Alexandria Fanjoy Silver

The Palestinian Tragedy


A few days ago, the news broke that some of the UNRWA members had been complicit in the Hamas attack. One distributed ammunition and helped coordinate the tasks. Another participated in the barbaric Kibbutz Be’eri pogrom. Another took and held someone hostage. Another further helped move hostages throughout UN infrastructure. This week, the Wall Street Journal released an assessment that some 1200 members of UNRWA (10% of the organization) have active ties with either Hamas or PIJ. 12 have been fired. This, to those who have watched UNRWA closely over the years, was not all that surprising.

Immediately, the pulled funding turned into a cascade, with all G7 countries and most of the world’s largest economies refusing to contribute. I was almost exultant. No United Nations employed person, whose job is to distribute humanitarian aid, should be extremists themselves. The West would not pay to support terrorism. But that sense of satisfaction that was shaded by the knowledge that the pulling of this funding will mean that the lives of Palestinian civilians will get much harder. Another event in the long history of Palestinians being failed by their leadership, with their having to pay the consequences for it.

Another thread in the tapestry of the Palestinian tragedy. It is often said in these days that Israel is responsible in entirety for the plight of the Palestinians, and of course, Israel has played its part. But their story involves a great number of actors, all of whom have professed fealty and loyalty, leadership and safety, and who have failed their people at every turn. To lay blame squarely at the door of any one of them is, at best, ignorant; at worse, it is a willful shaping of history to absolve many other actors of their responsibility for how we got here.

“Palestinians” was not originally a political label — Jews were Palestinians too. Judea, renamed Syria Palestina by the Emperor Hadrian after the failed Jewish revolt of 132-135, Palestine was variously part of Roman, Byzantine, Muslim, Ottoman and British Empires. Right from the beginning of the modern conflict, Palestinians (using their modern designation) were failed by just about everyone. In the 1930s, when the incendiary leader, the Mufti refused compromise and denied a bordered and independent state. In 1947, when the Arab leaders advised them to reject their state and encouraged them to flee the war instead. Ultimately, 800,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes and some 800,000 Jews were displaced from Muslim countries, neither to return. In 1948 when Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt all took their chunks of the Palestinian state, declared it theirs, and sought to repress (often violently) Palestinian dissent. In the creation of UNRWA, a separate entity to the other Refugee aid organizations. Unlike any other refugees, Palestinians were seen as having the right of return to their pre-war lands. The creation of this Palestinian-specific refugee organization has done little else than encourage the conflict as it spawned over the generations. It is a mere representation, though, of institutional failure that has done little to improve the lives of the Palestinians that they serve. 

The failure continued. In 1967, the aforementioned Arab armies started amassing troops on the borders in order to recommence their ethnic cleansing project (in that they publicly declared that they were going to sweep the Jews into the sea and finish what Hitler had started.) The Israeli army, which participated in a preemptive strike, defeated the collective armies in six short days. And all of a sudden, the areas originally allowed for Arabs by the UN were under control of Israel, who hoped to be able to use them as bargaining chips for peace with the surrounding countries. They all refused. Suddenly, Israel was in charge of a large population of Palestinians who were rightfully angry after years of failed promises from their so-called brethren. Violence erupted, from the 1972 Olympic massacre to the 1973 Yom Kippur War and beyond. In the 1980s, Israel exchanged the Sinai for a peace treaty with Egypt, who refused Gaza. Yet again, their Arab brothers were reluctant to engage with a population that they felt were overly problematic. The 1980s also brought the real beginning of settlements and the First Intifada — and the beginning of the peace process. The closest deal is the most remarkable failure of leadership.  At Camp David I, Bill Clinton and Israeli PM Ehud Barak offered Yassar Arafat 92% of the West Bank and the entirety of Gaza as a place for an independent state. The major sticking point? The right of return. An impossibility for all other refugees, but fostered by UNRWA. Yassar Arafat, so convinced, refused the deal and also refused to negotiate, instead walking away from the deal completely, his peoples’ ambitions dashed. 

