(The following is a transcript of a lecture presented at the Middle East Institute’s conference “The Middle East peace process after the Arab uprisings”.)
When Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East editor, returned to Jerusalem earlier this month, he was asked by colleagues what story he would be covering. The story seemed evident to Jeremy. It was of course the ongoing violence perpetrated by individual Palestinians against Israelis and the hard-handed response by Israeli security forces. To his colleagues, that story had lost its news value, it was something that had already been going on for some eight months and had become part of the fabric of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
That may indeed be true and yet it is that very fabric that is becoming toxic on more than one level and that is changing in the wake of the popular Arab revolts of five years ago. For sure, the violence reflects the hardening of Israeli and Palestinian sentiments against one another. It is a hardening that takes place among reduced, if not the absence, of contact with one another given travel restrictions on Palestinians going to Israel and Israelis who would want to visit the West Bank outside of the Jewish settlements. Yet, the violence has more than at any other time, since the wave of suicide bombings in the early 2000s, spread fear among Israeli Jews who no longer feel safe when they take public transportation, are increasingly suspicious of people they see on the street, and avoid areas in Jerusalem or around Umm el Fahm in the Galilee that they no longer feel are secure.
It is a fabric in which significant segments of Israeli and Palestinian society no longer see peace as a realistic option. For Palestinians, the response is resistance that can consist of individual acts rather than an organised struggle. For Israeli Jews, it is the long-proven false belief that hard-handed responses to violent acts and repression will keep Palestinian anger and frustration in check. It’s also for Israelis, an increasingly blatant and racist attitude among a majority that believes that only the Israeli right led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can ensure Israel’s security.
The degree to which racism pervades Israeli society was evident in a recent report presented to Israeli president Reuven Rivlin which concluded that three quarters of youth in Israel, Jewish and Palestinian, had experienced discrimination at the hands of the police or in the classroom on the basis of their origin or physical appearance. Eighty percent of those surveyed often turned to alcohol for solace. Ironically, opposition to an Israeli right whose attitudes towards Palestinians threaten to spin out of control is strongest among the Israeli military’s senior officer corps.
Maysam Abu Alqian, an aspiring psychology student who works at a supermarket opposite the Tel Aviv municipality to earn money for his education, was assaulted this month by three border guards as he was throwing out trash. The guards kicked him in the face and body, forcing him to seek medical help at a hospital. Had someone not filmed the incident on his smartphone, it would never have become public. Tag Meier Forum, an umbrella for some 50 groups that fight racism in Israel, asserts that verbal attacks and physical abuse against Palestinians are becoming more common.
Tag Meier chairperson Gadi Gvaryahu says his group has documented 30 cases in which men who spoke Arabic in public had been attacked and had sustained injuries ranging from slight to life-long disability. The Forum says only 20% of reported hate crimes make it to court. The group recorded 1,562 reports of such crimes committed by Israeli Jews between 2013 and 2015 of which only 287 resulted in indictments. The majority of cases were closed due to the “lack of public interest” or because the perpetrators were not found.
Netanyahu appeared to reinforce tolerance of racism when he appointed this month ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman as his defence minister. Recently, Lieberman publicly praised Sgt. Elor Azaria, an Israeli soldier, for fatally shooting a wounded Palestinian assailant in the head as he was lying on the ground awaiting medical attention and subsequently attended Azaria’s trial in a gesture of solidarity. Azaria, a medic, was caught on video shooting a Palestinian who together with another Palestinian had lightly wounded an Israeli soldier in a knife attack.
Racist supporters of the notorious soccer club Beitar Jerusalem, the bad boy of Israeli football and the only club that refuses to hire Palestinian players, this month verbally assaulted Nadwa Jaber, a Palestinian teacher at a bilingual school in the mixed Israeli Jewish-Israeli Palestinian community of Neve Shalom. Writing on Facebook, Rotem Yadlin, a mother of one of Jaber’s Jewish students wrote: “Nadwa educates kids to a life of equality and fraternity, co-existence, peace, faith in mankind. You may be real heroes who know how to spit at a six-year-old girl. We, on the other hand, will keep dreaming together and making this country a better place—for the sake of Amit, (Yadlin’s daughter), Jaber’s daughter, (6-year-old Intissar), for ourselves, for Nadwa.”
