Israel’s Anti-Democratic Practices Against Palestinians Are Infecting Its Political System

Early Thursday morning, Israeli soldiers and police conducted a raid against what they said were Islamic Jihad militants that left nine Palestinians, including a sixty-year-old woman, dead. The operation, in the city of Jenin, also wounded dozens, according to Palestinian officials. The Israeli Army contended that most of the dead were militants who had shot at or hurled Molotov cocktails at security forces. The death toll was one of the highest single-day tallies in the West Bank in years.

On Friday night, a Palestinian gunman killed seven Israelis and wounded three others in an attack near a synagogue in East Jerusalem. Among the dead were three elderly, two women and a man. Three others were injured. On Saturday, a thirteen-year-old Palestinian boy, police said, shot and wounded two people near Jerusalem’s Old City.

The rising violence is drawing new attention to the alliance that Benjamin Netanyahu struck with two of Israel’s most extreme, far-right political parties in order to return to power. The government’s new national-security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, has been convicted in an Israeli court of inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organization. He praised the security forces for “a successful operation in Jenin” and said “every terrorist who tries to harm our forces will pay with his life.”

While Palestinians fear further restrictions and human-rights abuses in the occupied territories under the new government, tens of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets to protest Netanyahu’s efforts to weaken the country’s Supreme Court. A series of proposed laws would undermine the court’s ability to conduct judicial review of legislation and strengthen the coalition government’s hand in the process of selecting judges. Opponents have condemned the measures as a “legal coup” that will empower Netanyahu and upset the balance of powers between the branches of the Israeli government.

As I watched Israelis take to the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in protest, I sympathized with their fears of what the right-wing government will do to their democracy, often touted as the strongest in the region. But I was also reminded of the years during which Israelis tolerated the illegalities being committed against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza by Israeli security forces. As a Palestinian lawyer and human-rights activist, who has lived for many decades under Israeli occupation, I wished I could be more optimistic about the future of both nations.

Over the years, the Israeli authorities have failed to prevent settler attacks on Palestinian individuals and communities and to effectively intervene when they occur. Soldiers, to the contrary, have regularly stood by as settlers engage in wanton violence against Palestinians. In the first three weeks of October last year, the Palestinian human-rights organization Al-Haq reported an “alarming increase” in the killings of Palestinians by Israeli forces and settlers, citing nineteen deaths, including the fatal shooting of seventeen-year-old Mahdi Ladadweh on October 7th during a clash between settlers and Palestinians near Ramallah.

On November 29th, three young settlers attacked a seventy-two-year-old man, Shaker al-Tamimi, in Hebron, hurling stones at him and his sheep and pepper-spraying his face, the Israeli human-rights organization B’Tselem reported. After his daughter called the police, officers arrived and one of them accused members of the Tamimi family of attacking the settlers, according to the human-rights group. That night, settlers, escorted by Israeli soldiers, arrived and vandalized three of their cars, smashing windows and slashing tires. When family members tried to stop the settlers, a melee erupted, and Israeli soldiers beat some of the Palestinians with rifle butts. In recent years, it has become routine for Palestinians to come under attack from settlers: from their homes being vandalized to rocks being hurled at them while they harvest olives.

The Israeli judicial system has failed to hold settlers responsible for their actions. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported last year that criminal charges had been filed in only 3.8 per cent of criminal cases pertaining to nationalist violence against Palestinians between 2018 and 2020. In all, two hundred and twenty-one of two hundred and sixty-three of those cases were closed or were in the process of being closed. “Only ten of those resulted in an indictment,” the paper reported, and thirty-two were still under investigation or awaiting a decision.

That was why, when I heard Israel’s state prosecutor, Amit Eisman, intimate in a speech that right-wing politicians were “seeking to undermine our legitimacy in the eyes of the general public,” I wondered if he had ignored the anti-democratic practices that Palestinians have endured for decades. The roots of this problem extend to the beginning of the occupation.

In June, 1967, the Israeli government under Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, a leader of the Labor movement in Israel, decided not to annex the occupied territories (with the exception of East Jerusalem). Instead, the Israeli authorities, in effect, decided to administer them in a way that enabled the gradual enlargement of the occupation, through settlement expansion that encroached on Palestinian land.

After Palestinians living under military rule were not granted the full legal rights of Israelis, a dual system of law emerged, one for the Palestinians, another for the settlers. By permitting its citizens to move to the West Bank, Israel invited a group of its people, initially small but ever growing, to take the law into their hands and advance their agenda, which included seizing natural resources, mistreating the local Palestinian population, and severely restricting their movements—seemingly in the hope that life would become so unbearable that they would decide to emigrate. This result could only be achieved by extensive violations of international law, which have been condoned or ignored by successive Israeli governments and law-enforcement authorities. As early as 1989, Al-Haq reported that, in its opinion, “the phenomenon of settler violence is the inevitable consequence, if not the direct result, of conscious policies of successive Israeli governments.”

It is possible now to see a correlation between the tolerance of the illegality of the settlers’ project and what is now taking place in Israel regarding its legal system. Many warnings against this fell on deaf ears. Over time, illegality and anti-democratic practices became the norm in the occupied territories, and now they are spreading across the Green Line into the Israeli political system.

When a terrorist group, known as the Jewish Underground, placed bombs under the cars of the Palestinian mayors of Ramallah, al-Bireh, and Nablus in 1980, the Israeli government took action. Three members of the group—Menachem Livni, Uzi Sharbaf, and Shaul Nir, all West Bank settlers—were identified as the perpetrators. (The mayor of Nablus, Bassam Shakaa, lost both his legs in the attack, and Kareem Khalaf, the mayor of Ramallah, lost a foot.)

Over time, tolerance for such violence rose exponentially. In 1984, the three settlers, who were also behind the killing of three Palestinian students at the Islamic College in Hebron, were arrested, convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. In 1989, however, their sentences were commuted by Israeli President Chaim Herzog. About eighteen months later, they were all released from prison, to the cheers of Jewish settlers.

It might seem far-fetched to assume that, had the Israeli public been aware that the anti-democratic ethos of the occupation would have catastrophic consequences for Israel proper, they might have taken a tougher line against the settlement project. It is possible to be optimistic and hope that more Israelis will now worry about the repercussions of their right-wing government’s policies, including the deadly raid on Jenin. Perhaps all of this could shake Israelis into realizing that true democracy will never be possible as long as millions of Palestinians live under the daily threat of violent attack from their occupiers. ♦

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