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It’s Eid, the end of the holy month of Ramadan. After one month of fasting, Muslims are ready to celebrate. But this year, most Palestinian Arab Muslims are locked up inside, watching TV, and checking in on loved ones as conflict ramps up with Israel. And, after taking in all that, some are going out into the streets to protest. The battles taking place in Israel and Palestine right now may seem like the same fights about about who has the right to live where. But there’s an intensity to what’s going on at the moment, a desperation driven by a suspicion that the Israeli state is willing to do almost anything to clear Palestinian families out. To understand what led to this moment, I spoke with Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian American writer and political analyst based in D.C. who’s spent most of his adult life advocating for Palestinian rights, on Thursday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: From the outside, what has been happening in Israel this week might appear sudden. In just a couple of days, a dispute over land in Jerusalem seemed to snowball into a conflict that looks a lot like full-scale war. Now, civil unrest is on the rise, with reports that mobs of Israelis and Palestinians have been attacking businesses and people.
Sheikh Jarrah is a neighborhood in east Jerusalem. Palestinian families who’ve lived there for decades are facing forced removal pending an Israeli Supreme Court decision. Jewish settler groups say the land originally belonged to Jews before the creation of Israel in 1948. The Palestinians who call Sheikh Jarrah home say Israeli laws make fighting the settlers off nearly impossible. But they are doing it anyway, in court, and on social media.
Yosef Munayyer: Eviction is a legal process that tends to happen when people are unable to pay their rent and landlords make claims to move that process forward. That is a completely different situation than what we are talking about here: forced expulsion of people because of their identity. This amounts, essentially, to ethnic cleansing. And, you know, this is part of an ongoing process in the city of Jerusalem, where the Israelis have pursued a number of different steps to demographically reengineer the entire city so that the Jewish population grows and remains dominant over a Palestinian population that is under constant threat and harassment and a forced removal.
I think that situation is pretty unimaginable to a lot of people in the United States, that someone would just come into your space and commandeer it. Can you describe that a little bit?
You know, the United States was erected after a very similar process of removing people from their lands, pushing them ever farther over frontiers and claiming it was all justified by laws that they instituted, and some sort of divine providence or Manifest Destiny. This is the reality of settler colonialism. Palestinians are too often at the mercy of this process, where they have limited or no rights at all to challenge the massive force of a powerful state that wants to change the realities on the ground.
You’ve alluded to the fact that watching this play out has affected Palestinians all over because it feels so familiar. I’m wondering if you could explain that a little bit.
Look, the introduction of the Zionist movement into Palestine is relatively new. It’s a relatively modern process. One hundred years ago, the vast majority of this territory was populated by Palestinian Arabs. Over time, that changed through a very deliberate set of policies that were used to acquire land, deny people access to it, force people off their land, and deny them the ability to return to their homes and to move freely within the spaces where they lived. It started inside what is now today Israel, but then it extended into East Jerusalem, into the remainder of the West Bank and Gaza. And it continues to this day.
This ongoing tension evolved into rocket strikes this week because of what happened over the past week at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam. When protests over Sheikh Jarrah began at the mosque after Friday prayers, Israeli forces moved in, aggressively. Worshippers pushed back.
We saw Israeli forces firing stun grenades, tear gas, inside the mosque itself on one of the holiest nights of the year for Muslims. This is the kind of thing that has the potential to enrage not just Palestinians and people of conscience all over the world, but a billion and a half followers of a religion who live both inside of Palestine and out.
We have seen numerous situations where there has been Israeli bombardment of Gaza, and rocket fire from Gaza. Overwhelmingly, it results in massive Palestinian casualties, which are mostly civilian casualties at the hands of Israeli bombardment. But what is fundamentally different about this moment is the scale and scope of mobilization and the participation in it. It’s all over the land. I think that is an indicator of a new direction in the Israeli-Palestinian situation. For a very long time, there’s been this conversation around a vision of two states, where Israelis and Palestinians were supposed to resolve this issue by expressing their national aspirations in two separate states. But what we are seeing today is a binational reality, where Palestinians are rising up against a system of discrimination that can’t be divided geographically because it extends across the entire geography. I think this suggests a new path for Palestinian mobilization, and a new path for thinking about what the problem is and potential ways to resolve it.
I can’t tell if this new path makes you a little bit anxious about what’s about to happen, or hopeful because there’s been some kind of breakthrough.
I think both of those feelings are real and valid in this moment. There’s a tremendous amount of pain being inflicted on Palestinians now, so there’s a lot of sorrow, there’s a lot of despair, anger, sadness. People’s lives are being irreparably damaged. There’s no denying that reality. At the same time, I look at the mobilizations in the streets, the scale of the participation, and I see something new. I see a younger generation that is breaking away from the shackles of old frameworks that have limited their involvement and are genuinely agitating for something different, for something new. There’s hope to be had there.
To understand why this latest protest movement is different, you have to understand how previous generations of Palestinians have organized politically. Past groups of protesters were often more formally tied to political factions, like Fatah, the secular party in control of the West Bank committed to negotiations with Israel, or Hamas, the party committed to armed resistance against Israel. Now there’s a growing sense of Palestinian unity in recognizing the old institutions weren’t working.
The flags you’re seeing being raised all over are not factional flags, but Palestinian flags, including by Palestinian citizens in Israel and by folks in Jerusalem and the West Bank and elsewhere. There is a clear unison that is driving people within that framework. At the same time, it’s hard to tell if that is because that’s been adopted or if that’s because of a fundamental failure of leadership to provide any direction. We are seeing mobilization that’s being led from the bottom, not from the top. That can be a truly wonderful, inspiring, hopeful thing. It’s also something that can dissipate if it is not built upon. So I think that’s the open question that this leaves: Where does this go? How do we build on this? How does it lead to change?
I’m thinking of an analogue here in the U.S., which is Black Lives Matter. What I think is interesting is you saw a lot of people struggle with the idea that there’s no one leader here, that this is going to just keep going. I wondered if your family or people you knew in Israel or the occupied territories, if there was that anxiety happening of: “We used to protest in one way and now it looks a little bit different.”
I think there is widespread anxiety among Palestinians and a realization that an absence of leadership is a major problem. This is one of the unfortunate byproducts of the peace process that has been going on for the past 30 years. It’s led to a fragmentation among Palestinians, separating Palestinians politically from one another into ever-smaller factions. And, you know, one of the immediate precedents to this moment is the fact that Palestinian elections, which were scheduled to take place for the first time in 15 years in the West Bank and Gaza, were postponed or delayed and effectively canceled. Even that long-awaited opportunity to voice some displeasure, some new direction, was denied to Palestinians immediately before this moment by a leadership that doesn’t have any answers. I think that contributes a lot to what Palestinians are seeing and feeling right now.
This is taking place at a politically sensitive time for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu too, who’s clinging to power in a military operation. Do you think about the political expediency in Israel?
I think that’s something you can’t ignore. Netanyahu is right now in the political fight of his life and has been for a number of years. Israeli politics has now, you know, seen its fourth election in two years precisely because there are divided coalitions. Only Netanyahu has been able to cobble together governments and remain as prime minister. And when he has failed to do so, they’ve gone to another election. Most recently, he was handed the mandate to try to put together a government. He was unable to do so. And his political opponents—who, by the way, are also right-wingers—have an opportunity now to try to displace him. They’re on the clock. When that clock runs out, there’s a question of another election that comes down the pipe, buying Netanyahu a stay of execution for his political life.
It sounds like no matter what way that election goes, there’s no change for the Palestinian people.
If it changes, it only gets worse. The people who are going to be running the next Israeli government are going to be as far-right as Netanyahu, or more to the right. The number of seats in the Israeli parliament that are dominated by right-wing ideologues today is greater than it’s ever been. One of the reasons for this is that the primary question defining Israeli elections in recent cycles has been whether Netanyahu should stay or go. The greatest efforts to replace him have come from people who are also attacking him from the right. So Netanyahu might be replaced, but right-wing politics in Israel are increasingly moving in a religious nationalist direction, and that certainly will not change in the short term.
Can we talk a bit about how Palestinians want to see the United States get involved in what’s happening right now—if they want the United States to get involved at all?
We have to understand that the United States is constantly involved, deeply involved, as the main backer of Israel on the international stage, providing it consistent diplomatic cover and also, frankly, direct support for the Israeli military. Through billions of dollars of financing every year, Americans are paying for the bombs that are falling on Gaza right now. They are financing the military that is driving Palestinians out of their homes. Whether there is a peace process going on or an ambassador named to Israel or whatever else, we are a constant participant in the violence against Palestinians. We need to recognize that.
I don’t necessarily want the United States to get involved. I want them to get less involved in doing harm to Palestinians through their support of Israeli policies and their complicity in these violations. That’s the starting point. Let’s begin there. I’m glad to see a growing conversation around that taking place among lawmakers and elected officials. Recognizing our complicity is the first step that needs to happen before we can talk about what real effective engagement looks like.
There’s this clip of a State Department spokesman that made the rounds this week where he was asked to articulate the American position on what was happening in Israel. He talks about the Israeli right to defend themselves, and a reporter asks about Palestinians’ right to defend themselves. What was interesting to me is that it felt like one of the first times I’d seen that kind of uncomfortable moment for someone in the State Department, where they were really being pressed.
One of the reasons why it was so awkward and obviously uncomfortable is because the Biden administration is constantly talking about the importance of centering human rights in its foreign policy, the importance of a rules-based international order. At the same time, it can’t simply condemn the killing of children. It can’t say the word occupation when put on the spot. If they are going to pretend that these things matter, they actually have to matter across the board. There can’t be this ongoing Palestine exception. For the previous administration, these things not only didn’t matter, they had open contempt. We oppose that, but they were consistent. This administration is tying their tongue in knots because they’re inconsistent. I think that’s going to continue to be exposed until they understand that you can’t talk about human rights unless they extend to all humans, and Palestinians are among them. You can’t talk about international law unless you condemn all international law violations, including the ones perpetrated by Israelis. I don’t think that will be the last awkward moment you’ll see until there’s an adjustment in policy.
Do you expect the Biden administration will make any changes?
I don’t think the Biden administration is going to make any immediate change, but I think one of the things Palestinians in the streets have showed us is that transformational change starts at the bottom and grows from there. I am seeing in the United States a change in a conversation that is starting from the bottom and bubbling its way up through American government. I’m seeing more and more elected officials speaking out, including using the word apartheid for the first time. These are changes that take time and can be catalyzed in ways we don’t always expect. The first legislation that was put forward to sanction apartheid-era South Africa entered Congress in the early 1970s. It had a few co-sponsors. It took years to get a veto-proof majority on that. And even then, there were some Republicans willing to go down with the apartheid ship, all the way to the very bottom of the ocean.
These things take time, but they become more and more possible as people speak out, and the people who are speaking out today are creating the kind of political space necessary, the kind of political courage necessary to bring more and more people in. That change is possible tomorrow because of the actions people are taking today.