Global action offers a cure for Israel’s apartheid variant
What to make of 2021 for Palestinians and Israelis? At many levels, huge changes have altered the political environment, yet where it counts, on the ground, the same inexorable processes have continued.
It feels like an alternate reality, but at the beginning of the year, US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ruled the roost, albeit with both breaking every norm and numerous laws to dodge the looming exit signs. The Israeli leader amped up his arsonist-in-chief act by playing with fire over the fate of the holy sites in Jerusalem and forced dispossession of Palestinian residents.
Both still seem to be yearning for their own glorious returns. Netanyahu’s legal troubles appear to be more than a trifle serious. Trump will have to wait another three years for his next tilt, but many believe he could triumph in 2024.
The two leaders dominated their political universes, starving their rivals of airtime and attention. Trump, a larger-than-life figure, promised a deal of the century, effectively allowing it to be co-authored by his son-in-law Jared Kushner and Netanyahu. It was a deal that was dead on arrival, but its legacy lives on as the Israel far-right’s blueprint.
This Trump-Bibi bromance all fell apart when Netanyahu had the temerity to congratulate Joe Biden on his election victory. Trump has since made clear his feelings in unpublishable terms, claiming he has not spoken to Netanyahu since. Populists expect unconditional loyalty, not ideological consistency. Netanyahu used Trump and was only too happy to ignore Trump’s antisemitic remarks and support for white supremacists if it meant backing for his dream of a greater Israel.
The process of normalization between Israel and Arabs states has stalled with the two leaders’ political demise. At some point it will resume, but in the meantime, Israeli leaders will bank what they have already achieved. It will not provide peace and genuine security.
The Israel political scene would always appear different without Netanyahu at the helm. The new Israeli coalition — from the far right to the left and the Islamists — is for the time being united under the right-wing, pro-settler Naftali Bennett. All share a desire to remain in government and keep Netanyahu out. No one wants to bring the government down because they know the far-right parties consistently hold about 70 seats out of the 120 in the Knesset. It is convenient, too. Each coalition component can claim their own successes and blame failures on the others. It may last longer than many expect.
Bennett can present a new face of Israel while using the more diplomatic Yair Lapid as foreign minister to give it a more friendly face. His “shrinking the conflict” mantra, which is nothing more than annexation and apartheid as usual, is a useful tool to calm international nerves. Relax, he is saying, we shall let them have a few more passes and jobs, and these pesky Palestinians will quieten down.
Palestinians remain in their fragmented hellscape. The same leaderships are in situ. The much-debated Palestinian elections were postponed through a mix of Israeli obstinacy on denying Palestinians the right to vote and practice democracy in Jerusalem, the Palestinian leadership’s desperate attempt to cling to the pretense of power, and the fear of all parties that Hamas might triumph as it did in 2006. Many skeptics did not believe the elections would have been free or fair in any event.
Gaza is still under lock and key; in fact, the walls are being reinforced. Its 2 million inhabitants had not recovered from the previous wars or Israel’s brutal put-down of the Great March of Return in 2018 and 2019 when Israel launched its 11-day carnage in May. Hamas was arguably even strengthened by that, even though the population has had to endure even more miserable conditions.
Yet to focus only on the Palestinian leadership’s failings would be to ignore the extraordinary changes in Palestinian politics. The escalation in Jerusalem last April saw a powerful and broad civil society movement connecting all parts of the fragmented Palestinian body politic. Young Palestinians, as they did in the late 1980s during the first intifada, are again setting the agenda, and are fed up with the aging and feckless leaderships.
Israel’s response to this has been chilling. It used brutal force to beat up Palestinian demonstrators, while Israeli far-right groups organized “death to Arab” marches in occupied East Jerusalem. At the end of October, it designated six Palestinian human rights and other nongovernmental organizations as terrorist groups. Israeli authorities provided no fresh credible evidence, according to the EU, yet European inaction meant Israel has got away with this. Expect further crackdowns.
Israeli settlers were also used to undermine Palestinian resistance and resilience. Settler confidence is rooted not only in their ever-expanding size and number, with a population of over 650,000, but also from the awareness that their actions in harassing and beating up Palestinians, burning their olives and ruining their lives, is part of state-sanctioned policy. Some of the attacks, such as the one on Al-Mufakara village in November, were akin to pogroms, with one 3-year-old boy nearly killed by a stone. The aim is to create a coercive environment to ethnically cleanse Area C of the West Bank from its 300,000 Palestinians.
The past 12 months could also be the year of the greatest international inaction since this conflict began. Biden’s mind was elsewhere. At best, his administration sought to put on hold the most devastating doomsday Israeli projects, such as the Atarot settlement, north of Jerusalem. The EU is now divided largely on East-West lines, with the VIsegrad states — the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia — having been successfully courted by Netanyahu.
The UK’s position has gradually fallen away to the extent that it no longer seeks to hold Israel to account for its actions in any way. Like the US, Britain appears to regard Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as some internal crowd control issue, rather than one of international conflict and occupation in which it has a legal, historic and moral responsibility to engage.
Yet, here again, civil society may pick up the baton. In contrast to the weak and supine international political leadership, major human rights groups are calling Israel out for its actions. For some time, the label of Israeli occupation has been insufficient to describe the appalling reality on the ground, including inside Israel.
This year, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem labelled this a regime of apartheid. Human Rights Watch did likewise and other groups will surely follow in 2022. As the world mourns the passing of the South African religious leader Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it is wise to remember that he opposed apartheid in his own country and in Palestine. It was global civil society action that brought down the South African variant of apartheid; the same may happen to the Israeli variant.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech