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[Prefatory Note: This post covers the changing circumstances in Irael/Palestine over the course of the last six weeks. It takes the form of responses to questions posed by the political economist, journalist, and author, C.J. Polychronious, and was published in Truthout on June 13, 2021, which happens to be the day that Israel ended its political impasse by formally empowering the Coalition for Change to take over the Israeli governing process. The coalition joins together a very diverse set of political parties, but its center of gravity leans sharply left. There are two questions now that will shape the Palestinian destiny to its next phase: Will the post-Netanyahu government push harder the political agenda of the right-wing settler movement? Will the aftermath of the IDF military operation, Guardian of the Walls, increase Palestinian resistance and global solidarity? The next two months will allow us to make better informed assessments for what is in store for both sides.]
Whither Palestine? Whither Israel? After the Violence Spike, After the Abraham Accords, After Netanyahu
Q1. Richard, the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas, which caused massive destruction in the Gaza Strip, ended with a ceasefire after growing US and international pressure. In your view, what factors or parties reignited the dormant Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
This latest upsurge of violence in the relations between Israel and Palestine seems to arise from a combination of circumstances. In such situations where an explanation is not obvious, and even if given, may not be trustworthy, and should often be largely discounted as a self-justifying rationale. An assessment of the reasons behind this latest cycle of large-scale Israeli violence lead to a deeper understanding of what otherwise seems opaque. It is clear that Israel usual claim of a right to defend itself is far from the whole story, especially when its behavior seemed designed to provoke Hamas to act in response. In light of this we should investigate why Israel wanted to launch a major military operation against Gaza at this time mid-Mayu when the situation seemed comparatively quiet in the preceding months?
The easiest answer to the question—to save Bibi Netanyahu’s skin. It seems that the precarious political position and legal vulnerability of the long-term, increasingly controversial Israeli leader, is the best back story, but also far from a complete picture. It helps account for the seemingly reckless Israeli provocations that preceded the flurry of rockets from Hamas and affiliates. Netanyahu had failed four times to form a government after inconclusive elections, and was for the first time facing an opposition coalition that was effectively poised to displace him as leader. Now displaced as prime minister, Netanyahu will likely have to face substantial criminal charges for fraud, bribery, and breach of public trust in Israeli courts, which could result in a jail sentence.
Why would a wily leader and ardent nationalist play roulette with the wellbeing of Israel? The answer seems to involve the character of the man rather than an astute policy calculation. Netanyahu seems to possess a narcistic personality disorder that always leads him to view national interests through as optic that accords primacy to his personal needs and desires. To the extent that the Netanyahu approach was grounded in knowledge, it reflected the well-evidenced view that Israelis put aside differences and give their total allegiance to the head of state during a wartime interlude. Netanyahu had every reason to believe that in this situation as so often in the past experience that Israelis would rally around the flag, and be thankful for his style of strong leadership in a security crisis.
Israeli behavior preceding the rockets was plainly inflammatory that it safe to assume that it was intended to be a highly provocative challenge to Palestinian public opinion, exerting pressures on the leadership in. Ramallah and Gaza City to do something in response. First came high profile evictions of six Palestinian families from their Sheik Jarrah homes in East Jerusalem on flimsy legal grounds, with a prospect of more evictions to follow. These Israeli court rulings enraged the Palestinians. It reinforced the sense of continuing victimization taking the form of acute insecurity as to Palestinian residence rights in Jerusalem, a dynamic perceived as a process of ethnic cleansing that goes back to 1948. As such, it reawakened the still agonizing memories of the 700,000 or more Palestinians who fled or were forced across the borders of what became Israel to Jordan, Lebanon, Gaza, and the West Bank (until 1967 under Jordanian administration) in the 1948 War, becoming refugees, and never thereafter allowed to return to their homes and homeland, which was and is their right under international law.
