Taking apartheid to new extremes

Jewish settlers, chanting against Palestinians, march through the Muslim quarter, of the Old City of Jerusalem, during the so-called 'Flag March' (Oren Ziv - ActiveStills)

Maureen Clare Murphy

The Electronic Intifada  /  January 14, 2023

There is much liberal hand-wringing over the new Israeli government’s shock-and-awe assault on the state’s judiciary and other laws and mechanisms that safeguard democracy in the country, even if that democracy was always for Jews only.

But for those who already know that Israel’s democracy is a violent lie, and that it’s been a settler colony enterprise maintained through apartheid and military rule from the beginning, there is still plenty to be concerned about. Most obviously for Palestinians, whose removal from their homeland so they may be replaced with foreign Jewish settlers has always been the top priority for the state.

The previous government was dissolved, after all, in order to prevent the expiration of a temporary measure in place since 1967 applying Israeli civil law to Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

By calling for new elections, those emergency regulations were automatically extended, preserving the system of apartheid. And in the fifth election in the space of three years, in November Israelis elected their most openly fascist and right-wing government yet.

The current Israeli government’s coalition agreements amount to a declaration of intent to commit crimes under international law, according to Adalah, a Palestinian human rights group.

The guiding principles of the new government begin with the assertion that “the Jewish people have an exclusive and unquestionable right over all areas of the land of Israel.”

Adalah, which advocates for the rights of Palestinians in Israel, says that the government’s intent is “to deepen Jewish supremacy and racial segregation as the underlying principles of the Israeli regime.”

The group is calling for urgent intervention by the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice and the reconstitution of the United Nations Special Committee against Apartheid.

In a new position paper, Adalah lays out how the Israeli government’s guiding principles and coalition agreements explicitly deny the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination.

The initiatives and policies of the government will result in more brutality against Palestinians with even less judicial oversight and no pretense of accountability.

For example, an amendment passed by Israel’s parliament in late December makes the Israeli police subordinate to the minister of national security.

That minister happens to be Itamar Ben-Gvir, a disciple of the genocidal rabbi Meir Kahane and admirer of Baruch Goldstein, a US-born Jewish settler who massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers at Hebron’s Al-Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994.

Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party entered the coalition after striking an agreement with Likud, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, who has become prime minister once again. The deal lays out Ben-Gvir’s intention to restructure the police force and review open-fire regulations.

Expect this to result in even more deaths of Palestinians at the hands of Israel’s already trigger-happy police.

Ben-Gvir to oversee standby militia

Ben-Gvir will meanwhile have total control over the Israeli national guard, established by then Prime Minister Naftali Bennett last year to “institutionalize the cooperation between armed Jewish-Israeli civilians and the police,” as Adalah puts it.

Bennett called for the formalization of this force following deadly episodes of state violence and mob terror against Palestinians in Israel during the May 2021 uprising dubbed the “Unity Intifada.”

“Israeli authorities afforded sweeping immunity to Jewish-Israeli civilians for these attacks, including and most egregiously in the case of the murder of Moussa Hassouna,” according to Adalah.

Hassouna, a Palestinian citizen, was shot dead in Lydd during May 2021.

Prominent politicians pressured police throughout the investigation of Hassouna’s death so that those suspected in his killing would walk free.

Then public security minister Amir Ohana, currently speaker of Israel’s parliament, called for the suspects in Hassouna’s killing to be released, saying they were a “force multiplier for the authorities for the immediate neutralization of threat and danger.”

The institutionalization of this cooperation amounts to the establishment of a standby militia to enact violence against Palestinians like that which killed Hassouna.

That such a force exists at all should be of extreme concern. That it will be controlled by Ben-Gvir is all the more so, given his instigation of the May 2021 attacks and more recent settler mob violence against Palestinians in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and in Hebron/Al-Khalil, where Ben-Gvir lives.

Meanwhile, the Religious Zionist party, led by extreme-right finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, has agreed with Likud that the Shin Bet, Israel’s notorious secret police, is to form a special unit to assist police in fighting “nationalistic-motivated crime” among Palestinians in Israel.

Adalah says that this initiative is part of a “particularly insidious ongoing project … to use real fears in Palestinian communities … as a pretext for racialized policing.”

The group adds that covert Shin Bet activity “is reminiscent of the period of military rule from 1948-1966 and poses a further danger to the basic rights of Palestinian citizens of the state.”

Moreover, these new policing policies “amount to an expansion of the two separate law enforcement and policing systems based on racial identity” operating under “the total discretion of openly racist political leaders.”

Codifying impunity

While Ben-Gvir advances looser open-fire regulations, the government has made clear its intention to “codify Israel’s policy of near-blanket impunity to its armed forces in cases involving Palestinians,” as Adalah puts it.

