What Does Israel Fear from Palestine? by Raja Shehadeh review – making sense of senseless violence

<span>Internally displaced Palestinians keep moving after Israeli evacuations orders in Rafah.</span><span>Photograph: Mohammed Saber/EPA</span>
Internally displaced Palestinians keep moving after Israeli evacuations orders in Rafah.Photograph: Mohammed Saber/EPA

On 24 March 2016, Sergeant Elor Azaria, an 18-year-old member of the Israeli army’s medical corps, arrived at an incident in the city of Hebron, in the West Bank. Twenty-one-year-old Abdel Fattah al-Sharif was lying on the ground. He had been shot after allegedly trying to stab an Israeli soldier. Azaria did not administer first aid, but instead shot the young Palestinian in the head. The Israeli army’s decision to prosecute Azaria caused national outrage. Azaria was celebrated across the right as “our son, our hero”. Raja Shehadeh reports that “60% of young people [in Israel] expressed their belief that he did the right thing by killing the Palestinian” and that “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called his family to express his support”.

Shehadeh’s short book, What Does Israel Fear from Palestine?, is a response to Israel’s assault on Gaza following the Hamas attacks of 7 October. It is divided into two chapters. The first asks simply, “How did we get here?”, reflecting on key events since 1948, while the second analyses the last six months. Shehadeh, a human rights lawyer and winner of the Orwell prize for political writing, traces the factors influencing an Israeli society that lauds Azaria’s actions and accepts the devastation of Gaza: the failure of the Oslo accords; the hardening of an occupation of the Palestinian territories that is by all the evidence “permanent”; increasing fractures in Israeli society, for which a common Palestinian enemy can be a balm; and the growing dominance of extreme rightwing elements in Israel. Above all, he notes an increasing failure to empathise – 90% of the Arabs in Israel speak Hebrew, but less than 10% of Jewish Israelis speak Arabic – which, in his analysis, also affects young Israelis like Azaria: “How to explain on the human level this total dehumanisation, that a wounded Palestinian who posed no danger could be shot by a medic?”

Nonetheless, Shehadeh admits he was shocked by the recent war. The Israeli defence minister, Yoav Gallant, declared at the start: “There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed” and Netanyahu boasted he would “turn Gaza into a deserted island”. Shehadeh reflects: “I reasoned that political leaders usually speak with such bravado … Yet as the war progressed I could see that they meant every word and did not care about civilians, including children. In their eyes, as well as the eyes of most Israelis, all Gazans were guilty.” He quotes a Unicef report that says 90% of children under five in Gaza currently eat two or fewer food groups a day (known as “severe food poverty”) and 70% experienced diarrhoea within a two-week period (“another word for this is starvation”). Eighty-five per cent of Gaza’s residents have been driven from their homes and 70% of civilian facilities have been destroyed.

This book analyses Israeli society from a Palestinian perspective. It also tells a Palestinian story full of missing people, both the dead and refugees long absent from their homes. Shehadeh answers the question posed by his title in despairing terms: “The very high human and material cost of the war in Gaza proves that what Israel fears from Palestine is Palestine’s very existence.” He laments that the Palestinian story is still not heard, writing of the creation of Israel in 1948: “Despite all our attempts at writing about the situation, we Palestinians seem not to have made a dent in the way these events were seen by Israelis and indeed the outside world.” The possibility that writing about the situation is futile haunts this book.

Yet Shehadeh continues to reflect on a question that he asks about Elor Azaria: “Who would help this young soldier regain his humanity?” His searching analysis offers insights for readers coming new to the situation and others who wish to face it afresh. He acknowledges that peace requires pressure from outside, but that there are precedents, including in the Middle East, for “great upheavals” leading to positive change: “In the course of this devastating war I have had one hopeful idea. What if this war should end, not by a ceasefire or a truce, as in other wars with Hamas, but with a comprehensive resolution to the century-old conflict?”

• What Does Israel Fear from Palestine? by Raja Shehadeh is published by Profile (£7.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.