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Israel’s Annexation Plan, a New Era in Palestinian Resistance

The Palestinian leadership has been almost entirely absent from the debate on annexation, even though this plan represents the starkest confirmation to date of the failure of its statehood project.
A Palestinian protester and an Israeli soldier during a rally against Israel’s plan to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, Haris, near Nablus, West Bank, June 26, 2020

From July 1, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has the power to bring to the Knesset a vote on whether to extend his country’s sovereignty over portions of the West Bank, in accordance with the Trump administration’s so-called peace plan, a 181-page document that, in essence, gives a US seal of approval to Israel’s expansionist agenda. Extending sovereignty, otherwise known as annexation, entails the further application of Israeli jurisdiction to territory that Palestinians had envisioned would make up part of their future state.

The Trump plan has given a green light to the integration into Israel of up to 30 percent of the West Bank, including more than two hundred Israeli settlements and settler outposts and the larger part of the Jordan Valley, removing the illusion that the occupation is temporary. In the name of a “realistic” two-state solution, the plan calls for the establishment of a Palestinian entity in the areas not annexed by Israel, entirely surrounded by Israeli territory in the West Bank; this putatively independent state would comprise a patchwork of urban enclaves connected by an as-yet-unbuilt complex of bridges, buried highways, and tunnels.

It is unclear how Netanyahu’s government will proceed, given political tensions within Israel and as yet unknown guidance from the US. While Netanyahu purportedly backs an expansive annexation, Benny Gantz, the alternate prime minister who relinquished his veto power over annexation in the negotiations that led to the formation of this present coalition government, is reportedly seeking to limit the prospective annexation to the major settlement clusters close to the 1967 Green Line. Israel’s right-wing settler movement has long campaigned for a maximalist annexation plan but is itself now divided on how to go ahead without conceding the creation of a Palestinian state, even one as fragmentary and improbable as that proposed by the Trump plan.

Polls show that more than half of Israelis support some form of further annexation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, yet many mainstream commentators, as well as members of Israel’s security establishment, argue that formal annexation is pointless, since the country already enjoys ultimate control over the territories and annexation would trigger international condemnation. They also point out that the Trump administration already granted Israel the two big prizes of recognizing its annexation of Jerusalem (and its designation as the country’s capital) and its annexation from Syria of the strategically important Golan Heights. The traditional Labor left, the party which initiated Israel’s settlement enterprise after the occupation began in 1967, embraced the government’s annexationist agenda when it joined the Netanyahu-Gantz coalition. The only real opposition within Israel to further annexation comes from the Joint List, the bloc of Arab-Israeli parties that represents Palestinian and progressive Jewish voices.  

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Workers hanging a backdrop for an election rally showing Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Tel Aviv, Israel, February 17, 2020

The Palestinian leadership, meanwhile, has been almost entirely absent from the debate on annexation, even though this plan represents the starkest confirmation to date of the failure of its statehood project. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has consistently reiterated its rejection of the Trump plan but has been powerless to stop its implementation: it has signally failed to mobilize popular domestic opposition to the plan or, apparently, to rally sufficient European and Arab pressure to deter annexation or commit to specific, effective counter-measures should it proceed. The PLO’s political weakness has made it easier for the Trump plan’s proponents to exclude Palestinian leaders from the process by pointing to their rejectionist stance and say that the Palestinians have failed as a “partner for peace.”

Partly as a result, even opponents of annexation, including some voices in the US Congress, have framed their objections almost exclusively in terms of Israel’s security and future as a Jewish state, and the American-Israeli relationship, rather than in terms of any further degradation of the rights of the Palestinians, who will bear the brunt of whatever decision Israel makes. Whatever action Netanyahu chooses to take, a minimal or a maximal annexation, this is a moment of reckoning for Palestinians. The mere facts that further annexation is a viable option and that Palestinians no longer even have a seat at the table as Israel ponders how much more territory it wants to grab from a future Palestinian state lay bare the tension that has been inherent ever since the Oslo Accords in the PLO’s commitment to state-building while under occupation. PLO leaders insist that the only option is to continue down the path of seeking statehood through diplomacy and negotiations, even though there is little evidence that it’s yielding progress. “We are willing to sit another hundred years,” a PLO official told me.

