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Economics, Violence, Gaza and the West Bank

The Paper Thin Underpinnings to Peace: Occupation and Intifada in 2014

by GARY M. ENGLISH

Jenin.

The current war in Gaza is an extension of the Second Intifada, however delayed.  The so-called “Peace Process” is and always has been a charade – a straw man held up by Israel and supported by the delusional if at times well-intentioned West as cover for the eventual annexation of much, if not all of the West Bank.  This primary objective of Israel, given cover by the Oslo Accords is in evidence everywhere in the West Bank.  Examples include the massive settlement construction and agricultural development that parallels the forced removal of the Bedouin from the Jericho Valley, the destruction of homes throughout East Jerusalem and the Hebron area, again where there has been massive settlement construction, the appropriation of ground water from Palestinian villages often for use in the settlements and perhaps most ironically, development in Ramallah, the international symbol of “Palestinian progress.”  This progress is largely an economic artificial reality, built on donor money, some Palestinian Diaspora investment and debt.  The violence taking place in Gaza now plays out as an extension of decades of resistance that dates back and through the Second Intifada and can only be understood fully through the historical context of Palestinian dislocation, violent military occupation and armed resistance.

Ramallah is a bubble, alternatively enjoyed and despised by liberal and conservative Palestinians alike.   Several Palestinian development consultants confide that the donor nations are keenly aware of their complicity with the occupation and understand very well the morally bankrupt practice of paying into a system that attempts to create “Good Palestinians” that co-operate with Israel, as opposed to “Bad Palestinians” that continue to resist the occupation of the West Bank.  This is the essence of “Normalization.” When questioned about this practice, western development consultants throw up their hands with a kind of resignation even in the self-knowledge that their actions isolate Palestinians further from a national identity rather than help build one.

The massive economic development there supported by these same donor nations since 2006 amounts to a large scale “buy off” of the Palestinian resistance and is directly linked to the terms of peace to end the Second Intifada.  These terms included a three way deal between the Palestinian Authority, the fighters of the Second Intifada and Israel in which Israel offered a general amnesty if the fighters laid down their weapons and the Palestinian Authority would offer salaries and employment to the former members of Al-Aqsa Martyrs brigade and other former fighters.  Many if not all of these former militants are now employed by the Palestinian Authority Security Services, in part trained by the United States, who now enforce the occupation in the West Bank on behalf of Israel.  While “pay-offs” to incorporate armed insurgents after a just inclusive agreement might be seen as legitimate, in this case, like the agreement itself, only serve to normalize continued oppression.

This is the biggest reason why there is little chance of an organized and motivated insurrection in the West Bank.  There is no substantial resistance organization, no military or armed infrastructure. The Palestinian Authority, bolstered by the International financial and diplomatic commitment to Israel, holds the threat of brutal treatment over the heads of any of those seen as a potential threat to the status quo or who offer legitimate resistance to Israel.  It’s common knowledge in the West Bank that the Palestinian Authority can be more brutal with political prisoners than the Israelis.  The Palestinian Authority is often viewed as a police state certainly unpopular and largely despised by Palestinians.  As a result they are not seen to have legitimate claim to negotiate any type of two–state solution.   This is also why we are seeing a larger ground swell of unrest among Palestinians in Israel, such as in Nazareth and Haifa than in much of the West Bank.  There are two occupations in the West Bank. In Israel there is only the State.

For Israel, the only two-state solution that can be imagined is a series of six unconnected and isolated urban areas including Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron and Jericho. These six cities constitute Area A, the only portion of the West Bank under Palestinian Authority control, and amount to something around 20% of the land in the West Bank.  This fact is not lost on Benjamin Netanyahu who cites the deliberately misleading statistic that most of the Palestinian population in the West Bank is under Palestinian Authority control.  The remaining 80% of the West Bank, including hundreds of Palestinian towns and villages and large swaths of urban areas between Jerusalem and Ramallah are within Areas C and B, are under virtual lock down by the Israeli Defense Forces.  The IDF operates at will throughout the West Bank and regularly raids refugee camps and other villages within or around Area A.   The IDF gives cover to both so-called “legal” and illegal settlements throughout the West Bank by preventing Palestinians from digging wells on their own lands and in many instances refusing to stop settlers from attacking and driving Palestinians out of their own olive groves and fields.  One of the cruelest jokes, offered as a serious and hopelessly ironic comment by many in the West, observes that if only Gaza could behave they could enjoy the peace of the West Bank.

