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Israel's protests were an opportunity Palestinians couldn't take
Palestinian leadership has been crushed and divided too much to take advantage of Israelis' growing discontent with the status quo.
The unprecedented weeks of unrest in Israel were a golden opportunity for Palestinians to press their claims. The Palestinian national movement, crushed from the outside and divided from the inside, could not do so.
A right-wing government took power in Israel after the November 2022 elections, and quickly set out trying to neuter the Supreme Court. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, facing corruption charges, is waging a personal war against the judicial system. His coalition partners, meanwhile, see the courts as an obstacle to their ambitious nationalist and religious agenda.
It is quite clear what that agenda means for Palestinians. As liberal Israelis protested against the court law, right-wing Israelis burned down the Palestinian town of Huwara in a riot. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich argued that the state itself should destroy Huwara, then took back his comments, then argued that Palestinians are a fake people with no national rights.
Facing a general strike — including a mutiny within the army reserves — Netanyahu suspended the legislation on Monday. He promised to come back to it in a month, and threw a bone to his partners by creating a “national guard” under the control of far-right Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir. During a right-wing counterprotest, Israeli nationalists beat up Palestinian passerby.
Although the unrest is about Palestinians, the debate happened without their voices. Palestinian citizens of Israel largely sat out the protests. It came down to a tiny “anti-occupation bloc” of Israeli Jewish leftists to bring up the Palestinian issue. For the most part, the protesters were Israeli Jews waving Israeli flags talking about the future of Israel.
Palestinians and their foreign supporters seemed to feel that they had little role to play in the unrest. Some dismissed it as an “internal” dispute that has nothing to do with Palestinians, a line that Palestinian Authority prime minister Muhammad Shtayyeh echoed. Arab media ran wall-to-wall coverage of the unrest, but often with the implication that Palestinians could sit back and watch Israel unravel itself.
Both reactions are an expression of impotence. A crisis within Israeli society would be the perfect time for Palestinians to exert pressure and make demands. From the 1980s to early 2000s, a combination of external pressure and internal discontent forced Israel to cede ground. Today there is no Palestinian national leadership that can similarly seize the moment.
And so Palestinians must wait and see how these Israeli debates play out from a distance.
The Palestinian Authority, which is supposed to represent Palestinians diplomatically, is weak and dependent on Israel for security. It is stuck between defending its last bits of legitimacy and fending off wildcat guerrillas like the Lion’s Den. Factions are already gearing up to fight each other the day the whole thing falls apart.
Many of the wildcat guerrilla operations have been random acts of violence against Israeli civilians, a sign of desperation and poor discipline.
Hamas and its allies in Gaza wield a stronger conventional military force, and conventional warfare is where Israel has the greatest advantage. Gazans are still reeling from massive damage Israel inflicted during the last war. Besides, Hamas is considered a radical spoiler by outsiders, which prevents it from speaking for Palestinians diplomatically.
Palestinians in Israel proper and East Jerusalem live as a vulnerable minority. They can work within the Israeli political system, which means watering down nationalist demands and acting as a junior partner to Israeli Jewish parties. Jerusalemites are especially vulnerable because they are born with a temporary residency that Israeli authorities can easily take away.
This situation is largely the product of a bitter dispute betwren Palestinian parties. After Hamas won elections to lead the Palestinian Authority in 2006, the ruling Fatah party staged a bloody internal coup d’etat. The fighting killed hundreds of Palestinians, fractured Palestinian institutions between the West Bank and Gaza, and traumatized a generation of Palestinian leaders into paranoia.
Arguably the roots of the problem go back earlier. Israel created the Palestinian Authority as a concession after the Palestinian uprisings of the 1990s. But it handed the keys to the Palestine Liberation Organization — a diaspora-based group on the decline — rather than the grassroots leadership that was emerging inside Palestine proper.
Effective Israeli suppression helps keep new Palestinian leadership from arising. A system of checkpoints and surveillance controls the flow of Palestinians between the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem, and Israel proper. Israel blocks Jerusalemites from participating in Palestinian Authority elections. Israeli military raids kill, imprison, or drive into hiding guerrillas who are capable of challenging the Palestinian Authority.
U.S. pressure also helps secure Palestinian weakness. The United States backed the coup d’etat in 2006, and quietly uses the threat of sanctions to prevent the Palestinian Authority from reconciling with Hamas. U.S. military aid helps the Palestinian Authority crush internal challengers, while U.S. policy is to prevent Palestine from gaining external diplomatic recognition.
The uprisings of May 2021 were a crack in the stalemate. Palestinians in Jerusalem, Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel proper all participated in different ways, and reacted to attacks against each other. It created a lasting sense of unity outside the established Palestinian parties. More recently, Palestinian Jerusalemites have gone on strike in solidarity with West Bankers, and vice versa.
These actions have been very decentralized so far, reacting to Israeli actions and following social media dynamics rather than advancing a proactive strategy. (Opposition movements around the world face the same problems.) While grassroots action can lead to more organized leadership, that process is still in its earliest stages.
As in the 1990s, the status quo has become unsustainable and is starting to impose costs on Israeli society. Unlike the 1990s, the Israeli public does not see Palestinians as an actor to engage with, but an object to fight over. Israeli factions do not even have to mention the word “Palestinian,” which remains a subtext rather than a subject.
Israeli liberals often complain that they have no “partner for peace” on the other side. And they’re right. There is no Palestinian leader who can credibly issue demands, offer compromises, or generally make decisions on behalf of the whole nation.
The Israeli leadership prefers it this way. It chops up the Palestinian question into smaller security issues, each of which can be managed by technical-military means or by “mowing the lawn” every so often.
Any Israeli concessions at the moment will be voluntary and come from a position of strength. Palestinians are at the mercy of another nation’s internal politics. It’s a very dangerous place for a people to be — as Israelis themselves will be the first to emphasize.
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Banner image: The first demonstration against Netanyahu’s judicial bill in Habima Square, Tel Aviv. 7 January 2023. Wikimedia/Oren Rozen.
The purple placards are from Standing Together, a movement that brings together Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel. They read “the settler government is against me.”
All photos from Wikimedia were shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 international license.