praised Israel’s thriving democracy and America’s commitment to it. Palestinians were ignored.
Although large protests were held outside the Aipac event, organised by the young Jewish group IfNotNow, with the message, “Jews won’t be free until Palestinians are free”, both Democrats and Republicans are overwhelmingly supportive of Israel.
With the Israeli occupation of Palestine now lasting 50 years, this is forcing advocates to consider alternative tactics. A Lebanon-based United Nations agency that recently released a report claiming Israel was practising apartheid is formulating a document that will investigate “the cost of the Israeli occupation” of the Palestinian territories by using examples from apartheid South Africa and slavery in America.
It’s an interesting approach considering there is virtually no discussion in Palestine or Israel itself about how the conflict could be ended. Would there be a formal apology, financial compensation and then a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission?
Back in Gaza, the mood is dark. Israel refuses to allow out many of the Palestinians who want to leave the besieged Strip, for no discernible reason other than spurious “security concerns”. The Rafah checkpoint, controlled by Egypt, is also largely sealed.
The Israeli media is filled with ominous reports of another inevitable conflict between Israel and Hamas. Neither side would benefit from such a war. During my recent visits to Gaza, I saw the effects of the last battle, in 2014, and the many Palestinians who remain homeless or living in squalid conditions because Israel refused to allow in enough rebuilding materials.
I once thought that the status quo in Israel and Palestine wasn’t sustainable and that occupation couldn’t last for ever. I’ve changed my view. Today there is no international body willing to curtail Israeli behaviour, while Washington and the European Union largely support it. Without serious outside pressure, Palestinians will remain eternally under the Israeli boot.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author in Jerusalem
The global sound of fury and shock heralded by the win of Donald Trump as the new U.S. President wasn’t heard in Israel. A poll, released in early December by the firm Dialog, found that 83 percent of Israelis viewed Trump as “pro-Israel” and hoped he would support their government’s position on expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank.
In February 2016, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he was planning to “surround all of Israel with a fence” to keep out Palestinians and Arab states’ citizens. “In our neighborhood, we need to protect ourselves from wild beasts,” he said.
This discriminatory attitude is not just limited to politics but is both mainstream and widely accepted in Israel. For example, members of the far-right extremist group Lehava are strictly against any interaction between Jews and Palestinians. They roam the streets of Israel assaulting Arabs, and Israel does little to stop it. The group’s Hebrew stickers on Jerusalem streets read: “Beware the goys [a derogatory term for non-Jews]: they will defile you.”
Israeli security firms are excited about Trump’s win. They see dollar signs in the U.S., Europe and beyond as Western nations struggle to manage a huge influx of refugees and Muslims from the Middle East, Africa and Western Asia. Israel is viewed as an expert in the fields of counter-terrorism, surveillance, fences, sensors and militarization of borders.
In 2015, Israel reported $5.7 billion of defense industry exports. Arms sales especially soared to Europe, growing from $724 million in 2014 to $1.63 billion in 2015, amid growing concerns over refugees and terrorism. Equipment included aerospace, radar, drones and intelligence systems. Israel and its defense firms hope that surging interest in their products will counteract any negative economic impact from the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
When contacted for a comment, the Israeli Ministry of Defense refused to talk about its collaboration over countering possible threats related to refugees and terrorism.
“Unfortunately, as a rule, the Ministry does not comment on defense relationships with other countries,” it said.
Israel-based Magal Security Systems, the world’s biggest provider of perimeter security technology has global experience in using technology to keep out the unwanted and saw its share price soar following Trump’s victory.
The company’s chief executive, Saar Koursh, was recently quoted by the Financial Times saying he wanted to work on Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico.
“If Mr. Trump builds a fence or a wall, we believe our technology will definitely be a benefit,” he reportedly said.
Hagai Katz, Magal’s Vice President of Marketing and Business Development, explained that his firm is involved in securing all of Israel’s borders including those with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza. The “smart fence” around Gaza, “battle-tested” is attractive to clients, works with Israeli video cameras, satellite monitoring, ground sensors and motion detectors.
The close-to two million citizens of the Gaza Strip live in a large, open-air Israeli-imposed prison, with the U.N. fearing the territory will be uninhabitable by 2020. A recent visit to Gaza showed a population with virtually no freedom of movement.
A Magal client list, confirmed by the corporation as up to date, shows hundreds of partners developed over its more than 43 years in the business. This includes security for civilian airports in China, Colombia, the U.S., U.K. and Mexico, seaports in Israel, Canada and Kenya, utilities in Australia, Chile and Morocco, oil and gas facilities in the Gulf, Italy and Nigeria and nuclear sites in the U.S. Furthermore, there are countless commercial projects across the world, prisons, militaries (including in Bahrain) and borders including India and Pakistan, Minnesota in the U.S., Bulgaria and Serbia, as well as Slovakia and Ukraine.
A new Magal promotional brochure explains to potential clients that the main challenge in stopping “infiltrators” in Europe is gathering intelligence and establishing early warning systems.
Katz said that Israel’s “smart fence” with Egypt, five metres high with barbed wire, military posts and a quick reaction force, is the “most relevant for Europe because it’s concerned with illegal immigration.” He explained that there were five “D’s” for an effective smart fence: demark the border, deterrence, detection, delay and defeat.
“In the case of illegal immigration,” Katz explained, “deterrence is the most important thing because you don’t want to cope with the problem when somebody crosses [a border].” When a Magal spokesman was asked if fences and monitoring borders were a solution to the refugee crisis or simply a profitable outcome, Katz said: “If you really want to solve it, you need to be aggressive and determined. Nobody likes to use fences. The landscape looks ugly. It’s against the idea of open borders.”
He added that Hungary, perhaps the most antagonistic nation towards refugees in Europe, had only constructed a “dumb fence,” without technology or sensors. This “doesn’t solve the problem but moves it from one country to another.”
Although Katz said that a number of European nations had contacted Magal to get quotes on border security – the cost is up to $5 million per kilometre of physical fence – “most of the European countries have not decided to do this. They believe they can cope with the problem without decisive actions.” Katz saw expansion opportunities in Africa (Magal is competing to build a wall between Kenya and Somalia, at a cost of over $15 billion), Eastern Europe and former Soviet states.
Other Israeli companies are also in the border monitoring business. Elbit Systems, one of Israel’s largest defence contractors and experts in drone manufacturing, are working on the U.S./Mexico border. The sandy terrain near Nogales, Arizona, the second-largest border-patrol station in the U.S., has an Elbit-built radar system. The company’s head, Bezhalel Machlis, told the Financial Times in July that he was excited about the worldwide trend towards increased military budgets.
The Israeli military tests Elbit equipment before they are sold to agencies worldwide, where Palestinians living under occupation are used as guinea pigs for Elbit’s technology.
It is worth noting that the global interest in Israeli strategies to control borders is more than just a desire for technological experience. Trump’s election and the growing support for far-right political parties and movements across Europe reveal an ideological alliance that connects Israel’s burgeoning militarized settler movement with the white nationalist agenda.
This was perfectly articulated in December at Texas A&M University when Richard Spencer, head of the white nationalist National Policy Institute, silenced Rabbi Matt Rosenberg by suggesting Zionism and Jewish continuity required discrimination and isolation to thrive.
“Do you really want radical inclusion into the State of Israel?” Spencer asked. “And by that I mean radical inclusion. Maybe all of the Middle East could go move in to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Would you really want that? Jews exist precisely because you did not assimilate.”
A few weeks earlier, Spencer had praised Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and questioned whether “Israeli nationalists might want to help finance the far right in Europe and North America.” In July, he told the U.S. website Mondoweiss that he admired Israel as “a homogenous ethno-state.” During the Trump inauguration in Washington DC, Spencer was punched in the head by an anti-fascist protestor. He remains a divisive figure, opposed by many Jews, who craves separation of the races.
However, Spencer perfectly understood why many white nationalists, in the U.S., Europe and globally, have become ardent Israel supporters. Demographically, maintaining a Jewish majority in Israel is only assured by treating its Arab population as second class citizens. This is what most white nationalists admire in Israel, a willingness to brutally suppress another people to keep the state racially pure. Nationalists want the U.S. and Europe to behave similarly towards Muslims and refugees, groups that, in their view, are diluting the purity of the world’s superior Christian population.
David Sheen, an Israeli-based, independent journalist focusing on racial and religious conflict in Israeli society, said that “Israel’s leaders make brazen statements about their intentions to rule all the land, from the river to the sea, and to make Jewish supremacy paramount, demoting democratic principles to secondary status. They have already forced out over a third of the country’s African refugee population, and are on track to complete the cleansing over the next decade, if not less than that…There is no serious force at present, either within Israeli society or outside of it, that is capable of halting, or even of slowing down, Israel’s descent from flawed ethnocracy into full-on folkism.”
This logic has seen neo-Nazis and far-right extremists from Europe and the U.S. welcomed to Israel with open arms. Austria’s far-right, Freedom Party leader, Heinz-Christian Strach, visited Israel’s Holocaust memorial in April and met with members of the governing Likud party. His motives, according to press reports, were to make him “kosher in Israel” and acceptable to world leaders. Strach spoke of the “the Judeo-Christian West”.
“If Israel fails, Europe fails. And if Europe fails, Israel fails,” he said. Israeli settler leaders happily overlooked his neo-Nazi past and praised his unwavering support for Israel.
Among some French and German far-right movements online there is extensive support for Israel and its posture towards Muslims and Arabs. Largely written in the local language, and ignored by the Western media, far-right websites revel in Islamophobia as a perceived state policy in Israel and urge Europe to copy it.
One German website, PI News, claims to be “news against the mainstream” and backing “America, Israel, basic and human laws and the fight against the Islamization of Europe.” German Holocaust deniers visited Israel’s Holocaust museum and travelled around Israel in 2016 talking about blowing up mosques and embracing the settler movement. The group, from popular anti-immigrant parties, believed that radical Islam was the common dominator between themselves and Israel.
Such rhetoric is now politically popular across the West and it’s not hard to see why Israel, building fences and walls around itself, is the model. Companies such as Elbit and Magal are reaping the benefits.
Many Europeans now oppose Israel’s colonization policies and advocate boycotts against the Jewish state. However, Strach and his party, founded by former Nazis in the 1950s, are leading a wave of far-right solidarity with Israel across Europe and the world. From Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France to key players in the Trump administration, backing Israel and its draconian policies against Muslims, refugees, Palestinians, Arabs and black Africans is the new litmus test for the authoritarian right. Israel’s political and business elites, largely in sync with these views, have brilliantly exploited and monetized Western fears over minorities.
Trump’s chief strategist, of course, is Steve Bannon, former executive chair of the far-right Breitbart website that has published countless derogatory articles on Muslims, woman and Jews but earned praise (along with some opposition) for its Zionist stance from some of the leading U.S. – Zionist organizations. For them, anti-Semitism is irrelevant so long as Israel is given unconditional support.
It’s a dangerous and self-defeating stance that endangers Jews worldwide though there’s a long history of Zionist groups working with fascist groups in Israel and globally. Historically, neo-Nazis and white nationalists loathed Jews but today it’s not unusual to see the Israeli flag being waved at a far-right, Pegida rally in Germany or an event organized by Britain’s U.K. Independence Party (UKIP).
Former Israeli politician, Aryeh Eldad, from the far-right National Union Party, who once advocated the shooting of anybody who crossed Israel’s border with Egypt and is friends with far-right, Dutch politician Geert Wilders, says Israel has key lessons to teach the world.
