Authors: J.M.Jakus and Evin Demir*
Despite politicians’ efforts to mold the latest turmoil into something binary, leaning on oversimplified identity politics is grossly counterproductive to mitigating conflict. This misnomer becomes even more apparent when considering how heavily stratified this ecosystem is.
Although tensions began after the first wave of Aliyah– the immigration of Jews to the Holy Land – in the 1880s, for many, the conflict was officially born on the 15th of May of 1948. This day is known to Israel as the Day of Independence and as Nakba (or “great catastrophe”) to the Palestinian people. In the immediate aftermath of this date, the former recalls dashed euphoria as post-WWII-refuge was met by invasion by not one but five entities: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt. The same era within the Palestinian collective memory harbors painful recollections of displacement, dispossession, and dispute.
Every newborn blessed enough to grow up learns the words “Independence” or “Nakba.” However, before that vocabulary enters their lexicon in either Hebrew or Arabic, they are assigned one of four IDs and integrated into a complex caste system of citizenship brokered by another country altogether. That ID and citizenship assignment will directly affect the privileges, freedoms, opportunities, and legal protections (or lack thereof) one will experience from cradle to grave.
Omitting the dizzyingly multifaceted demographic situation drives polarized opinions further apart. Israel has about 9.2 million residents. Among them, 73% are Jewish, 18.1% are Muslim, 1.6% are Druze, and 4.9% are other minorities (such as the Circassians and Bahaí). Out of those Palestinians, a small percentage of Christians (about 1.9%) have over ten denominations. The remaining are Sunni and a small Ahmadiyya amount. Approximately 5.1 million people live in the Palestinian territories (3 million in the West Bank and 2.1 million in the Gaza Strip). There are three main groups: Sunni Muslims, Christians, and a small number of Samaritans, with estimations of 700,000+ settlers among them. It’s worth noting that there are virtually no Shias except for three villages in Medea. (This is significant because Hezbollah is Shia). Christian communities live in the Bethlehem area and elsewhere in the Northern West Bank. And lastly, the Samaritans in Nablus. Among the Palestinian people as a whole, about 50% are refugees or exiles (this includes 795,500 internally displaced people). Another 35% are living under military law either in the West Bank (20%) or Gaza (15%), and 3% are the Jerusalemites who are subject to a revocable residential status.
Likewise, “Palestinian,” “Palestinian Sunni Muslim,” “Israeli Arab,” and “Arab Israeli” are not one and the same. There is a fundamental division between the Bedouins of the South and the settled Palestinians of the North. They are culturally and linguistically different. Added to this mix are the Druze, who are ethnically Arab but have their own religion. “The interesting thing about Druze people is that wherever they are, they are loyal to the government,” a former diplomat in the region notes. It also means that the Israeli army conscripts Druze men (not women). Every Israeli citizen must complete mandatory military service (three years for men and 22 months for women). If an Israeli Jewish citizen refuses, prison may await them. Israel also conscripts residents from the Caucuses (the Circassians) despite their linguistic minority status and Sunni Muslim identity. Although the draft does not extend to Christians or (non-Circassian) Muslims, they can volunteer for the army or national service (Sherut Leumi).
All this to say, this tapestry of ethnic and religious identity stretching across the region is far from binary. It is precisely this multifaceted nature that makes the region so culturally rich and yet so vulnerable to religious and ethnic marginalization of the most extreme forms.
“Hafrada” directly translates to ‘unilateral separation’ or ‘unilateral disengagement.’ Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (1992-1995) pushed for the construction of a physical barrier between Israelis and Palestinians in the early 1990s. This mentality eventually paved the way for the election of Ehud Barak, who campaigned and won under the slogan, “Us here. Them there.” Barak cemented the Hafrada ID policies into place.
Today, Israel assigns three IDs at birth: blue, green, and Jerusalem ID. The blue ID offers the most permissive freedom of mobility. Blue ID holders are eligible for an Israeli passport (not a travel document) alongside their ID. It also means that, by law, Israel prohibits Blue ID holders from entering the Palestinian residential “Zone A.” The West Bank comprises three zones: A, B, and C. Palestinian people are usually only allowed to live in Zone A. Zone B is the roads, and Zone C comprises Israeli settlements. Essentially, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) always controls Zone C and Zone B. However, because Zone A is under the jurisdiction of the IDF, their authority stems from military law, not municipal systems that would otherwise govern a residential area. There have been cases where the IDF has converted civilian homes into military checkpoints, arrested civilians without a warrant, and allowed settlements to expand.
The Jerusalem ID is an anomaly. Although it’s a blue ID as well, no passport accompanies it. The Jerusalem ID is a standalone travel document. The Jerusalem ID represents East Jerusalem. Despite the relative freedom of mobility that comes with it (one can travel anywhere in Israel and Palestine except the Gaza Strip), anyone from East Jerusalem is stateless by default. So, if one lives in Jerusalem (or was born in Jerusalem), they can legally transcend the barriers to mobility the majority of Palestinians face. Nonetheless, because of this legal positioning (i.e., statelessness, lack of a passport), East Jerusalemites will still need a visa for every other country in the world–which is quite difficult without a passport. It’s also worth noting that Palestinians (with a Palestinian ID) who live abroad and have acquired foreign citizenship are legally considered foreigners everywhere but in Israel. The catch-22 is that bearing a Palestinian identity creates a legal precedent for different treatment, significantly impacting daily life.
While all Palestinian IDs are green, not blue, the West Bank ID and Gaza ID come with different obligations. Regarding privileges, the West Bank ID is more advantageous than the Gaza ID. The West Bank ID allows one to move freely throughout the West Bank. Likewise, if one wants to go to a settlement, to Jerusalem, or the rest of Israel, one will need to apply for permits from the Israeli army. The permit system is a constant dimension of life. “Usually, people only get either working or visiting or medical permits. The rest? Denied,” says the diplomat. These permits are issued through a system known as “Tasreeh.” Further, because any form of movement invariably means one must pass through Israeli territory (i.e., the roads), residents of the Gaza Strip wishing to enter the West Bank must obtain two separate permits: one to enter and one to leave. Palestinian individuals wishing to go to Israel must apply for yet another permit, but these are rarely granted unless for medical reasons. Even then, it may not happen. Due to Hafrada (separation) policies, the Palestinian people experience varying degrees of mobility. Among them, only 12% are citizens of Israel (blue ID) who have citizenship but not nationality–which is reserved for Jews only.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s influence on the Israeli politique pushed policies ever further to the right. In this climate, the Israeli parliament passed a controversial law in 2018 known as the “nation-state law.” This law impacted three significant aspects of daily life. First, it stated that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel was “unique to the Jewish people.” Second, it formally established Hebrew as the official language while downgrading Arabic to a “special status.” Third, it established “Jewish settlement as a national value” while mandating that the state would “labor to encourage and promote establishment and development.” All of which tipped the legislative balance further in favor of Jewish Israelis and away from Palestinians.
It’s worth noting that Israel did not annex the West Bank. Israel annexed East Jerusalem, but neither the Gaza Strip nor the West Bank. And so, who accounts for Palestinians living here? The country of Jordan.
Overlaid atop this Israeli-administered ID stratification, there are three castes of Jordanian citizens. First is the person who lives in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and has a Jordanian ID and a Jordanian passport. Second is the Jordanian citizen who lives in the West Bank and holds a passport. Recall that until 1967, the West Bank was part of Jordan or Trans-Jordan. It’s called Trans-Jordan because the River Jordan runs through the middle. In other words, Trans-Jordan (i.e., the West Bank) is the riverbank west of the Jordan River. That’s why it’s called the “West Bank.” And so, this is a full Jordanian citizen who is not living in Jordan territory because they reside in an extra-Jordanian territory. The third class of Jordanian citizens is essentially, ‘not a citizen.’ This represents the Palestinians who do not hold a Jordanian ID but have a Jordanian passport to travel. “An increasing problem over the last decade has been that Jordan has been getting fed up with the hassle,” the diplomat points out. “But if they take away citizenship from, let’s say, an old man. It also means that all of his children and children’s children are stripped of citizenship. So, if one person loses a travel document, it means that his 100 relatives and descendants also lose it.”
To give another example, this also implies that a person with a Jerusalem ID but actively applying for Israeli citizenship will forfeit their Jordanian travel document or passport. At this point, they will not only be banned from obtaining another Jordanian document, but they will also be prohibited from entering the country of Jordan ever again. Documentation technicalities can be unimaginably difficult to navigate for families with members who live scattered throughout the region.
“In the past, many people from the West Bank married Israeli Citizens or Jerusalem ID holders for their IDs, but now it’s becoming much harder, ” the diplomat explains. “I know of an incident where the woman was Jordanian from Jordan, and her partner was a Palestinian ID holder in the West Bank. They managed to get married, but they didn’t see each other for six years. They had to fight for six years for the woman to be able to enter the West Bank. Not to enter Israel but to enterthe West Bank. There have been an increasing number of cases where the Israeli authorities say, ‘You can marry, but we don’t care. Your partner is not getting an ID.’” This fragile citizenship status also lends itself to a heavier social narrowing in everything from education to job opportunities to dating. In an uninhibited context, two people might ask each other, “Do you have a degree?” or “What do you do?” to see if there’s any alignment. Here, “What ID do you hold?” is an acute social filter that favors anyone who happens to have a blue ID and punishes anyone with a green one.
The last two decades have spurned incredibly impactful forces such as (but not limited to) the rising influence of the religious right and ultranationalist wing (they are two separate movements) in Israel, as well as the elevation of Hamas to a governing body from the early 2000s to the present.
In the 1996 elections, Netanyahu beat Shimon Peres. Once the youngest-ever Prime Minister and first-ever PM born in Israel, Netanyahu is also the longest-tenured PM in Israeli history, having served over 16 years in office (1996-1999, 2009-2021, and December 2022-present). Nearly in tandem, at the turn of the millennium, Hamas (an entity emerging after the first intifada in 1987) gained greater notoriety. Serendipitously, also in the early 2000s, some politicians in the U.S. Congress noted, “Hamas was encouraged and started (directly and indirectly) by Israel to push back against the legacy of Yasser Arafat. Israel encouraged free elections.” After the second intifada but before the onset of elections, who would run the Gaza Strip was a toss-up between the Palestinian Authority (PA), Palestinian Liberation Organization (then-PLO), Hamas, and other competing groups. Israel and its Western allies felt backing one entity was thought to be more manageable than the unpredictability of political pluralism. The Nobel Laureate, Yasser Arafat, championed the Fatah, a movement dominating the Palestinian politique since the 1950s– and still does in the West Bank today. In Gaza, however, backed by quiet Western support and popular vote, Hamas won the election. However, their victory spurred near-immediate sanctions by Israel, the United States, and the European Union. Elections in Gaza ceased in 2007 while Hamas was in power. And so, Hamas stayed.
As with the terms “Independence” or “Nakba,” one’s perception of Hamas is also greatly influenced by what side of the border one falls on. As one anonymous interviewee frames it, “One man’s terrorist is another’s resistance force.” One can point to the name itself as a prime example. The title “Hamas” is an acronym (HMS): Harakat al-Muqawamah al-Islamiyyah. However, not wanting to obscure their branding with a city in Syria (Hama), they identified themselves as “HMS.” And, because it is a Western norm to blend consonants with vowels, the “al” (which is simply “the” in Arabic) transformed the acronym (HMS) into a name (Hamas). Consistent with other features of the Arabic language, words mean more than their meaning. While the direct translation is widely considered “The Islamic Resistance Movement,” the linguistic connotation evokes “enthusiasm, war passion, hunting, release, redemption, openness, and warrior.” For contextualization purposes, one can envision the ethos of Hamas embodied by the Roman God Mars (or Jupiter of the ancient Greeks).
In contrast, the essence of Fatah might call forward connotations of Apollo. The name Fatah linguistically evokes “opening” and “triumph.” Overtones of secularity, Syrian thinkers, social justice, and liberation have captured Fatah’s outlook from Arafat to the present day. While Fatah maintained its legacy popularity in the West Bank, it also played a significant role in the political ecosystem in Gaza alongside other entities until the early 2000s. At this point, Hamas emerged as a countermovement to Fatah, viewing them as far too secular and more concerned with words than actions.
Although elected by popular vote, some surmise that Israeli and US financial support of Hamas as a political party in 2006 stems from a desire for disunity among the Palestinian people. Likewise, the more hot-headed nature of Hamas (relative to Fatah) would yield greater opportunities for Israel to perennially excuse their violence as a response. With that said, Fatah, too, has a track record of facilitating bombings and attacks on civilians. (Note the Fatah-offshoot militant group, Black September, and their role in the Munich Massacre of the 1972 Summer Olympic Games). With elections stymied in 2007, Hamas stayed by default. The absence of elections meant that all viable political outlets– either for Hamas to steer toward diplomacy or for another political party to bolster pluralism— suffocated. Nonetheless, Hamas is Gaza’s government and has been fixedly in place for almost as long as Netanyahu’s prominence (his political career is a decade elder). Yet despite their dovetailed histories, mutually exclusive memories mark every aggression since. This includes (but is not limited to) the Gaza War of 2014, subsequent aggressions in 2017 and 2022 as well as everything ongoing.
In December 2022, Netanyahu was re-inaugurated for the 6th time while hundreds of protestors demonstrated outside. The coalition they protested against consists of a spectrum of religious and nationalist parties, ranging from center-right to far-right (with neither particular wanting gentiles of the country).
Within six months, the administration initiated a massive judicial overhaul, which many feared would wipe out checks and balances within the judicial branch, re-igniting mass protests (at its peak amounting to 10% of the population) throughout Israel–that has yet to subside. Restructuring the judicial dimension impacts the speed and scope to which the Prime Minister can act. Israel’s high court is the highest authority, standing above the parliament. Netanyahu’s changes essentially mean that traditional checks and balances cannot overrule laws passed by the parliamentary assembly. It’s a blank check for parliament and, by extension, the Prime Minister at the helm of it.
In September 2023, Israel faced a constitutional crisis so severe that, for the first time in its history, it summoned all 15 of its Supreme Court Justices to Jerusalem alongside Parliament to hear the case together. The purpose of the hearing was for the court to discuss curbing their own judicial powers, notably addressing an appeal against a judicial amendment passed by Netanyahu’s national-religious coalition (July 2023), which sparked uproar for what critics say is an attempt to weaken the court.
Skeptics of the amendment worried that it would undermine the essential roles of gatekeepers responsible for holding the government accountable. They feared that key civil servants, such as the attorney-general or ministry legal advisers, might be substituted with” yes-men” to the government’s proposals. The government denied that an appeal was necessary. Protests against judicial restructuring have lasted from January to the present.
Few would argue that the clash between Israel and Palestine is not simply symbiotic but also embryonic. However, domestic developments over the last two decades created an unfathomably pressurized space—that has since burst.
In the run-up to October 2023, three key elements stand out in the Israeli political sphere: (1) the paradigm-turned-policies of “good fences make good neighbors” and legalized separation laws, (2) executive stagnation in favor of the far-right and ultranationalist groups, (3) the executive branch tried to absorb the judicial branch. Within the Palestinian sphere, we see (1) the promise of elections in Gaza retracted, (2) increased pressure on the Jordanian state to absorb Palestinian peoples, and (3) strict enforcement of the Hafrada separation policies without an opening of the Tasreeh permit system.
Recent events are not only a drastic departure from the first intifada (1987) or second intifada (2000-2005)–the scope and scale of the violence is unprecedented in the history of either Israel or Palestine. Part of what sets this apart is the incomparably high percentage of civilian casualties relative to past aggressions, the digital era, and the scope of damage. Regarding October 7th, one middle-class Israeli Jewish woman stated, “Hamas committed a second holocaust against the Jews. They are as horrible as ISIS.” However, as the pendulum of catastrophe swings from one side to the other, civilian death tolls climb to heart-wrenching heights.
“What we are witnessing isn’t part of the cycle,” explains an expatriated Palestinian poet of Gaza whose family hails from Al-Majdal (renamed Ashkelon in 1953). “In the beginning, even I was reluctant to use the word genocide. But now it’s literally that. Only an hour ago, the Ministry of Health announced that 903 families had been wiped from the Gaza Civil Registry. We’re talking about 23 days.”
At the time of our conversation with the poet (Day 23), the number of people whom Israel had killed stood at 8,350 relative to the 1,200 Israelis killed on the day of the Al-Aqsa Flood due to Hamas and Israeli friendly fire. Now, over 60 days into Operation Iron Sword, those numbers have been left in the dust (estimates in the range of 20,000+ civilian causalities, 8,000+ children, and over a million displaced). Yet headlines continue to bleed despite global calls for a ceasefire amid fears of ethnic cleansing.
The global gaze turns toward humanitarian crises only when it is so unbearable one can’t look away. However, ignoring decades of pressurized bureaucracy only accentuates embedded asymmetries. While the information above may seem foundational to the point of irrelevance, it speaks volumes to the context. Netanyahu’s policies, as they’ve impacted the last 20 years, particularly, serve as the scaffolding for the events unfolding before the world’s eyes—and those yet to surface.
Fast-forwarding closer to the present, one should also note that the U.N. bears a portion of the blame not only for the intelligence breach that happened beneath its nose (quite literally via a 300+ tunnel network) but also for its unimpressively passive role in decrying the 20,000+ civilian deaths in less than two months since. Although the discussion above is grounded in the domestic sphere, every facet of the quandary is international by default– from the presence of the U.N. to the intervention of proxy actors. Domestic politics are centrifugal to international security and vice versa.
In the next article of this series, we’ll be discussing the domestic and regional security obstacles by highlighting the understated secondary front of Operation Al Aqsa Flood. What security insights does the Blue Line – a U.N.-secured border between Israel, Lebanon, and the Golan Heights– yield?
*Evin Demir. Through an analytical and consulting lens, Evin Demir specializes in security studies, extremism, and religious politics, particularly in the Middle East. Originally from Berlin, Germany, Evin received her Bachelor’s degree in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2019) prior to obtaining her MA in International Relations: Europe, Turkey, Europe, and the Middle East from Bogazici University in Istanbul, Turkey (2020). After completing her Master’s Thesis on the effects of religiosity on the political sphere in multi-ethnic countries, she enrolled as a Ph.D. student at Yeditepe University with a focus on Israeli foreign policy. Evin also leverages nine languages: German, English, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Kurdish, Latin, and Ancient Greek. E-Mail: evin.demir[at]std.yeditepe.edu.tr.