The Erasure of Palestinian Society

Israel's long-standing strategy of ignoring the agency and lived reality of millions of men, women and children has taken on horrific new dimensions

The Erasure of Palestinian Society
“A Family Without a Shadow” by the Palestinian artist Sliman Mansour. (Courtesy of the artist)

In January, as Israeli lawyers took the stand in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to respond to South Africa’s case that Israel is committing genocide, a Palestinian-American TikToker ran a live counter to track every time the delegation mentioned Hamas. He counted 137 times in total for the three-hour session, or a little less than once a minute.

The counter, complete with mockery of the distinctive Israeli pronunciation of Hamas, was both biting comedy and an indication of a serious blind spot.

When Israeli representatives speak about Palestinians, they often use language that is chillingly dehumanizing, as South Africa’s application to the ICJ documents. Just as frequently, Israel simply does not see Palestinian society at all. Israeli leaders, and Western discourse generally, have long reduced the Palestinian national struggle to particular leaders or factions. Palestinian people, according to this perspective, are little more than puppets manipulated by those leaders, human shields behind which they hide or — as indicated by current demands to evacuate the city of Rafah in southern Gaza — objects for Israel to clear away as part of an invasion.

This preoccupation with what Israel regards as unscrupulous Palestinian leaders and its refusal to see the agency, aspirations and lived realities of millions of Palestinian men, women and children has a political corollary: If Israel can eliminate leading political organizations, or perhaps co-opt them or create new ones, its Palestinian “problem” will be resolved.

This nonrecognition of Palestinian society has a long history. Great Britain’s 1917 Balfour Declaration pledged to facilitate the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, adding that it would do so without prejudicing the civil and religious rights of Palestine’s non-Jewish inhabitants. The pledge was not only audacious but also revealed how Europe’s Zionist movement and state powers regarded the 90% of the population that was Muslim and Christian Arab. They were not a people with political rights but rather a complication on the path toward Jewish statehood.

The same oversight continued during Britain’s colonial rule. Traditionally prominent Palestinian Arab families initially led the movement against Zionism. As a Jewish proto-state nonetheless took root, a new generation of activists criticized elites’ conservatism and advocated for bolder strategies. Some invoked the example of Gandhi and urged civil disobedience. Others called for military confrontation. The political momentum of the Palestinian struggle shifted from “top-down” to “bottom-up.”

In 1936, local Palestinian activists announced a general strike to pressure Britain to block Jewish immigration and land acquisition and grant Palestine independence. Broad sectors of society participated in demonstrations, work stoppages and boycotts. A grassroots groundswell led to six months of countrywide nonviolent mobilization and also spawned armed rebellion.

Commentators then and since have accused the mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husayni, of engineering the revolt. Yet the excessive focus on a particular leader invests his role with far too much power and Palestinian society with far too little. Protest was instigated not by Palestinian elites so much as by popular exasperation with their inability to protect Palestinian national interests. In singling out leaders, British authorities at the time — like some today — refused to accept that the driving force behind Palestinians’ struggle was their refusal to be made strangers in their own land.

The 1948 war created the state of Israel on 78% of historic Palestine and forcibly displaced more than half of the Palestinian population. In the following decades, young refugees formed political and guerrilla groups with the conviction that Palestinians must lead their own fight for liberation. This national revival was again powered by the grassroots, and it solidified into what became the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Rooted in refugee communities in exile, the PLO’s strength came from the Palestinians of different walks of life who joined it, identified with it and recognized it as their sole legitimate representative years before the United Nations did so.

After Israel conquered the remaining parts of historic Palestine in the 1967 war, it demonized the PLO and attempted to co-opt local elites in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The logic was one of isolating “bad” leaders and empowering “good” ones in the hope that the population would succumb to Israeli domination. Israel held municipal council elections in the West Bank in 1976, believing that personalities who cooperated with the occupation would win. To its surprise, pro-PLO candidates scored overwhelming victories in nearly every municipality.

As the nationalist mayors and civil society activists worked together to push for Palestinian independence, Israel sought to suppress protest by banning their coalition organization and deporting or dismissing some mayors. The occupation authorities later unveiled what they called the “Village Leagues,” an attempt to formalize their network of Palestinian collaborators as an alternative leadership. That scheme met with widespread disdain from the Palestinian public and collapsed. The idea that Israel could eliminate a Palestinian leadership that emerged organically from society, impose its own quislings and thereby silence opposition to Israeli rule proved an absurd fantasy.

Instead, people across the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip increasingly joined PLO factions, as well as the Communist Party and an array of nationally oriented volunteer projects, women’s and student groups, professional associations and unions. Widespread grassroots activism built an inclusive infrastructure for popular resistance. When a roadside killing sparked unrest in 1987, Palestinian society had the organizational capacity to mount a broad-based unarmed uprising: the intifada. Across villages, towns and refugee camps, hundreds of local committees organized people of different classes, genders, religions and ages into multiple forms of protest and civil disobedience.

The intifada (or the First Intifada, as it would come to be known) was a quintessential grassroots revolution. Israel accused PLO leaders of orchestrating the uprising from their base in Tunisia. This was laughable to intifada participants, one of whom remarked that the PLO heard about the uprising “at the same time as Zimbabwe” did.

