Some battles are physical and violent. Other battles entail a war of words, a battle between historical narratives – such as the one currently dominating American politics in the fight between the Trump fraudulent tale of a stolen election and the liberal and progressive tale of a democracy that escaped fascism by the skin of its teeth because America is fundamentally a powerful democracy. Unfortunately, in many places on our planet, the physical war and the war of words go hand-in-hand. Often the rhetorical battle becomes more important than the physical one, however extensive and significant the physical violence.
Have you seen photos of the Temple Mount ablaze? Is this 70 CE, but with the Al Aqsa Mosque rather than the Jewish temple burning? Or just some trees, but from Palestinian incendiary cocktails rather than arson by the Israeli police currently being painted as the modern version of Roman storm troopers?
Have you read reports of the Lod riots? Just when Israel was finally on the verge of a new government formed by Yair Lapid of the centre and kippah-wearing Naftali Bennet on the far right with the support of the two parties on the left. The final necessary ingredient backed away and postponed any commitment to supporting the new coalition – the Arab party, Ra’am, an Islamic and nationalist party of Israeli Arabs led by Mansour Abbas with only four seats; it now holds the balance of power. Abbas stands in the wings as the prospective kingmaker.
To compound all the noise, the use of rubber bullets, stun grenades and skunk water by the Israeli police on the Temple Mount to protect the Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall below from rock throwers, there are the barriers put up to clear the plaza at Damascus Gate that incited the worshippers at the end of Ramadan. The efforts to separate peaceful protesters from right wing Israeli ultra-nationalists at odds over the impending ruling of the Israeli Supreme Court in a dispute over land ownership and the protection of tenants rights, has become the symbol of seventy-three years of Israeli seizure of Palestinian homes and land and displacement of their occupants.
And then the rockets. 40 at first. A bus hit in Holon. And the rapid escalation with over a thousand missiles over two nights. And this time targeting Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and not simply the envelope surrounding Gaza. Even the Palestinians of East Jerusalem were surprised by the support from Gaza and Israeli Palestinians. Unexpected. Especially at a time when Palestinians have become despondent and frustrated by their own leaders in the Palestinian Authority (PA). Especially at a time when their communities in Israel had become overrun by armed criminal groups and Palestinian Israelis had been calling for more and better policing only to shock that same police when the armed groups became political and anti-Israel and the police belatedly tried to control the mob violence that had broken out between Jews and Arabs in mixed cities like Lod and Acre, Ramle and Jaffa.
And then the expected and anticipated response against Gaza by the IDF as bombs rained down on secret headquarters of Hamas commanders and secret weapons manufacturing places and storage depots for missiles. Ironically, the attacks were welcomed by both Hamas and the Israeli defence establishment. The attacks had been invited. The deaths in Gaza by the disproportionate force used against them had been the purpose as Hamas sought to assume the leadership of a multi-sourced uprising against the might of Israel. Martyrdom was the name of the game, not victory or even advancing one’s position. Suffering meant winning. The more one suffered, the more children died from the Israeli bombing raids (at least ten thus far), the more the world would turn against their perceived Israeli oppressors.
What had started as a largely non-violent and spontaneous local protest against the planned expropriation of four houses in Sheikh Jarrah, what had started as an insistence on total Palestinian control over their most important religious symbols in historic Palestine, the Dome on the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque, had turned into a real war. In a zoominar with ex-ambassador to the US from Israel, Michael Oren, sitting in his study in south Tel Aviv, near the end of the interview I heard a siren. And then when we looked out his window with him, flashes of light across the sky as the Iron Dome system intercepted rockets from Gaza. And then an explosion. And then another one, much louder. Some missiles were getting through. One had landed right next to his home. The interview was cut short. Oren retreated to his shelter.
My grandson had spent yesterday dragging mattresses into their shelter to reinforce its safety and where he, his wife, and two children would spend the past night trying to sleep as sirens wailed, missiles blew up in the sky and, in dread, a few landed. In the meanwhile, the occupants in Gaza had no shelters, did not even have sirens to warn them of the attacks from the air by guided and more powerful missiles that had specific targets, but, in spite of warnings to civilians, killed ten for every one of the civilian deaths in Israel as the IDF tried to pick off the Hamas militant leadership based on its accumulated intelligence.
The Palestinians and the Jewish Israelis were joined together in one fear, as Nadier Hijab put it, that the missiles from Gaza would be used as an excuse to set fire to blow up the holiest Muslim religious site in all of historic Palestine, turning a forest fire into a firestorm of mass destruction. But what else could the Palestinians do after what they perceived and claimed were seventy-three years of dispossession and displacement? What could they do now that the narrative of the Nakba and the catastrophe of 1947-1948 had morphed into a story of continuous disaster that has lasted for a century until today?
