As hundreds of thousands of people joined anti-government protests throughout Israel at the weekend, questions began to arise regarding how this movement might affect, or possibly merge with, the wider struggle against the Israeli military occupation and apartheid in Palestine.
Pro-Palestine media outlets shared, with obvious excitement, statements made by Hollywood celebrities, including actor Mark Ruffalo, who tweeted that there was a need to “sanction the new hard right-wing government of (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu.” Netanyahu, who sits at the heart of the current controversy and the mass protests, struggled to find a pilot for his flight to Rome last week for a three-day visit with the Italian government. The reception for the Israeli leader in Italy was equally cold. Italian translator Olga Dalia Padoa reportedly refused to interpret Netanyahu’s speech at a Rome synagogue.
One can appreciate the need to strategically use the upheaval against Netanyahu’s far-right government to expose Israel’s fraudulent claim to being a true democracy, and supposedly “the only democracy in the Middle East.” However, one has to be equally careful not to validate Israel’s inherently racist institutions, which had been in existence for decades before Netanyahu came to power. The Israeli PM has been embroiled in corruption cases for years. Though he remained popular, Netanyahu lost his position at the helm of Israeli politics in June 2021, following three bitterly contested elections. But he returned on Dec. 29, 2022, this time with even more corrupt characters – even by Israel’s own definition – such as Aryeh Deri, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir.
Each one of these characters had a different reason for joining the coalition. Smotrich and Ben-Gvir’s agenda ranges from the annexation of illegal West Bank settlements to the deportation of Arab politicians considered “disloyal” to the state.
Netanyahu, though a right-wing ideologue, is more concerned with personal ambitions: maintaining power as long as possible, while shielding himself and his family from legal problems. He simply wants to stay out of prison. To do so, he also needs to satisfy the dangerous demands of his allies, who have been given free rein to unleash army and settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank, as has been the case in Huwara, Nablus, Jenin and elsewhere. But Netanyahu’s government, the most stable in years, has bigger goals than just “wiping out” Palestinian towns. It wants to alter the judicial system, allowing it to transform Israeli society itself. The reforms would grant the government control over judicial appointments by limiting the Israeli Supreme Court’s power to exercise judicial review.
The protests in Israel have very little to do with the Israeli occupation and apartheid, and are hardly concerned with Palestinian rights. They are led by many former Israeli leaders, the likes of ex-Prime Minister Ehud Barak, former minister Tzipi Livni and former PM and leader of the opposition Yair Lapid. During the Naftali Bennett-Lapid stint in power, between June 2021 and December 2022, hundreds of Palestinians were killed in the West Bank. Last year was described by UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland as the “deadliest” in the West Bank since 2005. During their time in office, illegal Jewish settlements expanded rapidly, while Gaza was routinely bombed. The Bennett-Lapid government faced little backlash from Israeli society for its bloody and illegal actions in Palestine. The Israeli Supreme Court, which has approved most of the government’s actions in the Occupied Territories, also faced little or no pushback for certifying apartheid and validating the supposed legality of the Jewish colonies, all illegal under international law. The stamp of approval by the Supreme Court was also granted when Israel passed the Nation-State Law, identifying itself exclusively as “a Jewish state,” thus casting off the entirety of the Arab Muslim and Christian population that shares the same mass of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
Rarely did the Israeli judicial system take the side of Palestinians and, when little “victories” were recorded now and then, they hardly altered the overall reality. Though one can understand the desperation of those trying to fight against Israeli injustices using the country’s own so-called justice system, such language has contributed to the confusion regarding what Israel’s ongoing protests mean for Palestinians. In fact, this is not the first time that Israelis have taken to the streets in large numbers. In August 2011, Israel experienced what some referred to as its own “Arab Spring.” But that was also a class struggle within clearly defined ideological boundaries and political interests that rarely overlapped with the parallel struggle for equality, justice and human rights.
Dual socioeconomic struggles exist in many societies around the world and conflating them is not unprecedented. In the case of Israel, however, such confusion can be dangerous because the outcome of Israel’s protests, be it success or failure, could spur unfounded optimism or demoralize those fighting for Palestinian freedom. The stark violations of international law, arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial executions and everyday violence meted out against Palestinians mostly take place within Israel’s legal framework and all of these acts are fully sanctioned by Israeli courts, including the country’s Supreme Court. This means that, even if Netanyahu fails to hegemonize the judicial system, Palestinian civilians will continue to be tried in military courts, which will carry out the routine of approving home demolitions, illegal land seizures and the construction of settlements.
A proper engagement with the ongoing protests is to further expose how Tel Aviv utilizes the judicial system to maintain the illusion that Israel is a country of law and order, and that all the actions and violence in Palestine, however bloody and destructive, are fully justifiable according to the country’s legal framework. Yes, Israel should be sanctioned, not because of Netanyahu’s attempt to co-opt the judiciary, but because the system of apartheid and military occupation constitutes a complete disregard for and utter violation of international law. Whether Israelis like it or not, international law is the only law that matters to an occupied and oppressed nation.