Palestinian political expression is also in the government’s crosshairs, with a proposal to introduce legislation within six months that would ban the display of the Palestinian flag at state-funded institutions such as universities.

The new government has meanwhile committed to lifting a prohibition on parties and candidates that incite racism from running in Israel’s parliament. It also intends to disqualify “a list or a candidate … who denies the existence of the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state or supports terrorism.”

According to Adalah, this could bar “a list or candidate advocating for democratic values, including a state for all its citizens” from participating in elections. “If passed, this amendment will constitutionally protect racist ideologies and severely curtail democratic views.”

The coalition agreements also provide for advancing legislation that would apply a death sentence for “acts of terrorism aimed at harming the state of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.”

The language of the agreement, Adalah states, makes “it explicitly clear that the law will be racially implemented and specifically target Palestinians, while exempting Jewish-Israelis who commit extreme, violent acts of terrorism against Palestinians.”

Ben Gvir’s fellow Jewish Power lawmaker Limor Son Har-Melech has gone even further by calling for the death penalty for any Palestinian who kills a Jew but life imprisonment for any Jew “who kills an Arab [Palestinian]” – an extreme vision of a separate and unequal status for Palestinians living under Israeli apartheid rule.

The government has also approved the fast-tracking of bills that would allow for the revocation of Israeli citizenship or residency from Palestinians with “terror” convictions who receive stipends from the Palestinian Authority.

“It’s better to commit the worst crimes when you’re Jewish,” Ahmad Tibi, a Palestinian member of Israel’s parliament, said in opposition to the move.

Tibi noted that there were no efforts to strip Yigal Amir, who assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, of his citizenship, nor that of Ami Popper, who killed seven Palestinian laborers in 1990.

“I prefer Jewish murderers over Arab murderers,” Likud lawmaker Hanoch Milwidsky said in response to Tibi, who in turn said Milwidsky’s comment “encapsulates this term” of the parliament before asking him to repeat it in English.

“We’re through apologizing for it,” Milwidsky said in English.

Judaization and land grab

A high priority of the government, as made clear in the agreements, is the Judaization of the Naqab (Negev) desert and the Galilee in Israel’s south and north, respectively, where the Palestinian population in Israel has large numbers.

The Jewish Power party’s coalition agreement with Likud centralizes the “power to determine land and planning practices in Israel,” according to Adalah, placing the enforcement of Israel’s land and parks authorities and environment ministry in the hands of Ben-Gvir.

An expanded authority of the newly renamed Ministry for Development of the Negev, Galilee and National Resilience will encompass “periphery areas” such as Israeli settlements in Area C of the West Bank, enabling “the state to funnel even more funding” to them in violation of international law.

Meanwhile, the government plans to “give additional benefits exclusively to Jewish towns in the Galilee, state resources from which Palestinian towns are expressly excluded.”

Further entrenching “Jewish hegemony in the field of housing,” as Adalah puts it, the government plans to amend a law that would legalize barring Palestinians from residing in Jewish-only towns – peeling away any safeguards against the discrimination long sought by many Jewish-Israeli communities.

Meanwhile, so-called civil responsibility for the West Bank is now under the direct oversight of Smotrich, who founded the far-right, pro-settlement organization Regavim, which has among other things protested the delay in demolishing Khan al-Ahmar, a Palestinian community in the South Hebron Hills.

Regavim has also filed legal petitions targeting Palestinian and Syrian building rights in the West Bank, Naqab and Golan Heights.

Previously, appointments for COGAT, the bureaucratic arm of the military occupation, were made by the Israeli military with the defense minister’s approval. Now they’ll be made by Smotrich.

So now not only are Palestinians in the West Bank living under Israeli military dictatorship, but that of its most hardline and fanatical settlers too.

As Sarit Michaeli of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem states, “expect to see a massive increase in anything aimed at making Palestinians suffer, including [property] demolitions and confiscations.”

Formalizing discrimination

The new government seeks to formalize myriad ways in which Palestinians have long been discriminated against in just about every sector, whether under temporary emergency orders or outside the bounds of the law.

And so the freeze on Palestinian family unification – a “temporary” measure imposed two decades ago – will now become an official ban, prohibiting Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem living with their spouses from the West Bank and Gaza.

These forms of oppression, long the de facto reality, serve Israel’s consolidation of power so that it may colonize Palestinian land with as little resistance as possible.

Fragmenting Palestinians geographically and socially and demographic engineering are a primary means by which Israel has exerted its colonial control.

With the mask of liberal democracy worn heretofore now all but torn off, groups that promote Israel’s agenda abroad are sounding the alarm.

The new government’s aim to overhaul Israel’s judiciary and weaken and limit the authority of the high court is of particular concern to Israel’s advocates in North America, Europe and beyond.

It would allow Israel’s parliament to enact law even if it’s found unconstitutional by the high court, effectively precluding “any matter from judicial review,” according to Adalah.

The Israeli high court has already served to rubber-stamp Israeli violations of Palestinians’ rights, including mass forced population transfer and expelling Palestinian citizens of the state, as well as war crimes of collective punishment like punitive home demolitions and the withholding the bodies of slain Palestinians so they may be used as bargaining chips.

But like the doing away with Israel’s sham self-investigations into the killings of Palestinians, the weakening of the high court represents the removal of yet another supposed safeguard for the protection of basic rights.

Silencing the critics

Adalah notes that one of the coalition agreements stipulates the passing of a law “imposing a tax on donations given by foreign governmental entities to nonprofit civil society organizations.”

The measure, intended to starve and silence civil society groups critical of Israel, expands on repressive measures already imposed on nongovernmental organizations on both sides of the Green Line as Israel hastens the pace of colonization with all the violence that entails.

Israel’s security cabinet – a select grouping within the government – has already declared its intent to punish organizations in the West Bank that take “diplomatic-judicial action” against Israel.

As Noa Landau, a columnist with the Tel Aviv daily Haaretz explains, this amounts to “an official declaration of war on all Palestinian civil society groups fighting the Israeli occupation by peaceful means.”

Former defense minister Benny Gantz took great pains to use Israel’s oppressive and broad anti-terror laws to make vague and unsubstantiated claims to justify the state’s “terror group” declarations made against several prominent Palestinian organizations in October 2021. Those groups were raided and ordered closed in August 2022.

The security cabinet’s new decision spares the state from having to go through all that effort to maintain a veneer of legality.

“Instead of bothering to invent such indirect connections, the Israeli government simply declares in black and white that as far as it is concerned, all diplomatic and judicial action … is fundamentally ‘hostile’ and in the same bracket as terrorism,” Landau writes.

Liberal Zionist groups like Peace Now and the New Israel Fund and Israeli anti-occupation groups like Breaking the Silence are also in the crosshairs.

With Smotrich calling human rights groups an “existential threat to the state of Israel,” any group that stands in the way of theocratic rule may find their work criminalized.

As Adalah notes, “the coalition agreements include principles and commitments that entail extensive violations of the principle of separation of powers, religion and state relations.”

“The government’s policies and initiatives will violate civil rights across the board, including those of women and LGBT+ people,” according to Adalah.

Migrants and asylum seekers will also be among the most vulnerable, with the coalition agreement signed by Likud and Religious Zionism calling for legislation to allow the “unlimited incarceration of asylum seekers and foreign workers who cannot be deported from Israel,” Haaretz reports.

Zvika Fogel, a lawmaker with Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party, has even called for the arrest of opposition leaders and two former lawmakers for “treason against the state” over their criticism of and calls for mass protests against the government’s plans to gut the judiciary.

The opposition leaders that he wants arrested include Yair Lapid, Israel’s prime minister until recently.

It is clear that for “the occupation is permanent” Fogel, Ben-Gvir and his far-right allies including Bezalel Smotrich are the state and their word represents the law.

As a director of the Israel lobby group J Street observes, Fogel is unburdened by the cloak of civility. Given that he “articulates the venomous truth of the party’s goals” that Ben-Gvir wishes to mask in the language of moderation, Fogel is worth listening to.

Business as usual

Despite all this, Israel’s allies are content to press on, business as usual, insisting on a two-state solution long ago killed by previous Israeli governments.

Meanwhile, Israel is bulldozing the remaining artifacts of the Oslo accords, imposing devastating sanctions on the Palestinian Authority over Ramallah’s pursuit of a World Court advisory opinion on the legal status of Israel’s prolonged occupation.

The EU has declared its intention to improve cooperation with the extreme-right government in Tel Aviv.

Meanwhile, Washington’s ambassador to Israel told that country’s state broadcaster in recent days that there are no red or even yellow lines when it comes to Israel, only, it would seem, stern looks of disapproval.

With a long history of normalization of ever worse violations of Palestinian rights, it is unsurprising that the new Israeli government seems assured of a fait accompli in its declared intention to annex West Bank land in blatant contravention of international law.

Fogel, the former chief of staff of the Israeli military’s “southern command,” which encompasses the Gaza Strip, is calling for a “final war” to “subdue Palestinians once and for all.”

Should Israel’s critics like Adalah be silenced, no one can say that there wasn’t plenty of warning about the horrible violence that’s all but guaranteed to come.

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada