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Explaining the New Violence in Palestine

Recent events have shown how untenable Israel's dream of "occupation with security" is.

United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon made some illuminating remarks about Israel-Palestine last month. After a ritual condemnation of Palestinian violence, he added a comment that enraged Israel’s government and politicians.

As oppressed peoples have demonstrated throughout the ages, it is human nature to react to occupation, which often serves as a potent incubator of hate and extremism.

Such crude descent into causality was troubling for Israel. For the head of such an important institution to attribute blame to the country for the current wave of attacks can only be met with claims that the secretary general is a terrorist sympathizer.

Never short of linguistic acrobatics, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu lead the charge by saying that Ban Ki-moon was “stoking terror.” He continued that:

The Palestinian terrorists don’t want to build a state; they want to destroy a state, and they say that proudly. They want to murder Jews everywhere and they state that proudly. They don’t murder for peace and they don’t murder for human rights.

For Netanyahu, there are two reasons that can explain the current wave of stabbings and car rammings against Israeli soldiers and civilians. First and foremost, there is the cultural reason: they murder us because they are antisemitic. And they are so because of their religion and culture.

For Netanyahu, an irrational religion motivates Muslims to kill for the sake of killing, and not for a specific political purpose. As he clearly states in his response to Ban Ki-moon, Palestinians are not after such worldly goods as peace or human rights. They kill because of who they are, because of their essence.

Culture is not the only cause being invoked. The second cause that Netanyahu gives for current violence is political motivation: Palestinians want to destroy an existing state and not build one of their own. What Palestinians have always wanted is to destroy Israel. That is the reason behind their murderous hatred and violence, and that is why there is no peace in Israel-Palestine.

No Options

But what explains the rise in individual violence by Palestinians against the Israeli army and settlers in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and (at times) against civilians inside Israel as well?

Senior Israeli army officers who wanted to examine the spike “interviewed” Palestinian prisoners who were captured while carrying out attacks. It is clear that this research is neither objective nor ethical, and that it is in fact a continuation of Shin Bet interrogation techniques. But it can help us understand recent events.

The facts that emerge about these “lone wolf” attacks (from this and other sources) are as follows:

  • ŸThey are mostly committed by ordinary Palestinians with no “security history.” Most are not known activists or militants and do not belong to any political organization.
  • ŸMost attackers are young and feel alienated from Palestinian political life.
  • ŸMost have grown up during the Oslo period, and know only the Israel of checkpoints, soldiers, and settlers. They don’t work in Israel or have daily encounters with ordinary Israelis.
  • ŸWomen’s involvement has also been noted. The Israeli army says that out of 152 recorded attacks, 22 were by women.
  • ŸMost acts were committed in areas of intensive military and settler oppression and humiliation, like Hebron or the Gush Etzion junction. In Hebron, for example, 500 Jewish settlers have essentially taken over the old city center and prevented free access to a Palestinian population of over 160,000, with 30,000 Palestinians living under direct daily Israeli control and with the main commercial Al-Shuhada Street (now renamed Apartheid Street) bolted up and shut off to Palestinians since 1994. As recently reported by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs: “There are over 120 physical obstacles, including 18 permanently staffed checkpoints, in the over 20% of Hebron City, known as H2, where Israel continues to exercise full control.” Like Hebron, Gush Etzion is another area of daily colonial friction and interaction. This is part of West Jerusalem’s expansion into the Occupied Territories that has, in recent years, essentially cut the West Bank in half.
  • ŸMost recent attacks are against Israeli soldiers and are revenge attacks to retaliate against the army’s killing of relatives and acquaintances. Thirty-one Israelis have died as a result.
  • ŸOverall, 184 Palestinians have been killed since October 2015 (including 25 in Gaza), of whom 40 were children (as reported by a Palestinian survey on February 23, 2016). As expected, the highest numbers of killed come from the districts of Hebron and East Jerusalem: 53 and 41, respectively. The rest were more widely distributed in the West Bank. The report also noted that 14 women were killed. It’s important to emphasize that many of the Palestinians killed were not involved in violent acts, and their death is a result of the Israeli army’s “shoot to kill” policy.

