“Why Now?”: On the Origins of the Eleven-Day War
In this interview-based study, Shahin Vallée, the head of DGAP’s Geo-Economics Program, explores the causes of the 11-day conflict that took place between Israel and Palestine in May 2021 with journalist Nathan Thrall.
Vallée: What is your analysis of how we got here and how this extraordinary and fairly long “period of quiet,” as the Israeli government likes to call it, ended? Was it because Palestinians reached a point where they needed to be more assertive, or because of domestic Israeli political reasons? Or perhaps a combination of both? Can you walk us through what happened?
Thrall: The first thing to say is that what is defined as “quiet” for Israel doesn’t feel like quiet for Palestinians. In this period between the 2014 Gaza war and this latest one, you had hundreds of Palestinians killed in Gaza by Israel. You had the Great March of Return protests where Israeli snipers were firing at unarmed protestors and killing them. This lasted more than a year. In general, beyond Gaza, if we look at the entire situation of Israeli control here, it is a very oppressive system that entails daily violence, and it doesn’t feel like quiet to the Palestinians. What winds up happening is that you have an ongoing situation of oppression that is punctuated by periods of resistance. That’s been the story of this conflict for a very long time. And it’s the result of the huge disparity in power. Palestinians don’t have the ability to do much more than that. Israel has enormous tools at its disposal in order to suppress Palestinian dissent. We see it now as there is a mass arrest campaign happening inside the West Bank and inside Jerusalem, and in pre-67 Israel against those who were alleged to have taken part in protests.
The big picture answer to your question is that it’s actually typical, or characteristic, of this conflict that you have long periods of daily violence that doesn’t make it into the headlines with some minor Palestinian push back here and there. But it doesn’t actually rise to the level of something that looks like widespread protest or the beginning of an uprising except for every few years or longer. When it does happen that we have an uprising, people always immediately ask “Why did it happen now?”
It was a truck accident in Gaza that set off the first intifada in December 1987, and to this day it is highly disputed why the first intifada broke out at that moment. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) had been kicked out of Lebanon and they were weakened. The economic conditions didn’t really predict that there would be an intifada then. These events are often mysterious to people in terms of why the specific timing happens when it does.
For the second intifada as well, there are many theories about why it happened in September 2000, about why this particular provocation of Sharon visiting the Haram al-Sharif caused it. But we don’t really have a good and satisfying explanation. If we did, we would be able to predict these events, which no one can. There is no analysis that is so good that it can predict the date of a future uprising.
Vallée: Does that mean that the theory of a deliberate Israeli over-reach, in part guided by the domestic political situation and the formation of a coalition by PM Netanyahu, is invalidated?
Thrall: I am very skeptical of the notion that Netanyahu deliberately stirred up conflict in Jerusalem in order to help achieve this narrow political interest. I am happy to give you a very detailed explanation of why I don’t think that’s the case. It may be a little bit too in the weeds for this audience, but basically that is a notion that has been peddled by many Israeli and international commentators.
If you just look at the timing, what were the two major events around which protests coalesced in the weeks leading up to the Gaza war?
The first thing that should be said is that there was already a nascent uprising taking place at the moment at which the Gaza war began. Hamas jumped at an opportunity that presented itself. And what were the two events around which those protests had coalesced?
The first was at the beginning of Ramadan, when Israel placed restrictions on Palestinians’ access to the area around Damascus Gate. It is something that Israel didn’t normally do, but it did it this year. This is one of the major public spaces for Palestinians in East Jerusalem, and Palestinians began to protest. Those protests got bigger and bigger, and Israel responded with violence and that violence was caught on video. And much of the tension in Jerusalem in the weeks prior to the war was around this issue.
Now, if we look at the timing of when that occurred, that occurred while Netanyahu had the mandate to form a government. At that time, Netanyahu was hoping to lure one of the Palestinian-led political parties into supporting his coalition. He had no incentive at that moment to make his own constituency even less welcoming of the possibility of obtaining Palestinian support for his government. In addition, Israel eventually capitulated to the Jerusalem protests by reopening the plaza around Damascus Gate. Israel did this precisely in order to quell the growing protests, not to fuel them.
The second event was the court cases over the eviction of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah, to be replaced by Jews using racist laws that allow Jews to obtain pre-1948 properties in Jerusalem while forbidding Palestinians from doing the same. This is part of an overall, decades-long Israeli policy of what Israel refers to as “Judaizing” Palestinian areas, especially in Jerusalem and the neighborhoods close to the old city of Jerusalem, which was captured in 1967 and is occupied. So again, there was a real protest movement against these evictions, but it was the court cases which brought this issue to the fore.
