Why Israeli policies to fragment Palestinians have failed

Palestinians demonstrate in Haifa on 18 May, 2021
6 min read
Ramallah
19 May, 2021
Analysis: Israel has tried to divide Palestinians by manufacturing separate and disconnected communities, but a new generation is rising up in unison.

The scenes emerging from within Israel over the past week seemed almost surreal.

Thousands of Palestinian youth – all citizens - carried the Palestinian flag as they chanted for freedom against Israeli repression while demanding an end to police brutality and the dispossession of fellow Palestinians in Jerusalem, specifically in Sheikh Jarrah.

Suddenly, it seemed, Palestinians under Israel’s different regimes of repression rose up in anger, raising the same banners, speaking the same language, and connecting over manufactured divides that many thought had succeeded in making them separate and disconnected communities.

The protests both captivated international audiences and caught Israeli politicians by surprise, but this collective moment of Palestinian anger was a long-time coming.

"Palestinians living under Israel’s different regimes of repression have risen up in anger, holding the same banners, speaking the same language, and connecting over manufactured divides"

For decades, Israel has succeeded in isolating and controlling the Palestinian population inside its recognised territory.

The general Israeli discourse erases their identity by calling them Arabs rather than Palestinians, while laws and regulations structurally and systematically discriminate against them.

Yet, over the years, Palestinians have maintained a stubborn national presence and strong civil rights struggle within Israel.

More recently, policies promoted by the Israeli right to dilute their collective identity and disconnect them from their Palestinian heritage have served only to strengthen a collective sense of self and identity.

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In effect, this heightened sense of Palestinian defiance and connection is a boomerang Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the right-wing in Israel did not see coming.

For the past ten years, the rise of the extreme right-wing, and even Kahanists, overshadowed all other traditional and new political actors in Israel, becoming the new mainstream.

For Palestinians inside the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), including Jerusalem, this changing dynamic in Israeli politics was reflected in an uptick in settler attacks, increased settlement building and the hostile threat of annexation.

For Palestinian citizens of Israel, the change was also dramatic. Netanyahu fomented a racially charged atmosphere, drawing in Israeli voters at one point by warning supporters that “Arabs were coming out in droves” and calling Palestinians “an existential threat”.

Palestinian citizens of Israel demonstrate in Haifa, Israel on 18 May, 2021, to mark a nationwide general strike
Palestinian citizens of Israel demonstrate in Haifa on 18 May, 2021, to mark a nationwide general strike. [Getty]

Under Netanyahu’s leadership, racist groups like Lehava, whose members formed night watch mobs to prevent the mixing of Jews and Arabs, were emboldened and normalised.

With his explicit support and encouragement, the far-right and notoriously racist, anti-Palestinian Religious Zionism party won seats in the last election.

Other far-right politicians have also gained popularity and influence, including lawmaker Betzalel Smotrich, who once likened Palestinians to mosquitos and told Army Radio that killing mosquitos was not enough and that “the real solution is to dry up the swamp.”

In short, Netanyahu’s reign has been a golden age for far-right extremism in Israel. The racist Nation-state law was adopted, formalising Israel’s character as an exclusive “Jewish state” where only Jews enjoyed the right to self-determination.

"The unintended consequence of right-wing Israeli policies was to create a social and political reality of Palestinian mobilisation and solidarity"

Settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) was considered a national priority, while incitement and hate speech against Palestinian-Israelis and Palestinians under occupation was also normalised and encouraged.

Palestinian-Israeli citizens have continued to battle institutional racism and state violence, including racist laws that deprived them of the ability to construct homes and develop their communities, while also denying them access to development funds from local authorities.

This took place while right-wing groups, allied with the settler movement in the occupied West Bank, were granted permits to construct exclusively Jewish apartment complexes in the heart of Palestinian neighbourhoods in cities like Lydd and Jaffa.

The parallel between the settlement drives in the occupied West Bank and Palestinian communities inside Israel was not lost on Palestinian-Israelis.

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It further entrenched their sense of alienation and discrimination and reinforced their conviction that the state did not view them as citizens but rather as a nuisance that must be contained.

For some, the answer was to mobilise politically. Palestinian-Israeli parties formed a joint list in the 2015 elections. Despite several setbacks, the Joint List won 15 seats in the March 2020 elections, thanks to an unprecedented turnout among Palestinian voters.

Yet, due to frustration with several policy failures and Netanyahu’s engineered rift within the movement, their turnout plunged in the 2021 elections, decimating the Joint List representation to 6 seats.

Even the progressive Israeli Zionist party, Meretz, pulled away from becoming a Jewish-Arab party after its internal polls showed that less than 1% of Jewish Israeli centre-left voters would vote for such a party. In short, political mobilisation within the Israeli state has proved futile for many.

Palestinians gather in Ramallah to protest Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip and violations in East Jerusalem, on May 18, 2021. [Getty]
Palestinians gather in Ramallah to protest Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip and violations in East Jerusalem, on 18 May, 2021. [Getty]

Parallel to this dynamic of rejection, incitement, and alienation, Israel was fast-tracking government-funded projects to connect illegal Israeli settlements with Israel proper and dilute the division between East and West Jerusalem by “Israelizing” Palestinian education and other services.

It was also forging new alliances with Arab states like the UAE and Bahrain, further entrenching the sense of collective Palestinian anger, humiliation, and abandonment.

Palestinians in Jerusalem, who were increasingly physically and economically isolated from the rest of the West Bank due to Israeli policies, found themselves naturally moved to organise and mobilise with Palestinian-Israelis.

The unintended consequence of right-wing Israeli policies was to create a social and political reality of mobilisation and solidarity in confronting isolation and dispossession by the Israeli occupation in Jerusalem and inside Palestinian-Israeli towns.

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This all came to fruition when Israeli forces escalated repressive measures in Sheikh Jarrah and the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound during Ramadan, with Palestinian-Israelis rushing to support Jerusalemites in their thousands.

Conversely, when Jewish Israeli lynch mobs, supported by Israeli settlers in the West Bank and protected by the Israeli police, were running amok in Palestinian communities inside Israel, Palestinian Jerusalemites rushed to cities like Lydd to offer their support and protection.

Palestinian-Israeli activism in support of Palestinian liberation in the West Bank and Gaza is not new. Ironically, the Oslo peace process and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) offered new generations of Palestinian-Israelis an opportunity to integrate into social and political activism in the occupied territory in a way that was not possible before.

Palestinian youth cultivated a bond that disregarded boundaries and political fault lines. Social media also offered them a way to organise on many issues and to react to developments, including carnage in Gaza, as one people.

"Seventy-three years after the onset of Palestinian dispossession, the Israeli right thought it could maintain a 'deluxe' apartheid reality for Palestinians without consequence. Events in the past month have burst this colonial bubble"

The most glaring manifestation of this oneness is how a call for a general strike by Palestinian-Israelis on 18 May quickly became a call for a general strike throughout historic Palestine, thanks to tireless grassroots activism.

From the river to the sea, the Palestinian youth have imposed their collective will to protest in unison. So compelling was their call, and so hollow is the presence of traditional political actors, that PLO factions and the Palestinian government found themselves falling in line and complying.

Seventy-three years after the onset of Palestinian dispossession, the Israeli right thought it could maintain a “deluxe” apartheid reality for Palestinians without consequence. Events in the past month have burst this colonial bubble.

A dramatic shift at the grassroots level is happening across all Palestinian communities, thanks to a new generation unburdened by a traditional political calculus and unattached to political formations which no longer meet their aspirations.

Nour Odeh is a political analyst and public diplomacy consultant. A former award-winning journalist, Odeh was also Palestine's first female government spokesperson

Follow her on Twitter: @nour_odeh