- Interview by
- Daniel Finn
Israel’s war on Gaza has entered its second week and the death toll among Palestinians is now above three thousand, according to the health ministry in Gaza. Despite the horrific bloodshed at Al-Ahli hospital, the United States and the leading European states that back Israel are still refusing to call for a cease-fire.
We spoke to Palestinian academic Bashir Abu-Manneh about the political context in the occupied territories, the danger of a second Nakba, and the strategies that might deliver freedom for the Palestinian people. This is an edited transcript from Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the interview here.
To begin with the broader political background of what’s been happening over the last eighteen months: What has been going on in the occupied Palestinian territories? What is the political composition and the intentions of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, and what has been happening on the regional, diplomatic front, with talk about normalization between Israel and states like Saudi Arabia?
In order to begin explaining what has happened over the last week, it’s important to look at the composition of the Israeli government. We have the most right-wing government in Israeli history. It’s essentially a settler government, mostly made up of ministers who have previously either been inciting violence or actively supporting terrorism themselves.
Having that government in place has facilitated and encouraged settler terrorism in the West Bank, and it has continued to put a lot of pressure on Gaza through the siege. There have also been various escalations in state-sponsored violence, with pogroms committed against the Palestinians.
The Palestinians have been put under a lot of extreme pressure in the last period as a result of this government, and therein lie the very specific triggers and causes of what happened in the last week. There has been fairly widespread talk in Israel about trying to create the conditions for future mass expulsion — a new Nakba.
The finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, who is also responsible for the West Bank, famously gave an interview in 2016 where he said the Palestinians have essentially three choices. Either they accept our rule, which means that we govern, we are the masters; or they leave; or if they stay and fight, we will deal with them in the way that we dealt with them in 1948.
Smotrich explicitly said in the interview that there is no hope for the Palestinians, and that message has also been conveyed through the actions of his government. This is as good as it gets, and it might get even worse. From this perspective, most Palestinians are suspected of being terrorists and need to be treated as such. They have to prove that they’re not terrorists.
There is no vision for the future for the Palestinians. There is no prospect for peace. On some level, the root cause of what has happened is Israel locking and shutting down a political horizon. Palestinians have tried in the West Bank to follow the path of peace and compromise.
There has been a very long story through the Oslo process of trying to accommodate the Israelis, conciliate with them, and make a lot of concessions. The result of that has been the entrenchment of the occupation. The Palestine Liberation Organization hasn’t received anything in return for accepting the state of Israel and renouncing violence.
Those things are noted by militant groups like Hamas, who have also tried this route. It’s important to remind people that Hamas has taken a pragmatic route before, in 2006, when it became very popular and was voted in democratically by the Palestinians, in 2007 and 2009, and even in the last couple of years. Its leaders have communicated to Israel that they would be happy to have a long-term hudna or truce in order to facilitate the creation of the Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and to end the occupation. But all of those things have been simply blocked by Israel, and the opposite has happened.
The Israelis have tried to do several things. They’ve tried to resolve the political problem through economic means. In Gaza, they tried to give more work permits for workers to come in. That released economic pressure on Hamas, and they thought that Hamas would be satisfied with this as a governing body and would stop resisting and accept the status quo.
They did the same with the Palestinian Authority (PA). Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have no political rights to speak of, but economic levers have been used in order to alleviate some of the pressure on them. But there is no political horizon or political settlement.
On top of that, Israel has undertaken a push to militarize the resistance to the occupation. Israel has always wanted to take the resistance to a military confrontation where it is very powerful, where the balance of forces is clearly on the Israeli side, and where they can attack Hamas for undertaking violence against the Israeli state and where Israel seems to get the most legitimacy in the international scene. Pushing for militarization means taking the Palestinian resistance, broadly conceived as both violent and nonviolent, to a violent military confrontation where the Israelis can control it more.
Those are some of the things that have been happening. The composition of the Netanyahu government, which is very extreme, the intensifying pressures in the West Bank, the attempt to release economic pressure on the Gaza Strip while continuing the siege of Gaza — all of that clearly hasn’t worked and has now exploded very violently in Israel’s face.
On top of that, the Palestinians saw, especially with the Trump administration and now also with the Biden administration, the effort to broker agreements with the Arab governments that are interested in making peace with Israel, known as the Abraham Accords. Those peace treaties have essentially sidelined the Palestinian question. They are normalizations Israel has received for free, so far as the Palestinians are concerned.
They have also sidelined what used to be called the Arab Peace Initiative. Twenty-two countries in the Arab world offered Israel peace and normalization in return for the end of the occupation. Israel has rejected and sidelined that peace option at every point, and now it is trying to make peace with those Arab governments that are willing to do so without conceding anything for the Palestinians or ending the occupation.
That is the new paradigm that we’re dealing with, and it adds to the Palestinian feeling that there is no political horizon or solution for the Palestinian question and that all the Israelis are offering is subservience to a regime of apartheid. To understand what has been happening, it is also important to understand the nature of the regime in Israel/Palestine. There are always discussions about whether it’s an apartheid regime, what rights do the Palestinians have, etc.
It’s very important to think about Israel as being in practice a settler-colonial regime where the Palestinian population is essentially disposable. This is the difference with the South African model of apartheid. The Palestinian population is not exploited and is not needed for Israeli rule to continue in any way. Israel does not benefit from the Palestinian population except in the sense that they are a captive market.
Since the Palestinians are fundamentally dispensable to the Israeli state, that allows Israel to do the various things it has done in Gaza because it doesn’t need the population for anything. It allows Israel to conduct what have been described as wars of politicide — wars that would end the possibility of any collective political rights for the Palestinians, any sense of nationhood or statehood. Israel is able to do that because the Palestinians are dispensable. From an Israeli perspective, if they create the necessary conditions in the fog of war, they might also be able to expel them.
Coming on to the situation as it’s been unfolding over the last week: What was it about the attacks carried out by Hamas on October 7 that differed from previous actions by Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups? How has the Israeli government and political class responded, and how does that response differ from previous moments such as 2009 or 2014?
First, we can talk about some of the continuities in the military techniques of Hamas. Targeting civilians was always something that Hamas did. That includes suicide bombings and the Qassam rockets, which are very primitive. They have also targeted Israeli soldiers, and there are aspects of international law that allow for violent resistance against the occupiers. But the targeting of civilians has always been part of their tool kit as a movement.
What’s different about last week is the scale, which is like nothing that Israel has ever seen. The operation, which involved thousands of people, had been kept secret for a very long time. It is astounding that this was possible under conditions of constant surveillance in Gaza, where you have drones hovering over the territory twenty-four hours a day, where every word is being recorded, and where there is surveillance across the border.
For Hamas to have been able to achieve the level of secrecy, organization, and discipline to conduct an operation like this has astounded Israel and left it in a deep political crisis, which won’t be resolved for a long time. Israeli political leaders and state managers will pay the cost for this operation for a very long time. It will change the nature of Israeli politics, I believe, and make it more extreme.
Ultimately, you have to look at the numbers. The details matter. In these operations, most of the people killed were civilians. The scale of killing was very high. Whether that was the intention of Hamas or not — whether that was what the commanders told their fighters to do or not — is very hard to know at this stage. But the net result is that you have many hundreds of people killed in Israel, with more injured and some still in critical condition.
You have to think about two elements that are difficult to discuss in liberation movements, but they have nonetheless always been discussed. One is the rationality of the operation. How rational is it? Is it an operation that seeks to end the Israeli occupation or not? Will it just fortify the occupation? Will Israel exact a massive human cost in response, and will Hamas be able to stop it? All of these questions are important.
What is the political rationality of this operation? Is it just for Hamas to position themselves as the ultimate resisters in Palestinian history, in relationship to the PA? Is it because all other avenues of resolution have failed? Is it because the siege has not been lifted? There has to be a political rationale for the operation, but it’s not clear at the moment what that rationale was.
If you listen to Mohammed Deif, the Hamas military commander, he said that he expected this to be a spark for the whole region and for all Palestinians, including Palestinians living inside Israel’s 1948 border, to conduct more operations. The language was very clear. It wasn’t just targeted against the military, it was targeted against civilians: he said, “take your knives, take your cars, resist.”
