By Ramzy Baroud
At the onset, 2021 appeared to be another ordinary year, one of unrelenting Israeli occupation and Palestinian misery. While much of that remained true, the dynamics of the Israeli occupation of Palestine were challenged by an unprecedented sense of popular unity among Palestinians, not only in the Occupied Territories, but among Palestinian communities in historic Palestine too.
A prevailing sense of cautious hope has finally replaced the prevalent sense of despair felt in previous years. With that, a feeling of renewal and willingness to embrace new political ideas has been registered throughout Palestine. For example, according to a poll conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center and published on Nov. 22, there are more West Bank Palestinians who support the one-state solution than those who still support the practically defunct two-state solution, which dominated Palestinian thinking for decades.
The year, however, began with a continued focus on the COVID-19 pandemic. Aside from ravaging besieged and occupied Palestinians, especially in the Gaza Strip, the virus began spreading among Palestinian prisoners.
In February, the Palestinian Authority, along with international human rights organizations, criticized Israel for refusing to allow COVID-19 vaccines into the besieged Gaza Strip. The Sputnik V doses were donated by Russia, the first country to contribute to fighting the pandemic in Palestine. Eventually, Palestinian communities slowly accessed vaccines arriving from the COVAX program. However, the pandemic continued to ravage the Occupied Territories, especially as the Israeli authorities continued to block Palestinian preventive measures and dismantle makeshift COVID-19 facilities. According to the Worldometer website, more than 4,500 Palestinians have died as a result of COVID-19, while more than 430,000 have tested positive for the virus.
As happened in the previous year, Israel’s political crisis dominated the headlines, as the power struggle between then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his rivals continued, leading to Israel’s fourth election in the space of two years. The March vote finally changed the Israeli political landscape, thanks to a strange government coalition cobbled together by Israel’s new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. The coalition included Arab politician Mansour Abbas, whose party proved instrumental in the forming of the government.
While Netanyahu and his Likud party retreated to the opposition, ending a reign spanning more than 12 years, Palestinians anticipated their own elections, which were announced by PA President Mahmoud Abbas on Jan. 15. The parliamentary and presidential elections were scheduled for May 22 and July 31, respectively. They were due to be followed by a political arrangement that would end Palestinian political disunity and ensure equal representation for all political groups, including Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, in a revitalized Palestine Liberation Organization.
Unfortunately, none of this transpired. Despite positive Palestinian unity talks in Cairo over the course of several weeks, Abbas canceled the scheduled elections on the pretext of a protest at Israel’s refusal to allow Palestinian voters in East Jerusalem to participate.
In exchange for blocking Palestinian efforts at ensuring a semblance of democracy, even under Israeli occupation, Abbas was allowed to return to Washington’s list of allies. Indeed, the US resumed its financial aid to the Palestinians in April, promising to reopen the PLO office in Washington, which was shut down by the Trump administration, and pledging to reopen its own consulate in Jerusalem, which was also closed by Trump in September 2018.
Despite these gestures, which served to validate the PA again after four years of marginalization by the US, the new Biden administration offered neither a roadmap for a renewed peace process nor pressured Israel to end its occupation or to slow down the pace of illegal settlement expansion in occupied Palestine. In fact, the rate of Israel’s settlement construction has grown exponentially in 2021, including the October announcement of a plan to approve thousands of new Israeli housing units in the West Bank.
Israel’s provocative actions would have gone unnoticed by the international community if it were not for the Palestinian people, who took a collective stance and used all forms of resistance, from Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem to Gaza. The whole episode, which eventually led to an Israeli war on Gaza in May, began with a routine Israeli attempt to ethnically cleanse Palestinians from several East Jerusalem neighborhoods, including Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan. Palestinian Jerusalemites, however, began organizing against an Israeli court order to evict them from their homes, which would then be taken over by Israeli Jewish settlers, as has been the habit for many years.
The popular resistance in Sheikh Jarrah was met with extreme violence, involving armed settlers, Israeli police and occupation forces, leading to the wounding of at least 178 Palestinian protesters on May 7. Palestinians throughout the Occupied Territories began mobilizing in solidarity with their brethren in Jerusalem, leading to another devastating Israeli war on the Gaza Strip that began on May 10. More than 250 Palestinians were killed.
The Israeli war was meant to distract from the events taking place in East Jerusalem. However, this completely failed as Palestinians in Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron, Haifa and many other Palestinian towns, villages and refugee camps marched in solidarity with Sheikh Jarrah and Gaza, articulating a political discourse that, for the first time, was devoid of factional references.
To quell the Palestinian rebellion, Israel dispatched thousands of soldiers and police, along with armed Jewish settlers and militias in the Occupied Territories and Israel itself. Many Palestinians were killed in the resulting clashes and attacks. These events highlighted not only the unity that exists among Palestinians, but also the deep racism that has afflicted all sectors of Israeli society. The notion that the Palestinians of historic Palestine have assimilated with the new reality and are no longer part of a larger Palestinian body politic proved completely false.
This Palestinian resistance further mobilized civil society around the world. Rights organizations Human Rights Watch and Israel’s own B’Tselem concluded that Israel is an apartheid state.
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement received many boosts throughout the year, as companies such as the ice cream giant Ben & Jerry’s decided to divest from the Occupied Territories, while sportswear giant Nike decided to end its operations in Israel entirely, though without rationalizing its decision on political grounds. Norway’s largest pension fund, KLP, declared on July 5 that it would no longer invest in firms linked to Israeli settlements. Later in the year, famous Irish novelist Sally Rooney announced that she had refused to have her bestseller “Beautiful World, Where Are You” translated into Hebrew by an Israeli publisher.
Meanwhile, efforts at holding Israeli war criminals accountable at the International Criminal Court continued unabated. In March, then-ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced the opening of a formal investigation into alleged war crimes in the Occupied Territories. Although Bensouda is no longer at the ICC, the Palestinian case remains active, with the hope that international justice will finally prevail.
Despite numerous difficulties, the spirit of all Palestinians was lifted once more when the Palestinian Olympic delegation entered Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium in July, carrying a Palestinian flag. The small delegation included athletes from various regions, cementing Palestinian unity in the cultural and sporting worlds.
Meanwhile, Palestinians continued their resistance inside Israeli prisons, with prisoners like Kayed Fasfous and Miqdad Al-Qawasmi leading prolonged hunger strikes of 131 and 113 days, respectively, which almost resulted in their deaths. In a show of further defiance, six Palestinian prisoners escaped from Gilboa Prison on Sept. 6. Though they were all caught and reportedly tortured following their rearrest, the news captivated all Palestinians, who felt empowered with what they perceived to be a heroic quest for freedom.
However, many Palestinian prisoners also suffered at the hands of the PA itself, which continued its practices of unlawful detention and the torture of dissenting activists. The death of Nizar Banat at the hands of PA security forces on June 24 led to mass Palestinian protests, with thousands of people demanding accountability and justice for the PA critic, who was beaten to death.
So, 2021 was a year of war, loss and destruction for Palestinians. But it was also a year of unity, cultural achievements and hope, as a new generation finally took center stage, asserting its identity and centrality to the future of its homeland.