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Wafaa Abo Zarifa is a Palestinian woman who came to Luxembourg six years ago after having grown up and working in Gaza as a journalist. Her family still lives there. We discuss what life in Gaza was like, how she lived through those eleven days in May, and if she still has hope that lasting peace can be achieved.
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The Israeli-Palestinian ‘conflict’ has culminated in a new crisis: what started as protests over evictions of Palestinian families in Israeli occupied East Jerusalem escalated into riots and the eventual storming of the al-Aqsa compound, Islam’s third holiest site, by Israeli security forces. Protests and counter-protests soon spread to various cities inside Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. The al-Aqsa incident became the trigger for terrorist-group Hamas to start firing thousands of rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip. This triggered a military response by Israel over eleven days in May, resulting in the deaths of at least 13 Israelis and 256 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip alone. Thousands got injured and were rendered homeless, and recovery work is ongoing under expectations of a possible new war.
Even if most of the thousands of rockets shot from Gaza were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system, their unprecedented range struck terror into places usually farther removed from the realities of the occupation. Both sides have been accused of potential war crimes for the use of indiscriminate rockets and the disproportionate use of force against civil infrastructure and lives. Next to the lasting trauma for Israelis and Palestinians, and the slow violence of the blockade of Gaza rendering life in it near unbearable, a political solution remains elusive. The underlying tensions around the evictions from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood continue unresolved, as do most negotiations between parties, and the lack of progress on a two-State solution. Hardliners on both sides continue provocations that may cause new bouts of violence.
In an attempt to understand the human side and cost to these events, we spoke to Wafaa, a Palestinian refugee from Gaza in Luxembourg, and Faran, an Israeli-Luxembourgish woman living in Israel. Both are engaged in grassroots peace-building by bringing Palestinians and Israelis together to overcome their differences, and their life stories reveal much about what the ‘conflict’ looks like beyond abstract statistics of death and suffering.
Lëtzebuerger Journal: Are you frustrated that you get an interview request only now when things have escalated to the point of warfare – even if the conflict and build-up to the current crisis has been going on for months, if not to speak of years?
Wafaa Abo Zarifa: Of course it is very frustrating. I feel like the media doesn’t transfer what is happening on the ground. They only send the messages that the politicians want to see. Why do I say this? When I watch TV or read an article here in Europe, they all report the same statements by politicians and military spokespeople. Some people even make fun of me because they say they can’t understand why we are fighting over land. But put yourself in our shoes: What would you think if someone came to attack your home, your family, take away your land, your memories, your life, your future, your present, your past? What are you going to do? This time, it was a little bit different because [Palestinian journalists and activists] on social media got a lot of attention before and during the 11-day war.
"To see my mother and my children running, struggling, and my uncle dying next to us. And when afterwards you return to your area, your home is not there anymore."
Wafaa Abo Zarifa
I want to get back to the role social media played in all this in a minute, but first; can you tell us more about yourself? You’ve been living in Luxembourg for five years and a half. What brought you here?
The Israeli occupation forced me to become a refugee. The last war that I experienced was in the Gaza Strip in 2014. In that moment I said to myself: I will never put my children into this situation again. Enough is enough. I have three children who were 14, 10 and 11 back then. It was so hard for me to think about the possibility that we would die together or that I couldn’t save one of them. Most victims of airstrikes in Gaza are civilians. So I applied to a job at an organisation for an international project outside of Palestine. I got the job and one week after the end of the war I was asked to leave Gaza to join the project.
But I couldn’t just leave. If you want to leave Gaza, you have to ask permission from Israeli authorities who control all access to and from Gaza. You almost need one more briefcase for all the permissions from different governments and institutions all over the world just to get on a flight. At that point I asked myself: Why can’t I travel and work like everyone else? Everyone can apply, join and go work for this project but I can’t just because I am a Palestinian from Gaza. Why don’t I have the same rights as them? In the end, and after a lot of work, I somehow managed to get the permissions and left.
The Gaza Strip
The Gaza Strip, or simply Gaza, is home to 2 million Palestinians currently under a near-total blockade on the movement of people and goods in or out of the territory. It has been under military occupation since 1967 together with the West Bank and East Jerusalem. A border-wall surrounds the territory and only two-checkpoints for civilians exist today: one administered by Israel and a second by Egypt.
There is no functioning airport and Israel imposes an air- sea- and land-blockade since Hamas took over Gaza in June 2007. A permit system controlled by Israel regulates all entry and exit of civilians to other occupied Palestinian and Israeli territories, and has been accused of being arbitrary and opaque. Although special permits for humanitarian reasons such as medical treatment exist, the same critique applies.
The Egyptian crossing also uses a permit system but would regularly close for months prior to February 2021 when it was made functional 'indefinitely' at the writing of this info-box. Prior to this, it remained closed for all but a few days between 2014 and 2018.
In 2005, the then-Israeli Prime Minister withdrew all military forces and Jewish citizens from Gaza citing the demographic-threat of an Arab majority in an Israeli state. Shortly after, an Islamic resistance movement called Hamas won legislative elections and eventually took over administering Gaza following infighting with the more moderate Palestinian group Fatah. Hamas does not recognise Israel's right to exist and is considered a terrorist organisation by most Western countries for its military-wing's use of suicide bombers against civilians, the use of tunnels to smuggle goods and attack Israeli settlements in Palestinian occupied territories, and most notoriously rocket-attacks on Israeli settlements and territory.
During Jewish holidays, attacks on Israeli settlements and territories, and at times for undefined reasons, Israeli may close all civilian and goods border-crossings on its side. Since 2007, import-restrictions on so-called dual-use goods that could be misused by Hamas to manufacture rockets or build underground tunnels into its territories and settlements in occupied territories are also in place. These include fuel, concrete, or water pipes. Successive bombing-raids by Israel on Gaza have left key infrastructure unable to be rebuilt. Israel accuses Hamas of misusing civilian buildings and infrastructure, as well as civilian populations, to hide military equipment. Today, less than 5% of fresh water in Gaza is drinkable, its sewage system has collapsed, and despite various negotiations having at times improved access of humanitarian aid and goods, the humanitarian situation in Gaza is catastrophic. The international community considers Israel the occupying power in Gaza, a status which puts special obligations on Israel regarding the humanitarian situation inside Gaza. Israel denies this status on the basis that it has no physical presence in Gaza and cites security-reasons as necessitating the blockade.
The UN calls the blockade of Gaza a form of collective punishment against its inhabitants, which is illegal under international humanitarian law. As part of the UN and shared EU position, Luxembourg calls for the end of the blockade.
You left for Greece but were denied a return to Gaza …
After I finished my work in Greece, I again needed new permissions just to be allowed to re-enter Gaza. But I didn’t get them. I was stuck in Greece for seven or eight months trying to get back to my children who were still in Gaza. I missed them. I worried about them. In the end, the only option I had to get back with them was to apply somewhere as asylum seeker. If you get the status of refugee, you can ask to be reunited with your children and family. The whole process took me one year and a half. I was separated from my children for four years until they came to Luxembourg just two years ago. This is the hardest thing that I ever went through. And this is one – not even a very heavy – story of what hardship Palestinian people face daily inside and outside Gaza. We face barriers everywhere we turn. By now, I and all of my children have the Luxembourgish nationality.
Since arriving, you started supporting other refugees with integrating into Luxembourgish society?
Yes. I work on this together with two other women, one of whom is also from Palestine and one from Luxembourg. We started meeting with women from different backgrounds and we found out that we all encounter similar issues. So why not help each other, share what we learned, and have cultural exchanges? We created an association by which we want to integrate people in Luxembourgish society. We started the “Wafaa’s Women Café” where we have informal meetings to exchange stories and learn from each other. Because to integrate and accept each other, you have to first understand each other.
You told me you lived in Gaza seven years ago. What was your life like?
It wasn’t easy. Imagine yourself in a room and someone locks the door on you. You have dreams and aspirations but you are not able to realise them. And you don’t know why. The hardest part as a young person is that you want to travel, to enjoy life. I wasn’t able to do that because in Gaza I had no right to travel outside, no right or place to direct my complaints, no right to have the education that I wished for… On top of that I had to simply accept whatever decisions were taken that limited what I wanted and could do. Because as soon as you raise your voice as a Palestinian in Gaza, you become a terrorist and target. It is unfair.