The dates of the cases weren’t determined by the Netanyahu government; they were determined by the court. This is a process that had been going on for a long time before there was any kind of potential political calculation to affect the timing of the court cases. And once you had the protests taking place over the forcible evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, at that moment, the Attorney General of Israel pushed for the postponement of the trial so that it didn’t take place on Jerusalem Day, which is this holiday when Israeli ultra-nationalists celebrate Israel’s conquest of Jerusalem in 1967 and march through Damascus Gate to the Muslim quarter of the old city as they chant anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim slogans. The idea of having this court case occur on the same day as this moment of great tension in the city was frightening to the Israeli government. And in fact, what they did — rather than the claim that they are trying to stir up tension in order to help Netanyahu thwart the possibility of an alternative government — was that they postponed the case.
I am happy to give you other examples, but the bottom line is that there is very little evidence to support the notion that there was a deliberate plan to do this now. This goes back to your first question, to which I replied that there is an abundance of reasons or potential causes for an uprising and a revolt at any time. Gaza has been choked for 15 years and Palestinians in Jerusalem are living in these neighborhoods that have been slowly Judaized in this way for decades. The abuse by the Israeli border police in Jerusalem against Palestinian residents is an ever-present phenomenon. Often when we look at why these events take place, we look for an immediate trigger. But the fact is that the real, deep cause is an ongoing set of policies that are decades long, and not a particular calculation by the Prime Minister.
Vallée: If we look at the international reaction to these events, the US reaction has been relatively muted by the administration in the first place with the usual blockades at the UN, but there has been a surprisingly new level of critical voices inside the United States. How do you regard this? Is this a turning point in US attitudes toward Israel or is it just a rupture within the Democratic party that we can pretty much discount? How do you look at this? Are we seeing the beginning of a new US policy toward the region, or is this too optimistic?
Thrall: It is definitely too optimistic to say that we are at the beginning of a new US policy in the region. These democratic lawmakers who are now speaking of Israel as an apartheid state is a very significant development, and it happened much faster than anyone expected. I don’t want to underplay it, but it is true that they are a small minority among the Democrats. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – and I’m not even talking about J Street now, which itself is well to the right of these lawmakers – is increasingly branded as a pro-Likud, pro-Republican organization, though it tries not to be branded that way and tries to be branded as a bi-partisan organization supporting the US-Israeli alliance. And still, where we are today is that AIPAC still has enormous influence among Democrats.
So I don’t want to overstate the influence of these progressive lawmakers. You see that there is a bill by Betty McCollum that is put forward every recent session of Congress proposing that the United States examine its role in Israel’s policy of detention of Palestinian minors without calling for a reduction in aid or anything like that. Just examining the US role in this policy. And that has no chance of passing. Even that policy, which isn’t even calling for touching US aid to Israel, has no chance of passing in this Congress. So that is the big picture that we need to keep in mind when we infer about the future of US policy from these changes among progressive Democrats.
That said, the Democrats who are saying this about Israel are enormously popular. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is one of the most popular politicians in the country and this is a growing segment of the Democratic party. The connection of the Palestinian issue with racial justice in the United States is growing stronger and stronger and I don’t think this will be going away. I think it’s a phenomenon that will continue to grow in strength. It won’t change US policy tomorrow, but is it the beginning of a change in the future? Absolutely.
Vallée: If we go back to US policy and US action, for a while the US administration blocked communication from the UN and delayed the call for a cease-fire, though it eventually did call for a cease-fire. Do you think this had an impact on Israeli policy? Or did the military actions end because the Israeli army had reached their targets? Should we reconsider the US influence over Israel or not really?
Thrall: I think the United States, if it chooses to exercise it, has enormous leverage over Israel. In this particular case, the US allowed Israel to take its sweet time and do what it wanted to do in Gaza, and it blocked efforts at the UN to reach a ceasefire as you just mentioned. That said, I don’t think that Israel particularly wanted the conflict to go on longer than it did. It may be that when Biden finally spoke to Netanyahu a couple of days, or the day before the ceasefire was reached, that it did help bring about the cease-fire a bit faster. But in the bigger picture, the fact is that Israel had no desire to invade Gaza with ground troops. I said this very early on in the conflict. I was interviewed on Democracy Now and a couple of people started pointing out, mockingly, that just after I had given the interview Israel hinted and lied to some of the foreign press that it was already leading a ground invasion. But it didn’t happen. That’s because Israel is extremely reluctant to go into Gaza and lose a lot of soldiers and potentially also to have soldiers kidnapped and then have to do a humiliating prisoner exchange to get them back. Israel is very reluctant to lose soldiers in Gaza when it has zero intention of actually staying in Gaza.
