Weeks after the bombardment of Gaza, analysts are asking how to weaken Hamas, rather than writing that one-fifth of Gazans now live without running water to wash their hands during a Covid epidemic. Israel’s blockade is obstructing precisely the materials needed to repair the infrastructure that Israeli planes bombed in May.
Those analysts think that the aftermath of bombardment must be the restoration of the status quo ante – a resumption of the way things were before. As a UN member and donor state, Aotearoa-NZ acts the same way. We have one eye on Israel’s status quo interests, and the other eye closed. We have no policy for Palestinians except as the objects of Israel’s regime.
Even former UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon wants such policies to change.
“Israel has pursued a policy of incremental de facto annexation in the territories it has occupied since 1967… This is not a conflict between equals… a powerful state is controlling another people through an open-ended occupation, settling its own people on the land in violation of international law and enforcing a legal regime of institutionalised discrimination. Calls for a return to unconditional bilateral talks every time there is a fresh flare-up in fighting will only serve to perpetuate the status quo if these root causes are not addressed. What has become increasingly clear in recent years is Israel’s intent to maintain its structural domination and oppression of the Palestinian people through indefinite occupation… a situation that arguably constitutes apartheid. It is now time for the international community to recognise and confront the consequences of Israel’s policies and actions in this regard.”
What if we based our policy on justice? What might a future-facing policy be, and where can we begin?
One eye on power: stabilising injustice
As a UN member and a small donor state, our government waits for two states to sprout from decades of systemic injustice (Alternative Jewish Voices takes no position on any number of states. That is a decision for citizens to make). In the meantime, we relate to Israel as our equal in legitimacy and sovereignty, needing no action from us to bring any solution closer.
Far from criticising Israel’s “structural domination and oppression of the Palestinian people through indefinite occupation,” as a donor we agree to defray Israel’s costs, and manage the humanitarian results. We do this particularly in Gaza, the stubborn heart of Palestinian resistance and the target of Israel’s purest punishment.
Our interest in the status quo makes Palestinians appear as disruptors, destabilisers. We send them the most passive forms of assistance. Elsewhere, aid recipients are told to work for their food, while to Palestine refugee camps we send relief food. We tell educated, eager Palestinian workers to wait quietly. We do not invest in food production or food sovereignty.
A sack of flour requires no political analysis. Passive relief sees only impoverished people. It does not ask what made them poor, why Gaza has scattered economic activity rather than any coherent economy to speak of, or why Palestinians are so determined to overthrow the status quo. A sack of flour can sustain life, but without analysis it says nothing about change.
Because we screen out the politics of cause and reduce Palestinians to a humanitarian problem, we find ourselves speaking absurdly. Palestinians must recognise the Israel which excludes them, while Israel need not recognise Palestinians’ most basic human rights. We speak of Israel’s right to self-defense while the defense of Palestinians – who bear the overwhelming share of casualties – goes unspoken. We speak of Israeli civilian space while we discount Gazan civilian protections. We deny Palestinian statehood because Palestinians do not fully control their territory. Yes, exactly, and Ban Ki Moon has done a good job of explaining why that is so.
Policy grounded in law
When pressed, our leaders fall back on a learned helplessness. They ask for the violence to stop, and they throw up their hands as if there were nothing we could do.
We greatly underestimate the role we already play. Rewards – and peace proposals – have been cast in donor states’ neoliberal terms, asking Palestinians to forfeit their rights and their politics in exchange for investment in a normalised, occupied life. See for example Toufic Haddad. Donors and diplomats reward the political and business elites who take up that offer. We ignore their illegitimacy and their obstruction of other leadership.
We overlook entirely the leverage we would have if we upheld the laws and conventions that we have signed. Surely, any just policy begins by upholding the law.
UN Special Rapporteur and Associate Professor of Law Michael Lynk wrote in his October, 2019 report (A/74/507)
“No occupation in the modern world has been conducted with the international community so alert to its many grave breaches of international law, so knowledgeable about the occupier’s obvious and well-signalled intent to annex and establish permanent sovereignty, so well-informed about the scale of suffering and dispossession endured by the protected population under occupation, and yet so unwilling to act upon the overwhelming evidence before it… [T]he international community possesses a great deal of power to ensure a positive, durable and just solution to the occupation.”
Lynk details the record of illegality, the treaties which oblige us to act today, and the characteristics of countermeasures that have worked elsewhere. The law is ours and we have neglected it.
When states are negligent in their duty, civil society leads – and civil society is not beholden to power politics. America has no veto here.
