I recently had occasion to read Dr. Shany Mor’s fascinating essay in Mosaic Magazine
which had a very interesting—and different—take on the current conflict and the lens through which we see it. We reached out to Shany, who kindly agreed to talk us through his thesis, in a conversation which we now share with you.
He wrote, in part,
It is the argument of this essay that the Palestinian predicament is the direct or indirect outcome of three Arab-Israeli wars, each about a generation apart. These are the wars that started in 1947, 1967, and 2000. Each war was a complex event with vast, unforeseen, and contested consequences for a host of actors, but the consequences for the Palestinian people were uniquely catastrophic: the first brought displacement, the second brought occupation, the third brought fragmentation.
These three wars are so different from each other—in their duration, in the belligerents involved, in the global context surrounding and shaping them—that it’s hard at first to think of them as a set, as a group deserving some kind of collective analytical treatment to the exclusion of other major events. But it is actually the extreme differences among them that serves to highlight the unique features they share—the unique features, that is, that are the source of the Palestinian predicament.
And on our conversation, we hear much more.
Dr. Shany Mor is a lecturer in political theory at Reichman University (formerly IDC Herzliya) and a research fellow at its Institute for Liberty and Responsibility. He is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, focusing on issues of representation and parliamentarism.
Shany holds a PhD from Oxford University, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Political Theory Project at Brown University. He has taught at Columbia, Oxford, Brown, and Sciences Po Paris. He also served as a Director for Foreign Policy on Israel's National Security Council, specializing in Israel-Europe and Israel-US relations.
The link at the top of this posting will take you to the full recording of our conversation; below is a transcript for those who prefer to read, available specially for paid subscribers to Israel from the Inside.
Shany Mor is a lecturer in political thought at Reichman University and a highly regarded frequent writer on politics, foreign policy, and Israel. In an article that he recently published in Mosaic Magazine, an article called “Ecstasy and Amnesia in the Gaza Strip”, he argues that three catastrophes, all of them marked by euphoria at the start and denial at the end, have shaped the Palestinian predicament. And Shany argues that it is in the light of those three wars in the past that we ought to try to understand the conflict going on now between Israel and Hamas. The three wars that he has in mind are not three wars that we commonly lump together. They are the three wars of 1947, 1967, and 2000. Each, he said, was a complex event, as he puts it, with vast, unforeseen, and contested consequences for a host of actors. But the consequences for the Palestinian people were uniquely catastrophic.
The first, he says, brought about displacement. The second brought about occupation. The third brought about fragmentation. What might this fourth conflict lead to? And what might this fourth conflict leave us with? We got together with Shany to hear him think about these issues out loud with us and are very grateful to him for the time that he spent having this conversation.
So once again, Shany, thank you so much for joining us. As I said in the introduction, I thought your article in Mosaic was fascinating, “Ecstasy and Amnesia in the Gaza Strip”. It says, “three catastrophes, all marked by euphoria at the start and denial at the end, have shaped the Palestinian predicament. Has the fourth arrived and is the same dynamic playing out?” Tell us about the article. Tell us about the thesis. Teach us.
Great. Thanks for having me. I'll tell you a bit about how I sort of came to the article, because it was something that I had been thinking about for several years now at this point. First was the question that I was asking myself is what makes the Palestinian predicament special? Or is it special? Is there something unique about it? Or do we just give it a lot of attention? Obviously, we give it a lot of attention because we're right next to it. And the first thing for me to realize was that the two most salient characteristics of the Palestinian predicament, nationhood, and statelessness, and all of the ambiguity surrounding those two things wasn't actually unique. It's quite a predicament to just those two things, right? So, the issue of nationhood, of having a common memory, however mythological, without clear boundaries, with a sort of one-sided view of history, that's not special. It's true, by the way, of the Israelis, but it's true of almost every other people in this region. And beyond. The fact of being stateless, too, that is to say, of having a fully formed national identity and not having a sovereign state to express it in, is also not unique, but a manifestly unpleasant condition to be in.
So, I didn't think those two captured it quite enough. And thinking about it more, I realized that there were three more aspects of the Palestinian condition that stood out and that made it the sort of unique catastrophe that it is. And those were displacement, occupation, and fragmentation. And that those were all connected to actual events and to actual wars. And the big realization I started having about three or four years ago was that almost everything that I could see in the condition of the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian people was directly or indirectly an outcome of three wars. The wars that began in 1947, 1967, and 2000. And that actually those three extra aspects that I identified on top of nationhood and statelessness were respectively linked to the outcomes of those wars-- displacement, occupation, and fragmentation. That these were three Arab Israeli wars that were actually radically different from each other, have much less in common with each other than you might think. They have almost nothing in common with each other in fact, and that they're not the only Arab Israeli wars or even the only Israeli Palestinian violent encounters. So, by looking at three events that are so different from each other and finding what is common, I think there was actually a lot to learn.
