The Third Intifada: a Backgrounder

Photograph Source: Matt Hrkac – CC BY 2.0

In much of what remains of the left in places like the US and the UK people busily form Circular Firing Squads for the purposes of eliminating microaggressions and any vestigial traces of antisemitism that might be found under old rocks. Meanwhile in the Middle East, the US client state that rules over Islam’s holiest sites, Saudi Arabia, is in the process of totally destroying the country of Yemen, where there is a catastrophic famine going on right now. Nearby, the US client state of Israel is doing the same thing to the people of Gaza, all the while claiming to do this for self-protection and for the love of the Jewish people, who they claim to represent, as the world’s only self-proclaimed Jewish State.

The US government is wading in human blood all over the world, involved with so many wars, and making them so much deadlier than they might otherwise be, if they would have happened at all.  The US is the world’s biggest arms exporter, with the world’s biggest military budget — by far — and of course by far the biggest supporter of Israel, constantly funneling US tax dollars to the country through military aid, which are not loans, but are the world’s most advanced fighter jets, helicopter gunships, supposedly illegal chemical weapons, and so on.

There are a lot of other horrible wars, famines, environmental wastelands, and other extreme regional and global tragedies that the US government and US corporations are directly responsible for, right now, involving daily, ongoing crimes against humanity.  But what’s dominated the news lately — and lives of so many millions of suffering people — is events around Israel, Palestine, and in particular, Gaza.  The amount of disinformation coming across the airwaves in the English-language press is staggering to anyone who knows what kinds of intellectual hoops these pundits are jumping through, and all the word games they have to play every other second as they speak, in order to avoid telling the awful truth, such as Ambassador Dennis Ross on NPR this morning.

So here’s a little dose of reality in the form of a Q&A, to help vaccinate you from the tsunami of disinformation you are currently facing, if you are a news-reading English-speaker like me.

But isn’t it all too difficult to understand?

No.  If you get into the weeds of anything, there’s lots of complexity.  But when you back up, things are often pretty simple.  While we can all endlessly work out the details in terms of how people can all get along better with concern to religion, race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, linguistic grouping, sexual orientation, and so on, the fundamental situation here has nothing to do with any of that.

The Palestinians are the indigenous people in Palestine.  Palestinian people come from a variety of religious backgrounds, whether they are practicing or not.  These include Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and others. A tiny fraction of the citizens of the Jewish State today are Jewish Palestinians, but the overwhelming majority of the Jewish Israelis are colonists or the children or grandchildren of colonists, who came from Europe, North America, and elsewhere.

But aren’t Jews originally from what is now Israel?

All of us are originally from Africa, so if we go back far enough, a fine claim can be made on a patch of African land, don’t you think?

Christians were also persecuted by the Romans.  Christians could — and have — made the same case for colonizing other parts of the world.  It’s fundamentally nothing more than a mythological justification for the seizure of another people’s land.  If you look at creation myths for colonizers around the world, you’ll find the same kind of nonsense, including in New Zealand (some people love to exempt New Zealand from the club of kleptocratic settler-colonial countries — it’s not exempt, and it has the prison population to prove it).

You say the Jews who settled Palestine and declared the state of Israel were colonists?  But they were oppressed immigrants and refugees, weren’t they?

Yup.  This is true of colonists around the world, throughout the history of colonization.  Colonists are rarely the “cream of the crop.”  Those who are rich and comfortable don’t tend to leave home.  It’s the desperate who leave.  That’s who came to the US, mostly.  Contrary to all the mythology you grew up with about pioneers and adventurers, most of the Europeans who came to the US — that is, the white immigrants who were allowed to come here — were refugees, in fact.  German-speakers escaping wars between France and Prussia, eastern Europeans fleeing wars and indefinite conscription, Jews fleeing the additional horrors on top of all that of pogroms and other forms of antisemitism (both institutional and on the streets), Irish fleeing their colonial oppressors and famine, and so on.

The Europeans who colonized the US largely did so by means of a process involving carrots and sticks.  White people could emigrate, but they had to carry guns, join the militia, and be ready to kill Indians and round up enslaved Africans who escaped their captors.  White people could own land, but only if they took their guns west, stole it from indigenous people, and defended it from them afterwards.

In Israel, it’s the same, just replace “white” for “Jewish” and “Indian” for “Palestinian.”  The mostly white European Jewish colonizers were most definitely refugees as well as immigrants.  They were fleeing the aforementioned pogroms in the earlier period of the Zionist movement, which began in earnest in the 1890’s, and then in the wake of World War II, they were fleeing what was clearly a very dangerous continent, where a fascist regime had just ruled most of for years, killing tens of millions of people, including millions of Jewish-descended Europeans, solely because they were of Jewish extraction.  The Jewish European colonizers, in short, were fleeing what was — and what remains up til this day — the most horrific mass slaughter of human beings the world has ever seen (Nazi-ruled Europe).

Why didn’t all those Jewish refugees go somewhere else, where they might be more welcome?

Unlike today, back in the 1940’s and for centuries prior to that, antisemitism was a very real and deadly phenomenon.  The worst of it, up until the 1930’s, wasn’t even in Germany, but that sure changed after Hitler came to power.  So basically nobody wanted the Jews.  Jews were trying to get out of the most dangerous places, like Germany or countries that looked likely to soon be ruled by Germany, back in the 1930’s, but they — my relatives, in some cases — were kept out of places like the US, Canada, and Cuba by laws that were made specially to discriminate against Jews and other eastern Europeans.

Eastern and southern Europeans were facing massive official discrimination in the US.  Popular wisdom had it that most of the trouble-makers (mainly anarchists and socialists) were from that part of Europe, not like the well-mannered, obedient immigrants from the north and west of Europe.  As a result of these discriminatory laws — which were not rescinded until 1944 — the Jews trying to get out of Europe could not come to Britain or North America, so many of them fled to the countries that would take them, such as Palestine.

Palestine?  Was that a country?

Yes and no.  What we call countries in the era of nation-states is a bit different than the way these things were understood before.  Palestine was and is a region and a people with distinct cultural traditions, existing within a region with still more common traditions.  When we use the term “country” these days, we’re talking about governance, mainly.  So in that sense, Palestine was sovereign to varying degrees, depending on the period, whether Jerusalem was basically a city-state, or under Roman, Ottoman, Crusader, or British control.

After the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I, much of the world was divided up among the victorious European powers, which were all empires themselves.  The war, in fact, was a war for empire.  Palestine was under British control.  The British were the occupying power that encouraged, along with other European powers, including, for a time, Nazi Germany, Jewish emigration to Palestine.

What this emigration meant at the time was you could move to Palestine and live under British rule, along with a combination of local indigenous people and people who the British brought in, just like in any other British colony.  The Palestine Tourism Board put out posters in English, Arabic and Hebrew back then.

So then how did Israel become a country?

In the news they talked about how the different people there couldn’t get along, and they talked about intercommunal conflict and intercommunal clashes, much like they do when referring to what’s going on on the streets of so many Israeli cities in the past couple weeks.  But then as now, one side was the one with the power and all the European connections, support, and funding.

In any case, what happened was Jewish militants committed a number of massacres of Palestinian civilians and otherwise engaged in a very intentional campaign of terror, which had its intended consequences.  Around 700,000 Palestinians fled their homes in fear.  The overwhelming majority of them were never allowed to return to their homes, and this continues to this day with their descendants.  Jews moved into their homes and stole them outright, with the encouragement of the new state they were declaring on the ashes of what was once Palestine, in the literal homes of those they had just displaced by force of arms or by threat of massacre.  In the many cases where Palestinian homes were destroyed in the course of these events, new houses were built upon the ruins.  In all of these ways, this settler-colonial Zionist movement was behaving just like settler-colonialism in other instances, where Europeans took over in North America, Australia, parts of Africa, etc.

What happened next?

Armies from several other Arab countries — mostly newly-created, recently-defeated, and badly-equipped — were sent in to try to help the Palestinians.  These largely demoralized armies were defeated once again by a better-equipped, largely European (though this time entirely Jewish) enemy, and one highly motivated by recent history in their European homelands, the Nazi genocide.  Which had nothing to do with the Palestinians, but for which they have been forever paying the price, the victims of the victims, refugees fleeing refugees.

So this is where revisionist, pro-apartheid historians like to start the narrative.  “Six Arab armies attacked the fledgling state of Israel, which valiantly defended itself, against all odds.”  The problem with starting history there is that doing so shows a complete and utter contempt for anything resembling truth in advertising.  It’s telling the story of what was clearly a people attempting to defend their lands from invaders engaged in massacres and ethnic cleansing, and making it seem like the story began with this attempted retaliation at invasion and occupation.

