Wave of ‘Israeli spring’ protests leaves Palestinian citizens out in the cold

Bethan McKernan & Quique Kierszenbaum

The Observer  /  February 18, 2023

Palestinian minority has been alienated by united opposition against judicial reforms by Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition.

As the light faded and tens of thousands of protesters made their way back from the Knesset to Jerusalem’s train station last week, the mood was tired but determined. Israel’s newly re-elected prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is no stranger to demonstrations calling for him to resign. But the now two-month-old movement against his far-right coalition’s plans to overhaul the judicial system is not like those he has faced before – or like any in the country’s history.

The “Israeli spring”, as commentators are starting to call it, is a rare show of unity in what is normally a deeply polarised society. Afraid that the proposals curbing the power of the supreme court will start Israel down an authoritarian path similar to that of Turkey and Hungary in recent years, upwards of 100,000 people have taken to the streets every Saturday night in cities across the country to voice their opposition. As of last week, protests are taking place outside Israel’s parliament too, and several industries have held strikes.

In particular, the high-profile presence of sectors that would normally never get publicly involved in politics – hi-tech executives, bankers, and establishment figures such as former army and intelligence officials – are forcing the government to listen. Some votes were postponed for a week as a result of the public pressure, and Israeli media reported on Friday that Netanyahu’s office has begun quiet talks exploring compromises.

But this centre-left rebellion against what is seen as a coup by far-right extremists has a demographic fault line: Palestinian-Israelis, who make up one-fifth of the population, have been conspicuously absent from the protests to date, even though the new government is fervently anti-Palestinian and the community is likely to be hit hardest by the judicial reforms. The West Bank is already roiling after a year of increasing violence.

For most of those demonstrating, the fate of the judiciary and Israel’s control over Palestinians are separate issues – but for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and anti-occupation activists, the country’s democratic character has long been under question.

Small blocs of anti-occupation protesters have marched at most of the demonstrations, but a refusal to allow Palestinian flags onstage in the Tel Aviv demos, and the fact that only two Palestinian-Israeli speakers have addressed the crowds so far, has left many Palestinian citizens of Israel feeling alienated from the anti-government movement.

Some prominent right-wing politicians and former police and army officials would not give speeches if they had to share a stage with pro-Palestinian voices, and organisers say the protests must remain on-topic to avoid losing their broad support. Last week, a first protest took place in Efrat, an illegal Israeli settlement near Bethlehem.

“The core assumption underpinning these protests is that the judicial system functions well as it is. It may need fine-tuning but it manages to balance the tensions in the relationship between the Jewish nature and the democratic nature of the state,” said Abed Shehadeh, a political activist and member of Jaffa city council who has stayed away from the weekly demonstrations.

“What happens in the West Bank and Gaza resonates for us in a way it doesn’t for them … There’s no sense among the people demonstrating that they understand what’s happening in politics now is a logical development in a society that systematically oppresses others.”

Netanyahu returned to office in December after four years of electoral turmoil triggered by his ongoing corruption trial, in which he denies all charges.

In the Israeli political system, coalition building is necessary to govern. Out of options after betraying past partners, the conservative Likud party leader encouraged a motley crew of far-right extremists to merge into one slate called the Religious Zionists so they could pass the electoral threshold, and give him another shot at the premiership.

The alliance worked, winning Netanyahu’s bloc a majority of 64 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. But looked at another way, the election was won by just 30,000 votes – a slim mandate for a government with such a radical agenda.

The Religious Zionists, now the third-largest party in the Knesset, want to give politicians greater control over the appointment of supreme court justices, and allow a simple parliamentary majority to override almost all supreme court rulings. They say these moves will better balance the different branches of government and stop a perceived left-wing bias in the court’s decisions.

Israel’s highest court currently plays an outsized role in a country with no formal constitution or second legislative chamber: Canada is the only other country in the world with a parliamentary override clause for supreme court decisions – and it has a constitution.

While Netanyahu appears to loathe his new colleagues, and the judicial reforms have little public support, the overhaul would probably help him avoid charges in his corruption trial.

Other items on the Religious Zionists’ shopping list include annexing the occupied West Bank, strengthening traditional religious law, limiting freedom of speech, and rolling back women’s rights and those of the gay and Palestinian communities.

Most people marching week after week on Israel’s streets are rightfully worried that the judicial changes will fundamentally alter liberal norms. Others point out that they were only ever selectively applied in the first place.

In 2021, the supreme court upheld 2018’s much-criticised nation state law, which declared that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people”, effectively defining Palestinian-Israelis as second-class citizens. Last year, the justices – one of whom is a settler – ruled that 1,000 Palestinians could be evicted from their homes in the West Bank to make way for an army training zone. The decision’s wording explicitly rejected the principle that international law is “customary and binding”.

“I won’t go to a protest in Tel Aviv where there are military figures on stage, saying that we must fight the judicial reforms because otherwise the international community will have grounds to send our people to the international criminal court. The focus should be on not committing war crimes in the first place,” said Orly Noy, a journalist in Jerusalem involved with several leftwing civil society initiatives.

“I can’t demonstrate to protect the status quo. There are other ways to resist and fight what is happening.”

With the Knesset set for the first of three votes on some of the judicial overhaul bills on Monday, the stakes are rising on all sides. The largely leaderless movement must decide whether it wants to take more drastic action other than protests and strikes, and whether its overall goal is to halt the judicial changes or bring down Netanyahu’s government altogether. Palestinian-Israeli politicians and community leaders are urging Palestinian citizens to get more involved.

The demonstrations have been almost entirely peaceful so far, but small groups of pro-government counter protesters have started to emerge over the past week, increasing the possibility of violence – a scenario Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, warned of when calling for dialogue to avoid “constitutional collapse”.

“I have a lot of respect for the people protesting, more power to them. I completely understand why people are out on the street,” said Israel Frei, an Ultra-Orthodox journalist from Tel Aviv who was recently fired from his job over what he said was his support for the Palestinian people. Frei has not taken part in the demonstrations himself, although he has attended in his capacity as a reporter.

“What is missing for me is … a goal, a vision. It’s not enough to be reactive, to campaign on the basis of negating something. If this movement really wants to unite the people who live in this country, it needs to offer us something,” he said. “Show us what true equality and a better future would look like.”

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian

Quique Kierszenbaum in Jerusalem