By Malaka Shwaikh
Abstract: This article situates the Gaza Strip in a context of Israeli settler-colonialism that impacts the lives of Palestinians in all geographic and temporal boundaries. I argue that the international community’s overemphasis on peace in Gaza has not brought justice to the Palestinian people. Justice precedes peace and involves collective healing and centring of Palestinian diverse voices in the push for transformative and restorative justice.
The latest Israeli escalation in Gaza (May 2023) was not a one-off arbitrary event, or a response to rockets launched from Gaza, or directed at one particular party or the other. It is a case of protracted violence, deeply rooted in a settler-colonial project that enjoys full international impunity. In May and within five days, Israel killed 33 Palestinians. A ceasefire was then arranged by the longtime mediator Egypt, putting a halt to Israeli airstrikes. For many in Gaza, the ceasefire was a time to celebrate their mere physical survival, while many more were in disbelief that they were still alive. I remain haunted by the possibility of further violence, and a world that looks away from Gaza, and Palestine more broadly. The desensitisation to Palestinian suffering has been hard to follow.
The political and socio-economic situation in Gaza is covered widely in and beyond academia and media. Reports make it clear that up to 95 percent of Gaza residents do not have access to clean water. Electricity can be as limited as four hours a day. A particular point leading to the decline in life is Israeli siege on Gaza’s sea, air, and land since June 2007.
The siege has limited people’s access to markets, hospitals, and education, and restricted their general movement. It has reduced the effectiveness of essential services, especially health and sanitation and led to destruction in physical infrastructure, loss of lives, and deterioration of social fabrics.
The psychological wellbeing of Gaza residents has been severely impacted not only by the siege but also by constant Israeli attacks. In one comment (June 2019), Palestine’s Head of Mental Health Services Dr. Samah Jabr said “There is no ‘post’ [traumatic disorders in Gaza] because the trauma is repetitive and ongoing and continuous.” This lingering trauma is a result of ongoing violence, which continues in its structural and systemic formats, even when invisible.
Peace efforts, both public and secret, yield no justice for Palestinians; they merely perpetuate the status quo, violent in its core. Without justice, there can be no peace.
It is important to situate conversations about peace in the larger context of Israeli colonial practices against Palestinians and also within geographic and temporal boundaries. This situating attends to power imbalances on the ground, between the oppressors and the oppressed. This power imbalance creates an oppressive project that is violent in its daily oppression of Palestinians, whether in the spectacular or the more hidden forms of violence.
Despite the absence of justice on the ground, the significance of peace continues to be over-emphasized (and at times romanticized as the way forward). Justice, on the other hand, is often left to the margins of these discussions. This article is an analysis that is grassroots in nature, centring the voices of Palestinians living in Gaza. It delves into the root causes of violence, which creates a state of no peace or justice.
Beyond short-term solutions and towards grassroots anti-colonial resistance
A wide array of scholarship and practitioner work focuses on equipping Palestinians with short-term solutions that directly address symptoms rather than root causes of violence. International groups donate money, conditional on achieving donors’ objectives, and train Palestinians to be ‘peacebuilders’ and ‘peacemakers’ without addressing structural issues. They continuously sponsor ‘peace talks,’ a term that was used in the 1970s to describe American attempts to negotiate peace between Israel and its neighbouring countries. These talks hardly consider the scale of injustices on the ground and have for decades been used to describe other efforts aimed to ‘create peace’ in Israel/Palestine. Such efforts came to the forefront in 1990-91 in Madrid Peace Conference, called by former American President George W Bush. The most popular attempt took place in Oslo in Norway (Oslo Accords) in 1993. Since then, we have seen more of such accords and talks, the latest of which was probably the Quartet development of 2016.
What matters here is that none of these efforts has been sustainable or directly responds to the anti-colonial needs of Palestinians, whether in Palestine or in diaspora, nor has they addressed systemic violence. Instead, such peace talks has securitized peace, criminalized resistance, and entrenched authoritarianism in Palestine. These efforts have overemphasized security without situating Palestine in a colonial context or addressing power imbalances, enabling a more oppressive Israeli state that fears no accountability.
