Long-standing Israeli propaganda has it that Israel is the “only democracy in the Middle East”. The statements of Western political leaders, particularly from the US and UK, often also make this claim as part of their justification for fostering ties with Israel. They claim the mantle of “democracy” for themselves, while often supporting or directly creating brutal regimes of occupation and tyranny around the world (such as the US-UK occupation of Iraq, and the theocratic Saudi tyrany).
In fact, as activists and critics have long pointed out, Israel is an ethnocracy – a state ruled by a particular ethnic group, in this case, something defied in Israeli law and practice as “the Jewish people”.
(In reality, as the Israeli historian Shlomo Sand convincingly argues in his book, The Invention of the Jewish People, there is no such thing as a homogeneous, unified “Jewish people”. Instead, there are many different Jewish cultures and identities, ranging from the eastern European Ashkenazis to the Jews of Iraq, Yemen and Ethiopia. As Sand demonstrates, there is no unified secular culture that knits together these various different peoples.)
The state officially discriminates against the indigenous population of historic Palestine – who awoke one day in 1948 to find that they were suddenly defined as “Israeli Arabs” by a state that, at best, regards them with suspicion. My colleague Ben White‘s second book Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy is the best introduction to this topic.
As he points out, the laws of the state are designed to ensure that any Jew in the world (regardless of whether or not they have any factual ancestral connection to the historic land of Palestine, now occupied by Israel) can “return” to Israel, while Palestinian refugees, who have been constantly kicked out of their homes by Israel since 1948, are entirely barred from returning to homes they or their grandparents were born in.
Follow the news from Palestine about daily Israeli practices on the ground, and one quickly sees that Israel is not a democracy in in meaningful sense of the word.
The country has imposed the most crude and brutal form of military rule on at least one significant section of the native population of the land, almost continuously, since its inception.
From 1948 until 1966, the Palestinian citizens of Israel were subjected to a military regime, under which they were bared from free movement, and were in thrall to a strict regime of permits. In 1967, Israel invaded and illegally occupied the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the section of south-west Syria known as the Golan Heights. The Palestinians in the newly-occupied territories were subjected to a brutal military rule, one that (although its forms have shifted since the Oslo accord) has continued until the present day.
Although legions of Western journalists camp out in Jerusalem, occasionally in Ramallah, almost all of the mainstream reports from Palestine miss the basic point that Israeli rule in the West Bank is in no way a democratic or enlightened. It is a regime of death squads, settler terrorists, torture and the denial of the most fundamental human rights – along purely ethnic and sectarian lines.
Jewish settlers in West Bank are treated as Israeli citizens and subjected to Israel civil law (in theory: in reality they have a free hand to carry out crimes and abuse against Palestinian civilians). Palestinians living the same territory, where they and their ancestors have lived since time immemorial, are tried under Israeli military law – a system of kangaroo courts in which military officers rubber stamp the decisions of their colleagues. The conviction rate of these “courts” is 99.7 percent – a figure to make even the most brutal regional dictator blush.
The fundamentally anti-democratic nature of Israel was once again illustrated this week during a sentencing hearing for Abdullah Abu Rahme, a Palestinian protester and well-known activist from the village of Bil’in.
The agricultural village has been struggling for a decade against Israel’s theft of its lands in order to build settlements in which only Jews are permitted to live, and the apartheid wall.
Abu Rahme has been one of the key leaders of this long, non-violent struggle. In response, the Israelis have harassed him, his family and the entire village. Children have been abducted from their beds at night by the thugs of the Israeli army.
The Israelis previously sent Abu Rahme to prison using as a pretext the pathetic notion that an art project made from a collection of spent Israeli tear-gas cannisters found in Abu Rahme’s home constituted a “weapon”.
Now the army are attempting to put him away again, and the argument is that his is guilty of “idealogical crime,” reports 972, an Israeli website. No wonder, when all Palestinian protest in the West Bank is outlawed by Israeli military decree.
Israel’s torture regime in the West Bank needs to end now.
An associate editor with The Electronic Intifada, Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.