Path of Most Resistance
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Nur Arafeh is is a fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, where her work focuses on the political economy of the Middle East and North Africa, business-state relations, peacebuilding strategies, the development-security nexus, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. She recently published an article at Carnegie, titled “Pacification Without a Political Horizon: Why Israel’s Strategy to Control the Palestinians Is Failing.” Diwan interviewed her this week to discuss the article, and more broadly to get her thoughts about Israeli-Palestinian relations as Benjamin Netanyahu has announced that he has formed a new government in Israel.
Michael Young: You’ve just published a Carnegie article, your first. What do you argue, and what motivated you to write the article?
Nur Arafeh: While the current wave of armed resistance in the West Bank has been receiving media attention, much coverage has been on the attacks themselves, usually viewed as isolated incidents. I wanted to write an article not only to put this wave within the larger political context of the occupied Palestinian territories, but also to ask a specific question about what these attacks tell us about the fate of Israel’s strategy of stabilization and conflict management.
As I argue in the article, since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 Israel’s main goal has been to stabilize the occupied territories by relying on two key pillars: employing pacification measures, in the form of “economic facilitations,” to coopt Palestinians; and relying on the Palestinian Authority (PA) to police its own population and maintain stability on Israel’s behalf. This strategy has been failing, as evidenced by ongoing acts of resistance, and I review the reasons for its failure. I also examine the long-term political implications of this and look into three possible future scenarios. I argue that all the possible outcomes are unsustainable and will not lead to the stability that Israel seeks. That will only come once Israel ends its oppression and accepts the Palestinians’ right to self-determination.
MY: You say the present Israeli system of control is unsustainable. However, it has lasted for over half a century. Walk us through what you see will be the main developments in the coming years that may change Israeli attitudes, if there is indeed change?
NA: I believe that global factors can play an important role in the long run to force Israel to put an end to the current system of injustice and discrimination. There are already certain developments unfolding that are likely to lead to growing challenges to Israel’s occupation regime. The most prominent development is the shift in the international perception of Israel and its depiction as a state imposing an apartheid regime of systemic subjugation and racial domination over Palestinians. This follows the adoption of the apartheid framework by major international human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, alongside Palestinian and a number of Israeli organizations.
This shift in perceptions of Israel is significant. Legally speaking, apartheid is considered a crime against humanity, and is thus prohibited and viewed as a violation of international law. Accordingly, Israel has legal responsibility for its acts of apartheid, and other countries and the United Nations have the responsibility to put an end to this situation, including by adopting international measures such as sanctions. The growing use of this framework in international arenas might prompt states to put more pressure on Israel in the future. The anti-apartheid framework is also likely to generate international support and solidarity, given the well-known history of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.
Another potentially important global development is the change in the geopolitical context. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the global condemnation of, and sanctions against, Russia that ensued, it will be difficult in the future for Western powers to turn a blind eye to Israeli actions and maintain a semblance of morality. It will be especially difficult to do so with the onset of Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government, which is showing the world Israel’s true face. As Haaretz correspondent Amos Harel warned earlier this month, the “coalition agreement between the Likud and Religious Zionism parties may have some ramifications in addition to awarding nearly unlimited powers in the territories to an extremist coalition partner with a distinct ideological agenda … [This may put] Israel in the position of increased friction with the international community that could lead to irreversible steps against it.”
Ultimately, I believe that Israel will be forced to end the current system of injustice when the costs of maintaining it become higher than the benefits. This would happen if Israel no longer enjoys unconditional impunity.
MY: Having lived in the West Bank, can you give us a sense of the dynamics on the ground there among the Palestinian population? Can you tell us more about the so-called Lion’s Den group, for example, and what it tells us about how certain militant groups are taking form?
NA: The situation in the West Bank has been at a boiling point since mid-2022, marked by almost daily raids, arrests, and killings by Israeli soldiers, an increase in armed attacks by Palestinians, and a rise in settler violence. So far, in 2022, more than 200 Palestinians and 25 Israeli Jews have been killed. Following the latest Israeli elections, which will lead to Netanyahu’s return to power and the formation of the most extreme right-wing government in Israel’s history, there has also been a growing sense of dread and apprehension among Palestinians about the future. Extreme far-right figures such as Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich are being offered important positions in the upcoming Israeli government, which will give them a great deal of authority over Palestinians in the occupied territories. These figures have been calling for more violence against Palestinians, more incursions into the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, harsher conditions for Palestinian prisoners, the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements, and the annexation of the West Bank, among other measures.
It is within this context—also characterized by the waning legitimacy of the PA and its lack of a political strategy to fulfill Palestinian rights—that emerging Palestinian militant groups have been gaining in popularity. While several militant groups have formed at the grassroots level, attempting to fill the void left by the PA—for example, the Jenin, Nablus, and Tubas brigades in the northern West Bank—Lion’s Den remains one of the most popular. Based in the old city of Nablus, the group is made up of young men in their early twenties who belong to different political factions, but who decided to move beyond factional disputes and unite against the Israeli occupation. The group has become well known for its attacks against Israeli soldiers, settlers, and military checkpoints, and has thus been the target of arrests and assassinations by Israel—with one key member arrested by the PA.
However, despite Israel’s crackdown on Lion’s Den, and while some members have turned themselves in to the PA, the group is still operating in the West Bank and is believed to have inspired emerging militant groups, such as Black Cave. Palestinian armed resistance therefore remains a great challenge to Israel and the PA.
MY: Explain the growing importance of the Palestinian population inside Israel’s 1948 borders, and what options Israel has for dealing with them?
NA: Palestinian citizens of Israel, who currently account for one fifth of the Israeli population, have always been the undesired non-Jews in the “Jewish state.” Their presence has been considered a threat to the Jewish identity of the state. To deal with the “Arab issue,” consecutive Israeli governments have undertaken a policy of Judaization that aims to maintain a Jewish demographic majority. This policy has rested on several pillars, including wiping out and denying the Palestinian identity of the Palestinian population in Israel, erasing their history, promoting their assimilation into Israeli society, and attempting to fragment them by fostering social and sectarian identities instead.
Israel has also passed several laws aimed at limiting the growth of the Palestinian population and their villages, and seeking to marginalize them politically. Today, there are more than 60 laws that discriminate against the Palestinian population of Israel and affect several areas of their lives, including employment, housing, education, and so on, effectively entrenching their second-class status. The latest law is the 2018 Jewish Nation-State Law, which, asserts that the “right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” This reinforces Jewish supremacy over the Palestinian citizens of Israel.
However, despite these policies, especially those that seek to de-Palestinianize the Palestinian population in the 1948 territories and engineer “good Arabs” who are assimilated into Israeli Jewish society, there remains a strong sense of Palestinian identity among the Palestinian citizens of Israel. This was especially evident during the Unity Uprising of May 2021, which occurred following Israel’s attempts to evict Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem. During the uprising, thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel protested, asserting their Palestinian identity and showing that they were united with Palestinians in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, and confirming that they were essential to the struggle against Israeli oppression and apartheid.
In response to the protests, Israel engaged in a campaign of intimidation against Palestinian citizens of Israel and intensified measures to deny their Palestinian identity—such as banning the Palestinian flag. These measures coincided with an incitement campaign against Palestinians by Israeli political and religious leaders, which has become increasingly prevalent in the past decade. All such measures are likely to intensify in the future.
With the advent of the new far-right government, talk about “expelling Arabs” has resurfaced, spurred by figures such as Ben-Gvir. However, it is unlikely that the upcoming government will take such extreme measures in the near future, not least because Arab regimes that have normalized relations with Israel will not dare turn a blind eye to such actions.
MY: How credible would be a Palestinian strategy of armed resistance against Israel, particularly if it is associated with groups whose recognition of Israel is doubtful, such as Hamas? In other words, if Israel’s system of control is unsustainable, might we not also reach a stage where Palestinian resistance becomes unsustainable if it is seen as seeking Israel’s defeat?
NA: Palestinian resistance has been multifaceted and has assumed different forms, including legal, economic, and armed resistance, in addition to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign. The current wave of armed resistance in the West Bank is not a strategy; it remains largely limited in scope and is being driven by militant groups that have not identified clear political goals and lack a solid organizational and leadership foundation.
The main challenge facing Palestinians at present is the absence of a clear political endgame that would provide some sort of guidance toward which tools of resistance are most appropriate to be used. In the context of an increasingly weakened PA, which lacks legitimacy and credibility, Palestinians at the grassroots level have instead focused on key principles such as freedom, equality, and justice, within a rights-based framework. However, the key challenges for the future will be to unite, agree on larger political goals, and organize for the long-term.
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