Looking back on the latest round of fighting in Gaza, one can’t escape the grim sense of déjà vu. How many such rounds have there been? I can’t remember. Worse, eerie and compulsive repetition suits the way many, perhaps most, Israelis—including, it seems, the higher echelons of the army and intelligence services—tend to think about Gaza and Hamas. On the surface, the primitive logic goes like this: Hamas is a murderous, barbaric organization that wants only to kill as many Israelis as possible and is continuously building up its military capabilities to that end. In practice, the only useful way of dealing with Hamas is therefore to pound it to pieces once every few years (or months), thus reestablishing what the Israeli army and government fondly call “deterrence” (it’s their favorite word).
The trouble with this approach is that it never works. To revert to the army lingo, which Israelis hear every night on TV during episodes of fighting: deterrence is inherently entropic; the passage of time inevitably erodes it. Hence the need for that periodic pounding. Moreover, the time lag can be remarkably short. The army is already saying that another round of warfare in Gaza could break out soon.
If we go a little deeper, a more deadly vision emerges. As several astute commentators have suggested in the last weeks, Benjamin Netanyahu’s grand strategic plan, shared, implicitly, with sections of the Israeli right, was to keep Hamas alive as a constant threat to Israel.1 Ensuring that the Palestinians remain divided between the ineffectual remnants of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and the extreme Islamicists of Gaza is one way, possibly the only way, to allow the Israeli program of annexation, domination, and expulsion on the West Bank to go forward.
This policy has worked, to a point, as anyone who drives through the West Bank today can see. Roughly half of the available land reserves in Area C (over 60 percent of the West Bank, where all the settlements are located) have by now been allocated to Israeli colonies and their continuous, violent expansion. I experience the ever more intrusive tentacles of the occupation, in the form of vicious settlers and mostly hostile soldiers and police, nearly every week when my fellow activists and I are in the Palestinian territories to protect, as best we can, Bedouin shepherds and the small-scale farmers and herders of the South Hebron hills. Levels of settler violence against Palestinians and human rights activists have increased exponentially over the last several months.2 In the occupation system, settlers are above the law.
It is, however, possible that the default Israeli politico-military position vis-à-vis the Palestinians is beginning to crack. At least three outcomes from the latest battle in Gaza deserve attention.
First, and perhaps most important, the Palestinian national movement as a heterogeneous yet somehow composite whole has reemerged from its own ashes. Ten days of fighting in Gaza, along with the events that precipitated that mini-war, managed to erase the old Green Line—the pre-1967 border dividing Israel, including Israeli Arabs, from the occupied West Bank. Of course, given Israel’s settlement policies, the Green Line has for years been hardly more than a shadowy memory or a useful fiction for those who like to think there is still something called the peace process.
But what was striking last month was the way Palestinians from the West Bank joined Arab citizens of Israel and rose up in widespread, large-scale, explosive protest. Israeli Palestinians are fed up with decades of institutionalized discrimination, although they do have, unlike their brothers and sisters in the occupied territories, the benefits of access to social security, health insurance, and a somewhat functional legal system; they (not including residents of East Jerusalem) can also vote in Israeli national elections. On the West Bank, the reality is one of severe, systematic oppression; Palestinians in Area C have no human rights at all and are targeted collectively for eventual dispossession and expulsion, the true (possibly the only) raison d’être of the occupation.
The last intifada, from 2000 to roughly 2005, exhausted the Palestinian civilian population and, in the end, left them to the mercies of the settlers and the soldiers. We may now be witnessing the early phase of a third, probably even more destructive, intifada. Gaza, the West Bank, and the Israeli Arab population are today welded together in ways somewhat reminiscent of the Palestinian nationalist uprising of the 1930s, before the establishment of the State of Israel.
It is important to note the immediate factors that set off this largely unanticipated phenomenon. The Gaza fighting this time, like previous rounds, was undoubtedly overdetermined. For the last fifteen years, Israel has maintained a harsh siege against Gaza, one of the most densely populated and impoverished places in the world. Starved of potable water, a steady power supply, and many basic necessities, including an adequate number of vaccines against the coronavirus, Gaza is rather like a large open-air prison.
But there is no denying the shocking effect on Palestinians everywhere of sending the Israeli riot police, with their clubs, guns, stun grenades, and tear gas, into the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem in the final days of Ramadan last month. Meanwhile, in East Jerusalem, the expulsion of Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood was imminent; the authorities were only waiting for a final decision by the Supreme Court on the legality, if that’s the right word, of this operation.