Okay, so take us through the three wars and tell us what is the salient characteristic and result of each of the three?
Well, I think the first thing to understand about each of those three wars is how different they are from each other is a little bit about what each one is. Right? So, the war that begins in 1947 lasts a year and a half. It has essentially two stages. One is a civil war between Arabs and Jews in British Palestine. Even calling it a civil war doesn't quite capture how comprehensive it was. Nothing is untouched by that conflict.
Right. I want to just point out to our listeners that that basically starts on November 20, 1947, at the UN vote and more or less concludes on May 14, 1948, with the Declaration of Independence.
That's right. And nothing is outside the scope of that war. That is to say, there's no front and rear. There's no place where people are just living their lives, and the war is going on in the background. It's a war that is fought everywhere, where Jews and Arabs live in Palestine, in every village, in every town, on every hilltop, in every forest, in every desert. It is a complete and total war between two communities who do not have the organs of state behind them and don't have a distant front to fight on. And it transforms on the night between the 14th and 15th May into a modern interstate war. But it's a very large interstate war. It's not two states fighting over a disputed boundary. It's at least five or six or seven or even more states, depending on how you want to assess the participation of some of the more peripheral Arab states, fighting against a newly sovereign state of Israel with a newly organized army, the IDF. And that's a war that continues in one form or another well into 1949, until ultimately armistice agreements, essentially truces, are signed between Israel and its four neighbors Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. So, that’s an enormous war.
And what’s the impact of that war on the Palestinian people, would you say?
The main impact on the Palestinians, or the principal one that's connected to their present condition is this mass displacement.
Which they call the Nakba, right?
They do, although even that is rounding a few corners. The word Nakba is used initially to describe the Arab defeat in that war. The displacement of hundreds of thousands of Arabs from Palestine or from parts of Palestine to other parts of Palestine or to other countries in the Arab world is the sort of most salient and humiliating aspect of that defeat. But refashioning the term to describe just the displacement and refashioning the story of the displacement as one that's connected to defeat in war and turning it into some sort of deliberate plan of ethnic cleansing is something that happens decades later and reaches its peak really in sort of burst of Holocaust envy around the 50th anniversary in 1998.
Okay, before we go on though, I just wonder, just for the sake of our listeners, what percentage of Palestinian, the Palestinian population in what was then called Palestine is displaced by the end of the war?
Again, it depends what we're counting. What I suggest to do is to conceive of Mandatory Palestine as three different kinds of geographic zones, really along the partition lines. So, the partition lines create essentially… the partition creates a proposed Jewish state and a proposed Arab state. But those are effectively six different chunks of territory and an internationalized Jerusalem. So, there's a Jewish and an Arab zone in the north, a Jewish and an Arab zone in the center, and a Jewish and an Arab zone in the south. The outcome of the war is really different in each of those three areas. So, in the north, there's no Arab zone left. Israel conquers all the territory that's there.
Which is essentially what we call the Galilee today, right?
Yeah. And the extent of displacement there is actually the least of the three, if I'm not mistaken. In the south, something similar happens, but not entirely so. Israel conquers much of what was designated as the Arab zone in the south of the country. But a tiny strip is left around the city of Gaza, which we later learn to call the Gaza Strip. That Strip receives an enormous number of displaced persons, roughly 200,000. Today, the population is 2 million. In the center, something very interesting happens. So, the center of the country is the part that on all the historical maps is always labeled Palestine or Holy Land or Judea or any other historical term. It contains most of the sort of symbolic holy sites and other sites of significance for both sides of the conflict. And in the partition plan, the overwhelming portion of that territory goes to the Arab state, not the Jewish state. When the war is over, Israel has made significant territorial gains, particularly in the corridor leading up to Jerusalem from the west. But the basic disposition of that part of the country is still overwhelmingly on the Arab side. It's now part of the Kingdom of Jordan, and that's the territory that comes to be known as the West Bank.
The center of the country is still split overwhelmingly to the advantage of the Arabs, even at the end of the war in 1949. Now, if we're going to talk specifically about displacement, and the thing to remember is that both sides here experience a huge amount of displacement. Wherever there's combat, people flee. Sometimes they're fleeing combat, sometimes they're fleeing massacre. Sometimes they just don't want to live in a place where the other side is going to obviously be ruling. That was certainly a factor. For the Jewish population in Palestine, we're talking about roughly 25%. So about 150,000 Jews out of 600,000 in the pre- state population are displaced during the war. This isn't remembered as a huge collective trauma for the main reason that the Jews win the war. Most of the places Jews were displaced from are held by Israel at the end of the war, with a few exceptions. The most traumatizing, of course, is the Jewish quarter in the Old City, but there are others.
And also Gush Etzion, I would imagine.
Right. And then less there's Gush Etzion and even farther down the list in terms of their impact on collective memories. Places like Mas'ade, which falls to the Syrians, places like Kalya, which is evacuated before the Jordanians conquered and which is evacuated before the Egyptians conquered, etc.
And I'll just point out, by the way, that I think what you're saying is so important because we're seeing the same exact thing right now. There are Palestinians being displaced from the north of the Gaza Strip to the south, and we see these parades of people with white flags. And there's also tens of thousands of Israelis displaced from the ‘otef Aza’, from the Gaza envelope, and from all the settlements along the not settlements, but towns and villages in the north. Kiryat Shmona and around there. So again, it's a war 75 years later, but again, displaced Arabs, displaced Jews, all happening in the same time.
Yeah, and if I can just focus for a second on the center of the country and why it's so different from the north and the south.
At the end of the war, the places that are in Israel's hands have almost no Arab population left, which is completely different from what's happening in the north or in the south. And the only places that have any Arab population in central Israel today, with the exception of a few tiny spots, Fureidis, Jisr az-Zarqa, and Abu Ghosh are places that actually the IDF never conquered itself. They were places that were occupied by the Iraqi army and that were ceded to Israel in the Rhodes talks in 1949. So, this is like Wadi Ara, Kafr Qassem, Jaljulia, Tayibe, Tira. The reality of the combat in the center of Palestine, not in the north and the south, is an almost complete ethnic sorting. There are no Jews left in the Arab held territory. But that's not interesting because that's true also in the south. It would have been true in the north, but there was no Arab held territory in the north. But what's more interesting is that unlike in the north and the south, there are no Arabs left in Jewish held territory, or almost no Arabs left in Jewish territory.
Now, why is that? There are a couple things that are different about the combat there than any other places. One is the distances are really small. So, people who are fleeing have somewhere to go very easily, because, like I said, a huge part of the land is actually held in Arab hands, something that's not the case in the north or in the south. And secondly, that's a very different kind of combat and a very different kind of security pressure. And we see that in particular in the one notable case where Israeli forces do affect what is essentially a mass expulsion, which is in Lod and Ramle, which is two towns that are directly on the main road connecting Israel's, two biggest cities, that do surrender and that then there's a combination of poor intelligence, a combat that breaks out, and a very harsh Israeli response. So, something happens in the center of the country that's quite different in terms of the demography that happens in the north and the south, and that we, like I said, slightly lose track of, because in central Israel, you still do have a small Arab population, much smaller than you do in the north and the south. But that's largely because of the post conflict diplomacy in 1949 and less because of what happened on the ground. What happened on the ground is that both sides, communities flee occasionally extremely small distances to be behind the lines of their own side’s forces.
Okay, now let's just come back to thesis of the Mosaic article. So, this is the ‘48 war, and you're saying that the fundamental impact of the ‘48 war is displacement in terms of the Palestinian narrative…
Yeah, and then 19 years later, or 20 years later, because we were talking about the start date, which is ‘47, we have a completely different war that erupts in 1967 that doesn't even involve Palestinians as a major belligerent party. It's a war unlike the first one. It's not a civil war. It's not a war fought in mostly civilian areas. It's just a three-front war between four sovereign states. And it's very quick. It's over in six days with very little demographic movement. There are quite a few Palestinian refugees at the end of the war from the West Bank, but that's slightly separate to the rest of the war. The only real demographic change that happens during the war is little noted, and that's on the Golan Heights on the Israeli Syrian front. So, this is a completely different kind of war than the first one. It's an interstate war. It's very rapid, and it's fought by armies on distant fronts.
And what's its impact on the Palestinian narrative?
Its impact on the Palestinians is that now the West Bank and Gaza are under Israeli occupation, which means that for 19 years, this imagined hated enemy who's responsible for this defeat and displacement and humiliation is now still a hated enemy, but also the army that's running your daily life where you are actually living.
So, there's a massive change in the way the Palestinians see themselves and their relationship with Israel from post ’47- ‘48 to post ‘67?
Absolutely. And in a certain sense, and particularly for the first 20 years of the occupation, there's an almost complete erasure of the green line separating Israel from the territories. You can move in and out very easily. There's an integration on a very unequal basis of the economies. It's only after 1987- 1988, really only after 1991 is the truth well into the First Intifada that there starts being again a geographical separation between Israel and the territories.
I’ll just share a personal memory. When we lived here in Israel in the early 1970s, my dad was an epidemiologist. He drove me in and out of Gaza all the time, and we used to go to Gaza because he was doing research there. And it was just, as you say, there was no border. There was just part of Israel in a certain way. So, you're right that there was a complete blurring of boundaries until Oslo and the early 90s, when the lines came back. Okay, now what happens in 2000 as a result of this? What's the change in the Palestinian narrative?