Israel is reluctant to attempt to replace Hamas in Gaza and it is reluctant to stay in Gaza long enough to try to put somebody else in place. I don’t think that they could succeed in doing that anyway. Israel’s policy toward Gaza is to leave Hamas in place because there isn’t a realistic alternative other than indefinite Israeli occupation. Israel doesn’t want to be back in Gaza, so what it is left with is the policy of choking Gaza, so the people’s noses are just a millimeter above water, while Hamas – which is a zillion times weaker than Israel – slowly builds its armaments in preparation for another round at some point in the next several years.
It’s important to remember that Hamas isn’t fighting from Gaza purely because of the siege. If you lift the siege tomorrow, Hamas is still a national party that seeks to liberate all Palestinians, and it will do so using whatever tools it has at its disposal. Even if Israel ends its control and siege of Gaza from the outside, Hamas leaders won’t suddenly cease to be Palestinian nationalists or care about the greater occupation of the West Bank, or the prevention of refugees from entering Israel or the occupied territories, or the annexation of Jerusalem and the occupation of the al-Aqsa mosque, or the discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel. There is a Palestinian national cause and the people fighting from Gaza, even if you took away the siege of Gaza, are part of the Palestinian national movement.
Vallée: Do you view this eleven-day war as having strengthened the hand of Hamas in Palestinian politics?
Thrall: There is just no way to deny that Hamas has been enormously strengthened by not just the Gaza war, but the events of the last month that preceded it. People may now be tempted to attribute all of Hamas’ increased popularity to the Gaza war, but I saw its rising popularity before the Gaza war. I saw it in Jerusalem during these protests in the weeks leading up to the war. You had people chanting for Mohammed Deif, the head of the Hamas military wing, in huge numbers. You had people chanting against Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the PA and the PLO – who is from the Fatah party – in huge numbers in Jerusalem. The credibility of Abbas and the PA leadership in Ramallah has been low for years, but it has truly never been lower. Hamas is seen as a defender of Palestinians in Jerusalem, and, frankly, it’s seen as a party that hasn’t given up on the national cause of liberation, unlike the leadership in Ramallah.
Vallée: We spoke about the United States, but what is your perception of Europe’s reaction? Some people, like Benjamin Haddad, have been arguing that Europe is turning pro-Israeli. You have seen the Israeli flag flown under the Chancellery in Austria, we’ve seen it flown by the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party in Germany, and there has been a lot of support for Israel’s right to self-defense across Europe. Is it your perception that while the US-Israeli policy might be evolving, that the Euro-Israeli policy is evolving in the opposite direction?
Thrall: So, I’d like to just offer a major caveat that I don’t consider myself an expert on EU relations with Israel by any means. But from my perspective, yes, we do see strengthening ties overall between Europe and Israel and yes, in the United States we see the opposite. Again, nobody is touching the $3.8 billion in US aid. But for the first time, Israel is no longer a bi-partisan consensus issue. More and more, being pro-Israel is associated with the Republican party and we see a major rift between progressives and centrist Democrats over Israel, and I see that this trend is only going to increase. I have to say – again, I am not an expert in European public opinion either – but it does seem to me that there are some counter-trends that we see. For example, the enormous turn out that we saw in London a few days ago for one of the largest pro-Palestinian rallies that we had ever seen. And there are other signals coming from Europe such as the statement about apartheid from the French Foreign Minister yesterday or the statement about apartheid from the Foreign Minister of Luxembourg. I see a mixed picture in Europe, but I agree with the overall premise of your question, that it appears that the ties between Israel and Europe are growing stronger.
Vallée: If we return to the situation on the ground, one thing that seems to be different with this uprising compared to the previous ones is also the surge in violence within Israel between Israeli Jews and Arabs in cities that used to be mixed and where cohabitation was somewhat normalized. Is your perception that this is something new and profound? And does it say something about the potential for a one state solution? Does the violence we’ve seen invalidate that solution?