Naqba and the 1947-49 war
By the end of 1949, 80% of Palestinians had been turned into refugees, the new State of Israel controlled 78% of historical Palestine, and the first Arab-Israeli war had been decisively won by Israel. This catastrophe for Palestinians, Nakba in Arabic, is commemorated each 15th May as the day after the end of the British Mandate for Palestine on 14th May 1947 ended and the declaration of Israeli statehood on the 14th gave birth to the State of Israel on the 15th. Even before the 15th, almost half of all displacement had already incurred, with Palestinians deliberately and systematically driven from hundreds of cities, towns, and villages. A civil war had started after the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 181 on the partition of the British Mandate of Palestine into Jewish and Palestinian states in November 1947. 56% of historic Palestine were to be given to a new Jewish state, and 43% to a Palestinian state. An international regime would have administered Jerusalem.
Although Jewish representatives had issues with some of the territorial outline, the resolution represented the then-zenith of Zionist efforts and they accepted it. Their eventual declaration of a state of Israel broadly followed the territorial partition envisaged in the resolution. Arab states voted against it and threatened war over any partition of Palestine. Ultimately, the resolution was never implemented as civil war broke out shortly after. Initially, Arab support for the Palestinians did not match previous rhetoric however, and early military wins were rebuffed by the local Zionists proto-state built over previous past decades. Better organised and expecting war, it would overcome the Palestinian militias. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians were driven from the eventual outline of the Israeli state.
On 15th May 1948, the symbolism of a Jewish state on Arab lands, significant refugee flows into surrounding Arab nations, interests by Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq to annex parts of Palestine, and a general underestimation of Israeli military might have started the invasion of Israel by several Arab forces. Although the West Bank would be captured for Jordan, Jewish immigrants, arms supplies, and the newly formed IDF would stop and reverse advancements. By mid-1949, Israel controlled 78% of historic Palestine and had signed armistice agreements with the different Arab invading forces. In a subsequent Six-Day War in 1967, it would reclaim the West Bank, expand its territory further, and take on most of its modern boundaries.
The conclusion of fighting brought with it profound territorial and demographic changes. Although about 150.000 Palestinians remained in Israel, Palestinian refugees became the largest refugee population in the world until the Syrian war. Many became stuck in refugee camps and essentially stateless to this day. In 2021, 5.6M Palestinian refugees are registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees and mostly reliant on aid. Their right to return is a key demand by Palestinians in the Israel-Palestinian peace process regarding an eventual return to their homes and property they left behind. This demand remains unacceptable to Israel, not least as it would fundamentally alter the demographic balance of a Jewish Israel. Demographic calculations were part of early partition assessments, and a key concern for Zionists. This all plays into what constitutes the Naqba to Palestinians.
In addition, the 1950 Absentee Property Law and its subsequent provisions have essentially barred Palestinians to reclaim property and land, especially in East Jerusalem where protests on this issue would eventually spiral into the May 2021 violence. The Law applies to almost all Palestinians, including any Palestinian living outside Israel or who left their residence between November 1947 and September 1948. The ownership of their properties is transferred to a custodianship which are usually given to Jewish settler-organisations for a fee. Only a special committee with no specific criteria can release property to someone claiming original ownership. All settlements in occupied territories, including those established under the absentee-property law are illegal under international law.
The Naqba then is much more than Palestinians commemorating their initial expulsion from their homes and lands. Rather, it is a key part of their identity as Palestinians, of their unrealised right to return, the loss of their ancestral homes and communities, and by extension much of their culture. Israeli organisations that commemorate Naqba Day can be fined if they receive financial support by the state.
I have heard that we shouldn’t use the word conflict in this discussion. Why is that and how would you describe the situation in Gaza?
Many people don’t pay attention to the terms that they use. They are not aware of the impact that words can have on us or how the world thinks about Gaza and Palestinians. Describing Gaza in this or that way always expresses a political and religious position. Many people just repeat what they hear in their media without looking deeper into what is behind the problem.
So why exactly is the word conflict problematic?
To call it a conflict doesn’t do justice to what is happening in Gaza and outside of it. If you see what’s going on in Palestine, you can officially stop calling it conflict – or clash, as they sometimes say. Conflict implies that there is a sort of symmetry of power between Palestinians and Israelis. But there is no equality in power. It is illegal Israeli occupation, illegal settlements and soldiers driving us from our homes and lands and destroying our fields; it is oppression of Palestinians. It is stripping Palestinians of their human rights. It is ethnic cleansing. And I am only talking about the eleven days that have passed. All the footage I have been watching of what has happened in Gaza, in Sheikh Jarrah, in Al-Aqsa Mosque: is it not enough? Who has the guns and bombs, who has the army? I don’t support anyone. I only support every human being standing up for their rights and having them respected. All of this is a political and economic issue out of the control of ordinary people. And those delivering and using weapons are all also responsible for all the suffering.
Cultural and religious sites subject to deep divisions
Sheikh Jarrah is a historically Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem and the site of regular protests over possible eviction of Palestinians by Jewish settlers. Crucially, the gradual growth of Jewish settlements in and around East Jerusalem is undermining a future two-State solution, as well as being illegal under international law. Weeks of protests that started in Sheikh Jarrah were met by violent crackdowns which spiralled out of control and grew in size, ultimately involving the storming of Islam's third-holiest site, the al-Aqsa mosque, by Israeli security forces. Hamas called on Israeli forces to withdraw from the al-Aqsa compound and started launching rockets into Israel when this did not happen. These evictions and clashes must be understood in a larger historical context, including the 1980 Jerusalem Law that states "Jerusalem, complete and united is the capital of Israel", and the Property Absentee Law which allows for the seizing of absentee-property that is then usually given to settler-organisations
In the case of East Jerusalem, Israel's conquest in 1967 from Jordan introduced a set of specific challenges to Palestinians living there. The right to claim property owned prior to Jordan's takeover in 1948 was granted to Jews but withheld from Palestinians as they were considered Jordanian citizens. Specifically, Jordan negotiated with the UN Refugee Works Agency for Palestinians to swap the refugee status of some Palestinian families with ownership and citizenship in East Jerusalem, including in Sheikh Jarrah. This has made Palestinians ineligible to reclaim property in Sheikh Jarrah and others fighting court-battles for their ownership. Originally, these swaps were honoured against the paying of a rent. Jewish settlers incurred into East Jerusalem and started court-proceedings in the 1970s, with legal proceedings over land-deeds going back to Ottoman times being subject of contention. Israel's Supreme Court has most recently offered 4 families the option to stay in their homes for three generations if they sign that the land they live on originally belonged to Jewish settlers. None have signed.
As protests spiralled, Israeli security-forces stormed the al-Aqsa compound, creating an outcry by Muslims across the world. The site has seen a long-running feud between Muslims and extremist Jews, the latter of which seek to tear down the mosque and rebuild the biblical Third Temple. Muslims currently administer the compound through a special Islamic organisation called Waqf, but fears and tensions run deep that some Jewish settlers want to take control of the compound. When in 2000 then-politician Ariel Sharon entered the compound, the symbolism was akin to desecration of the compound, and pent-up tensions between Palestinians and Israelis unleashed the Second Intifada. Subsequently, large groups of Jews have repeatedly tried entering the compound, including during the last days of Ramadan in previous years. The most provocative actions to Palestinians have been Israeli restrictions on their access to the compound when tourists and Jews had free access.
Masjid al-Aqsa or al-Aqsa mosque is the third-holiest site in Islam and part of the "Noble Sanctuary" compound that Jews call the Temple Mount and understand as their holiest site. It includes the Dome of the Rock, from which Muslims believe their prophet ascended to heaven. Specifically, they believe he ascended by the help of a winged beast called Buraq, which he tied to what Jews call the Wailing Wall. Jews pray against the wall as they believe it constitutes the last remains of the biblical Second Temple. Both Muslims and Jews believe the ground of the compound to be blessed. Jews however are not permitted to pray on it due to the assumption that they could stand on the remains of HaDvir, or Holy of Holiest, an inner sanctum of the biblical First Temple.
Can you explain why it is important not to hold Jews or Muslims responsible of the decisions of Israeli/Palestinian leaders?
We clearly don’t have any conflict between religions. It is about politics. It is occupation. Finish the occupation and we will be the most peaceful people. There are 6.5 million Palestinians around the world. We are the largest and the oldest group of refugees worldwide. And we always try to improve the places that we live in. The only thing that we want is our freedom.
The conflict between Israel and Palestine has been going on for over 50 years or even longer depending on how counts. Your family has been dealing with it for generations. How did that affect you growing up?