So, in 2000, you have a third war that erupts, and this one happens in the aftermath of the failure of the Camp David Summit and the outbreak of the Second Intifada. So, the Second Intifada we don't even often call it a war, is quite different from both of those two previous wars that we discussed earlier. It combines aspects of a terrorist campaign in Israel and a suicide bombing campaign, aspects of an insurgency and a counterinsurgency. And it lasts, really, depending on how you count it, roughly four years. And the outcome of that war is that this Palestinian state in the making that had been around since 1993, that had gradually assumed a larger and larger territorial footprint, that had its own international airport, its own passports, its own armed forces and diplomatic delegations throughout the world, completely falls apart, is destroyed and is actually fragmented, territorially into two different, self-governing, partially self-governing units that are not even on speaking terms with each other.
By that you mean, of course, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Right. And that the state in the making that was created by the Oslo process is essentially fragmented and unable to function and unable to credibly claim to be or act as a foundation for a future state. Now, by looking at these three wars, we're leaving out a lot. And what I argue in my article is that that's okay for the central thesis, but I mean, briefly, it's important to maybe talk about what we're leaving out. We're leaving out some discrete events, and we're leaving out some macro trends. And my argument is that focusing on these three wars captures anything that's pivotal or interesting about those. We're leaving out some really important developments and other wars, most notably non-Arab Israeli wars like the Jordanian civil war and the Lebanese civil war, which are both hugely important for the Palestinian cause. But I think that what's important about them can be folded into the focus on these three. And we're leaving out a lot of other Arab Israeli wars that are important for their knockoff effects on the Palestinian cause but aren't directly here. So, these were the three wars that I think were absolutely fateful to how the Palestinians got to the place where they are right now or where they were two months ago.
And I started to ask myself, well, okay, these three wars are so different from each other. What's actually similar about them? What do they have in common? I accept as a postulate the thesis that they are the sort of pivotal events, but I wondered why these three pivotal events are so different. If there was anything I could pick out that actually ran sort of any red thread that ran through them that might explain their importance. And one aspect that is true of all three of these wars, which I don't know if it's pivotal in any way or just a coincidence, is the centrality of Jerusalem in all three of these wars. When Jerusalem isn't a central or salient issue in any of the other Arab Israeli wars. It's not a relevant issue in other Arab Israeli wars that are fought about the Suez Canal or the Sinai or the Golan or Beirut or whatever. They have other issues there. And these three uniquely involve Jerusalem. So, I don't know if that's important or not important, but I think there's an aspect of the fact that there's something very symbolic and existential about Jerusalem to both sides cause that could be there. So, it could be an exogenous cause, or more likely, it's an effect of a common cause.
There are two other things that I think were really important though about these three wars. And I'll talk about the big one first and then the small one. The big one is, I guess, the thing that's connected maybe to the Jerusalem thing, the existential aspect. But the really big one is the sheer ecstasy and violent righteousness in the rhetoric on the Arab side in the lead up to the war, which is quite different from the other Arab Israeli conflicts or even the Lebanese civil war, the Jordanian civil war. There was an ecstasy in the rhetoric leading up to the outbreak of violence in ‘47 and ‘67 and 2000, a feeling that this upcoming violent struggle was going to have a purifying effect.
Salvation was at hand. I mean, it's a religious kind of fervor.
Redemption is at hand.
And an enormous optimism about what violence could achieve. A real feeling that this could yield a desired outcome not just of damaging the hated Jews and their hated state, but of really improving their cause, getting some kind of revenge, honor, et cetera. And that after defeat becomes evident, all of that is erased, all that ecstasy, all that optimism is erased. And a new narrative comes about that refashions the war and the defeat as a moral victory around pure victimhood. Now, we can talk for hours about ‘48 and the Nakba, and I've written about the evolution of that word in a different article, so I'll skip that here. I think the more interesting example, just because everything is so small and so quick and so easy to digest, is what happens in ‘67, in the three weeks leading up to the war. There's a real jubilation in the Arab world…
And Israelis, by the way, just for our listeners, the Israelis call it the ‘hamtana’, the waiting period. It was a period of absolute dread of people digging thousands of graves in public parks and hospitals, being cleared out for soldiers that would need it. I mean, there was a real sense that black humor was the last person out of the airport at Lod, turn off the lights. So, that's what's going on the Israeli side. But you're talking, of course, about what's going on the Arab side.
