For years Foreign Editor David Pratt has been an eyewitness to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here he reflects on that time set against the latest fault lines and eruption of violence

Perusing the pages of my old notebooks last week, I was reminded of the lengthy roller coaster engagement I’ve had as a journalist covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I was there during the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, of 1987 and the second, often known as the Al-Aqsa intifada in 2000, which came shortly after the failure of the Camp David Summit to reach an agreement on the peace process that same year.

Today, it is generally recognised that one of the key triggers of the second intifada was the decision of then-Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon to make a highly provocative visit to the Haram al- Sharif, in east Jerusalem.

While the Haram is the third-holiest shrine in Islam, its site is also equally revered by Jews, who call it Temple Mount, the location of the Biblical First and Second Temples, and the most sacred place on Earth.

It was Dennis Ross, US Special Envoy to the Middle East at the time, who hit the nail on the head. “I can think of a lot of bad ideas, but I can’t think of a worse one”’ he reportedly commented on hearing of Sharon’s intention to go walkabout on Haram al-Sharif.

It was there again, on this 35-acre esplanade that also houses the Al-Aqsa mosque, that violence has erupted these past weeks before rapidly spreading to that other ground-zero of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Gaza Strip.

Gaza has always been hardcore in this battle of wills. Five years after his incendiary visit to Haram al -Sharif it was Sharon, who in 2005 and by then Israel’s prime minister, implemented his plan for Israel to disengage from Gaza and the removal of Jewish settlements.

Depending on which side of the razor wire, checkpoint barriers or security fences you lived on, whether you were Arab or Jew, the start of the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip was seen as either the end of a dream, or the chance of a new beginning.

For many within the Jewish settler community in Gaza who were far from happy, it was indeed the end of a dream.

“The moment of truth”, “a test of unity” and “the ultimate betrayal” were just some of the responses I recall settler groups calling the Israeli government’s decision at the time to remove them from territory in Gaza they believed to be part of a greater Israel.

Among those settlers angry with Sharon’s decision that I met back then was 20-year old Dan Amiel, who had lost his leg in a Palestinian rocket attack on the settlement of Kfar Darom 10 months earlier. “I already left my leg here. Now they want me to leave behind my life,” he told me bitterly when we met that day as the forced removal of settlers from Gaza got under way.

Kfar Darom was part of a group of settlements in the Gush Katif block that sat just a few miles, but worlds apart, from the Palestinians on the other side of the divide in Gaza slum districts like Khan Younis.

On the settler side, it was a world of red-roofed houses, scrubbed streets, glitzy shopping malls and children’s playgrounds. On the Palestinian side, it was invariably a ghetto of rundown refugee camps, decrepit concrete buildings almost half submerged by Gaza’s drifting coastal sand and the heaps of rotting garbage that lay stinking in the fierce heat of the sun.

Historical hopes

For those Palestinians who lived in places like Khan Younis and indeed across the Strip, Israel’s disengagement from Gaza really did bring hopes of a new beginning. It was around this same time that I also met a Palestinian man in Khan Younis called Abed el Nasser, whose father had gone to prison after refusing the Israelis permission to cut a neighbourhood road by setting up a checkpoint on land the family owned.

“Even during times of peace our family has had trouble with the Israelis because our land is so near to Gush Katif,” Abed el Nasser told me back then, as we watched the Jewish settlers prepare to leave.

So, what difference would the Israelis’ departure make to him and his family now, I asked.

“It will be a paradise again. We will not be demoralised anymore. We will rehabilitate the land, see our children continue their education, learning computer skills instead of living with shooting. We will be able to speak with high spirits,” he told me, briming over with optimism that day, though probably aware that such ambitions were little more than a pipe dream

Subsequent events over many years and those again over the past week have sadly borne that out, proving certainly for Palestinians in Gaza that if anything they are even more vulnerable now than in 2005.

I’ve sometimes wondered how the lives of Dan Amiel and Abed el Nasser have played out in the intervening years. Should he still be alive does Dan Amiel, deprived of his dream of Gaza as part of a greater Israel, perhaps take solace today knowing that Israel’s settlement expansion goes on unabated in the West Bank and east Jerusalem?

For his part, was Abed el Nasser able to realise the peaceful ambitions he cherished for his children and their education?

Looking back now on then-prime minister Sharon’s controversial decision to disengage from Gaza, it’s clear that it was never undertaken with Palestinian’s wellbeing in mind. Sharon, as history has proved, was never that kind of Israeli leader.

Instead, Israel’s Gaza disengagement was simply a restructuring of its occupation, so that instead of controlling the lives of the people of Gaza from within, it would do so from without. While Sharon’s troops redeployed to the edges of the Gaza Strip, they would still continue to keep control over the air space, the sea space, and the land borders.

Despite claims from Washington that Gaza was just the start of the disengagement process, the reality was something quite different. And so the situation continues under prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as Israel again engages in another of its periodic military operations aimed at degrading the capacity of organised Palestinian groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

It is ordinary Palestinians, of course, who inevitably bear the brunt of the disproportionate Israeli military bludgeoning which also exacerbates an already dire humanitarian crisis. But this appears, as always, to be an acceptable part of the Israeli government’s calculations.