In the meantime, the short-term focus is on deterring Israel from annexing. In May, the Palestinian leadership pre-emptively declared the suspension of the Oslo Accords and their attendant security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. (The PA is a self-governing authority formed in 1994, after Oslo, to manage Palestinian urban centers, initially for an interim period of five years.) Unlike similar threats in the past, the PA terminated overt intelligence-sharing with Israeli security forces, and in some cases, civil coordination on issues related to work and medical permits. Leaders in the PA remain loath, however, to conclusively sever all ties given their own self-interest in maintaining them, and spokespeople have already indicated that suspended measures were reversible should Netanyahu decide not to proceed with annexation. Steps by the leadership to disentangle itself from the Oslo Accords enjoy popular support. Polls have consistently shown widespread disillusionment with the idea that the agreement with Israel will ever lead to a Palestinian state, as well as skepticism that the PA, with its skeletal institutions of statehood, can ever deliver a free Palestine.

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Against the backdrop of the PLO’s diplomatic moves toward statehood, such as gaining non-member observer status at the UN, the number of Israeli settlers in Palestinian territories has steadily expanded. Some Palestinians, including within the leadership itself, argue that the PA, rather than working toward independence, has in its current form merely become a security contractor, pacifying its own population in Israel’s ultimate interest. Palestinians who view the PA as being a part of the occupation hope that ending security coordination is the first step in reconstituting the PA as a body that will move to resist greater Israeli control. One Palestinian analyst told me that the only “game-changer will be when Palestinians say, ‘I don’t want to play [this game] anymore.’”

To be sure, disengaging from the game is harder than many imagine—not least because of the thousands of Palestinians whose livelihoods in a fragile West Bank economy depend on PA salaries. One PLO staffer I spoke to sympathized with this popular sentiment against coordination but articulated the leadership’s predicament by explaining that movement permits, as well as access to vital services like healthcare or employment, depend upon the PA’s continued security cooperation, saying: “Do Palestinians understand that [security coordination] includes hospitals, movement of people within villages, moving to Jordan?” Palestinian lives, in other words, are tied to security coordination, which itself is focused on the goal of ending any form of resistance to Israeli control. The Trump plan and Netanyahu’s push for annexation have clarified, in a final way, the contradictions and compromises involved in the idea of the Palestinian Authority’s serving as a staging-post on a path to independence and statehood.

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Mahmoud Abbas presiding over a meeting of the Palestinian leadership at his headquarters, Ramallah, West Bank, May 7, 2020

Thus disenchanted with the official leadership, Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, Israel, and the diaspora are increasingly redefining their struggle away from what they believe is the two-state mirage and toward resisting the one-state reality. Rather than settling for symbols of statehood and pockets of Palestinian autonomy, their starting point is Israel’s exclusive sovereignty over all the land from the river to the sea, and their focus is the Israeli government: the fact that it provides civil and political rights to Jews that are withheld from Palestinians, in varying degrees depending on their location. For those advocating a shift in the Palestinian liberation strategy, this structural inequality is a fundamental impetus for mobilization. This constellation of activists, local and international NGOs, politicians, and solidarity groups is relying on the language of human and civil rights to challenge the political repression of Palestinians and the systematic denial of their individual and collective rights.

The Palestinian rights movement, although decentralized with a variety of different actors and an array of demands and agendas, does not generally tie itself to a particular political framework, whether one state or two, but rather aims to disrupt the systems of control and domination that curtail Palestinian lives. Instead of seeking a state, these campaigners highlight the values that must underpin any progress toward Palestinian self-determination, whatever form that might take: freedom, justice, and equality. Freedom connotes the call to end Israel’s military occupation; justice refers to the demand for restitution that Palestinian refugees seek for their dispossession and expulsion following the formation of the state of Israel in 1948; and equality refers to the demands of Palestinian citizens of Israel to end that nation-state’s institutional discrimination.

