Large and unprecedented protests in support of the Palestinian cause this year have led to developments which should enable Palestinians to expand their freedoms.
Something new and important happened in the Holy Land in May this year. The Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Colombia University, Rashid Khalidi, for example, even thinks that the events represent a “course change”, and possibly a turning point, in prospects for Palestinians mobilising to change the status quo with Israel.
As a reminder of the May events, large and unprecedented protests and demonstrations were galvanised in Jerusalem, in Arab-populated Israeli towns and cities, in the West Bank and, equally importantly, abroad.
The disturbances were triggered by an anticipated Israeli Supreme Court decision to evict Palestinian families from their homes in Jerusalem. The range and force of the responses against Israeli reactions and in support of the Palestinian cause are what is new about the events in May 2021. They have led to developments which should enable Palestinians to expand their freedoms. Seven new forces can be identified.
First is a new-found unity of Palestinians everywhere. Almost in unison, Palestinians demonstrated not only in the West Bank and Gaza, but also in East Jerusalem and, importantly, in Israel itself, where Arab Israelis showed solidarity with their fellow Palestinians living under occupation.
The intercommunal clashes and violence between Israeli Jews and Arabs in Israeli towns and cities were unprecedented since the establishment of Israel over 70 years ago. And the Palestinian general strike held on May 18 was observed not only across the occupied territories, East Jerusalem and Arab towns and villages throughout Israel, but also in diaspora communities in Lebanon and Jordan. This was a significant moment. Nothing like it had occurred since the 1936 Arab revolt, which pre-dated the birth of Israel itself.
The widespread communal unrest which broke out alongside the demonstrations in the occupied territories unsettled the Israeli authorities. Israeli politicians had become accustomed to running what is in effect a single state between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean.
The politicians believed that the Palestinians living there had been neutralised and had acquiesced in the occupation. Those beliefs were somewhat shattered by the extensive Palestinian uprisings.
No longer can Israeli politicians operate on the basis that the status has a quo. Relationships will be different from hereon. This feature of the events in May is a second distinction that can be highlighted, alongside an emerging Palestinian nationalism.
Reinforcing this change is the fresh role that the United States will play in the Israeli Palestinian conflict. The US now is not particularly interested in supporting continued Israeli aggression. The US is more preoccupied with how it should manage its dealings with China and Russia; its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic; and, more recently, the fallout from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan; while simultaneously grappling with climate change; and various domestic political and economic issues. Given such priorities, the US administration is likely to want Israel to calm things down rather than to pursue anything like final status negotiations.
Further, the US administration will be sensitive to the changed domestic voices on Israel. The American Democratic Party is now divided on the issue of Israel. There’s been a shift in the conversation. Following publication (in April this year) of the major and detailed Human Rights Watch report on the practice of apartheid in Israel, Palestinian complaints about apartheid have become verified, and are being repeated amongst politicians and even by Jewish supporters of Israel.
No longer is there bipartisan political support in America for Israel. Palestinian claims are being voiced and validated. Such dissension, virtually vetoed in the past, is now at the forefront of discussion. This is a fourth distinguishing feature of the May disturbances.
The fifth is the widespread reporting and discussion in the media on the events in the Holy Land. Palestinians are no longer alone in criticising the behaviour of colonial Israel.
Over the past four months, much of the Western media have changed their focus to some degree. They no longer repeat the Israeli government’s talking points.
Rather, they have been drawing attention to the chronic patterns of injustice and abuse inflicted on Palestinians. The Human Rights Watch report generated a wide range of analysis and commentary. And much of the reportage and commentary on the May events was empathetic towards Palestinian considerations.
Another, sixth, supporting example are the pro-Palestinian demonstrations that took place in Australia and elsewhere during the May bombardments. From these and related media presentations, people in the West are becoming better informed about the real politics at work in Palestine.
While Israel’s apologists have written articles containing the usual shibboleths about Israel’s right to self-defense, they have not been able to quell the emerging voices expressing more relevant insights, both amongst informed politicians and in the large demonstrations in support of Palestine in Australia, Canada, the UK and USA. Perhaps for the first time, public discourse in these countries has recognised the colonialist nature of Israeli policies towards Palestinians.
The seventh and final change listed here goes to the domestic Palestinian political scene. A notable characteristic of the protests and demonstrations was the commitment by a new generation of young Palestinians to a demand for changes to the status quo.
Independent of Fatah and Hamas, these youth are somewhat cynical and despairing of the current leadership of those parties and their approaches to negotiations with Israel. Polling shows that more than 65 per cent of Palestinians want President Mahmoud Abbas to resign, and a majority feel that the Palestinian Authority has become a burden on them.
Hamas’ reputation has been similarly battered by years of ineffective rule in Gaza. The party has also lost a popular mandate and could command only 20–30 per cent support in the March polling — although this rating has probably risen following the party’s effective actions in the May clashes. As a result, the current political leadership, in both territories, is on the brink of change. This new electoral dynamic is as relevant as the other changes noted as having emerged from the May events.
From these events, one likely outcome is the regeneration of a Palestinian national identity and movement — a movement that sheds the social fragmentation of the past few decades. Such a development would highlight the unsustainability of the status quo relationship with Israel while simultaneously encouraging the search for alternative initiatives and solutions. These may include Palestinian national independence, and the formation of a political structure based on the recognition of equal rights for Palestinians and Israelis.
Such a political outcome is not likely be realised in the near term, of course. But the currently entrenched opposition to such an outcome — particularly in Israel and the United States — could be weakened by the operation and implementation of the change forces noted above. The shifts will serve to bring Palestinians a step closer to their goal of self-determination.