Eldad believes that it was a mistake to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as territorial with the refugee issues facing Europe since Islam is the problem.
He adds that refugee and Muslims’ high birth-rate would soon extinguish European Christians.
“If they [Europeans] want to keep their national and cultural identity…they will have to prevent further waves of immigrants because they will not be assimilated…We [Israelis] are idiots if we think it isn’t a religious war or clash of ideologies,” he said in a recent interview.
Eldad’s solution included expanding Israeli settlements, which he viewed as “legal” and “necessary,” as well as fortifying Israeli borders. Europe had to respond similarly, he argued, and repel the wave of migrants. Otherwise, it would continue being a “suicidal society,” determined to be overrun by Islam.
In January, my book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe, was published globally in a paperback edition by Verso.
I wrote a piece for my publisher’s popular blog this week on the ever-growing industry of privatised immigration:
The unaccountability of privatised immigration had rarely been so brazen. Australia is the only country in the world to have fully outsourced the detention of all asylum seekers to the private sector. In January, its officials were found to have spent $2.2 billion on offshore detention without necessary authorisation. The Australian National Audit Office damned the Department of Immigration and Border Protection for handing out contracts to corporations on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru in the Pacific that established dangerous and excessively expensive facilities.
The story broke over a long, hot Australian summer. After a few days of headlines, the issue disappeared down the memory hole. No ministers or authorities were fired or reprimanded. Although the wasted billions of dollars were taxpayers money, the public outcry was almost non-existent because many Australians supported its country’s draconian treatment of refugees in far-away, secretive camps. Almost any amount of money is justified to manage these fears and prejudices. Occasionally, journalists report from Manus Island, including Roger Cohen from the New York Times, who reveal the horrors inflicted by indefinite detention on the hundreds of refugees trapped there for years, but too few reporters make the journey.
For more than 20 years, Australia has devised increasingly harsh penalties for asylum seekers who claim their legitimate right to request asylum when fleeing repressive regimes. These are often states that the Australian government has waged war against such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Corporations such as Serco, G4S, Ferrovial and International Health and Medical Services, amongst many others, have made huge amounts of money from the warehousing of refugees despite decades of evidence proving inadequacy and criminality. Boycotting and targeting these firms should be the priority for every committed citizen.
The political winds around the world in 2017 indicate a hardening of minds and hearts towards refugees and Australia has become a global model in how to isolate, target, privatise and demonise asylum seekers. The EU now wants to establish centres in northern Africa, including in war-torn Libya, to process refugees. This is a carbon copy of Australia’s off-shoring of asylum seekers in remote locations away from prying media.
Australia nationalists must be so proud. As I wrote in the Guardian in early 2016:
“In early 2014 I called for UN sanctions against Australia for ignoring humanitarian law and willfully abusing refugees in its case both on the mainland and Nauru and Manus Island. I still hold this view but must recognise facts; the international mood in 2016 for asylum seekers is hostile. As much as I’d like to say that my homeland is a pariah on the international stage, it’s simply not the case.When Denmark recently introduced a bill to take refugees’ valuable belongings in order to pay for their time in detention camps, this was remarkably similar to Australia charging asylum seekers for their stay behind bars. Either directly or indirectly, Europe is following Australia’s draconian lead.”
It’s not hard to see why. In the last few years, many European leaders and the European Union made a conscious decision to belittle asylum seekers and make their lives miserable. Unaccountability rules. In my book, Disaster Capitalism, I investigate the reality for refugees in Britain and Greece during these challenging times. It’s only getting worse. Think of the recent, shocking images of refugees freezing and dying in the Balkans and Greece, unwanted and ignored.
It’s a humanitarian catastrophe with men, women and children fleeing Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Africa. But it’s also a unique way to make money. A revealing report released in late 2016 by the Transnational Institute and Stop Wapenhandel, Borders Wars, found that profits were soaring in the defence and border security industries. The EU border management organization Frontex had a 2016 budget of €238.7 million, a 67.4% increase compared to the €142.6 million in 2015. The report went on:
“It [the Frontex budget] is expected to grow to an estimated €322 million in 2020, 50 times its budget of €6.3 million in 2005. The 2016 budget for the EU’s Internal Security Fund was similarly increased by €116.4 million in October 2015 to a total of €647.5 million. A substantial proportion of these budgets have benefited arms and security corporations in a border security market that is growing at roughly 8% a year. Airbus, Leonardo, Safran and Thales were all in the news in 2016 for border security contracts. IT firms Indra, Advent and ATOS won significant contracts for projects to identify and track refugees.”
Furthermore, security fences are being built on many European borders, benefitting private firms with the expertise in building them (including from Israel with years of caging Palestinians). The Israelification of security is already upon us, with Western police and army getting training from Israeli forces who have decades of experience occupying, targeting and isolating Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. In the last years, Israeli firms have expanded their global reach, exploiting the worldwide desire to copy the Jewish state’s treatment of minorities and its own Arab citizens. The Trump administration is likely to hire Israeli companies to build a wall along the Mexican border.
Mistreating refugees rarely incurs a political price in the 21st century. From Britain to Australia and Afghanistan to Germany, officials are increasingly tasked to look “tough” in the face of legitimate asylum claims. Far-right populism, infused with rampant nationalism, patriotism and anger, has supplanted any strong and viable left-wing alternatives. There are exceptions, of course, but the current worldview trend is towards insularity and punishment of the least fortunate.
President Donald Trump’s announcement to withhold visas for people coming from select Muslims nations – not coincidentally places that the US has bombed for years – is not affecting close US-allies like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia with a higher level of extremism. Along with aggressively kicking out refugees already in the US – many of whom are fleeing US-backed, repressive states such as Honduras, where I visited last year – Trump and his government are heralding an extreme version of disaster capitalism. Private prison companies are licking their lipswith joy. Rich Silicon Valley types are preparing for the end of the world by buying living quarters in redesigned, underground nuclear bunkers. Their tech utopianism apparently has its limits; they fear societal breakdown.
Since my book Disaster Capitalism was released in 2015, I’ve witnessed the deterioration of refugee rights across the world and growing hatred towards them. Corporations sense the public mood and political opportunity and behave accordingly. For example, European Homecare (EHC) is a German company employed by the German government to manage asylum seekers but it’s been engulfed by scandal. In late 2016, a Syrian refuge living near Dusseldorf emailed me information, photos and videos about the abuses being committed by EHC that he had personally witnessed when in detention.
‘Ahmed’, 26, told me about his daily life:
“Every person had a small room with no locks ‘because they cost too much’ and you can’t put locks over the locker to keep your important documents and stuff because it was forbidden and we had something called control. Every morning around 6 am till 8 am, security members and a social worker from EHC enters everyone’s room and look through all the personal things and ask for ID. Sometimes even at midnight. But the daily control happened every morning. Although it’s a military base with perfectly secure gates, security cameras, electric fences and over a hundred security staff, it was tough and humiliating for about 3 months. Not mentioning the multiple times we had robberies inside the camp nearly everyday because of their policy on locks. So you’re basically in the middle of nowhere by the borders. The nearest market is in the Netherlands and you’re not allowed to go there. But you can walk 3 hours back and forth to get your grocery locally. No network coverage. And worst of all was the water issue. You start your day with the lovely control and then head to shower with mud, followed by a nice walk to the cafeteria for a meal. For each meal you have to walk 2 km to get to the cafeteria inside the camp. Of course you need to manage hiding your personal belongings while being away from the room. … The bottled water we had was extremely high in minerals and from a personal experience I know what damage it can cause to the infant’s kidneys. It’s absolutely not meant for babies.”
In an age of walls, militarised fences and attacking minority rights, refugees are both the most vulnerable and easiest target for insecure populations and desperate politicians. Rich, Western democracies sending back asylum seekers to danger, a trend perfected by Israel, Australia, Britain and Germany despite its illegality, is surging. It’s why civil disobedience, company boycotts and divestment and more direct action is essential to resist the global war on asylum seekers. It’s unsurprising that nations with a colonial past, such as Australia, Britain, the US and Israel, are leaders of the pack.
Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based, independent journalist who has written for the Guardian, the New York Times and many others. He is the author of many books including his most recent, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe, now out in paperback.
My following review appears in the US publication Mondoweiss:
Palestine Ltd: Neoliberalism and Nationalism in the Occupied Territory (I.B. Taurus), by Toufic Haddad
The Israeli media barely covers Palestine. Although many local, corporate outlets have “Arab affairs” correspondents, a faintly colonial position that reeks of paternalism, 99.9 percent of Jewish journalists live in Israel proper (or the occupied, Palestinian territories) and barely spend any serious time in Palestine (except when serving in the IDF). The lack of Palestinian perspectives is striking considering the geographic closeness of the two peoples.
With notable exceptions such as Haaretz journalists Amira Hass and Gideon Levy who live in the West Bank or constantly visit it, as well as 972 Magazine, the inevitable outcome is that most Israelis view Palestinians through a security framework. The media reinforces this inherent bias. Palestinians are seen as a foreign threat to be feared or loathed, unless proven otherwise. It’s therefore unsurprising that contact between Israeli Jews and Palestinians is increasingly rare unless occurring at a military checkpoint or Israeli-run, industrial park in the West Bank.
These issues go beyond the Israeli press. I’ve long believed that the more international journalists who live in a city or country the worse the reporting will be. This may be a strange conclusion and counter-factual. Surely the more eyes and ears in one place will improve coverage? In fact, the opposite happens because a herd mentality quickly develops and few journalists, despite convincing themselves otherwise, want to stand out. Think of London, Washington, Canberra and Jerusalem and the lack of distinctive voices emanating from these locations. Too many reporters live and breathe the same air, speak to the same sources, dine in the same places and socialise with the same people. I’m not immune, being a journalist myself, but I’ve spent my professional life rejecting the comforting embrace of stenography reporting.
When I lived in South Sudan in 2015, the lack of critical journalists (or any reporters at all) resulted in a country on the verge of genocide being mostly ignored in the international arena (though of course the state’s strategic importance was tragically far less important than Israel). Embedded journalism, not just the act of working alongside military forces but psychologically aligning oneself with governments and officials while granting them anonymity, is the opposite of adversarial journalism.
It’s shameful that in 2017 the vast bulk of foreign journalists living in Israel and working for corporate media outlets can’t speak proficient Hebrew or Arabic. Barely anybody is permanently based in the West Bank, let alone Gaza.
Isn’t it about time to rely far less on Westerners to explain the Middle East and instead develop and support Arab reporters with more lived and historical understanding? Or utilise Westerners with greater global experience than just working inside insular press galleries? Or how about anti-Zionists, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim, being allowed more airtime? The effect of bubble journalism in Jerusalem is pervasive.
Palestinian voices have never been more essential, especially as 2017 is the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands, and yet Jewish and Zionist, American journalists still play a key role in explaining the conflict to American audiences. Where are the Arab and Palestinian voices to compliment and challenge what Zionists have been claiming in the press for decades? The New York Times still longs for the two-state solution and foolishly thinks it can be saved.
This lack of Palestinian agency in the mainstream media could be so easily corrected. Reading Palestine Ltd and learning from it would be a strong start. Toufic Haddad has produced a stunning indictment of the international consensus over Palestine and the failed Oslo “peace process”. Endorsed by Naomi Klein and recently launched to a full house in East Jerusalem – I attended and found Haddad’s talk compelling in its evidence-based denunciation of the US and foreign donors to the Palestinian cause in the last 20 years – Palestine Ltd paints a grim picture of Palestinian hopes for statehood. Haddad shows how it was killed at birth.
