For 11 days the State of Israel relentlessly bombed Gaza, a tiny, 300-square-kilometer strip of land where some 2 million Palestinians are doing their best to survive. One of the most widely circulated images was the collapse of a 12-story tower on May 15, which left a cloud of smoke and dust in its place. The building, which was bombed by the Israeli army, housed the offices of the international press in Gaza, including not only the Qatari network Al Jazeera but also none other than the Associated Press (AP). The Israeli government tried to justify the attack in the same way that it does every time it blows up homes, schools, and even hospitals: these buildings are facades behind which Hamas and other “terrorist” groups hide. But journalists and correspondents said otherwise. They said they were warned but given only enough time to leave with the clothes on their backs, forced to leave behind valuable files and documents. The president of the AP pointed out the obvious: the world will now know less about what is happening in Gaza.
May 15 was also a day of mobilizations, resistance, and struggle in the streets. In the Palestinian territories and in the Arab countries, this day commemorates the Nakba: the catastrophe that led to the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948 and that continues with the colonization and military occupation. And in several cities, from London to Paris and New York, tens of thousands took to the streets to show their solidarity with the Palestinian people under Israeli attack. Even in countries like France, protesters defied the ban on demonstrations and the repression of the Macron government, which accuses those who question the war crimes and oppression of the Zionist state of anti-Semitism.
On Friday, after over 230 deaths, a ceasefire went into effect. But the same day, Israeli forces once again used stun grenades and rubber-coated bullets on thousands of worshippers at the Al-Aqsa mosque.
The U.S. government, which as always supported Israel, went into a frenzy. President Joe Biden personally called Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian National Authority president Mahmoud Abbas to begin negotiating a ceasefire. Meanwhile, through allies such as Egypt, White House officials are sending messages to the Hamas leadership (with whom Washington has no direct relationship because it considers it a terrorist organization).
The escalation in Gaza calls into question the so-called Abraham Accords, which were promoted in 2020 under the presidency of Donald Trump for Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel. The first signatories were the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. This geopolitical realignment in the Middle East enlisted an Arab-Israeli alliance against Iran, leaving the Palestinian people completely isolated.
The Israeli military offensive, and especially the attack on the U.S. press in Gaza, left Biden in an uncomfortable position. Internally, he is facing a rebellion from sectors of the Democratic Party who question his unconditional alignment with the Israeli extreme right and Netanyahu’s government. These sectors, however, do not fundamentally question the strategic alliance with the state of Israel. And externally, the offensive forced the United States to turn its attention to the Middle East, when Biden’s foreign policy priority is to reduce the country’s exposure in the region and to concentrate on containing and competing against China. His attempts to return to a nuclear agreement with Iran and to withdraw from Afghanistan are functions of this objective.
Provocation and Colonial Occupation
As happens every time Israel launches a major military operation against the Palestinian people, Netanyahu invoked the country’s right to defend itself against “terrorist attacks” by Hamas, referencing to the rockets launched from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory. This argument is often repeated by Biden, an unconditional ally of the Zionist state, and by other imperialist governments.
Against this self-serving propaganda, Jewish intellectual Norman Finkelstein argues that “neither the inhuman and illegal blockade Israel imposed on Gaza nor the periodic murderous ‘operations’ Israel has unleashed against it trace back to Hamas rocket fire. These were Israeli political decisions springing from Israeli political calculations, in which Hamas military actions figured as a null factor.”
Even the imperialist mainstream media had to acknowledge that the military escalation originated from a succession of provocations in East Jerusalem, the Arab part of the Israeli-occupied city, by both Zionist state institutions and ultra-right-wing settler groups. These provocations included banning Palestinians from accessing holy sites during the month of Ramadan, storming the Al Aqsa mosque with tear gas and rubber-coated bullets, and successive repressions that led to hundreds of Palestinians being injured and arrested. Another provocation was on May 10, known as Jerusalem Day, when ultra-right-wing Orthodox sectors celebrate the 1967 occupation of Jerusalem after the Six-Day War.