The Sheikh Jarrah story, the conflict on the Temple Mount, the uprising in the Arab-Jewish cities of Israel, the torching of three synagogues in Lod, the massive missile attack from Gaza, were all of a piece, all a response to settler colonialization, to dispossession, to repression, to oppression. The missiles reminded the world that 70% of the packed Gaza Strip consisted of refugees from historic Palestine who could not return. Social media had made a difference. Just like the story of how the election had been stolen from Donald Trump in the last American election, the story, the narrative of Israel as a colonial-settler society driven by an ideology of apartheid, had taken hold and gripped the Palestinian imagination.
The older tale of two national movements fighting over the same land, of decades long efforts to come to a modus vivendi through peace negotiations, had been replaced by a story of fake news, of the Oslo peace process as a fraud to strengthen Israeli control and expand settlement activity, to continue the century-long displacement of Palestinians.
But the world had changed. The Oslo generation of Palestinians had seen through the fraud. Youth born after Oslo had lost their fear of the Israeli police and faced them close up with their chins thrust out and a smile on their faces even as they were bludgeoned and soaked with skunk water. In this new now dominant narrative among Palestinian youth and the Palestinian intelligentsia, Israel had ruled since 1948 by fear. But Palestinians would fear no more.
Once again, the Arab countries had sold them out with normalization. Once again, their own leadership, with Fatah and Abbas continuing his four-year elected role into the sixteenth year without an election, had misled them. The election had been postponed on the pretext that Israel would not allow East Jerusalemites to participate. Into this leadership vacuum, a terrorist movement drunk on martyrdom could step into the breach with a rainstorm of missiles and take over the leadership of the Palestinian protests and the movement.
Palestinian society, broken and fragmented, had come together, from disparate sources and bases of protest, to fight, to attack Jewish police, to break the windows of Jewish businesses, to use missiles to even hit Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Israel had not allowed the Palestinians to return to their homes lost in 1948. But Palestinians had returned once again to continue the fight for those homes, fight for return, fight against Israel now labeled by Human Rights Watch as an apartheid state.
The Palestinians against desperate odds had not capitulated. The Palestinians had now seen though the Oslo route as a fraud. Negotiations were simply vehicles to expand oppression. Washington was not a reasonable interlocutor even when Biden replaced Trump, for although Biden insisted his administration had more important and pressing issues than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it still had time for strengthening mutual security arrangements, for sharing intelligence, for forging technological partnerships, and for strengthening the American-Israeli alliance while pretending to be aloof from the struggle.
President Abbas and Fatah had proven to be corrupt patsies for Israeli rule and settler expansion in the West Bank. Their own leadership had sold Palestinians out. Only Hamas appeared ready to die for the cause. And die they would. The paralysis of fear had been broken. Fear was no longer a barrier in Sheik Jarrah, on the grounds of the Al Aqsa Mosque, in the Israeli city of Acre. What was the point of fear of losing one’s land if all that fear did was allow the loss to creep ahead with no one willing to step in and stop the process?
The Palestinians now had a new narrative. Jews in historic Palestine may have practiced a slow process of replacement interrupted by acute moments of displacement when war broke out in 1948 and 1967 and subsequently, but it had only led to the displacement and replacement of the image of Israel as a peacefully inclined and benign movement destined to bring prosperity to a backward area. Instead, a clearer vision had come into view for the world of a repressive colonial movement determined to create an apartheid society in which Jews dominated Palestinians in perpetuity.
The rise of middle-class Palestinians, of professionals in medicine and other fields within Israel was only a fig leaf to disguise the underlying direction and character of the Israeli state. Palestinians watched as the US gave 3.8 billion dollars in aid to Israel to perpetuate its apartheid system, as America under its laws allowed Jewish charities in America to deduct tax dollars and support settlements in the West Bank, to allow Israel with American surreptitious help to increase the stranglehold of Israel on Gaza and increase the very high unemployment rate even further. America may want to return to a nuclear agreement with Iran, but forces within America remained allied with Israel to undermine any restoration of a deal, for Iran was the only formidable power helping Hamas strengthen its resistance to Israeli exploitation.
The fight all along had been a rhetorical one. It was a battle over the ruling narrative. Finally, the Palestinians have had a breakthrough. They may have been losing on the ground in terms of the strength of their military power to resist, but they were on the verge of international victory with the story of a settler-colonial movement built on apartheid premises working to seize all of Palestine. The narrative had changed. A key vocal minority in the Democratic Party in the United States had bought into the replacement narrative. And that faction was growing, especially among American Jews. Zionism, which had become the dominant narrative of Jewish life in the post-Holocaust era and the war in Palestine in the 1940s, was now faced with its largest challenge.
