Israel’s ‘democracy’ protests defend an apartheid system

Amjad Alqasis

The Electronic Intifada  /  September 5, 2023

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have demonstrated for months against their government’s proposed judicial reforms.

Yet their protests do not mention the inhuman treatment of Palestinians, the expansion of settlements, or that they live in an apartheid state. Israelis are protesting for fear they might lose their own political status and privileges.

The incongruity of the situation is the key to understanding the nature of the Israeli state’s Zionist ideology. Protesters fear losing their democratic rights, yet they maintain silence on the state’s continued suppression of Palestinians.

Amid these protests, the Israeli army continues to attack Palestinian neighborhoods and refugee camps. And Israeli settler groups burn down homes and shops in Palestinian villages, shouting death to Arabs, like in Huwara or Turmus Aya.

But Israeli protesters are not outraged by these incidents; they are not even mentioned. The protesters do not acknowledge the paradox of their gathering: how they defend their own democratic principles as their state occupies and colonizes Palestine.

This is not a surprise. In fact, it’s the very basis for the state of Israel.

Forced population transfer

The Zionist movement has been brutal from the beginning as it sought to colonize the maximum amount of land with a minimum number of indigenous Palestinian inhabitants.

It accomplished that goal through forced population transfer: a crime against humanity that has always been a tenet of political Zionism. Yosef Weitz, the director of the Jewish National Fund’s Land Settlement Department, wrote in 1940 that there “is no way but to transfer the [Palestinian] Arabs from here to the neighboring countries, to transfer all of them.” Early Zionist thinker Israel Zangwill stated in 1916, “If we wish to give a country to a people without a country, it is utter foolishness to allow it to be the country of two peoples.”

Despite these founding principles, the Zionist movement and the Israeli government have tried to appear modern and democratic. Yet the goal has always been to create a country exclusively for Jewish people.

To this end, hundreds of thousands were forcibly displaced between 1948 and 1967, and the state has subsequently enforced a strategy that Badil, a Palestinian rights group, defines as “silent transfer.” Silent in the sense that Israel largely avoids international attention by displacing people on a weekly basis by creating untenable living situations for Palestinians.

This is seen in occupied East Jerusalem, where most Palestinian applications for building permits are rejected by the Israeli authorities.

The Palestinian population of Jerusalem has had to expand into areas not zoned for Palestinian residence by the state of Israel. By forcing Palestinians to build without proper construction permits, Israel’s land planning and zoning system puts Palestinian homes under the constant threat of demolition.

The Israeli policy of silent transfer is embodied in every aspect of the state: governance and enforcement of residency rights, regulation of natural resources, and the application of justice. Israel uses its power to discriminate against Palestinians and to ultimately displace the indigenous non-Jewish population from historic Palestine.

‘Legalizing’ displacement

Displacement of Palestinians continues daily, and it isn’t always silent.

The more aggressive version of Israel’s displacement policy is seen in politicians’ open discussion of the takeover of holy sites. In May, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir declared that Israel is “in charge” of Haram al-Sharif.

That was one of many cases in which Israeli politicians have advocated or incited violence against Palestinians.

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich stated in March, “I think the village of Huwwara needs to be erased.” And state officials have long discussed the deportation of large parts of the Palestinian population to Sinai in Egypt.

It seems the creation of the state of Israel is not yet complete as Israel adopts laws to further curtail public freedoms and to demonize Palestinian resistance as terrorism.

The 2018 Nation-State Law, for example, codified long-standing Israeli practices. It stated openly that the right to “exercise national self-determination in the state of Israel is solely for the Jewish people.”

The law made visible to the world the fundamental imbalance of being both a democratic state and a Jewish state. In essence, the law declares that if there is a clash between the Jewish and democratic characters of the state, the Jewishness precedes the latter.

Such a grave restriction on democratic principles stands in direct contradiction to Israel’s decades-long mantra of it being the only democracy in the Middle East.

The law was a way for Israeli leaders to prove their commitment to the Zionist cause. The 2011 Admissions Committees Law is another example of a law used to enforce Israeli apartheid. The law allows villages in the Naqab to reject Palestinian residents on the basis that they are “unsuitable” for Jewish towns.

A 2023 amendment to that law expanded its scope to allow more villages to discriminate against Palestinians, further showing that Israel is not interested in hiding its segregationist policies.

All Israeli institutions, including Israel’s highest court, advance the goal of colonizing Palestine. The backbone of the system that the Israeli protesters are defending is an apartheid system that is only becoming more overt.

Amjad Alqasis is a legal researcher and a member of the NAS Network for Advocacy Support of Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights