The 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas has unified disparate Palestinian enclaves.
Stefanie GlinskiJuly 13, 2021, 1:13 PM
JERUSALEM—Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians remain high after a fourth war with Hamas ended in a shaky cease-fire in May, and home demolitions and evictions of Palestinians, supported by the Israeli government, continue in both East Jerusalem and the West Bank. But Palestinians—and even Israelis—say that the Palestinian cause has been galvanized like never before, and disparate groups of Palestinians are discovering a new sense of unity in the rubble of the 11-day war.
Since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, Palestinians have lived physically divided. In the Gaza Strip, a blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt in 2007 means that most of its people have never left the small enclave and have had vanishingly few contacts with fellow Palestinians in the West Bank or East Jerusalem. That isolation was further deepened by decades of illegal occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
“We have seen that all these colonial borders—whether cement blocks and walls or barriers in our minds that have caused divisions—are starting to come down. We are reclaiming our unified identity,” said Mohammed El-Kurd, a 23-year-old student who grew up in occupied East Jerusalem and studied in New York. “Millions of people around the world are, for the first time, waking up to the reality of apartheid and ethnic cleansing Palestinians are facing on a daily basis.”
The recent war, and especially the social media frenzy that accompanied it, has helped tear down those divisions.
Over weeks of turmoil, hashtags such as #SaveSheikhJarrah and #GazaUnderAttack went viral. For El-Kurd, this meant that the number of his social media followers on Instagram went from 4,000 to 750,000 within weeks. He was quickly in the spotlight, with his own family having faced the threat of forced eviction in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah for years. But the situation escalated in May when Yaakov Fauci, a settler from New York, took over part of the El-Kurd family’s home, telling them that “if I don’t steal it, someone else will.”
“Our voices have been policed by the public, but this is changing,” El-Kurd said. “We want the blockage to end, we want to roam freely, and we want Palestinians to return home, instead of rotting in refugee camps.”
The quick fight between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza began with heavy-handed Israeli tactics in Jerusalem met by a barrage of what was ultimately 4,000 Hamas rockets. The conflict left at least 256 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead. While the war resulted in a quick military victory for Israel, it also offered a victory of sorts to Palestinians, putting issues like Sheikh Jarrah, which had simmered in the background for years, at the center of a new Palestinian sense of purpose.
“Our nation has returned to its real cause,” said Amjad Shawa, director of the Palestinian Non-Governmental Organizations Network in Gaza. “Since the developments in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the war in Gaza, we are once again united as a people. We have raised our voices, because the current situation is unacceptable.”
Basem Naim, head of the Council on International Relations within Hamas, said that the main catalyst for the fighting was Israel’s behavior at Al-Aqsa Mosque and the evictions in East Jerusalem. “It has touched two sensitive points: holy places and refugees. We continue to fight a political conflict about statehood, land, and borders. It’s not just about a few houses—but about a long-term plan to extinguish the Palestinian existence in Jerusalem,” Naim said.
“I’d still say this conflict was different,” he added. “Palestinians have gained confidence, even though the devastation in Gaza is widespread. They felt like they were able to stand up to Israel for the first time.”
The newfound sense of Palestinian unity is also apparent among Israel’s leadership, said Mairav Zonszein, senior analyst on Israel and Palestine at the International Crisis Group.
“Conceptually, Hamas put the Palestinians back on the radar and Jerusalem at the center of their issues,” she said. “The [Israeli] government has realized that Palestinians are uniting; that the fragmentation isn’t as effective as they would like it to be; that they empathize with each other’s struggles, regardless of whether they are in the West Bank, Jerusalem or Gaza.”
Salma Shawa, a 24-year-old activist and entrepreneur, grew up in the closed-off enclave of Gaza, where she rarely had a chance to interact with people from Jerusalem or the West Bank due to strict movement restrictions on Palestinians. But in the wake of the recent conflict, she too has made new connections with other Palestinians and transcended borders that seemed impassable.
“Over the past months, Palestine has moved onto the global stage—so much so, that it was even discussed in the U.S. Congress. This has reunited its people, including several generations of diaspora Palestinians who have never been to their own country,” she said.
“There is no going back now. There is new hope.”