Israel’s protests: a revolt for the status quo

Ben White

The New Arab  /  March 13, 2023

Israeli anti-government protests are not about ‘revolutionary’ change but maintaining the status quo, argues Ben White, a status quo which includes an apartheid regime for Palestinians.

“Where were you in Hawara?” So goes the chant recently directed at Israeli police by anti-government protesters, following the horrendous attack by settlers on the Nablus-area town.

While for some, the chant is meant as an indictment of settler impunity, it also has a more problematic message. The implication is that police were absent – a vacuum exploited by settler fanatics. In fact, Israeli forces were present – accompanying and protecting the settlers.

A far better question than ‘Where were you in Hawara?’ would be ‘Why are we in Hawara at all?’ But this is not being asked, let alone answered. The protest movement gripping Israel has a simple aim: to halt a government in its tracks. It doesn’t want change – it wants things to remain the same.

This is the key to understanding how and why the opposition to the government’s plans have galvanized sectors of society including big business and hi-tech to elite reservists.

The crowds on the streets and pledges of non-compliance may look like a ‘revolution’ to some, but the driving force is a plea for the stability of the status quo – one that includes the apartheid regime experienced by Palestinians.

Colonial law and order: making legal the illegal

Much has been made of the voices of protest coming from both current and former members of Israel’s military and security and intelligence services. Haaretz recently published an extensive piece interviewing at length a number of reservists mobilizing against the legal overhaul, which will include – among other changes – giving the Knesset power to override Supreme Court rulings.

Some were invited to reflect on why these developments have pushed them to refuse service in a way that service in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip did not. Their answers are instructive:

“We knew very well what we were doing. We did not object, we did not refuse to obey orders, because we understood that this is a democratic country”.

“Until today at least, you could tell yourself that all those decisions, even when they were controversial…were made within the rules of the game of a democratic country”.

“You [may have] thought they were immoral, but they were carried out in the context of a years-long conflict between two sides, one of which was acting like a democracy”.

“When you are required to perform actions in the grey area, on the verge of black, especially around attacks in Gaza, you do it as a mission from a government that acts in the framework of there being rules of the game that are clear and defined”.

The idea that one’s orders have been legally approved, and the belief that Israel is a “democratic country”, are a core element in the self-justification to carry out acts that are, in fact, illegal (internationally), and profoundly anti-democratic (maintaining an apartheid regime for Palestinians).

Another letter by some 150 Israeli army reservists who serve as cyber specialists warned that if the proposed changes become law, “the moral and legal framework that enables us to develop and run the sensitive capabilities we operate will be harmed”.

‘Enables’ in more than one sense. On 12 February, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee heard a discussion on the “possible ramifications” of the new changes “on Israel’s efforts to contend with the international legal campaign” – meaning efforts to bring to account those responsible for war crimes committed in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Deputy Attorney General Gilad Noam was clear: the “perception of the Israeli justice system in the international arena as independent, professional and apolitical” has been “a very significant barrier to external intervention”, likened in its impact to “Iron Dome”.

Regardless of the reality of a system not only characterized by a culture of impunity but by legal ‘innovations’ to justify war crimes, it is the “perception” of judicial independence that has mattered. Now, Israeli officials – and air force reservists – are worried about vulnerability to arrest overseas.

Palestinians and the protests: absent and present

Such discussions, and the mobilization by reservists, are an illustration of how Palestinians are both absent and present in the Israeli protest movement.

They are absent in the sense that there is no acknowledgement of their reality of dispossession, segregation, and violence. The few Palestinian flags that initially appeared only spurred a surge in Israeli flags. Palestinian citizens themselves have not turned out in large numbers.

Yet Palestinians are also ‘present’ in that they are part of this story at every turn – from the reasons for Israel’s lack of a formal constitution in the years following the Nakba, through to the ambitions of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir for accelerated colonial expansion and annexation.

Strikingly, the Israeli military’s D9 armoured bulldozer has become a popular metaphor for the government’s judicial overhaul amongst its opponents, including former PM Ehud Barak, former defence minister Moshe Ya’alon, and former Likud MK Limor Livnat.

The unironic invocation of the D9 – used to demolish thousands of Palestinian homes – perfectly illustrates the parameters of these protests, and what kind of ‘democracy’ they seek to preserve.

An orderly occupation

One of the ironies of the current political divisions gripping Israeli society, and the situation Netanyahu finds himself in, is that the strength of opposition to the planned legislation is, in part, testimony to just how successful the Likud leader was at ‘managing the conflict’.

Repackaged under Naftali Bennett as ‘shrinking the occupation’, the essence was straightforward: Israel’s economy is robust, the Palestinians are under control, and – little by little – colonization and de facto annexation can proceed incrementally. The ‘invisible occupation’.

It is a commitment to this status quo which animates the protest movement – a stable investment environment, and a judiciary independent of the Knesset but not at all independent of the colonizing drive in the West Bank or discrimination faced by Palestinian citizens.

The settlers’ rampage made Hawara a by-word amongst Israeli protesters for chaotic incompetence and fanaticism. But Hawara’s experience under military rule, like hundreds of Palestinian communities, has not been not one of ‘chaos’ but of order: a colonial order.

Ben White is a writer, analyst, and author of four books, including Cracks in the Wall: Beyond Apartheid in Palestine/Israel