Category Archives: Benjamin Netanyahu

The Threat of Annexation is far from Over

Annexation by Israel of occupied Palestinian territory in the West Bank was never likely to happen on July 1, as many observers assumed. The date was not a deadline; it was a window opened by the Israeli government to carry out annexation before US President Donald Trump leaves office.

Unhappily for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that window could slam shut in a matter of months, if current polling trends continue and Trump loses the presidential election in November.

Certainly, the fact that no dramatic move took place last week does not indicate that annexation is off the table. Indeed, following meetings in Israel with US officials last week, Netanyahu’s office suggested that a US announcement on annexation could happen within days.

The dithering, according to the Israeli media, reflects divisions inside the US administration – despite the fact that its so-called Middle East “peace plan”, published earlier in the year, approved Israel’s annexation of as much as a third of Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and the architect of that plan, has reportedly been at loggerheads with David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, over the timing and scale of annexation.

Both are fervent supporters of the settlements. But while Friedman’s circle of intimates is dominated by Netanyahu and settler leaders, Kushner has had to weigh wider pressures. It is Kushner who is fielding anxious calls from Arab and European leaders about annexation.

Trump’s attention, meanwhile, is focused on other pressing matters, such as how to stop a dangerous fall in his popularity as the pandemic runs wild with potentially catastrophic consequences for the US economy.

Nonetheless, according to a report on the weekend in the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, Netanyahu and Friedman’s position may slowly be winning out. Kushner is reportedly less in Trump’s favour after recent disagreements on domestic policy matters.

Annexation has already served Netanyahu’s immediate needs. It was a large carrot that incentivised his voting base to keep turning out in three inconclusive elections over the course of a year. It has distracted from his current corruption trial, as well as from his failure to maintain a grip on the Covid-19 pandemic.

Some have speculated that he may no longer feel the need to go through with annexation. Although backed by many Israelis, it is low on their list of priorities as they grapple with disease and recession.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu would struggle to forego it.

This is in part because he made too much of it – and of his special relationship with Trump – during the election campaigns. He will not be forgiven by many on the right should he fail to capitalise on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grab the title deeds to occupied Palestinian land with US blessing.

Furthermore, Netanyahu’s own vanity should not be discounted. This is his chance to take his place in Israel’s history books – not as Israel’s first prime minister to stand trial while in office, but as the leader who secured recognition of the settlements and killed off any chance of a viable Palestinian state.

The question for Netanyahu is how much of a concession he seeks to extract from the White House. The answer may depend on whether Trump looks likely to win a second term.

Israeli media reports suggest that Netanyahu may settle for a two-stage annexation. In this view, Israel would quickly annex the larger settlements around Jerusalem, cementing the loss to the Palestinians of their future capital.

That would be the effective sequel to Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem two years ago. It would also presumably play well once again with the Christian evangelicals on whose vote Trump relies.

The more remote settlements and the Jordan Valley might follow, but possibly only if Trump wins in November, when he can protect Netanyahu from the likely backlash.

There are advantages – for the Israeli government – to a staged annexation.

It would diminish the threat of destabilising neighbouring Jordan, which has a large population of Palestinian refugees.

It may also mitigate the danger of the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, effectively Israel’s security contractor in the West Bank. The Israeli army is reportedly worried about whether it can absorb the burden of again policing the West Bank’s cities directly, especially if they are in foment.

It would let the Europeans cling a little longer to the fig leaf of a moribund peace process, one that has provided a pretext for inaction against Israel for so long.

It has been revelatory watching European governments, even that of Britain’s go-it-alone Boris Johnson, suddenly rediscover the importance of international law when faced with annexation and the formal death of the two-state solution.

But whether Netanyahu gets his annexation – all of it or some of it – the Israeli right will emerge strengthened once again in their battle against the Palestinian national movement.

Since the Oslo accords were signed more than a quarter of a century ago, there has been a continual erosion of language and principles, to the detriment of the Palestinian cause.

In those days, the international community’s focus was on ending the occupation, dismantling Israel’s settlements and developing a Palestinian state in the territories vacated by Israel. In his first term as prime minister, in the late 1990s, Netanyahu was forced to cede control of small parts of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority.

Later, the debate shifted: to where the borders of a future state should be drawn and which settlement “blocs” were too indispensable for Israel to be expected to give them up.

Now a conceptual shift is occurring again. The diplomatic conversation is about how to stop annexation, or at least which parts of annexation cannot be allowed to proceed.

The occupation and the settlements – and the terrible toll they have inflicted on the lives of Palestinians – are no longer the international community’s red line. Annexation is.

As international observers try to stop Israel’s formal annexation of the West Bank, they are again losing sight of the incremental thefts of land and displacements of Palestinians taking place on a daily basis.

This kind of concrete annexation – that slowly eats away at Palestinian hopes of dignity and self-determination – will continue apace whatever President Trump decides over the coming days.

• First published in The National

PA Political Circus: Why Abbas Must Hand the Keys over to the PLO

The painful truth is that the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas has already ceased to exist as a political body that holds much sway or relevance, either to the Palestinian people or to Abbas’ former benefactors, namely the Israeli and the American governments.

So, when the Palestinian Authority Prime Minister, Mohammed Shtayyeh, announced on June 9, that the Palestinian leadership had submitted a ‘counter-proposal’ to the US’ Middle East peace plan, also known as the ‘Deal of the Century’, few seemed to care.

We know little about this ‘counter-proposal’, aside from the fact that it envisages a demilitarized Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders. We also know that the Palestinian leadership is willing to accept land swaps and border adjustments, a provision that has surely been inserted to cater to Israel’s demographic and security needs.

It is almost certain that nothing will come out of Shtayyeh’s counter-proposal and no independent Palestinian state is expected to result from the seemingly historical offer. So, why did Ramallah opt for such a strategy only days before the July 1 deadline, when the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to launch its process of illegal annexation in the occupied West Bank and the Jordan Valley?

The main reason behind Shtayyeh’s announcement is that the Palestinian leadership is often accused by Israel, the US and their allies of supposedly rejecting previous ‘peace’ overtures.

Rightly, the Palestinian Authority rejected the ‘Deal of the Century’, because the latter represents the most jarring violation of international law yet. The ‘Deal’ denies Palestine’s territorial rights in occupied East Jerusalem, dismisses the right of return for Palestinian refugees altogether, and gives carte blanche to the Israeli government to colonize more Palestinian land.

In principle, Netanyahu also rejected the American proposal, though without pronouncing his rejection publicly. Indeed, the Israeli leader has already dismissed any prospects of Palestinian statehood and has decided to move forward with the unilateral annexation of nearly 30% of the West Bank without paying any heed to the fact that even Trump’s unfair ‘peace’ initiative called for mutual dialogue before any annexation takes place.

As soon as Washington’s plan was announced in January, followed by Israel’s insistence that annexation of Palestinian territories was imminent, the Palestinian Authority spun into a strange political mode, far more unpredictable and bizarre than ever before.

One after another, Palestinian Authority officials began making all sorts of contradictory remarks and declarations, notable amongst them Abbas’ decision on May 19 to cancel all agreements signed between Palestinians and Israel.

This was followed by another announcement, on June 8, this time by Hussein Al-Sheikh, a senior Palestinian Authority official and Abbas’ confidante, that if annexation takes place the Authority would cut off civil services to Palestinians so that Israel may assume its legal role as an Occupying Power as per international norms.

A third announcement was made the following day by Shtayyeh himself, who threatened that, if Israel claims sovereignty over parts of the West Bank, the Authority would retaliate by declaring statehood within the pre-1967 borders.

The Palestinian counter-proposal was declared soon after this hotchpotch of announcements, most likely to offset the state of confusion that is marring the Palestinian body politic. It is the Palestinian leadership’s way of appearing pro-active, positive, and stately.

The Palestinian initiative also aims at sending a message to European countries that, despite Abbas’ cancellation of agreements with Israel, the Palestinian Authority is still committed to the political parameters set by the Oslo Accords as early as September 1993.

What Abbas and Shtayyeh are ultimately hoping to achieve is a repeat of an earlier episode that followed the admission of Palestine as a non-state member of the United Nations General Assembly in 2011. Salam Fayyad, who served as the Authority Prime Minister at the time, also waved the card of the unilateral declaration of statehood to force Israel to freeze the construction of illegal Jewish settlements.

Eventually, the Palestinian Authority was co-opted by then-US Secretary of State, John Kerry, to return to another round of useless negotiations with Israel, which won the Authority another ten years, during which time it received generous international funds while selling Palestinians false hope for an imaginary state.

Sadly, this is the current strategy of the Palestinian leadership: a combination of threats, counter-proposals and such, in the hope that Washington and Tel Aviv will agree to return to a by-gone era.

Of course, the Palestinian people, occupied, besieged, and oppressed are the least relevant factor in the Palestinian Authority’s calculations, but this should come as no surprise. The Palestinian leadership has operated for many years without a semblance of democracy, and the Palestinian people neither respect their government nor their so-called President. They have made their feelings known, repeatedly, in many opinion polls in the past.

In the last few months, the Authority has used every trick in the book to demonstrate its relevance and its seriousness in the face of the dual-threat of Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ and Netanyahu’s annexation of Palestinian lands. Yet, the most significant and absolutely pressing step, that of uniting all Palestinians, people and factions, behind a single political body and a single political document, is yet to be taken.

Considering all of this, it is no exaggeration to argue that Abbas’ Authority is gasping its last breath, especially if its traditional European allies fail to extend a desperately needed lifeline. The guarded positions adopted by EU countries have, thus far, signaled that no European country is capable or even willing to fill the gap left open by Washington’s betrayal of the Palestinian Authority and of the ‘peace process’.

Until the Authority hands over the keys to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) so that the more democratically representative Palestinian body can start a process of national reconciliation, Netanyahu will, tragically, remain the only relevant party, determining the fate of Palestine and her people.

Palestine Bleeds: Execution of Autistic Man is Not an Exception but the Norm

A 32-year-old man with the mental age of an 8-year-old child was executed by Israeli soldiers on May 30, while crouching behind his teacher near his special needs school in the Old City of Jerusalem.

The cold-blooded murder of Iyad al-Hallaq might not have received much attention if it were not for the fact that it took place five days following the similarly heartbreaking murder of a 46-year-old black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis, at the hands of American police.

The two crimes converge, not only in their repugnancy and the moral decadence of their perpetrators, but also because countless American police officers have been trained in Israel, by the very Israeli ‘security forces’ that killed al-Hallaq. The practice of killing civilians, with efficiency and callousness, is now a burgeoning market. Israel is the biggest contributor to this market; the US is the world’s largest client.

When thousands of people rushed to the streets in Palestine, including hundreds of Palestinian and Israeli Jewish activists in Jerusalem, chanting “Justice for Iyad, justice for George”, their cry for justice was a spontaneous and heartfelt reaction to injustice so great, so blatant.

Al-Hallaq’s story might appear particularly unique, as the ‘suspected terrorist’ was killed while merely walking in King Faisal Street in Jerusalem, on his way to take out the trash. He was afraid of soldiers and terrified of blood.

“He was also afraid of the armed police officers who stood along the route to the special needs center he went to, where he participated in a vocational training program,” the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, reported.

Al-Hallaq’s many fears, which may have appeared exaggerated by his family, turned out to be true. Even an autistic person in Palestine is not safe from the vengeance of soldiers.

But Iyad al-Hallaq did not need to die for Israel to maintain its pathological sense of ‘security’. The fact that he was already shot and wounded, and found bleeding in a roofless garbage room in Jerusalem’s Old City, was not enough to spare him that horrific fate. The fact that the man screamed in agony while hiding behind his caregiver, who pleaded with the soldiers, begging them to stop puncturing his already bleeding body with more bullets, was also not enough.

Still, the soldiers stepped forward, and from a very close range, fired three bullets into al-Hallaq’s midsection as he lay wounded on his back. Instantly, the young man, the ‘apple of the eyes of his parents’, ceased breathing.

“He was our mother’s love, her entire life,” Iyad’s sister, Diana said in an interview with +972 magazine. “She would hold his hand like he was a baby, and he would walk with her to the market, or the mosque or the clothing store. He was like her shadow. She worried about him and whether other kids would bother or hurt him.”

Caught off guard by the grisly nature of the murder and the mental state of the victim, Israel’s spin doctors moved quickly to contain the damage, initially spreading lies that al-Hallaq was carrying a toy gun at the time of the shooting, then backing off, promising an investigation.

But what is there to investigate? In recent years, the Israeli army has upgraded its code of conduct, adopting a shoot-to-kill policy of any Palestinian they suspect of attempting to harm Israeli occupation soldiers, even when the alleged Palestinian ‘attacker’ is no longer posing a threat.

In the case of Gaza, where protesters are separated from Israeli snipers by barbed wire and nearly a mile-long empty space, the Israeli military issued orders, as of June 2019, to shoot and kill ‘key instigators’ of the mass protests even while ‘at rest’. Hundreds of people have been killed in Gaza’s Great March of Return in this way, and the ‘key instigators’ included medics, journalists, young boys and girls.

Indeed, the killing of Palestinian civilians is a regular occurrence. It is the devastating routine with which Palestinians have been forced to co-exist for many years and for which Israel was never ever held accountable.

Only one day before al-Hallaq was murdered, Fadi Samara Qaad, 37, was killed by Israeli occupation soldiers while driving his car near the Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh, west of Ramallah.

The Israeli military immediately claimed that Qaad “tried to ram his car into a group of soldiers” before they opened fire, killing him on the spot.

This is the go-to Israeli military pretense that is often offered when a Palestinian driver is shot and killed by Israeli soldiers. Otherwise, the Palestinian victim, whether a man, a woman, or a child, is often accused of carrying a ‘sharp object’.

Al-Hallaq’s mental disability might have spared him, in the eyes of some, from being that archetypical ‘terrorist’, although the Israeli army immediately raided his house, looking for ‘evidence’ that would implicate him and be useful in their sinister propaganda.

In the case of Qaad, a Palestinian worker, on his way to join his wife in a nearby town to celebrate the Muslim Eid holiday, the Israeli army statement suffices, no questions asked.

This is the same stifling logic that has prevailed in Palestine for so many years, and counting. Children are killed for throwing stones at men with guns, who have invaded their homes and villages; pregnant women are gunned down at Israeli army checkpoints; men with amputated legs in wheelchairs shot by snipers while protesting and demanding their freedom.

All of this is taking place in the complete absence of any promising political horizon. Even the protracted and ultimately useless ‘peace process’ has been halted in favor of greater American backing of Israel and of the Israeli government’s mad rush to expand illegal Jewish settlements.

To secure his colonial accomplishments — read: land theft — Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is about to reveal the crown jewel of his legacy, as he prepares for the expansion of Israel’s borders through the annexation of yet more Palestinian land.

Inspired by the common struggle that ties them with their African-American brethren, Palestinians are now left only with their cries for justice: Palestinian lives matter, hoping, for once, the world may hear and echo their screams and, perhaps, do something.

The Slow Exodus of Palestinian Christians

• To read this essay on the Americans for Middle East Understanding website, click here

• For a PDF version, click here

It was inevitable that when the coronavirus pandemic reached the occupied Palestinian territories, as it did in early March, it would find its first purchase in Bethlehem, a few miles south-east of Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank.

Staff at the Angel Hotel in Beit Jala, one of Bethlehem’s satellite towns, tested positive after they were exposed to a group of infected Greek tourists. Israel worked hurriedly with the Palestinian Authority – the Palestinians’ permanent government-in-waiting in the occupied territories – to lock down Bethlehem. Israel was fearful that the virus, unlike the city’s Palestinian inhabitants, would be difficult to contain. Contagion might spread quickly to nearby Palestinian communities in the West Bank, then to Jewish settlements built illegally by Israel on Bethlehem’s lands, and finally on into Israel itself.

The Palestinian territories were under a form of lockdown long before the arrival of the coronavirus; however. Israel, the occupying power, has made sure that the entire Palestinian population is as isolated from the world as possible – their voices silenced, their experiences of oppression and brutality at Israel’s hands near-invisible to most of the Israeli public and to outsiders.

But Bethlehem, the reputed site of Jesus’s birth 2,000 years ago, is the one Palestinian area – outside East Jerusalem, which has been illegally annexed by Israel – that has proved hardest for Israel to hermetically seal off. During visits to the Church of the Nativity, tourists can briefly glimpse the reality of Palestinian life under occupation.

Some 15 years ago Israel completed an 26 ft-high concrete wall around Bethlehem. On a typical day – at least, before coronavirus halted tourism to the region – a steady stream of coaches from Jerusalem, bearing thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world, came to a stop at a gap in the concrete that served as a checkpoint. There they would wait for the all-clear from surly Israeli teenage soldiers. Once approved, the coaches would drive to the Nativity Church, their passengers able to view the chaotic graffiti scrawled across the wall’s giant canvas, testifying to the city’s imprisonment and its defiance.

Like the plague-bearing Greeks, visitors to Bethlehem could not avoid mixing, even if perfunctorily, with a few locals, mostly Palestinian Christians. Guides showed them around the main attraction, the Church, while local officials and clergy shepherded them into queues to be led down to a crypt that long ago was supposedly the site of a stable where Jesus was born. But unlike the Greek visitors, most pilgrims did not hang around to see the rest of Bethlehem. They quickly boarded their Israeli coaches back to Jerusalem, where they were likely to sleep in Israeli-owned hotels and spend their money in Israeli-owned restaurants and shops.

For most visitors to the Holy Land, their sole meaningful exposure to the occupation and the region’s native Palestinian population was an hour or two spent in the goldfish-bowl of Bethlehem.

A taste of occupation

In recent years, however, that had started to change. Despite the wall, or at times because of it, more independent-minded groups of pilgrims and lone travelers had begun straying off grid, leaving the Israeli-controlled tourism trail. Rather than making a brief detour, they stayed a few nights in Bethlehem. A handful of small, mostly cheap hotels like the Angel catered to them, as did restaurants and souvenir stores around the church.

In tandem, a new kind of political tourism based in and around Bethlehem had begun offering tours of the wall and sections of the city, highlighting the theft of the city’s land by neighboring Jewish settlements and the violence of Israeli soldiers who can enter Bethlehem at will.

A few years ago, the famous anonymous British graffiti artist Banksy gave a major boost to this new kind of immersive tourism by allying with a Bethlehem tour guide, Wisam Salsa, to open the Walled-Off Hotel. They converted an old building boxed in by the wall, liberally sprinkling it with Banksy’s subversive artworks about the occupation, as well as installing a gallery exhibiting the work of Palestinian artists and a museum detailing the occupation’s history and Israel’s well-tested methods of control and repression.

Admittedly, few visitors managed to get a room in Banksy’s small hotel, but many more came to sit in the lobby and sip a beer, produced by one of a handful of newly emerging breweries run by Christian Palestinians, or add some graffiti to the wall just outside with the help of a neighboring art supplies shop.

Before coronavirus, the Walled-Off offered daily tours of Aida, a refugee camp attached to Bethlehem, whose inhabitants were expelled from some of the more than 500 Palestinian communities Israel erased in 1948 – in the Nakba, or Catastrophe – to create a Jewish state on their homeland. There, visitors not only learned about the mass dispossession of Palestinians, sponsored by the western powers that made Israel’s creation possible, but they heard the camp’s inhabitants tell of regular violent, night-time raids by Israeli soldiers and of the daily struggle for survival when Israel tightly controls and limits essentials like water.

Until the coronavirus did Israel’s work for it, Israeli authorities had noted with growing concern how more tourists and pilgrims were staying in Bethlehem. According to Israeli figures, there are about a million tourist overnights annually in Bethlehem. And that figure was growing as new hotels were built, even if the total was still a tiny fraction of the number of tourists staying in Israel and Israeli-ruled East Jerusalem.

An Achilles’ heel

The new trend disturbed the Israeli authorities. Bethlehem was proving an Achilles’ heel in Israel’s system of absolute control over the Palestinians for two reasons.

First, it brought money into Bethlehem, providing it with a source of income outside Israel’s control. The Israeli authorities have carefully engineered the Palestinian economy to be as dependent on Israel as possible, making it easy for Israel to punish Palestinians and the PA economically for any signs of disobedience or resistance. Aside from its tourism, Bethlehem has been largely stripped of economic autonomy. After waves of land thefts by Israel, the city now has access to only a tenth of its original territory, and has been slowly encircled by settlements. The city’s residents have been cut off from their farmland, water sources and historic landmarks. Jerusalem, once Bethlehem’s economic and cultural hinterland, has become all but unreachable for most residents, hidden on the other side of the wall. And those working outside the tourism sector need a difficult-to-obtain permit from Israel’s military authorities to enter and work in low-paying jobs in construction and agriculture inside Israel, the settlements or occupied Jerusalem.

Israel’s second ground for concern was that foreign visitors staying in Bethlehem were likely to learn first-hand something of the experiences of the local population – more so than those who simply made a brief detour to see the church. A self-serving narrative about Palestinians central to Israeli propaganda – that Israel stands with the west in a Judeo-Christian battle against a supposedly barbaric Muslim enemy – risked being subverted by exposure to the reality of Bethlehem. After all, anyone spending time in the city would soon realize that it includes Palestinian Christians only too ready to challenge Israel’s grand narrative of a clash of civilizations.

From Israel’s point of view, a stay in Bethlehem might also open tourists’ eyes in dangerous ways. They might come to understand that, if anyone was behaving in a barbaric way and provoking an unresolvable, religiously inspired clash, it was not Palestinians – Muslim or Christian – but Israel, which has been brutally ruling over Palestinians for decades.

For both reasons, Israel wished to prevent Bethlehem from becoming a separate, rival hub for tourism. It was impossible to stop pilgrims visiting the Church of the Nativity, but Israel could stop Bethlehem developing its own tourism industry, independent of Israel. The wall has been part of that strategy, but it failed to curb the development of new tourism ventures – and in some cases, as with the Banksy hotel, had actually inspired alternative forms of tourism.

In early 2017 the Israeli authorities finally acted. The daily Haaretz newspaper revealed that the interior ministry had issued a directive to local travel agencies warning them not to allow their pilgrimage groups to stay overnight in Bethlehem, with the implication that the firms risked losing their licenses if they did so. According to Haaretz, the government claimed that “potential terrorists were traveling with groups of tourists”.

Bethlehem is lucky that, unlike other Palestinian communities, it has allies Israel cannot easily ignore. Haaretz’s exposure of the new policy led to a rapid backlash. International churches, especially the Vatican, were worried that it was the thin end of a wedge that might soon leave the City of the Nativity off-limits to its pilgrims. And Israeli travel agencies feared their business would suffer. Pilgrim groups from poorer countries that could not afford Jerusalem’s high prices, especially for accommodation, might stop coming to the Holy Land.

As one agent told Haaretz: “The meaning of a letter like this is the end of incoming tourism from India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and eastern European countries like Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine. All the tourists who visit Israel and sleep in Bethlehem are doing that primarily to reduce costs.” The loss of such tourists not only threatened to deprive Bethlehem of the benefits of tourism but threatened Israel’s much larger tourism sector. Soon afterwards, the Israeli authorities backtracked, saying the directive had been a draft issued in error.

Shrinking population

Bethlehem’s plight – a microcosm of the more general difficulties faced by Palestinians under occupation – offers insights into why the region’s Palestinian Christian population has been shrinking so rapidly and relentlessly.

The demographics of Bethlehem offer stark evidence of a Christian exodus from the region. In 1947, the year before Israel’s creation, 85 percent of Bethlehem’s inhabitants were Christian. Today the figure stands at 15 percent. Christians now comprise less than 1.5 percent of the Palestinian population in the West Bank – some 40,000 of a population of nearly 3 million – down from 5 percent in the early 1970s, shortly after Israel occupied the territory in 1967.

In 1945 Bethlehem had nearly 8,000 Christian residents, slightly more than the 7,000 who live there today. Natural growth should mean Bethlehem’s Christian population is many times that size. There are, in fact, many times more Palestinian Christians overseas than there are in historic Palestine. The 7,000 Christians of Beit Jala, next to Bethlehem, are outnumbered by more than 100,000 family members who have moved to the Americas.

Israel ostensibly professes great concern about this decline, but actually it is only too happy to see native Christians depart the region. Their exodus has helped to make Israel’s clash of civilizations narrative sound more plausible, bolstering claims that Israel does indeed serve as a rampart against Muslim-Arab terror and barbarism. Israel has argued that it is helping Christian Palestinians as best it can, protecting them from their hostile Muslim neighbors. In this way, Israel has sought to mask its active role in encouraging the exodus.

The rapid decline in the numbers of these Christians reflects many factors that have been intentionally obscured by Israel. Historically, the most significant is that Palestinian Christians were nearly as badly impacted as Palestinian Muslims by the mass expulsions carried out by Zionist forces in 1948. In total, some 80 percent of all Palestinians living in what became the new state of Israel were expelled from their lands and became refugees – 750,000 from a population of 900,000. Those forced into exile included tens of thousands of Christians, amounting to two-thirds of the Palestinian Christian population of the time.

Palestinian Christians who remained in historic Palestine – either in what had now become Israel or in the territories that from 1967 would fall under Israeli occupation – have naturally shrunk over time in relation to the Muslim population because of the latter’s higher birth rates. Palestine’s Christians mostly lived in cities. Their urban lifestyles and generally higher incomes, as well as their greater exposure to western cultural norms, meant they tended to have smaller families and, as a result, their community’s population growth was lower.

But rather than acknowledge this historical context, Israeli lobbyists seek to exploit and misrepresent the inevitable tensions and resentments caused by the mass displacements of the Nakba, developments that had a significant impact on traditionally Christian communities like Bethlehem. During the events of 1948, as rural Palestinian villages were ethnically cleansed by Zionist forces, the refugees sought shelter either in neighboring states like Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, or in West Bank cities.

Bethlehem found its demographics transformed: an 85 percent Christian majority before the Nakba has been reversed into an 85 percent Muslim majority today. These dramatic social and cultural upheavals – turning the city’s majority population into a minority – were not easy for all Bethlehem’s Christian families to accept. It would be wrong to ignore the way these changes caused friction. And the resentments have sometimes festered because they are incapable of resolution without addressing the source of the problem: Israel’s mass dispossession of Palestinians, and the continuing tacit support for these abuses by the international community.

Given this context, it has been easy for inter-family rivalries and conflicts that are inevitable in a ghettoized, overcrowded community like today’s Bethlehem to be interpreted by some members of the minority group as sectarian, even when they are not. The lack of proper law enforcement in Palestinian areas in which Israel rather than the PA is the ultimate arbiter of what is allowed has left smaller Christian families more vulnerable in conflicts with larger Muslim families. In the competition for diminishing resources, family size has mattered. And whereas globalization has tended to encourage increased identification among Palestinian Christians with the west and its more secular norms, the same processes have entrenched a religious identity among sections of the Muslim population who look to the wider Middle East for their ideas and salvation. Consequently, a cultural gap has widened.

These problems exist but it would be wrong to exaggerate them – as Israel’s loyalists wish to do – or to ignore who is ultimately responsible for these tensions. That is not a mistake most Palestinian Christians make. In a recent survey of Christians who have emigrated, very few pointed to “religious extremism” as the reason for leaving the region – just 3 percent. The overwhelming majority cited reasons relating in some way to Israel’s continuing malevolent role in controlling their lives. A third blamed a “lack of freedom”, a quarter “worsening economic conditions”, and 20 percent “political instability.”

Leaving Palestine

To make sense of the specific problems faced by the Christian community, other historical contexts need to be understood. Palestinian Christians break down into four broad communities. The first is the Eastern Orthodox Churches, dominated by the Greek Orthodox. The second is the Catholic Churches, led by the “Latin” community that looks towards Rome, although they are outnumbered among Palestinians by Greek and Syrian Catholics. The third category is the Oriental Orthodox churches, which include the Copts, Armenian and Syrian Orthodox. And. finally, there are various Protestant Churches, including the Anglicans, Lutherans and Baptists.

Long before Israel’s creation on most of the Palestinians’ homeland, Christians were concentrated in and around Palestine’s urban centers. In Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, large numbers of Christians coalesced around sites associated with Jesus’s life. This tendency was reinforced as Palestine’s cities flourished and expanded from the 18th century onwards under Ottoman rule. The Ottomans encouraged the immigration of Christians to these centers of worship and cultivated a confessional system that made conditions attractive for the foreign Churches.

The result was a relatively privileged urban Christian population that consisted largely of merchants and traders, and benefited from the resources poured in by the international Churches as part of their missionary work, including schools and hospitals. Christians were typically wealthier, better educated and healthier than their Muslim counterparts often living nearby in isolated rural communities as peasant farmers. In addition, Christian families had good connections to the international Churches through local clergy, as well as the staff of Church-run schools and hospitals.

Those differences have proved significant as Palestinian Christians and Muslims alike have struggled under Israeli colonization, whether inside Israel’s internationally recognized borders or in the occupied territories.

Israel’s institutionalized racism towards Palestinians – systematic land thefts, uninhibited state and settler violence, as well as restrictions on movement and the denial of educational and employment opportunities – have put pressure on all Palestinians to leave. But Christians have enjoyed significant advantages in making their escape. They could tap their connections in the Churches to help them settle abroad, chiefly in the Americas and Europe. And that path was made easier for many given that relatives had already established lives overseas following the mass expulsions of 1948. As a result, the emigration of Palestinian Christians is generally reckoned to have been around twice that of Muslims.

Struggling under occupation

Israel’s oft-repeated claim that Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are responsible for the exodus of Christians out of the Holy Land is given the lie simply by examining the situation of Palestinian Christians both inside Israel, where neither Hamas nor the PA operate, and in East Jerusalem, where the influence of both has long been negligible. In each of those areas, Israel has unchallenged control over Palestinians’ lives. Yet we can see the same pattern of Christians fleeing the region.

And the reasons for Gaza’s tiny Palestinian Christian population, today numbering maybe only 1,000, to leave their tiny, massively overcrowded enclave, which has been blockaded for 13 years by Israel, barely needs examining. True, it has been hard for these Christians – 0.0005 percent of Gaza’s population – to feel represented in a territory so dominated by the Islamic social and cultural values embodied by the Hamas government. But there is little evidence they are being persecuted.

On the other hand, there is overwhelming proof that Gaza’s Christians are suffering, along with their Muslim neighbors, from Israel’s continuing violations of their most fundamental rights to freedom, security and dignity.

The picture in the West Bank, meanwhile, needs closer study. As noted, Palestinian Christians have generally enjoyed historic privileges over their Muslim compatriots that derive from their historic connections to the Churches. They have been able to exploit tourism as guides, drivers and guesthouse owners. They enjoy greater access to church-run schools and, as a consequence, improved access to higher education and the professions. They possess more valuable urban land, and many own shops and businesses in the cities. There are both Muslim and Christian lawyers, shopkeepers and business owners, of course, but proportionately more Christians have belonged to the middle classes and professions because of these various advantages.

While Israel’s occupation policies have harshly impacted all Palestinians, some have been hit harder than others. And those who have tended to suffer most live not in the main cities, which are under very partial Palestinian rule, but in rural areas and in the refugee camps. Those in the camps, in places such as Aida, next to Bethlehem, lost their lands and property to Israel and have had to rebuild their lives from scratch since 1948. Those living in isolated farming communities designated by the Oslo accords as “Area C” (a temporary designation that has effectively become permanent) are fully exposed to Israel’s belligerent civil and military control.

The residents of these communities have few opportunities to earn a living and have been most vulnerable to Israeli state and settler violence, as well as land thefts and the severe water restrictions imposed by Israel. In practice, these precarious conditions are endured disproportionately by Muslim Palestinians rather than Christians.

Nonetheless, Israel’s policies have increasingly deprived urban Christian families of the opportunities they had come to expect – the kind of opportunities westerners take for granted. And significantly, unlike many Muslim Palestinians, Christians have continued to enjoy one privilege: an escape route out of the region to countries where they have a chance to live relatively normal lives.

The damage to Christian life has been felt particularly keenly in relation to movement restrictions – one of the ways Israel has established a system of near-absolute control over Palestinian life. Those involved in trade and business, as many Christians are, have struggled to succeed as those restrictions have intensified over the past quarter-century, since the introduction of measures under the Oslo accords. An elaborate system of checkpoints and permits was established to control Palestinians’ freedom to move around the occupied territories and to enter Israel in search of work. Over time the system was enforced by a lengthy steel and concrete “separation barrier” that Israel began building nearly two decades ago.

Taybeh’s beer challenge

Typifying the difficulties of trading under these circumstances is the Taybeh micro-brewery in a West Bank village of the same name, in a remote location north of Ramallah overlooking the Jordan Valley. Taybeh is exceptional: its 1,300 inhabitants comprise the last exclusively Christian community in the occupied territories. The village – its name means both “good” and“delicious” in Arabic – is reputedly on the Biblical site of Ephraim. A small church marks the spot where Jesus reputedly retired with his disciples shortly before heading to Jerusalem, where he would be crucified. Taybeh has its own Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox schools, and a Catholic nursing home.

Nonetheless, Taybeh has long been in demographic meltdown. Today, its population is dwarfed by those of its diaspora: some 12,000 former residents and their descendants live abroad, mostly in the United States, Chile and Guatemala. Daoud and Nadim Khoury, two brothers who were themselves raised in the US, established the Taybeh brewery shortly after their return to the West Bank village under the Oslo accords. The business depended on the experiences and connections they had gained abroad.

For them, developing a sustainable business like the brewery was a way to halt and reverse the gradual demise of their village and the loss of its Christian heritage. They feared that any further decline in numbers would leave Taybeh’s lands and its ancient olive groves vulnerable to takeover by the three Jewish settlements that surround the village. The business was seen as a way to save Taybeh.

Maria Khoury, Daoud’s Greek wife, whom he met at Harvard, says the conditions of village life have continued to deteriorate. Unemployment stands at 60 percent, and Israel shuts off the water four times a week to preserve supplies for the Jewish settlements. The drive to the nearest Palestinian city, Ramallah, takes five times longer than it did 20 years ago – when it took little more than 15 minutes. That was before checkpoints and roadblocks were established on local roads to protect the settlers.

The Khourys have succeeded in their ambition to develop a range of award-winning beers made to the highest purity standards. The family has expanded into making boutique wines, and has built a prestige hotel in the village center, belying Taybeh’s small size. An annual Oktoberfest, modeled on German beer-drinking celebrations, has helped to put the remote village on the map. And a few restaurants have opened as Taybeh has tried to reinvent itself, with limited success, as a weekend-break destination.

But despite all these achievements, their larger ambitions have been foiled. Movement restrictions imposed by Israel’s military authorities have stymied efforts at growing the business. With a domestic market limited by opposition to alcohol consumption among most of the Palestinian population, Taybeh brewery has depended chiefly on exports to Europe, Japan and the US. But the difficulties of navigating Israel’s hostile bureaucracy have sapped the business of money, time and energy, making it hard to compete with foreign breweries.

Daoud told me at one Oktoberfest that the brewery faced Israeli “harassment in the name of security.” He noted that even when the crossing points were open, Israel held up the company’s trucks for many hours while bottles were unloaded and individually inspected with sniffer dogs. Then the bottles had to be reloaded on to Israeli trucks on the other side of the checkpoint. Apart from local spring water, all the beer’s ingredients and the bottles have to be imported from Europe, adding further logistical problems at Israeli ports. The ever-creative Khourys have been forced to circumvent these problems by licensing a plant in Belgium to produce its beers for foreign export. But that has deprived the village of jobs that could have gone to local families.

And while the Khourys struggle to get their products into Israel, Israel has absolute freedom to flood the occupied territories with its own goods. “The policy is clearly meant to harm businesses like ours. Israel freely sells its Maccabee and Goldstar beers in the West Bank,” Daoud told me.

Such experiences are replicated for Palestinian businesses, big and small, across the West Bank.

Precarious lives in Jerusalem

In Jerusalem, the Christian population has been shrinking too, even though the city has been entirely under Israeli control since its eastern neighborhoods were occupied and illegally annexed by Israel in 1967. The Palestinian Authority was briefly allowed a minimal presence in East Jerusalem in the late 1990s, but was effectively banished when the second intifada erupted a few years later, in 2000. A similar fate soon befell Jerusalem’s politicians associated with Hamas. After they won the Jerusalem seats in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, Israel expelled them to the West Bank.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Israel has not been keen to provide official figures for the exodus of Christians from Jerusalem. However, rather than growing, as one would have expected over the past five decades, the numbers have dropped significantly – from 12,000 in 1967 to some 9,000 today, according to Yousef Daher, of the Jerusalem Interchurch Center, located in Jerusalem’s Old City. Of those, he estimated that no more than 2,400 remained in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, where Israel has made life especially difficult.

Jerusalem is historically, symbolically, spiritually and economically important to the Palestinian people, and houses key Muslim and Christian holy sites. It has long been regarded by Palestinians as the only possible capital of their future state. But Israel views the city in much the same terms – as the religious and symbolic heart of its hybrid religious and ethnic national project. It has shown no interest in sharing the city as a capital, instead viewing it in zero-sum terms: whatever benefits Israel requires a loss to the Palestinians.

Gradually Israel’s stranglehold over Jerusalem has become complete. The wall it began building through the city more than 15 years ago has not only separated Palestinians in Jerusalem from Palestinians in the West Bank but has divided the city itself, placing more than 100,000 Palestinians on the wrong side, cutting them off from the city of their birth.

Two years ago, President Donald Trump added a US seal of approval by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US embassy there.

Those Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem still on the “Israeli” side of the wall have found themselves isolated and ever more vulnerable to the abuses inherent in Israel’s system of control. They have suffered planning restrictions that make it almost impossible to build homes legally. Israel demolishes dozens of Palestinian houses every year in the city, leading to ever greater overcrowding. Meanwhile, Israel has seized vast tracts of land in East Jerusalem for its illegal settlements and has helped Jewish settlers take over Palestinian homes.

The city’s security forces act as an occupying power in Palestinian neighborhoods, while city authorities pursue an official policy of “Judaization,” making Jerusalem more Jewish. Israel has accorded the city’s native Palestinian population a “residency” status that treats them as little more than immigrants. Many thousands who have left the city for extended periods to study or work abroad have returned to find their residency permits revoked.

The city’s Christian residents face similar problems to Muslims. But as a very small community, they have also faced specific pressures. Israel’s policy of cutting off Jerusalem from the West Bank, and especially from the nearby cities of Bethlehem and Ramallah, has left the city’s Christians particularly isolated. With many working as merchants and traders, the so-called “separation” policy has hit them hard economically.

Similarly, because the communal marriage pool is small for Christians in Jerusalem, many have been forced – at least, before the wall was erected – to search for a spouse among Christian populations nearby in the West Bank. That now leaves them disproportionately exposed to Israel’s increasingly draconian family unification policies. Typically Jerusalem’s Palestinians are denied the right to live with a West Bank spouse in the city, or to register the children of such marriages as Jerusalem residents. That has forced many to move into the West Bank or abroad as the only way to stay together.

As in Bethlehem, many of Jerusalem’s Christians work in tourism, either as tour guides or as owners of souvenir shops in the Old City’s Christian Quarter. That has proved a particularly precarious way to make a living in recent decades, with tourism collapsing on repeated occasions: during two lengthy intifadas, during Israel’s attacks on Gaza, and now from the coronavirus.

Israel will soon make it even harder for the Old City traders to make a living, when it completes a cable car into East Jerusalem. Currently many tourists enter via Jaffa Gate into the Christian Quarter, where shopkeepers have a chance to sell them goods and souvenirs. But the cable car will “fly in” tourists from a station in West Jerusalem directly to an illegal settlement complex at the City of David in Silwan, just outside the Old City walls. From there, either they will be guided straight into the Jewish Quarter through Dung Gate or they will pass through a network of underground passages lined with settler-owned shops that will take them to the foot of the Western Wall. The aim appears to be not only to make the Old City’s Palestinian population invisible but to deprive them of any chance to profit from tourism.

Land sales by Churches

But the problem runs deeper still for Palestinian Christians – and is felt especially acutely in Jerusalem. Local Christians have found themselves effectively pawns in a three-way international power-play between Israel, the established, land-owning Churches in the region, primarily the Vatican and Greek Orthodox Churches, and the evangelical movements. None of the parties represent their interests.

It is easy for pilgrims to ignore the fact, as they tour the Holy Land, that the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches are not local. They are vast foreign enterprises, based out of the Vatican and Greece, that are as concerned with their commercial viability and diplomatic influence on the global stage as they are with the spiritual needs of any specific flock, including Palestinian Christians. And in recent years that has become increasingly evident to local congregations.

The problems were symbolized two years ago when, for the first time in living memory, the main Churches shuttered the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the presumed site of Jesus’ crucifixion in Jerusalem. Church leaders said their actions were in response to Israel launching a “systematic and unprecedented attack against Christians in the Holy Land.” In that way, they mobilized international sympathy, and Israel quickly backed down. But only in the most tangential sense were the Churches looking out for the interests of local Christians. Their show of force was actually motivated by concern for their business interests.

The then mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, had sought to impose back taxes on the Churches’ substantial land-holdings in Jerusalem, hoping to recoup $180 million. Despite the impression presented by Church leaders, the row was not really about holy sites. Over the centuries, the Churches have become major real-estate enterprises in the Holy Land, benefiting from donations of land and properties in Jerusalem and elsewhere that have been made by Palestinian Christians and overseas pilgrims. The Greek Orthodox Church, for example, is the largest land-owner in the region after the Israeli state.

Historically, the Churches enjoyed a tax exemption derived from the charitable status of their spiritual mission and outreach work with Palestinian communities, including the provision of schools and hospitals. But increasingly the Churches have downgraded their charitable works and diversified into other, more clearly commercial ventures, such as shops, offices and restaurants. Pilgrimage hostels have been redeveloped into well-appointed and profitable hotels. Part of the income has then been siphoned off to the Church authorities in the mother countries rather than reinvested in strengthening local Palestinian communities.

That was why Aleef Sabbagh, a Palestinian member of the Orthodox Central Council, described the Holy Sepulcher protest as a “charade.” The Church had not been closed to protest Israel’s savagery towards Palestinians during either of the two intifadas, or in protest at the exodus of local Christians from the region. The foreign Churches found their voice only when they needed to protect their profits from real-estate and investment deals.

That does not, however, mean that Palestinian Christians have no reason to be concerned about Israel’s efforts to bully the Churches’ into paying more taxes, or that they were indifferent to the brief stand-off at the Sepulcher Church. The Vatican and Orthodox Patriarchate have become increasingly cowed in relation to Israel in recent decades, both as Israel has become ever more assertive of its powers in the region and as western states have shown they will support Israel however badly it treats Palestinians.

Israel has many points of leverage over the international Churches. It can, and has, frozen clerical work visas needed by their thousands of staff in the Holy Land. Israel regularly obstructs planning permits for the Church needed to build or renovate properties. And far-right groups close to Israel’s governing coalition regularly menace clergy in the streets and vandalize Church property, including cemeteries, under cover of dark. Israeli police have rarely caught or punished the perpetrators of such attacks.

Most notable of these attacks was a fire set by arsonists in 2015 that gutted sections of the Church of the Multiplication, the site on the shore of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus is reputed to have fed a large crowd with loaves and fishes. Graffiti in Hebrew scrawled on a church wall read: “Idol-worshippers will have their heads cut off.”

This strategy of weakening and intimidating the international Churches has been particularly glaring in relation to Orthodoxy. Each new Patriarch, the highest Orthodox figure in the region, must be jointly approved by the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Israel. And in the case of the last two Patriarchs, Irineos I and Theophilos III, Israel, unlike the PA and Jordan, has dragged its heels before approving their appointment. Irineos had to wait nearly four years, and Theophilos two and a half. The reason why has gradually become clear to local Christians.

Shortly after each Patriarch has belatedly received approval, evidence has come to light that his advisers have overseen the sale of some of the Churches’ vast landholdings in Israel and the occupied territories. These shadowy deals, usually selling invaluable land for a comparative pittance, have been made to Israeli companies or overseas organizations that it has later emerged acted as a front for Jewish settler groups.

The most infamous case concerns the sale to settlers of two large properties, serving as Palestinian-run hotels, at a highly strategic location by Jaffa Gate, the entrance into the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. These sales appear to be part of the price paid for Irineos to win Israeli approval. Israel has long been keen to Judaize Jaffa Gate because it effectively serves as a bridge between West Jerusalem, in Israel, and the Jewish Quarter, the main settler colony in the occupied Old City. Reporting on the land sales at Jaffa Gate, the Haaretz newspaper revealed tape recordings of a Jerusalem settler leader boasting that his organization, Ateret Cohanim, had a veto over the appointment of each Patriarch. He said Ateret Cohanim would only give its blessing once the Patriarch had sold it land.

The pattern appears to have repeated with Theophilos, who is accused of selling numerous plots of land near Bethlehem, West Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, Nazareth and Caesarea. The Church is reported to have pocketed more than $100 million from the deals. In 2017 some 300 Palestinian Christians filed a criminal complaint to the Palestinian attorney general in Ramallah, accusing the Patriarch of “treason.” The same year, 14 local Orthodox institutions – representing many of the half a million Greek Orthodox Christians in the occupied territories, Israel and Jordan – severed ties with Theophilos and his synod, and demanded his removal.

Palestinian Christians have increasing grounds for concern that the Churches are not looking out for their interests when they make these deals. Historically, lands were donated to the Greek Orthodox Church as an endowment, and the income used for the collective good of the Orthodox community in the Holy Land. But local communities say the money is nowadays siphoned off to the foreign Church authorities.

Further, nearly a quarter of land in East Jerusalem is reported to be Church-owned, including the Mount of Olives, Sheikh Jarrah and large swaths of the Old City. Many Palestinian Christians live in these areas, which are being aggressively targeted by the settler movement. Local Christians have little faith that the Church will not sell these lands in the future, leaving them vulnerable to eviction by settlers.

Atallah Hanna, the only Palestinian serving as a Greek Orthodox archbishop, has been repeatedly punished for speaking out against the Patriarch’s policies. He issued a statement about the land sales at Jaffa Gate: “Those who sell and forfeit our real estate and Orthodox endowments do not represent our Arab Church, its heritage, identity and historical presence in this holy land.”

The effort to financially “squeeze” the Churches by the Jerusalem mayor in 2018 should be seen in this light. If the Churches face big new tax bills, the pressure will increase on them over the longer term either to be more submissive to Israel, for fear of attracting additional taxes, or to sell off yet more land to cover their debts. Either way, Palestinian Christians will suffer.

Obstacle to the end-times

A separate essay could be written about the role of overseas Christian evangelical movements in damaging the situation of Palestinian Christians. Suffice it to point out that most evangelical Christians are largely indifferent to the plight of the region’s local Christian population.

In fact, Zionism, Israel’s state ideology, draws heavily on a Christian Zionism that became popular among British Protestants more than 150 years ago. Today, the heartland of evangelical Zionism is the United States, where tens of millions of believers have adopted a theological worldview, bolstered by prophecies in the Book of Revelation, that wills a Jewish “return” to the Promised Land to bring about an apocalyptic end-times in which Christians — and some Jews who accept Jesus as their savior — will be saved from damnation and rise up to Heaven.

Inevitably, when weighed against a fast-track to salvation, the preservation of Palestinian Christians’ 2,000-year-old heritage matters little to most US Christian Zionists. Local Christians regularly express fears that their holy sites and way of life are under threat from a state that declares itself Jewish and whose central mission is a zero-sum policy of “Judaization”. But for Christian Zionists, Palestinian Christians are simply an obstacle to realizing a far more urgent, divinely ordained goal.

US evangelicals have, therefore, been pumping money into projects that encourage Jews to move to the “Land of Israel,” including in the settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Their leaders are close to the most hawkish politicians in Israel, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The political clout of the evangelical movements in the US, the world’s only superpower and Israel’s chief patron, has never been more evident. The vice-president, Mike Pence, is one of their number, while President Donald Trump depended on evangelical votes to win office. That was why Trump broke with previous administrations and agreed that the US would become the first country in modern times to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, effectively killing any hope for the Palestinians of securing East Jerusalem as their capital.

Given this international atmosphere, the isolation of Palestinian Christians and their leaders is almost complete. They find themselves marginalized within their own Churches, entirely ignored by foreign evangelical movements, and an enemy of Israel. They have therefore tried to break out of that isolation both by forging greater unity among themselves and by setting out a clearer vision to strengthen ties to Christians outside the Holy Land.

One important milestone on that path was the publication of the Kairos Palestine document in December 2009, drawing on a similar document drafted by mainly black theologians in apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. Kairos Palestine, which describes itself as “the Christian Palestinians’ word to the world about what is happening in Palestine,” has been signed by more than 3,000 leading Palestinian Christian figures, including Atallah Hanna, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop for the Sebastiya diocese; Naim Ateek, a senior Anglican priest; Mitri Raheb, a senior Lutheran pastor; and Jamal Khader, a senior figure in the Latin Patriarchate.

The Kairos document calls unequivocally on “all the churches and Christians in the world … to stand against injustice and apartheid” and warns that “any theology, seemingly based on the Bible or on faith or on history, that legitimizes the occupation, is far from Christian teachings”. It asks Christians abroad to “revisit theologies that justify crimes perpetrated against our people and the dispossession of the land”. And further, it supports the wider Palestinian BDS call to boycott, divest and sanction Israel and those who conspire with the oppression of Palestinians. It describes non-violent resistance as a “duty” incumbent on all Palestinians, arguing that such resistance should end only when Israeli abuses end, not before.

Faced with inevitable accusations of antisemitism from Israel partisans in the west, most of the overseas Churches – including importantly, the World Council of Churches – have failed to respond to this Palestinian Christian call. Only the Presbyterian Church in the US has endorsed the document, while the United Church of Christ has praised it. Predictably, Israel lobbyists have tried to undermine the document’s significance by correctly highlighting that the foreign Church leaderships in Palestine, such as the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, have refused to endorse it. But then, these kind of Church leaders have rarely had the interests of their Palestinian congregations foremost in their minds.

Nonetheless, Israel is deeply concerned by the document. Were it to be accepted, it would bring the international Churches onboard with the wider Palestinian BDS movement, which calls for an international boycott of Israel. Israeli leaders deeply fear the precedent set by the international community’s treatment of apartheid South Africa.

Of the three planks of the BDS campaign, the most troubling for Israel are not the boycott or sanctions components, but the threat of divestment – the withdrawal of investments from Israel by Churches, civil society organizations, trade unions and pension funds. Were the Churches to adopt BDS, such actions could quickly gain a moral legitimacy and spread. The Kairos document is therefore viewed as the thin end of a very dangerous wedge.

Atallah Hanna, as the most senior cleric to have signed the document, has found himself particularly in the crosshairs from Israel. In December last year he ended up in hospital in Jordan, treated for “poisoning by chemical substance,” after a tear gas canister was reportedly thrown into the grounds of his church in Jerusalem. In the circumstances, Hanna’s claim that Israel had tried to “assassinate,” or at the very least incapacitate, him resonated with many Palestinians.

Certainly Hanna has found himself repeatedly in trouble with the Israeli authorities for his Palestinian activism. In 2002, during the second intifada, for example, he was seized at his home in the Old City of Jerusalem and charged with “suspicion of relations with terrorist organizations,” a trumped-up allegation relating to the fact that he had spoken in favor of the popular uprising against Israeli occupation.

In a meeting with a foreign delegation last year, Hanna warned that Israel, with the support of the international community, was being allowed to gradually transform Jerusalem: “The Islamic and Christian holy sites and endowments are targeted in order to change our city, hide its identity and marginalize our Arabic and Palestinian existence.”

Unwelcome Israeli citizens

The final community of Palestinian Christians to consider is the largest group, and the one most often overlooked: the 120,000 living in Israel with a degraded form of citizenship. These Palestinians have been exclusively under Israeli rule for more than 70 years. Israel falsely trumpets the claim that its Palestinian minority enjoys exactly the same rights as Jewish citizens. And yet the decline in the number of Palestinian Christians in Israel closely mirrors the situation of those in the occupied territories.

The Palestinian Christian population emerged from the events of 1948 in relatively better shape than their Muslim compatriots inside the territory that was now considered Israel. Aware of western states’ priorities, Israel was more cautious in its approach to the ethnic cleansing of communities with large numbers of Christians. As a result, the 40,000 Christians in Israel at the end of the Nakba comprised 22 per cent of the country’s new Palestinian minority. A few years later members of this minority would gain a very inferior form of Israeli citizenship.

Israel’s early caution in relation to Palestinian Christians was understandable. It feared antagonizing the western, largely Christian states whose backing it desperately needed. That policy was typified in the treatment of Nazareth, which was largely spared the wider policy of expulsions. However, as with Bethlehem, Nazareth’s Christian majority began to be overturned during 1948, as Muslims from neighboring villages that were under attack poured into the city, seeking sanctuary. Today, Nazareth has a 70 per cent Muslim majority.

The proportion of Christians among the Palestinian population in Israel has fallen more generally too – from nearly a quarter in the early 1950s to about 9 percent today. There is a similar number of Druze, a vulnerable religious sect that broke away from Islamic orthodoxy nearly 1,000 years ago. The rest of Israel’s Palestinian population – over 80 per cent – are Sunni Muslim.

The Christian exodus has been driven by similar factors to those cited by Palestinians in the West Bank. Within a self-declared Jewish state, Christians have faced diminished educational and employment opportunities; they must deal with rampant, institutional discrimination; and, after waves of land confiscations to Judaize the areas they live in, they can rarely find housing solutions for the next generation. Israel has encouraged a sense of hopelessness and despair equally among Christians and Muslims.

Problematic for Israel has been the fact that Palestinian Christians have played a pivotal role in developing secular Palestinian nationalism in both the occupied territories and in Israel. For obvious reasons, they have been concerned that Palestinian national identity should not deform into a divisive Islamic identity, mirroring Israel’s own hybrid ethnic and religious nationalism.

Given the difficulties of political activism for Palestinians inside Israel — for decades it could lead to jail or even deportation — many, especially Christians, joined the joint Jewish-Palestinian Communist party, on the assumption that its Jewish cadre would ensure protection. The most prized benefit of membership of the Communist party were scholarships to universities in the former Soviet bloc. Israel’s segregated school system, which included a near-dysfunctional state system for Palestinians, ensured higher education in Israel was mostly off-limits.

The scholarships were a boon to Christians because they enjoyed access to surviving, private Church-run schools in cities like Nazareth, Haifa and Jaffa that offered a better education. But Israel’s hope was that, once outside the region, many would never return — and indeed, this did become an additional factor in the decline of Israel’s Palestinian Christian population.

Onward Christian soldiers

But the advantages enjoyed by Palestinian Christians soon came to be seen by Israel as a liability. The Christians lived mostly in cities. Many had the advantages of access to good schools and higher education. Some had been exposed to the wider world through attending universities abroad. And Christians enjoyed connections to sympathetic communities overseas. Their continuing presence in the Holy Land, as well as their articulation of Palestinian nationalism to outsiders, served to undermine Israel’s claims of a simple Judeo-Christian clash of civilizations with Islam.

It was in this context that in late 2012 Israel secretly revived plans first raised in the aftermath of the Nakba to recruit Christian youth into the Israeli army. The programme focused on Nazareth and its environs, and targeted Christian Scout groups. Neither Muslims nor Christians in Israel are drafted into the army on leaving school, unlike Jewish and Druze youngsters. However, they can volunteer, though in practice only a tiny number do. Figures suggest there are a few dozen Christian families, typically poorer ones, whose sons join the army. But from 2012 onwards, the Netanyahu government worked hard to introduce a draft for Christians, hoping to drive a wedge between Christians and Muslims in Israel.

Netanyahu schemed on several fronts. He aggressively promoted the small number of Christian families with children in the army to suggest that they were representative of the wider community. Meanwhile, he claimed that the overwhelming majority of Christians who publicly opposed his plan did so only because they had been intimidated by their Muslim neighbors.

The Israeli media trumpeted too the fact that Netanyahu had recruited a “religious leader” – Jibril Nadaf, a Greek Orthodox bishop in Nazareth – to support the draft of Christians. In fact, it was widely rumored in Nazareth at the time that Nadaf was being pressured by Israel’s secret police, the Shin Bet, to offer his support. Only much later did the Israeli media report that Nadaf had been investigated for sexual assaults on young men, and that the Shin Bet had hushed up his case.

At around the same time Israel introduced the option of registering a new nationality, “Aramaic”, on Israeli identity cards. Israel has always refused to recognise an “Israeli” nationality because it would risk conferring equal rights on all Israeli citizens, Jews and Palestinians alike. Instead many rights in Israel are accorded to citizens based on their assigned nationalities – with the main categories being “Jewish”, “Arab” and “Druze”. “Jewish” nationals receive extra rights unavailable to Palestinian citizens in immigration, land and housing, and language rights. The new “Aramaic” category was intended to confer on Christians a separate nationality mirroring the Druze one.

The obscure “Aramaic” identity was chosen for two reasons. First, it referred to a time 2,000 years ago when Jews like Jesus spoke Aramaic – now almost a dead language. Aramaic therefore fused Jewish and Christian identities, replicating the claim of “blood ties” Israel had fostered with the Druze community. And second, Aramaic had already been cultivated as an identity by the handful of Palestinian Christian families that volunteered to serve in the army. For them, Aramaic lay at the heart of a pure, proud, supposedly original Christian nationalist identity. They argued that their forefathers’ Aramaic heritage and language had been usurped and corrupted by the arrival of Arab and Islamic identities in the region during the Arab conquests in the seventh century.

For those who promoted it, including the Israeli government, “Aramaic” was not a neutral Christian identity but consciously intended as an anti-Arab, anti-Muslim identity. It was intimately tied to the government’s larger, fanciful agenda of turning the local Christian population into Palestinian Christian Zionists.

In tandem with these developments, Netanyahu’s government also began aggressively squeezing the resources available to Church schools operating in Nazareth and elsewhere. An arrangement that had historically provided partial state funds for private religious schools, primarily to help the Jewish ultra-Orthodox, began to be progressively withdrawn from Church schools. Pupils in the dozen such schools in Nazareth, which serve both Christians and Muslims, staged an unprecedented strike in 2014 as it became harder for the schools to cover costs. The government offered a way out: the schools, it proposed, should come under the umbrella of the state education system. So far the Church schools have managed to resist.

Although the policy has not been implemented yet, there are indications of what Israel ultimately hoped to achieve. The aim, it seems, was to reinvent the Church schools as “Aramaic” schools, limiting the intake to Christians and teaching a curriculum, as with the Druze, that emphasized the “blood ties” between Jews and Christians and prepared pupils for the army draft. The first such school, teaching in Aramaic, has opened in Jish, a village in the central Galilee that is home to some of the main families that volunteer to serve in the Israeli army.

In fact, Israel failed dismally in its efforts to persuade Christians to accept the draft, and appears to have largely abandoned the plan, even after dedicating several years to bringing it to fruition. Israel should have guessed that such a scheme was unlikely to succeed. In a city like Nazareth, too many Christians are professionals – doctors, lawyers, architects and engineers serving their community – and have no interest in gaining the sole advantage of military service the poorer Druze have depended on: lowly jobs after the draft in the security sectors, as prison wardens or security guards.

But that may not have been Israel’s only goal. In line with its long-standing ambitions, Israel also doubtless wanted to intensify sectarian tensions between Christians and Muslims in places where the two communities live in close proximity, especially Nazareth. And for a variety of reasons, sectarian divisions have started to emerge over the past few years. The causes are manifold, but Israel’s efforts to recruit Christians to the army – to divide them from Muslims – undoubtedly exacerbated the problem.

Another significant factor was the gradual demise of the Communist party, especially in Nazareth, after it came to be too closely identified with Christians and was seen as playing a role in maintaining their relative privileges. That led to a backlash in Nazareth that saw Ali Salam, a populist politician who revels in comparisons with Donald Trump, becoming mayor after subtly exploiting these sectarian tensions.

It also did not help that for nearly two decades nihilistic Islamic movements edged ever closer to Israel’s borders – first with al-Qaeda, and later with Islamic State. That has unnerved many Palestinian Christians and Muslims in Israel. In recent years it has provoked a political reaction from some who have begun to wonder whether a militarily strong, western-backed Israel was not the lesser regional evil.

Israel has every interest in reinforcing such developments, exploiting tensions that shore up its clash of civilizations narrative. Paradoxically, it is Israel’s long-term interference in the region and a more recent policy of direct military intervention by the US in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Iran that has created the very conditions in which Islamic extremism has prospered. Between them, Israel and the US have sown despair and generated political voids across the Middle East that groups like Islamic State have filled with their own narrative of a clash of civilizations.

For Israel, recruiting Palestinian Christians to its side of this self-serving clash narrative – even if it is only a few of them – is helpful. If Israel can muddy the waters in the region by finding enough allies among local Christians, it knows it can further dissuade the international Churches from taking any substantive action in addressing the crimes it has perpetrated against Palestinians unhindered for more than seven decades.

Israel’s great fear is that one day the international Churches may assume moral leadership in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ending the traumas set in train by the Nakba.

Judging by the Churches’ record so far, however, Israel appears to have little reason to worry.

Why is Mike Pompeo risking a One-day Trip to Israel Amid the Pandemic?

As part of its battle against Covid-19, Israel has closed it borders to foreigners and imposed a two-week quarantine on anyone entering the country. There are also strict requirements to wear masks in public places.

Israel, however, has thrown the rules – and caution – to the wind in approving the arrival on Wednesday of the one of the world’s most powerful statesmen.

It seems strange timing – with the world hunkered down – for the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, to be making an urgent, lightning visit to a tiny country in the Middle East. But then Israel-US relations have never been normal.

Pompeo’s arrival has been preceded by assurances that no one will be put in danger. The one-day visit would be “highly choreographed” to ensure it was “very, very safe”, a senior medical adviser told the media on the weekend.

One might wonder why – given the need for a medical team, for screening beforehand of the flight crew and state department staff, and for Israel’s intricate arrangements to ensure social distancing – it is so important right now for Pompeo to meet in person the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Could they not have just chatted on a secure phone line and avoided all the hullabaloo?

It may not be entirely coincidental that Pompeo’s visit comes the day before Netanyahu’s fourth consecutive government will be sworn in after a year of inconclusive Israeli elections.

Pompeo will be able to congratulate him in person, as well as Netanyahu’s adversary-turned-coalition partner Benny Gantz, a former general who will serve as defence minister. Gantz is expected to become prime minister in 18 months’ time under a rotation agreement approved by Israel’s Supreme Court last week.

Now with a parliamentary majority, Netanyahu is keen to forge ahead with his long-delayed political priorities while Donald Trump is still in the White House and offering a near-blank cheque.

Trump, meanwhile, wants Israel in lockstep with his own priorities as he takes on the presumed Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, in November’s presidential election.

With his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic coming in for increasingly tough criticism, Trump will need all his electoral bases shored up. Keeping Netanyahu happy will be key to bringing out the fervently pro-Israel, Christian evangelical vote that helped him win in 2016.

Top of the pair’s official agenda are discussions about the pandemic and Iran’s influence on the region. But Israeli media have been full of reports that even more prominent will be talks about annexation of the West Bank.

Regarding Iran, both wish to see its influence diminished, and are determined to prevent a stringent sanctions regime being eased on humanitarian grounds, as Tehran struggles against a mounting death toll from the virus. Both are also gearing up for a campaign to renew an arms embargo on Iran when it expires in October.

But things get trickier in relation to Syria, Israel’s northern neighbour, where Iran is in a contest with Russia for influence over Damascus.

The US has been supportive of Israel stepping up attacks on Iranian positions in Syria, with at least six airstrikes alone in the past two weeks. Both would like to see Tehran denied any say in the post-war rebuilding of Syria.

But their agreement is less clear-cut about Russia filling any vacuum left by Iran’s departure.

The US state department is still in thrall to a Cold War agenda of containing Russia and treating it chiefly as a military threat.

Israel’s approach is more ambivalent. Reportedly on good terms with Russian president Vladimir Putin, Netanyahu cannot afford to antagonise a great power on his doorstep.

He also needs to weigh Moscow’s influence over 1.2 million Russian speakers who immigrated to Israel in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago and usually support his right wing bloc.

Fault lines with Washington could quickly open over Syria, where Russia is angling to turn Bashar Al Assad’s government into a client state, guiding and controlling economic and military reconstruction.

Moscow wants Iran out of Syria nearly as badly as Israel and the US, and has been turning a blind eye to Israel’s attacks. For that reason, a Russian-controlled Syria may prove the least of all bad options for Israel.

For the US, on the other hand, it would allow Putin an escape hatch from the box into which Washington has been progressively corralling Russia over the past 30 years. Should Moscow make a success of rebuilding Syria, its influence might grow in the region’s other war-ravaged areas – from Iraq to Libya and Yemen.

Discussions are likely to be less contested on the issue of annexing swaths of the West Bank, as envisioned by Trump’s Middle East “peace plan”.

Last month, shortly before Netanyahu finalised his new coalition, Pompeo stated of annexation that “the Israelis will ultimately make those decisions” – apparently unconcerned by how the Palestinians might view their land, and a future Palestinian state, being stolen from them.

The coalition agreement allows Netanyahu to advance annexation any time from July – well ahead of the US elections. But Trump will expect close coordination in order to maximise the benefits in the final stages of his re-election campaign.

The fly in the ointment could be Gantz. He has not opposed annexation but has said it must happen with US approval and in ways that maintain regional stability and do not jeopardise Israel’s peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt.

Most likely, Pompeo will use his visit to sound out Gantz more closely now he is inside the government and, if needs be, gently lean on him – on Netanyahu’s behalf – to ensure he doesn’t publicly waver on annexation from within the coalition.

With Gantz as defence minister, and his colleague Gabi Ashkenazi, another former general, as foreign minister, any dissension could embarrass the US administration just as it is trying to sell annexation as a peace move in skeptical foreign capitals.

Pompeo and Netanyahu – whether masked or not – may prefer to give away little beyond platitudes about their discussions, but events on the ground may soon tell the full story.

• First published in The National

100 Years of Shame: Annexation of Palestine Began in San Remo

One hundred years ago, representatives from a few powerful countries convened at San Remo, a sleepy town on the Italian Riviera. Together, they sealed the fate of the massive territories confiscated from the Ottoman Empire following its defeat in World War I.

It was on April 25, 1920, that the San Remo Conference Resolution was passed by the post-World War I Allied Supreme Council. Western Mandates were established over Palestine, Syria and ‘Mesopotamia’ – Iraq. The latter two were theoretically designated for provisional independence, while Palestine was granted to the Zionist movement to establish a Jewish homeland there.

The Mandatory will be responsible for putting into effect the (Balfour) declaration originally made on November 8, 1917, by the British Government, and adopted by the other Allied Powers, in favor of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” the Resolution read.

The Resolution gave greater international recognition to Britain’s unilateral decision, three years earlier, to grant Palestine to the Zionist Federation for the purpose of establishing a Jewish homeland, in exchange for Zionist support of Britain during the Great War.

And, like Britain’s Balfour Declaration, a cursory mention was made of the unfortunate inhabitants of Palestine, whose historic homeland was being unfairly confiscated and handed over to colonial settlers.

The establishment of that Jewish State, according to San Remo, hinged on some vague ‘understanding’ that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.

The above addition merely served as a poor attempt at appearing politically balanced, while in reality no enforcement mechanism was ever put in place to ensure that the ‘understanding’ was ever respected or implemented.

In fact, one could argue that the West’s long engagement in the question of Israel and Palestine has followed the same San Remo prototype: where the Zionist movement (and eventually Israel) is granted its political objectives based on unenforceable conditions that are never respected or implemented.

Notice how the vast majority of United Nations Resolutions pertaining to Palestinian rights are historically passed by the General Assembly, not by the Security Council, where the US is one of five veto-wielding powers, always ready to strike down any attempt at enforcing international law.

It is this historical dichotomy that led to the current political deadlock.

Palestinian leaderships, one after the other, have miserably failed at changing the stifling paradigm. Decades before the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, countless delegations, comprised of those claiming to represent the Palestinian people, traveled to Europe, appealing to one government or another, pleading the Palestinian case and demanding fairness.

What has changed since then?

On February 20, the Donald Trump administration issued its own version of the Balfour Declaration, termed the ‘Deal of the Century’.

The American decision which, again, flouted international law, paves the way for further Israeli colonial annexations of occupied Palestine. It brazenly threatens Palestinians that, if they do not cooperate, they will be punished severely. In fact, they already have been, when Washington cut all funding to the Palestinian Authority and to international institutions that provide critical aid to the Palestinians.

Like in the San Remo Conference, the Balfour Declaration, and numerous other documents, Israel was asked, ever so politely but without any plans to enforce such demands, to grant Palestinians some symbolic gestures of freedom and independence.

Some may argue, and rightly so, that the ‘Deal of the Century’ and the San Remo Conference Resolution are not identical in the sense that Trump’s decision was a unilateral one, while San Remo was the outcome of political consensus among various countries – Britain, France, Italy, and others.

True, but two important points must be taken into account: firstly, the Balfour Declaration was also a unilateral decision. It took Britain’s allies three years to embrace and validate the illegal decision made by London to grant Palestine to the Zionists. The question now is, how long will it take for Europe to claim the ‘Deal of the Century’ as its own?

Secondly, the spirit of all of these declarations, promises, resolutions, and ‘deals’ is the same, where superpowers decide by virtue of their own massive influence to rearrange the historical rights of nations. In some ways, the colonialism of old has never truly died.

The Palestinian Authority, like previous Palestinian leaderships, is presented with the proverbial carrot and stick. Last March, US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, told Palestinians that if they did not return to the (non-existent) negotiations with Israel, the US would support Israel’s annexation of the West Bank.

For nearly three decades now and, certainly, since the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993, the PA has chosen the carrot. Now that the US has decided to change the rules of the game altogether, Mahmoud Abbas’ Authority is facing its most serious existential threat yet: bowing down to Kushner or insisting on returning to a dead political paradigm that was constructed, then abandoned, by Washington.

The crisis within the Palestinian leadership is met with utter clarity on the part of Israel. The new Israeli coalition government, consisting of previous rivals Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, have tentatively agreed that annexing large parts of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley is just a matter of time. They are merely waiting for the American nod.

They are unlikely to wait for long, as Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, said on April 22 that annexing Palestinian territories is “an Israeli decision.”

Frankly, it matters little. The 21st century Balfour Declaration has already been made; it is only a matter of making it the new uncontested reality.

Perhaps, it is time for the Palestinian leadership to understand that groveling at the feet of those who have inherited the San Remo Resolution, constructing and sustaining colonial Israel, is never and has never been the answer.

Perhaps, it is time for some serious rethink.

Netanyahu’s Coalition Deal paves the Way to Annexation

Only weeks ago, Benjamin Netanyahu was a hair’s breadth from being ousted from the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office in disgrace, after 11 years of continuous rule. But after a dramatic turnaround in fortunes last week – that saw him signing a pact with Benny Gantz, his chief political rival – Netanyahu has begun to rapidly consolidate his power.

In what many critics claim amounts to a power grab, he began pushing through changes on Thursday to Israel’s basic laws, the equivalent of a constitution. The move was described as “terrifying” by Elyakim Rubinstein, a conservative former supreme court judge.

Another commentator warned that, under cover of forming an “emergency government” to deal with the coronavirus epidemic, Netanyahu had driven Israel into the early stages of totalitarianism.

What has especially alarmed observers is the apparent ease with which Netanyahu has manoeuvred Gantz, a former general, into rubber-stamping the new arrangements.

Gantz led a bloc of parties whose anti-corruption platform expressly promised to bring down Netanyahu, who is due to stand trial on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges in a month’s time. After an election in March, the third in a year, Gantz vowed to use his bloc’s 62-seat majority to pass a law making it impossible for a criminal defendant to serve as prime minister.

Netanyahu was on the backfoot, too, fearful of a fourth election in the late summer when he risks being blamed for the expected collapse of the Israeli economy after more than a month of lockdowns.

Instead, Gantz has caved. He has not only secured Netahyahu at least another 18 months in office but, in the words of one Israeli commentator, has offered to serve as his “bodyguard”.

The coalition agreement means Gantz cannot dislodge Netanyahu during the government’s three-year term. The two stand or fall together. That gives Netanyahu a solid advantage in his court proceedings, as he fights the case not only with the authority of a prime minister but with Gantz’s complicit silence.

Even if Netanyahu is found guilty, Gantz’s faction is barred from ousting him or voting to bring down the coalition, leaving Netanyahu free to launch an appeal from within the government. Likewise, under a rotation agreement, Gantz must let Netanyahu serve out the second 18-month period as his deputy. Assuming, that is, that Netanyahu steps back.

Despite some two-thirds of Israelis supporting the emergency government, a poll shows more than 40 per cent doubt Netanyahu will honour his commitment to hand over power. In any case, even as Gantz’s deputy, Netanyahu will enjoy the allegiance of the vast majority of the governing coalition’s legislators. He could still be in the driving seat.

Most expect him to use his position to intensify his long-running campaign to demonise the courts, accusing them of overseeing an undemocratic, “leftist” plot to unseat him.

To an increasing number of Israelis, the country’s political system looks broken. Several thousand of Gantz’s former supporters defied Israel’s lockdown at the weekend – as they did the week before – to attend a rally in central Tel Aviv.

Standing on marked positions to maintain two metres’ distance, they protested Netanyahu’s increasing accumulation of powers. Carmi Gillon, a former head of Israel’s domestic spy agency, the Shin Bet, told the crowd the courts were now all that was left to “defend Israeli democracy before it is finally crushed”.

Critics note that the Shin Bet have already been given an unprecedented right – previously available for use only against Palestinians – to track Israeli citizens. Combined with anti-coronavirus restrictions, opponents fear Netanyahu is establishing a security regime at home that can be used to oppress dissenters.

They point to his imminent trial, noting that most of the charges relate to his alleged efforts to intimidate or bribe major Israeli media outlets into becoming little more than his personal cheerleaders.

Meanwhile, other checks on the executive branch he heads are being sacrificed on the altar of the emergency government.

Despite being a criminal defendant, Netanyahu will have a veto on the appointment of the two most senior law-enforcement officials – the state prosecutor and attorney general – who are supposed to oversee the case against him at trial.

Netanyahu has already installed an acting prosecutor considered loyal to him who, according to the coalition agreement, cannot be removed for many months. Israeli commentators have expressed little faith that he will prosecute Netanyahu with full vigour.

Netanyahu will also continue to wield control over the appointment of judges to the supreme court, which has been drifting ever further rightwards after more than a decade of Netanyahu’s influence.

In these circumstances, the courts may baulk at the prospect of inflaming a constitutional crisis – and possibly civil war – by trying to remove a sitting prime minister.

With the judicial and legal branches increasingly enfeebled, the coalition agreement also strips the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, of any meaningful oversight. The government will be able to strangle legislative proposals at birth, before they can be debated. Unusually the main parliamentary committees will be under the governing parties’ control, too. And a Netanyahu loyalist will be the Knesset Speaker.

But the coalition agreement does allow for one emergency legislative move unrelated to tackling the virus: annexation of swaths of the West Bank in violation of international law but under licence from the “vision for peace” published earlier in the year by US President Donald Trump.

The government can set forth an annexation plan from July – well before Trump faces a re-election contest in the US in November. Mike Pompeo, his Secretary of State, offered what appeared to be Washington’s blessing for fast-track annexation last week.

While Gantz headed the opposition bloc, he refused to rule out annexation, expressing concern only that it would prove unpalatable to some western allies.

But aside from formulaic denunciations from a few European states, Israel fears little in the way of repercussions. And Gantz now appears on board.

As defence minister, he will be responsible for crushing any Palestinian resistance to Israel’s annexation moves, while Gabi Ashkenazi, his political ally and another former general, will be responsible as foreign minister for putting a respectable face on the annexation drive in overseas capitals.

Netanyahu appears to have the wind behind him, and three more years in which to meddle in ways that could see him maintaining his grip on the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office well beyond that.

• First published in The National

A Machiavellian Fiasco: How ‘Centrist’ Gantz Resurrected Netanyahu, Israel’s Right

It was intended to be a Machiavellian move, but the decision by Benny Gantz, leader of Israel’s Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) coalition, to join a Benjamin Netanyahu-led government is likely to destabilize the political fabric of Israeli society for years to come.

In a surprising move, Gantz has entered into precarious political compromises, whereby he would become the Speaker of the Israeli Knesset (Parliament), as a prelude to the formation of a national unity government which will include the ruling Likud party and Blue and White.

The move, however, proved disastrous.

As soon as Gantz declared his intentions to join hands with Netanyahu, thus throwing the discredited Prime Minister a lifeline, the Blue and White coalition quickly disintegrated.

Blue and White has stood on shaky ground since its formation to contest the April 2019 general elections. The leaders of the coalition, Gantz (Israeli Resilience Party), Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), and Moshe Ya’alon (Telem) seem largely unified, not by a common ideological foundation, but by their sheer hatred of Netanyahu and burning desire to oust him.

Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, with his terms in office linked to an era of nepotism and corruption. Over time, Netanyahu has turned whatever semblance of democracy his country enjoyed into a personal and family affair. In his constant readiness to concede to his extreme right-wing government coalition partners to ensure his own political survival, Netanyahu offered his country little by way of a viable political vision.

For many years, Netanyahu’s enemies did little to counterbalance the Prime Minister’s excesses. While Netanyahu succeeded in wooing Israel’s right-wing constituency, Israel’s so-called left dwindled to represent, at times, a mere margin of error in Israeli elections and opinion polls.

A telling example is the most recent poll conducted by Israel’s Channel 12 earlier this month. According to the results, if Israelis were to vote in a general election on the day of the polling, the country’s historic Labour Party (which founded Israel in 1948) would fail to garner a single seat at the Knesset.

In retrospect, Gantz and his allies had no other option but to brand themselves as ‘centrists’. On forming their coalition a year ago, they aimed to appeal to various groups of disgruntled Israelis: right-wing voters disenchanted with the political deadlock and economic inequality; leftists, who have lost faith in the traditional left’s ability to resurrect itself as a strong oppositional force and the remnants of independent and centrist voters.

Gantz and his allies’ calculations proved to have merit, as Israeli voters came out on three different elections in less than one year to breathe life into what once seemed like an impossible mission: ousting Netanyahu.

In the last March elections, Blue and White has won 33 seats in the Knesset, certainly not enough to form a coalition on their own, but enough to build a relatively stable coalition that would seize control of the Knesset and, ultimately, form a government.

For the first time in years, it seemed that Netanyahu’s political career was over, and that the Prime Minister, who is facing serious corruption charges, will see his day in court, if not prison.

But Gantz faced a dilemma, which eventually resulted into his seemingly erratic decision to form a national unity government with Netanyahu.

To form a government that excludes the Likud, Blue and White would have been forced to include the third-largest political force in the Knesset, the Arab parties which are united under the umbrella of the Joint List.

Despite the Joint List’s willingness to join Gantz’s precarious coalition (which would have included some of the most notorious anti-Arab and racist political figures in Israel, like Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman), Gantz did everything in his power to avoid that possibility.

Racism in Israel is at its worst, and any political concessions made to Arab parties would have been considered by many Israelis as a betrayal to the ‘Jewish identity of the State’ as enshrined in the chauvinistic ‘Nation-State Law’ of July 2018.

Masquerading his decision as a concession that is compelled by the coronavirus pandemic, Gantz agreed to form an emergency national government with Netanyahu, which excludes the Arab Joint List.

On March 26, Gantz nominated himself for the position of the Speaker of the Knesset, replacing the abruptly resigned former Likud Speaker, Yuli Edelstein, setting the stage for negotiations with Netanyahu’s Likud regarding the structure of the new government.

Whether Gantz had anticipated the fallout of his decision or not is irrelevant because, consciously, he opted to make a deal with the devil rather than being the Israeli Jewish politician who has paved the road for Israel’s Arab community to be part of the country’s decision-making.

Everything that Gantz has worked for – three consecutive elections and the desperate attempt at carving up a centrist political narrative in a country inclining more to the right – have all come crashing down. Yesh Atid and Telem, two of the three main pillars in the Blue and White, officially filed for, and were granted, permission from the Knesset Arrangement Committee to break away from Gantz’s faction.

Unsurprisingly, if elections were to be held in Israel now, Gantz’s party would win a measly 19 seats – compared with the Likud’s growing popularity of 40 seats.

With the balance of power finally shifting in his favour, Netanyahu has toughened his political stance, insisting on playing a role in the appointment of judges (thus protecting himself from future prosecution), and on his right to block any High Court of Justice decision of disqualifying him from serving as a Prime Minister.

After failing to reach an agreement, the task of forming the government has been transferred to the Knesset. A failure to do so within 21 days would take the country to a fourth election, one that the Likud and their allies are sure to win, and this time decisively so.

It is ironic that the person who resurrected Israel’s political ‘center’ is the same one who eventually destroyed it. By doing so, Gantz has granted Netanyahu a new lease on life and, consequently, strengthened the Israeli right’s grip on power for years to come.

How the Joint List Got it All Wrong for ever Believing Benny Gantz

Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party, abandoned the central plank of his platform at the weekend – that he would never sit in a coalition with Benjamin Netanyahu, who has led Israel continuously for the past 11 years.

A former military general, Gantz justified his dramatic change of course under cover of claims that Israel needed an “emergency” unity government to deal with the coronavirus epidemic.

Israel’s government has been paralysed by three elections in which neither Netanyahu’s bloc of ultra-nationalist and religious parties, nor Gantz’s anti-Netanyahu bloc of secular, largely right-wing parties, could muster a parliamentary majority.

Gantz argued it was time to set aside differences, ignore Netanyahu’s impending criminal trial for corruption and rally against the virus. The about-face means that Netanyahu will remain prime minister for at least the next 18 months – and possibly longer if he makes good on his well-earned reputation for subterfuge and double-dealing.

“No alternative”

Gantz has said he is “at peace” with his decision. “There was no other alternative route, and had there been, we would have taken it,” he told supporters stunned by his decision.

The reality is rather different.

Gantz actually enjoyed a narrow majority of legislators in parliament after the 2 March election. As a result, President Reuven Rivlin had tasked him last week with forming a government. His majority bloc was resolutely opposed to Netanyahu as prime minister, accusing him of increasingly authoritarian rule and pointing to his indictment for corruption.

The bloc also opposed Netanyahu’s cultivation of a new, more religious kind of politics, in which extremist rabbis and settler leaders have moved ever closer to centre-stage.

So why is Gantz now sitting in a government with a man he supposedly despises – one that Haaretz this week called “the king of corruption” – rather than leading a majority government of his own?

There is only one honest answer: racism. Gantz and his bloc may passionately hate Netanyahu and his megalomaniacal style of politics, but they detest with even greater intensity, it seems, one faction of their majority bloc: the Joint List.

Degraded citizenship

The Joint List, which currently has a record 15 seats in parliament, is an alliance of four parties that represent the fifth of the country’s population who are Palestinian by heritage.

They are the remnants inside Israel of the Palestinian people, most of whom were driven from their lands in 1948 to create a “Jewish state” on the ruins of their homeland, an event known to Palestinians as the Nakba, or catastrophe.

Today, some 1.8 million Palestinians have Israeli citizenship and are entitled to vote in Israeli elections. Nonetheless, theirs is a very degraded form of citizenship. They enjoy far fewer rights than Jewish citizens, especially in language, land and housing rights.

After many months of Gantz and his allies denouncing Netanyahu as corrupt, what lesson is the Palestinian minority supposed to draw from his decision now to abandon his own bloc in favour of Netanyahu?

Gantz and his supporters have demonstrated through their actions who they really abhor. They have chosen the criminal suspect, Netanyahu, over the Palestinian minority.

Gantz and the so-called Jewish “centre-left” may claim to be guardians of Israel’s democracy, but it is clearly a version of democracy that does not include a fifth of the population – because they are of the wrong ethnicity.

Annihilation and fraud

The discourse of Gantz’s bloc throughout the three election campaigns focused on maintaining a “Jewish majority” government – the only one they considered “legitimate”.

Gantz’s secular Jewish right, masquerading as “centre-left”, has ended up spurning representatives of the Palestinian minority on exactly the same grounds as Netanyahu.

“For each of these supposed ‘two sides’ of the political debate, the ‘Arabs’ are not seen as included in Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state,” Asad Ghanem, a politics professor at the University of Haifa, observed to Middle East Eye.

Netanyahu has been intensifying his incitement against the Palestinian minority since 2015, when he presented their very act of voting – or their coming out in “droves” to vote, as he phrased it – as a threat to Israeli democracy. More recently, he warned that Jewish opposition parties must not ally with the Joint List because “Arabs want to annihilate us all – women, children and men”.

