EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was produced in collaboration with +972 Magazine and Local Call, two outlets run by Palestinian and Israeli journalists as part of a shared media ecosystem. It is one of a pair of pieces exploring what the erasure of the Green Line separating Israel from the occupied Palestinian territories means for the future of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. You can read its complement, “The Line Separating Israel From Palestine Has Been Erased—What Comes Next?” at this link.
HAIFA, PALESTINE-ISRAEL—My understanding of 1967—the year Israel began its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip—was completely upended by my maternal grandfather. Born during the British Mandate for Palestine, he was 19 years old when our town, Tira, was subsumed by the newly forged Jewish state in the aftermath of the Nakba of 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled by Zionist forces and barred from returning to their homes. Although granted Israeli citizenship, he and 150,000 other Palestinians, who became labeled Arab Israelis, were subjected to a military government that restricted their movement, expropriated their property, and suppressed their political activities. For nearly two decades, until 1966, my grandfather was trapped in a cage built in his own homeland.
In June 1967, after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, the military regime that ruled over my grandfather with an iron fist was replicated and expanded to the newly occupied territories. This terrible turn of history, however, also brought a strange blessing for my grandfather. For the first time in years, he could travel freely not just to the Palestinian communities inside Israel but also to those in the West Bank and Gaza, which had previously been cut off by the 1949 armistice boundary, known as the Green Line. I remember him reminiscing about his first visit in years to Tulkarem, a city in the northern West Bank, where he found his former British school still standing. As a historian and teacher, he would later guide students and groups throughout the territories, recounting the land’s history and building educational ties with fellow Palestinians.
The Six-Day War, or Naksa (“setback”), was a cataclysmic event for the Palestinian people; yet, paradoxically, it also may have been one of their most vital lifelines. In attaining a “Greater Israel” in 1967, the Zionist movement had effectively restored Palestine to its territorial unity. While this conquest was done in the name of Jewish supremacy, it inadvertently opened new spaces and opportunities for Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line to cultivate their national identity, rebuild their social fabric, and resist their common oppressor. These bonds ebbed and flowed over the years but ultimately accumulated in strength in profound ways, even in the face of Israeli attempts to fragment Palestinians through a multitiered system of laws, policies, and statuses.
The result of this phenomenon was witnessed on a grand scale during the Palestinian uprising of May 2021, widely described as the Unity Intifada. The Israeli repression during those weeks—from fighter jets over the skies of Rafah to vigilante mobs on the streets of Jaffa—was brutal and horrifying, but the grassroots resistance it stoked was infectious and inspiring. The unity of the mobilization and the geographic scope of the violence shattered the misguided notion held by many abroad that the conflict was somehow centered on the Green Line. That illusion had already been dissolved for Palestinians long ago, but even the most ardent activists could not help but be startled at what transpired during those weeks—and what it might portend.
In the two decades following the Nakba, the land that made up historical Palestine was parceled out among the nascent Israeli state, Jordan, and Egypt. Whether destitute in refugee camps or with second-class status under foreign rule, Palestinians found themselves severed from one another by artificial borders drawn up by kings and colonizers. Although various nationalist activities persisted, the traumas and losses wrought by this dispossession had left much of the population weakened and demoralized.
Within days in the summer of 1967, however, Palestinians who remained between the river and the sea suddenly found themselves absorbed into a single regime. The Green Line, once a no-man’s-land guarded by snipers, became a porous zone loosely monitored by Israeli soldiers and easily crossed by all. Army barracks, roads, and other Israeli infrastructure became permanent features of the occupied landscape; Israeli settlements sponsored by the government stretched far past the armistice lines, swallowing Palestinian land and resources. Elated by their triumph, Israeli politicians and religious leaders made fiery pledges to never relinquish their spoils—least of all the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City. This “one-state reality” took decades to consolidate, but it was born the moment Israeli soldiers set foot on the Gaza coast and in the Jordan Valley 55 years ago.
The irony of this seismic transformation is that, in its hubris and lust for land, Israel reunified nearly half of the Palestinian people. This was hardly its intent; the army had expelled over 300,000 Palestinians during the ‘67 war, and in the ensuing weeks and years, Israeli officials tried various means of deporting more, particularly from East Jerusalem. Yet when total population transfer became impossible because of international scrutiny, the entrapment of the population became Israel’s modus operandi—and Palestinians took advantage of it.
Using their Israeli IDs and license plates, Palestinian citizens of the state, including my grandfather, were able to travel to the territories and reconnect with their brethren for the first time since the Nakba. They visited family members who had been locked away by the armistice lines, and they crossed every day for groceries, school, commerce, political organizing, and more. Thousands of laborers from the territories—with or without permits—worked and lived inside Israel, while people from both sides of the line married and started families. Even with the asymmetry between citizens and stateless residents, Gazan cities like Khan Yunis and West Bank centers like Jenin were no longer distant memories for those living in Nazareth or Lydd; they felt like neighboring localities, just as they had before 1948.
These renewed social ties—which developed at the same time that Palestinians in exile, led by the PLO, revived their liberation movement through armed struggle, community engagement, and global advocacy—played a major role in regenerating Palestinian national identity in the shadow of the defeat of 1967. And unlike previous political activities, which had largely been sporadic and confined within state borders, the new currents of resistance became increasingly transnational and collective in nature.
On March 30, 1976, Palestinian citizens of Israel organized a general strike and mass demonstrations against the government’s plans to expropriate vast swaths of land in the Galilee; Palestinians in the occupied territories and in exile also joined in what would become Land Day—marked every year since. In December 1987, Palestinians in the territories led the iconic First Intifada, popularized worldwide by the images of youths throwing stones at Israeli tanks; Palestinian citizens, too, supported and took part in these demonstrations. When, in September 2000, Ariel Sharon entered the Aqsa Mosque compound accompanied by hundreds of Israeli police officers in a blatant provocation against peace negotiations, Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line marched in their thousands against Israel’s policies, before state repression and suicide bombings consumed the uprising.
This harmonization across the Green Line also manifested itself through other means. In the 1990s, a burgeoning civil society, ranging from labor unions to legal centers, bolstered the Palestinians’ collective calls for their national and civil rights under international law. New communications technologies, namely the Internet and social media, allowed Palestinians to exchange news and ideas in the virtual realm unhindered by their separate geographies. Grassroots initiatives such as the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, and more recently the Tal’at feminist movement, have set new models for political organizing in defiance of fragmentation. Today, despite their physical dispersal, the Palestinian people have never been more connected.
For years, this common pulse across the Green Line was largely omitted from the world’s understanding of Palestinian national consciousness. A key reason for this is that much of the Palestinians’ political narrative was drastically rewritten to fit the spirit of the so-called “peace process” and the pursuit of a two-state solution—a phase that was instigated in the late 1980s and culminated in the 1993 Oslo Accords, which remain in place today.
According to the Oslo paradigm, although the Palestinians may constitute a single national group, they are not bound by a common political fate. Rather, a national state would be built for those living in the occupied territories, excluding major settlement blocs and remaining subject to Israel’s security and economic preferences. Meanwhile, those inside Israel would have to resign themselves to minority citizenship within a “Jewish and democratic state,” entailing some form of second-class status; refugees would either be repatriated to the future Palestinian state or naturalized in their host Arab countries. For the international community, this arrangement might have seemed liked a fair resolution to the long-standing conflict; in practice, it was a legitimation of most of Zionism’s colonial conquests and an attempt to make Palestine’s dismemberment final.
Although Israeli policies spearheaded this fragmentation, acquiescence by Palestinian leaders played a critical role in internalizing the divisions. In 1988, the PLO, pushed by its chairman, Yasir Arafat, decided to recognize Israel and accept the pre-1967 borders as the blueprint for a Palestinian state. This move, which has deeply divided the national movement ever since, shrank the Palestinian struggle from the liberation of all the land to a statehood project confined to less than a quarter of their historical territory. At the same time, while Arab political parties and civil society in Israel grew more assertive about Palestinian identity in the Oslo era, they continued to make their Israeli citizenship the centerpiece of their struggle, promoting the language of “equality” and “minority rights” within a two-state arrangement. Refugees, meanwhile, were effectively shut out of the Oslo framework, relegated to an intractable question that would be dealt with at some (infinitely receding) later stage.
This fragmentation was particularly evident in the narratives around the early phase of the Second Intifada. Although Palestinians in Israel took to the streets in tandem with those in the occupied territories in late 2000, historical accounts tend to dissociate them from each other; that is, instead of viewing the popular protests on both sides of the Green Line as part of a common resistance, Palestinian leaders and intellectuals in Israel often framed them as parallel but distinct phenomena. When police snipers killed 13 Palestinians during demonstrations inside Israel—12 citizens and one Gaza resident—the murders were deemed especially shocking because they targeted citizens as if they were no different from occupied subjects. Though some justified this framing as a strategic move, it ultimately distanced Palestinian citizens from the wider national movement, confining their demands for justice to the Israeli state rather than promoting a holistic interpretation of the protests as a single uprising between the river and the sea.
It is this legacy of fragmentation, which remains alive in many sectors of Palestinian society, that made the events of May 2021 so striking and powerful. Led largely by youths born during or after the Oslo era and facilitated by social media and other technologies that did not exist two decades ago, the Unity Intifada was in many ways a historical corrective by the Palestinian community to the mistakes of their leaders, a reckoning with the flawed political ideas that had weakened and splintered their national movement. It was not the first time in the past decade that protests had broken the Green Line’s psychological barrier—the 2013 Prawer Plan in the Naqab, the 2014 Gaza War, and the 2018 Great March of Return also saw joint actions—but the scale of those efforts don’t compare to that of last year’s uprising.
What began that month as a confluence of two struggles in Jerusalem—over police violence and restrictions at the Damascus Gate and the Aqsa complex during Ramadan, and over the attempted expulsion of Palestinian families in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah—rapidly diffused into demonstrations throughout Palestinian communities, from Haifa and Umm al-Fahem inside Israel to the borders of Lebanon and Jordan. The uprising was met with Israeli military assaults, police brutality, and vigilante mobs, enveloping Palestinian towns and neighborhoods with terrifying effect. Israeli violence became synchronized between the river and the sea to put Palestinians back into their cages; but the Palestinian resistance showed that it, too, was in sync.
Armed attacks by militant groups and acts of violence by some Palestinian mobs in Israel were also part of this mass revolt. Hamas, which for years had focused its military arsenal on alleviating the Israeli-Egyptian blockade on Gaza since the Islamist party’s takeover of the strip in 2007, surprised many when it fired thousands of rockets as a response to Israeli aggressions in Jerusalem. While some Palestinians viewed this as a co-optation of the grassroots protests, others saw it as a legitimate challenge to the Israeli regime’s unhindered violence in the city. Even after Israel’s heavy bombardment of Gaza—which killed 260 people and wounded over 2,200 in 11 days—the belief that armed struggle had succeeded in putting a price on the state’s plans for Jerusalem, in a way that civil disobedience alone could not, became widespread.
The uprising did not end with the Gaza cease-fire. A month later, Palestinians in the West Bank took to the streets after the killing of the activist Nizar Banat by Palestinian Authority security forces, directing their outrage at President Mahmoud Abbas and his authoritarian government’s role as a subcontractor of the Israeli occupation. Then, in September, six Palestinian political prisoners broke out of the notorious Gilboa Prison, a dramatic saga that captured the imagination of Palestinian society before they were caught a few days later. Though seemingly separate events, both were in many respects the continuation of the Unity Intifada, passing the baton of resistance from Jerusalem to Gaza, from Haifa to Ramallah, from the streets to the prison cells—showcasing the myriad ways in which Israel rules over Palestinian life. Their material impact may have been negligible, but their psychological power was immeasurable.