The occupation goes back almost 73 years. I think I am the third generation that is witnessing occupation. My grandmother and my grandfather, my mother and my father raised us to love our country and our culture. And to always defend our rights. The most important thing that Palestinian people have is dignity. When the massacres started and people were forced to run away [in 1948 and subsequent ] and leave their homes, our grandparents ran away with the keys of their houses. Until today we have the keys. They passed them on from generation to generation. They would always say: “Maybe one day you will come back.” They describe to us what our houses looked like, how many rooms there were, what tree stands in front of our house. The memories are passed from one generation to the next, just like the keys.
Did you yourself have to leave your house with your family?
Oh yes. The last time was in 2014 during Ramadan because they always try to attack us during the holiest month. They choose the time when it hurts the most. Me and my mother always make fun saying “It is not enough to be Palestinian, it is not enough to be from Gaza. We also live on the border.” So we are very near to army posts. When they start their bombings, they start with us.
We were just sitting there eating when suddenly the table started shaking from the bombing. It came from everywhere. You couldn’t even recognize where it came from. I regrouped with my children, my brothers, their wives and their children in my father’s house because it is a little bit further from the border.
Occupants start by cutting the electricity. We were in one room, each mother in front of her children trying to smile and make jokes so the children feel better. Then the bombing started to become very intense and all the furniture and everything in the house was falling over and flying around. We told my father that we had to leave the house, even if it is very dangerous. If you cross the street, you don’t know if you’re going to stay alive. But you try to get to the safest place possible. My father told us: “If you want to go, go but I will not leave.” We had to think about who is going first. One of my brothers decided to do it and call us. And each mother was saying to their children: “Look, we are going to run. Don’t care about what is going on around you. If your grandmother falls down, don’t worry, she is going to follow us later. Just keep running. If I fall down, don’t worry. We are going to follow you.”
Have you heard about these stories before? How do you want me, as a human, to accept this reality and fear for my family? To see my mother and my children running, struggling, and my uncle dying next to us. And when afterwards you return to your area, your home is not there anymore. You don’t recognise it. Your house looks like a doll house – you know the ones without walls where you see everything that is going on inside.
You became a journalist. Did that have anything to do with how you grew up?
It was always my dream to become a journalist because I wanted to be the voice of my people. Also, I liked to write and share stories. We have a university in Palestine that I went to. It wasn’t easy to finance my studies and I had to get good grades to get a scholarship, but I did it. Working as a journalist in Palestine is one of the hardest jobs because you put yourself under risk. You are covering crimes against your people and at the same time you are one of them. It is very emotional. It impacted me a lot – sometimes in a positive, sometimes in a negative way. I struggled with my mental health for a long time.
Hamas and Palestinians in Gaza
Hamas, or Islamic Resistance Movement, has ruled Gaza since 2006 when it won the Palestinian legislative elections of the Palestinian National Authority (PA) in a surprise victory. Its origins lie with the First Intifada, when it emerged as offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, calling for jihad against Israel. Hamas' use of military and terrorist tactics (specifically rocket and suicide attacks) against the military occupation, denial of Israel's right to exist, partial refusal to engage in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and its original aim to establish an Islamic state in all of historic Palestine meant the international community and Israel sought to contain its influence.
Days after Hamas' electoral victory, the Quartet for Middle East Peace, consistent of the United Nations, the European Union, Russia, and the US, conditioned foreign aid to Palestinians on any new government aligning with the principles of non-violence, recognition of Israel's right to exist, and accepting all previous peace-agreements. These conditions were essentially unacceptable to Hamas at the time, even if moderates had moved it to accept pre-1967 borders, a truce if not recognition with Israel amongst other changes to its previous hardline stances.
Outside pressure and internal differences gradually eroded trust and space for cooperation between Palestinian factions. Hamas would soon create its own security force, which raised tensions with Fatah, a more moderate and secular party which the international community expected to win and which continues to hold the Presidency of the PA under Mahmoud Abbas. In parallel, it emerged that the PA's Presidential Guard loyal to Fatah was given military hardware and support by outside powers to possibly overthrow Hamas. Factional in-fighting and clashes resulted in Hamas taking over Gaza militarily in 2007. In an attempts to improve security and pressure Hamas, Israel and Egypt imposed the Gaza Blockade which endures to this day.
Although repeated attempts have been made to reconcile parties and form a Palestinian Unity Government, most efforts were short-lived or never came to fruition. New elections keep being postponed by Abbas. Although there are multiple complex reasons for this, one argument is that Hamas is expected to win an even greater share of seats, although not necessarily a majority. Mediation by the UN and Egypt have made some recent progress. Observers argue the current state of affairs is in an untenable deadlock, with Hamas having returned to many of its more hardline positions. Intra-Palestinian and external differences will have to be resolved somehow. Countries such as Norway and Switzerland have rejected recognising Hamas as terrorist organisation to this end, so they may continue engaging in diplomatic exchange and political engagement.
Hamas does not tolerate dissent. Planning, organising, and attending protests against its rule incur arrests, and critical reporting can result in jailtime, torture, and beatings. Contact with any Israelis is tried as treason, and civilians are tried in military courts. Over the years, such repression has taken on different levels of severity, with recent anti-Hamas protests facing greater repression. During its rule, Hamas has been accused of using human-shields to protect its military-hardware and to purposefully store weapons or run military units in residential areas to shield it from Israeli air-strikes. The Gaza-strip has one of the highest population-densities in the world, making any strike against a military target almost certain to incur civilian casualties.
Since the 90s, but especially in 2008, 2012, 2014, 2018, and most recently in 2021, Hamas and other militant groups have regularly launched improvised unguided rockets and mortars into Israel. Their numbers have varied from low double-digits into the thousands, and Israel relies on an anti-missile defence system called Iron Dome to intercept about 90% of them. Although casualties are low, their target is causing terror. At various stages, cease-fires were signed and aid was allowed back into Gaza in exchange for a stop to rocket-fire.
Israel's own retaliations in Gaza have equally been considered possible war crimes or crimes against humanity due to their disproportionate impact on civilians and infrastructure. Under international humanitarian law, civilian infrastructure is protected and any attacks must be proportional to the military aim it seeks to achieve. Israel's process of designating military targets has faced intense scrutiny following investigations of civilians and civilian infrastructure being systematically targeted over the years. Specifically, water, energy, health, education, and agricultural infrastructure has suffered under repeated bombing campaigns.
The blockade makes reconstruction and maintenance often impossible, with more infrastructure still falling into disrepair. Most basic goods and medicine are in short supply or completely unavailable. A 2012 UN report estimated Gaza to become unliveable by 2020 due to a lack of available freshwater amongst other reasons. Today, less than 5% of water is drinkable, with untreated sewage and wastewater seeping into an overdrawn aquifer. Energy is available for about half a day at a time, the unemployment rate is almost 50% for adults and higher for young people. Covid restrictions imposed by Israel and later by Hamas have decimated what little economic activity survives. Previous reports have found a mental health crisis, with up to 90% of children being constantly afraid, and suffering from nightmares and bedwetting even a year after bombing raids.
Do you have an example of a situation where you put yourself in a dangerous situation?
I remember one day I was talking to my manager about having to go home. I was worried about my little daughter. I was scared to lose her and had to go see her. But it was about to be dark outside, and it was very dangerous to take the highway because the army is waiting for a car to pass just to show at them or throw bombs. You find few taxies who work – some need the money and they take the risk. So I found one. The driver was very fast and out of the blue bombs started to explode all around us. It felt like a movie. While we were trying to get out of this, there was a guy on the side of the road asking for help. The driver decided to stop for him. It was a very hard moment. Everyone was confused. But we survived it—I don’t know how—and I got to my daughter in one piece.
Is there a story you covered as a journalist in Gaza that has impacted you in particular?
Yes, I had a very unreal experience one day. I saw a Facebook post from my friend who wrote that a common friend had died. But then I slowly realised that I had covered a story of a man who died the day before, and that that man had actually been this friend. When you report about all this, you sometimes don’t feel like you’re part of it. On that day I had to finish the article on his death. So, what was I going to write? That he was a nice guy, that he had a dream? That he was working in a food program for people who had to flee from their homes? This really impacted me. It took me a while to process all these emotions. Ultimately, it made me strong, a fighter. I don’t feel like anything is impossible anymore.
Do you have another story you wish to share?
There are loads of stories that no one talks about. For example, this six-year-old daughter who tells her mother at night that she is scared to go to the toilet. But why? Because of bombings and losing her mother. She insists her mother comes with her. On the toilet the girl says she is not scared anymore. The mother moves four or five steps away and a bomb falls down onto the house, killing her daughter. The little one dies, and the mother stays alive. How will this women survive? I bet she would have preferred to have died with her daughter. Whether you survive or not can depend on a few meters. A lot of stories in Gaza are about people standing just next to each other and one of them is killed by a bomb. My manager once asked me to write an article about this, but I said I couldn’t. I asked who will listen to us? We have written about this for years but who listened? What has changed? Nothing.
