The Palestinians Will Not—and Cannot—Be Ignored

A Revived Palestinian National Movement Could Upend the Status Quo

By Rashid Khalidi

June 30, 2021

Near the Israel-Gaza border fence, April 2019 Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters

The intense violence in Israel and Palestine in May resembled similar episodes in recent decades. But it also had several distinct features, chief among them the newfound unity of Palestinians everywhere. Palestinians rose up together in the face of the divisions that Israel has imposed on them and those created by the shortsighted partisanship of their leaders. They mounted demonstrations throughout the country in response to Israel’s heavy-handed repression in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah and the al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and its bombardments of Gaza that killed over 250 people. Israel tried to squash these protests, leading to eruptions of mob violence mainly directed against Palestinians in cities inside Israel such as Acre, Haifa, and Jaffa. Israeli forces killed dozens of Palestinian protesters in the West Bank. Then on May 18, Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, inside Israel, and in diaspora communities in Lebanon, Jordan, and elsewhere mounted a general strike, the first to encompass all of historic Palestine since the six-month general strike of 1936.

The deck remains stacked against the Palestinians, however, and a new Israeli government seems no more likely than its predecessor to cease its abuses and the policies that have made remote any prospect of a just and acceptable political settlement. But the stirring of a new generation of Palestinians offers some grounds for hope. A revivified Palestinian national movement can dispense with the assumptions and failures of previous generations and, through its actions and messaging, make clear the untenability of the status quo.

COURSE CHANGE

For years, pundits and politicians have declared that the Palestinians were defeated and demoralized and that their cause had lost its salience. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump translated this view into policies even more stridently anti-Palestinian than those that preceded them. This understanding that the Palestinians could safely be forgotten was also the basis of the normalization of relations between Israel and four Arab countries in 2020. But the uprising in the West Bank, the countrywide general strike, and the solidarity of the Palestinian diaspora delivered a clear message: the Palestinians cannot be ignored.

Western media coverage of events in May also departed from the norm. For once, broadcasters and newspapers did not blindly repeat Israeli talking points about indiscriminate Palestinian terrorist rocket fire against Israeli civilians—a claim of Palestinian instigation and culpability that such outlets ritually invoke as soon as the first Hamas rocket is fired, in the process effacing 54 years of Israeli military occupation and 73 years of Palestinian dispossession. Instead, these chronic patterns of injustice and abuse appeared prominently in both mainstream and social media. For example, many reports explained that the Sheikh Jarrah families slated for eviction by Jewish settlers with the support of Israeli security forces were refugees displaced from the cities of Acre and Haifa in 1948. Media accounts also noted that although Israeli Jews are allowed to make claims to property in occupied Arab East Jerusalem and the West Bank, Palestinians are barred from making analogous claims to any of their extensive properties confiscated by Israel all over the country in the past seven decades.

Alongside this media awakening, people in the West seemed more understanding of the real politics at work in Palestine. Israel’s apologists in Washington, London, and Berlin naturally trotted out the standard clichés about Israel’s right to self-defense, but they could not mask the changing tone both in the political arena and in the large demonstrations in support of Palestinians in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere. For perhaps the first time, public discourse in all four of those countries (which share legacies of dispossessing indigenous peoples) featured discussion of the settler colonialist nature of generations of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. Activists reinforced parallels to the oppression highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement, and many young Americans now connect the injustice they have seen in places such as Ferguson, Missouri, to what they saw in Sheikh Jarrah and other locales where security forces use the same U.S.-manufactured tear gas and the same militarized policing tactics.

Of course, changes in media coverage and public opinion have seemed to swing in favor of the Palestinians before, and they do not necessarily presage any meaningful political change. Such shifts occurred at the time of Israel’s siege of Beirut in 1982, during its fierce suppression of the unarmed first intifada starting in 1987, and during its three wars on the trapped residents of the Gaza Strip from 2008 to 2014 (the latter of which killed over 2,200 people). Each time, assiduous public relations work by the Israeli government and its friends mostly repaired the tattered screen that protects Israeli practices from real scrutiny. A frantic effort to do the same thing is underway at this moment. But there are reasons to believe that things might turn out differently this time.

A TURNING POINT?

The recent upheaval has brought about a unique moment, with both the growing shift in international public opinion and the nascent reunification of the Palestinian people at the grassroots level. The Palestinians have an opportunity to reestablish their frayed national movement, unify their ranks, and agree on a strategic agenda that they can clearly communicate globally. To achieve this uphill task, they will have to supersede existing political structures— notably the framework put in place by the Oslo accords, including the creation of the Palestinian Authority—that have produced only a generation of failed leaders, repressive governance, patronage-based corruption, popular demobilization, and no strategy for liberation. The two political parties that have long dominated Palestinian politics—Fatah and Hamas—seem structurally weaker and less popular than ever before, notwithstanding the considerable external support they receive. This is true even of a currently buoyant Hamas, whose own internal polling predicted it would lose in the elections that were scheduled for May but which were postponed by the president of the Palestinian Authority, whose legal term in office ended over a decade ago.

A new generation of young Palestinian activists has no time for the slogans, politics, and leaders of the past. These activists are operating on the same wavelength throughout Palestine and in the diaspora. Young people are taking the political initiative today, sparking a new phase of the effort for Palestinian liberation, as they have done repeatedly in the past—for example, by launching the 1936 general strike and the 1987 intifada. They will face a hard task in overthrowing the older generation of leaders and the extensive security and financial structures that protect them. But the tide is turning, as evident in the recent popular anger directed against the Palestinian leadership. Nizar Banat, a stern critic of the Palestinian Authority, died in its custody in June, sparking widespread unrest that has underlined the extreme fragility of these leaders’ hold on power.

The willingness of many Americans to take a deeper and more searching look at Israel and Palestine is also encouraging. Young people, including many in the Jewish community, are more critical than their elders were of the myths that have long shielded Israel from scrutiny—the notions that “God gave this land to Israelis”; that before the creation of the Israeli state, Palestine was “a land without a people”; that only Israel “made the desert bloom”; and that Israel is “the only Middle Eastern democracy.” Social media are far ahead of the mainstream media in this respect, spreading indelible video images of Israeli forces firing tear gas and stun grenades into the al Aqsa mosque, the most sacred Muslim shrine in Palestine, as worshipers were at prayer during the holy month of Ramadan; the destruction of entire multistory buildings in Gaza; Jewish lynch mobs roaming Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and in cities within Israel; and Palestinian demonstrators in the West Bank shot down with live ammunition. Such things cannot be unseen.

A revivified Palestinian national movement can dispense with the assumptions and failures of previous generations.

These vivid images have helped to pierce the cocoon that the media’s coverage has faithfully maintained around the 54 years of “temporary” military occupation and the refined system of domination in place both inside Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territories. Terms that were never employed in the past about Israel, such as “systemic racism,” “Jewish supremacy,” “settler colonialism,” and “apartheid,” are being debated and becoming part of U.S. and left-wing Israeli public conversations. This remains the case despite the increasingly desperate attempt of Israel’s defenders to paint support for Palestinian rights or criticism of the policies of a foreign state as “anti-Semitic.” These changes in discourse in the United States and Europe could have powerful political consequences, even if no immediate change in policy seems likely. Ultimately, they could lead to a decline in the immense military, diplomatic, and financial support that Israel enjoys from its allies in the West.

If all of this seems to be new, and may constitute a turning point, much has not changed. Both in the United States and globally, there remains an almost irrational attachment to the pretense of a “two-state solution,” the notion that the only way to bring lasting peace to the region is through the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. Proponents of the two-state solution refuse to recognize its essential prerequisite: the demolition of the formidable structural impediments, both physical and administrative, that Israeli leaders of all stripes have erected since 1967 to prevent the creation of a sovereign, contiguous Palestinian state. These methodical efforts involved the effective annexation of most of the occupied territories and the illegal transfer of nearly 750,000 colonists (over ten percent of Israel’s Jewish population) into these territories, in the context of the massive construction of colonial settlements, exclusive roads, and water and communication systems—the largest infrastructure project in the country’s post-1967 history.

