Vol. 43 No. 11 · 3 June 2021

Ghosts in the Land

Adam Shatz on the war in Israel-Palestine

2506 words

On 21 May​  Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire after eleven days of fighting, but the days of ‘quiet’ – as the New York Times tellingly describes the last seven years, in which Israel intensified its domination over the Palestinians with impunity – are over. Dead, too, is Trump’s plan to bypass the Palestinian question through ‘normalisation’ between Israel and Arab autocrats keen to do business with the Jewish state (and to buy its surveillance technology to monitor their own dissidents). If Netanyahu imagined that by attacking Gaza he could inflict defeat on Hamas, and rescue his own precarious political career, he has miscalculated. Hamas fired more than four thousand rockets across the border, hitting deep inside Israel and killing a dozen people, shifting the balance of fear. It also gained politically from the fighting by presenting itself as a defender of the Palestinians facing expulsion from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, and, even more important, as a protector of al-Aqsa Mosque, under siege from Israeli security forces.

The territory it governs lies in ruins, but Hamas has reason to celebrate. While 90 per cent of its rockets were repelled by Iron Dome, Israel’s defence system, 100 per cent hit their other target: the Palestinian Authority, which looks even more impotent than usual. Hamas’s performance in the war has not only raised its prestige among Palestinians; it has made them forget for the moment its mismanagement and authoritarian rule inside Gaza. If the PA held an election, Hamas would almost certainly win, which may be the real reason that, in late April, President Mahmoud Abbas indefinitely postponed the legislative election scheduled for 22 May.

Privately, Netanyahu and the Israeli army have always had an interest in keeping Hamas in power in Gaza. Israel allowed the movement to flourish in its early years as a counterweight to the secular nationalists of the PLO. Hamas’s rule in Gaza kept the Palestinians divided, and Palestinian political fragmentation has always been a key Israeli objective. Several Israeli pundits have suggested that Netanyahu deliberately provoked Hamas in order to prevent his opponents from establishing a governing coalition. Israel has had four elections in two years, and if he fails to hold on to power, he could face corruption charges and a prison term. In the lead-up to Hamas’s rocket barrage, he pursued a series of flagrantly reckless policies: closing off the plaza outside the Damascus Gate during Eid – Muslim families gather there to celebrate the end of the fast – and violently raiding the prayer rooms of the mosque itself. Oppression alone seldom detonates revolt; humiliation – what the Algerians call hogra – is also necessary. Netanyahu supplied it in abundance. As soon as Hamas responded to the provocations in Jerusalem, the right-wing politician Naftali Bennett, of the Orthodox Zionist party Yamina, pulled out of talks to form an anti-Netanyahu coalition. Yair Lapid, another Netanyahu opponent (centrist by Israeli standards, right-wing by any other), praised the military campaign. On Israeli television, Ariel Sharon’s son explained what he considered the appropriate response to rocket fire from Gaza: ‘You strangle them. No water, no electricity, no food, no gas, no medical treatments. Nothing.’ Ayman Abu al-Ouf, the head of the Covid-19 response team at Gaza’s largest hospital, was among the victims.

The war was more of a gift to Hamas than Netanyahu bargained for, however. He failed to consider that Hamas stood to benefit, not least because of its declining reputation in Gaza and the political confinement imposed by the blockade, now into its fourteenth year. Hamas knew that the Palestinian Authority – weakened and humiliated by Israel – could do nothing about the expulsions in Sheikh Jarrah or the attack on al-Aqsa. Always more skilled at mobilising than building, Hamas not only exploited the leadership vacuum, it neutralised the blockade by demonstrating that it would not, and didn’t have to, stand by while Palestinians suffered aggression in Jerusalem. The result has been symbolically to unify Palestinians from the river to the sea, as the chant goes, and across the vast Palestinian diaspora. For the first time in Israel’s history, its security forces found themselves simultaneously engaged in the Gaza Strip, in East Jerusalem, in the occupied West Bank and – most troubling of all for Netanyahu – in Israel’s so-called ‘mixed cities’, where well-organised Jewish militias attacked Palestinian citizens, who in turn attacked Jews and set fire to synagogues. The attacks by Jewish mobs inside Israel, often with the police standing by, has stirred painful memories among Palestinian citizens of the killing of thirteen protesters in October 2000, and intensified already acute feelings of disenfranchisement and discrimination. These are grievances that a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas is powerless to address, any more than it can address the root causes of the war.

What Israelis euphemistically call ‘the conflict’ can’t be limited to Gaza or the West Bank because the same regime exists in different forms throughout Mandate Palestine. And international consensus on this is growing. The Israeli human rights organisations B’Tselem and Yesh Din as well as Human Rights Watch accuse the Israeli regime of carrying out apartheid policies. Palestinian human rights groups are understandably irritated that descriptions such as ‘apartheid’, ‘Jewish supremacy’ and even ‘racism’ won mainstream acceptance only after they were adopted by groups which, as they saw it, had long dragged their feet for fear of angering Israel’s supporters. But the fact that Western human rights groups now refer bluntly to Israel’s ‘apartheid policies’ is an extraordinary development, as is the growth, especially in the US, of groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports the BDS movement, and Jewish Currents, a left-wing Jewish magazine whose editor-at-large, Peter Beinart, recently published an essay in favour of the Palestinian right of return.

For a growing number of Americans on the left, especially young people, Israel is seen not as a democracy but as a brutal and racist ethnocracy. Radicalised by the Black Lives Matter movement, and sensitive to questions of racial privilege, white supremacy and state violence, they find it impossible to defend a state founded on what B’Tselem calls ‘Jewish supremacy’. Jewish structural supremacy over the state and its resources, which has always existed, is now enshrined by the 2018 Basic Law. In the words of the law, ‘the right to exercise national self-determination in the state of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.’ (Netanyahu’s father, Benzion, put it more bluntly in 2012: ‘This land is Jewish, it is not for the Arabs. There is no place here for the Arabs, and there will be no place for them.’) The presence of Palestinians is merely tolerated and generally ignored, as though they were ghosts in the land: this is the reality of the ‘coexistence’ whose sudden unravelling has been lamented in the last few weeks.

The scale of destruction in Gaza has further tarnished Israel’s image in the US – even among its usual defenders. In less than two weeks, more than 230 Palestinians were killed, over a quarter of them children. As in Israel’s ‘Protective Edge’ operation against Gaza in 2014, entire families were wiped out. ‘These were not mistakes,’ Amira Hass wrote in Haaretz. ‘The bombing of a house while all its residents are in it follows a decision from higher up, backed by the examination and approval of military jurists.’ Gazans working in the high-rise buildings known as ‘towers’, such as the al-Jalaa tower where the Associated Press and al-Jazeera had their offices, were warned to evacuate by phone, as well as by drone-delivered ‘warning missiles’ – a courtesy that the Israeli army, as well as much of the Israeli public, regards as evidence of their humanitarian ethos. But not even Robert Menendez, one of the US Senate’s most redoubtable supporters of Israel, was persuaded. ‘I am deeply troubled,’ he said, ‘by reports of Israeli military actions that resulted in the death of innocent civilians in Gaza as well as Israeli targeting of buildings housing international media outlets.’ Some Palestinians were critical of the Western media’s emphasis on destruction of infrastructure, even as Palestinian casualties mounted: a further indication of the low value placed on Palestinian life. But the image of the towers collapsing, deliberately destroyed by the Israeli army, may have stirred subliminal memories of 9/11 in the minds of American politicians who, until now, have been impervious to Palestinian suffering. 

The Biden administration responded to Israel’s attack on Gaza by invoking Israel’s ‘right to defend itself’ against ‘terrorism’, and by blocking UN Security Council resolutions. For all the audacity he has shown in fighting child poverty at home, Biden seemed in no rush to prevent Israel from killing yet more Palestinian children, preferring ‘quiet’ diplomacy to restore ‘quiet’, rather than a resounding demand for ceasefire (let alone a call for an end to the blockade). Indeed, on 17 May, the administration approved the sale to Israel of precision-guided missiles worth $735 million. After the ceasefire was announced, the US secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, who has never hidden his pro-Israel position, spoke of the ‘deep and shared concern around the world for the deaths of Palestinians and innocent Israelis’. Even if the placement of the adjective was an accident, it was a revealing one. Israelis killed by Hamas rockets are ‘innocent’, while Palestinian victims are perhaps complicit in ‘terror’.

