The election of a far-right government in Israel, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, has led to further attacks on Palestinians, including the Israeli Defence Force’s assault on the Jenin refugee camp in July. It has also led to clashes among the Israeli population itself, triggered by Netanyahu’s attempt to bring the country’s supreme court under direct political control. Here we interview Toufic Haddad, a Palestinian author and journalist living in Jerusalem, and Israeli-born academic Ilan Pappé, director of the European Centre for Palestinian Studies, who provide insight into the deep processes underlying Israel’s political crisis and reflect on the state of the Palestinian resistance.
The shifting dynamics of Palestinian resistance
Toufic Haddad was interviewed by Anne Alexander.
Anne: How would you set the current crisis in Palestine in the context of the longer history of the struggle? Is it right to speak of the current situation being rooted in a crisis of the “peace process” associated with the Oslo Accords, which came out of negotiations between the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Israeli government in the early 1990s?
Toufic: It’s important to debunk the idea that the Oslo process had anything to do with “peace” or with Palestinian rights and international law and so on. Olso was an implementation of the Allon Plan, which was essentially an attempt to permanently incorporate the conquests of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War into Israel, while enabling a form of limited autonomy and self-governance for the Palestinians, albeit without the provision of sovereignty.1 The “solution” of autonomy was aimed at scuttling the self-determination claims of the Palestinians. It was seen as necessary to the preservation the “Jewish and democratic” character of Israel, which could erode if the occupation of the territories conquered in 1967 continued indefinitely and thus threatened to incorporate more Palestinians into the Israeli polity. Such an eventuality might endanger the demographic majority enjoyed by Israel’s Jewish population.2 This became an issue that required head-on confrontation by the early 1980s, when Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) began organising in formations of mass mobilisation and, by the late 1980s, launched the uprising that became known as the First Intifada.3
The Oslo process was an attempt to resolve these dilemmas by implementing a variant of the Allon Plan.4 This essentially took the form of a Bantustan solution. Israel needed to avoid what development studies scholars call “convergence”, economically and politically, between Israel and the Palestinians. After the war in 1967, the green line (the internationally recognised borders of Israel, drawn prior to the conquests in 1967) was erased; there were no longer borders between the Israel and the West Bank and Gaza. Following 1967, Palestinian refugees living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip could even visit their old lands within the borders of Israel that had been established in 1948, when the state was founded amid the violent expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Arabs. Palestinians also entered the Israeli labour market in massive numbers, leading to much higher levels of income in Gaza and the West Bank, which enabled some building up of institutions. When the First Intifada erupted, it fed off these political contradictions. In truth, the reality Israel was overseeing before Oslo was unsustainable. Israel desperately needed a form of separation, but one that would not provide the basis for a future Palestinian state, because it still viewed the lands conquered in 1967 as essential to the Zionist project, both strategically and ideologically.
Israel’s approach was thus, to quote Israeli economist Arie Arnon, “neither two nor one”. They wanted neither a one-state solution, where Israelis and Palestinians would be part of a single political entity, nor the emergence of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. Instead, there was constant vacillation between the two alternatives.
Ultimately, the Oslo process failed, but let’s talk about some of its important successes. Chief among these has been the obfuscation of the political situation in the eyes of the international community through the appearance of a process of “peace-making” and “state-building”. There was the illusion of something genuine taking place with Western taxpayers’ money, which in reality is simply helping to restructure the Israeli occupation. The aim was to create a co-opted Palestinian elite and to place the Palestinians nominally outside of Israeli responsibility—though, in reality, Israel would maintain control of the land and the supposedly “autonomous” areas. The Palestinian Authority was to administer the education and health of Palestinians while acting as their main interface with the Israeli state and army, thus managing the “Palestinian problem”, including its “security” dimension.
This situation has not been without serious contradictions. The creation of a dual infrastructure may have got the Palestinians “off the Israeli books” in economic, political and civil terms, creating the illusion that the Palestinians are on the road to something like the formation of their own state and are thus no longer Israel’s responsibility. However, this argument becomes less convincing the more that the whole process grinds to a halt. In 2012, the International Monetary Fund acknowledged that the Palestinian Authority had achieved sufficient state building capacity to be self-reliant, with all the fixtures of statehood in place in terms of different ministries and a capacity to manage and govern the population. What was lacking was sovereignty. The creation of parallel infrastructures for Israelis and Palestinians therefore looks more and more like apartheid, designed to keep the Palestinian population down via various methods of oppression, control, surveillance and gerrymandering of the map, some of which are extremely brutal. The Gaza Strip is subject to a draconian policy of siege as well as to intermittent Israeli exercises in “mowing the lawn”, whereby the Zionist military attempts to eliminate the constantly re-emerging efforts to resist its strangulation. Gaza has very limited means of self-sustenance because of Israel’s historic de-development policies, the pollution of water aquifers, the Strip’s limited reserves of land and the lack of free access to the outside world. This situation continues indefinitely, with Israel simply hiding behind its “security” justifications for maintaining Gaza as an overcrowded and heavily polluted open-air prison for about two million Palestinian refugees.
When you begin to question the picture presented by Israel for international consumption, you see that the entire Palestinian population, from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea, exists under some form of Israeli domination and surveillance. This makes the case for categorising Israel as an apartheid state all the more convincing. Indeed, over the past five years or so, all the major international human rights organisations, including the Israeli ones, have started making this case, because to make any other would be an affront to their own mandates.
All this said, the major problem facing the Israeli and Western architects of the Oslo process is that, despite their technical solutions and gerrymandering of the “Palestine problem”, they can’t actually solve key political problems. Today’s Palestinians are no less resistant to the occupation and no more accepting of Zionist settler colonialism and the State of Israel. They feel that the peace process and the international community have cheated them and that neither the Oslo Accords nor international law has delivered anything for them. On top of this, there have been significant economic, educational and institutional advances among the Palestinians over the past 30 years, with a larger Palestinian population that is more capable of raising its demands. All this is very problematic for Israel.
On the economic front, although the Oslo process claimed to push forward a two-state solution by allowing the Palestinians to set up various ministries and develop state resources, ultimately Israel maintained its de-development policies. This meant preventing the emergence of productive industries and the development of horizontal linkages between different Palestinian localities that might generate synergies and surpluses. Instead, Israel kept the OPT dependent, stuck in a stasis reminiscent of the South African Bantustans, and reliant on imports from Israel’s uncompetitive industries, which have been dumped in Palestinian Authority-administered areas. They also used the checkpoint system to cynically manipulate Palestinian elites and economic and political actors.
We have to understand the economic situation in the context of Israel’s “closure policy”—a massive infrastructure that controls movement in and out of each of the isolated islands of Palestinian population that constitute an archipelago within the OPT today. The resulting lack of Palestinian economic self-reliance creates a burdensome situation for the international community, and the Israelis are not immune from its effects either. When they decide to shut down the Palestinian economy, it has consequences for the Israeli economy in some sectors that are dependent upon the flow of Palestinian labour—particularly agriculture and construction.
Anne: How has the Palestinian working class changed during the years of the Oslo process?
Toufic: The Oslo Accords gave Israel the chance to “get Gaza out of Tel Aviv”, a slogan deployed by former Israel prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1992, and find a way out of the First Intifada. Yet, the Gaza created by this process was one without jobs and where workers were put on the payroll of the international community by bloating the public sector. Indeed, the public sector is 36 percent of the Gazan workforce—twice the equivalent figure in the West Bank. The public sector did not really exist on the same scale before Oslo. Around 20,000 people worked for the Israeli Civil Administration, which managed the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip before the Oslo process. Employment within it was considered politically dubious. Today, there are more than 150,000 workers in the Palestinian public sector as a result of the establishment of the Palestinian Authority.
Another major section of the Palestinian population works across the green line, within pre-1967 Israel, or in the West Bank settlements. Israel is, at the end of the day, primarily focused on colonisation—permanently uniting the 1948 conquests with those of 1967, and they needed a substantial labouring population to do this. At the start of the Oslo process, there were fewer than 200,000 settlers in the OPT, but there are now 700,000. It was largely Palestinians, refugees and villagers, who supplied the labour force to build the housing and infrastructure needed by the Jewish settler population, because alternative economic opportunities were extremely limited due to the Israeli state’s land and de-development policies.
Anne: What are the roots of the current political crisis generated by the rise of the religious right in Israel?