In the assault, the Jewish community was becoming increasingly fragmented. The number of fault lines in the Jewish community grew and became extended. For every child who died in Gaza, that fault line stretched for a further mile and the chasm broadened between the youth and the older generation who held on in fear to the old narrative of a movement that brought enlightenment and wealth to the Middle East, but only by hiding the tale that it had done so with repression, with oppression, with systematic displacement, with the creation of an apartheid regime.
The international community was buying into this replacement narrative in increasing numbers. The old story was false news disconnected from reality. Rights organizations, Israeli and international ones, were defying the suppressors of truth to establish the real tale of dispossession and replacement on the ground. But the centre could and would not hold. Without a commanding narrative, the oppression could not continue. As fast as the Berlin Wall came down, so the barrier between the West Bank and Israel would crumble to be replaced by a state in which everyone would have equal rights and equal opportunities. This was the silver lining in all the violence throughout historic Palestine. This was the sign of a colonial settler regime beginning to crumble. This was the core of the replacement narrative.
The Palestinian national movement which appeared to be on the verge of defeat had risen like a Phoenix from the ashes of the conflict to challenge the most formidable military power in the Middle East. Most importantly, the tale of Israel’s intellectual and political and ethical exceptionalism was being undermined and destroyed along with the tale of the Oslo Accords as a move towards peace when it was just a cover for the extension of repression.
But there were gaps in this rhetorical replacement thesis, gaps much wider and deeper than the perceived opening chasm in the Jewish community of America. The Oslo agreements provided a vehicle to provide material support for the Palestinian community, as Nadia Najib noted. The chance of America bringing quiet but effective pressure to undermine the Zionist position was a chimera fostered by a vocal minority in one party in the US to advance its own so-called progressive vision. Further, there was no way a rhetorical inversion could compensate and overcome the asymmetrical strength of the Israeli military. Gaza would once again suffer. Hamas would once again be crushed, gaining a stronger leadership position, but only at the expense of the Palestinian people.
Discrediting Israel was not equivalent to dismembering Israel. 7,000 rockets fired and the vast majority intercepted could not be offset by a very few landing – with the death of only three Jewish Israelis, an Arab Israeli couple and an Indian domestic care worker. Hamas, challenging Israel with red lines on Monday and finally forcing the rerouting and then cancellation of the Flag Day parade, was a token victory that could never offset the destruction that is currently being rained down on Gaza. Hamas had expected Israel to remain restrained in the face of rising public opinion. Hamas did not expect Israelis to damn public opinion and become determined to break the back of Hamas control once and for all.
What started as an effort to give Israel a black eye is quickly turning into a determined resolve of Israel to say, “Enough is enough.” Enough with fake news. Enough with fraudulent replacement narratives that distort history primarily by omissions and selective reading. Enough trying to avoid the Hamas quest for martyrdom. Enough is enough undergirds the new determination of Benny Gantz. If Hamas could up its ante, so could Israel and risk the wave of international criticism bound to come its way.
No one had expected Hamas to go this far. No one had expected an uprising among Palestinian-Israeli youth. No one had expected a cult of martyrdom to take hold and challenge Israel. But there were now extensive middle class vested interests in the Arab population of Israel and even in the West Bank that reject martyrdom, that does not buy into the new replacement narrative. Further, the burning of synagogues in Lod and the attacks in Acre would only offset charges of apartheid with countercharges of antisemitism that carry a greater resonance in the enlightened world. Even the Islamic party kingmaker, Mansour Abbas, has only taken a pause from what he perceives as his role as a kingmaker that not only allows an Israeli government to be formed, but allows the Palestinians to mount the real steps of power in Israel. What an unlikely source in the revolution of the Israeli polity – an ally of Hamas undermining the envisioned trajectory of martyrdom of Hamas.
Is there an exit ramp from the escalating violence? I cannot see it. The rhetorical battle now demands a heavyweight fight that will go the full fifteen rounds. Out of the battle, a new Israel will emerge in which the political power and role of 21% of the population becomes more fully acknowledged. Out of this conflagration will come a more broadly held conviction that endless expansion of Israel into the West Bank is fraught with mines. Out of the battle of a very attractive but false narrative of a stolen Palestine will emerge a renewed Israel determined to ensure its Israeli citizens have equal rights and that its Arab communities have access to an equal level of quality education and that the police will protect Palestinian communities from the criminal gangs that have been ravaging them.
Out of this firestorm will, hopefully, emerge a nascent Palestinian state.