The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the Arab Awakening

by Joel Beinin | published August 1, 2011

The March 15 Youth Movement, whose name comes from demonstrations held in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that day to demand unity between Fatah and Hamas, is the most direct Palestinian expression of the “Arab awakening” of 2010-2011. The next day, March 16, Fatah’s leader, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud ‘Abbas, announced his willingness to travel to Gaza to conduct unity talks with Hamas. A reconciliation agreement was signed in Cairo on May 4.

Implementation of the Hamas-Fatah accord has been stalled because ‘Abbas insists on retaining Salam Fayyad as prime minister of the PA. Hamas regards Fayyad as too subservient to Israel and the West. It particularly resents his cooperation with the United States in creating the new National Security Forces, popularly known as the “Dayton Brigades” after their first trainer, Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton of the US Army. A major task of these units has been to suppress Hamas in the West Bank, and it has done so to Israel’s satisfaction.

‘Abbas believes that Fayyad’s international credibility, derived from his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Texas, professional experience at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and the International Monetary Fund, and success in constructing an IMF- and World Bank-approved economy in the West Bank since 2007 enhance the viability of his plan to request admission of Palestine as a UN member state in September. He has effectively embraced Fayyad’s strategy of establishing a de facto Palestinian state by building institutions that promote security, good governance and a free-market economy. While Fayyad himself is less enthusiastic than ‘Abbas about seeking UN membership, his strategy for state building is a logical precursor to it.

Exasperation

The state of Palestine that will seek UN membership does not exercise sovereignty over the territory it claims -- East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip -- or control over this territory’s borders, the armistice lines (the Green Line) in force from 1949 until June 4, 1967. Nonetheless, it does fulfill many of the requirements of statehood as laid out in the 1933 Montevideo Convention. It has a permanent population; a defined territory within the Green Line; and a government in the form of the PA, although the PA is in most important respects subordinate to Israel. Seeking UN membership is an expression of ‘Abbas’ exasperation with the US-sponsored “peace process.” If the US had not lost all credibility as a peace broker and simultaneously discredited the very notion of a “peace process,” ‘Abbas would have felt no need to seek UN membership.

The “Palestine Papers” published by the pan-Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera in early January confirm that, under US pressure, PA negotiators offered concessions to the government of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert well beyond the Palestinian national consensus. Nonetheless, these offers were insufficient to reach an agreement. Thus, in addition to feeling Palestinian and regional Arab pressures, ‘Abbas sought reconciliation with Hamas because he could not achieve a negotiated peace deal with Israel on terms any Palestinian would accept.

The Arab awakening has made no difference whatsoever in the unrestrained support the US gives Israel, even when Israel’s positions do not agree with publicly declared US positions. President Barack Obama demonstrated a perplexing incapacity to induce Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to abide by the unambiguously declared US policy that Israel should freeze settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as a means of restarting negotiations. In February 2011 the US vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories written precisely to reflect US policy. This occasion was the fortieth since the June 1967 war on which the United States cast the sole negative vote on a Security Council resolution critical of Israel, thus protecting its ally from international censure.

By vetoing a resolution whose substance it claimed to agree with, the Obama administration revealed that, like its predecessors, it is far more interested in asserting its hegemony over the Israeli-Palestinian arena than achieving peace, a strategy invented by ex-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

Whatever the outcome of a vote on Palestinian UN membership, it will not halt the escalating pace of Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem, especially in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, and elsewhere in the West Bank. Nor will it halt the destruction of the Muslim cemetery in West Jerusalem where what is called a “Center for Human Dignity/Museum of Tolerance” is being constructed on top of graves, some of which date to the eleventh century. It will not protect Palestinians in the South Hebron Hills from the continuing rampages of violent settlers. It will not restore West Bank lands confiscated to construct the separation barrier/apartheid wall/security fence or the rest of the lands in the West Bank Israel has confiscated from Palestinians to construct illegal settlements or military bases. And it will not give Palestinians control of their underground water resources so that they might enjoy a minimally adequate daily water supply. It will have little or no impact on the lives of ordinary Palestinian people or on Israel’s continuing massive violations of their national and human rights.

Regional Balance of Forces

Despite the deadlock over its implementation, brokering a nominally successful Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement is one of several signs of Egypt’s modest, but significant, foreign policy reorientation since the ouster of the former president, Husni Mubarak. The Mubarak regime was the strongest Arab supporter of ‘Abbas and his Fatah party. As the “Palestine Papers” revealed, its former military intelligence commander and torturer-in-chief, ‘Umar Sulayman, was not, as he claimed, an honest broker in Fatah-Hamas talks. He collaborated with Israel in trying to weaken and isolate Hamas.