And then, what happened in the last half of the 20th century?

After establishing an explicitly Jewish state, democratic in name only, that never allowed anything resembling full participation in state or economic affairs, to say nothing of the military, what evolved was a country very much resembling the United States under Jim Crow, or South Africa under Apartheid, which has been freely compared with these examples by people who were subject to US and South African forms of institutional racism, such as Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, Alice Walker, Angela Davis, and many others.

The new Israeli state engaged in active campaigns of myth-building/nation-building that involved long-term efforts to convince Palestinians inside Israel that they weren’t Palestinian, they were Israeli Arabs, much like those categorized in South Africa as Colored, while those Palestinians in the West Bank were another kind of Arab, more or less Jordanians of a sort newly invented for the Israeli schoolbooks.  In South African parlance, they were the Blacks in this equation of apartheid.  And then there were the growing millions in the Palestinian diaspora, in the refugee camps and around the world.

Throughout the first fifty years of Israeli statehood, Palestinian disenfranchisement and resistance was a constant, and it took many forms.  As with their indigenous counterparts in other colonized countries, the Palestinians remaining within the boundaries of what was once Palestine were living on less and less land, as it was being taken piece by piece by Israel, one way or another.

In 1967 and again in 1973, there were major military efforts on the part of Arab countries under new, more popular leadership to try to reverse the tide of Israeli expansion and Palestinian loss, but with a blank check and a constant flow of fighter jets from the United States, the highly-motivated, extremely well-funded and well-equipped Israeli military won, and with each war, Israel got bigger and territory nominally under Palestinian control shrank precipitously, to the point where by the time of the Oslo negotiations in the 1990’s, the notion of a two-state solution was increasingly becoming a total fantasy, only realistic in the minds of academics.

How many massacres of Palestinian civilians have there been?

Palestinian efforts to resist nonviolently have regularly been met with massacres.  In 1976, Palestinians protesting against more theft of Palestinian land were massacred by Israeli troops.  This became known as Land Day — one of many days in any Palestinian calendar marked by a massacre.  On the anniversary of Land Day in 2018, Palestinians again came out en masse to protest against the same ongoing confiscations of their land and futures, and once again they were met with massacres, every Friday, for over a year.

In 1982, Israeli-backed Lebanese forces, under active Israeli protection and otherwise working with the Israeli occupation forces in Lebanon at the time, killed over three thousand Palestinians, mostly women and children, over the course of several days, raping and mutilating many of them in the process of the slaughter.  They did this after Israel had negotiated for most of the adult men from the camp to leave the country, in order to avoid being killed instead.  So then they facilitated the slaughter of the remaining women and children, many of whom valiantly resisted the invading mostly Christian Maronite forces anyway, to no avail.

On the anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacres, in September, 2000, the man who was well-known as the Israeli general in charge in Lebanon at the time of the 1982 massacres went to visit the holiest site in the Muslim religion that exists in the Holy City of Jerusalem, the Al-Aqsa Mosque.  Ariel Sharon provoked Palestinians at the mosque to the point where some stones were thrown, at which point his troops opened fire.  This new massacre set off what became known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada, or the Second Intifada.

There have been so many other massacres of Palestinian civilians, I wouldn’t even know where to start listing them.  In 2002, the Israeli military bulldozed refugee camps all over the West Bank with tanks, killing hundreds of people and destroying huge parts of many cities.  The Israeli Air Force bombed all ten of the soap-making factories in the biggest West Bank city, Nablus, that year.  The Israeli Air Force has systematically bombed and bulldozed hospitals, the homes of doctors, and lots and lots of journalists and offices of the press, among many other targets.

Do the Israelis imprison and torture children on a systematic basis?

Yes.  It’s well-known by many that the draconian policy known as indefinite detention without trial tends to give rise to a lot of resentment and opposition among the targeted population.  That’s certainly what happened when the British tried it in Northern Ireland in the early 1970’s.  It works that way on Palestinians, too.  Except unlike in Northern Ireland, where the occupiers abandoned this extreme policy after a few years, it has been the normal way of doing business for Israel for decades, nonstop.

Palestinians in the West Bank live under direct Israeli military rule, they’re not subject to civilian courts if they’re kidnapped by the Israeli military, which any of them are subject to at any time, for any reason, without cause or justification.  If thus abducted by soldiers at gunpoint, a judge only needs renew their detention every six months, as long as the judge wants to.  While detained, being tortured through the use of solitary confinement, stress positions, and other forms of physical and psychological torture is completely normal.

