Let me start by acknowledging that democracy is in short supply in the Middle East. However, only one state claims to be a democratic state. In fact, Israel claims to be “the only democracy in the Middle East,” with the “most moral army in the world”.
Increasingly, extremist Israeli governments with no respect for international law, international humanitarian law or international norms have been using the pretence of democracy to entrench Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine and to place the state’s Jewish identity above democracy. The Nation State Bill, making its way through the Knesset, seeks to do just that, despite claims a future draft would tone this down.
All is not well with democracy in Israel. Every so often former, senior Israeli politicians or retired security personnel warn that Israel is edging towards apartheid and even more recently towards tyranny.
Former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak have warned that Israel’s policies are leading towards naked apartheid; Barak said as recently as last month that Israel was on a “slippery slope towards apartheid”.
Former Israeli officials were blind to the impact of their policies while in office. After all, the settlement project saw a major expansion during Barak’s reign. How is it that he could not see the devastating effect of this on the prospects for peace? It is also true that when it comes to settlements, current Prime Minister Netanyahu needs no excuse to expand the enterprise but still uses this as punishment for perceived Palestinian indiscretions such as joining world bodies or conventions.
To many observers the label of apartheid is already justified. Anyone who has visited the occupied Palestinian town of Hebron can testify that they saw apartheid, felt it and smelt it.
In April former Shin Bet chiefs Ami Ayalon and Carmi Gillon warned that the country’s political system had sunk in the process of “incremental tyranny”. They were speaking ahead of a public meeting at a Jerusalem gallery that was threatened with closure after hosting a meeting organised by the military whistleblowing group Breaking the Silence, one of the main targets of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Ayalon explained that “incremental tyranny [is a process] which means you live in a democracy and suddenly you understand it is not a democracy anymore,” adding that “this is what we are seeing in Israel. The tragedy of this process is that you only know it when it is too late”.
Attacks on human rights organisations within Israel are nothing new. Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem, Al-Haq, Peace Now and Yesh Din have all been demonised and individuals issued with death threats. MK David Bitan called for the citizenship of B’Tselem Director Hagai El-Ad to be revoked simply because he criticised Israel’s occupation to the United Nations Security Council.
In 2017 Israel passed a law compelling NGOs to reveal their foreign funding which would allow the government to lobby those states that fund these critical NGOs. This scrutiny does not to extend to those that support and fund illegal settlements.
Israel’s targeting of the media is constant and is hardly a sign of democracy. It regularly raids offices of Palestinian radio and TV stations and confiscates equipment. The 2017 World Press Freedom Index placed Israel 91st out of 180 countries, way behind many Western-style democracies that it claims to emulate including Germany (16), France (39), UK (40) and the US (43). Palestine was ranked 135th.
During assaults on Gaza, Israel deliberately attacked buildings housing media channels, which caused damage and casualties. Israel’s most recent attack on the media came during the recent coverage of protests and Israeli army violence at Al-Aqsa. The Israeli Prime Minister threatened to close Al Jazeera’s offices accusing its journalists of “inciting violence,” a claim the Qatari owned network strongly rejects.
In recent months Israel has escalated its war on freedom of speech both at home and abroad, particularly in relation to proponents of the BDS movement. While it generally claims the movement is ineffective, it has appointed Gilad Erdan as minister for strategic affairs to combat individuals and organisations that pursue this tactic for pressuring Israel.
At the 2016 Yediot Achronot conference which attacked BDS, Israel’s transport minister Yisrael Katz called for the “civil targeted killing” of BDS leaders like Omar Barghouti. Thankfully, Barghouti is still alive but he was banned from travelling abroad for a period of time and was recently arrested on allegations of tax evasion, which he denied.
Israel has also turned its attention to critics abroad. In March 2017 the Knesset passed a law that would empower the immigration authorities to deny proponents of the BDS movement abroad entry to Israel. Commenting on the new law Erdan said “the rules of the game have changed,” and that organisations seeking to harm Israel’s “national security” through boycotts would be denied entry to the country.
A few days after the law was passed Chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), Hugh Lanning, was denied entry to Israel. A few days later I was travelling with my wife and son to visit family in East Jerusalem when I was also denied entry. This was particularly ironic given it is the year Britain plans to celebrate the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.
The first question I was asked during my interrogation was whether I had heard of the new BDS law. I believed that I was denied entry because of my role in PSC where I am a member of the executive committee, and our promotion of BDS. I did wonder at the time whether the law would be applied equally to Jews holding foreign passports and residing abroad who supported BDS or a more limited boycott of the illegal settlements.
When campaign director for Code Pink, Ariel Gold, made it into Israel recently I noted that a Jewish supporter of Palestinian rights and of BDS had been allowed in. However, she was ‘outed’ in the press and accused of “tricking” her way into the country, which she denied. She is now worried about being denied entry in the future.
At least Gold made it to Tel Aviv. On the 23 July Jewish Rabbi Alissa Wise and two other faith leaders were not allowed to board a flight to Tel Aviv by Lufthansa on the orders of Israel. Wise is from Jewish Voice for Peace. It’s important to remember that Israel has a Law of Return for Jews but denies the right of return to Palestinians.
Israel’s borders extend as far as it wants them to and in Alissa’s case they extended all the way to Washington and will be coming to an airport near you if critics of Israel decide to visit. Israel has developed criterion for entry denial and will demand that airlines deny boarding to individuals in their country of departure.
The implications for critics of Israel and organisations that promote BDS are clearly significant in term of accessing the country to show solidarity with Palestinians. However, they are unlikely to be perturbed about campaigning for the rights of Palestinians and promoting BDS, unless Israel’s lobby in key countries succeeds in wrongly criminalising BDS as the US is currently attempting to do.
In reaction to recent events around Al-Aqsa, Minister of Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi – a key Netanyahu ally – threatened Palestinians with a “third Nakba”. The reference here is to the Arabic term for catastrophe or the mass expulsions of Palestinians from their homeland in 1948 and then 1967. How democratic is that?
It seems to me that Israel has found it difficult to reconcile its role of delivering the Zionist project and acting as a democracy. It has to deal with non-Jews that it wishes had all been ethnically cleansed in 1948. Their sheer existence is a demographic threat and as we saw recently in Jerusalem, if they had all gone the ‘third Temple’ would have been built by now in place of Al-Aqsa Mosque in a state only for Jews.
Israel claims to be Jewish and democratic but the reality is that it is a settler, colonialist and apartheid state with a stockpile of nuclear weapons to boot. It seems that if democracy does not deliver its colonialist aims then – as some of its own senior citizens fear – it will head towards tyranny. I acknowledge that Israel is not there yet but the direction of travel worries me as a Palestinian and should worry Israelis who want to make peace with their neighbours.
Those that support Israel in the West should also worry. Will they heed the fears of former Shin Bet chiefs Ami Ayalon and Carmi Gillon, or will they only know it when it is too late.