In a famous essay published in 1972, the Palestinian writer and intellectual Ghassan Kanafani outlined the factors that led to the demise of the Great Revolt of 1936–39 during the British Mandate, regarded as one of the most seminal mass mobilizations in Palestine. Kanafani identified a trio of threats that undermined Palestinian national aspirations then and thereafter: the local “reactionary” leadership, which co-opted the grassroots uprising; the regimes in surrounding Arab states, which sought to curb the revolt for their own geopolitical interests; and the Zionist movement, which advanced its program of territorial and economic colonization with the help of British imperial power. By the time the revolt was violently quelled, Kanafani wrote, the Palestinian movement “had been pretty well tamed: its head was broken and scattered, its base had been weakened and its social fabric worn out and disintegrated.” The effects of this devastation and the persistence of the three threats, he concluded, were pivotal to the Palestinians’ inability to resist the Nakba a decade later.
In many ways, Kanafani’s diagnosis remains as relevant for the present state of the Palestinian struggle as it was nearly a century ago. While the PLO has been reduced to little more than a symbolic relic, the dominant rival factions, Fatah and Hamas, have strengthened their hold over Palestinian society and taken on the role of local enforcers of the so-called “status quo.” The Arab political parties in Israel, which bitterly split from their united/joint list last year (with the breakaway faction, the Islamist Ra’am, joining the Israeli governing coalition), have continued to peg their platforms to passing legislation in an increasingly right-wing Knesset. Following in the footsteps of Egypt and Jordan, the autocrats of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan have abandoned the Arab League’s “peace parameters,” laid out in 2002, and normalized relations with Israel. Other Arab states—including Saudi Arabia, which US President Joe Biden visited immediately after Israel in July—are expected to be next in line. All the while, the Zionist movement, bolstered by the unrestrained backing of American power and the acquiescence of European states, has continued to fulfill its wildest ambitions while enjoying unprecedented impunity.
In addition to these long-standing threats are the multiple fissures within Palestinian society, which were visible even during the May uprising. Geographical fragmentation—particularly the total isolation of Gaza—has stunted many of the material and social bonds that had existed in the 1990s. The endurance of patriarchal structures and misogynistic attitudes continues to block and undermine women’s participation and leadership in political life, though feminist and women’s movements have intensified their fight against this. The rise of a Palestinian middle class, along with a general improvement in socioeconomic standards compared with those of previous generations, have made many warier of risking their precarious financial status. After the fervor of May calmed, daily local struggles over jobs, crime, and housing once again took precedence over the national project. For all the chants of unity, the Palestinians have still not found a way to sustain a united movement.
All this is compounded by the fact that, despite an invigorated consciousness and fresh clarity on the oppression at hand, the Palestinian people no longer know where they are headed. “Liberation” is interpreted through multiple and at times conflicting lenses: Do Palestinians still want an independent state of their own? Can they foresee life in a binational state alongside Jewish Israelis? Does justice entail the total restitution of stolen land and property, or will compromises have to be made? How can we prevent another mass war, or is war inevitable? The divergences are very real, and the temptation among many activists is to hold off addressing these questions. But without some consensus around a political vision, and without an understanding of what “decolonization” means, the failure to answer these questions may lead to further infighting and turmoil rather than collective progress and freedom.
But the debates around what Palestine-Israel should become must not distract us from recognizing what the present reality actually is: a robust apartheid regime between the river and the sea, driven by a settler-colonial ideology, complex in its design but simple in its purpose. A cursory review of similar anti-colonial struggles from Vietnam to South Africa teaches us that the resistance to such regimes is never straightforward; as just as their causes are, the struggle is often messy, ugly, even violent. These campaigns of resistance, however, are hardly as violent as the brutal structures against which they are fighting. It is this oppressive condition that all Palestinians are trying to dismantle—and the erasure of the Green Line is a vital step in that direction. Zionism has done much to tear down that line for its supremacist vision; Palestinians must now coalesce to replace that vision with a nobler one.