The Jewish Intifada: The conflict turns upside-down

The newest chapter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – settler-led physical violence and destruction of both Palestinian and Israeli targets, within and beyond the Green Line – has turned regular conflict patterns of political divisions upside-down. Confusion and irony reign.

Settler-led violence isn’t new: attacks on Palestinian civilians has been a regular feature of life in the “Wild East” for years, just as there have been Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets in the West Bank. But something seems different now.

Attacks on mosques, cemeteries and property of Palestinians has accelerated in recent months. A brazen attack on an IDF camp in the West Bank really ignited emotions this week. If there’s one thing you don’t do in Israel, it’s mess with the beloved, almost-holy institution of the army.

The multi-pronged attacks have erased the border between Israel and the Palestinian territories, between citizens of Israel and non-citizens. The conflict lines are no longer solely ethnic. A few weeks ago, the Price Tag attacks on Peace Now and another Israeli NGO turned this into an internecine war of left against right. The country had barely adjusted to that, when the attack on an army base redrew the lines of the conflict yet again.

The extremists seem to have unleashed a fully elaborated and deliberate strategy. This is not about isolated cells of weirdo-freaks. This is an uprising; it’s a Jewish Intifada.

And this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Don’t misunderstand: The destruction of property, religious desecration, and (god forbid) the loss of life, are horrific, and the long-term damage they wreak knows no bounds. But the tragic fact is that this alone does not make the conflict any worse than it has been for the last four or six decades. I wonder if Palestinians care about the fiery debate raging Israel. They suffer violence as a matter of course, at the hands of Israelis, all the time – what do they care if it’s settlers, soldiers, or private security companies, whether it’s sanctioned by, or violates Israeli civil law, military law, or just the arbitrary nature of the occupation?

But for Israelis, the very juxtaposition of two symbolically incompatible notions – Jewish and Intifada – is a potential paradigm-crack of the moldy self-perpetuating alliances of the past. Suddenly the political forces most viciously opposed to each other in Knesset, especially when it comes to the protection of human rights – sound remarkably similar to one another. Eerily, some have even switched places. Here are some examples:

When the settlers attacked the holy (I’m speaking, of course, of the IDF base), suddenly rabbis, settler leaders, settler-rabbis, news reporters and the rightest of the right-wing MKs found common cause with security-centrists and the ever-self-righteous left in condemning the violence, with the latter is missing no opportunity to say “I told you so.”

Former defense minister Benjamin (Fouad) Ben Eliezer of Labor told reporters Wednesday that the IDF ought to have fired mercilessly on the vandals who broke into the army base. Arch-right-wing MK Arieh Eldad then cautioned against heavy-handedness. In a radio interview, he recalled late prime minister Rabin’s exhortation to “break the bones” of Palestinians during the Intifada, because soldiers took him “too seriously,” and found themselves under legal scrutiny. Who ever says such things, beyond the far left?

Holding these arguments days after Mustafa Tamimi was killed by a tear gas canister fired directly at his head by a soldier during the weekly protests in Nabi Saleh is like a theater of the absurd.

In an Alice-in-Wonderland scenario, now imagine Arieh Eldad using his soothing, newfound moderation to caution against indiscriminate firing on Palestinian demonstrators. I fantasized that the swirling debate over whether to shoot/kill violent Israeli Jews ends in a stunning moment of tragic self-realization that the Israeli norm involves routine violence against mostly non-violent Palestinian demonstrators who are at best guilty mainly of stone-throwing, when soldiers invade their villages.

In a second bizarre example, a settler interviewed on the radio today complained that the authorities don’t give permission or permits to build their neighborhoods. Then, he said, the Israeli authorities have the nerve to accuse them of illegal expansion. “If they don’t let us build,” he said, “we are forced to build illegally.”

So the most extreme elements of Israeli society now find themselves in precisely the same situation as the most marginalized elements of Israeli society – Palestinian citizens of Israel, Bedouin, East Jerusalem Palestinians whose lands and cities are overcrowded, who build without permits for lack of any other options, and face the constant threat of court orders, bulldozers, and eviction. Now their greatest advocates will be the settlers, who are magically making precisely the same arguments. Their human rights advocates can copy-paste that settler interview, and maybe the settlers will hear it. That should throw them for a loop.

A third instance of irony was when the head of a news-transcription service told Israeli radio about an analysis of 200 conversations among extremists who comment on right-wing news outlets on Thursday. He was struck by the fact that even those who criticized the violence did so for strategic, not for moral reasons.

At that point, the interviewer, Ayala Hasson – also a veteran reporter for the state-run television Channel 1 – went out of her way to emphasize that merely 200 conversations should in no way be seen to represent all the settlers (I suppose she takes for granted that they represent simply no one in “normative” Israeli society).

I never heard anyone say such a thing about Palestinians. But how deep does self-deception have to run to avoid the obvious comparison? Maybe the point will slowly sink in, with the state mouthpiece making it.

The irony is that the Jewish Intifada has thrust the issue of how Israel treats and thinks about the people it doesn’t like into the forefront of our consciousness.

Just when human rights seemed to be hanging by a thread, the settlers have bitten the political hands who feed them. But in making themselves into enemies, just like Israelis view Palestinians, the settlers’ defenders are forced to both condemn their actions and defend their human rights. That will make it ever-harder to justify violation of those rights for Palestinians without acknowledging blatant, savage inequalities (with due respect to Jonathan Kozol) in the application of justice.

But there are of course grave dangers to this Jewish uprising, and it’s not quite an Intifada. That word refers to the occupied Palestinian people fighting against unrepresentative rule. The settlers are fighting Palestinians, but now they fight their own elected representatives in territory controlled de facto by their own people. That dissolves any moral aspect of the ‘uprising.’

There’s another difference: At present the level of violence is different from both Intifadas. The first Palestinian Intifada was intended as a non-violent protest of strikes and demonstrations, although there is nothing non-violent about the stone-throwing that became common. From the start, the extremist settler uprising is founded on violence – against property, sacred sites, and verbally, against lives. Thankfully, the current violence has yet not reached the level of either Palestinian suicide bombing or overwhelming Israeli military force that characterized the second Intifada.

But with the easy access of settlers to arms – either regular or improvised weapons – the settlers also stand to challenge the Israeli state’s monopoly on the use of force altogether, while the Palestinian Intifada only consolidated Israeli state force.

The prospect of Israel losing internal cohesion is truly frightening, and not because I hold the state’s policies in high regard. Rather, with the integrity of Israeli democracy already breached, a profound threat to state legitimacy could result in ever-more coercive attempts to hold the state together for the sake of itself: raison d’état. And who knows what will be sacrificed for that cause.