For more than six months, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have protested along the fence with Israel demanding their right to return to the homes and land their families were expelled from 70 years ago. The Great March of Return rallies culminated on May 15 to mark what Palestinians refer to as the Nakba, or Catastrophe – a reference to the forced removal of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and villages to clear the way for Israel’s establishment in 1948. The mass demonstrations have continued since. As the protests began on March 30, Israeli forces have killed at least 210 Palestinians in the besieged coastal enclave and wounded more than 18,000 people, according to health officials in Gaza. Gaza has been in the grip of violence. Rockets and mortar shells have been exchanged at the highest rate since the 2014 war after a raid by Israeli Special Forces inside Gaza. Hamas retaliated, firing 400 rockets and mortar rounds into Israel and Israel hit back with over 100 bombing strikes. There are reports of a ceasefire, but Israel’s miscalculation has already come at a heavy price. The outbreak of violence disrupted ceasefire talks mediated by the United Nations and Egypt. These cycles of violence are unsustainable. The United Nations warned in September that Gaza will be uninhabitable by 2020 if current conditions continue, citing the damage caused by Israel’s eleven-year economic blockade and fighting between Israel and Gaza. Ninety five percent of Gazan tap water is undrinkable, and its beaches are choked with untreated sewage. Electricity is available for just four hours a day and unemployment is at forty four per cent. The depth of human suffering and despair has been apparent since the Great March of Return began in March, where Gazans risk death on a daily basis to protest at the fence with Israel. The European Union is quick to issue statements calling for de-escalation whenever violence flares in Gaza, but there’s more it can do to alleviate the suffering of Gazans. The bloc has an unprecedented opportunity to define its own strategy in the region, and step out of the US’s shadow. The US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and cuts in aid have undermined America’s role as a mediator. Prospects for the US peace plan look bleak. The EU should look beyond efforts to tackle Gaza’s immediate humanitarian crisis with aid and focus on reconciliation between the two major Palestinian political parties and deploy its economic leverage to foster peace. The EU also has leverage over Israel as the bloc is Israel’s largest trading partner. Notably, their association agreement, which provides tariff-free trade in most goods, is conditional upon respect for human rights. The EU must act now.
EU should look beyond efforts to tackle Gaza’s immediate humanitarian crisis with aid and focus on reconciliation between the two major Palestinian political parties.