After deadly attacks, Israel targets Palestinian workers for punishment

Palestinian residents of Lod-Lydd protect a local mosque during confrontations with Border Police officers and extremist Jewish settlers (Oren Ziv)

Meron Rapoport

+972 Magazine  /  April 1, 2022

As the tenets of Israel’s separation regime crumble away, Israelis face a choice: mass expulsion, formalized apartheid — or full equality for all.

We still do not know the express reason that brought about the attackers in (Bi’r al-Sab’a), Hadera (Khdeira), and Bnei Brak to commit their murderous acts over the past week. After killing 11 people, both civilians and police officers, they were killed by Israeli security forces without leaving a clear message. Third-party messages of support from Hamas and Islamic Jihad tied the killings to the “Negev Summit” held last week, which included representatives from the Arab countries that have normalized relations with Israel since the Abraham Accords.

The meeting was labeled the “Summit of Evil” by some Palestinian media outlets, as it was ostensibly intended to prove that the Palestinian issue is no longer relevant, and that Israel can live in peace alongside the Arab world while maintaining an apartheid regime and military occupation. Last week’s attacks reminded us that this is little more than an illusion.

The attacks also intersected with another, no less noteworthy event. These days, the Israeli media is commemorating 20 years since Operation Defensive Shield. One may even say the media is celebrating the anniversary, since it marks Israel’s alleged victory in the Second Intifada — the moment the Israeli army re-occupied the Palestinian cities in the West Bank and largely put an end to the violent attacks that left over 650 Israelis dead throughout 2001-2002. It took three more bloody years until the Second Intifada truly ended, and Defensive Shield succeeded far less than people like to claim, but there is no doubt it was a turning point in those years.

Two decades later, the attacks in Be’er Sheva, Hadera, Bnei Brak, and who knows where else, remind us that so much of what plagued this country then is still with us now. Defensive Shield could not “end” anything for one simple reason: this conflict cannot be resolved by force of arms, and Israel’s complete military superiority will never guarantee it peace as long as it occupies and denies fundamental rights to another people.

And yet, Israel and the Palestinians are in a different place than they were 20 years ago. Operation Defensive Shield was based on the thinking that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be divided into “here” (Israel proper) and “there” — the Palestinian cities where armed groups like Fatah and Hamas operate. But that ship has long sailed. Palestinian cities are under occupation, with Israeli soldiers and Shin Bet agents going in and out regularly to arrest militants and political activists, as well as those who are completely uninvolved. The Green Line binary between “here” and “there” has completely collapsed.

It’s not about security

One of the central projects of the Netanyahu era was the erasure of the Green Line, the expanding and normalizing Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and the creation of “economic peace” with and for the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s policies did not, of course, bring peace, but the Green Line was certainly erased.

The genealogy of the separation barrier was part of this process. The building of the wall and fence began at the height of the Second Intifada, and was the clearest expression of the old separation paradigm. Israel would be on one side, the Palestinians would be on the other. Politicians, security officials, and the majority of Israeli Jews were convinced that it was the barrier that stopped the suicide bombings and shooting attacks of the Second Intifada.

But anyone who knows the reality can tell you that the main function of the barrier then as now is psychological; it is there to mark a boundary in the Israeli-Jewish consciousness, more than to serve as a real physical obstacle for Palestinians. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers cross it daily. This seems routine to us, but it is clear that it is impossible to create a real obstacle in such a reality. If we remember that tens of thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel who cross the barrier into the West Bank every week for shopping, leisure, and studying, we begin to understand that separation does not truly exist.

Palestinian residents of the West Bank do not enjoy the same freedom of movement, but even for them the wall is not an insurmountable obstacle. More than 100,000 Palestinian workers with permits, and several tens of thousands of workers without permits, cross the fence every day to work in Israel. Sometimes they even sleep in Israel and come back to the West Bank after a few days.

If we add the 400,000 East Jerusalem Palestinians with blue ID cards, it seems that close to half a million Palestinians from occupied territories either reside or are allowed to stay in Israel. If there were almost no terrorist attacks, it was not because the barrier stopped them.