In recent months, he has repeatedly called Palestinian parties “terror supporters”, thereby not only discrediting those parties in the eyes of the Jewish public, but also discrediting the Palestinian citizens who sent them to parliament.

Gantz, supposedly running a campaign against Netanyahu to uphold democratic values and institutions, has not rejected this anti-democratic incitement. He has accepted and complied with it, treating Palestinian parties like some kind of contagious coronavirus patient, to be kept at a safe distance.

Treated ‘like a mistress’

From the outset of every election campaign, Gantz made it starkly clear that he had no intention of including the Joint List in any future government. As he said in the run-up to the 2 March election: “I’m not afraid of talking to any legitimate political party, but the Joint Arab List won’t be a part of my government.”

With no credible path to power without the Joint List, however, Gantz was reluctantly forced to engage in pro forma talks with its leaders.

Those discussions were never about more than whether the Joint List might be allowed to support a minority Gantz government – comprising only Jewish parties – from the outside. A similar situation unfolded in the early 1990s, when Yitzhak Rabin needed Palestinian parties to pass legislation supporting the Oslo peace process through the parliament’s hostile majority of Jewish members.

As with Rabin, the goal of Gantz and his bloc was never to let the Joint List anywhere near government, Ghanem noted. The negotiations were intended as leverage over a power-hungry Likud party, pressuring it to ditch Netanyahu as leader.

That was why Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List, argued that Gantz was using his party “like a mistress”.

Made to look foolish

When Gantz unexpectedly called last month for a unity government that would include “representation of all parts of the house” – a reference to sections of the Joint List – he was again not playing straight. As his latest actions reveal, he was using the Joint List as a sword over Netanyahu’s head, “hoping to secure better terms for his own entry into the government”, Ghanem pointed out.

The Joint List suspected all this. But even so, in the September election and then again after the March vote, Odeh broke with the prior, natural caution of Palestinian parties in dealing with right-wing Zionist politicians and backed Gantz to head the government, rather than abstaining.

All of this was done in the desperate hope that Gantz and the Jewish “centre-left” really were concerned about the state of Israeli democracy and getting rid of Netanyahu. In recent weeks even Balad, the most hardline and recalcitrant faction in the Joint List, agreed to support Gantz.

They will pay a price with their own public for that mistake, according to Wadea Awawdy, a senior Israeli-Palestinian journalist from the Galilee.

“This has not just embarrassed the Palestinian parties; it has demoralised the wider Palestinian community,” he told MEE. “On social media, the Joint List members are being called foolish and naive for ever believing Gantz. The List made big claims that they would use their 15 seats to stop the Trump plan, that they would help send Netanyahu to jail. Now they have been left entirely empty-handed.”

It will be hard to persuade Palestinian citizens to turn out again in the large numbers that were seen in September and March – which is exactly what Netanyahu hoped to achieve when he began the incitement campaign against Palestinian voting back in 2015.

Avoiding the ‘Zoabis’

Those sections of the Blue and White alliance that have refused to follow Gantz into Netanyahu’s government are no less racist, Nabila Espanioly, an education expert from Nazareth who has run as a candidate for the Israeli parliament, observed to MEE.

“They may present themselves as an alternative to Netanyahu, but it is all baloney,” she said.

Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid faction will now head the opposition to Netanyahu. But back in 2013, he rejected an earlier chance to oust Netanyahu if it meant sitting in a government supported by Palestinian parties. In ugly fashion, Lapid dismissed Palestinian politicians as “Zoabis” – a reference to Haneen Zoabi, a prominent and much-reviled female Palestinian politician of the time.

Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu, a former defence minister, is an even worse inciter than Netanyahu against Palestinian parties – as well as Israel’s Palestinian citizens.

He has called the Palestinian leadership in Israel “terrorists” and called for them to be beheaded. He has threatened to strip the Palestinian public of citizenship if they fail his “loyalty” test, and called for an area where many Palestinian citizens live to be transferred to the occupied West Bank.

Secular backlash

None of these “opposition” politicians are really guardians of democracy, except in the sense of a democracy for Jews only. All have sat in previous Netanyahu governments that incited against and legislated against Palestinians.

Rather, noted Espanioly, their current opposition to Netanyahu is chiefly an angry backlash by right-wing secular politicians – on behalf of right-wing secular parts of Jewish society – to the increasing power Netanyahu has handed over to the Jewish religious leadership, including the more extreme, messianic sections of the settler community.

Lapid, Lieberman and Moshe Yaalon of Telem also share a deep personal antipathy to Netanyahu, who has repeatedly stabbed them in the back. Their supposed concern for democracy emerged only when Netanyahu was at his weakest, as the noose of an impending corruption trial tightened around his neck.

And the vitriol they have now directed at Gantz, the novice politician, is recognition that he is treading the same credulous path they previously followed.

But even these phoney “centrists” have been outdone by the so-called “left” part of their bloc. The Labor party, which founded Israel more than 70 years ago, has gradually become a pale shadow of its former self as the Israeli Jewish public has lurched ever further rightwards. In March, the party won a mere three seats, passing the electoral threshold only by allying with another tiny leftist party, Meretz.

Its current leader, Amir Peretz, and another Labor legislator intend to head into the Netanyahu government too, keen to get their hands on a small slice of the corrupt power they have been excoriating Netanyahu for wielding.

Negligible differences

The negligible differences between Gantz and Netanyahu should become starkly clear in the coming months.

Ghanem observed that Netanyahu would be “freed to pursue the same policies he has been implementing for the past 11 years. Apart from the Joint List, there is a consensus across Israeli politics on how to treat the occupied territories and on the importance of Jewish supremacy.”

Like Netanyahu, Gantz has backed US President Donald Trump’s so-called “peace” plan, which includes provisions to annex swaths of the occupied West Bank that have been illegally colonised by Jewish settlers, stripping Palestinians of any hope of a state.

Now that Netanyahu has a majority government, there is nothing standing in the way of this plan. This week, Peace Now and other Israeli groups that back a two-state solution sent an urgent letter to Gantz, pleading with him to block the drive towards annexation.

Gantz, the former head of the army who oversaw the widespread destruction of Gaza in 2014, is also unlikely to oppose future attacks on Palestinians under occupation, or the worsening of their conditions. In fact, his party will be in charge of the defence ministry, organising any such attacks.

Deep crisis

And Gantz will undoubtedly abandon his main promise relevant to the Palestinian minority – “fixing” the 2018 nation-state law. The law confers constitution-like status on Israel’s Jewishness, revokes Arabic as an official language, and puts as a top priority Judaisation – a policy of settling Jews into Palestinian areas inside Israel and the occupied territories.

According to Espanioly, Gantz’s actions have brutally exposed the sham of an Israeli “opposition” to Netanyahu.

“The reality is that Israel’s political scene is in a deep crisis about values,” she said. “Opposition politicians talk about the importance of democratic values, but no one actually wants to do the hard work of embodying those values – or of protecting them.”

• First published in Middle East Eye

Tunisia Leads the Way: New Report Exposes Israel’s False Democracy

Tunisia is the Middle East’s greatest success story, according to the findings of the V-Dem Annual Democracy Report 2019.

One of the world’s most regarded annual reports on democracy and good governance, the V-Dem Report is produced by the V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

While Tunisians can be proud of the prospect of democracy in their country, Israelis have little to be proud of. A country that has long prided itself, however misleadingly, on being ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’, has lost the title to Tunisia, a small North-African Arab nation of just over 11 million people.

Understandably, Tunisians might find their overall ranking ahead of well-established democracies less meaningful, considering that the politically unstable country is still undergoing a painful democratic transition. However, considering that the country has registered a sizable improvement in every democratic aspect examined by the V-Dem Report, Tunisia truly deserves the title of “the star pupil of democratization of the past ten years.”

Israel, however, has been, once more, exposed for its charade democracy. Since it was established atop the ruins of the Palestinian homeland, Israel has relentlessly touted its democratic virtues while excluding millions of Palestinian Arabs from any form of democratic participation.

There are 5 million Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Not only are they denied the right to exercise any form of real democracy, they are also denied their very freedom of speech, expression, and movement.

Meanwhile, 2 million Palestinian Arabs, who are citizens of Israel, are treated as second or third-class citizens, subjected to numerous discriminatory laws that aim at curtailing their political, cultural, and economic aspirations and rights.

In fact, the institutional racism and fear-mongering against Arab minorities in Israel has been the rallying cry among most of Israel’s political parties, whether of the right, center or left. No wonder, then, that Israel has recently received its worst rating ever in the Freedom House’s ‘Freedom in the World 2020’ Report.

According to the report, Israel was classified among the world’s 25 “declining democracies”, which, unsurprisingly, include the United States as well.

In its report, Freedom House had many harsh words for right-wing Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, described as “at the vanguard of nationalistic and chauvinistic populism.”

“Netanyahu has taken increasingly drastic steps to maintain the loyalty of far-right groups, entrenching and expanding West Bank settlements at the expense of the moribund Palestinian peace process, banning foreign activists based on their opposition to such policies, and enacting a discriminatory law that reserved the right of self-determination in Israel to the Jewish people,” the report stated.

This partly explains the significant drop in Israel’s score of six points in the democracy index since 2009, seen by Freedom House as “an unusually large decline for an established democracy”.

Here, one is left to ponder why the belated acknowledgment in Israel’s undemocratic credentials, despite the fact that Israel would have scored poorly in all indexes of democratic standards at any point in the past.

Certainly, Netanyahu has managed to decimate any Israeli claim to true democracy, thanks to his government’s assault on civil liberties and freedoms even within Israel’s Jewish constituencies. But was it fair that Israel was still classified as a ‘liberal democracy’ when millions of Palestinian Arabs and other minority groups were the main and perhaps only victims of Israel’s institutional racism and discrimination?

In other words, it seems that Israel began losing its democratic accolades when Netanyahu dared upset the socio-political equilibrium among Israel’s Jewish, not Arab population.

Be that as it may, the jig is up. If the Freedom House report was not clear enough regarding Israel’s failed democracy, the V-Dem Report is more damning and detailed.

According to the Swedish report’s ‘Political Corruption Index’, Israel is the 35th most politically corrupt country, followed immediately by Botswana in Southern Africa. Interestingly, the United Arab Emirates is six spots ahead of Israel in that category, and one spot ahead of the United States.

If that score was not bad enough, it was actually Israel’s best performance in all other indexes: Israel occupied the 51st spot on the ‘Liberal Democracy Index’, 53rd in the ‘Egalitarian Component Index’, 55th in the ‘Electoral Democracy Index’, 57th in the ‘Liberal Component Index’ and 76th in the ‘Deliberative Component Index’. It gets worse.

Particularly revealing is Israel’s score in the ‘Participatory Component Index’, where Israel claimed the 80th position, lagging behind Congo, Zambia, Somaliland and Myanmar – the latter being the focal point of international attention over its massacres and ethnic cleansing campaigns of the Rohingya Muslim minority in the Southeast Asian country.

This is not in the least surprising as Israel has long perceived its Palestinian Arab population, in fact, all Palestinians, as a ‘demographic bomb’, whose diffusion can only happen through exclusion, marginalization or outright ethnic cleansing.

The Nation-State Law of 2018 was not an innocent attempt of a country eager to define itself (oddly enough, seven decades after its founding), but a deliberate attempt at laying the legal ground for a prolonged system of apartheid.

Netanyahu has summed up this sentiment perfectly when he exclaimed, prior to the March 2015 general elections that “the right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves.”

In Netanyahu’s mind, in fact, by the calculation of mainstream Israeli politicians, the participation of Arabs in the democratic process is a threat that must be eliminated, exactly as their increasing numbers are also a demographic threat that has to be thwarted at any cost.

In truth, neither the Freedom House nor the V-Dem Institute are conveying new information regarding Israel’s democratic status. Israel never deserved the badge of democracy, which it used to rationalize all of its wars, sieges, and mistreatment of Palestinians, in the first place.

Now, even that false pretense of democracy is lost, likely forever. According to the very democracy standards created by Western institutions, Tunisia is now the only democracy in the Middle East.

More important than badges and titles, however, is the fact that Israel should now be exposed for its crimes against Palestinians without such long-overdue criticism having to be filtered through Israel’s false democracy discourse.