Toufic: The Ashkenazi-based Israeli elite and Labour Zionist movement, which brought about the Oslo Accords, dominated Israeli political, economic and cultural life since the establishment of the state.5 In doing so, they created many enemies within Israeli society. These included not only the Palestinians, but also many among the religious Jews, who they treated as backwards, and the Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews, who do not share a similar history with the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. In the 1990s, members of the Ashkenazi elite privatised their kibbutzes and went off to buy property in Berlin and New York, getting into the stock market and doing well for itself. However, the underbelly of Israeli society was growing, including the Mizrahi and Orthodox Jewish populations. These sections of society often interacted more closely with Palestinians, frequently living in the settlements and on the periphery of Palestinian areas, since this was cheaper. Indeed, there was a long history of discrimination against these sections of the Jewish population in the name of “modernity” and the creation of a homogenous Jewish state. The Ashkenazi elite, who were largely secular and unobservant of Jewish religious principles, indulged in racism against non-European traditions, sometimes even adopting antisemitic caricatures of the religious Orthodox Jews.
Yet, even as Ashkenazi-dominated Labour Zionism revelled in its successes in reaping the fruits of the settlement project, it was diminishing demographically. We then saw the emergence of social and political constituencies, of various persuasions, with an axe to grind against the Ashkenazi elite, as well as their own vision for Israel as a Jewish state. These forces were eventually able to coalesce around the Likud party and its Revisionist Zionism, which pushed a more Jewish-supremacist political line. It didn’t care about liberalism at all and saw no need for the Zionist project’s liberal facade.
This right-wing coalition has now grown large enough and strong enough to increasingly permeate the state, attempting to reorganise and redefine it at the institutional level and challenge the remaining bastions of the old elite, such as the supreme court and the media. This process has been ongoing for a long time, but it now appears to have reached a tipping point, so that its reforms may become irreversible. This has major implications for both Israeli and Palestinian society.
Anne: What is that vision? Are you talking about completing the Nakba and removing the Palestinian population?
Toufic: I think it’s going in that direction. From the perspective of these political forces, Israelis should feel fully entitled to the land and powerful enough to reject any form of political compromise with the Palestinian people. They don’t understand why Israel ever needed the Olso process. The Labour Zionist tradition understood the value of pragmatism, particularly within such complex regional and international political contexts. However, these new tendencies are far less sympathetic to liberalism. Indeed, they feel oppressed by it. Moreover, as the lords of the land, they also feel entitled to much more.
Their vision is expanding Jewish settlement of the OPT and treating Palestinians inside the green line—who have long been officially referred to as “Arab Israelis” in an attempt to underline their supposed integration into Israeli society—much more like the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Before he became finance minister in the current Israeli government in 2022, Bezalel Smotrich founded organisations in Israel to enable Jews to spy on and report any “illegal” construction activities among the Palestinian citizens of Israel.6 He sees a demographic and territorial battle taking place across a single territory, including against Israeli citizens of Palestinian origin. There is a spiritual battle too. The current administration’s national security minister, Itamar Ben-Givr, has twice been to the Al-Aqsa mosque, brazenly asserting Israeli sovereignty over it, which is intended as an affront not just to Palestinians but to 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide. Hundreds of settlers and Zionist fanatics are coming to Al-Aqsa daily, trying to create security incidents that can be used to justify partition of the mosque compound. Likud ministers have already put the partition of the Al-Aqsa compound on their agenda.
This monster grew out of the Oslo process. It aims at settling the remaining Palestinian territories, pushing back Palestinian demands, and doing away with the Palestinians as a people and a “national problem”. It is prepared to do this even through the threat of expulsion. The previous incarnation of Zionism was horrific and conducted multiple ethnic cleansing campaigns against the Palestinians. Yet, the character of these new forces—which grew up within and out of the old—is unapologetic about its Jewish supremacism. It is working hard to capture the Israeli state—the tool that manages the allotment of the fruits of the Zionist conquest among Israeli settler populations. They want to do away with the liberal facades that previously mediated and mitigated the horror of the colonisation of Palestine and afforded some degree of nuance to the governance structures of this complicated project called Israel. They wish to do away with the Palestinians, take their land, and imprint their power upon the Arab world and the Middle East.
Anne: Is it fair to say that Smotrich, Ben-Gvir and their like don’t want apartheid, but rather conquest?
