70 years after the catastrophe of dispossession and expulsion the blood of Palestine is still being shed
THE pre-dawn call to prayer wafted from a nearby mosque as I left the Palestinian city of Ramallah for the airport in Tel Aviv, Israel. It was just hours after 136 missiles fired from US, British and French aircraft carriers landed on suspected chemicals weapons facilities in Syria, less than 500 kilometres to the north of Ramallah.
The assault was in response to claims by the western powers that the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies had used chlorine gas against civilians in rebel controlled parts of Douma, a town near the Syrian capital, Damascus. All three denied they had used chemical weapons just as the rebel forces were in the process of surrender and evacuation from the town.
Amid claim and counter-claim in the seven year Syrian war, one indisputable fact remains constant. The continuing abuse of the human rights of the people of Palestine, under occupation by Israeli military forces since 1948, is a direct consequence of the interference by the US and the same former colonial powers, Britain and France, in their country and their lives for many decades.
As the key strategic ally and regional policeman for the US in the Middle East, as well as one of the largest recipients of its military aid, Israel can ignore countless UN resolutions and calls for an end to its illegal occupation as long as Washington turns a blind eye, and even encourages, its behaviour.
Six million Palestinians have been forced to flee to neighbouring countries and many further afield, beginning with the first invasion following the creation of the state of Israel with the blessing of the major powers in 1948 and the violent and bloody seizure of their lands. Six million remain scattered across the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem in a country pockmarked by Israeli-built walls and illegal settlements, constant checkpoints and multiple methods of humiliation.
The 70th anniversary of that ‘catastrophe’, or ‘Nakba’ takes place in May when Israelis will celebrate their national day and the US will endorse the occupation with a ceremony to mark the recent controversial decision by the Trump administration to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Controversial because most members of the United Nations believe that the status of Jerusalem, which Palestinians believe should be the location of their capital, can only be determined following a negotiated two-state solution.
As the Israelis prepare to celebrate, the people of the besieged Gaza strip have engaged in unarmed protests on recent Fridays over their ‘Right to Return’ to the lands from which they were forcibly removed during the Nakba of 1948, and in every decade since.
By the night of Friday 13th April, on the eve of my departure from Ramallah some 35 Palestinian protestors had been killed and more than 1,500 wounded by live ammunition fired by Israeli army snipers from behind a security fence in the Gaza strip. Among them was journalist, Yaser Murtaja, a 30-year-old photographer and cameraman, who was killed near Khan Yunis during the second Friday (6th April) of the “Great March of Return”. A co-founder of Ain Media in Gaza, Murtaja had worked for local and international media, including Al Jazeera.
The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) claimed he was a member of Hamas, the political movement that controls what is left of Gaza, with Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman wrongly alleging that he was flying a drone near the border with Israel. His friends, colleagues and the International Federation of Journalists accused Lieberman and his government of “fabricating lies to justify murder.”
As the toll of Palestinian dead and wounded in Gaza continued to mount, delegates from all over the world, including religious, political and trade union representatives converged on Ramallah to attend a three-day conference on the future of Jerusalem, among them the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Micheál MacDonncha. I was invited to attend as a representative of SIPTU while a former senior Irish diplomat in Palestine and a professor from UCD also attended.
Less than 24 hours before the Dublin mayor was due to land in Tel Aviv airport Dublin City Council had voted to support the campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel which many in the various solidarity campaigns in support of the Palestinian people believe could prove as effective as the boycott of South African goods was in the struggle against apartheid in the 1980s and 1990s. The council also voted for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to Ireland in response to the killing of unarmed protestors in Gaza over recent weeks.
When word reached the Israeli authorities of the vote and of the mayor’s imminent arrival at Tel Aviv airport they decided to prevent him from attending the conference due to his endorsement of the BDS motion. They told local media that he would be sent back to Ireland on arrival. In their haste, however, the Israeli Strategic Affairs ministry sent the wrong name to the airport security office with the result that MacDonncha reached Ramallah before the authorities realised he had passed through their airport unimpeded. It emerged that the first name of person they were waiting to deport was wrongly named Ard Mhéara (the Irish for Lord Mayor).”
“Rumours of my refusal are untrue. I’m in the hotel in Ramallah preparing for the conference,” MacDonncha said when he was contacted over the Israeli statement that he had been prevented from attending the conference.
The embarrassment for Israeli security, which prides itself on its all-powerful technological and intelligence prowess, provided much humorous fodder for Palestinian and international commentators, including across social media. It also resulted in greater international attention on the conference and its deliberations than would otherwise have been expected.
Not so widely reported was the denial of access, mainly at the Jordanian border of almost 50 people, or one third of the delegates, to the Ramallah conference.
The security failure also contributed to an outburst from Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, concerning a former Grand Mufti of Palestine, Haj Amin al-Husseini, whose image was used on conference material and whom had controversially met with Adolf Hitler in 1938.
The Irish ambassador to Israel, Alison Kelly, was summoned to the Israeli foreign ministry over the mayor’s attendance at the conference and the Dublin City Council motions. The row reached absurd proportions when several leading Jewish historians criticised Netanyahu for distorting history by claiming that al-Husseini had first planted the notion of the extermination of the Jews in Europe to Hitler. They pointed out that the widespread murder of Jewish people had commenced before the Grand Mufti had met Hitler. It was Hitler, they said, who had proposed the ‘Final Solution’ which culminated in the Holocaust, many years earlier.
In the course of his visit, the Lord Mayor visited his counterpart, the Palestinian minister for Jerusalem Affairs, Adnan Husseini, who described how the Israeli occupation has led to the incursion on the historic religious sites in the Holy City.
In February, the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches closed the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the tomb of Jesus Christ is located, in response to a threat by the Israeli authorities to impose punitive taxes on their lands in the city.
Following a confrontation with armed Palestinians in July, 2017, the Israeli police installed metal detectors and CCTV cameras in the compound. This led to widespread protests as Israel was accused of violating the status quo by imposing unnecessary security measures. Palestinian worshippers staged a sit-in outside the compound wall in protest and clashes with the military over two weeks left six dead and thousands injured. After 11 days of protests, Israel relented and removed the intrusive structures.
“The Israelis have a proposal and timetable to take over Christian and Islamic sites in Jerusalem. The occupation is spreading by stealth and they are trying to rid the city and the lands around it step by step. There are now 600,000 illegal settlers on our land and their plan is to reach one million by 2030. There is no peace agenda. You cannot make peace without respect,” Adnan Husseini said.
In his address to the closing session of the conference, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said that the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel meant that it could not be considered any longer as a neutral or honest broker of any peace process in the Middle East, if it ever was one in the first place.
He called for an international conference comprising of countries with a genuine interest in securing a two-state solution, with East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. At the rate of expansion of the all-pervasive Israeli occupation such a peace effort cannot come too soon.