Israel has gone to war yet again, but this time it’s on home turf: Israelis are fighting with Israelis. The eyes of the world are on the Zionist state as more than half a million Israelis protest to get rid of corrupt Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. There is a delicious irony that after more than 70 years of enforcing a brutal military occupation on the Palestinians and labelling those living in the Gaza Strip as terrorists, the real threat to Israel today comes from its own Jewish citizens.
The reckless decision by Netanyahu to sack Defence Minister Yoav Gallant at the weekend triggered more massive demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Israel has been dogged by protests for more than three months because of cynical attempts by the indicted leader to introduce judicial reforms that will get him off the hook from the corruption charges he faces.
This is a nuclear power surrounded by Arab states, and quite a few are allies of the West, so no wonder US President Joe Biden is watching on with some alarm. Palestinians are also looking on, but in bewilderment; some will be old enough to remember the last time Israeli citizens gathered in such numbers demanding the resignation of their leaders.
That was in September 1982, when hundreds of thousands of Israelis demonstrated against Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s handling of the massacre of Palestinian civilians in Beirut and Israel’s full involvement in the killings. Just the very mention of Sabra and Shatila invokes painful memories of the wanton slaughter of up to 3,500 men, women and children by members of right-wing Christian Phalangist militias in the two Palestinian refugee camps, aided and abetted by Israel.
Back in 1982, the rallies were the largest ever seen in the settler-colonial state. Just like Netanyahu today, Begin and his Defence Minister Ariel Sharon refused to listen to the people and step down. The protest organisers said that the crowd numbered 350,000 in a country with a population of about four million at the time.
Sadly, those taking to the streets today are not concerned about the trashing of human rights in Sabra and Shatila or anywhere else for that matter; Israelis commit rights violations every day of the week in the occupied Palestinian territories. Today it is purely self-interest motivating the protesters who perceive a threat to what they believe is their democracy. Israel’s Consul General in New York has even resigned to ensure that Israel “remains a beacon of democracy and freedom in the world.” Try selling that concept to the people of occupied Palestine, Asaf Zamir.
What makes today’s protests different is that Netanyahu is trying to rig the legal system in his favour so he won’t ever have to stand trial on the charges for which he has been indicted. A bill was passed in parliament last Thursday that would make it almost impossible to remove him from office. Now he wants even more control over the Supreme Court. This has led to the tiny state in the grip of an extreme far-right government threatening to grind to a halt as a wave of strikes is launched. Netanyahu has to halt the legislation reform if he is to survive. He must know, though, that he is not guaranteed to be re-elected, especially if the far-right refuse to play ball with him.
The relationship between Biden and Netanyahu has always been testy and at times hostile. This was illustrated last week in a White House statement that emphasised what Biden had warned Netanyahu privately, “Democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the US-Israel relationship.”
Well, that warning worked well, didn’t it? What it demonstrated is that despite the billions of US tax dollars paid to Israel every year in “aid”, American influence over Tel Aviv is actually limited. Too many US politicians depend on support from the pro-Israel lobby groups to stop the flow of dollars, so the Israeli tail continues to wag the US dog. Biden’s “warning” also demonstrated that the flawed democracy of the apartheid state is vulnerable to populist and authoritarian forces, with the far-right becoming mainstream.
For a paranoid state which sees enemies everywhere posing an existential threat, from journalists like Shireen Abu Akleh to volunteer medics like Razan Al-Najjar — both of whom were shot and killed by Israeli troops — the security forces have been remarkably restrained against the protesters on the streets of Israel.
This exposes for all to see that Israel openly operates an apartheid system. If they were Palestinians on the streets in any numbers to protest against government policies, they would have faced tear gas, live bullets and Israeli snipers positioned on rooftops to take out the organisers, medics, journalists and anyone deemed to be a risk to national security.
Today, though, according to opposition leader Yair Lipid, it is Netanyahu who is a threat to Israel. He said that Gallant’s dismissal was a “new low for the anti-Zionist government that harms national security and ignores the warnings of all defence officials.”
Even the use of a water cannon against protesters last night doesn’t compare with the skunk water hosed regularly on Palestinians. As far as I’m aware, no rubber bullets have been used against the Jewish Israeli crowds. We also know that the Israeli Jews arrested by the authorities will be set free within hours or charged and face due process. Palestinians risk being held indefinitely without charge or trial if they take to the streets, assuming that they are not shot and killed first, of course.
The big question being asked is what this unrest and civil disobedience will mean for Palestinians. The answer, sadly, is a big fat zero. Today’s mass demonstrations and strikes show that Israel and its citizens are out of control — Israeli police have admitted as much — and foreign intervention is unlikely to help, even by the US. Once the dust settles, it will be business as usual, and the members of the Israel “Defence” Forces who are refusing to turn up for training in protest at Netanyahu’s plans for the judiciary will return to bombing the Palestinians (and Syrians) and making sure that the self-declared Jewish State is a democracy for its Jewish citizens only. The 20 per cent who are non-Jews can like their second-class status or lump it. These protesters share the government’s contempt for Palestine and its people.
Nevertheless, I do have some admiration for the Israeli citizens who are standing up to what they see as a grave injustice. We can only hope that once the battle is over they will turn their attention to the plight of their Palestinian cousins in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza Strip because that is the moral and the right thing to do. I won’t be holding my breath, though.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.