This process of coercive demographic rebalancing was integral to the essential racial and idealistic character of the Zionist Movement, which sought to establish not only a Jewish state but a democracy that could qualify for political legitimacy by Western criteria. To achieve this goal, however, depended on implementing policies ensuring and maintaining a secure Jewish majority population, which involved the denial of fundamental human rights to Palestinians. These controversial Sheikh Jarrar evictions were continuing this Judaizing of East Jerusalem after more than 70 years since Israel was founded. In other words, what Israeli Jews treated as a demographic imperative that was almost synonymous with maintaining a Jewish state for the Palestinians had the character of a continuous process of ethnic cleansing, which meant second-class citizenship and living with perpetual insecurity.
Days before the rockets were launched there were further provocations that took the form of unregulated marches by right-wing Jewish settlers through Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem carrying posters and shouting ‘Death to the Arabs’ coupled with random acts of violence against Palestinians and their property. Such events reinforced the impression that the Palestinians in Israel were acutely insecure and vulnerable to thuggish manifestations of settler racism and that would be abetted by the Israeli state, and its security forces. This pattern exhibited the jagged edges of Israel’s distinctive version of apartheid.
Likely, the most provocative of all these events preceding the cross-border violence with Gaza were the several intrusions at al-Aqsa compound and mosque by Israeli security forces in a manner that obstructed Muslim worship during the last days of Ramadan. As well, Muslims were prevented from coming to al-Aqsa from the West Bank during this period. These encroachments on freedom of religion again seemed designed to provoke Palestinian reactions of resistance by harshly discriminatory practices of Israeli interpretations of law and order.
Against this background, Palestinian protests mounted, and Hamas undoubtedly felt challenged to maintain its claim as the inspirational leader of Palestinian resistance. Because of the limited options available to Hamas, meaningful resistance took the characteristic form of firing hundreds of primitive rockets, many falling harmlessly or intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system. The rockets were indiscriminate and inflicted some Israeli casualties, minor damage to towns in southern Israel, such a tactic violates international humanitarian law, and undoubtedly were very frightening to the Israeli civilian population.
It should be appreciated that Israel’s violations far outweighed the violations on the Palestinian in several crucial respects: the death and destruction caused by the two sides, the refusal of Israel to uphold its legal obligations as the Occupying Power toward the civilian Occupied Palestinian people who were already long subjugated by an unlawful blockade in place since 2007 held responsible for unemployment levels over 50% and dependence on humanitarian aid by over 80% of the Gazan population. Israel also ignored its specific duty outlined in Article 55 of the 4th Geneva Convention to protect the civilian population during a time of ‘contagious disease or epidemic,’ and instead subjected Palestinians to what has been described as ‘medical apartheid,’ which was most blatant on the West Bank where all Jewish settlers were vaccinated while almost no Palestinians received even a first dose.
Q2. The Arab world condemned the latest Israeli assault, but took no action. My question about this is twofold: first, to what extent did the Abraham Accords precipitate the renewal of violence between Israelis and Palestinians? And, second, what’s behind the cozy relationship between Israel and Arab Countries, particularly Gulf States?
With respect to the Abraham Accords, I am not aware of any concrete indications of a link, although some circumstantial evidence suggests its plausibility. On the Israeli side, the Accords seems to have given Israel greater confidence that they could make life even more miserable for the Palestinian people without having to fear adverse repercussions from their Arab neighbors. Without Trump in the White House the right-wing in Israel seemed to believe that their expansionist goals, including annexationist hopes for most of the West Bank would have to be achieved unilaterally, and with somewhat less diplomatic cover from the United States, and that meant intensifying their already bellicose reputation.
On the Palestinian side, opposite forces seemed at play. A sense that Netanyahu and the settlers were exerting increasing pressure to make the Palestinians believe that their struggle was futile, a lost cause, with the goal of making them agree to whatever ‘peace arrangement’ was put forward by Israel (what I call ‘the Daniel Pipes’ scenario, squeezing the Palestinians so hard that they give up, having failed to achieve such a result by way of the Oslo diplomacy). More assertively interpreted, the rockets expressed a resolve not to accept peacefully ethnically cleansing from their homes nor silenced and intimidated by the settlers nor by those who would interfere with their religious practices. The message of the rockets may have also been intended as a warning to the Palestinian Authority not to accept some arrangement that validated this coercive Israeli approach to ‘peace.’
These ugly direct encounters originating in Jerusalem were dealt with harshly by the Israeli government in the afterglow of the Abraham Accords, which was a further incitement for Hamas to act in militant solidarity. Hamas probably also sought to challenge the Palestinian Authority that so often confused its role as representative of the Palestinian people with a quasi-collaborationist approach to Israel.
Additionally, at play undoubtedly was the challenge posed by the Accords to Palestinian steadfastness or sumud. A Palestinian show of resistance, even with the full awareness that the rockets would bring a massive IDF military operation as in the past, and with it, death, trauma, displacement, and destruction in Gaza. It was the Palestinian way of expressing resolve that the struggle for basic rights will continue as long as necessary regardless of the costs. The Abraham Accords underscore the this symbolic abandonment of the Palestinian struggle by our Arab brothers and sisters, or at least their regimes, which in any event had long been evident on the level of behavior, and now more crassly. This abandonment had been previously expressed substantively by these Arab governments, especially the Gulf monarchies, which were never comfortable with Palestinian or Islamic movements from below in their region, especially in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution when political Islam showed its willingness and ability to challenge the control of the established order as confirmed by their counter-revolutionary support for the Sisi coup in 2013 against Muslim Brotherhood leadership in Egypt.
As far as the motivations behind Arab elite willingness to ignore the pro-Palestinian sentiments of their own populations, and become parties to the Abrahamic Accords three factors are explanatory: first, the governments involved were given transactional rewards by the Trump diplomatic offensive in the form of weapons, economic inducements, delisting as a terrorist government, support for political claims; secondly, with respect especially to the Gulf monarchies, it seemed advantageous to seek a common front with Israel in opposing and destabilizing Iran, not only in relation to its nuclear program but with respect to its political solidarity relationships in the region, which included Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis in Yemen; and thirdly, by seeming to take political risks at home to support U.S. pro-Israeli objectives in the region these regime could expect to gain leverage in Washington as a dependable ally, and not face criticism for their autocratic manner of governance that included flagrant abuses of human rights, especially with respect to women.
Q3. Israeli police have arrested thousands of people over the last couple of weeks in Israeli Arab communities as part of a “law and order” operation. What is Israel really hoping to achieve with such actions against Palestinian protesters who happen to be, incidentally, Israeli citizens?
Jewish supremacy is the core of the Zionist Project as it has played out in Israel, which has in turn generated racial policies and practices that are increasingly perceived as a form of apartheid. The government of Israel to retain internal legitimacy must continually prove to its Jewish citizenry that it able and willing to maintain the racial hierarchy in reaction to Palestinian resistance and external pressure. This means that any show of resistance by subjugated Palestinians must be disproportionately punished, with the hope of deterring future defiance by the downtrodden. This mentality, so subversive of respect for international humanitarian law, has been formalized by Israel, and incorporated into IDF’s mode of operations, and is known as the Dahiya Doctrine, first so articulated by the IDF Chief of Staff, General Gadi Eisenkot, after the 2006 Lebanon War. Dahiya is a neighborhood in south Beirut that was heavily bombed despite the absence of military targets so as to destroy the civilian infrastructure of Hezbollah, which provided operational guidance for future uses of military force by Israel, especially in Gaza.
In the past 20 years Gaza and its people had borne the brunt of this Israeli need to exhibit its commitment to Jewish supremacy by periodically displaying its ability to crush any challenge, however indirect, to the policies and practices of apartheid. This was the first time that serious communal violence in towns where Palestinians and Jews cohabited arose within Israel, significantly coinciding with an IDF military operation in Gaza. It was a new internal threat to the apartheid regime, but posed a different kind of challenge as Israel couldn’t respond by devastating towns within Israel, and needed to rely on different coercive tactics. The mass arrests of Palestinian protesters was the ad hoc method relied upon to reestablish the appearance of stable control of the asymmetric relations between Jews and Palestinians, and it remains to be seen if that will be sufficient to restore stable, if fragile, ethnic coexistence within 1967 Israel.
Q4. Palestinians have been facing a severe leadership crisis for many years now, but solidarity with the Palestinian people has shifted massively on a global scale. Are there hopeful prospects for Palestinian unity, and is the BDS movement an effective way to challenge Israeli oppression without hurting the victims themselves?
As indicated earlier, deficiencies of Palestinian leadership have weakened the Palestinian movement for self-determination. In part, this reflects the ‘success’ of Israel’s overall approach to managing a hostile population. Israel has pursued for many years ‘a politics of fragmentation’ toward the Palestinian population under its control, including at leadership levels. Such fragmentation includes its occupation administration on the West Bank with more than 700 checkpoints making internal travel incredibly difficult for Palestinians, as well administering the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem in different ways that greatly complicate Palestinian interactions difficult and unity hard to maintain. Of course, the toxic split between Hamas, as intractable terrorist entity allegedly bent on Israel’s destruction and the Palestinian Authority which is alternatively useful as adversary and as potential peace partner and de facto collaborator is the deepest fissure of all. As well, Israeli denial to Palestinians of any right of return has kept the refugee status of millions of Palestinians static, untenable, and precarious. Refugee demands for return create tensions with Palestinians living under occupation many of whom believe the formula ‘land for peace’ is the best deal that they can hope for. Further they realize that Israel might agree to end the occupation but it would never assent to upholding the repatriation rights of the refugees, which is seen as a deal-breaker.
Only with a charismatic leader with support from all of these constituencies could provide the Palestinian people with authentic leadership capable of representing both Palestinians living under occupation and in refugee camps. Israel remains determined at this point not to let this happen, and feels strong and secure enough to refuse meaningful Palestinian statehood as well as to deny refugee rights, giving up all pretensions of any interest in a political compromise involving both land and people.
Despite these Israeli tactics, the Palestinians have discredited themselves to some extent by not putting aside their differences so as to establish a common front to achieve their overarching common goal of self-determination. The top echelons of the Palestinian Authority live a comfortable life, rumors of corruption abound, and one senses a willingness to lie low until they can make some sort of deal that hides their political defeat. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader who is internationally recognized as representing the Palestinian people, has not held promised elections since 2005, and recently cancelled elections scheduled for this year on the alleged grounds that Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem would not be allowed to vote. Critics insist that elections were cancelled because Hamas might emerge as the winner, and an anti-Abbas coalition seemed to pose a threat.
Hamas, although mischaracterized in the U.S. and Israel, has governed harshly in Gaza making many Palestinians fear its leadership. Yet as Sandy Tolan and other researchers have made clear, Hamas was induced by Washington to pursue its goals by political means and compete electorally, but it was not expected to win as it did in Gaza in 2006. When it won, it made diplomatic overtures to Washington and Tel Aviv offering a long-term ceasefire, up to 50 years, in exchange for Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 ‘green line’ borders, but these were rebuffed without even the pretense of a diplomatic response. Instead, Hamas was returned to its terrorist box, the people of Gaza were blamed for their victory in the elections, and this crowded, impoverished enclave was maintained as a test site for Israeli weapons and tactical innovations, and a combat zone enabling Israel to project a regional image of credible deterrence.
The Palestinians have never set forth their own vision of peace, probably because it would reveal sharp differences between those willing to settle for some version of partition and those who seek a unified Palestine with a secular constitution assuring equality of rights. As matters now stand a sustainable peace presupposes the prior dismantling of apartheid structures and the renunciation of Zionist foundational claims of Jewish supremacy. Without such steps, any agreed outcome would end up as a ‘ceasefire.’ It is instructive to study the fall of apartheid in South Africa, and its aftermath, that failed to fulfill all of the hopes of the Africans or result in economic and social retaliation that the whites feared. And yet both Africans and whites benefitted from the transition. South Africa’s pariah state difficulties were overcome, a bloody armed struggle was averted, and so was the feared vindictive sequel to apartheid.