In his introduction, Haddad explains the central thesis on promises made to the Palestinians since the 1990s by the donor community. “Implicit to these interventions”, he writes, “was the notion that the market’s invisible hand would guide Israelis and Palestinians to peace, provided the international community financially and politically backed this arrangement and facilitated the creation of an adequate incentives arrangement. The arrival of these political winds to the conflict-ridden shores of the Palestinian setting through Western donor peacebuilding and statebuilding policies thus set the stage for what happened when ‘an army of fighters for freedom’ faced off against a former army of Palestinian nationalist ‘freedom fighters’, embodied in the PLO.”
Palestine has become a business, a very profitable one, for any number of engaged actors from donors to Western states. “Palestine Ltd can be loosely described as the operational endgame of Western donor development/peacebuilding/statebuilding interventions”, Haddad argues, “with this entity functioning as a variant of a limited shareholding company (Ltd.) with international, regional and local investors of one type or the other.”
The strength of the book is the way it methodically shows how any serious Palestinian autonomy was deliberately designed to fail from the beginning. Many Western donors in the 1990s and now claim that they’re acting in good faith, believing that being pro-Palestinian means funnelling more money into the Palestinian Authority (PA), and yet after decades of entrenched cronyism and Israeli occupation, at what point should the money simply stop, the PA be abolished and Israel forced to manage its own occupation and the people within it? This is a reality that Israel fears and explains why, despite the stream of invective against the PA from Israeli ministers, co-ordination between the PA and Israel is constant and unlikely to end.
Haddad investigates World Bank pronouncements in the 1990s, ideas that became the basis for the failed economic experiment still underway in Palestine. “World Bank economists very obviously ignored reference to the exaggerated political determination of the OPT [occupied Palestinian territories] under a protracted settler, colonial arrangement characterised by the massive social and political upheaval and structural deformities of all kinds.”
This wilful blindness is reminiscent of World Bank and other global financial institutions treating Greece like a punching bag while its economy crashed and people suffered. Little care or interest was given to the precarious state of lives being lost or scarred due to extreme austerity after the 2008 financial crisis. Both the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) carried on regardless of public protest in Greece, governmental opposition and soaring social ills. Privatisation was the supposed panacea. Selling off public assets was the answer. In fact, it failed, as it always does, yet nobody was held to account.
Similarly in Palestine, Haddad reveals that private sector-led “growth” was the World Bank’s priority from the 1990s. Its stated dream was against “turning inwards” and instead backing the need for the West Bank and Gaza to “open up opportunities elsewhere, especially in Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf countries while maintaining open trade relations with Israel.”
In 2016, the UN found that the Palestinian economy would be at least twice as large if the Israeli occupation was lifted. The restriction of goods, people and movement has devastated daily life. In Gaza, the situation is even worse. When I visited in late 2016, I was told by the UN and many civilians that the nearly 10 year-old siege, imposed by Israel, had never been tighter. Egypt has been equally responsible for the dire humanitarian situation.
Gaza is largely ignored by the Israeli media but a recent interview in Haaretz, with a Palestinian living in the West Bank who works on a mobile clinic in Gaza with Physicians for Human Rights, detailed the desperate environment. An Haaretz editorial in January called for an end to Israel’s punishment of the Gaza Strip.
The dominant narrative around Israel/Palestine today is the brutal and effective ways by which the settler movement has come to define both Israel’s present and future. From its perspective, building colonies on Palestinian land has been hugely successful and the numbers of settlers in the West Bank has surged under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Palestine Ltd doesn’t ignore the settlements but its focus is mostly elsewhere. Take Israel’s determination to secure water and energy resources and how this affected its behaviour during the early “peace process” of the 1990s. Haddad interviews Dr Nabil Sha’ath, a top figure in the PLO and the Fatah political party. In a revealing quote, Sha’ath recalls a meeting with former Israeli Minister of Energy Moshe Shahal:
“[Shahal] tried his best to create a relationship with me when I first came in. He came with a Rabin proposal: ‘Let’s share the energy trade, the energy industry and energy transportation.’ ‘What do you mean?’ I said. ‘There is going to be peace’, he said. ‘You are not going to be happy if we simply use that peace to get back the pipelines through Haifa from Saudi Arabia and from Iraq [which were built by the British and stopped operating after the establishment of Israel in 1948]. So I’m suggesting that we go together to the Arabs to share fifty-fifty the export of gas through pipelines that come to Gaza and to Ashdod…To Rabin it looked like the Palestinian Authority was a very necessary component for seeking water and energy from the Arabs.”
More than two decades later, the picture couldn’t be more different. Israel routinely withholds water and electricity from the Palestinian territories, exploits a massive natural gas find off the Gaza Strip and is investigating gas pipelines to Turkey and Greece. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are reliant on the benevolence of their rulers, Israel along with the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.
The deliberate Israeli plan in the last decades to inflame tensions with the Palestinians, and convince both Israelis and the international community that there are no partners for peace on the other side – a view not shared by the Israeli intelligence services – has played out as expected. Hostilities are deepened because they serve political ends. Haddad writes that, “Israel intended to induce a powerful shock-like effect within Palestinian society and leadership alike. This was critical to creating sudden conditions of crisis whose reverberations would be experienced on all levels of Palestinian life, leveraged in both active and passive ways.”
Palestinians are still deemed unworthy of freedom, independence or full rights. Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, the Rupert Murdoch-approved hater of Palestinians and Arabs and supporter of bombing the Muslim world, wrote in early January that Palestinians didn’t deserve a state of their own. The word “occupation” was unsurprisingly absent from his screed.
Palestinians have never forgotten how they’ve been betrayed by the forces that claimed to liberate them from Israeli control. After the 2006 Palestinian election, won by Hamas in a stunning rebuke to the Western-backed, Palestinian Authority, Western donors capitulated to Israeli and US pressure and boycotted the result, imposing a financial and political blockade on the government. Haddad argues that this sent a “clear message to the Palestinian electorate regarding how genuine Western donors were in their demands for Palestinian reform or a liberal peace agreement.”
The Trump administration has the capacity and interest to radically shift the staid alignment of the Israel/Palestine conflict. Mouthing platitudes about the two-state solution is likely to subside or disappear entirely. Israel will increase its settlement project with little or no pressure from Washington. The Palestinian Authority, despite having opponents in the US Congress, is a necessary fig-leaf for Israel’s colonisation project.
Palestine Ltd is both a necessary history lesson and guide for the future if past mistakes and delusions are to be avoided. The current trajectory in Palestine, however, points to political stalemate unless a younger, less corrupt and more capable Palestinian leadership takes power and stops relying on empty Western aid promises.
The following statement was released this week by London-based, The Centre for Investigative Journalism, one of Britain’s leading journalism schools. The statement was then tweeted by one of the world’s leading press freedom groups, The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ):
Thursday 22nd December 2016
The CIJ is deeply concerned with media reports from Israel that Antony Loewenstein’s work visa and freelance press credentials will not be renewed when they expire in March next year.In a democracy, critical voices are essential and should be encouraged, it is unacceptable that he may be forced to leave Israel because of his past statements.
This is a free speech issue and we remind the Israeli government and its supporters that free speech is a cornerstone of any democracy; threatening to remove it is a slippery slope towards authoritarianism.
Loewenstein’s exemplary journalistic record, recognised by leading journalism bodies around the world, deserves to be supported. We hope other organisations dedicated to a free press and the protection of journalists follow suit and make a public statement.
Antony Loewenstein is an internationally recognised, independent journalist who has reported from some of the most challenging places in the world including Afghanistan, Honduras, South Sudan, across the Middle East, Gaza, Palestine/Israel and elsewhere.
He’s been published in the Guardian, New York Times, The Nation, Al Jazeera English and many others. He’s also the author of many books including the best-selling, My Israel Question and his latest book is Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe.
Yesterday I attended a press conference in Jerusalem with one of Israel’s leading politicians, Yesh Atid leader, Yair Lapid. He’s a serious contender to be the country’s next Prime Minister. Like most politicians in Israel, he hates Palestinians, wants them to disappear and largely refuses to condemn settlers or settlements. Welcome to Israel in 2016.
I asked the following question:
“You talked before about the idea that since Oslo, Israel has done little or nothing wrong but the truth is that 2017 is the 50th anniversary of the occupation, there are now 600,00 to 800,000 settlers, all of whom are regarded by international law as illegal. Is there not a deluded idea here that many Israeli politicians, including yourself, continue to believe that one can talk to the world about democracy, freedom and human rights while denying those things to millions of Palestinians and will there not come a time soon where you and other politicians will be treated like South African politicians during Apartheid?”
This was Lapid’s response (already on his party’s Facebook page, the only response they thought was important enough from the conference to quote in full, and the comments below the video are racist and nutty):
It was a depressing and dishonest answer. Furthermore, with a few notable exceptions, the vast majority of journalists in attendance were deferential to Lapid and asked him bland questions. Lapid is a man who proudly talks about building a wall around all Palestinians. Like in so many countries, most reporters rarely challenge establishment power; they’re afraid of losing access.
I was planning on releasing the video of Lapid’s response soon (I hadn’t posted anything online yet about my question and his response) when the Jerusalem Post called me last night and said they were going to run a story about it and would I like to comment? I’m not convinced it’s really a story but many Israelis and its politicians are deeply sensitive to any criticism.
I’ve been writing about Israel and Palestine since 2003, and visiting since 2005 (I now live in Jerusalem), and all that’s worsened is the extremism and vitriol of Israel supporters.
The Post story by Gil Hoffman is below. Note the predictably racist and crazy comments below the article. Soon after this story appeared, I started receiving racist messages from rabid Zionists. It’s a familiar pattern; criticise Israel and its occupation and upset the trolls:
International media outlets like The Guardian are responsible for discouraging the PA leadership from making concessions necessary to end their conflict with Israel, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid said Monday in a meeting with the Foreign Press Association at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel.
Lapid responded to a question that he regarded as hostile from Antony Loewenstein, a Jerusalem-based freelance reporter who writes for the Guardian and other publications.
“You talked before about the idea that since Oslo, Israel has done little or nothing wrong, but the truth is that 2017 is the 50th anniversary of the occupation. There are now 600,000-800,000 settlers, all of whom are regarded by international law as illegal, including your good friends in Amona apparently,” Loewenstein’s question began.
“Is there not a deluded idea here that many Israeli politicians, including yourself, continue to believe that one can talk to the world about democracy, freedom and human rights while denying that to millions of Palestinians, and will there not come a time soon, in a year, five years, ten years, where you and other politicians will be treated like South African politicians during Apartheid?” he asked.
Lapid responded by saying that the question was full of errors and calling it the perfect example of how this is an era that is “post-truth and post-facts.”
“It’s a declared policy of Israel that we need to go to a two-state solution and the ones who refused it were the Palestinians,” Lapid said. “The ones who call Jews pigs and monkeys in their school books are the Palestinians. The problem is that the Palestinians are encouraged by the Guardian and others saying we don’t need to do anything in order to work for our future because the international community will call Israel an apartheid country.”
Lapid said that Israel is not an apartheid country but rather a law-abiding democracy, and that unlike the Palestinian leadership, Israel was making sure the Palestinians’ human rights are protected.
“Why don’t you go to the Palestinian Authority or to Gaza and ask them about women’s rights, gay rights, Christian rights,” Lapid told the reporter.
