In the light of news stories and photographs from the Gaza Strip, the plight of Palestinians has been firmly catapulted back into the public eye. The country’s side of the Israel-Palestine conflict has been largely publicised, provoking sympathy and criticism in equal measures. Palestine’s history of suffering, however, remains obscure. Few who read the news stories and watch the television programmes realise that the plight of Palestine extends beyond the country itself, beyond Israel and beyond the Middle East, to British colonial rule and the failure of the United Nations to solve every crisis with which they were faced.
The Palestinian state had been in the control of the Ottoman Empire prior to the First World War, but following Turkey’s defeat, colonial Britain absorbed the region as the British Mandate of Palestine in 1917. Palestine soon became a forcibly-established ‘haven’ for Jewish people, with Britain and Europe as a whole ignoring the cries of protest from non-Jewish Palestinian inhabitants. Large numbers of Jewish people migrated to the region, peaking in the 1930s during the Nazi-era anti-Semitic movement. This influx led to a three-year national uprising in 1936 against British colonial rule. Although beginning as a largely political protest, a peasant-led resistance marked a more violent second phase in 1937. In British colonial fashion, the revolt was brutally suppressed. Statistics vary, but the death toll for Arabs was estimated at around 5,000, with a further 15,000 injured.
It is the United Nations’ response to this growing crisis of aggression that set the tone for their failures up to the present day. As Britain struggled to control the violence erupting in the region, the UN proposed to partition Palestine into two independent states, one Palestinian Arab and one Jewish, although the latter later proclaimed its independence as Israel. Ultimately, this decision allowed for the absorption of Palestinian land by Israel on one side, and other Middle Eastern countries on the other. The fracturing effect of the division was aptly demonstrated by the mass exodus of indigenous Palestinian people expelled from their homes into neighbouring countries in the late 1940s.
The further absorption of Palestinian territory by Israel in 1967 resulted in another exodus of around half a million people. The fight for Palestinian liberation and the retreat of Israel continued, politically and otherwise, throughout the 1970s. A UN decision to grant the Palestinian Liberation Organisation observer status led to hostility towards the Palestinians from other areas of the Middle East, including Lebanon, in which a large number of Palestinian refugees had settled since the exoduses of the 1940s and 1960s. In 1982, a militia close to the right-wing Kataeb Party massacred Palestinians sheltering in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in West Beirut under the eyes of Israel, despite the latter’s guarantee of Palestinian safety in the region in the same year. The number of deaths in this massacre is disputed: some reports claim around 460 died, but the reality could be anywhere up to 3,500.
The pattern of massacres and mass emigrations has continued into the last few decades of Palestinian history, and has been focused largely on the Israeli-Palestinian region. Attempted and successful Israeli occupations of Occupied Palestinian Territory in 1987 and 2000 led to further heavy losses of life amongst Palestinians as Israelis fighters used brutal force, not limited to extra-judicial killings, suicide attacks and mortar fire. The political and ethical complexities of the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict means that it is difficult, if not impossible, to wholly support either side, but figures on the conflict since September 2000 show a huge difference in fatalities between the two: at least 1,198 Israelis have been killed since 2000, whereas in 2015 alone, more than 2,000 Palestinians have died, with overall numbers reaching 9,000 or more.
The plight of Palestine has not lessened in the 21st century, but a large part of recent Palestinian suffering has been significantly neglected by world media. News organisations relish in the controversy of the Israel-Palestine narrative, but rarely jump on stories about internal Palestinian conflicts resulting in the deaths of hundreds of people. The struggles between Hamas and Fatah for control of the Gaza strip, unresolved despite international intervention, remain a key cause of internal tension in the region. The political discordance of Palestine has directly translated into violence and death, with over 600 fatalities since the conflict began in 2006.
It is largely Israeli violence against Palestinians that receives media attention, and indeed Israeli violence makes up a large part of Palestine’s recent history. The huge numbers of Palestinians living under Israeli military rule since the uprisings of 1987 and 2000 continue to suffer under the strict governance of a power bigger than themselves. But while the Israel versus Palestine narrative has dominated media coverage of the conflict, it is important to remember the history that led to this point. The conflict now might be focused inwardly, narrowed down to Israel and Palestine and the regions directly surrounding them, but European countries and international organisations had a significant role to play in the creation of the fragmented region. This history has largely been forgotten, or at least suppressed, and the conflict has been reduced to an ‘us-versus-them’ standpoint between the two countries directly suffering from it. Both are perpetrators and both are victims, and it is impossible to discuss the plight of one without mention of the other. Looking at the long and complex history of the region, though, the failed involvement of other countries and the United Nations should be just as integral to any discussion of the region’s suffering as the Israel-Palestine narrative itself.
– Ellen Finch, Correspondent (Our World)