This sort of framing has long been reflexive for American politicians, including Democrats, but that, too, appears to be changing. Members of the ‘Squad’ – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American congresswoman from Michigan whose grandmother lives in the West Bank – all issued strong statements denouncing Biden’s response. When the weapons sale was announced, Gregory Meeks, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who is usually supportive of Israel, called an emergency meeting, and Bernie Sanders, the leader of America’s progressives, introduced a resolution to oppose it. The resolution is unlikely to pass, but it points to a significant shift in attitudes, especially in the Democratic Party. The headlines in American papers have been cautious and often misleading – for whom have the last seven years been ‘quiet’, other than Israeli Jews? – but the reports have been unusually candid, underscoring the enormous disproportion in death and destruction, and exploring the discrimination and oppression experienced by Palestinian citizens of Israel, not just Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and East Jerusalem.

Palestinian citizens comprise little more than a fifth of the Israeli population. During the first eighteen years of Israel’s existence, they were ruled by a military government and subjected to various repressive measures, including sharp restrictions on their freedom of movement. Violations were met with harsh punishment. In 1956, 48 residents of the Palestinian town of Kafr Qasim, returning from work at the end of the day, were killed by Israeli police for breaking a curfew of which they had not been informed. Palestinians who had managed to avoid being expelled in 1948 were originally known as ‘the non-Jewish minorities’ or as ‘Israel’s Arabs’, or even as ‘our Arabs’. As the historian Shira Robinson writes in her book about the period, Citizen Strangers (2013), any mention of their Palestinian identity could ‘serve as an unwanted reminder of their collective history, culture, and ties to the land’. Israel’s leaders were determined to turn them into Israelis, even as they denied them full citizenship and promoted what they called du-kiyum, ‘coexistence’. A year after the Kafr Qasim massacre, the military government staged a sulha, a ceremony of reconciliation where the families of victims sat next to their oppressors (the killers themselves were initially invited). The Palestinian-Israeli writer Emile Habibi, a Communist deputy in the Knesset, described the sulha as a ‘moral massacre even more savage’ than the event itself. Two years later, Ben-Gurion amnestied the killers and appointed several of them to top government posts.

The Palestinian citizens of Israel have faced not only official erasure of their national origins, but accusations of treason from Arabs living abroad, as if remaining on their land was not in itself a form of resistance to Zionism. They have achieved a measure of professional ‘integration’ – half of Israel’s pharmacists and a fifth of its doctors are Arab – while continuing to cultivate their identity as Palestinians, and to repel the many threats to their continuing presence. In recent years, Arab communities in Israel have faced a dramatic rise in violent crime, much of it connected to drug traffic. The Israeli police has largely ignored the problem, because Jews aren’t affected (much as the American police have often ignored black-on-black violence). The mixed cities, where sizeable Arab populations live alongside Jews, many of them poor and working-class, have become flashpoints of intercommunal tension since the arrival of Jewish settlers from the Occupied Territories. Emboldened by the Netanyahu government and the Basic Law, they have set up Zionist enclaves in a brazen effort to render Palestinian residents as uncomfortable as possible, in the hope of encouraging them to leave. For the residents of Lod (Lydd), a city near Ben-Gurion Airport where tens of thousands of Palestinians were driven into exile in 1948, such pressure is simply the latest chapter in a long campaign to displace them. This is why Tamer Nafar, a rapper from Lod, told an American interviewer that he had no interest in ‘coexistence’. ‘I just want to exist,’ he said.

The violence that broke out inside Israel was ugly, a chaotic mixture of pogroms and score-settling; it is a threat to the delicate fabric of Arab-Jewish relations that no politician in Israel can afford to ignore. But the violence grew out of conditions that Israel itself has created: the power and arrogance of the settler movement, and the alienation and rage of young Palestinian citizens who, like all Palestinians, simply want to be free. As Mahmoud Darwish wrote in his poem ‘Identity Card’:

Write at the top of page one:
I do not hate people;
I do not assault anyone,
But … if I get hungry
I eat the flesh of my usurper
Beware … beware … of my hunger
and of my anger.

For Palestinians throughout the apartheid realm of Israel-Palestine, ‘quiet’ is not the solution but the problem. Whether or not the events of the last few weeks amount to a third intifada, they are a collective refusal of what the Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling called Palestinian ‘politicide’, the ‘gradual but systematic attempt to cause their annihilation as an independent political and social entity’, and an insistence on their shared identity as Palestinians fighting the same struggle, on different fronts, for equal rights, freedom and dignity. The general strike on 18 May, which many likened to the strike of 1936, was yet another sign of renewed solidarity. This is a weapon that Iron Dome is not designed to contain. 

21 May

Listen to Adam Shatz talk to Tareq Baconi and Henriette Chacar on the LRB Podcast

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