Loewenstein told The Jerusalem Post that he found Lapid’s answer “deeply disappointing and dishonest.” He said Lapid “showed little difference between himself and [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and was unwilling to say anything of substance about the current Israeli leadership.”
Responding to another question about his defense of the people of Amona, Lapid said there was a difference between supporting them and showing them empathy.
“Their life’s dream is falling apart, and they’re not the enemy,” he said.
But Lapid told the crowd that he was still planning on voting against the settlements regulation bill, which he said would hurt Israel in the international community and harm the stature of the Supreme Court.
“We can’t allow this in a democratic country,” he said. “It would have a hard time passing, and if it did pass, it would be disqualified by the Supreme Court and rightly so.”
According to one source present at the event, reporters shouted at Lapid for repeatedly refusing to criticize the prime minister, as is his policy when speaking to English-language media. But Reuters bureau chief Luke Baker denied that anyone shouted at him. When asked how he was different from Netanyahu, he said that when it comes to separating from the Palestinians, he “means business.”
“Separating from the Palestinians is essential for Israel’s future, and if I am in a position to do it, I will, because I am a patriot,” he said.
Later, at a meeting of the Yesh Atid faction, Lapid strongly criticized Netanyahu in Hebrew for his initiative to make political appointments easier. He said Netanyahu was not making an effort to help the poor but was instead trying to help his political cronies.
“What should a young person in Kiryat Shmona or Kiryat Gat who studied for a degree think when they find out that what matters to get work is political connections?” Lapid asked. “[Netanyahu] forgot the citizens of the state, because all that matters to our politicians is politics and political patronage positions.”
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog also criticized Netanyahu in his Zionist Union faction meeting. Referring to an interview the prime minister gave on the American show 60 Minutes, he said he was glad Netanyahu still supports a two-state solution when he is speaking in English.
Herzog’s Zionist Union rival, MK Erel Margalit, slammed him in an Army Radio interview Monday, calling him “not relevant at all” and saying that he is “not the opposition to Netanyahu but his coalition in-waiting.”
During the 2014 conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Yosrah Kafarnah feared for her family’s life. Situated in Beit Hanoun, a town close to the Israeli border that was the site of fierce fighting throughout the seven-week war, they fled to a nearby school for protection. Run by UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency), Kafarnah was with her husband, Imad, and their two children. Israel attacked the school so they went to another one. “Gazans thought that UNRWA spaces were safe,” she tells me.
“I was scared when I saw fighting between Israel and Hamas,” she says, now sitting in her caravan, a temporary home made of tin that became semi-permanent. An Israeli surveillance blimp hovers in the sky as Imad explains how he carried injured people to hospital during the bombardment. “I thought I was going to die,” he says.
A 2015 UN report found that Israel struck seven sites designated as civilian shelters in the 2014 Gaza war, killing 44 Palestinians and injuring 227. No Israelis have been charged for these incidents, or any attacks, during the war.
Beit Hanoun was particularly badly hit in the 2014 conflict and 70 per cent of its housing became uninhabitable. Today, sand, rubbish and discarded clothes remain strewn across the ground but the UAE, Qatar and the Maldives have funded some reconstruction. The Kafarnah family, like many I meet, live in shoddy caravans that are bitterly cold in the winter and extremely hot in summer.
The UN provides the bare minimum of oil, milk and wheat flour every three months, while the ruling Hamas government distributes a small amount of cash every quarter.
It is a desperate existence. Imad is unable to work due to a decade-old injury and he doesn’t want his wife to work because of the potential gossip in the community if she talks to unrelated men. It is a deeply conservative and religious area where men and women, who are not family, rarely mix. The couple have decided not to have another child because of their financial situation.
The precariousness of their existence deepened after Hamas recently ordered them to leave the caravan by the end of last month, because they want to build a market at the location. “I refused to sign the eviction papers,” Yosrah says. “Our caravan is in good shape and we are not told where to go. We cannot pay rent [at another place].”
Families in Beit Hanoun, many with up to 10 children, were told by the UN and Hamas after 2014 that they would have their houses rebuilt, but Israel and Egypt’s crushing siege of almost 10 years of the Gaza Strip ruined those plans. Furthermore, political infighting between Hamas and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA), corruption within Hamas and the UN, and a reconstruction plan that was arguably designed to fail from the beginning, have all contributed to today’s parlous state of affairs.
Gaza has experienced three wars in the past decade, each more devastating than the last. I last visited Gaza in 2009, six months after Israel’s Operation Cast Lead. I found an enclosed territory and population struggling to adapt to Hamas rulers and recovering from devastated homes and lives.
The 2014 conflict, that killed more than 2,250 Palestinians – hundreds of them children – and left thousands permanently injured, along with the deaths of 67 Israeli soldiers and six Israeli civilians, still reverberates in Gaza; another war, just around the corner, is always feared.
According to the UN, more than 96,000 housing units were either destroyed entirely or in part during the 2014 war. During the conflict, 500,000 people – one quarter of the population – were internally displaced with nowhere to go.
In a report last year, the UN feared that Gaza could be “uninhabitable” within five years on current economic trends (though many Gazans worried it would happen earlier). Unemployment is at least 44 per cent and three-quarters of the population are threatened by hunger.
These struggles are ubiquitous across Beit Hanoun and the Strip. Farmers tend their small fields while dealing with frequent Israeli gunfire. Skin diseases appear on children’s arms and legs due to unhygienic conditions. Inside dirty caravans, cockroaches scurry around boxes of food. Disabled children barely leave their rooms because their families cannot afford care. One mother tells me that she often refused to send her son to school in the winter because his clothes were always wet. I see horrible scarring on a child’s buttock after a makeshift fire ran out of control. Cancer rates are up and bed wetting for children is common.
