By Penny Cole
The widespread Palestinian revolt in response to threatened evictions in East Jerusalem, the attack on Al-Aqsa worshippers, the destruction of homes, farms and olive groves and the barbarous attack on Gaza is an uprising for democracy and against colonisation.
This is a bottom-up movement – it was initiated neither by Hamas nor Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian National Authority on the West Bank nor by any of the Arab parties in Israel. Most significantly, it marks the final nail in the coffin of the so-called two-state “solution” and puts the idea of a single state firmly on the agenda.
The apartheid laws depriving Arab citizens of rights they previously enjoyed, and unbearable discrimination against Arabs in every walk of life, led to mass resistance, with street protests in every City, which began as far back as last October.
There was fighting in 20 cities including Nazareth, Haifa, Jaffa, Lydd, Tayba and Sakhnin leading to curfews. No surprise that the police repressed the Arab protesters but in general left alone right-wing and settler mobs, summoned to attack protestors through social media. So far 116 people have been charged – all of them Arabs.
Jamal Zahalka, President of the National Democratic Alliance, says life is being made unbearable for Arab Israeli citizens. They worry all the time about being attacked if they shop in Israeli malls, use public transport or stop to fill up their cars at petrol stations, he explains:
“This is not a civil war. It is an Israeli war on us… The Palestinians inside Israel do not have an organised power, nor police and weapons to defend themselves against armed police and settlers.”
A general strike by Palestinians – both Israeli citizens and those who travel to work from the occupied territories – brought construction and delivery services to a standstill. Employees of the Palestinian National Authority on the West Bank joined the strike, taking the opportunity to protest against their own corrupt and undemocratic government led by Fatah.
Palestinians make up 50% of all pharmacists, transport and construction workers in Israel, and 11% of civil servants and members of the police. There are 13,000 nurses and 8,140 doctors, about 22% of the total. Some 29,000 Palestinian citizens work in tech, making up 9.2% of employees in the sector so crucial to the Israeli economy.
Inside and outside Israel, usually supportive commentators are clear that this is a turning point. Haaretz’s editorial called the attacks on Gaza the most failed and pointless border war in Israel’s history.
The Jerusalm Post writes: “Hamas has achieved what it has called for in statement after statement in recent years: unity through hatred. It has united communities from Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank and even Israel in fear and in rage against the State of Israel. In the meantime, Israel stands divided, torn by political strife, instability and infighting.”
The Israeli state is in deep crisis, after this year’s indecisive elections. Settler colonialists are running out of control – even out of control of the Israeli government. The legal claim going through the Israeli courts to evict Arabs in East Jerusalem and seize their homes – is being made by a company based in New York. This is becoming about real estate, land and economic power as much as religion or homeland – the court has put the decision about the six families in Sheikh Jarrah on hold for the time being.
The Netanyahu era is coming to an end, with Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party, invited to form a coalition after Netanyahu (who is facing corruption charges) could not put together a Knesset majority. Polls show that the bombing of Gaza actually decreased Netanyahu’s support. This is not to give any impression that the replacement of Netanyahu with Lapid would be any improvement. He is a violent racist, who has encouraged the Israeli public to “shoot to kill” when confronted with an alleged attacker. “Don’t hesitate, even when an incident just starts, shooting to kill is the right thing to do,” Lapid said. “The directives should specify shooting to kill when anyone pulls out a knife or screwdriver or whatever.”
So it is not surprising that the generation of Black Lives Matter in many countries are turning away from such racist hate speech and supporting the Palestinian cause. Indeed most shocking for the Israeli élite and its supporters has been the size and political nature of large protests across the West against the evictions, attack on worshippers and the bombing of Gaza.
It was also important that organisations like the Palestine Solidarity Campaign condemned incidents of anti-Semitism following a big London demonstration recently. Lumping together the Israeli state and its leadership with Jews inside and outside the country is utterly wrong and reactionary.
The Guardian’s pro-Israel commentator Jonathan Freedland asked if a turning point has been reached in the way the Israel/Palestine conflict is seen in the west. “For a loud and influential segment of opinion, it is being reframed not as a national conflict of competing claims, but as a straightforward matter of racial justice. Note the placards at last weekend’s demonstration in London: Palestine Can’t Breath and Palestinian Lives Matter.