The South African narrative is also important for illustrating its ‘impossible’ unfolding: internal resistance, strongly reinforced by a global civil society anti-apartheid campaign supported by the UN and highlighted by BDS pressures releasing Mandela from 27 years confinement in prison despite his life sentence so that he could negotiate the transition to constitutional multi-racial democracy and become the natural and unquestioned choice of the population to be the first president of the new South Africa. It all sounds plausible 25 years after the fact, but before these dramatic events, it seemed ‘impossible,’ a dream of accommodation and substantial reconciliation too good to come true.
Can something analogous happen in Israel/Palestine? Israeli realities are very different than were South African circumstances. For one thing, there are about the same number of Israelis and Palestinians inhabiting historic Palestine (adding Gaza), while in South Africa the black population outnumbered the white population by a 4:1 ration. This would seem to make Israeli Jews less vulnerable to abuse in a secular state, and besides they could undoubtedly insist on robust international peace force with a mandate to restore order and protect the equality of rights in the event of communal strife.
A final observation. The South African apartheid leadership did not awake one morning and become aware that their racist regime was immoral and illegal. It decided through backroom debate and reflection that it was better off taking the risks of constitutional democracy than go on living the problematic existence of a pariah state waiting for the day when the roof would collapse. In other words, the white leadership made a rational public policy decision, the contemplation of which was kept as a closely guarded state secret until a consensus reached, and the extraordinary events started happening to the great surprise of the world, and came as a shock to majority of South Africans, whether black or white.
Q5: What are your thoughts on Israel’s new government? What can one expect from it in general, and will it be able to skirt the Palestinian issue?
The coalition that has managed to prevail, and end for the moment, the political impasse in Israel. The coalition set to take over the Israel government is not united on policy or belief. Its only unifying principle is a deep hostility to Netanyahu’s personality and character. For that reason the diversity of its composition makes it fragile with respect to sharp departures from Likud consensus on Palestine that has prevailed for the last twelve years in Israel.
At the same time the dominant elements in the Bennett-Lapid coalition are correctly perceived on Palestinian issues as further to the right on such issues as accelerated ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem, expansion of West Bank settlements, annexation of all or most of the West Bank, opposition to any genuine form of Palestinian statehood, and greater severity with respect to the implementation of apartheid policies and practices. Further, it is expected that Naphtali Bennett, an exponent of the extreme right wing settler movement and maximal Zionist goals, will be Israel prime minister for the next two years during which he will undoubtedly be tempted to push Israeli policy even further to the right.
It is, of course, possible that Bennett will contain his anti-Palestinian fury so as to hold the coalition together, but it is just as likely that he will be prepared to pay the price of a collapsed coalition by being able to attract support for his program from the Likud members and other rightists outside the coalition who agree with his approach on Palestine and are no longer tied to Netanyahu or preoccupied with having a place in the leadership of the government. It is also possible that Bennett will move more cautiously to avoid weakening American support, which is already weaker than ever before in this century. Bennett is less abrasive in personal style than Netanyahu, which is hardly a difficult achievement, but is more of an extreme ideologue and less an opportunist. The unanswerable question at this point is whether the ideological push will prevail or give way to a pragmatic lowering of objectives in the hope of holding onto power.
Given this further turn to the right in Israel there is no realistic prospect of any kind of meaningful diplomacy for the foreseeable future. Although the coalition is presented as ‘center/right’ it is heavily weighted to the right. There are, in contrast, real possibilities of stronger global solidarity efforts through the UN and by way of civil society campaign such as BDS, and a stronger public support for Palestinian grievances, especially if Palestinian resistance remains strong and Israeli repression remains harsh. We should leave room for surprises, good and mostly bad. This is the Middle East where it is folly to predict the future, and a sure recipe for disappointment to expect the best.