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Palestine in 2020: Reflections on a turbulent year Open in fullscreen

Yara Hawari

Palestine in 2020: Reflections on a turbulent year

The pandemic added another layer of precarity to the lives of Palestinians. [Getty]

Date of publication: 29 December, 2020

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Against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, 2020 saw the further erosion of Palestinian rights.

Covid-19 was initially dubbed as the great equaliser - a virus knowing no colour, creed or class. Rather quickly, however, we learned that this was not to be the case. 

People already living precarious and insecure lives were and continue to be more vulnerable to infection. Prevailing systems of inequality, oppression and other forms of domination exasperated the situation and, in many cases, rendered them systems of co-morbidity.  

In Palestine, the lockdowns, curfews and inability to travel were not new. The pandemic simply added another layer of precarity to the lives of Palestinians under Israel's military occupation. 

But Covid-19 was not the only thing that happened this year in Palestine. Rather, it became the backdrop for Israel's accelerated territorial expansion and the political normalisation of its settler colonial project.

The year started with the Trump administration's 'Deal of the Century', or officially "Vision for Peace, Prosperity and a Brighter Future for Israel and the Palestinian People".

The 'peace plan' effectively proposed encasing Palestinians in the West Bank in a series of Bantustans (excluding Area C – 60 percent of the land) with Israel holding on to its illegal settlements. Gaza, meanwhile, would be maintained as a besieged enclave while the rights of Palestinians in exile, including those of refugees, would be forsaken.

Covid-19 became the backdrop for Israel's accelerated territorial expansion and the political normalisation of its settler colonial project

In exchange they would be granted some economic incentives to "boost" the Palestinian economy. The Palestinian leadership outright refused it, with President Mahmoud Abbas declaring "a thousand times no". Other reactions were rather muted, including many EU states who simply declared their commitment to the two-state solution, whilst the UK considered it a "serious proposal".

Despite the pomp and ceremony describing the deal as ground-breaking, this was not a new formula for "peace". In fact, the 'Deal of the Century' was merely a culmination of US foreign policy which has consistently trampled on fundamental Palestinian rights in favour of maintaining Israeli domination.

Read more: The day after annexation: Israel, Palestine
and the one-state reality

A few months later the deal seemed to dissipate, not because of a lack of support from the international community but rather (as many Palestinians pointed out) because it presented nothing new - already reflecting the de facto reality on the ground. 

Later in the summer, Israel threatened to pass legislation that would enable the de jure annexation of large swathes of Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank on 1 July.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shrewdly created a huge crescendo leading up to the date and many in the international community, particularly EU states, rushed to provide statements of "concern" and "condemnation," whilst simultaneously offering no consequences should the annexation go ahead. For its part, the Palestinian Authority responded by "halting" security coordination with Israel.  

The 1st of July came and went without annexation and the international community breathed a sigh of relief, declaring it a win for the international legal regime and for Palestinian rights. Yet the reality of both the de jure and de facto annexation of Palestinian land, from East Jerusalem to Israeli settlements, were ignored. Since then, Netanyahu has continuously reiterated his intentions to annex more and more of the West Bank.

The 'Deal of the Century' was merely a culmination of US foreign policy which has consistently trampled on fundamental Palestinian rights in favour of maintaining Israeli domination

All the while Israeli policies of dispossession and territorial expansion continued apace. 2020 saw the highest number of home demolitions in more than four years, with nearly 900 Palestinians displaced. At the same time, Israel approved over 12,000 West Bank settler homes, the highest on record for eight years.

The early political theatrics of the 'Deal of the Century' continued into the year when a series of normalisation agreements with various Arab states, including the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, were announced. These agreements by the signatory regimes were dubbed as historic. Yet, official and unofficial Arab normalisation with Israel, and the undermining of the Palestinian cause, has been ongoing for decades.  

Egypt was the first Arab country to normalise in 1979 in return for the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel had captured in 1967. Jordan followed suit in 1995 and in return got substantial economic aid and diplomatic support from the West.

Read more: Israel normalisation deals reflect the rupture between repressive regimes and Arab societies

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have held increasingly frequent meetings with Israeli officials and experts over the last decade regarding security technology, most of which has been used to spy on political opposition and activists. Similarly, Morocco has had relations with Israel dating back to the 1950s, including arms deals and Israeli training for Moroccan security forces and intelligence agents. 

It is therefore unsurprising that these countries should officialise long standing relations. What is worrying is that the agreements include weapons deals and security collaboration, a boon for authoritarianism.

Whilst a renewed era of human rights abuses looms across the region, the internal situation is equally challenging for Palestinians, who are increasingly fragmented socially, geographically, and politically. Such divides were acutely accentuated under Covid-19, with increased restrictions on movement for different categories of Identity Card holders and an increasing gap between the wealthy and the poor.  

Official and unofficial Arab normalisation with Israel, and the undermining of the Palestinian cause, has been ongoing for decades

The Palestinian leadership has proved impotent amidst the external political manoeuvres of this year, with a strategy limited to rhetorical outrage and holding out for a Joe Biden victory in US presidential elections. The Palestinian leadership's impotence has also been coupled with increasing authoritarianism, as was demonstrated with the arrest and interrogation of an activist who criticised the resumption of Palestinian Authority (PA) security coordination with Israel. 

The election of Biden to the White House presents the prospect of returning to "normal" and "business as usual" in terms of US foreign policy, and his team have already expressed the desire to return to the prior framework of peace process negotiations. Meanwhile, they have also stated that they will not be reversing several landmark policy changes under the Trump administration, including moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, recognising Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights, and US-backed normalisation deals with Arab states.

Read more: Palestine's olive harvest marred by rising
Israeli settler violence

Biden, who has described himself as a Zionist, has a mainstream establishment US foreign policy perspective on the Middle East, which includes a pro-Israel stance. Indeed, as vice-president in the Obama administration he oversaw the largest military aid package in US history - $38 billion - to Israel. 

This does not bode well for Palestinian rights. Biden has promised to reverse Trump's huge aid cuts to Palestinians, meaning US money will flow back into the coffers of the Palestinian Authority. But this model of an "economic peace" is antithetical to Palestinian liberation, coercing the Palestinian leadership into political surrender via economic incentives.

The reality of 2020 and its challenges, from global and regional political shifts to internal stagnation, have rendered it even more difficult to imagine Palestinian liberation. Yet the pandemic also presents us with a "portal" and an opportunity to be hopeful, as Arundhati Roy wrote earlier this year: "We can choose to walk through [the portal], dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or, we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it."

This will necessitate conversations on radical change, and Palestinians have no choice but to abandon the "dead ideas" that have long been a smoke screen for the continued colonisation of Palestine.

Yara Hawari is the Palestine Policy Fellow of Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network

Follow her on Twitter: 
@yarahawari

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