Elias Harfoush
Lebanese writer and journalist

Where Is Palestine in Israel’s Protests?

After the formation of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which has been called the most radical government in Israel’s history, I wrote that this was a “government of confrontation.” However, I did not expect to see this wave of criticism from Israel’s friends worldwide or the internal tensions that arose as new faces from outside the traditional ruling establishment came to power.

We have heard US and European officials criticize Israeli settlement expansions and its army’s violations against Palestinians’ rights. However, Western governments have now gone as far as intervening in the domestic policy of the Israeli government. The US administration demanded amendments to the “judicial reform” being proposed by the government, leading one of Netanyahu’s ministers to hit back at US President Joe Biden by saying, “We’re not another star on the American flag.”

Western governments also condemned the Israeli finance minister’s assertion that “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people” (a “fact” that Golda Meir had already “uncovered”), calling the minister’s incitement irresponsible.

These criticisms of Netanyahu and his ministers by foreign officials have strengthened the protests in Israel and deepened the domestic schisms that Israeli President Isaac Herzog says are pushing Israel to the brink of civil war.

Herzog is not being hyperbolic. The current split in Israeli society goes beyond the traditional antagonisms between religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, or right and left. Indeed, this is now a dispute over the identity of the state. Is it a state of laws or a dictatorship that allows outlaws to further their interests and that deliberately undermines the authority of the judiciary in order to prevent their prosecution?

These divisions are made more acute by the fact that some of these outlaws are now in power. Indeed, several of the ministers in Netanyahu’s government have been convicted or prosecuted for crimes ranging from corruption charges (as in the case of Netanyahu himself and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri) to racism and support for terrorism (as is the case of Itamar Ben-Gvir, who supported the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the terrorist who massacred worshippers in the Ibrahim Mosque in Hebron in 1994).

Although the Israeli protesters have shown courage in the face of the attempts by Netanyahu and the extremists in his government to marginalize the judiciary, they are defending only the rights of the Jewish community in Israel and the image that the country wants its friends across the globe to see, that of an “oasis of democracy” in the Middle East.

The latest clashes definitely tarnished this image. Many of Israel’s allies have criticized the Netanyahu government’s plans to curtail the powers of the judiciary and interfere in the appointment of judges. Significantly, Biden’s administration was among the most vociferous of the critics.

The developments in Israel have also left many Jews in Western countries frustrated. They are aware of the negative impact that such actions could have on Israel’s relationship with their countries of residence and that their governments would be reluctant to defend a state where officials violate the law with impunity. In London, for example, a remarkable number of demonstrators attended a protest organized by British Jews demanding that the British government pressure Netanyahu to walk back on his decisions during his visit to the city last week.

In other words, the criticisms levied at Netanyahu and his hardline government have remained within the bounds set by the protesters. His government is being attacked in defense of Israeli Jews’ rights.

Very rarely do we hear mention of the crimes that have been committed against the Palestinians, be they in Palestinian towns and camps or Gaza, since this government was formed (the most recent of which was an assault on the town of Hawara) or by previous governments. Even as many around the world decried the recent attack on Hawara, demanding that those responsible be held accountable and justice for the people of Hawara whose homes had been set alight by settlers protected by Israeli security forces, very few in Israel condemned the assault.

Israeli Jews are only demanding their rights be safeguarded. The rights and interests of the Palestinians and Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up one-fifth of the population, are not their concern. In turn, the Palestinians expect nothing but discrimination from the Israeli judiciary, which has approved settlement expansions, home demolitions, and the “Jewish Nation-State” law, which has turned Palestinian residents of Israel into second-class citizens.

Even Netanyahu’s decision to approve Ben-Gvir’s plans to form a “national guard” to protect settlers and attack Palestinians in their villages and towns did not warrant the Israeli protesters’ attention. They did not address the establishment of this force run by Ben-Gvir, who believes that Israel should annex the entirety of the West Bank, despite knowing that it will cover settler assaults.

Thus, Palestinians in Israel do not feel that these protests will have any bearing on their lives. As MP Ayman Odeh told the Israeli president during their meeting, the Palestinians would involve themselves in protests demanding an end to the occupation, the repeal of the Jewish Nation-State Law, and an end to discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel. These aspirations have been ignored by the Jewish protesters trying to protect Israel... from Netanyahu.