Irish government and opposition parties recently adopted a unanimous motion condemning what they called Israel’s de facto annexation of the West Bank. A Sinn Fein foreign affairs spokesperson called it “a true reflection of the strength of feeling in this country at the treatment of the Palestinian people by the apartheid state of Israel.”
Civil society can lead government to the podium to speak about justice. Let’s do that. Let’s begin with a parliamentary debate that requires our elected representatives to publically state their positions.
If we ceased bowing to power and instead upheld international law, we would merely be meeting our obligations. As a small state heavily reliant on a rules-based order, we would also be acting in self-interest.
A future-facing policy for Palestinians, especially for Gaza
Our current policy views Palestinians through the eye of Israel’s security regime. We have adopted the view from outside the blockade wall. That wall lumps two million Gazans into a single enemy object, to be subdued by means of violence and hunger management.
The very nicest thing you can say about that view is that it doesn’t work. It doesn’t even stabilise. No one is deterred, no one runs out of weapons or stops using the weapons they have. Less politely, our policy notices only two kinds of Palestinians, the violent and the victims. It denies that a society of recognisable, whole persons lives behind those walls. We do not ask what it means to be stateless, to never travel 50 or more kilometers, or to be born behind walls as one million Gazans have been born – condemned before birth, because they are Palestinian.
Shame on us for wearing the wall’s dehumanising blinders so meekly.
A future-facing policy must see Palestinians as whole human beings: parents, people of every gender, professionals or job-seekers or students, people who live with chronic illness or physical disability, manufacturers and artists, scientists and poets, political actors and agents of their own future, citizens as of right and integral partners to any solution. Why have we no policy that addresses Palestinians as whole people?
When we open both eyes and identify with Palestinians, we see how differently they live. For me Gaza’s waste is particularly bitter because, as a society, Gaza has so much of what it needs to thrive: mutual assistance, social cohesion under terrible pressure, one of the world’s highest literacy rates. Their achievement delineates the thing that is being withheld: their right to live normally. Justice would place this set of rights at the center of our policy. We would not stabilise Gazans’ avoidable deprivation. We would demand their decent life prospects as we demand prospects for ourselves.
Water offers our policy-makers a starting point.
We in Aotearoa-NZ argue about water as taonga and commodity, its management and beauty and quality, our access and enjoyment and consumption. We agree that water is essential, a basic human right, necessarily shared.
The World Health Organisation says that every person needs 100 litres of water per day, for consumption and other uses. West Bank Palestinians have access to only 90.5 litres of water each day. 650,000 illegal Israeli settlers in the West Bank receive six times more water than 2.8 million West Bank Palestinians.
In 2018 Gazans had access to 83 litres per capita, just 80% of the water that we all need to live. Click here and scroll down to Fact Sheet #187 (6/29/21) to read how extensively Israel’s May 2021 bombardment damaged Gaza’s water infrastructure. One in five Gazans no longer has running water at all, while each Israeli consumes 230 litres per day. Statistics and further detail here.
There is water in the space between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. The problem is that Israel has forcibly fragmented the space, giving Israelis vastly greater entitlements than Palestinians – including entitlement to the water resources on occupied Palestinian land. The problem is not an absolute lack of water. The problem is the endless, violent denial of Palestinian rights and sovereignty.
Donors, I’m sure, are right now negotiating the entry of additional truckloads of bottled water to Gaza and paying all the requisite fees in Israeli currency. They are stabilising the regime that permitted Gazans only 80% of the water they need to live. I welcome every delivery, ever drop, because water is urgently needed to sustain life – but this is not good enough.
The withholding of the human right to water is not altered by those stabilising trucks. Each truck reinforces Israel’s structural power to deprive. The blockade will not be fixed at the margins.
A policy of water justice would begin with Palestinians’ equal, non-negotiable right to clean water. It would refuse to engage normally with any regime that differentiates water rights ethnically. It would recognise the national right of Palestinians to manage the water resources on land that we and the UN recognise as Palestinian land, temporarily occupied.
Finally, alongside law and rights, a justice policy would reach for the holistic justice of belonging.
Our stabilising policies don’t promote transformational work. We acknowledge our own colonial legacy but we do nothing to promote Palestinian (or Israeli) decolonising projects. Our policy should enable the inclusive voices that are narrating a better way forward.
Alternative Jewish Voices supports the kaupapa and the mahi of the One State Democratic Campaign as a dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis about decolonising their shared future. We read authors like Noura Erekat who writes that, unlike settler-colonising erasure, the Palestinian demand to fully belong is a broadening, inclusive vision.
We in Aotearoa-NZ are so well placed to speak from ongoing experience about this possibility, this abundance of belonging. If we articulated a Palestine policy in that voice, it would carry so much further than our aid budgets.
Alternative Jewish Voices