The international community also has a long tradition of training Palestinians to be resilient to (or cope with) Israel’s violence, and resilience skills are widely endorsed by donors and international development organizations. Yet the Palestinians I interviewed for previous research think of resilience as a dehumanizing expectation that imposes mythical terms and romanticizes them as exemplary in coping with all forms of violence. The promotion of these skills advance the expectation that, if Palestinians are resilient enough and are able to cope with violence, they will even come out stronger from violence and do not need any form of support. If Israel’s violence continues without widespread protest, it will continue with these violations, expecting no accountability.
The reality is: no Palestinian chooses to be resilient. We are exhausted. Terrified. Fed-up of violence and international inaction. Expecting our resilience reduces the depravity of Israel’s violence, including layers of structural violence we continue to face, and obscures our humanity, which entails generous moments of vulnerability.
Going beyond short-term solutions that address symptoms of Israel’s colonial project entails acknowledging the asymmetrical relationship between the Palestinian people and Israel, the former lives under military occupation or as refugees in host countries, while the latter exercises and imposes daily forms of violence and remains unchallenged. This power asymmetry makes it possible to maintain violence, including the blockade of Gaza.
In the pursuit of justice, part of the long-term responsibility falls on the shoulders of the international community, which must end the practice of defending Israeli violations of international law, while making Palestinian lives harder through creating obstacles as they seek local and international accountability mechanisms.
‘No Justice, No Peace’
In Palestine, the failure of peace efforts since their inception in the late 20th century continues to unravel politically-unstable realities, in which the need for exhaustive and sustainable justice is urgent. The instability created by colonial violence brings to light the injustice that permeates its structures and creates inequality for all lived experiences. Bearing this in mind, justice is both a timely and pressing demand for the reshaping of any future efforts in the way we approach the question of Palestine. To be truly sustainable, justice efforts shall be inclusive in their conception and application. Sustainable, inclusive justice efforts require listening to and centering historically marginalized voices and incorporating their diverse narratives in the writing of history: balancing power dynamics in the present and reimagining a just future.
If injustice continues to prevail, establishing any form of peace will continue to be a logical impossibility because sustainable peace includes equitable justice.
Justice and peace go hand in hand but there can be no peace without justice. The former is often understood in our structural measures, as our justice system in its punitive and penal system. Our societal measures, however, frame justice more broadly to include collective healing; justice in Palestine can only be achieved through grassroots mechanisms that speak with the community as a whole.
Without justice, peace remains a nebulous and distant definition. It is also important to define peace to recognize when it materializes. Of course, its definition is also closely tied to the context in which it will manifest. Peace for a Tutsi woman in a rural Rwandan village will differ from peace for an African American child in a southern US state, which will differ from peace for a Uighur Muslim in Eastern China. However, while specifics may differ from case to case, central tenets and an overarching framework can be agreed upon and applied to most circumstances as harmony and freedom from violence.
It is also essential to analyze the different actors at play in the establishment of peace and the perpetuation of violence. Under the mainstream model of liberal peace and international intervention, the actors often exhibit significant power differences in economic, political, military, communication, and cultural terms. Hierarchical peace efforts reflect an externally enforced conception of liberal peace, yet we can see the countless failures of liberal peace when we look at UN Peacekeeping missions. These costly missions are prime examples of harmful foreign intervention and typically do not improve circumstances for locals on the ground, but merely encourage dependency and complicate the nature of the original conflict.
Local peacebuilding is a means to achieve positive peace (defined by more lasting peace) and amplify local voices. It is a form of self-determination and emancipation. Liberation from the current systems of dominance require justice and peace efforts to traverse the chasm between global systems of power and local agency to meet the needs of those most in need.
On the ground, Palestinians already push for sustainable justice and lasting peace. They exercise their right to resist Israel’s settler-colonial project. They hold on to their homeland. Their sites of resistance evolve wherever they exist. From embarking on hunger strikes in prisons to general strikes across Palestine, Israel’s constant attempts to erase or fence them off continue to fail. Their struggle continues.
Dr Malaka Shwaikh is a Palestinian academic based in Scotland. Her research is at the intersection of critical prison studies, hunger striking, and grassroots peacebuilding. She has published widely on prisons. She is on Twitter @MalakaShwaikh.