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Combined and Uneven Catastrophe

A conversation with Kareem Rabie
A woman stands overlooking illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

While media attention is focused on Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza, violence has also increased in the West Bank. Since October 7, over two hundred Palestinians have been killed, nearly three thousand injured, and more than a thousand displaced due to attacks by Israeli forces and settlers. Israeli assaults in the West Bank have included an airstrike on a mosque and an intensification of armed settler raids on Palestinian communities east of Ramallah, in the Jordan Valley, and the South Hebron Hills.

Late last month, I began a conversation with Kareem Rabie, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Rabie is the author of Palestine Is Throwing a Party and the Whole World is Invited: Capital and State Building in the West Bank. His book examines a shift in the Palestinian Authority’s politics away from an emphasis on acquiring sovereignty toward a focus on making markets and building up state-like institutions in the absence of statehood. Rabie’s book shows how the Israeli occupation creates not just zones of extreme violence but spaces of precarious stability. I wanted to know how the current assault on Gaza and the intensification of violence in the West Bank was affecting his thinking about the combined and uneven spaces of Israeli colonization. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

—Joshua Craze


The Situation in the West Bank

Joshua Craze: Clearly, we need to see what is happening in the West Bank as part of a much longer story of Palestinian dispossession, but how are we to understand developments since October 7? We’ve seen travel between cities blocked, troops entering Jenin and Nablus, and whole communities of Palestinians fleeing their villages due to attacks by armed settlers, mainly in Area C (the part of the West Bank over which Israel has direct administration). Israel has also carried out mass arrests, potentially in anticipation of the necessity of future prisoner exchanges.

Kareem Rabie: In the past four weeks, Israeli forces have fired missiles at cities and refugee camps in the West Bank. In Tulkarem, at least a dozen people were killed. Armed gangs of settlers have attacked and forcibly removed Palestinians from their homes, in particular, south of Hebron; videos of settlers desecrating Palestinians’ bodies emerged from there. A number of communities and towns have been forcibly depopulated, and Palestinians in Area C have long been subject to extreme frontier violence. The military has conducted operations and mass arrests throughout the West Bank, including in Jenin, Qalqilia, Nablus, and in and around Ramallah.

Between the state-sanctioned violence in Gaza and their open inclusion in the far-right nationalist governing coalition, settlers are emboldened. They work cooperatively and in coordination with the military, and now Itamar Ben-Gvir, the minister of national security, is bringing them tens of thousands more guns from the United States. This is a continuation of the much wider project of settlement and colonization. In Ramallah, where I lived and did my research, and where most of my friends and some of my extended family ended up, it’s tense: there are road closures and arrests, and offices and institutions have been broken into. Life feels like it has stopped, and although there has not yet been a massive incursion, the Israeli military has been coming into the city much more regularly. Many fear that, as has happened in the past, Israel’s so-called emergency closures and restrictions will become permanent.

JC: The media is always careful to mark violence by armed settlers as somehow qualitatively different from that carried out by Israeli forces. Partly, this is due to an insistence on the difference between civilians and soldiers, even if, paradoxically, in the West Bank it is often the “civilians” that do the attacking and the army that is asked—as the EU did on November 1—to rein them in. The settlers can function as the left-hand of the state, carrying out assaults that the state denies are official policy; the settlers, insofar as they have the full support of the state, act with utter impunity. That’s one of the points made by Eyal Weizman, Rafi Segal, and the other contributors to A Civilian Occupation: The Politics of Israeli Architecture. Is it really the case that there is settler violence on the one hand and state violence on the other?

KR: I think it’s a distinction without a difference. I don’t think it was ever true, but if it was, the case of Ben-Gvir’s militia, the presence of settlers in the Israeli government, the images of soldiers protecting settlers, the fact that settlers almost always get away with crimes against Palestinians, and so on, prove otherwise.

It’s not simply about creating a new Jewish society but, just as fundamentally, a new subordinate Palestinian society.