Under the Mubarak regime, Egypt also aided Israel and the West in enforcing a tight economic and diplomatic embargo on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, sealing shut the Rafah crossing from Gaza into Egypt since 2007. After the fall of Mubarak, Egypt has opened Rafah, though fitfully and with restrictions that will confine many Gazans to their open-air prison indefinitely.

In February, for the first time since 1979, two Iranian warships sailed through the Suez Canal. Israel’s angry reaction was consistent with its campaign to incite global anti-Iranian hysteria. In April Egypt announced its willingness to renew diplomatic relations with Iran. These symbolic measures subtly shift the regional balance of forces, deeply distressing Israel’s über-right wing government.

Al Jazeera’s role in publicizing the “Palestine Papers” highlights the Arab awakening’s reassertion of a pan-Arab dimension to Middle East politics. The new pan-Arabism is rooted in historical and contemporary cultural realities, the most important of which is the wider dissemination of a common standard Arabic language (fusha). The shared vocabulary allows Al Jazeera and its fellow pan-Arab satellite TV stations to bring news of widely hated Israeli and US policies in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan into tens of millions of Arab homes. Satellite TV also conveys the message of the “new preachers” of Sunni Islam, the most popular of whom is the largely apolitical Egyptian ‘Amr Khalid. It gives a regional platform to the charismatic leader of Lebanon’s Hizballah, Hasan Nasrallah. Hence, the new pan-Arabism is not politically unified, nor does it seek to be. It eschews the inflated rhetoric of the 1950s and 1960s.

Solidarity

The March 15 Youth Movement and several West Bank popular committees called for a march on the Qalandiya checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah on May 15, the anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel or, in Arab parlance, the nakba. As some 1,000 demonstrators neared the checkpoint, Israeli soldiers fired massive volleys of tear gas. About 100 were incapacitated by tear gas inhalation and or injured by rubber-coated metal bullets. Nakba Day demonstrations were also held in East Jerusalem, Hebron and al-Wallaja, a village on the southern fringe of Jerusalem whose lands (but not its people) are in the process of being annexed to Israel.

The Israeli army was surprised by Nakba Day demonstrations of Palestinians attempting to cross the border to “return” from the Gaza Strip, Syria and Lebanon. Its response was, therefore, disorganized and brutal. At least 15 people were shot dead. Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces prevented demonstrators from reaching the Rafah crossing, an indication that Egypt’s foreign policy reorientation will stop short of any direct confrontation with Israel.

Unarmed Palestinian demonstrations organized by village-based popular committees with the participation of many hundreds of mainly young Israelis are not a result of the Arab awakening, though they have been emboldened by it. Popular struggle involving Palestinian men and women of all ages, as opposed to armed struggle, has been the principal strategy of the campaign against the separation barrier Israel has built, 85 percent of it inside the Green Line, since June 2002. In 2004 the International Court of Justice ruled, “The construction of the wall and its associated régime [land confiscations, settlements] are contrary to international law.” Israel has returned some of the land confiscated from Budrus, Bil‘in and several villages west of Jerusalem. But the barrier, though still unfinished, stands.

On July 15, 2,500 Israelis and Palestinians marched in Jerusalem to support the campaign for Palestinian UN membership. The spirited demonstration was the largest in Jerusalem in some time. Participants and organizers considered it a success.

The march was held entirely in East Jerusalem, proceeding from the Jaffa Gate of the Old City to the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah up the hill. The route and the organizers’ ban on Israeli flags, which the Zionist “peace camp” traditionally displays to emphasize their patriotic credentials, gave the occasion an Arab flavor. But 85-90 percent of the participants were Israeli Jews and internationals, while no more than 10-15 percent were Palestinians -- residents of the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Silwan, ‘Isawiyya and Sheikh Jarrah, as well as Palestinian citizens of Israel from Jaffa, Ramla, Tayba and elsewhere. The march was jointly organized by Palestinian popular committees and Jerusalem neighborhood groups, as well as Solidarity, a relatively new organization that emerged from the struggle of Palestinians, Israelis and internationals to prevent Jewish settlers from evicting Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah in 2009.

In cooperation with the Jordanian government and the UN, 28 Palestinian families gave up their refugee status in exchange for homes in Sheikh Jarrah. After Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, Israeli courts sustained the claims of Jewish organizations that their nineteenth-century Ottoman deeds of questionable authenticity established their ownership of the houses. Israeli laws prevent Palestinians from asserting ownership of their former properties in Israel, even if they have valid deeds. Solidarity has grown beyond its initial focus on Sheikh Jarrah in Arab East Jerusalem and has developed close ties with neighborhood committees in Silwan, Abu Dis and ‘Isawiyya.

