Change is under way in the Middle East
That fear and the consequent anger of a younger generation will not easily be erased. My concern is compounded by the fact that educational opportunities are in short supply – UNRWA has turned away 40,000 Gaza school children for lack of space – and the world is closed off to us by the Israeli siege in which the United States is complicit. Unemployment is at a crushing 40 percent and 80 percent of Gazans are now dependent on aid.
Following Israel’s killing of nine passengers on the Mavi Marmara bearing humanitarian supplies to Gaza, the Israeli government announced under tremendous international pressure that it would ease the siege. Great public relations, but with very little follow through.
Here, under the “easing” siege we continue to suffer. And the word is only trickling out that our situation has changed more in word than in deed. In a late November report by 22 international organizations on the ongoing siege, Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK Director, stated, “The only real easing has been the easing of pressure on the Israeli authorities to end this cruel and illegal practice.”
When President Obama gave his speech in Cairo in June 2009 hope in the Middle East surged. But where are we now?
We are at a critical historical juncture witnessing possibly the last chance for Israel and Palestinians to live in peace and security. Tragically, the Israeli rejection of the Obama offer of political and military support in return for a freeze of the Jewish settlements being built on the West Bank has dealt a severe blow to our hopes.
Yet we cannot afford to lose all hope here in Gaza. There is much happening in Israel and in Jewish communities abroad. Jews are voicing their concerns, and even staunch supporters of Israel like Thomas Friedman are calling on Israel to wake up. Israel needs to be rescued from itself. With brave supporters the world over, my hope is still strong despite the efforts of the Israeli government to crush the chances of peace.
Why do I and other Palestinians retain this reserve of determination and optimism? It flows from the deep belief that our cause is just and it is our moral right and duty to resist the injustice of uprooting and military occupation. We believe that we are equals of Jews, no better and no worse. And we know our history. Gaza is one of the oldest cities in history and has witnessed in its thousands of years much devastation yet has survived. Barak may have changed the rules of the game, but his harsh new rules were still unable to overcome the steadfast Palestinian resolution to live in freedom.
After two years of disappointment and disillusionment with President Obama, an opportunity exists for a bold move that can achieve the needed breakthrough. Obama can go to the Knesset and tell Israelis that the United States strongly supports their security and their right to live side by side with a sovereign Palestinian state. And the next day he should go to Bethlehem, and with the wall as his backdrop, tell Palestinians he supports our right to live in freedom, unburdened by occupation and impediments to worship freely in Jerusalem.
The key, however, would be in what comes next: the courage to pursue the path of making peace in the face of lobbyists, warmongers, and extremists. The peace process and the hope of the U.S. playing the honest broker are viewed as fiction. This is the last chance for Israel to strike a two-state agreement as no Palestinian will take the place of a conciliatory President Mahmoud Abbas.
As we entered the New Year, the mood in the region was one of despondency and fatalistic resignation that the status quo would prevail. There is enormous concern that the Israeli occupation will continue with oppressive brutality and pave the way for fresh confrontation. But events in Tunisia and Egypt also provide cause for new hope. The corrupt and oppressive can be thrown out with amazing speed when people march and the world pays attention. So, too, may it yet prove for the Israeli occupation.
Change, and not necessarily President Obama’s, is on the way. The rising tensions are providing new impetus to an international campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions directed at Israel’s violations of international law along with a call for a one-state solution with equal rights for all.
Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj is a psychiatrist and political analyst living in Gaza. His son, Wasseem, accepted the Olof Palme prize in his place last week in the Swedish parliament.