Fighters from the Palestinian Fatah movement. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP/Getty)

February 20, 2023   9 mins

The deadly wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence that crested in the last week of January seems to have subsided for now. Yes, the IDF keeps raiding West Bank sites to arrest holed-up militants, occasionally with casualties, and various militants keep attempting to carry out terrorist attacks against Israelis. Sometimes even a rocket or two is fired from Gaza toward southern Israel and the Israeli Air Force “retaliates”, mostly without any casualties on either side.

But the unusually high body count in January hasn’t led to a spiralling escalation. There was no terrorist attack that shocked Israelis out of their routine and forced the government’s hand into a broader operation. There was no deadly revenge attack from settler radicals. There was no botched Israeli military operation with a high body count, which then circulated on social media and spiked local passions and global condemnations. But at some point, probably soon, our luck will run out. After nearly two decades of comparative quiet, the Israelis and Palestinians seem headed towards another pointless round of violence.

Israel’s fundamental dilemma has not changed much since 1967 when it first conquered the West Bank from Jordan in the Six Day War. Withdrawing from the occupied territories leaves the very real risk that they will become a base for future attacks (as has happened with nearly every other territory Israel has withdrawn from), while incorporating the territories into Israel requires an existential compromise on either Israel’s democratic or Jewish character. Avoiding a decision, meanwhile, raises the costs of a future settlement while sinking Israel deeper into the strategic and moral morass of occupying a foreign nation and governing the Israeli civilians who have settled there.

Aspects of the dilemma have shifted slightly, but this big picture has not. The internal Israeli political debate has taken to ignoring the issue, and for now is consumed with a controversial legal reform advanced by Netanyahu’s new Right-wing government to weaken the Supreme Court. It is a highly illiberal reform and Israel will be much better off if it is blocked or heavily diluted. But it’s hard to say that it heralds “the end of Israeli democracy”, especially when that has been the charge against nearly every development in Israeli politics in the last 40 years. And while this diversion draws all the attention, a parallel legislative effort is quietly underway which, if anything, is even more ruinous to Israeli democracy. This is the attempt to legalise the wildcat Israeli settlement Homesh, located outside Jenin in the northern West Bank. It is one of four which Israel took down in the 2005 Disengagement, the same week as it pulled out all of its soldiers and settlers from Gaza.

From 2007 to 2020 the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian territories had three faces. In Gaza, there was no military or Israeli civilian presence of any kind, and the territory was ruled by an isolated and internationally-unrecognised Hamas government. In the northern West Bank around Jenin, there was no Israeli civilian presence but full freedom of action for the IDF to carry out raids and arrests, with varying measures of security cooperation from the Palestinian Authority, and a large and mostly unnoticed business footprint of Israeli Arabs from northern Israel. In the rest of the West Bank there was also a significant Israeli military presence, but unlike in the Jenin sector there was a large and growing Israeli civilian presence as well.

This status quo held for 13 years, and created a kind of unintended laboratory condition for dealing with the Palestinian Territories without a peace agreement (or a full-scale war, for that matter). And the clear winner among the three was the model that had a military presence but no Israeli settlers. Jenin, which had been the suicide bomber capital of Palestine in the Second Intifada, became the quietest sector in the entire conflict. Compared with the chronic violence in and around Hebron, to say nothing of Gaza, it left little room for doubt: the disengagement from the northern West Bank was, in the immediate term at least, a success.

But for the Israeli settler movement, this was a success that had to be denied or obscured, lest it be copied elsewhere in the West Bank. Repeated efforts were made to reestablish settlements, especially around Homesh. But with varying levels of speed and resistance, the IDF generally moved in and removed the illegal outposts whose settlers claimed, not always seriously, that they had established a seminary not a settlement.

Then, in 2020, two things changed. First, coronavirus restrictions ended the flow of Arabs from northern Israel into the northern West Bank — as well as their cash. And second, newly appointed Defence Minister Benny Gantz, not wanting to rock the boat in anticipation of his promised rotation into the PM’s office under the deal he had struck with Netanyahu, temporarily stopped the army from removing the Homesh settlers. There, they became more and more entrenched, and the inevitable friction led to violence with local Palestinians.

When a Homesh settler was killed in an attack in 2021, the perverse logic of the entire settler enterprise ensnared the area in its death grip. The army couldn’t possibly forcibly evacuate the settlers during the mourning period; that would be giving into the terrorists. Settlers from around the West Bank paraded in their thousands to show solidarity, leaving the army no choice but to secure their passage, which necessitated road closures and checkpoints. The pretence of a seminary in Homesh was mostly dropped, and it began to look increasingly like a new settlement.

Tensions mounted and violence increased, between settlers and the local Palestinians, between Palestinians and the army, and between settlers and the army in the few cases where the latter did try to put the brakes on. The Jenin sector, for 15 years the quietest in the territories, was by 2022 the epicentre of a new wave of Palestinian terrorism, which was now spilling onto Israel’s streets — north, south, and in Tel Aviv. The army had no choice but to act, and the pace and aggression of raids and arrests took off. The link between the surge in violence and the sudden reluctance to deal with the squatters at Homesh is barely noted in Israel, and for the settler movement it is crucial that it remain so. For, amid the flurry of populist Right-wing legislation the new government has initiated, perhaps the most dangerous of all is the bill which will retroactively legalise the Homesh settlement.

It is worth pausing to consider all the various ways this unprecedented legislation would irreversibly damage the very foundations of liberal democracy in Israel. First, it would officially create a new Israeli settlement in the West Bank, something from which Israel has largely refrained for around three decades. Second, it would legalise settlement in the one place where Israeli law has explicitly forbidden it since the 2005 Disengagement. Third, it would effectively cancel part of the Disengagement, a major diplomatic initiative undertaken by the State of Israel after it had successfully defeated the Palestinians in the Second Intifada and for which it received real (and potentially reversible) benefits from the United States and the international community. Fourth, it would introduce a civilian Israeli presence into the one sector of the West Bank that has not had one for almost two decades and that, not coincidentally, managed to keep a comparatively low level of violence — with easily predictably grim results.

But fifth, it would formally void one of the central tenets of sovereign statehood, namely the monopoly on armed force and capacity to set foreign and security policy. The proposed law doesn’t change policy for the future; it legitimises the actions of settlers in the past. It essentially tells the armed thugs who violated Israeli law for the past few years, commandeered private property, engaged in violent scuffles with the Israel Police and the IDF, and were linked repeatedly to harassment of Palestinian civilians nearby, that this is and was a legitimate way to pursue political interests. There is no real looking back from this moment, not in a country where so many are armed and where the political divisions are so deep. And not when the Cabinet member who oversees the Israel Police, Itamar Ben-Gvir, is so closely identified with the groups that will have achieved their goals through these methods.

Ben-Gvir, for years a far-Right rabble rouser but now a minister, has never worn a uniform or served a day in his life. He orders the police to quickly demolish the homes of families of terrorists who are killed in their attacks against Israelis, though this tactic has been shown repeatedly to be worse than useless. Bereft of new ideas, he has been reduced to populist stunts, sharing videos of himself eating pitta bread after removing pitta bread from the mess halls of security prisons. Under his watch, a remarkable run of comparative peace and prosperity is coming to an end.

On the Palestinian side, the situation is even worse. The Israelis have an alternative if they ever choose to turn against the coalition currently in power. The Palestinians do not even have a vocabulary for connecting their actions to their outcomes.

Any serious discussion of the Palestinian state should ask whether or not life has improved since the Palestinians rejected statehood at the end of the Oslo process in 2000 and opted instead for violent confrontation with Israel. This isn’t a rhetorical question for Israeli public diplomacy, but one the Palestinians should be asking their leadership.

