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How to Oppose Violence in Israel-Palestine
It’s 2032. Russia occupies Ukraine. Moscow has fragmented Ukrainians geographically and legally. Some Ukrainians enjoy citizenship but face structural discrimination. Many lack citizenship and live without free movement under military law. Many others have been expelled and cannot return. Suddenly, over the space of a few days, Ukrainians begin murdering Russian civilians. What would we say?
Before I try answering that, a word about this week’s Zoom call. It will be on Friday, April 8 at Noon ET. As always, paid subscribers will get the link this Wednesday and the video the following week. This week’s guest will be former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, author of a newly published memoir, Searching for Peace. Olmert was arguably the last Israeli leader to support a Palestinian state in any form and conducted the last serious negotiations aimed at achieving one. I’ll ask him why those talks failed and why the prospects for a two-state solution have receded since then. I’ll also ask about the wars he authorized in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. Join us.
Back to the hypothetical Ukrainian attacks against Russian civilians. Which, as you may have guessed, is my way of talking about last week’s actual Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians. In the US, the debate about Israel-Palestine is deeply exceptionalized. That’s a fancy way of saying that when we talk about Palestine-Israel we often ignore the principles we apply to other conflicts. So let’s imagine how American politicians and pundits might respond if these horrific acts of violence were occurring not in Hadera and Bnei Brak but in Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
The analogy is not perfect, of course. Russia is occupying a sovereign state, something Palestine—despite being recognized as a non-member state by the United Nations—is not. But although Palestine is not a country, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, like Russia’s invasions of Ukraine, still constitutes a clear violation of international law. That’s the view of the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, the world’s most prominent human rights groups and even Israel’s own.
Critics might also argue that it’s misleading to compare Ukrainian and Palestinian violence because Palestinians want to destroy Israel and Ukrainians don’t want to destroy Russia. But it all depends on how you look at it. It’s true that there are Palestinian factions, like Hamas, which have not formally recognized Israel’s existence. (And, instead, merely proposed that Israel and a Palestinian state arrange a long-term truce.) It’s also true, however, that the internationally recognized Palestinian leadership, the PLO, has not only recognized Israel’s existence but pledged that a Palestinian state would possess no military. Ukraine, by contrast, has for years imported both weapons and advisors from Russia’s adversaries and declared in its constitution a desire to join NATO, which Moscow views as a hostile military alliance. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think Ukraine seriously threatens Russia. But I don’t think a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines (were one possible) would seriously threaten Israel either. And for years now, top Israeli security officials have acknowledged exactly that.
I can imagine one more objection to my hypothetical scenario: Ukrainians would never target Russian civilians the way some Palestinians have targeted Israelis. Sadly, I don’t think that’s true. History suggests that, when they can, occupied peoples often take their fight to the country that’s occupying them. In 1983, the Irish Republican Army bombed department stores in London. In 1984, Sikh bodyguards outraged by Indian rule over the largely Sikh-state of Punjab assassinated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Nine years later, Tamils from Sri Lanka assassinated her son, Rajiv Gandhi, after his government sent Indian troops into their country. In 1954, Puerto Rican nationalists outraged by the US occupation of their island shot five people on the floor of the United States House of Representatives. In the most horrifying episode of all, insurgents fighting Moscow’s occupation of Chechnya seized control of a school in southern Russia in 2004 and murdered 330 people, most of them children. Some of these attackers, it’s worth noting, held citizenship in the country they believed was occupying their people, just as some of the Palestinians who have committed murder in recent days held citizenship in Israel.
My point in offering this list is not to excuse violence against civilians, whether it be committed by Sikhs, Tamils, Puerto Ricans, Chechens, Irish nationalists, Palestinians, or anyone else. Not at all. I’d suggest that anyone tempted to justify, or apologize for, the recent Palestinian attacks acquaint themselves with the lives they snuffed out, as beautifully detailed by Patrick Kingsley, Gabby Sobelman, and Raja Abdulrahim in The New York Times.
So if Ukrainians murdered Russian civilians, Americans would—I hope—express revulsion. But Americans would also see a link between this indefensible violence and the violence of an oppressive Russian state. They might say about the Ukrainian attacks something similar to what Martin Luther King, Jr. said after the long, hot summer of 1967, when in Detroit alone 43 people died in riots and more than 1,000 buildings were burned. “It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes,” King declared, “but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of the white society.” Or they might channel Robert Kennedy, who after King’s death condemned “riots” and the “uncontrollable mob” but also spoke of “the violence of institutions,” the institutionalized injustice that leads to “the breaking of a man’s spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men.” If Ukrainians murdered Russian civilians, America’s leaders would see this violence as a deplorable response to the violence inflicted upon them. They would not suggest, as American politicians and commentators routinely do about Palestinians, that the attacks stemmed from cultural pathology or incendiary textbooks.
These dehumanizing arguments about Palestinians don’t make Israelis safer. They put Israelis in greater danger because, over the long term, preventing violence requires giving people hope that they can non-violently achieve equality and freedom. King made that point after the riots of the late sixties. Violence had broken out, he explained, because Black residents of cities like Detroit lost faith that non-violent resistance could materially improve their lives. And “as a result, a desperate, essentially leaderless mass of people acted with violence.”
Palestinians make a similar point today. I had the privilege of speaking last week on a podcast hosted by the Foundation for Middle East Peace with the Palestinian-American historian Maha Nassar. She observed that there is currently a debate between Palestinians “who emphasize the need to bring international pressure to bear on Israel” non-violently and those who believe that “Israel only understands the language of force.” Her point was similar to King’s: The more you block non-violent change, the more you strengthen those who support violence. That’s what America’s leaders do when they stymie Palestinian efforts to hold Israel accountable under international law. They produce despair, which in turn produces violence. King called urban riots “the language of the unheard.” One could say the same about the recent shootings in Israel.
A member of Congress who said that would imperil their job. But Israeli security officials have been saying it for years. In 2013, Yuval Diskin, former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, warned that “among the Palestinians there is a growing sense of anger and frustration” because of “the fading hopes for a real change in the situation.” As a result, he predicted, “Palestinians will take to the streets, leading to another round of bloody violence.” Two year later, when Israel witnessed a wave of stabbings by Palestinians in Jerusalem, a Haaretz headline captured the analysis of the Israeli military’s chief of intelligence, Herzl Halevi. The headline read: “IDF Intelligence Chief: Palestinian Despair, Frustration Are Among Reasons for Terror Wave.”
Diskin and Halevi’s analysis doesn’t require any deep insight. It merely reflects an understanding that the vast majority of Palestinians—like the vast majority of Ukrainians and other members of the human race—have no desire to kill or be killed. But that some will turn to violence, even against civilians, when they see no other way to answer the violence inflicted on them. In their comments, Diskin and Halevi recognize that Palestinians are not exotic, pathological creatures but normal human beings. When America’s leaders recognize this truth as well, and have the courage to act on it, Israel-Palestine will become a safer place for everyone who lives between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
In Jewish Currents (subscribe!), Joshua Leifer talks to Joel Beinin, professor emeritus of history and Middle East Studies at Stanford University (and a Beinart Notebook subscriber) about why Israel’s communist party isn’t condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
For the Foundation for Middle East Peace’s “Occupied Thoughts” podcast, I talked with the University of Arizona’s Maha Nassar, Amnesty International’s Paul O’Brien, and FMEP’s Lara Friedman about the blowback in Washington against human rights groups who call Israel an apartheid state.
Sid Topol, a wonderful man who passionately defended human rights in both the US and Israel-Palestine, died last week. May his memory be a blessing.
See you Friday,