On December 6, while President Trump was announcing his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, several Palestinian communities on the occupied West Bank and in the Jordan Valley were awaiting the army bulldozers coming to destroy their villages. There is an intimate and sinister link between these two concurrent events.
For many years, house demolitions have been routine in what is known, since the Oslo agreements, as Area C—that is, over 60 percent of the West Bank, where nearly all Israeli settlements in the territories are located. Palestinians living there have virtually no chance of getting a building permit from the committee, dominated by Israeli settlers, that reviews applications; families tend to be large and, in desperation, they end up building illegally. The Civil Administration—that is, the army unit that constitutes the occupation authority—then comes and demolishes these buildings. It’s a cruel thing to see, even more so in the winter. Similar acts of wanton destruction take place regularly in Palestinian East Jerusalem, with the same legal excuse. Thus, on November 22, the Israeli army destroyed the house (and with it, the lifetime savings) of the Abu Khdeir family, home to twenty-seven people, including many children, in the Shuafat neighborhood. In Sheikh Jarrah, also in East Jerusalem, over sixty Palestinian families await eviction from their homes by order of the Israeli courts, together with another sixty-seven families in Silwan. This is happening in the city that Trump was referring to in his announcement.
So far, there is nothing new in this unhappy litany. But in the last few weeks, we have seen a dramatic deterioration at a local level. What is now happening is not a series of isolated demolitions, but an effort to eradicate entire communities. At Ein Hilweh and Umm Jamal in the northern Jordan Valley, Palestinian shepherds were notified by leaflets left nonchalantly by the side of the road that their villages were about to be evacuated entirely. Hundreds will be left homeless. On December 4, the State Attorney’s office announced in a statement to the High Court of Justice that 40 percent of the village of Susya, in the south Hebron hills, is to be destroyed. Susya has already withstood repeated campaigns of demolition, but this one will cripple the village, perhaps irreversibly. Among the structures to be demolished is the village school.
Similarly, the Jahalin Bedouin encampment at Khan al-Ahmar, on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem, with its modern, eco-friendly school (the first in the area), is to be erased, its people displaced, probably to an insalubrious site in Abu Dis, near the municipal dump. Here, pressure to expel the Bedouins has come from Israeli settlers living across the road from Khan al-Ahmar in the Jerusalem suburb of Kfar Adumim and its sister settlements of Alon and Nofei Prat. Israel has refused to connect Khan al-Ahmar to the electricity grid and denies its inhabitants water; it also forbids them direct access to the Jerusalem-Jericho highway that runs right beside their homes. Khan al-Ahmar is part of a large group of Bedouin villages in this area (some 1,400 people), all slated for expulsion.
What has brought about this move toward mass demolitions and dispossession of Palestinian communities in Jerusalem and the occupied territories? Simply put: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministers think they can now get away with a campaign of slow ethnic cleansing. When Netanyahu claims, as he did recently, that Israel’s situation has never been better, he means, in part, that in his own mind he has smashed the Palestinian national movement once and for all. I have no doubt that this has been his goal all along. Indeed, Palestinians in the occupied territories are worn out, demoralized, fenced into small discontinuous enclaves where they lack basic human rights, where their land and other property may be appropriated at any moment, and where they may be arrested and incarcerated at the army’s whim. They are, by now, largely paralyzed by despair. Trump’s announcement may galvanize them back into action; we shall see.
Of all Israeli illusions, the two most serious are, first, the idea that Israel can, by sheer military force, put an end to the national aspirations of millions of Palestinian people, and, second, that the conflict between Jews and Palestinians in the Holy Land is a zero-sum game, which only one side can win. The obvious truth is the opposite. Either the two sides fall together into some inescapable hell of their own contriving, or they will find a way to flourish together in some political system or another—two states, a single bi-national state, or a confederation that allows each side its own autonomy and security. In any such scheme, West Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel and East Jerusalem, however it is configured, will be the Palestinian capital. It would have been helpful if Trump had said something like that, instead of capitulating to the Netanyahu vision of brutal domination.
