Something is afoot. Ordinary as the attack on Nablus may be by Israeli standards, there is a buildup happening here.
Let’s start with the ordinary. Consider the ordinary complex of Israeli colonial violence, vindictive retaliation to even the most hopeless gesture of non-submission, explosive sanctimony over the merest mention of even one of its crimes, innovativeness in redefining humanitarian law to permit the cold murder of civilians, and the grim patina of barbaric euphemism covering it all.
In fairness, euphemism is perhaps less insistent in Israel—whose citizens must perforce be aware of and thus hardened to at least some of the atrocity—than in its anglophone allies. Palestinians die in what Tom Paulin called “that weasel word crossfire” or in “clashes”, or in what Israel calls an “area of terror” or Hamas “stronghold.” But the discovery that an invasion of sixty tanks, snipers, and a helicopter can ““trigger a firefight” in which Palestinians die, is a winsomely evil new locution.
We can’t evade reflection on what it means for human beings to live that ordinariness. About five million people have known nothing but occupation, blockade and apartheid. They have known nothing but the daily grind of life-building under such conditions, and routine traumatogenic assault.
One doesn’t want humanitarian portrayals of pure victimhood here. Palestinians have also known long arcs of resistance, punctuated by episodes of heroic defiance and tantalizing breakthrough: intifadas, strikes, the early successes of the BDS campaign. But let’s not forget the oppressive weight of hopelessness, of being outgunned by a nuclear state and its global alliances, who speak of peace and negotiations while fortifying the mechanisms of death and colonial advance. Or the anguish of finding oneself, through no decision of one’s own, the demonized Other of the world’s most powerful states and their media, the sin-eater of European antisemitism, and the embodiment of imperialism’s own violence. And, of course, the frustrations of thwarted, and occasionally co-opted resistance.
This is scarcely a thumbnail sketch of what ordinary is in the West Bank and Gaza. And ordinary as all that is, so are regular Israeli escalations, sometimes amounting to war. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) hasn’t, though, waged a major, branded war on Gaza or the West Bank for almost a decade. This is in part because the “operations” known as Cast Lead (2008-9), Pillar of Smoke (2012) and Protective Edge (2014) failed to actually “win” much for the IDF. They achieved a great deal of slaughter and destruction, and caused the biggest cracks in the international pro-Israel consensus for decades: It is largely because of these wars that even the New York Times and the Washington Post will now give voice to serious criticisms of Israel, giving us occasional, fugitive glimpses of the truth.
For the last month, however, Israel has been escalating its offensives in West Bank towns like Jenin and Nablus. And this builds on a prior intensification throughout 2022, the bloodiest year in the West Bank for almost two decades. Ostensibly, this surge of violence is precipitated by the misdeeds of a small Palestinian resistance group called Lion’s Den, which last year succeeded in killing a single Israeli soldier who was guarding a march of settler-colonists near the Palestinian town of Sebastia in the West Bank.
However, this can’t be subtracted from the wider political crisis of the Israeli state. Most Jewish Israelis seem to genuinely want to live in an exclusionary democracy, without rights for Palestinians but with basic welfare and democratic rights for Jewish Israelis. As Peter Beinart documents, this exclusionary commitment is bipartisan, institutionalized in the IDF and courts, and fundamental to Israeli politics. There is a necessary contradiction there. As Beinart says, you can’t have democracy in a “Jewish state.” And the consolidation of Israel’s ethnic exclusions, prompting human rights organizations from Amnesty to B’Tselem to decry an apartheid regime from the river to the sea, has empowered the most radically racist and fascistic elements in Israeli politics, as well as the opportunistically corrupt alliances around Netanyahu. The offensive against the Supreme Court, and the attempt to roll back the most exiguous institutional expressions of democratic accountability, is a logical excrescence of Israel’s long-standing tyranny as exercised over Palestinians.
Whenever the Israel government has come under pressure from a restless population, it has tended to respond by accelerating its colonial drive. It generally works, because the colonial dynamic always takes precedence in Israel. This, very roughly, is the relationship between Israel’s class system and its colonial system as theorized by Moshe Machover and Akiva Orr. For example, the 2011 “Occupy”-inspired protests showed almost no interest in addressing the situation of Palestinians: Their critique was of the neoliberal turn in an Israeli state that was welfarist in its foundations. They wanted welfare and housing, not equality. Netanyahu, for it was he, responded by expanding the settlement drive. You want houses, you want resources? There they are: the Arabs have them. Take them! You want adventure? You want recreational violence? Beat them. Kill them. The IDF will protect you! This is among the reasons that the “settlements,” largely populated by far-right Israelis and considered illegal under international law, are such a core project of the Israeli state.
And, elected once again with the support of another shaky coalition of the religious and secular far right, Netanyahu has made the expansion of the settlements his top priority. This is the majoritarian pivot of an agenda that in other respects—the attack on constitutional liberties and LGBT rights—provokes backlash. Actually, the settlements expansion is part of a wider set of policies likely to be condemned under international law, such as arresting family and friends of “terrorists,” deporting the families of “terrorists,” sending IDF reinforcements into the West Bank and—crucial move this, given the pogromist Israeli response to the Palestinian general strike in 2021, beginning with the massacre in Sheikh Jarrah—approving more gun licenses to Israeli civilians.
Now, I don’t think Israel is that worried by scantily armed Palestinian groups like the Lions’ Den. I think they’d be delighted if that were the extent of the opposition. If all they had to worry about was a few soldiers and settlers being killed while construction took place under heavy military protection, they could handle that with a typically over-the-top-even-in-its-own-terms blitz. Nor do I think they’re worried about opposition from historic allies like the US and EU, in isolation. It’s a diplomatic problem because they’re the main suppliers of cash and weapons, but its effect will be limited. Biden, for example, in the same breath as he objected to Israel’s settlement expansion, also condemned the UN’s condemnation thereof. I think he and the Pentagon would prefer Israel to calm down, and work out some sort of bantustan solution for Palestine. But ultimately he doesn’t want the headache: As he once said, Palestine is “too small a cross.”
What Israel is really worried about is the possibility of a renewal of the trans-Palestinian strikes and movements that erupted in 2021. Noam Chomsky used to say, in his bitterly ironic way, that Israeli violence was typically provoked by a Palestinian “peace offensive.” One way to read that is that Israel, since its political position is intrinsically fragile, always wants to shift the dynamic back into a military and securitarian one, where it has the clear upper hand. If Israel wants a war right now, and that is the danger here, it will be precisely to preemptively pulverize and traumatize Palestinian social forces, provoke weak and desperate military responses that thinly legitimize Israeli massacres, set up a dynamic towards a bombing campaign that Israel’s funders and allies will feel compelled to support in principle, and of course rally Israeli civil society in an outburst of nationalist, racist fervor.
The title of this post is from this poem by Nablus poet Fadwa Tuqan.
Featured Image credit: Photo by The Advocacy Project; modified by Tempest.
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Richard Seymour is a Marxist author and broadcaster based in London. He is a founding editor of Salvage magazine. His most recent books include The Disenchanted Earth (Indigo, 2022), The Twittering Machine (Indigo, 2019), and Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics (Verso, 2017).