Informed Comment / August 27, 2023
Ann Arbor – The saga began when Israel’s extremist Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has a long rap sheet of convictions for racist incitement, said the quiet part out loud.
In an interview with Israel’s Channel 12 News on Wednesday, Ben-Gvir was asked a question about the deteriorating security situation in the Palestinian West Bank by journalist Mohammad Magadli, an Israeli of Palestinian heritage. Haaretz reports that Ben-Gvir replied, “my right, the right of my wife and my children to move around Judea and Samaria is more important than freedom of movement for the Arabs. The right to life comes before freedom of movement.”
He added, “Sorry, Mohammad, but that’s the reality.”
Israelis call the Palestinian West Bank, which Israel seized in 1967 and is slowly illegally annexing, “Judea and Samaria,” in a typical propaganda ploy by recent Jewish immigrants to displace 5 million indigenous Palestinians by appealing to ancient history. The French in Algeria also claimed to be successors of the Roman Empire, which had ruled North Africa. The United Nations Charter, to which Israel is signatory, forbids the acquisition of neighbours’ territory by aggressive force as of 1945, in a bid to forestall any repetition of Axis horrors.
Ben-Gvir’s grandparents, and his ancestors going back thousands of years, had lived in Iraq.
Ben-Gvir’s exaltation of Israeli rights to move around the territory that they militarily occupy over “freedom of movement” for indigenous Palestinians is as close to a clear statement of Apartheid as could be imagined. Remember what “freedom of movement” means for local Palestinians– going to school, shopping for food, going to hospital. All of that, Ben-Gvir said, must be cancelled when he wants to take a stroll through the Palestinian towns he hopes to ethnically cleanse.
The UN in response pointed out that there are 645 obstacles — such as roadblocks and checkpoints — to the movement of Palestinians, and that some of them impede Palestinians in a serious way. Many Palestinian babies are born in autos stuck at Israeli checkpoints on their way to the hospital.
The American State Department, which usually is afraid to criticize Israel, condemned Ben-Gvir’s remarks as “inflammatory comments” and “racist rhetoric.”
But probably nobody noticed the high dudgeon in Foggy Bottom.
What the world did notice was that supermodel Bella Hadid, 26, who is of Palestinian heritage on her father’s side, weighed in at Instagram on Thursday, writing, “In no circumstance, at no time, particularly in 2023, should one life be considered more valuable than another’s, particularly due to their ethnicity, culture, or unfounded animosity.” She has 60 million followers on Instagram. She later deleted the posting, but here’s a screenshot.
Hadid is descended from the 18th-century notable Dahir al-`Umar, who ruled northern Palestine and whose principality is in the genealogy of Palestinian nationalism.
Lucia Binding at Sky News reports that Ben-Gvir went ballistic at the response, claiming that his critics had taken his words out of context or had edited the clip to make him look bad. He called Ms. Hadid “an opponent of Israel.”
But gee, she didn’t seem to mention Israel in her posting; she simply asserted that people should have equal rights regardless of ethnicity. If that principle is “anti-Israel,” then it is Israel that has the problem.
Ms. Hadid has said that if standing up for Palestinians costs her modelling jobs, she is willing to take the hit. I’m not sure why supporting universal human rights, including for the stateless Palestinians, should be considered grounds for cancellation.
Binding observes that Ben-Gvir couldn’t seem to choose the better part of valour in the face of international outcry, instead doubling down and saying, “Not only do I not take back what I said, I say it again: our right to return home in peace, to wander around Judea and Samaria and to not get killed is greater than the right to freedom of movement of residents of the Palestinian Authority.”
For Ben-Gvir, for Jews from Poland and Iraq to invade Palestinian lands and steal them and kill Palestinians is merely “returning home,” a process from which the indigenous population has no right to defend itself. Ben-Gvir openly celebrates the massacre of unarmed Palestinians by extremist Baruch Goldstein. If this were a legitimate principle of international law, then Mussolini was right to annex parts of south-eastern France that had been ruled by Italian principalities in medieval times and Hitler was right to annex the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia on grounds of long German residence there, starting in the 11th century. On the other hand, according to international law and the Nuremberg courts, those were war crimes.
Those Israelis protesting the government of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who appointed Ben-Gvir to the powerful ministry of national security, also started criticizing his remarks to Channel 12, raising posters that said, “Sorry, Mohammad.” Although opposition politician Yair Lapid called Ben-Gvir’s fulminations “a gift to antisemites,” implying that he was blackening Israel’s image, many commentators pointed out that he simply described the actually-existing security system in the Occupied West Bank, which does privilege illegal Israeli [Jewish] squatters over indigenous Palestinians and their basic human rights.
Juan Cole is the founder and chief editor of Informed Comment ; he is Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History at the University of Michigan and the author of, among others, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace amid the Clash of Empires and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam