Things couldn’t stay as they were — and so, they didn’t. After almost a year of escalation, which was largely ignored by the international media despite near-daily death tolls, Israel and the Palestinian territories have erupted into a brutal and devastating war.
The political backdrop to this war was stark. After more than fifty years of pretence that the Palestinians would be permitted to have a state on the 1967 borders, the world’s longest occupation has turned into a formal process of annexation.
That shift was barely remarked upon by many of those now covering the violence. But it is, nonetheless, the single most important factor to understanding the war. It marked a historic turning point which has been recognised by every faction in Israeli and Palestinian politics.
Without context, there can be no progress. That context doesn’t justify the killing of civilians at festivals or families in their homes — nothing can do that. But context does remind us that every atrocity, every death and every act of vengeance has both power and history behind it. Those who treat the recent violence as if it has appeared from a void will offer nothing to the pursuit of peace.
After many years of attempting to achieve statehood through non-violent legal and political means, the mainstream Palestinian movement has reached the end of a road. The world is now seeing the consequences of that reality. As Israeli newspaper Haaretz wrote in its editorial:
The prime minister… failed to identify the dangers he was consciously leading Israel into when establishing a government of annexation and dispossession… while embracing a foreign policy that openly ignored the rights and existence of Palestinians.
That is a charitable perspective. Benjamin Netanyahu and his government must have been aware that this was one of the likely outcomes of their policies.
As a result of those policies, between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea today, there is only one state. It governs two peoples who live by different rules: Jews, who enjoy the highest standards of human, civil and economic rights, even when these conflict with international law; and Palestinians, who cannot claim equal citizenship in any part of their historic homeland and instead live under varying degrees of oppression.
In Gaza, this has meant a sixteen-year blockade which controls almost every aspect of what enters and leaves the territory — resulting in regular shortages of essentials from electricity to water to medicine, food and building materials. Two million people live in the Strip, almost half are children, more than half live in poverty and they have now been subjected to six wars since the blockade began.
In the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Palestinians are divided into 224 ghettos, denied the rights to travel or associate freely by hundreds of roadblocks and military checkpoints, subject to arbitrary and prolonged detention (1,260 are currently interned without charge or trial), forcibly evicted on a regular basis, and killed, in the first half of 2023, at a rate of almost one per day. Then in Israel itself, they are also second-class citizens: denied the right to occupy as much as 80 percent of the land in a country that, since 2018, has been enshrined exclusively as a ‘nation state of the Jewish people.’
The world’s leading human rights organisations, from Amnesty International to Human Rights Watch, describe this as apartheid. So, too, does the South African movement which lived under and fought that system. The Palestinians have a right to resist apartheid. Those who are appalled by violence must contend with the indisputable fact that every legal and political route to such resistance has been systematically closed off by the Israeli government.
Thirty years ago, in the Oslo Accords, the mainstream of the Palestinian movement committed itself to non-violence in pursuit of statehood. It recognised the state of Israel and even signed an agreement which acknowledged temporary Israeli control over a majority of the West Bank. What was the result? In the years since, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank has quadrupled — all but ruling out the prospect of a Palestinian state on the internationally-recognised 1967 borders.
The failure of the Oslo process was followed by the Second Intifada but, once it ended, the prospect of a non-violent solution was again on the table. In 2005, Palestinian civil society launched the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which aimed to exert international pressure on Israel to end its occupation. In response, Israel made such boycotts illegal, threatened ‘targeted civil eliminations’ against the movement’s leaders, harassed its activists and launched an international campaign to criminalise the tactic.
Then, just five years ago, Palestinians in Gaza began the Great March of Return — a mass protest against the blockade and wider occupation. Israel responded by shooting dead more than 200 protestors and injuring over 9,000 as they approached the fence which kept them penned in what is widely described as the world’s largest open-air prison.
What is the sum total of progress achieved by these non-violent initiatives? What has been gained by decades of the mainstream Palestinian movement committing itself to political and legal means to challenge apartheid and occupation? What result has appealing to the conscience of the ‘international community,’ the authority of international law or the sympathy of human rights organisations delivered for the Palestinians?
Violence against Palestinians continued unabated. From 2008 until this latest war, United Nations statistics show that Palestinians accounted for 95 percent of deaths and 96 percent of injuries arising from what is erroneously described as a ‘conflict.’ The term conflict implies some degree of symmetry — but for years, only one side has been dying en masse, losing its historic homeland, and subject to widespread immiseration. There is simply no comparison.
And then, in a final insult to those who advocate non-violence, the long occupation by Israel of Palestinian territory progressed into full annexation. It began with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party formally endorsing the annexation of parts of the West Bank in 2017, which in turn became a key pillar of the party’s 2019 election campaigns. In 2020, this plan became government policy and, in 2022, Israel elected a far-right government committed to ‘the Jewish people’s exclusive right over the entire Land of Israel.’
In February, this annexation took its most significant step. For decades, the occupation had been treated by Israel as a military affair — overseen by the Minister for Defence. But earliest this year, Israel formally transferred powers over the territory to its civilian government. And what’s more, it handed them to a self-described ‘fascist,’ Bezalel Smotrich. As Foreign Policy wrote, ‘the move effectively anointed Smotrich de facto governor of the West Bank.’
None of this takes away from the tragedy of recent days. Nor does it imply the morality or efficacy of political violence. It can’t justify the killing of Israeli civilians by Palestinians, which in turn has led to a further killing of civilians in Gaza and beyond by the Israeli government. The deliberate targeting of civilians, wherever it takes place, is an abhorrent crime.
But if it is truly the killing of civilians that we are concerned about, is it not fair to ask why it is only now that Western politicians and media outlets have taken an interest? When Palestinian civilians were being killed at a rate of almost one per day for months earlier this year, why did this provoke no outrage?
The harsh conclusion one has to draw is this: for the West, the slow erasure of Palestine, with all of the injustices that entailed, was ultimately acceptable. Those who have spent years advocating for non-violent alternatives to the current bloodbath were betrayed by the very ‘international community’ which now issues its one-sided condemnations but which did not care enough to act decisively in pursuit of peace when it was a possibility.
In the coming days, Israel will accelerate efforts to erase Palestine by flattening large parts of Gaza. It will do so with one of the most powerful militaries the world has ever seen. It will do so as a policy, with its Defence Minister describing Palestinians as ‘human animals’ and army spokespeople saying, ‘our focus is on (creating) damage, not on precision.’ And it will do so with the complicity of the West, whose governments fly its flags on their official buildings.
It will do this in the name of ‘eliminating Hamas.’ But Hamas, whose atrocities deserve bitter condemnation, is a product of alienation, desperation and dispossession. The movement is seen by millions of Palestinians as part of a resistance to exactly the kind of indiscriminate destruction Israel is now unleashing upon a defenceless population. If Israel truly wanted to ‘wipe Hamas off the face of the earth,’ as its Defence Minister says, it would deal with the conditions that created them. But of course, it has no intention of doing that.
When you restore context to the situation in Palestine, it becomes clear that the only path to peace is the end of the apartheid system. And yet, anyone who makes that case can expect to be roundly demonised in the coming days and weeks. The established consensus is that the ‘normality’ which prevailed until just a few days ago must be restored — even if it is abundantly clear that such normality has led us precisely to today’s disaster.