Newton’s Third Law of Palestinian Stabbings

Aaron Simons

Where there is an action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

This has been the line taken in a series of op-eds on the recent wave of violence in Israel and Palestine. Many of them say the same thing over and over again: Palestinian violence is the inevitable response to the occupation.

Gideon Levy wrote Even Gandhi Would Understand the Palestinians’ Violence. In the Guardian, Marwan Barghouti argued There will be no peace until Israel’s occupation of Palestine ends, whilst Mairav Zonszein opined that Israel’s domination of Palestinians makes violence inevitable. In September, Samah Salaime asked Why do they throw stones? The answer, of course, is the occupation.

It seems like an obvious point. The Palestinians live under a violent occupation. Many live in refugee camps, with little or no basic rights. Jewish settlements in the West Bank proliferate. Settlers and Palestinians are treated under two different legal systems. Settler violence is often ignored, whilst snipers are used against stone-throwing Palestinian children, who are then tried in military courts.  The settlers have vastly more rights and resources than the Palestinians. Is violent resistance any surprise as the occupation nears its 50 year anniversary?

Yet this point is often lost; the occupation is often ignored. Palestinian violence is seen as the product of incitement and incitement alone, in a sort of Jew vs Arab clash of civilisations. It’s easier to pretend not to see the occupation and to portray the Palestinians as an implacable enemy, as this allows for the avoidance of any degree of self-reflection, or recognition of Israel’s role in perpetuating the conflict.

But pieces such as Barghouti’s and Levy’s do more than just explain Palestinian violence in the context of the occupation. Explanation moves quickly into justification.

In many of these op-eds, it follows that if one recognises that the occupation is the core motive behind the stabbings, then terrorism is merely a functional response.   Terrorism is not condemned, but rather seen as the inevitable output of the structural logic of the occupation.

It’s Newton’s third law of Palestinian stabbings. The occupation is the action, terrorism is the reaction. Nothing else occurs within this logic, and no other causes of violence are deemed important.

This neutral functionalism, where the terrorist is solely and exclusively the product of occupation, absolves the terrorist from any moral judgement. Occupation and terrorism is understood exclusively as action and reaction and nothing more. Under this argument, it doesn’t make sense to condemn a causal inevitability. The terrorist is not condemned for murder in the same way that a balloon isn’t condemned for popping under pressure. Both are the inevitable reaction to the initial action.

This argument goes further. Under this logic, the blame for violence shifts to what is perceived as the root cause. What this means, quite literally, is that it is Netanyahu’s fault that there are stabbings in Tel Aviv. If Netanyahu creates occupation, and occupation creates terrorism, then under Newton’s third law it follows that terrorism is Netanyahu’s fault. Zonszein writes “This current round of violence… is a direct result of government policy”.

And if one thinks the occupation is wrong, then following this functional logic, ultimately terrorism is justified as a form of opposition to it. If not justification, there is sympathy for those carrying out the stabbings. At the very least, the terrorist is blameless. All these arguments have been made explicitly and implicitly in discussion of Palestinian terrorism on social media and in the wider press.

But Newton was a physicist. Not a political theorist, not a sociologist. It is a complete and utter fallacy to reduce Palestinian terrorism to such a simple and monocausal explanation.

Palestinian terrorists are not merely physical objects in the Newtonian world of action and reaction. A terrorist has moral agency.  The terrorist who picks up a screwdriver and stabs five Israelis in Tel Aviv has made an explicit choice to do so. Zonszein reduces the Palestinian terrorist to the “noble savage”; unthinking, unchoosing, and unaccountable for his or her actions. It is only by the Newtonian logic of the noble savage that Zonszein can dismiss the agency of the terrorist, and make Netanyahu directly to blame, rather than the actual perpetrator of the attack.

Yes, the occupation is the central cause of terrorism. But it is also not the only cause. This most recent wave of violence was triggered by the (false) rumour that Israel was planning on changing the status quo on Temple Mount. And that’s to say nothing of brutal and violent incitement. Say, for example, Hamas creating handy ‘how to stab’ videos. Or the Gaza Imam commanding Palestinians to form stabbing squads in a terrifying sermon given last Friday.

Commentators like Levy also seem unable, or simply think it’s irrelevant, to differentiate between just cause and just method. Opposing the occupation is just. Using terrorism as a method is not. But again, all this is lost when terrorism is reduced to nothing more than inevitable reaction to occupation, where Palestinians are conceived of as an unthinking mass, for whom violence is the only way.

Contextualising Palestinian violence in opposition to the occupation is important. But it should never mean reducing terrorism to this logic of inevitability, where the terrorists are blameless or their actions justified. There are indiscriminate stabbings, shootings, and car rammings of civilians on Israel’s streets. Newton’s law just won’t cut it here.