Understanding Violence


It would be much easier for a Palestinian Mandela to emerge if there were any evidence that there is a potential Israeli F W de Klerk. There is not, believes Joel Beinin, as he understands events since Israel launched Operation Protective Edge against the Gaza Strip on July 8

‘Cycle of violence’ and ‘wave of violence’ are lazy clichés the corporate media in the global North commonly employ to describe rocket fire from the Gaza Strip or Lebanon into Israel and Israel’s recurrent assaults on the Gaza Strip or Lebanon. There have been four major operations since 2006 and several smaller ones. These terms suggest that violence between Israel and Palestinians or other Arabs just ‘happens.’ This style of describing violence – even if factually accurate – obfuscates cause and effect, the balance of forces and historical contexts. Merely reporting what may be ostensibly ‘true’ can obscure rather than illuminate the import of the events.

As a thought experiment, imagine if the Algerian war of independence, the Vietnamese war of national liberation or the wars and other violent engagements between the United States and its various allies and Iraq since 1991 were labelled in these terms. The protracted battle between Irish Republicans and Britain and the recurring communal violence between Hindus and Muslims in South Asia involve forms of religiously justified murder and racist hatred inculcated over the course

of a century, and are more comparable to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But that is only a part of the story and does not explain much.

Events since Operation Protective Edge

So let me propose some guidelines for understanding events since Israel launched Operation Protective Edge against the Gaza Strip on July 8.

• Most of the 1.8 million in Gaza are refugees and their descendants who originally arrived there during and after the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. Israeli forces expelled many of them at gunpoint from territories they conquered during the war and which the UN allocated for a Palestinian state. Others fled out of fear;

• Israel has occupied the Gaza Strip twice – for several months during and after the 1956 Suez War and since 1967. On both occasions, it used harsh measures against civilians, including massacres, as part of its strategy of establishing control;

• Israel claims to have evacuated the Gaza Strip in 2005, but it continues to control its population registry, entry and exit (with Egypt playing a junior role at the Rafah crossing), imports and exports, fishing rights, water resources and electromagnetic field. Thus, according to international law, Israel remains the occupying power and is responsible for the welfare of the civilian population. Resistance to occupation, in whatever form, cannot legally be considered aggression emanating from a sovereign foreign power;

• Hamas won a majority of the Palestinian Legislative Council seats in the 2006 elections, which were widely judged the most democratic in the Arab world for decades. Support for Hamas was based on the failure of the Oslo process inaugurated in 2003, which was meant for peaceful settlement of the conflict establishing an independent Palestinian state and the corruption of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, which continues today;

• Israel, the United States and Western Europe rejected this exercise of democracy and ignored expressions of pragmatism by Hamas leaders reported in mainstream international publications. Israel and the Middle East Quartet (US, EU, Russia, and UN) imposed economic sanctions on the Palestinian territories. Israel imposed a nearly total siege after June 2007, when Hamas pre-empted a US inspired coup attempt by Fatah militants and seized sole power in the Gaza Strip;

• Despite the facade of the Quartet since 2002, the United States has effectively been the principal, if not the only mediator in the misnamed ‘peace process.’ However, it has failed to bring about a peace agreement for twenty-five years since the process was launched at the 1991 Madrid conference. The United States has simultaneously been Israel’s staunchest ally and, since 1970, vetoed over forty UN Security Council resolutions criticising Israel’s human rights violations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, its unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights and the expansion of the West Bank settler project. There are now some 630,000 settlers in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem distributed over more than 250 ‘official’ settlements and ‘outposts’;

• Secretary of State John Kerry’s nine-month mediation effort, which never had much chance of success, ended in failure last April. High-ranking members of Kerry’s team gave not-for-attribution interviews to the Israeli press assigning the lion’s share of the failure to Israel;

• Israel resolutely opposed the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation government sworn in on June 2 and was bitterly disappointment that the United States and the European Union agreed to work with it, even if not to recognise it officially;

• Israel used the abduction and murder of three settler teens in the West Bank on June 12 as a pretext to attack Hamas. It accused Hamas of responsibility for the crime, but presented no evidence for the claim. Knowledgeable observers and Israeli security sources have said that a rogue Hebron family acted without the approval or advance knowledge of the Hamas leadership. Nonetheless, Israel initiated Operation Brother’s Keeper throughout the West Bank, raiding over 2,200 homes, arresting over 400 Palestinians and killing at least five. It targeted Hamas’s social welfare network, Hamas members of the Palestinian Legislative Council and others who were not Hamas supporters and had no connection with the kidnapping and murder;

• The Israeli government knew, but did not tell its citizens, that the boys were most likely murdered within minutes of their abduction because gun shots were heard in the background of a phone call to the emergency response services that one of them succeeded in making. Nonetheless, for over two weeks until the bodies were found on June 30, government officials and the media whipped up a frenzy of racist hatred among Israeli Jews featuring mobs on the streets of Jerusalem and Upper Nazareth chanting ‘Death to the Arabs’ and ‘Muhammad is dead.’


The full consequences of Operation Protective Edge cannot be fully known at this time. Whatever the military outcome, in the short run it has politically strengthened Hamas. The operation had no strategic goal until the tunnels from Gaza into Israel were belatedly discovered. Israel has received greater international opprobrium than ever before, even from the US government, for the large number of civilians, including over 200 children, it has killed and its repeated attacks on UN facilities and hospitals.

Palestinians are increasingly unable to bear the miserable conditions of their lives in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and disgusted by the Palestinian Authority’s continuing security collaboration with Israel. On July 25, some 10,000 West Bankers marched from Ramallah towards Jerusalem, the largest mass protest against the occupation in at least a decade. Economic and political conditions are ripe for an explosion, but this is no guarantee that it is about to erupt.

Further, there is no credible peace process. No Israeli government has been prepared to accept a truly independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, retreat to the June 1967 borders or something close to them, dismantle enough settlements to make this possible and make even a limited gesture recognising Israel’s responsibility for the 1948 Palestinian refugees. The program of the current government, one exceptional 2009 speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu notwithstanding, does not support a Palestinian state of any kind, and there is no parliamentary majority for establishing a viable Palestinian state.

Future of the Two-State Solution

Many have urged the Palestinians to produce a more skilful, secular and less corrupt leadership. It seems unfair that the burden of resolving the conflict be disproportionately placed on them, but there is a Palestinian leader who might play the role of Nelson Mandela in this conflict. He is Marwan Barghouti, who is sitting in an Israeli jail serving five life sentences. In a recent statement, he expressed his support for Palestinian ‘resistance’ without specifying its nature. Barghouti also continues to support a two-state solution, even as it appears increasingly unlikely that this will come about. It would be much easier for a Palestinian Mandela to emerge if there were any evidence that there is a potential Israeli F W de Klerk. There is not.

If the international community believes that the indefinite continuation of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and the periodic violence it entails threatens the stability of the Middle East or affronts its moral sensibilities, it will need to end the US monopoly in the ‘peace process.’ There must be substantial international pressure on Israel for it to recognise Palestinian rights. The global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement has made important progress in this direction, but governments and institutions of global governance, as usual, lag behind. Will they catch up before the two-state option disappears entirely? It seems unlikely. Perhaps we should re-examine the content of ‘peace.’

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Paul Preston

Joel Beinin is the Donald J McLachlan Professor of History at Stanford University, USA and a past president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America. He has written or edited 10 books, most recently Social Movements, Mobilisation, and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa, 2nd edition (Stanford University Press, 2013), co-edited with Frédéric Vairel and The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt (Solidarity Center, 2010).

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