Israel’s repeated sabotage of the peace process and of a viable Palestinian state is perhaps the main reason that Palestinian resident of Gaza Lila Farsoun, whilst blaming Hamas for their handling of the crisis in Gaza, ultimately sees them as the patsy for an economic, political, and military squeeze that was pre-planned by Tel Aviv. “Israeli occupation restrictions on what is allowed into Gaza and even West Bank predate blockade of Gaza”, she explains. “I think Israeli occupation used the Hamas takeover as an excuse to implement a full blockade. I believe it was part of their strategy to sever ties between West Bank and Gaza to weaken our nationalism. Gaza has always been ground zero for uprisings and resistance and that was obviously a threat. The blockade cut us off and in effect separated us from all of that.” This basic condition of separation is not something Lila sees a change in any time soon. “I don’t see Israeli occupation lifting the siege even if PA returns to Gaza and controls everything. They will always find an excuse for to leave it in place. I think our best option is to convince Egypt to open a free trade zone on the border. Our energy is better spent nurturing political ties with Egypt than Israeli occupation.”
That Lila might look to Egypt for solutions might seem surprising given Cairo and President Al-Sisi’s warm relationship with Tel Aviv in recent decades but it is understandable given Egypt being the only country with an international border with Gaza other than Israel, and especially given Lila’s grim prognosis that the occupation will never truly end. For her, the biggest challenges are coping and staying positive no matter what happens. “It’s easy to lose hope when you see the news every day of people being taken captive, shot, homes demolished, raids, tear gas”, she says. “Every day you see your people suffer and it is so hard to keep hope alive that freedom will come. Living through the wars has been a nightmare. Even now it doesn’t feel real. We joke about it or try to make light of it to lessen the impact of what we have all been through. It’s tough now to even talk about them without getting emotional. The saddest thing is not knowing if we will ever be free and that at any moment the occupation can start a war and we can vanish.”
In the final analysis, the responsibility for the siege, the three wars in Gaza, and the reactions from Hamas and Palestinian resistance lie, for Lila, with the Israeli occupation. “Without occupation, none of this would have happened. I don’t agree with rockets but I also know they are little threat compared to occupation air strikes. Israeli occupation benefits from rockets. It gives them excuses to bomb us, it gives them an excuse to demand more military aid, it gives them an excuse to deny us our state and they use them just as they have used Hamas to strengthen their position. It isn’t smart for us to use rockets. People will say they are right because it scares Israelis but what does that do? It only makes them support their government even more. What we need is for them to not support their government. We need for them to see us as humans who deserve freedom, not look at us like we are the enemy.”
Internationally, Lila sees neighboring countries like Jordan and Egypt as complicit in normalizing the occupation and whilst the peoples of these and other regional states are warmly supportive of Palestinians their governments have not mirrored this in their policies or treatment of refugees. She recognizes that conditions in the refugee camps are horrible and dehumanizing but notes that completely integrating the refugees into their host countries absolves the occupation of its historical responsibility for them. Despite this, Lila thinks Israel will not come to accept a right to return unless they are forced to do so and thus, perhaps controversially for some Palestinians, she’s in favor of the host nations fully naturalizing these state-less Palestinians as citizens. Despite this, she remains committed to the Right To Return in principle. She feels international recognition has expanded the issue of Palestine from a regional concern to something much more but that a lack of a strong leader after Yasser Arafat has held Palestinians back. “President Abbas has done good things but he wasn’t what we needed after President Arafat".
Additionally, Lila singles out the US as an unfair broker and thinks it should be removed from the peace process altogether. “US support of Israeli occupation no matter what the occupation does has been very, very problematic and has led them to believe they can do anything to us and still get millions of dollars each day in aid”, she points out. “There must be consequences for actions.” In contrast, she identifies European policy slowly shifting in Palestinian’s favor. “If Israeli occupation settlement building continues this will eventually push them over to our side”, she says. ”The EU has been supportive in consistently denouncing Israeli settlements but I would like to see them start to act and begin regulations & sanctions against Israel. The Swedish government is also a strong supporter of Palestine and was the first Western Europe country to recognize us.” Asked if there are any political parties she regards as an ally, she points to the UK Labour Party. Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s mentioning of Palestine to great applause in his conference ending speech in September suggests that Lila’s trust in him and his party has a legitimate cause, at least until if and when Corbyn becomes Prime Minister and gets to shape official UK policy towards the region.
International pressure is also something that Lila hopes will come to change the inertia of peace process dynamics and the viability of a Palestinian State. Although she sees the Two-State Solution as intrinsically unfair she argues that ‘the clock can’t be turned back’. However, for her, a condition of a Two-State Solution must be a single contiguous state. “I think all Israeli settlements in West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem should come under Palestinian control,” she responds. “Israelis who live in the settlements can become Palestinian citizens and contribute to our state, or return to Israel.” Lila sees The International Criminal Court playing a role here and exerting influence. “It is time to hear the cases PLO has submitted on Israeli occupation war crimes”, she tells me. “Once Israeli occupation leaders are persona non grata in US and EU countries I think things would change. This would be solid reasoning/evidence to justify worldwide sanctions of Israeli occupation.”
It is arguably because of the work Lila and her compatriots and allies do online and elsewhere that the issue of Palestine is so well known today amongst younger generations, particularly in the West. This also helps explain why the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) campaign has built up such momentum globally, resulting in significant costs for Israel and particularly for businesses and governments doing trade with illegal settlements. Lila enthusiastically supports BDS and cites it as one reason why awareness and knowledge of Palestine are growing. “I think the world is more knowledgeable about the situation than ever before,” she says. “Sometimes I think the world is more supportive but other times I question if it will change anything.” Again, Lila’s perspective is anything but myopic. Instead, she takes a global approach to inequality rather than making the Palestinian cause exceptional. “In all honesty, there are so many people enduring injustice around the world and we are no more deserving than anyone else is when it comes to human rights. I hope people that support us also spend energy in speaking out for all the oppressed people of the world and not just us. Everyone deserves freedom and dignity.”
Not all international coverage of Palestine is equal or welcome. Although more people have become aware of the issue of Gaza and the West Bank, especially since the soft-power wrecking adventurism of Tel Aviv’s three attacks brutal, disproportionate attacks on Gaza, quality of coverage often varies dramatically. Lila finds Mondoweiss and HuffPost generally offer coverage main mainstream outlets ignore but whilst Israel is still able to have its occupation hasbara reproduced with little to no substantial critique in many well-regarded media outlets, Lila feels other rising organs such as Al Jazeera and Press TV crudely use Palestine as part of their own political agendas, making her and her compatriots unwilling pawns in a geopolitical game.
At the end of the interview, I ask Lila which individuals inspire her from the past and the present, and which of them she has little faith in playing a constructive role. The answer, at least in terms of a past figure, was a clear endorsement of the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat. “He was a great leader.” “Was he perfect?”, she asks rhetorically. “No”, she answers, “but he was perfect for what we needed. He was such a generous person. He would always have his assistant carry extra money & when he would see or talk to poor people he would help them. I saw people crying to him for help & he would embrace them and do everything in his power to help. He was also a simple man, never put on aires or acted above his people. He demanded respect, yes, but never in a way that made others feel less about themselves. He was always ready to defend his people & to take care of us. I always feel he is like everyone’s grandfather here.” In the present Lila looks to PA Legislator Hanan Ashrawi, Joint List MK Haneen Zoabi, and Ta’al Party leader and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Ahmad Tibi (a former advisor to Arafat) as capable leaders, whilst warning of the possible negative influence and impact of Hamas co-founder Mahmoud al Zahar, Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich, and the Israeli Minister of Education Naftali Bennett.
What are the greatest obstacles towards peace and what would you say to Israeli citizens reading this piece, I ask her. Lila’s reply is characteristically both focused and broad in scope. “The obstacle is the idea that only one of us belongs here and not the other. We are both here. We need to accept that and work on a solution.”
“We deserve freedom just as you do".