More Violence Is Inevitable Unless Palestinians Are Liberated
Netanyahu is a symptom, not the cause.
In the recent book I wrote with Marc Lamont Hill, Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics, we devoted a whole chapter to making the point that Donald Trump’s policies toward Israel and Palestine were not new. Rather they were, for the most part, radical extensions of existing U.S. policy, dating back, in some cases, to the 1960s.
It is in that vein that we need to understand the recent Israeli actions in Gaza, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and even within its internationally recognized borders and against Israel’s own Palestinian citizens.
There are two different levels on which we must, if we are to pursue productive policies, understand current events. One is the immediate circumstances which brought about the Israeli assault on Gaza and the firing of rockets from Gaza. That needs to be addressed with a ceasefire that ends Israel’s major assaults.
The second is the longer view that addresses why this happens, not only now, but every few years. That can only be addressed by ending the denial of Palestinian rights and addressing the root cause of that denial.
We use a lot of terms for that root cause: apartheid, settler-colonialism, occupation, dispossession, just to name a few. Those are all accurate. And they all describe the same thing, the choice of term being based on how that same thing is viewed. They all describe the drive for a large Jewish majority, a feat which can only be achieved by limiting the Palestinian population.
This is the stark truth that supporters of Israel, and of the Political Zionism that makes up Israel’s ideological core, want to avoid discussing. Whether we are talking about Theodor Herzl writing in his diary that “We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it employment in our country,” or the more recent Israeli leaders referring to Palestinians—both under occupation and those who ae citizens of Israel—as a “demographic time bomb,” Israel has always faced the same problem: how to ensure a clear Jewish majority.
From the very beginning, it was apparent that this so-called “gentle” prodding of Palestinians to leave was doomed to fail. How could it be otherwise when this plan was premised on the idea that the people were “just Arabs” who could be just as happy with other Arabs in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, or anywhere throughout the region?
European Zionists (and, it’s important to note that, despite the fact that Mizrahi Jews and other Jews of Color are no less Zionist than their Ashkenazi counterparts today and make up the majority of Israel’s Jewish population, Zionism is an ideology rooted in Europe. It has certainly changed due to its encounter with non-European Jews, but the ideology is inextricably rooted in European thought, and was exclusively European by any reasonable measure until the founding of the state of Israel) could not see distinctions between different Arab societies, and so were surprised to find that Palestinians were not going to simply pick up and leave for the price of a job elsewhere.
From driving hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes in 1948 and 1967, to the constant squeeze of occupation for the past 54 years, Israel has pursued ever crueler policies in order to ensure that the Israeli citizenry remains overwhelmingly Jewish. The matter is further complicated by Israel’s desire for all the land of historic Palestine.
There is simply no way to colonize a land and make the indigenous population either leave or accept existence without basic rights unless you use massive violence. That violence manifests in a variety of ways. It has meant the complete isolation of Gaza, an isolation that has, to some extent, defined the history of Gaza as a discrete territory, but has been exacerbated by the walls which started being built in 1994, and the siege which started in 2007.
But it also means the checkpoints, land confiscation, arbitrary arrests and imprisonments, home demolitions, excessive uses of force, including killing protesters, and the many other characteristics of occupation. Every aspect of occupation, of Palestinian dispossession, of denial of the rights of Palestinians, including—maybe even especially—refugees, is a manifestation of violence. And it all has one goal: to maintain a Jewish state with limited democratic structures which are denied to most Palestinians under Israeli rule and available only to a limited degree to the rest.
The objective of maintaining democratic structures that are fully controlled by the Jewish population must, therefore, mean engineering the demographics of the public that can participate in the society. There is no possibility of achieving the goals of political Zionism without such demographic engineering, and there is no way to engineer demographics, especially in the context of a settler-colonial state, without massive violence.
It’s crucial to note that this violence is NOT inevitable for the goal of creating a place where Jews can be safe, where we can flee if we face antisemitism where we currently live. It only becomes inevitable because Political Zionism made the decision that it preferred to create that safe space by dispossessing and dominating another people. That decision is where the violence comes from, and why the very project of Political Zionism makes it inevitable.
