The triumphal parade of trucks and cars crawled from the Rafah border crossing with Egypt to Gaza City. I had scrambled into the back of a truck with Palestinian security forces not far behind the black Mercedes that carried a beaming, waving the V-for-victory sign, laughing Yasser Arafat in the car’s sunroof. Women ululated and threw flowers. Children on their fathers’ shoulders waved their arms. Boys and girls ran alongside the motorcade. The date was the first of July 1994: Arafat was returning to Gaza after 27 years in exile.
Less than a year after the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords in the White House Rose Garden, on that hot, humid, hectic day it seemed the Middle East’s Gordian knot was starting to unravel. Peace in our time.
It was an illusion.
This Monday, May 14, 2018 was the day the last, fleeting remnants of that illusion finally died.
On the same day Israeli troops killed more than 50 Palestinians taking part in what they called the Great March of Return, Israel and American leaders studiously ignored the bloodbath in Gaza and celebrated the inauguration of the US Embassy in Jerusalem.
The split television screens encapsulated the absurdity of it all. On one side, vivid images of volleys of tear gas, thick black smoke billowing from burning tires, panicked medics rushing away the wounded and the dead. On the other, elegantly dressed Americans and Israelis heaped praise on one another, called it a historic occasion, with barely a nod to the madness afoot an hour and a half’s drive away.
No single day highlights just how far this conflict has strayed into the disjointed, the absurd, the hopeless.
Under the Trump administration, the United States has utterly abandoned any pretext of evenhandedness. And the Palestinians have been abandoned altogether.
Of course, the leaders of the Arab world are going through the motions of condemnation and anger at Monday’s bloodshed. The octogenarian “President” of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas, fresh from a trip to Chile where he was photographed kicking a soccer ball, called for a general strike and three days of mourning. How many days of mourning, how many days of rage, how many general strikes, have the Palestinians staged?
The moribund Arab League called for an emergency meeting to discuss the situation in Gaza. Low would be a wildly optimistic description of expectations of the meeting.
Saudi Arabia joined in the condemnation, but it was lip service. Arab condemnation is a debased currency. It counts for nothing.
Riyadh, under the shadow leadership of 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, has made it clear its main concern is Iran. Bogged down in an unwinnable war against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, worried about the specter of growing Iranian power in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, the House of Saud views the once-sacred cause of the Palestinians as passe.
While they don’t have diplomatic relations, Israel and Saudi Arabia see eye to eye on far more than what separates them.
Wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya, an insurgency in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, the ever-present threat of a resurgent ISIS, economic woes and political instability have all pushed the once hallowed Palestinian cause into near obscurity.
Today the Palestinians are alone, divided between bickering factions. There is still emotional support among ordinary Arabs for the Palestinian cause, but it doesn’t translate into action. For now.
The Arabs are distracted, while the Israelis live in what they call their “bubble,” life in a modern, fast-paced society that keeps them isolated from the ugly reality of a grim, decadeslong military occupation.
The more than 2 million Palestinians crammed into Gaza will not disappear or begin to accept their fate or forget the homes their grandparents or great-grandparents lost in what was Palestine. The Palestinians in the West Bank won’t quietly accept their slow, relentless relegation to reservations hemmed in by walls and barbed wire.
It might seem that nothing will change. For now. But nothing remains the same. A problem ignored is not a problem solved.
A storm is coming.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to remove a reference to Tel Aviv as the capital of Israel.