“We need to redefine the Palestinian struggle,” one young man in Hebron explained to me. “We need a new Palestinian political identity, not one defined by Hamas or Fatah. We’re now living in a one-state reality. We don’t want a Palestinian state on the basis of 1967, but our rights as humans.” This reframing overcomes the shortfalls of the two-state solution, as these activists see them, which are to enshrine divisions among Palestinians and fragment the Palestinian people. The old two-state strategy failed, in their eyes, to account for their collective rights as a people, namely by defining the demand for equality by Palestinian citizens of Israel as a domestic Israeli issue, rather than as a constituent part of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli hegemony, and by forsaking the right of return of Palestinian refugees, by denying their return to the homes from which they were expelled or fled in 1948. The language of rights, its advocates claim, can reunify the Palestinian people as a single collective seeking self-determination, whereas the statehood project reifies their geographic fragmentation.

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The Palestinian rights movement is still far from being a coordinated or official movement, let alone one possessing a critical mass of political influence, which is perhaps why the PLO leaders have, at best, tolerated it; at worst, dismissed it as irrelevant and utopic. The international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, perhaps one of the most high-profile manifestations of this strategic shift, was launched in 2005 by more than one hundred and seventy Palestinian unions, refugee networks, women’s organizations, professional associations, and popular resistance committees. It was only in 2018 that the PLO officially adopted its provisions.

PLO officials concede to their Palestinian critics that the goal of an independent state on just 22 percent of Mandate Palestine is both far from ideal and already a major concession as yet unredeemed by any sign of statehood being realized. Yet they caution that to abandon the state-building project could be fatal for the Palestinian cause. Given the imbalance of power with Israel, PLO leaders fear that talking about equality and rights will subsume the historic struggle for national self-determination into a domestic issue of rights in Israel. A senior Fatah member I spoke to said, “[Palestinians] will become a minority [referring to the possibility of Palestinians becoming a marginalized community in Israel]. [We] will become enslaved. [We] will be trampled upon. We cannot give up on international rights. We cannot live with [Israeli Jews] if we do not have power.” 

Others in the PLO establishment voice the more pragmatic concern that any new movement of protest politics that threatens to destabilize the present reality will risk bloody reprisals, perhaps even providing a pretext for further expulsions of Palestinians from the territories. (The Trump plan has already mooted the possibility that some Palestinian citizens of Israel would be stripped of their citizenship and that the territory in which they live would become part of a state of Palestine, and there are certainly voices in Israel’s right-wing settler movement only too glad to call for drastic measures amounting to ethnic cleansing.) Still other Palestinian figures counsel that Palestinians will gain nothing by adopting a de facto one-state strategy, least of all equality, because Israel “can indefinitely tolerate maintaining one state with unequal rights.”

Most Palestinian leaders, from both the PLO and Hamas, argue that before any such change in strategy, Palestinians must secure their state first, and consolidate those gains in the international arena, which would include fulfilling all the UN Security Council resolutions that have affirmed the Palestinians’ right of self-determination. As one former PLO diplomat commented, talk of turning the Palestinian struggle into a civil rights movement is fine “in cafés in Manhattan,” but not in Palestine. Given that no Israeli government is likely to countenance the notion of a one-state solution in which all enjoy equal rights, these leaders feel further vindicated in their assessment that a rights-based approach is unrealistic.

These positions are, nevertheless, facing challenges from the rights-based advocates, who see them as self-serving justifications, and who argue that the leadership remains stuck in a state-building project it officially committed to in 1988 when everything around it has changed. The Israeli government has moved consistently to the right and has become ever more explicit about its desire for expansion toward realizing a “Greater Israel.”