By no means am I suggesting that Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t bear special blame. Just as Donald Trump exacerbated existing racism, xenophobia, wealth disparities, draconian policing, anti-democratic practices, and global disdain for international law and human rights, so Netanyahu has taken the violence that is the basic and inescapable element of enforced ethnic superiority—a characteristic that is fundamental to both settler-colonialism and apartheid—to an extreme level.
Netanyahu’s political difficulties certainly were a major factor in his decision to escalate tensions at the Haram al-Sharif and ultimately to fire weapons inside the al-Aqsa Mosque. Impeding access to the holy sites during Ramadan was sure to draw protests, which were met with overwhelming police violence.
That was no accident, and, when Hamas fired rockets toward Jerusalem, it was Netanyahu’s opportunism that turned that to his political advantage as he unleashed massive firepower on Gaza. As rockets from Gaza then came toward Israel (most of which were intercepted, but enough have gotten through to kill 12 people so far), Netanyahu’s right wing enemies Naftali Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar started drifting away from the anti-Bibi camp, and, when the smoke clears, Netanyahu will either be able to form a new government or win new elections. His “stay out of jail card” remains intact.
Netanyahu’s blatant and bloody racism has come at a price, however. One myth that he and other right-wingers have worked hard to cultivate—that Palestinian citizens of Israel were ready to abandon their brothers and sisters under occupation—has been smashed to bits, with results that are likely to linger long after Israel quits its current campaign of bombing Gaza.
Perhaps more importantly, Netanyahu has spent much of the past two decades making it more and more difficult for liberals and moderates to ignore their own values when it comes to Israel. His intense pressure in support of the invasion of Iraq nearly twenty years ago was only the start, and in recent years he has worked in the United States to abandon the bipartisanship that had been a hallmark of pro-Israeli politics. His embrace of the white supremacist Trump angered many Democrats, including some who had been staunch hawks on Israel.
In bygone years, when Labor or similar parties had been at the forefront of Israeli politics, U.S. and European leaders barely hid their preference for those parties. Whether it was Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, George H.W. Bush, his son, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair or Barack Obama, Western leaders were always happier with the leaders who talked of peace while expanding settlements rather than the right-wing ideologues like Yitzhak Shamir or Netanyahu, who fanned the flames of nationalism and spoke bombastically of their desire to defy the world and utterly smash the Palestinians.
The reason, of course, was that these leaders had no particular concern for the Palestinians but they knew that the solid pro-Israel consensus in the United States and Europe would begin to decay if more and more people saw the brutality of Israel’s policies and the intransigence of its positions on compromise and addressing legitimate Palestinians grievances.
Netanyahu has proven that concern correct.
It’s not just Bibi, of course. His personal corruption, demagoguery, and amorality is matched by the Israeli public’s increasing shift to the right over the course of the Oslo era. One distinction between Netanyahu and Trump that is important is that, while Trump represented a minority of Americans, albeit a privileged and large one, Netanyahu’s nationalism and militarism represents the majority of Israel’s Jewish citizens. Every poll, and certainly the results of Knesset elections, bears that point out, despite Netanyahu’s and Likud’s inability to cobble together coalitions. He falls only a few seats short and the so-called opposition has numerous parties which are at least as far right on policy toward the Palestinians as Likud.
In the near term, the policy needs are obvious. The most immediate need is to stop Israel’s onslaught on Gaza, an event which seems like it might be coming very soon. Let’s hope.
But Israel must also agree to ease all restrictions on access to the Haram al-Sharif and the Damascus Gate entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem. It must also be pressed to end its support for the settlers trying to take over homes in Sheikh Jarrah. Withdrawal of state support for their case would have a significant impact on the court’s decision and would be a way of circumventing the inevitable Israeli argument that the case must go through its legal process. An international call for the entire case to be dropped should also be issued. And, of course, there needs to be a massive international rescue effort to clean up and rebuild all the destroyed structures and devastated lives in the Strip.
