by Giorgio Gomel. Economist and member of the IAI (Istituto Affari Internazionali), the Steering Committee of Jcall-Italia and the organization Alliance for Middle East Peace.
The Palestinians are powerless, torn between President Mahmoud Abbas’ moderation and Hamas sectarianism. They are not citizens of the “non-state” they live in—areas A and B of the West Bank where the Palestinian Authority (PNA) exercises its limited jurisdiction, and where they have not voted for 15 years—nor do they vote for state institutions in Israel, which controls their daily existence. At the present juncture they are ostracized by a significant part of the Arab world itself which looks with ill-concealed annoyance at their requests, driven by a convergence of interests with Israel and against Iran to the point of establishing full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. The recent normalization agreements between Israel and some Gulf states sanctioned an opposite arrangement to the previous one—which subordinated peace and normality of relations with the Jewish state—to an agreement with the Palestinians that would put an end to the occupation and lead to the birth of a sovereign Palestinian state.
Yet, if there is no resumption of direct negotiations between the parties and an agreement on the borders, settlements and on the status of Jerusalem, the very notion of “two states for two peoples”—which became a paradigm in the 1980s and was recognized as the only possible solution to the conflict from the community of nations—it risks evaporating into a mythical dream world. The expansion of Israeli settlements and settlers in the territories (450,000 in the West Bank and over 200,000 in East Jerusalem); the confiscation of land owned by private Palestinian subjects; the demolition of houses and structures in Area C which forces the inhabitants to abandon places of residence—these factors increase the difficulty of achieving an effectively sovereign, contiguous Palestinian state. The explosion of violence in Jerusalem, triggered by an apparently legal but purely political affair involving the expropriation of houses currently inhabited by Arabs, albeit owned by Jews before 1948, and which current movements of the Israeli Right are claiming and the courts are threatening to enforce, demonstrates the fragility of a restless status quo.
In September 2020, the two irreducible antagonists of the Palestinian world—Fatah and Hamas—reached an agreement on the holding of parliamentary and presidential elections. Meanwhile, the PNA asked Israel to allow the estimated 350,000 Arab residents of East Jerusalem to vote. They are permanent residents of Israel after the city’s annexation in 1967 and voted in 1996 and 2005-06. The Israeli government did not respond to the request.
THE INTERNAL CHALLENGE: HAMAS VS. FATAH
This attitude on the part of the Israeli government provided Mahmoud Abbas with a reason or pretext to postpone the elections. His movement—Fatah—is in fact weak, split into several factions: Abu Mazen is trailing in presidential polls behind the Hamas candidate Ismail Haniyeh. Only Marwan Barghouti—among the leaders of the First and Second Intifadas, imprisoned in Israel for a life sentence for murder—could survive both Abu Mazen and Haniyeh. Even for Hamas, the context is not easy: years of quasi-dictatorial government in the Gaza Strip, its persistence in a wretched and useless guerrilla war with Israel, and the gravity of the humanitarian and economic situation all compromise its campaign.
In that context, Hamas wanted to exploit the provocations of Jewish extremists, who preach the expulsion of Palestinians, and of the repression by the Israeli police in the days of Ramadan of the Palestinian protests in Jerusalem, in particular around the Temple Mount and the Al-Aqsa mosque, a sacred site of Islam and also a symbol of a claimed sovereignty. The Israeli offensive attack devastated buildings, roads, and infrastructure in the southern and central regions of the country, killing and wounding civilians. Hamas then launched a display of military strength as a reaction against the enemy Israel while the PNA and Fatah—according to the fundamentalist rhetoric of Hamas—remained inert. Israel’s reprisals, massive against Hamas and Islamic Jihad installations, have accumulated many victims, even among the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip in a seeming compulsion to repeat similar outbursts of violence in 2008-09, in 2012, and even more devastating in 2014.
There are two winners in the short term in this “barbaric feud” that grips the two peoples—as Avishai Margalit, a distinguished Israeli philosopher defined it years ago—two winners bound by an objectively evil alliance: Hamas triumphing in the sympathies of the Palestinians and in the rhetoric of the Muslim world; and Netanyahu who, as premier of a government that emerged weak from the elections in March and which finally seemed to be succeeded by an alternative coalition of Right and Center-left parties with the external support of an Arab party, remains the leader of a union sacrée against the irreducible enemy.
Even if a truce is reached between the parties, with the mediation of Egypt and Qatar and a more decisive intervention by the United States, it should be clear to the Israelis that it is folly to believe that the Palestinians will ever accept a permanent condition of subjection.
The most worrying fact these days, however, is the eruption of forms of tribal violence inside Israel between Arab citizens and Jews, in a manner that is unusual since 1948: attacks, desecration of places of worship, houses and other buildings set on fire throughout many cities in the country. The conflagration represents a threat to democracy and coexistence between Arabs and Jews, an acute danger of fragmentation of the civil fabric of the country. The Arab minority in Israel (about 20% of the population) suffers from inequalities and discrimination on the labor market, in the provision of education, in the availability of land for housing, in infrastructure. Several Israeli NGOs have been denouncing these inequities for some time, although the Arab minority is also actively integrating in some sectors of society (health care, universities) and aims to influence the government of the country, from which it has historically been excluded.
The reactions of civil society are comforting in this disastrous picture: mayors, schools, hospitals, spontaneous committees of citizens who demonstrate together, Arabs and Jews, and community associations committed to coexistence (among which, the numerous NGOs federated under the aegis of Alliance for Middle East Peace, www.allmep.org, of which I myself am a member of the Steering Committee). They are all taking to the streets of the country in defense of peace, equality and democracy.