What do these facts and figures tell us? Unlike the first and second intifadas, this wave of Palestinian resistance is characterized by individual acts of violence mainly targeting the Israeli military occupation, such as soldiers at checkpoints. The attacks are largely uncoordinated, unorganized, and politically unclaimed. The majority are solitary acts, atomized expressions of anger and frustration.

What they communicate is that life for a whole generation born under Oslo is increasingly suffocating and generating a new type of anger. These acts communicate to Israel that Palestinians haven’t disappeared and can still pose a threat to its bureaucratic and military control of Palestinians.

If Palestinians cannot change the rules of the occupation, they can certainly disrupt them. Israel’s goal of an “occupation with security” is being put into question.

For this crop of Palestinians, none of the political factions are attractive. The reverse is actually true: it is better to die in the name of Palestine than to die being associated with any faction or party.

As twenty-two-year-old Baha Allyan from East Jerusalem posted on his Facebook page before his operation: “I ask that the political parties do not claim responsibility for my attack. My death was for my nation and not for you.”

If life is tainted by Israeli occupation, Palestinian elite subservience, and factional strife between Fatah and Hamas, then only death for a worthy cause is pure. To die alone resisting is self-willed and independent, and that epitomizes everything the attackers are missing in daily life.

Why have the Palestinians reached such levels of despair? Why is a new generation concluding that solitary death is better than current life under occupation? Israel is largely to blame for wanting the impossible: occupation and peace at the same time. But it is also worth considering how internal Palestinian affairs have also contributed to the situation.

Palestinians today are responding to the double failure of organized politics: if Fatah failed to improve life with Oslo, Hamas failed to create a better alternative that Palestinians can aspire to without it.

If the West Bank is riddled with Palestinian security collaboration with Israel, an endlessly attacked, besieged, and still unreconstructed Gaza is its own police state. If the Palestinian Authority continues to act as colonial enforcer for Israel and to arrest Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives in the West Bank, Hamas clamps down on rival operatives in Gaza as well.

In both areas, there are political prisoners, torture of detainees, and no real freedom of expression or association. Both main factions violently repress the other, and refuse to formulate a workable reconciliation that would help lift or ease the Israeli-Egyptian blockade over Gaza and resolve outstanding problems there.

Intra-Palestinian political compromise has been shunned for over eight years already, and the biggest loser is Palestinian democracy and self-organization, with elections a distant memory.

There is no question that Israel, like all overlords, seeks to divide and rule, cutting off the West Bank from Gaza both physically and politically. And that, through its invasions of Gaza, it has sought to seal it off from the rest of Palestine and do with it what it pleases. But Palestinian factions have only boosted this colonial policy by sustaining this division in their own way.

A new generation of Palestinians looks on and sees no end in sight to either occupation or to factional strife. For them, both Hamas and Fatah put their own narrow interests above all else and maintain their respective power bases at all costs. With democracy degraded and factionalism so rife, political alternatives that envision a way forward are stifled. Hence the new generation’s rhetoric of individual purism and the self-defining acts of solitary escape.

This is, indeed, the Palestinian world that Israel has ultimately created. As sole sovereign over Israel-Palestine, Israel is the most powerful entity that determines its polity, economy, and society. It also controls most of the land, natural resources, and access points.

Even a discourse of national victimhood cannot hide what conscript soldiers do on a daily basis at checkpoints, in planes, tanks, military vehicles, and navy vessels: effortlessly preventing the Palestinians from having any kind of control over their daily lives, and segregating them into smaller and smaller enclaves.

Israel knows it is the exceedingly more powerful entity, and wants to keep it that way. Many army officials say this in the open: subordinating Palestinians is daily Israeli business.

What is also clear is that Israel prefers this status quo to any scenario that forces it to share sovereignty with Palestinians anywhere in Palestine. Israel’s aim is to have a subordinate Palestinian partner that would give it what it wants: occupation with security (in violation of international laws and resolutions). So far, the Palestinian Authority has done that since Oslo.

There is no serious political constituency in Israel that is calling for anything else. The head of Israel’s opposition, Isaac Herzog, recently praised Ariel Sharon for erecting the annexationist wall in the West Bank, and said that he (unlike Netanyahu) will finish the job of separating from the Palestinians without allowing them to have a state of their own and while keeping most of the settlement blocs intact and controlling the Jordan Valley as well. No sovereignty here either: just a re-styled Oslo-type army redeployment.

Why this Israeli intransigence? Why is Israel not interested in what the whole world recognizes as peace: withdrawal to the 1967 borders in exchange for security and recognition — which the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) had already provided back in 1988, nearly thirty years ago?

One of the most illuminating answers is provided by Zeev Maoz in Defending the Holy Land: A Critical Analysis of Israel’s Security & Foreign Policy. In his exhaustive evaluation of Israel’s aggressive security doctrine, “proclivity to use excessive force,” and endless “wars of choice,” one thing stands out: peace is not an important priority for Israel.

The words of Israel’s founder Ben Gurion, still followed to this day, are illustrative.

But at the same time we have to remember that there are limits to our desire for peace with the Arabs. This is one of our vital interests, but it is not the first and all-determining interest. First and foremost, we have to see to Israel’s needs, whether or not this brings improvement in our relations with the Arabs. The second factor in our existence is American Jewry and its relationship with us (and the state of America since these Jews live in it). The third thing — [is] peace with the Arabs. This is the order of priorities.

If not peace, what then is Israel’s “first and all-determining interest”? To build up the Jewish state as a war society: a mobilized “nation at arms,” technologically and militarily superior to its neighbors combined, and able to project deterrence and an aura of invincibility.

Maoz rightly describes this as a “siege mentality.” Peace contradicts such robust state-building imperatives and causes elite anxieties about social cohesion. Without war and conflict, what guarantees does the elite have of safeguarding Israel’s military and technological superiority or bottling up its own class contradictions?

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict thus plays a key role in Israeli elite strategy. It not only facilitates military hegemony over society, but has a business dimension as well.

Occupation expertise and knowledge are turned into various businesses and technological products that are banked in the global arms markets, where Israel’s military innovations gain the special seal of approval of battle-tested equipment, giving it a leg up against its Euro-American competitors. The occupation is thus banked twice over: in massive state budgets for the army and in arms sales for Israel’s militarized businesses.

Contra Netanyahu’s racist obsession with “Islamic terrorism,” the real impediment to peace is Israel’s war society. Lasting peace has proven so difficult for Israel to aspire to and achieve because of the kind of society that Israel is: arrogant, aggressive, and apathetic to the suffering it inflicts on others.

A growing component of religious and nationalist fanaticism is now also turning inwards and advocating violence against its own. The rhetoric of war is now directed at Israeli society itself: human rights advocates in Israel are called shtulim (”implanted ones”) who are now accused of supporting terror. Right-wing organizations and government ministers share the same extreme language and worldview.

After decades of a victorious colonial project in the West Bank, the minuscule organized Jewish dissent that is left in Israel is now being methodically stamped out. A militarized high-tech fanatic Israel is all the rage in the Knesset, and there is no room for public criticism, self-examination, or liberal sentiment.

If some foreign diplomats look on this reality and on Israel’s self-righteous victimhood mantra in frustration and exasperation, imagine how the country’s victims feel.

Palestinians see no hope in an Israel that is humiliating and dominating their lives even more cruelly and with impunity. As the situation on the ground worsens by the day, cries of help, and for justice and international accountability are all left unheard. No wonder some feel they have nothing left to lose. Rather than looking at Islam for answers, Israel should look at itself.