Massive pro-democracy protests against attempts to undermine the judiciary might be rocking Israel, possibly marking “a crack in the wall” of the Jewish state, as some observers suggest. But on the other side of the barbed wire, 5.4 million Palestinians who live under Israel’s apartheid regime have only ever known the brutal force of settler colonialism since 1948.
It is a reality that a minority anti-occupation bloc in Israel has been calling out, highlighting the contradiction between the country’s pro-democracy protests, essentially led by former military figures and politicians responsible for the military dictatorship imposed on the Palestinians, and Palestinian lives under occupation.
In the Palestinian Territories occupied by Israel since 1967, Zionist settlers have been carrying out pogroms, burning a Palestinian home near Nablus on Sunday while the residents slept inside, for example, and the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) have been pursuing deadly night raids to flush out resistance groups, committing massacres and wanton destruction in the process. The ultra-right-wing Israeli government is openly authorising the expansion of illegal settlements on Palestinian land.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Nakba, or the “Palestinian Catastrophe,” when Israel was created on 15 May 1948 following a series of massacres, forced displacements, and the dispossession of 700,000 Palestinians (85 per cent of the population). Nineteen years later, Israel occupied and annexed the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem in the 1967 War, capturing Syria’s Golan Heights and Egypt’s Sinai, which was liberated in 1982.
While anniversaries do not in themselves carry new meanings or realities, in its 75th year, the Nakba is being recalled to describe the recent surge in Israeli military and settler violence against the Palestinians and their continued dispossession. The Palestinians, on the other hand, are rallying behind new and emerging resistance groups in the West Bank, not Gaza, targeting Israeli soldiers and settlers.
While many in Palestine and across the region are celebrating the resurgence of resistance groups such as the Lion’s Den and the Jenin Brigades for their retaliation against Israeli violence, the bigger picture is often lost in the news cycle as is keeping tabs on the casualties. What do the growing number of Palestinian “lone-wolf” attacks on Israelis mean? What will come next for a new generation of angry Palestinians that grew up to the reality of the failed two-state solution and has no faith in diplomacy?
Are we seeing the signs of a new Intifada, as the Palestinian polls suggest, or is it a new Nakba, as the Israeli government adopts policies that translate into genocide and the mass expulsion of the Palestinians?
“It is very hard to analyse this period because it’s a transitional period,” says Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute and author of 'Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians from Balfour to Trump'.
Elgindy, one of the most reputable Palestine experts in Washington, made a name for himself during the years when he was an adviser to the Palestinian leadership during the eventful years between 2004 and 2009. He witnessed Israel’s 2005 evacuation of Gaza, Hamas’ 2006 election, the Civil War with Fatah that followed, the Annapolis negotiations in 2007-08, and Israel’s war on Gaza in December 2008.
I ask him if the cycle of violence in the Occupied Territories could be a ripple effect of the 2021 events in the East Jerusalem district of Sheikh Jarrah, when nationwide Palestinian protests, including in defiant Arab areas inside the Green Line, erupted against the Israeli court evictions of 13 Palestinian families from their homes to be replaced with Jewish settlements.
“I think it’s very hard to draw a line through these dates, [although] it does seem that there’s a common thread. What is different now is that you have an armed insurgency in the northern West Bank in places like Jenin and Nablus [by] new groups like the Lion’s Den and the Jenin Brigades,” Elgindy said.
A lot of these activists belong to different factions like Fatah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, working together under a new umbrella but not a cohesive leadership, he says. “This is ad hoc violence by several dozen armed men, not a large military force, in different places, but not directed and organised.”
The influence of these new groups is served by the fact that the two main factions, Fatah and Hamas, have been, in Elgindy’s words, “neutralised and contained in their own areas.” Hamas’ arrangement with Israel in August 2022 allowed work permits to be issued to workers in Gaza to work in Israel with a few less restrictions on the 16-year-old blockade.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority (PA) “are completely neutralised in Area A (18 per cent of the West Bank) and are in fact shrinking and losing control over major urban areas like Nablus and Jenin,” Elgindy said.
For the Palestinians, they see that the PA is committed to security cooperation and intelligence-sharing with Israel, despite claims this has been suspended over the violence, and it continues to communicate with the US coordinator on the ground.
The PA does not want to see another Intifada, “but they also do nothing to protect Palestinians from the settlers and the army. So, what we’re seeing in Jenin and Nablus is basically people taking matters into their own hands and trying to fill that vacuum. Whenever we see these armed groups, they are emerging in places where the PA is losing control, or has already lost control,” Elgindy said.
Although they were not sustained, the protests triggered in Sheikh Jarrah in 2021, which the Palestinians called a Unity Intifada, were alarming for the Israelis, “who have since redoubled their efforts to keep the Palestinians fragmented: politically, physically and otherwise.”
Despite their organisational shortcomings, recent polls by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, a think tank, show that 68 per cent of Palestinians support the formation of armed resistance groups and 87 per cent reject the PA’s efforts to arrest them, while support for a two-state solution has dropped to 27 per cent.
“I think public opinion is very important because we are now in a moment when armed resistance is quite popular, in large part because of the complete failure of the diplomatic process and the bankruptcy of the PA leadership to provide not just a political horizon but even basic safety for their people.”
The new generation of young Palestinians are different from their parents, Elgindy observes, because they do not remember the 2002-2003 Intifada. “These were the bad years when the Palestinians paid a very heavy price for an armed uprising that was extremely violent and destructive. They don’t remember any of that, so that helps in terms of not being fully aware of the risks.”
“It’s cyclical. It’s almost every 20 years where you have a new generation that emerges that wants to do things differently. But you still need political leadership and direction. But right now, what is the Lion’s Den and what are their political demands? Do we know? Is it just to stop the [Israeli Occupation] army incursions every night? Is that enough? Or is to end the occupation? How? What’s the political dynamic that it is pushing?”
“Of course, they don’t have any real demands. I think their goal is, if we’re going to pay a cost, then we will inflict the cost on the Israeli side. If we’re going to die we’re going to make sure that Israelis also die, though not in the same numbers obviously because we don’t have the same capacity.”
Elgindy reminds us that an Intifada has to have a political programme. The first Intifada (1987-1993) opened a political space that created a political process, empowering the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) leadership, which was becoming irrelevant, to take up a position.
Even the second Intifada, as violent as it was, opened up a political process. “We had the Quartet [the international diplomatic entity mediating between both sides], the Road Map, and clearly articulated steps that were needed to move towards a Palestinian state. They were then completely abandoned, and the Road Map was aborted, but there was a political process, and there was a horizon that was inserted.”
“Right now, there is nothing,” Elgindy said. “There is no horizon, and there is no attempt to make a horizon. There is no political initiative by the Palestinian leadership, and there is nothing from the international community, forget about the United States. Never mind the great powers, they’re busy doing other things. And forget the Arab states also.”
“So, where is the political initiative going to come from? It’s not coming from any of the Palestinian actors and certainly not coming from the region. So, what is the purpose of this violence and what is it pushing towards?”
The Lion’s Den and their supporters may not have agency, but isn’t this about just existing and fighting back? Israel has killed over 90 Palestinians in 2023 so far.
“I understand why someone picks up a gun to attack the settlers or soldiers, when he sees his leadership totally incapable of protecting him and his family. It’s a basic expectation: your government will protect you from outside threats. But there’s a difference between explaining it in a rational way and whether that is going to be effective. That is a different calculation,” Elgindy said.
“You have to have a political programme, leadership, and a political organisation if you want to have a sustained or a successful uprising,” he urges. “It’s pretty basic, whether it’s armed or unarmed: you need political and operational coherence.”
Israel’s mission, like that of any colonial power, has been to spend the last 20 years destroying any semblance of Palestinian cohesiveness, physically and materially, and to divide and rule.
Recent polls also show that for the first time a majority of Palestinians find that the dismantling or collapse of the Palestinian Authority is in their interest.