But didn’t Israel pull out of Gaza?

Sort of, but not really at all.  Gaza was, and is, one of the most densely-populated places on Earth.  There were enough Jewish Israeli settlers in Gaza to populate a small town, taking up a third of the space.  It wasn’t tenable.  As with other non-tenable settler outposts on occasion, it was abandoned, with much fanfare, and the settlers were relocated to other settlements, which are all incidentally illegal settlements under international law, not that most governments are paying attention.

What’s the deal with the wall?

The Apartheid Wall, as it’s popularly known around the world, was another initiative of the early 21st century, along with the relocation of some settlers from Gaza to the West Bank.  Sold to the global public by the Israeli regime as a wall to divide what they refer to as Jewish and Arab neighborhoods, as a sort of aid to the peace process, in fact the wall was a massive process of more land theft, surrounding Palestinian town centers and villages, cutting them off from farmland or any other means of survival, basically surrounding occupied ghettoes with walls, to describe perfectly accurately.  They turned the West Bank into an outdoor prison, with a pretend, not at all sovereign government to run small parts of the inmate population.

For the first half century or so of the existence of the state of Israel, the Jewish State could never get enough Jews to move there the way they wanted them to.  Most Jews preferred to stay somewhere with less conflict, like post-war Europe or North America.  So the labor shortage was generally solved with Palestinian workers.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the sudden impoverishment of a hundred million Russians, people all over the former USSR were looking for a way out of this country that was in such a destabilized state.  People emigrated to where they could.  Once again, the US and Britain were often preferred destinations.  Many Russians have relatives here, just like everyone else in Europe does.  But there were quotas, and so lots of the ended up emigrating to Israel, if they were Jewish enough to be allowed to do so, which of course millions of Russians were, and are.

Labor shortage solved, it was time to step up the apartheid and the ethnic cleansing campaign, which is what has been going on for the past two decades or so.

If the Israelis left Gaza, why is it so poor?

Because it is prevented by Israel from accessing international waters.  Although Gaza is right there on the Mediterranean Sea, a straight shot from Cyprus, there is no ferry.  There is no airport.  Nothing.  They can’t even visit their relatives in the West Bank or Israel or Lebanon or anywhere else.  No one is allowed in or out, and the amount of anything else that’s allowed in or out is very tightly controlled by Israel, or by Egypt, to the southwest, which is the country that receives the most US military aid in the world after than Israel, last I checked.

In addition to the land, air and water siege, fighter jets break the sound barrier over Gaza every hour of the day and night, preventing anyone from ever sleeping well.  Just like the sadistic prison guards systematically do to torture prisoners in Alabama, New York, Illinois, and elsewhere.

But what should Israel do about the rockets?

For the vast majority of the history of the state of Israel, Palestinian resistance has been overwhelmingly nonviolent, or has involved the kind of symbolic violence that is widely understood to be represented by the child throwing a rock at a tank.  The home-made rockets launched from Gaza are not much better, as can be seen from the fact that if they do serious damage or cause injury or death, it is only when they land directly on top of a structure.  Throwing a grenade can kill people, for sure, but these rockets are more like long-range grenades than anything we would normally call a “rocket.”

Nonetheless, what is more surprising to most people around the world is how little violent resistance there has been, given how violent the occupation of Palestine has been and continues to be.  As with any other situation where there is such oppression and such extreme inequity, resistance of all kinds is inevitable, and the only way out of this cycle is to stop the oppression.

But don’t they want to drive the Jews into the sea?

The campaign of terror against Palestinian civilians that gave birth to the state of Israel in 1947-48 was a very real and successful effort to drive 700,000 people from their homes.  Israel has been driving Palestinians from their homes in so many different ways ever since, by annexing Palestinian land, destroying Palestinian homes with armored bulldozers, tanks, and fighter jets, uprooting olive groves, beating, killing, arresting, harassing, kidnapping, and otherwise making life unbearable for Palestinians, who die of heart attacks as a result of the stress being a Palestinian in Palestine at a disproportionate rate.