If it was Ariel Sharon who brought about Israel’s disengagement from Gaza by the removal of its Jewish settlements in 2005, then it was his son, Gilad, who made clear in a November 18, 2012, op-ed in The Jerusalem Post the new kind of “engagement” Israel would have with Gaza.

“We need to flatten entire neighbourhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima – the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too. There should be no electricity in Gaza, no gasoline or moving vehicles, nothing,” he insisted in his article entitled “A decisive conclusion is necessary”.

Ground assault

To date, so far, there has been no “decisive conclusion” despite the Israelis’ launching of “Operation Cast Lead” in 2008/09 and “Operation Protective Edge” in 2014. And so, once again, the world watches as Gaza is pummelled and braces itself for what yet could become a full Israeli ground assault into one of the most densely populated places on the plant.

It is precisely because of this population density, though, and the very nature of Gaza’s often labyrinthine neighbourhoods, that Israeli forces will only enter if all else fails in neutering Hamas, who this time around appear better armed with a greater supply of rockets and other weaponry.

As any infantryman will confirm there is nothing worse that close-quarters urban fighting, and Israeli casualties would almost certainly rise were a ground assault launched. Equally, Israel has always shown itself determined to respond to rocket attacks and this time is no exception.

The latest Israeli operation has included at least 160 aircraft as well as tanks and artillery firing from outside the Gaza Strip, Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus told Reuters News agency on Friday.

“What we were targeting is an elaborate system of tunnels that spans underneath Gaza, mostly in the north but not limited to, and is a network that the operatives of Hamas use in order to move, in order to hide, for cover,” Conricus told foreign reporters, adding that the network was dubbed “the Metro”.

But there are other operational concerns for the Israelis. In the West Bank there have been intensifying clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces that left five Palestinians dead on Friday.

Above all, though, it’s the near-unprecedented intercommunal rioting and violence in Israeli cities that have rattled its politicians, civilians, and outside observers alike. The hostilities have fuelled tension between Israeli Jews and the country’s 21 per cent Arab minority. Over the past few nights, violence has continued in mixed communities with street fighting and tit-for-tat attacks that prompted Israel’s president to warn of civil war.

Quite simply, the pressure cooker long building has exploded among many Arab citizens of Israel who feel increasingly discriminated against as the inexorable rise of Israeli ultranationalism has made its presence felt.

Cited by The Guardian last week, the veteran analyst and sometime Palestinian negotiator Hussein Agha said he believes the Arabs of Israel or “the Palestinians of 1948”, as he calls them, have an increasingly vital role to play in carrying the banner of traditional Palestinian nationalism.

With Palestinians in Gaza under the control of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and those in Jerusalem and the West Bank kept in check by the Palestinian Authority (PA), real political clout now lies in the hands of Israel’s Arab citizens, says Agha.

Their political muscle flexing at precisely the same time as Israel’s ultranationalists have exerted their own influence and are prepared to take to the streets partly accounts for the volatility of the past week.

“They say Gaza is spiralling out of control, but what is happening here scares me more,” said Majd Abado, an Arab resident of the mixed city of Acre, where people from both communities said they were afraid to leave their homes.

Expansion plans

Many Israeli ultranationalists, too, are allied with Jewish settlers determined to expand their presence in east Jerusalem. It’s there that for some time now dozens of Palestinian families, despite living in the locale for generations, have faced eviction.

It is a move, they say, by the Israeli authorities to displace them with the wider aim of turning Palestinian neighbourhoods like Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan into full Jewish settlements. For the moment, the elements of this already complex conflict are twisting kaleidoscopically but as ever it’s Gaza that will continue to be the cauldron in the coming days and where the frontlines are more clear cut.

Currrently, speculation continues as to whether Israel is prepared to repeat its ground invasions of 2009 and 2014. Likewise, diplomatic activity has stepped up to try to bring about a ceasefire, with President Joe Biden saying little beyond endorsing Israel’s “right to defend itself”.

Yesterday, Palestinians marked the 73rd anniversary of the Nakba or “catastrophe” as they call the day when more than 700,000 of them were forced out or fled during Israel’s founding in 1948.

Khadeja Ayoup Gharab was nine years old then when her family was driven out of Ashkelon by the fighting and mass expulsions of that year. She remembers it as a time when seven of her family were killed in a bombing attack that destroyed their home.

Rescued from the rubble, alive but injured, Khadeja, her parents, two brothers and a sister walked all the way from Ashkelon to Gaza, arriving with only the clothes they were wearing.

It was in 1989 when I met and talked to her in Gaza’s Beach Refugee Camp, and she told me how she had also recently lost one of her sons.

“Mohammed was shot by the Israelis four months ago. He died in the dunes, where he had been throwing stones,” Khadeja quietly explained as we sat drinking tea at a table on the sand outside her ramshackle cinder block house. “He was 17 years old,” she added.

Looking at my old notebooks again these past days was to remind me of the seemingly interminable nature of this conflict. The pages are punctuated with dates from before I was born to more recent times: 1948, 1987, 2000, 2014 and now 2021.

Back in the days of the first Palestinian intifada in 1987 it was the Israeli writer Amos Elon who once described this conflict as an “irresistible force colliding with an immovable body”. Sadly, that remains as true now as it has ever been.