But all that does is restore the status quo. Let’s not forget that before all of this started Gaza was already an unlivable space, with scant potable water, enormous unemployment, an under-equipped healthcare system, little to no access to COVID-19 vaccines, and an inability to import many products and to export virtually anything at all. Simply restoring Gaza’s status as the world’s biggest open-air prison is unacceptable.
Once and for all, the siege on Gaza must end. Gazans must be able to import the goods they need. Clearly, the siege does not prevent Hamas from arming, so even if one buys the argument that Hamas being in charge somehow excuses the collective punishment of the siege (it does not, by any means or by any rational, legal, or moral argument), it is clearly an ineffective way to prevent Hamas from arming itself.
Gazans must be able to export goods and bring revenue into the territory. They must be able to move in and out of the Strip to pursue their businesses. They must be allowed to fish freely off the coast of Gaza. Israel does not have the legal or ethical right to starve two million Palestinians because it fears that arms may be smuggled in—especially when we know in such circumstances that smuggling will flourish, and only above-board trade suffers.
But if anyone is really interested in making sure events like those of the past two weeks don’t recur—and it seems questionable that anyone in power in the U.S., Europe, and even the Arab world and most of the United Nations is—the only way forward is to address the root cause. The world must make it clear once and for all that Israel does not have any more of a right to flourish at the expense of the indigenous people of Palestine than any other nation does, despite the fact that this determination will come too late for so many who have suffered from other settler-colonial projects.
There are numerous paths forward if we base solutions on the notion that both individually and collectively Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs and all other people living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea have fully equal rights. That is a discussion for another time. But that principle must be undertaken and the international must be prepared to sanction any party that does not abide by that principle.
Ultimately, while many will wail about how the Israeli right has led Israel astray, we must not lose sight of the fact that the idea of a state where Jews are the superior group was always going to lead to violence and that trying to engineer demographics so that Jews stayed in a supermajority in the land—at least in terms of citizenship—could never be accomplished by any means other than massive violence. That’s what Israelis and Palestinians have been living with for a century. It’s failed to provide a safe haven for anyone, and that failure is recorded in blood. It’s long past time we put a stop to it.
With a ceasefire now apparently in place, I looked at four of the repeated refrains from this round of Israeli bombing of Gaza. They were sadly familiar, but in the current context, I think they bear careful scrutiny and consideration. So, check out Four Points on the Israeli Assault on Gaza over at ReThinking Foreign Policy.
It’s also vital that we keep the performance of the United States in mind. Joe Biden wants praise for “stopping” Israel’s devastation of Gaza after “only” eleven days. This was something he could have not only stopped much sooner, but could have prevented entirely. Biden’s mantra of Israel’s “right to defend itself,” which I examine critically in the “Four Point” article, was a shameful echo of past administrations and one which rang particularly hollow given the unprecedented opposition to Israel’s action we saw from congressional Democrats. At The New Arab, I looked at how “Biden's bumbling has deadly consequences for Palestinians.”
Finally, back where this all began, ReThinking Foreign Policy joined 140 other groups to support Rep. Marie Newman’s letter condemning the attempted Jewish settler takeover of Palestinian homes in Sheikh Jarrah. The full text of the statement can be found at the RTFP blog, “Joint Statement Calling on Biden Administration to Condemn Israeli government plans to Forcibly Displace Palestinians in Occupied East Jerusalem.”
Recent Media Appearances
On May 12, I appeared in an episode titled “Unconditional Support For Israel in Our Politics and Press is Eroding,” on Background Briefing with Ian Masters. Listen Here
Also on May 12, I gave an interview about “Israel’s Impunity” on Inside America with Ghida Fakhry, at TRT News, Watch Here
Finally, on May 18, Marc Lamont Hill and I talked about “Hollow Self-Defense Claims & Inflamed Tensions: Here’s Why The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict Erupted,”, on Roland Martin Unfiltered, Watch Here
By Dave Zirin, The Nation, May 20, 2021
By Aida Touma-Sliman, The Intercept, May 20, 2021
By Jamil Suleiman, +972 Magazine, May 18, 2021
Amnesty International, May 17, 2021
By Ali Velshi, MSNBC, May 17, 2021