What has the year 2021 meant for the struggle of the Palestinian people? At a glance, it may seem that the situation has only worsened, and this is indicated by the numbers of children and young people killed or imprisoned, of property demolished and land stolen by armed Israeli settlers, and so on. But seen in perspective, this will be the year in which the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause grew, while that of the state of Israel moved towards irreversible deterioration.

By Maria Landi

Indeed: this was the year in which the International Criminal Court – in a long-awaited decision – finally opened an investigation into Israeli war crimes; and in which the leading Israeli human rights organisation (B’Tselem), and the most important international one (Human Rights Watch), published lapidary reports in which – respectively – they accuse Israel of being an apartheid regime and of committing the international crime of apartheid; and both say that this is happening throughout the territory Israel controls, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. In other words, this was the year in which the qualification of Israel as apartheid – as people and groups in civil society and academia in Palestine and elsewhere have been saying for more than a decade – became mainstream. And also, for the first time, the voices and narrative of the new Palestinian generations reached loud and far.

To summarise the main events of this year, I will draw on the review by Yumna Patel, Mondoweiss’ young correspondent in Palestine, which begins: “2021 was a watershed year for the Palestinian people. Their struggle for liberation saw unprecedented levels of global solidarity. From Jerusalem to the West Bank, Gaza and Palestinian communities inside Israel, people rose up together in defiance of Israeli occupation and demanded a better future. (…) From the streets to the digital sphere, the Palestinian people were repressed and censored at every turn. And yet, their voice was heard around the world as never before.”

It’s apartheid… even in vaccination against Covid

The first quarter of the year was marked by the publication of reports by B’Tselem (January) and HRW (April) on Israeli apartheid. The former states bluntly that: “Throughout the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, the Israeli regime implements laws, practices and state violence designed to entrench the supremacy of one group, the Jews, over another, the Palestinians”. HRW in turn claims that Israel “systematically privileges Jewish Israeli citizenship over Palestinian citizenship through discriminatory policies”, which amounts to the crime of apartheid as defined in international law. Moreover, HRW claims that such engineering to ensure Jewish supremacy is at the origin of the Jewish state.

Despite the complicit silence of the international media on these two reports, Palestinian society and its allies around the world celebrated this development, and the BDS movement launched a campaign to demand that the UN investigate Israeli apartheid, as it investigated – and sanctioned – South African apartheid.

Israel was the first country in the world to vaccinate its population against Covid-19, and quickly became a reference for governments, scientists and public opinion. However, the media that highlighted it were careful to omit criticisms from Palestine denouncing the institutionalised discrimination with which the vaccination was implemented: inside Israel, without adequately informing Palestinian communities in Arabic, in the West Bank, vaccinating only the more than 400,000 illegal settlers who live there, and in the West Bank, vaccinating only the more than 400,000 illegal settlers who live there. 000 illegal settlers living there, but denying vaccinations to the Palestinian population (in clear violation of its international obligations as an occupying power towards the occupied population); and in Gaza, denying the shipment of vaccines and obstructing entry permits for them.


In 2021, the small East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah reached the televisions of millions of homes around the world, and some of its inhabitants – such as the twin couple Muna and Mohammed Al-Kurd (23), with millions of online followers, whom Time magazine included among the 100 most influential people of the year – were heard and seen on major news networks in the US and even Europe. After decades of defending their homes from eviction (some of them already evicted in 2009 and 2015), the families managed to attract the attention and solidarity of the whole country and the world; their neighbourhood became a symbol of the struggle of the entire Palestinian population of Jerusalem, and generated a massive solidarity campaign that trended globally with the hashtag #SaveSheikhJarrah.

Despite arrests, brutal repression by Israeli police (including towards lawmakers and journalists from international broadcasters), and constant provocations, raids and attacks by extremist settlers living in stolen Palestinian homes, the mobilisation did not cease; journalists, celebrities, local politicians and diplomats from various countries were also present to express their support for the families threatened with imminent expulsion. The daily protests in Sheikh Jarrah would eventually spread to the rest of Jerusalem and throughout Palestine, triggering the largest collective uprisings the Palestinian population had seen in years. The families eventually rejected a ‘conciliatory’ proposal by the Israeli Supreme Court to become tenants of the settlers in their own homes, and the threat of expulsion remains.

The intifada of unity

In May, as the month of Ramadan drew to a close, Israeli repression increased in Sheikh Jarrah and in the Old City of Jerusalem, which redoubled Palestinian protests. On 10 May, Israeli forces invaded the Al-Aqsa (Islamic holy site) compound and attacked thousands of worshippers praying inside the mosque. Hundreds of Palestinians were injured by rubber bullets and tear gas. Hamas authorities in Gaza gave Israel a deadline to withdraw from Al-Aqsa and Sheikh Jarrah by 18:00; but the ultimatum was ignored, and Hamas began firing rockets from Gaza. In response, Israel launched its devastating fourth offensive on Gaza, which would last 11 days and kill hundreds of people.