But perhaps the most significant provocation, owing to its symbolism, was the court order to expel six Palestinian families from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in response to legal claims by a group of settlers. Israeli law gives Jews the right to claim property in Jerusalem declared as their own before the territory was divided in 1948, but with equal force denies that right to expelled Palestinians who cannot make that claim either in Jerusalem or anywhere else in Israel.
This eviction directly connects the current policy of expulsion of Palestinians from East Jerusalem with the founding “colonial fact,” or, as defined by the Israeli-born historian Ilan Pappé, the “ethnic cleansing” of the territory on which the Zionist state was founded. This explains the depth of the event and of the Palestinian response.
War and Political Crisis
With this new escalation in Gaza, Netanyahu seems to have achieved some of his objectives. He returned to the military terrain, consistent with his aggressive colonial strategy of annexing a large part of the West Bank, and strengthened his base on the (extreme) Right. He claimed victory over Hamas (and the organization Islamic Jihad) because, according to his version of events, with the indiscriminate bombing of Gaza he not only killed more than 200 civilians (at least a third of whom are children) and destroyed the already precarious infrastructure of this “open-air prison,” but also damaged the weaponry and the network of tunnels used by Hamas (the “subway” of Gaza, as they call it).
These modest successes — what less can be expected from a military and nuclear power armed by the United States? — do not hide the fact that even with asymmetric methods, a lesser enemy like Hamas can do damage, disrupt daily life, and expose military weaknesses, such as the effectiveness of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, which intercepted 90 percent of Hamas rockets but let through 10 percent.
But if there is a victory for Netanyahu, it is political rather than military. This war — for now limited to 11 days — was a lifeline for the untarnishable prime minister who, after 12 uninterrupted years in office at the head of a coalition with extreme right-wing parties, had failed to form a government after the May 5 elections. The task fell to the opposition leader, journalist Yair Lapid, who was trying to add to his anti-Netanyahu coalition the leader of the orthodox extreme Right, Naftali Bennett, and the bloc of Arab parties represented in the Knesset.
That opposition attempt was buried under the rubble of Gaza. The Zionist and religious national unity around defending Israel played in Netanyahu’s favor: he will continue even if only as interim prime minister until new elections are called. These elections would be the fifth since 2018. In this way, Bibi, as he is nicknamed, narrowly avoids the ominous prospect of going to jail for the corruption charges he faces. He hopes that the combination of the recent display of military might and the successful Covid-19 vaccination, along with renewed U.S. and EU support, will give him a new mandate.
The Palestinian National Authority (PA), headed by Mahmoud Abbas, is in terminal crisis. It is confined only to the West Bank, having lost Gaza to Hamas. The Israeli offensive during Trump’s presidency relegated Abbas to an even more irrelevant position and exposed his policy of collaboration with the occupiers. A measure of this crisis is the suspension of the presidential and legislative elections, which were to be held on May 22 after 14 years without elections. Abbas attempted to justify this by claiming that Israel would not allow Palestinians living in Jerusalem to vote, but in reality he rightfully feared defeat and an extension of Hamas’s influence in the West Bank. Depending on the outcome of this most recent confrontation with Israel, Hamas could be reinstated. But, as pointed out by several analysts who closely follow political developments in Gaza and the occupied territories, the party’s influence has diminished among the new generation, which is less sympathetic to tight Islamist religious control.