Right. And of course, when the war is over, all that's gone, and the war is refashioned as an Israeli aggression. And now people who write about this and think about this tend to focus on the nondemocratic characteristics of these Arab societies. And I think that they sort of project onto them a sort of Soviet image of what a non-democratic society is, where state run media gives the dictators preferred version of events and people, out of fear or pluralistic ignorance, just kind of adopt it. And it's absolutely true that Egypt and Syria and Jordan and other Arab countries are very nondemocratic. But these are not totalitarian Soviet states where people are telling lies to themselves to get by. The feeling of victimhood is absolutely genuine. It's not coordinated.
It's not Pravda in other words.
No, not at all. It's a completely genuine feeling that characterizes both elites and the public. And the proof of that is, by the way, that it's exactly how the partisans of the Arab cause in Western democracies react too. I mean, if it was just a question of needing to get by in an authoritarian society, you wouldn't expect that to be the way people write and discuss it at Columbia University or Harvard or Stanford. And yet it is. And that's not only true for ‘67, where it's really in our face because, again, the timescale is so small, but it's of course true for ‘47 and 2000 as well. And how do I know it's true of 2000? Because I was alive for that stuff. I mean, one of the things that I've been writing about for, I guess, almost two decades now, at this point, certainly for the last ten years at least, is the complete absence of any kind of moral or political reckoning in Palestinian society and in the broader community of pro-Palestinian activists and intellectuals with the decision making of the summer and autumn of 2000. There is just no sense that you can even construct a sentence syntactically with the Palestinians as a subject and a verb, that there is a place to question what the decision making was. Now, when I say this, I'm not saying I'm upset that the majority of Palestinians don't agree with me that rejecting Barack's offer and Clinton's offers was wrong and that going to the Second Intifada was wrong both morally and instrumentally. That's not my critique. It's not that I'm upset that the majority don't see my view. What frustrates me is that there is no minority that says that there is not a dissident faction even, that says that.
Why is that? Explain that to us.
There is not even a bunch of small, embattled, supposed left wing intellectual types who are abroad writing angry open letters in the back of the New York Review of Books asking, saying how much they care about the Palestinians and wondering why they are making this mistake and rejecting a potential peace that is less than what they might have wanted. But not only at the time, even 20 years later, there is nobody to say that this was even a mistake. Again, not because we are talking about dictatorial societies. This is true in the enormous community of activists and intellectuals that are partisans of this cause who don't have to worry about being arrested.
Okay, so why not? Why is there no minority?
I think this goes to the heart of what the Palestinian cause is. We want to believe that the Palestinian cause is a cause of national liberation. And we know what causes of national liberation look like, and we know the dilemmas that they face, and we know how they usually deal with them. A national liberation movement, often at the moment of truth, has to give up on bits of territory it would really want, symbolic sites that it cares about, a version of history that means a lot to it. All sorts of, by the way, new states, depending on how they emerged in a global alliance system, often have huge limitations on their security and foreign policy, particularly if they were on the losing side of a global conflict. And they have to deal with publics who often have very big and unrealistic demands. In all cases, whether we're talking about Armenians or Greeks or Bulgarians or Algerians or Poles or Lithuanians or Tunisians or Israelis for that matter, or Irish, in all cases when push comes to shove, sometimes through a great deal of violence, sometimes through internal civil violence, they ultimately prefer liberation, even on unsatisfactory terms, rather than rejecting it outright. That is a normal disposition when your cause is about liberation, when your cause is the elimination of another people rather than the liberation of yourself, then any such compromise isn't worth it because you haven't actually achieved anything.
And the fundamental ethos of the Palestinian cause in its moderate and radical version, in its secular and its religious version, in its Marxist and hyper nationalist version, in all of its various manifestations the fundamental commitment, the fundamental intellectual and theological commitment of this cause is that the establishment of a sovereign Jewish presence in this region is a cosmic crime that must be undone. Must be prevented or undone. And that makes compromise impossible. And to understand that, by the way, we have to understand to understand this conflict, really, as an Arab Israeli conflict, much more than an Israeli Palestinian conflict, as an Israeli Palestinian conflict, it's… people always talk about how intractable it is. It's actually very easy to mean, if I give you a demographic map of this chunk of territory here, from the Gaza Strip to Israel to the West Bank, you can more or less draw a line to create two states. There'll be lots of interesting, innovative compromises on the way. There'll have to be a few creative solutions for some of the bigger issues, but it's pretty easy to do. It's not more complicated than other lines that have been drawn in other territories, that have been partitioned or split off by civil war or liberated after some kind of cosmopolitan imperial presence.
But you're saying there's no way.
