The “longest occupation in history.” People living in a human rights vacuum. Destruction, displacement, high unemployment and “abject poverty.”
Palestinians’ lives are marred by all of those and more, and yet, the occupation and the living conditions in Gaza are ignored in many Western media reports about the Israel-Hamas war, leading Arab voices said at a gala to mark the 40th anniversary of the National Council on U.S.-Arab relations in mid-November.
“I have been seeing a repeated phrase in American media, calling October 7 an unprovoked attack,” Saudi Arabia’s former ambassador to the US, Prince Turki al Faisal, said in a speech at the gala, held roughly five weeks into the war.
“What more provocation is required … than what Israel has done to the Palestinian people for three-quarters of a century?” he questioned before outlining a litany of hardships faced by the Palestinian people in Gaza and the West Bank.
October 7 was the day Hamas militants launched a barrage of rockets and stormed into Israel from Gaza, killing some 1,200 Israelis and taking more than 200 people hostage.
‘The inevitable result of occupation’
While he and other critics of Israel condemned the Oct. 7 attack, Turki was not alone in pointing to years of simmering, and sometimes exploding, Palestinian discontent at the conditions they live in as a key cause of the Hamas assault.
“There can never be justification for the murder of innocents or the savagery of what occurred on October 7th,” Turki said. “I condemn Hamas’ targeting of civilians of any age or gender, as it is accused of.”
Weeks before the gala, Stephen Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international studies at Harvard University, said in an op-ed published in Foreign Policy: “Israelis and their supporters want to pin all the blame on Hamas, whose direct responsibility for the horrific attack on Israeli civilians is beyond question.”
“Those more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause see the tragedy as the inevitable result of decades of occupation and Israel’s harsh and prolonged treatment of its Palestinian subjects,” Walt said.
Shortly after Walt’s op-ed, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in a speech to the Security Council that “the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum.”
“The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation,” he said. “They have seen their land steadily devoured by settlements and plagued by violence, their economy stifled their people displaced and their homes demolished.”
Although Guterres preceded those statements with condemnation of the Oct. 7 attacks, Israeli officials called for him to resign.
Two days later, a report by researchers at independent UK think-tank Chatham House cited former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett as saying the attacks by Hamas were unprovoked, and opposition UK Foreign Secretary David Lammy saying “these events started” with the Hamas attacks.
The implication, wrote the Chatham House researchers, was “that a peace was broken by Hamas on 7 October.”
“The Netanyahu government had long insisted its conflict with Palestinians was under control. Many Israelis lived relatively stable lives and either believed or tolerated their government’s narrative of ‘post-conflict,’” the report said.
“However, for Palestinians, their lives and lived conditions were only getting worse.”
They have endured “many forms of violence” including “bombing civilians, destroying infrastructure, and forcibly removing hundreds of thousands from their homes,” it said.
Ignoring the reality of life in the Palestinian territories has expanded “a blind spot that helped to cover up the roots of this conflict,” the Chatham House researchers wrote.
US must do more
The US has been widely considered the dominant outside force in the Middle East since the fall of the Soviet Union. It has long been perceived as “a force against occupation” that stands up for the oppressed of the world, Turki said at the National Council gala.
“Why have you turned a blind eye to the suffering of the people of Palestine?” he asked.
As he condemned Hamas for the Oct. 7 attacks, Turki also criticized Israel for its response, which has laid waste to Gaza and killed thousands of Palestinians.
“I condemn Hamas’ targeting of civilians of any age or gender… The loss of innocent Israeli lives is tragic and heartbreaking. There is no justification for the killing of innocents,” Turki said.
“I equally condemn Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of innocent Palestinian civilians in Gaza and the attempt to forcibly drive them into Sinai.”
Enhancing US understanding of the Middle East
The gala marked 40 years since the National Council was founded, the retirement of its founder and chief executive Dr. John Anthony, and the appointment of H. Delano Roosevelt – a grandson of the United States’ World War II President Franklin Delano Roosevelt – as Anthony’s successor.
Anthony received a lifetime achievement award at the gala. During four decades under Anthony’s leadership, the National Council sought to enhance American knowledge and understanding of the Arab countries, the Middle East, and the Islamic world through dialogue, educational initiatives and cultural and other exchanges.
Retired Army Gen. David Petraeus – who led multinational forces in Iraq frpm 2007-2008, served as commander in chief of Central Command from 2008-2010; commanded US and NATO forces in Afghanistan from 2010–11, and then served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency – received the US-Arab Bridge-Building Award; Dina Powell McCormick, who was a National Security Adviser under President Donald Trump, was given an award for distinguished achievement in service; and Dr. Mohamed El-Erian, the president of Queens’ College at the University of Cambridge in the UK, was recognized for his business leadership.
Egyptian businessman, humanitarian and politician Mohamed M. Abou El Enein received the Council’s Public Servant Achievement award for his service and leadership in Egypt.
“Any American leader who does something, he will be historical, a champion that everybody will appreciate and respect.” – Mohamed M. Abou El Enein
After saying how pleased he was to see old friends, he called in his acceptance speech for the US to use its clout to broker a solution to the conflict, warning of the dangers to the Middle East and beyond if the war in Gaza were to continue and spread.
“I think America and the American leader has to have an action … immediately for a ceasefire, to press Israel to do something immediately,” he said. “Any American leader who does something, he will be historical, a champion that everybody will appreciate and respect.”
The White House had for weeks ruled out a cease-fire as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted five weeks into the war that Israel’s battle to crush Hamas militants would continue with full force, despite international calls for a truce.