If that was the intention, was it realistic? If it was realistic to hope for that outcome, would it have been successful militarily? I cannot understand what Hamas provides as an answer for these questions. Apart from the moral dimensions, which I will come to, in political terms, there is something completely counterproductive about the operation. You could have calculated the Israeli response, which would be exactly what they are doing now, with the will to exact a massive human cost in Gaza while Hamas would not be able to protect the civilian population.
Hamas has always wanted to instill insecurity on the Israeli side because of the insecurities that are instilled on the Palestinian side. That is the logic: “If we don’t live in security, neither does your population.” Suicide bombings and Qassam rockets may achieve that, but does that approach bring you closer to the end of the occupation, or has it entrenched Israeli violence and state terrorism? It is not clear to me what Hamas would say about this and whether Hamas has thought if a different outcome is possible here.
In terms of the moral question, when you resist, does that mean anything goes? The answer from international law is “no.” Are you allowed to target civilians? The answer is “no.” The Palestinian cause should be committed to justice and equality.
The Palestinians also need international support. They do not have support from the Arab governments. They have Arab popular support, but that hasn’t amounted to much in terms of political outcomes. They are very reliant on what happens in the West and very reliant on international law. They have tried to hold Israel accountable for its endless violations of international law and its illegal occupation.
This is the one discourse that the Palestinians can use in the West that puts Israel totally on the defensive. If you lose that discourse in the moral fight in the West, you’re losing quite a lot, especially since the balance of forces is overwhelmingly against you. You are ultimately fighting against a nuclear power that has F-16s and is able to bomb at will with cover from Western governments.
We’ll continue hearing and reading interpretations that are trying to figure out what Hamas was thinking. But Hamas now lives in a world where this operation has tagged it as being like ISIS. That is a total loss for the Palestinian cause in the West and in general. Now you have to explain to the world again that the Palestinian cause is just when that cause is being criminalized.
What has been the Israeli response? I think the scale of the operation was entirely predictable. Israel has been in a deep political crisis for the last year over the overhaul of the legal system by Netanyahu to allow for political interference. Now that is gone, and the Israeli population is totally unified behind the Israeli Defense Forces as it decimates any kind of civilian life in Gaza.
They want payback — they want to see that kind of retaliation. Now the fear is that the Israeli response has created conditions for Israel to expel the population of Gaza. That seems to be the intent of moving over a million Palestinians from northern Gaza. They have subjected the Palestinians to a total siege, which is against international law.
The Israelis have also said that they want to end Hamas. I don’t see how that’s possible without a ground invasion. I don’t know whether a ground invasion is realistic for Israel, but they certainly don’t want the spectacle of Hamas rising from the rubble after this huge operation and remaining intact organizationally and militarily. In political terms, it is very difficult ground, and it is very hard to know how it’s going to end.
To give you a sense of the actions that Israel has taken so far, you just have to read some of the words that Israeli politicians are allowed to utter on Western media outlets, which are horrifying. We have had government ministers saying that Israel is “living close to monsters” and that they are fighting “human animals.” The Israeli president Isaac Herzog has said that the whole Palestinian nation is responsible for what Hamas did.
Those are genocidal thoughts. It’s extremely worrying that we are now in a situation where those things are allowed to be said without being challenged, and that becomes the mode of engagement over the Palestinian question. Israel is never held accountable for what it does. The “right of defense” seems to mean that Israel can do whatever it wants and commit war crimes at will with complete support from the United States and the EU and without being challenged by the media.
Talking now about the international response, we can divide this into two broad areas. There is the reaction in Europe and in North America, and then there’s the reaction in the Middle East. Beginning with the response of the United States and European states like Britain, France, and Germany, what do you make of that response, and how does it differ so far from what we’ve seen in the past?
It’s an automatic thing for Western states — and for the EU as well — to say that Israel has a right of self-defense. They never ask whether this is actually self-defense. They never ask whether Israel has any other alternatives to conducting or resolving the political conflict by military means. Those questions never seem to be asked.
They never say that Israel is the powerful entity and the one that has historically wronged the Palestinians. They just state that Israel has a right to defend itself and to fight against terrorism, and the cost of that seems to be acceptable for them in everything they say. Now they are in a position where Western officials are illegally supporting forcible transfer of the population — which makes them liable under international law — and defending war crimes and the siege of Gaza.
All of these actions are things that Israel has said it is going to do. They have all been intentional. But the EU continues to support it. The same goes for Britain, where I live and where the government talks as if only Israeli lives matter while Palestinian lives don’t matter. There is no universal standard being used here at all.
The Palestinians and people in the Arab world hear this and are absolutely appalled by such responses. There have been exceptions, such as US progressives like Bernie Sanders, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar, who have made statements condemning Israel’s targeting of civilians (and of course also condemning the targeting of civilians by Hamas).
In Britain, on the other hand, the Labour leader Keir Starmer has made himself criminally liable by supporting the siege and the forcible transfer of the population. It’s mind-boggling that we have got to that stage in Britain, especially after the Jeremy Corbyn years. That has been the effect of the success of the pro-Israel lobby in the country, silencing any defense of elementary Palestinian rights in the media and in political life.
There is hope in last Saturday’s demonstration in London. The Conservative home secretary Suella Braverman is trying to criminalize the Palestinian flag and criminalize Palestinian freedom of speech, yet you had a massive demonstration in London full of people affirming Palestinian human rights. The only way to change government positions and get them to think about this conflict in terms of international law is by popular pressure.
In the Arab world, governments like that of Saudi Arabia have been trying more and more to reach an accommodation with Israel, for various reasons. The Saudis do it because of their confrontation with Iran and because they are seeking access to nuclear energy. In their public discourse, they have started talking about the Palestinian cause being a block and how they need to put it aside to focus on modernization and development, building a different kind of Middle East where economic prosperity is possible and where the Arab states will become more powerful.
There are complications with the war in Ukraine and with the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But in general, the attitude of the governments is quite different from what the Arab population thinks. We have seen many demonstrations in countries like Yemen, Iraq, and Morocco. That is always very encouraging. However, so long as the Arab states are dictatorial and authoritarian, mass support will not be translated into policy.
We are stuck with the fact that Arab states allow the Arab masses to take to the streets and support the Palestinians, but it stops at that. Still, it is absolutely heartwarming for an oppressed population whose cause is being criminalized to see the level of popular support across the world, including the West.
It shows us that ultimately, Israeli propaganda is not landing. Even though many people think that what Hamas did by targeting civilians is totally illegitimate, they are able to see beyond that and recognize the Palestinians as a group of people who have their own legitimate rights that must be defended. That is not what Israel wants. Boosting that sentiment and keeping up the political pressure is absolutely essential.
Keeping the argument within the parameters of international law, which is fundamentally against everything that Israel does, is an asset for the Palestinians. You don’t want to lose that because it provides you with so many rights.
There is a politically pragmatic dimension to upholding international law, but there is also a moral dimension to it, because it allows you to uphold universal standards across the board and safeguard civilian life on the Israeli side as well as on the Palestinian side. It makes it possible to see a way through the conflict that would allow the two peoples to live together one day, if that is at all possible after this.
I know that the situation is developing very rapidly from one day to the next, but could you try to give people a sense of what the latest developments on the ground in Gaza have been? Is there a serious prospect of a full Israeli ground operation, and is there a real danger of large-scale forced population transfer on a scale of what we saw back in 1947–48?
A new Nakba is entirely possible — the conditions are there. Israel has already ordered the population of northern Gaza to go to southern Gaza, even though it sometimes bombed them along the way. There is no safe passage for the population to move. The population has been starved of water and food, and there is no electricity.
During the first week of Israeli bombing, Israel dropped more bombs on Gaza than the United States dropped on Afghanistan in a year. The scale is not only horrific, but genocidal. I don’t use that word lightly in any way, and I have never used it before in relation to the Palestinian conflict before because the previous wars were much less savage than the one we are currently seeing.
How are people meant to survive? They are taking one sip of water a day. They don’t have food to eat. If you prolong this and if you block the supply of electricity for hospitals, what do you expect will happen in Gaza? Tens of thousands of people will die.
A new Nakba is already here. The only thing blocking the Palestinians from leaving the Gaza Strip is that at the moment, Egypt is closing the border. There is no way for them to go to safety and then come back to their homes. The natural thing in war is to go to a place of safety until the insecurity is over and then for you to be able to return home.
Of course, Palestinians are always afraid of leaving their homes, so there is that emotional and psychological pressure. If you leave northern Gaza, will you be able to return, or will Israel simply declare it to be a closed military zone?
Israeli leaders have made statements about totally changing the way Gaza looks — what does that mean, exactly? They have spoken about changing the whole landscape of Gaza and inflicting a cost that will be remembered for generations to come. Again, this is genocidal language.
It’s very hard to tell how this is going to end. It depends on how much political pressure is put on Israel and how much popular pressure there is against the war, how many people come out in demonstrations — all of these factors. You cannot predict these things.
But there is one thing you can rely on. Israel has always been its worst enemy in operations like this because there is always excessive violence, and that triggers a reaction. Its allies always give Israel time, but ultimately the war stops.
Whether it’s going to stop before a land invasion takes place is a big question. But I don’t think the civilian population can tolerate this kind of bombing and this kind of siege for even one day more. From a moral perspective, this needs to stop yesterday.
What can we say about the future? In Israel itself, this war has united the Israeli public behind the army, and that is extremely worrying. There is no room for criticism. Of course, there will be criticism of the army for having been caught sleeping and not doing enough to protect its citizens. The political leadership will also have to pay for that failure.
But the Israeli population is absolutely supportive of the need to reestablish what Israel calls deterrence against the Palestinians, which has never worked. Israel continues to use the same mechanisms — the language of force, the idea of searing into the Palestinian consciousness the sense that they are defeated and will never be able to win.
There is also a question of deterrence in relation to the whole region. Israel always has an eye on its regional antagonists and wants to reaffirm its deterrence so those antagonists do not have ideas of their own, especially in the north when it comes to Hezbollah.
The only way out of the current situation is this. It may appear very simple, but sometimes the truth is very simple. Israel must be held accountable under international law. Everyone is accountable for war crimes, but Israel is historically the one that has wronged the Palestinians. It is the occupying power and thus has obligations under international law.
Gaza is occupied, whatever the Israelis say — it is totally controlled by Israel. The fact that they can switch off the electricity in Gaza tells you who the occupier is. It is necessary to hold the occupying power accountable for its legal obligations under international law, to safeguard the Palestinian right of self-determination, which is also a right under international law, and to put political pressure on Israel to ensure that Israeli state terrorism ends against the Palestinians. We need a situation where the Palestinian side does not have recourse to violence or terrorism in the way that it did last week in order to try and resolve the conflict or to call out to the world that the Palestinians shouldn’t be forgotten.
This is a very tall order these days. The Palestinian cause will have to claw back a lot of the ground that we have lost over the last week, and that won’t be easy. I hope it won’t take a very long time, but it’s going to require a lot of work.
We need to get away from a discourse that says our only obligation is to provide Israel with state security and shift the focus to the idea of peace by delivering an end to the occupation and statehood for the Palestinians. I don’t know how long it will take, but we are certainly working on much worse terrain than we were before last week.
There was a major essay published last week in the New York Times by the American journalist Peter Beinart that discussed some of the questions that you were addressing earlier about the ethics and practical efficacy of different methods of struggle, and where the movement for Palestinian rights and self-determination is going to go from here. I believe you wanted to say a little about that.
I think it was a very important essay and a courageous one to have written at this point, when effectively the Palestinian cause has been criminalized. It’s an important discussion to have about the nature of liberation struggles and the different tactics that are used. Whatever the different political agents on the Palestinian scene, it’s also very important to stand in solidarity with an oppressed people and affirm one’s support for their legitimate and inalienable rights. It’s a good thing for Beinart to have done so.
The ethical question is important. It also has a pragmatic dimension. A nonviolent struggle in occupied Palestine was very successful during the first intifada, and for very good reasons. It came at a time when the borders were rather porous between Israel and the occupied territories. Palestinian workers could go into Israel, where they were much needed in order to boost the Israeli economy.
Israel needed this cheap labor, so while Palestinian workers couldn’t stay there, they could go in, earn their wages, and come back to feed their families in the West Bank and Gaza. They worked predominantly in construction but also in many other areas within Israel. That situation began immediately after the occupation in 1967 and continued until the first intifada.
The ability to go into Israel — the ability to be, in more technical terms, exploited labor within the Israeli polity and economy — gave the Palestinians a certain kind of leverage. That period is comparable to what Beinart is talking about in relation to South Africa. Blacks in South Africa were exploited, and that exploitation gave them leverage. It allowed them to organize and withdraw their labor, putting pressure on the apartheid economy.
The first intifada was an amazing moment of Palestinian popular resistance. Of course, the Israelis tried to repress it by force — by breaking bones, as Yitzhak Rabin famously said. But it didn’t work. The intifada continued and yielded political results and concessions. Whatever we think about those concessions in the form of the Madrid accords and then Oslo, they did force the Israelis to think about a way to resolve the conflict without violent coercion.
That happened precisely because of the political-economic conditions where the Israeli economy was reliant on Palestinian labor. But Israel learned the lessons of that resistance, and this is where the comparison with the apartheid regime in South Africa ends. It slowly instituted a system of closures and permits that stopped Palestinian labor from coming into Israel.
The Palestinian laborers who had built up the Israeli economy were replaced in the 1990s by foreign workers and Russian immigrants. As a result, that moment has ended, and the equivalence or comparison with South Africa doesn’t apply anymore.
The difficulty from this perspective is the question of how you resist when the Israelis have instituted a local collaborationist government through the Oslo agreements that polices the Palestinians and prevents them from engaging in active, nonviolent resistance against the occupation. It blocks the Palestinians from confronting the occupation in any way, whether that means confronting soldiers militarily or confronting settlers through demonstrations. Oslo put in place an authoritarian government in the West Bank and Gaza that was totally dependent in political and economic terms on the occupiers.
These are very different conditions than what you had in South Africa. This fosters the notion that the Palestinians are dispensable: they have no rights and have no ability to put leverage on Israel as a state. This in turn makes it more likely that the Palestinians will try to get at their occupiers within those new parameters of total segregation. Violence appears to be a way of getting at your occupiers as you are being thrown into an open-air prison.
If you think about the suicide bombings and the Qassam rockets, the main way that Palestinians have used to show that they are unhappy and want to resist those conditions and transform them is to conduct those kinds of operations. That is the bind. The Palestinians are constantly pushed by the settler-colonial regime, which makes them dispensable, to conduct violent operations where the cost to the human population, in Israel but also in Palestine, is absolutely massive.
It’s much more complicated than South Africa, and the choice to opt for nonviolent struggle is much harder. I support that choice in Palestine as the way to extract political concessions from Israel. It’s a very hard struggle to conduct, which is why what Gilbert Achcar called the “magical thinking” of operations like those carried out by Hamas seem attractive. Palestinians have much less leverage than South Africans had, but that doesn’t mean there’s a different way for the Palestinians to organize their struggle.
There was an attempt in 2006 through the Palestinian prisoners’ document to create a different kind of struggle, combining mass political resistance with armed resistance against military targets, which is permitted under international law. There was an attempt to articulate and create a framework for a Palestinian strategy of liberation, which all Palestinian factions accepted at the time. However, it remained an empty document that was never translated on the ground.
In order to do that, you need conciliation between Hamas and Fatah, which I don’t think is possible after this, and you need agreement on what the parameters of resistance against occupation are. That might well have to involve very clear communication with the Israeli public that targeting civilians is out of the question.
We need to try developing shared forms of struggle to create conditions for the future. The problem is that the occupation system has made those shared struggles impossible because it has segregated the populations. The settler regime in the West Bank with its Jewish supremacy and its land annexations is much worse than apartheid in South Africa.