Four important ways to advance the conversation on Palestine
Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip over the summer prompted an unprecedented outpouring of solidarity for Palestinians in the West, from street protests to expressions of outrage by mainstream politicians. Israel suffered serious damage to its reputation, while support for Palestinians – including through tactics like boycott and divestment – grew.
This occurred in the context of a slowly but steadily deteriorating environment for Israel in countries whose political leaders can still be counted on, by and large, to offer essential diplomatic, military, and economic support. The patience of even Israel’s allies has been tested through a combination of a collapsed peace process, a rejectionist Israeli government, and continued settlement construction.
The British Parliament’s vote in support of Palestinian statehood may not have much of an impact in and of itself, but this was less a breakthrough and more an indicator of well-established trends that give Israel and its supporters serious cause for concern.
Another recent example came in the shape of former Conservative minister Alan Duncan’s speech to the RUSI, where he lambasted Israeli policies in the West Bank as a form of “apartheid.” It was reminiscent of a speech in January by another former minister, Labour’s Peter Hain, who slammed “Israel’s relentless expansion into Palestinian territories” and described Palestinians as “denied their right to self-determination and subject to ruthless violations of their human rights.”
Yet despite the progress with regards to the mainstream conversations on Palestine, there are important ways in which the discussion is limited and problematic. Putting it more positively, criticisms or arguments being advanced by Israel’s mainstream critics should be affirmed – but then taken further. It is a ‘Yes, but actually’ approach, and I will give four key examples.
1. Israel’s attack on Gaza was ‘disproportionate’.
A frequent criticism levelled at Israel’s attacks on Gaza were that they were “disproportionate.” One example was an op-ed written by British deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who wrote on 1 August that “Israel’s military action appears disproportionate” and contributed, with the blockade, to “the collective suffering of the Palestinian people.” ‘Disproportionality’ was a criticism echoed by the UK electorate, as well as other commentators and politicians.
Valid criticisms, but even well-intentioned questions about proportionality can obscure the fundamental context of Israeli occupation and Palestinian resistance. To say Israel’s attacks on Gaza were ‘disproportionate’ means there are ‘proportionate’ attacks of which the critic would approve. It suggests a false symmetry of ‘two sides’, where the Gaza Strip is presented as a state trapped in a tit-for-tat ‘cycle of violence’ with its neighbour.
Israel’s assault on Gaza was not primarily objectionable because its military tactics and targets were ‘disproportionate.’ It was objectionable because an occupied, dispossessed people were subjected to yet another act of brutal colonial disciplining by an army that daily enforces an apartheid system, and targets civilian infrastructure in the name of ‘deterrence’.
2. The Israeli government is blocking progress in the peace process.
The current Israeli government under the leadership of PM Benjamin Netanyahu includes open opponents of the two-state solution and Palestinian independence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It is a government sufficiently beholden to the interests of the far/right-wing and settler movement, so insufficiently motivated to achieve a final settlement even Mahmoud Abbas can accept, that public tensions have emerged between Israel and its strongest ally America.
So yes, the peace process collapsed largely due to Israeli intransigence and provocations. But in fact, the entire framework of the U.S. and Quartet-led peace process is severely flawed, regardless of the Israeli government’s position at any given time. Twenty years of negotiations, ushered in by the Oslo Accords, has produced only more Israeli colonisation, and consolidation of a legal system and practical regime of segregation and exclusion.
That’s because the so-called peace process has been all about a never-ending process, and no peace – at least, not a peace based on justice. It has shielded Israel from both accountability for its crimes, and from the prospect of the democratisation it so fears. The peace process has sought to supplant international law and norms, not enforce them. In this peace process, Israel has ‘security needs’, but Palestinians do not. The demands of the coloniser are ‘reasonable’, and ‘pragmatic’ – the basic rights of the colonised are ‘delusional’ and the subject of necessary ‘compromise.’
3. Boycotting settlement produce is a helpful step to take.
Settlements are illegal under international law. Settlements are an obstacle to peace. These two statements enjoy a consensus of support amongst world governments and mainstream commentators and opinion-makers. Thus a boycott of goods produced in these settlements has taken off in recent times, and has started to enjoy support even from those for whom anything to do with boycotts has seemed risky or ‘radical’. However, if one is genuinely interested in ending and securing accountability for Israel’s grave violations of Palestinian rights, then this narrow boycott just isn’t enough. Why? Because it is the Israeli government itself that creates and maintains these settlements. Because a whole host of Israeli institutions and companies, from universities to banks, support and are complicit in, the network of colonies that fragment the Palestinian territories and necessitate an apartheid system of control. Indeed, vital steps such as an arms embargo is about ending our complicity. Boycott is based on the facts of Israeli policies, it is requested by Palestinians, and it is about ending impunity.
4. The two-state solution is at risk – or even already impossible – due to Israeli facts on the ground, particularly in the West Bank.
Over the last few years, it has become a truism of even the most mild-mannered statement by Western politicians and diplomats that the ‘facts on the ground’ are endangering the two-state solution. By which they mean that Israel has colonised the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, to such an extent that establishing a genuinely sovereign and viable Palestinian state in the territories occupied in 1967 could become – or already is – an impossible task.
Again, this is correct, as far as it goes. Israel has indeed absorbed the West Bank into the pre-1967 territory through a network of illegal settlements, infrastructure, water networks, and legislation. And yes, Israel’s positions on issues such as the division of Jerusalem are incompatible with a feasible two-state solution. But the question surely is, is this two-state solution even desirable?
Israeli diplomat Eviator Manor declared in Geneva this week that his country is willing to make compromises “to realize the creation of a demilitarized Palestinian State living side-by-side with the Jewish State of Israel.” The Jewish State of Israel? Leaving aside whether Manor had been inspired by #JSIL tweets, what are the implications here? Palestinian citizens of Israel will forever face systematic discrimination, while Palestinian refugees will be denied their right to return.
This is what is behind Israel’s demand to be recognised as a Jewish state, a demand attracting increasing levels of critical scrutiny – and hence the shift in discourse by Israel lobby groups to earnestly endorse the establishment of a ‘Palestinian state’ (subject to terms and conditions etc. etc.)
The increased levels of awareness about the Palestinian struggle are to be welcomed – but the conversation and responses have some way to go yet.
First published on Middle East Monitor