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Putting One’s Ear to the Ground: Rumblings of Mounting Discontent

When Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East editor, returned to Jerusalem earlier this month, he was asked by colleagues what story he would be covering. The story seemed evident to Jeremy. It was of course the ongoing violence perpetrated by individual Palestinians against Israelis and the hard handed response by Israeli security forces. To his colleagues, that story had lost its news value, it was something that had already been going on for some eight months and had become part of the fabric of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

That may indeed be true and yet it is that very fabric that is becoming toxic on more than one level and that is changing in the wake of the popular Arab revolts of five years ago. For sure, the violence reflects the hardening of Israeli and Palestinian sentiments against one another. It is a hardening that takes place among reduced, if not the absence, of contact with one another given travel restrictions on Palestinians going to Israel and Israelis who would want to visit the West Bank outside of the Jewish settlements. Yet, the violence has more than at any other time since the wave of suicide bombings in the early 2000s spread fear among Israeli Jews who no longer feel safe when they take public transportation, are increasingly suspicious of people they see on the street, and avoid areas in Jerusalem or around Umm el Fahm in the Galilee that they no longer feel are secure.

It is a fabric in which significant segments of Israeli and Palestinian society no longer see peace as a realistic option. For Palestinians, the response is resistance that can consist of individual acts rather than an organized struggle. For Israeli Jews, it is the long proven false belief that hard-handed responses to violent acts and repression will keep Palestinian anger and frustration in check. It’s also for Israelis, an increasingly blatant and racist attitude among a majority that believes that only the Israeli right led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can ensure Israel’s security.

The degree to which racism pervades Israeli society was evident in a recent report presented to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin that concluded that three quarters of youth in Israel, Jewish and Palestinian, had experienced discrimination at the hands of the police or in the classroom on the basis of their origin or physical appearance. Eighty percent of those surveyed often turned to alcohol for solace. Ironically, opposition to an Israeli right whose attitudes towards Palestinians threaten to spin out of control is strongest among the Israeli military’s senior officer corps.

Maysam Abu Alqian, an aspiring psychology student who works at a supermarket opposite the Tel Aviv municipality to earn money for his education, was assaulted this month by three border guards as he was throwing out trash. The guards kicked him in the face and body, forcing him to seek medical help at a hospital. Had someone not filmed the incident on his smartphone, it would never have become public. Tag Meier Forum, an umbrella for some 50 groups that fight racism in Israel, asserts that verbal attacks and physical abuse against Palestinians are becoming common.

Tag Meier chairman, Gadi Gvaryahu, says his group has documented 30 cases in which men who spoke Arabic in public had been attacked and had sustained injuries ranging from slight to life-long disability. The Forum says only 20 percent of reported hate crimes make it to court. The group recorded 1,562 reports of such crimes committed by Israeli Jews between 2013 and 2015 of which only 287 resulted in indictments. The majority of cases were closed due to “lack of public interest” or because the perpetrators were not found.

This month Netanyahu appeared to reinforce tolerance of racism when he appointed ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman as his defense minister. Recently, Lieberman publicly praised Sgt. Elor Azaria, an Israeli soldier for fatally shooting a wounded Palestinian assailant in the head as he was lying on the ground awaiting medical attention and subsequently attended Azaria’s trial in a gesture of solidarity. Azaria, a medic, was caught on video shooting a Palestinian who together with another Palestinian had lightly wounded an Israeli soldier in a knife attack.

Racist supporters of notorious soccer club Beitar Jerusalem, the bad boy of Israeli football and the only club that refuses to hire Palestinian players, this month verbally assaulted Nadwa Jaber, a Palestinian teacher at a bilingual school in the mixed Israeli Jewish-Israeli Palestinian community of Neve Shalom. Writing on Facebook, Rotem Yadlin, a mother of one of Jaber’s Jewish students wrote: “Nadwa educates kids to a life of equality and fraternity, co-existence, peace, faith in mankind. You may be real heroes who know how to spit at a six-year-old girl. We, on the other hand, will keep dreaming together and making this country a better place — for the sake of Amit, (Yadlin’s daughter], Jaber’s daughter, (6-year-old Intissar), for ourselves, for Nadwa.”

Neve Shalom, an effort to prove that Israeli Jews and Palestinians can live together, is the exception. By and large, fear of one another coupled with the erosion of hope for an equitable solution and the fall out of the Arab revolts is rupturing the fabric of society, Israeli Jewish society, Israeli Palestinian society and Palestinian society on the West Bank. Palestinians, irrespective of whether they carry Israeli passports or live under occupation, have no expectations from an Israeli government and society they see as racist. Similarly, Israelis doubt the Palestine Authority’s sincerity in seeking peace and believe that Palestinians whether with Israeli passports or without simply hate Jews. Youth on both sides of the divide share the experience of the second intifada, the disappointment of the Oslo peace process, and the subsequent expansion of Israeli settlements and security barriers. Many endorse a two-state solution but don’t believe it is a realistic one.

It is a stalemate constructed on mirror images of one another that is sparking changing attitudes among Israeli Jewish, Israeli Palestinian and Palestinian youth. It is also a reflection of a paradigm shift as a result of the popular revolts and of a global phenomenon in which many have lost confidence in whatever system they live under and whoever leads them. A picture published at the beginning of the most recent cycle of violence highlighted the paradigm shift. It showed a girl in jeans and a kaffiyeh passing rocks to a masked boy sporting a Hamas headband.

What I want to do today is focus on Palestinian youth for whom the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a constant in their lives but who are equally and more immediately concerned with social and economic issues that affect their daily lives. In doing so, the long-term effects of the popular Arab revolts are evident in their willingness to openly and publicly confront their parents, elders, communal and other leaders. Like swaths of youth across the globe, they believe that political systems and leaders have marginalized and failed them.

Abed Abu Shehade is a 22-year old student and activist from Jaffa for the Balad Party, one of three Israeli Palestinian parties that formed a common list to make it into the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. As far as Abed and his friends are concerned, getting the party into parliament is proving to have been a wasted effort. The party has no impact on Israeli policy and like much of the Palestinian establishment is unwilling to acknowledge social changes that are occurring in Palestinian society as a result of a youth that feels it has either no or only limited social and economic prospects, is viewed with prejudice not only by Israeli Jews but also by Palestinians, and whose social mores are changing. His is a generation of Palestinians that wears distressed denim, is active on social media, listens to Western music, and watches Hollywood movies. None of this says anything about their religiosity.

If Israeli Jews fear Palestinian youth when they see them on a street, uncertain whether they may wield a knife against them, Palestinians are not sure whether youth they encounter on the street are common criminals or not. Crime as a result of lack of opportunity and un- or under employment among Palestinian youth is but one major concern that Palestinian society is unwilling to openly discuss.

If Palestinian youth expect to be humiliated by Israeli Jews, it’s the humiliation by their own that really hits home. Standing with a friend in line at a kiosk in Jaffa several years ago, Abed noted in front of them a middle-aged Palestinian woman, a local politician, clutch her hand bag, afraid that they intended to rob her. “I never felt so humiliated in my life,” Abed said. Had they been initially willing to do anything the woman might have asked of them, Abed and his friends’ response to her assumption that they were common thieves was to intimidate her even more.

Abed and his friend’s response is reflective of a Palestinian youth that not only feels it has no prospects but also that the issues that concern it most are hushed up. Stigmatization by both Israelis and Palestinians and fear of the police and criminal gangs is but one of the problems. Palestinian youths are being pulled in multiple directions, the religious charge they are not religious enough while secularists charge they are too religious. Their concerns unrecognized, political apathy reigns as a result of which Palestinian youth in Israel and the West Bank often stand accused of not being engaged. They feel damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Israeli Palestinian youth hold a racist Israeli society responsible for their plight but feel a Palestinian society that refuses to acknowledge their plight is equally guilty. Abed recalls a childhood friend being released from prison. A social worker came to visit and advised him how to best reintegrate into society. The friend described to her dropping out of school to help his family make ends meet. His brother forced him to sell drugs while his mother helplessly watched her sons go off on a wrong track. That’s when I needed help, he told the social worker: ‘Where were you then?’ A few weeks, later the activist found his friend’s body on a street riddled with bullets.

Crime, say youth activists is one of the foremost issues, certainly among Israeli Palestinian youth. Drugs is another. So is the fact that pre-marital relationships have become more common, yet cannot be openly discussed. In what seems anti-cyclical, the picture of a Middle East turning more conservative is not immediately evident on the streets of Israeli Palestinian towns like Sakhnin, Arrabe or Deir Hassan in the Galilee, where uncovered, fashionable dressed youth, male and female, are as common as those who uphold more conservative dress codes.

Social attitudes also appear to be changing on the West Bank. Five years ago members of the Palestinian national women’s soccer team described battles within their families about their right to play. At times their matches had to be played in empty stadia and guarded by police to protect them from attack by conservative religious forces. Today, the player’s team speak about their family’s support and that they are proud of the fact that they represent Palestine and project it favorably internationally. Stadia host a growing number of fans whenever they play.

Ironically, Palestinian Authority-governed territory, and particularly Ramallah, is attracting Israeli Palestinian youth who feel they have a greater opportunity to be themselves in an urban environment as opposed to the smaller towns they hail from in Israel. Ramallah is however no solution for a problem that threatens to further fracture the fabric of Israeli society, both Jewish and Palestinian.

Similarly, Israeli Palestinian soccer players who play key roles in Israeli clubs increasingly opt to play for West Bank teams and the Palestinian national team rather than its Israeli counterpart. The Shebab Hebron football club recently won for the first time in 30 years the West Bank’s championship, thanks to five new players, all Israeli Palestinians. Six Israeli Palestinians currently play for Palestine instead of Israel. In Palestine they don’t encounter the kind of racism that often greets them in Israeli stadiums.

“Professionalism in Israel is better. But it is developing here and I’m sure that in a few years it will be completely professional,” said Abu Obeideh Rabie, one of the players who moved to Hebron. The moves have not been without problems. Palestinian club Al-Dharia was recently sanctioned after several of the club’s players were barred entry into Lebanon because they carried Israeli identity documents. Israeli citizens are barred from travelling to Lebanon.

Influential New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who is widely viewed as sympathetic to Israel, warned in a recent column that Israel’s travails were in part due to its “desire to destroy itself.” Friedman suggested that Netanyahu would soon become the prime minister of the State of Israel-Palestine as a result of his refusal to come to peace terms with the Palestinians. The implication was that demographics against the backdrop of continued control of West Bank Palestinians would force Israel, if it wants to retain its Jewish character, to continue to discriminate against Palestinians and would risk becoming the equivalent of an apartheid state.

All of this, points to a powder keg. Israel’s national intelligence estimate warned this year that violence would escalate in the absence of a credible pace process. Social and economic issues are not always what persuades West Bank Palestinians to randomly stab an Israeli. It often is a sense of, humiliation as well as lack of security and freedom as a result of occupation, societal attitudes, and failed political leadership that prompts reasonably successful men and women to attempt to take someone else’s life and waste their own.

Fact of the matter is, no one knows if the powder keg will erupt, and if so, how it will erupt. Escalation of the violence of the past eight months is one possibility. Mass protests as occurred last year as the violence initially erupted is another. There is little doubt that in theory the building blocks for a popular uprising in Palestinian lands are in place.

Palestinian protests are frequently directed as much against the Israelis as they are against the Palestinian leadership. Protests like the second intifada are often preceded by calls for reform that went unheeded. Palestinian youth and civic society groups have made through numerous initiatives and protests clear that they want a say in determining their future, one that puts an end to Israeli occupation and domination and that accords them greater freedom in their own society. Their demands for an end to the occupation, the lifting of the yoke of the Israeli security forces, reform of the PLO, national unity, social justice, and an end to corruption are similar to what fueled the Arab revolts. Yet, as in many cases in the Middle East and elsewhere, it remains impossible to predict if and under what circumstances a revolt may occur.

The stabbings have in common with the popular Arab revolts that they emanate from an amorphous, leaderless whole. They fit the pattern of the unusual suspects who drove the Arab revolts. Yet unlike the revolts they remain the spontaneous acts of individuals and at least until now have not jelled into something organized.

The stabbings tell us that discontent is boiling at the surface. These uncoordinated violent outbursts of anger are one form of resistance alongside the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and local peaceful protest. They are also an expression of frustration with the lack of impact of attempts by the Palestinian Authority to pursue Palestinian rights through the United Nations. The fact that the Palestine Football Association (PFA) last year had to withdraw its proposed resolution for the suspension of Israel from FIFA despite wide support highlighted the PA’s failure.

More than half of youth in the West Bank and Gaza have not registered to vote and have no intention of doing so, according to a recent survey. The stabbings also reflect a widespread refusal by youth to participate in protests organized by either Fatah or Hamas. That was evident in the wave of protests that erupted in the fall of last year even if few seem to believe that protests will actually effect change in Israeli or Palestinian policies.

Much like in the first intifada, the Palestinian leadership at best pays lip service to expressing an understanding of what is driving protest and youth. It seems singularly unwilling to draw political conclusions from that in an environment in which the history of the resistance, the failure of the peace process and dominance of autocracy in the region has undermined institutions and strengthened self-serving political parties. What were once resistance groups have become bureaucracies bent on ensuring their own survival.

What the stabbings do tell us is that the fabric of Israeli and Palestinian society is being eroded by a conflict to which a solution seems ever more distant, if not impossible, and by societies and leaderships incapable and unwilling to listen.

This article is adapted from a lecture originally delivered at the Middle East Institute.