The intifada pushed both Israel and the PLO toward negotiations, and the Oslo peace process was announced in 1993. Whether motivated by hope or exhaustion, most Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip welcomed the Oslo Accords with optimism. The next seven years of talks, however, disappointed both Israelis and Palestinians and failed to yield the promised final settlement. In September 2000, protests erupted again and, escalating in the face of Israeli military repression, grew into the Second Intifada.

The new revolt’s impetus was Palestinians’ loss of confidence that negotiations would produce a truly sovereign state as well as their frustrations with the Palestinian Authority (PA) that Oslo had created. Considerable evidence, including my own research, suggests that PA President Yasser Arafat neither initiated the uprising nor led or suppressed it. In fact, Palestinians lamented the absence of any PA leadership at all. Nonetheless, Israel and its supporters saw Arafat as a mastermind pulling the intifada’s strings. Ehud Barak, Israel’s prime minister at the time, declared, “This wave of violence has been imposed upon us by the will of Arafat.” American columnists called the Second Intifada “Arafat’s war” or “Arafat’s strategy.” They were unable or unwilling to see — or willfully ignored — that the engine of the Palestinian movement, as always, was its people’s desire to be free.

Since that time, Palestinian society, not particular leaders or factions, has remained the lifeblood of that movement. In the spring of 2018, tens of thousands of people participated in the “Great March of Return,” a campaign of unarmed demonstrations at the barrier separating the Gaza Strip from Israel. This time, Palestinians’ demands for dignity occurred in the context of three devastating wars and Israel’s draconian blockade generating crushing poverty, acute lack of electricity and drinkable water, a sea polluted with sewage and conditions that the United Nations characterized as “unlivable.” Participants called for an end to the siege and for their right of return, a right especially pertinent because some 80% of Palestinians in Gaza are refugees or their descendants.

As in 1936, 1987 and 2000, it was young people and local organizers who took the initiative to channel the yearning for change — not the PLO, the PA or Hamas, which had come to control the Gaza Strip in 2007 after winning PA legislative elections in 2006. Hamas joined the march after it got off the ground, as did other groups in Gaza, but it neither initiated protest nor steered it. Characteristically, Hamas’ critics in Israel and the West blamed it anyway. As Israel killed and maimed Palestinian protesters, journalists and medics, an army spokesperson claimed that “unfortunately, the Hamas terror organization deliberately and methodically places civilians in danger.” Then-U.S. President Donald Trump likewise accused Hamas of inciting violence and using Palestinian civilians as human shields.

Since Oct. 7, the reality gripping Palestinian society has clearly not been mass protest but rather mass slaughter. Still, the historical tendency of Israel and other states not to see Palestinian society has both continued and taken on horrific new dimensions. Israel looks at the 2.2 million people in Gaza and sees only Hamas or objects used by Hamas. The opening remarks of Israeli lawyers at the ICJ are instructive here:

[South Africa] purports to describe the reality in Gaza. But it is as if Hamas … just do not exist as a direct cause of that reality. … [I]n South Africa’s telling, they have all but disappeared. There are no explosives in mosques and schools and children’s bedrooms, no ambulances used to transport fighters, no tunnels and terrorist hubs under sensitive sites, no fighters dressed as civilians, no commandeering of aid trucks, no firing from civilian homes, United Nations facilities and even safe zones. There is only Israel acting in Gaza.

South Africa’s testimony did of course discuss Hamas (if fewer than 137 times). But that is not the point. In Israel’s view, the only actor in Gaza is Hamas. And if Hamas is not the only actor, then the alternative actor must be Israel. In either narrative, the Palestinian people disappear.

And in this onslaught, which hundreds of experts judge to amount to genocide, making the Palestinian people disappear might indeed be the goal. Israel is starving, bombing, shooting and degrading Palestinian children, women and men, depriving them of water, medical care, shelter and a modicum of human decency. In less than five months, Israel has forcibly displaced 85% of Gaza’s population, crowding some 1.4 million people into the southernmost governorate that it now, apocalyptically, plans to “evacuate” ahead of an offensive into the area. Still, civilians’ humanity and strength are on display in every moment of survival, despite the odds. Palestinian society — its hunted-down doctors, heroic journalists, orphaned babies, grieving parents, tortured prisoners, amputees treated without anesthetics and so many more — is the heart of the story of this carnage, just as it is its main target.

The nonrecognition of Palestinians as a people has been a social fact and political strategy for more than a century. This is the wider context in which Israel equates Gaza with Hamas and purports that Gaza will be silent once some more amenable leadership is brought in to govern it. This is the context in which the United States purports that an agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia can resolve the Palestine question.

This is the context in which Palestinian leaders themselves often neglect Palestinian society, too. Seventeen years have passed since the last national PA elections. Surveys have long indicated that Palestinians view their respective governments — the Fatah-controlled PA in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza — as authoritarian, repressive and corrupt. Regardless, Israel has shown its willingness to work with both Palestinian parties, as long as they preserve Israel’s security. And this strategy of seeking a modus vivendi with particular Palestinian leaders, while neglecting the Palestinian people’s needs and aspirations, has proven disastrous for all.

For years or decades at a time, the world often forgets both that the Palestinian people exist and that they do so under relentless circumstances of oppression and dispossession. It seems to remember Palestinians only during periodic escalations of violence, when attention turns to condemning Palestinian political organizations and leaders. And the cycle begins again.

This essay builds on the author’s introduction to a special issue of the journal Middle East Law and Governance devoted to the theme “Recentering Palestinian Society in the Study of Politics.”

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