As hundreds of thousands throughout Israel joined anti-government protests, questions began to arise regarding how this movement would affect, or possibly merge, into the broader struggle against the Israeli military occupation and apartheid in Palestine.
Pro-Palestine media outlets shared, with obvious excitement, news about statements made by Hollywood celebrities, like Mark Ruffalo, about the need to “sanction the new hard rightwing government of (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu.”
Netanyahu, who sits at the heart of the current controversy and mass protests, struggled to find a single pilot for the flight carrying him to Rome on March 9 for a three-day visit with the Italian government. The reception for the Israeli leader in Italy was equally cold. Italian translator Olga Dalia Padoa reportedly refused to interpret Netanyahu’s speech, scheduled for March 9 at a Rome synagogue.
One can appreciate the need to strategically use the upheaval against Netanyahu’s far-right government to expose Israel’s fraudulent claim to true democracy, supposedly ‘the only democracy in the Middle East.’ However, one has to be equally careful not to validate Israel’s inherently racist institutions that had existed for decades before Netanyahu arrived in power.
The Israeli Prime Minister has been embroiled in corruption cases for years. Though he remained popular, Netanyahu lost his position at the helm of Israeli politics in June 2021 following three bitterly-contested elections. Yet, he returned on December 29, 2022, this time with even more corrupt – even by Israel’s own definition – characters such as Aryeh Deri, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, the latter two currently serving as the ministers of finance and national security, respectively.
Each one of these characters had a different reason for joining the coalition. For example, Smotrich and Ben Gvir’s agenda ranged from annexing illegal West Bank settlements to the deportation of Arab politicians considered ‘disloyal’ to the state.
Netanyahu, though a rightwing ideologue, is more concerned with personal ambitions: maintaining power as long as possible while shielding himself and his family from legal problems. He simply wants to stay out of prison. To do so, he also needs to satisfy the dangerous demands of his allies, who have been given free rein to unleash army and settler violence against Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank, as has been the case in Huwwara, Nablus, Jenin and elsewhere.
But Netanyahu’s government, the most stable in years, has bigger goals than just “wiping out” Palestinian towns off the map. Instead, they want to alter the judicial system that would allow them to transform Israeli society. The reform would grant the government control over judicial appointments by limiting the Israeli Supreme Court’s power to exercise judicial review.
The protests in Israel have very little to do with the Israeli occupation and apartheid and are hardly concerned with Palestinian rights. They are led by many former Israeli leaders, like former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, former minister Tzipi Livni and former prime minister and leader of the opposition Yair Lapid. During the Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid stint in power, between June 2021 and December 2022, hundreds of Palestinians were killed in the West Bank. UN Special Coordinator described 2022 for the Middle East Peace Process, Tor Wennesland, as the “deadliest” in the West Bank since 2005. Illegal Jewish settlements expanded rapidly during that time, while Gaza was routinely bombed.
Yet, the Bennett-Lapid government faced little backlash from Israeli society for its bloody and illegal actions in Palestine. The Israeli Supreme Court, which has approved most of the government actions in Occupied Palestine, also faced little or no protests for certifying apartheid and validating the supposed legality of the Jewish colonies, all illegal under international law. The stamp of approval by the Supreme Court was also granted when Israel passed the Nation-State Law, identifying itself exclusively as a Jewish state, thus casting off the entirety of the Arab Muslim and Christian population, which shares the same mass of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
Rarely did the Israeli judicial system take the side of Palestinians, and when little ‘victories’ were recorded now and then, they hardly altered the overall reality. Though one can understand the desperation of those trying to fight against Israeli injustices using the country’s own ‘justice system,’ such language has contributed to the confusion regarding what Israel’s ongoing protests mean for Palestinians.
This is not the first time Israelis have gone out on the streets in large numbers. In August 2011, Israel experienced what some called Israel’s own ‘Arab Spring.’ But that was also a class struggle within clearly defined ideological boundaries and political interests that rarely overlapped with a parallel battle for equality, justice and human rights.
Dual socio-economic struggles exist in many societies worldwide, and conflating between them is not unprecedented. In the case of Israel, however, such confusion can be dangerous because the outcome of Israel’s protests, be it a success or failure, could spur unfounded optimism or demoralize those fighting for Palestinian freedom.
Though stark violations of international law, arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial executions and everyday violence against Palestinians mainly occur within Israel’s legal framework. These acts are fully sanctioned by Israeli courts, including the country’s Supreme Court. This means that, even if Netanyahu fails to hegemonize the judicial system, Palestinian civilians will continue to be tried in military courts, which will carry out the routine of approving home demolition, illegal land seizure and the construction of settlements.
A proper engagement with the ongoing protests is to expose further how Tel Aviv utilizes the judicial system to maintain the illusion that Israel is a country of law and order and that all the actions and violence in Palestine, however bloody and destructive, are entirely justifiable according to the country’s legal framework.
Yes, Israel should be sanctioned, not because of Netanyahu’s attempt at co-opting the judiciary, but because the apartheid and regime of military occupation constitute complete disregard and utter violation of international law. Whether Israelis like it or not, international law is the only law that matters to an occupied and oppressed nation.
Feature photo | Israeli demonstrators take part in an anti-government protest in Tel Aviv, March 16, 2023. Ilia Yefimovich | C dpa via AP