Violence in Jerusalem and Gaza, and fascist mobs attacking Palestinian communities inside Israel, provoked mass protests across Palestine and around the world. Overcoming the territorial and demographic fragmentation imposed by the colonial occupation, the Palestinian population in the West Bank, Jerusalem and inside Israel engaged in protests and boycotts in what was called the “unity intifada”, which peaked in the 18 May general strike across historic Palestine, with a level of mass compliance not seen since 1936.

Another devastating offensive on Gaza

May’s massive attack on the blockaded Gaza Strip was the fourth since 2008. In those 11 days, at least 259 people were killed, including 66 children. As in 2014, entire families were wiped off the population register. And as then, Israeli shelling targeted residential neighbourhoods, media offices and critical infrastructure in Gaza that had not yet recovered from the three previous offensives.

Following the ceasefire, Gaza’s Ministry of Public Works and Housing estimated that at least 258 buildings were destroyed, including 1,042 homes and businesses; in addition, 769 units were severely damaged and rendered uninhabitable, and another 14,536 suffered minor damage.

HRW said there was evidence that Israel committed war crimes during the offensive, as in its investigation of three bombings that killed 62 civilians, the NGO found that “there were no obvious military targets in the vicinity.” In addition, the UK-based Airwars reported that, as in the three previous offensives, Palestinian children paid a particularly high price, accounting for more than a third of recorded civilian deaths.

A deadly year for Palestinian children

According to the Palestinian branch of Defence for Children International (DCIP), 2021 was the deadliest year for Palestinian children since 2014. As of 10 December, 86 children had been killed in the occupied territories. According to DCIP figures, Israel killed 61 children in Gaza (with seven killed by rockets mistakenly fired by Palestinian armed groups) and 15 in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; two of the 15 were killed by Jewish settlers, and the rest by Israeli security forces. At least nine Palestinian children were shot dead during protests in which they posed “no direct threat”, DCIP said.

In turn, the organisation of martyrs’ relatives said that of the 357 Palestinians killed by Israel in 2021, 79 were minors. Since 2000, 2,198 Palestinian children have been killed by Israeli soldiers and settlers in the occupied Palestinian territory, according to DCI-P records.

The Palestinian Authority against its people

In the early hours of 24 June, Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces raided the home of prominent Palestinian activist and dissident Nizar Banat. His family claims that he was pepper-sprayed and brutally beaten while being arrested. A few hours later, Banat was pronounced dead.

His murder instantly sparked outrage on social media and demonstrations across the West Bank, mainly in Ramallah (the de facto capital and PA stronghold), demanding the resignation of Mahmoud Abbas. The PA launched a brutal crackdown on the demonstrators: while the police fired tear gas, the intelligence services, together with Fatah shock troops, attacked them with stones and sticks. Journalists reported assaults and destruction of their cameras and equipment, and women reported being harassed and sexually assaulted. The mass arrests and interrogations of activists sparked international condemnation and popular outrage, which had already exploded in January when Abbas announced the cancellation (as yet undated) of the legislative and presidential elections, as polls showed his camp in defeat.

The “great escape from the tunnel

In September, six Palestinian political prisoners shocked the world when they escaped from the highly militarised Gilboa maximum security prison in northern Israel through a tunnel they had been digging with spoons for almost a year. It was the first prison break since 1987, and only one of a handful in Palestinian history, despite the fact that approximately 20% of the general Palestinian population, and 40% of the male population, have been imprisoned by Israel at some point in their lives.

In Palestine the six prisoners – most of whom are serving decades-long sentences – [see my September column] instantly became instant heroes and a symbol of unwavering collective resistance under the most adverse conditions. The six were eventually recaptured by Israel’s powerful security apparatus, which embarked on a weeks-long manhunt in an effort to recover from what its officials described as a major failure and an embarrassment. Despite the recapture, the “great tunnel escape” will go down in history as an unforgettable moment in the Palestinian struggle for freedom.

Censorship of Palestine in social media

Social media has played a crucial role in bringing the message of the Palestinian people resisting colonial occupation and apartheid to the world. In the face of the silence and complicity of the mainstream media, social media have made it possible to learn in real time about the crimes that Israel is committing, and this has effectively contributed to the deterioration of its international image and the delegitimisation of its false narrative. A clear example was the viralisation of the campaign to save Sheikh Jarrah from being taken over by settlers: while that struggle has been going on for decades, this year it achieved unprecedented visibility, largely thanks to social media.

But as global solidarity has grown – and in reaction – censorship and restrictions on freedom of expression on these platforms have increased. Companies such as Facebook have for years censored Palestinian content and collaborated with the Israeli regime to close and restrict Palestinian and solidarity accounts on charges of “incitement” and “anti-Semitism”. In 2021, censorship reached a new level: under pressure from Zionist organisations, Facebook considered equating “Zionism/Zionist” with “Judaism/Jewish”, which would lead to criminalising any criticism of Israel’s policies.

The Palestinian digital rights observatory 7amleh recorded at least 990 incidents in 2021. The biggest offenders were Facebook and Instagram, which together took 837 actions (account suspensions, restrictions and blocking) against Palestinian content on their platforms, especially during the popular uprising in May. This generated a backlash campaign under the slogan “Facebook, we need to talk”, led in the US by Jewish anti-Zionist organisations.

Unprecedented increase in colonial violence

The year 2021 saw an exponential increase in Israeli settler violence in the Palestinian territory they occupy. As of 20 December, UNOCHA reported at least 450 attacks on Palestinian people and property, 118 of them resulting in death or injury. Even the Israeli secret service recorded a “dramatic increase” in such violence: 397 attacks compared to 272 in 2020. And according to B’Tselem, in 2021 settler violence increased by 28.6% compared to 2020. Settlers attacked Palestinian land and crops throughout the year, but violence spiked from the olive harvest onwards (October-November). In addition, the last two weeks of December saw a further escalation following the killing of an Israeli settler in the West Bank. Armed settlers launched coordinated attacks on Palestinian homes and vehicles on the road, resulting in dozens of injuries and material damage. Recently, armed settlers shot at homes in Sheikh Jarrah while military police arrested a neighbourhood boy.

In a powerful November report, B’Tselem argues that settler violence is an “affair of state”, not only because it is complicit with and protected by Israeli forces on the ground, but because it is a key means of the ongoing theft of Palestinian land: families are prevented from accessing and working their land through violence, which is then expropriated by the Israeli state and handed over to Jewish settlers.

“Settler violence against the Palestinian population is part of the strategy employed by Israel’s apartheid regime, which seeks to take over more and more land in the West Bank. The state fully supports these acts of violence, and its agents sometimes participate directly in them. Thus, settler violence is a form of government policy, actively supported and instigated by the state authorities,” says B’Tselem.

Palestinian civil society criminalised

In the biggest attack on Palestinian civil society in years, in October Israel labelled six Palestinian human rights and social organisations as “terrorists” [see my November column], claiming they had links to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (a Marxist-Leninist resistance group that Israel considers “terrorist”, like other Palestinian political groups). Despite providing no real evidence for its accusations, Israel outlawed the organisations and gave the green light to close their offices, seize their assets, freeze their bank accounts and imprison their staff. Shortly afterwards, it emerged that some of their members had been hacked by the Israeli company NSO, and their phones were infected with Pegasus spyware.

As part of the response to the criminalisation, the six organisations and their allies inside and outside Palestine launched the #StandWithThe6 campaign and set up a website to coordinate information, advocacy and solidarity efforts with criminalised Palestinian civil society. Among other things, they invite you to sign the declaration of support for Palestinian civil society and the petition to Josep Borrell and Antony Blinken for the European Union and the United States to dismiss Israel’s criminalisation of Palestinian organisations, and to end their military, security and cyber-surveillance relations with Israel.

Looking ahead to 2022

I close with the words of Yumna Patel as she concludes her review: “In 2022 the Palestinian people will enter their 55th year under occupation, and 74 years since their ethnic cleansing began. The world will enter its third year under the coronavirus pandemic, which will pose more challenges for the occupied population. As the Palestinian people continue to take their cause to the world, we will see more people across the globe join the call to end Israeli apartheid. With the growth of grassroots movements like BDS, we will also see Israel redouble its attacks on human rights and civil society organisations.”

The recent increase in violent actions in the West Bank seems to indicate that the Palestinian population has decided to defend their land from Israeli theft and aggression by any means possible. This is why they will need more than ever our active solidarity to resist the violence of a colonial occupation that is becoming more and more unsustainable by the day.

The Palestinian people have long known that only popular mobilisation and mobilisation from below will tip the balance in their favour, and that is why they are asking us to intensify the campaigns of boycott, pressure, disobedience and sanctions.

May we meet on the streets and in the networks in 2022 to defeat the only apartheid of the 21st century.

Maria Landi: Journalist and activist. Partner in the struggles in Palestine.