The disintegration of this peace deal lead to a period of intense violence called the Second Intifada, characterized by frequent attacks by suicide bombers. In response to this violence, Israel began building the separation wall, and began the system of checkpoints and security that remains to this day. The violence has only served to provoke certain ideologically-motivated actors to ensure that the peace process doesn’t happen, largely by continuing to build more settlements in the middle of Palestinian areas. In 2006, another deal for the West Bank and Gaza was offered, and again refused. 

In response to this growing violence and bloodshed, the Israeli PM, Ariel Sharon, pulled Jews out of Gaza completely in 2005. The formal disengagement was completed by 2006, and Sharon’s government left all of the Israeli civilian infrastructure intact (greenhouses, power plants, etc.) – all of which were destroyed by Hamas within a year. After some struggle, Hamas was elected: an internationally recognized terrorist organization whose charter calls for the genocide of all Jews and the destruction of Israel. Almost immediately, they began the militarization of the strip, and did so on the back of the civilian population that they claimed to serve. There were a series of flareups from 2008 – 2021, varyingly serious. While Israel has been far from perfect, it has never started a war or flareup with Gaza – they have all been invited by Hamas. Hamas chose to divert all humanitarian aid to themselves, built terror tunnels, refused to invest anything in infrastructure (including bomb shelters), and embedded military equipment in civilian infrastructure. The Israeli and Egyptian joint-blockade of the Strip intensified, attempting to prevent terrorists and weapons from getting in. 

When Israel responds to Hamas rockets, many civilians die, because of how Hamas embeds in hospitals, schools and the like. This sense of “disproportionate response” has always been exclusively blamed on the IDF, with little to no understanding of the role that Hamas plays in it. The Palestinians themselves are terrorized by Hamas. Take the anti-Hamas “We Want to Live” rally that happened in Gaza in 2019-2020. Per PeaceComms’ project “Whispered in Gaza,” most of those involved were arrested, beaten or killed. Civilian life is immaterial. Hamas can hide in their underground rabbit warren (substantial parts of which was indirectly paid for by UNWRA) and allow their civilians to die. In fact, they encourage their civilians to die. The more Palestinians dead, the better the cause for Hamas. It is Hamas who starts the war, and their people who pay for it. 

On October 7th, Hamas unleashed an attack that they had been planning for years. The attack was timed deliberately in response to the fear that Israel was about to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia, which would have required Israel to better the lives and status of the Palestinians. Can’t have that, though. A happier population is always a less radical one. As this attack unfolded, it appears that a number of UNRWA workers were participating right along with Hamas. And thus, actions of their own humanitarian aid leadership caused the funding to their already vulnerable population to be severely restricted.

To me, the Palestinian tragedy is one of its leadership. Throughout history by their Arab brethren. By the UN for keeping them in a position of refugees, keeping alight the flame that they and they alone — and all of their progeny, some 5.4 million people — could return to their former territory and somehow win the war that they have repeatedly lost. By Yassar Arafat, who knew that the creation of an independent state would lose him his wealth and status. By Fatah for ‘recognizing Israel’ but also implementing pay-for-slay benefits where people are personally enriched for having murdered Israeli Jews. And most of all by Hamas, whose stated cause is not liberation, who cares nothing for a two-state solution or a peace process, who will hold the Palestinian children captive as human shields while simultaneously calling it genocide. None of these actors can claim to have had the best interests of this population at heart. Has Israel played a role in their tragedy? Absolutely. But they are far from the only ones to blame. And at least they’re the honest ones, not paying lip service to the needs of a population that has been oppressed and abandoned for generations, mostly by their own.

About the Author
Dr. Alexandria Fanjoy Silver has a B.A. from Queen's University, an MA/ MA from Brandeis and a PhD from the University of Toronto (all in history and education). She lives in Toronto with her husband and three children, and works as a Jewish history teacher. She writes about Jewish food history on Substack @bitesizedhistory and talks about Israeli history on Insta @afanjoysilver.
Related Topics
Related Posts