Since the mid-2000s, the Palestinian body politic has itself been divided between the PLO-dominated West Bank and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Arab governments are today far more inclined to work to normalize relations with Israel, even if that means turning a blind eye to the continuing occupation and downgrading their diplomatic pressure on the Palestinian issue. At the same time, the rise of populist nationalism in the West has weakened many countries’ commitment to the international legal order and reduced their already limited political will to rally to the Palestinian cause. And finally, but not least among these changes, there is the resurgence of grassroots political movements—both within Palestinian populations (notably, in the Gaza protests of 2018 and 2019) and in international solidarity campaigning.

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On May 30, the Israeli police killed Eyad al-Hallaq, an autistic Palestinian man, in Jerusalem. Terrified when Israeli police officers called on him to stop, Hallaq had run and hidden in a garbage room, where his caregiver pleaded not to shoot in both Arabic and Hebrew with the officers who followed, saying again and again that Hallaq was disabled and could not understand their instructions. Officers shot him three times at close range. Days after Hallaq’s murder, protests took place in cities in both Israel and the West Bank, including Haifa, Ramallah, and Jerusalem, to highlight Israeli security forces’ brutality against Palestinians. Many who took part in the demonstrations made an explicit connection with the Black Lives Matter protests against racism and police violence that were unfolding in different cities around the world.

Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Protesters carrying anti-annexation banners and Palestinian flags, Gaza City, Gaza, July 1, 2020

This was not new. Activists have been forging such links between Black Lives Matter and the Palestinian rights struggle for several years. The summer of 2014 was a turning-point for both movements: while BLM protests erupted after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Palestinians rallied in the West Bank, and worldwide, against the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip. In 2016, three years after its inception, BLM issued a statement declaring solidarity with the Palestinians:

Palestinian liberation represents an inherent threat to Israeli settler colonialism and apartheid, an apparatus built and sustained on ethnic cleansing, land theft, and the denial of Palestinian humanity and sovereignty. While we acknowledge that the apartheid configuration in Israel/Palestine is unique from the United States (and South Africa), we continue to see connections between the situation of Palestinians and Black people.

This week, Black Lives Matter in the UK announced its solidarity with the Palestinians, stating: “As Israel moves forward with the annexation of the West Bank…we loudly and clearly stand beside our Palestinian comrades.” By their own accounts, both BLM and the Palestinian rights movement are fighting settler-colonial states and structures of domination and supremacy that value, respectively, white and Jewish lives over black and Palestinian ones. Both movements oppose state violence against their communities and the use of excessive force in policing.

There are acknowledged differences, of course: while BLM is struggling for black emancipation from the legacy of slavery and institutional discrimination, Palestinians are resisting military occupation and colonization. Even allowing for these differences, the channels of solidarity between their parallel struggles are proliferating. Whenever BLM activists take to the streets, social media is flooded with Palestinians sharing information on the different types of tear-gas used by American police based on their experience of similar chemicals used by Israeli forces. Palestinian flags are raised at many BLM protests, and, in turn, Palestinians participating in the Hallaq protests in the Occupied Territories held up placards declaring solidarity with BLM—one I saw said “Palestinians support the black intifada.”

These connections are seeping into Israeli Jewish consciousness, too. While some BLM protests took place in Tel Aviv without reference to the occupation, other left-wing Israeli protests now invoke the language of apartheid and Palestinian rights.

The various Palestinian intifadas and instances of popular mobilization in recent decades were largely spontaneous, grassroots eruptions after years of growing discontent and frustration. Whether the Hallaq demonstrations, the economic malaise in the Palestinian territories, and the looming prospect of annexation presage a wider upsurge in protest remains to be seen. But while the Palestinian leadership appears powerless to prevent further annexation, or even mobilize international public opinion against it, BLM is providing a showcase for an alternative, grassroots form of action and power against systemic oppression—and many Palestinians are listening. Just as elected politicians and institutions all over the US are pivoting rapidly to get in line with a new consensus about racism in America, Palestinian leaders may need to take greater account of the power of those who see their future defined by the struggle for equal rights for all who live between the river and the sea.

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