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Sun. June 23, 2024
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Palestinian Terror is Not an Act of Fate
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In the immediate wake of the August 31, 2023 ramming attack that left a 20-year old Israeli soldier dead, Israeli Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich claimed to television crews that had dashed to the site: “Palestinian terror is not an act of fate.” With these words, Smotrich – who also holds the position of “minister in the defense ministry” – appeared to make attempts at assuring Israelis that, in spite of a sharp rise in security incidents in the Israeli-Palestinian arena (the highest yearly number since the Second Intifada), there are ways to put an end to terror attacks committed by Palestinians. While the latter is probably true, it is not for the reasons the minister seems to have in mind, and it is certainly not achievable by the means he is thinking of.

Societies confronted with terrorism within a national conflict inevitably face what looks like a dilemma. Either they try to understand the factors pushing individuals and organizations to commit horrifying attacks, thereby potentially appearing to “diminish” the brutality and the impact of these attacks, or they have no regard for the perpetrators’ background situation and run the risk of leaving the terror’s root causes unaddressed.

These two approaches are not either-or and also in Israel policy and debate may combine elements from both. In the case at hand, however, it is primarily the “tougher” stance that is followed. Indeed, on the Israeli side, bar a few exceptions, there is hardly any knowledge or understanding of the Palestinians’ collective story or of the socio-economic realities individual Palestinians finds themselves in. Mainstream Israeli media show little interest in Palestinian affairs beyond the terror attacks, general security-related topics, and some institutional matters. They very rarely cover any story that could depict Palestinians as humans, although even Israeli hardliners are sometimes caught saying that “not all Palestinians are terrorists”. By preventing humanization in this way, the Israeli side also blocks the possibility of understanding the actual causes of the terror attacks, the incitement and the general Palestinian position, almost inevitably labeled as “intransigent”.

Other recent events illustrate this situation. After an Israeli father and son were shot at a carwash in the West Bank town of Huwara on August 19, 2023, the Israeli public broadcaster at some point included, in the midst of coverage about the perpetrator and the general security situation, a report by someone who had been near the carwash and was aware of Palestinians trying to assist the victims. That report was, it seems, not taken up in later coverage, neither to confirm it, nor to contradict it.

In another example, a few hours after the August 31 ramming attack, Knesset member Zvi Sukkot commented on the worsening security situation in general and on serious violence that had erupted the night before, when thousands of religious Jews visiting the Joseph’s Tomb site in Nablus were met, as the heavily armed Israeli troops protecting them, with stones and Molotov cocktails hurled at them by Palestinians. Sukkot claimed that these visits – guaranteed in the Oslo II accord –“contribute to security” for Israelis, as they help “terrorists understand that the Israeli Defense Forces are strong”. However, whereas one can defend, beyond the agreement enshrined in Oslo II, the position that religious groups should reasonably enjoy free access to their holy sites, it is not wise to look away from the effect that the nightly expeditions to Nablus have on the Palestinian population in the current period. For Palestinians, these visits are just another slap in the face by the side they hold responsible for their inability to realize individual and collective aspirations.

Of course, in order to move towards de-escalation, it is imperative that actors on both sides take steps in equal measure. If Israelis are open to start looking at Palestinians in a different way, it is only natural that Palestinians would return that willingness. Palestinians can and need indeed to make progress in a number of related fields, as education about the Jewish people and its history, prevention of incitement in schools and in society at large, and commemoration without glorification of “martyrs”. In parallel, on a par with facilitations offered by Israel in line with its security needs, they need to assume responsibility for the building of their own society and institutions.

It is clear, however, that attempts to understand the “other side” and its complexities require a considerable investment in time and efforts in order to expound and untangle a web of Israeli and Palestinian narratives. Hanging over policy and debate, these narratives are visibly or less visibly present in physical space, formal and informal education, media, cultural expression, commemoration events, and other facets of daily life. Israelis and Palestinians are unlikely to ever share a joint narrative and there is no need to do so. However, only once sufficient headway is made into addressing the structural character of the narratives’ mutual exclusiveness, both sides will be able to understand the intricacies of the current situation and move beyond it.

By definition, work on something structurally embedded takes time. In the meantime, reality on the ground needs to be managed in a way that minimizes consequences for the population as much as possible. The ramming attack showed how difficult this can be as conflicting principles are at stake: the perpetrator held a permit to work within the Green Line and used Route 443, an Israeli road through the West Bank, where Palestinian traffic has been allowed to varying extents. On the one hand, Palestinian employment and freedom of movement enable an improvement in their situation, which is conducive to de-escalation (Israel currently needs the Palestinian workforce, too); on the other hand, facilitations of the like can be exploited to do exactly the opposite, namely commit acts of violence and raise the tension.

Precisely because the current Catch-22 situation is so fragile and can only be managed walking a tight rope, it is high time to start tackling the structural embedment of narratives that are presently mutually exclusive. Only if and when Israelis and Palestinians are able to live alongside different narratives without seeing them as a threat, it will become clear that the current situation is indeed not “an act of fate”.

Dr. Alexander Loengarov is a Senior Affiliated Fellow at the Institute for International Law at the University of Leuven (KU Leuven, Belgium), as well as a former official of the European Economic and Social Committee of the European Union.

His writings reflect solely his own views, and not those of the European Economic and Social Committee or the European Union, which cannot be held responsible for any use made of it.


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