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Democracy for Whom?

FZY Boger Sam Boardwell breaks down a number of inconsistencies in Israel's recent protest movement and addresses several grievances with the Israeli Opposition's attitude to Israeli Arabs and Palestinians

Last November’s elections in Israel marked Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial return to power. Despite battling several corruption charges, the 73-year-old led the most right-wing coalition in Israel’s history to win a decisive 64 seats in the Knesset. Since the culmination of November’s elections, the governing coalition has made clear their intention to overhaul Israel’s Judicial system, reducing the power of the Supreme Court.

This perceived threat to Israeli ‘democracy’ has led thousands to protest in the streets of Israel, spurred onto the streets by Netanyahu’s opposition and human rights organisations alike. Over 200,000 people took to the streets in Tel Aviv alone in a single protest in March, approximately 2% of the Israeli population. Often waving Israeli flags and banners criticising the current government, it is clear the majority of these protestors are sending a message that they feel the democratic and liberal values upon which they believe the Israeli state was established are under threat.

But which democracy are these people fighting for? While it is true that all peoples living within Israel’s 1948 borders can vote in elections, almost half of the people between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean cannot vote for the Government which controls their lives. Furthermore, Israeli law states that only Jewish people have the right to self-determination on the land. Given this situation, can it be truly argued that Israel has actually been a democratic country since the start of the military occupation of the West Bank in 1967? It is certain that leading International Human Rights organisations don’t believe so. For example, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have affirmed their belief that Palestinians face a system of Apartheid in all of Israel-Palestine. With many figures elected into the new government calling for annexation of parts or all of the West Bank (without giving citizenship to the Palestinians living within it), it appears the conclusion reached by these organisations is becoming increasingly hard to refute.

Perhaps two of the most well-known advocates for annexation inside the government are Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, politicians for the Religious Zionist party and recently elected members of Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Their political extremism and calls for anti-Palestinian terrorism seem to know no limits. Smotrich recently called for the Palestinian village of Huwara to be ‘wiped out’ (after the village had endured a pogrom carried out by 400 right-wing settlers), and Ben-Gvir has previously been charged with 4 counts of incitement to racism and supporting a terrorist organisation. The protests in Israel/Palestine have often used Ben-Gvir and Smotrich as a focal point of their indignation, with many Israelis keen to identify Ben-Gvir and Smotrich as anomalies, not representative of the Zionist cause. Others would argue that the rise of these two fascist politicians is the inevitable consequence of a wider Zionist movement that tolerates their fascist views and promotes organisations such as StandWithUs and AIPAC to silence criticism directed towards the Jewish ‘ethnostate’ that has been created through Parliamentary statute in the Knesset.

Whilst we must praise the Israelis who have taken to the streets in defiance of dictatorship and judicial overhaul, I believe they must do more to promote the same democracy being extended to their Palestinian neighbours. It appears the will of the non-radical protestors in Israel is simply the return of true democracy for Jewish Israelis, ignoring that many believe Israel hasn’t been a fully democratic country for Palestinians since its creation in 1948. This was enshrined into law with the passing of the 2018 Nation-State bill, which states that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people.” The return to empty calls for peace and a two-state solution by the same Israeli governments which actively encourage expansion of settlements and refuse to take meaningful action against Palestinian discrimination, seems to be the most optimistic situation we can realistically hope for in the near future.

Whilst there has been a vocal Anti-Occupation bloc in the Tel Aviv protests, they make up a small minority and face routine harassment and assault by other protestors and the Police. If even left-wing and centre-left groupings inside of Israel aren’t willing to support the reality of Palestinian equality, what hope do we have for justice, peace, or indeed reconciliation and ‘shrinking the conflict’? At the heart of the recent protests is a desire for a political return to supposedly liberal pre-state Zionist ideals. We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that the millions of Israeli Arabs and Palestinian citizens of Israel have been notably absent from the vast majority of protests.

Perhaps it is precisely the ideology of pre-state Zionism that led to the Nakba of 1948, thus showing that this purported liberalism and equality is nothing more than a façade- wishful thinking. For many Israeli Arabs, the Anti-Government protests are unwelcoming spaces until Palestinian suffering is given more credence by the Israeli Opposition.

The failure to protest for a guarantee of an end to the occupation and true democracy for Palestinians residing in the West Bank could have catastrophic consequences for Israelis and Palestinians alike. For these Palestinians, it would mean the continuation of everyday oppression and lack of freedom in all parts of their lives. For Israelis, on the other hand, we might expect to see further political shifts towards the extreme right and increased isolation from the International community. Most importantly, the never-ending cycle of bloodshed in Israel-Palestine would continue; innocent lives would continue to be tragically lost.


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