As Ameer Fakhoury wrote in 2020, rather than create separation, Israel has actually “swallowed up” the Palestinians. After the attacks in Be’er Sheva and Hadera and before the attack in Bnei Brak, Menachem Klein wrote in Local Call that “the de facto annexation of the West Bank to Israel, and the creation of one regime between the river and the sea, have all turned the Palestinian issue from a foreign policy one to one that concerns Israel’s internal regime.”

Between equality and mass expulsion

 The political implications of this reality are enormous. In May 2021, we saw Palestinians, in turn, erase — or at least ignore — the Green Line; the Palestinians of Lydd responded to the violence in Sheikh Jarrah, Gaza responded to Lod (Lydd), the West Bank responded to Gaza, and so on. At the time, +972’s Amjad Iraqi wrote that although this was not the first time demonstrations swept up Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line, “any Palestinian who has attended the current protests or followed the news from abroad cannot help but sense that this wave is unlike the others.” The erasure of the Green Line played a significant role in this development.

Since the violence of May 2021, and especially since the establishment of a government that includes the Islamist Ra’am party, the Israeli right has shifted its focus. Instead of talking about annexation and expansion, it is looking inward, marking Palestinian citizens of Israel as a domestic enemy. The “internal front” in Israel’s so-called mixed cities is no less important — and may even be more important — than the settlements and outposts of the West Bank.

This is because the right has understood that undermining the separation between Jews and Palestinians, and the strengthening of shared spaces could, one day, bring about the democratization of Israel-Palestine. Fearing the loss of Jewish supremacy, the right has sought to provoke a deliberate confrontation between the state and Palestinian citizens. The orchestrated incitement against Bedouin in the Negev (Naqab), including the establishment of an armed militia in the area, is part of this process.

We cannot say for certain that the last three attacks are a result of the withering away of the Green Line. But they certainly have strengthened the dilemma that Israel itself created by annulling it and erasing any difference between “here” and “there.” If the Palestinian issue has become an internal one, as Klein writes, Israel’s external enemy disappears. After all, one cannot re-occupy Umm al-Fahm or Hura in the Naqab — they have been under Israeli control for 74 years. One can send undercover officers to Jenin, but everyone knows this will not bring us any closer to a solution.

If the problem is indeed an internal one, it will require an internal solution — which is far more complex than invading Ramallah or bombing Gaza. In this situation, there are two options: establishing a regime based on equality, partnership, and reconciliation among all those living between the river and the sea; or formalizing apartheid, and perhaps something worse, in every corner of the land. The old solutions of military victories or “managing” and “shrinking” the conflict are fast becoming irrelevant.

There is no doubt that what we have seen over the last week veers strongly toward formalizing apartheid, with some Israeli cities deciding to no longer employ Palestinians, whether from the West Bank or inside Israel.

Mass expulsion — what Israelis refer to as “transfer” — is also on the table. Uzi Dayan, who until a moment ago was a Likud MK, said on the far-right Channel 14 that “if we reach a civil war, it will end in a difficult word that you know, and that’s Nakba… it is a kind of war of independence, and we must complete it.” It is particularly interesting that these words are coming from Dayan, who as the head of the National Security Council was one of the fathers of the separation barrier. In 2002, he believed that separation would lead to a solution; today, he believes that in order to reach a solution, the Palestinians must be removed completely. Just like in 1948.

This is an extremely dangerous moment, and even if it doesn’t end in a second Nakba or mass expulsion, it could bring about murderous violence that will indiscriminately take the lives of Palestinians and Jews.

And yet, there is still room for optimism. The entry of Palestinian citizens into the political game in Israel, the growing recognition by the Jewish center-left that partnership with Palestinians is necessary, the expansion and strengthening of shared spaces — all of these could form a base for a front to resist incitement and threats of expulsion. The present moment is a delicate and dangerous one, but the battle — for our lives and for our future as Jews and Palestinians — has yet to be decided.

Meron Rapoport is an editor at Local Call