The Paradox and Tragedy of Israeli-Palestinian Politics

Here is the paradox and the tragedy of Israeli-Palestinian politics in a few words. The Palestinian Authority (PA) is committed to the establishment of a state alongside Israel; its officials work hard to repress Palestinian terrorists, in close cooperation with Israeli police. And the Israeli government refuses to negotiate with them. Hamas, by contrast, is committed to the destruction of Israel and the establishment of a Palestinian state in its place; its leaders fire rockets aimed indiscriminately at Israeli towns and cities and sponsor and boast about organizing terrorist attacks inside Israel. And with them Israel is right now negotiating.

Hamas is the kind of enemy Bibi Netanyahu wants. Since its leaders aren’t interested in peace with Israel, they don’t force him to consider a withdrawal from the West Bank. Since they attack civilian targets, they are themselves legitimate targets for the Israeli army. Since their Charter is openly anti-Semitic, they don’t attract much European or American support—except on the far right and the far left. They are, so to speak, enemies in the image of the Enemy. The Israeli government can rightly say that it cannot be expected to tolerate rocket attacks on its cities. And everyone agrees: no government would tolerate such attacks—which is entirely true. But there is a further truth. Netanyahu’s government has been prepared to tolerate an ongoing cycle of rocket attacks, a limited Israeli response, and a ceasefire—followed, when Hamas chooses, by renewed rocket attacks, and so on. Ostensibly, the toleration follows from the difficulties of a military campaign designed to defeat Hamas and end its rule in Gaza. The cost would be high indeed—to the civilian population of the Strip and to the moral standing of Israel.

But Netanyahu’s toleration of the cycle also follows from a refusal to pursue a radical alternative. If Israel set out to extend and strengthen the grip of the PA on the West Bank; if it took steps to restrain the settler movement, to arrest the settler hoodlums, to shut down “illegal” settlements, and to begin negotiations leading to the evacuation of “legal” settlements—these moves would go a long way toward isolating and weakening Hamas. By contrast, the cycle of rockets from Gaza, Israeli military retaliation, and highly breakable ceasefire agreements have made Hamas militants the heroes of Palestinian resistance. Their heroism is part of the Palestinian tragedy, for it contributes nothing to the well-being of the men, women, and children of Gaza or of the West Bank. What it does is perverse: it empowers the right in Israel, and the Israeli right sustains the power of Hamas in Palestine.

The Last Great Strike - UC Press [Advertisement]

Want to read our Spring issue for free? Sign up for our newsletter by March 31 to receive a full PDF when the issue launches.


The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.