1967-2017: 50 years of a remorseless Occupation

By Harry Hagopian
June 11, 2017

"All people are born free, and all people squirm for freedom", says Shireen in Ben Ehrenreich’s The Way to the Spring, about which more later.

But let us begin somewhere else. A few days ago, many Arabs commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Arab-Israeli Six Day War that resulted in an unmitigated disaster for the warring Arab nations of Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Spurred on by a false sense of pan-Arab nationalism that was rich in slogans and rhetoric but painfully wanting in weight or substance, all three Arab nations lost large chunks of territory. While 1948, and the creation of the State of Israel, was described by Arabs as their Nakba (catastrophe), 1967 became their Naksa (setback) and provided Israel the fulcrum of credibility for its future.

One consequence of this Naksa is that Palestinians for the past 50 years have been seeking for self-determination. They have been striving to build a proper state, with its sovereign trappings, on lands that were held by Jordan before the war in 1967. They have gone through multiple processes in order to incarnate their hopes. These have included terrorist attacks against Israel and other countries, followed by irenic initiatives (the most notorious being the Oslo process). But they have also settled in the last decade into a state of political torpor. Their ambitions for an independent state, living in peace next to Israel, were not made any easier by the fact that the world lost some of its concern for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a result of the Arab uprisings which erupted in 2010 and blazed across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

Since 2010 in fact, the geostrategic priorities of the Arab and world leaders have been far more focused on Syria, Iraq, Libya, Tunisia, and other countries rather than on the likelihood of a puny Palestinian state rising phoenix-like from the ashes of 1948 and later 1967. Palestinian deep divisions and internecine squabbles have not facilitated this dream either. Nor have the illegal settlements which have voraciously spread their predatory tentacles across much of East (Arab) Jerusalem and the West Bank.  Or the segregation wall which has perhaps reduced attacks on Israel but has in the process caged a whole people behind barbed wires and concrete blocks. Even travelling from one Palestinian village to another within autonomous areas is a chore. So how can one detect any sign of hope given those dire straits?

As someone who earned his initial stripes on the platform of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but who somewhat took his eye off the ball awhile to focus on the wider MENA region, I decided a few weeks ago to plunge into some fresh reading on the narrative of Palestinians and Israelis. And I did not choose to peruse some of the recent learned opinions and sophisticated papers of academics, experts or officials. Instead, almost counter-intuitively, I chose books and articles whose authors would refresh my mind on a Palestinian cause that seeks peace with justice. One book that struck me was Ben Ehrenreich’s The Way to the Spring, quoted at the beginning of thios article. It is the unvarnished account of the author’s journalistic experiences in Nabi Saleh (northwest of Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank) and the painful suffering of Palestinian men and women struggling tirelessly for their breath of freedom. I was also drawn to an article by Sarah Yerkes, Fellow at Carnegie Middle East Programme, who expressed the hope that the young boys and girls of this conflict might conquer their fear and find hope in the next 50 years. But honestly, another fifty years of injustice, stasis, disenfranchisement and pain?

Wading through those various books and articles, I realised once more that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at its essence is a case of one people seeking its freedoms and dignity let alone its right to found a state. Palestinians seek to unshackle external domination and build their lives by themselves. I am of course aware that Palestinians and Israelis alike have besmirched their histories with wars, massacres, betrayals, abuse of power, religious bigotry, scandals and blatant crimes against human rights. I also realise that they both distrust each other and perceive that they are struggling for an existence that simply cannot include the other side. Alas, a sad and persistent lose-lose scenario!

But I also realise that all this is the political paraphernalia – or perhaps sophistry – that is not the way that countless ordinary Israelis and Palestinians perceive the conflict. What is key for them is an aspiration to have a state they can call home. They refuse a remorseless occupation that has lasted 50 years, one that coerces, abuses, separates and deinstitutionalises their rights. They were given a bad hand from the start when the British Mandate betrayed them. But they were also betrayed time and again by many Arab leaders who callously used the Palestinian cause as a fig-leaf for their own interests. They have been considered no more than pawns on a chessboard – expendable for the sake of the more precious pieces. But the Palestinian resilient strength is that they have not forsaken their dream for political redemption over half a century. Moreover, the Arab and Muslim masses still defend the justice of their cause.

This is what 50 years mean to me: an unequal fight between a David fending off the many Goliaths gnawing at its rights. Or perhaps even a Sisyphean task against powers and principalities that strive to keep Palestinians stateless and stunt their legitimate hopes for self-determination. Yet, I see the courage of this people and I raise my hat again today.

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a MENA and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net -- follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian and on Facebook here: https://m.facebook.com/MENA.analysis/

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