How much does someone reliant on the mainstream media know about what is happening in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories? A few more Palestinians shot dead in Gaza – Israel acting purely in self-defence, of course – and that's probably about it. But anyone who reads reports by the UN, local NGOs or human rights organisations, or indeed follows the Israeli press, will see that Israel is approaching a watershed moment.
From Theodor Herzl, the founding father of political Zionism, to the present day the dream of a Greater Israel comprising, at least, all of historic Palestine has never been relinquished. "We shall endeavour to expel the poor population across the border unnoticed," wrote Herzl. According to Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion in 1938, "After we become a strong force, as the result of the creation of a state, we shall abolish partition and expand to the whole of Palestine." The necessity of "transferring" the indigenous population to ensure a Jewish majority was also clearly articulated in Israel's "Plan Dalet", which was put into operation during the Nakba of 1948.
A two-state solution has been discussed endlessly ever since. It is still the avowed policy of the Palestinian Authority and is supported, at least nominally, by the EU and the US. However, the Israeli government doesn't even bother to pay it lip service any more. In November, former minister Gideon Sa'ar said, "We cannot accept an Arab state in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] regardless of who demands it." At the same time, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said: "The two state solution proved that it failed and we need to repeat the word 'stability' today. The word 'peace' is not relevant in this era." Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it crystal clear that while he is in charge there will never be a Palestinian state in the West Bank.
Since the Oslo Accords in 1993, "transfer" has been well under way, with all Palestinians in Area C of the West Bank being herded into scattered pockets of territory, which together constitute only 10 per cent of what was once Palestine. To achieve a Greater Israel with a Jewish majority the next stage will presumably be the "transfer" of these Palestinians to Jordan or elsewhere, possibly together with Palestinian citizens of Israel, who are frequently referred to as a "demographic threat" to the "Jewishness" of the state of Israel.
On the ground, the work of terrorising the indigenous population is carried out partly by the illegal settlers, of whom there are now over 600,000 in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Increasingly violent, they destroy property, attack local people including children going to school, spray-paint threats on the walls of Palestinian homes and throw Molotov cocktails at Palestinian cars, all under the benevolent gaze of the Israeli army. In 2018, there were 482 attacks by settlers, a threefold increase on the previous year.
The army itself harasses Palestinians at checkpoints, polices the Israeli-only highways that crisscross the West Bank and detains large numbers of adults and children, often without any due legal process.
At the same time, ingenious pseudo-legal pressure is brought to bear, in the form of closures and land seizures, house demolitions, severe restrictions on access to water and the imposition of permits of all kinds, be it to move around the Occupied Territories, to travel abroad or to build or extend a home. Palestinian citizens of Israel itself suffer from over 50 discriminatory laws and are increasingly forced to live in segregated areas, while in the Gaza Strip the besieged population struggles on the brink of total collapse.
All of Israel's policies are plainly calculated to make life pretty well unbearable for the Palestinians, whether under direct Israeli rule or under military occupation. The Israeli public, meanwhile, has been thoroughly desensitised into accepting escalating levels of violence as "normal". Twenty years ago, major incursions into Gaza brought Israelis out onto the streets of Tel Aviv in protest. Now, picnickers flock to vantage points overlooking the enclave to enjoy the spectacle. It seems that there are now no domestic constraints on what any Israeli government sees fit to visit upon the indigenous population.
On the world stage the political scene appears to favour Israel being able to play out the endgame without external interference. Trump and his fervently Zionist son-in-law arrived in the White House at just the right moment, implicitly recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital and openly encouraging the spread of the illegal settlements. During Trump's presidency to-date, planned settlement expansion has increased by 250 per cent. The US President has not only withdrawn all support from Palestinian refugees; he has also denied their refugee status altogether.
In the wider region, surrounding countries are either strongly aligned with US-Israel policy or in the throes of bitter internal conflicts. The Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority has long since been reduced to total subjugation by the occupying power, Israel.
Elsewhere, from Europe to Brazil, far right parties and regimes have expressed admiration and support for Israel's racist policies. In embracing these new friends, Netanyahu has made it clear where he stands, in an increasingly polarised world.
When the blatantly racist Nation-State Basic Law was announced last year, it was actually criticised by some members of the Knesset as being bad PR. The MKs need not have worried. The EU expressed "concern" but there was no suggestion that Israel's extremely close economic and political ties with Europe would in any way be affected.
Nevertheless, Israel must be acutely aware of the volatility of international politics, and knows that the current alignment of forces favouring unhindered expansion cannot be relied upon to last forever. With legal cases building up against him, Trump and his entourage could be removed from the White House. In the US, new voices of protest have been raised in Congress against Israel's policies, and solidarity with the Palestinian people has been expressed by movements like Black Lives Matter.
Among American Jews, polls have shown waning support for Israel, matched by a surge in the membership of organisations like Jewish Voice for Peace. Netanyahu may be happy to form alliances with neo-fascist Eastern European states steeped in anti-Semitism, but this must horrify many of Israel's traditional supporters abroad.
Both in Europe and the US, the campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) has been gathering in strength, despite the strenuous efforts of the pro-Israel lobby to criminalise it. Victories such as Airbnb's decision not to advertise homestays in the illegal settlements are naturally fought tooth and nail by Israel with all the legal and political resources at its disposal, but this usually serves simply to bring the underlying issues to the notice of a much wider public. In Britain, the motions passed by overwhelming majorities in the annual conferences of the Trades Union Congress and the Labour Party last autumn are clear indicators of growing grassroots support for the Palestinian people.
On the international scene, there is a very strong prima facie case that could see Israel brought before the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Palestinians have naturally been under huge pressure not to pursue proceedings, but so far they have held firm.
Since Israel and its supporters are unable to refute the mountains of evidence of the state's gross violations of international law, their only possible recourse has been to silence the critics. In Britain especially, the campaign to equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism has focused on getting the so-called IHRA definition of anti-Semitism accepted, preferably with no caveats to ensure freedom of speech. It is no coincidence that the smearing of Labour with accusations of anti-Semitism began with the election of a party leader who has been outspoken in his support for Palestinian rights. Despite Labour's reluctance to see off such accusations, they have again largely served to fuel public debate on Israel's interference in British politics and the dangers that this represents.
Above all else, the sheer cruelty of Israel's actions throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territories has become impossible to ignore. As the Israeli General Election approaches, the candidates are vying with one another in their claims to be the most brutal against Palestinians. Former General Benny Gantz, a hot favourite to succeed Netanyahu, brags about killing 1,364 Palestinians and flourishes his claim of having "sent parts of Gaza back to the Stone Age," actions that Amnesty International has defined as war crimes. When he was Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman called openly for the expulsion or beheading of Palestinian citizens who are "disloyal" to the self-declared Jewish state.
Israel's policies of expansion and expulsion have been totally consistent from the beginning. Only the public discourse has changed, now reflecting these policies much more openly and brazenly; it is on a winning streak, but will it last? Whatever the future holds, we must take this seriously, and then decide whether we stand with the rule of law and hold Israel accountable, or the law of the jungle and let it continue to act with impunity.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.