Without the reversal of the creeping incorporation of what is left of Palestine into the greater land of Israel—the core objective of most Israeli political parties, including those that account for perhaps 100 of 120 members of the Knesset—the invocation of a two-state solution is just a fig leaf for the unending dispossession of the Palestinian people. There is currently no prospect of an international effort to undo the facts on the ground that Israel has created to make a viable Palestinian state impossible. Nevertheless, the stubborn resistance of the Palestinian people to the efforts to dispossess and efface them from history may have forced a turning point. A new paradigm is taking shape, based on equal rights for all in Palestine and Israel, both collectively and individually, whether via an increasingly improbable two-state solution, a single state or binational entity, or a federal, cantonal, or other framework. Growing numbers of Palestinians and Israelis understand the high odds against the implementation of a two-state solution and are exploring some of these alternatives. Advocates of such schemes must offer a comprehensive exposition of how these options would work in practice before they can gain real traction. But Israel’s persistent opposition to a truly independent Palestinian state paradoxically makes the need for these alternatives all the more urgent.

An outmoded colonial system such as Israel’s is incompatible with the values of democracy and equality.

This emerging new paradigm will probably not have a short-term impact on U.S. policies or those of other powerful countries. U.S. politicians and foreign policy mandarins, liberal Zionists, and most international actors are too invested in the two-state solution for that approach to be supplanted anytime soon. Meanwhile, major international actors, the United States foremost among them, have shown little interest in preventing Israel from blocking the path toward a two-state solution. This acquiescence permits Israel to continue its brutal “management” of its Palestinian problem while refusing any movement toward a real resolution, an approach that former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu perfected during his many years in office.

The new government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will likely follow the course set by its predecessor, as its ruling coalition is so disparate that no new consensus on the Palestinian issue is possible. There remains a solid right-wing Knesset majority on both sides of the aisle in support of the ongoing colonization of the occupied territories and the denial of national and other rights to the Palestinian people. This hard-line position is among the greatest obstacles to change. A new paradigm—even when more fully developed—is unlikely to have much immediate effect in persuading Jewish Israelis to abandon a status quo so unfavorable to the Palestinians.

A REVIVED  NATIONAL MOVEMENT

The Palestinians have the capability to change this situation, however. A revivified Palestinian national movement could challenge and ultimately transform the current untenable status quo. Such a movement would require extremely difficult political shifts and a cold reevaluation of Palestinian strategy and aims—hopefully driven by the election of new and younger leaders who can chart a fresh approach. This would involve several major efforts. Palestinians must show forcefully, and ideally nonviolently, the unsustainability of the status quo, which they successfully did during the unarmed first intifada from 1987 to 1991. And they must either revive the moribund possibilities of Palestinian national independence alongside Israel or, more likely, chart a vision of a future course for the Palestinians in a new postcolonial political structure shared with their Israeli neighbors. External actors who cherish their influence over their favored Palestinian clients and allies may resist such changes, but the Palestinians have in the past shown the ability to transcend such external intervention—as they did under Yasir Arafat’s leadership from the late 1960s through the 1980s—and could do so again.

The positive change already witnessed in global discourse on Palestine is in large part due to the effectiveness of Palestinian civil society initiatives and on-the-ground youth activism in the occupied Palestinian territories, the United States, and elsewhere. A rejuvenated, unified, democratic Palestinian national movement led by a new generation and built around a robust set of political goals would multiply that impact on Israeli, U.S., and international public opinion. The communication of an authoritatively presented Palestinian political message rooted in the principle of equality and backed by political, diplomatic, and mass action would decisively prove the unsustainability of Israel’s continued oppression of the Palestinians.

These transformations in Palestinian society and politics may be slow to come, or could arrive rapidly, or may not happen at all. Without them, the frozen confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians will continue to thaw, only much more slowly. In any case, it is already manifestly clear that an outmoded colonial system such as Israel’s, based on the supremacy of one ethnic group and the subordination of another, is incompatible with the values of democracy and equality. Although they are fiercely contested, these remain the leading values of the twenty-first century. An evolving Palestinian national movement with these values at its heart can only have positive effects locally and globally

source The Palestinians Will Not—and Cannot—Be Ignored | Foreign Affairs

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