The social fabric of society is strained. The NGO Aisha Foundation reports that sexual abuse and domestic violence are soaring and yet the Hamas government wants to restrict public discussion about it. Executive director Reem Frainah says “women are not enslaved here”, but also that “there’s no equality between men and women. There are no laws to determine boundaries between the genders.”
In another caravan, with rotting floors, fraying equipment and dangerous gas stoves, Samaher Al Shenbari was recently told by Hamas that her dwelling would be destroyed to make way for a wedding hall. She opposed the forced relocation because there was nowhere to go. She says many of her family’s children have not accepted that their home was destroyed during the 2014 conflict and they suffer psychologically and physically because of the loss. “We want a new house,” she tells me. “We want all our families living together in one home.” She talks with a newborn baby cradled in her arms.
The Gaza Strip is unlike anywhere else in occupied Palestine. Its two million residents were punished after 2006 for voting the “wrong” party into power. Hamas defeated the American- and Israeli -backed PA and, since 2007 when Hamas assumed power, Egypt and Israel have imposed a stifling economic blockade on the territory, restricting goods and the movement of people. This year has seen a precipitous decline in Israeli permits granted for Gazans to leave and Egypt’s Rafah border is rarely open. Exports are minimal and the import of essential building materials is negligent. Economic activity barely operates because Israel has rescinded countless permits for businesspeople entering and leaving Gaza.
I meet countless Gazans who are literally trapped, constantly refused permission to travel abroad or into Israel to study, live or seek medical care. After Israel recently charged a Palestinian man in Gaza from the Christian charity World Vision with diverting tens of millions of dollars to Hamas – allegations challenged by his employer and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – Israel tightened its travel restrictions on Palestinians in Gaza working for NGOs.
Some Gazans, who can afford it, pay bribes to Hamas and Egyptian officials to put them at the top of the list when the Rafah crossing occasionally opens. Birth rates have declined in Gaza due to the hardships.
After the 2014 war, the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM) was established by the UN, Israel and the PA to facilitate rebuilding. The main donors are the Netherlands, Canada, Norway, Britain and South Korea. NGO Aid Watch Palestine, which calls for the GRM to be replaced by a more accountable system, has assessed that “the GRM transfers enforcement of Israel’s policing to the UN and the PA, thus making the UN and the PA involved with Palestinian human rights violations, particularly the blockade on Gaza, which is a form of illegal collective punishment”.
Aid Watch co-director Haneen Elsammak tells me in Gaza that her group was started after the 2014 war because it was always foreign NGOs along with international groups, and not Palestinians, following the massive amount of aid money flowing into Gaza. Palestinians were rarely given control over their own lives.
UNRWA director in Gaza, Bo Schack, refuses to use the term “collective punishment” with me when describing the situation in Gaza. Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam all condemn the blockade as “collective punishment”. He notes the UN in the past 12 months has rebuilt 1,300 homes and provides rent money to many residents. He acknowledges a US$70 million (Dh257m) shortfall for vital activities at a time when the Middle East is suffering multiple conflicts.
Schack says that when he started his job in Gaza in 2015, 850,000 Palestinians were receiving food assistance. “Today we are almost at one million,” he explains, “and that means we are supporting half the total population of Gaza.”
Israel is tightening its blockade on Gaza and in the last months has barely allowed any materials in at all, including cement and civilian infrastructure. Many builders tell me that they have fired countless workers this year because there is no work.
Contractor Saadi A S Salama says employees come to him crying because they desperately needed work to support their families. Private contractors have protested in the streets over the lack of goods getting through the borders.
Why has reconstruction largely failed? Engineer Ali K Abu Shahla says in his office in Gaza City, after spending decades working with Palestinian authorities, that, “even today, there is no plan for Gaza reconstruction”. He attended a key meeting in Jerusalem after the 2014 war where a process was drafted to reconstruct Gaza. However, it was proposed to include six people from the West Bank and only one from Gaza.
“I asked [then] why people involved were not from Gaza, why the major individuals had no experience or eyes and ears in Gaza,” he says.
The PA and Israel had little interest in helping the people of Gaza in the faint hope that a desperate population would overthrow the ruling Hamas regime.
To get a new home approved is still a tortuous process. Coordinates of the new property are sent to a committee and a group of both Israelis and Palestinians must approve it. According to Abu Shahla, “Israel has no right to veto properties but they keep projects ‘under construction’ for months and years”.
This committee allows Israel to know the GPS coordinates of all new structures, which many locals say could be used by Israel as targets in any future war, along with every contractor’s name and address.
The “dual use” list includes thousands of goods that Israel claims can be used for military purposes, but Israeli NGO Gisha argues that it “includes items whose use is overwhelmingly civilian and critical for civilian life”. Cement, steel and other major construction materials are allowed to enter Gaza by Israel if they are produced by Israeli companies. Israel is profiting after causing the bulk of Gaza’s destruction, and heavily taxing the goods they allow in.
Khalil Shaheen, director of economic and social rights with the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza, condemns the “dual use” list as inhumane. “Hamas may be using materials for tunnels, but what can I do as a Gazan civilian?”, he asks me. “Should I wait 15 years for a new home? Israel has a legal responsibility to protect civilians.”
A former NGO director for Gaza explains the Israeli rationale: “Their policy and approach is to put Gaza on the starvation diet and make things bad, but not so bad that it would lead to revolution or [a] swing of support in their favour internationally.”
Israeli defence minister Avigdor Lieberman recently told a Palestinian newspaper that Israel was willing to lift its blockade on Gaza, “if Hamas stops digging tunnels, rearming and firing rockets”. He claimed Israel would build an airport, port and industrial areas.
The future of Gaza remains tenuous. With Hamas leadership elections early next year, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in his 80s, and Israel reaching 50 years occupying Palestinian lands in 2017, Palestinian autonomy feels like a distant dream. Gaza’s humanitarian crisis reveals that without stronger international pressure, the territory will wither.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist based in East Jerusalem.