"It took me a while to process all these emotions. Ultimately, it made me strong, a fighter. I don’t feel like anything is impossible anymore."
Wafaa Abo Zarifa
What role does social media play in all of this?
This time social media played a big role in showing people what is really going on in Palestine. And I think the world starts to be fed up with hearing the same things every time there is war in Gaza and those hiding the reality on the ground. No one can accept to see children die like this and buildings being destroyed again and again. If you do, you cannot identify yourself as a human being. In the past people usually only heard one side of the story. And this time, thanks to social media, what was going on couldn’t be hidden anymore. What is happening is live on social media. No one is embellishing anything, you can just follow what is happening. That’s why you see this big response and support for Palestinians from all over the world. Why do we as people from everywhere allow this to happen anywhere in this world? Facebook and Twitter etc, they tried to block and delete stuff but there are a lot of young Palestinians who use these platforms to share information and make people understand what is happening in Palestine.
Some of your family still live in Gaza. How did you experience the last weeks?
All of my family lives in Gaza. It is just my kids and myself in Luxembourg. It was very hard. I didn’t sleep. I was constantly watching TV or calling my family. I don’t like to hear my mother scared… (Wafaa starts crying) I remember when I was with her, my mother always pretended that she is strong. Of course she was scared but she never showed it to me. And now, maybe because I am far away or because she starts being old, she shows it. She was telling me that she is praying, and she is tired from not sleeping. “If I stay alive that’s ok but if I don’t, I can’t do anything about it. It is what it is”, she said.
It was very hard. And when I watch the news… it is really unfair. I don’t I know what I can do. I try to talk about it and share things on Facebook but people look at you like you are stupid. They see all of this as a conflict between people who are fighting because of land. We are not fighting because of land. We are fighting because of a lot of things. Because of the unfairness of expulsions and the occupation and the blockade and so many other things that we are experiencing. Because you see your mother dying and you cannot do anything about it. Because parents see their child loose his eyes or his legs during an attack for no reason.
A cease-fire has now been implemented. What does this mean on the ground? It also seems like the fighting could resume at any time, or can people in Gaza take a breath now?
I was proud and sad and very disappointed – a mix of feelings towards what is going on there. But I don’t believe in cease-fires because they never last. They kill thousands, they injure thousands and then they say “oh, we need a cease-fire”. I don’t want a cease-fire; I want a solution. A real solution to stop this forever. I am waiting. I hope they are doing something.
What solution would be acceptable to you to bring an end to all this? In the past there have been talks about a two-state solution. Could this be implemented? How?
They are talking about two-states since forever. We gave up some of our rights to our land to [Israeli settlers] to get other land back. But they didn’t want to leave peacefully. They want all the land. When we were facing the [Israeli] soldiers back in Palestine, they never called us Palestinians. They always called us Arabs as if we were from somewhere else. If they wanted a two-state solution, it would have happened a long time ago. I don’t think it is a solution anymore. There are now six million refugees from the war who had to flee their lands. Where would they go under a two-state solution?
The past and future of a Palestinian state
A two-State solution would see the creation of an independent democratic Palestinian state based on borders with Israel as they existed in 1967 before the Six-Day War. The West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem (as capital) are considered occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) and form the territorial basis for a future Palestinian state.
Following the end of the First Intifada in 1993, the Oslo Accords and subsequent peace initiatives and treaties aimed at building a schedule or phasing of issues to be negotiated for achieving peace. As progress would be made, greater autonomy would be handed would be over to the Palestinian Authority (PA) for the administration of oPt until potential statehood could be considered. Negotiations have repeatedly broken down and treaties have not always been honoured.
Key issues remaining unsolved are over borders, the status of East Jerusalem (as Jerusalem is meant to become the shared capital under a two-State solution), the status of Israeli settlements, access of Palestinians to their lands, Palestinian refugees' right to return, and security guarantees.