When Israel evacuated the Gaza strip in 2005, they likely hoped that Fatah under Mahmoud Abbas, who has held no elected mandate since 2006, would develop this style of control under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza as well as the West Bank.  When Hamas won the election and then by force took control of Gaza, war was inevitable and will continue indefinitely with only interim periods of less outrageous violence.  There can be no lasting cease-fire let alone peace unless and until the West understands the nature of the Israel Occupation itself:  a land grab of enormous proportions and the consolidating of Palestinian population into urban areas as cheap labor – the assimilation of Palestinians into a permanently occupied people.  Disillusioned with the Palestinian Authority, Palestinians now view Hamas for all their faults, as the only organization in Palestine willing to resist on behalf of absolute freedom.  Despite the fact that Hamas may be marginally less popular than the Palestinian Authority, and is guilty of many terrorist crimes, they understand what relative calm in the West Bank has cost Palestinians in terms of basic freedoms, natural resources, economic loss and often cruel and unabated abuse.

There has been, since 2006, a cultural argument throughout the West Bank as to the effectiveness of non-violent protest and resistance.  This argument, heated at times between Palestinians themselves, comes out of the Second Intifada, which was a disaster for Palestinians.  War cost them death and destruction and so many began to argue for non-violent or “cultural resistance” and became well known internationally such as in Bil’in, the village and subject of the film, “Five Broken Cameras.”  But as this film illustrates, peaceful protests largely only continue to allow losses on nearly every front, including the continued loss of land, the punitive arrests of children and the deliberate maiming and murder of innocent Palestinians in the midst of non-violent demonstrations.   The zenith of the non-violent movement may have passed with the resignation of Salam Fayyad as Prime Minister.  Staunchly non-violent and insistent on the de-militarization of Hamas, he nevertheless saw his vision of economic growth for Palestine stymied in large part by the aggressive nature of the Israeli Occupation itself.  In the period of 2008 – 2013 as the relative security situation in the West Bank stabilized, the opportunity for Israel to relax economic restrictions passed and was replaced by massive increases in settlement construction.  Israel has systematically exploited periods of calm that teaches Palestinians non-violent resistance has little effect. Peace proved as expensive in land, as war had been in lives.  Since the Oslo Accords themselves took place, and in every period of relative calm since, Israel has acted to expand its holdings in the West Bank.  Notwithstanding the withdrawal from Gaza – which was hailed at the time by President Bush as a an important step in the so-called “Road-Map to Peace,” these periods of calm have also resulted in a steady erosion of Palestinian economic growth, cultural independence and access to basic rule of law institutions.   Administrative Detention continues for hundreds if not thousands of West Bank Palestinians who are arrested and held without trial or charge or public hearing with family or legal representation.

Gaza is a prison.  The attacks by Hamas might be viewed in part as prison riot – but one in which only perhaps 10-20% of the inmates are radicalized or militant.  The rest are innocent civilians, put in harms way not just by Hamas, but also by indiscriminate bombing and shelling from the IDF.  Collective punishment and death are lessons the Palestinians remember all too well from the Second Intifada and again in 2008/2009, and 2012 in Gaza.  But the blockade and effective siege on Gaza maintained by Israel creates a massive and largely urban prison where life itself is intolerable.  It cannot be sustained without anger, frustration and eventually violent protest.  Attempts by international donors to improve economic or educational conditions in Gaza, as in the West Bank, are inevitably limited to empty promises that only temporarily disguise the shoulder high ceiling for individual or collective progress.  Nothing permanent can develop nor can any level of prosperity overcome the limitations imposed by the blockade and siege.

Sadly, peaceful non-violent resistance may be losing its legitimacy in this debate, precisely because Israel has made sure it cannot work. The West Bank has been either bought-off or largely pacified by expanded salaries as well as Palestinian Authority and Israeli repression.  As Nathan Thrall pointed out in his recent piece in the New York times, Hamas is isolated from their former supporters in Egypt and Syria, and denied the two things that allow for any sense of normalcy in Gaza: “the payment of salaries to 43,000 civil servants who worked for the Hamas government and continue to administer Gaza under the new one, and the easing of the suffocating border closures imposed by Israel and Egypt that bar most Gazans’ passage to the outside world.”

Tragically, this is why war will not stop as Palestinians in Gaza believe that there may no longer be any alternative to armed struggle.  A just peace seems an illusion.  Any cease-fire with Israel is seen as a means to legally suffocate Gaza into submission.   There would be a profound difference in the landscape and perhaps it would be more convenient for the West, if Palestinians in Gaza were led by a Nelson Mandela instead of Khaled Mashal and Ismail Haniyeh.  But we shouldn’t forget that Mandela was branded a terrorist, and imprisoned for life for leading the ANC in bombing public facilities.  Sadly, he was only released when the violence in the streets of South Africa was actually at its worst.

To be sure, neither Mashal nor Haniyeh, are a Mandela.   And yes, Hamas is often criminal and dangerous. There can be no doubt that Israel has a problem in dealing with terrorists, but it may be a problem with nearly unattainable solutions. To fulfill the dreams of a greater Israel including so-called Judea and Samaria, they cannot allow a Hamas/Fatah reconciliation that would create the possibility of a united Palestinian resistance to the occupation and continued development of settlements.   No Israeli politician can likely survive the evacuation of the West Bank settlements, without dramatic pressure from the West, including up to a half million settlers, now 20% of the population in the West Bank.   Despite unpopularity amongst American Jews and many Israelis, the settlement movement may be out of control.

But the painful reality may be that while there is no solution to Israel’s problem, they also cannot possibly win or remain secure without dramatic concessions.  Israel cannot re-occupy Gaza – they can only continue to repress it resulting in ever increasing violent episodes with an increasingly militant population. The militancy of Gaza may be here to stay, fueled not by some errant violent “Arab” personality but by decades of military and civil abuse at the hand of Israel.  Israel may attempt to Annex Area C of the West Bank, but invite another violent if disorganized resistance there.  The international attempt at a  “Buy-Off” of Palestinians in the West Bank may work for a time but the friction between a growing settler population and Palestinians will create more violence in the West Bank not less, and eventually more repressive and violent tactics that will further threaten Israelis.

It may be that the continuing conflict is less and less under any clear individual or institutional control.  It may be an illusion that organized groups are the main forces behind the conflict.   The Middle East is a center of collective identity where historical movements march forward as the manifestation of collective trauma and will.  With Avigdor Liebermann and Netanyahu taking shots at each other in the press, it seems the Israelis as well as the Palestinians are increasingly suffering from organizational disarray with little clear connection between institutions and action with no playwright – no director.  Israel’s government itself is a thinly built coalition that could crumble within days of any cease-fire that does not legitimately claim all out victory.

There is simply the storm.  The historical machine, driven by the winds of psychologically determinist forces – the gods of Troy vs. the gods of Greece whispering into the sub-conscious of heroes who understand little behind their own individual trauma or the true meaning of their political necessity.  The sub-conscious reality of pain and rage drives the conflict like the winds of a perfect storm driving all ships aground.

The murder of children including the three Israeli and single Palestinian teenager, were the last depraved indications of chaotic moral collapse before the onslaught. Without determined moral leadership, neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority may be able to resist the reality of violence that has arrived – a plague that condemns all as the consequence of nature and collective unconscious will, amoral, impervious to human thought or rationality and without pity.  Anarchy.

Three times Israel has had both the international legitimacy and moral opportunity to help build a viable Palestinian state. The first was immediately after 1967, when senior IDF General, Mattityahu Paled argued against the occupation of the West Bank. The second was at the end of the First Intifada with the advent of the Oslo Accords themselves and the third was at the end of the Second Intifada with the renewed international investment, under Fayyad.  Each time Israel has chosen an ever increasingly entrenched and militaristic expansion – and each time the Palestinians revolt.

The systems may be simply too deeply implanted.  In living in Palestine – Jenin – for as long as I have. I can no longer walk down the street without breathing the air of unresolved trauma and violence.  It’s like a concrete ring I carry around my neck as I buy a pack of cigarettes or look for a new pair of sandals.  The dust that covers the wrecked cars in the vacant lots chokes – a layer of rage that covers everything.  The signs of the martyrs that litter the town are now light boxes instead of paper posters pasted on stucco walls – ghosts that light up the streets at night.  More and more conversations are about the legitimacy of armed struggle – the futility of cultural resistance or politics.

Gary M. English is an American working in Palestine at the Freedom Theatre in the Jenin Refugee Camp in the West Bank.