Thrall: The first thing to say is that, by far, the most significant event that occurred in the last month, with the protests in Jerusalem and the war in Gaza, politically the most significant event by far was what you’re describing, although the body count in pre-67 Israel was of course not comparable. The wide-scale protests of Palestinian citizens of Israel were shocking to huge numbers of Israeli Jews. What it signified to them and to the world, and to Palestinians as well, is after more than seven decades of attempting to fragment the Palestinian people and put them under different sets of restrictions in order to weaken the Palestinian national movement – putting Gazans under siege, putting West Bank residents into three different categories of Israeli administration with different levels of autonomy but where Israel still enters every day, discriminating against Palestinian citizens inside Israel, and implementing this policy of Judaization and land takeover against Palestinian residents of Jerusalem as well as Palestinian citizens in pre-67 Israel – this fragmentation forced Palestinians to fight each of these battles alone. And what we saw with the protests in pre-67 Israel was a very clear message from the Palestinian citizens of Israel, the resident of Jerusalem, the occupied subjects of the West Bank, the besieged people of Gaza, and the refugees in the diaspora around the world: “After more than 70 years of attempts to fragment us, we are still one people.” And that has enormous consequences for how you think about the conflict and what kind of remedies you think are appropriate. Because if you think of this conflict as mainly about the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza – and this is how much of European diplomacy treats the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – then you think that ending the occupation is tantamount to ending the conflict. European and other policy-makers may acknowledge that, yes, of course there was a conflict before the 1967 war; yes, there was a conflict even before the founding of the state of Israel; yes, the PLO and Fatah were founded before the 1967 war; yes, there was the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948; yes, there was a violent conflict in Palestine for decades before the 1948 war. They know all of these things, but still, for most of them, the real core of the conflict is perceived to be the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. This misperception is at the root of international support for a two-state solution.
This occupation-centric framing is challenged and undermined by Palestinians announcing that, “No, we’re one people, and the West Bank and Gaza are merely one element, and not necessarily the most significant element, of the Palestinian struggle.” And now, if as a European policy-maker I were to look at the conflict in that way and say “there are roughly 7 million Israeli Jews between the river and the sea and there are roughly 7 million Palestinians between the river and the sea, and then millions more Palestinians who are prevented from entering the territory who are in the diaspora, why is the just solution for this system – where there is just one sovereign state of Israel that controls all these fourteen million people – why is the just solution a partition where we give half of the people 22 percent of the land? Why is the just solution that one of the parties, the dominating group (Israeli Jews), get to stay united in a single state? While the other party, the dominated group (Palestinians), is going to continue to be fragmented by being divided into, on one hand, a Palestinian state (without true sovereignty, but we’ll call it a state), and, on the other, minority status with the state of Israel, without equal rights?” Nobody would look at that situation as a just resolution of the conflict, or one that’s very likely to succeed.
Vallée: To conclude, Europe seems to be moving timidly away from the two-state solution without saying it. The United States has been more engaged, but not on the verge of a new engagement policy so it seems unlikely that we will make great progress toward a two-state solution and the situation that you have described is that the hopes of a one state solution are also disappearing. So, we are kind of left without any roadmap. So, does that mean the status quo for longer?
Thrall: I think that the short answer is yes. The safest prediction is a continued system of domination of Palestinians by Israeli Jews for the indefinite future. A two-state solution is not anywhere on the horizon and a one state solution is not anywhere on the horizon either. After all, there is an enormous power discrepancy between the parties. So Israeli Jews will have a huge, disproportionate influence over what the final outcome is. And Israeli Jews are strongly opposed to a one state outcome with equality. It’s a different story if it’s a one state outcome like the present status quo. And so, the safest prediction is that we will continue to have this situation with bursts of violence and counter violence for the foreseeable future, all within a single sovereign state – Israel. And I think what’s novel is that, more and more, people are beginning to not just recognize this reality for what it is – apartheid – but to say it out loud. Because it really can’t be justified by Israel’s allies to support the present situation. It can be justified to support a situation if you truly believe it is temporary and you think it will be resolved with a just outcome, whatever you think that just outcome is. But the issue isn’t whether there will eventually be two states or one state. The issue is that there is no end to this system of domination in sight. And everyone who is aligned with Israel is in an awkward position when there is no longer a cover for that support for Israel. Now they are explicitly on the record supporting a grossly oppressive system, without an excuse of temporariness, without an excuse of a coming solution. And that is, I think, what is novel about the moment w