Toufic: Apartheid was and remains the temporary managerialist solution the Zionist movement and Israel is forced to erect in light of the dilemmas previously described. However, whether this is sustainable in the long run, considering the long-term demographic and political indicators, is questionable. These factors certainly do not look favourable to the Zionist project. No one knows the exact demographic figures, but there are some indications that Jews are already a minority between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. Plus, there are limits on how much Jewish migration to Israel can really come about. There are not so many Jews out there in the world who are actually willing to come anymore. This begs the question of whether apartheid is just a temporary solution before a push toward ethnic cleansing is eventually attempted again. Meanwhile, Palestinian life will be turned into a hell in order to encourage emigration and disassociation from Palestinian national identity and organising for national liberation.
It’s worth pointing to the contribution of the “international community” during the Oslo process, which consistently sided with Israel and argued that the Palestinians were the problem, were the “rejectionists” and so on. The inverse side of this is that the exclusive focus on managing, subordinating and quashing the Palestinians nourished a new Israeli monster. I don’t want to fall into the trap of letting Labour Zionism off the hook—after all, it created all these problems in the first place, and it did so as an extension of a Western imperialist agenda in the Middle East. Nonetheless, one cannot deny that what has grown up now is a more virulent variant of this. This contemporary Zionism is unapologetic about supremacy over the Palestinians—indeed, it is even bringing biological racism back into the picture and may even use this against people who identify as Jews.
Anne: What’s your assessment of the Unity Intifada in 2021 as a model of Palestinian resistance from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea? Obviously, it lacked a unified political leadership, but there was unity at the level of slogans and some forms of movement activism.
Toufic: The general strike observed in May 2021 didn’t really have an opportunity to develop beyond what it was. It was a one-off affair that came about at the tail-end of the Jerusalem uprising, which started in Sheikh Jarrah and spread to the Old City, Al Aqsa and then to Gaza. Because Jerusalem was about to ignite the Arab and Muslim world, the United States stepped in and shut down Israel’s settlement plans in Sheikh Jarah. The US were not going to risk its empire and regional influence just so a bunch of radical settlers could implant themselves in Sheikh Jarrah.7 Yet, from a Palestinian perspective, these events were not sustained enough to be able to generate new forms of political momentum, even if the experience did offer a vision of what might be possible.
It’s important to recognise that the general strike took place within a context of Palestinians across all of historic Palestine having witnessed the convergence of their conditions and predicaments under Israeli colonial supremacy. This applies even to Palestinian citizens of Israel, who five years ago saw the Israeli parliament pass the Nation State Law, which clearly states that only Jews are allowed self-determination here and that Palestinians are, essentially, constitutionally unentitled to equality—even as citizens. In this broader context of Israel asserting institutionalised Jewish supremacy of one variety or another, and particularly with its “right-wing” variant now very much ascendant, it’s natural that Palestinians would desire the reconnection of their struggle across all the borders imposed upon them over the past 75 years. That has begun to happen across the fragments that Israel created: the West Bank, Gaza, ‘48 Palestine and Jerusalem.8 However, the differing tools with which Israel manages each section of the Palestinian population, and the varying legal rights of each of these groups, naturally shapes the dynamics of the struggle and frustrates the emergence of a unified set of strategies and tactics.
Certainly, the broader tendency will be towards convergence of Palestinian interests and resistance to the aggressive nature of contemporary Zionism, because that’s not going to go away anytime soon. Israel is committed to frontal colonial and racist assaults. Yet, the territorial splintering of Palestine has fed into the continued fragmentation of the forces of resistance. In principle, this doesn’t preclude the possibility of unified resistance through actions such as strikes and generalised rebellion, but the chances of these becoming effective are reliant upon much greater political preparation as well as the actions of our allies regionally and internationally. Furthermore, at this stage, the use of labour as a point of leverage for the Palestinians is insufficient for a successful strategy, due to the way in which the structure and character of the Israeli colonial project has been reorganised, especially after the Oslo Accords, so that Arab workers’ organisation is less threatening to the Israeli economy.
In this context, where something new is imaginable but as yet unborn, there is, of course, also the very real issue of the existing institutions and political organisations. Palestinian society is no vacuum. We have a rich and diverse ecology of civil, military and political resistance. Shifts in Palestinian society are taking place within a historical context and established dynamics of resistance, which are partly shaped by how Israel has responded to Palestinian resistance activity of one type or another in the past. The military resistance is at its most evolved in the Gaza Strip, where you have a fully developed military infrastructure and political economy. In the West Bank there is less military prowess, but you have conditions that are equally explosive and continue to generate the desire to resist, including via force of arms.
The Oslo Accords have been superficially successful in restructuring the occupation and managing the problem of the Palestinians while confusing international opinion about the nature of the colonial project. However, these are chimerical victories for Israel and the West. They are reliant upon endless gerrymandering of the map, indefinite use of the “stick” and permanent economic dependence on the international community. No political consent has been engendered among the Palestinians, including from its leadership. Indeed, Israel and the West got two Palestinian leaderships out of Oslo: the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, which has legitimacy on the world stage (with recognition of the statehood of the Palestinian Authority from 140 countries) and continues to demand Palestinian rights in international forums, and the Hamas leadership in Gaza, which is investing in military tactics that advance the cause of national liberation. Of course, there are many problems with having a split leadership, as well as with the clear lack of democracy. Nonetheless, neither of these leaderships are what Israel wants. It lacks solutions to dealing with either, despite the overwhelming imbalance of power.
Today, the dynamics on the ground, particularly in Jerusalem and the West Bank, are already very much like a slow-paced Intifada, with almost daily attacks on settlers and army personnel for much of the past year. These actions are currently being driven by disorganised social forces, rather than organised political factions. Recently, for example, we saw a 40 year old man who smashed his car into a checkpoint, killing a soldier and injuring five others. He had five kids and comes from a village near Ramallah. This speaks to the kind of people who are forced to resist, and Israel has no clear answer to this style of resistance. They have no answer to the “lone wolf”—the disenfranchised Palestinian continually generated by the political situation. Sometimes, even people with permits to work in Israel settlements might carry out such attacks. There are large amounts of “illegal” arms among Palestinians, and there’s certainly enough anger, willingness to fight and political awareness. What happens if the organised resistance factions begin to become more directly involved in this, introducing training and more effective weapons?
A fairly serious military dynamic has also emerged in Gaza. Given how much time, energy and resources have been put into it, we should not underestimate it. The military resistance movements in Gaza have been able to rack up some modest but significant successes, such as the prisoner exchange that resulted in 1,200 Palestinian prisoners being released and 25,000 years being cut from prison sentences. That’s a major success for a Palestinian resistance formation and would have been unthinkable prior to the Oslo Accords. Sure, such victories don’t happen every day, and militarism is, in any case, an elitist form of resistance with many problems. Still, Israel lacks the complete freedom of military manoeuvre it once had. Gaza, despite its extremely limited resources, has shown itself capable of firing hundreds of rockets daily into Israel, including at key infrastructure such as airports and military bases. Israel has failed to resolve this problem, despite its Iron Dome air defence system.
Indeed, it is important to acknowledge a significant accumulation of Palestinian resistance dynamics and expertise. This is something that is not going away. Instead, the resistance seems poised to explore ways to better understand its enemy and challenge its weaknesses. In this sense, Israel, despite its obvious military prowess, is vulnerable and exposed. Let’s remember that Israeli settlers and Palestinians are living very close to each other in the West Bank, and the settlement enterprise is costly from the state’s perspective. Moreover, its hardly an attractive place to live for any person who has a family and lacks a high degree of ideological motivation.
These dilemmas take on a particular colouration due to the internal schisms within Israel’s Jewish population. These divides are challenging the economic and political organisation of the country, remoulding its institutional life and the identities of Israelis. We have already seen elements of the Israeli military reserve forces becoming associated with the opposition to Netanyahu and threatening to boycott army duties if he passes his “judicial coup’’ against Israel’s supreme court.
Ensuring a strong Israeli army was a fundamental component of Western support for Zionism, both prior to the state’s foundation and after 1948, so such events are significant. The West wanted the creation of a Spartan state that could defeat all the other regional states. It guaranteed Israel’s “Qualitative Military Edge” over the other Middle Eastern powers, because it lacked reliable and stable allies in the region. Arab nationalism, or democracy, would create major problems for Western interests in the region, so the US and the European powers preferred to maintain influence by keeping the region disorganised, under the rule of dictators and the watchful gaze and cudgel of the Israeli nightwatchman.
