Leander Hatzigrigoriou is a 2nd Year International Relations student at King’s College London. Growing up in the EU’s capital, Brussels, the EU’s internal and foreign affairs have always been in his interests with a special focus on its relations with the United States and the Middle East.
Saturday the 15th of May 2021 marks the 73rd anniversary of the Nakba, or the “Great Catastrophe”. The day, which remembers the start of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the subsequent mass exodus of Palestinian refugees, will be marked by bloodshed, as when this article is being written, violence has once again erupted in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. The aggressions, which are the most violent since 2014, have taken over 100 Palestinian lives, of which at least 39 are children, and have claimed a dozen lives in Israel. Is there any way to stop this cycle of violence which flairs up in regular intervals and of which civilians are the main victims? Is there any way to create lasting peace? There is, and it is time for the Western democracies to start playing their role.
The current conflict started following an all-familiar pattern. Tension had been rising in the area due to an instance that brought to light the underlying historical land disputes. This time it was a highly controversial case in front of the Israel Supreme Court concerned with the legality of evictions of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighbourhood in Eastern Jerusalem. Israeli law claims that any land inhibited before 1948 by Jews belongs to its descendants. A similar law for Palestinians does not exist. The tipping point, however, was the fencing off of the area around the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem during the month of Ramadan. The area, which contains the holy site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, was closed off by Israeli police due to “security reasons” and led to violent clashes between police, protesters, and worshippers. In response, Hamas fired rockets into Israel, who responded with a mass bombing campaign on Gaza, starting a cycle of retaliation.
The urgency to stop this conflict and prevent further escalation grows larger with every missile. Two worrying signs of escalation have appeared this time: Firstly, for the first time since 2000, mob violence has taken place between Palestinian and Israeli communities in several of Israel’s cities, making the idea of a potential civil war loom over the conflict. The worst of these clashes so far were in the town of Lod, where its Palestinian community has written an open letter to the international community asking for protection. Secondly, worrying reports of the conflict spreading past borders are coming from neighbouring countries. In the middle of the week, Lebanese people and Palestinian refugees attempted to enter Israel, leading to border clashes with the IDF and resulting in one casualty. At the same time, Israel claimed rockets were being fired from Lebanon and Syria. A new Arab-Israeli war, similar to the ones in 1948, 1967, or 1973, or even a civil war, would be devastating and must be avoided at all costs. The key to stopping this and future conflicts lie in the diplomacy of the European Union and the United States.
The United States, which has been Israel’s staunchest ally since the Cold War, wields the most diplomatic power over Israel and thus needs to be at the forefront of peace talks. The fact that the area is not of any strategic interest to the powers which could block the peace process, namely China and Russia, puts almost the sole responsibility on the United States to find a solution. After Trump’s blind support for Netanyahu and his absurd plan for peace, Biden’s focus on human rights offers promising signs for the future. However, the current rhetoric used by Biden in support of Israel’s bombing campaigns (citing the “right to self-defence”) and the constant blocking of Security Council meetings and declarations will have a counter-productive effect. Not imposing sanctions and merely condemning Hamas risks alienating other Arab countries which through their bilateral agreements in recent years with Israel, like the UAE peace talks, have shown their willingness to find a peaceful solution in the region. There is no longer an excuse to protect Israel at all costs based on the idea that its neighbours are dedicated to its complete destruction.
Instead, to prevent new conflicts from flaring up, there needs to be a more resolved, united, West which does more than just condemn Israel when it breaches international law. The United States sent 3.8 billion pounds worth of military aid to Israel in 2020 and the European Union sends significant funds to Israel Aerospace Industries, another essential part of Israel’s defence structure. The threat of cutting these funds will have a lot of power in forcing Israel to the negotiation table with a genuine motivation to satisfy all parties involved. If an agreement like the 1993 Oslo accords can be reached, then Western powers need to use their political and economic capital to make sure that both parties stick to their promises and do not continue with land grabbing and assassinations.
A more resolute line against Israel would also be aligned with European popular support, as showcased by the Pro-Palestine protests that have erupted across Europe as a response to the current conflict. Several simultaneous protests took place on Saturday throughout the United Kingdom in solidarity with the Palestinians, with up to 100 000 marching in London, one of the bigger protests in its history. Similarly, thousands defied protest-bans in France to voice their support for Palestine. Other noticeable protests also took place in Germany, Spain, and Belgium, countries which all play an essential part in European Politics.
The longer the conflict goes on, the more it will give rise to extremism and allow for parties that are not interested in peace to remain in power. A new more moderate Israeli government without Netanyahu, which was close to being formed, can only succeed in reaching power if the violence de-escalates. Likewise, Hamas will only lose its grip on power in Gaza if its population can see that peaceful processes have a chance of succeeding. However, as long as the West continues its flawed, Israel-centred diplomacy, the conflict will keep on igniting with no end in sight. Meanwhile, the missiles will keep on flying and the holy land will keep on bleeding.