In addition to inspiring the emergence of the Palestinian March 15 movement, the Arab awakening buoyed the expansion of Solidarity’s work with Palestinian citizens of Israel. In June, Solidarity members spent 23 days in a round-the-clock vigil to protect the home of Jihan and Mahmoud al-‘Aju in Ramla. The District Court reversed its previous ruling and ordered that the eviction order be suspended as its implementation might cause irreversible damage to the family.

Solidarity members look forward to continuing joint popular Palestinian-Israeli action parallel to the PA’s request for UN membership. The road ahead is full of pitfalls, however. On July 20, Marwan Barghouti, the Palestinian leader with the most legitimacy and popularity, called from Israeli jail for peaceful demonstrations to support the UN bid. One day later, the prison authorities placed him in solitary confinement. The Popular Committees Against the Wall and Settlements in Palestine, in which the highly successful popular committee of Bil‘in is the main force, have also supported seeking UN membership. But a rival organization of popular committees which held its first conference in Bayt ‘Ummar, Ni‘lin and Budrus on July 15-17 has, so far, not made a statement on this matter. Many Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and in the diaspora reject the plan to request UN membership because it limits Palestinian aspirations to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, it does not address the question of Palestinian refugees and it excludes diaspora voices from Palestinian political decision-making. This legitimate Palestinian debate over strategy will make further collaboration between Solidarity and Palestinian forces around this issue a very delicate matter.

Commonalities of the Neoliberal Era

The 2011 Arab awakening has had a surprising, if indirect, impact on Israeli politics. On July 14 dozens of young Israelis set up tents along Rothschild Boulevard, the most trendy street in central Tel Aviv, to protest the high cost of housing. Prices are up more than 20 percent compared to the summer of 2010. Even a small flat in Tel Aviv is far beyond the reach of most young people.

The housing bubble, which has been years in the making, has inflated alongside sharp rises in the price of gasoline, cottage cheese and milk earlier in the year. The cost of living is exorbitant in most of greater Tel Aviv. Public transportation is inadequate, expensive and irregular, making living in distant suburbs, the European solution to this problem, unviable.

The tent city on Rothschild Boulevard fired the imaginations of young Israelis. Within days there were similar actions in over half a dozen cities from Kiryat Shimona in the north to Beersheva in the south. On July 23 tens of thousands participated in a highly militant torch-lit march in Tel Aviv. Some 150,000 people demonstrated throughout Israel on July 30.

This fair housing movement is the largest mobilization of social protest in Israel in many years. Its main slogans have been “decent housing, reasonable prices,” “power to the citizen,” “this generation demands housing” and “social justice,” this last demand a prominent call raised in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Many demonstrators have called on Prime Minister Netanyahu to resign, again, a demand similar to the one raised by Arab demonstrators throughout 2011. During the first week of the protest one Rothschild Boulevard demonstrator interviewed on Israeli radio’s Channel 2 told a reporter, “We have to do what they did in Egypt. Yalla, tahrir, jihad.” The fact that a middle-class Israeli suggested, even if it was only rhetorical excess, that this Israeli movement had anything to learn from an Arab political phenomenon is astonishing and unprecedented, to say nothing of the use of the hyper-provocative word jihad.

The great majority of the protesters have insistently avoided linking the lack of investment in affordable housing to the vast sums invested to construct government-subsidized housing in Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, build the infrastructure to support the settlements and sustain the military apparatus to defend them. A provocative article by Yediot Aharonot’s economics correspondent Gidion Eshet, published on July 28, suggested that the subsidized apartments the protesters are seeking are in the West Bank and that ending Israel’s settlement policy would free capital for construction of affordable housing in Israel.

Tahrir Square has been occupied since July 8 and Rothschild Boulevard since July 14. The demonstrators in both cities share something in common, though it is normally obscured by the Arab-Israeli conflict. In Egypt, as in Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan, the Arab awakening is in part a rebellion against the neoliberal development model, even if it is rarely named. The housing crisis in Israel is similarly a symptom of neoliberal policies, in particular the reduction of the interest rate from 4 percent in August 2008 to 0.5 percent in April-August 2009 in response to the economic recession brought on by the 2008 global financial crash. Eschewing regulation and slashing interest rates to encourage investment -- typical neoliberal policies -- produced a speculative bubble instead.

All Israeli governments since 1985, the Mubarak regime since 1991 and the Palestinian Authority since 2007 have adopted neoliberal economic policies promoted by the US government, the IMF and the World Bank. Egypt and Israel are considered success stories by neoliberal criteria. Their economies, as well as that of the West Bank, have expanded considerably since the mid-2000s.