We will see how Palestinian resistance develops and if it can find ways, directly or indirectly, to exacerbate and deepen the social and political fissures inside Israeli society, which will also necessarily have implications for Israel’s army. This is where Palestinian opposition is heading. Although there is the potential to link up with broader regional and international campaigns, this is not really the priority at the moment. It’s tough enough to organise resistance under occupation, and other areas of the world are clearly undergoing major transitions and disorganisation, so it’s not self-evident who or what can be linked up with and where.
The majority of political formations and actual resistance organisations in the OPT are preoccupied with ensuring Palestinians can remain rooted in their homeland and within self-conscious, organised and politicised communities. They are focused on generating the resources necessary to resist the settlers and the army without raising the crisis to a level where mass expulsion becomes possible. I would even say that even the Palestinian Liberation Organisation is invested in this project, though its way of going about this is convoluted and involves dominating decision-making and funds so that it remains on top.
Given all this, the unification of the struggle across the factures in Palestinian society is likely to only take place beneath the table, rather than in an overt fashion, because the larger structural dynamics that separate and fragment Palestinians are still so pervasive. It is rare that there are opportunities for a collective struggle against our collective enemy. People always feel on the back foot. Indeed, Israel is on the front foot due to very fact that it is the colonial power.
Nevertheless, it is also significant that the political crisis inside Israel is having a major attritional effect on Israeli society, shredding the feeling of a unified national identity. Some 28 percent of the Jewish Israeli population is considering emigration. A large part of Israel’s dominance over the Palestinians, and more broadly over the Arabs in general, has to do with its aerial superiority. Yet, we have recently witnessed Israeli pilots speaking about withholding their service to the military. The pilots are largely from the privileged Ashkenazi section of the population. So, dimensions of the political and ethnic conflict among Jewish Israelis are hitting the military, including its most strategically important elements.
If trends persist across a longer period, we may well see large Jewish emigration away from Israel, the weakening of Israel’s economy in certain respects, including a fall in international investment, and the reaffirmation of Israel’s pariah status on the world stage. There’s already talk of the high-tech sector moving its money out of Israel, although, of course, a lot of that will depend on the global dynamics of capitalism. A lot also turns on how the international community chooses to deal with Israel. As international relations shift in a “new Cold War era” after the 2007 financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic, it remains to be seen how the theatre of Israel-Palestine will adjust. There are both encouraging and discouraging signs.
We are obliged to highlight the emergent dangers in the situation. It’s a real horror show. You have very violent, racist and fascistic elements in office, and they feel entitled to power. They are, ironically, constrained by the historical legacy of the Oslo process, as well as the military machine and officer class that oversaw it and today supervises the main dynamics of interaction with the Palestinians. For the time, these more established social forces, together with the international community, which has paid for the Oslo Accords for the past 30 years, remain invested in the existing paradigm as the only solution to their dilemmas. However, there are problems bubbling up on all sides, in both Palestinian and Israeli society. Israel’s emergent political formations believe alternatives to Oslo exist and should be considered and potentially exercised, including declaration of unapologetic Jewish-supremacist apartheid, total annexation of the OPT and ethnic cleansing of those who resist. The army does not yet agree, and neither do Israel’s traditional political allies in the US and the other Western states. Netanyahu mediates these tensions, and all the while his own political neck is on the line.
It’s a very unpredictable and unstable situation, and one that political actors standing in solidarity with Palestine need to understand. Yet, the situation also creates major opportunities for building new forms of consciousness. Targeted campaigns can speak to the horrific situation on the ground as well as the inspiration of Palestinian struggle and its sheer persistence. Activists in the West need to pose questions and challenge the merits of spending Western tax money on sustaining the situation—including the military aid that goes towards sponsoring an unapologetic, radicalising, racist, homophobic and Jewish-supremacist settler-colonial project bent on violent pacification and ethnic cleansing. What place should such an endeavour have in today’s world, in light of all the threats to global peace and wellbeing we face?
A fork in the road: Fantasy Israel’s grand crisis
Ilan Pappé was interviewed by Donny Gluckstein.
Donny: Is the current protest movement among the Jewish population within Israel comparable with anything before?
Ilan: In many ways it is unprecedented. It echoes some of the protests that took place in 2011 in what has been called the “social revolution” that responded to the high cost of living, but it is unprecedented in terms of its longevity and the severity of the issues at hand. It has the potential to become a civil war or a direct confrontation between two distinct Jewish Israeli societies over the nature of the state and its future orientation—and we are only in the early phase of this conflict. Even at this stage, nothing in the history of Israel is really comparable.
Donny: What is the source of this movement and what explains its scale and long-lasting character?
Ilan: The movement is made of Israeli Jews who were happy with the kind of Israel they helped to build since the inception of the state in 1948. The Zionist state is in many respects necessarily an apartheid state, both in how it operates within Israel proper and how it rules the West Bank—as well as, in the past, Gaza. This is the secular Jewish-supremacist “democracy”, in which liberal Tel Aviv coexisted with traditional and religious Jerusalem. Despite this being an uneasy “live and let live” situation within Israeli society, there was no real disagreement about the oppression of the Palestinians in Israel, the occupied West Bank and besieged Gaza.
However, alongside this Israel—what I call the “Fantasy Israel”, because its self-image and external image still claim the mantle a democratic and civilised society—a different Jewish state has emerged. This is the settler state, which I call the “State of Judea”, whose treatment of the Palestinians never bothered Fantasy Israel.9 Yet, once Judea encroached on Fantasy Israel, the latter became terrified of the state turning into a theocracy. The State of Judea has its own ideas on gender issues, LGBT+ rights, the judicial system and the public domain. These ideas are not that different from the vision of some Islamic fundamentalist movements and the way countries such as Iran police their public space and human rights.
The Israeli masses who have been protesting each week believe that they can only prevent the State of Judea from taking over Fantasy Israel through demonstrations. They are supported by parts of the Israeli elite—the security services, big industry, high-tech firms and financial institutions—who also believe that the State of Judea would mean intolerable economic losses to them. In the case of the army, there looms the possibility of indictment of war crimes if the international community comes to frame the Israel judicial system as unsuitable.
Donny: What are the strengths and limitations of the movement? To what extent is it a real threat to Netanyahu?
Ilan: It’s very difficult to judge this because the Israeli legislature is currently on a break until September.10 If Netanyahu gives up on the legal reforms and reaches an understanding about the issue of exempting Orthodox Jews from recruitment into the army, the movement might believe it has won the day, and there will be some calm before the next inevitable clash erupts. However, if he does not stop, the danger is not just for Netanyahu. Instead, there is the threat of an implosion of the state from within.
Without being too prophetic, to my mind this is going to happen sooner or later anyway. Zionism has, at least until today, overcome the “Palestine” issue by using incredible and ruthless force, and it will be able to continue to do so for as long as the Arab and Muslim worlds maintain their indifference to the Palestinians’ plight. However, force cannot be used to overcome the basic paradox of Zionism: the claim that Judaism is a national identity, but not one that contradicts the values of democracy and liberalism. The inner contradiction here is insoluble for any religion, and Judaism is no exception. There is no golden mean between theocracy and democracy (putting aside, for the sake of argument, the Palestinians for one moment). Therefore, in this battle there might be periods of truce, but the conflict being played out is ultimately a zero-sum game.
Of course, there is a way out of the impasse, which is Israel and Palestine finding its place within the Arab world, which will need to build its own political models in the future. These will not be Western liberal democratic models, but hopefully more economically and socially just political systems, based on loose, multi-religious and multicultural state structures with an uneasy but workable relationship between tradition and modernity, secularism and religion. However, claiming to be a Jewish island belonging to the West in the Arab world cannot allow for the resolution of the basic issues of Israeli society.
Thus, the Israeli left, which is almost extinct, has totally missed the relevant conversations among the Arab left about the future of the region. These conversations are emerging from a self-critical appraisal of the mistakes of the left in the past, which have resulted from its condescending attitude towards tradition and religion. At the same time, these discussions were part of the search for a future fusion of universal socialist values with honour for collective identities and rights as well as respect for the past and historic civilisations. While this conversation may look detached from the dismal situation in many Arab countries, it will have an impact on what one can define as the next stages of the revolution in the Arab world, which has been mistakenly dubbed the “Arab Spring”. The absence from this conversation of the Arab Jews in Israel, who vote overwhelmingly for the Israel right and Netanyahu, is particularly tragic due to their large numbers and the prominent role they played in the Arab world before 1948.
Donny: What do you see as the likely outcome of the conflict?
