Palestine demonstration, London 2021 Palestine demonstration, London 2021. Photo: Alisdare Hickson / CC BY-NC 2.0

In the first of our series on Palestine, Alex Snowdon discusses the current situation in Palestine and traces the origins of Israeli state violence

A few months ago, Israelis elected their most racist, right-wing government in history. That is a bold claim – Israel’s history is dominated by racism and right-wing politics – but this is widely-recognised as fact, even inside Israel. Far-right politicians are at the heart of government.

Violence by Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank is at record levels. This is closely connected to the brutal violence of the Israeli state, with rising numbers of Palestinians killed by state forces.

2022 was the worst year for Israeli killings of Palestinians in the West Bank for over two decades. 2023 so far is even worse. Israel’s actions are more horrifying than ever, just as its politics are more right wing and brazenly racist than ever before. Gaza, meanwhile, continues to suffer terribly in siege conditions – strangled by Israeli blockade, dependent on foreign aid, scarred by repeated devastating military offensives.

Such a grim situation draws attention to two interesting paradoxes. One is the paradox of a country that claimed, from its inception in 1948, to be a liberal, progressive, democratic society becoming so monstrous: a byword, internationally, for apartheid, racial supremacism and deadly violence.

How could it turn out like this? It begs the question of whether Israel’s current trajectory is a sharp break from its past, or an example of continuity – maybe even built into its very foundations.

The other paradox is that Israeli apartheid is more ruthless and obscener than we have ever known, yet it has not been ostracised by the international community. The process of normalization with a number of Arab states has not been disrupted. The US continues to provide steadfast support, despite the change from Donald Trump to Joe Biden in the White House. In Britain, the government remains loyally pro-Israel while criticism of Israeli apartheid is almost taboo in the Labour Party.

Through a series of articles, Counterfire contributors will illuminate these issues – and more – by making sense of the history (and pre-history) of Israel, the Palestinian struggle and the wider role of imperialism in the region, seeking to explain the current situation. This first instalment begins in the present, with an overview of current realities, and subsequent contributions will provide the history and analysis that helps us understand where we are.

This May is the 75th anniversary of the Nakba, when the Israeli state was founded out of the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their own land – a process of ethnic cleansing. The current situation – including the pogrom in Huwara and the deadly state attacks on daily Jenin and Nablus earlier this year – is especially awful, but can only be understood if we learn from history and trace these outrages back to the Nakba and beyond.

They are an expression of a deeper logic of settler colonialism and apartheid.

State and settler violence

In late February, there was a pogrom against the Palestinian town of Huwara, near Nablus in the West Bank. It followed a lone Palestinian killing two Israelis. Violent mobs of settlers – an estimated 400 of them – burnt houses and vehicles, injured hundreds of Palestinians and killed one person.

The Middle East Eye website reported:

‘Homes, shops, cars and agricultural land were set ablaze by settlers who roamed the streets … at least 35 homes were completely burned down and 40 others were partially damaged. More than 100 cars were burnt or destroyed’.

Many of the houses that were set alight had families inside at the time. Settlers put tyres in front of the doors of Palestinians’ blazing homes to make escape harder.

Tensions had been brewing for months. Settlers had regularly attacked Palestinians – and the Israeli soldiers (the Israeli army is in charge of ‘security’ in the area) stood by and let them. On the night of the pogrom, soldiers were referred to by Palestinians as ‘observers’ – they did little to intervene. There were even reports of Israeli soldiers opening fire on Palestinians. Just 18 of the settlers involved in the pogrom were detained by Israeli authorities – most of them were released, without charge, in a matter of hours.

This is no aberration or outlier. There is a thread connecting such mob violence to the very top of Israel politics and the state. Bezalel Smotrich, Finance Minister, earned notoriety when he said that Huwara should be “wiped out”. Zvika Fogel, chair of Israel’s national security committee, said “A closed, burnt Huwara – that’s what I want to see”. The contempt, racist supremacism and collective punishment were hardly disguised here.

The pogrom against Huwara came against a background characterised by three things: a sharp rise in settler violence, Israeli forces’ attacks on Jenin, Nablus and elsewhere, and the shift (yet further) rightwards in the Israeli government. Israeli forces had carried out a deadly assault on Nablus on 22 February, killing 11 Palestinians and wounding over 100. This followed a similar raid in Jenin in January which resulted in 10 Palestinian deaths.

It is essential to grasp the connections between these elements. Fanatical settler groups are closely connected to the government, with some of their representatives now holding senior political posts, while their violence is encouraged by Israeli forces (at best) turning a blind eye. Israeli state killings and Israeli settler attacks are both aspects of the routine violence inflicted on Palestinians – and both are part of the wider oppression of the Palestinians.

The current government’s draconian authoritarianism is even outraging many Jewish Israelis, who have taken part in sometime large protests. This is a welcome crack in the wall of Israeli apartheid, though we should be clear about the protests’ limitations. They are not primarily about the treatment of Palestinians and most protesters have limited horizons.

Complicit in apartheid

All of the above makes obvious something that has been barely concealed for years: Israel has no interest in a peace process, or an independent Palestinian state of any kind. It hardly pretends any more. This makes the role of the Palestinian Authority as a fig leaf at best, or actively complicit in the oppression of Palestinians at worst, starker than at any time since it was established, through the Oslo Accords, in the 1990s.

The formation of such a right-wing government, the escalation of Israeli Defence Force raids in the West Bank, the killings in Jenin and Nablus and the pogrom in Huwara have all found little response – beyond a few rhetorical overtures – among governments internationally. That is true in the Arab world, where normalization (closer diplomatic and business relations with Israel) continues unabated, despite massive popular support for the Palestinians on the Arab street.

It is true in the US, where Democratic politicians find it increasingly difficult to square support for Israel with liberal, progressive values, yet still manage to endorse military aid and arms deals between the US and Israel. There is plenty of polling evidence to indicate a historic shift away from support for Israel among Democrat voters, just as there’s evidence of many Jewish Americans turning against the apartheid state, yet this finds little political expression in Washington.

In Britain, the bipartisan consensus holds firm. The Tory government plans to introduce legislation stopping public bodies from making ethical divestment decisions that deviate from UK foreign policy objectives. The space for Palestine solidarity opened up by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has been firmly closed again – at least inside the Labour Party.

Yet, more widely, there is considerable public support for justice, freedom and equality for the Palestinians. This remains a signature issue for those who oppose imperialism, war and racism. That support will be expressed in a major national demonstration, called by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign to mark Nakba75, on 13 May.

These articles from Counterfire, culminating just before that demonstration, aim to provide a coherent historical and political account of the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, its broader support by powerful global actors, and the prospects for liberation. They are intended as a resource for campaigners.

The Nakba75: the Roots of Israeli Apartheid series:
  1. Downward spiral: Settlers and state violence
  2. Palestine and the carve-up of the Middle East
  3. The origins of Zionism and the Balfour Declaration
  4. Palestinian resistance to Mandate rule
  5. What is settler colonialism?
  6. Al-Nakba: The ethnic cleansing of Palestine
  7. Israel: Watchdog for US imperialism
  8. Palestine: the key to freedom in the Middle East rests with the Arab working class
  9. Palestine and international solidarity

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Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).

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