Israel is roiling with angry street protests that local observers have warned could erupt into open civil strife – a development Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be encouraging.
For weeks, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have been the scene of large, noisy demonstrations outside the official residences of Mr Netanyahu and his public security minister, Amir Ohana.
On Saturday night around 13,000 marched through Jerusalem shouting “Anyone but Bibi”, Netanyahu’s nickname. Their calls were echoed by tens of thousands more at locations across the country.
Turnout has been steadily growing, despite attacks on demonstrators from both the police and Netanyahu’s loyalists. The first protests abroad by Israeli expats have also been reported.
The protests, in defiance of physical distancing rules, are unprecedented by Israeli standards. They have bridged the gaping political divide between a small constituency of anti-occupation activists – disparagingly called “leftists” in Israel – and the much larger Israeli Jewish public that identifies politically as on the centre and the right.
For the first time, a section of Netanyahu’s natural supporters is out on the streets against him.
In contrast to earlier protests, such as a large social justice movement that occupied the streets in 2011 to oppose rising living costs, these demonstrations have not entirely eschewed political issues.
The target of the anger and frustration is decidedly personal at this stage – focused on the figure of Netanyahu, who is now Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Protesters have renamed him Israel’s “crime minister”.
But also fuelling the protests is a larger mood of disenchantment as doubts grow about the state’s competence to deal with multiple crises unfolding in Israel. The virus has caused untold social and economic misery for many, with as much as one fifth of the labour force out of work. Netanyahu’s supporters in the lower middle-classes have been hit hardest.
Now well into a second wave, Israel has a per capita rate of infection that outstrips even the US. The shadow of a renewed lockdown amid government mishandling of the virus has undermined Netanyahu’s claim to be “Mr Security”.
There are concerns too about police brutality – starkly highlighted by the killing in May of an autistic Palestinian, Eyad Hallaq, in Jerusalem.
Police crackdowns on the protests, using riot squads, undercover agents, mounted police and water cannon, have underlined not just Netanyahu’s growing authoritarianism. There is a sense too that the police may be ready to use violence on dissenting Israelis that was once reserved for Palestinians.
After manipulating his right-wing rival, the former military general Benny Gantz, into joining him in a unity government in April, Netanyahu has effectively crushed any meaningful political opposition.
The agreement shattered Gantz’s Blue and White party, with many of his legislators refusing to enter the government, and has widely discredited the ex-general.
Netanyahu is reportedly preparing for a winter election – the fourth in two years – both to cash in on his opponents’ disarray and to avoid honouring a rotation agreement in which Gantz is due to replace him late next year.
According to the Israeli media, Netanyahu may find a pretext for forcing new elections by further delaying approval of the national budget, despite Israel facing its worst financial crisis in decades.
And, of course, overshadowing all this is the matter of the corruption charges against Netanyahu. Not only is he the first sitting prime minister in Israel to stand trial, but he has been using his role and the pandemic to his advantage, including by delaying court hearings.
In a time of profound crisis and uncertainty, many Israelis are wondering which policies are being pursued for the national good and which for Netanyahu’s personal benefit.
The government’s months-long focus on the annexation of swaths of Palestinian territory in the West Bank has looked like pandering to his settler constituency, creating a dangerous distraction from dealing with the pandemic.
Similarly, a one-off handout this week to every Israeli – over the strenuous objections of finance officials – looks suspiciously like an electoral bribe. As a result, Netanyahu is facing a rapid decline in support. A recent survey shows trust in him has fallen by half – from 57 per cent in March and April, when the Covid-19 pandemic began, to 29 per cent today.
Many Israelis increasingly see Netanyahu less as a father figure and more as a parasite draining resources from the body politic. Capturing the popular mood is a new art work called the “Last Supper” that was covertly installed in central Tel Aviv. It shows Netanyahu alone, gorging on a vast banquet by stuffing his hand into an enormous cake decorated with the Israeli flag.
In another move designed to highlight Netanyahu’s corrupt politics, better-off Israelis have been publicly organising to donate this week’s state handout to those in need.
Netanyahu’s repeated incitement against the protesters – disparaging them as “leftists” and “anarchists”, and suggesting they are spreading disease – appears to have backfired. It has only rallied more people to the street.
But the incitement and Netanyahu’s claims that he is the true victim – and that in the current climate he faces assassination – have been interpreted as a call to arms by some on the right. Last week five protesters were injured when his loyalists used clubs and broken bottles on them, with police appearing to turn a blind eye. Further attacks were reported at the weekend. Protest organisers said they had begun arranging defence units to protect demonstrators.
Ohana, the public security minister, has called for a ban on the protests and urged a heavy hand from the police. He has delayed appointing a new police chief – a move seen as incentivising local commanders to crack down on the protests to win favour. Large numbers of protesters have been forcefully arrested, with reports that police have questioned some on their political views.
Observers have wondered whether the protests can transcend party political tribalism and develop into a grassroots movement demanding real change. That might widen their appeal to even more disadvantaged groups, not least the one fifth of Israel’s citizens who belong to its Palestinian minority.
But it would also require more of the protesters to start drawing a direct connection between Netanyahu’s personal abuses of office and the wider, systemic corruption of Israeli politics, with the occupation its beating heart.
That may yet prove a tall order, especially when Israel faces no significant external pressure for change, either from the US or from Europe.
On July 11, a video footage which showed a popular Israeli TV celebrity demeaning Palestinian children from the Bedouin community in the Naqab area, went viral on social media.
“Let’s feed a Bedouin. Don’t you want to feed a Bedouin?” Israeli Children TV host, Roy Oz, repeatedly asks his children, who were seated in the back seat of his car. Outside the vehicle, two Palestinian children were filmed as they stood waiting eagerly for the cookies promised to them by the Israeli driver.
Palestinian Bedouins are treated like “monkeys”, said Atia al-Asem, head of the Regional Council of Palestinian Villages in the Naqab, after viewing the disturbing footage.
Arab Member of the Israeli Parliament (Knesset), Ahmad Tibi, described Oz’s behavior as the “lowest of human behavior, racist and despicable brutishness.”
In truth, Oz’s actions were merely consistent with the very racist reality that governs Israeli society — its laws, political institutions, media apparatus, its economic sector and popular perceptions.
In particular, the thousands of Palestinians who are still living in the Naqab desert have been subjected to a relentless Israeli campaign of dehumanization, racism, and ethnic cleansing.
Racism and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian Bedouin communities go hand in hand. Oz’s video cannot be viewed separately from the Israeli government’s plans to corral Palestinians in the Naqab into isolated and impoverished communities in order to make space for Jewish-only housing developments.
For this sinister scenario to succeed, the Palestinian Bedouins need to be dehumanized by the Israeli political and media establishments. Oz’s racist video is a mere expression of this outrageous reality.
However, the issue exceeds that of the devastation and racism underway in the Naqab, into all aspects of Israeli lives.
In July 2018, Israel approved a “basic law”, dubbed the “Jewish nation-state law” that gave ascendency to everything Jewish and denigrated all else. It was a desperate, and ultimately failed, attempt at reconciling between the “Jewishness” of the state with universal democratic ideals.
“The Land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established,” the new law said, celebrating the country as “the nation state of the Jewish People, in which it realizes its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination.”
In accordance with the above assertions, the new definition grants the “Jewish people”, everywhere, the right to “exercise … the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel.”
The millions of Palestinian Arabs — Muslims, Christians and Druze — who share that same piece of land, though not as equals, have no place in Israel’s undemocratic definition of itself. Needless to say, the nearly 7 million Palestinian refugees were also excluded from claiming any rights in “the State of Israel”, including their internationally-enshrined Right of Return.
The Israeli Nation-State Law, however, must not be seen as the event that ushered in institutionalized racism in this country. Israel was founded on the racist principle that it belonged to the “Jewish people” only, and no one else, not even the Palestinian Arab natives of the land.
However, the law is significant in the sense that it represents the final blow to the hope that Israel will eventually come to terms with its past, and embrace the humanistic principles of equality, justice and democracy.
That hope — really an illusion — was dashed, and irrevocably so, as there is little resistance within Israel itself by any significant political force that is capable of confronting and defeating the racist, chauvinistic and ultra-nationalist trends that have always dominated the country.
According to an election survey published in January 2019, those who identified as “leftists” have dwindled significantly, as they now represent only 12 percent of all Israelis – a number that includes Arab communities, where the left has historically had a strong presence.
This realization might be one of the reasons that made some optimists imagine that the supposed next best thing — Israel’s centrist Blue and White Party coalition under Benny Gantz — was still able to, at least, slow down the advancement of right-wing and religious parties.
These hopes persisted over the course of a tumultuous political year that witnessed three major elections in a row, despite the fact that many of Gantz’s stances were equally — if not even more — hawkish than those of right-wing Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Unsurprisingly, on April 20, Gantz joined Netanyahu to form a coalition government that is arguably the most militaristic in the country’s modern history, as both camps are keen on a new military confrontation with Gaza and a massive annexation scheme of nearly 30 percent of the occupied West Bank.
Armed with constitutional racism, Israeli leaders can now justify, at least to themselves and their constituencies, any action that may be deemed abhorrent, illegal or racist by the rest of the world.
This is the very reality that allows racist ‘celebrities’, such as Roy Oz, to go on safari-like adventures with his well-fed children in their air-conditioned top model vehicles to hand cookies to malnourished and poor Palestinian Bedouin children in the Naqab.
For Israel, Oz is the epitome of the ultimate victory of the “Jewish people” — as defined by Israel’s racist Nation-State Law — over the alienated, corralled and victimized Palestinians.
But racism in Israel is not only the work of political institutions as a direct outcome of the disparities created by Israel’s military superiority and expansive colonial enterprises. It has long passed all of that into many other aspects of Israeli society, and can be felt in other sectors of law, economy, the health care system and education; especially education.
Aside from the “racist ideology” taught in Israeli public schools, which denies the historical roots of Palestinians in their own land, and often demeans the Palestinian natives in ways that violate the minimal standards of modern education — let alone human rights — the very set-up of the educational system is a testimony to Israel’s deeply entrenched racism.
Schools dedicated to Palestinian Arab children in Israel are “a world apart in quality from the public schools serving Israel’s majority Jewish population,” according to one Human Rights Watch report.
“Often overcrowded and understaffed, poorly built, badly maintained, or simply unavailable, schools for Palestinian Arab children offer fewer facilities and educational opportunities than are offered other Israeli children.”
Racism accompanies the average Jewish citizen of Israel from the hospital where he is born, to the iniquitous school system, to the discriminatory business sector, to the utterly racist fans at the soccer field, to the unruly, murderous army and beyond. And every step of the way, Palestinians are belittled, dehumanized, exploited, subjugated, confined, imprisoned and, in many instances, killed.
With that being the everyday reality in Israel and Palestine, should we really be surprised that a morally bankrupt fool like Roy Oz mistreated Bedouin children, offering them candy as if zoo animals?
The truth is, Oz is the actual face of Israel — privileged, entitled, racist and delusional. And the same way Israeli media — which gives the likes of Oz his celebrity status — should be shunned and boycotted, Israel should also be sanctioned and boycotted. Because, without international pressure, Israel will never, on its own, confront its demons of military occupation, apartheid and deep-rooted racism.
For the first time since the Israeli war on Gaza in 2014, the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is signaling its willingness to engage in negotiations regarding the release of the bodies of two Israeli soldiers believed to be held by resistance groups in Gaza. But will another prisoner exchange similar to that of October 2011 follow anytime soon?
On July 9, Palestinian and Israeli media reported on an Israeli government communication sent to the Palestinian group, Hamas, through an intermediary. It included an Israeli offer to swap the bodies of Palestinians held in Israel in exchange for the bodies of the two soldiers, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin.
Alternatively, Israel is offering the release of some Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli prisons, so long as they have “no blood on their hands”, an Israeli reference to Palestinian prisoners who have not taken part in direct attacks that may have led to the killing of Israeli occupation soldiers or armed illegal Jewish settlers.
Hamas and others quickly dismissed the Israeli proposal as a non-starter for a serious negotiation. The Palestinian group had already indicated that it will not negotiate any prisoner exchange deal with Israel until the latter releases scores of Palestinian prisoners who were re-arrested in the months and years following the 2011 exchange.
What was then termed by Israel as the ‘Gilad Shalit deal’, saw the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for securing the release of an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who was captured by Palestinian fighters near the Gaza-Israel fence in 2006.
However, even while Palestinians were still celebrating the return of hundreds of their loved ones, Israel began re-arresting many of the newly-released prisoners under various pretenses, rendering the entire exercise futile.
Moreover, Israel began quickly replenishing its prisons with new arrivals, from various Palestinian factions, genders, and age groups.
In the 2011 exchange, Israel also refused to release senior Palestinian political figures from Fatah, Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Islamic Jihad and other groups. This decision had derailed negotiations for months, and was understood as Israel’s way of wanting to hold on to many prominent Palestinian figures as bargaining chips for future negotiations.
These figures include Fatah’s most popular leader, Marwan Barghouti, PFLP leader Ahmad Sa’adat, among others.
In 2014, Israel also re-arrested Nael Barghouti, from his home in Kobar, near Ramallah, making him the longest-held Palestinian prisoner in Israeli prisons. Barghouti is a particularly important bargaining chip for Israel.
It must be said that the reason that Israel is quite generous in these prisoner exchanges is not due, as some claim, to the notion that Israel values the lives of its citizens to the extent that it is willing to exchange them with a disproportionately large number of Palestinians.
If that logic was correct, why does Israel then transfer its own citizens, including children, to dangerous and highly-militarized illegal West Bank Jewish settlements?
If Israel truly values the lives of its citizens, it would have, long ago, dismantled the illegal settlements and tried, in earnest, to reach a just peace agreement with the Palestinian leadership.
Instead, Israeli leaders, who often trigger wars for their own political benefits, as Netanyahu has done repeatedly in the past, use prisoner exchanges also as a means to garner positive political capital and favorable media coverage.
Netanyahu, whose image has been significantly tarnished due to his ongoing corruption investigation and trial, is laboring to distract from his own personal woes by diverting attention elsewhere. Now that his illegal annexation of West Bank land scheme has been postponed, he is in desperate need of another battle that would present him as some kind of hero in the eyes of Israelis, especially his right-wing constituency.
Aside from the bodies of the two soldiers, two Israelis, Avram Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who had allegedly crossed the fence into Gaza by mistake, are also held in the Strip. Future TV footage of two coffins, draped by Israeli flags, along with two other Israelis being set free, would certainly prove to be a huge boost for the embattled Israeli leader.
Palestinian groups in Gaza understand this well. They also know that an opportunity of this nature might not present itself again for years. Therefore, they are keen to ensure a future prisoner exchange satisfies three major points: first, the release of all re-arrested prisoners since 2011; second, the release of as many Palestinians as possible out of the over 5,000 currently held in Israeli prisons; and, finally, the release of top Palestinian prisoners representing the various PLO and Islamic factions.
The latter point, in particular, is quite significant, because the traditional rivals, Hamas and Fatah, have been actively pursuing a politically united front in the face of the imminent Israeli annexation of nearly 30% of the West Bank. The release of top Fatah leaders, such as Marwan Barghouti, for example, shall have immense positive impact on Palestinian public mood, especially among Fatah supporters, boosting the unity talks like never before.
Israel, of course, will do its utmost to prevent Palestinians from unifying their political ranks but, considering the fact that Palestinians are holding four Israelis in Gaza, the cards are not entirely in Netanyahu’s hands.
This is not to suggest that Palestinian groups are not feeling the pressure as well. The families of thousands of imprisoned Palestinians are desperate for some good news regarding their loved ones, especially as health conditions among prisoners are deteriorating due to the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
On July 9, Saadi al-Gharably died at Kaplan Medical Center, due to what Palestinian prisoners advocacy groups describe as ‘medical neglect’. Later, prisoner Kamal Abu Wa’ar, a cancer patient from the Jenin area, tested positive for the COVID-19 disease.
Various signs indicate that a prisoner exchange between Israel and Palestinian groups is drawing near. The question is, will Netanyahu unleash his winning political card now, or will he wait till later, when he needs it most?
The Jewish National Fund, established more than 100 years ago, is perhaps the most venerable of the international Zionist organisations. Its recent honorary patrons have included prime ministers, and it advises UN forums on forestry and conservation issues.
It is also recognised as a charity in dozens of western states. Generations of Jewish families, and others, have contributed to its fundraising programmes, learning as children to drop saved pennies into its trademark blue boxes to help plant a tree.
And yet its work over many decades has been driven by one main goal: to evict Palestinians from their homeland.
The JNF is a thriving relic of Europe’s colonial past, even if today it wears the garb of an environmental charity. As recent events show, ethnic cleansing is still what it excels at.
The organisation’s mission began before the state of Israel was even born. Under British protection, the JNF bought up tracts of fertile land in what was then historic Palestine. It typically used force to dispossess Palestinian sharecroppers whose families had worked the land for centuries.
But the JNF’s expulsion activities did not end in 1948, when Israel was established through a bloody war on the ruins of the Palestinians’ homeland – an event Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe.
Israel hurriedly demolished more than 500 cleansed Palestinian villages, and the JNF was entrusted with the job of preventing some 750,000 refugees from returning. It did so by planting forests over both the ruined homes, making it impossible to rebuild them, and village lands to stop them being farmed.
These plantations were how the JNF earned its international reputation. Its forestry operations were lauded for stopping soil erosion, reclaiming land and now tackling the climate crisis.
But even this expertise was undeserved. Environmentalists say the dark canopies of trees it has planted in arid regions such as the Negev, in Israel’s south, absorb heat unlike the unforested, light-coloured soil. Short of water, the slow-growing trees capture little carbon. Native species of brush and animals, meanwhile, have been harmed.
These pine forests – the JNF has planted some 250 million trees – have also turned into a major fire hazard. Most years hundreds of fires break out after summer droughts exacerbated by climate change.
Early on, the vulnerability of the JNF’s saplings was used as a pretext to outlaw the herding of native black goats. Recently the goats, which clear undergrowth, had to be reintroduced to prevent the fires. But the goats’ slaughter had already served its purpose, forcing Bedouin Palestinians to abandon their pastoral way of life.
Despite surviving the Nakba, thousands of Bedouin in the Negev were covertly expelled to Egypt or the West Bank in Israel’s early years.
It would be wrong, however, to imagine that the JNF’s troubling role in these evictions was of only historical interest. The charity, Israel’s largest private land owner, is actively expelling Palestinians to this day.
In recent weeks, solidarity activists have been desperately trying to prevent the eviction of a Palestinian family, the Sumarins, from their home in occupied East Jerusalem to make way for Jewish settlers.
Last month the Sumarins lost a 30-year legal battle waged by the JNF, which secretly sold their home in the late 1980s by the Israeli state.
The family’s property was seized under a draconian 1950 law declaring Palestinian refugees of the Nakba “absent” so that they could not reclaim their land inside the new state of Israel.
The courts have decreed that the law can be applied in occupied Jerusalem too, in violation of international law. In the Sumarins’ case, it appears not to matter that the family was never actually “absent”. The JNF is permitted to evict the 18 family members next month. To add insult to injury, they will have to pay damages to the JNF.
A former US board member, Seth Morrison, resigned in protest in 2011 at the JNF’s role in such evictions, accusing it of working with extreme settler groups. Last year the JNF ousted a family in similar circumstances near Bethlehem. Days later settlers moved on to the land.
Ir Amim, an Israeli human rights group focusing on Jerusalem, warned that these cases create a dangerous legal precedent if Israel carries out its promise to annex West Bank territory. It could rapidly expand the number of Palestinians classified as “absentees”.
But the JNF never lost its love of the humble tree as the most effective – and veiled – tool of ethnic cleansing. And it is once again using forests as a weapon against the fifth of Israel’s population who are Palestinian, survivors of the Nakba.
Earlier this year it unveiled its “Relocation Israel 2040” project. The plan is intended to “bring about an in-depth demographic change of an entire country” – what was once sinisterly called “Judaisation”. The aim is to attract 1.5 million Jews to Israel, especially to the Negev, over the next 20 years.
As in Israel’s first years, forests will be vital to success. The JNF is preparing to plant trees on an area of 40 sq km belonging to Bedouin communities that survived earlier expulsions. Under the cover of environmentalism, many thousands of Bedouin could be deemed “trespassers”.
The Bedouin have been in legal dispute with the Israeli state for decades over ownership of their lands. This month in an interview with the Jerusalem Post newspaper, Daniel Atar, the JNF’s global head, urged Jews once again to drop money into its boxes. He warned that Jews could be dissuaded from coming to the Negev by its reputation for “agricultural crimes” – coded reference to Bedouin who have tried to hold on to their pastoral way of life.
Trees promise both to turn the semi-arid region greener and to clear “unsightly” Bedouin off their ancestral lands. Using the JNF’s original colonial language of “making the desert bloom”, Mr Atar said his organisation would make “the wilderness flourish”.
The Bedouin understand the fate likely to befall them. In a protest last month they carried banners: “No expulsions, no displacement.”
After all, Palestinians have suffered forced displacement at the JNF’s hands for more than a century, while watching it win plaudits from around the world for its work in improving the “environment”.
In a recent TV discussion, a respected pro-Palestine journalist declared that if any positive change or transformation ever occurs in the tragic Palestinian saga, it would not happen now, but that it would take a whole new generation to bring about such a paradigm shift.
As innocuous as the declaration may have seemed, it troubled me greatly.
I have heard this line over and over again, often reiterated by well-intentioned intellectuals, whose experiences in researching and writing on the so-called ‘Palestinian-Israeli conflict’ may have driven some of them to pessimism, if not despair.
The ‘hopelessness discourse’ is, perhaps, understandable if one is to examine the off-putting, tangible reality on the ground: the ever-entrenched Israeli occupation, the planned annexation of occupied Palestinian land in the West Bank, the shameful Arab normalization with Israel, the deafening silence of the international community and the futility of the quisling Palestinian leadership.
Subscribing to this logic is not only self-defeating, but ahistorical as well. Throughout history, every great achievement that brought about freedom and a measure of justice to any nation was realized despite seemingly insurmountable odds.
Indeed, who would have thought that the Algerian people were capable of defeating French colonialism when their tools of liberation were so rudimentary as compared with the awesome powers of the French military and its allies?
The same notion applies to many other modern historic experiences, from Vietnam to South Africa and from India to Cuba.
Palestine is not the exception.
However, the ‘hopelessness discourse’ is not as innocent as it may seem. It is propelled by the persisting failure to appreciate the centrality of the Palestinian people – or any other people, for that matter – in their own history. Additionally, it assumes that the Palestinian people are, frankly, ineffectual.
Interestingly, when many nations were still grappling with the concept of national identity, the Palestinian people had already developed a refined sense of modern collective identity and national consciousness. General mass strikes and civil disobedience challenging British imperialism and Zionist settlements in Palestine began nearly a century ago, culminating in the six-month-long general strike of 1936.
Since then, popular resistance, which is linked to a defined sense of national identity, has been a staple in Palestinian history. It was a prominent feature of the First Intifada, the popular uprising of 1987.
The fact that the Palestinian homeland was lost, despite the heightened consciousness of the Palestinian masses at the time, is hardly indicative of the Palestinian people’s ability to affect political outcomes.
Time and again, Palestinians have rebelled and, with each rebellion, they forced all parties, including Israel and the United States, to reconsider and overhaul their strategies altogether.
A case in point was the First Intifada.
When, on December 8, 1987, thousands took to the streets of the Jabaliya Refugee Camp, the Gaza Strip’s most crowded and poorest camp, the timing and the location of their uprising was most fitting, rational and necessary. Earlier that day, an Israeli truck had run over a convoy of cars carrying Palestinian laborers, killing four young men. For Jabaliya, as with the rest of Palestine, it was the last straw.
Responding to the chants and pleas of the Jabaliya mourners, Gaza was, within days, the breeding ground for a real revolution that was self-propelled and unwavering. The chants of Palestinians in the Strip were answered in the West Bank, and echoed just as loudly in Palestinian towns, including those located in Israel.
The contagious energy was emblematic of children and young adults wanting to reclaim the identities of their ancestors, which had been horribly disfigured and divided among regions, countries and refugee camps.
The Intifada — literally meaning the “shake off” — sent a powerful message to Israel that the Palestinian people are alive, and are still capable of upsetting all of Israel’s colonial endeavors. The Intifada also confronted the failure of the Palestinian and Arab leaderships, as they persisted in their factional and self-seeking politics.
In fact, the Madrid Talks in 1991 between Palestinians and Israelis were meant as an Israeli – American political compromise, aimed at ending the Intifada in exchange for acknowledging the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as a representative of the Palestinian people.
The Oslo Accords, signed by Yasser Arafat and Israel in 1993, squandered the gains of the Intifada and, ultimately, replaced the more democratically representative PLO with the corrupt Palestinian Authority.
But even then, the Palestinian people kept coming back, reclaiming, in their own way, their importance and centrality in the struggle. Gaza’s Great March of Return is but one of many such people-driven initiatives.
Palestine’s biggest challenge in the movement is not the failure of the people to register as a factor in the liberation of their own land, but their quisling leadership’s inability to appreciate the immense potential of harnessing the energies of Palestinians everywhere to stage a focused and strategic, anti-colonial, liberation campaign.
This lack of vision dates back to the late 1970s, when the Palestinian leadership labored to engage politically with Washington and other Western capitals, culminating in the pervading sense that, without US political validation, Palestinians would always remain marginal and irrelevant.
The Palestinian leadership’s calculations at the time proved disastrous. After decades of catering to Washington’s expectations and diktats, the Palestinian leadership, ultimately, returned empty-handed, as the current Donald Trump administration’s ‘Deal of the Century’ has finally proven.
I have recently spoken with two young Palestinian female activists: one is based in besieged Gaza and the other in the city of Seattle. Their forward-thinking discourse is, itself, a testament that the pessimism of some intellectuals does not define the thinking of this young Palestinian generation, and there would be no need to dismiss the collective efforts of this budding generation in anticipation of the rise of a ‘better’ one.
Malak Shalabi, a Seattle-based law student, does not convey a message of despair, but that of action. “It’s really important for every Palestinian and every human rights activist to champion the Palestinian cause regardless of where they are, and it is important especially now, ” she told me.
“There are currently waves of social movements here in the United States, around civil rights for Black people and other issues that are (becoming) pressing topics — equality and justice — in the mainstream. As Palestinians, it’s important that we (take the Palestinian cause) to the mainstream as well,” she added.
“There is a lot of work happening among Palestinian activists here in the United States, on the ground, at a social, economic, and political level, to make sure that the link between Black Lives Matter and Palestine happens,” she added.
On her part, Wafaa Aludaini in Gaza spoke about her organization’s – 16th October Group – relentless efforts to engage communities all over the world, to play their part in exposing Israeli war crimes in Gaza and ending the protracted siege on the impoverished Strip.
“Palestinians and pro-Palestinian activists outside are important because they make our voices heard outside Palestine, as mainstream media does not report (the truth of) what is taking place here,” she told me.
For these efforts to succeed, “we all need to be united,” she asserted, referring to the Palestinian people at home and in the diaspora, and the entire pro-Palestinian solidarity movement everywhere, as well.
The words of Malak and Wafaa are validated by the growing solidarity with Palestine in the BLM movement, as well as with numerous other justice movements the world over.
On June 28, the UK chapter of the BLM tweeted that it “proudly” stands in solidarity with Palestinians and rejects Israel’s plans to annex large areas of the West Bank.
BLM went further, criticizing British politics for being “gagged of the right to critique Zionism and Israel’s settler-colonial pursuits”.
Repeating the claim that a whole new generation needs to replace the current one for any change to occur in Palestine is an insult – although, at times, unintended – to generations of Palestinians, whose struggle and sacrifices are present in every aspect of Palestinian lives.
Simply because the odds stacked against Palestinian freedom seem too great at the moment, does not justify the discounting of an entire nation, which has lived through many wars, protracted sieges and untold hardship. Moreover, the next generation is but a mere evolution of the consciousness of the current one. They cannot be delinked or analyzed separately.
In his “Prison Notebooks”, anti-fascist intellectual, Antonio Gramsci, coined the term “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”
While logical analysis of a situation may lead the intellect to despair, the potential for social and political revolutions and transformations must keep us all motivated to keep the struggle going, no matter the odds.
Peter Beinart, an influential liberal commentator on Israel and Zionism, poked a very large stick into a hornets’ nest this month by admitting he had finally abandoned his long-cherished commitment to a two-state solution.
Variously described as the “pope of liberal Zionism” and a “bellwether for the American Jewish community”, Beinart broke ranks in two essays. Writing in the New York Times and in Jewish Currents magazine, he embraced the idea of equality for all – Israelis and Palestinians.
The painful truth is that the project to which liberal Zionists like myself have devoted ourselves for decades – a state for Palestinians separated from a state for Jews – has failed. … It is time for liberal Zionists to abandon the goal of Jewish-Palestinian separation and embrace the goal of Jewish-Palestinian equality.
Similarly, the Times article was headlined: “I no longer believe in a Jewish state.” Beinart’s main point – that a commitment to Israel is now entirely incompatible with a commitment to equality for the region’s inhabitants – is a potential hammer blow to the delusions of liberal Jews in the United States.
His declaration is the apparent culmination of a long intellectual and emotional journey Beinart has conducted in the public eye – a journey many American liberal Jews have taken with him.
There is no heavyweight publication in the US that has not hosted his thoughts. Foreign Policy magazine ranked him in the top 100 global thinkers in 2012.
But his infatuation with Israel and Zionism has been souring for years. A decade ago, he published a seminal essay on how young American Jews were increasingly alienated from their main leadership organisations, which he criticised for worshipping at the altar of Israel even as Israeli governments lurched ever further rightwards. His argument later formed the basis of a book, The Crisis of Zionism.
The tensions he articulated finally exploded into physical confrontation in 2018, when he was detained at Israel’s main airport and nearly denied entry based on his political views.
Beinart has not only written caustically about the occupation – a fairly comfortable deflection for most liberal Zionists – but has also increasingly turned his attention to Israel’s behaviour towards its large Palestinian minority, one in five of the population.
Recognition of the structural racism towards these 1.8 million Palestinian citizens, a group whose identity is usually glossed over as “Israeli Arabs”, was a clear sign that he had begun poking into the dark recesses of Zionism, areas from which most of his colleagues shied away.
Disappointment and distrust
Beinart’s two essays have been greeted with hesitancy by some of those who might be considered natural allies.
Understandably, some Palestinians find reason to distrust Beinart’s continuing description of himself as a Zionist, even if now a cultural rather than political one. They also resent a continuing western colonial mentality that very belatedly takes an interest in equality for Palestinians only because a prominent liberal Jew adopts the cause.
Beinart’s language is problematic for many Palestinians too. Not least, he frames the issue as between Palestinians and Jews, implying that Jews everywhere still have a colonial claim on the historic lands of Palestine, rather than those who live there today as Israelis.
Similarly, among many anti-Zionists, there is disappointment that Beinart did not go further and explicitly prescribe a single democratic state of the kind currently being advanced in the region by small but growing numbers of Israelis and Palestinians.
Tested to breaking point
But the importance of Beinart’s intervention lies elsewhere. He is not the first prominent Jewish figure to publicly turn their back on the idea of a Jewish state. Notably, the late historian Tony Judt did the same – to much uproar – in a 2003 essay published by the New York Review of Books. He called Israel an “anachronism”.
But Judt had been chiefly associated with his contributions to understanding European history, not Zionism or Israel. And his essay arrived at a very different historical moment, when Israelis and Jews overseas were growing more entrenched in their Zionism. The Oslo Accords had fizzled into irrelevance at the height of a Palestinian uprising.
Beinart’s articles have landed at a problematic time for his main audience. The most fundamental tenet of liberal Zionism – that a Jewish state is necessary, verging on sacred – is already being tested to breaking point.
The trigger for the articles is the very tangible threat from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, backed by the Trump White House, to annex swaths of the West Bank.
Meagre alibi lost
The significance of Netanyahu’s position on annexation, as Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard has noted, depends not simply on whether annexation is realised on the ground, now or later. The declaration itself crosses a Rubicon.
Netanyahu and the right-wing faction who now control Israel unchallenged have made it explicit that they do not consider the occupation to be a temporary arrangement that will eventually be resolved in peace talks.
The intent to annex, whether or not the US allows such a move, now taints everything Israel does in the occupied territories. It proves beyond any doubt – even to liberal Jews who have been living in deep denial – that Israel’s goal is to permanently seize the occupied territories.
That, in turn, means that Israel has only two possible approaches to the Palestinian populations living in those territories as long as it denies them equality: It can either carry out ethnic cleansing operations to expel them, or rule over them in a formal, explicit arrangement of apartheid. That may not constitute much of a tangible difference on the ground, but it marks a legal sea change.
Occupation, however ugly, is not in breach of international law, though actions related to it, such as settlement-building, may be. This allowed many liberal Jews, such as Beinart, a small comfort blanket that they have clung to tightly for decades.
When challenged about Israel’s behaviour, they could always claim that the occupation would one day end, that peace talks were around the corner, that partition was possible if only Palestinians were willing to compromise a little more.
But with his annexation plan, Netanyahu ripped that comfort blanket out of their clutches and tore it to shreds. Ethnic cleansing and apartheid are both crimes against humanity. No ifs, no buts. As Sfard points out: “Once Israel began officially striving for annexation – that is, for perpetuating its rule by force – it lost this meagre alibi.”
Sfard makes a further important legal observation in a report written for the human rights group Yesh Din. If Israel chooses to institute an apartheid regime in parts of the occupied West Bank – either formally or through creeping legal annexation, as it is doing now – that regime does not end at the West Bank’s borders. It would mean that “the Israeli regime in its entirety is an apartheid regime. That Israel is an Apartheid state.”
Of course, one would have to be blind not to have understood that this was where political Zionism was always heading – even more so after the 1967 war, when Israel’s actions disclosed that it had no intention of returning the Palestinian territories it had seized.
But the liberal Zionist condition was precisely one of willful blindness. It shut its eyes tight and saw no evil, even as Israel debased Palestinian life there for more than half a century. Looking back, Beinart recognises his own self-inflicted credulousness. “In practice, Israel annexed the West Bank long ago,” he writes in the New York Times.
In his two articles, Beinart denies liberal Jews the one path still available to them to rationalise Palestinian oppression. He argues that those determined to support a Jewish state, whatever it does, are projecting their own unresolved, post-Holocaust fears onto Palestinians.
In the Zionist imagination, according to Beinart, Palestinians have been reinvented as heirs to the Nazis. As a result, most Jews have been manipulated into framing Israel’s settler-colonialism in zero-sum terms – as a life-or-death battle. In that way, they have been able to excuse Israel’s perpetual abuse of Palestinians.
Or as Beinart puts it: “Through a historical sleight of hand that turns Palestinians into Nazis, fear of annihilation has come to define what it means to be an authentic Jew.” He adds that “Jewish trauma”, not Palestinian behaviour, has ended in “the depiction of Palestinians as compulsive Jew-haters”.
Forced into a choice
Annexation has forced Beinart to confront that trauma and move beyond it. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of Israel’s supporters have been reluctant to follow suit or discard their comforting illusions. Some are throwing tantrums, others sulking in the corner.
The Zionist right and mainstream have described Beinart as a traitor, a self-hating Jew, and a collaborator with Palestinian terrorism. David Weinberg of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security called Beinart “a shill for Israel’s enemies” who “secretes poison”.
Dan Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel, described Beinart’s advocacy of equality as a “disaster in the making”, while Dani Dayan, Israel’s consul general in New York, accused Beinart of wanting Israel to “drop dead”.
The liberal Zionist establishment has been no less discomfited. Aaron David Miller, a former US Middle East envoy, warned that Beinart’s prescription was “an illusion tethered to a fantasy wrapped in an impossibility”.
And Beinart’s friend, Jeremy Ben Ami, head of the two-state lobby group J Street, snatched back the ragged remains of the comfort blanket, arguing that peace talks would be revived eventually. In a standard Zionist deflection, Ben Ami added that Israel was no different from the US in being “far from perfect”.
But to understand how quickly liberal Zionist reasoning may crumble, it is worth focusing on a critique of Beinart’s articles by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz’s in-house liberal Zionist, Anshel Pfeffer.
Collapse of support
Pfeffer makes two highly unconvincing arguments to evade Beinart’s logic. Firstly, he claims that a one-state solution – of any variety – is impossible because there is no support for it among Palestinians and Israelis. It is, he argues, a conceit Beinart has absorbed from Jews and Palestinians in the US.
Let’s overlook Pfeffer’s obvious mistake in ignoring the fact that a single state already exists – a Greater Israel in which Palestinians have been living for decades under a highly belligerent system of apartheid, laced with creeping ethnic cleansing. Still, his claims about where Israeli and Palestinian public opinion currently lies are entirely misleading, as is his assumption about how Beinart’s attack on liberal Zionism may impact regional possibilities.
The views of Palestinians in the occupied territories (Pfeffer, of course, ignores the views of refugees) have been undergoing radical and rapid change. Support for the two-state solution has collapsed. This is far from surprising, given the current political context.
Among Palestinians, there are signs of exasperation and a mirroring of Israeli Jewish intransigence. In one recent poll, a majority of Palestinian respondents demanded a return of all of historic Palestine. What can be inferred from this result is probably not much more than the human tendency to put on a brave show when faced with a highly acquisitive bully.
In fact, increasingly Palestinians understand that if they want to end the occupation and apartheid, they will need to overthrow their compromised leaders in the Palestinian Authority (PA), effectively Israel’s local security contractor. It is an uprising against the PA, not polls, that will seal the fate of the two-state solution. What may inspire Palestinians to take on the risk of a major confrontation with their leaders?
A part will be played, however small, by Palestinians’ understanding of how a shift from a struggle for statehood to a struggle for equal rights in one state will be received abroad. Liberal Jewish opinion in the US will be critical in changing such perceptions – and Beinart has just placed himself at the heart of that debate.
Journey to ‘self-immolation’
Meanwhile, a majority of Israeli Jews support either Greater Israel or an “end-of-the-rainbow” two-state solution, one in which Palestinians are denied any meaningful sovereignty. They do so for good reason, because either option perpetuates the status quo of a single state in which they prosper at a heavy cost to Palestinians. The bogus two-state solution privileges them, just as bantustans once did white South Africans.
The view of Israeli Jews will change, just as white South Africans’ did, when they suffer a harsher international environment and the resulting cost-benefit calculus has to be adjusted.
In that sense, the issue isn’t what Israeli Jews think now, when they are endlessly indulged, but what Israel’s sponsors – chiefly the US – eventually demand. That is why Beinart’s influence on the thinking of liberal American Jews cannot be discounted. Long term, what they insist on may prove critically important.
That was why Beinart’s harshest critics, in attacking his two essays, also warned of the current direction of travel.
Jonathan Tobin, editor of the Jewish News Syndicate, argued that Beinart’s views were “indicative of the crisis of faith within much of American Jewry”. Weinberg described the two essays as “frightening” because they charted liberal Jews’ “intellectual journey towards anti-Zionism and self-immolation”.
Both understand that, if liberal Jews abandon Zionism, one leg of the Israeli stool will be gone.
Mocked as utopianism
The other problem Pfeffer inadvertently highlights with liberal Zionism is contained in his mocking dismissal of Beinart’s claim that the justification for a “Jewish home” needs to be rooted in morality.
Pfeffer laughs this off as utopianism, arguing instead that Israel’s existence has always depended on what he vaguely terms “pragmatism”. What he means, once the euphemism is stripped out, is that Israel has always pursued a policy of “might is right”.
But Pfeffer’s suggestion that Israel does not also need to shape a moral narrative about its actions – even if that narrative bears no relation to reality – is patently implausible.
Israel has not relied solely on its own might. It has needed the patronage of western states to help it diplomatically, financially and militarily. And their enthusiastic support has depended on domestic perceptions of Israel as a moral agent.
Israel understands this only too well. It has presented itself as a “light unto the nations”, a state that “redeemed” a barren land, and one that has the “most moral army in the world”. Those are all moral claims on western support.
Beinart has demonstrated that the moral discourse for Israel is a lost cause. And for that reason, Israel’s chief allies now are states led by covert, and sometimes overt, antisemites and proud authoritarians.
Beinart is doubtless ahead of most liberal Jews in the US in rejecting Israel as a Jewish state. But it would be foolish indeed to imagine that there are not many others already contemplating following in his footsteps.
While the US administration of President Donald Trump remains adamant in its support for Israel, the traditional democratic leadership continues to employ underhanded language, the kind of ‘strategic ambiguity’ that offers full support to Israel and nothing but lip service to Palestine and peace.
Trump’s policies on Israel and Palestine have been damaging, culminating in the outrageously unfair ‘Deal of the Century’, and his administration remains largely committed to the trend of growing affinity between the Republican establishment and the Israeli right-wing camp of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The views of the Democratic leadership, represented in the presumptive Democratic challenger in the upcoming November election, Joe Biden, are still those of a bygone era, when the Democrats’ unconditional love for Israel equaled that of Republicans. It is safe to say that those days are drawing to an end, for successive opinion polls are reaffirming the changing political landscape in Washington.
Once upon a time, America’s political elite, whose politics diverged on many issues, wholeheartedly agreed on one single foreign policy matter: their country’s blind and unconditional love and support for Israel. In those days, the influential pro-Israel lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) ruled the roost, reigning supreme in the US Congress and, almost single-handedly, decided on the fate of Congressmen and women based on their support, or lack thereof, of Israel.
While it is too early to proclaim that ‘those days are over,’ judging by the vastly changing political discourse on Palestine and Israel, the many opinion polls, and the electoral successes of anti-Israeli occupation candidates in national and local elections, one is compelled to say that AIPAC’s tight grip on US foreign policy is finally loosening.
Such a statement may seem premature considering the current administration’s unparalleled bias towards Israel – the illegal US embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the dismissal of the ‘Right of Return’ for Palestinian Refugees, and the administration’s support of the Israeli plan to illegally annex parts of the West Bank, and so on.
However, a distinction must be made between support for Israel among the ruling, the increasingly isolated clique of politicians, and the general mood of a country that, despite numerous infringements on democracy in recent years, is still, somewhat democratic.
On June 25, a whopping number of nearly 200 Democratic House members, including some of the most staunch supporters of Israel, called, in a letter, on Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials to scrap their plan to illegally annex nearly 30 percent of the West Bank.
“We express our deep concern with the stated intention to move ahead with any unilateral annexation of West Bank territory, and we urge your government to reconsider plans to do so,” the letter said, in part.
While the wording of the letter was far from being dubbed ‘threatening’, the fact that it was signed by stalwart Israeli allies, such as Florida Congressman, Ted Deutch and Illinois Congressman, Brad Schneider, speaks volumes about the shifting discourse on Israel among the center and even conservative corners of the Democratic Party. Among the signers were also prominent figures in the Democratic establishment, like Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and House Majority Leader, Steny Hoyer.
Equally important, is that the influence of the younger and more progressive generation of Democratic politicians continues to push the boundaries of the party’s discourse on Israel, thanks to the tireless work of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues. Along with a dozen Democratic lawmakers, Ocasio-Cortez issued another letter on June 30, this time addressed to US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo.
Unlike the first letter, the second one was assertive and markedly daring. “Should the Israeli government continue down this path (of annexation), we will work to ensure non-recognition of annexed territories as well as pursue legislation that conditions the $3.8 billion in US military funding to Israel to ensure US taxpayers are not supporting annexation in any way,” the letter read, in part.
Imagine if this exact wording was used by Democratic representatives in July 1980, when the Israeli Parliament unlawfully annexed East Jerusalem in an action that was – and remains – contrary to international law. The fate of these politicians would have been similar to the fate of others who dared to speak out at the risk of losing their seats in Congress; in fact, their political careers altogether.
But times have changed. It is quite unusual, and refreshing, to see AIPAC scrambling to put out the many fires ignited by the new radical voices among Democrats.
The reason that it is no longer easy for the pro-Israel lobby to maintain its decades-long hegemony over Congress is that the likes of Ocasio-Cortez are, themselves, a byproduct of the generational and, likely, irreversible change that has taken place among Democrats over the years.
The trend of polarization of American public opinion regarding Israel goes back nearly twenty years, when Americans began viewing their support for Israel based on party lines. More recent polls suggest that this polarization is growing. A Pew opinion poll published in 2016 showed that sympathy for Israel among Republicans morphed to an unprecedented 74% while falling among Democrats to 33%.
Then, for the first time in history, support for Israel and Palestinians was almost equally split among Democrats; 33% and 31% respectively. This was a period in which we began seeing such unusual mainstream news headlines as, “Why Democrats are abandoning Israel?”
This ‘abandonment’ continued unabated, as more recent polls have indicated. In January 2018, another Pew survey showed that the Democrats’ support for Israel dwindled to reach 27%.
Not only are the rank-and-file of Democrats walking away from Israel as a result of the growing awareness of Israel’s relentless crimes and violent occupation in Palestine, young Jews are also doing the same.
The changing views on Israel among young American Jews are finally paying dividends, to the extent that, in April 2019, Pew data concluded that Jewish Americans, as a whole, are now far more likely (42%) than Christians to say that President Trump was “favoring the Israelis too much.”
While many Democrats in Congress are increasingly in touch with the views of their constituencies, those at the helm, such as Biden, remain stubbornly committed to agendas that are championed by AIPAC and the rest of the old guard.
The good news from Washington is that, despite Trump’s current support for Israel, an incremental, but lasting structural change continues to take place among Democratic Party supporters everywhere and throughout the country. More sobering news is that Israel’s traditional stronghold over the country’s Jewish communities is faltering – and quickly so.
While AIPAC is likely to continue using and improvising on old tactics to protect Israel’s interests at the US Congress, the long-dubbed ‘powerful lobby’ will unlikely be able to turn back time. Indeed, the age of total dominance of Israel over the US Congress is likely over, and hopefully, this time, for good.
After years of successfully drawing attention away from Israel’s intensifying crimes against the Palestinian people by citing a supposedly growing “antisemitism crisis” in Britain’s Labour Party, Jewish community leaders in the UK are exasperated to find themselves unexpectedly on the defensive.
Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pulled the rug out from under leading British Jewish organisations by appointing Tzipi Hotovely as Israel’s next ambassador to the UK. She is expected to take up her position in the summer.
Recently made Israel’s first settlements minister, Hotovely does not appear to have a diplomatic bone in her body. She is a rising star in Netanyahu’s Likud Party – and at the heart of the Israeli far-right’s ascendancy over the past decade.
‘This land is ours’
She is openly Islamophobic, denying the history of the Palestinian people. She supports hardline racial purity groups, such as Lehava, that try to stop relationships between Jews and non-Jews. And she flaunts a religious Jewish supremacism that claims title to all of historic Palestine.
In a 2015 speech on her appointment as deputy foreign minister, she rejected a two-state solution, saying: “This land is ours. All of it is ours. We did not come here to apologise for that.”
She was given responsibility as settlements minister for overseeing what is widely feared will be the imminent annexation of up to a third of the West Bank promised by Netanyahu, destroying any last hope of a Palestinian state.
But she goes further. She favours full West Bank annexation, implying support either for Israel’s explicit and direct apartheid rule over millions of Palestinians or renewed mass ethnic cleansing operations to remove Palestinians from their homes.
Hotovely also supports Israel’s takeover of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem, one of the most important Islamic sites in the world. Such a move could set the Middle East on fire.
Hotovely is an undoubted rupture from recent ambassadors.
From 2007 until 2016, the post was held successively by career diplomats Ron Prosor and Daniel Taub. They followed the traditional embassy playbook: rhetorical efforts to take the spotlight off Israel and its systematic oppression of Palestinians.
They focused instead on a two-state solution that no one in the Israeli government was actually interested in, and blamed the lack of progress on supposed Palestinian intransigence and Hamas “terrorism”.
In early 2016, another diplomat, Mark Regev, was appointed, though in a more politicised capacity. He had previously served as Netanyahu’s most trusted spokesman.
Regev’s arrival coincided with a much more aggressive – if covert – role for the London embassy in interfering directly in British politics. He had to deal with the recently elected leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, who was seen as a major threat to Israel because of his outspoken support for Palestinians.
An undercover investigation aired by Al Jazeera in early 2017 revealed that an Israeli embassy official was secretly coordinating with Jewish organisations to undermine Corbyn. One such group, the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), had been recently revived inside the Labour Party to oppose Corbyn.
Evidence emerged to suggest that the embassy’s efforts to damage Corbyn were being directed from Israel, by the strategic affairs ministry. The ministry’s main mission has been to discredit overseas solidarity with Palestinians, especially the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel.
Zionism and antisemitism
As the documentary underscored, one of the main weapons in Israel’s arsenal has been to tar Palestinian solidarity activists as antisemites.
This has been achieved by muddying the differences between antisemitism and opposition to Zionism, an extreme political ideology that – even in its secular varieties – assumes that Jews have a biblically inspired right to dispossess the native Palestinian population.
Corbyn found himself increasingly under attack from the JLM and the UK’s main Jewish leadership organisation, the Board of Deputies, for supposedly unleashing a “plague” of antisemitism in Labour. While antisemitism in the UK has been rising overall in recent years, statistics revealed this accusation against the Labour Party in particular to be entirely groundless.
Keir Starmer, Corbyn’s successor as Labour leader, gives every impression of having learned from Corbyn’s devastating run-in with the Israel lobby. He has declared himself a Zionist and signed up to “10 Pledges” from the Board of Deputies that take meaningful criticism of Israel off the table.
Late last month he sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey from the shadow cabinet for supposedly indulging an antisemitic “conspiracy theory” after she retweeted an article that criticised Israel’s well-documented involvement in training US police forces.
Netanyahu now appears confident that the political threat to Israel from the UK has been neutralised, and that neither of Britain’s two main parties will pay more than lip service to Palestinian rights.
That has been underscored by the fact that Hotovely’s appointment coincides with the expected move by Netanyahu to annex swaths of the West Bank over the coming weeks under licence from US President Donald Trump’s recent “peace” plan.
Last month, some 50 United Nations human rights experts described Israel’s proposed annexation as the harbinger of “21st century apartheid”.
Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, has voiced opposition to annexation, as has Starmer. But neither has indicated that he would take any meaningful retaliatory action.
The fact that Hotovely, a champion of maximalist annexation, will represent Israeli government policy in the UK suggests that Netanyahu understands that British party leaders will offer no more than empty threats.
But while Netanyahu may be happy to have Hotovely selling West Bank annexation to the British public and defending Israel’s ever-greater abuses of Palestinians, prominent Jewish figures in the UK are up in arms.
They have spent the past five years changing the optics in the UK. Zionism – Israel’s settler-colonial ideology – has been repackaged as innocuous, even wholesome: a benevolent political movement that simply empowers Jews, liberating them from antisemitism.
But this illusion has depended on erasing Palestinians – and their oppression – from view.
So successful has the campaign been that those who try to remind Britons of the circumstances of Israel’s establishment and its subsequent history have been decried as antisemites.
The creation of Israel, sponsored by British governments starting more than a century ago, depended on the ethnic cleansing of some 80 percent of Palestinians from their homes in 1948 and the continuing exclusion of millions of their descendants. Israel still subjects millions more to a belligerent occupation.
Hotovely threatens to disrupt all of these achievements, and expose the pro-Israel lobby – as well as some of the biggest names in Britain’s Jewish community – as charlatans.
Passionate about Israel
Jewish leaders in the UK were already panicking over Netanyahu’s promises to annex parts of the West Bank. That would bring into sharp focus a decades-long Zionist programme of Palestinian dispossession they have quietly supported.
Early last month, before Hotovely’s appointment had been announced, around 40 of Britain’s most prominent Jews, including historians Simon Schama and Simon Sebag Montefiore, philanthropist Vivien Duffield and former Conservative cabinet minister Malcolm Rifkind, wrote to Regev urging the Israeli government to rethink annexation.
They observed that, as “committed Zionists and passionately outspoken friends of Israel”, they had worked hard to “nurture a more sympathetic environment for Israel” in the UK. But annexation, they warned, would tear apart the country’s Jewish community and “pose an existential threat to the traditions of Zionism in Britain”.
It was notable that key figures in the campaign to oust Corbyn over his support for Palestinian rights signed the letter, including former Labour MP Luciana Berger; Trevor Chinn, a major donor to Starmer’s campaign; Daniel Finkelstein, associate editor at the Times newspaper; Julia Neuberger, a prominent rabbi; and Anthony Julius, a celebrated lawyer.
Annexation is not new
But annexation is not a new policy, as these Jewish notables suggest. Israel formally annexed East Jerusalem in 1980, in violation of international law, condemning more than 370,000 Palestinian residents to permanent Israeli apartheid rule. Israel did the same to the Syrian Golan Heights a year later.
And is annexation really worse than the mass ethnic cleansing operations Israel carried out not only in 1948, but again in 1967? Ever since, Israel has pursued a policy of ethnic cleansing by stealth in the occupied territories – the flip 0side of its “creeping annexation” policy – as it has taken over more Palestinian land to settle it with Jews.
Did these war crimes not lead Jewish community leaders in Britain to rethink their “passionate commitment” to Israel?
And why is it only this latest phase of annexation that makes them question “Israel’s status as a liberal democracy” – not the legal structures codified in dozens of laws that privilege the citizenship rights of Jews over Israel’s 1.8 million-strong Palestinian minority, a fifth of its population?
Formal annexation is simply the logical conclusion of more than a century of Zionist colonisation of Palestine, one that was always premised on the replacement of the native population with Jews. Getting the jitters at this late stage in Israel’s settler-colonial mission, as though some imaginary red line has suddenly been crossed, is self-delusion of the highest order.
Sparing allies’ blushes
But if annexation poses a severe blow to the image these “passionate Zionists” have of themselves as fair-minded, sensitive liberals, Hotovely’s appointment as ambassador may yet sound the death knell.
Earlier Israeli governments were aware of the need to put a rhetorical gloss on their oppression of Palestinians to spare the blushes of supporters in western states. That was one of the tasks of Israel’s foreign ministry and its diplomatic corps. It was also the aim of the Israeli hasbara industry – state propaganda masquerading as neutral “information”.
Successive Netanyahu governments have found propping up such deceptions increasingly untenable in an era in which Palestinians have phone cameras that can document their abuse. The resulting videos are all over YouTube.
Many British Jews have averted their eyes, claiming instead that strenuous criticism of Israel is demonisation motivated by antisemitism. But the self-deceptions so beloved by many in overseas Jewish communities are increasingly unpalatable to the Israeli right’s Jewish supremacist instincts. Hotovely is simply the latest choice of envoy who cares little for indulging the cognitive dissonance of local Jewish allies.
Back in 2015, before the ultra-nationalist Jair Bolsonaro became Brazil’s president, Netanyahu tried to foist a settler leader, Dani Dayan, on Brasilia. Notably, Hotovely, who was then Israel’s deputy foreign minister, was outspokenin defending Dayan’s appointment, even threatening to downgrade relations with Brazil.
After a diplomatic row, Dayan was eventually reassigned as Israel’s consul general in New York.
Some in the UK’s Jewish community appear to believe they can enjoy similar success. Many hundreds of British Jews have signed a petition launched by an anti-occupation group, Na’amod, urging the UK to reject Hotovely as ambassador. Others appear to be contemplating a boycott if she is accredited.
Liberal Jewish community leaders have joined them in opposition. Labour peer Lord Beecham told the Jewish Chronicle that Hotovely’s appointment would “do nothing to win friends in the UK – or indeed any other reasonable country”.
Laura Janner-Klausner, the senior rabbi of the Reform Movement, echoed him: “[Hotovely’s] political views on Palestinians, annexation and religious pluralism clash with our core values.”
Except that all the recent evidence suggests Janner-Klausner is wrong. Yes, Hotovely’s unadorned “values” are ugly and openly racist. She does not veil her Jewish supremacist worldview; she wears it proudly.
But her policies in support of Jewish settlement on Palestinian land have been the bedrock policy of every Israeli government since 1967, when the occupation began. And the logical endpoint of the ever-expanding settlements was always annexation, either by legal fiat or by creating a mass of facts on the ground.
The majority of Britain’s Jewish community, as its leaders keep reminding us, are fervent Zionists. Jewish publications described Na’amod, which launched the petition against Hotovely, as a “fringe” group because it “campaigns against the occupation and [is] in favour of Palestinian rights”.
Living a lie
For many years, some in the British Jewish community have served as cheerleaders for the settlements. One such group, the Jewish National Fund UK, welcomed Hotovely’s appointment, noting what they called her “many positive attributes and achievements”.
Others have cynically turned a blind eye to developments in the occupied territories over more than half a century. The Board of Deputies – the nearest the UK’s Jewish community has to an establishment – has said it will work with Hotovely. Concerning annexation, it has said: “We don’t take sides in Israeli politics.”
Others have paid lip service to opposition to the settlements, while living a lie they concealed even from themselves. The more Israel moved to the right and the more it expanded settlements to displace Palestinians, the more these “liberals” entrenched their support for Israel, and the more they refused to countenance dissent.
Blind support for Israel became a measure of whether they would back a political party, as Ed Miliband, himself Jewish and Corbyn’s predecessor as Labour leader, found to his cost.
An ultra-nationalist id
The Labour Party was lost to the majority of Britain’s Jewish community long ago – long before Corbyn. Anything but uncritical support for Israel – even as Israel moved ever further into an ultra-nationalism bordering on what Israeli experts have described as fascism – was denounced as proof of left-wing “antisemitism”.
“Antisemitism” became a way to avoid thinking about Israel and what it stood for. It became a way to reject Israel’s critics without addressing their arguments. It served as a comfort blanket, reassuring many British Jews that their politics were defensive, rather than ideologically extreme and offensive.
Now, Hotovely will serve as the Israeli ultra-nationalist id to their liberal egos. With Corbyn the bogeyman gone, liberal British Jews will finally have to face truths about Israel they have deeply buried.
It is a moment of reckoning – and one long overdue.
Wednesday, July 1, was meant to be the day on which the Israeli government officially annexed 30% of the occupied Palestinian West Bank and the Jordan Valley. This date, however, came and went and annexation was never actualized.
“I don’t know if there will be a declaration of sovereignty today,” said Israeli Foreign Minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, with reference to the self-imposed deadline declared earlier by Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. An alternative date was not immediately announced.
But does it really matter?
Whether Israel’s illegal appropriation of Palestinian land takes place with massive media fanfare and a declaration of sovereignty, or whether it happens incrementally over the course of the coming days, weeks, and months, Israel has, in reality, already annexed the West Bank – not just 30% of it but, in fact, the whole area.
It is critical that we understand such terms as ‘annexation’, ‘illegal’, ‘military occupation’, and so on, in their proper contexts.
For example, international law deems that all of Israel’s Jewish settlements, constructed anywhere on Palestinian land occupied during the 1967 war, are illegal.
Interestingly, Israel, too, uses the term ‘illegal’ with reference to settlements, but only to ‘outposts’ that have been erected in the occupied territories without the permission of the Israeli government.
In other words, while in the Israeli lexicon the vast majority of all settlement activities in occupied Palestine are ‘legal’, the rest can only be legalized through official channels. Indeed, many of today’s ‘legal’ 132 settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem, housing over half a million Israeli Jewish settlers, began as ‘illegal outposts’.
Though this logic may satisfy the need of the Israeli government to ensure its relentless colonial project in Palestine follows a centralized blueprint, none of this matters in international law.
Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Conventions states that “Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive”, adding that “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”
Israel has violated its commitment to international law as an ‘Occupying Power’ on numerous occasions, rendering its very ‘occupation’ of Palestine, itself, a violation of how military occupations are conducted – which are meant to be temporary, anyway.
Military occupation is different from annexation. The former is a temporary transition, at the end of which the ‘Occupying Power’ is expected, in fact, demanded, to relinquish its military hold on the occupied territory after a fixed length of time. Annexation, on the other hand, is a stark violation of the Geneva Conventions and the Hague Regulations. It is tantamount to a war crime, for the occupier is strictly prohibited from proclaiming unilateral sovereignty over occupied land.
The international uproar generated by Netanyahu’s plan to annex a third of the West Bank is fully understandable. But the bigger issue at stake is that, in practice, Israel’s violations of the terms of occupation have granted it a de facto annexation of the whole of the West Bank.
So when the European Union, for example, demands that Israel abandons its annexation plans, it is merely asking Israel to re-embrace the status quo ante, that of de facto annexation. Both abhorring scenarios should be rejected.
Israel began utilizing the occupied territories as if they are contiguous and permanent parts of so-called Israel proper, immediately following the June 1967 war. Within a few years, it erected illegal settlements, now thriving cities, eventually moving hundreds of thousands of its own citizens to populate the newly acquired areas.
This exploitation became more sophisticated with time, as Palestinians were subjected to slow, but irreversible, ethnic cleansing. As Palestinian homes were destroyed, farms confiscated, and entire regions depopulated, Jewish settlers moved in to take their place. The post-1967 scenario was a repeat of the post-1948 history, which led to the establishment of the State of Israel on the ruins of historic Palestine.
Moshe Dayan, who served as Israel’s Defense Minister during the 1967 war, explained the Israeli logic best in a historical address at Israel’s Technion University in March 1969. “We came to this country which was already populated by Arabs, and we are establishing a Hebrew, that is a Jewish state here,” he said.
“Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you, because these geography books no longer exist; not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there, either … There is no one place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population,” he added.
The same colonial approach was applied to East Jerusalem and the West Bank after the war. While East Jerusalem was formally annexed in 1980, the West Bank was annexed in practice, but not through a clear legal Israeli proclamation. Why? In one word: demographics.
When Israel first occupied East Jerusalem, it went on a population transfer frenzy: moving its own population to the Palestinian city, strategically expanding the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem to include as many Jews and as few Palestinians as possible, slowly reducing the Palestinian population of Al Quds through numerous tactics, including the revocation of residency and outright ethnic cleansing.
And, thus, Jerusalem’s Palestinian population, which once constituted the absolute majority, has now been reduced to a dwindling minority.
The same process was initiated in parts of the West Bank, but due to the relatively large size of the area and population, it was not possible to follow a similar annexation stratagem without jeopardizing Israel’s drive to maintain Jewish majority.
Dividing the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C as a result of the disastrous Oslo accords, has given Israel a lifeline, for this allowed it to increase settlement activities in Area C – nearly 60% of the West Bank – without stressing too much about demographic imbalances. Area C, where the current annexation plan is set to take place, is ideal for Israeli colonialism, for it includes Palestine’s most arable, resource-rich, and sparsely populated lands.
It matters little whether the annexation will have a set date or will take place progressively through Israel’s declarations of sovereignty over smaller chunks of the West Bank in the future. The fact is, annexation is not a new Israeli political agenda dictated by political circumstances in Tel Aviv and Washington. Rather, annexation has been the ultimate Israeli colonial objective from the very onset.
Let us not get entangled in Israel’s bizarre definitions. The truth is that Israel rarely behaves as an ‘Occupying Power’, but as a sovereign in a country where racial discrimination and apartheid are not only tolerated or acceptable but are, in fact, ‘legal’ as well.
The Jewish National Fund (JNF) rightly presents itself as the most venerable of the Zionist institutions:
It stands at the heart of a state-building project launched more than a century ago;
It is an organisation that is today deeply embedded in the structures of the Israeli state;
It is the guardian of the Israel’s most precious resource – land;
And it is the bridge connecting Jews abroad to Israel, allowing them to become practically and emotionally involved in its continuing national mission of colonisation.
Created in 1901, the JNF was the earliest of the major institutions established by the international Zionist movement to build a state in Palestine. The Jewish Agency, the Zionist movement’s government-in-waiting and migration service, and the Haganah, its embryonic military force, would have to wait another two and three decades to make a proper appearance.
No institution stands at the heart of the Zionist mission more squarely than the JNF. And for that reason, if no other, it is not only the most pre-eminent but also the most zealous of those organisations.
If that seems unfair, notice a recent statement by the JNF-UK that hints at the organisation’s extremism even by the standards set by a Jewish community leadership in Britain that has grown increasingly fanatical in its support of Israel and actively hostile to Palestinian rights.
The statement was issued last month, as it was confirmed that Tzipi Hotovely, a rising star in Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, had been appointed Israel’s new ambassador to the UK. Hotovely makes the Israeli prime minister seem moderate by comparison.
She is a proud Jewish supremacist and Islamophobe. She supports Israel’s annexation of the entire West Bank and the takeover of Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. She is happy to lift the veil from Israel’s apartheid rule over Palestinians in the occupied territories.
That fact has made her appointment a deeply unappealing prospect for most of Britain’s Jewish community. It has prompted many hundreds to sign a petition calling on the UK government to block her apppointment. Prominent liberal Jews and Jewish organisations have either quietly lamented the decision or remained publicly silent. They are fearful that her outspoken views will tear the mask from ugly Israeli policies they have long supported.
But the JNF-UK broke ranks with this consensus. In a statement it insisted:
The British Jewish community will gladly and respectfully endorse Mrs Hotovely as the new Israeli Ambassador to the UK. She is a leader with many positive attributes and achievements, and we wish her the best of luck in her new position.
Tower and stockade
We can trace the JNF’s current zealotry, as well as its indifference to those who have paid the price for its colonisation project, to its earliest years. Its aims were twofold.
First, it sought to impose residential segregation as a way to expand the resources available to Jews and to diminish those available to the native population. This was what we might term its apartheid-enforcing role.
And second, it hoped to remove the natives from their homeland by depriving them of the resources they needed to subsist. What we might term its ethnic cleansing role.
These twin prongs of what soon came to be called “Judaisation” were Zionism’s particular expression of settler colonialism.
Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, foreshadowed the JNF’s transformative mission back in 1895, six years before the organisation had been created:
We must expropriate gently the private property on the estates assigned to us. We shall try to spirit the penniless [local] population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it employment in our country.
To clarify how this model worked, I want to take a moment to step back and examine the first significant tool of land dispossession developed by the JNF in the pre-state years, in the 1930s. This was when Zionism began to develop its incremental – or creeping – ethnic cleansing model.
A half-hour drive from my home in Nazareth is a replica of a tower and stockade, next to Kibbutz Beit Alpha in the Beit She’an Valley. It was only the second tower and stockade built in Palestine, in 1936. Soon there would be dozens of them marching across the landscape.
The tower and stockades were simple structures. They were wooden enclosures, fortresses with a tall watchtower at their centre. (Imagine, if you will, one of those cavalry outposts you may remember from old Westerns featuring John Wayne as he bravely battled the marauding “Red Indians”.)
In its land-buying role, the JNF secured the lands around Beit Alpha in the early 1930s from an absentee landlord in Lebanon. In line with Herzl’s proposal, each kibbutz not only took charge of the lands of local Palestinian sharecroppers but then refused to let them work the land or to employ them. There was a strict policy of “Hebrew labour” to deprive the native population of the ability to subsist and “spirit them across the border”.
Such land purchases – as well as the expulsion of Palestinian tenants from lands they had farmed for generations – began to awaken ordinary Palestinians to Zionism’s colonial nature. In 1936 the Palestinians launched an uprising, known by the British as the Arab Revolt. It lasted three years.
The Zionist movement, however, did not simply rely on British force to quell the Revolt. It took matters into its own hands. Its policy of “gentle” ethnic cleansing turned much more aggressive. It began building dozens of tower and stockades – each the nucleus of a future kibbutz – to forcibly drive the natives off the lands they depended on for their livelihoods.
Beit Alpha’s tower and stockade, named Tel Amal, was assigned a militia. Its members would take turns in the tower to keep watch over their comrades working the fields that until recently had been farmed by Palestinians. (Beit Alpha would later forge close ties to the apartheid regime in South Africa, selling anti-riot vehicles for Pretoria to use against black protesters in the townships.)
From the tower, the colonists would be able to shoot at any Palestinian who tried to return to his fields. Unable to harvest their crops, these Palestinian farmers faced a choice between starvation and moving further down the valley to find new land. But the Zionist colonisers were always close behind.
Once the lands around Tel Amal had been secured, a new kibbutz was built around it called Nir David. Its inhabitants then built a new outpost further down the valley with its own tower and stockade. And the process of dispossessing the Palestinians would begin all over again. It was relentless, incremental ethnic cleansing.
At the time, Moshe Sharrett, who would become one of Israel’s first prime ministers, explained the purpose of the tower and stockade in zero-sum terms. The stockades, he argued, would “make it as difficult as possible to solve the problems of this land by means of division or cantonisation”. In other words, the Zionist leadership intended to “solve the problems of this land” through force of arms and expulsion.
Yosef Weitz, the director of the JNF’s settlements division, was a similarly outspoken, early proponent of expulsion. In 1940, in the immediate aftermath of the so-called Arab Revolt, he wrote in his diary: “There is no other way but to transfer the Arabs from here to the neighbouring countries. To transfer all of them. Not one village, not one tribe should be left.”
In April 1948, in the midst of the Nakba, he observed: “I have drawn up a list of Arab villages which in my opinion must be cleared out in order to complete Jewish regions.”
That list was the blueprint for the ethnic cleansing carried out by the Zionist movement through 1948. During the Nakba, David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, appointed Weitz to a secretive Transfer Committee to direct the ethnic cleansing operations.
Outposts and trees
The JNF’s tower and stockade mentality never went away – very obviously in the case of the occupied territories. It is represented today in the militarised architecture of the West Bank’s main settlements – fortified houses, circled like wagons, on hillsides overlooking Palestinian farming villages in the valleys below.
It is even more evident in the dozens of so-called “illegal outposts” in the West Bank. There settler militias, armed by the state, live in caravans atop yet more hills. They target key resources – the wells and the olive groves – of Palestinian farmers, terrifying them off their farmland so they depart for the relative safety of the Palestinian cities, freeing up the land for Jewish settlement.
But the legacy of the tower and stockade also resides more subtly in the architecture of citizenship and residency inside Israel – despite Israel’s claims to being a democratic, western-style state.
Weitz, the JNF official who had helped mastermind the ethnic cleansing of the Nakba, was appointed to head the JNF’s Forestry Department. Ben Gurion wanted a billion trees planted in a decade. The JNF fell short – it managed only 250 million.
Forestry was at the heart of the new Judaisation programme in Israel after statehood. Israel did not have enough immigrants to crowd out the Palestinians with Jewish bodies, so it used “Jewish” trees instead – especially the fast-growing pine.
The most pressing goal was to smother the lands of the recently expelled Palestinian refugees with forests. Their villages that had just been destroyed by Israel – more than 500 of them – would be covered with Judaisation trees.
The forests made it impossible to realise a Palestinian right of return that had recently been enshrined in international law. The trees were a physical obstacle to rebuilding the refugees’ destroyed homes or replanting the crops they subsisted on. Each tree was a weapon of war, a bayonet enforcing the ethnic cleansing of 1948.
But forestry also provided a cover for Israel’s malign intentions towards the Palestinians. The planting of trees was presented to the outside world as environmentalism, as the introduction of European order and civilisation, as Biblical redemption, as the Zionist realisation of its mission to make the desert bloom.
Blockaded by forests
The JNF’s forests were not just planted over the many hundreds of Palestinian villages Israel had destroyed.
They were also a vital weapon in the war against the minority of Palestinians who had managed to remain on their lands inside what was now Israel, despite the ethnic cleansing. They were eventually given a very degraded Israeli citizenship. Today these Palestinians comprise one-fifth of the Israeli population – what the historian Ilan Pappe calls the Forgotten Palestinians.
Many of the millions of trees planted by the JNF were in forests that pressed up tightly against the 120 or so Palestinian communities in Israel that survived the Nakba. These towns and villages were blockaded by forests, denied the chance to expand or use their lands for productive purposes, either housing or farming.
Palestinian communities in Israel, stripped of their historic lands by forests, would soon become overcrowded, de-developed spaces. Their working populations would be forced to abandon agricultural traditions and instead become casual labourers – a new precariat – in a larger Jewish economy.
The JNF’s forestation programmes are not just a relic of its early years. Trees are still being planted to this day to ethnically cleanse Israel’s Palestinian citizens. That is most obvious in Israel’s south, in the Negev (Naqab), where they are used to enforce the ethnic cleansing of Bedouin communities.
One such village, al-Araqib, is being wiped off the map by the JNF with the active complicity of the international community. The organisation is planting an Ambassadors Forest, in honour of the foreign diplomats stationed in Israel, to evict dozens of families from their ancestral lands.
Back in 2013, at the height of the campaign against al-Araqib and other Bedouin communities, Avigdor Lieberman, who was then foreign minister, made a telling comment. He said the fight to displace the Bedouin from their historic villages in the Negev proved that “nothing has changed since the tower and stockade days. We are fighting for the lands of the Jewish people and there are those [Palestinian citizens] who intentionally try to rob and seize them.”
Citizenship vs nationality
But the JNF’s tools of dispossession go far beyond the use of trees, into the very idea of what Israel is and who it belongs to.
The JNF was given a quasi-govermmental status that allowed it to function with the legal powers of a government agency but none of the legal restraints. Its role was formalised early on, in the Jewish National Fund Law of 1953.
Today, the state owns 93 percent of Israel’s recognised territory, serving as trustee. Defined as “national lands”, this territory is reserved not for Israel’s citizens, which would include Israel’s Palestinian minority, but for the Jewish people around the world.
Once again, the JNF has been principally responsible for advancing residential segregation with the aim of incremental ethnic cleansing. Judaisation, this time, takes place not through guns but through the law.
This goal has been achieved through a separation of the concepts of “citizenship” and “nationality”, which has provided a thin veneer of legality to segregation and institutionalised discrimination.
Israel has created two kinds of rights – “citizenship rights” and “national rights” – that accrue different privileges to Israeli citizens based on their ethnicity. Citizenship rights apply to all Israeli citizens equally – at least in theory – but national rights are based on each citizen’s national belonging, as either a “Jew” or as an “Arab”.
Importantly, national rights – for Jews – take precedence over citizenship rights for all Israelis. The JNF is one major mechanism by which superior rights in access to land can be guaranteed for “Jewish nationals” (including Jews who are not Israeli citizens) rather than Israel’s so-called “Arab nationals”. This distinction lies at the heart of Israel’s version of apartheid.
In fact, this separation in Israel between citizenship rights and national rights is rooted in an idea central to the JNF’s charter, which promotes collective ownership of the “Land of Israel” by the Jewish people.
For this reason, many of the lands stolen from the Palestinian refugees in 1948 were hurriedly transferred by Israel to the JNF for a pittance, so they could never again be claimed by their original owners.
Today the JNF owns 13 percent of Israeli territory, some of Israel’s most prized lands, which it holds in trust for all Jews around the world. Only Jews can lease or mortgage its lands. As the JNF explained when it was challenged about its charter in 2004, it is
not a public body that works for the benefit of all citizens of the state. The loyalty of the JNF is given to the Jewish people – and only to them is the JNF obligated. The JNF, as the owner of the JNF land, does not have a duty to practice equality towards all citizens of the state.
But the JNF’s influence extends beyond the 13 percent of Israeli land it owns. Since 1960 it has played a decisive role – through the Israel Lands Authority, a government agency – in overseeing the further 80 percent of land owned by the Israeli state.
In fact, the JNF appoints 10 of the Israel Lands Authority’s 22 directors. Effectively, the JNF controls the Israeli state’s land policy in accordance with its own apartheid mission, making land available for Jews alone, including Jews who are not Israeli citizens.
Planning and Building Law
The JNF’s Judaisation model also underpins Israel’s planning system. Israel has created a web of planning bodies in which Palestinian citizens are almost never represented. That means that Palestinian communities struggle to get their master plans recognised, and as a result their residents are denied permits for new buildings.
Central to this planning system is a largely overlooked piece of legislation: the Planning and Building Law of 1965. It was legislated shortly before Israel’s Palestinian minority emerged from nearly two decades of harsh military rule.
The Planning Law determined whether Palestinian communities that survived the Nakba would be recognised by the state. The law retrospectively “unrecognised” dozens of small, largely Bedouin villages, many in the Negev (Naqab), such as al-Araqib, which is being subsumed by Ambassadors Forest. The law criminalised these villages overnight, and to this day denies them all services.
The law’s other important function was in fixing the expansion area of every Israeli community. Jewish communities were given generous allowances for future growth and natural expansion, whereas Palestinian communities – the 120 that were recognised – were confined tightly to their built-up area in 1965. The development area has rarely changed since, even though the Palestinian population in Israel has grown eightfold.
Palestinian communities have become overcrowded ghettos. Furthermore, tens of thousands of their homes have been built without permits and are therefore under threat of demolition. Families spend years paying large fines to the authorities to ward off destruction – effectively a form of extra taxation on Palestinian housing – and may still find their house eventually being demolished.
The Israeli authorities want Palestinian communities overcrowded. That is underlined by Israel’s refusal to build a single new Palestinian community since 1948. Planning rules are designed to intensify the pressure on Palestinian citizens to leave.
The kibbutz and moshav
These planning restrictions would not be so critical if Israel was not enforcing the same kind of residential segregation embodied in the tower and stockade, back in the 1930s.
Today, the tower and stockades are gone – except for a few reconstructions, like the one at Nir David, that are visited by schoolchildren learning about the glories of their forebears’ history.
The tower and stockade was succeeded by the kibbutz and moshav – originally collectivised agricultural communities. After the Nakba, many were built on the lands of Palestinian refugees. Hundreds of them exist today and are known as “cooperative associations”.
The kibbutzim and moshavim control about half of the 93 percent of the land the JNF oversees through the Israel Lands Authority. Most no longer rely on agriculture for their livelihood. They are now bedroom communities, with the residents travelling to jobs in larger towns. But they are still key enforcers of residential segregation and ethnic cleansing.
The function of the kibbutz and moshav is still to Judaise land: not only in a historic sense, by continuing to ensure that Palestinian refugees cannot return to reclaim their lands; but in a contemporary sense too, by preventing Palestinian citizens – a fifth of Israel’s population – from living on those lands.
Both literally and figuratively, these “cooperative associations” are gated communities – exclusive clubs, where you must be a member to belong. And Palestinian citizens are always denied membership.
This is achieved primarily through the admissions committee, vetting bodies operating in some 900 communities across Israel. Each has the power to decide who will be allowed to live within their borders. These committees are guided by the JNF’s charter, and true to its spirit they always bar Palestinian citizens.
Years ago the admissions committees were explicit that no Palestinian citizens were welcome. It was Israel’s Jim Crow. But a legal challenge in the landmark Kaadan case reached the Israeli supreme court in 2000. Embarrassed by the bad publicity abroad, the admissions committees redefined the grounds for exclusion. This was formalised into the Admissions Committee Law in 2011.
Today Palestinian citizens are excluded because they are “not suitable for the social life of the community” or are found to be incompatible with the “social-cultural fabric.”
In short, Palestinian citizens are denied a place in these 900 communities because they are not Zionists, because they do not support Judaisation, and because they do not approve of their own exclusion, dispossession and ultimately expulsion from their homeland.
The JNF has been advancing its ugly, settler-colonial agenda on the ground for more than century. It is long past time that the JNF was held to account for its nefarious activities and that your campaign succeeds in stripping the JNF of its charitable status.