Religious Zionists have captured the state – what will it mean for Palestinians ?

Ameer Makhoul

+972 Magazine  /  January 22, 2023

Unlike Israeli Jews, who are opposing the government to protect the status quo, Palestinians across the Green Line are fighting a more existential danger.

The religious Zionist movement is currently the strongest and most dominant political power in Israel. In ideology and praxis, it represents the latest pioneers of the settler-colonial project in Palestine, reinforced by a structure of official and semi-official organizations that are defining the new agendas of the Israeli state, and which are even compelling the national security establishment to reconsider its beliefs and methods. The main political parties associated with the movement today — Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit, and Noam — brought in a record haul in November’s elections, enabling it to continue capturing the state while further bending its systems to implement the leaders’ racist and violent goals.

The coalition agreements signed with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu make clear how much the religious Zionist movement has succeeded in tightening its control over state institutions. The bloc aims to weaken and control the judiciary as a tool at its service, which can be used to further whitewash the state’s crimes, acquit Israelis involved in racist terrorism, and prevent the overturning of discriminatory legislation. It also wants greater control of the Education Ministry, while seeking to challenge the Haredi monopoly over the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and imbue it instead with a more nationalist character.

Meanwhile, Otzma Yehudit’s leader, Itamar Ben Gvir, wants to reinstate Jewish terrorists whom the judiciary has barred from running in elections; one of the most prominent of these is Baruch Marzel, Ben Gvir’s former running mate, who now thinks the new national security minister is “too moderate.” The head of the Religious Zionist Party, Bezalel Smotrich, who now has vast powers over the occupied territories, is also set to legalize illegal settlement outposts and hasten the expulsion of Palestinians from large parts of the West Bank.

The power of this messianic nationalist movement is not limited to the parties that are formally identified with it; in fact, a strong current of religious Zionist sentiment also exists within the Likud. After Netanyahu weeded out the historically liberal current within the party, which was traditionally keen to preserve state institutions like the judiciary, the religious Zionist stream went on to gain unprecedented influence in the prime minister’s office and across the state apparatus, including in army brigades, police system, and other security bodies. An indicator of this influence is the extent to which, so far, these systems appear ready to obey the will of their new overseers Ben Gvir and Smotrich, as well as their steady embrace of a rising spirit of fascism encouraged by these leaders.

A community at risk

While Israeli opposition to the new government is predominantly aimed at protecting the state’s institutions, ‘48 Palestinians (Palestinian citizens of Israel) are facing a far more existential danger. With its capture of the state, the religious Zionist movement has cleared the way to exercise its total rule over Palestinians by taking over key ministries that govern their lives.

Chief among these is the newly-created National Security Ministry headed by Ben Gvir. Under the coalition agreement, he now has control over a part of the army — 12 border guard battalions experienced in suppressing Palestinians through home raids, violent arrests, and snipers. The national police is now also completely subject to Ben Gvir’s whims, from his views on operational aspects such as loosening open-fire regulations, to wider policies regarding arrests of people waving Palestinian flags and shooting of Palestinian protesters. This is in addition to his control over a special unit of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service, under the guise of helping the police combat so-called “nationalist crimes” in Arab communities, which will likely be used for repression.

Smotrich’s new control over the Civil Administration, the bureaucratic arm of the occupation, and the appointment of a minister from his party within the Defense Ministry, will further accelerate annexation on the ground. What is more dangerous for the Palestinians still is that Smotrich’s power over the Civil Administration puts in his hands unprecedented control and oversight over the Palestinian Authority (PA), which gives him the latitude to demolish it economically and administratively, while also granting him control over imports, exports, and work permits for tens of thousands of Palestinians in the occupied territories.

Orit Strock, meanwhile, the Religious Zionist Party MK who now serves as the new minister of national missions, will be supervising so-called “Torah nuclei” in the coastal and “mixed” cities — settler groups that emphasize religious education and demographic engineering in close proximity to Palestinian communities, as well as promoting Jewish settlement in the Naqab (Negev) and the Galilee, including by building a university in the Galilee to attract the Jewish population and change the region’s demographic character. 

No matter which side of the Green Line

Part of the reason for the national-religious movement’s massive success is that it did not wait for the recent elections to begin laying the groundwork for power, but rather built its strength over years around two main sources. The first source, the settlement movement and its hilltop youth groups in the West Bank, has propelled the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in Area C of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli control.

A similar strategy has also made inroads within the Green Line, as seen with Israel’s response to the May 2021 uprising, which treated Palestinian citizens of the state as an enemy that threatens the Jewish presence especially in the coastal cities and the Naqab. The support for this mentality has broadened across Israeli-Jewish society, which has helped hasten the collapse of the so-called Zionist left; this was seen in the last elections, when it was effectively wiped out after sitting in the Bennett-Lapid government which oversaw deepening occupation, worsening state violence, and intensified colonial laws.

The religious Zionist movement’s second source of strength is its success, especially that of the Otzma Yehudit party, in shifting Israeli public opinion toward organizing semi-official armed militias areas, in coordination with the Israeli police and with municipalities such as in Be’er Sheva, Bat Yam (adjacent to Jaffa), and Lydd (Lod). The aim of these militias is to “restore rule,” referring to the Palestinians inside Israel who are considered outlaws who disobey the state. The movement seeks to expand the scope of the militias so that they can participate in the intimidation and terrorization of Palestinians alongside the regular security forces, worsening their sense of insecurity and, if possible, pushing young Palestinians to leave their homeland. 

The seeds of this could be seen in May 2021, when groups of armed settlers — often with the backing or at least tacit acceptance of security forces — attacked Palestinians in their neighborhoods and even in their homes. This functional merging between the official security forces on the one hand, and Jewish militias and terrorist organizations on the other, is deeply rooted in Zionist ideology, and played a pivotal role in the Nakba of 1948.

It is from these two sources that the religious Zionist parties in government have come to attain the positions of power that have direct interaction with all Palestinians in all of historical Palestine. And on this front, it is important to note the religious tenor of the movement’s political language: when Ben Gvir, Smotrich, or even Netanyahu talk about settlement, what they mean is settling in all of Palestine — the “Land of Israel.” Judaization, too, is not confined to within the “Green Line,” which does not exist in the ruling Zionist movement. From here they set out their demands to acquire basic military, security, economic, and settlement tools of government that allows them to implement their ideology and turn it into a state project.

One opposition or two ?

The Israeli opposition to this nationalist-religious government began soon after the shock of the November elections, and has been rapidly mobilizing to protect the status quo ante. Moreover, the majority of American Jews oppose the makeup of this coalition, which constitutes an opportunity to weaken Israel in the international arena. Hardly any of this opposition, however, is because of the government’s policy toward the Palestinians, but rather because of what it means vis-a-vis the state’s traditional institutions and questions over Jewish identity.

The “deep state,” in particular the old guard of the national security apparatus, believes that Israel will be strategically weaker under such an ideologically far-right government — whether by fracturing its relationship with the United States if annexation moves forward, or its ties with Arab states by changing the status quo at the Al-Aqsa compound, or otherwise dragging the region into military tensions.

Former security officials are similarly warning that the new government is a serious threat to national security and is liable to undermine the army, Shin Bet, and police. High-tech and corporate executives in Israel and abroad have also sounded caution over the government’s potentially negative effect on international investments and economic growth. But these sectors, too, are not preoccupied with the fascist core of the government.

As such, the most important factor in this political equation remains the Palestinian people, who must use the current situation as a historic opportunity to mount a popular struggle against the regime, and to show the failure of all Israeli governments in overlooking the Palestinian issue. It should be made clear that any major confrontation — from the repression of political prisoners in Israeli jails, to the forced transfer of the villages of Masafer Yatta, to incursions at Al-Aqsa Mosque — would be met with wider Palestinian, Arab, and international consequences.

What is required from the Palestinians, then, is to crystallize a comprehensive action strategy for all the Palestinian people to synergize the popular, human rights, and global roles. Mass Palestinian action on the ground would, as it has in the past, expand the global scale of the solidarity movement. It can create public pressure to speed up the urgent intervention of international bodies like the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice to rule on Israeli crimes. And it can bolster Palestinian diplomacy as foreign governments grapple with their ties to a worsening Israeli regime.

This strategy must include Palestinians in Israel, who should make it clear that they are defending their very existence — unlike Jewish-Israelis, who are defending the pre-existing system, which is in its very essence aggressive, racist, and hostile. Even if there are points of intersection with the Israeli track, the main path for the Palestinians inside Israel is to work according to their agenda and priorities, not the Jewish-Israeli priorities — to integrate, in other words, with the general Palestinian strategy.

Many worries haunt the Palestinians, but the essential thing is that no matter how aggressive and racist the Israeli government is, it will not be able to bypass the people of Palestine or the Palestinian cause. The upcoming commemoration of 75 years of the Nakba will be an important occasion — and opportunity — for Palestinians to send this message.

Ameer Makhoul is a writer and political activist from Haifa; a former political prisoner, he has worked at the Institute for Palestine Studies, directed the NGO Ittijah, and headed the High Follow-Up Committee’s Popular Committee for Defending Freedoms