The Palestinians have been the front line of a larger cosmic Arab rejection of the state of Israel. And that's what has made reaching some kind of compromise here so difficult. If there's any hope that it will be reached later, it's that the Arab world is gradually disengaging from this. And I think once the Palestinians are left to focus on their own national liberation project, they'll have a much easier time actually getting it going because the fundamentals are there. In many ways, they are far ahead of other peoples who have embarked on something similar. In fact, they're far ahead of most Arab nations that already have independence you know, maybe with the exception of Tunisia and Egypt. They have a fully formed national identity, a pretty clear territorial footprint, a flag, a common version of history. And if they ever desire a state, an actual state, one that lives next to Israel and is at peace with it, they'll probably have a much easier time getting it off the ground than many of their neighbors did and do even to this day.
So, now can you explain to us how all of this shines a light on the events of 2023, the war that we're in now? We've gone from displacement to occupation to fragmentation. You've talked about the Palestinians being kind of in a fundamental DNA way, almost opposed to the existence of any Jewish entity here in this part of the world. How does what we're going through now fit into this larger argument?
Well, perhaps I'll preface that by saying that I talked about how there were two things that I thought were in common there and we talked about one. And I think here maybe it's time to bring up the second, which is that each of those three wars was a distant front on a larger global conflict where the cause of an Arab Palestine both mobilized one side of that global conflict, and in many ways, much more dramatically, where the global actors mobilized themselves for how they wanted to see the Palestinian cause or the cause of an Arab Palestine, I should say. And in ‘47 it was one of the last battlegrounds of the big global battle between the fascist Nazi alliance on one hand and the very tenuous alliance that was about to break down between democracies and the Communist Soviet sphere. It wasn't even the last one, by the way. And even the displacement then wasn't the last one of pro- axis nations. For example, the Istrian exodus on the border between Italy and Yugoslavia where about 300,000 Italians were forcibly displaced from their homes really only happened in the early, the bulk of it only happened in the early 1950s, after 1948 and again wasn't unique for any pro- Axis nation. And in ‘67 it was really at the peak of the Cold War where the Arab cause was sort of fully adopted at that point by the Soviets.
Again, as in the previous one, the match is not perfect. In ‘67, for example, one of the three Arab belligerents is Jordan, which is absolutely not in the Soviet sphere. But the Soviets themselves understand this as sort of a front in their anti-imperialist alliance versus Western democracies and Israel ‘67 is not a US client state at all at that point. And in 2000 again in the global struggle between the west and Jihadist Islam that had basically been underway since the late 1970s and was about to reach its peak in 2001, the same thing happened again where the Palestinians on the one hand mobilize the side that they support in the global struggle, but then are also sort of fully adopted by it in a way that didn't actually suit their interests and wasn't even necessarily desired by them. So one thing that's happened in the last couple of years that I started to see in 2020, and especially in 2021, was that not only was there a complete absence in pro- Palestinian circles and in Palestinian intellectual life, itself of any reckoning with the mistakes of 2000, 2001, 2002, but there was this enormous optimism that actually, finally things were turning their way in terms of the struggle to end Israel as a Jewish state, that the Green Line didn't exist anymore, that there was a one state reality, that the whole world was seeing it. Every interview I saw with Palestine intellectuals like Tareq Baconi and others were always focused on how the Arab Israelis were part of the struggle, this was particularly the case in May of 2021, when there was a very short round of violence between Israel and Gaza once more, and there was intercommunal violence between Jews and Arabs. This was called by Palestinian activists, the Unity Intifada. Interestingly, this was just a few months before the first independent Arab Party joined an Israeli coalition.
Under the Bennett government. Right.
Yeah. And these were the months of the apartheid reports from the various global human rights organizations, which I think is in itself just an absolutely fascinating thing to have happened. You can argue that the legal juridical status of Israel and the territories changed at certain points very dramatically when the British leave and when the occupation begins, maybe even when the civil administration formally replaces the occupation, and when Oslo begins, or when there's the disengagement and then the Hamas takeover of Gaza. But nothing happened in 2021. I mean, nothing juridically has changed in Israel and the territories since 2007. There's been a very stable status quo, probably, by the way, from 2007 to 2023, that might be one of the longest periods in the history of this country in the last hundred years where nothing changes legally. And yet it's right in the middle of that period when somehow every single major human rights organization has decided that a threshold has been crossed and Israel can now be described as an apartheid state, which tells us a lot of things, actually. It tells us, first of all, that a lot of the anti-Israel activism is a kind of social activity, requires periodic reaffirmations of faith. It's, of course, a massive circular citation enterprise where everybody's reinforcing the prejudices and biases of everyone else's in the community. Obviously, there was also a bit of concern about normalization agreements between Israel and Arab States.
Saudi Arabia being the most recent, I assume.
For partisans of the Palestinian cause, though, what was absolutely important was that no amount of normalization and no end to the occupation even could possibly erase the sin of Israel. It was crucially important to conceive in terms of a sort of Western left, anti-colonial woke mindset, that Israel, and uniquely Israel, was conceived in sin and was essentially sinful. Not a state that does bad things that we're angry about…
But a state that is bad because it exists.