Waiting for the Third Intifada
The Israeli offensive was met with fierce resistance not seen for years, both in the occupied territories and among the Palestinians who live as second-class citizens in the state of Israel. This is a major problem for the Zionist state. Arabs constitute a not insubstantial 20 percent of the Israeli population. Their reaction in the streets has shown that the Zionist state’s racist policies of discrimination — political, legal, social — against the Arab population are not without consequence. It is no coincidence that there is an open debate as to whether the mobilizations taking place today in the occupied territories and in Israel are heralding the beginning of the third intifada: a new generalized Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation. Let us recall that the first intifada was unleashed in Gaza in 1987–88 and was diverted by the signing of the Oslo Accords and the establishment of the “two-state solution,” which would soon prove to be a ruse to continue the Zionist colonial occupation. The second intifada was triggered in 2000 by a provocation by the late former prime minister and right-wing leader Ariel Sharon, lasted for five years, and culminated in Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
Exacerbating the historical hatred of the occupier are the harsh living conditions in the Palestinian territories. The situation is particularly alarming in Gaza, which has been blockaded by Israel since 2007. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, unemployment in Gaza rose from 45 percent in 2019 to 47 percent in 2020, reaching 50 percent in some areas. The International Labour Organization’s special mission to the occupied territories points out that work is sporadic and scarce, and that the majority of the population survives on international aid. In addition, as a result of the rift between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, the former withholds funds and has stopped paying subsidies.
What is new with respect to these two previous uprisings is the central role of Palestinian youth who, as Thomas Friedman points out in a column in the New York Times, do not respond to the Palestinian movement’s traditional leadership. This creates a problem for Israel because it has no valid interlocutors on the Palestinian side to exercise the role of internal police. The PA, which governs the West Bank, has been completely discredited by its collaboration with the Israeli occupation, and Hamas, which governs Gaza, also cannot control this new generation.
One State, but Which State?
Israel’s colonial advance, which has deepened substantially in recent years, and the bankruptcy of any leftist illusion of a “two-state” solution, have encouraged the emergence of Jewish intellectuals, academics, activists, and personalities who denounce the colonial, racist, and oppressive character of the Zionist state. In its place, they propose a “single, binational, and democratic state.” Such a state would emerge from dismantling, above all, the legal superstructure of the Israeli state, which is based on laws similar to the South African apartheid regime. Even international human rights organizations use the definition of apartheid: Human Rights Watched published a comprehensive 213-page report at the end of April denouncing Israel’s “apartheid crimes and persecution” against the Palestinian population.
This proposal for a “single democratic state” is similar to that put forward by Edward Said and the Arab Left, who were disillusioned with the betrayals of the PLO’s bourgeois nationalism and the Oslo Accords. There is, however, also a “liberal” version of this idea. In fact, one of the first to argue that the idea of a “Jewish state,” based on the exclusion of non-Jewish citizens, led to ethnic cleansing, and that therefore the alternative was a binational state, was the British historian Tony Judt, who also denounced the United States’ and Israel’s manipulation of the memory of the Holocaust to silence critics of the Zionist state. Despite this, Judt continued to maintain that the guarantor of this binational state should be none other than the United States.
Many of these anti-Zionist sectors are grouped in organizations, some of them together with Palestinians, such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which for years has been using various methods to expose the racist and segregationist nature of the Israeli state.
More recently, the One Democratic State Campaign was formed on the basis of a 10-point programmatic manifesto that calls for the establishment of a democratic state with equal individual and collective rights for Arabs and Jews. Both Jews and Palestinians are members of this platform. One of its cofounders, the sociologist Jeff Halper, who chairs the Israeli committee against the demolition of Palestinian houses, has just published a book that provides the campaign with a postcolonial theoretical foundation. These sectors have reached a fundamental conclusion: that the Zionist state of Israel, an ally of imperialism, is a racist enclave, based on colonization and national oppression, whose constitutive principle is the exclusionary Jewish character of the state. (It would be like postulating that the United States is a state of white Christians.) And for this very reason, this state is completely incompatible with the Palestinian people’s right to national self-determination.
So, the alternative to a new ethnic cleansing, or to the “incremental genocide” that Pappé denounces — and that Netanyahu is in fact perpetrating — is to dismantle this racist state and replace it with a single, democratic, and nonracist state. But as post-apartheid South Africa demonstrates, to truly eliminate oppression, it is necessary to eliminate its material bases. That is why our strategic bet is on a workers’ and socialist Palestine and a socialist federation in the Middle East. Only a state that aims to end all oppression, exploitation, and imperialist reaction can guarantee a democratic and peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews.
Originally published in Spanish on May 16, 2021 in La Izquierda Diario.
Translated by Otto Fors