Here we are again. Despite the reawakened interest in Palestine and the Palestinian question, to a degree we have not seen for decades, and despite the volumes written to express solidarity and support, to take a stance, or to analyze and try to understand—something is wrong. There is a glaring failure to see Palestine as it is, as opposed to through the lens of our political crises that consume so much of our thoughts.
Palestine has always served as a vessel for others. Arab dictators made it a pillar for building their authoritarian regimes. To their opponents it was a component of their authoritarian discourse. When the regimes fell, they saw it as part of the authoritarian legacy, so they stomped on it and on Palestinians along with it. The Islamists turned Palestine into a part of their ideological platform, affixing a religious stamp on the Palestinian question. For the secularists, this made it an item in the political toolkit of their increasingly emergent Islamist foes. Some liberals believed that adopting a “positive” discourse toward Israel was the baptismal font to anoint their liberalism. Other liberals turned Palestine into a space for voicing their opposition to the policies of their governments, especially those that were moving to normalize relations with Israel. Rival sectarian camps have all contributed to a game of tug-of-war over Palestine to fit it into their respective dogmas.
Meanwhile, Palestinian human beings have been obscured behind our crises. We no longer discern their faces. They have become a metaphor for our complexes.
The habit of seeing Palestine through a medium continues in the recent war on Gaza. The most salient medium has been Iran. Depending on how people viewed Iran, the war was often either a landmark in the Iranian-led axis of resistance or a strategic miscalculation by Iranian-controlled Hamas.
Neither Tehran nor Hamas has made a secret of Iran’s support for Palestinian armed factions. However, to reduce the causes to the “Iranian role” is not just oversimplistic and misleading, it is also conducive to demagogic discourse, no matter where one stands on Iran.
The events of 7 October 2023 mark a turning point in the Palestinian question (or the Arab-Israeli conflict, if you prefer), or at least they should. They proclaimed the failure of Israeli strategy, especially toward Gaza. Suddenly, three decades after the Palestinians signed a peace treaty with Israel and similar treaties neutralized the armies of the principal Arab powers, and after two decades of implementing a blockade to isolate Hamas in Gaza, Israel awoke to a sophisticated military operation unlike anything it had seen for decades, including from the standing armies of the frontline Arab states.
What does this mean?
This is not just about the above-mentioned Israeli strategic failure. Nor is it just about the fact that neutralizing Arab powers failed to prevent what social scientists call “non-state actors” from moving to the front lines and posing a serious threat to Israel from the north and the south. Both Hezbollah and Hamas can be classed as non-state actors in that they are paramilitary entities that emerged outside the framework of the state and established a base of territorial control. Even if these entities share some of the traits of a state, they do not manifest a discrete state apparatus with sovereign authority.
The significance of this latest war goes deeper. It has thrown into glaring relief the logic of absolute security domination, which is based on a zero-sum security game, with which Israel engaged in the peace process. This is the approach that degraded and demeaned the Palestinian negotiating partner by reducing them to a security surrogate agent and by circumventing them through bridges of “normalization” with distant Arab countries. Clearly this was not a strategy for peace focused on what should be addressed, namely the Palestinians, by which I mean the people, their land, and their concerns—not the politicians, the elites, and their rhetoric.
Has Israel ever truly contemplated peace? Has it ever seriously considered a comprehensive and lasting solution, as opposed to a peace based on absolute military/security domination? Has it ever occurred to it to bring an end to the Palestinians’ “state of exception,” as the only people in the world without a complete and independent sovereign entity and without the attendant freedoms, arrangements, and documents that would make the Palestinian individual a fully-fledged citizen, like the citizens of other countries in the world? Did the logic of peace based on might and subjugation not turn Palestinians into an “invisible” in the perception of Israelis, instead of a partner they should try to understand?
The Palestinians have endured being an international exception for far too long. Perpetually under siege and deprived, they have never had the opportunity to have normal lives and it seems that this will remain the case for some time to come. What has been “normalized” is their closed horizons.
The sum product of all these decades of security repression that passed as a peace process is that the Palestinians stopped seeing the Israelis (whether soldiers or civilians) as people with whom they could come to terms on a political deal for the future. Indeed, they were no longer able to see the Israelis as anything but usurpers and occupiers, whom they had the right to resist by all means at their disposal.
So, for the Palestinians, nothing has changed to necessitate a change in the “rules of engagement.”
Even after this last war, it looks like Israel has learned nothing. It still cannot see the 7 October attack as anything but a security breach to be remedied by tighter and more oppressive security measures. It is still incapable of a response other than reproducing ever more brutal iterations of the wrathful avenger, bent on inflicting maximum death and destruction, regardless of all legal, humanitarian, and moral provisions and principles, let alone what is needed to create a climate conducive to peace.
As always, Israel wants to impose a peace based on breaking the Palestinians and bringing them to their knees. Was this not the point of the 1993 Oslo Accords, which took advantage of the breakdown in the Arab order in 1990/1991? The plan, then, as it remains today, is to force the Palestinians into a surrenderer’s peace, keeping the will for a peace with a partner and a comprehensive solution forever out of reach.
Some have argued that the violence unleashed by Hamas signified not only that resistance had prevailed over the preference for negotiation but also that this violence was, in the Arendtian sense, intrinsic and endowed with a logic of its own. The aim of this argument, as Judith Butler wrote recently, is to prevent us from contextualizing the violence in order to properly understand it, even if we are morally opposed to violence on principle. This is why the proponents of that argument hastened to accuse anyone who attempted to address the “background” of that violence of justifying it.
Hannah Arendt herself held that violence implied the death of politics. Accordingly, the only way to understand the eruption of violence on 7 October is as a product of years of cumulative tension and trauma (just two of the many articulations of which were the events in Jerusalem in 2021 and in Jenin in the summer of 2023). The Palestinian question has reached such a state of hopelessness and despair that even the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah sensed it and warned of the dangers. Foremost among these was the unprecedented rise of the Israeli right, the collapse of the two-state solution, and the absence of any vision or tools for moving forward.
In that nihilistic space, where politics has died, a new Palestinian generation has grown up with no options but to imbibe, from the moment of birth, the conditions that come with being the sole exception among all peoples.
Who would have believed that Western states, elites, and societies would have reacted the way they did? I am not speaking about their condemnation of Hamas’s violence, the sympathy for Israeli civilians, or the general rush to support Israel. That was to be expected. But they went much further: to clamp down on the freedoms of opinion, expression, thought, and conscience; to inject religious identity chauvinism into secular discourse; to overtly discriminate on the basis of faith and ethnicity; to disregard the rights that citizens of Arab or Islamic origins should enjoy in Western countries; to remain silent about the thousands and thousands of civilian victims of the Israeli aggression. Who would have imagined that the values we had thought were deeply rooted in Western culture and societies could have been shattered in an instant? That all that would be left of the value system built up over centuries were fragments applied in an ad hoc, selective, and biased way?
There is not enough space here to analyze the hysteria that drove Western societies to (albeit partially) renounce their modern values. However, clearly much of the hysteria stemmed from various factors extending from the complex surrounding the legacy of antisemitism in Europe from the nineteenth century through the Holocaust to the cultural change resulting from the massive waves of migration from the global South to the global North. These numerous and complex factors and how they interweave merit extensive research, analysis, and debate.
Be that as it may, my point is that I do not agree with some of my fellow Arab intellectuals who see the Israeli aggression on Gaza and the Western response to it as evidence that the values of Western modernity are a sham. Certainly, Western modernity has brought evils (not least of which was the Holocaust which, according to Zygmunt Baumann, was an embodiment of the dynamics of modernity in the context of modern European nationalism’s confrontation with the Jewish question). However, my concern has less to do with modernity as a Western historical experience which has had its twists and turns and ups and downs, than with modernity as an enduring system of values. This modernity is a construct of abstract values. Though produced in the West at an important phase in the development of human civilization, it can be universalized.
Accordingly, it would be good to treat modernist values as more than practices, by endowing them with a transcendent quality that permits them to serve as criteria for gauging the extent to which Western actions and behaviors remain true to these values or deviate from them.
This transcendence is precisely what liberates modernity from its Western origin and makes it a universal, shared by all societies and cultures, free from hegemonic imposition.
Once we apply such a framework for understanding, the questions of Hamas versus Fatah, the Islamist versus secularist character of the resistance, and the prioritization of the resistance over negotiation, or vice versa, become details in relation to the higher cause: Palestine.
[This article was originally written in Arabic and translated into English. Click here to read the Arabic version.]