5 things to explain the “intifada of the knives”

“It’s the occupation, stupid”: Palestinian women wait to pray, held back by Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem. Photo by Najeh Hashlemoun.

By Sandy Tolan

There is a visceral and perhaps ancient fright provoked by sharpened knives aimed at the flesh of fellow human beings. Under other circumstances, that might explain the degree of outrage directed at the perpetrators of multiple random knife attacks. But in this case, in which Palestinian youths have staged several dozen attacks against Israeli Jews in East Jerusalem and elsewhere, killing nine as of this writing, it has, sadly, much more to do with the nature of who is killing whom.

To put it bluntly, there is much more alarm when Israelis rather than Palestinians are dying. The death of 500 children under bombardment by Israel in Gaza last summer sparked less outrage then the slayings of at least 9 Israelis by the knife or in other attacks in October. (By the way, 57 Palestinians have also been killed this month. Half of those or more, it appears, were not in the act of wielding knives. Videos show two gunned down while posing no imminent threat. One of those killed was a peace activist in Hebron. Another man was shot while waving a Palestinian flag. And on Sunday, a 17-year-old girl was shot dead at an Hebron checkpoint. Soldiers said she attacked them, but an eyewitness said she raised her arms and said, “I don’t have a knife,” when soldiers opened fire.)

There is scant attention in the American press as to the broader question of why the “intifada of the knives” is happening, and why now. The focus of most U.S. coverage is on simply the acts themselves, with little connection to history, geography, Israeli military might and politics — as if the attacks sprang only from a savage irrational hatred by Muslims of Jews. But it doesn’t require condoning these acts — which, to be clear, I do not — to note the shocking lack of context to help explain why they’re happening.

Here then are five reasons why some young Palestinians have become so enraged that they’ve begun to sharpen their knives.

1. It’s the Occupation, Stupid. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank will turn 49 years old next June. It’s been around so long, most people have forgotten about it, and many others deny it exists. Palestinians don’t have that luxury. In a land about the size of Delaware, our second smallest state, several hundred checkpoints, roadblocks, rammed-earth barriers and other obstacles control travel and subject Palestinians to sometimes hours-long waits and humiliating body searches. One Palestinian girl I know, at ten years old, was forced to pull out her violin and play a song for an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint. Soldiers on night raids in refugee camps, and even in the supposedly sovereign area of Ramallah, round up dozens of young men every week, thousands of whom have been detained without charge under a policy known as “administrative detention.” Fully 40 percent of Palestinian men, since the occupation began in 1967, have spent time in Israeli jails, by one estimate. Even throwing a stone in protest can land a Palestinian as young as 14 years old in prison for 20 years. Despite the draconian actions of the military regime, Palestinians continue to resist. As the analyst Nathan Thrall wrote last week on the New York Times op-ed page, “most Palestinians will continue to believe that if the occupation is cost-free, there will be little incentive to end it.”

2. The Incredible Shrinking Palestine. Hand-in-hand with occupation have come hundreds of thousands of settlers, military bases and patrols, whose presence has created a Jim Crow-like reality for Palestinians. The land is divided into three jurisdictions: Area A, supposedly sovereign Palestinian areas like Ramallah (18 percent of the West Bank); Area B, under joint Israeli-Palestinian control (22 percent); and Area C, (60 percent), under full Israeli military control. The West Bank, in turn, makes up barely one fifth of historic Palestine. Thus Palestinians, whose national liberation movement once sought to reclaim all the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan, now have partial autonomous control over 4 percent of it. Those semi-sovereign lands are scattered as islands in a sea of Israeli military control. Exclusive smooth-as-glass roads, off limits to Palestinians, whisk settlers from their hilltop enclaves to prayer in Jerusalem or the beach in Tel Aviv. Each year, settlers have become more brazen, even in areas set aside for Palestinians. In April, near the village of Birkat al-Karmil in the West Bank, in Area A, dozens of Palestinians were swimming in a community pool when hundreds of Jewish settlers arrived, accompanied by the Israeli army. The soldiers ordered the Palestinians out of the water so that the settlers could bathe, unbothered. Worse, militant settlers have increasingly attacked and burned Palestinian olive groves and mosques, and firebombed homes in Palestinian villages. Last July settlers set fire to a house in the village of Duma, burning the Dawabsheh family, including an 18-month-old toddler, alive. The killers, reportedly identified by Israeli authorities, have not been charged.

3. The Murder of Arab East Jerusalem. In late 1995, during a triumphant return to the occupied West Bank, PLO Chairman Yassir Arafat stood before thousands of cheering Palestinians and declared, “Today we are making this history of the independent Palestinian state with holy Jerusalem as its capital!” The idea of Jerusalem, or Al Quds (literally, The Holy) carries great power for every Palestinian. Religious reasons are only a part of it. Al Aqsa Mosque is part of the Haram Al Sharif, Islam’s third holiest site, where the prophet Mohammad is believed to have ascended to heaven on the back of a winged steed. That the Haram and the Temple Mount, Judaism’s most sacred site, rest on the very same stones has long been a flashpoint in the conflict. Muslim anger over access to prayer, and control of it by Israeli authorities, is a driver for the latest attacks.

But Palestinian frustration over East Jerusalem runs deeper than that. The long hoped-for Palestinian capital, a focus of decades of failed peace talks, is now encircled by more than a dozen Jewish settlements, built illegally, according to international law. Israelis (and, increasingly, the New York Times) prefer to call them “Jewish neighborhoods”; they have almost entirely cut off Arab East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank. East Jerusalem itself, long described as “undivided” and “Israel’s eternal capital,” is now being re-divided, as walls and massive concrete blocks separate Palestinian and Israeli residents. Some three thousand Palestinians have lost their homes in the last 12 years due to Israeli demolitions of “illegal” East Jerusalem homes, part of a policy that has overseen the destruction of nearly 49,000 Palestinian structures in the Occupied Territories since 1967. In the current strife, Israeli authorities are threatening to revoke residency for Palestinians whose roots in Jerusalem go back generations, thus continuing a policy of exiling from the Holy City thousands of Palestinian Jerusalem natives, who now must live in the West Bank and elsewhere. Thus have some 14,000 Palestinians been driven from their native city by administrative fiat. I know a man who rented a high-rise apartment in Ramallah, just so he could glimpse the spires of a Jerusalem almost close enough to touch. Palestinians in Ramallah note that it is easier to travel to China than to Jerusalem, seven miles away. And so a collective longing grows for an increasingly mythical city the poet Mourid Barghouti calls “the Jerusalem of houses and cobbled streets and spice markets…the library, the doctor, the lawyer, the dresser of brides with high dowries. The terminals of the buses that trundle in every morning from all the villages with peasants come to buy and to sell. The Jerusalem of white cheese, of oil and olives and thyme, of baskets of figs and necklaces and leather…This is the city of our senses, our bodies, and our childhood…”

4. Good Riddance to Oslo. The 1993 Oslo Accords, signed by Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn, were, according to many former believers, supposed to put an end to the bloodshed and help bring about an independent Palestine, standing side by side in peace with Israel in a “two-state solution.” Yet nowhere in the Oslo documents does such language exist. The words independence, sovereignty, freedom, or Palestine are nowhere to be found in the 1993 Oslo Protocol; security, however, shows up a dozen times. Instead, Oslo facilitated the bad intentions of Israeli policy makers, who laid plans for roads and settlements on what was supposed to be a Palestinian state. At the beginning of Oslo, 109,000 settlers lived in the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem. Today that number is 380,000. Equally important, the Oslo “peace process” transformed the Palestinian liberation movement into a local government administered by the newly-created Palestinian Authority, led first by Arafat and then Mahmoud Abbas. The PA, essentially, has helped manage the occupation for Israel. Under U.S. encouragement and training, Palestinian security forces work jointly with Israel’s military, helping to prevent frustrated youths from confronting Israeli soldiers with stones, as they did during the first Intifada, which ironically forced Israel to the negotiating table and led to the Oslo agreements. Despite the ten years of relative calm Abbas has delivered to the Israelis and Americans, he has virtually nothing to show his people for it. Deeply discredited and unpopular among Palestinians, he has watched Israelis claim ever more lands, occasionally giving lip service to the two-state solution, occasionally admitting they have no intention of ever letting it come to pass. As the land is carved up, a de-facto one-state solution exists now on the ground, and young Palestinians apparently have decided to take matters into their own hands.

5. Historical Erasure. Benjamin Netanyahu’s outrageous claim that the Palestinian Mufti of Jerusalem, in a meeting with Hitler, inspired him to carry out the Holocaust, has been widely discredited by scholars and lampooned in the Israeli press. Yet this fits a long pattern of attempts to demonize Palestinians as preternaturally conditioned to hate Jews. In this way the history of the Palestinians — the context of their dispossession, occupation, incarceration, and the theft of their lands over decades — can be ignored. When it’s all about Arabs hating Jews, no other context is necessary. Much of this is rooted in what we might call the Leon Uris “Exodus” history, depicted in the mega-best-selling book, and the Hollywood blockbuster starring Paul Newman, as Israel rising out of the ashes of the Holocaust, as hundreds of thousands of Jewish survivors joined fellow Zionists to reclaim the promised land from its empty, barren past. In Uris’s powerful but terribly incomplete narrative, “the Arabs” (i.e. Palestinians) were pathetic, malicious, or both, and ultimately, the villains in someone else’s heroic narrative. History was contorted and oversimplified, large parts of it ignored entirely. “People without land,” went the old Zionist slogan, “go to a land without people.” The problem was that there were already plenty of people in the Holy Land. By 1936, about a million mostly rural Palestinian Arabs lived in historic Palestine, annually harvesting hundreds of thousands of tons of barley, wheat, tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, figs, olives, and citrus. Ignoring their history became part of the origin story of Israel. The biggest erasure of all, still resonating decades later, is that some 750,000 Palestinians fled or were driven out of their homes, in a collective trauma known to every Palestinian as the Nakba, or Catastrophe. More than any other single event in Palestinian history, the story of the Nakba fuels the collective memory of its people. Yet most Israelis either deny its existence or are simply ignorant of it: while Palestinians are urged to learn the horrors of the Holocaust (and many have), Israeli schoolchildren know nothing of the Nakba. Israeli schools are banned from teaching it, and Israel’s Knesset approved a law sanctioning fines against communities within Israel which observe its anniversary.

Thus multiple and overlapping reasons, perhaps the least of them religious hatred, drive the current “intifada of the knives,” just as they have driven the decades of clashes, attacks, and scores of nonviolent protests. Palestinians see their continuance as sumud, or steadfastness: a resistance to erasure, and a declaration — sometimes violent, usually not — that We are here. Repeated attempts to deny this stubborn fact have failed since the beginning of the conflict. Palestinian resistance, in whatever form, shows little sign of waning. Absent a just resolution, it is bound to continue.

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