Ilan: I think the State of Judea will win at the end of the day, which will open a unique historical opportunity for the Palestinians. The international legitimacy Israel has enjoyed would not survive the State of Judea. True, they have their own allies such as Donald Trump in the US, Viktor Orbán in Hungary and much of the extreme right across Europe, as well Narendra Modi’s India, but this will only delay, rather than prevent, the transformation of Israel into a pariah state.
Just a note of warning, though—this not a prediction for tomorrow or the day after. This is not a linear process. There might still be a backlash against Netanyahu and in favour of Fantasy Israel at the next elections. Still, this will just be a temporary change of orientation and, to my mind, not one that could be sustained for long.
Donny: What is the significance of the current protest movement for the struggle for Palestinian rights?
Ilan: Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with the rights of the Palestinians. In fact, those protesting to save Fantasy Israel asked the Palestinians to refrain from taking part and are very careful not to mention “the occupation”, wishing instead to build a wide consensus among Jewish Israelis.
However, the protest movement is undermining the state from within. There is a “brain drain”, self-divestment by financial institutions, and a growing refusal to serve in the army by the reservists in the elite units and the air force. All this exposes the total lack of social cohesion. At some point, this will open a historical opportunity for the Palestinians—if, by then, they have a proper national movement that is united, well represented and has a clear vision for the future.
Donny: What advice would you give to supporters of Palestine?
Ilan: The most important issue is to refute the misrepresentation of this protest movement as a sign of how democratic Israel still is. We need to highlight the continuing Israeli consensus on the oppression of the Palestinians. This is an important antidote to the Western media’s fake news coverage of the events in Israel. Other than that, as a solidarity movement, we cannot tell the Palestinians what to do, but we can still encourage a clear Palestinian vision—a more united one that would orientate us all towards liberation.
Toufic Haddad is a Palestinian author and journalist living in Jerusalem.
Ilan Pappé is the Director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter and the author of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oneworld, 2006).
1 Israeli Minister of Labour, Yigal Allon, presented a plan to the Israeli cabinet in the immediate aftermath of the 1967 War and the seizure of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights. He proposed settlement and annexation of large sections of occupied Palestinian land. (This and subsequent notes were added by the editors.)
2 In 1967, the conquest of the OPT left millions of Palestinians under direct Israeli rule. This created a dilemma for the Israeli ruling class (at the time composed largely of Ashkenazi Jews). The Israeli leadership claimed that Israel was a “democracy”, even though the state had been created through the mass expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in 1948. Integrating the remaining Palestinian residents of the OPT into Israel as citizens would, over time, they claimed, result in a Palestinian majority and the erasure of the Israeli state’s “Jewish character”.
3 The First Intifada was a popular uprising against Israeli occupation. It began in Gaza in December 1987 and spread across the OPT.
4 “Bantustans” were areas of South Africa during the apartheid era, supposedly providing autonomous homelands for Black people.
5 Ashkenazi Jews are descended from Jewish populations in Central and Eastern Europe. Mizrahi Jews are descended from Jewish communities in the Middle East. Sephardic Jews are descendants of those Jews expelled by the Spanish crown after their completion of the conquest of the Muslim states of the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century.
6 Smotrich’s official biography boasts of his role as co-founder of Regavim, a pro-settler movement that initiates court cases against supposedly “illegal” construction by Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank. Its aim is the dispossession of Palestinians. Among Regavim’s recent targets was the primary school at Jubbet ad-Dib in the West Bank, which was demolished by the Israeli authorities in May 2023—see https://menasolidaritynetwork.com/2023/05/31/right-wing-israeli-settler-movement-pushed-for-demolition-of-palestinian-primary-school
7 Sheikh Jarrah is a Palestinian neighbourhood in Jerusalem where Palestinian families have been facing harassment and attempts to evict them by Israeli settlers for decades. In 2021, protests by Palestinians against the attempted eviction of eight Palestinian families triggered a general strike and mass mobilisations across the whole of historic Palestine. For an account, see Anne Alexander’s article in International Socialism 173 at https://isj.org.uk/ending-apartheid
8 The term “‘48 Palestine” refers to the part of historic Palestine that now lies within the official borders of the State of Israel.
9 “Judea and Samaria” is the biblical name that Israel uses to refer to the West Bank. Ben-Gvir recently stated, “My right, and the right of my wife and my children, to move around Judea and Samaria is more important than freedom of movement for the Arabs.”
10 This interview was conducted in late August.