On September 30, world leaders from 75 countries gathered in Israel to pay their respects to the late-esteemed statesman and Zionist Shimon Peres. Most notable among them was president of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas, who attended despite criticism at home. Israeli Prime Benjamin Netanyahu was similarly criticised by Israelis for inviting him. Several days later, thousands of Israeli and Palestinian women marched together across Israel to Jerusalem demanding a recommencement in peace talks. In mid-October, major religious leaders from Israel and Palestine convened at the invitation of Israeli president Reuven Rivlin, releasing an unprecedented statement decrying all violence—by Muslim or by Jew—against innocent persons as terrorism, and called for “a just peace, mutual respect for human life and for the status quo on the holy sites, and the eradication of religious hatred.”
However, all but a single Palestinian leader refused the publication of their names or photo-documentation of the event, underscoring the extreme social polarization that still dictates behavior even for the most influential Palestinians. That polarization continues to fuel and be fueled by seemingly perpetual violence, as the meeting of religious officials itself was postponed from its original date after a Palestinian gunman shot and killed an elderly Israeli woman and a special forces police officer in East Jerusalem. According to an AFP count, 235 Palestinians, 36 Israelis, and five foreigners have been killed in the past year’s violence alone.
Outside of the violence, the Israel-Palestine question has only continued to politicize. The joint-religious declaration was formed in large part as a response to UNESCO’s adoption of a resolution describing the Temple Mount complex—a holy site to both Jews and Muslims and a continual point of Israeli-Palestinian confrontation—with reference only to its Islamic name, and condemning Israeli involvement throughout Jerusalem’s holy places and the West Bank. Israel responded by freezing its ties with the organization on top of a forceful rejection of the resolution, with Israel’s education minister claiming it “denies history and encourages terrorism.”
Nonetheless, these are only the latest twists in the oft-called Gordian knot of diplomacy. What exactly holds these nations in such perpetual friction? Palestinians, increasingly hopeless and frustrated in dire conditions, have continued to mobilize in various manners against their perceived oppressors and exploiters, while Israelis continue to regard their neighbors’ defiant antagonism as the product solely of anti-Semitism, concluding that peace will only be achieved through thickset security and credible deterrents.
From a Palestinian perspective, its dismal state of affairs is the direct result of Israeli manipulation in pursuit of self-interest. According to 2014 data from the UN Statistics Division, Palestine’s per capita GDP is about one-fourteenth that of Israel, with a truly staggering 26.9% of its labor force unemployed—five times that of Israel. These abysmal conditions—intensified by a 9-year Israeli blockade of the Gaza strip (ruled illegal by a UN panel in 2011)—have sustained the yet unmatched sum of 6.5 million Palestinian refugees worldwide. Additionally, only an estimated 17% of the several tens of thousands of Gaza buildings damaged or destroyed in Israel’s 2014 Operation Protective Edge have been repaired or rebuilt; in human terms, the operation killed 748 Palestinian women and children alone, versus Israel’s integral death toll of 72. The result is a landscape baring constant, traumatizing reminders of Israel’s grip on the fate of Palestine.
This context inflames Palestinian indignation towards several other age-old Israeli initiatives. Israeli settlements’ continued pace of growth in the West Bank, often facilitated by the state through evictions and demolitions of Palestinian communities, has prompted denunciation even from Israel’s strongest ally—a sure indication of hypocrisy in the eyes of Palestine and its allies. Regular extrajudicial killings of Palestinians and excessive police force—especially in regards to Palestinian protests, where closed military zones are declared allowing violent suppression—have perpetuated the cycle of revenge killings, spurring only mourning and further resentment in both populations. Additionally, there is little incentive for either Israeli vigilantes or security forces to act more peacefully and with restraint. Over the past decade, for example, a Palestinian complaint of Israeli violence, land seizures, and other property offenses—each well documented as fairly regular occurrences—has had just a 1.9% chance of resulting in a conviction if processed by Israeli police in the West Bank.
In contrast, Israel, seeing no plausible political solution in the near future, believes their best option is to entrench and (as Netanyahu recently explained) achieve security before peace can be effectively pursued. In the eyes of many Israelis and foreign commentators, the widespread political and social influence of Hamas—which has repeatedly vowed never to recognize Israel’s statehood and has even recently threatened a return to open conflict—impedes any hope of agreement. Even Abbas’ institutionally dominant and supposedly more moderate party Fatah has forcefully suppressed dissent and even acquiescence towards their Israeli neighbors. An Israel-Palestine compromise will not come without some coercion.
Furthermore, the current “stabbing intifada,” the newest wave of anti-Israeli terrorism endorsed by Hamas, undeniably presents an immediate threat to Israeli security. Occupation of Palestinian territory is widely recognized as an imperative in order to prevent the development of a more seriously destabilizing movement, and settlements are encouraged as an effective security buffer between Israel and Palestine. Regardless of broad international condemnation, official state policy contends that the settlements are legal, being that Palestine is not only a direct threat warranting self-defense (and occupation) but—in lacking full recognition as a state—fails to qualify for the right of sovereignty at all.
Additionally, there is a strong religious and even historicist tone in justifications for settlement. Some radical Zionists believe that Jerusalem and much of the West Bank were taken from and belong to the Jewish nation, and that therefore Israel is just in allowing and even facilitating the settlement of that land by Jews. Netanyahu spoke for many when he equated opposition to Israeli settlements with “ethnic cleansing” in September.
Although opinion differs greatly, there is only one viable path to create the conditions suitable for productive negotiations. There will not be peace—nor significant moves towards it—until the prolific anti-Israel ideology circulated by dominant Palestinian political forces is systemically delegitimized. Ironically, the power to do so lies almost entirely with Israel. Given Palestine’s existence on the verge of societal collapse with an affluent and democratic Israel’s often vastly disproportionate security operations, increasing Israeli violation of both Palestine’s territorial sovereignty and Palestinians’ human rights through demolition and settlement, and Israel’s own politically backed vigilantism, Palestinians cannot be reasonably expected to resist extremist ideology scapegoating those who most visibly and directly create the grave conditions they are forced to accept in daily life.
Thus, the first step towards peace is for Israel to retract its settlements—or reach an agreement recognizing them as Palestinian communities of Israeli nationals—and to disincentivise the repeated violence and abuses of power by both its own citizens and its security forces, effectively adhering to its own domestic law as well as adapting its state policy to better align with the overwhelming consensus on international law. The second would entail a tentative social and humanitarian extension by the international community led by Israel into Palestine. Credibility of Israel’s commitment not just to peace but to the conditions that would plausibly create it is the key factor that will either facilitate or derail any thaw in Israeli-Palestinian relations. The image of Israel the oppressor will endure until it is unambiguously disproven, and until then, Palestinians will find no reason to question the dominant narrative of their more local oppressors—Hamas and even Fatah—and hence find no reason to cooperate.