Palestine and the Questions Unasked

After the ceasefire, hard truths must be faced.

For almost two weeks, Gaza was in flames. It was in flames for different reasons, depending on whom you asked—Hamas firing rockets indiscriminately at Israeli towns; Israeli police storming al Aqsa mosque and evicting Palestinians from East Jerusalem. In eleven days of fighting, Israel’s bombs killed more than 230 people, over 60 children, and damaged 17 hospitals, dozens of schools, cut off fresh water, and left the streets of Gaza in ruins. Hamas and other militant groups fired over 4,000 rockets targeting Israeli civilians, killing 12 people. Three mosques in Gaza were destroyed, along with the only Covid laboratory in a region that was struggling with a deadly virus outbreak with little access to vaccines or hospital beds.

Once again, an entire generation will be left traumatized by violence while the world moves on.

Israel’s stated military strategy in Gaza is termed “mowing the grass.” Benjamin Netanyahu’s objective was to weaken Hamas (and punish Gaza) just enough to appear strong, save his political career, and keep open the possibility of future wars each time there is a crisis. According to former Israeli deputy prime minister, Haim Ramon, Bibi Netanyahu signed an “unwritten pact with Hamas” in 2009—by keeping Hamas alive, the Palestinians would remain fractured and the Palestinian Authority weakened. Israel could go on occupying the West Bank—the territory it actually wants—and building more settlements. (“The truth must be stated,” said Major General Gershon Hacohen, a close associate of the Israeli prime minister. “Netanyahu’s strategy is to prevent a two-state option, so he has made Hamas his closest partner. Overtly, Hamas is the enemy. Covertly, it’s an ally.”)

Hamas, a terror organization, serves as a perfect foil to take a Palestinian homeland off the table. Netanyahu and Hamas therefore exist in mutual symbiosis: Netanyahu needs Hamas to remain in power, Hamas needs Netanyahu to remain relevant, and the Palestinians remain stateless.

With a ceasefire reached, Palestinians return to the status-quo: Gaza under siege and blockade; the West Bank occupied; and more settlements in East Jerusalem. The status-quo for Palestinians is still unlivable, postponing their hopes indefinitely. In the eyes of the Palestinians, the violence did not begin on the day al Aqsa was stormed or Hamas entered the conflict. The violence to their bodies has been ongoing for over fifty years.

It is crucial, then, to take a step back and ask how we got here and what the end of hostilities actually means. Because, for Palestinians, this is the 54th year of the occupation and there is still zero—yes, zero—chance of a Palestinian state under the current political context. Benjamin Netanyahu and the far-right settlers he champions do not believe that Palestinians should have a state, so the future is either one where Palestinians face apartheid (separation, living under martial law), or expulsion (forced evictions by legally dubious or violent means in order to remove the Palestinians from the land.)

During past iterations of the conflict, people who valued both the bodies of Jews and Palestinians had recourse to what was then called the “two-state solution.” This was the magical wand one could wave to be positioned in the reasonable middle. The international community invested heavily in a two-state solution, but Palestinians continued to suffer and settlements continued to eat away at their lands.

Over the last decade, Benjamin Netanyahu paid lip service to the idea of statehood for Palestinians, just enough to placate Barack Obama. But settlements kept expanding, and the far-right in Israel grew in power. By 2019, the game was up. Netanyahu admitted what Palestinians knew all along: his government planned to permanently annex huge swaths of the West Bank, thereby extinguishing Palestinian hopes for good.

I have been to Israel, seen most of the country, and no place I have visited has left its mark on me like Jerusalem. Being in the Holy Land, observing Jews and Arabs, I realized an essential truth: there are in fact two Israels. It was something so basic as to be obvious, but explained why, any time Israel bombed Gaza, it seemed there were two separate countries being described.

In the first Israel, there is an elected Knesset where even Arab Israelis serve; there is a Supreme Court that attempts to fairly interpret the law; there are human rights organizations like B’Tselem and journalists openly critical of their government’s policies. Countless Jews in this Israel speak up for Palestinian lives. The first Israel is the logical outcome of 2,000 years of antisemitism in the West, and the crime of the century perpetrated by Hitler’s Germany. And this first Israel, built for the Jewish people, is impressive on many levels, a democracy with flourishing institutions that the Muslim world would envy. It is impossible to visit the first Israel and not feel a connection to the story of exile and return that is at the heart of the Jewish narrative.

But sitting adjacent to this Israel is another regime, one that is carefully filtered through the acceptable jargon of North American newspapers. This is the Israel of “clashes” and “evictions,” the Israel of “both sides.” This other Israel is not a democracy; it is an occupying force. The other Israel polices the daily movements of Palestinians, sets up checkpoints and keeps Gaza under siege, even counting the number of calories allowed into the enclave. This other Israel is rarely observed unless there is a war. This other Israel is what Palestinians see every day.

Palestinians are either citizens or residents of the first Israel, and occupied subjects of the second. They deal with unequal laws and open discrimination, and have for generations. A Jewish person born anywhere in the world has the right to a state in Palestine, but a Palestinian born in Jerusalem does not. Jewish settlements go up at alarming rates—today, there are over 200,000 Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem alone—while Palestinian homes are demolished. These settlements go deep into Palestinian territory and the Israeli government has built highways and overpasses that crisscross the West Bank, making it nearly impossible for Palestinians to eventually build a state. One of those highways segregates Jews and Arabs entirely.

Is this apartheid? I always refrained from using the a-word, until I read what Israel’s own leaders had to say.

Former Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, warned about apartheid in 2007. “The day will come,” Olmert said, “when the two-state solution collapses and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights. As soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished.” Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said in 2010 that Israel could make peace with the Palestinians or become “an apartheid state.” Even Israel’s founding father warned about apartheid, declaring on the radio in 1967 (according to veteran Israeli journalist Hirsh Goodman)—“Israel better rid itself of the territories and their Arab populations as soon as possible. If it did not Israel would become an apartheid state.” 

The reason these Israeli leaders warned about apartheid was because of the dilemma that Israel now faces. Two states for two peoples has been replaced by settlements and annexation. Palestinians already know what the status-quo looks like: more of the last 54 years, living as colonial subjects, their human rights violated, their spirits choked off, their homes taken away.

But for Israel, there is an equally grave choice ahead. Either the first or the second Israel will survive. Palestinians will either be absorbed into Israel, in which case they will have equal rights, or else they will live under permanent occupation. The settlements will expand and will be annexed, or else Israel will continue to operate by two laws in the West Bank: one for Jews, one for Arabs. Israel will have apartheid or it will have democracy; it cannot have both.

Absent a two-state solution, the only way to avoid this existential crisis is for the Palestinians living in the West Bank to be expelled. This is where the charge of “ethnic cleansing” came from during this round of violence, with evictions in Sheikh Jarrah sparking the protests. To cleanse an area is to remove the unfavorable inhabitants and replace them with your own people: in other words, what the extremist settlers demand. Indeed, a crude sort of racism exists at the heart of the settler ideology, which claims, without remorse, that Palestinians have no right to be there in the first place. The more powerful the settlers become, the more likely that Palestinians will be expelled.

There are echos of 1948 here. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were uprooted during the catastrophe, or Nakba, a substantial number of these refugees fleeing out of fear and terror.

As the Israeli historian Benny Morris told an interviewer in 2004: 

A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population. It was necessary to cleanse the hinterland and cleanse the border areas and cleanse the main roads. It was necessary to cleanse the villages from which our convoys and our settlements were fired on…I know [the term “to cleanse”] doesn’t sound nice but that’s the term they used at the time. I adopted it from all the 1948 documents in which I am immersed..

Palestinians now face either permanent expulsion or permanent second-class status—which only adds to decades of frustrations and disappointed dreams. The law of human nature is simple: you keep people in ghettos, kill their loved ones, destroy their homes, and humiliate them on a daily basis, and soon enough, they will respond like people who have been put into ghettos. Eventually, the ghetto revolts. What’s shocking is not that Palestinians have resisted the occupation, but that it took so long for the world to notice.

The crisis in the Holy Land is not about religion. It is about whether Palestinians are considered human beings. And this was another lesson of mine from Jerusalem: the reason why the other Israel is capable of so easily Othering the Palestinians is because a clean conscience demands noble motives for violence. When every Palestinian is viewed as a terrorist, everything becomes permissible in the name of self-defense. Edward Said once referred to the Palestinian struggle as being “the victim of the victim.” And that makes these deaths all the more tragic, that Palestinians have been bombed and battered by the one country that ought to know better. Regardless of intentions, collective punishment is never the answer.

When Palestinian families fled their homes in 1948, they took their keys with them. Dispersed across the Arab world, living in squalor and mistreated by the Arab states, the refugees saw their keys as symbols that would one day lead them back home. They were made into exiles, just like Jews had been for millennia. Today, Palestinians still seek a homeland, but it is nowhere in sight. Their hopes recede into the past as another generation grows up knowing only occupation and war.

A broader imagination would unite Jews and Arabs in sharing the land, or else apartheid and cleansing will be the end of both Israel and Palestine. Yet the violence goes on—violence and cruelty, which seem to be the point. That is why Palestinians continue to resist. That is why they continue to protest—to prevent another catastrophe, a final Nakba, if only for that last shred of human dignity that burns in us all.