On Tuesday, May 15, most of the world woke up to the traumatizing image of Laila al-Ghandour’s dead body. This eight-month-old infant was a victim of the recent protests that have been going on in Gaza. For most, this picture summoned emotions that were uncontrollable. Laila’s death quickly became the face of the most recent series of protests that have broken out. It is safe to say that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is arguably one of the most complex situations today – one which many people do not understand fully. Having undergone different waves of prominence within the world of Western media, this conflict has been in a perpetual state of being since 1948. When a conflict goes on for so long it often times takes a back seat as other, more immediate events take precedence on a day to day basis but with the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem and the growing number of deaths on the Gaza strip, the conflict has recaptured the attention of the world this week.
Palestinian-led protests have picked up pace since March 2018 as Israel celebrates its 70th anniversary as a nation state, or as referred to by many as the Nakba (Arabic for ‘Catastrophe’) which commemorates 70 years of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. These protests reached their peak right before Nakba Day, the Day of Remembrance, which is May 14. What started as a day where a number of Palestinians exercised their right to protest near the Gaza border, ended in distress and violence. Taking fire from Israeli forces, 2,400 people were victim to injury with over 60 of those ending in death. Israeli forces claim that the shootings were performed as a matter of self defense. Soldiers are meant to fire warning shots in the sky and then to aim for the legs or below of a protestor infringing on border restrictions. With this said, reports from Palestinian hospitals are revealing that people are coming in with gunshots to the abdomen or thigh which tends to cause health complications.
The protests have been a complicated by the fact that Hamas – a Palestinian Sunni-Islamist fundamentalist group who controls Gaza – claim that most of the fatalities are their members. Despite not all protesters being a member of Hamas, the organization quickly took over the protest as 40,000 people responded to their call for protest at the border. Knowing that attempts to breach the border fences would result in violent responses which could be filmed, Hamas urged its followers to actively run up to the borders to incite violence. This tactic, albeit rather inhumane, has for purpose to primarily gain the attention of the world in order to portray the Israel in a negative light. By projecting this image on the Israeli Defense forces, Hamas gains from having an increase of support for their cause. The footage of Palestinian civilians being shot have spread like wildfire throughout the internet leading to one of Hamas’ biggest victories this year in terms of accessing a bigger audience. In an opinion piece for the New York Times, journalist Matti Friedman acknowledges the fact that this media tactic was exactly what Hamas was going for, in conjunction with the “split screen” response featuring images of the violent protests on one end and the picture of Ivanka Trump celebrating the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem on the other. With this said, the mistake that a lot of people are making is to conflate the protests with the opening of the U.S. Embassy. It is important to realize that the protests were not caused by the opening of the embassy; however, the embassy’s new location does bring its own list of issues to the table.
Amidst this turmoil, this is the week that the United States chose to break the pattern of US foreign policy and relocate their embassy to Jerusalem. A law was passed during the 1990s that the U.S. Embassy is to be located in Jerusalem, which is said to be Israel’s official capital city. However, since this law was passed, all three presidents between then and now (Clinton, Bush and Obama) have completely avoided having to deal with the embassy’s actual relocation. Despite all running on campaigns that pledged the formal move of the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, once sworn-in to their role as president, they all avoided relocating the embassy by means of issuing an order to bypass this law. It is clear, given the spectrum of political views showcased by the presidents in power during the last 20 years, that moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem is an issue that finds itself across political leniencies. Despite seeming like a content neutral law at face value, the reason why the relocation has been avoided for the last two decades rests on the power of diplomatic recognition of a nation state. By moving the embassy, the U.S. is confirming its support for the nation state of Israel and everything that comes with that support. Thus, as a result, it also insinuates the lack of support for the Palestinian cause and their ability to return to where they are from.
There was a wave of responses that stemmed from this big move to relocate their embassy both for and against the actions of the U.S. Two days after the U.S. inaugurated its new embassy, the country of Guatemala followed suite and also relocated their embassy to Jerusalem showing their support not only to the government of Israel but also to the U.S. The Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, on the other hand, recalled their envoy to Washington D.C. as a way to mark their opinions regarding the U.S. decision to move their embassy to Jerusalem, a city that the Palestinians also claim to be their capital city. This move was symbolic more than anything. By avoiding relocation, previous Presidents were able to use their position as a way to create leverage and lead in a possible mediation role between Israel and Palestine. With this leverage gone and with the U.S. clearly demarcating who they think Jerusalem belongs to – they have also reduced changes of negotiations regarding the area happening through them.
If this was any other country but the U.S., it would not be that significant but because of the U.S.’ influence in the region not having their backing may prove to be quite difficult. Turkey also joined the side against this diplomatic move by asking Israel’s consul to Istanbul to temporarily leave given the growing unrest. They also expelled the Israeli ambassador to Ankara after announcing their “condemnation of Israel’s use of deadly force on Gaza protesters.” Despite the Israelis retaliating by asking Turkey’s diplomats to leave, ambassadors from both Israel and Washington D.C. had already received recalling orders. Not surprisingly, a list of countries within the Middle Eastern region have also voice their concerns over the death toll as well as what relocating the US Embassy means. President Rouhani of Iran publicly stated his support for the Palestinians and so did a Sunni cleric in Lebanon.These actions are a clear sign that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict reaches far beyond the borders of their disputed territory.
Special sessions were called by the United Nations Security Council as well as the Human Rights Council of the United Nations in partnership with the International Criminal Court. A joint international effort has been put into place to attempt mediating an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians but it would be truly remarkable if anything were to come out of it. The reality of the situation is that a deal will be brokered with Palestinians and Israelis decide that they want to make peace with each other. We live in an age where death, violence and threats to human life are not as sought out as is power, land, and control. It begs the question – what does the future hold for the people who just want to live in the comfort of their homes? For people who want to live their lives freely following whatever religion those choose to follow and live wherever they would like to live?