The dominant liberal frame for understanding conflict in the occupied territories is international law, and so any discussion of the difference between settlers and the military is plunged into a juridical debate over how one distinguishes civilians from soldiers. International law is not only the dominant language and practice for litigating these crimes but also for understanding them; it’s descriptive and definitional. Yet soldiers intervene to help settlers attack and displace Palestinians. In terms of the overall Israeli political project, there is no meaningful separation between settlers and the military.

The imbrication of the two groups is part of a much broader Israeli national and geopolitical strategy that, as Weizman and Segal point out, has included planning, architecture, and law; they are all bound through the core spatial, ideological, institutional elements of state practice and national formation in Israel. I think, for me, a key point is that these elements are part of Israel’s more general spatial strategy.

JC: Many commentators have said that Hamas’s October 7 assault shattered the myth of Israel’s invincibility. Israel, in this argument, prided itself on its absolute military superiority and pervasive intelligence operations, and the sight of Palestinian fighters demolishing part of the Gaza boundary wall has destroyed such a narrative. Is that also true for Palestinians?

KR: Palestinians have never believed in the myth. As my friend Omar Jabary Salamanca put it recently, we can look to the 2021 Unity Intifada and see “the myth is discursive and material and so is the response.” The occupation is, in a lot of ways, a slapdash operation, and I think the myth serves many purposes: first, to run cover for the military and obscure the fact that attacks are indiscriminate. Second, to promote the conflation of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism through the idea that Israel, as a state, needs to be strong and militaristic to protect the Jewish people as a nation; this myth also thus enables continuing U.S. aid to Israel. And third, as many have pointed out, it’s PR for Israel’s own massive arms industry. But, even as a myth, it is tied to existing infrastructures and institutions, and it produces precarity for Palestinians because it’s always backed by the threat and reality of violence.

I want to return to the relationship between the settlers and the state. Nicola Perugini and I conducted research—and published separately and together—on the rightist pro-settlement organization Regavim, which has long been monitoring and pursuing legal action against Palestinian construction in the West Bank. Regavim wasn’t organizing armed settlers, but it was displacing Palestinians through legal means, including expanding Israeli civil jurisdiction into the West Bank to settlers and getting findings for eviction and destruction orders. Key figures from Regavim and their fellow travelers are now at the center of government.

There are a couple of relevant things here: first, the 2005 Gaza pullout was a moment of massive trauma for these settlers; it was galvanizing. This part of the settler movement referred to it and other occasional state attempts to limit West Bank settlement as “pogroms.” The pullout jump-started a contemporary movement to push Israel far to the right and to the East. One of the main things Regavim does is to use a rights- and identity-based approach to bring legal charges against Palestinians on the grounds that Palestinian habitation threatens the human rights of Jewish settlers with a claim to the entirety of Historic Palestine. They focus on expanding settlements, but their mission is also a project of revanchist legal and democratic reform. It is occupation turned inward, directed against left, liberal, and centrist Israelis through the judicial reform project, the recent criminalization of demonstrations, and social media persecution of activists and academics. The same absolutist Greater Israel agenda undergirds all of it.

JC: In a foundational piece on settler colonialism and Palestine, Patrick Wolfe quotes from one of the founding fathers of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, whom, in his 1896 manifesto, Der Judenstaat writes: “If I wish to substitute a new building for an old one, I must demolish before I construct.” In a very literal sense, we are witnessing the absolute destruction of Palestine in Gaza right now as part of an ongoing Zionist project. But Wolfe quotes Herzl also to illustrate a more subtle point, which is that settler colonialism is not simply about the absolute replacement of the occupied society but, rather, in that process of replacement, an attempt to transform it.

KR: Right. It’s not simply about creating a new Jewish society but, just as fundamentally, a new subordinate Palestinian society. The forms of relative stability one sees in Ramallah that I write about in my book are part of that: many have described Ramallah as a “bubble” with nice coffee shops and a moderately stable political structure. That stability is complicit with and dependent upon the broader Israeli project. But alongside those sorts of social or affective attributes, my research emphasized the political-economic and political parts of that stabilization. And I want to point out that political-economic calculations are important in the current conjuncture too—in late October, Israel awarded exploration contracts for the natural gas of Gaza. We need to keep an eye on these different scales of connection and disconnection in order to see clearly what comes next.

JC: As has been abundantly documented for many years, and as we have seen recently in Huwara, Masafer Yatta, and Wadi al-Siq, settler attacks in the West Bank have been part of a longstanding policy to immiserate and isolate Palestinian communities and try to push them to leave, enabling their land to be taken over by expanding settlements. These operations see settlers working hand in hand with the Israeli forces and do not just include attacks on Palestinians but also the destruction of their homes and olive groves, the theft of livestock and agricultural equipment, as well as the denial of electricity and water supplies to Palestinian settlements. This is the broader context of the Israeli annexation of the West Bank: the state’s objective is to dispossess Palestinians.

KR: And it feels insane even to have to say it today. It has been said so many times. The settlers in the West Bank have been emboldened by the violence the Israeli state is carrying out in Gaza, but they are both parts of the same ethno-nationalist state project, driven by the same territorial imperatives.

Part of the problem with the way we often talk about the occupied territories and the focus on the immediacy of the violence occurring right now is that it forces us to assume that the broader state strategy is about separation. In many senses, that is true—Palestinians have been fragmented from one another, and restrictions on movement are central to the occupation. But the framework of settler colonialism helps me understand some of these links. Although Wolfe’s centrality to Palestine studies has been critiqued heavily, and by people I like and respect, I want to make one small point: in that essay you mention, Wolfe tries to understand the relationships between genocide and settler colonialism, and he emphasizes that settler colonialism is based on a logic of elimination, which is not just about killing people, but occupying land, destroying indigenous culture and institutions, and so on. The goal is to make it as difficult as possible, if not impossible, to sustain and reproduce indigenous life as indigenous. Genocidal violence is part of that project, but so are pacification, assimilation, and isolation. Seeing Israeli strategy through the lens of settler colonialism helps us to understand a lot of its territorial, racial, and economic imperatives in Historic Palestine.

One of the things that I have worried about recently is that perhaps my book didn’t sufficiently emphasize how precarious the stability of the West Bank is, and how dependent it is on other forms of violence elsewhere. I think there’s a kind of geographical dialectic. In parts of the West Bank, there’s an attempt at social and economic pacification through a PA committed—discursively at least—to private enterprise. I studied how large-scale real estate investment reformulated how aid came into the West Bank and is directed towards the private sector, and the consequences of those flows for law, land tenure, and Palestinian rights.

This move to privatization really picked up in the aftermath of the Fatah/Hamas split, and had Salam Fayyad, the former Prime Minister of the PA, as its figurehead, which led Thomas Friedman—who is, of course, a very stupid man—to coin the term Fayyadism to describe the PA’s commitment to institution-building and to working hand in hand with the Israeli security services. Fayyadism then goes abroad and serves as an idea with which to bash Gaza: “Look,” or so the rhetoric goes, “in the West Bank, Fayyad is cooperating, and life in Ramallah is great. In Gaza, it is hell, and Hamas is to be blamed, not Israel.”

That sort of rhetoric demonizes Gaza and fragments Palestinians from one another but also hides that the Israeli goal in the West Bank is to cleanse, at the least, Area C of Palestinian presence. As Ghada Karmi put it, Ramallah is being produced as one of a dwindling number of places in which a kind of Palestinian life is possible within Palestine. But of course, the situation there is desperate for many, and it can only function as a zone of pacification thanks to the suspension of the struggle for liberation as if there is no occupation. That suspension is part of the occupation itself. And what’s scary about this moment is that the stabilization, the promotion of a moderately stable Palestinian life in smaller and smaller zones, might also fall apart.

JC: This comes back to something you said earlier: that the neoliberal managerialism that characterized Fayyad’s administration was always dependent on Israeli strategy. Might it be the case that the “zone of pacification” that you spoke about, this small space of coffee shops in Ramallah, is now coming to an end?

KR: I mean, the simple way of saying it is that if the broader Israeli vision is to have fewer and fewer Palestinians in fewer and fewer parts of the West Bank, then for a time, building up a zone of relative stability—and Palestinian “partners” who can be contrasted to Hamas—played a useful role in actualizing that Israeli vision. Such a zone is based on precarity, subordination within Israel, lack of sovereignty and self-determination, aid dependence, and constant threat, and it’s probably not durable.

All of these things, the dispossession, the displacement, the settler attacks, and the air strikes, have been going on for decades. This ensemble of practices is the reality and actuality of the Israeli state and life in all of its occupied territories. I think the real shift, at least in Israel, is that no one is really worried anymore about saying any of this explicitly, which has left liberal Zionists in America performing acrobatics to try and justify their position. The settler imaginary after 2005, as well as the realities of the current invasion, show that the Israeli goal isn’t to create a kind of circumscribed comfort for Palestinians across the West Bank; it’s for simultaneous destruction of some parts of Historic Palestine and transfer in others.

JC: Where does this leave the PA? We have seen large protests in Ramallah and elsewhere, both against Israeli actions in Gaza and against the inaction of the PA. Those protests were violently repressed by the PA, whose security forces used live fire against demonstrators. On the other hand, or so it seems to me, Fatah’s declaration of a general strike on November 1 in East Jerusalem and across the West Bank against Israeli aggression seems to be a way of trying to win back the narrative, as if one American diplomatic push has been to try and see if a “revitalized” (their word) PA could step in after the Israeli offensive in Gaza and take charge. Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh has insisted that this will not happen without a comprehensive agreement leading to a Palestinian state. How should we understand these developments?

KR: The contemporary PA is a product of Palestinian geographical fragmentation. It’s not a national body in the sense of being an organization that governs the majority of Palestinians in the West Bank, let alone the entirety of Palestine or the diaspora. I don’t think that the PA has any sort of legitimacy to run an administration in Gaza, especially if “invited” to do so by the Americans—and it’s also not clear that the Israeli government would back any such move, as indicated by the recent cuts to transfers to the PA.

JC: That’s really helpful. There is a trenchant critique of the PA as a sort of rentier state dependent on direct collusion with Israel, foreign development funds, and humanitarian capital, which has created this layer of bureaucrats and businessmen in villas around Ramallah (I’m paraphrasing Perry Anderson, of course), which has abandoned armed struggle in favor of self-enrichment, and has little popular legitimacy on the ground. It’s difficult to square this critique with the sort of hopes for a revitalized PA that some in the West seem to be trading in.

KR: Since Fayyad was replaced by Hamdallah, and then Shtayyeh following him, I don’t think we have really seen a shift in the PA’s strategy or, more to the point, its capacity. After I published my book, some asked me whether some of these grand plans for housing development would ever fully be built. Maybe they won’t. But I don’t feel that question quite gets at the issue because the plans themselves, and their vision of a certain type of precarious future, reconfigured the distribution of foreign aid and donor funding, changed land tenure in ways that made privatization possible, and so, regardless of the success of individual schemes, these forms of neoliberal managerialism really did succeed in changing many of the wider forms of governance and political economy in the West Bank. That project continues—there are still large development schemes in Jericho and elsewhere. I think those plans are commensurate with the Israeli project for the West Bank; they just occur in that place within contemporary forms of political, economic, and humanitarian logics.

I mean something pretty straightforward here: there is an idea among the Palestinian bourgeoisie and in the PA that accumulation, class aspiration, and capitalist managerialism can work as state-like politics. What current demonstrations suggest—building on years of protests against the PA by unions, the protests that followed Nizar Banat’s murder, and so on—is that the PA’s attempt to tamp down dissent in part by creating different material conditions in parts of the West Bank might prove to be unsustainable. I don’t think we can know yet.

Three soldiers stand before a sign that says "Palestine never existed! (and never will)"
Soldiers in the occupied West Bank in 2014. | Ben Scicluna

The Relationship between the West Bank and Gaza

JC: When we first spoke about how to understand the relationship between the West Bank and Gaza, you explained that the two territories are linked in their separation. I think the basic story is well-known: Ariel Sharon withdrew from Gaza in 2005, turning it, effectively, into an open-air prison. Then, following Hamas’ success in fair and internationally monitored elections in 2006—and the imposition of Western sanctions—Hamas pushed Fatah out of the Gaza Strip. The enormous donor conference held in Paris in 2007 was designed to entrench the PA’s pseudo-control of the West Bank (a control limited everywhere by the Israeli regime), while in Gaza, Hamas was ostracized as a terrorist organization, and the Strip blockaded, with its population ever more immiserated. How are we to understand the Israeli strategy in the two territories—at once unified and very different—and the varied Palestinian responses to this strategy?

KR: If we go back to the elections, what people in the West Bank were saying to me was essentially that Hamas convincingly made two cases to the people: first, that they were the only political party practicing resistance in any meaningful way, and second, that they were not the old guard, this conciliatory and corrupt set of PA and PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) cadres. And people thought: “Alright, let’s give them a chance.” And as those elections were overturned and a new political development and political strategy emerged, the West Bank and Gaza are linked through their separation. Different forms of violence are distributed across the Palestinian population. It’s uneven. Just as the infrastructures of occupation are designed to fragment and disperse, I think we can see that tendency in the colonial project writ large: some spaces are designated as safe or are feted as alternatives, which allows for the extreme violence that occurs in other spaces. The “Green Zone” of Ramallah is dependent on the constriction of Palestinian life elsewhere. But, again, it takes a lot of work to make it so.

As for the idea that what works in Ramallah could work in Gaza, which we have heard suggested by some Israeli commentators, let me say this: We hear so much about the Gazan population, and the 2.3 million people, half of whom are children. This is a completely different situation. I have never been to Gaza and have long assumed I’d never be able to go, and I despair at the thought that there are a million or more people who have known nothing but extreme violence, imprisonment, hunger, and horror. The ways the world opens itself to the young there are through repetitive atrocity. There is little possibility for Ramallah-style managerialism in the Gaza Strip. What possibility does one have when life itself is so segregated, so immobile, so utterly controlled, or when 50 percent of the homes there have been bombed to rubble?

The Future

JC: What do you make of calls for the self-dissolution of the PA?

KR: I think that the PA, in its current form, is the body that manages Israeli practical, territorial, and military control over Palestinians and Palestinian life. One argument that circles those propositions is that the dissolution of the PA is not realistic, and who knows who or what comes after it. Just as it is not realistic to think that the current Israeli assault on Gaza will destroy Hamas (and even if it destroys Hamas—which it won’t—that would not render Israel “safe”). At present, Israel and its allies are satisfied with the PA. For such a dissolution to occur, the structure that has worked to stabilize the PA and benefit Israel for decades would have to be upended. So, utopian calls to dissolve the PA immediately get mired in difficult practical questions. But if I understand such calls to be about the liberation of Palestine and Palestinians, then the critique there seems clear and correct: the PA is not working towards the liberation of Palestine or all Palestinians; it can’t, and that is not its purpose. It’s like we saw in the news the other day—Biden was asking Israel what its plan is. It seems to me like this, the atrocities we are seeing unfolding, is the plan. The plan is what’s happening.

JC: It’s hard to narrate these things in a journalistic format. We want sudden revelations. Like that people suddenly woke up and realized: “Oh, the PA is corrupt, and its promise of development is a lie.” But that was obviously clear from the beginning. So how does one narrate how events emerge: why did the protests against the PA begin? Maybe one points to the violence of the events unfolding in Gaza, and the fact that these events demand a response. But the news and the very short-term causal structure of most news media—let alone social media—short-circuits the capacity to tell the longer stories that one would need to tell to explain the PA’s relationship to the Palestinian people.

KR: I think you are right that the formal restrictions of the news tend to limit the capacity for context. On the other hand, we are now in a weird situation where we see things directly. When I talk to our undergraduates, I find they are vastly more well-informed about the situation than somebody who is watching CNN or MSNBC. People can see very clearly what this assault looks like.

History softens the edges, absolves actors, and messes with the scales of things.

I think there is something significant here. We are both of the same generation, and if you think about the protests of our youth—anti-WTO, and demonstrations against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and so on—I don’t think we had the same command of what was happening in the way these new generation does, and because they aren’t wedded to the New York Times or whatever, they don’t have to use a self-exonerating and self-abnegating language to talk about Palestine. They can see what is happening. That said, I think the increased flows of images and discrete information we have today make it important to return to the structural continuities of what is going on elsewhere and between territories.

JC: It’s that presentism that makes some of the debate in America over the attack on Gaza so unproductive. We follow accounts on X [the platform formerly known as Twitter] or in a WhatsApp group, and we get horrific images, which create a moral spectacle but not a political or strategic intervention. Then you get the obvious inversion: the right-wing trade in images of Hamas atrocities. Each side accuses the other of fake images, and as you say, these debates are about the weight and worth of images in the present; they are totally non-structural and unable to see the actual logic of the occupation as it has unfolded over the past seventy years.

KR: There has been a line I’ve been seeing on social media. I don’t know where it comes from, but it goes something like: every Zionist accusation is a confession. So there was the lie, of course, about the forty dead babies, which was eventually walked back but was not accompanied by retractions or sustained elaboration. And there was a story, yesterday or the day before, about Hamas baking babies . . . just insane stuff. At first, it seems like lunatic fabrication, but then? The numbers of kids killed in Gaza are what they are. Or there was an instance when Zionist forces actually did put a Palestinian in an oven in Deir Yassin. But you are right that there is this incredible saturation of facts and instances in which it is hard to make sense of everything, and all of us are staring at our phones for hours and hours on end. This saturation itself, I think, has political consequences because it drains people’s capacity as all our energy goes into proving or disproving claims.

You hear people say that history will judge this person or that . . . I guess I am just not so sure that’s true of how historical memory works. History softens the edges, absolves actors, and messes with the scales of things. Surely, the true scale of Israeli aggression won’t be known for years, but today, as I’m turning these edits around, more than twelve thousand have been killed, an Israeli official has claimed double that, and the conditions of destruction and starvation and social murder and social death will be there for decades, maybe longer.

JC: There was a moment in a conversation between Dylan Saba and Darryl Li where Darryl reflects on how the American elite has closed ranks so dramatically around Israel, and he thinks there is something desperate in all this. He said: “It feels like a possible death rattle of the system. Maybe that’s too optimistic.”

KR: I hope Darryl’s right. I’ve had that thought too. It’s true, maybe, that the discourse has shifted, and there is finally a groundswell towards the possibility of pro-Palestinian positions being enunciated in the public here. At the same time, we had had the resuscitation of all sorts of old base practices: we have the promiscuous language of “terrorism” that characterized the period after 9/11, all the chilling measures Biden has introduced to punish student activism under the guise that he is combating anti-Semitism, and so on. All of this seems totally unsustainable. I know I sound regulationist here, but the problem is that the whole situation has been so obviously unsustainable for such a long time that it is hard to see how it stops being sustained.

So you’re right; it’s hard to be hopeful right now. On a personal level, I don’t know how to metabolize any of this. I found myself unmoored by Wadea al-Fayoume, the six-year-old murdered outside of Chicago, where I live. The scale is small compared to what’s going on in Gaza, and I don’t know what it says about me as a diaspora Palestinian, but it fucked me up deeply. Nevertheless, beautiful images are coming out of Gaza. Not just the prison-break images of the bulldozer but people caring for one another through destruction and depletion, rescuing their pets, sharing, and fighting for one another.

But, like we said before, even within our lifetimes we actually have seen massive mobilizations and social movements—the Palestinian case among the public in the Global North did not look like this all that long ago. And it doesn’t without Seattle, Ferguson, the Dakota Access Pipeline, Occupy, Stop Cop City, and especially the George Floyd rebellion, Black Lives Matter, and the big mobilizations in 2021. Groups like Palestine Action are shutting down weapons manufacturing, and lawyers are bringing genocide charges against U.S. and Israeli officials in the International Criminal Court. I think we can be buoyed by the spread of transport union activism against arms supply chains and refusal to load ships. Jewish activist groups have carried out direct actions, making concrete demands from their elected officials; the disconnect here between constituents and the government is stunning and does feel new. Young people aren’t buying this; the relationships between repression at home and abroad are obvious. I do hope we’re seeing the beginning of a sustained, broad, collective, collaborative, and transformative mass movement.