North Africa, West Asia

The coming struggle over Palestine

We may now be moving towards a renewed conflict or struggle over the entire land of Palestine/Israel between various manifestations of Palestinian nationalism on the one hand and Zionism on the other.   

Ahmad Samih Khalidi
22 July 2014
Monument to Israeli Arab casualties in October 2000 riots, Nazareth

Monument to Israeli Arab casualties in October 2000 riots, Nazareth. Almog/Flickr. Public domain.No matter how the current round of fighting between Hamas and the Palestinians’ resistance groups and Israel may end, a number of significant factors have come together to point to a new reality that is now taking shape on the ground.

While the war on Gaza may not have been the direct product of the failure of the Israeli/PLO peace talks sponsored by US Secretary State John Kerry, it is hard to ignore the connection between their failure to make progress towards a political resolution of the Palestine/Israel conflict and the resumption of hostilities on the Gaza front.

It was out of the conviction that the US-sponsored talks had come to a dead end, that both Fateh and Hamas decided to overcome their differences and give priority to their longstanding attempts at national reconciliation instead.  Just as importantly, PA President Abbas had succeeded in securing international - and particularly US - support for the new Palestinian government, despite vociferous opposition from Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu and his attempt to evoke Hamas ‘terrorism’ as an insurmountable obstacle to legitimizing any form of Palestinian reconciliation.  

Furthermore, the PA/PLO had seriously begun to consider its next ‘unilateral’ moves at the UN within the framework of seeking international legal and diplomatic/political recognition of a Palestinian state in a relatively sympathetic international climate where most parties were blaming Israel for the greater share of responsibility for the failure of the peace talks, the EU was growing increasingly critical of Israeli settlement policies, and even the US - Israel’s most consistent advocate and protector - had begun to show some weariness with its ally’s intransigence and ill-disguised disdain for Washington’s endless efforts on its behalf.

The June 12 Hebron attack on young Israeli settler yeshiva students came to offer Netanyahu a way out.  Although the Israeli government knew within a matter of hours that they had been killed immediately, it moved quickly to exploit the attack to the fullest extent possible by pretending to be searching for the kidnapped students. This pretense allowed the Israelis to launch a massive campaign against Hamas on the West Bank (without offering any proof of its complicity) backed by orchestrated international rallies and tearful appeals from the young settlers’ parents, all meant to challenge Abbas’ credentials as a political partner and emphasizing his apparent preference for siding with ‘terrorism’ rather than peace.[1] 

Thus and despite years of virtual tranquility on the West Bank (only three Israeli civilians had been killed on the West Bank since 2010), and in spite of Abbas’ condemnation of the Hebron operation and his insistence on the ‘sanctity’ of security cooperation with Israel, the Israeli government used the operation not only to secure international moral and political cover for a well-prepared all-out onslaught against Hamas on the West Bank and Gaza but also in order to consolidate Israel’s argument about the absolute primacy of its broader security demands. [2]

The military assault on Gaza was merely the final element in a strategy designed to destroy the prospects of Palestinian national reconciliation, eliminate Hamas from the political equation, and reframe the entire conflict once more solely in terms of Israel’s security and its ‘right to defend itself’.

Israel’s demand for the ‘demilitarization’ of Gaza is now likely to be a primary Israeli demand in the debate over the future of the Strip or indeed the terms of a lasting ceasefire.

The truth is that Israel’s security demands had already played a critical role in derailing the Kerry-sponsored talks. At the heart of Kerry’s efforts over nine months was an attempt to reconcile between Israel’s security concerns and Palestinian sovereignty and independence as the core of any agreement on a two-state solution.  Kerry was well aware of the other necessary elements of such a deal, but believed that addressing Israel’s real or imagined security concerns was possible in a manner that would offer the Palestinians a sufficient sense of sovereignty and independence to keep the peace process momentum moving.

To that end he deployed a large team of US experts led by senior former Marine General John Allen with a view to devising a formula for lifting Israel’s military needs ‘off the ground and into the air’ as it were, and rendering any residual Israeli military presence after an agreement virtually invisible. The US plan was based on the most advanced early warning, surveillance and detection technologies that would largely be airborne and unobtrusive, and would be generally invisible to the Palestinian population at large. This, the US assumed would allow Israel to maintain a sufficient long-term security presence in the West Bank and over the River Jordan (where Israel was concerned about Gaza-style infiltration of rockets and ‘hostile’ personnel) as well as providing early-warning and response to potential ‘threats from the East’; i.e. from Jordan and beyond.

But this effort failed.  The Israelis slowly chipped away at the US position until it ended up much closer to what they wanted than the Palestinian side could possibly accept. The Israeli side refused to countenance a purely technological response to the security problem, and the Palestinian side was unwilling to consider anything beyond a limited phased period for an Israeli withdrawal plus a third party international force to maintain long-term security.[3]  In short, the US was unable or unwilling to square Palestinian sovereignty with Israeli’s security demands. 

The Palestinians’ (PA/PLO) understanding of the two-state solution has long been premised on independence and sovereignty and an ‘end of occupation’. What was being proposed to them instead was the occupation’s indefinite extension, only this time with their consent. The failure of the Kerry talks offered final proof that without resolving the security/sovereignty conundrum, the two-state paradigm becomes totally unworkable.

Well before the Gaza assault, the peace process was already in a deep coma.  But its prospects of recovery may have received another grave blow from another direction altogether. The spread of Islamist jihadist movements in the Levant and the creation of what appears to be a secure territorial base for these movements (as in the self-proclaimed ‘Caliphate’) have provided further grist to Israel’s security mill.  Alongside the ‘threat’ of Gazan militarization, there is the new and potentially even greater danger of an al-Qa’ida-inspired regional turmoil ending in the overthrow of the current state-system including the vital buffer provided by the Hashemite Kingdom to the East.

Whether these Israeli concerns are justified or not, is beside the point. What is relevant is that Israel has now formally made it clear that the regional dimension is directly and immediately connected to the local (i.e. Gaza/West Bank) dimension: If there was any potential for a softening of Israel’s security demands of the Palestinians before Operation Protective Edge they have now evaporated in the wake of the Gaza onslaught and emergence of the ‘Islamic Caliphate’ astride the crumbling borders of Syria and Iraq.  This was made clear by Netanyahu himself, speaking shortly after the Gaza attack began:[4]   

Netanyahu has stressed often in the past that he doesn’t want Israel to become a bi-national state — implying that he favors some kind of accommodation with and separation from the Palestinians. But on Friday [July 11th] he made explicit that this could not extend to full Palestinian sovereignty. Why? Because, given the march of Islamic extremism across the Middle East, he said, Israel simply cannot afford to give up control over the territory immediately to its east, including the eastern border — that is, the border between Israel and Jordan, and the West Bank and Jordan. The priority right now, Netanyahu stressed, was to “take care of Hamas.” But the wider lesson of the current escalation was that Israel had to ensure that “we don’t get another Gaza in Judea and Samaria.” Amid the current conflict, he elaborated, “I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.”

With its militant stance in confronting the Israeli assault on Gaza, Hamas may have already succeeded in rekindling the Palestinians’ deeply implanted spirit of resistance, and placed itself in a new and advantageous position as compared to the PA/Fateh, whose failure to provide any real succour to the people of Gaza and whose dedication to a negotiated settlement seems to be totally incongruous with what is actually happening on the ground.   

Unless it takes on a totally unforeseen trajectory, the Gaza war may also revive Hamas’s political presence on the Palestinian scene generally and help to reinsert Gaza into the Palestinian/Israeli equation; it is also likely to fortify all those on both sides who are opposed to a political solution or who doubt its very possibility.

Even in the very unlikely event of a return to serious PA/PLO-Israeli final status negotiations, the prospects of an agreement that is capable of addressing both Israeli security concerns and Palestinian sovereign expectations must thus now be very dim indeed, and with them the very notion of an implementable and sustainable two-state solution.  While the obituary of the two-state solution has been written many times before, often prematurely, the conflict and its regional context may now be taking a different historic turn.

With the rising activism and national assertion of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel, Israel’s Arab citizens in Haifa, Nazareth and Jerusalem are beginning to act as a partner to the broader national struggle, as evident from the protests that have accompanied the killing of the youth Mohammad Abu Khdeir and the latest assault on Gaza. This process is still very much in its infancy but its rising trajectory has been evident ever since the Israeli police killed 13 Arab citizens in 2000 during their protests against the suppression of their Palestinian compatriots in the second post-200 intifada.

The radicalization of Israel’s Palestinian Arab population may still be marginal but it is one of the more significant emerging trends in the conflict. A similar process of national and ethnic inversion has also been taking place on the Jewish side of the divide, with a more strident and less inhibited display of open hostility, if not hatred, towards the Arabs that has been widely reflected in the social media during the latest Gaza war, [5] and in the emergence of street thugs drawing on the broader phenomenon of settler ‘price tag’ attacks and racist mobilization against the Arabs in general.

This is just a partial reflection of the steady growth of the national/ religious camp in Israel over the past couple of decades and its now pervasive influence in the ruling coalition, the Knesset, the general political scene, and the military establishment.

The convergence between a Gaza/Hamas re-assertiveness, Palestinian activism within the Green Line, the failure of Abbas’ Fateh/PLO negotiating line, and growing West Bank disaffection may be creating a new Palestinian ‘unity of condition’ that goes beyond the traditional fissures and fractures of Palestinian politics and society. This seems fated to come up against an Israel that is apparently bent on asserting its ‘Jewishness’ and is in national /ethnic retreat from its more secular past, and where the security dimension has become even more sanctified, with less and less margin for compromise or potential mitigation.  

This shift in the structure of the conflict, if true, is necessarily tentative and in its very first beginnings. It has its antecedents, of course, and its origins are deeply embedded in the layers of history that have preceded it. It may yet be reversible or remain latent for a long time to come. But this should not deny its more immediate relevance or potential impact on the future.

Rather than an  ‘end to occupation’, ‘self-determination’ and ‘an independent state in West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem’, we may now be moving more towards a renewed conflict or struggle over the entire land of Palestine/Israel between various manifestations of Palestinian nationalism on the one hand and Zionism on the other.  

The failure of partition in any of its proposed forms up to and including the different variants of a two-state solution could well lead us willingly or otherwise back to the full-scale national/ethnic and ideological conflict over the Holy land as we knew it in the twenties, thirties and forties, but in clearly different circumstances. The outlook of such a struggle is not an automatic or necessary transition to a unitary or a bi-national state as some may hope and others may fear, but more towards a protracted period of patchy and recurrent civil and ethnic strife between Arab and Jew with no evident resolution one way or another.

In this respect what is taking shape in Palestine may not be too different from what is happening elsewhere in the surrounding region where ethnic and religious/confessional conflicts have challenged both the national state-system and the political structures that developed out of the colonial era.

The collapse of the Levantine nation-state and the Islamist jihadist challenge along with the Shiite/Sunni divide are all part of Palestine/Israel’s politico-strategic landscape. 

Yesterday’s remedies such as partition and ‘independent statehood’ may no longer fit the nature of tomorrow’s struggle, although it may still be very hard to see what will replace them. 

[1] See J.J Goldberg

[2] Israel spent 1.3 billion shekels (around $400m) preparing for the Gaza War,7340,L-4546133, 00.html

[3] See long and detailed report by Barak Ravid, Haaretz, July 5th 2014.

[4] See Netanyahu finally speaks his mind | The Times of Israel, July 13th 2014

[5] See for instance the extraordinary outpouring of racist comments on Facebook (largely from young Israelis) compiled here.

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