Exactly. And the amount of optimism that you started seeing in the years and in the months leading up to the current conflict among intellectuals both in the Palestinian territories and among the sort of activist community abroad at an elite level, and according to polling data at a popular level too, that Israel's end was near, that the Jewish state couldn't possibly be viable in the long term, and that liberation would not just be about establishing statehood in the occupied territories, but about finishing Israel off in one way or another, was astonishing to watch in the last three years. And I seeing it. And I thought, okay, not only am I not seeing any reckoning at all with forget ‘47 and ‘67, but with 2000, there's just zero sense anywhere that these decisions mattered. It's just something that… you know the West Bank barrier, the fence, is something that just fell upon the Palestinians because of Israeli malevolence, not because of what happened in the peace process, the suicide bombings, or the Second Intifada.
Okay, now I have to ask you two questions here that are really critical by way of beginning to sort of tie up our conversation here, which is fascinating to me. Here's the first question, Shany, given what you're describing about the absolute inability to take any kind of… to have a real assessment of what caused what, and any sense of Palestinian responsibility for what happened in 2000 and so forth, assuming that the current conflict, and it may or may not, but let's assume for a moment that the current conflict really does lead to the absolute destruction of Hamas. I'm dubious, but let's just say that it does. How, in your read, are they going to then say, how are they going to understand what happened here, now? Will this have been a mistake, or do you imagine that some sort of similar composition of a parallel narrative is going to emerge again?
Okay, so I just want to put a finer point on two things there that you said, because I don't think the story of 2000 is just poor Palestinian decision making, that on its own wouldn't be terribly special. There's been a lot of very poor Israeli decision making too. And there's plenty of examples of not just Israeli, of every country's leadership, there's plenty of examples of situations where better decision making in Israel could have yielded a better outcome at a lower price…. what happens in 2000 has to be conceived in and understood in the larger Arab- Israeli conflict and a formal reconciliation and an establishment of Palestinian state and the termination of claims would not just have been difficult for Arafat or for his constituency. It was something that was difficult to even conceive of in the basic syntax of how the Arab world understands Israel and its conflict with Israel and its conflict with the Jewish presence here. And that's why the problem of reckoning with that and of making a critical assessment of it isn't just unique to the Palestinians but is part of how the larger conflict is conceived.
Now, in terms of your question about what's happened right now, obviously we saw the same ecstasy, and we saw particularly a great deal of ecstasy on the day of October 7 as these horrific events were taking place. You're asking me a question that wants me to assume that the war ends roughly the way we're witnessing it now, which is a battle between Israel and various armed factions in Gaza. I don't know how this war will end and whether it will spread and whether it will expand into the West Bank or into Lebanon or elsewhere. And I can't predict that. As I've been sort of increasingly certain that a fourth war and catastrophe was on its way in the last three years, the one thing I kept saying was, it won't look like the previous three. People kept comparing it to the most recent ones, saying something that's going to look like the Second Intifada is about to erupt. But the Second Intifada was a brand new thing that nothing looked like it until then. And this will look quite unlike anything else. Even if it's just what we've seen now, even if this entire thing is just the last 46 or 47 days in Gaza and southern Israel, it's already an enormous catastrophe, at least at the level of the previous three, for the Palestinian cause and for the Palestinians, even if this is it, it's a catastrophe. But I don't have no way of knowing if this is really it…
It's a catastrophe because, once again, massive movements of civilians from the north to the south in displacement. It's a catastrophe because of the loss of Hamas. It's a catastrophe because of their place in the international world. Why is it a catastrophe?
It's, first of all, a catastrophe in purely human terms. This is a war with an enormous death toll and an enormous economic toll. And that's even before we're getting into the displacement and the destruction. And this is an order of magnitude more intense than any kind of violence that we've had since at least 2002. And in terms of the body count, you have to go back even decades to get to anything close to this. It's an enormous catastrophe even just these past 47 days, and I don't know where it ends. But what we've already seen here in terms of the ecstasy amnesia cycle is already evident now. I mean, one of the things that I found myself doing on Twitter a lot, and then I saw, for example, that Chaim Levinson, the Haaretz writer, wrote about how he did the same thing, and suddenly I realized I wasn't alone, and I saw other people were commenting the same, was that every time you saw somebody, either from a Palestinian source or from a pro-Palestinian source, somewhere out in the world writing something absolutely horrible about how they were victims of Israel, he would scroll back to look at what they were tweeting on October 7…
And usually they were jubilant.
And there's no connection in their minds between those two things.