Yet to pose this question would be to acknowledge a kind of agency that exalted victimhood doesn’t allow for. It is now nearly 23 years since Yasser Arafat rejected Ehud Barak’s Camp David Summit and instead gambled on a violent terror campaign in the hope of better terms. There was no way of knowing then that this gamble would turn out so badly. At the time, it wasn’t viewed as a particularly controversial decision; what’s striking, however, is how that perception hasn’t changed.

I’ve argued elsewhere that the entire Palestinian predicament is the outcome of three very different Arab-Israeli wars which began in 1947, 1967, and 2000. It’s not an intuitive historical argument to make, as these three wars have so little in common. The first began as an Arab-Jewish civil war fought village by village, which then expanded into a multi-state war across four borders lasting a year and a half. The second was a rapid but conventional military conflict fought in less than a week. And the third was a low-intensity armed conflict characterised by frequent terrorist attacks and counterinsurgency operations by an occupying army which took about five years to peter out.

All three were preceded by a wave of righteous ecstasy on the Arab side. All three ended in a disastrous defeat for the Arab side that irreversibly worsened the political and economic situation of the Palestinians. And all three defeats were followed by the collective erasure of any memory of the excitement before the conflict. They instead became stories of distilled victimisation, almost ensuring a repeat performance a generation later.

Why does this keep happening? It’s not that Palestinians are uniquely irrational; nor are the Palestinians the only nation birthed by the collapse of an old imperial order. The Irish, Bulgarians, Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Poles, Ukrainians and many others formed modern states on a mix of historical claims and very modern myth-making throughout the 20th century, frequently in conditions of war and displacement, and always with unanswered territorial claims. Some of these were the basis for lingering resentments and conflicts for generations.

Yet none except for the Palestinians rejected statehood when it was on offer because it didn’t include all their territorial claims. And this includes the Israelis who accepted the UN partition plan on roughly half of what was left of the original British Mandate. Zionists accepted a state that didn’t even include Jerusalem, the focal point of Jewish longing for two millennia and already then, as for a century before, home to a Jewish majority. This is the difference between a movement for national liberation and a movement for the elimination of another nation. In the former, even a very difficult compromise can be understood as an achievement (however partial or internally controversial). In the latter, a compromise that leaves this unwanted presence is still an unacceptable defeat.

The Arab war against Zionism has been a central organising political fact of Arab politics for over a century. This self-destructive passion hit its peak in the mid-20th century, dragged numerous Arab states into repeated military catastrophes and saw nearly every Jewish community in the Arab world completely erased, some after a continuous presence of more than 2,000 years. Anti-Zionism serves the same totemic function for broad circles of activists and intellectuals in the West too. Accepting that Israel is not a state whose policies may merit severe critique, but one whose existence is a crime, is now the price of entry to the community of the good.

This is how the “Arab-Israeli” conflict morphs into the “Israeli-Palestinian” conflict, which then morphs into just “the occupation” and now increasingly “apartheid”. The first transition denied the scope of the conflict and effaced the reality of a tiny Jewish minority being marked for destruction by the Arab world as a whole. The second denied that there was a conflict at all, and rendered the entire situation as an extended outcome of an Israeli sin. The third eliminates even the possibility that such a sin can be expiated; it instead holds Israel’s existence as inherently evil. Between these two external forces, and with all the internal dysfunction of Palestinian politics, it is nearly impossible to expect the Palestinians to do what every other national liberation movement has done: seek political freedom and build a society from there. After three catastrophes in three generations, there is not even a hint of an alternative.

Three destructive and unnecessary wars put the Palestinians in the lamentable place they now inhabit. It’s impossible to know what the fourth will look like, but it’s unlikely it will resemble that or any of the previous three. The current violence has not sparked that war yet, but unless something dramatic changes in the political trajectories of both parties, something eventually will. And when it does, Israelis will pay a heavy and avoidable price — and the Palestinians an even larger one.

Shany Mor is Director of Research at United Nations Watch.