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Israel is at the Height of Its Power, But the Palestinians are Still There

Photo by me_Studios | CC BY 2.0

The Palestinian issue is back on the international agenda more than at any time over the last 15 years. If the move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was intended to demonstrate that the Palestinians were powerless and there was nothing they could do about it, then it has failed.

The embassy move, signalling that the US has abandoned even its previous modest restraint on Israeli actions, had exactly the opposite effect to the one intended. The protesting Palestinians and not the celebrating Israelis and Americans became the central feature of the event. Television split screens showed what looked like a Trump campaign rally in Jerusalem side by side with Israeli soldiers shooting dead 62 Palestinians and wounding a further 1,360 in Gaza.

Israeli claims that they were defending the fence that surrounds Gaza from an attack by Hamas activists armed with stones and kites were contradicted both by the television pictures and the lack of any Israeli casualties.

But such international outrage will dissipate, as it has in the past in Gaza when Israeli forces killed Palestinians in large numbers. The most important question now is how far the “Great March of Return” of Palestinian refugees from 1948, which has just ended, was a one-off event or the beginning of a campaign of Palestinian civil disobedience. If it is the latter, then we are at the start of what an Israeli paper described as “the first act of the Trump Intifada”.

Israel, the US and Egypt have an interest in containing the aftermath of the killings on 14 May. Minor concessions easing the blockade of Gaza, which is similar to a medieval siege, were reportedly offered to Hamas by Israel, if the Islamic group would call off the protest. Egypt has announced that it will open its crossing with Gaza for Ramadan, which has just begun.

Other gains for the Palestinians, aside from temporarily putting their fate back on the political and media map, include focusing attention on the miserable conditions of the 1.9 million people living in Gaza, who are “caged in a toxic slum” according to the UN Human Rights chief Zeid Raad al-Hussein.

 

But greater visibility of their miseries does not mean that much will be done to improve matters. The balance of forces is too skewed away from the Palestinians and towards the Israelis for the latter not to feel that they can act with impunity.

The Israeli government may not like the bad publicity it has been getting, but it can cope with it so long as it does not go on too long. Daniel Levy, a former Israeli diplomat, peace negotiator and president of the US/Middle East Project, says that if Palestinian protests are not “sustained over time, which means ongoing casualties, and broadened geographically beyond Gaza to include the West Bank, Jerusalem and Israel, then the Israeli government can ride this out”. He adds that even then, if the demonstrators are to have an effect, they would have to remain unarmed and non-violent.

In the past civil disobedience has produced some benefits for the Palestinians: the First Intifada in 1987 led to the Oslo Accords and the much more violent Second Intifada in 2000 led to the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza three years later.

But it is doubtful if Palestinian leaders are capable of pursuing such a course themselves or allowing civil activists to do so. The leadership is divided between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, long locked in rancorous rivalry. The PA, in particular, is a moribund political organisation, frightened that protesters might turn against it or provoke Israeli retaliation.

Palestinian leadership has always resembled that of the Arab dictators and has always been incapable of mobilising their people. Israel may have done everything to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state, but, even without Israeli repression, this was hobbled by corrupt and incompetent elites, monopolising power and suppressing dissent.

Israel is apparently at the height of its power with carte blanche from the White House to do what it wants. The US blamed Hamas for the Palestinian casualties in Gaza without a word of criticism for Israel. Arab states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE give priority to allying themselves to the US against Iran and are dismissive of the Palestinians’ plight.

But such total endorsement of Israel by the US may not be in the long-term interests of Israel. The embrace of Israel by Trump, the Republicans and Christian Evangelicals alienates Democrats, though this may not count for much. Perhaps more important, American Jews were shocked to see pastors whom they identified as antisemitic bigots playing a leading role in the opening of the US embassy.

Lack of any US restraint is attractive to Israel’s right-wing government, but it will not necessarily do Israelis a lot of good. Israeli governments tend to be overconfident and are prone to overplaying their hand. Their invasion of Lebanon in 1982 turned into an unsuccessful 18-year-long war. A US government purporting to act as mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, though wholly in Israel’s corner, was arguably more useful to Israel than the US when it makes no such pretence. Arab states may today say positive things about Israel, but their previous opposition was largely rhetorical.

For Israel, there are two dangers stemming from Trump: Israel has always wanted to be close to US leaders, but it has never dealt with one as arbitrary, ill-advised and self-willed as this president. Netanyahu has traditionally been cautious when it comes to fighting real wars, though he is always happy to threaten to do so unless he gets what he wants. With Trump in the White House, he may feel that Israel will never be so well placed again and this is the moment to establish facts on the map.

A more serious weakness in Israel’s strategic position in the Middle East is likely to be worsened by uncritical support from Washington. There are 6.5 million Israeli Jews and a similar number of Palestinians between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. All the Palestinians living in Gaza, West Bank, East Jerusalem and Israel are under some form of Israeli control.

It is a situation that guarantees permanent crisis. Israel has the choice of expelling the Palestinians, subjugating them permanently or trying to find some means of coexisting with them. Mass expulsion is not feasible at this time and a deal on coexistence is unlikely, which leaves permanent repression as the only option.

It may be that the protests in Gaza that led to so many people being killed will not turn into a more widespread, non-violent civil disobedience.

But neither can Israel turn its superiority of force – and even its close alliance with Trump – into a permanent victory, because, whatever it does, the Palestinians will still be there.

 

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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