END OF AN ERA
Elgindy’s portrayal of the PA and its octogenarian president is that of the end of an era.
Founded in 1994 as the two-state solution track took off, the PA is now in a state of “slow-motion collapse,” says Elgindy. In the last 10 years, the PA has lost 85 per cent of its international donor funds, as well as losing control on the ground.
“Nobody is paying attention to them: they have very few allies in the region, and they’re physically shrinking. They can’t pay salaries – teachers and lawyers are on strike – so Abbas’ main goal now is seeking money to keep his authority functioning. It is not about a political programme and statehood or liberation. It’s just survival.”
The Palestinians have two options, he says: either reform the institutions and bring in the whole population and create a truly representative political body, which would mean both Hamas and the PLO, or replace the old structures and build new ones.
“This is not an overnight project. I’ve written many times that the next Intifada, when and if it happens, will be as much directed at their own leadership as at the occupation. And it could be something more like what the Palestinians saw in 1936: the Great Arab Revolt during the British mandate in Palestine, which wasn’t just against the British and Zionists, but it also swept away the totally bankrupt leadership of semi-feudal notables at the time.”
The revolt was a direct outcome of the influx of immigrant Jews to Palestine, which was encouraged by the British mandate (1920-1948), soaring from 57,000 to 320,000 by 1935.
Today, “we are at the end of one paradigm in which we talked about two states, Resolution 242, land for peace, the Peace Process, Oslo, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas, and all of these things were relevant in that framework. Now we’re moving towards an entirely different framework where those things aren’t relevant.”
“The old order is dead, but the new order or alternative vision hasn’t been articulated. Support for a two-state solution has almost collapsed, and even in the West Bank and Gaza, which were the primary constituency that supported a Palestinian state in 1967, now a plurality of Palestinians no longer support the two-state solution,” Elgindy said.
Who can you name in the Palestinian political arena that is championing the cause of the one-state solution, he asks. “Nobody. The two-state solution is dead, but what has filled its place ideologically? Nobody knows.”
In this almost nihilistic moment, it is difficult to ignore the small anti-occupation bloc in Israel that became visible in the protest movement and is advancing a narrative questioning democracy under the Israeli military occupation. Should it be part of the conversation?
“I think there is a segment of Israelis that is realising the link between what is happening in their own country, from their own government, and just across the Green Line. They’re finally starting to see the connection when you had 55 years of military dictatorship where this is no rule of law.”
“The rule of law is basically whatever the military decides – arbitrary arrests, people lose their land, people have basically no rights. And that system was sustained by the left, right and centre governments in Israel.”
“It was only a matter of time before that disease infected the rest of Israel itself. It was never possible to keep an area that is a shining democracy for Jews but an oppressive dictatorship for millions of Palestinians. How long could you keep that wall and keep that quarantine? You can’t.”
What’s really behind the present attempt to destroy the independence of the judiciary in Israel, explains Elgindy, is in large part the settler movement that does not want restrictions and constraints on their expansion. In theory, rather than in practice, such restrictions are coming from the Israeli Supreme Court, which they want to eliminate.”
“A lot of Israelis are realising this organic connection, but not enough of them. But then again the Israelis are like the Palestinians and are going to have to go through a generational debate about where this goes. I think if there’s a future where Palestinians and Israelis have equality in any form, then obviously you need to have a constituency in both places. And maybe what comes out of these protests will be an expansion of that constituency on the Israeli side as more and more people realise the connection.”
The crisis should also be triggering questions about the nature of Israel’s constitutional crisis. “Why is Israel facing a constitutional crisis? Because they don’t have a constitution. Why? They couldn’t have a constitution that enshrined basic rights when Israel was created in 1948, because what do you do with the captive Palestinian minority?”
Palestinians who became Israeli citizens in 1948 were put under martial law for 18 years until 1966.
“Now that original sin is coming back to haunt them,” Elgindy said. “All of the excuses and loopholes that were created to maintain the illusion of Israel as a democracy are now falling apart.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly