In the Civil Rights movement of the Fifties and Sixties, a gospel song “I Shall Not Be Moved” became popular as “We Shall Not Be Moved”. The songs were based on Jeremiah 17:7-8, “…he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out her roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit.” The song signified the steadfastness of African Americans in their struggle to gain their rights. It was no coincidence that black leaders like Martin Luther King and Malcom X were among the first Americans to recognize the Palestinian struggle as akin to theirs.
Since that time the resolve of the Palestinians to live on the land that is rightly theirs, despite all the Israeli efforts to dislodge them and drive them out, has never wavered. Just as the long struggle of African Americans has persisted since in the face white resistance which has employed an evolving array of tactics to block their way, ‘voting reform, being only the last.
For both peoples their simple determination to win their rights remains their greatest strength.
Since 2010-2011the Palestinian struggle has been overshadowed by the upheavals in the Middle East that began then, the revolutions, stalled revolutions, and civil wars. Now, with what seem to be likely the first Palestinian elections in fifteen years—and the recent still inconclusive Israeli elections—that conflict is back in the news. Intractable, it is often called. But recent events, both inside the region and outside it, suggest that significant changes in that conflict may be coming. A change in the long-stalled situation may be as significant as those that followed the Ramadan War of 1973 or the Intifadas of the 1990s.
A number of articles about the upcoming elections have focused on the political divisions among the Palestinians. Without a doubt, those divisions—foremost, the Fatah-Hamas divide—have hobbled their cause. Those divisions are real and complicated. The essay that follows is an attempt to consider recent events in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza in light of regional and international events that I think are changing the terms of conflict and working in favor of the Palestinian cause.
I think that recent events show that Israeli actions show increasing desperation because Israeli politicians recognize that the tide of history is turning against them. Time is running out for the Zionist project.
The first of these events the subject of an article by Raouf Halaby, “Israelis, In God’s Name, Why?” that appeared in CounterPunch in February. Halaby’s article described how the Israeli military obliterated a nature reserve that Palestinians created eight years ago. The ninety-eight acre reserve is—or was located until January 27—in Ainun which is part of Tubas a town in the northeastern West Bank. The nature reserve was a “Greening of Palestine” project overseen by the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture. Palestinians had planted the 400 dunams—about 98 acres, that is—with over 10,000 trees. Among them were several hundred olive trees. Olive oil is the main source of income in the West Bank, and olive trees have a special significance in Palestinian society. They take a long time to mature and bear olives, and they live a long time. Sometimes for hundreds of years.
On January 27 the Israeli military bulldozed and uprooted the trees. The reason given by the Israeli military was that the reserve was on land classed as a “military zone.” How that distinguishes that 98 acres from the rest of the West Bank that has been under military occupation since 1967 is unclear. One thing that is clear is why the IDF chose that date. The UN has designated January 27 as Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Apologists for Israel, who over the years have heaped all the blame for conflict on the Palestinians. Nothing could be further from the truth. What is true is that no Israeli government—Labor or Likud or whatever—has ever ceased to take every opportunity to frustrate the Palestinians’ cause and to obfuscate the basic issue of the conflict. Israel wants the Palestinians’ land. And no matter what treaties, protocols, agreements, memoranda Israel has signed since 1976, it has continued to steal their land in the hope that the Palestinians will at some point simply throw up their hands and abandon their land. The means Israel has used to do so are various: ideological, judicial, economic, civil and military. The assault on the Palestinians’ rights is done against them en masse and as individuals—no prick or slight is too trivial.
The IDF destroys farms to steal land. But it goes further by uprooting and destroying the trees, especially olive trees. The goal is not merely to destroy people’s income but to violate their identity. As though by uprooting olive trees from the earth they can obliterate the very word ‘Palestine’ from people’s minds and therefore that it is a place where a people live and lived before there was a state called ‘Israel.’
The world outside takes little notice but small towns and villages are likewise being destroyed and recently the pace of destruction has quickened. In November the military destroyed an entire village. Like the nature reserve it was designated by the IDF as a “military area.” According to B’Tselem, an Israeli peace group, a total of 74 people were displaced, more than half of them minors. The bulldozers and diggers also demolished sheds used as livestock enclosures, portable toilets, water containers and solar panels, on top of confiscating vehicles and tractors belonging to some of the residents.
