Throttling Gaza

Violence against Palestinians over the last few weeks has been so horrific that it has come to the attention of those who were previously blind to it. Over two hundred dead in Gaza alone, fifty-nine of them children. Media offices bombed, thousands injured and tens of thousands displaced. Palestinians in Israel have been killed by lynch mobs while the police stand by. As a result, the usual taboos are being broken. Six US Congress members condemned the attacks on Gaza from the House floor, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez acknowledged Israel as an ‘apartheid state’. Yet the US is far from rescinding its support for Netanyahu. On three occasions during the latest bombardment it has blocked the UN Security Council’s call for a ceasefire, greenlighting the merciless campaign against the Gaza strip. If Trump was the most brazen supporter of Israeli aggression, his successor is not much different.

None of this is new. Gaza has been under attack at regular intervals since 2008, and with each Israeli incursion we have seen a similar pattern play out: ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories, huge provocations accompanied by repression on the ground, and F16s raining bombs on Gazans. Human rights organizations – international as well as Israeli – have repeatedly condemned the illegal blockade of Gaza and the forward march of Israeli settler colonialism. Yet their appeals fall on deaf ears.

This is because, sadly, the majority of the Jewish Israeli population supports its government in this endeavour. The position of the far-right – which saw its best ever result in the Knesset elections last March – is almost identical to that of the liberal parties in their zeal for anti-Palestinian crackdowns. The neighborhood offensives in Jerusalem – particularly Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan and Wadi Joz, where lifelong residents are to be expelled to make way for Jewish settlers – represent the government’s attempt to show its commitment to Arab-free cities.

What has led us to this point? Ever since the Oslo Accords of the early 1990s, the Israelis, backed by the US and the EU, with the collaboration of the Palestinian Authority and the acquiescence or capitulation of the Arab States, established structures that institutionalized Israeli control and occupation of the Palestinian territories. The geographic fragmentation of the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C, and its separation from both the eastern part of Jerusalem and Gaza, is part of this realignment. In addition, unending American intervention has done its best to demobilize Palestinians so that they cannot effectively resist their oppressors. The leadership of Fatah (synonymous with the Palestinian Authority) act as sub-contractors for the Israeli occupation on every level, forcibly putting down resistance or protest movements whenever they begin to stir. Yet, despite all this, the post-Oslo generations will not give up on the goal of self-determination that the ‘international community’ has denied them. For over a decade, their anticolonial struggle has confronted three separate forms of intervention from foreign powers: diplomatic pressure, foreign aid, and security involvement. It is worth taking a moment to examine these in turn.

The 2006 Palestinian legislative elections are a useful case in point of how diplomatic pressure is used to subjugate and divide Palestinians. We now know, via the Palestine papers published by Wikileaks, that the UK and the US had been enjoining the Palestinian Authority to forcibly repress the Islamist party, Hamas, prior to the vote. When Hamas ended up winning the elections by a wide margin, the PA came under international pressure to prevent them from taking power. The US and its allies imposed sanctions on the Palestinians that decimated the economy. Humanitarian aid which was supposed to keep the population afloat bypassed the new Hamas government, with some of it flowing instead to the personal accounts of PA officials, including President Mahmoud Abbas. The outgoing political party, Fatah, was empowered by Washington to retain its grip on the government, and initiated a crackdown on Hamas which prompted a spate of intra-Palestinian violence. The resulting split in governance between Gaza and the West Bank persists to this day, despite calls for unity from the citizens of the two territories.

Foreign aid is also weaponized to guarantee the permanent subservience of the PA to the IDF. After the 2006 elections, Fatah consolidated its hold over the West Bank and the new Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, pursued what he called a strategy of ‘liberation through reform’. The slow improvement in living conditions, he said, would lay the ground for state-building. Yet in reality, all it did was inflate the foreign bank balances of the Palestinian bureaucracy’s top layer and push regular Palestinians into more debt. Real sovereignty was never given to the PA, which was essentially relegated to overseeing the implementation of small-scale development projects designed by international donors in coordination with Israel. The foreign aid used for these projects is monitored and managed by two agencies: the Joint Liaison Committee and the Task Force on Project Implementation. Israel has a seat on both, while the Palestinian Authority has a seat on neither.

Even when foreign aid has increased in recent years, it has gone to areas which do not alleviate poor economic conditions in the territories. In the period following the 2006 elections, only 1% was allocated to agriculture, despite that being the historic backbone of the Palestinian economy. Importantly, none of the aid or development plans addressed Israel’s obstructionist role. Thus, rather than achieving the stated objectives of the PA – advancing the economy in order to eventually gain the state promised to them by the Israelis – the funding simply entrenched the status quo.

When I interviewed a number of officials in PA ministries, they confirmed to me that American directives set the course for their development projects and political positions. Although they are bankrolled by a number of foreign donors – the EU, the Gulf, Japan – US interests invariably take precedence. One of the most direct means by which the American hegemon interferes in the PA’s internal decision-making processes is through its training programmes. Career advancement for many Palestinian bureaucrats is contingent upon the trainings they attended and certifications they attain. So, when the Americans fund training courses they make sure to hand-pick the participants, excluding anyone known to be a supporter of Palestinian emancipation, and forcing the more critical bureaucrats into early retirement. The training programmes themselves act as a tool for indoctrination, with syllabi amended by American officials to censor the material on Israeli occupation and popular mobilization.

What of security involvement? From 2006 onward, the PA was encouraged to undertake security sector reform to assure Israeli counterparts that the PA and its forces were reliable partners. They took steps to ensure not only that oppositional parties and the Islamists within the West Bank were curtailed, but that any mass uprising – such as that seen during the second intifada – would not be allowed to happen again. The PA has since spent a full third of its budget on its security apparatus, leading to a dramatic increase in police powers and greater coordination with Israel in organizing political repression. As a result, the PA has become increasingly divided from its own citizens, using its authoritarian mechanisms to target journalists, students and dissidents who refuse to accept the current settlement. The infamous murder of writer and activist Bassel al-Araj in 2017 – shot by the IDF after being tortured and imprisoned by the PA for nonviolent protest in his village of Walaja – was emblematic.

These dynamics explain the conditions that we see today, in which the PA has become irrelevant to the mass mobilizations in Jerusalem, the integration of Palestinians within the Green Line into those mobilizations, and the protests against ethnic cleansing within Israeli cities. The PA leaders were absent from the resistance efforts in Sheikh Jarrah and the Old City, while Hamas, too, played little role in the uprisings until the airstrikes began. The protest movement of early May was led by grassroots activists, not political parties.

Since the unrest began the PA has moved in to stop protests in solidarity with Jerusalem and Gaza. Last week Biden called Abbas to reiterate his ‘commitment to strengthening the US-Palestinian partnership’ and stress the need for Hamas to give up its resistance. The PA, in turn, has played its usual role of appeasing and reassuring the US-Israeli axis. When Palestinians gathered in Hebron and outside Ramallah to express their opposition to the airstrikes and expulsions, they were blocked by PA security forces.

The real impact on Israel has been, and will continue to be, from Palestinians on the ground. The Palestinians across historic Palestine, within the Green Line and in the occupied territories, are leading a general strike today (18 May) in conjunction with ongoing protests in the West Bank, Israel and Jerusalem. Whether Palestinians can ratchet up this pressure will be the determining factor in forcing Israeli concessions, even as it emboldens Netanyahu’s far-right cabinet to break the will of the open-air prisoners in Gaza. Although this latest round of resistance may not amount to a third intifada in the sense of a sustained uprising, such acts of defiance will still have a cumulative impact. It is likely that, just as previous protests in Jerusalem mobilized larger swathes of Palestinian society – in 2014, following the kidnap and murder of the 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khdeir by settlers; and in 2017, after restrictions were placed on Al Aqsa mosque – this current wave of discontent will have long-lasting ramifications. Activists within the Green Line in particular are establishing new organizing channels which could change the shape of future mobilizations, whether intifada or not. Sometimes people ask: Won’t the US-EU bloc be forced to impose sanctions on Israel, cut off arms supplies and end subsidies given the scale of Israeli atrocities? But they are living in a dreamworld. The Palestinian people, by contrast, are wide awake.

Read on: Perry Anderson, ‘The House of Zion’, NLR 96.