Neve Shalom, an effort to prove that Israeli Jews and Palestinians can live together, is the exception. By and large, fear of one another coupled with the erosion of hope for an equitable solution and the fall out of the Arab revolts is rupturing the fabric of society, Israeli Jewish society, Israeli Palestinian society and Palestinian society on the West Bank. Palestinians irrespective of whether they carry Israeli passports or live under occupation have no expectations from an Israeli government and society they see as racist. Similarly, Israelis doubt the Palestine Authority’s sincerity in seeking peace and believe that Palestinians whether with Israeli passports or without simply hate Jews. Youth on both sides of the divide share the experience of the second intifada, the disappointment of the Oslo peace process, and the subsequent expansion of Israeli settlements and security barriers. Many endorse a two-state solution but don’t believe it is a realistic one.
It is a stalemate constructed on mirror images of one another that is sparking changing attitudes among Israeli Jewish, Israeli Palestinian and Palestinian youth. It is also a reflection of a paradigm shift as a result of the popular revolts and of a global phenomenon in which many have lost confidence in whatever system they live under and whoever leads them. A picture published at the beginning of the most recent cycle of violence highlighted the paradigm shift. It showed a girl in jeans and a kaffiyeh passing rocks to a masked boy sporting a Hamas headband.
What I want to do today is focus on Palestinian youth for whom the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a constant in their lives but who are equally and more immediately concerned with social and economic issues that affect their daily lives. In doing so, the long-term effects of the popular Arab revolts are evident in their willingness to openly and publicly confront their parents, elders, communal and other leaders. Like swaths of youth across the globe, they believe that political systems and leaders have marginalised and failed them.
Abed Abou Shehade is a 22-year-old student and activist from Jaffa for the Balad Party, one of three Israeli Palestinian parties that formed a common list to make it into the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. As far as Abed and his friends are concerned, getting the party into parliament is proving to have been a wasted effort. The party has no impact on Israeli policy and like much of the Palestinian establishment is unwilling to acknowledge social changes that are occurring in Palestinian society as a result of a youth that feels it has either no or only limited social and economic prospects, is viewed with prejudice not only by Israeli Jews but also by Palestinians, and whose social mores are changing. His is a generation of Palestinians who wear distressed denim, are active on social media, listen to Western music, and watch Hollywood movies. None of this says anything about their religiosity.
If Israeli Jews fear Palestinian youth when they see them on a street, uncertain whether they may wield a knife against them, Palestinians are not sure whether the youth they encounter on the street are common criminals or not. Crime as a result of lack of opportunity and un- or under employment among Palestinian youths is but one major concern that Palestinian society is unwilling to openly discuss.
If Palestinian youth expect to be humiliated by Israeli Jews, it’s the humiliation by their own that really hits home. Standing with a friend in line at a kiosk in Jaffa several years ago, Abed noted in front of them a middle-aged Palestinian woman, a local politician, clutch her hand bag, afraid that they intended to rob her. “I never felt so humiliated in my life,” Abed said. Had they been initially willing to do anything the woman might have asked of them, Abed and his friends’ response to her assumption that they were common thieves was to intimidate her even more.
Abed and his friend’s response is reflective of a Palestinian youth that not only feels it has no prospects but also that the issues that concern it most are hushed up. Stigmatisation by both Israelis and Palestinians and fear of the police and criminal gangs is but one of the problems. Palestinian youths are being pulled in multiple directions, the religious charge they are not religious enough while secularists charge they are too religious. Their concerns unrecognised, political apathy reigns as a result of which Palestinian youth in Israel and the West Bank often stand accused of not being engaged. They feel damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a just published book with the same title.