Right. Let me ask you one last question. It's been said by everyone, by Bibi, by Galant, by Gantz, by commentators, I think even Biden, a lot of people said Israel is at war with Hamas. Israel is not at war with the Palestinian people. But everything that you've said for the past 40 something minutes or so seems to suggest that that's just not true, that this is actually a war between Israel and the Palestinian people. Is Israel at war with the Palestinian people or just with Hamas?
I think that, like I said, I don't know how this war develops…
Well, let's just take it for where we are right now.
The violence that's happening right now in southern Israel and in the Gaza Strip is a front in the Israeli Palestinian war. I don't think there's any… to me I think that's obvious. I don't know that I would sign onto the sentence Israel is at war with the Palestinian people, but this is an Israeli Palestinian war.
It's not an Israeli Hamas war only.
No, obviously not. I mean, Hamas is the major armed faction that we're fighting against now. We have a very clear objective of getting them out of any kind of political and military power that they've had in Gaza.
But if they're an idea, that idea doesn't go away.
It doesn't go away only by this. But radical ideas backed by armed force are something that have been fought against successfully in the past.
So, you're optimistic that we could perhaps at some point, round a bend and there be a different future for Israelis and Palestinians in this region?
Oh, I absolutely think there's a way for a better future. Like I said, I don't think the conflict between us is intractable. I don't think Israel is blameless in the descent into violence that's happened in the last couple of years either. I think there's plenty of room for an Israeli Palestinian settlement. But for that, you need to have two sides that actually want it, and we're torn. Not everybody in Israel is genuinely interested in arriving at some kind of peaceful settlement of this conflict, and almost nobody on the Palestinian side is.
Okay. So, now I want to focus on the latter part. I completely agree with you about the Israeli side. Obviously, I completely agree with you. But do you see a world in which the Palestinian narrative, in which Israel is bad, to use your word before, not because of what it does, but because it is, what brings about a change in that?
I think there's a couple of ways that a change could be brought about. One would be that if something changes within the Palestinian society, both at an elite and a popular level, I have no control over that happening or not happening, and no prescription for how to make it happen. But if it did, that would ease things considerably. The other thing, by the way, is for us to work from the periphery to reduce and eventually end the Arab Israeli conflict. As an aside, when those normalization agreements first started being signed in 2020 with Bahrain and the UAE. So, you encountered this critical voice in the Arab world, which was still a tiny minority, this sort of critical, moderate voice that was essentially saying something to the effect of we, the Arabs are tired of bearing the burden of the Palestinians pointless and losing war against Israel. And I'm paraphrasing, but that was basically the argument. And it wasn't a very big popular view, it was of a distinctly small minority. And something about that view really annoyed me because I think it's very ahistorical, I do not think it is the case that the Arabs have been forced to pay a price for the Palestinians' pointless struggle against Israel. If there's a more accurate and historical way of saying it, it would actually be that the Palestinians have been forced to pay a huge price for the Arabs enormous cosmic, pointless struggle against Israel, not the other way around.
So, these Gulf moderates who want to see their countries modernize and firmly enter the sort of US camp in the region, blaming the Palestinians for holding them back, on the one hand, it's nice to see that there's any critical voice in the Arab world about the conflict with Israel. I welcome that. But I think that there's something about that formulation that is radically ahistorical.
And radically, should we say, likely to stoke Palestinian fervor or likely to get them to come around and say that that's the camp to join ultimately?
Oh, I think it's a step in the right direction, but it's just a very tiny step.
Right. Which of course, just by way of wrapping up, explains to some people's mind why this happened. Now because of the Saudi normalization that was perhaps unfolding…
That’s true, by the way, of the various apartheid reports too. I mean, the background is that since 2020 there was a concern about where this cosmic struggle was going. Conceiving of the Israeli- Palestinian struggle as just a territorial struggle between two nations that claim a similar piece of territory, something that's really not unique, is absolutely depressing for the people who engage with this conflict, with theological fervor that they're fighting a global evil. And that really explains the past three, four years, this madness, both in the global pro-Palestinian movement and among elites in the conflict itself.
Right, and as I pointed out in the introduction you predicted in February, you wrote for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies that quote, “the next intifada is about to begin”. We didn't know necessarily that it would look like this, but you could not have been almost prophetic, any more prophetic than you were. So, let's remind our listeners that this is a conversation about what I thought was a really fascinating article by Shany Mor in Mosaic Magazine called “Ecstasy and Amnesia in the Gaza Strip”, and encourage all of you who found this conversation interesting to go online and find that article. We'll link to it, of course, on our website when we put out the post. And just Shany, I want to again, thank you for taking time. We're all crazy busy these days, and I know you are, too, writing and speaking everywhere. I want to just thank you for taking the time to teach us and to put all of this in such a fascinating, larger context. We all emerge from this with a much deeper understanding than we had before. And I'm really very grateful to you.
Thank you for having me.
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