Iron fist tactics have kept Palestinians down for the last decade, and there’s a strong chance that the harsh measures Netanyahu just outlined will succeed in putting them down again.
Those who oppose Israel’s iron fist tactics against violent Palestinian resistance argue, as a rule, that it’s impractical, it won’t work, you can’t repress a nation forever, and the only solution is to end the injustice that provokes the violence. But this is a sentimental view that comes, I think, from a need to believe that justice always wins in the end. The fact is that Israeli iron fist tactics have worked pretty damn well in keeping the Palestinians down over the last decade, and there’s a very strong chance that the tactics Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid out Tuesday night – overwhelming armed force, house demolitions, draconian punishments for rioters and their parents, and more – will work again this time.
The iron fist put down the Second Intifada in 2004/5, and Israel has enjoyed remarkable quiet from the West Bank since then, also from East Jerusalem until this summer. A crucial difference between the first two intifadas and the current violence is that those earlier upheavals were organized; this one isn’t, which makes it much easier for Israel to overcome.
The iron fist has also worked in Gaza since Operation Cast Lead nearly six years ago. Israel has had to “mow the lawn” twice more since then, most recently over the summer, but otherwise the Palestinians in the Strip have been largely harmless in their cage.
What are the chances that this time around, Palestinian resistance will force Israel to begin reversing course, with an eye toward ending the occupation? I think they’re extremely slim. Even though it’s true that the First Intifada led to the Oslo Accords and the Second Intifada led to the disengagement from Gaza, those were different times in a different Israel.
Before Oslo, Israel had never tried negotiating peace with the Palestinians, so Israelis were ready to take a chance. Before disengagement, Israel had never tried unilateral withdrawal from occupied Palestinian territory, so Israelis were ready to give that a try, at least behind the broad back of Ariel Sharon.
But the bus bombings of the early 2000s ended Israelis’ belief in negotiations, then the rocketing from Gaza in the middle-late 2000s ended their belief in unilateral withdrawal. For many years now, Israelis have been stuck in the (incorrect) conviction that they’ve tried all the peaceful ways and they’ve all failed, so all that’s left is brute force. They realize it doesn’t work completely or permanently, they know they’ll have to suffer occasional deaths and fight like hell every now and then – but that’s all they expect anymore. They’re resigned to a future of more of the same.
This is why Israel keeps getting more and more right-wing, this is why the Left is dead, and this is why the current Palestinian violence is not going to make Israel change its ways – even if the riots and killings continue like this, or get worse, for months to come.
One thing that would force Israel to change is if the world stepped in and told Netanyahu to start taking down the occupation on pain of severe sanctions. But that hasn’t happened, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen anytime soon, if ever.
The only possible immediate development that could jar Israeli thinking, that could cause such a deterioration in the status quo that the Israeli body politic might be forced to change the country’s direction, would be if Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas finally “gave back the keys” – if the PA dissolved itself and handed responsibility for the West Bank back to Israel. If Israeli soldiers had to go back into the Palestinian villages, cities and refugee camps 24/7, if Israel had to keep Palestinian society afloat again, just like it did before Oslo – and without the billions in aid that the world gives the PA – that might shake things loose.
But Abbas has threatened to pull the plug so many times, and never has. Haaretz’s Amira Hass has written a couple of excellent articles (here and here) in recent days about the West Bank’s disinclination to cut the rope. She writes:
In recent years, the middle class that is dependent on the PA, its security agencies and the private sector, which is motivated by profit, has expanded. The main interest of this class — represented by fairly strong professional associations, unlike the workers and the farmers, who are not organized properly — is not to rock the boat, not to break the status quo.
The irony is that while Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett blame the violence on Abbas (with Bennett calling him “a terrorist in a suit who should be treated as such,” in other words calling for his arrest or assassination), it’s Abbas who’s keeping things together in the West Bank. In a Yedioth Ahronoth article on Wednesday in which Netanyahu is quoted accusing Abbas of “educating [Palestinians] for terror,” the following paragraph reads:
At the same time, it was stressed last night in Israel that cooperation is good with the security apparatuses of the Palestinian Authority. “Their interest is for things to be calm in Judea and Samaria,” security sources said. “The Palestinian public is generally passive, you don’t see huge demonstrations like we saw in the first and second intifadas.”
I understand that many Palestinians, in Israel and the occupied territories, see their only choice as violence or humiliation. I can’t say Israel is offering them any other choice. But just as non-violence hasn’t worked, violence hasn’t worked either, and I don’t see an end to this political gridlock on the horizon.
(Full disclosure: As an Israeli, I don’t want to see Israelis get hurt. As a hater of the occupation, I don’t want to see it defeat the Palestinians. This causes conflicting feelings in me, and not just me.)