Hitham’s Tale

Just weeks ago, Gazans were pummeled once again by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). With its mighty arsenal of drones, fighter jets, and cruise missiles, the IDF is the most powerful military machine in the region. Its capability is further augmented by steadfast support from the only superpower in the world. Hamas’s most potent weapons are primitive uncontrolled rockets, which were largely gobbled up by Israel’s Iron Dome “missile-defense” shield.

The military disparity between Israel and Gaza is but the most violent among many.

Imagine life from the point of view of a composite Palestinian we’ll call “Hitham.” Born in Ramallah in 1970, Hitham has known nothing but Israeli occupation. Growing up in impoverished and occupied Palestine, he watched as Israelis developed one of the highest living standards in the world. Evidence of the Israelis’ standard of living was everywhere — in the quality of their clothes, homes, swimming pools, schools, and colleges, as well as their military.

As Hitham reached his teenage years, most of his friends had been radicalized to various degrees and were looking to join the different Palestinian resistance organizations, including the then newly established Hamas. Although he witnessed the horrors the Israeli military inflicted upon Palestinians during the first Intifada in the late 1980s, Hitham decided not to join the armed struggle just yet.  

Indeed, like many Palestinians, Hitham found some of the Israeli demands reasonable, including that Palestinian militants stop targeting Israeli civilians. But over the years, Hitham witnessed the slow-motion displacement of his own people by the Israelis while peace was supposedly being negotiated. When the Oslo Peace Accords were signed in 1993, the accord envisioned a peaceful existence of two states in 1999. In 1999, there were around 100,000 Israeli settlers living mostly in the West Bank. At present there are 600,000 settlers and counting in West Bank. Hitham watches on as the old boundaries of Palestine shrink every year. 

Indeed, Hitham couldn’t help but notice that every Israeli government calls for negotiations while confiscating more and more Palestinian land. He often asked himself how long Palestinians should continue to negotiate. At this rate of confiscation, there will be no Palestine left to divide up. 

Still, Hitham was one of the few happy Palestinians when Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) came to power in 2005 and declared an end to armed resistance. The U.S. government was very encouraged and helped the Palestinian Authority establish and train its security forces. Abbas used his security forces to arrest, torture, and imprison any Palestinian that designed to use arms against Israel. 

Abbas’s four-year term ended in 2009. But he has continued to serve with the blessing of Israel and the United States, who helped him nullify a 2006 electoral victory by Hamas, which led in turn to clashes the following year in Gaza between Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah Party. While Hamas emerged victorious in Gaza, Abbas carried on in the West Bank with a kind of Mubarak-style rule abetted by Israel and the United States. New elections are long overdue.

Meanwhile, Israel has claimed that it cannot negotiate with Abbas since he represents only one faction of the Palestinian leadership. But after Abbas and Hamas signed a tentative unity agreement in 2011 in Doha, Israel warned Abbas that the agreement would essentially make him party to a terrorist entity with whom Israel would not negotiate. Frustrated, Abbas is now seeking recognition for Palestine as a non-member state of the United Nations, and Prime Minister Netanyahu is threatening Abbas with severe retaliatory actions if he goes forward. As a matter of fact, many Palestinians believe that the recent attack on Gaza was designed in part to derail the U.N. membership request.

In the latest eight-day conflict, six Israelis were killed by Palestinian rocket fire. In Gaza, however, Israeli bombs killed 173 Palestinians — a substantial portion of whom were civilians, including several dozen women and children. One of them was Hitham’s oldest child, who was visiting relatives in Gaza.  

No one has seen Hitham since he buried his son. Many of his neighbors long considered him a coward for never joining the resistance. But who knows? Bereaved by the loss of his child like so many before him, he may yet become a martyr after all.

How many more Hithams will emerge from the rubble in Gaza?

Originally published by Foreign Policy in Focus.