On the other hand, the lengths the Israeli military will go to in order to punish even a single person is worth mentioning. Last May the IDF raided the West Bank village of Yabed in a routine sweep. The soldiers came—as they usually do—in armored cars, wearing bulletproof vests, helmets and carrying guns. And the villagers responded as they usually do by throwing bricks and stones. According to the IDF a Palestinian named Nazmi Abu Bakr threw a brick which hit an Israeli soldier Amit Ben-Ygal in the head and he later died in a hospital. The IDF wanted to demolish Abu Bakr’s house, but an Israeli court refused permission saying that his wife and eight children should not also be punished. This is unusual. Collective punishment is a war crime but Israel has employed it except for a period when they suspended it between 2005 and 2008. So in this case, being unable to destroy the house, the Israeli military devised a new punishment. They decided to fill Abu Bakr’s bedroom with concrete.
To understand the current context in which these punishments and thefts take place, it is necessary to understand something of what is known as the Oslo II agreement.
In 1995 the Oslo II agreement between Israel and the PLO divided the West Bank into three zones, A, B and C. A is under extensive civil and security control of the Palestinian Authority. As of 2013 it comprised about 18% of the West Bank. B is under Palestinian civil control and in theory joint Israeli-Palestinian security control. As of 2013, it comprised about 22% of the West Bank. C is under full Israeli civil and security control. The difference between “full” control and “extensive” control will soon become apparent. Abu Bakr’s house in Yabed is in area B in the northwestern corner of the West Bank. Whereas the nature reserve in Tubas has since 1995 been in Zone A. Nevertheless, the IDF can still designate tracts of land as under military control, although nominally they are under Palestinian security control. In practical terms this means that under some circumstances when the military wants to punish people in a certain area it must resort to civil courts, whereas they can always resort to the possibility of claiming an area for military use—in which case the Palestinians cannot hope to get a building permit. What this all boils down to is that the Israeli military can destroy damn near anything they want in the West Bank.
Despite the fact that Abu Bakr will be sleeping in a prison cell anyway, and despite the bother for the Israeli military to pour the concrete into his room, it seems no deed that harms a Palestinian is too gratuitous or bothersome for the IDF. Possibly their calculation is that very gratuitousness of the act assures that it will get some attention. Knocking down a house or uprooting olive trees are things the IDF does every day, but how often do they fill up a bedroom with cement? Then again it may simply be the boredom of military life that calls upon their ingenuity.
Destroying a house is not always a one and done matter. On March 1, Israeli authorities destroyed the home of Hatem Hussein Abu Rayaleh in occupied East Jerusalem. It was the fourth time since 1999. Abu Rayaleh was partially paralyzed during the third demolition of his home in 2009, when he fell and broke his spine. That he rebuilt his house a fourth time says something about the Palestinian determination to stay—come what may.
The reason given in each instance was that Abu Rayaleh did not have a building permit. The chances of a Palestinian being granted a building permit in Area C are nil, needless to say. But I’m tired of dealing with the rigmarole of these ABCs—they hardly matter. The only person or agency acting illegally in this case is the Israeli government. It has no more authority to issue building permits in East Jerusalem than it does in East Orange, New Jersey. No country in the world—not even the ever-indulgent US—recognizes East Jerusalem as part of Israel.
Israeli harassment of Palestinians goes to lengths that must seem even to the perpetrators ludicrous and embarrassing. On March 10, Israeli soldiers arrested five Palestinian children near Hebron for picking a wild vegetable akoub. The children ranged from seven to eleven in age. A photo accompanied this article in the Palestine Chronicle on March 10. An Israeli soldier in full combat gear—and wearing a covid mask—hauls away a tiny terrorist who threatens the security of Israel for weaponizing an herb. It is difficult to believe the Palestinians who have shown their resilience and resourcefulness through decades of occupation will be defeated by such stupidity.
So much for crimes against Palestinian property. Or mostly against property since, as the case of Abu Rayaleh shows, sometimes people get hurt when the IDF knocks their homes down. Crimes against individuals should be considered, though here I’ll only take up detention and imprisonment for two reasons. Episodes of violence in any conflict can always be contested. But the fact that Israel imprisons people for years without charges or trials cannot be contested. What’s more, a recent flurry of detentions seems connected with the coming elections.
Stated Israeli policy concerning detentions is that detention without charge or trial is allowed for renewable periods of three to six months. The usual reason given to the press by Israeli authorities is the person is a threat to the security of Israel. Detainees cannot appeal or know what if any specific accusations are being levelled against them. So much for statutes. In fact the supposedly statutory renewal periods are usually ignored and the brute reality is that Palestinians can be imprisoned for the rest of their lives without charges or trials. Imprisonment is meted out in piecemeal extensions. The lives of the detainees are stolen from them in weeks and months even as their country is being stolen from them in parcels of homes, shops, farms and towns.
This is seen in case of Khalida Jarrar. Jarrar is a prominent Palestinian activist and politician. She is a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the PFLP, which was founded George Habash in 1967. The PFLP is a Marxist group that has all along rejected the so-called ‘two-state solution’ to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in favor of a single secular socialist state for all the inhabitants of The West Bank, Gaza and Israel. In the 1970s it carried out terrorist acts—notably a series of hijackings. Though it has not carried out any attacks that killed civilians since 2004, it is still listed as a terrorist group by a number of countries, Israel and the US among them of course. Here I will only note that both of those countries have carried many attacks that are terrorist according to international conventions.
Khalida Jarrar is a ‘recidivist’ even by the generous standards of Israel—she has been arrested fourteen times. She was first arrested in 1989 when she was twenty-six for participating in a demonstration of International Women’s Day. I’ll only mention in passing the irony of this. A constant piece of Israeli propaganda is its progressive attitude about women’s rights as opposed to that of Arab societies. Since that day in 1989 Jarrar has spent at least ten or eleven years in prison.
Her last arrest was in October 2019 and she has been in detention since then. On March 1, a military court extended her imprisonment for two more years for “inciting violence” and “belonging to a terrorist organization.” For good measure she was also ordered to pay a fine of $1300—presumably as a down payment towards the costs of her further detention. She has often been fined even when her appeal to a civilian court has been upheld.
Jarrar’s sentencing this month comes as the Palestinians prepare for their elections, and it seems to be linked to that prospect since she is also a member of the Palestinian parliament, the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), which has been suspended for fifteen years. Presumably the Israeli calculation is that her detention will limit her influence on the elections. But it’s unlikely to prevent her from winning a seat on the Council. But so many Palestinian leaders are in prison that it plays no role in whether people will vote for them or not.
A similar case concerns the administrative detention of Khaled Abu Arafa, the former Palestinian minister of Jerusalem affairs. Israeli security arrested Abu Arafa in November last year after summoning him for interrogation at the Ofer detention center near Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank. Now, on March 4 an Israeli court extended his detention for four more months.
As for the elections, much of the coverage so far focuses, as I’ve said, on the divisions among the Palestinians, not only between Hamas and Fatah, but more importantly within Fatah also. Yet the elections may well prove to be the way that those divisions are overcome. And on this subject one Palestinian leader above all must be mentioned, Marwan Barghouti.
Barghouti has languished in an Israeli prison since the Second Intifada in 2002 when he was convicted of murder by Israel—Barghouti presented no defense since he said the trial itself was illegal. Even in prison Barghouti has exercised his influence on Palestinian politics, and indeed prison has probably increased his credibility and popularity. The reasons for his popularity are several, but the main one may be the way that his career reflects the entire trajectory of Palestinians under the occupation since 1967. For years Barghouti backed the so-called peace process based on the two-state solution. He supported the Oslo II talks but when the “final status” Camp David talks in 2000 failed, he decided—as many if not most Palestinians did—that negotiation with Israel was pointless. Israeli would never agree to a Palestinian state and had merely used negotiations since the 1970s to stall while it stole piece by piece more Palestinian land. At that point Barghouti backed the Intifadas and resistance to the occupation as the only possible way forward. In his initial hope for a negotiated solution and his turn in 2000 to uprisings and resistance he seems to reflect the changing attitudes over time of many if not most Palestinians. Hence the respect he still has. Polls in recent years show him easily defeating Abbas and there are rumors that should he run in the coming presidential election, Hamas would not field a candidate. In that case his victory would be assured. For Palestinians, should he remain in prison, he could appoint a deputy. And what’s more, it would increase pressure on Israel to release him. The EU and Israeli peace groups have already called for his release.
In February, another development rattled the Israeli government. The International Criminal Court in The Hague ruled its jurisdiction extended to war crimes committed in the Occupied Territories. Now on March 3, the chief prosecutor Fatmou Bensouda opened a formal investigation into war crimes in the Occupied Territories and Gaza. Kamala Harris called Netanyahu that same day to reassure Israel of it “unwavering commitment” to its security. That was probably wasn’t much comfort to Netanyahu. His address to Congress in 2015—without an invitation from Obama—in which he tried to torpedo the Iran nuclear deal still sticks in the craw of Democrats, and now Biden is attempting to rescue the Iran deal.
The ICC’s actions disturb to Israeli politicians and for good reason. The government has already warned a number of officials high and low against traveling outside of the country lest they be arrested and brought before the ICC. Like Israel, the US is not a member state of the ICC and for the same reasons. That it has obviously committed war crimes. Here again there are recent developments that suggest changes are in the offing. As Ramzy Baroud noted in an article here January 29, B’Tselem, a leading Israeli human rights organization has for the first time declared that on the basis of those violations of human rights Israel can no longer be considered a democracy. More surprising is the about-face of Ami Ayalon, the former head of Shin Bet. In a new book Friendly Fire Ayalon writes:
“The more we employed our vast military superiority to pound the Palestinian population,” he writes, “the more Hamas grew in strength. It was a variation on the old dilemma of winning every battle and losing the war. We Israelis had become like the ancient Egyptians facing our own biblical ancestors in the Book of Exodus: ‘The more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied.’ … The irony … overwhelmed me.”
This sounds like what a number of American military leaders said of the Vietnam War, and of course Ayalon is now retired. But better late than never.
The recent Israeli election also put further distance between Israel and mainstream views in the US. Netanyahu’s push for a deal with the racist Otzma Yehudit which is labeled a terrorist group by the US makes it harder for its American advocates to keep peddling the democracy line. One US rabbi, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism said, “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say it’s the equivalent in the United States of the KKK being welcomed into the corridors of power. It’s not a close call…” Even AIPAC has denounced Netanyahu’s new ally. AIPAC said it would refuse to meet with “members of this racist and reprehensible” party.
The conflict over Palestine began between Zionist colonists and the native Palestinian population under a British land-grab and became after 1948 a conflict between a new, expansionist Zionist state and—the native Palestinian population. For many decades the state of Israel masked its land-grab as “the only democracy in the Middle East.” The contradiction between Israel’s Zionist foundation and its pretenses to democracy is increasingly exposed.
A sample of 2,194 American adults taken through Google Survey between March 22-25 asked whether Israel should be a leading US aid recipient. A 38.1 percent plurality said it should not. A similar plurality of Americans polled in 2020, 37.3%, opposed US recognition of Israeli West Bank annexation. This signals a significant shift in American attitudes. That change is the result of the stories about Israeli crimes against Palestinians like the ones I mentioned earlier in this essay. While the vast number of those events never appear in the mainstream media, their coverage elsewhere has over the years had a slow cumulative effect on American attitudes towards Israel. And the attitudes are changing most among younger Americans, who are now similar to the views Martin Luther King and Malcolm X voiced seventy years ago.
For this reason the relationship between the US government and Israel is not what it once was. This is seen in an increasing willingness in Congress to speak out against Israel’s actions. When Netanyahu denounced Biden’s order to reinstate Palestinian aid cancelled by Trump, his prime support in the US came from Ted Cruz, who has not quite come back from Cancun. Then on April 7, Israel announced plans to build hundreds of more units in two Palestinian districts in East Jerusalem—the first such announcement since Biden took office. The next day, 19 Senate Democrats led by Senators Tim Kaine, Chris Murphy and Chris Van Hollen sent a letter to Netanyahu and his Defense Minister Benn Gantz about the recent Israeli government agreement to consider further and much larger annexation of Palestinian territory beginning in July. In their letter the senators said, “Such an action would mark a dramatic reversal of decades of shared understandings between the United States, Israel, the Palestinians and the international community, and would have a clear impact on both Israel’s future and our vital bilateral and bipartisan relationship.”
In addition to the erosion of once unconditional support for Israel in Washington, there is the fact that US support, even if it were what it was ten or twenty years ago, would no longer mean as much. Because the brute reality is that the US is no longer respected the way it was ten or twenty years ago. Even by its friends. This has been a long process and Trump’s buffoonery only made it obvious.
With its major ally weakened, Israel is increasingly being seen by Europe and China as an arrogant pariah state that mostly causes headaches and problems. Seven million Israeli Jews live surrounded by three hundred and thirty million Arabs. Their back-channel contacts with retrogrades like Mohammed Bin Salman and the Gulf Arab states are trifles in that context. That the Arab states from Morocco to Iraq are roiled and weakened by unrest does not help Israel either. The emergence of more democratic governments that really reflected the popular will would be so much the worse for Israel. The example of Egypt, the largest Arab state shows this. After forty years of peace with Israel the mass of Egyptians—whether Muslim or Christian, Islamist or secular—despise Israel the same way they despise Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. All of these things can only help the Palestinian cause. Despite all the internal divisions and problems among the Palestinians, despite the unrelenting Israeli campaign of crimes against them, the changes around the globe have strengthened the Palestinian position.
In August 1973 the Israeli war hero Moshe Dayan said, “There is no more Palestine. Finished.” Dayan’s words were shown to be folly by the October War of that year. The fools are not the Palestinians, but those Israelis who think that their continued assaults on the Palestinians—uprooting their orchards, razing their villages, imprisoning and killing them—will make the Palestinians simply throw up their hands and go away. That will never happen. The Palestinians will win by their simple resolve to stay where they are. Like a tree beside the waters.
1) See Baroud’s two articles here, “Elections Under Fire…” (March 11) on the ways Israel is trying to hamper the elections and “Ready To Work With Netanyahu…” (March 12) on the many political divisions among the Palestinians. ↑
2) As quoted in a review in the Guardian March 13. ↑