This perception was repeated in the Washington Post in an article headed: ‘From Ferguson to Palestine’: How Black Lives Matter changed the U.S. debate on the Mideast. They report that Black Lives Matter activists took to the streets of Indianapolis to protest for Palestinians and that the official Black Lives Matter organisation called for Palestinian liberation. “Whatever the aftermath of the violence in the region, it has starkly changed the Israeli-Palestinian debate in the United States, shifting it for many liberals from a tangled dispute over ancient, often-confusing claims to the far more familiar turf of police brutality and racial conflict.”
There were also an impressive number of protests by American Jews, organised by Jewish Voice for Peace. At a rally in New York, Asif Calderon, an Israeli citizen, told the protestors: “There are more and more and more Jews, and more American Jews who stand up against Israel’s suppression of the Palestinian people.”
What is lacking, as the Post article points out, is a coherent strategy for a resolution to this conflict. Yes, Palestinian lives matter – but that is not the totality of the issue. The Israeli state in its present form is facing an insoluble problem and this is what is driving its crisis and conflict.
Must it simply continue as an occupying power in perpetuity, with the illegal settlements as militarised outposts and occasional bombardments, plus continuing inequality for Arab citizens, plus a creeping occupation of East Jerusalem, whose inhabitants are to go where precisely?
Should they go that final step to “Greater Israel” and simply annexe the West Bank and Gaza? But what would that mean in terms of the “Jewish State”. Israel’s population is about 9.2 million; almost 2 million of them not Jewish. Arab Israeli citizens make up 20% of the population. There are nearly 3 million Palestinians living on the West Bank and a further 2 million in Gaza. Could you have a state where almost a half of the citizens are second class? Is that not an apartheid state?
It is notable that not one single serious commentator – either inside or outside Israel – mentioned the possibility of implementing the “two-state solution” – because it is simply not on the geopolitical horizon. It is the zombie solution – the undead policy.
A recent poll found that only 14% of Israeli citizens believe that their state intends to seek a two-state solution. The same poll found that 25% of Jewish Israelis believe that theirs is correctly described as an apartheid state.
But politicians like President Biden, his secretary of state Blinken, prime minister Johnson and Labour leader Keir Starmer must continue to tout “two states”, as cover. They are ready to let Israel continue on its present course for as long as it chooses. Their concern is not for ordinary Israelis of course – it is military, geopolitical and economic reasons that make them continue to claim there is life in the zombie solution yet.
Israel is a wealthy country, but it is also an increasingly unequal country. A report from the National Insurance Department shows that the standard of living of families in Israel fell by a considerable 22.7% in 2020, with the main victims being of the middle class. Even before the pandemic, poverty was growing. In 2019, 20.4% (35.8% of the Arab citizens) were living below the poverty line. Child poverty climbed by two percentage points, from 27.1% to 29.1% and there was an increase in the number of poor elderly people.
And what about the Palestinian side? It is reported that Hamas and Fatah have agreed on a “unified field leadership” comprising all factions that will lead “comprehensive popular resistance” against the Israeli occupation. But to what end? A new intifada must have a clear goal.
Only a leadership that unifies Arabs both inside Israel and the Occupied Territories has any moral right to lead. Fatah is increasingly corrupt, with its ageing leadership having no vision beyond policing their own population trapped in a miserable and improverished enclave, itself a kind of zombie state, where they increasingly use available resources to reward their friends. They cancelled the elections due to be held in May, using the crisis as an excuse. But of course it was because they knew they would lose and Hamas would win.
For Hamas, victory in the elections (when/if they do happen) will bring a deeper set of problems. What exactly is their policy? They can go on saying they don’t recognise the state of Israel for ever, and that will suit the Israelis just fine. It makes them also into a geopolitical tool, with their patrons in Iran and Lebanon having no concern whatsoever for the future and rights of the Palestinian people.
Of course those who accuse Hamas of “war crimes” because they fire rockets into Israel are guilty of making an entirely false equivalence. Self-defence is no offence and there is the issue of proportionality. Israel has the most modern army in the world, equipped with the latest weapons. They are using those weapons on a civilian population who can’t leave or hide. Hamas are manufacturing missiles out of smuggled bits in tunnels under the Gaza strip.
But at the same time, you have to ask where is Hamas’ policy taking the Palestinian people? There is no possibility of achieving a military defeat of Israel.
Increasingly, people who really think about it know that only the formation of a new democratic, secular state of Palestine, within the old Palestinian borders, can resolve the conflict and open up opportunities for a better, more peaceful life for all.
For a bit of history, this is a statement that was issued in 1969 by Fatah. Fatah was a social democratic secular Palestinian organisation founded in 1959 by Yassir Arafat (Abu Ammar) and Khalil Al-Wazir (Abu Jihad) and others:
There is a large Jewish population in Palestine and it has grown considerably in the last twenty years. We recognise that it has the right to live there and that it is part of the Palestinian people. We reject the formula that the Jews must be driven into the sea. If we are fighting a Jewish state of a racial kind, which has driven the Arabs out of their lands, it is not so as to replace it with an Arab state which would in turn drive out the Jews. What we want to create in the historical borders of Palestine is a multi-racial democratic state – a state without any hegemony, in which everyone, Jew, Christian or Muslim will enjoy full civic rights.”
Well, at that time Fatah was an isolated voice. The Arab states did not support them; the West did not support them; the Soviet Union did not support them, all for their own reasons which had little to do with Palestinian rights or a homeland for the Jews. Tragically, the authors of this profoundly liberal, secular, positive and achievable proposition were mostly assassinated by Israeli agents.
But it is a statement that remains true today. The proposition for a One State Solution is gathering support and its time has come. Key people are changing sides. The leading Jewish intellectual, writer and editor Peter Beinart wrote in a pretty dramatic essay published in Jewish Currents last year:
“The painful truth is that the project to which liberal Zionists like myself have devoted ourselves for decades — a state for Palestinians separated from a state for Jews — has failed.” He called on interested parties to work toward a single state in the Middle East that would protect the rights of Israeli Jews and Palestinians alike.
And in May this year, he published a second essay arguing that the Jewish right to return home should also apply to Palestinians. “If Palestinians have no right to return to their homeland,” he wrote, “neither do we.”
A poll of 2000 registered voters in the US conducted by Electronic Intifada found that in the 18-34 age group, just 15% favored Israelis, while 18% sympathized more with the Palestinians. Twenty-nine percent said they stood with “both”. A mere 12% of Democratic voters said their sympathy lay more with Israelis, while 18% stood with the Palestinians. More than a third of Democrats – 36% – opted for “both”.
I think we can read that as the beginnings of support for a one state solution; and even though that may seem impossible at present a way of actualising it may be nearer than we think. When the South African apartheid state tumbled into history, its racism was undiminshed. But as a state, it was no longer sustainable not only because of sanctions but also because it had become a pariah state in the world.
A recent poll by the Israeli Human Rights Centre B’Tselem found that a quarter of Jewish Israelis think it is fair to describe Israel as an apartheid state. The same poll found that 47% thought the Nation State Basic Law establishing Jewish supremacy should be repealed. Some 21% of Jewish citizens thought that if the West Bank was annexed into Israel, the Palestinian inhabitants should have the same rights as other citizens. It’s a small number, but it is a foundation.
To an increasing number of people Israel has also now become a pariah state – but that does not need to mean that Jews should abandon it as their homeland. They just have to share it, in a historic compromise that can and must put an end to war, occupation and the abuse of human rights. It won’t be easy – but it is the only way forward for both sides.
Of course the One State Solution must not be simply a move to normalising the occupation, but a leap forward to a new and very different state. As Ali Abunimah writes in his book “One Country”, after quoting the Fatah statement from 1969 included above:
“But if a single state was unthinkable in the past, many of the conditions that made it so have changed. Perhaps the most important is that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians now understand that the other community is here to stay.
“The main attraction of a single state democracy is that it allows all the people to live in and enjoy the entire country while preserving their distinctive communities and addressing their particular needs. It offers the potential to deterritorialise the conflict and neutralise demographically ethnicity as a source of political power and legitimacy.”
What is urgently required now to push forward the project for a real democracy in the area is a new Palestinian leadership that appeals for unity with the Jews of Israel and in the UK, United States and elsewhere as the basis for a single, secular state. That would fulfil the aspirations of the countless Palestinians who joined the uprising and be the best way to remember the many killed by Israeli bombs.