As the number of Palestinians killed in Gaza exceeded 11,000, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said that “far too many Palestinians have been killed, far too many have suffered these past weeks, and we want to do everything possible to prevent harm to them and to maximize the assistance that gets to them.” But he only called for humanitarian pauses, not a full cease-fire.
Things have changed since then. A cease-fire mediated by Qatar, Egypt and the United States began in Gaza on Friday, Nov. 24. During the truce, which was initially intended to last four days, more than 100 hostages, mainly from Israel but also from France, the Philippines, Russia, Thailand and the United States, were released, seven to eight weeks after being taken hostage by Hamas. For every hostage released, Israel let three Palestinians out of Israeli jails. Two-hundred-forty Palestinians were freed from jail, some after years of captivity.
On the first day of the cease-fire, newly elected Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said during a visit to Israel, the Palestinian territories and Egypt, with his Belgian counterpart Alexander de Croo, that the time had come for the international community to recognize a Palestinian state.
De Croo did not raise the issue of a Palestinian state but said Israel’s military operation in Gaza “needs to respect international humanitarian law.” He called “the destruction of Gaza … unacceptable.”
Israel responded by summoning the Spanish and Belgian ambassadors, accusing the two countries’ prime ministers of supporting terrorism. Israel recalled its ambassador to Spain on Nov. 30 after Sanchez continued to make comments about how Israel is waging war in Gaza.
President Joe Biden told reporters in Nantucket, Mass., over the Thanksgiving holidays, that the cease-fire was having “life-saving results,” with “critically needed aid … going in and hostages … coming out.”
“We know that innocent children in Gaza are suffering greatly as well because this war that Hamas has unleashed has such consequences,” he said in a statement that, in line with US policy, failed to publicly criticize Israel.
Pundits said that, although the terms of the cease-fire were complex, it could help to de-escalate of the conflict and “pave the way to stability, security, and ultimately peace.”
It was extended piecemeal and lasted a week.
Eliminating Hamas is not the solution
Netanyahu had vowed that Israel would resume its fight to annihilate Hamas once the cease-fire was over, and on Dec. 1, the violence restarted. Both sides blamed each other for the resumption of hostilities, which saw rockets fired from Israel into Gaza and vice versa. The Hamas-run health authorities in Gaza said dozens of people were killed in the strikes on Gaza.
Hours before the strikes resumed, Blinken, on his fourth trip to the Middle East since the war began, reiterated the US’s commitment to supporting Israel’s right to self-defense but said it must do more to protect civilians if it restarts major military operations.
“The way Israel defends itself matters,” Blinken said. “It’s imperative that Israel act in accordance with international humanitarian law and the laws of war, even when confronting a terrorist group that respects neither.”
Blinken’s message “aligns with the Biden administration’s shifting rhetoric on the war, which began as a full-throated embrace of Israel’s response to the Hamas attacks but gradually tempered as the number of Palestinian civilian casualties began to rise dramatically,” Matthew Lee of the Associated Press wrote.
The US Secretary of State had similar words for Israeli officials on Nov. 3, when the war was less than a month old, during an earlier trip to the region. He said then that Palestinian civilians should not have to pay for Hamas’ inhumanity and brutality.
Netanyahu has also said Israeli forces will remain in Gaza and control security there to prevent the enclave from being used to launch terror attacks against Israel.
Wiping out Hamas will not end the cycle of violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories, Turki and El Enein said in their speeches at the gala.
“Even if Israel is thinking to defeat Hamas … after Hamas is another 100 Hamas because the principle is there, the right is there, the right of the Palestinian people,” El Enein said.
He suggested returning to the 1967 borders prior to the Six-Day War, during which Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and the Golan Heights from Syria. After the brief war, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians found themselves living in areas occupied by Israel. In addition, Israel began building settlements in the new territories it had seized, including Gaza and the West Bank.
“Will the elimination of every member of Hamas change anything? No, it will not. Will the seizure of more land? Building of more walls? Tighter controls on Palestinian movement? Will any of that make Israel more secure? No, it will not.” – Prince Turki al Faisal, former Saudi ambassador to Washington, DC
Sinai was returned to Egypt in 1982 in exchange for Cairo’s recognition of Israel as a sovereign state. El Enein said in his speech at the gala the peninsula was not up for negotiation; it is and will remain Egyptian. Israel pulled its troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005, but continued to control the airspace and land and sea borders of the territory, which the UN still considers to be occupied by Israel.
“Will the elimination of every member of Hamas change anything?” Turki said at the gala. “No, it will not. Will the seizure of more land? Building of more walls? Tighter controls on Palestinian movement? Will any of that make Israel more secure? No, it will not.
“If you want to achieve a lasting peace, then end the occupation,” Turki said.
“Give Palestinians a pathway to a homeland so that two sovereign states can co-exist, peacefully, with secure borders,” he implored.
“President Biden said … that the two-state solution is the end game to look forward to,” Turki said. The US President has repeatedly called since the latest conflict began for “a two-state solution — two peoples living side by side with equal measures of freedom, opportunity and dignity …”
“I hope that he walks that walk and not only talks that talk,” Turki said.
Because, “As this violence continues… humanity dies a little more every day. There are no heroes in this conflict. Only victims.”
Karin Zeitvogel has worked for international media, including The Washington Diplomat, as a writer, editor and photographer for decades.
Pictures from the National Council on US-Arab Relations’ 40th anniversary gala. All photos by Sardari Group, Inc. Media