For many years Israeli human rights activists and ordinary citizens have been demonstrating together with the Sheikh Jarrah Palestinians against the eviction of these families, all of them originally refugees from the 1948 war who were settled in the neighborhood by the Jordanian government in the 1950s. This spring the protests reached a feverish pitch, partly with the aid of the Jerusalem police, who, as usual, overreacted and tried to violently stamp them out. In the weeks before the war, Arab citizens of Israel, mainly very angry young people, were heavily involved in the demonstrations. Another highly incendiary element was the conspicuous presence in Sheikh Jarrah of Jewish supremacist thugs led by Itamar Ben-Gvir, the heirs of the old Kahanists, legitimized by Netanyahu and brought back into the Knesset as the party called “Jewish Power,” after having been outlawed in 1988.
Sheikh Jarrah and al-Aqsa were parts of a wider, volatile provocation that Israel offered Hamas. Hamas went to war claiming to be the only Palestinian force able to defend the mosque and stop the expulsions in East Jerusalem. For Hamas and its ally, Islamic Jihad, the opportunity was too good to be true, and it is, I think, fair to say that Hamas won this round in the first few minutes of the fighting with a volley of missiles that landed near Jerusalem on May 10. No amount of pummeling Gaza from the skies could wipe out the memory of that moment, and within a few days, Hamas amplified the resonance of its opening move by galvanizing Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line into action. Conditions close to civil war emerged in many of the mixed Arab-Jewish cities of Israel, including Acre, Jaffa, Ramleh, and Lod, where the Kahanists, reinforced by armed settlers from the West Bank, attacked innocent Arab residents while Arab mobs, for their part, roamed the streets assaulting Jews and Jewish-owned businesses. Those terrible days were infinitely more dangerous to Israel’s future as a functioning community than the rockets from Gaza.
The second outcome of the war is only beginning to crystallize, but its contours are clear enough. We should not underestimate the importance of an emerging shift both internationally and inside Israel. In the US, for almost the first time, we are hearing significant voices within the Democratic Party clearly defending Palestinian rights and opposing the occupation. China—the prime future world power—has a long history of support for Palestinian self-determination, a policy reiterated during the Gaza war; despite strong economic ties with Israel, China also strongly opposes its settlement project and sees Hamas as a legitimate partner to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. The International Criminal Court in The Hague is apparently beginning to investigate alleged Israeli war crimes, both in Gaza and on the West Bank. A new generation of American Jews is showing signs of no longer passively accepting what Israel does to Palestinians but rather is actively opposing Israeli policies, above all the occupation. We are still far from a turning point; such things take time. Remember South Africa in the 1980s.
To my mind, even more significant are the fissures in what is usually called the Israeli consensus. The great majority of Israelis still profess strongly right-wing opinions, and a sizable minority is susceptible to the hate-filled ravings of the Kahanists. While the fighting went on I found myself sickened, night after night, by the mainstream views articulated on the TV news by generals, past and present, most of them thirsty for blood. But we are now hearing more skeptical voices; opinion polls show that most Israelis realize that Israel lost this round. Does this mean that the war was all for nothing? Not necessarily, and not, in particular, if you believe in the periodic pounding theory.
Telling evidence of public dissent is the lucid essay published in Haaretz by Menachem Mautner, a professor of law at Tel Aviv University, on May 20. Mautner argues in a careful, understated manner that, given the evident breakdown in the Netanyahu government’s credibility—not excluding the possibility that Netanyahu used the Gaza crisis as a way of evading the court cases pending against him for bribery and other charges—Israeli parents should consider trying to keep their sons and daughters out of combat units in the army, lest they be killed for no intelligible purpose in another avoidable war. (Incidentally, for many Israelis, probably almost half of the electorate, the breakdown in confidence in the leadership goes much farther back than Netanyahu’s last government.) To understand the boldness required to publish such a recommendation in Israel’s leading newspaper, one has to know that Israel is still a Homeric society in which dying for glory, or for the flag or the nation-state, is considered an unequivocal good.
Mautner is by no means the only one to argue against the moral benefits of sacrificing one’s children, siblings, or spouse on the altar of an errant state. One should also take note of a well-publicized letter sent to the International Criminal Court, just before the war began, by more than two hundred Israeli academics, prominent public figures, former combat heroes, and human rights activists, urging the court to investigate Israel’s ongoing actions in the territories. While Israel remains, for now, in the grip of nationalist and messianic religious fanatics, grassroots protest is still remarkably robust.
Third, the Gaza fighting, in particular the egregious failure of the army to prevent or even slow down the volleys of rockets coming out of Gaza, has surely not gone unnoticed in Lebanon, Syria, or Iran. The prognosis for future all-out conflict is, from an Israeli point of view, very dark. Imagine the destruction that 150,000 Hezbollah missiles shot from Lebanon, many of them precision-guided, could inflict on Israeli cities, along with whatever else is being shot into Israel from Gaza and elsewhere at the same time, while the West Bank is aflame. Think of the thousands of potential Israeli civilian casualties. Another few years of right-wing-dominated coalitions—including the one headed by Naftali Bennett now trying to oust Netanyahu—could quite likely bring about such a scenario. One might suppose this looming disaster would be an incentive to find new means of defusing, even eventually solving, the century-long conflict. One would be wrong.
At the moment, with a cease-fire in place since May 21, the government has adopted the standard Israeli tactic of using more force when lesser force fails. Hundreds of arrests of Israeli Arab citizens, allegedly connected in some way to the riots in the cities, have been announced by the police. An insignificant number of Jewish rioters have also been arrested. I can attest from personal experience in Sheikh Jarrah that the riot police are everywhere; Ben-Gvir and his phalangists have free run of the neighborhood—there are recent video clips of Jewish settlers shooting live bullets at Palestinian residents—while Palestinians sometimes have to beg to be allowed into their own homes.
An emblematic case is the completely unwarranted, indeed illegal, shooting by a border policeman of sixteen-year-old Jana Kiswani as she was entering her house at his orders; she was hit by a rubber-coated bullet in her spine, breaking one of the vertebrae. Her father, holding her as she screamed in agony, was also shot in the leg, and the police, for good measure, threw a stun grenade at the front door. Maybe you will be comforted by the news that the policeman who shot Jana has been temporarily suspended. The Kiswani family is one of at least twenty-eight slated for expulsion from the neighborhood. On the West Bank, most of the demonstrations have been brutally suppressed, and innocents killed.
As long as Israel steadfastly refuses to make even the slightest move toward a historic compromise with the Palestinian national movement, and as long as the occupation pushes ahead with its unending array of crimes, and as long as Palestinians living in Israel suffer the injustice inherent in the ethno-nationalist state, the likelihood of a cataclysmic conflagration remains high. Just because you have enemies doesn’t mean that paranoia won’t enact its own desperate endgame.
It is, in theory, possible that the draw between Israel and Hamas offers an opportunity somewhat akin to what emerged out of the 1973 Yom Kippur War—that is, the chance for a breakthrough toward something like peace. Thomas Friedman has suggested this in a recent column.3 But it also has to be said that Hamas has fully earned its title as a terrorist organization. It routinely and deliberately targets, and sometimes manages to kill, Israeli civilians—twelve in the latest round of fighting, along with one soldier. The fact that Israeli bombs caused around 250 civilian deaths in Gaza, including over a hundred women and children, does not in any way lighten the responsibility of Hamas for its crimes. Hamas is hardly an ideal negotiating partner, though it may well be the only one left after two decades during which Israel purposely emasculated the Palestinian Authority.
It is worth remembering, moreover, that Israel in effect handed over the Gaza Strip to Hamas in 2005 by choosing to retreat unilaterally—Ariel Sharon’s decision, driven by the hope that removing Israeli settlements from Gaza would cement the settlement enterprise in the West Bank—without even the semblance of a mutual agreement with the Palestinian Authority. The very idea of mutuality, a shared Israeli-Palestinian convergence on the road to an agreement, is anathema to the Israeli right, as is the equally unthinkable notion of a retreat from any millimeter of the West Bank. As things stand now, Israel may well fall apart because of its irrational obsession with colonizing occupied Palestinian territory.
And yet along with the despair that eats away at the heart when one is confronted by monumental human malice and foolishness, there are moments of hope reborn. During the fighting, and then in the days after the cease-fire, spontaneous demonstrations of Arab-Israeli solidarity sprang up all over Israel, on roads, at bridges over highways, in mixed cities and mixed neighborhoods, in Sheikh Jarrah and elsewhere in Jerusalem, in downtown Tel Aviv. I have no idea how many people were involved—perhaps thousands. One has to keep in mind that the quotidian reality of Israel is a shared, biethnic, binational one: Palestinians and Israelis work and live side by side in nearly all Israeli hospitals and clinics, in restaurants and businesses, in shopping malls, at some of the universities. It’s not so hard, but also not so easy, to turn that reality into one of fierce communal strife.
At one of the peace demonstrations in Jerusalem in which I participated at the height of the war, the police spent a lot of energy breaking up the crowd, threatening us with stun grenades and water cannon, and, of course, shouting insults. They rode us down with their horses and arrested several peaceful demonstrators (it’s much easier to do that than to deal with the marauding, heavily armed hypernationalists). Each time we managed to come together again and resume our protest. I’d like to take that night, too, as an emblem of this time.
—June 3, 2021
See, for example, Dmitry Shumsky, “Netanyahu Needs a Strong Hamas in Gaza,” Haaretz, May 16, 2021. ↩
See Margaret Olin and David Shulman, “After Ten Years at Al-‘Ara’is, March 13, 2021,” at our blog Touching Photographs, March 22, 2021. ↩
“How Joe Biden Can Win a Nobel Peace Prize,” The New York Times, May 23, 2021. ↩