Unfortunately, the past 30 years have made a two-State solution look increasingly unlikely. Israeli settlement activities in the form of expropriations, construction of settlements, and the building of border-walls in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have created new realities on the ground that preclude most of the original plans for a viable partition of territories. Subsequent UN Security Council and UN General Assembly resolutions calling on Israeli to withdraw troops from oPt and calling its settlements illegal under international law have largely gone ignored. In addition, Israeli politics continues shifting right - meaning supporting continued settlements and annexation of land - just as the splintering of Palestinian leadership between Gaza and the West Bank weakened the potential for negotiating and implementing any agreement. Whilst the international community recognises the Palestinian Authority as main representative of Palestinians, ever more Palestinians see the PA as collaborators to the state which is occupying their lands and continuing to evict them from it. For Israel, there can be no real negotiations over Palestinian statehood as Hamas controls Gaza and rejects all such efforts.
Although Hamas controls Gaza since 2007 and the blockade and regular bombing of Gaza has seen ever-worsening humanitarian conditions, its popularity increased. This outcome is the exact reverse of the blockade's intentions, and the PA's support of it implicates it in the needless suffering of Palestinians in Gaza. Moreover, Hamas has been able to shoot rockets at Israel and Israeli settlements with greater precision and range even as tunnels for smuggling goods into Gaza have been systematically destroyed by Israel. When the Sheikh Jarrah and al-Aqsa protests flared up, protests were initially independent of formal Palestinian institutions such as the PA or groups such as Hamas. Yet, Hamas was able to capitalise on them by positioning itself as a defender of Palestinian interests to a new generation of protestors. Its own governance structures keep evolving, and it is likely to gain a political foothold in the West Bank. Meanwhile, Mahmoud Abbas, President of the PA, postponed new elections once more as it is likely Hamas would win them.
What remains of the two-State solution are arguments for limited Palestinian statehood within parts of the West Bank (Israel currently controls about 60% of it directly), as does a form of confederacy (or 1.5 State solution), or an unacceptable to all 1-state solution. Violent protests and Israel and Palestinian mobs in cities across Israel that include mixed populations further add to the tensions that exist within Israel and the oPt at this stage. Even if the US as main ally of Israel were to pressure Israel to conform with international law, it is doubtful what remains salvageable of the original two-State solution.
Luxembourg supports a two-State solution based on the borders as they existed in 1967 before the Six-Day War. This is in line with EU and UN positions. Whilst 9 EU Member States* already recognise Palestine as a state, Luxembourg does not. Foreign minister Jean Asselborn argues that for any such recognition to make a material difference it has to come as part of a greater diplomatic effort, such as the EU as a whole recognising Palestinian statehood. To this end, Asselborn has repeatedly pushed for a common position by the EU, but to no avail.
As most UN and EU Member States, Luxembourg considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank as illegal under international law, as well as condemning them as colonisation undermining the two-State peace process. Previously, Asselborn threatened Luxembourg would recognise Palestine unilaterally should Israel annex the West Bank.
During the Gaza protests in 2018 and the most recent escalations in 2021, Luxembourg supported calls for respective UN Human Rights Council special sessions on events in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and in Israel. The latest such call and subsequent resolution established an ongoing independent, international commission of inquiry looking at all possible abuses committed against international humanitarian and international human rights law that may have lead to the most recent events.
*Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Sweden.a
Do you see an an alterlative solution?
Yes. End the occupation. This is Palestine and we are going to welcome every single human being – Christian, Jewish, Japanese, Chinese… everyone is welcome in my country. But they will not end it. So let’s say we don’t want to make it difficult and go for the two-state solution. We can do this but only if every single soldier in the army is put in front of a court. At least be fair and bring justice to innocent people that have been killed by them. Say the truth, don’t hide it or try to embellish it. Recognise Palestine as a country. Give Palestinian prisoners in Israel back their freedom. At least give us our right to control our borders, to travel, health facilities, electricity, rebuild the airport like everyone else in the world has.
So, there could be peaceful coexistence?
Palestinians miss living in peace. If they apply what I said before, do you think anyone would say no? If you have your rights, you have your freedom. Would anyone say no to that? It is ridiculous even to think about that. But I don’t think they are going to do that.
So you don’t have hope anymore?
It’s hard. But I am sure with social media more and more people all over the world learning about what is happening they will start to understand our reality. [The Israelis] will stop if the whole world stands up and says stop.
What role can Luxembourg play in this?
They could recognise Palestine as a country. This is what I would like from Luxembourg. Currently, they don’t. If they do that, I would be very happy. I know Luxembourg is a very peaceful country. And I don’t know what they are waiting for …