Palestinians around the world have been nervously watching their TVs, WhatsApp groups, and social media this week as Israeli armed forces stepped up their attacks in occupied Jerusalem (on the Al Aqsa Mosque compound and in the city), the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, and as Israeli settlers rampage through Palestinian areas.
The question on everyone’s mind is this: will we see a repeat of last spring’s war on Palestinians? Will these attacks continue to intensify? Is it even accurate to call this an escalation, when the past months, years, decades have seen constant increases in violent attacks on Palestinians and ever-spreading colonisation and land grabs? A Palestinian friend said to me this week: ‘We talk about ‘escalations’, but we don’t know where one ends and the next one begins.’
While it’s unclear how the current situation will unfold, the broader context is vital to keep in sight, no matter which direction things take.
Israel Regularly Targets Palestinian Religious and Cultural Sites
Israel’s attacks on the Al Aqsa compound over the past week have been particularly devastating, taking place during Ramadan, which has been a point of great distress for many. But this should be seen against the larger backdrop of a constant Israeli assault on Palestinian sites and practices of religious, cultural, and national significance.
Palestinian access to Al Aqsa is regularly blocked by Israeli forces, through closures around the compound itself, but also by restrictions on Palestinian movement. These restrictions impact Palestinian Christians too, whether they are in the Gaza Strip and denied access to Jerusalem and Bethlehem for Christmas, or for Orthodox Easter this weekend, when Israeli authorities intend to limit access to holy sites. In some years past, the Israeli government has flooded the international press with tales of how it ‘generously’ grants permits to Palestinians to travel to Jerusalem for holidays.
The significant point here is Israel’s blocks on Palestinian movement in the first place. Why should Palestinians need permits to access their own religious and cultural sites in their own homeland? Sami Abou Shahadeh, a Palestinian politician, said it best this week: ‘We own our mosques and churches, we own every stone we have inherited from our ancestors, and we’ll continue to celebrate our traditions no matter the plans of those who support an Apartheid regime from the river to the sea.’
Israel doesn’t only limit Palestinian movement within its borders. The majority of the Palestinian people live in exile as refugees, denied any access to their land. Palestinians in exile of all faiths are kept out of their homeland as thousands of foreign tourists stream into the country for holidays, at great financial benefit to the Israeli tourism industry.
The many holy sites in Palestine are not only for religious observance—they are a part of the national heritage of Palestine. In an interview last week, the Palestinian poet Mohammed El-Kurd spoke to this point, recalling spending time in the courtyard of Al Aqsa reviewing for school exams.
Attacks on Palestinian religious sites are a part of the colonial assault on Palestinian public space and national identity, in the same way that Israel has targeted Palestinian museums and theatres with closures and attacks. Such actions are a part of an attempt to separate Palestinians from their heritage and history, and to make even their participation in public cultural life a struggle.
Settler-Colonialism Is Deepening
One of the most terrifying parts of last spring’s assault on Palestinians was how settlers took to the streets across historic Palestine to show their force. From the far-right ‘flag marches’ in Jerusalem to the mobs descending on so-called mixed cities like Akka and Yafa, Israeli settlers are becoming more organised and brazen.
And what’s stopping them? At best, in almost all cases, Israeli police and military turn the other cheek while settlers burn Palestinian trees and fields, attack villages, or march through Palestinian neighbourhoods chanting ‘death to Arabs’. In some cases, police and the military actively accompany settler marches and grant them access to Palestinian areas.
Over the past year, settler attacks on Palestinians have become so frequent that they are difficult to keep track of, and settlement expansion continues, from the Naqab to Jerusalem to Nablus. Settlement expansion is not only about building new settler homes. It often begins with violent attacks on Palestinian communities which try to keep them from accessing their agricultural lands, or with the demolition of Palestinian homes and properties by bulldozers (some made by British company JCB) accompanied by soldiers or armed police.
When Palestinians protest, as they inevitably and rightly do, they are targeted with violence and arrest. This includes active protestors, but also journalists, medics, and more often than not, children. A large number of children in Israeli military detention are from villages close to sites of settlement expansion. Arresting children is one of Israel’s long-used tactics to frighten Palestinian communities to keep them from protesting more.
Armed Violence Is at the Core of Israel’s Apartheid Regime
As in other colonial situations, at the core of all this oppression is armed violence, whether it’s soldiers attacking worshippers in Al Aqsa, the violent invasion of Jenin this month, or the bombardment of the besieged Gaza Strip. But armed violence is not limited to periods of ‘escalation’.
Palestinian fishermen off the Gaza coast are regularly attacked by Israeli gunboats. In the occupied West Bank, military forces raid Palestinian villages, cities, and refugee camps, creating a constant flow of injuries and funerals. Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are not shielded from violent attacks by Israeli police, nor does the presence of a handful of Palestinian members in the Israeli Knesset protect them, as apartheid-apologists like to claim.
Israel’s military might does not exist in a vacuum. The Israeli arms industry is prolific, making Israel one of the top exporters of military technology in the world. Sales of Israeli military technology (including sophisticated spyware) are boosted by the revolving door between the Israeli military, military industries, and high-tech sector, providing Israeli weapons companies with a readymade sales-pitch for their ‘combat-proven’ weapons—which means that they were tried and tested on Palestinians under occupation.
Israel’s arms industry and military forces also get a massive boost by importing weapons from other military powers, including Britain. Since 2016, the UK government has approved over £400 million worth of arms exports to Israel, for items like drones, missiles, parts for military aircraft, assault rifles, shotguns, grenade launchers, machine guns, and small arms ammunition.
Over the past week, UK officials have called for ‘calm and restraint’, all while continuing to send arms to the state that maintains a brutal military occupation and widespread violence and armed repression. The UK is no innocent bystander in any place to call for calm—if such calls had even an ounce of sincerity, the first step would be to stop the arms trade with Israel.
Palestinian Resistance Has Not Subsided; Neither Can Our Solidarity
Despite this deep-seated and systemic violence, Palestinian resistance to settler-colonialism, occupation, and apartheid has not subsided: from mass mobilisations against home demolitions in the Naqab, to community tree planting in areas at risk of settler land grabs, to the defiance of Palestinian youth (and elders) who refuse to cede space to settlers and police in Jerusalem. As I write this, hundreds of Palestinian political prisoners are undertaking historic mass action in protest over arbitrary detention, a central piece of Israel’s colonial incarceration regime. Against all odds, Palestinians continue to demand freedom and self-determination, extending a call for solidarity to people of conscience around the world.
We need to take to the streets in numbers to uplift the Palestinian struggle against apartheid, and to demand of our government that it end its complicity. We’ll be doing just that on Friday 22 April, in an emergency protest outside the Israeli embassy in London, and again on 14 May (Nakba Day), raising the call to end apartheid for a free Palestine. With our current government’s seemingly endless stream of legislation limiting our right to protest, to call for accountability, and to show solidarity, we need to demonstrate that nothing can keep us quiet when it comes to Palestinian liberation.