In this final of four articles on Israel and the West, we look at the complexity of Israeli-Palestinian violence, representations in media, and the global struggle to establish a coherent theory of action for every site of nationalist strife in the world today.
On March 29, 2022, a gunman from near Jenin in the West Bank killed five people in a district of Tel Aviv. Two were Ukrainian nationals. One was a rabbi who died shielding his two-year-old. The Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah celebrated the killings, while the Palestinian National Authority joined other world leaders in condemning it. The Bnei Brak shooting was the third attack of a single week, and the most extreme since 2014.
In its wake, Israeli’s prime minister at the time, Naftali Bennett, launched Operation Breakwater: an anti-terrorist program escalating regional conflict in the name of protecting Israelis. This initiative involved entering areas ostensibly under Palestinian Authority (PA), like Jenin and Nablus, and arresting over two thousand five hundred Palestinians. One hundred forty six Palestinians were killed by Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) in the West Bank in 2022, the highest number since 2004, and at least sixty were killed in the first two months of 2023, including during the Nablus raid of February 22, which killed eleven and wounded one hundred. Twenty two Israelis and three foreign nationals were killed by Palestinian militants in 2022.
I am intentionally spelling out the human numbers to slow readers here. This is to avoid an approach to conflict reporting that fixates on scorecards: X number for this side, Y number for that, as if the regional trauma caused by these events is ever so easily tallied. A fuller numeric breakdown was provided by B’Tselem, an Israeli-based advocacy group of locals against “the Israeli occupation and apartheid regime”, but even this more nuanced itemization illustrates our fundamental problem: it’s all too easy to measure deaths against one another, instead of against an ideal reality where each loss matters because we are all human.
This is not a “both-sides” argument: violence has long been skewed in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Contemporary Israeli forces answer not only rockets but also rocks with superior firepower. Israeli government sets blockades, curfews, and resource restrictions that escalate desperation in kettled Palestinian zones. Since the country’s founding, with only occasional legal reprieve, Israel has normalized the retaliatory destruction of Palestinian homes for terrorist acts, despite international outcry. These factors do not preclude Israeli lives and homes from being taken through Palestinian violence, or negate legitimate fears of attack on Israeli lives. They simply give one group more control over when, where, and how regional violence emerges.
But when an argument has been repeated for decades, seasoned ideas of causality leap up the moment any given statement, even a simple death count, is accepted as truth. If one accepts A, then obviously B, C, D, and down that path surely leads E: the utter denial of either Israeli or Palestinian rights! This becomes a zero-sum game that one must prevent (the logic of pundits goes) by denying A entirely.
Meanwhile, international actors have a complex set of ideas about democracy and group identity against which to weigh their ethical responsibilities in Middle Eastern strife. While some local politicians call for Israel to be a more expressly Jewish state, other democracies are actively combating desires on their own, home fronts to center ethnoreligious identity in government. Pro-Russian advocacy trades on the idea of Russia having historical rights to Ukraine, but the West strongly opposes Russians annexing populated territory on the basis of older claims.
READ: Beyond Ukraine: The global response to (un)civil wars
And in Ethiopia, the original home of a whole demographic of diaspora Jews that has been maing aliyah (return) to Israel for the past century, a recent civil war found “softer” ethnoreligious identities forged into much stronger tribal divides via the violence visited on one territory by another. In other words, looser ways of differentiating between regional groups were turned into die-hard identities by the sheer fact that other groups were targeting them for victimization.
Narrative-building around national strife
None of this happens overnight or unilaterally, of course, but the role of media in shaping more (or less) rigid notions of national identity is especially potent. So much depends upon where our storytellers choose to see the problem.
For example, a popular newspaper in Israel, Israel HaYom, is colloquially known as “Bibiton” because of its strong partiality to Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu and his party. Recently, an article emphasized the number of Israeli lives ostensibly saved by Operation Breakwater this past year, while using dehumanizing language to talk about regions of IDF conflict:
“Beyond the terrorist hornet’s nests of Jenin and Nablus, the PA is still in control of much of its territory at this time—a situation the Israeli defense establishment is interested in preserving.”“‘IDF anti-terrorism operation has saved hundreds of Israeli lives”, Israel Hayom, March 17, 2023
Other Jewish-Israeli discourse, however, challenges the notion that these areas are “hornet’s nests” so much as deeply deprived Palestinian sectors. The expressly left-leaning Jewish Currents reported on the feeling of collective punishment emerging from the IDF entering packed civilian spaces to stage its raids:
Such practices have instilled deep fear within Palestinian communities. “The raids are not that targeted. They often have civilian casualties. They are not conducting these raids in a way that demonstrates that they care about the civilian population,” said Dana El Kurd, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Richmond. Barghouti agreed: “People are hyper-aware of the likelihood they could be killed at any moment,” she said, “whether from being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or because they were driving in the wrong direction and a soldier felt threatened, or in a settler invasion with the protection of the army.”“Israel’s Raids on Palestinian Cities: An Explainer”, Jewish Currents, February 28, 2023
Haaretz, one a few publications still taken as a fairly honest broker across the political spectrum, offered a deeper dive into the despair driving young Palestinians to violence. Noting that many have lost confidence in the PA to serve as anything but a local extension of IDF operations (as noted by Israel HaYom as very much a desired outcome, to “prevent” the IDF “from having to directly police and manage Palestinian cities”), Moran Stern wrote recently that 81 percent of Palestinians view PA as corrupt, and 75 percent want its leader to step down, because
[y]ounger Palestinians also suffer from higher unemployment, especially among the educated. Those who do find work must often settle for unskilled jobs and low wages, especially compared to unskilled Palestinian laborers who work in Israel.
Deep political alienation has become the norm as well, with many youths concluding that the PA leadership is not dedicated to bettering their personal and economic circumstances. … Consequently, 66.2 percent of West Bank respondents agreed with the contention that youth membership in [mainstream political] factions has experienced a “major retreat.”
This estrangement has both strategic and operational implications. Strategically, the ideas promoted under the leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas—a two-state solution, nonviolent resistance, diplomacy and security coordination with Israel—have become anathema to most young Palestinians. According to a June 2022 survey, the majority of youths now support a return to armed confrontation and intifada. Such trends are partly attributable to the fact that younger Palestinians are highly exposed to social media platforms where incitement to violence is rife.“West Bank at a Boiling Point: Palestinian Disillusionment and Two Governments in Crisis”, Haaretz, April 5, 2023
This past weekend, violence in Israel and Palestine escalated: imposed blockades, police raids, civilian deaths, rocket attacks and retaliations, disruptions of religious observance, and those who celebrate all of the above trauma and more. Sites of conflict involved the Al-Aqsa Mosque and overall Temple Mount compound, but also West Bank terrain like Nablus, which is currently under what amounts to a local curfew to accommodate a march for Israeli settlers.
For good reason, then, local and international analysts have been talking about a potential third “intifada”, an Arabic term for rebellion or uprising. The second took place in 2000 to 2005 and incurred over four thousand casualties, at a three-to-one ratio between Palestinian to Israeli deaths.
Palestinian death tolls are again high. State actions in occupied territories are sweeping: architecturally, through settlers, and through IDF actions. Confidence in existing political structures is at an all-time low. If a third intifada emerges in the current climate, though, it will also be in the immediate wake of prominent internal protests against Netanyahu’s right wing government, which in January proposed judicial reforms amounting to a consolidation of executive power, and attendant reduction in republican-style democratic checks and balances.
And that very much presents a distinct event in regional history: a struggle both internal and external around the identity and future of this 75-year-old modern state.
Reframing nationalism, globally
In this four-part series on Israel and the West, we reviewed the Western gloss placed on Jewish, Zionist, and Israeli politics to flatten a fuller ideological discourse. We looked at Western histories of complicity in regional violence that undermine our ability to discuss Israeli politics directly. And we covered our vaguely articulated desire to protect “democracy” in the region, which often misrepresents the ongoing debate around what locals even want that word to mean.
Perhaps it’s been unsettling to discuss Israel with so little attention expressly paid to the trauma experienced by Palestinians in the region, too. But the choice here was to avoid the repetition of a grave past error: treating the extent of one “side’s” trauma as the most important metric for building a more just society. So long as justice is measured by which “side” has suffered more, there will always be an invitation to cling to quick-and-easy tallies in the pursuit of greater reforms.
And yet, even saying that much invites viewing this analysis as a scorecard after all.
So how do we respond differently?
For one, we deepen in our appeal to proactive thinking: about Palestinians, yes, and about Israelis who have lived much or all of their lives in the region; about Jewish peoples in diaspora strengthened by the idea of a strong homeland; about Palestinian peoples in diaspora aching at past loss and present trauma; and about Israeli and Jewish diaspora populations ashamed of the harm done around the borders of a nation-state first given sanction out of Western colonial and economic interests, along with guilt for past and ongoing antisemitism.
What does it mean to ache for a home, and for safety in that home?
How do we create a world where both aches can be answered without further harm?
Jewish origins for Zionist thought
This is Passover (Pesach), a time when an ahistoric biblical event is celebrated and contemplated by those of the Jewish faith: the flight of the Israelites from Egypt, into land on which they would first build the Temple of Jerusalem (now the site of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and a key part of religious expectations of a “Third Temple” eventually being raised again).
The story in Shemot is more brutal than the one known to readers of the Christian version of Exodus. In it, Pharaoh repeatedly pleads for mercy, and repeatedly has his heart hardened by divine force, for the god of Israel routinely emphasizes that every act of violence against Egypt is done to give signs and a story upon which to build YHWH’s people’s identity. In Torah, Moses is actually held in great esteem by the Egyptians, who also lend their Jewish neighbours gold and silver when asked, on the night before the final plague and just ahead of the exodus.
Within the context of Pesach, this story of escape before the creation of a new nation is often essentialized to its core covenant: the idea of Jews being saved by YHWH from slavery in Egypt, and therefore owing their god fealty unto all the coming generations. This fealty is shown in part by relaying the story of Jewish exodus during this holiday, and in part by keeping all the old laws.
But in more liberal and reform Jewish traditions, it’s passages from Devarim (Deuteronomy) that form the basis of moral interpretation for this foundational tale. Specifically, sections that call for better kindness to others, such as:
For there will never cease to be needy within the land. Therefore, I command you, saying, you shall surely open your hand to your brother, to your poor one, and to your needy one in your land. …
And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord, your God, redeemed you; therefore, I am commanding you this thing today.Devarim / Deuteronomy 15:11, 15
Granted, those sections often involve archaic concepts like being kind to your slaves, and slaughtering firstborn cattle for sacrifice. They also lie between terrible commands like stoning people to death for apostasy and refusing to allow someone who is not “one of your own people” to rule over you. But just as liberal Christianity reinterprets slivers of kinder Biblical counsel from stories awful when read in full context, so too does liberal Judaism lean hard into what the basic concept, “remember, you were slaves in Egypt”, can do to deepen worldly love.
Which is as it should be, in a world genuinely interested in pursuing more democratic values and inviting greater moral maturity over time. As we grow not only in shared histories but also in the ability to be present globally in other local struggles, we have a huge transformational challenge before us.
Now eight billion strong, the human species has many different ways to define and divide itself. But we also have the capacity to see our shared humanity, and to recognize the depth of past trauma that constructs cultural rifts between us.
The trouble is, we are all moving unevenly toward this more globalist consciousness, and with great risk of backsliding into hateful nationalisms along the way.
Moreover, the foundation on which any given state might deign to critique another is slender. Canada and the US have deep settler-state pasts that continue to inform Indigenous and Black trauma especially. Britain and Spain, among other European colonizers, have left great scars upon other regions, too. Meanwhile, many countries have no interest in improving or moving toward direct democracy at all. The world sustains many dictators, and all the economic if not full-on military wars they wage. State-sanctioned saboteurs and terrorists, driven at times by broader religious and political identities, also raise the stakes for any nation trying to protect its own.
This is not to say that none of us can speak out: of course we can, and should.
But it does mean that, if more democratic outcomes are truly our aim, and if we wish to build a world where everyone can enjoy the privilege of safety in their chosen home, we have a great reckoning upon us as global humanists, with respect to how we will set better standards internationally, and how we’ll incentivize other nations to pursue more inclusive standards, too.
Israel is undergoing a major internal political crisis, wherein its citizens are grappling with how much democracy, and of what type, they really want, and what they are willing to sacrifice to achieve it. Palestinians are also struggling with this question.
International actors are still limited in how much they can do locally in Israel, and they can face complex ethical crises even through direct pressure campaigns like the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions Movement. But one clear method of addressing this regional crisis is investing more ambitiously in general in the move from national identities toward a deeper global consciousness: for our struggle to mitigate climate change, and for our fight against nationalist hate-mongering, too.
This means exercising caution in the face of scorecard reporting, and refusing to flatten any demographic to a single view. It also means prioritizing the real win condition—increased safety and security for all—over any attempts to frame narratives of local violence as an inescapable “either/or” between different demographics.
But above all, it means remembering that, whether or not we live in diaspora, we will always be pressed by this question of who or what or where is “home”.
And how we choose to answer it?
That answer will shape whatever harm—or healing—we contribute to our own.
Israel and the West
Part 1: How we lost nuance with Jewish state politics
Part 2: Western complicity in Middle Eastern trauma
Part 3: Netanyahu and Israeli national politics
Part 4: The global fight to outgrow national strife