Mass Protests Pierce Israeli Delusions of Democracy
By Luke Peterson
During the last week of March, widespread public demonstrations coupled with a general labor strike brought Israel to a grinding halt. Schools, universities and banks were closed, along with two major ports and Tel Aviv-Jaffa’s Ben Gurion International Airport. Roads and bridges were blocked in dozens of areas, and public transportation was brought to a standstill. Hospitals across the country even began canceling non-urgent procedures.
The total number of protestors is difficult to pinpoint, but witnesses say that hundreds of thousands took to the streets in one form or another in what has been called the nation’s largest-ever collective demonstration. Given that Israel has a population of 9 million, these demonstrations should be considered a mass movement, the collective will of the people rising up in one voice in protest of their government’s policies.
The catalyst for this unprecedented collective action was a move by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a longtime hawk and fixture of the militant Israeli right, to establish a naked dictatorship. Netanyahu, who was sworn in for his most recent term as prime minister last December, heads a vocal ethno-nationalist and conservative Jewish political coalition. At the start of his term and with his coalition’s support, he moved quickly to strip the judiciary of its responsibilities to conduct executive oversight. If this move had succeeded, the ruling party (his rightist Likud, as it happens), would be legally entitled to ignore Supreme Court rulings.
The inevitable consequence of this new policy would be a dictatorship of the right. It seems that Netanyahu wants to head an ethno-state in which Judaism and Zionism coalesce to dominate Israel’s neo-Spartan society even more thoroughly than his party does now. The ongoing protests, public demonstrations and labor strikes are an attempt to stop this party putsch.
So far, these wide-ranging demonstrations appear to have been successful. On March 27, Netanyahu backed down while reserving the right to reintroduce the policy in a later session of the Knesset. This half-measure was enough to end the general strike, although protests and clashes between demonstrators and police continued through March 28 and show no sign of abating at the time of this writing.
One reason the protests continue is Netanyahu’s new concession to his party’s extreme right. In a speech responding to the protests on March 26, he agreed to place his proposed erasure of judicial oversight on the backburner, thereby tabling it for future discussion. In the same speech, he also announced the creation of a new wing of the Israeli National Guard to be placed under the control of Itamar Ben Gvir for reasons of “national security.” Ben Gvir, a public darling of the right, has been convicted for racist incitement and his public support of Jewish terrorist groups among the “settler” (read colonist) community.
He’s also fond of publicly praising Baruch Goldstein, the American Israeli settler who massacred 29 Palestinians at prayer in Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque on February 4, 1994. [Editor’s note: Wikipedia states, “Goldstein’s gravesite became a pilgrimage site for Jewish extremists. The following words are inscribed on the tomb: “He gave his life for the people of Israel, its Torah and land.”] Such a macabre resume would condemn a public figure to the absolute fringe of political participation in all functioning democracies. But not in Israel. In fact, it won Ben Gvir the post of minister of national security. And now it has garnered him a private militia.
These facets of the Israeli political system point to the obvious conclusion that, despite repeated assertions from protesters who claim to be fighting for their country’s lifeblood of democracy, Israel is no democracy at all. It was built on top of and against the express wishes of the land’s indigenous people through an organized ethnic cleansing that denuded the land of more than half of its indigenous population while destroying 400+ Palestinian towns and villages.
Today, the descendants of those Palestinians who resisted and remained between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea live as second-class citizens, either segregated within Israel as the nation’s largest minority (around 1.5 million of the total population) or subjected to cruel and capricious military rule in Gaza or the occupied West Bank. Palestinian citizens can vote in Israeli elections and hold office but are, nevertheless, an oppressed minority seen as a fifth-column element by average Israelis.
So, while hundreds of thousands protested the blurring of checks and balances within their political system, few of them carried signs expressly condemning Ben Gvir, Ayelet Shaked (Zionist Spirit Party), Bezalel Smotrich (Religious Zionist Party) or other Israeli officials for their continued advocacy of the ongoing settler-colonial project in Palestine. Fewer still were prepared to acknowledge the patent hypocrisy inherent in protests to support an Israeli democracy.
One wonders if they ever question why their country continues to occupy and sequester 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and deny them the legal right to participate in its political system. And during the last week of March 2023, even fewer Israelis protested the crimes of ethnic cleansing and forced removal carried out during 1948-49, when at least 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly expelled from their homes.
While Palestinian citizens of Israel can at least vote, residents of Gaza and the occupied West Bank are only allowed to vote in elections held for the Palestinian Authority, an increasingly desiccated and toothless political body that primarily facilitates Israel’s full civil and military control of the region. As such, the regulation of border crossings, air space, all water resources and even the remodeling of homes in Palestinian neighborhoods — all elements of life and society in Palestine — are exclusively controlled by Tel Aviv.
No Palestinian West Bank or Gaza resident, a mixed Muslim and Christian population, can vote in Israel, hold office inside its political system, or participate in national politics in any way. Israeli democracy, indeed!
Israel, a nuclear power that will celebrate its 75th year of existence this May, reserves its unapologetic identity as a Jewish democratic state. Then as now, there appears to be no semblance of awareness, either officially or publicly, of the obvious incompatibility of democracy and ethno/religio-nationalism. As such, claims from the droves of Israeli protesters this week paying lip service to internationally cherished concepts like equality before the law and equal rights within electoral politics should be received, both regionally and abroad, with only the most intense skepticism.
In reality, Israel has never practiced electoral equality or political transparency because such ideals — paramount for a functioning democracy — are in absolute conflict with the ongoing occupation and deliberate confiscation of the land of Palestine.
Given this reality, Israel refuses to adopt an official state constitution, wherein the rights of citizens under its charge are articulated and guaranteed, and official borders identifying its territorial claims in the region. This convenient loophole allows figures like Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich to give speeches in front of homespun maps that, in addition to Israel and all of the Palestinian territories, include the sovereign nation of Jordan, as he did on March 19 of this year.
Further, because it has no constitution, Israel has no official mechanisms in place to prevent power grabs like Netanyahu’s latest maneuver. In the absence of official state channels, the vox populi has flooded the gap, rising to the fore to express its disapproval of the corrupt Netanyahu’s more sinister machinations. While meddling with the political system, let’s not forget that the Israeli prime minister was under indictment by the courts in November 2019 for breach of public trust and accepting bribes, likely another reason why he’s taking aim at the judiciary. This active and animated Israeli mass movement has had a tangible impact upon the progress of Israeli politics.
But where is this mass movement and historic public demonstration when it comes to the rights that Israel has denied most of the Palestinians ever since its founding as a “democratic” state?
Luke Peterson (PhD, Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge) is author of the forthcoming “The U.S. Military in the Print News Media: Service and Sacrifice in Contemporary Discourse.”