There Is No Cycle of Violence
Even by the standards of the past year, when attacks on Israelis and killings of Palestinians reached post-Second Intifada highs, last week was a particularly violent one in Israel and the West Bank. Nine Palestinians—eight of whom were gunmen—were killed in the course of an IDF operation in Jenin, and seven Israelis were killed by a terrorist targeting people leaving a synagogue in Jerusalem after Shabbat evening prayers.
With Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the region to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and everyone on both sides on edge, it is one of those far-too-frequent moments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where it feels as if there is little beyond a hopeless and endless cycle of violence for which nobody has any ideas to robustly address.
This reading of events is common, and one that I am prone to as well. But it’s wrong. A cycle of violence implies that one event follows from and precipitates another, that there is a causal chain of tit-for-tat or action and response, and that the correct focus is on each episode of violence itself. The logical conclusion is that if we could figure out how to cut down on the instances of violence, then the cycle itself would be disrupted. If the IDF doesn’t shoot multiple Palestinians in the course of an incursion into a Palestinian city, then it will not inflame the potential future Palestinian terrorist to attack Israelis. If a Palestinian does not shoot at Israelis on a city street, then the IDF will not seal off East Jerusalem neighborhoods or impose closures on the West Bank. Breaking the cycle of these violent acts on both sides becomes the imperative.
Figuring out how to stop the next Palestinian terrorist or how to prevent the next Israeli shooting of Palestinians is unquestionably important and worthy of any policymaker’s time and effort. But it is also missing the larger framework. Violence between Israelis and Palestinians is not connected to or driven by an amorphous cycle. It is the inevitable outcome of the entire structure and environment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the relationship between the two sides. There is no cycle of violence; there is a system of violence.
Whether they live in the West Bank or are residents of Jerusalem, Palestinians experience a stateless existence of either occupation or second-class status, one where their own leaders have certainly failed them but where they also have no recourse or sway with the leaders who actually shape their lives. Nearly every element of their daily routine—where they live, where they work, what type of education or healthcare they can access, whether and where they can travel—is overwhelmingly dictated by the fact that they have no state and are living under the aegis of a government that they did not choose and that has no reason to be responsive to their concerns. That is not to say that specific incidents do not contribute to their wanting to attack Israelis, but it is naïve to think that eliminating a particular potential flashpoint will solve anything beyond the margins.
Alqam Khayri did not set out from his East Jerusalem neighborhood on Friday night to kill seven Israelis because of the nine Palestinians who were killed by Israeli soldiers in a firefight on Thursday. Those who suggest that what he did in Jerusalem was a justified response to what happened in Jenin are morally repugnant, but they are also wrong about the connections between one action and another action.
Khayri’s grandfather was killed by an Israeli Kahanist, he undoubtedly had other relatives and friends who were killed by IDF soldiers or sit in Israeli prisons, he lived in a neighborhood where demolitions and evictions have been carried out, he was exposed to a torrent of extremism on social media, and he had tens, if not hundreds, of daily reminders of his second-class status that had no real prospect of being resolved. His actions don’t fit into a cycle of violence, because they come from being marinated in this system where he was breathing in violence his entire life.
The murder of seven innocent Israelis is also not a symptom of any cycle of violence. Incitement against Israelis from Palestinian leaders and delegitimization of Israel in Palestinian society is as much a constant as is the occupation, and as dejecting as the latter is for Palestinians, it does not excuse the former or the inevitable consequences that emanate forth. Celebrating the targeted slaughter of Israeli civilians with fireworks, songs, and baklava is not a response as part of a cycle of actions and recriminations. Refusing to condemn terrorism because to do so would be “political suicide,” as Mahmoud Abbas reportedly told Blinken this week, demonstrates a deep structural rot among Palestinian leadership and a system of violence permeating Palestinian society.
Repeated attempts to justify or explain away the Palestinian martyr and prisoner payments, which tie the amounts paid to the severity of the attack committed, are exercises in glorifying widespread and indiscriminate violence. It is important to limit IDF incursions into territory that is supposed to be under Palestinian sovereignty and full Palestinian security control, but that will not meaningfully curtail terrorism as a response when nearly every message that Palestinians receive from their political leaders, cultural figures, and social milieu is that Israelis are legitimate targets and that those who strike at them are heroes of unparalleled regard. Israelis may not understand the enormity of the occupation and how it impacts Palestinians, but they understand too well the messages about Israel and Israelis coursing among Palestinians, making political support for addressing Palestinian statelessness a non-starter.
When the actions on both sides breed and perpetuate this system, it makes anything beyond a short-term response to calm tempers seem like an impossible lift. But “nothing can be done” is not an answer, and even worse are the suggestions raining down from Israeli ministers that the appropriate response to terrorist attacks is strengthening the settlements and further expanding Israel’s presence in the West Bank. The reason that this is not an answer is precisely because it assumes that breaking some supposed causal chain reaction of linear incidents will work.
The problem is the entirety of the system in which Israelis and Palestinians are enmeshed, and making that system even thornier will lead to more violence rather than less. It is madness to see what is taking place in the West Bank and Jerusalem and conclude that what is now required is even more intertwining of the two populations rather than working over the short and long term to separate them in a fair way. This goes double for those who are in the “no answer” camp, as supporting more settlements and a greater Israeli presence in the West Bank will only perpetuate the lack of an answer rather than provide one.
Blinken and other American officials on the ground will do what they can to get both sides to de-escalate, as they should, and will no doubt try their hardest to work out new arrangements that will make new clashes and further terrorism less likely. Ultimately, however, they and everyone else are trying to stop a cycle of violence when the violence isn’t cyclical. It is crushingly omnipresent and systemic, and while grand initiatives given the current state of Israeli and Palestinian politics would be a waste of time and effort, the only eventual way out of this is to address the system rather than the cycle.
This article was originally posted in Ottomans and Zionists.