In the case of the current situation in Gaza, the objective is not to carefully assess Hamas’s “grievances.” The group’s behavior is not particularly mysterious. Hamas leaders see anger against Israel building among ordinary Palestinians, and they see an opportunity to weaponize it. They send rockets across the border and invite destruction because they wish to project relevance and rally domestic support after years of diminished popularity. Hamas is not a bunch of crazed lunatics. Selfish, self-serving, and cavalier toward Palestinian life, its leaders are acting according to a traditional rational-actor model. Whether or not we like it, they believe they will benefit from the crisis—and they may, in reality, find themselves in a stronger position when this is over.
This is one step in the analysis, but it still doesn’t tell us much about why Palestinian anger had been rising in the first place. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party tends to emphasize the original “source” of the current violence. This source isn’t exactly a secret either. As The New York Times reported: “The trouble started on Monday, when a heavy-handed police raid at Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque—the third-holiest site in Islam, located atop a site also revered by Jews—set off an instant backlash.” Yet while the police raid was actually unfolding—during the final days of Ramadan and at such a sensitive site—I found only minimal coverage in mainstream outlets. I relied instead on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts that were covering the raid and its aftermath in real time, although many were censored for “sensitive content.” The tragedy, upon other tragedies, is that the world seems to pay attention to Palestinians only when they use violence. Nonviolent activism goes largely ignored.
Tensions had, in fact, been building for months, with the threatened eviction of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Smaller protests in the area, taking place at a steady clip for some time, grew larger. But even these details don’t capture the broader context. What is so important about Sheikh Jarrah, and why are Palestinian families being faced with eviction in the first place? As NBC News reported: “The expansion of Jewish settlements in Sheikh Jarrah, which is on land that helps form the final link in a settlement circle surrounding east Jerusalem—an area that Palestinians hope will be the capital of a future state.”
Micah Goodman: Eight steps to shrink the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
That aspiration matters, but seemingly not much to those who see Israel’s right to self-defense as the only truly salient issue. They don’t see the occupation itself—and what has flowed from it—as the original sin. And because they don’t recognize the centrality of the occupation, they don’t acknowledge what is so obvious to the other side: the basic fact of a lopsided power dynamic, in which Israel is the aggressor and Palestinians are the aggressed. This imbalance ought to matter—and not just for moral reasons. American policy makers, regardless of whether they see Palestinians as fully deserving of rights and dignity, should understand that wildly unequal power and capabilities make peace all but impossible. Absent international pressure, the more powerful actor has few incentives to offer substantive compromises and concessions to the weaker party.
The Biden administration is acting as if the past several years (or decades) have not happened. It is repeating the same mistakes as its predecessors, while hoping that a cease-fire can bring an end to hostilities and a return to calm. But until fundamental injustices—and Palestinian national aspirations—are addressed by ending an occupation that has lasted longer than my own existence, the calm will prove uneasy. Maybe that’s good enough for Biden. But it shouldn’t be.