Having returned just this week from a 17 day human rights trip to Israel and Palestine (my 10th in as many years), I conclude that the best description of the emerging situation is this: a perfect storm is coming, all the most destructive forces aligning to produce (possibly violent) change and uncertainty early in the Trump administration.
Of course the Israeli/Palestinian situation has always been difficult: a product of mutually exclusive demands and massive power imbalances. Defying the advice of such early cultural Zionists as Buber, Arendt, and Einstein, the political Zionists, almost from the very start, were dedicated to creating an ethno-religiously exclusively Jewish state in Palestine. This required the “transfer” of Palestinians out of the path of the Zionist project. Palestinians, on the other hand, while living peacefully with Palestinian Jewish communities, insisted on the legitimacy of their cultural and political claims to nationhood in the same land, and to human rights and civic equality in the public sphere. Not only were the key demands contradictory, but the power imbalance favoring the Israelis (largely thanks to unlimited American financial, military, and diplomatic support) meant that one side had no reason to seek any resolution other than total victory.
What is changing today arises partly from the success of the Israeli state in pursuing its goals. The logic of the Zionist project is so deeply etched into the fabric of Israeli politics that it seems as if every Israeli leader begins each day by asking “what can I accomplish today, in the current environment, to promote an Arab-free greater Israel?” The answers have been many: the massive military displacement of more than half the Palestinian population in 1948, the legal stratagems such as the Custodian of Absentee Property and the misuse of Ottoman land law to continue the displacement by bureaucratic means, more recently, the recurring massacres in Gaza, the accelerating project of settlement building to establish “facts on the ground,” and the displacement of the Bedouin citizens of Israel into the eerily named “concentration villages.” The very success of all these initiatives has brought Israel closer and closer to the end game, where its intentions can no longer be masked by the disingenuous peace process.
Now, in the context of this end game, all three parties – the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the Americans are seeing political changes within their own societies that hasten the approach of the perfect storm.
In Israel, the prime minister is being investigated for the same kinds of alleged corruption that landed his predecessor in jail. In Netanyahu’s case, the public servants heading the investigation are all his appointees, so he may yet outrun Olmert’s fate. But his position is weakened, and to his right, the calls for annexing 60+% of the West Bank grow bolder and louder by the day. Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Jewish Home party, is said to be advising the Trump transition team to drop all references to the two-state solution, since annexation is imminent.
An anecdote reveals the relentlessness of Zionism. Just south of Ramallah is the tiny Bedouin village of Khan al Ahmar. The entire village would fit into any American Walmart with room to spare. Although the villagers are Israeli citizens, they are always denied building permits and forbidden to construct houses in the place they choose to live. Thus, Khan al Ahmar’s citizens live in lean-to shacks or, sometimes, in trailers provided by the Norwegian government. The village is tucked into the folds between two hills and surrounded on all sides by Israeli highways. One underpass leads to the larger world. Despite their difficult circumstances, the villagers insist on having good education for their children, and have constructed a handsome multi-roomed school out of tires and mud to serve this purpose. An Italian diplomat, visiting this little village-that-could, offered to donate some playground equipment to the school. And, good to his word, he appeared one day, with a truck full of swings, seesaws, and slides. As soon as construction began, a neighboring Jewish community sent its privately owned drone to investigate. The Israeli authorities were alerted to illicit playground being assembled. They arrived in full military strength to demolish the playground, acting with such speed and ferocity that the demolition was completed while the Italian diplomat was still in the village.
In Palestine, meanwhile, Mahmoud Abbas, the 81-year-old leader of the Palestinian Authority (PA), refuses to engage in succession planning, even as he is being treated for cardiac disease. There is relatively little open opposition to the PA, which employs 150,000 West Bankers, most of whom support a family of at least six– making some ¾ million people directly dependent on the PA and many more indirectly so. At the same time, however, there is little enthusiasm for the PA, which has failed to bring Palestinian self-determination any closer to reality.
Public opinion polls show that a growing number of Palestinians (65% of the population according to the most recent Khalil Shikaki poll this week) no longer believe that a two-state solution is possible. On my trip, virtually all of the speakers – pollsters, university professors, human rights activists, even tour guides – insisted that the two-state solution was dead. For most, this represents the ruin of their deepest hopes for a state of their own, even one that is territorially compromised. At the same time, however, there is increasingly open discussion, especially among younger people, of converting what was once a national liberation struggle into a civil rights struggle within the Israeli state that seems intent on annexing almost all of what is left of Palestine.
Again, an anecdote will make the point. Elias is a Palestinian carpenter, part of the Christian community in Bethlehem. Like many other Palestinians he has multiple Israeli-issued IDs: An identity card, a biometric card, and a security clearance card. Because he runs his own carpentry business, he also has a Businessman’s Card (BMC) and, because he does most of his work for the church, he also has church-generated documents that support his ability to go to Jerusalem to work on church properties. One day recently, Elias brought all these documents to the checkpoint between Bethlehem and his job in Jerusalem. The guard waved him away with the words “No. Rejected. Go back.” Elias inquired why, when he has been allowed to pass just the day before, he was being refused entry now. The guard refused to explain, insisting on saying only “Refused. Go back.” So Elias picked up his tools and turned to leave. “Wait,” called the guard, “come back and try again.” Elias returned, reinserted his fingers into the fingerprint machine and waited. “No, refused, go back,” said the guard. This unpleasant sequence, “come-here-try-again-no-refused” was repeated five times. Finally, the guard looked Elias in the eye and asked him “How do you feel when I do this to you, refuse you entry and make you go away and come back. Are you humiliated?” Elias took a moment to compose his reply. He smiled at the guard and said “Oh, this is perfectly fine with me because I can walk around. It’s you who’s stuck behind that desk.” Elias exhibits the quality Palestinians refer to as “sumud” or steadfastness.
Such steadfastness is the bedrock of Palestinian political life. Especially among younger Palestinians, it is linking itself, more and more, with anticipation of a civil rights struggle to come when Israel annexes the West Bank. One young woman expresses it thus: “We will say to Israel ‘Ok, Israel, you won. You have won all of the land. You have won all of the water. And, guess what else you’ve won? You’ve won all of us. Now where do we go to sign up for our voter registration cards and our health insurance cards?”
Unfortunately, the call for a civil rights struggle does not seem to have gotten much beyond this opening salvo and will need to be developed quickly should annexation and a collapse of the PA occur in the near future, as is very likely.
And that is where the role of Americans is important. As with the Israelis and the Palestinians, our politicians are doing more harm than good. Trump is off to the worst possible start, appointing an ambassador who is a champion of illegal settlements and promising to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem. Soft Zionists often describe the uncritical support America gives Israel as a case of “letting friends drive drunk.” In the case of the Trump administration, we can expect the American president to hand the driver a bottle of scotch along with the car keys. Nor is it easy to chart a course for a vigorous civil rights movement in Israel/Palestine or here, when both societies seem to be in the grip of a “post-factual” political climate in which rule of law has been gutted.
Popular resistance will be essential, but the form and substance of such resistance remains to be worked out. Amidst all this uncertainty, one point is clear. The place where human rights forms the common ground for joint action among Palestinians, Americans and Israelis is in the area of police practices. In 49 of 50 states (Hawaii being the sole exception) Israeli security consultants are training our city and state police. No wonder then, that U.S. police forces are looking and acting ever more like an occupying army. The slogan “from Ferguson (or North Dakota) to Palestine, Apartheid is a crime” rests on more than an idle juxtaposition of American and Palestinian civil rights. It rests instead on the recognition that the same forces, sometimes even the very same companies, are acting to suppress human rights in Palestine, in the United States, and against dissidents and refuseniks in Israel. It is from this recognition that a strategic popular resistance must begin.