A Way Forward for the Palestinians

While wondering what to say about the growing slaughter in the Gaza Strip, I happened to read a review of two movies dealing with Israel’s occupation and increasing colonization of the West Bank. 

The review, published in April, was written by David Shulman, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who is active in the Israeli peace movement (a part of the Israeli political scene that doesn’t get much publicity in the United States). Shulman is an American who emigrated to Israel almost 50 years ago. Here are some extended excerpts (I hope The New York Review of Books won’t mind):

The impossible backdrop … is the Israeli occupation of the West Bank; and indeed there is much that is unbelievable about this occupation and the reality it has created and maintained for nearly half a century….It is hard to fathom how the Israelis themselves can stand to live with the ongoing misery and cruelty they have inflicted, and it’s not so easy to understand how the rest of the world has let them get away with it.

Like any young Palestinian, Omar [the main character] is subject to routine harassment and humiliation by Israeli soldiers. Those who have not seen such practices with their own eyes will find the relevant scene, early on in the film, instructive. Omar is stopped by soldiers while walking down the street, then forced to balance himself on a rock while they chat and laugh at him; when he protests, they break his nose. I’ve myself seen much worse incidents in the South Hebron hills, including violent arrest of innocent civilians simply trying to reach their fields or homes.

On the level closest to the surface, the film shows us one of the main pillars of the occupation—the deep penetration of Palestinian society by an army of informers and secret agents who provide the information necessary for near-total control ….. For decades, well-trained Israeli handlers have mastered an evolving and highly effective repertory of psychological devices and various forms of blackmail that serve first to “turn” their captives into informers, and then to manipulate them.

Life under the occupation, with its Kafkaesque requirement of bureaucratic permits for almost anything a person might want or need to do (movement from place to place, medical treatment, visits to parents or other relatives, building an outhouse, and so on) makes any Palestinian potentially vulnerable to blackmail. That, in fact, is the meaning, and also the ultimate purpose, of full control. The Israelis have not invented these methods, but they have proven to be very skilled, and unscrupulous, in using them. Among them, needless to say, is the devilish threat to harm or even destroy a loved one, a girlfriend or wife, as we see in this film….

The problem is that these ordinary Israelis, the “common people” who are just people, have mostly, for decades now, elected governments of the extreme right, like the present settlers’ regime run by Benjamin Netanyahu. Moreover, these same ordinary people continue to demonstrate, day after day, a shocking, willful indifference to the fate of their Palestinian neighbors. Here we touch another, even more fundamental pillar of the occupation, something far more malignant and consequential than anything the Shin Bet can do….

At bottom, all of us [Israelis and Palestinians] feel trapped. Why, then, one might wonder, does Israel, which holds nearly all the cards in its hand, not wish to move toward some possible resolution of the endless conflict…? Why is Israel continuously deepening and expanding the occupation, and above all the settlements, instead of negotiating in good faith? … Does Israel really think it’s possible to hem in and terrorize an entire people by torture, blackmail, and other instruments of coercion far into the unknown future?

There are, I think, answers to these questions that go beyond the usual platitudes about mutual suspicion and the ancient, ever-lengthening list of Jewish traumas. Tribal nationalism, including in Israel, tends to be totalistic and easily drifts toward the totalitarian. It absolutizes the tribe as an almost-divine being and demonizes the outsider, who can—perhaps must—be humiliated, removed, or destroyed. You can hear voices speaking to that effect every day in the Knesset, including those of some who are close to or indeed are members of the present government. But whatever the reasons, it seems clear that Israel will have to be forced to make some sort of peace—or, in a variant of the South African trajectory, eventually to enfranchise all Palestinians and thus move into some model of the single, binational state.

A positive scenario would involve mass nonviolent Palestinian resistance. On the face of it, the apparatus of Israeli control so vividly portrayed in both these films would seem to preclude such an outcome; the Israeli security services probably still think they can control any foreseeable outcome on the ground. Moreover, the extreme fragmentation of the West Bank into discontiguous, fenced-in enclaves has so far worked to keep nonviolent protest highly localized. But anyone who knows the Palestinian grassroots activists … knows that the dream of mass Gandhian-style action is their great hope.

Israel would have no answer to hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilians marching on the roadblocks or the settlements (and, no doubt, paying the price in casualties). Many of the younger Palestinian activists are educating a new generation about this ethos, invoking Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau. They’ve had plenty of time to read the relevant texts, usually in Israeli jails…

Violence on one side merely provides an excuse for violence on the other side, and there is always some incident perpetrated by the other side that can be offered as justification. It’s reported that 2 Israelis but more than 260 Palestinians have been killed in the recent fighting (and of course there are the non-fatal injuries as well). Since the Israelis are willing and able to generate much more violence than the Palestinians, the Palestinians will never reclaim their freedom or land by force.

On top of that, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu made this declaration last week: “There cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan”.  As noted in Israel, but hardly at all in America, that means Netanyahu has now publicly stated his opposition to the “two-state solution”. Of course, full integration of the Palestinians into Israeli society is off the table too.

As Professor Shulman says, mass nonviolent resistance is probably their best hope. The Palestinians need their own Gandhi or Martin Luther King, and leaders like that are rare. 

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