Maybe, in the end, the two capitals will overlap in unexpected ways, and the not-so-holy city will acquire a special status. To believe today that Israel can simply swallow up the entire city, including its huge, disenfranchised Palestinian population (some 340,000, or roughly 40 percent of the city’s inhabitants), is to nurture a pernicious fantasy. This fantasy has a stranglehold over the imaginations of all followers of the extreme right in Israel, including the minds of most of the present government ministers. What is more—and this is where the Trump announcement is, in its own way, most immediately consequential—the belief that sheer force will subdue the Palestinians and make them go away is wedded to the far-reaching annexationist program that now drives Israeli policy.
Many Israeli commentators have claimed that Trump’s move does no more than confirm a self-evident reality, that it’s like announcing to the French that the United States recognizes Paris as their capital. These pundits miss the point. As is immediately obvious from local reactions, the announcement insulted Palestinians to the very core of their beings. What they see and, indeed, experience on a daily basis is the absence of even a veneer of mutuality. Worse, they see the explicit threat of mass displacement and exile coming closer, with American backing. There is no better proof of this, in their eyes, than what happens in Jerusalem.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, Jerusalem is not, in essence, a symbolic issue but a matter of hard power politics. The Arabist Bernard Lewis once said that the heart of the problem in Israel-Palestine is that the rudest nation in the world has been crammed into a tiny space together with the one people most sensitive to insult. It’s enough to drive on any Israeli road for fifteen minutes to dispel any doubts about the first half of Lewis’s statement. Israelis are rude not only to Palestinians but, first and foremost, to one another. For Palestinians, the insult has deepened remorselessly over the entire history of the conflict; by now, it is a festering wound, possibly beyond healing. But there is something even more pressing. Jerusalem, including the Haram al-Sharif compound with the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, is the only inviolable asset Palestinians feel they still have, besides a few olive trees and plenty of rocks. That, and a tremendous human potential that has yet to realize its proper place in the world.
Again and again, over the decades, Israelis have tried to convince themselves that the Palestinians are irrelevant to the conflict and to the Zionist project; that eventually, with a little help from the Israeli government and the army, they will disappear. Again and again, this thesis has been disproved by new waves of violence. We may well be at the starting point of another round. Israel does not have the internal resources to extricate itself from its own repugnant mythology, though it is not impossible that it will free itself, relatively soon, from the catastrophic grip of Netanyahu and his cronies.
By now, though, given the damage that has been done, it may be too late to create two sovereign states west of the Jordan River. What Trump did last week contributes to that conclusion, as the veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat has said: “President Trump has delivered a message to the Palestinian people: the two-state solution is over. Now is the time to transform the struggle for one-state with equal rights for everyone living in historic Palestine, from the river to the sea.” If this transformation happens, we will see the rise of something like the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. It will not be a process that the Israeli right can control. Many activists on both sides feel that this struggle has already begun. Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem, having alienated ab initio the Palestinian partner, may well signal the end of American attempts to mediate in the conflict; the peace package the administration is supposedly putting together, whatever blandishments it may contain, is unlikely to get off the ground.
Perhaps it was doomed from the start, given Trump’s now manifest support for the Netanyahu vision of reality—the Israeli settlers’ extreme perspective. Some weeks ago, my fellow activists and I were accompanying some Palestinian shepherds in the Jordan Valley. We encountered several young settler hooligans from one of the new, illegal outposts that sit, as always, on stolen Palestinian land. They wanted to engage us in conversation—in their eyes, we are an exotic and dangerous curiosity—and we entered into a debate with them about what is right and what is wrong. After a few minutes, one of them said:
You are right about one thing. In sheer human terms, what we are doing to these Palestinian people is inhuman. However, if you think about it, you will see that it follows inevitably from the fact that God promised the whole land to the Jews, as the Bible tells us. So it’s not just that we don’t want these shepherds to be here on these lands. We don’t want them to be anywhere, on any lands. We want them not to be.
David Shulman is Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an activist in Ta’ayush, Arab–Jewish Partnership. He was awarded the Israel Prize for Religious Studies in 2016. (December 2017).