But growth has not substantially diminished the poverty rates of 20 percent in Egypt and 25 percent in Palestine (18.3 percent in the West Bank and 38 percent in the Gaza Strip) or moderated the widening gap between the richest and the poorest. Poverty in Egypt and Palestine are not new stories. It is less well known that in Israel over one third of the labor force earns the minimum wage of 4,100 shekels (about $1,205) per month and that nearly one quarter of the population (mostly Arab citizens and ultra-Orthodox Jews) lives below the poverty line. Forty percent of the poor are employed.

As in the United States, the capital of neoliberalism, wealth is highly concentrated in a few hands in Egypt, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. One useful measure of wealth distribution is the Gini index using a scale of 0 to 100, with 0 representing absolute equality and 100 representing absolute inequality. According to the most recent CIA statistics, the Gini index is 45.2 in the US, 39.2 in Israel and 34.4 in Egypt. (By contrast, the social democracy in Sweden boasts a Gini coefficient of 23.) The ratio of the average income of the richest 10 percent to the poorest 10 percent was 15.9 in the US, 13.4 in Israel and 8 in Egypt. Statistics since the adoption of PA Prime Minister Fayyad’s 2009 neoliberal strategy for Palestinian statehood are not available. But Ramallah unabashedly displays a concentration of luxury capital investment unmatched anywhere else in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. Egypt is less unequal than the IMF’s other “stars” of the Arab world -- Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco. The US and Israel are among the most unequal developed capitalist economies.

The common sources of their economic plight will unfortunately not draw the peoples of Israel, Egypt and Palestine together. Most Egyptians reject the notion that they have anything in common with Israelis. The great majority of the Israelis demanding affordable housing, even if they may understand the connection, are reluctant to articulate that their economic distress is exacerbated by the cost of the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and Israel’s military budget for fear that this stance would discredit them politically. Consequently, it may take a long time before a significant number of Israelis are convinced or compelled to abandon their colonial settlement project and share the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea with Palestinians on the basis of equality. Palestinians, especially Arab citizens who comprise 20 percent of Israel’s population, are more likely to realize that their future is linked to that of Israeli Jews, whatever political form it may take.

On the Ground

For Mahmoud ‘Abbas at least, the bid for Palestinian UN membership is based in large measure on Prime Minister Fayyad’s successful management of a highly constrained and territorially circumscribed neoliberal economic revival. This project has some popular support, especially in the northern West Bank, because it has improved security and infrastructure and provided jobs, though disproportionately in the security forces. According to a public opinion poll conducted by telephone in April-May 2010, 82 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip believed that Fayyad’s policies “served the Palestinian interest” and 72 percent thought he “would be capable to be the next president.” Fifty-four percent, however, did not believe that his plan for statehood through economic development would succeed.

Israel’s relentless settlement expansion has always been and remains the main obstacle to Palestinian statehood. Today, it has all but destroyed the possibility of a two-state solution to the conflict, and there are no prospects for a more conciliatory Israeli government in the foreseeable future.

Al-Nabi Salih, a village about 18 miles northwest of Ramallah, is representative of the current phase of the settlement project. Every Friday since December 2009, the popular committee of al-Nabi Salih has organized demonstrations to resist the expansion, unauthorized even by Israeli authorities, of the Halamish settlement. The demonstrations began after settlers expropriated a natural spring on al-Nabi Salih land. Several weeks later, Halamish settlers burned down 150 of al-Nabi Salih’s olive trees near the spring.

The separation barrier does not pass near al-Nabi Salih, so it is not an immediate issue. The popular committee’s demonstrations thus directly target the occupation and the settlement project. Consequently, according to a retired Palestinian security officer living in the village who formerly coordinated regularly with his Israeli counterparts, Israeli military authorities consider them a serious problem that must be repressed. Every Friday the Israeli army besieges the village, turning it into a free-fire zone for tear gas canisters, stun grenades, skunk bombs and rubber-coated metal bullets. Over 120 villagers have been hospitalized with serious injuries since the demonstrations began.

Students at Birzeit University and youth from Ramallah, including supporters of the March 15 movement, often attend the demonstrations at al-Nabi Salih. At the July 22 demonstration, several asserted that the PA’s bid for UN membership had little significance, whether or not it succeeded. One Palestinian student at an excellent US college who was spending the summer break at home emphatically insisted, “It’s the last gasp of the illegitimate PA.” While acknowledging that the March 15 movement does not have an alternative strategy, she believes that Palestinians draw strength from the Arab awakening. “We feel that now we have a back,” she said.

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