As a result of living under such horrific conditions, being so regularly massacred, bombed, and so on, there is a wide variety of opinion on the ground and among political parties about how to resolve the situation.  This definitely includes those who advocate expelling or killing or otherwise dealing with entire populations, but the loudest and most powerful forces with this orientation are in power within the Israeli government, and increasingly dominant on the streets of Israel in the form of anti-Palestinian mobs.

But isn’t Hamas a terrorist organization?

Palestinian society, as with most societies, is split politically in many different ways.  At the same time, it’s broadly united around certain principles, as well.  All the political factions, and easily the vast majority of Palestinians on the ground, believe that responding to violent repression with violent resistance is completely justified.

But when there isn’t a crisis going on where everyone is talking about their unified opposition to the Israeli bombing in Gaza and support for retaliation against it, Hamas and Fatah are vying for control of Palestinian hearts and minds, as well as city councils.  Hamas was democratically elected throughout the West Bank and Gaza as a political party, but has only been able to exercise that power in Gaza and certain other localities, because of this ongoing conflict.  Israel and the United States don’t tend to recognize Hamas as a political party, but only as what they call a terrorist organization that dares to resist the destruction of their people and their homes, and the theft of their land, such as those in East Jerusalem, which is key to the current iteration of the struggle for Palestine.  So when hospitals or other buildings that contain any government offices are bombed, the Israelis say they were destroying terrorist infrastructure.

If I speak out against Israeli apartheid, does that make me an antisemite?

No.  But it is a minefield out there.  The fact that Israel is a self-proclaimed Jewish state where there are regularly mobs of Jews marching through the streets chanting “kill the Arabs,” where the far right government is actively bombing the homes of doctors and press agencies, where walls surround ghettoes, staffed by soldiers with heavy weapons in guard towers, where any Palestinian can be detained indefinitely without trial at any moment or killed for existing, these things tend to invite comparisons with even less savory far right regimes than this one, such as Nazi Germany.  Despite the many aforementioned parallels that do exist, other important parallels do not, such as gas chambers that can incinerate thousands of people per day, and so if you do engage in such inaccurate statements such as “it’s the same as,” you probably won’t be serving the Palestinian cause very well, and you may face all sorts of accusations as well.  You may face them without making any such statements, in fact.

But fundamentally, my own personal observation of Israel and Israeli Jews, from my time growing up in the New York area and from my time in Israel itself, engaging a lot of people in very uncomfortable conversations during my visits, is in the wake of the Nazi holocaust that killed so many of my family members in Europe and so many others, when my parents were children, people growing up in the shadow of that indescribably horrific event that wanted to be known as the Third Reich, is most of them went in one of three directions, both personally and politically:

Many of them doubled down on generations of efforts to assimilate, change their names, and otherwise just be part of different societies as best they could, trying to hide the fear in their eyes, that slowly dissipated over the decades in most of the world, along with antisemitism itself.

Many others said “never again” applies not just to Jews, but to everyone.  They joined what was already a thriving tradition among Jews in so many countries, which got them in trouble, individually and as a group, with the authorities in the US and elsewhere during the waves of mass European migration to North America in the 19th and early 20th centuries — they joined the left-liberal political spectrum that identified with the broader community of people.  Jews are the only white ethnic group in the US that consistently votes Democrat.  Jews are disproportionately to be found leading left groups, disproportionately making up the ranks of leading left intellectuals and activists.

Still others seem to have decided that “never again” only applied to them and their fellow Jews.  I am personally just as familiar with this group as I am with the aforementioned other two groups.  I have lots of immediate as well as extended family members in each group.  The “never again only applies to us” group has been dominant in Israel since the formation of the state of Israel, and is more dominant now than ever before.  And it’s terrifying.

What is to be done?

As long as the US, Europe, China, etc., trades with Israel and otherwise supports Israel politically and economically, particularly with the US military aid, many people would say there is no hope for any resolution of the ongoing horrors there.  Not a solution that can be found from within, with the “two parties negotiating.”  There are no two parties — it’s occupier and occupied.  No real negotiation is possible under such circumstances.  Anyone who calls this kind of thing a negotiation is engaging in gaslighting, or is completely ignorant.

I don’t know what can be accomplished until we stop enabling the abuser here.  But we can certainly start with understanding the relationship as such, and proclaiming this loudly and clearly, with no fear of being labeled antisemitic as a result of pointing out that Jews are also capable of running apartheid states, along with other people.


David Rovics is a frequently-touring singer/songwriter and political pundit based out of Portland, Oregon.  His website is